Wednesday, January 13, 2021

In Laman's Terms: Where did all the bonus features go?

My face when I see the state of bonus features in the modern world

In Laman's Terms is a weekly editorial column where Douglas Laman rambles on about certain topics or ideas that have been on his mind lately. Sometimes he's got serious subjects to discuss, other times he's just got some silly stuff to shoot the breeze about. Either way, you know he's gonna talk about something In Laman's Terms!

After a rewatch of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (they're even better than you remember for the record), I decided to prolong my time in Middle-Earth by checking out the wealth of bonus features offered on the original Lord of the Rings Extended Edition DVDs. Traditionally, movies get very surface-level behind-the-scenes featurettes on their home video release. Not so here. Each of the Lord of the Rings movies got a wealth of mini-documentaries typically running between 20 and 40 minutes long that delve deep into each aspect of the production. 

The sets, the writing, the process of bringing Gollum to life, they're all captured here not just in reflective interviews but also in footage captured during the production! All the while, a realistic portrait of the creative process of making Lord of the Rings is painted. We hear about visual effects artists disagreeing, complaints about itchy make-up effects, or horror stories about having to get major feats in the production accomplished in short bursts of time. Rather than taking away from the magic of these movies, it makes viewers feel like they're getting a peek behind the curtain of the filmmaking process rather than a glossy short made for PR purposes. It's all so wonderful, especially the humorous stories like one yarn about Sean Astin helping to land helicopters!

It's a shame those kinds of bonus features don't exist anymore.

In the last decade, studios have been cutting down on the extras they put into mainstream home video releases. Boutique labels like The Criterion Collection and Vinegar Syndrome, thankfully, have kept the art of in-depth bonus features alive and well. But the days of major new releases getting extensive behind-the-scenes featurettes are gone. It's been a gradual process that can be traced back to the start of the 2010s when studios were really pushing Blu-Ray as the future of home video. Since Blu-Ray came with internet-based support, that was a feature studios wanted to push...even if it was at the expense of bonus features.

The best example of this was The Lion King, whose first Blu-Ray release in 2011 ported over all the insightful bonus features from its 2003 DVD release to an internet-based program called Disney's Virtual Vault. You no longer had ownership over the most insightful behind-the-scenes content and if you didn't have Wi-Fi, you were out of luck accessing it entirely. The Virtual Vault never caught on and neither did other internet-based ways of delivering behind-the-scenes content. 

Remember BD-LIVE? A whole slew of Blu-Rays circa. 2006-2011 have that feature promoted heavily on their boxes as the future of home media, the perfect way to explore the filmmaking process through ways that could only be delivered through the internet. Now, it's about as arcane as an AOL dial-up. Ditto Disney's Second Screen, a way of delivering behind-the-scenes material like storyboards through people's tablets and phones. Disney tried to turn it into a thing from 2011 to 2013, but it never caught on. The service no longer works at all, with all that behind-the-scenes content lost to the ages. Whereas those Lord of the Rings documentaries are still preserved two decades later, all of the Second Screen footage and images are no longer accessible to consumers.

As studios kept trying to make home video content more hip to the youth of today by transferring bonus features to virtual domains, the physical discs themselves became lighter and lighter on actual bonus content. Soon, the problem became even worse as bonus features got split up among retailers. This trend became apparent with the home video release of Star Trek Into Darkness, where once-staples of home media like audio commentaries and featurettes were split up as "exclusive content" for different retailers like iTunes, Target, and Best Buy. 

It's a problem that, despite a fan outcry, tragically persists to this very day. Not only that, but new problems have emerged in the age of streaming. Services like Netflix and Amazon Prime do not carry bonus features for their original films*.  Save for a handful of Criterion releases for Netflix titles like The Irishman, those wanting a glimpse behind-the-scenes of original streaming movies are out of luck. With studios opting to look at streaming as the future, physical home video has languished as a result. The days of lavish multi-disc home video releases packed with bonus features are a long-dead dream. 

It's such a shame that bonus features have fallen by the wayside given that they offer so much more than just fun interview anecdotes. They also provide an accessible and informative tool to help foster a love for cinema. You didn't need to have thousands of dollars to attend a film school to appreciate the filmmaking process, these bonus features brought that to you in your own home! In his book Rebel Without a Crew, director Robert Rodriguez talks at one point about how a Martin Scorsese interview on a laserdisc for Taxi Driver proved essential for informing him about the responsibilities of a director. In a broader sense, how many people who work in the film industry were inspired to pursue their passions thanks to the bonus features on movies like Lord of the Rings

These features reminded viewers that regular human beings were responsible for silver screen magic. Maybe it would make viewers think about becoming someone responsible for future pieces of cinema wonder. Sadly, the chance to inspire that kind of passion is gone now that studios have largely abandoned bonus features and apparently have no intention of replacing them with a new form in the age of streaming. Modern technology could help lend whole new levels of insight into the filmmaking process and inspire new generations of movie buffs and filmmakers. Sadly, that's not the kind of "content" movie studios are concerned with in the year 2021. Maybe we should rename bonus features "streaming content to please only shareholders", maybe modern-day movie studios would care then...

While the future for bonus features looks grim, at least we'll always have bonus features from the golden age of physical home media, like those stories about Sean Astin helping to guide helicopters. 

* Disney+ is the one exception to this phenomenon, as they bonus features for all titles, both archival and new originals.

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