The slow demise of DVD and Blu-ray special features

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Extra features are a rarity on DVDs and Blu-rays now, particularly on new releases – and there’s a lot we’re missing out on.

Over the past few years, it’s no secret to say that sales of movie physical media – DVD, Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray – have been in decline. That over the past few years, more and more of us are getting our films via some degree of digital service, and the days of a disc release selling lorryloads of copies are behind us.


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This in turn has led to consolidation behind the scenes of the physical media world. Most notably, Warner Bros and Universal have effectively brought together their worldwide operations. All Universal titles in the UK now go through Warner Bros over here as a result, whilst in America the reverse is true. It’s inconceivable this could have been the case even a decade ago, and ten years before that DVD was the golden goose keeping movie studios insanely profitable.

Now, things are very different. With the major studios getting less and less interested in physical media, so the releases have been becoming more and more bare. Here in the UK, the terrific Freaky only warrants a DVD release, and won’t even be available on Blu-ray. Meanwhile, the vast bulk of new titles come with a smattering of forgettable extra features at best.

Disc sales are still notable, it’s just there’s bigger pots of gold elsewhere for the bigger companies.

The heft instead is being picked up by third party labels. It’s best I declare I have minimal skin in the game here, having partnered with Plumeria Pictures on a disc release of Sneakers. For that, the new commentary tracks and interview additions we put together ourselves, and that’s how virtually all third party labels are now operating.

The commentary track alone – a much loved special feature for film nerds – otherwise would have been collateral damage in the studios’ shift away from physical media. There’s enough business in the sector to their eyes to keep putting discs out, but not enough to justify investing in the kind of special editions we used to be spoiled with on a seeming weekly basis. I do wonder if we never appreciated just how good we had it for a while there.

Occasionally, something special gets through. Game Of Thrones disc releases came laden with supplements, and Marvel films on disc tend to be bulky as well. But these are the high profile exceptions rather than the rules.

And I think this is a real pity.

I remember when the laserdisc format – remember that? – first pioneered (chortle) the idea of things such as a director’s commentary, or extensive behind the scenes material for a film. I couldn’t afford laserdisc, but it didn’t stop me looking on with envy. Then, the much more affordable DVD format democratised it all: all of sudden, a mini-film school was within reach of anyone who could scrape together a tenner for a new release. Whilst the quality of extra features tended to be variable – how many gag reels forgot to put the gags in? – often they were movie geek gold. Even the driest of director commentary tracks tended to have something that you wouldn’t be able to discover elsewhere. I remember snapping up a disc of Magnolia too and being treated to one of the best making of-documentaries I’d seen to that point. And no worries if I didn’t like what I got: another disc would be along soon enough, to offer a different peep behind the curtain.

It’s worth noting that some in the film business were a little against the amount of supplementary material that was forthcoming. Wasn’t it taking away the magic and mysteries of movies by showing how everything was done? Perhaps. But I looked at it another way: it was holding the ladder for those who wanted to try and find a way in. It was making information available that was otherwise behind the guarded gates of film schools and their ilk.

Still, extra features gradually became, in corporate terms, an asset to be leveraged. Apple in particular got particularly good at snapping up some extra features as exclusive to its iTunes service, to the point where those supplements wouldn’t appear on the disc version of the film in question. I still shake my head at that. I always felt that the disc version of a film should be its document of record, and that any supplements available via digital purchases should also be on the physical media. Not every studio felt the same.

But things were changing anyway. And now, with most studios trying to get to the holy grail of their own competitive streaming service, it feels as though primarily supplementary material is falling by the wayside. Some of it is turning up in different places. Disney+ for instance has a series of excellent making of programmes, which at least partly compensates for how barren the ‘extras’ section on its film information screen usually is. Disney+ is one service that actively bothers to list extra features for a film sometimes, but more often than not it’s a brief, glossy promo featurette rather than a commentary track or anything more substantive.

Mind you, good luck finding anything extra at all on Netflix. And most streamers have followed its lead.

With the physical media releases getting more and more sparse, it does beg the question: where is all the extra material going? I can but conclude the depressingly obvious: it’s simply not being made anymore. That with the advent of convenient streaming services, we’ve regressed back closer to the VHS area, where you got your film and that was your lost.

There are exceptions to that of course, and there’s also those glorious aforementioned third party labels who really are putting in the heavy lifting on longer term catalogue titles. That, and the likes of Rogue Commentary who are making tracks available irrespective of a disc release.

But still: it took a long time for regular extra features with films to become a thing, and they seem to be disappearing in half the time. I for one consider that a real loss.

Let’s leave this on a positive though. There are thousands of director’s commentary tracks out there in the world, and generally, the discs they’re housed on are costing a lot less than they once upon a time did to pick up. If there’s one you’ve particularly enjoyed, post it in the comments. I’ll suggest any Joel Schumacher track to get us going. You can’t go wrong with one of those…

Lead image: BigStock

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