The Extended DVD Phenomenon


Strem writes in his comments to my Return of the King review:

A close friend of mine, a good fan of Tolkien and a person who loved FOTR (extended), found TTT lackluster and ROTK such a sharp deviation from the original book and so rife with Hollywood plot and dialogue cliches that I’ve decided to take a pass on this one. Hollywood and its latest stooge don’t need any more of my money… …should we now expect the film industry to release the “real” version of all films on extended DVDs? Why not in the theatres? Can’t they edit? Not a good precedent: expensive for consumers and a cop-out for artists.

Well, I don’t know. Erin and I went with my parents to the movie yesterday, the second time I’d seen it, and it stands up very well. My mother is about as strong a Tolkien purist as one can find (and Erin, who can speak a little bit of Elvish, is no slouch herself) still felt this to be both an excellent movie and one which stayed mostly true to the spirit of Tolkien. I certainly didn’t see any plot cliches, and only one dialogue cliche. I guess one should just go see the movie and make their own decision. In my opinion, Return of the King is the best movie of the year.

Besides, it’s not like I paid $13.50 to attend. Both times, Erin and I went to Fairway Cinemas, which runs first-run movies for just $6.42, including tax. And, let me tell you, you feel a lot better about going out to the movies and eating overpriced popcorn when you pay this reasonable ticket price to get in.

But the question about the DVDs is an interesting one. It’s becoming highly fashionable to stuff DVDs with extras, these days. Indeed, it’s rare that a DVD features only a movie and little else. Recently, I purchased the Two Towers Extended DVD release, which not only had four hours worth of documentaries on how the movie was made, but a re-cut film with 43 minutes of additional material added to the original 3 hour film. At around the same time, the Alien “Quadrilogy” (it’s Quartet, idiots! Quartet!!) set materialized, featuring the four Alien films features nine DVDs. Pearl Harbour isn’t available as a plain DVD but as a “commemorative set”. You buy more than a movie when you buy a DVD.

It’s easy to see why DVDs get packed with extra material: it’s a convenient way to raise the price. In most cases, there are few extra costs associated with including this material; it’s already been shot, after all, and you’re able to get away with charging $20 or more for your DVD. The “plain vanilla” DVD of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (quite possibly my favourite movie of all time) typically sells for roughly $12-15. By rights, I should be paying $15 for my copy of Finding Nemo, not $26, but there’s a second disk full of extras! Woohoo!

But is this extra material really needed? In most cases, I only ever watch the movie. And as the choice of buying just the movie isn’t usually offered, is it fair for consumers to swallow the price on documentaries they don’t want, and cut scenes that they don’t see?

As with the movies themselves, the value of the extra material varies from DVD to DVD. I firmly believe that the extended material in the Fellowship of the Ring extended DVD release substantially improves the original theatrical release. The extended Two Towers DVD stands up, but its new material isn’t as interesting. At 43 minutes, it makes the final movie exceptionally long, and there are even portions that were cut which are obvious why they were cut. If Peter Jackson wanted to really improve the movie with extra material, some of that material should have stayed cut.

And what about using special DVDs as a safety-net to fix the flaws that have been left into the theatrical release? Is it laziness? Again, that varies from movie to movie. I expect that The Return of the King extended DVD will have at least 40 minutes of new material and, frankly, the movie needs it. Stuff like the Houses of Healing scenes and the grueling march through Mordor are missed from the theatrical release, but could they have been included? I don’t think so. I can’t identify anything that would be readily cut and just shoving the material into the theatrical release would have produced a four hour movie. That might have been nice, but at that point you start to strain the movie theatres’ capability to show the movies economically.

In the end, the function of extra material in DVD releases and the way theatrical movies should be cut comes down to armchair quarterbacking. In the case of Return of the King, filmmaker Peter Jackson made his choices, and whatever criticisms we have, the only real decision we have is to give a thumbs up or a thumbs down. It’s not like most of us could actually have done things much different and better. In the end, I’m giving the theatrical releases and the extended DVD releases of the Lord of the Rings movies thumbs up, and plenty of other bloated moneygrubbing releases big thumbs down.

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