Listening to What Movie Lovers Have to Say

In my post from earlier this week about the drawbacks of Blu-Ray, one of the points I tried to make was that all of the extras that Blu-Ray discs provide really amount to very little of interest to me and, I would guess, to most consumers — especially if they cause the total user experience of Blu-Ray discs to be slow and problematic (they do). Contrary to what the entertainment industry believes, most of us can easily live without all the deleted scenes, interviews, outtakes, trailers, and commercials disguised as documentaries — to say nothing of the uniformly dismissable interactive features and supplemental content that Blu-Ray makes accessible over the Internet.

What matters is the movie itself, the core content. If you don’t believe me, you can believe Netflix. Through their success they’ve inadvertently proven that the concept of “DVD extras” is hardly a necessary component of providing good entertainment. Their discs-by-mail service treats a two-disc movie release (one for the movie itself, one for the extras) as two different rentals, and so it’s probably safe to say that very few people go to the trouble of renting that second disc. And of course, their streaming service offers up no extras at all and has proven to be a big hit nevertheless.

In an age where entertainment journalism is so popular and when everyone is interested in the backstory of practically every movie, regardless of how good the movie itself is, it’s interesting to me that extras can be regarded as so inessential. But they really are, and user experience designers across all media would do well to keep that in mind. Cherries don’t sell sundaes.

Other Extras

All that said, I really do enjoy extras myself, even if I don’t miss them much when I don’t get access to them. Director’s commentaries, in particular, can be very revealing. When I can find the time to re-watch a movie with the commentary track (it doesn’t happen very often), it’s almost always a rewarding experience that deepens my appreciation for the original work.

So it occurs to me that, outside of its inherently beautiful high-definition picture, the one mildly useful thing that the Blu-Ray format could do for me would be to give me access to alternative commentaries. This is an idea that originated with the critic Roger Ebert several years ago: why limit the voices you can hear from to just those of the cast and crew? Why not open it up to anyone out there who has something to say?

Digital technology makes it cheap and feasible for anyone to record their own commentary track for any given movie, and there’s a robust community of film critics, writers and enthusiasts who have been doing just that. There are about 3,000 examples of their work catalogued over at Zarban’s House of Commentaries. There’s also a much less serious strain of the same idea available at RiffTrax, a project from the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew, where the goal is to produce comedic commentary tracks.

Blu-Ray to the Rescue

I’d be very keen to have access to this stuff, especially for the movies that I cherish the most and for which there are no commentary tracks available (or no good ones). But to listen to one of these tracks right now, it’s generally a manual process, with no easy way of uniting what are basically two different content sources. Two different media players are necessary, in fact — one for the movie and one for the track — both playing at the same time. Though getting what you’re hearing in sync with what you’re watching is not difficult, but it’s harder than it should be.

And this is what Blu-Ray would be so good at. Access to alternative commentaries would finally provide a legitimately interesting purpose for the otherwise useless BD Live aspect of the format, which can pull in supplemental content from the Internet. It would be elementary for a Blu-Ray player to automatically sync an alternative commentary track (really just an MP3 download) with the video that it’s displaying. What’s more, the player could also negotiate between the commentary’s audio and the movie’s audio, bringing the volume of the latter up when the former is silent, which is something that’s virtually impossible to do via manual means.

New Dimensions in Home Video

To me, this would make for a network feature that truly justifies all of the hassle that Blu-Ray players go through to connect to the Internet, even if this new content would still be unlikely to upend my theory that extras just don’t matter to consumers. People who don’t have the time or interest in a director’s commentary are unlikely to have the time or interest for commentary from some random film buff — or in the case of RiffTrax, some random wiseacre.

Or would they? Imagine a simple, user-friendly marketplace for commentaries where a Blu-Ray owner can find the commentators who match their sensibilities, and download tracks and start playing them with just a few clicks of a remote control. Imagine being able to engage in conversations with those commentators too, or send clips of their audio to your friends. Or even imagine a Blu-Ray player that makes it dead simple to record a commentary track yourself and to upload it to this hypothetical marketplace, letting you become that movie pundit you always knew you could be. These kinds of features could make for a fascinating new dimension for home video. In the fight against piracy, in the fight against declining sales of movies on discs in general, taking a more conversational approach like this could be one of the tools that might rejuvenate the business.

But this kind of thing seems very unlikely to happen with Blu-Ray. Certainly not soon, and probably not ever. And the reason is simple: Blu-Ray, as an invention of movie studios and technology companies, is a one-to-many medium, not a many-to-many medium. It’s a digital update on an old model where content producers ship a product and consumers buy the product, stop. Though it’s technologically possible to do what I’m talking about, because of the interests involved, the Blu-Ray format is constitutionally incapable of accommodating outside voices, unpredictable conversations and alternative commentaries. It’s a 20th Century paradigm dressed up with beautiful 1080p resolution. And that’s why it’ll be dead within a few years.



  1. About a decade ago, Sony had a premium line of DVDs called “Superbit” where they would strip out the extras and allocate a higher bit rate to the actual video. The superbit edition of “Lawrence of Arabia” had reached cult status and sold used in the hundreds of dollars after Sony discontinued the line to focus on infecting their customers with rootkit DRM instead.

  2. I didn’t comment on your previous Blu-ray post because up until last night, I hadn’t had any bad experiences with any Blu-ray discs on my Playstation3. And then I tried to play the Scott Pilgrim disc. Yikes. Annoying nag screens for BD Live and non-standard controller behaviour were just two things I hadn’t experienced before. And the “loading…” animation that went on for 2 minutes or more. And then popup ads for other films right on the menu!

    Universal, you have a lot to answer for.

    But I do like your idea here, although I cannot see any studio giving access to, uh, non-standard extras from their discs. Even with legal disclaimers and whatnot, it just doesn’t seem in character for intellectual property-obsessed studios.

    Maybe when we’re all watching stuff streamed to our TVs from the web, it will make more sense to build other web-related extras in. I wonder if somebody like MUBI ( could pioneer this?

  3. Tangent:
    I wonder if BD Live was created so studios could theoretically ship movies sooner and then finish producing supplemental content just in time for it to be released in stores.

  4. “…why limit the voices you can hear from to just those of the cast and crew? Why not open it up to anyone out there who has something to say?”

    Because *everyone* has always something to say. Call me old-fashioned, but when I purchase a DVD what I’m really interested in is the movie and, occasionally, what the director and the cast have to say. For me, their insights are more important than any random self-appointed film buff’s opinion.

    There’s enough noise on the Web, do we really want it in other contexts as well? Does everything need to be ‘social’ and ‘shared’, nowadays, to have an added value? I don’t think so. But hey, that’s me.

    By the way, despite my disagreement on this matter, I thoroughly enjoyed both your posts on Blu-Ray. Blu-Ray hasn’t convinced me yet, and what you wrote on your first post has reinforced my doubts on the format. DVD still serves me well, for now, and I won’t upgrade so soon…


  5. The movie industry seem to have it all wrong. Surely all non-core content on the disc should be optional? One of the reasons so many people enjoy downloading films (as you rightly point out with Netflix) is that they get no unnecessary cruft before the film.

    When my kids watch a Disney DVD, they get a non-skippable anti-piracy promo and then a load of trailers before we even get to the main screen to select ‘play movie’. The ‘interactive games’ on these discs are a joke, and yet until very recently Disney charged a massive premium for their bigger movies (usually Б18.99 in the UK I think).

    The kids don’t care about anti-piracy or rudimentary games (when you’ve played console/handheld games, what can a dvd really offer?). If I rip the DVD to a file and put it on the playstation, they can access the movie straight away and not suffer the other stuff. The disc then gathers dust on a shelf somewhere.

    So this is my roundabout way of saying that I agree with your initial point – the value is the core content; EVERYTHING else should be optional. When I put the disc in, let the movie start; otherwise I won’t buy it any more. Blu-Ray is in its infancy but seems quite flawed (especially with the insane waiting times). Physical media may well have had its day.

  6. With always-online home entertainment and digital distribution to cinemas, it’s only a matter of time before Star Wars is released as a continually up-dateable film. You’ll get home to find an “install updates” message on each film, as Lucas makes incremental adjustments every few days.

    (I started writing that as a joke, but reading it back it actually sounds like a pretty accurate prediction.)

  7. As a film lover and self-proclaimed semi-buff I can personally vouch for the notion that the extras aren’t really the draw. I very rarely partake, or I start to and duck out pretty quickly. Generally—and this goes for just about every film I watch, good or bad—I’ll watch the film, then grab my laptop or iPad to do a bit of reading and research on the film. More often than not this makes me appreciate what I’ve just experienced on a different level, and sometimes even changes my opinion entirely (which was the case for Harmony Korine’s Gummo and Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon).

    Khoi – Out of curiosity, I’d love to see a list of the movies you cherish the most.

  8. To assess the power of Director’s commentaries, I recommend to watch the movie 3-Iron from Kim Ki-duc with the commentaries track (however you must watch the movie without the commentaries first ;-)). It is a very insightful and delightful experience.

  9. @Fazal: Honestly, I think the failure of Superbit demonstrates the opposite of the point Khoi’s trying to make here. Granted, you could argue that Sony killed it for the ‘forcing extra content’ reasons mentioned here; but if it had sold well, I doubt they would have, and from what I saw in stores it did not sell well.

    When presented the choice of a ‘standard’ edition with all the extras, and the Superbit edition which dropped the extras to focus on picture quality, people picked the version with the extras.

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