At the height of the DVD era, directorial commentary was a staple of movie watching. But if you look at any of the streaming services today, almost all of them don’t include these cherished bonus features.
Audio commentary has been recorded in physical media since 1984, beginning with the release of 1933’s Criterion Collection King Kong on laserdisc, with commentary by film historian Ronald Haver with anecdotes about the production of the American classic. Commentaries by directors, actors, and production crew were then incorporated into physical packages of thousands of movies, television shows, and even video games for decades. However, when the industry transitioned to streaming, most of those bonus features remained on the discs.
The Criterion Channel seems to be the only streaming service that consistently supports audio commentary, as these features are often included in the physical distribution and cherished by the fans. Comments outside the Criterion bubble have yet to appear on any other streaming service, forcing people to buy the physical copies of movies and TV shows to access all that content.
The lack of audio commentary has also frustrated film directors. “I’ve been shouting about this on social media for several years now,” says filmmaker Mike Flanagan The edge. Flanagan has created a number of Netflix original shows, including The Ghost of Hill House, The Ghost of Bly Manor, Midnight Mass, and others. Flanagan recorded audio commentary for both Bly country house And Hill house for their official Blu-ray releases, but those commentaries are not available on Netflix.
“Streamers have the ability to add effortlessly and for free [commentary] as an additional audio option,” says Flanagan. “They translate these shows into every language on the planet.” It’s true: services like Netflix almost always include alternate audio of their programming for multiple languages, and viewers have become more accustomed to swapping out those audio tracks in the app’s settings. Changing audio settings is so ubiquitous that there is a huge debate over whether or not to watch foreign movies with dubbed audio or with subtitles.
So it should be easy for streamers to add audio commentary, right? Technically yes, as we’ve seen on Criterion Channel. However, distribution contracts and licensing issues can be the real barrier. “It always has licenses in it,” says Julia Alexander, director of strategy at Parrot Analytics (and former reporter at The edge). “There are about 80 different parties that have 80 different facets of this. If the title is a Focus Features movie and they’re trying to figure out who owns the director’s commentary they made 20 years ago, they’re trying to figure out how to include it, you run into some rights issues. (Crition declined to comment on the business side of the director commenting on his service.)
Even buying audio commentary digitally isn’t an easy fix. The Apple TV library contains very few commentary tracks in the bonus features of movie purchases, even though many are on physical copies of the movies. Users who purchased Matt Reeves’ digital release The batter have on iTunes expressed frustration watching the movie with the director’s commentary, with one Reddit user commenting that the video was so buggy that they ended up playing commentary separately on an iPhone while simultaneously watching the 4K HDR version on a TV .
It’s no fun syncing a podcast in one app with a movie in another
The closest other streaming services have included audio commentary is allowing viewers to simultaneously listen to a podcast while watching a movie. Netflix is slowly (there are currently only 10 episodes) adding commentary audio from its own director through its podcast Watch with…most recently with Rian Johnson’s Glass onion.
It’s no fun syncing a podcast in one app with a movie in another. The director counts down to indicate when to hit play to sync the movie to the podcast, but when you want to pause the movie, you’ll also need to pause that podcast wherever you’re playing it. In the Glass onion episode, at one point Rian Johnson says you should rewind the movie to catch something in the movie that you might not notice at first, but then immediately says ignore that tip because it could disrupt the synchronization of the commentary to disturb. 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 on 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 to the show Comment cast to record director’s commentary for their films that never received an official track. Now if you want to listen to Flanagan’s commentary for Quiet And Gerald’s game, you need to listen to a podcast.
Some movie buffs have taken the lack of streaming commentary into their own hands by ripping dozens of audio commentary tracks from DVD and Blu-ray releases and publishing them in podcast feeds for all to listen to. A quick search on Spotify yields the director’s comments Super bad, Good day, scream, The godfather, Do the right thingand many others.
These movie buffs hope their outcry will encourage streaming services to support audio commentary more directly and cleanly in their apps. Perhaps the dozens of competitors in space and the decline of physical media will win over streamers as well. DVD bonus content, such as commentary from filmmakers, continues to drive sales of physical media, so distributors may want to keep those resources exclusive for as long as possible, but with the market continuing to shrink, that won’t last long. Even Netflix is getting out of the DVD business.
It’s also an open question whether commentary is something viewers want in the future. And it’s possible that the longer these audio tracks are unavailable on streaming, the less likely studios are to make more of them. “When we look at Gen Z, this is an audience that doesn’t necessarily grow up with director commentary,” says Julia Alexander. “As audiences get older, the audience that comes in that never grew up with director commentary doesn’t know to seek it out; therefore there is no demand to increase the supply.”
Flanagan says that while he believes movies should be able to stand on their own without a director, actor or critic explaining each scene, audio commentary for film and TV adds value to those who want to make movies themselves. “I think just to cultivate a respect and love for filmed entertainment, knowing the context of how something was made can really deepen their appreciation of something, or it can change the way they might have thought about seeing something cold. It’s just invaluable, and I wish we could do more of it.”
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