- Aspect Ratios and Joe Six-Packs:Home Theater Enthusiasts' Battle to Legitimize the DVD Experience
After its official U.S. debut on 24 March 1997 the DVD format did the one thing most people least expected: it took off. The first successful home-video format launched in almost two decades, the DVD has proven to be the most rapidly adopted entertainment format ever, even besting the music CD. Grosses of DVD sales now regularly rival and often surpass theatrical box office receipts. By 2001, only four years after its introduction on the market, consumer spending on DVDs had surpassed spending on videotapes (Lyman), and now nearly 57 million U.S. households have at least one DVD player. In 2003 consumers spent $16.3 billion renting and buying DVDs, which represents 72 percent of all home video transactions. DVD sales alone were $11.6 billion in 2003, a 33 percent increase over 2002 (Netherby and Hettrick).
With its superior audio and video quality and capacity to store a wide array of supplementary materials—from documentaries, to audio commentaries, to deleted scenes, to trailers–—the DVD is a cineaste's home video dream come true. However, widespread adoption of the DVD format by the general public has been a mixed blessing for this group. Unlike the previous format of choice for film enthusiasts, the laserdisc, the DVD is no longer the sole domain of hard-core film buffs and has developed in the last few years into a site of contest between an elite class of cineastes and a more general mass audience. In the course of the resulting debates these two groups of viewers have expressed markedly different taste preferences in which understandings of how films should be presented in the home and the very nature of the home viewing environment itself are at stake.
This article examines how the experience of viewing films in the home theater environment is understood by home theater enthusiasts and how issues of class and taste are negotiated by this group in debates about what constitutes a "legitimate" viewing experience in the domestic space. In many ways mirroring the emergence of cinema itself, "dogged . . . by intellectuals trying to understand it or, more often, trying to set it properly on its way" (Andrew 11), home theater enthusiasts attempt to shape a particular mode of film presentation and viewing for the home theater environment by denouncing competing modalities as lesser, inappropriate, or "illegitimate" uses of DVD technology. While the outcome of these debates remains uncertain, efforts to discursively delimit the space of home viewing involve several distinct strategies by cineaste consumers to assert an identity not only for the home theater but for themselves. Claiming a technical and cultural knowledge that is coupled within these debates to particular class distinctions, this group attempts to distance itself from the taste preferences of what it constructs as a less discriminating and misguided mass audience whose own views are in need of remediation. The analysis that follows contextualizes these debates, explores the discursive strategies demonstrated therein, and discusses their ramifications for understanding the future of the DVD format in the home viewing environment.
The Home Theater Space
As Frederick Wasser puts it, "In show biz terminology, video may be the biggest thing that has happened to the movies since sound" (194). Since home video's introduction in the mid-1970s and its achievement of full market stability in the mid-1990s (which may have helped the DVD find solid footing so quickly), the ability of audiences to watch feature films in the home environment on their own time has significantly changed the landscape ofthe film industry. Video, as Wasser shows, altered the style in which films are made, changed how films are advertised, led to massive new forms of revenue that helped [End Page 58] the Hollywood studios ascend to the top of the global filmmaking industry, and encouraged the buildup of media conglomerates and the breakdown of large television networks. It also made critical aspects of the relationship between cultural producers and consumers increasingly difficult to ignore; despite their initial characterizations in industry discourse as a passive mass, home video consumers proved themselves to be an active...