How The Matrix was pivotal to take-up of the DVD format

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It’s the 14th biggest-selling DVD of all time, but The Matrix is arguably one of the most important discs ever to hit the format – here’s the story.

In videogame parlance, a ‘killer app’ is described as a game that basically makes people buy the machine to play it on. That if they’ve been wavering about buying a games console, the decision gets made when a game comes along that all but forces the sale.

In the case of the launch of the DVD format back in March 1998 in the UK, there were no shortage of early enthusiasts keen for an economically-priced movie disc option. Granted, many of those enthusiasts had already imported a player from elsewhere in the world (the format had arrived in the US the previous March) and begun buying discs from early etailers. But even so, the UK release was still reasonably successful.

Still, there weren’t that many titles to pick from, and that’s why many of us back then ended up with a copy of Batman & Robin we didn’t really want, as it was one of the best showcases for the technological oomph of the new format. There certainly wasn’t a disc to instantly attract those still happy with their VHS players.

That said, take up of DVD was quick around the world, and by January 1999, the US chain Best Buy was declaring the format “the most widely accepted new technology in our company’s 32-year history”. DVD at that stage was growing faster than the CD and VHS had done in their respective infant years, and the Best Buy chain alone was shifting around 100,000 discs a week.

By 2005, at the peak of the DVD market, annual sales topped $16.3bn. But one of the pivotal stepping stones on the way to that number was the format’s first ‘killer app’, and its first million seller: The Matrix.

Warner Bros, the studio behind The Matrix, was a keen early adopter of the DVD format, and released many titles on the format. Good titles, too: a real treat for early DVD fans was the feature-packed release of Contact for instance, whose extra features put titles to shame for years afterwards. Warner Bros also priced its discs at the lower end of the market, and aggressively promoted its titles. Sales were creeping up.

As it went into the summer of 1999, the studio had two major blockbuster releases on its calendar. The first, and from the outside the surer bet, was Wild Wild West, starring Will Smith. This was expensive, loud, had a huge movie star in the lead role, and Warner Bros was spending heavily to promote the film.

The other movie was one that it’s still a minor miracle it got through the studio system: the Wachowski’s The Matrix, a film infamously sold to Warners’ studio heads via an extensive presentation. Said studio heads admitted they weren’t quite sure what it was, but gave the project the nod. Will Smith, incidentally, turned down the lead to go and make Wild Wild West instead, and Keanu Reeves instead signed up.

The success of The Matrix is well known now, of course, but it’s easy to forget just what a bolt out of nowhere the movie was. 1999 was the summer of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and yet for a long time, it was The Matrix that became the must-see film.

Warner Bros knew that the title was ideally suited to the burgeoning DVD format, and it threw plenty of resources into the disc. But it also had the ingenious idea of a instantly-sellable feature that could promote the film’s extra features.

It came up with a ‘follow the white rabbit’ mode, whereby the film would play, and from time to time a white rabbit icon would appear on the screen. If you then pressed the requisite button on your remote control, you’d be taken to a behind the scenes exploration of the moment in question. It amounted to around 20 minutes of extra material, and the feature was front and centre of Warner Bros’ promotion of the home release.

For whilst The Matrix was also going to be released on VHS, it was the disc that the studio and those behind the new DVD format wanted to push. As well as the white rabbit feature, Warner Bros included DVD-ROM features (remember those?), multi-angle viewing, and links to this equally relatively new fangled world wide web thing. A confluence of technologies, that the extra features of The Matrix tapped into. “The DVD of the millennium”, went the promotional line.

Furthermore, The Matrix was also part of a teaser trailer that was provided on VHS tapes. Here’s that trailer, which also includes the specific push for The Matrix in its second half…

The whole package was a raging success. Appreciating that the PlayStation 2 was around the corner too and would bring DVD hardware into the homes of many who didn’t have it, The Matrix ahead of that nonetheless proved to be the perfect disc at the perfect time. Even film fans who didn’t have the format were aware of it on the whole, courtesy of the blanket marketing. In America alone, the film became the first DVD to sell a million copies, and just four years later, its sales had reached 30 million.

The DVD format took off alongside it (with the aforementioned PS2 giving it extra fuel from March 2000). 4.05m discs were sold in the UK alone in 1999, the majority of them in the last quarter of the year when The Matrix was released. The following year, sales quadrupled, and in December 2000 alone, 4.71m DVDs were sold. Oddly, this all happened whilst VHS sales grew by 7% too. The entire home entertainment industry was benefiting.

Over 20 years later, DVD is still the best-selling home entertainment physical format too. Blu-ray has never come close to toppling it, in spite of snaring a decent market share. But then Blu-ray was always going to be a tougher sell. Persuading people to upgrade from tape to disc was a much easier job than trying to convince people to go from disc to another disc. The Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray format has had a similar problem, even though that’s edging towards being the premium enthusiasts’ format of choice.

Blu-ray, too, lacked a ‘killer app’. The closest it came, I’d argue, was the James Bond adventure Casino Royale, that at one stage Sony was offering free (via mail-in) to buyers of its PlayStation 3 console. Even so, it was never going to have quite the impact of The Matrix on DVD, and thus didn’t.

The Matrix remains one of the most pivotal home entertainment releases of all time, and it’s hard to think – giving the move towards streaming – that we’ll ever see a home release quite like it again. It remains the 14th biggest selling of all time on the DVD format (Finding Nemo is the ultimate best-seller), but also arguably the disc that prompted more interest in the format than any others. Its killer app.

That’s something even the upcoming The Matrix 4 won’t be able to top…


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