Confession time: As someone who has reviewed movies on home video for more than two decades, I simply cannot stand to watch most DVD or Blu-ray bonus features. The days when I might get excited for a director’s audio commentary or a lengthy making-of documentary about the film I just watched feel like a distant memory. I don’t even have nostalgia for them anymore. I just hate them. I wouldn’t be surprised if most home video reviewers feel the same way. Indeed, I fully expect that to be the case, whether some want to admit it or not.
Honestly, I’ve felt like this for at least a decade. Most of the publications I’ve worked for have required the reviewers to watch, evaluate, and describe every single piece of content on a disc, from the one-minute teaser trailers to the three-hour production documentaries, as an obligatory part of the review process. That’s a lot of material to choke down. Doing so is a burden and can be a massive waste of time. The way most discs lately divide their extras among a huge volume of very short one-to-two-minute video clips really slows down the process.
It wasn’t always this way. I’ve been collecting movies on video since Laserdisc, In the early days, when extra features were still a rarity, the ones that did appear usually had some substance and entertainment value, and I was excited to watch them. The more elaborate Laserdisc packages (such as those from the Criterion Collection) often cost over $100 at retail. To justify that expense, the disc producers tried to offer interesting content that shed some light on how the movies were created. Audio commentaries provided either scholarly analysis from knowledgeable film historians or (when still alive and available) insight from the filmmakers themselves, and behind-the-scenes documentaries went into depth breaking down the nuts-and-bolts on how movies got made. Because all these features were so novel and innovative, those who created and participated in them were generally engaged with the material and eager to share their knowledge.
When the DVD boom hit at the end of the 1990s, the concept of the feature-loaded Special Edition really took off, especially the idea of a so-called “Film School in a Box.” For a fraction of the price that a comparable Laserdisc once cost, you could buy a two- or three-disc DVD set crammed full of documentaries and featurettes that delved into every aspect of the filmmaking process, from initial conception through to release. A lot of that material was fascinating. Those were heady times… for a while.
Sadly, once the studio marketing people took over, supplements became more valuable in terms of quantity than quality. Why invest in the creation of a well-made documentary that only fills one bullet point on the specs list when a half dozen sound-byte interview clips will cost next to nothing to produce, and can be itemized individually on the back cover for greater sales appeal? Further, the days when a director or actor could speak freely about the difficulties and conflicts they faced making the movie are basically over. Interview responses are limited to compliment-filled talking points scripted for them in advance, and every word out of their mouths must be vetted by Marketing and Legal before anything sees release.
As a result, most of what passes for supplemental content produced today is PR fluff – marketing garbage straight out of the Electronic Press Kit. Actors blather about how wonderful it was to work together and how great a time everybody had on the set. Most “making-of” material boils down to, “It’s all computers! Everything is CGI!” In the event that anyone still bothers to record an audio commentary, they invariably come unprepared with anything to talk about and only half-heartedly try to mask their boredom. Substantive features are a rarity today.
That’s not to say that good extras don’t exist at all anymore. The Criterion Collection and some of its boutique competitors still put out good work. Every once in a while, even a disc from a major label might include a worthwhile documentary or other item of interest. But they’re definitely getting harder to find, and sorting through all the garbage to get to them hardly feels worth the effort. More often than not, if you happen to come across a really good supplement, you’ll find that it was probably produced more than a decade ago and has been recycled from some prior video edition.
To be perfectly up-front, when it comes to writing for this site that I run myself, I’m not going to watch bonus features for a disc review unless they look particularly interesting. Even if I start one, I’ll shut it off within three minutes if it hasn’t grabbed me. My time is too valuable to waste on that junk anymore.
Burnout is inevitable for anyone who reviews home media for a while. The only thing that keeps any of us going is a passion for movies and the home theater A/V side of the experience. Unfortunately, that means the instances where supplements of actual quality are still produced may not get the attention they deserve. That’s regrettable, but I can’t feel too badly about it. I’d rather spend my time watching more movies.
[Note: The header image at the top of this post comes from the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray edition of Reservoir Dogs. To be fair, the regular Blu-ray that comes packaged with it in the case actually does have a handful of (mostly junk) supplements. I just thought it was hilarious that the UHD menu has section for Special Features with nothing in it but an option for scene bookmarks.]
3 thoughts on “Remember When DVD and Blu-ray “Special Features” Actually Used to Be Special?”
True. Thou art correct. Recent deviation from the norm: the 4K of ‘Top Gun Maverick’ has a one-hour roundtable with Tom Cruise from Cannes (a festival that rarely allows their video content to be released on disc!) – and it’s ONLY on the 4K disc (a format not known for a lot of exclusive goodies). Another example: The ‘Hook’ 4K has 6 minutes of deleted scenes that had never been released before.
“I just hate them. I wouldn’t be surprised if most home video reviewers feel the same way.”
A list of extras was the first thing I’d look at before requesting a title. A wealth of extras wasn’t a guaranteed “no thanks”, but after I’d been reviewing for a good while, I’d only go for loaded special editions if it was a film I was especially passionate about.
I treat audio commentaries more like podcasts, so I’m great with those to a point. I appreciate that Kino Lorber Studio Classics makes it a point to include a commentary on virtually everything they release, but it can be grating when it sounds like someone is just parroting some cursory research they did and struggling to fill 90 minutes to fulfill an obligation. Even commentators I really like can occasionally fall into that trap.
But I think the last commentary on a movie I listened to just for fun was back in 2016. And I have no interest in extras on new releases for the same reasons you mention. Retrospectives with surviving cast/crew tend to be more interesting to me, especially from the pre-CG/pre-digital filmmaking era. The label whose extras I tend to watch more than any other is Vinegar Syndrome; the sorts of movies where you wonder “why does this exist?” frequently have the most fascinating stories behind them.
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You’re right about the lack of quality bonus content with major studio releases, but I know Lionsgate usually does a decent job of providing substantial extras. “Knives Out” is loaded with extra content (regardless of whether or not you liked the movie).
I loved seeing what extras were going to be on future releases; it was exciting to see what was going to be included with the thirteen versions of Terminator 2 released every year.
The first DVD I ever got loaded with interesting extras was the first version of “Fight Club”. It took me forever to pour through them, and my brother and I listened to the commentary track (Fincher, Pitt, Norton and HBC) quite a few times.
The sets that used to include tons of bonus features when they came out were the Pixar movies. It was really special to see all the creativity involved with their productions.
It’s a shame to see them go, but like you said, the boutique labels are doing wonderful work. Sadly, a lot of the content previously on disc ends up on YouTube in some form (it’s possible the marketing people might have a hand in that as well).