Toons of the 2000s: DVD and Digital Distribution - Part 1
In the halcyon days of the 1990s, die-hard fans of cartoons had to subsist only on what the networks fed them. Online petitions were formed to get Cartoon Network to pick up He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Fans who wanted to see older episodes of The Simpsons were forced to wait until Fox showed a rerun, or worse, watch the syndicated version which always cut out the best joke.
Today, none of that matters. I can pop in a disc and watch He-Man whenever I want, in whatever order I want. I can do the same with The Simpsons and watch the original versions with all of the jokes, and if I ever felt like watching Filmation’s Ghostbusters or some other rare cartoon, I can probably find it on DVD. In most cases, I get to watch these in far higher quality than was available even at the time of the original broadcast.
And it doesn’t stop with DVD, or its high definition cousin, Blu-ray. The Internet is beginning to revolutionize video delivery, and cartoons are at the forefront. Animation has a growing home on sites like Hulu. WB is streaming their shows on a revived, online Kids’ WB. YouTube boasts a growing – if legally iffy – collection of obscure cartoons that the major companies likely forgot they owned.
Yet the Internet isn’t confined only to the cartoons produced originally for television or film. Our number one animated film of the past decade, Sita Sings The Blues, has been distributed almost entirely through the Internet and other alternative distribution channels. Homestar Runner has gathered a significant fanbase and merchandising sales without once appearing on a television network.
All this means that the outlets for expression have exponentially increased. We can now get our content where we want, whenever we want. We are no longer at the whim of what a network can purchase or when they want to air it. It’s a fundamental change from how we consumed our media just ten years prior.
It’s hard to imagine that just ten short years ago most of us were watching our movies on VHS. You remember VHS, don’t you? It was that big, blocky black thing that got mangled by the machine more often than not. You had to rewind movies in order to watch them from the beginning, and the only special feature tended to be the 20 or so minutes of previews the studio would shove before the feature began.
The leap from VHS to DVD was nothing short of dramatic. Picture and sound were presented in a clarity far surpassing VHS and, in some cases, broadcast television. Beyond the visual quality improvement, the massive storage space allowed for all kinds of amenities such as special features, director commentaries, and alternate audio tracks. The Special Edition concept may have originated on laserdisc, but it came into its own in the DVD era. Not every film got this lavish treatment. There were special editions that weren’t that special, and there were some movies where just getting released was the special feature.
Disney’s animated features were initially slow in coming, but in 2001 the studio marked its commitment to the format with the DVD release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The animation giant then proceeded to revisit a number of its revered classics in similar fashion. Not to be outdone was then fledgling Pixar, which made sure to release each of its films in impressive, fully packed releases.
The special editions that live up to the moniker have fundamentally changed the relationship between filmmaker and viewer. For the first time, viewers could learn about the film’s production straight from the horse’s mouth. In Pixar’s case especially, the DVDs represented an opportunity to pull back the curtain on their CG animation process. The image of the studio was built up through these extras, from a tour of the studios themselves, to Brad Bird’s arrival at the studio, to a history of Pixar itself.
All sorts of movies, classic or forgettable, flooded to the new format at the earliest opportunity. Studios eagerly emptied their back catalogs to meet the growing demand, and it didn’t take long for most major films to see a release on DVD. Something funny happened along the way: the studios turned to their television backlog. An expensive ordeal on VHS – the season set became inexpensive and feasible with the lower cost and larger storage now on offer.
Fox was the first and most prominent studio offering season set releases, and one of its early efforts naturally included The Simpsons. That series remains one of the best examples of animation on DVD, each season offering substantial amounts of bonus content. With the success it had in Springfield, it didn’t take long for Fox to visit its other animated sitcoms. One of those was Family Guy, then a textbook example of a Fox network cancellation. Seth MacFarlane’s show gathered a cult following, but it was never a hit and was canceled in 2002. Adult Swim picked up rerun rights at about the same time Fox released the first volume to DVD.
Before DVD, this would have been the end of the Griffins. However, something miraculous happened: audiences, discovering the show through word of mouth or through Adult Swim, started buying the DVD. And then kept buying; by 2003’s end, one million copies had sold, making it the then-fourth largest selling TV DVD set in history. These are unprecedented numbers for a television series that, in its original run, was a cult favorite at best. Fox acknowledged its mistake, and after a three-year hiatus Family Guy returned to the network in 2005.
At this point, the floodgates opened. Studio after studio began shoving their back catalogs onto DVD with abandon, regardless of original success. The range of material available on disc is staggering, ranging from favorites such as Scooby-Doo, to cult hits like The Critic, to forgotten series like King Arthur and the Knights of the Round, which I honestly think about five people have seen.
Of course, the amount of effort put into these releases varies by studio and title. Warner Home Video is perhaps the most notable for
in-depth collector’s sets, as they have done with Looney Tunes and Popeye. However, they are also more willing than other studios to release far more obscure efforts, such as Hanna-Barbera’s Wait Til Your Father Gets Home. Fox is not nearly as elaborate but most of its animated comedies have received good treatment. Disney has released stunning sets of its animated features and a popular line of “Disney Treasures” encompassing its shorts and early TV work. Yet the Mouse’s TV releases have been half-hearted at best, having started season set efforts on its Disney Afternoon shows only to abandon many of them halfway through.
Somewhat surprisingly, some of the retro animated works from the 80s have gotten the most lavish special edition treatments. Batman: The Animated Series is a far more acclaimed series than He-Man, yet it is the latter that got a fully deluxe special edition treatment. Shows as diverse as Dungeons and Dragons, Super Mario Bros. Super Show, and Defenders of the Earth have achieved complete series DVD releases and are available for new generations to discover. However, Tiny Toon Adventures, Gargoyles, and Spider-Man (1994) only have partial releases on DVD. This is a curious trend, though it speaks more to the people producing these releases.
The more obscure animated shows tend to be handled by distributors that deal in obscure products, such as Shout! Factory. Frequently, the DVD producer is either familiar with or a fan of the show; great care is therefore taken to make the experience authentic. Many of the major studios, however, see these releases merely as a back catalog. Often times they receive new cover art and a special feature or two, but that’s the extent of the release. Some studios have recognized this limitation. To its credit, Sony gave Real Ghostbusters not to its internal DVD unit, but to Time-Life, which blessed the series with a feature-packed Andy Mangels produced release.
Keeping with the more specialized product lines, anime came into its own on DVD. Anime buyers in the VHS era were faced with the eternal question: “Should I buy the English dub or the subtitled Japanese release?” DVD eliminated the need to make that choice; the format’s specifications include multiple language streams and text overlay capabilities. In other words, dub and sub could live harmoniously on one disc. Thus, DVD was right there as anime began to hit the mainstream to become the main marketing thrust of Suncoast.
With the legitimacy of DVD came the validation of the original DVD feature. For years, the term “Direct-to-DVD” was synonymous with “completely unwatchable”. While that stigma still exists, animation studios have begun to view the channel as a market for the stories it could not tell on advertiser-backed television. Warner Bros. is making a particularly strong effort through its DC division, with Bruce Timm executive producing a series of faithful adaptations of DC heroes. Marvel is taking a similar tack, and Film Roman has already produced a successful animated DTV of Hellboy. It’s also telling that Futurama’s resurrection was initially through the DTV channel (with new episodes heading to Comedy Central).
DVD has changed the animation industry on a fundamental level. It’s given rise to new methods of interaction, and it has upended traditional distribution mechanics. However, studios are beginning to look beyond the now-venerable format, and to the future.
A future that is by no means certain.