"Special" Features

May 03, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

Is there anyone who buys DVDs for the Special Features? I have often wondered that. Obviously, if there's a choice between a super-duper Special Deluxe Collector's Edition at $19.95 and a plain-vanilla version at $19.95, it's a no-brainer. I may never watch the Special Features, but at least I have them just in case. But consider this situation: the Special Edition is $5 more. As far as the movie is concerned, it's the same transfer, the same video & sound, etc. It's just that one edition has a second disc with lots of supplements. Would I pay the extra $5? It would depend on how much I like the movie, I suppose, but in most cases, I would go for the cheaper option. That's because, with rare exceptions, most of the Special Features aren't worth their weight in bits. And the bottom line is that I buy a DVD for the movie.

Now consider this third case. The real-life example for this is Spider-Man 2. The Superbit movie-only version is actually a little more expensive than the two-disc Special Edition. (Or it was when they first came out and the latter was heavily discounted.) That didn't stop me from buying the Superbit edition. When it comes to movies, I want the best audio and video I can get, and if that means losing a ton of Special Features, so be it.

Some discs have two-hour, made-for-the-DVD documentaries, and those are usually worth the Special Edition purchase price. Typically, a lot of research and effort goes into those productions. Unfortunately, not many DVDs include these. I can do without the outtakes, blooper reels, deleted scenes, and other assorted "features" that pop up. And spare me anything that resembles a game.

Some might shrug, brushing the Special Features consideration aside as if it didn't matter one way or another. But there's a fault in that logic. Special Features take up disc space, and that means that to fit them on, the movie has to be further compressed. Compression means a reduction in audio quality, video quality, or both. So, in order to have a bunch of silly games and a publicity featurette, you're giving up movie quality (unless a second disc is provided). And that's a problem, especially if you have spent tens of thousands of dollars on a superior AV system.

For a clear idea of how much extreme compression can hurt a film, compare almost any scene from the two-disc version of one of the Lord of the Rings movies to the same scene in the four-disc version (where a lot more bandwidth is given to the movie). You'll see what I mean. My point: unless supplemental material is truly "special," we're better off without it.

And while I'm at it, here's another DVD gripe: a ton of opening garbage that can't be fast-forwarded through to get to the movie. And I'm not even talking about the "previews" that some discs now include. There's the studio logo, followed by an FBI warning, then an Interpol warning, then a notice that the opinions expressed in the supplemental material don't represent the views of the studio, then an animated menu that takes forever to load. In the grand scheme of things, waiting two minutes for a movie to start isn't a big issue, but it's damn annoying. If I pay $20 for a DVD, shouldn't it go to the main menu as soon as it's put in the machine? Then again, if I go to a theater, I pay $10 to sit through 10 minutes of commercials and another 10 minutes of previews (which are just commercials for other movies), so maybe the DVD thing isn't that bad after all.