Matt Singer’s piece at ScreenCrush about The Director and The Jedi, the making-of documentary included on the Blu-ray release of The Last Jedi is spot-on in a number of ways, including how quality behind-the-scenes features never really had a chance to come into their own. He also identifies how streaming and VOD services haven’t made bonus features a priority, though iTunes has offered Extras, which include similar material, for a while now.
Where I don’t think Singer quite completes his thought is that he doesn’t see how the tactic hasn’t been abandoned, it’s just been adapted to meet changing consumer habits and preferences.
The Director and The Jedi has received a lot of praise. It was even screened on its own at SXSW recently, which added to its reputation as a quality piece of filmmaking that combines the best of documentary and “reality” filmmaking and storytelling into something truly compelling. The reaction to the film reminded me of when, in 2001, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace was finally released on DVD. That two-disc set contained an hour-long documentary that went behind-the-scenes of the making of that movie called The Beginning.
When people saw it they loved it, talking about the insights it offered into George Lucas’ filmmaking style, the scene of Steven Spielberg being shown a Battle Droid for the first time, how the other kids who auditioned for the role of Anakin Skywalker seemed to be outstanding and more. It went beyond the 12-minute talking-head interviews that had been on DVDs to date and which would continue on for years as a standard feature.
If you don’t have a copy of Phantom Menace on DVD (I’m not sure if it’s been included on subsequent releases) you can view the whole thing on the Star Wars YouTube channel.
And that’s my point, that it’s not so much lack of consumer interest that’s behind the disappearance of quality supplemental material from home video releases as it is that the role of this material changed.
Putting all those featurettes and other material on the physical disc(s) was great if you were a super-fan of that movie for whatever reason and wanted to dive deeper into its making on any of a variety of angles. With very few exceptions, though, the rewatch value of that material was pretty limited. Once you’ve watched Vin Diesel talk about how much he enjoyed making XxX, revisiting it time and time again probably wasn’t something you were itching to do, especially since you’d already been convinced to buy the movie on home video.
But what if you flipped it and made that kind of material part of the theatrical marketing? That’s what countless movies have done. Recently Tomb Raider’s release was preceded by a number of YouTube-hosted videos featuring star Alicia Vikander and others talking about the stunts in the movie and more. Warner Bros. released a handful of interviews with the men who starred in The 15:17 To Paris where they talked about living through the real events depicted in the movie.
I’ve even seen a few cases where blooper reels were released online a week before the movie hit theaters. And let’s not forget that the “Lex Luthor creates Steppenwolf” scene from Batman v Superman was released online just days after that movie’s debut when something like that absolutely should have been saved for home video.
The idea seems to be all of this can do more as part of the content marketing aspect of a film’s campaign – the slow, steady release of new material to provide fodder for media and fans to discuss and analyze – than it can after-the-fact. It can be used to get people talking, encourage debate and more to boost box-office.
Additionally, distributing it on YouTube in particular means that material is available on-demand. If someone wants to rewatch it a year from now they can, and they don’t have to have the appropriate disc with them when the urge strikes. Mobile video is huge and only going to get bigger, so it makes sense to put content where it’s most likely to be viewed and have the most substantial impact on the audience.
Looking beyond whether this content is tied to physical media, what studios seem to have realized is that the content doesn’t need to be tied to purchased media. They’re of more value floating out there in the ether (sometimes monetized by pre-roll ads) than they are as incentives for someone to buy a disc they were already pretty likely to anyway.
Instances of material that’s as substantive and high-quality as The Beginning or The Director and The Jedi are few and far between, but that’s always been the case. The same mediocre content that used to be part of home video strategies is still the rule, it’s just happening earlier in the cycle than it traditionally has.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.