Part 2: The Charge of the Whine Brigade

DVD freaks just love to bitch and moan, and bitch some more. I have observed this behavior online in various DVD newsgroups and web sites, and to a lesser extent from firsthand interaction with friends and acquaintances who are into DVD. Among the Internet hotspots for DVD freaks are newsgroups like alt.video.dvd, news and review sites like DVD Review, The Big Picture and The Digital Bits (the best and most reliable DVD site there is), and forum-driven sites like DVD Talk.

And then there is the heart of darkness: the discussion boards of Home Theater Forum, the most obsessively geekified realm in the DVD universe, where I will surely be excommunicated and burned in effigy if they get wind of this heretical tirade.

I have classified the compulsions and complaints of DVD freaks into five main categories: DVD technical specs, DVD extras, DVD releases, DVD buying and DVD packaging. Let's take a look at these different areas of psychosis one by one.

DVD Technical Specs

Sometimes, the frequent and vociferous complaints of DVD freaks are warranted. The thing they worry about the most is, fortunately, a very worthwhile subject to be concerned about: the technical specs and features of a DVD. As I've mentioned, the quality of the digital transfer is fundamental to making a DVD meet its full potential, so it's only right to protest inferior ones and warn other potential buyers about them. And it's fine to demand anamorphic transfers, which are enhanced to provide a higher resolution image of widescreen movies on 16:9 widescreen TVs -- something we'll all be thankful for later when everybody switches over to HDTV.

It's also perfectly reasonable to complain about DVDs that have bad sound, or don't present the film's original aspect ratio, or are in some way patently defective or distorted. Some DVD freaks get carried away with the technical aspects, like obsessively measuring the varying compression bit rates in various discs, and arguing about whether Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround or DTS 5.1 Surround is the superior audio standard.

Myself, I don't get too upset about "digital artifacts" and "edge enhancement," and I've only got a two-speaker stereo. But I like my DVDs to have a good picture and good sound, so I'm not going to begrudge my fellow DVD fans for their discriminating appreciation of audio/visual quality. That's what it's all about.

Now that we've got that big one out of the way, let's proceed further into the psyche of DVD freaks, uncovering the bullshit complaints and irrational demands where madness begins.

DVD Extras

One of the cool things about DVD is that it can give the viewer more than just the movie, in the form of supplemental features. These can include behind-the-scenes documentaries, interviews, commentary tracks, deleted scenes, and other goodies. I enjoy getting extras on DVDs, and the really good ones can make the DVD a more valuable and entertaining total package. But here's what DVD freaks seem to forget when it comes to the extras: they are extras. Supplemental features should be regarded as an added bonus, not as a requisite attribute that makes or breaks a DVD.

The Abyss DVD freaks have acquired a misguided sense of entitlement about extras. Studios are now expected to serve up a heapin' helpin' of supplemental features with every DVD they release, or else the freaks feel cheated. We've been spoiled so rotten by the coolness of supplemental features that their presence has become more important than the movie itself.

I've always been under the impression that the purpose of buying a DVD was to watch a movie. If a DVD contains a movie I like, complete and in its original aspect ratio, with a gorgeous picture and kick-ass sound, then that DVD has done its job. That DVD is everything I want it to be, and I will be proud to own and enjoy it -- even if it has absolutely zero extras. To me, supplemental features are nothing but gravy, and I have never pitched a hissy fit over a DVD that was lacking them. Roughly half of the DVDs in my collection contain no supplements aside from maybe a trailer and subtitles, and I like them all just fine that way. Know why? Because I like the damn movies on 'em, that's why!

Sometimes music CDs contain bonus tracks or CD-ROM multimedia features for your computer, and those added things are cool. But you never hear anyone complain that they bought a CD and it "only" has the album on it. No one gets upset if a book "only" has a novel in it. For some reason, though, it's completely different with DVDs. When a DVD comes out with "only" the movie on it, the DVD freaks immediately denounce it as a "bare-bones" ripoff. And even when a DVD does contain extras, people will almost always complain that they aren't good enough, and there ought to be more. "Only a director's commentary? Where's one by the star?" "Just a 30-minute documentary? It should have been at least an hour long!" Give 'em an inch, and they'll whine for a mile.

As much as DVD freaks claim to respect the director's vision and all that jazz, that compassion for the filmmaker can quickly go out the window if supplemental features are at stake. One time on an online discussion board, a DVD freak fervently argued that Steven Spielberg was obligated to record commentary tracks for all his movies on DVD, because it's his duty to share the inner workings of his genius with his fans and film students everywhere. Other times, DVD freaks have complained about deleted scenes not being edited back into a movie for the DVD release, or bitched about the scenes not being included on the disc at all.

But here's the deal: a director damn well doesn't have to do a thing to enhance a DVD of his work if he doesn't want to. Maybe Steven Spielberg doesn't feel like doing commentaries. That's cool. And maybe those deleted scenes were deleted for a reason, and the director doesn't want anybody seeing them, not even as a DVD feature. Good enough for me. No director, actor, or person otherwise involved in the production of a film "owes" DVD freaks anything. End of story. The studios owe us nothing but quality presentation of their movies on DVD at a fair price. That's it. Extras are nice if you get them, but you've got no reason to piss and moan when you don't. It's about the movie, stupid.

The crowning irony of all the fussing over DVD extras is that practically everybody admits they only play them one time, if they even get around to them at all. How many times do you really want to listen to the director of GoldenEye drone on for two hours, anyway? When I try to think of DVDs with extras that I have intensively watched or listened to on multiple occasions, I can only come up with two: the Criterion editions of Brazil and Monty Python's Life of Brian, which each have extraordinary documentaries and commentary tracks. The simple truth is that DVD supplemental features are more fun just to possess than they are to enjoy. Hours of crap you'll watch once or never work your way through might make your DVD purchase seem more substantial and important, but do the extras really make it that much better? Or do they just make you feel better about yourself?

DVD Releases

There are two distinct areas of concern when it comes to DVD releases: recent theatrical movies making their debut on home video, and older movies (or "catalogue titles") that have generally been out on VHS for a long time but haven't made it to DVD yet. Both of these release types are united by a common sentiment in the minds of DVD freaks: we want the world and we want it now.

DVD geeks are a notoriously impatient lot. This has been the case ever since I first got into DVDs, although the DVD industry has radically changed in that short span of time. In 1998, there were major studios and directors with no intention of ever releasing anything on DVD, and the pay-per-view threat of Divx was looming like the sword of Damocles over us all. But today, we live in a world in which every halfway-successful movie known to western civilization (and plenty more besides) will without a doubt be released on DVD, sooner or later. You might think this new certainty would generate a degree of patience and contentment among the DVD freaks, but it sadly has not. Like a bunch of brats who can't bear waiting for Christmas to come, we cry and pout and beg to open all our presents right this minute.

One big problem we have is VHS envy. VHS is such an abominable and hideous video format that it galls us to no end for a movie to be available on "Very Highly Shitty" but not on DVD. We realize that the old catalogue titles can only make their way to DVD a few at a time (as much as we would wish it otherwise), and so we focus our hopes on having all the latest box-office sensations come out on VHS and DVD at the same time. A DVD release that coincides with the VHS release of the same movie is known by the goofy and redundant industry term of "day-and-date." (I guess "same-day" or "simultaneous" would be too straightforward.) Needless to say, every DVD freak demands a day-and-date release for every hot new movie that hits home video, and they raise holy hell when the VHS version hits the stores first -- even when the DVD is already scheduled to follow right behind.

Paradoxically enough, DVD freaks won't even accept it when a DVD's delayed release is necessary for the preparation of bucketloads of cool supplemental features. DVD freaks complain about a "bare-bones" day-and-date release, and they complain about an extras-packed DVD if it comes out after the VHS. And when the studios initially release a movie-only DVD and follow it up with a special edition later on, the DVD freaks really hate that, you better believe it.

The Titanic DVD came about about a year after the VHS release, and it contained absolutely zero extras. Most DVD freaks viewed this as a crime against humanity. There were those of us like myself who liked the movie and were happy to be able to own it in glorious DVD quality, but it seemed that the majority of us were thoroughly disgusted. I remember people posting in web forums that they would have bought a bare-bones Titanic DVD immediately if it had come out at the same time as the VHS, but now that Titanic fever had faded out, they wouldn't dare touch it.

Think about that. Either you like a movie or you don't. If you liked it twelve months ago, odds are you're gonna still like it today. It's still the same movie, whether it's bundled up with groovy extra features or not. And on the other hand, if you're choosing to buy a DVD just because it's the hot and trendy new day-and-date release of the week, even though it's a movie you saw and didn't really care for, then there is something wrong with you.

Now let's talk about older movies being released on DVD, or not, as the case may be. Of late, there has been an unprecedented number of former long-time holdouts finally coming out on DVD, but there still remains the elusive handful of coveted cinematic classics that are nowhere in sight. The Godfather trilogy, the Indiana Jones trilogy, several of the big Spielberg movies, and countless more old favorites, great and small. It infuriates DVD freaks that all these titles are being withheld from our favorite format, whatever the reasons may be. And undoubtedly, the most persistent source of anger and agony in all of DVD land is this question: where are the Star Wars movies?

George Lucas The absence of George Lucas's masterpieces on DVD is a singular and mysterious circumstance, and can by no means be taken as a typical example of the anxious craving for unreleased catalogue titles, but it's a very interesting and revealing case. In the early days, there were no Star Wars DVDs because 20th Century Fox didn't do DVDs. Then it was rumored that the Star Wars movies would be available exclusively on Divx. After both those roadblocks fell by the wayside, it became evident that Lucas himself was the hold-up.

Once the issue became too pressing for him to remain silent, Lucas announced his commitment to releasing the Star Wars movies on DVD... eventually. His intention, he said, was to take full advantage of the format's opportunities and create ultimate special editions of the films that would set a new standard for DVD. But he wanted to supervise their production himself, and his busy schedule with the prequel trilogy would prevent that from happening anytime soon.

"Luca$" thus became Public Enemy #1 among the indignant DVD freaks (with "$pielberg" holding down the #2 spot), charged with being greedy, hypocritical, backwards-minded, resentful toward his fans, and spawned by Satan. Sour grapes have taken hold for many DVD freaks, who claim they could no longer enjoy the Star Wars movies because Lucas won't release them on DVD, and they now hate Lucas personally. Other elitist Lucas-bashers have insisted that the Star Wars movies should be released on DVD immediately, even though they are crap, just because the lack of Star Wars is damaging to the success of the DVD format. In their eyes, Lucas is doing a grave disservice not only to Star Wars fans but to movie-lovers everywhere.

I don't know why Lucas won't go ahead and put the Star Wars saga out on DVD. I sure wish he would, but he hasn't. And that doesn't change my opinion of him or his movies one whit. I damn sure don't think he's greedy because of it, as so many people seem quick to conclude. If he was really greedy, he would have already put out bare-bones Star Wars DVD at forty bucks per movie, and then milk the fans a few years later with his ultimate editions packed with extras, which all of us would willingly buy, again and again.

My theory is that Lucas is a giant DVD freak himself. The man loves movies, and he loves cutting-edge technology, so of course he loves DVD. I think it's a matter of personal pride that he will not allow plain old basic DVD releases of his great works that set the modern standard for technical excellence, and he genuinely wants to make them the most bad-ass, pulse-pounding DVDs of all time. If we take Lucas at his word, there's nothing sinister or underhanded about his motives at all. It may well be that DVD freaks hate Lucas only because he is one of them.

DVD Buying

Once a long-coveted DVD is finally released, the next problem is figuring where you're going to buy it and how much it's going to cost. DVDs have come of age during the same time frame as online shopping, and it's only natural that DVD freaks would choose high-tech e-commerce as their favorite way to buy their high-tech digital goodies.

When I first got into DVD, I discovered that online stores sold DVDs for lower prices than local retailers, but once you added in shipping charges, the costs were about the same. So I just bought my discs at the brick and mortar Best Buy, and ordered online only to get obscure titles I couldn't find elsewhere. But then an earth-shattering new development came along: online coupons. These were special offers from the online stores that let you get big discounts on your DVD orders, usually about $10 or $15 off at a time. This shifted the economic picture dramatically, and I began buying all my DVDs from e-merchants like Reel.com and 800.com.

DVD Coupon The DVD coupon phenomenon was too good to be true, and there was no way it could last. The stores issuing coupons were losing money hand over fist, hoping only to build name recognition and customer loyalty, and DVD bargain hunters (like me) took advantage of the situation. Entire web sites were devoted to sharing the coupon codes far beyond the controlled distribution the stores had intended. Inevitably, the abundant flow of DVD coupons finally got sucked dry. Coupon king Reel.com went out of business. These days, there are only a handful of very restricted coupons being offered by stores like Buy.com. Of course, the DVD freaks felt infuriated and cheated by the disappearance of the coupon gravy train.

The lasting legacy of the coupon era is the DVD freaks' bloodthirsty urge to seek out the lowest possible price on a given DVD, and ridicule anybody who paid even a few cents more somewhere else. There's nothing wrong with bargain hunting, mind you, but this got out of hand. In the coupon days, DVD freaks made a competition out of combining various coupons and discounts, and they'd boast about getting Starship Troopers for $3.29 shipped, or whatever. Although we generally can't get prices quite so low anymore, the fanatical comparison shopping continues. The finest representation of this obsession is the wonderfully geeky but useful site DVD Price Search, with a massive database that can instantly tell you how all the online stores' prices stack up for any given DVD on the market, and show you where the best bargain is.

Aside from price, the other critical buying objective for DVD freaks is getting that new disc on the very day it's released, and no later. Most of us pre-order our DVDs months ahead of their street dates, and we count down the days until that magical Tuesday when they go on sale. The better online stores ship out pre-orders a couple of days ahead of the street date, so that we'll receive them on about the same day they're in brick and mortar stores. I really don't care about my shipments hitting the street date, as long as I get my DVD within a week or so. But DVD freaks will throw a temper tantrum if they have to wait till Wednesday or later to get what Johnny next door got on Tuesday. And the saddest thing is this: many DVD freaks confess to have such a backlog of unopened discs that they often don't get around to watching their new purchases for weeks or months -- and nevertheless they have to own them the day they come out.

If you have to get your DVDs on the street date, buy them in person at Best Buy or Costco. If you have to get your DVDs at the lowest bargain price available, order them online. Pick one and shut the fuck up.

Oh, and there's one last thing on this topic that all DVD geeks and freaks are universally agreed upon: nobody who knows the first thing about DVDs ever buys discs at Suncoast Video, home of the full manufacturer's list price. Stay away or risk being branded a DVD moron.

DVD Packaging

That's right, DVD packaging. This is the silliest and most unbelievable of all the many things DVD freaks love to bitch about: the boxes the damn things come in. Truly, there is nothing these folks won't complain about.

In the beginning, there was no standardization in DVD packaging. Some of the first releases came in a CD-size jewel case, logically enough, but the larger rectangular cases soon became the norm. Two different styles of these cases are most widely used: the keepcase and the snapper case. The more popular keepcase is a sturdy plastic box (usually black) with the outer packaging artwork held behind a clear plastic layer. The snapper case is made out of printed cardboard folded up and fastened to a plastic backing that holds the disc and snaps closed over the front cover.

This may seem like an irrelevant distinction, but 99 percent of DVD freaks love keepcases and despise snappers with a nigh-religious passion. This is primarily because the cardboard cases are considered less durable, and also because their extra quarter inch of width causes them to jut out from the keepcases when displayed together on a shelf. This can be very upsetting to a DVD freak's delicate sense of balance and order. Today all the major studios use keepcases with one exception: Warner Brothers, the indefatigatable champion of the snapper case. This factor keeps Warner placed highly on the shit list of DVD freaks, some of whom will even go so far as to refuse to buy Warner DVDs because they don't like snapper cases. No, seriously. I'm not making this up.

But it doesn't end there. You might think any old keepcase would be enough to satisfy a DVD freak's packaging demands, but as it turns out, not all keepcases are created equal. There are Amaray keepcases and Alpha keepcases, each of which have their supporters and detractors. It's easier to remove a disc from the S-shaped hub of an Amaray, but the Alpha hub holds a disc more securely when the case is in transit, so the two factions argue about which is... God, it depresses me that I even know this stuff.

The Sopranos Hang on, there's more. Recent times have brought a boom in two-disc sets, three-disc sets, and DVD box sets of various configurations. These sets generally mean a wealth of deluxe extras, which is great news for the DVD freaks, but the sets also mean a chaotic array of weird and unpredictable packaging types. Fox has begun releasing many of their big new releases as two-disc special editions, but tragically for the DVD freaks, these sets come in an elaborate cardboard-based package. Cardboard is like DVD freak Kryptonite. Some people have complained about the special glossy cardboard used for sets like Toy Story: The Ultimate Toy Box because it shows fingerprints too easily. Just about every DVD box set that's been released has been condemned as too big, too small, too wide, too short, too flimsy, too stiff, too hot, too cold, or too different to look nice and pretty when it's sitting on your shelf. Lord help us all.

Now look: if there's a DVD I want, I really don't give a rat's ass whether it comes in a velvet-lined 24-karat gold sarcophagus or stuck in a zip-lock sandwich bag that smells like bologna. Just give me the DVD, and I'll be happy. Still, I must in all fairness disclose that I too have succumbed to anal-retentive discontent with certain DVD packaging, and I have taken geeky measures to satisfy such impulses.

I have bought empty keepcases at Suncoast to replace some sucky ones with hubs that nearly made me break my discs in half to remove them. I have also used a color copier to create my own keepcase inserts for two DVDs that came in snappers, The Meaning of Life and Reservoir Dogs, just because those are two of my favorite movies and I thought they would look cooler in keepcases. (And they do.) I will freely admit these are the deeds of a true geek, and maybe even a DVD freak. But I'm not ashamed of myself, for one simple reason. I was unhappy with the packaging I got, but I didn't just whine and pointlessly demand for a giant corporation to fix the problem for me -- I rolled up my shirt sleeves and did something about it myself. Put up or shut up, by golly.

I can't do anything about a bad digital transfer, but I can damn well make myself a keepcase if I want one bad enough, or wear cotton gloves when I'm handling my DVD collection if I'm worried about fingerprints, or what have you. DVD freaks just need to grow up. If unsuitable DVD packaging is any kind of obstacle to happiness for you, it's time to reevaluate your priorities in life.

Part 3: United We Stand, DVD'ed We Fall
In conclusion, a call for peace and reconciliation in the DVD community.

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