On my DVD shelf are two copies each of Singin’ in the Rain, Pulp Fiction, A Christmas Story, Boogie Nights, GoodFellas, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Fargo, among others. I’m not an obsessive-compulsive collector who needs backup copies; I simply fell victim to buying an inferior, soon-to-be outdated DVD before an improved version came out.
Unlike the rental-focused VHS and cinephiles-only laserdisc formats that came before, DVDs have been established as both supermarket impulse buys and specialty Internet purchases. As the market grows, however, some people will find themselves dishing out more of their money for films they already own. Consumers will eventually have to determine the importance of transfer quality and extras against how much they want the big studios to suck out of their budget.
It’s hard not to view the home-video-distributors’ motives cynically; at the very least, there’s a strong degree of laziness. MGM, for example, didn’t include a deleted scene and making-of documentary on the first DVD version of Singin’ in the Rain that even appeared on the normally extras-void VHS format. Not to put down the first release’s “collectible” eight-page booklet, but considering that it’s widely accepted as the greatest musical of all time, you’d think MGM would release a decent DVD the first time around, instead of waiting several years to create a satisfying two-disc set.
No one should feel pity toward the companies for only being able to sell one DVD per fan, especially with films that came out before 1997, when DVD was in its infancy. In 1996, a Pulp Fiction junkie who may have already bought a VHS edition buys the special-features-loaded three-laserdisc set for $124.95. In May 1998, our put-upon friend sees the release of the DVD, which theoretically has slightly better picture quality than the laserdisc, but no special features—not even the original theatrical trailer—at a price of $29.99. Finally in 2002, the two-disc “collector’s edition” DVD comes out, with the deleted scenes exactly as they appeared on the 1996 laserdisc, a new documentary and some TV programs from when the film came out in 1994. So out comes another $29.99 for the new stuff and the stuff that should have been on the first DVD. Miramax Home Video, however, includes a mail-in rebate coupon for $5 for those who bought both DVDs. Perhaps our consumer—some $200 in the hole for his four Pulp Fiction purchases—can put the money towards the new Jackie Brown DVD.
Some companies have, in their better moments, set an example of how to treat their films and customers. Warner Home Video waited until 2001 for a thorough two-disc 60th- anniversary DVD version of Citizen Kane, with commentary tracks by Roger Ebert and Peter Bogdanovich, The Battle Over Citizen Kane documentary and archival materials. Film buffs patiently waited for the release and weren’t suckered into buying a crappy version first. Fox released an economical single-disc edition of Moulin Rouge—after the better, two-disc version came out (and, unlike that disc, most of the earlier releases of the other films weren’t cheaper).
But the edition-gouging continues, and hard-core fans are the most vulnerable. The Matrix DVD obsessor’s yearning will finally be sated when Warner releases a 10-disc boxed set with the entire trilogy and several discs worth of special features. Anybody who’s going to want to buy the boxed set already will have bought five Matrix-related releases amounting to seven discs, but may be unable to resist getting this set as well. Warner could sell the unreleased material separately as well, but probably won’t.
The core of consumerism is choice, and DVDs can allow viewers and filmmakers more freedom while keeping audience options open. In the case of the Almost Famous: Untitled Bootleg Edition and the “Extended Editions” of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Cameron Crowe and Peter Jackson respectively joined the clan of the director’s cut by editing more complete versions of their films than traditional studio-imposed running-time restrictions would allow. And unlike many director’s cuts (Apocalypse Now Redux), these cuts actually added substance to the films. The conflict comes in the timing—rather than release both versions at the same time, the longer versions come later. While Jackson himself made an effort to notify fans that two Rings versions would be released, un-savvy consumers who don’t keep up to date via the Internet and/or can’t predict the future often assume that the Return of the King they see on the rack is the only edition that will be available.
Once informed, it usually isn’t hard to make choices. I had to wait until November to give my dad his Father’s Day present of the features-loaded, more dramatically satisfying extended edition of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, but after he spent a month watching it, it was clear it was the right version for him. Most people don’t need both versions—it might be a pain to skip past the added scenes if you want the theatrical version, but only someone who watches both several times a week is going to be able to justify purchasing the two editions.
Home video behemoths will only cut down on inferior, superfluous releases if consumers become more wary of the product. Reviews can be found on Websites like www.dvdverdict.com and www.dvdfile.com. I know that some films just have to be purchased, but low sales and petition campaigns are the only real ways to communicate with the distributors and get the treatment—and DVDs—you deserve the first time around.