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As movie fans know, but what some in the movie industry don’t seem to realize, a DVD is more than just a film on a sparkly portable disc. DVD extras have the potential to turn a good film into a great film experience, promoting fan engagement, adding value entertainment, and even providing budding filmmaker education.

Bill Cunningham is in the business of creating DVD Premieres — movies that go directly to DVD without a theatrical release — and he recently shared some behind-the-scenes insight into those behind-the-scenes DVD extras.

“I hate the term ‘extras.’ To me, they are essentials,” said Cunningham. “After all, you are selling the DVD experience. To paraphrase HBO, ‘It’s not film, it’s DVD.’ That means that people expect commentaries and interviews and behind-the-scenes features that bring them into the world of the film. Audiences expect to have further insight into the world of the film and into the filmmaking process.”

The writer and DVD producer blogs about the industry on DISContent, and he’ll also be a panelist at this weekend’s Scriptwriters Showcase in a Sunday session called “DVD Extras: Wave of the NOW.”

“We will be discussing the creation of DVD extras and how they are written – either before or after the fact,” said Cunningham. “Hopefully we’ll get to go into writing for the DVD Premiere market – opportunities there for new writers to break in.”

The session is designed for “people who want to break into the business and learn about DVD – what it is, how it’s different than theatrical releases and what that means to the industry, and how to write for DVD Premieres,” he continued.

Cunningham has the same frustrations as the rest of us fans: DVD extras put together with little imagination or preparation, commentary with overlapping discussion or long pauses, and – that worst of all sins – bare bones releases followed by a special edition that tempts us to fork over our money twice for the same disc.

“I wish that the studios would release a quality edition the first go-round,” he said. “If they make money — if people still buy them — then who am I to argue? I do wish they would include a discount coupon on the purchase of the expanded DVD when it comes out. Oh well.”

The amount of extras effort put into a DVD is based on the sales predicted by marketing executives, who decide on a budget. “It’s also what they can negotiate with the actors in terms of promotion for the film,” said Cunningham. While the film is being shot, a DVD producer is hired to capture interviews and featurette material.

“For classic releases and the indie DVD labels it’s a bit different, as in many cases you’re doing specialty items far after the fact,” Cunningham explained. “This means a different kind of budgeting and finagling to see who’s still available to be interviewed or to do commentary, and how much they are going to cost to bring them into the studio.”

Money isn’t the only consideration, however. “On the indie side of the house, you have to remember that most discs are DVD5s, so you only have 90 minutes or so for the movie and about 30 minutes for the extras,” said Cunningham.

He most admires DVD producers who “have a historian’s attitude with movies – they want to reveal and preserve the film and the story behind the film.”

He named companies such as Blue Underground, Criterion and Anchor Bay, and “there’s also Tokyo Shock/Media Blasters, who are bringing some really idiosyncratic and eclectic material from Asia here to the west.”

Some DVD extras he admires include the Matrix trilogy, the Alien quadrilogy, King Kong (both the new and classic versions) Lawrence of Arabia, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, The Hills Have Eyes, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

“The Sin City DVD special edition was excellent – all of (Robert) Rodriguez’s extras are excellent,” he commented. “The same can be said of (Steven) Spielberg’s DVD producer, Laurent Bouzereau.”

For TV sets, he said: “All of the 24, MI-5/Spooks, Battlestar Galactica sets have been good. The Shield is really insightful as to their production and creative process. Nip/Tuck is another good set.”

Cunningham thinks of extras as a learning opportunity for new filmmakers, too. “When I was a kid, I used to read Famous Monsters, Fangoria and Starlog magazines,” he recalled. “In those magazines, they always had behind-the-scenes photos and features, and they were a great resource in learning how to put a movie together.”

“I wish more studios got into the teaching the business that way – maybe we would have better films,” he added. “I find that Robert Rodriguez’s films have a wealth of info on them, and I wish more producers would think of structuring their extras in the manner that he does.”

You can hear more about creating DVD extras and much more at the Scriptwriters Showcase, an industry conference with panels featuring screenwriters, agents, managers, producers, and development executives in film, television, and interactive media, presented by Final Draft and scr(i)pt magazine. For more information, visit their website.

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