Think about your favorite movie. Maybe you saw it in theaters a half-dozen times and then on DVD a few dozen more. Maybe you read all the books and online articles about it that exist. Maybe you think you’ve learned everything you can about the making of your favorite piece of art. Well, chances are, you haven’t. But how can you learn more? How can you interact with your favorite movies and the people who made them more than you already have? The answer is movie commentaries.
Movie commentaries are normally defined as audio tracks, meant to be listened to concurrently with a film, that comment on or add context to the movie being watched in real-time. These commentaries can be informative, descriptive or entertaining, but they regularly include exclusive, insider information from filmmakers or actors that audiences may not get anywhere else. Commentaries made by non-filmmakers may include jokes, insight or any other sort of entertaining information that also enhances the movie-watching experience.
Movie commentaries began to grow in popularity in the mid-to-late 1990s, as both the Laserdic and DVD format began to grow popular in the US and abroad. From the early stages of the format, DVDs featured deleted or behind the scenes content, and it wasn’t long until filmmakers and distributors began to see the value in including commentaries in special edition releases.
This was a surprisingly novel idea though, as evident in the Entertainment Weekly review for the Contact (1997) DVD in which writer Steve Daly said “Who in the universe would want to journey through more than eight hours of gassy, how-we-filmed-the-nebulae trivia included in this “Special Edition” disc? Meant to show off DVD’s enormous storage capacity, it only demonstrates its capacity to accommodate mountains of filler.” As it turned out, lots of moviegoers were hungry for those eight hours of trivia.
As movie commentaries became more and more common and, perhaps most importantly, easier to make, directors of all kinds began to see the value in them. Some filmmakers, like Hostel and Cabin Fever director Eli Roth, quickly identified movie commentaries as a great way to help young filmmakers or film students learn the trade. Others saw them as a fantastic way to explain their intentions or methods. Celebrated director David Fincher (Fight Club, Gone Girl) recorded four separate commentary tracks for his film 1995 Se7en, and the American director has been a vocal proponent for them his entire career, as have other big-name filmmakers like Spike Lee, Paul Thomas Anderson, Michael Bay and Ridley Scott.
The thing that most all “traditional” movie commentaries had in common is that they added something new to the movie-watching experience. Audiences rarely watched movies for the first time with a commentary track, so filmmakers had to be sure to include content in their commentaries that ensured they were worth listening to. Actors may have explained how they prepared for a role or how many takes something took, and directors may have spoken on what cameras they used for a scene or how they might have achieved certain effets. It was all about giving information that made watching the film just a little bit different or more interesting than the first time.
However, around the same time, a different kind of movie commentary began to become popular: comedic ones. Led by the cult television hit Mystery Science Theater 3000, a new subgenre of commentaries began to become popular — one where, instead of explaining the film’s origins or describing what’s happening in it, the hosts made jokes or performed improvisational comedy in relation to what they saw on screen. In Mystery Science Theater 3000, characters riffed over B-movie footage or old educational films, almost always completely changing the context of the original footage for comedic effect. This was a new kind of art all on its own, and shows like Mystery Science Theater helped to lay the groundwork for the immensely popular would of comedic movie commentaries today. This, alongside the rise in commentaries from non-filmmakers like those from famed critic Roger Ebert, was just a preview of what was to come, as it shows how movie commentaries slowly started shifting away from directors or actors to other content creators and movie-goers themselves.
Then, something changed the world of movie commentaries forever: the internet. Now, with online access, anyone could make movie commentaries and share them with an audience. This opened up all sorts of possibilities. Firstly, it made the traditional, director-focussed commentary more easily accessible as the tracks were no longer hidden behind DVD or Laserdisc purchases. However, it also made comedic and amatuer commentaries all the more easy to make and share. Comedians and podcasters all across the globe were now able to get together, joke over their favorite movies, and distribute those tracks for free. Drinking games and Mystery Science Theater clones abounded, and it wasn’t long before podcast fans all around the world were able to feel like their favorite hosts were in the room watching their favorite movies with them.
Now, in 2021 with platforms like Revid, any content creator with basic audio equipment can record and share movie commentaries directly with their audience. And, while in the initial days of internet commentary tracks one had to carefully line up the starting points of the film and commentary, even that is no longer a barrier. Featuring a browser addon that monitors the current position of a streamed movie and automatically adjusts the commentary to ensure the two are synchronized, platforms like Revid have made the already simple process of sharing movie commentaries all the more easy.
Movie commentaries have come a long way since their beginning on the DVD, but they are still an fascinating, engaging and fun way to interact with your favorite movies, filmmaker and content creators online. We encourage you to look for commentaries for your favorite movies or from your favorite creators and then, if you’re up for it, consider making one yourself!