Help! I'm Neck Deep in Discs!

As I stare at what looks like a couple acres of poorly organized DVDs, I wonder where I went wrong. With five very large, very tall shelves packed two deep with a collection amassed over eleven years, I frequently spend twenty minutes in search of a particular disc. Ask my friends. I have at least two different editions of Frankenstein, and I can't seem to locate either of them.

This is a typical collector's problem, and not the kind that attracts sympathy ... I mean, starving people would probably enjoy watching Imelda Marcos forced to eat some of her enormous shoe collection. Hopefully other DVD collectors can learn from my bad example.

After avoiding collecting anything for so long, DVDs have finally done me in. Where did I go wrong? I needed just two modest cabinets to hold my VHS collection. I only kept "special" tapes, and most were tossed when replaced by better-looking Laserdiscs. As for the Laserdiscs, I accumulated only about 400, mainly because they were so expensive. DVD, of course, wiped out their value. After spending all that money I just couldn't do the smart thing and eBay the suckers as fast as possible. That odd attitude accounts for the 300 or so lasers still boxed in the corner of the room.

The DVDs got out of hand almost immediately, like Gremlins. After they overflowed a shelf, I started swiping plastic soft drink trays to stack them in. A full wall of shelving came in 2003 and has been filling up ever since. When they maxed out I had no choice but to start stacking discs two deep. Like the Los Angeles landfill, we're now in crisis mode again.

Last year I invested in a bar code reader and Bruji's excellent DVD database program DVDpedia. Now all of my 3,500 discs are beautifully organized -- in my Mac. I can't find the discs themselves, but it only takes a keystroke to look up the fine details of their contents! The program is a big help, but it doesn't do anything about the insanity on the disc shelves.

Photo courtesy Glenn Erickson

Is there a cure? This topic comes up frequently on collector bulletin boards. Some collectors simply toss the DVD packaging and related inserts and file only the discs in thin paper sleeves. That destroys the item's value and defeats the purpose of collecting. Other collectors keep the cases remotely, in storage boxes. If I do that, I know I'll never put them back together again.

No, the only solution is to accept the fact that the shelves only hold about 2,000 discs and to find a way to thin the herd. My floor is littered with boxes of titles already pulled: discs I have no intention of watching and might sell someday, discs I want to keep but don't think I'll necessarily watch again. Other considerations complicate the problem. When a new special edition of a title comes out, I keep the inferior earlier release, both for comparison and because it might have some unique extra content. Heck, I can't get rid of the very first James Bond discs because some have extras that I edited. And who wants to ditch a Criterion early number, even if it's been supplanted by a better-looking version? Four separate DVD releases of RoboCop take up quite a bit of shelf space.

As for organizing the discs, short of hiring a professional librarian I have few options. Some collectors arrange their disks alphabetically, but I like to see them laid out by year, and alphabetically within individual years. This helps me remember release dates, and spreads the history of the movies out in a linear progression. Of course, filing new discs in that kind of system is a problem. Moving forty or fifty discs to insert one in the middle isn't bad, but shifting thousands is a major disaster. I'm told that I should keep the discs numbered and locate them with the DVDpedia database, but that would mean losing my preferred filing system. I also don't want to spend a week numbering thousands of sticky tags. Actually, doing anything to this collection would probably take a week.

Hopefully, this public confession will help other DVD addicts deal with their personal collecting habit. I assume there are collectors with personal hoards much larger than mine, and maybe one of them has found a magic solution. Do millionaires have "media rooms" to house their collections, like wine cellars? I have a little collector's shelf that contains discs on which I contributed extras or commentary tracks, and also a shelf where Blu-rays are beginning to accumulate. The thinner keep-cases do take up a bit less space.

I have avoided one or two collector traps. A friend has told me about the dreaded "shrink wrap" curse, wherein one keeps buying new discs without watching the ones already purchased. The first symptom of trouble is discovering you've inadvertently bought the same disc twice. That's advanced obsession, or evidence of American decadence, or something. I watch everything I buy and urge movie fans to buy discs for no other reason but enjoyment. Who wants to be like the guy who spends every free dollar on his vast electric guitar collection -- and never considered learning to play?

Photo courtesy Glenn Erickson

The truly smart people don't let movies clutter up their lives. They use services like Netflix and only buy discs that they really can't live without. It's also becoming obvious that downloading from cable or the internet will grow in popularity, wiping out the need for some to collect. Technologically-minded film fans know that physical discs are ephemeral vessels for software content, and that DVDs, like Laserdiscs and VHS tapes, will not accrue in value. Ancient 78 rpm shellac records can still be played on century-old refurbished Victrolas, but when my 12-year-old laser machine ceases to function, my lasers will be useless. How many of us remember spending $125 for a fancy laser set of a film like Terminator 2?

But I don't think the "instant access" promise of future media will change my personal desire to collect. I come from a time when movies were ephemeral items that screened and then disappeared, perhaps forever. We bought soundtracks to help replay the movie experience in our heads. I remember seeing Our Man Flint at age 13 and wishing I could "keep" the experience. I dreamed that someday I could hold a whole movie in a pocketbook-sized box that could be projected on my bedroom wall. The wondrous thing is that my dream coming true hasn't changed my attitude one bit. Every new film discovery is like a miracle --

-- in the form of a disorganized mountain of video discs.

Glenn Erickson

reviews online at DVD Savant

Note: This subject demands feedback ... what advice (short of building a new wing to house the discs) do readers have for me? How have you coped with this problem? The comment section awaits below.