To be perfectly honest, I’m not entirely convinced that LaserDiscs are, or ever were, a real thing. First of all, I’ve never seen one in person and from what I do know about them, it just seems like a ridiculous joke. A comically large CD that’s the size of a vinyl record? Sorry, no. That’s just an oversized prop from a Carrot Top comedy special — there’s no way it was a real thing that people actually watched movies on.
Who is behind this elaborate conspiracy and what could be their objective? I have no idea, but I do know that this thing goes deep. Not only are unknown parties telling us that LaserDiscs were a real thing via bogus Wikipedia entries and faked photographs, they’re even claiming that some people still use LaserDiscs! Just look at these surprisingly active LaserDisc Reddit threads! And there are also multiple LaserDisc Facebook groups! Impossible!
To get to the bottom of this elaborate hoax, I decided to reach out to some supposed LaserDisc loyalists to see if there are any holes in their stories. First up is a guy named Chuck Legg, who is better known as “Portland’s King of Laserdisc.” Legg owns a business called Discount LaserDisc that operates out of his home and touts the “largest selection of LaserDisc movies,” with over 6,000 titles. When talking to Legg, he’s gregarious, generous with his time and passionate about the medium that he’s dedicated his retirement to.
“Laserdiscs started in 1977 and I started doing this in 1980,” he tells me. “My dad was pretty well known in consumer electronics and I could go into any distributor I wanted and say, ‘Hey, I’m Dick Legg’s kid,’ and I could get something wholesale. So that’s how Discount LaserDisc started.” Legg worked with the Post Office, selling LaserDiscs on weekends, and he tells me that business was very good in the 1980s and 1990s — some years he cleared just as much on LaserDiscs as he did with his job. Even after LaserDiscs stopped being made in 2000, Legg stuck around to buy and sell LaserDiscs and attend LaserDisc swap meets. In 2015, Legg retired from the Post Office, but he explains that Discount LaserDisc still has a loyal following thanks to his sizable inventory.
But what kind of following does LaserDisc have anymore, really? I can’t help but picture Tobias from Arrested Development shouting, “There are dozens of us! Dozens!”
But when I talk to Derreck Fricke, a LaserDisc collector out of St. Louis, he says there are thousands of LaserDisc collectors, citing the Facebook Group LaserDisc Forever!, which has more than 11,000 members. It’s a tight-knit group too, as many of them seem to know each other.
As for why LaserDisc collectors are still so committed to a medium that hasn’t released a new title in 20 years, the reasons vary. Some enjoy the experience of owning a physical piece of media. Donald, a LaserDisc collector out of Connecticut explains, “When you get movies now, you don’t get anything. DVDs used to come with booklets, but you don’t even get that anymore. With LaserDiscs, they had nice covers, some opened up with more pictures, there’s a lot more to offer.” For Fricke, this actually extends into a matter of principle: “I could never spend money downloading a movie. It’s just never something I could bring myself to do,” he tells me.
But there’s an indefinable quality to LaserDisc collecting as well. As Legg puts it, “In the 1980s and 1990s, it was the first higher-definition, home source you could get for movies. Also, there’s something about having that original 12 ½ inch by 12 ½ inch cover and big ol’ shiny disc that is ‘charismic.’” (Unfamiliar with that word — and unable to confirm its existence online — I ask Chuck what he means by that, and he says, “It’s something that you have an attraction to, but you’re not really sure why.”)
For Peter, a collector who runs the YouTube channel LaserDisc Home Theater, he explains that his love for LaserDisc is simple nostalgia. “To collect something now that you couldn’t afford then is pretty cool. When I was a kid, you had to buy a $600 LaserDisc player and each of the movies was $40, so I couldn’t afford that. But I got into LaserDisc about five years ago and I have players that I bought for $150 that were originally $6,000.”
Along those lines, Fricke shares that he currently owns 14 players and he likes to take them apart and understand how they work. Also, because there are no replacement parts for them anymore, it helps to have a back up. Peter, likewise, is into the technology end of things, explaining that, to get the optimal viewing experience, he has quite the setup. To start, his LaserDisc player is plugged into an “eval board” (which separates out the colors for better definition); then his eval board goes into a processor (which cleans things up and converts the film to 24 frames per second); then it goes into another processor that converts it to 4K so that it can be played on his 100-inch, 4K screen. That might seem elaborate to some, but Peter says that’s sort of the fun of it, and it makes for a more faithful cinematic experience.
“It’s a really pleasant viewing experience because it’s not as cleaned up,” he explains. “If you pull out a Blu-Ray of Citizen Kane, it’s going to look 100 percent perfect, as any imperfections are removed before it’s released. But if you watch it on LaserDisc, it’s just a scan of a reel, so there’s noise and imperfections, which is closer to how it looked in the theater.”
Star Wars is another great example, as Peter explains that the Star Wars LaserDiscs are coveted because they contain the original versions of the films, before George Lucas’ heavy-hand added a bunch of stuff for the 1997 re-release. Though Peter notes that there have been some underground, 4K versions of the original Star Wars films out there, he says, “The best way to get the original Star Wars legally is still on LaserDisc, if you can believe that.”
They were also the highest quality picture at the time. Having never watched a LaserDisc myself, I tried to get my LaserDisc guys to compare them to DVD and Blu-Ray quality, but most say it’s hard to compare anything analog to anything digital. Donald, though, tries his best: “I don’t think it’s fair to compare it to Blu-Ray or 4K, because that’s like asking, ‘How fast can your grandfather run a quarter mile?’ But when comparing it to VHS and DVD, I’d say it’s better than VHS and just about on par with DVD,” he says. He adds, however, that having the proper processors and such help to get it to that level.
They were also a fairly durable piece of tech, as Peter explains, “LaserDiscs can get all kinds of surface scratches that don’t affect the image.” The only real problem they face, especially in recent years, is something called “laser rot,” which is pretty much the death knell for LaserDisc dudes. To offer a nutshell explanation, LaserDiscs weren’t a single disc — instead, they were two discs glued together. In some factories, quality control wasn’t as good, so sometimes there were errors when gluing and sealing the two discs together. It didn’t happen right away, but over the years, some movies have been notorious for this, which can render them unwatchable. “Air Force One is the number one rotter,” Peter says.
Laser rot aside, it sounds like LaserDisc was a pretty impressive piece of technology, especially for film nerds. Why, then, did they never really catch on as the way to watch movies at home?
Well, there are a number of reasons for that, but Legg traces it all back to one thing: LaserDisc players couldn’t record. Both LaserDisc and VHS came out the same year and both were pretty expensive: Some VHS tapes sold for $80 in the very beginning, so it’s not as though they were inherently cheaper. But VHS tapes were smaller and easier to fit on a store shelf, and the fact that a VCR could record made it a must-have item. Because people already had VCRs, they bought the tapes to go with them.
LaserDiscs, however, remained a tiny part of the market share, one that mostly catered to film buffs, as they offered collector boxes and widescreen versions of movies. That all came to an end, though, on October 3, 2000, with the release of Bringing Out the Dead, the final LaserDisc title released in America. It was DVD — which first arrived in 1997 — that finally killed the LaserDisc. As Legg explains, “LaserDiscs were expensive to produce, and it wasn’t that hard to convert a LaserDisc plant to a DVD plant. So rather than make a LaserDisc for $10, they could make a DVD for six cents.”
With that, pretty much all of my questions about LaserDiscs have been answered, but I’m still not convinced they were ever really real, so I return to Legg for one final question. See, I figured that if LaserDisc’s existence is just one big conspiracy, Legg had to be pretty high up in the machinations. Not only did he connect me to all my other LaserDisc sources, but the man is Portland’s King of LaserDisc — not the duke, nor the prince, but the King!
Anyway, I ask him point-blank, “Is it possible that LaserDiscs are just a hoax and that the technology never really existed?” figuring that the bluntness of my question would blow the whole thing wide open. Unfortunately, Legg replies by saying, “I just asked my wife to go out and check the inventory. She came back and confirmed, ‘There are at least 15,000 discs in stock, maybe more.’ So LaserDiscs most certainly do exist.”
Damnit! Legg has fucking ice water in his veins! That or, perhaps, maybe LaserDiscs were — and, to some, still are — a real thing. And, while I’m still not totally convinced of their existence, part of me does kind of want to check out Citizen Kane on LaserDisc now.