by Neil Sieling

The independent media field has been following with interest and perhaps some trepidation the rise of the DVD, and trying to image the affect it will have on the production and distribution of independent films and videos. Of course, each new technological innovation for the production and/or distribution of media (videocassettes, interactive CD-ROMs, the Internet, DVDs) carries the promise of helping independent media makers get their work out to the world. Some of the promises of those older technologies were never realized (e.g. the educational market suffered during the transition from film to VHS tapes). Certainly, some of the promise of DVD will not play out in the very real, very difficult world of independent media distribution. However, DVD has definitely made itself a force in the field. Now seems a good moment to reflect on the changes that came with DVD and what it portends for the future for independent media makers, producers and distributors.

Executive Summary

For all of DVD’s many virtues, it is neither a market, nor a field nor a movement by itself. Rather, it is a compendium of formats within a new generation of optical disc storage technology. DVD needs to be examined in relation to other media, social and economic systems in order to fully understand its complexity. This study will provide a snapshot of where DVD and related technologies are going, and the effect that will have on their producers, distributors and audiences.

The independent media arts field has always wrestled with how to make the best use of transitional technologies, whose development and deployment almost always emanate from sources outside of the field. While the independent media field often doesn’t have an effect on the initial deployment of new technologies, much can be done to imbue those new technologies with the values and insights of independent media culture. One argument in this study will be the importance of creating an informed, interdependent and sustainable movement to help makers, distributors and audiences adjust to the latest wave of new technologies. Rather than using its considerable creative capacity merely to react to the latest round of transitional technologies and aiming only to hold its ground, the field needs to consider new partnerships. Digital interdependence needs to succeed independence as a primary motivator in the field in order to lay the groundwork for a better future.

For example, a great portion of independent media’s value has been the quality of the work produced and the relationships forged between makers and audiences. This “relationship capital,” so integral to independent media culture, can be brought to bear using some of the new digital tools. The techniques for finding and developing audiences and a perceived sense of “us” that have been employed by “old media” practitioners can inform the development of communities with new media hardware and software.

This paper will first look at the nuts and bolts of DVD technology and its various iterations. It will also explore the economics of DVD, from why companies are interested in distributing DVD to why consumers (both individual and institutional) are interested in acquiring them. Although the DVD has become the consumer media format of choice, many independent media producers and distributors are struggling to determine whether DVD’s promise(s) will be right for their films and videos. What are the technical considerations for making a DVD? What are the costs? Does an enhanced DVD mean enhanced sales? The digital terrain is vast and almost everyone is missing one or more pieces of the puzzle. Examining both the technical and economic sides of DVD culture should help independent media makers, distributors and conduits to audiences (such as public libraries) make more informed distribution and purchasing decisions.

This study will also look at the social forces driving DVD culture and offer recommendations as to how DVD culture might achieve its full potential. Throughout, we will use case studies and detailed sidebars to illustrate some of the potential and the difficulties of DVD. Above all, this study examines the real potential for the social, economic and technological changes in the transition to DVD to help independent media get ahead instead of just making do.

The Technology

Although DVDs have rapidly supplanted VHS as the choice of consumers, what do independent media makers, distributors and audiences need to know about the technology?

The Basics

Simply put, the Digital Video Disk is essentially a high-capacity CD that can hold any digital data, including text, music and movie files. DVDs have specialized components and commands that only a DVD player can read — menus for navigation, chapters and anti-piracy capabilities. DVDs come in various formats:

  • DVD is a read-only format
  • DVD-R or DVD+R allow for one-time “writing” or copying onto the disk
  • DVD-RW or DVD+RW allow multiple writings onto the disk.

Despite the rapid transition to DVD, reliable information about the DVD and competing platforms is often contradictory or colored by the particular needs of companies within DVD culture or in competing industries. Thankfully, Jim Taylor, Chief of DVD Technology and General Manager of the Advanced Technology Group at Sonic Solutions, the leading developer of DVD and CD creation software, has published a book and created a website that demystify DVD culture. The website — — is a generous public service to the field. Its extensive set of web links, entitled DVD FAQ and found at is an invaluable reference guide, providing a counter-balance to the often one-dimensional information offered by companies and new technologies competing for attention and business. Taylor’s texts will be referred to often in this study to frame the basic facts and figures around DVD and to debunk more than a few suppositions in the process.

The Questions of Quality and Storage Space

Any discussion of DVD technology automatically leads to questions of quality and storage space. What is the relative quality of DVD to VHS? How much more can you store on a DVD compared to a VHS? And which high-definition DVD standard (HD-DVD or Blu-Ray) will win in the end?

There are many differing opinions about whether DVD really is better than VHS, and for what reasons or in what contexts. Sidebar #1: Quality Issues for DVDs outlines many of the issues surrounding that discussion. The battle between the opposing but incompatible high-definition DVD standards has been on-going, with little sign of letting up in the near future. Both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray formats have far larger storage capacity than existing DVDs. Sidebar #2: HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray: Not As Simple As VHS Versus Betamax provides some detail about the two formats.

Where to Go for More Information (and Why Is It Important to Know More?)

While there is ample “can do” energy in the field, a lot of time and effort are being wasted because of a lack of information about the digital terrain and its possibilities. Very few people and groups can adequately handle the wide range of skills and knowledge sets needed to navigate this terrain. Additionally, not enough people know where to go to find the best information and analyses.

There will always be disagreement about certain technological aspects of DVD. However, there are some well-accepted compendia of useful information on the technical side of DVD culture. The gap in finding and understanding useful information makes the independent field less informed and less competitive with other, larger commercial media entities. Having a solid base of information could help the field with strategizing and moving more quickly to be competitive in the marketplace.

Bob Bowen of CineMagnetics, one of the leading companies dealing with the duplication and replication of videotapes and DVDs, noted that “Makers often don’t have the conceptual framework to deal properly with DVDs. A lot of education is needed to get to where they can even ask for what they really need.” CineMagnetics receives a lot of business from first-timers and consequently has added a great deal of introductory material, including specifications and templates, to their website ( to educate clients and streamline the process. By educating potential customers, CineMagnetics performs a valuable service to the media arts field.

The idea of foregrounding education as a major need in the independent media arts field lacks the glamour and flair of other ventures in the digital arts. Carl Goodman, Curator of Digital Media at the American Museum of the Moving Image (AMMI), has pushed for the seemingly mundane idea of producing “operator manuals” on multiple iterations of the digital domain that might then be available to the whole field. For example, there could be dozens of PDF files on the standards and practices of distribution in the digital age, how to navigate and negotiate between particular skill sets, how to connect work to new and increasingly diverse audiences, compendia of reference texts on the histories of the field, etc. Such texts could be done at a quicker pace and also organized and disseminated in a way that could have more impact at a broader level.

Unfortunately, disseminating useful texts and information is only one part of the battle. Audiences are often behind the learning curve in some ways and ahead of it in others in terms of being equipped with new media delivery gear. The same can be said of creators and producers of independent media. Once they feel that they’ve gotten a handle on the technology involved with DVD, how do they analyze the economics of producing and distributing DVDs?