Every sector of the media industry has seen its business change in ways that were unimaginable just a few decades earlier -- from the ways in which entertainment is produced and marketed to the ways it generates revenue. The business effects of the digital format have had a lot of interesting effects on the creative aspects of our media, as companies are forced to change the way they look at the creative process and seek new ways to fund their projects.
Let's take a look at the effects of the DVD -- and the digital revolution it helped to bring about -- on the film industry.
The VHS Revolution
The story of the DVD's effect on the film industry starts with the introduction of VHS tapes in the early 1980s. Home video changed the entire business model of film, giving movies a second life and another chance at turning a profit, from right inside people's homes.
VHS tapes were very expensive at first, because the industry was used to selling reels of film to theaters that might be shown, for profit, hundreds of times. The first digital product to follow in the footsteps of VHS was the relatively short-lived laserdisc. These were also very expensive at first, because the industry was used to selling VHS tapes to movie rental franchises that might be rented out, hundreds of times, for profit. Notice the pattern?
Slowly, the market equalized as the studios realized they wouldn't lose profits due to this new format. That's when the DVD really hit its stride. You could own a high-quality version of a relatively recent film for less than $20 -- no returning, no extra fees, just a copy of that movie to watch whenever you want.
It seems obvious now, but it took a fairly long time for the industry to understand. Lots of people had financial interests and worries about the outcome of these changes, and some of them -- like film and video distributors -- had reasons to keep the system the way it was.
The Art of Special Features
Of course, one of the most attractive things about the DVD was the sheer amount of recording space available. A VHS-quality digital recording of a regular film might only command 400 megabytes, while the most basic DVD format has 15 times that capacity.
From the beginning, DVDs have had menus and other interactive content, but producers were driven to find more ways to use that space. It makes the package more attractive and provides consumers with a greater variety of ways to enjoy the film.
The production of DVD-only features has become a major part of the industry and the filmmaking process for every film, even if it's never released by the studio to a regular theater. Now, when we buy a film on DVD, we expect these extra features -- a bare-bones version of a film carries a much smaller price point.
Today's DVDs can contain everything from interviews with the director, cast and crew to storyboards and special effects demonstrations. Links may be provided to alternate and deleted scenes, both from within the film itself and as additional small features. Many DVDs also contain voiceover tracks in which behind-the-scenes creators and actors offer their own commentary.
Rise of the Popular Auteur
Since filmmaking became an art, there have always been directors and producers whose work was demanded and anticipated on its own merits. The story, actors and other parts of the film were often secondary to the excitement among film lovers about the director's style itself. These directors, whose personal attention to detail and the process of filming make each film a recognizable part of a larger body of work, are known as auteurs.
D.W. Griffith, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles are a few examples of early auteurs. Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski and Stephen Spielberg became popular in the '60s and '70s, along with James Cameron and Ron Howard in the late '70s.
It wasn't until the arrival of digital recordings, however, that casual viewers could enjoy these classic films with the extra materials we use to help understand the auteur's work. The digital revolution meant anyone could learn more about the filmmakers simply by purchasing or renting their films.
Younger filmmakers, like Quentin Tarantino, used the digital capacity of the DVD to create an auteur atmosphere by inviting viewers into their creative process through special features. While the auteur has always existed, it's only in the DVD era that his or her name has become just as important for the marketing of a film as any actor's.
While new and revised releases of older films have always been a way for the industry and filmmakers to make new profits and show improved versions of their films, it's only in the DVD age that multiple versions and re-releases of films are possible on a large scale. Improvements in special-effects technology, for example, led to the mid-'90s theatrical release of the classic "Star Wars" trilogy.
Trends in the industry, such as run times for different kinds of films, also change over time. While romances and comedies are expected to run 90 to 120 minutes, period dramas and epics can often run well over the two-hour mark. The "Lord of the Rings" films, already known for being successful despite their long theatrical running times, were released in even longer formats on DVD to acclaim.
We also get to see behind the curtain of studio politics and industry interference with what's known as the "Director's Cut" of a given film, which is usually described as the version of the film the director would have liked us to see to begin with. Some directors, like Ridley Scott of "Blade Runner," can't seem to leave well enough alone -- a few years ago, a special boxed set was released which contained four different, complete versions of the film.
Behind the Scenes
Of course, even when the selling point for a given film is something other than the director or creative team behind the movie, we still show an interest in learning more about the process of making the movie. This is enjoyable for, and now expected by, consumers, but it also makes sense to the studios, who like to give us as much incentive as possible to buy the DVD by loading it with things you can't find anywhere else.
For example, commentary tracks give us an inkling of what the real actors who made the film are like, rather than just the characters they play. Tracks also give the director and producers a forum to share their own thoughts. This can add greatly to our understanding of the film, as well as our understanding of the art of filmmaking itself, and these types of features are often the main attraction when we consider buying a DVD version of a film we've already seen.
It's also common to include a documentary feature detailing the process of making the movie, whether broken down by category (special effects, makeup effects, wardrobe, etc.) or, sometimes, in longer featurettes with their own impressive budgets, directors and talent. Many films now come with a separate disc -- another 5 gigabytes! -- to contain all the special features that were created alongside the finished film itself.
Brand & Franchise Extension
While there have always been sequels, particularly beginning with the age of the blockbuster in the '70s, the DVD has given all kinds of new dimensions to the idea of the franchise. Before home video, a film might garner a sequel if it was particularly successful at the box office -- but with new films coming out weekly, a movie might not stay in theaters long enough to justify a second production.
Once VHS and video rentals entered the picture, studios began to see those profits as part of the film's overall franchise, and more films began receiving the sequel treatment. But because every film, even a sequel, has its own budgeting and marketing concerns and is its own project, we didn't really see an explosion in sequels, prequels and spinoffs until the debut of the "direct-to-video" project.
Many beloved Disney films have numerous direct-to-video sequels and spinoffs. Some hit science-fiction television shows and films -- such as "Battlestar Galactica," "The Matrix" and "Starship Troopers" -- have gone even further with their franchise materials, crossing the boundary between animation and live-action, as well as spinning off into other times and places set in the franchise's universe.
Lower budgets, lower risk and the marketing advantage of carrying a successful film's name mean that a project destined for DVD doesn't need the box office to earn money.
Cult Films & TV Series
DVDs have set a new definition of cult status for films and TV shows. While "cult" generally implies word-of-mouth praise and a specialized interest in the subject matter, gone are the days when classic shows, foreign animation or obscure films could only be obtained through a lot of detective work and expenditure.
With the DVD, even a modest return means a project can make back its budget, making it a technical success. This can lead to other opportunities for those involved as people learn to love a project on DVD they'd perhaps never heard of before.
Likewise, fans can demonstrate support to get their favorite project released on DVD much more easily than they could keep a show on the air or convince a studio to release a film. "My So-Called Life" and "Freaks & Geeks" were teen dramas in the '90s that were cancelled early and subsequently launched some fairly high-profile careers. These two "cult" series were first released on DVD after pledge drives by passionate fans actually paid for them in advance -- a trailblazing business model no other market can really duplicate.
The relative costs of a DVD release are much smaller than a full-feature budget and usually much less complicated than keeping a television show going, meaning that fan power is sometimes best expended here.
Music Licensing & Duplication
The cult example from the previous page leads to another question the film industry is still facing, thanks to its complicated little sister -- the music industry. Due to piracy and digital duplication, the music industry was going into meltdown at precisely the time that classic shows were getting their shot at home video release in the early 2000s.
Because sale of a DVD means sale of the music contained on that DVD, films (and television shows) must contend with music and soundtrack licensing, as well as publishing rights and other artist revenues.
This can slow down a DVD's release if the money isn't already budgeted. In fact, due to these concerns, MTV's popular mid-'90s cartoon series "Daria" was only officially and fully released on DVD for the first time in 2010.
Because of the importance of music in creating a story, especially in our media-savvy age of film, these concerns are central to the budget of any DVD release. What this means is that studios and distributors are moving to more complex contracts with the projects they produce, so that video releases -- and now, online streaming -- are part of the standard agreement.
Online & Offline Tie-ins
DVD technology has also responded to our expanding entertainment universe. Where once films stood or fell based on their box office standings, now every movie is an opportunity to develop a world that takes advantage of both online and offline technologies. While classic merchandising products like toys and novelizations still make a lot of money for movie producers, the possibility of taking that experience online means the only limit is the creativity of the franchise team.
The largest science-fiction and fantasy franchises, such as "Star Wars" or "Lord of the Rings," are expected to debut alongside online communities, video and online gaming, and other real-world expansions of the universe. For many of these offerings, the DVD is the first invitation to this expanded experience.
By bundling the DVD with online codes, trial versions of online and offline games, product registrations and social-networking tie-ins, the studio can ensure that every consumer is exposed to advertising and attractive opportunities to interact with the brand that would have been unthinkable before our online lives become so important.
When you buy a DVD now, you're not just getting a film or special features: Increasingly, you're being exposed to a whole world of information about the project, in different formats and through different forms of interaction.
Theft, Bootlegging & Other Problems
Of course, the digital format has its problems. DVDs can be hacked easily, copied and shared, and even the classic hand-filmed theater bootleg is much easier to sell or share now that digital networks are the norm. Peer-to-peer sharing, bit torrents and the rest of the modern pirate's toolkit mean studios spend a great deal of money tracking down offenders and making trouble for them.
Some studios even go so far as to embed something called digital rights management (DRM) software to make their products harder to duplicate and share. DRM software, a form of code often created and implemented by teams that don't specialize in this kind of technology, can cause bugs, glitches and even security faults in users' computers, just like spyware.
Studios will find a way to maintain or increase revenue in the online age, just as they always have. The industry is now becoming quite creative with the DVD and online implications of their new technology, while 3-D and other attractions have been developed to lure us back into the theatrical experience. The age of the DVD is coming to an end -- the age of HDTV and Blu-ray has only just begun -- but its historic effect on the way films are produced, sold and enjoyed can't be overstated.
For more great information, check out the links on the next page.
Susan Bennett never knew she would become one of the world's most famous voices until Siri debuted on iPhones in 2011. HowStuffWorks tells her story.
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- Barnes, Brooks. "Direct-to-DVD Releases Shed Their Loser Label." The New York Times. Jan. 28, 2008. (April 11, 2011)http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/28/business/media/28dvd.html
- Bennett, Tara DiLullo. "How 'Dr. Horrible' Changed the Game For Web Shows." The Wall Street Journal. April 7, 2011. (April 11, 2011)http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2011/04/07/how-dr-horrible-changed-the-game-for-web-shows
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- Johnson, Lawrence B. "For the DVD, Disney Magic May Be the Key." The New York Times. Sept. 7, 1997. (April 11, 2011)http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9407EEDC1730F934A3575AC0A961958260
- Kung, Michelle. "SXSW 2011: Demystifying Theatrical Windows." The Wall Street Journal. March 13, 2011. (April 11, 2011)http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2011/03/13/sxsw-2011-demystifying-theatrical-windows
- The New York Times. "DVD (Digital Versatile Disk)." (April 11, 2011)http://topics.nytimes.com/topics/reference/timestopics/subjects/d/dvd_digital_versatile_disk/index.html
- Taylor, Jim. "DVD Frequently Asked Questions (and Answers)." DVD Demystified. Feb. 10, 2011. (April 11, 2011)http://www.dvddemystified.com/dvdfaq.html