We all have that moment when the right fandom property at the right time changes our course, and we go on to dedicate our life to something. The Catalyst to My Fandom is a place for all of us to share those life-altering moments in fandom. For me, the format of DVD changed the way I looked at movies and movie-making.
My parents bought me my first DVD player — a PlayStation 2 — for the Christmas of 2000. I was 13. A few minutes after setting up my PS2, I unwrapped my first DVD: The Matrix. It was the first edition, back when Warner Home Video was still putting DVDs in those odd paper-front cases with the black plastic latch on the right side. The disc inside (and the many other discs to follow) changed my life.
I loved movies as a kid. I don’t know if I loved movies any more than your average nerdy 90s kid. But I watched a hell of a lot of them. And when I wasn’t watching them, I was thinking, reading, and talking about them. I remember frequent visits to the library and Blockbuster Video. Our home VHS collection just couldn’t satisfy my growing appetite for movies.
Some of those tapes were bootlegs, recorded by my father in the late 80s. Those bootlegs were my first introduction to Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark: pop-cultural yardsticks by which we measured friendships. I had a marked curiosity about who made movies and how they made them — an interest my friends didn’t quite share. So while I may not have been movie-obsessed, there was a difference between how I thought about movies and how friends talked about them.
My growing curiosity about the making of movies met DVD at the perfect time. Not only was watching movies on DVD way better than VHS (animated menus, better video quality, 5.1 surround sound, subtitles) but the convenience of the format blew me away. They were way sexier than LaserDiscs and took up less space than VHS cassettes. You never had to rewind, and if you handled them carefully, they never degraded.
They also made me aware of aspect ratio, which is just the tip of the technical minutiae iceberg. I don’t think I ever recognized that screens were wider in the theater than at home. It was just something I never thought about. I knew that movies were different somehow on VHS — nearly every tape I watched featured a disclaimer about how the movie had been “modified from from its original version and formatted to fit your screen.” But I had no clue who was modifying these movies or why until I learned what widescreen was. That’s when I learned, after so many VHS tapes, how much I’d been missing by watching movies in full screen. To this day, I’d rather skip a film than watch it in a wrong aspect ratio.
But the DVD format wasn’t just about convenience or quality. It was about special features. Bonus content. Extras. When DVD was in its infancy, special features often consisted of fluffy, uninformative interviews used to market the film. It wasn’t until DVD hit its stride that we got meaty, warts-and-all features. Think of the Alien Anthology set, the Matrix trilogy set, or the extended editions of The Lord of the Rings. Those sets gave viewers a more accurate and comprehensive view of the filmmaking process. That was the good stuff, the life-changing stuff. Behind-the-scenes documentaries and featurettes started filling the gaps in my brain, gaps bored by years of curiosity. Seeing these bonus features, these deleted scenes and interviews was, in effect, scratching a dormant itch.
By illuminating all the hard work that goes into movie production, special features made movies even more magical for me. Seeing the labor and creativity poured into every movie — especially bad movies — helped me find a calling. Special features were my film education. They fed and fostered my love for cinema, and they played a huge role in why I write about movies today.
In the first eight or so years of the 21st century, DVD was king. I proudly built my collection of multi-disc special editions and director’s cuts and Criterion Collection oddities. But in 2006, DVD was dethroned as the best home video format. Sony introduced Blu-ray and Toshiba launched HD DVD. The HD optical disc format war began, and after two years of consumer confusion, Toshiba conceded, allowing Blu-ray to win the format war.
Blu-ray didn’t find its legs until just a few years ago. Bad discs choked the shelves of retailers everywhere. Many movies on Blu-ray had fewer bonus features than their DVD counterparts. Blu-rays were a glut of stupid web-based “live content”, crappy menus, and long loading times. Despite the increase in video and audio quality, Blu-ray just didn’t have the fluid, snappy convenience of DVD.
Blu-ray has improved with time, but the format still isn’t as convenient as DVD. Based on the jump in AV quality alone, you’d think the advent of Blu-ray dealt a major blow that contributed to the decline of the DVD market. But you’d be wrong. It’s 2016 — the goddamn future — and DVDs still cling to retail shelves. I suspect that’s because they’re cheaper and easier than Blu-ray discs. I also suspect it’s because a lot of folks can’t tell the difference between DVD quality and Blu-ray quality.
But the real blow, the home video revolution that will eventually kill DVD and Blu-ray, was Video on Demand. iTunes. Netflix Instant. Amazon Prime. They’re all so easy to use, and way more affordable than buying or renting discs. You can rent an HD movie from iTunes for five bucks, and you’ll never pay a late fee. Netflix is the king of simplicity. Pay a low monthly fee, and you’ll have a vast library of video content at your fingertips. For a casual, hassle-free home viewing experience, neither DVD nor Blu-ray can beat Netflix.
And as a result, DVD and Blu-ray aren’t just declining in quality — they’re endangered. Therefore, the same goes for special features. Many of today’s new releases on DVD and Blu-ray often come with vapid, pleasant, press-kit-style features. For perspective: The Lord of the Rings features spoke at length about the numerous cast injuries and production setbacks. The Force Awakens Blu-ray doesn’t even mention Harrison Ford breaking his leg on set.
I worry about the future young fans of cinema. If some web-based platform doesn’t take the initiative to support special features and the studios don’t care, the valuable resources once offered by DVD and Blu-ray will vanish. I hope that curious young cinephiles will have the kind of access I had to information about the real magic of filmmaking.
DVD was the catalyst to my fandom. And I hope that in some way, the experience of owning and watching a great DVD will survive, even if the format itself does not.
Fandom is built on a foundation of passionate people with deep and unshakable knowledge spread across the entire pop culture landscape. The only way for that to manifest is timing: the right fan with the right property at the right time. Luminaries of film, music, television, games, and comics have all had that watershed moment where something infected them, and the impulse was too strong to ignore. We have shared some of those moments, and hopefully, you will join us in doing so as well.