It was inevitable. The embarrassingly shameless moneymaking idea that every single studio has almost certainly come up with (and then immediately discarded amid nervous boardroom laughter) since DVD technology conquered the market 20 years ago has found a home in Paramount, poised to mollify and enrage eagle-eyed Trekkers nationwide September 3 when the Star Trek Into Darkness Blu-Ray drops. What is this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea? Fans will be forced to buy multiple copies of the Blu-Ray at multiple locations in order to compile all the special features created for the film’s home video rollout. Yes, you read that right.
News dropped yesterday from The Digital Bits confirms that the special features for the standard Into Darkness Blu-Ray will only feature seven mini-featurettes totaling a fairly paltry 40 minutes. “Ok,” you might say. “So what? Plenty of movies come out on DVD with little to no special content. Non-story.”
That would be true, except for the additional news that more special features have been made for the release. Plenty more. But unfortunately for you and the rest of the buying public, the features that you are privy to will depend on where you buy it. Want the feature-length Director’s Commentary with JJ Abrams and a few other members of the cast and crew? You’ll have to buy Into Darkness from iTunes. It’s the only place you’ll find it. There are an additional 30 minutes of featurettes exclusive to Target discs, another 30 minutes of different featurettes only available on Best Buy discs. Apparently a few small tidbits will also go (exclusively) to Vudu and CinemaNow customers.
You would be hard pressed to find a more carefully-plotted fleecing of a particular cross-section of consumers in recent memory. And don’t think that this randomly happened with a Star Trek movie. Oh no. This is deliberate grift of a fan base that, by its very nature, is probably most likely to crankily, but inevitably, part with its money.
In retrospect, this was just a matter of time. The upswing in popularity among agreed-upon “nerd” and “geek” entertainment preferences and leisure activities in the past decade has led to an incredible resurgence of genre film. Back in the 90s, comic book film as successful mainstream entertainment was a fuzzy mirage on the horizon. Movies like The Shadow, The Phantom, Darkman, Spawn, et al, were little more than also-ran side project oddities that hardly captured the public’s attention (or money) in any widely-discernible fashion. A couple decades of technological advances later and studios today can hardly snap up comic book franchises, destruction porn projects, and random quirky shit fast enough, hoping that they gain enough traction to be allowed a big bucket at the wellspring of nerd cashola. (Slightly off-topic: I give it another five years before the inevitable backlash against comic book and ‘nerd’ film kicks in big-time. There is such a thing as over-marketing exhaustion. Just ask Star Wars fans.) Despite contemporary mega-paydays, the advent of internet streaming and downloading has created something of a puzzle for studios. How to keep that big money a-flowin’ when the physical media market is slowly drying up? One way is to keep an ear to the pavement and work hard to keep up with the times. Another way is to convince your consumer base that they’ll just need to give you more money.
It probably isn’t a reach for me to say that most people who watch shows like Big Bang Theory went to go see Star Trek. Say what you will about BBT, but what you probably can’t deny is that it’s a masterwork of shrewdly constructed fat pitches down the middle when it comes to its targeted customers. As a narrative study, BBT is lighter than tissue paper; easily discardable pablum consisting of chameleonic episodes that flow right past you with little fanfare or dissimilarity. But I watch it reasonably often and I laugh when I do. Despite its utter transparency, it’s a decent, easily-digestible show with jokes that usually consist of stuff that only nerds will understand. And because we get it, it makes us feel like the writers get us.
Whether or not Hollywood writers “get” geeks is arguable. What isn’t all that arguable is that they have managed to pinpoint, without much difficulty, what nerds and geeks get their Batman shorts in a nervous twist over: set completion. I freely admit to having had conversations similar to the one that the BBT writers have come back to time and again. Baseball cards, comic books, DVD collections… there is an emptiness that threatens the cozy sanctity of the collector’s inner peace when the striven-for collection is not finished. I’m no psychologist or behavioral scientist, but believe me when I tell you that there are lots of people out there – people who think in maths and numbers and percentages – who HAVE to have “the set”. Don’t bother me with terms like “abnormal” or “OCD” or “WTF”. You know it’s true. It’s how a certain group of people (of which I count myself an occasional member) think. When Sheldon or Howard mutter about needing Flash #87 or So-and-So #1 Blue Foil Variant or the original Star Wars action figure of Grand Moff Tarkin to “complete the collection,” believe me when I tell you that a part of their soul will be devoted to that acquisition until it’s in their possession. It’s a milestone. It’s a bragging point. It’s an obstacle overcome. In extreme cases, it’s an emotional necessity. After all, as that Star Trek: The Next Generation episode taught us, the one with the “most toys” wins.
If you think there’s any way that Paramount doesn’t know every word of that last paragraph by heart, you’re fooling yourself. Is there any viable reason at all for them to have tried this approach with The Lovely Bones DVD? Revolutionary Road? The Love Guru? Nah. There’s no money in giving viewers of a run-of-the-mill slow burn drama or awful comedy insider access to every nook and cranny. You target somebody who’s really wrapped up in a cult following of a long-running franchise. Say, Star Trek. You target somebody who, as a Star Trek fan, is likely to be the type who will want as much access to information (or DATA…wink) regarding the making of the movie as possible. You make a bunch of special features to satiate that person’s need for knowledge and insider info… And then you scatter them to the four winds of retail and watch as the geeks’ internal need for completion drives them absolutely bonkers.
It’s bad enough when studios that oversee epics like Lord of the Rings release a barer-than-bare bones DVD six months after its theater run and tell annoyed fans that of course you don’t have to buy this edition if you don’t want to. Just wait six more months for the Mega Awesome Edition. As if. That’s transparently diabolical in its own way. But this is 10 times worse. You’re either a fan of Star Trek or you’re a FAN of Star Trek. And Paramount knows that if you strive to be the latter, you’ll have all 3 or 4 or 5 retail-specific DVDs on your movie shelf next week. I mean, you can’t be found wanting when Melvin and his pocket protector move in across the street and he invites you over to see his Trek collection, can you?
Gone forever are the days where studios had one main avenue – the cinema – between their bank accounts and consumers’ wallets. Entertainment home media, whether it be physical or streaming, has become as heavily scrutinized a money pipeline as box office receipts in recent years. If the film you made tanked at the theaters in the 50s, you tried harder to make a better movie next time. Because if you didn’t, you’d find yourself wandering up and down Sunset Boulevard carrying a cheap bottle of hooch, wearing Lux Detergent boxes for shoes, and muttering about how you used to be somebody. If your film tanks at the theaters today, no need to fret – the many options of home entertainment dissemination represents a second chance to recoup your losses and turn a disastrous loss into a comfortable win. Fewer consequences for failure is music to Hollywood’s ears, as is more money for less effort. So call Paramount’s decision what you will – calculated thievery, fan mistreatment, or genius – creating five different versions of a DVD that share 98% of the same material, because of a purposeful implication that fans must have them all, is as devoid of effort as it gets. Here’s hoping that Trekkers are wise to Paramount’s obvious cash grab and that its new Blu-Ray marketing direction neither lives long nor prospers.