Artillery Row

The death of the DVD commentary

How the rise of streaming platforms has killed home entertainment

In virtually every charity shop across the country, there are an increasing number of sad-looking plastic cases, with a variety of films both beloved and forgotten inside. Once, they would have sold for around £20 apiece, but now most retail for no more than a pound or two. Yet, for the adventurous, there are treasures to be had, at a time when the convenience of streaming services is threatening to kill off home video for good.

My cinematic education was immeasurably helped by the rise of the DVD format

It is no exaggeration to say that my cinematic education was immeasurably helped by the rise of the DVD format. Before, I was a keen but undiscerning cinema goer; afterwards, I considered myself a film aficionado. Some would have said fanatic. I bought my first DVD player in 1999, when the format was still in its infancy, but already I had heard excited whispers that this was a proper game-changer for the industry. After years of only being able to watch films at home either on overpriced, poor-quality VHS video tapes or expensive, hard-to-find Laserdiscs, this was a true boon. Not only were the films presented in their proper aspect ratios, rather than the hacked pan-and-scan format on video, and in pristine audio and visual condition, but, most excitingly of all, they came with a cornucopia of extra features.

Some of these were admittedly bland marketing nonsense, such as trailers and six-minute “making of” featurettes in which audiences were repeatedly told how brilliant the film that they’d already spent their money on was. But others were fascinating and considerably more in-depth. There were directors’ cuts of underappreciated and unfinished films that vastly enhanced the viewer’s appreciation of what the filmmakers had been trying to do in the first place, or deleted scenes that revealed subplots and characters that had been entirely excised for reasons of length, tone or sensibility.

And, perhaps best of all, there was the DVD commentary. This could be anything from a contractually obligated bore, in which the director occasionally offered bland comments as to what was happening on the screen, to fascinating and in-depth explanations of a filmmaker’s artistic choices and decisions. Sometimes, an articulate director or writer could even convince the viewer that they were watching a considerably better film than they were, so persuasive were their arguments. Or, on the other extreme, there could be a riotous party atmosphere, as on the commentaries of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, or Kevin Smith and his regular cast, in which the viewer at home could temporarily feel that they had been invited into a private gathering of famous friends and allowed to join in for a couple of hours.

The DVD boom lasted for about a decade, before it was superseded by the Blu-Ray format, which boasted greater storage capacity and even more impressive audio-visual accoutrements. Never mind that most domestic viewers were perfectly happy with their DVD players and collections; the all-singing, all-dancing new players were backwards compatible, meaning that one could continue to enjoy one’s existing collection, even as a certain amount of pressure existed on purchasers to buy the same films that they already owned on the new format.

This was done by careful marketing of “ultimate editions”, “final editions” and the like: the implication was that your inferior old DVD copy of your favourite film was no better than the dusty old VHS copy that had either been given away to the local charity shop or was cluttering up the attic. Many were convinced, including me, and many is the director’s cut or extended version of a favourite film that I own.

It was recently announced that streaming services had finally overtaken sales of DVD and Blu-Ray

It seemed as if studios had hit upon a winning formula. After releasing the films at the cinema and enjoying the box office receipts from a smash – or taking the hit from a commercial flop – they were then able to release the same films multiple times on various home entertainment formats and could be assured of renewed interest each time. There was, for instance, a commercially lucrative decision to release the Lord of the Rings trilogy first as nothing more than the film on disc, and then the vastly more enticing collectors’ editions, featuring four-hour cuts of each film and endless hours of documentaries, interviews and insights into the creative process. Pity the poor documentarians who were asked to do similar tasks for films that were expected to be similarly enormous hits, and then saw their work quietly filleted into a five-minute piece of embarrassed after-the-fact promotional video.

But the heritage market, in particular, benefited enormously. If you were an admirer of such great directors as Hitchcock, Bergman, Kurosawa or Kubrick, you would soon find that there was a box set with your name on it. It was, in short, far cheaper and even more comprehensive than a film school degree. Many big-name directors, not least Paul Thomas Anderson, explicitly advised aspirant directors to listen to their DVD commentaries, rather than hear the second-hand advice of film professors.

But, as with most good things, the end has apparently come. It was recently announced, to nobody’s great surprise, that streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime had finally overtaken sales of DVD and Blu-Ray formats. The latter once enjoyed around $10 billion of revenue as recently as 2014, but this has subsequently declined to a tiny fraction of that, while the almost cult status that Netflix, with or without its chill component, continues to enjoy ensures that it is now one of the world’s most iconic and profitable brands.

Its aggressive investment in contemporary cinema has established it as a major player in awards season, and directors as acclaimed and disparate as Martin Scorsese, Alfonso Cuarón, David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh and Ava DuVernay have all made films funded by the service. In the case of Scorsese’s The Irishman, he was offered a deal that no studio would countenance these days: final cut, a three and a half hour running time and the opportunity to make a deeply personal film without any overt executive interference. And all this in exchange for going straight to Netflix.

The only advice I can give is to buy as many Blu-Rays now as you can

There will, in fact, be a DVD and Blu-Ray release of The Irishman, just as there was one of Cuarón’s Oscar-winning Roma, but both will be released by the Criterion Collection. Anyone who knows about Britain’s excellent publisher Folio Society, which releases classic works of history and literature in beautiful and collectable editions, will be pleased to know that the Criterion Collection does something very similar for home entertainment. They have a current library of well over a thousand titles, with new ones being released constantly, and although they are predominantly an American company, nearly 150 of them are available in Britain. They include everything from acknowledged classics of the cinema to more dubious titles. There was some controversy caused by the inclusion of Michael Bay’s gloriously dumb 1998 space opera Armageddon, but Ben Affleck’s openly incredulity at the film’s many and varied artistic failings on its commentary has made it a cult item subsequently.

As Criterion’s CEO has acknowledged, “we live or die by our supplements”, and so every film that they release contains something notable or interesting, whether it is a contemporary interview with some of the cast and filmmakers, commentary tracks featuring noted scholars and biographers or simply the best-quality picture and video, often painstakingly restored under the care of the original director of photography and editors. They used to be sold at premium prices, to reflect the time and effort that had gone into their production, but now market realities have meant that very few people are happy to pay the equivalent of £25 or £30 for a single film, and so they can be obtained for little more than a standard edition. They remain the first and, in some cases, only choice for the discerning cineaste, and I am delighted, if occasionally slightly alarmed, to find that my once-comprehensive DVD collection, now much reduced, still contains the bulk of my Criterion discs.

It is impossible to swim against the tide, and it seems increasingly, if depressingly, clear that what the average consumer cares about is the choice and ease offered by streaming services, rather than the chance to hear Ridley Scott candidly dissect his directorial choices in Blade Runner, or to hear Roger Ebert offer a heartfelt and authoritative commentary on Citizen Kane. Perhaps it will one day be the case that the true aficionados gather at the National Film Theatre or similar temples to cinemas and enjoy watching their favourite pictures with directors’ commentary in full Dolby Surround Sound, followed by a short selection of deleted scenes as a digestif. But until then, the format appears to be in terminal decline, perhaps mirroring the fate of cinemas. And this is a true shame for anyone who loves film. The only advice I can give is to buy as many Blu-Rays now as you can. One day, they, too, will go the way of the VHS and Laserdisc, and their loss will be an infinitely greater one.

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