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A funny thing happened to the DVD on its way into consumers’ homes. The format developed a life, if not entirely of its own, that has taken it in many more directions than its corporate creators envisioned.

DVD was conceived as yet another way for studios to squeeze more revenue out the same movies they had sold and rented to the saturated--in economic terms, “mature”--videocassette market, by enhancing the picture and sound quality, and by adding extras such as filmmaker commentary and outtakes.

Its success has far outstripped expectations, and as a result of the DVD’s booming popularity since its introduction in 1997, the audience’s relationship to movies has changed. The home video was merely a small-screen version of a movie. The DVD is interactive--so much so that to the studios’ alarm, technically sophisticated film buffs with a little determination and access to the Internet can relate to a movie in ways that were impossible only a few years ago, including moving and removing scenes and characters from a movie.

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The implications are profound.

“People have been talking about interactivity for 30 years, yet nobody knew what it was, except for video games,” filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola says. “The DVD gives the participant the controls over a movie in a creative manner.” Viewers’ ability to play with the flow of narrative storytelling could have far-reaching effects, he contends. “I hear that people are reediting ‘Star Wars’ [on their computers]. Soon they’ll start making films that way. It could lead to new forms of cinema.”

Phil Alden Robinson, director of “Field of Dreams” and the upcoming “The Sum of All Fears,” is equally enthusiastic. “Do you realize that in all of science-fiction literature they never predicted digital technology and how it would change our lives and our art? It’s an incredible tool,” he says.

Not all filmmakers share that assessment. Director Oliver Stone doesn’t see DVD “changing the nature of film, though it will certainly lead to further exploration. But,” he concedes, “you never know where it’s going to go next.”

As proved the case with the music video, this ongoing evolution was the unintended result of technology that was motivated by commerce. The music video in its infancy functioned mostly as a marketing tool to drive sales of recorded music and to introduce new performers. As the medium evolved, it became more sophisticated stylistically and began to influence commercial, movie and television production. As audiences became acclimated to music videos’ jump-cutting and nonlinear storytelling techniques, they were able to absorb information more rapidly and in different ways, allowing filmmakers to short-cut exposition and action without necessarily sacrificing clarity.

With the post-theatrical creative options DVD offers, the concept of a motion picture as a “finished product” is becoming a thing of the past; filmmakers can tinker and alter their work and offer the public as many variations of a particular film as the market will bear.

Stone, for example, is very involved in the DVD versions of his films, and in many cases they are different--sometimes drastically--from the theatrical version. The DVD of his 1999 football drama “Any Given Sunday” includes not only deleted scenes, but unused takes of scenes in the film, allowing viewers to watch alternate versions of the film.

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“They’re like novels that are being rewritten,” Stone contends. “The perspective of time gives the filmmaker valuable insight.” For the viewer, he adds, the opportunity to see outtakes and alternate takes not only shows “why I’m proud of that particular scene, but sometimes why it wasn’t necessary in the finished film.”

Callie Khouri, who has just completed her directorial debut, “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,” had the DVD release at the back of her mind throughout editing of the film. “It’s a second chance at life in a way,” she says.

Because of running time and dramatic pacing restraints, the theatrical film, an adaptation of a popular novel, undoubtedly will omit a lot--some of which will show up in the DVD. Other omissions, she says, will not and she will have the opportunity to explain why in her commentary. “Once you see certain scenes that were left out, you understand why they were not fundamental to telling the story.”

Brett Ratner, director of the “Rush Hour” movies, concurs. “I’m thinking about the DVD as I’m making a movie. Things I’m going to put on it. Picking takes for the movie and for the DVD. I even remixed the sound for ‘Rush Hour 2’ for the DVD, because we have different kinds of sound equipment in the theater and at home. It was a way to enhance that experience.”

On his current film “Red Dragon,” a prequel to “The Silence of the Lambs,” Ratner will have a film student assist on the making-of documentary, “following me from pre-production to post-production. It’ll be exciting to see the real process, the frustration that’s part of it.”

“Moulin Rouge” director Baz Luhrmann not only offers more complete versions of the film’s musical numbers on the DVD, but offers the dance sequences from different camera angles. “It’s a vision-switching technique that I think gives the viewer the feeling of making those editing choices,” Luhrmann says. “What I like about DVD is that you can finally do things like that and allow the audience into our backstage life. I used to hate the video experience because nothing replaces seeing a movie in the theater. But with DVDs, you have the possibility of going deeper into the making of the film.”

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Similarly, adds Bryan Singer, “as a filmmaker, part of me is a purist and really embraces the idea of the audience seeing the film in its original form.” The director of “The Usual Suspects,” “X-Men” and its upcoming sequel continues, “That being said, I’m also a film student at heart, and there’s something wonderful about sharing ‘the theater’ of being involved in filmmaking. If DVDs had come around when I was a film student, I would have found them a valuable education.”

Several years ago, Toshiba Electronics and Warner Bros., under the supervision of home video president Warren Lieberfarb, set out to develop a digital video format that would better mimic the theatrical experience and be affordable enough that consumers would buy rather than rent, maximizing the studios’ return.

“The initial impetus was the effect of the digitalization of television and the advent of the Internet,” Lieberfarb says. Those developments, and video on demand in particular, had the potential of endangering the lucrative retail home video market in much the same way that the free downloading of songs eventually hurt the music business. Lieberfarb went on the offensive, aggressively pushing the DVD and its acceptance by rival studios as an attractive digital format that boasted the advantages of the laserdisc but was more compact and encoded to discourage piracy.

Initially, DVDs attracted buffs and technophiles, says Kelley Avery, who heads home entertainment at DreamWorks. But with the price of the players down to as low as $125 each, more consumers have become familiar with the special features, he says. “Families are embracing the format.”

DVD producer Doug Textor of Canned Interactive points out that the first “Austin Powers” film sold about 15,000 copies, while the sequel sold more than 2 million. Disney’s special edition of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” sold 1 million units in just its first day of release last October.

Sales of DVDs last year reached $4.6 billion, 21/2 times their 2000 revenue, according to the L.A.-based DVD Entertainment Group, a consortium of the major studios and distributors. There are about 20 million players in homes, a figure that is expected to double by the end of this year and increase to 75 million by 2006. As audiences have become accustomed to interacting with DVDs, they also have become more demanding. When the discs first came out, says Chris Carey, senior vice president of DVD publicity and promotion at Disney, consumer surveys listed improved picture and sound quality as the two most important features.

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“The interactive features were way down on the list,” he says. “But six months later, in our follow-up survey, interactivity was right behind sound and audio.”

Steve Deeks, president of Artisan Home Entertainment, adds that such features as deleted scenes and alternate endings are high in the company’s recent consumer canvassing and have spurred the sales not only of major titles like “Terminator 2,” but smaller films such as “Suicide Kings,” which offered three endings. “Information about these special features is widely discussed and critiqued on special Internet chat sites about DVDs,” he says. “The news travels quickly.”

Observes Peter Staddon, senior vice president of marketing for 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment: “Say there are 25 million DVD buyers out there right now. All of them have become film critics. They’re looking and listening at films far more critically. At one time, people would rent a movie and think nothing more of it. Now they look at deleted scenes, making-of documentaries and other features. They’ve become far more involved in the process.”

“The DVD format,” says Rob Minkoff, director of the “Stuart Little” movies, “begs a larger question about the role movies play in people’s lives, whether they want to be told stories or play a larger role of interacting with it and telling their own story.”

To that end, for the “Stuart Little 2” disc, Minkoff toyed with the idea of using a type of software that allows the viewer to rewrite lines of dialogue.

Just as Internet sites such as Ain’t It Cool News involve consumers in movies from the script and preview stage, the DVD allows that interactive experience to continue beyond a film’s theatrical release. In the past, with the exception of the occasional director’s cut or unrated version, once a movie was released, that was the final version. Only cinephiles explored the process further, trying to reconstitute a complete version of Erich von Stroheim’s mangled silent film “Greed,” or deleted musical and dramatic sequences in George Cukor’s “A Star Is Born.”

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From Singer’s perspective, “a film is never finished, it’s merely abandoned at a point when you have to call it a day and release it. The DVD provides the opportunity to expose the audience to certain elements that weren’t able to be fully exploited ... or were inappropriate for the theatrical release.”

Now the average consumer can pick up the DVD marketed as a “bootleg” cut of Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous,” which includes a half-hour of additional footage, some of which requires interactivity. An outtake scene without a soundtrack instructs the viewer to cue a CD of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” to the picture. This was Crowe’s way around the fact that he ultimately couldn’t get the rights to the song and had to remove the scene.

Coppola’s DVD versions of “The Godfather” films are yet another variation on the classic American gangster saga, different from the originals and even from the various versions that have been presented on television over the years. The sci-fi classic “Blade Runner” has already been seen in several permutations since its release in the early ‘80s, and director Ridley Scott is preparing yet another for release on DVD this year.

“Interactivity empowers both the filmmaker and the consumer,” says independent DVD producer Van Ling, who has worked on new versions of James Cameron’s “Terminator 2” and an expanded cut of the director’s “The Abyss” and George Lucas’ “Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace.” “Now we have the chance to interact with storytelling and filmmaking. What’s starting to happen is that the DVD has gone from being just another ancillary avenue to becoming part of the filmmaking process itself.”

When he was preparing laserdisc versions of Alfred Hitchcock films, producer Laurent Bouzereau approached the extra materials from a scholarly standpoint. With the advent of DVD, he says, “I’ve made the experience more commercial and entertaining, using the same amount of quality and information. The level of interactive material has grown incredibly. It’s happened so fast that it’s a little frightening.”

As consumer demand for extras increases, studios are becoming more involved much earlier in the process. Filmmakers, who used to be reluctant to participate in a movie’s afterlife, now also insist on helping plan the DVD. For instance: M. Night Shyamalan has been working on a third film for Disney, “Signs.” Plans for the DVD were underway shortly after the film was greenlighted, so that the film’s creator could supervise as it followed the movie through the script development process, storyboarding and other facets of production.

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Although newer titles are the format’s financial backbone, the relatively low cost of creating DVDs is a boon to film preservation as well. Industry executives declined to discuss production costs, but one executive confided that “it’s not in the millions.” For Warner Bros.’ Lieberfarb, it provides an economic incentive to restore library titles and archival material (AOL Time Warner’s library includes thousands of Warner Bros., New Line Cinema and pre-1986 MGM titles).

The 20th Century Fox DVD “Marilyn Monroe: The Final Days,” part of a five-disc retrospective of her films, dipped into the studio’s vault to offer a look at 37 minutes of footage on her final, unfinished “Something’s Got to Give,” the movie she was working on when she died in 1962.

The sophisticated digital remastering of visual and sound elements on “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Citizen Kane” approximates the original theatrical prints issued more than half a century ago. In addition, those DVDs provide historical documents and drawings, critical assessments and, where possible, commentaries from the filmmakers. Both “Snow White” and “Kane” interweave archival audio comments from Walt Disney and Orson Welles, respectively.

The biggest potential growth area for DVDs, say home entertainment executives, is family titles like “Snow White” and the deluxe editions of “Shrek” and “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” which have hours of additional material--new footage, video games, Internet links and more. Because children often watch favorite movies repeatedly, the hours of extra material provide more entertainment value and--for better or worse--may alter the neophyte’s perception of what a movie is.

Director Robinson adds that part of the unrealized potential of DVDs is to show a much broader version of how a movie gets made. “I would like to see them bring in more of the people who are involved,” like the cinematographers and screenwriters, “so that the DVD commentary is not so one sided. It would be cubist in a way to show the film through different eyes. But so far we’ve only scratched the surface (of what a DVD can provide).”

One danger in the DVD era is that as the value-added universe expands, the extras may become more interesting to audiences than the actual movie. Some making-of documentaries already are more compelling than the finished product. A prime example is HBO’s “Project Greenlight” series that chronicled the experience of first-time writer-director Pete Jones while he made “Stolen Summer.” Likewise, if studios cram DVDs with inane filler, they risk alienating audiences. Deleted scenes from a masterpiece like “The Godfather” are one thing, but will anyone want to see excised footage from “Bubble Boy”?

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“There is a risk of completely demystifying the [filmmaking] process,” producer Bouzereau says, “which is why it [DVD production] needs to be controlled by the filmmaker.” But it is already tightly controlled. Behind-the-scenes footage and commentary provide the official story on the making of a film. Production problems, flaws and gossip rarely surface in these expanded looks, although the “Cleopatra” DVD offers fairly juicy insight into studio extravagance and star misbehavior.

At their very best, producer Ling says, DVDs have the capacity to function as “film school in a can,” heightening viewers’ understanding of the collaborative process, from a script’s first draft through to the final (or not so final) cut.

“I learned how to make movies from watching the Criterion movies on laserdiscs and hearing directors speak about their process,” Ratner offers. “It made it all seem attainable, reachable.”

The abundance of information and opportunities the technology offers could serve as a spur to creativity, Coppola surmises, freeing future generations from the constraints of the present-day studio system. “Once computers become married with film, the form becomes promiscuous,” Coppola says, “and that can bring about new ways of making movies that the studios can’t control.”

New low-cost digital technology gives enthusiasts the chance to be desktop filmmakers, shooting new footage and combining it with existing movies. While DVDs are encoded to safeguard against piracy and copying, and the studios vigorously pursue civil and criminal proceedings against people they catch, more sophisticated computer users still find ways around that. With DVD-writing software, and illegal but fairly easy to find encryption decoders, not only can adventurous viewers reedit movies like “Star Wars” on their computers--removing “characters from a movie that they don’t like,” as Coppola suggests--but there’s the possibility of creating entirely new movies from existing ones.

One way would be through sampling, in the same way Janet Jackson incorporated Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” into her tune “Got Til It’s Gone” or Will Smith borrowed elements of Patrice Rushen’s “Forget Me Nots” for “Men in Black’s” title song. Of course, this also is technically illegal unless the rights are secured, but the creative possibilities exist.

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Along these lines, Khouri offers some interesting ideas. “You could do the whole Woody Allen oeuvre, especially since he often uses many of the same actors, and make one film out of it,” she says. “Or have some fun with the Coen brothers’ movies, though I can’t imagine having more fun with them than they already do.”

She encourages film enthusiasts: “I figure when I’m done with my film--have at it.”

Her reasoning? “I’d rather see kids learning about storytelling and structure than just playing video games all the time.”

Of course, just because the pencil was invented doesn’t mean anyone who picked one up could write “Moby-Dick.” Desktop filmmaking tools may never produce another “Citizen Kane.” But at the very least, Stone says, the fact that many filmmakers are sharing their ideas and creative journey--from what they include to what they take out--with DVD viewers will have a profound effect on future filmmakers. “Just think: If Beethoven had left extensive notes on the writing of his symphonies, it could have inspired a future musician to come up with ideas he might not otherwise have thought of.”

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Richard Natale is a regular contributor to Calendar.

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