In the height of the DVD era, director’s commentary was a staple of movie watching. But if you look at any of the streaming services today, almost all fail to include these treasured bonus features.
Audio commentaries have been included in physical media since 1984, starting with the Criterion Collection’s release of 1933’s King Kong on laserdisc, with commentary by film historian Ronald Haver detailing anecdotes on the production of the American classic. Commentaries from directors, actors, and production crew were subsequently included in physical packages of thousands of movies, television shows, and even video games for decades since. However, once the industry shifted to streaming, most of those bonus features were left on the discs.
The Criterion Channel seems to be the only streaming service that consistently supports audio commentaries since those features are often included in its physical distribution and cherished by its fans. Commentaries outside of the Criterion bubble have yet to show up on any other streaming service, forcing people to purchase the physical copies of movies and TV shows to access any of that content.
The lack of audio commentaries has also frustrated movie directors. “I’ve been shouting about this on social media for a number of years,” filmmaker Mike Flanagan tells The Verge. Flanagan has created a number of Netflix original shows, including The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor, Midnight Mass, and others. Flanagan has recorded audio commentaries for both Bly Manor and Hill House for their official Blu-ray releases, but those commentaries are unavailable on Netflix.
“Streamers have the ability effortlessly and for free to add [commentary] as an additional audio option,” Flanagan says. “They translate these shows into every language on the planet.” It’s true: services like Netflix almost always include alternative audio of their programming for multiple languages, and viewers have gotten more used to swapping out those audio tracks in the app settings. Changing audio settings is ubiquitous enough that there is a huge debate over whether to watch foreign films with dubbed audio or with subtitles.
So it should be easy for streamers to add audio commentary, right? Technically yes, as we’ve seen with Criterion Channel. However, distribution contracts and licensing issues may be the real barrier. “There’s always licensing in it,” says Julia Alexander, director of strategy at Parrot Analytics (and a former reporter at The Verge). “There’s like 80 different parties that own 80 different facets of this. If the title is a Focus Features film and they’re trying to figure out who owns the director’s commentary that they did 20 years ago, they’re trying to figure out how to incorporate it, you’re gonna run into some rights issues.” (Criterion declined to comment on the business side of providing director’s commentary on its service.)
Even buying audio commentary digitally is not an easy solution. The Apple TV library has very few commentary tracks included in the bonus features of movie purchases, even though many are included on physical copies of the films. Users who bought the digital release of Matt Reeves’ The Batman on iTunes have expressed frustration with watching the movie with the director’s commentary, with one Reddit user noting that the video was so buggy that they ended up playing commentary separately on an iPhone while watching the 4K HDR version on a TV simultaneously.
Trying to sync a podcast in one app with a movie in another is not fun
The closest other streaming services have gotten to incorporating audio commentary is by having viewers listen to a podcast simultaneously while watching a movie. Netflix has been slowly (there are currently only 10 episodes) adding its own director’s commentary audio through its podcast Watching With…, most recently with Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion.
Trying to sync a podcast in one app with a movie in another is not fun. The director will count down to indicate when to press play on the movie to sync with the podcast, but anytime you want to pause the movie, you’ll also have to pause that podcast, wherever the heck you’re playing it. In the Glass Onion episode, Rian Johnson says at one point you should rewind the movie to catch something in the film you may not notice at first, but then immediately says to disregard that tip because it may mess up the sync of the commentary. Factor in buffering or getting a phone call during the movie, and the commentary is more trouble than it’s worth. Netflix declined to comment about why these audio tracks are not included in the streaming service itself.
This podcast / movie synchronization method has also been used by other podcasts to fill the void left by distributors and studios. Directors like Flanagan have gone on the show Commentary Cast to record director’s commentary for their films that never got an official track. Right now, if you want to listen to Flanagan’s commentary for Hush and Gerald’s Game, you must listen to a podcast.
Some movie buffs have taken the lack of commentary on streaming into their own hands, ripping dozens of audio commentary tracks from DVD and Blu-ray releases and publishing them in podcast feeds for anyone to listen to. A quick search on Spotify will get you director’s commentaries of Superbad, Goodfellas, Scream, The Godfather, Do the Right Thing, and many others.
These film lovers hope their outcry will encourage streaming services to support audio commentary more directly and cleanly within their apps. Perhaps the dozens of competitors in the space and the decline of physical media will convince streamers as well. DVD bonus features like filmmakers’ commentary continue to be a driver of physical media sales, so distributors may want to hold on to those assets exclusively as long as possible — but with the market continuing to crater, that may not be much longer. Even Netflix is getting out of the DVD business.
It’s also an open question whether commentary is something viewers want going forward. And it’s possible that the longer these audio tracks are unavailable on streaming, the less likely studios will be to make more of them. “If we look at Gen Z, this is an audience that is not necessarily growing up with director’s commentary,” says Julia Alexander. “As the audiences age up, the audience that comes in that never grew up with director’s commentary doesn’t know to seek it out; therefore, there’s no demand to increase supply.”
Flanagan says that while he believes that films should be able to stand on their own without a director, actor, or critic explaining each scene, audio commentaries for film and TV adds value to those who want to make movies themselves. “I think just for cultivating a respect and a love for filmed entertainment, knowing the context of how something was made can really deepen their appreciation for something, or it can change the way they might have thought about seeing something cold. It’s just invaluable, and I wish we got to do more of it.”
The Vergecast /
A podcast about technology and emotions
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