Interview with "mad pulp bastard" Bill Cunningham

Think of this as a DVD. Blogcritics is the main feature: DVD Extras … or Essentials?

This blog is the extras: here’s the full questions and answers.

Writer and DVD producer Bill Cunningham frequents some of the same blogs I do, and after we happened to exchange comments on one of them, he responded kindly to my opportunistic request for an interview about DVD extras prior to his his upcoming participation in the Screenwriters Showcase session on that topic. The e-mail exchange follows.

DK: DVDs aren’t exactly a novelty anymore, but it seems like some studios still don’t recognize the value of extras (or is it the studios in charge of the decision making? If not, who?)

BC: The people in charge of DVD Extras (for the most part) are the Home Entertainment Marketing executives who sit down with their formulas and figure how many units they are going to sell of a given title. From there they work up a marketing and authoring budget. At the studio level this is done concurrent with the shooting of the film. That’s when a DVD producer is hired to come aboard and shoot material for the DVD. There’s proposals, revisions and more budgets.

What you see on the DVD is based on what the HE folks figure they can afford and will have value to the property. It’s also what they can negotiate with the actors in terms of promotion for the film. Now some DVD producers have agents and are much in demand. It takes someone who is not only creative, but understands the technical aspects to the process.

For classic releases and the indie DVD labels it’s a bit different as in many cases you’re doing specialty items far after the fact. This means a different kind of budgeting and finagling to see who’s still available to be interviewed or to do commentary and how much they are going to cost to bring them into the studio.

How important are extras to the sales of a DVD? Do they add to the bottom line, or is it more of an intangible PR value?

I hate the term “extras.” To me, they are essentials. After all, you are selling the DVD experience. To paraphrase HBO, “It’s not film, it’s DVD.” That means that people expect commentaries and interviews and “behind-the-scenes” features that bring them into the world of the film.

As far as adding to the bottom line, I would have to say, “yes.” BUT – let me say this – it is very rare that DVD extras “save” a movie. You have to have a good movie going in and a good DVD producer to bring out that unique selling quality of the film in whatever work he does.

What’s different about the straight-to-DVD market from theatrical releases on DVD, in terms of the value place on extras?

These films are not called “Straight to DVD” anymore, they’re called DVD Premieres. For the studio level DVD Premiere – yes, it’s important to have quality extras for the DVD. For the lower budgeted indie films, I don’t think so much, unless it’s a genre film. Extras are a great tool to teach new filmmakers the process of crafting horror and scifi and thriller movies. When I was a kid, I used to read Famous Monsters, Fangoria and Starlog magazines. In those magazines they always had behind the scenes photos and features and they were a great resource in learning how to put a movie together.

I wish more studios got into the teaching the business that way – maybe we would have better films. I find that Robert Rodriguez’s films have a wealth of info on them, and I wish more producers would think of structuring their extras in the manner that he does.

What’s the rationale for slapping together a DVD release with no or paltry extras? Is it always about money or timing, or do you think there’s some reluctance to give the audience another reason to want to wait for the DVD instead of seeing something in theatres?

Well the studios are now releasing a quick DVD with few extras and following that up with an expanded edition approximately 6 months later. I hate these discs. I wish that the studios would release a quality edition the first go-round. If they make money (meaning if people still buy them) then who am I to argue? I do wish they would include a discount coupon on the purchase of the expanded DVD when it comes out. Oh well.

How much control do the filmmakers have over the extras?

Quite a bit depending on the clout of the filmmaker – Spielberg, Scorcese, etc. all have people they work with for the DVD of their films. Spielberg, for example doesn’t do commentary on his films. On the indie side of the house you have to remember that most discs are DVD5’s so you only have 90 minutes or so for the movie and about 30 minutes for the extras.

How much of the extras tend to be scripted, and who is doing the scripting? (I’ve listened to too many dull commentaries filled with silence and commentators thinking they have to shush and let the audience watch the film to believe those are scripted, but I’ve often felt they should have been given at least speaking notes!)

Again, on the indie side they aren’t really scripting things until after the interview footage has been shot. I have several pet peeves when it comes to these things:

  • poor planning and research for the discussion
  • too many people in the room
  • alcohol involved that really doesn’t add anything to the experience for the viewer
  • people talking over one another, long pauses
  • too long interview features
  • lack of imagination for behind-the-scenes features
  • filmmakers who don’t realize who they should be addressing in their commentaries.

What do you think audiences expect from extras, and how often do they get what they want?

Audiences expect to have further insight into the world of the film and into the filmmaking process. Most times they get a small taste of what the film is about and what it took to make. Then again, there are some DVDs that saturate the viewer with too much information.

What are some of the best extras you’ve come across – any DVDs you had to have because of the extras?

The SIN CITY DVD special edition was excellent – all of Rodriguez’s extras are excellent. Same can be said of Spielberg’s DVD producer – Laurent Bouzereau – and his work on many of his DVDs. I had the pleasure of writing his introduction for the 2005 DVDX Awards and the DVD hall of Fame. THE MATRIX TRILOGY and THE ALIEN QUADRILOGY are both great DVD sets. I’m looking forward to going over all of the KING KONG (New and classic) material. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY, LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY – all the “usual suspects.”

THE HILLS HAVE EYES was a good set – especially since it was a classic movie and they had to go back and restore and interview everyone.

On the TV DVD side: All of the 24, MI-5 / SPOOKS, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA sets have been good. THE SHIELD is really insightful as to their production and creative process. NIP, TUCK is another good set.

Do you look at any particular DVD producers as pioneers who are doing exciting things with the extras?

Many of these guys and gals have a historian’s attitude with movies – they want to reveal and preserve the film and the story behind the film. Some companies that I really like who are putting out excellent DVDs include Blue Underground, Criterion and Anchor Bay. There’s also Tokyo Shock / Media Blasters who are bringing some really idiosyncratic and eclectic material from Asia here to the west.

Can you tell me a bit about the Screenwriter’s Showcase, and what your panel will be discussing? Who should attend?

We will be discussing the creation of DVD extras and how they are written – either before or after the fact. Hopefully we’ll get to go into writing for the DVD Premiere market – opportunities there for new writers to break in.

People who want to break into the business and learn about DVD – what it is, how it’s different than theatrical releases and what that means to the industry, and how to write for DVD Premieres.

And Bill added a bonus question himself: What movies/TV shows should get a release with as many extras as possible?

The entire Republic serial library should be re-mastered and restored. There is a ton of photographic footage and stills that would make a wonderful behind the scenes gallery of all the stars that worked for that small studio in the valley. These were serials that founded stunts and gags and techniques that are still used today. The way we cut fight scenes wouldn’t be around if it hadn’t been for the directing team of Witney and English.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. TV series should have a release especially since Robert Vaughn is getting so many great reviews from his show HUSTLE.

The Green Hornet TV series – it stars Bruce Lee. Enough said.

I could go on and on….and probably have.

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