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A Brave New World? Considering Career Opportunities in DVD

By Kathleen Fairweather

From Robert Flaherty's 'Man of Aran.' Lee Ferdinand, Home Vision Entertainment's DVD is the producer of the documentary

Today it seems hard to believe that it was less than ten years ago that Sony and Phillips launched a video version of their hugely successful Compact Disc (CD) digital audio format. The new heir apparent was originally known as the Digital Video Disc, and now Digital Versatile Disc, or DVD. It was designed along the lines of a compact disc, with an increased capacity allowing bfor the transfer and storage of an entire feature film in high-quality digital video.

Today DVD appears to rule the feature motion picture delivery universe. For the consumer, DVD provides a viewing experience with superior picture and audio quality––not to mention multiple audio tracks, subtitles, multi-camera angles, seamless branching alternate endings and director's cuts. There are also thematic menus with animated transitions, interactivity, random and instant scene access and all of the fun extras the studios throw in.

Documentary or "special interest" titles have found new audiences as well. Bob Chapek, president of Buena Vista Home Entertainment and president of DVD Entertainment Group says that, "Special interest DVD sales have more than doubled in the first quarter compared to the same period last year, demonstrating the format's growth beyond theatrical blockbusters and family programming. There are nearly 23,000 DVD titles currently available from all genres."

But what does this mean to the medium? For one thing, it means that the picture is preserved in a format with a seemingly imperishable shelf life. The images and extras had better look the way the filmmaker intended, as it may be the final legacy and a preserved archive of his or her work. And the technology has brought in all kinds of new things that no one ever anticipated––including new career opportunities for doc filmmakers.

However, before you head out into the brave new world of DVD, there are a few things to keep in mind that will make the journey smoother for both you and the client. DVD production today consists of re-releases of older titles and production of new titles. The obvious difference is that on the new titles, the DVD producer is usually involved in the film from the very beginning and has access to the actors, elements of the film and the director. Typically these producers work for the studios—either in-house or as independent contractors. Some directors such as Steven Spielberg have a hand-picked, in-house DVD producer with whom they work closely on every title. As more directors move in this direction, this obviously shrinks the pool of available titles and increases the competition among producers.

On the older titles, the DVD producer's role is not unlike that of an archeologist conducting historical research and unearthing rare and hidden filmic treasures from obscure archives and distant lands. Lee Ferdinand, producer of Home Vision Entertainment's (HVE) recent release of Robert J. Flaherty's Louisiana Story and Man of Aran, explains his role as a DVD producer.

"The biggest challenge in creating any DVD is—and should always be—making sure the film looks the way it's supposed to," he says. "So, really it's the people who are involved in that part of the process who have the most challenging—and rewarding—task. 

"For myself, locating and acquiring supplemental material can be difficult at times but it's also great fun and the tools available to researchers these days are numerous and invaluable," Ferdinand continues. "In the case[s] of Louisiana Story and Man of Aran, the research quickly led us to a man named Jack Coogan, who heads the theology department at Claremont College in Southern California. Mr. Coogan is the acting curator of the Flaherty archives, and anyone studying Flaherty and/or nonfiction film must make a pilgrimage."

Ferdinand's background is largely an academic one. "I've been studying film for a long time and until recently I had been teaching one or two courses a semester at Columbia College in Chicago on film history, theory, etc.," he explains. "I think my research skills as a film historian makes me uniquely suited to work for HVE since we primarily release foreign films. both classic and newer independently made films. As a filmmaker, of course, it helps to know how to field a crew and shoot basic interviews or edit found footage. And as a documentary filmmaker, I have had some opportunities to interview living filmmakers and producers, and we have also interviewed various actors for some narrative releases as well."

For Louisiana Story HVE worked very closely with cinematographer Richard Leacock, who contributed his correspondence to his wife during the shooting for as close to a behind-the-scenes supplement as was possible. "We don't have the opportunity to create making-of's and behind-the-scenes, since we generally acquire titles after they've been released," Ferdinand adds. "That said, in my opinion these kind of supplements are not worth inclusion, anyway. From what I've seen these things amount to big PR pieces for the studios and lend nothing to the viewing experience".

 HVE is very conscious of the DVD's relationship with its owner, as either collector or general film lover. "We want the consumer to feel that they have been given the best possible framework to view any given film within their home," Ferdinand continues. "We still feel that movies are a collective experience intended for the theater, but we also recognize very clearly that DVD has reinvented the home viewing experience. We are publishers, and although we are not in the filmmaking business, we like to think of ourselves as a diligent outpost in the extended discussion of films as they reverberate back and forth across a cultural timeline."

DVD producer John Cork got his start in the pre-DVD format laserdiscs with the James Bond collection (MGM) and has gone on to produce numerous docs for DVD titles. For, Cork, "The best documentaries for a film must complement the feature. You are trying to add a layer of knowledge and entertainment for the viewer." Cork has directed over 40 docs for DVDs, most of them stories about how the films were made. "For me, though, films are made by people," he explains. "Sure, it is interesting to see how they made the robot work, but I like to try to find out about the human challenges that come up during the making of a movie.

"Making-of documentaries should be about more than just technology and celebrity," Cork continues. "For example, I did a documentary for the international release of the Pink Panther films. In it, we talk about the conflicts between Peter Sellers and Blake Edwards. We talk about the background of these two amazingly talented men, and try to explore why they were able to create such magic together."

Cork also prefers to do documentaries that one would traditionally not expect on a DVD. "For The Great Escape [released in Europe, but not the US], we located the man whom director John Sturges claimed was the inspiration for the Steve McQueen character in the film," Cork relates. "This man had an amazing story, and it gives the viewer a whole new way to look at the film when you find out about the kind of person that survived a German prison camp."

The big challenges facing DVDs have to do with its own success, according to Cork. "I keep hearing that because so few people watch the special features, studios increasingly want quantity over content and quality," he relates. ‘I also hear of producers who produce docs that never make the DVD because the studios decide at the last minute they need that space for a trailer or to have two versions of the film on the disc. Actors and filmmakers, particularly from older titles, want to be paid for their interviews.

"Certainly in a journalistic world, it makes everything somewhat sticky," Cork continues. "But many of these people worked on a flat salary and never made another dime. On the other hand, the studios are not coming up with budgets that allow for good paychecks for everyone. It is becoming a problem."

Another problem is that studios are increasingly segmenting out work. They may have two or three different elements from different sources going into one disc. "As a producer, you don't want to be telling the same stories or approaching the same interview subjects, but you find out a television producer in England has struck a deal to get film clips in exchange for his piece being on the DVD," Cork explains. "The studio often doesn't even know what that television piece will look like. The DVD producer is left floundering a bit."

As more studios today choose the route of commerce over art, it not unusual to see electronic press kits (EPKs) masquerading as added-value or behind-the-scenes segments done in the form of HBO's First Look series. Where does that leave the DVD producer? And more importantly, should documentary filmmakers consider a career switch to DVD production?

"I'm going to say something heretical—don't!" offers Cork. "The DVD business seems to be swelling, but as DVDs have become more mainstream, and as shows like E! True Hollywood Story have plunged into the public consciousness, DVDs are less and less the place to be for documentary filmmakers." More and more, according to Cork, studios feel they need to carefully vet the content of the docs done to accompany the DVDs. "They tell me they are censored, not about personal gossip, but because the studio doesn't want anyone to know the film went over schedule or that the star was off the set for three days with a back injury," he explains.

There are many producers out there and everyone wants to get a slice of this huge DVD pie because it seems like there is so much money in it. In contrast, Cork hears about dropping budgets and compressed deadlines and how studios are focusing less on special features that would appeal to documentary filmmakers, and more on features that seem new and different. "I think DVD offers a great marketplace for documentaries, but DVD special features, I'm afraid, are already a shrinking market for documentarians," he says.

Ferdinand echoes these sentiments: "As a documentary filmmaker I would suggest other filmmakers stay away from producing DVDs. I have a documentary that I began before I started producing DVDs and it's still in the editing phase. Creating good DVDs takes a lot more time and energy than most people think. However, it's all very rewarding to see the product on the shelf and in advertisements and to know that I've contributed a tiny portion towards that film's exposure and renewed place in history. 

"Also, in my opinion DVD producers are more in line with museum curators—deeply invested in the work of art itself and acting as facilitators to the potential consumer," he concludes. "Besides, documentary filmmakers should be making films that will inspire others to make films about them for a future DVD release." 


Former International Documentary editor Kathleen Fairweather is in Kona, Hawaii, racing canoes and working on her doc on the Moloka'i Challenge, a treacherous 41-mile race from Moloka'i to O'ahu that is regarded as the women's world championship of long-distance outrigger canoe paddling. She can be reached at