The DVD boom was in full flow when plans were made to do the first special edition of Total Recall – and then Arnold Schwarzenegger’s agent got involved.
No disc format has experienced anywhere near the kind of growth and impact of the humble DVD.
Whilst in theory it’s been superseded by Blu-ray and more recently Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray, it remains every year the best-selling physical media format, although it’s ceased to be is the movie collector’s choice. Instead, DVD is mainstream. And it didn’t take long to get there.
DVD was introduced in the UK in 1997 (after debuting elsewhere in 1996), and at first, the disc itself was novelty enough. After all, we’d been wearing VHS tapes out for nearly two decades by that stage, and the digital upgrade was instantly noticeably.
However, some studios soon cottoned onto the idea the fact that people may be willing to pay that bit extra for a disc over a video if the deal was sweetened a little.
By this stage, laserdiscs had been the film fan’s favourite format (FFFF for short), and studios recorded commentary tracks with filmmakers, and added extra features to discs to appeal to them. It worked.
DVD followed suit. On one of our podcast episodes we’ve chatted about Starship Troopers, one of the earliest examples of a feature-packed DVD.
That’s right here…
Further titles followed, and it’s often said that The Matrix – with its follow the white rabbit feature – was the so-called ‘killer app’ for DVD extras.
Gradually, then, studios raided their archives, looking for what could politely be described as ‘any old shit’ to pad out disc releases, and give punters a list of extra features on the back of the box. For far too longer than was reasonable – and it wasn’t reasonable for long, if at all – ‘interactive menus’ tended to be listed.
Extra features, though, became the key to studios reissuing the same films several times, or offering a ‘special edition’ release at a slightly inflated price. And with DVD revenue exploding – it pretty much held the studio system up until around 2005 – high profile commentary tracks for films were increasingly being sought. Previously, these had been additions recorded by people primarily for costs covered and a beverage or two.
Enter stage left, then, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
When it came to put together the first special edition DVD release of Total Recall, Schwarzenegger was willing to contribute a commentary track for the disc. The problem? His agent asked for a fee in the region of $75,000 for him doing so.
It was something of a game-changing moment, that for a while left the home entertainment departments of studios perplexed. Even more so when the company concerned, Artisan Entertainment (a company that a few years later was ultimately bought up by and folded into Lionsgate) agreed to pay the fee. Eyes were opened as to just what the commercial value of a commentary track was.
After all, at this stage, in late 2001, no Hollywood star had asked for a fee anywhere near that level for such a feature, and there were genuine fears that it’d stop the commentary track in its, well, tracks. The budget for putting all the special features together for the vast majority of discs was rarely anywhere close to $75,000 all in. Studios had oftentimes covered the costs of putting star contributions to discs by writing them into their publicity obligations. Schwarzenegger had changed the game.
Concerns were raised, then, that it would be the start of the end for the humble commentary, although the fact that Arnie alone would go on to record several more suggests that wasn’t necessarily the reason why. Commentary tracks would dwindle certainly, and now they’re more restrictive to huge releases and carefully crafted boutique catalogue titles, usually from third party companies rather than the studios themselves. However, it’s hard to pin that on Arnie. If anything, the fall of DVD sales would be the main reason. People simply stopped buying so many special edition discs, and thus studios made fewer of them.
Here’s how that initial Total Recall release ultimately looked, incidentally. Let us tell you: it was a sod to align nicely on the shelf.
The decline of extras as the norm was further foretold then by the fact that major releases tended to be selling perfectly well without the need for added supplements. Nearly 40 million discs were sold in the UK in 2001, and a fifth of those were copies of The Grinch, starring Jim Carrey. And nobody recorded a commentary track for that.
In fairness to Schwarzenegger, too, you get value out of his tracks. Here’s a fun AV Club article breaking down some of the highlights of this, and his subsequent commentary tracks. He wins several awards for stating the bleedin’ obvious, in particular in the case of his Total Recall conversation.
But it’s hard to overstate just how much fear the Schwarzenegger deal put into the industry at the time. DVD really was Hollywood’s cashcow, and there was some fear that the Arnie deal would bring that to a premature end.
As it happened, that end of sorts was coming. It’s just the Hollywood studios were putting the blame in the wrong place…
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