Back in the early 2000s, I discovered a guilty pleasure that kept me busy throughout my mid-20s: nerding out on DVD extras, whether that meant listening to Hunter S. Thompson’s strange howling sounds on the commentary for “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” — a more psychedelic experience than the movie itself — or watching a bonus cut of “Memento” that put its time-distorted sequences in chronological order.
While I was lazing on my couch, it turns out that a generation of young filmmakers were scrutinizing DVD extras to learn their craft.
Matt and Ross Duffer, the creators of the Netflix sci-fi series “Stranger Things,” grew up in North Carolina, far from Hollywood studios, and, as they wrote in an email, “bonus features were really the only way for us to experience a film set — to see how movie magic was made.”
Behind-the-scenes videos, explained the brothers, gave them an inside look at the filmmaking process. They mentioned the shorts on the extended DVD edition of “The Lord of the Rings” that follow Peter Jackson through every stage of the trilogy, from pre- to postproduction.
This left me wondering how a kid from North Carolina would lift the curtain today.
With DVDs steadily joining VHS cassettes as extinct technology, what has become of the fun, insightful mixed bag that movie fans came to know as bonus features — the audio commentaries, behind-the-scenes featurettes, bloopers, deleted scenes and alternate endings?
Some of these extras have shifted to digital stores and streaming platforms. But can cinephiles access them as easily as they could when video rental stores prospered in every neighborhood?
I recently came across Rafael Perez, the former owner of Mister Video III, a now-closed Brooklyn store where I had spent many an hour. He argued that fans would eventually grow weary of scouring the internet for film analysis and start seeking out old-school hard copies, as with the vinyl revival for music.
“There’re so many different things you’re able to get on this one little disc,” said Perez, who has kept more than 1,000 DVDs from his old inventory in what he calls his man cave unceremoniously piled on shelves and in boxes.
“Sometimes,” he added, “things have to go away for people to kind of miss them.”
Sara Colangelo, who won a directing prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival for “The Kindergarten Teacher,” does miss her film-school days at New York University, spent rummaging through rare Japanese DVDs at Kim’s Video & Music, the East Village store that closed in 2014.
“We would talk among students about director commentaries,” she said. They found it comforting to hear famous directors narrate their own struggles, as Francis Ford Coppola did for the notoriously chaotic filming of “Apocalypse Now.”
“It’s kind of a chicken soup for aspiring filmmakers,” she said.
But Netflix, which bought “The Kindergarten Teacher,” appears unlikely to include extras from her shoot when it releases Colangelo’s film.
Like most subscription-based streaming services, Netflix produces little added content. So young filmmakers today might not have the chance to learn from the trials and tribulations Colangelo experienced on her production.
The first iterations of extras were behind-the-scene documentaries, which became popular in the late 1970s with the rise of blockbusters.
Shorts like “The Making of ‘Star Wars’” in 1977 and “The Making of ‘Thriller’” in 1983 set the standard for the genre’s dissection of special effects, visits to the makeup chair and sit-down interviews.
It wasn’t until DVDs took over the home-video market in the late 1990s that studios started seeing extras as an opportunity to help sales.
Patrick Brereton, author of “Smart Cinema, DVD Add-Ons and New Audience Pleasures,” said studios began using DVD extras as a selling point when they reissued old movies. “Some DVDs of old John Wayne westerns had adverts for cigarettes from the 1950s,” he said. “They were just sticking in anything.”
Quickly enough, studios started producing bonus features to sell new films as well, spending money on voice-over commentary, behind-the-scene shorts and interviews with the cast. Extras, Brereton said, became increasingly standardized and driven by a marketing agenda.
While some fans blame bonus features for altering the integrity of the theatrical version — see the alternative endings for “Blade Runner” — Brereton argued that extras allowed audiences overall to become more actively engaged in films, as with the footage of Quentin Tarantino frantically swinging behind the camera during the shoot of John Travolta and Uma Thurman’s dance sequence in “Pulp Fiction.”
“The fans love this because they are feeling at one with a director who is making a film that they love: There is triangulation of pleasure,” Brereton said.
Easter eggs, or hidden extras, even required fans to actively unlock them. By typing “1138” on the DVD option menu for “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith,” for instance, viewers gained access to a short scene of Yoda rapping.
Since DVD sales plummeted in the late 2000s, however, some in the industry believe major studios have scaled back on spending money to produce extras.
Several studios, including Warner Bros., declined to give numbers or discuss the evolution of extras and their budgets.
“Budgets were definitely more significant across the board when DVDs were a dominant player,” said Julie Dansker, vice president for sales and marketing at the Orchard, an independent distributor.
Now that most video stores are gone, this content is also unavailable to rent — in the physical or digital realms. On iTunes Extras, which was started in 2014, bonus features are only accessible to buyers.
By purchasing “Get Out” for $14.99, users can enjoy an alternate ending, deleted scenes, a behind-the-scene documentary, a sit-down discussion with the writer-director Jordan Peele and his cast, and Peele’s audio commentary, features that are also available on the DVD version.
But some distributors design extras expressly for the iTunes version to increase digital sales: “Dior and I,” a documentary about the Christian Dior design company, for example, made its 2015 debut on Apple’s website with an exclusive photo gallery from a fashion show featured in the film.
Studios, however, do not have incentives for releasing extras on subscription-based platforms. Neither do most streaming services themselves: Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime produce few bonus features for their original content. “She’s Gotta Have It,” for instance, the Netflix series from Spike Lee, was released without extras.
FilmStruck is among the niche streaming services that gives access to plenty of bonus features.
“It’s the only streaming platform I know of that allows you to switch on the fly between the film’s soundtrack and the audio commentary track,” said Peter Becker, president of the Criterion Collection, which is a partner with Turner Classic Movies on FilmStruck.
But even cinephiles may take some convincing.
Greg Oxenberg, 28, a film student at New York University, said he loved Criterion titles, but was not drawn to streaming.
“I use the New York Public Library a lot because they have tons of different locations and you can order the DVDs you’re looking for online,” said the self-described film nerd, who likes dissecting director commentaries to hone his screenwriting skills.
Jonathan Foster, 36, an aspiring screenwriter who was leaving Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night” at Film Forum one evening last month, said he’s fond of extras, but has cut back on buying DVDs for financial reasons. For movie analysis, these days, he turns to websites like the Playlist, IMDb or RogerEbert.com.
“But it’s not quite as convenient as having it all on that disc and popping it in,” he admitted.
Foster’s wistful comment made me melancholic about my time spent at Mister Video III. Maybe, I thought, the DVDs stored in Perez’s man cave will pay off after all.
But for now, like Perez’s store — and my idle 20s — it appears as though access to hours of geeky, director-narrated analysis at a low cost is gone.