john hex carter

Laserdisc Collecting 101

There's little chance that you made it here to this blog o' mine and are unaware that I collect laserdisc for a hobby. Whether or not you actually know what laserdisc are (because honestly, how can anyone truly know laserdisc?) is still questionable, but not required at this point. You may be curious to jump into collecting without even knowing what they are? Truth be told, a lot of what I've learned about laserdisc happened after I picked up my first two discs (Congo and the Street Fighter live action movie). At this point I've had maybe over 500 discs in my collection at one point or another. It's been wonderful to reconnect and even discovery new films through this obsolete medium. The point of this primer is to walk you through what laserdisc are, what it takes to collect, some tips, and finally some real talk to try to talk you out of this.

Laserdisc, to put it as succinctly as possible, is a video disc the size of a vinyl record. It was the first commercially available optical disc medium and the forerunner for media like compact discs, DVDs, and Blu-Ray. In the 90s, many of us had laserdisc introduced to us at school, usually with a science film on a disc when someone wheeled in a dedicated TV chained to the laserdisc player. While visually inferior to contemporary HD resolution video, laserdisc actually provided a higher quality of video and audio than many of the other formats at the time - even surpassing DVD. The first wave of films were commercially released in December of 1978 - two years after VHS and VCRs were already on the market and three years after Betamax was on the market. these years would be informally known as the Video Format War. You may or may not have heard of it before, but you can probably guess where this is going.

Looking back forty years with what we know now, it's obvious VHS would win out; the advent of the VCR allowed individuals to not only record content off of television but create content easily with a personal camcorder. Laserdisc's biggest advantage was its superior quality, but the price point turned away a lot of customers. Which, in turn, also pushed away some film publishers. VHS was much cheaper and less complex to get into the hands of consumers, so when it came to mass produce the likes of "low brow" content like porn or horror, VHS often became the primary distribution strategy. While laserdisc still has a large collection of porn, horror, and similar content available, the bulk of the communities saw it as a secondary or tertiary distribution strategy and only when a title got to the size of, say, Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Yuppies in suburbs were the ones scooping up incredibly pricey laserdisc players and lining up discs from the Criterion collection. Everyone else just had a VCR and rented Chopping Mall from their local video rental store.

The year 1995 stands out as the one where massive production of laserdisc started to drop off. Popular movies continued to be produced in the format all the way to 2000 in North America (Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead was the last to be released in NA) and lingered in Japan where the love of laserdisc lingered longer, but if a movie came out between 95 and then it was a coin-flip to see if it was released on laserdisc. Your best ally to find out for sure is the homepage search option of the Laserdisc Database website, lddb.com. Yes, there is a Laserdisc Database website that is incredibly exhaustive (which isn't shocking - they've had twenty years and no change in data points in that time) and is a resource I still actively use.

Fast forward twenty years and you are some weirdo (like me) that still wants to collect a dead medium? Good news! It's surprisingly available! My first purchase was at a thrift store while perusing the vinyl collection. I had stumbled across the laserdisc and mistook them as soundtracks. Remarking that I didn't really remember the Congo soundtrack as that memorable, I noticed it was heftier than a vinyl record and then realized my mistake. Excited at my discovery, I quickly acquired both films for $5 each. It would be a full three years later until I watched either film on a laserdisc player I owned, but the novelty of owning a laserdisc was too delicious for me. Thrift stores have continued to be a boon for me, but honestly they're hit or miss.

The main place I go for reliable laserdisc shopping is eBay. As I write this, I'm currently winning a bid of Dirty Dancing for $2.25. Not bad, right? The majority of blockbusters and famous films are surprisingly cheap because of how much of a glut of the market they took up. Thousands upon thousands of copies of Jurassic Park on laserdisc are floating around and ready to be scooped up for under $5 (with shipping! Yay, media mail!). However, as I mentioned, other "genre films," specifically horror, had less copies produced overall and are now pricier due to a combination of rarity and interest from collectors. My copy of The Evil Dead went for closer to $50. I've also been burned plenty of times on eBay but the successes far outshine the disasters, which usually have been able to work with the seller to fix it.

All this talk of collecting laserdisc is really moot if you don't have a laserdisc player, and let me warn you up front - they are expensive. Not just because it's an obsolete piece of technology, but also because they are heavy and very temperamental. If you can find a laserdisc player locally and pick it up - do it! Otherwise, you are hoping out that the seller is a deity when it comes to packing. From my experience, a decent laserdisc player usually runs around $100, so keep that in mind when looking at the listings.

A fun oddity about laserdisc is, like vinyl, they need to be flipped. That's jarring at first, but I like to joke that it's a "built in bathroom break." Some players autoflip - the movie stops, you have about thirty seconds of odd mechanical noises from your player, and then it starts up again. Other players just stop and require a manual flip. I actually recommend acquiring a player that requires a manual flip. I've gone through three laserdisc players in my time of collecting. None of them have been cheap. The first two were autoflippers and lasted maybe six months each. The last one has been a manual flipper, and it's going over a year strong without any complaints. These are old devices and having less moving parts have helped. Laserdisc players usually only come with RCA output. Some televisions still have RCA inputs, but I also have an RCA to HDMI input that has been working out fine. It doesn't have HDMI quality video, but it still beats DVD and VHS. Just know that getting the video output into a modern television is going to be an issue. Another thing to keep in mind - a remote will be absolutely necessary for viewing. There are some features buried in the disc that only a remote can unlock. Don't freak out over getting a player with an original remote, though. There's also a community out there that make custom laserdisc player remotes. I've had good experiences and had a remote that outlasted a player going through them.

Another issue is laser rot (or disc rot), one of the many things that can go wrong with a laserdisc. They're very sensitive to heat, moisture, light, and basically anything else you can think of. Laser rot is what happens to some discs - chemical or physical deterioration causes an oxidation of the top layer of the disc, making it unplayabable. On top of that, like a vinyl, if you scratch a laserdisc, it'll ruin the disc - either with some severe tracking or downright unplayability. So you have to treat these discs very careful.

That copy of Evil Dead I got for $50? Yeah, that fell victim to laser rot two years after I bought it. It was from a cheaper company (because horror, I guess) so it was a lower quality disc than others that I own. Meanwhile the copies of Street Fighter and Congo that I got just about ten years ago for $5 each still play perfectly fine. The quality of the film (scratches, laser rot, etc) will always be a crap shoot. Players will also be a problem - it's an aging technology. The more you play it, the more likely it'll die on you. So, why would you want physical media at all? Digital is the new wave, right?

Well, let's talk briefly about what clinched me into collecting laserdisc. Star Wars. I own the original trilogy on VHS, before Special Edition. Cool collector's item, I guess, but not really scratching my videophile itch. Being able to watch the unSpecial Edition of the old trilogy in the highest definition became a kind of obsession for me. I finally realized that they're never coming out on Blu-Ray or on streaming, and as we saw with Disney+ - they're still changing the films from when they were initially released. But on laserdisc? I would be able to collect the original trilogy as it was initially released for home viewing. And it's not going anywhere. There are several instances of films or shows just falling out of favor and vanishing for distribution (just look into Genndy Tartakovsky's Clone Wars cartoon for another example).

But the real reason I collect laserdisc? It's neat. Call me a hipster or whatever, but I get excited to get in the mail old movies I grew up on in a new format. It's a fun hobby that is incredibly niche. Plus I now have a five-year-old daughter that somehow thinks laserdisc are a normal thing.

So there you have it. It's not a cheap hobby but if you love collecting physical media and are a fan of film, this is a hobby I would heartily recommend.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, throw me some coin so I can buy more laserdisc:

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