In the age of Netflix, SteelBooks are keeping physical movies alive

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring SteelBook
(Image credit: Imad Khan)

Streaming hasn’t killed Blu-ray, only forced it into a metal cocoon. 

It’s hard to deny the impact streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, HBO Max and Disney Plus have had on traditional movie sales. From the closing of Blockbuster to the dwindling selection of films at stores like Best Buy and Target, the value proposition presented by streaming is too great. For the cost of a single Blu-ray, it can net users a month's subscription to a streaming service, with a library of thousands of movies at the ready for unlimited viewing. 

That’s forced the movie industry to pivot. Not only do 4K Blu-rays come packed with features and extra bonus content, oftentimes it will include the standard Blu-ray disc and a digital copy as well. But alongside the chintzy plastic packaging, often studios will release a more limited version of a movie, one boxed in a metal case with custom artwork. When picking it up, these metal-bound cases feel significantly more substantial, seemingly justifying its higher price tag. 

Enter the world of SteelBooks, metal DVD cases for the more enduring movie connoisseur. SteelBooks, like Kleenex, is not a genericized term but an actual brand. Even though other metal packaging companies exist, none have been able to come close to the ubiquity of SteelBooks. 

Pricier SteelBooks and the collector's hunt

While a large portion of the moviegoing audience has shifted to streaming, SteelBooks have awakened dormant media collectors, those that enjoyed browsing the aisles of Hollywood Video and seeing a bookshelf alphabetized with their customized media treasure trove.

A standard SteelBook release retails for between $30-40. The standard plastic packaging sits at between $20-30 at release. Usually, the SteelBook variant is the better purchase as it tends to increase in value over time, after copies have sold out with no indication of a second print run.

For example, it’s possible to buy The Lord of the Rings 4K Blu-ray set for $95 at Best Buy, but the painterly SteelBook variant runs for $120. When the SteelBook variant sold out late last year, it caused a frenzy on sites like eBay, where sets were selling for 50% above retail, even if it was slightly damaged. I know this because I was one of those buyers. Since then, Best Buy has restocked the SteelBook variant due to high demand. I wish I had waited.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring SteelBook

(Image credit: Imad Khan)

The SteelBook artwork for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring features gold that evokes the epicness of Tolkein’s world as it fades into green, conjuring images of the down-to-Earth humbleness of The Shire. Frodo, Gandalf and their compatriots have a halo around their silhouettes, something that could only be accomplished with the sheen found in metal. The paint splatter is a nice touch too.

When this much attention to detail is given towards the packaging, it can be hard to ignore the lizard part of your brain telling yourself, “I need it.”

And it’s not just movies getting the SteelBook treatment, so are video games, with everything from the Call of Duty series to indie platformers like Shantae. Usually, SteelBooks are included in more expensive collector’s edition variants of games. During the pandemic, as game collecting has seen a massive surge, likely due to nostalgia-fueled boredom, even empty SteelBooks are being sold on eBay for high prices, showing that there’s more value in the packaging for some than in the game itself. For example, an empty SteelBook for Bayonetta 2 on Nintendo Switch recently sold on eBay for $83, even though the game can easily be found for around $60.

The market's measured embrace of SteelBooks

The fervor around SteelBooks, at least for this dedicated group of movie collectors, has prompted Best Buy to create a landing page allowing people to vote for new or reprints of SteelBooks.

And even though the aisles of movies and CDs that used to sit at the center of stores like Best Buy and Target have dwindled to just a few racks, clearly physical movie sales shouldn’t be counted out. 

“I have to kind of pinch myself, because the amount of labels, studios, developers, stakeholders that are supporting us across the whole industry is extreme,” said Dan Aoki, sales and marketing director at Scanavo North America. Scanavo is the company behind SteelBook. “The number of titles, speaking in volumes, is only increasing.”

Even then, companies are conservative with the amount of SteelBooks they will order. Ultimately, companies would rather have an item sell out than it sit on store shelves, slowly being discounted until it ends up in a bargain bin. Because as pretty as a SteelBook might be, it can’t overcome the reality that movie sales have been on a steady decline this past decade.

People have lined their walls with magnetic strips so they can adhere their collections like an art display, allowing guests and whoever else to see the intricacies or the artwork itself

According to the Motion Picture Association of America in 2019, via Ars Technica, physical media sales saw a decline by half over five years. Although, sales did see an increase in 2020, likely due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

And due to the economics of physical production alongside a limited edition release, it’s encouraging a secondary market, rife with scalpers, to take advantage of the situation. 

“It's almost like people are shorting the market by knowing that there's only 4,000 out there,” said Aoki. 

“With Amazon Japan, they have declared every time they release something, they will say 3,000 limited... You would have people going on there and just buy half of it, sit on it like it was wine and then just auction it off one by one online. And we never want it to be part of that space, we want to drive volume, we want to do 100,000 pieces... They make it so limited because they want to drive traffic and they have other agendas.”

John Wick trilogy SteelBook

(Image credit: Imad Khan)

But not every SteelBook will end up being scalped on eBay. There’s clearly a combination of factors that must come into play for collectors to claw at a particular copy. The title itself, whether it be a movie or a game, needs to have a cult following. Box office ticket sales aren’t always an indication of this. It needs to have a limited enough run so that finding a copy takes some effort. And the art and packaging needs to look and feel special. Head on over to the SteelBooks subreddit, people have lined their walls with magnetic strips so they can adhere their collections like an art display, allowing guests and whoever else to see the intricacies or the artwork itself. 

 “The fun part of my job is to know that this proof is actually going to Mr. Kojima or Tarantino because they are extremely hands-on,” said Aoki. 

“I'm more and more surprised to see that the actual directors behind the product are very stubborn to say, 'well, this cannot only live in an ecosystem of Xbox or PlayStation or streaming service. I want it to be a piece that people can collect, put in the shelf, hand down.’”

Online retailers like Zavvi have pivoted, not just selling pop culture items, but things that are limited and attract a more fervent fanbase. This includes collectibles, apparel, and, of course, SteelBooks. Actually, Zavvi is able to lock in exclusive SteelBook editions of movies, driving collectors to choose between ordering on Amazon or from Zavvi directly. Of course, when a limited item runs out, it can put Zavvi in a precarious position with buyers. It all comes down to anticipating and managing demand:

“Through the use of data, but we also have a lot of product knowledge within our team… we’ve been doing this for 10+ years now, so plenty of experience in terms of how we expect certain titles to perform,” said Claire Robinson, head of Brand PR at Zavvi in an email interview with Tom’s Guide. “However, (as with most collectable products) demand often outstrips supply with the limited nature of these collectible items.”

Chernobyl SteelBook

(Image credit: Imad Khan)

What drives the SteelBook community

With any collecting hobby, a subculture usually forms. This includes forums, subreddits and YouTube channels, all dedicated to this one thing. Jeff Rauseo, 28, is a digital marketing manager who runs the YouTube channel Films at Home. On his channel, he reviews the latest 4K Blu-ray releases, breaking down the quality of the transfer and talking general release news. At first, Rauseo didn’t prioritize SteelBook collecting, but slowly the format’s practicality won him over. 

“If you look at some of the older movies in my collection that are just in a regular case, or even have like the cardboard slipcover, a lot of those just get banged up on a shelf over time, and they definitely have a shelf life and they start to wear,” said Rauseo. “And my SteelBooks from ten years ago still look great. I mean, it's just the better form of packaging.”

Rauseo does admit that there’s a certain thrill in hunting down a particular SteelBook, or finding one at a thrift store for a great price. Going on the Game Collecting subreddit, the top posts are often those of people claiming that they came upon a box of rare games at a garage sale, to which a good portion of the comments will question the veracity of their otherworldly find. 

“There is a thrill to the chase again, and let's not forget that,” said Dr. Janice Denegri-Knott, an associate professor in consumer culture and behavior at Bournemouth University in Poole, U.K. “For the collector, the most exciting and enjoyable aspect of that whole experience is finding unity, is the investment of oneself and the development of expertise.”

Red Dead Redemption 2 SteelBook

(Image credit: Imad)

Beneath those buying up half the inventory from Amazon Japan, or Rauseo’s desire to hit up Best Buys on his lunch break, there is a deeper psychological connection physical items give us that digital streaming services do not. Subscribing to Netflix severs the item-owner relationship. What went from owning and amassing has moved to borrowing from a preset curated list. And the list is fluid, where some items available one month might be gone the next. 

“The platforms and the algorithms are doing the possession work, what we call the possession work. And the possession work is what invests the thing with its meaning,” said Denegri-Knott. “So therefore, attention shifts from the actual thing… to what the thing is enabling me to get the entertainment value.”

They want, “greater agency over not only looking after the collection of movies that they have, but actually in finding them in the first place,” said Denegri-Knott. “Because digital, it has just become so easy, isn't it? You don't even have to look for it. But [SteelBooks] gives people the opportunity to enjoy the business of collecting once again, and enables them to create spaces that are more sacred.”

But even the thrill of hunting and collecting has been hampered by the digital as it has made the process easier. For anyone missing a particular movie title or action figure, all it takes is a quick search on an auction site, and after some bidding, that item can easily be acquired.

“The folks that I spoke to were so disenchanted at the end of this process, because it had happened too quickly,” said Denegri-Knitt. “It became too easy. eBay was robbing them of the anticipation.”

According to Denegri-Knott, like toy collectors, often people aren’t buying these items to play with or use, but to act almost as shrines, something that they take pride in. Plus, it becomes a conversation point whenever someone visits.

The psychology and meaning of collecting 

But going even deeper, collecting SteelBooks can be more than a pseudo-religious shrine to Hollywood and Nintendo. People often have deeper reasons to amass objects that others might overlook, tied to nostalgia, an important person or a life event. 

German philosopher Walter Benjamin writes about the transference of the aura in physical objects. He wrote about this in the 1930s, a time when manufacturing was making it easy to make art reprints at a fraction of the original’s price. He argued that, because the original artist didn’t work on it, it had lost a certain je ne sais quoi.

“Benjamin talks about the contamination of the aura, and physical objects are amenable to that kind of transfer... like, ‘oh, I handled this SteelBook, I remember my dad lovingly sorting them out.’ And they transfer their essence. But in digital, those kinds of transference, that transference of meaning, is very difficult,” said Denegri-Knott.

Doom Eternal SteelBook

(Image credit: Imad Khan)

For Rauseo, he admitted that the digital stuff scares him. Regardless of the ease, buying a digital title off of Amazon means he doesn’t actually own it, but is borrowing a license. And, for whatever reason if some licensing agreement changes, he could have that digital copy taken away. Collecting SteelBooks and amassing a library of titles gives him a sense of security, and harkens back to a simpler time, even if it means recreating lines of video shelves at home:

“I just loved having this library — of Blockbuster nostalgic feel — that I grew up on. I think that's part of the resurgence: you've lost all the video stores.”

Imad Khan

Imad is currently Senior Google and Internet Culture reporter for CNET, but until recently was News Editor at Tom's Guide. Hailing from Texas, Imad started his journalism career in 2013 and has amassed bylines with the New York Times, the Washington Post, ESPN, Wired and Men's Health Magazine, among others. Outside of work, you can find him sitting blankly in front of a Word document trying desperately to write the first pages of a new book.