DVD has changed cinema, forever.
Okay, it hasn’t changed how films look and sound, but it has changed the way that we view them. A little over 10 years ago when you wanted to watch a movie, you had to watch it on the big screen at a movie theatre. Sure, we had VHS (remember VHS?), but the big screen was the way to see a movie. The picture was first rate, you saw it in the correct aspect ratio and the experience was mind-blowing. With DVD you can get all this at home, for a fraction of the price considering how inexpensive DVDs have become and the cost of multiple tickets, concessions and gas for the trip to the theatre.
Now major studios are making direct to DVD features that not only have high production values – but also top tier talent. When your favourite franchise has run its course on the big screen you can check out a new instalment from your favourite chair at home.
So how did it all change?
What DVD has also managed to do is present to the viewer films that they would never normally watch. Suddenly you didn’t have to seek out an art house cinema to watch a foreign film or independent feature. I recently saw a selection of Cuban films that I’d never have seen if it wasn’t for the vast selection of foreign titles that are available on disc.
When VHS was dominant the expression “direct to video” was like a dirty phrase, something that was to be ignored. You rented (or bought) these films at your own risk, taking the chance that the film would star a Z-list actor and feature a terrible script. This is no longer always the case – films that premiere on DVD can at times be better than some that appear on the big screen. While they might not have huge budgets for special effects they will often have something much more important: good scripts, interesting stories and decent acting. In recent years I have seen films such as Blind Horizon (2003), Bone Dry (2007) and The Backwoods (2008) that have entertained me despite bypassing my local cinema and going straight to my local DVD retailer.
The release window between when a film opens at a movie theatre and when it arrives on DVD has also been reduced, so seeing a film on the big screen is merely a preview for the DVD. At times the movie’s cinema release poster is still on billboards and buses by the time you can buy it! Even former big screen stars such as Steven Seagal, Jean Claude Van Damme and Wesley Snipes can still earn a healthy living by churning out action movies that make a killing on DVD. At times these actors can be paid several million dollars a salary comparative to that of their big screen colleagues.
When DVD broke through you could suddenly watch a movie with excellent picture and sound quality in your own home – and not only that but if you so wanted, you could watch scenes that were cut from the movie and listen to the director talk you through the film. In your own living room! The film buff experience was available to all, DVDs were sold on their special features and discs were often re-released with more features and extra footage. The DVD was a cash cow that was forever growing. If a movie was a modest hit in cinemas, but a huge seller on DVD a sequel could be green-lit due to this success.
There have always been movies that never made release not because they were of bad quality but because too many films are produced and there is limited cinema space. I know that’s hard to believe in this multiplex day and age, but it is true. DVD studios and independent companies are able to cut out the middle man and release these lower budget niche films without having to pay for prints and advertising and most importantly of all – split the gross with the cinema chains.
Studios are often releasing films on a limited amount of screens just to fulfil contractual obligations and then releasing the film on DVD to turn a profit. This release plan is what Warner Brothers intends to do with Guy Ritchie’s forthcoming RocknRolla. The western Seraphim Falls is another film that had a similar fate. Starring the A-list talent of Pierce Brosnan and Liam Neeson the film was released on only 52 screens and ended up grossing a mere four hundred thousand dollars before hitting the DVD shelves despite it being a highly entertaining addition to the genre.
Now studios have set up their own production arms that deal solely with DVD films. These films are often follow-ups to big screen releases and they can use lower production values and brand name recognition to turn a healthy profit. The recently formed Paramount Famous Productions is set to make at least five or six of these films a year. This home entertainment branch of Paramount recently announced sequels to Road Trip, Bad News Bears, Naked Gun, Mean Girls and even Grease! Meanwhile Warner Brother’s DVD arm will follow up this year’s Lost Boys: The Tribe with a sequel to their 1999 hit Deep Blue Sea, as well as a second House on Haunted Hill sequel. Universal Pictures in recent years have made a killing on straight to disc sequels to the American Pie franchise, while Sony has been ploughing through sequels to films like Starship Troopers, 8MM and Cruel Intentions movies for years.
While these movies may not have the quality of the originals, there appears to be a market for the product, so you can expect more films like these to be made in the future no matter what the quality is like.
While we will never stop going to the movie theatre, we now have the opportunity to have more cinematic experiences at home. 3D and digital technology will carry the medium through to the end of this century, but we can now build our own film libraries at home and enjoy movies from all over the world with very little expense.
Soon we will be downloading films and special features onto our home computers with greater frequency – but the cinematic group experience will never die out. The DVD is also a major educating tool in the art of film. Aspiring filmmakers can use the added features to learn how to craft a film – from the filmmakers themselves. Director Robert Rodriguez always includes a “ten minute film school” on all his DVDs which are educational and entertaining.
Much like the introduction of television in the 1950s, the film studios will have to adapt – but one thing is for certain: our love of film as an art form will continue to live on. However, you may be watching it on a high definition television in the comfort of your own home instead of in a movie theatre with sticky floors, crying children and rude people talking during the film.
This article first appeared on Screen Rant in 2008.