Culture Warrior

It’s difficult to think that something as definitive of modern-age movie-watching as DVD special features could become a thing of the past, but there are plausible scenarios in which that could happen. DVD and Blu-Ray sales have slowed in the past few years as viewers become more and more accustomed to streaming services as their go-to means of watching movies in the home. However, when viewers streams a film via Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, or Hulu, more often than not, they receive the film itself and nothing else. The attraction for audiences who use streaming services is exclusively the film and the film alone, not the film in conjunction with other supplementary materials that immerse the viewer further into the creation of that film. The film – for the first time since the days of VHS – now speaks for itself.

After DVDs first became popular in the late 90s and early 2000s, the value of the DVD could be determined (and often manipulated) by how much material the discs provided for outside the running time of the film. The appeal of buying a DVD of a particular film did not lie in owning the film itself, but having access to that film in connection to a web of information related to it. Documentaries, commentaries, and deleted scenes provided a DVD experience that felt definitive – these discs made available the notion that herein was everything to know and understand about a particular film. The Lord of the Rings Extended Trilogy, for instance, featured exhaustive documentaries (longer than the films themselves!) that covered every meticulous aspect of bringing the world of Middle Earth to the big – and, eventually, small – screen.

For some of us, a DVD player wasn’t merely a digital home entertainment device. It was a film school.

Streaming services, however, encourage a very different mode of engagement with films than feature-loaded DVDs. With streaming, moviegoers don’t encounter the sense of permanence they would otherwise have with a loaded DVD or Blu-ray. A movie might be available for streaming one day then gone the next, and iTunes rentals turn the digital movie file into an ephemeral object subject to a ticking clock. We’re asked to put our movies into queues, virtually constituting a grocery list of potential watching engagements that we may expect to (ostensibly) accomplish, or at least make some headway through, at some point or another. Subscribers of Netflix’s DVD-by-mail service get the most out of their monthly fee by making a quick turnaround on the DVDs they rent. This type of viewing doesn’t encourage a patient exploration through a DVD’s litany of supplements; furthermore, supplementary discs of multi-DVD sets are considered separate rentals by Netflix and the like.

Today’s Web-enabled mode of at-home movie entertainment, oddly enough, creates a moviegoing experience that in some ways more closely resembles that of the movie theater itself. The viewer can pause and skip forward and backward at will, but the experience is focused on, and is exclusively about, the movie itself. And often, as when the lights come off in a movie theater, a rented movie streamed at home is gone after the movie has run to completion.

I’m not here to bemoan the loss of the special feature or romanticize the glory days of a consumer film school – many special features, as you probably well know, are completely useless, and there’s a good swath of the movie viewing public that couldn’t give two damns about any director has to say about making their movie, and for them watching movies at home has only changed in terms of the delivery device – but it is interesting to think about how our habits of watching movies change our perspective on the movies themselves.

Media scholar Jonathan Gray refers to supplementary materials on DVDs as paratexts: they function to reflect upon and enforce particular conceptualizations of the text itself (i.e., the movie). The supplement-as-paratext shapes the audience’s perception of the film. For instance, the lengthy special features that accompany the extended cuts of The Lord of the Rings serve to reinforce the notion that these films represent a grand cinematic accomplishment. Also, even if you don’t like a given movie, by watching special features and becoming exposed to the labors of filmmaking, you may gain more empathy for the production even if your opinion of the end product remains the same.

Since the rise of the special feature, films are no longer permitted to retain the secrets of their making. Audiences who see films in theaters aren’t viewers suspended in disbelief; they simply haven’t been exposed to the person behind the machine yet. Understanding how the illusion of cinema was manufactured (instead of buying into the illusion) has become an essential component of the filmgoing experience. So, now that more and more people are looking to streaming instead of DVDs as their primary means of accessing movies at the home, what is going to happen to the tendency to consume so many supplementary materials outside the “text itself”?

Despite the decline DVD and Blu-ray sales, small production studios that specialize in creating supplementary features haven’t seen any evidence of a deep industry change. In fact, work at such production houses remain one of the most popular jobs for people right out of film school. That’s because the paratexts have not gone away, they’ve simply found a different venue.

Behind-the-scenes material have moved online and become part of a film’s advance promotion. In an era when we’re given 25 minutes of a 135-minute feature as advertisement, it makes sense then that studios are using information about the making of films to promote a film that has not yet been seen. However, behind-the-scenes materials like this represent the worst tendencies of special features: “exclusive looks” that consist of little more than cast and crew soundbites alongside clips from the film’s trailers (this is the model that characterized many initial DVD special features, modeled on B-roll promotional materials sent to the entertainment press as VHS tapes or media files).

This promotional alternative doesn’t necessarily leave a certain place for the types of supplementary materials that require a time commitment, and defined the most valuable DVDs of the recent past.

For committed cinephiles, The Criterion Collection no doubt created the standard for supplementary materials. And because DVDs won’t necessarily be going away anytime soon even as exponentially more viewers turn to streaming, the special feature will likely remain alive and well in the assembling of DVD and Blu-ray packages for which there is a certain audience dedicated to exploring films from a variety of angles. Furthermore, some special features are made available through streaming; Criterion includes many special features on their Hulu Plus site, and some iTunes purchases come with a standard DVD-style menu that  includes special features. But there is no doubt that, as the move to streaming becomes more potent, the impetus to take the time to explore a movie wanes.

Will the way that we choose to watch films at home habitualize us to the degree that any desire for involved special features becomes phased out, or will this new way of consuming movies fail to meet the needs of movie lovers who formerly used DVDs as their own private film schools?

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