Shaking Our Fists at the Sun

By Walid Habboub

April 17, 2002

I do not need this, I've got a master's degree in folklore mythology.

DVDs are the greatest con in history; either that or they are the greatest piece of marketing since the McNuggets were unleashed on an unsuspecting public. A feat even greater than major-league baseball convincing the world that Mark McGwire was one of the good guys. Maybe I'm bitter because I am one of the victims of the phenomenon; after all, a sucker who knows he's being duped is twice the dunce the unaware sucker is. Yet with superior technology just around the corner, I am still buying DVD movies at a rate I would have found ludicrous just three years ago.

Don't get me wrong; DVDs are everything they're cracked up to be, especially if you can afford the small fortune that is the home-entertainment system needed to fully take advantage of the DVD "experience" (Actually, there's one of my main beefs. It used to be that when you watched a movie, you watched a movie. Now, it's an "experience". Please tell me what separates one from the other). But even with all the luxuries of DVDs, there's still really no explanation for why more and more people are willing to buy movies as opposed to...well, not buying them.

I've always loved movies, but rarely did I actually feel the need to buy a film on VHS. Only the most elite films made it into my bought collection (The Usual Suspects, The Godfather Series, Goodfellas, Bound, etc.), so why do I, and much of North America, now buy DVD movies by the shopping cart? It certainly isn't the sound; my entertainment center basically consists of a Costco-bought TV made by a little-known company called Sansui which very well could have made the awesome leap from the production of wooden plows to television manufacturing faster than the leap from discovery of fire to cooking. So no, it's definitely not that. Consequently, it certainly isn't the better sound. (I've recently contemplated hooking up my Hitachi DVD player to my clock radio speaker for better sound, but I digress). Yeah, I'm a movie buff, but free to $18.99 is a big jump.

It's as simple as this: The gradual injection of the DVD into pop culture is an absolute work of maniacal genius. In the last five years, we have gone from renting films at Blockbuster to buying them from Best Buy at four times the price. Even Blockbuster is on the bandwagon now, as DVDs have become a staple of their product line. So we're spending more on movies at home, much like we're spending more at the cinema, and perhaps that's why we are willing to pay the money to actually own a DVD player. With a night out at the movies costing in the range of $30 for two people, a $20 DVD doesn't sound too bad, does it? Either way, the studios are increasing consumer demand, and therefore revenue (which incidentally is great for us, because a Planet of the Apes re-imagining was a FANTASTIC idea) by increasing their prices across the board. What a great concept. How do we get people to buy more? By raising prices! Excellent. Bill Gates would be so proud. So would Satan. And Mr. Burns.

At the same time, DVD player sales are on a steady rise because the price point on the players is really not that much higher than what the price point of VCRs was three years ago. The players are quickly becoming the commodity here, the needle with which the smack is injected. With the cost of DVD manufacturing being so low, and therefore the profit margin so high, the players are quickly becoming more affordable, and that only helps the sale of the high-margin smack...I mean, discs. Yes, it is hard to believe that Sony, the same company that sells you DVD players, will also try to get you to buy three different versions of the Spider-Man DVD. So while we cannot fault the studios for trying to make as much money as possible, we can point out that lowering the costs of the players and increasing profits from high-profile discs is encouraging studios to spit out discs such as the classics Basket Case, Bride of Re-Animator and Reform School Girls.

Now that the con is on, how are we justifying to ourselves the expenditure of such grossly-increased prices? Well, we do get the lovely features that have become staples of so many DVDs. Everything from actors biographies (including shoe size and preferred diaper brand used for kinky sex) to three different angles of behind-the-scenes footage of the shooting of a deleted scene, with or without commentary track (David Fincher, I'm looking in your direction here). These features will usually extend the total viewing time of the "experience" from maybe two hours to six or seven, and that's only as a best-case scenario. The truth of the matter is, most movies do not deserve a feature-loaded DVD. As brilliant as Tim Burton can be, I would hazard to guess that maybe 8.3% of the people buying the Planet of the Apes DVD will bother listening to his commentary on the disc (mostly because that would mean you'd have to sit through the film a second time, God forbid). On the other end of the spectrum, will someone please explain to me why the Idle Hands DVD includes an alternate ending (how about an alternate movie?), storyboard comparison AND a commentary track? Who was it that decreed that the masses were asking for this? Were they looking to capitalize on the 12 hardcore fans of the film, only eight of whom have actually seen it? It seems to me that these bonus features are less a selling point and more a waste of space.

Of course, this rage-against-the-machine comes from the guy who was absolutely mesmerized by the latest special edition of The Usual Suspects DVD and all its wonderfully glorious additions. I recognize that in many instances the commentary is a wonderful feature and so are all the little bonuses, but it is reaching overkill status at this point. Case in point: Don't Say a Word was a tolerable film with a single exceptional performance at its center. The DVD, on the other hand, is an overpopulated mess of quickly sewn-together features only one of which is truly worth the price of admission. A truly compelling screen test by Brittany Murphy is really lost in the mess that is the extra features on a DVD of a very ordinary movie (Think Vladimir Guerrero playing for the 2000 Expos or Billy Crystal hosting the Oscars). And because it is too much, it really is difficult to come to the conclusion that people buy these movies for the special features.

So the answer here seems to be perceived value, and ironically, it is of our own doing and not the studios'. You see, I blame movie uber-geeks; chances are, if you've ever been on the Net, you've met one. Imagine Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons crossed with Roger Ebert....and now that I've made you vomit at the idea of those two actually mating (believe me, I'm pretty sure I made Ebert vomit as well), you can take the true love of film and cinema that Ebert has and cross it with the maniacal fanaticism of CBG and you have DVD Dude, a Harry Knowles sans the true love of film and cinema and the Mensa IQ. An uber-geek, most likely a nerd, that is so high on gadgets and technology that he requires that all his entertainment must take full advantage of said technology (I believe the first ever sighting of DVD Dude was in the guise of the neighbor on Malcolm in the Middle, the best TV show I never watch). In his world, the making of movies is supposedly just as important as the movie itself. Perhaps the idea of not knowing what others do know is just too terrifying a concept to live with, or maybe it's just technology's continued destruction of the magic of film; either way, these were the people who formed the groundswell of support for DVDs and helped create the demand for them. In an age of consumer-demand apathy, the big shots allowed these people to create their market for them and then responded accordingly.

The bottom line is, so much has gone into making DVDs something more than what they are that the public has completely eaten it up. And regardless of the fact that most of America couldn't care less what Director X thought of movie Y - hell, most of the time the director doesn't even care about the movie - DVDs are still marketed as being a cut above going to the movies. It's all an effort at maintaining the aura and grandeur of DVD. The greatest selling point is the illusion of the "experience", which as far as I can tell includes the advantages of pausing for bathroom breaks without the danger of ruining a tape and an instant fast-forward to certain scenes (I call it The Pulp Fiction Feature). And let's face it; we're all caught hook, line and sinker

Fact is, movies do not look better when digitized. For every mark on a film, there is a constantly grainy picture on a TV screen. And believe me, if you can see one, you can see the other. And ironically, the cost of going to the theaters is not really a valid argument as to why we buy DVDs, because most DVDs we buy - in my case, anyway - are of movies that we have already seen. So maybe it is the fact that we are just more willing to spend money on movies overall, and that movies truly are going from just something to do to an "experience", but the fact remains that we are now spending on movies amounts we weren't willing to spend five years ago. So maybe we see the future coming and we are embracing it for a change, if only to stay with the times. Or maybe we really do enjoy the value of those extra features and we are willing to spend that extra money. Or maybe it's the fat geek sitting behind a keyboard laughing at us all.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a copy of Basket Case on hold for me at Best Buy that I need to pick up tonight or they'll remove the hold.