In December, the retail release of Disney’s summer action hit Pirates of the Caribbean set a sales record, with more than 11 million videos and DVDs cascading off store shelves less than a week after its North American launch. Besides wishing their own titles could reach that sales stratosphere, doc producers have a reason to take heart – studios hire indies to create the non-fiction content, including docs and ‘featurettes,’ that are bundled with those DVD releases.
DVD packages are designed to be ‘the definitive document for a film,’ explains Mike Mulvihill, the VP of DVD content development at L.A.-based New Line Home Entertainment. ‘Each theatrical title has it’s own story, it’s own personality, and we seek the appropriate independent producers to put in touch with the feature filmmaker [to make the DVD package],’ Mulvihill says. Just like a commissioning editor, Mulvihill relies on a trusty Rolodex of DVD-content producers, but accepts reels from new producers. If he likes what he sees, the producer is then invited to submit a treatment proposal for a specific DVD. ‘Once this gets internal approval, we meet with the director of the feature for which the pitch was crafted, and then fine tune the proposal to the director’s tastes,’ he adds.
Shaping a proposal can be tricky. ‘I won’t say we are [pitching] totally blind, but we don’t have all the facts in terms of what material is going to be made available to us,’ says Eric Young, the president of Sparkhill, an L.A.-based DVD prodco whose credits include the factual packages in the DVDs for Tomb Raider 2 and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Much of the behind-the-scenes material is culled from the electronic press kits collected as part of the studios’ original theatrical production, and since distribs typically put out the call for a treatment as much as a year before the original film is launched, the DVD-content makers have to make assumptions as to what footage will be handed to them, and calculate a budget accordingly.
Bonus material varies from title to title, but viewers have come to expect a lot, so docs that provide additional background are common. ‘If the film is based on a scientific premise,’ explains Young, ‘we may make a doc like those you see on the Discovery Channel.’ For the release of drama The Hours, which hinges upon the life of Virginia Wolfe, Sparkhill prepared a short biography of the English writer. Young adds that the amount of creative leeway a doc-producer is given varies in proportion to the value of the theatrical film.
Even the DVD release of back-catalog titles and box sets like the nine-disc Alien Quadrilogy, may contain extensive additional material (Fox Home Entertainment’s Alien set has 45 hours of extra content, including numerous mini-docs, and retails for US$100). Such leeway means the production budgets for the non-fiction components vary wildly, too. ‘Budgets can go from $5,000 to $1 million,’ says Young.
Studios also sometimes acquire pre-existing doc titles for inclusion in a DVD. For the release of director Michael Bay’s 2001 action flick Pearl Harbor, for example, Walt Disney licensed A&E’s The History Channel program Unsung Heroes, produced by Reston, U.S.-based Lou Reda Productions.
Mulvihill says that, in general, studio investment in purpose-made DVD content has been stable for the last several years. ‘Some titles, like Lord of the Rings [released by New Line with extensive doc-content] defies previous releases, but titles like these are exceptions to the rule.’