iTunes Extras - a start at least

Well it’s a start.

It’s always interesting to see when Apple put a new element into the media mix. With iTunes extras, they’ve placed a marker in the sand, acknowledging the need to address additional content. but they have not provided a full solution. That’s a while away. I think that’s probably Apple’s take on this too, given the short amount of time it got at the presentation in San Francisco for iTunes 9. The independent sector is in full flight at the moment examining new ways of engaging audiences using additional content amongst other things, but there’s only studio offerings here.

Apple have taken one thing on board, that digital downloads provide a thin experience compared to DVD. The additional material is popular and acts as a piracy deterrent. Up till this point it has also been a deterrent to buying on iTunes. The public would sooner own a DVD with extras for the same money as a download. This decision is a step towards addressing that. Kudos to Apple for being the first major player in the market to step in and start providing a solution. But my hunch is that Apple have taken an interim measure to see how this shakes out. This has the vague air of the AppleTV about it in terms of Apple’s commitment.

iTunes extras are essentially websites bundled into a package for download. iTunes has Webkit built in for quite a while, it’s what the iTunes Store is built upon. As such the extras are designed for a specific screen size, resizing windows won’t scale anything, it’s a set frame. This means it won’t migrate to the iPhone or iPod Touch. it certainly could work well on an AppleTV, but there’s no news on that possibility. AppleTVs would need a system update, which is probably in the works, it would make sense. The extras would also have a lot of appeal on a future tablet which Apple may release.

When you download one, you get two files, the main movie file and the extras version, which also includes the main movie file. The main movie file is presumably for popping on your iPhone or AppleTV, the extras version is for watching on your computer. So flexible on one hand but, given the repetition, a bit clunky on the other. it would have been smarter to see a version that knew what it was playing on, but that’s not how they’ve been built, and it’s not how iTunes works. The Wall-E movie file is about 1.4 Gb and the Extras version was 1.8Gb, pretty big chunks of data given space and download caps. This clunkiness extends unfortunately and has implications.

The first howl of protest you’ll hear from the buyer is ‘No commentaries?’ and on first look through the offerings, there’s none. A closer look shows why.

The way iTunes extra versions are set up means that the original movie file, which comes with two soundtracks, stereo and surround, is bundled into the package. For Apple to provide a director’s commentary, it would have to be included in the main movie file as an alternate soundtrack. Or they would have to bundle into the extras version a different movie file with a commentary included. However...

- that movie file would have become more attractive to pirates. Metadata like commentaries are key now in providing a richer experience away from piracy. Studios may be slow to release this increasingly valuable additional material, this may be a negotiation issue.

- there could also be a technical issue, stemming out of the overall structure of an iTunes extra file. For example, there would have to be some way of having a movie file play with one soundtrack and not another from a javascript instruction. I’m unaware of that being a possibility, perhaps at some point.

So you’ll see a lot of ‘introduced by the director’ pre-scenes as well as deleted scenes with extensive introductions and afterwords, certainly in the Wall-E iTunes Extras version. Apple are seeking to re-invent a little here, skirting around the missing commentary. I wonder what process the films which are included went through with the iTunes team, would be interesting to hear. Clearly a fuller, deeper look at how metadata and films are to be presented digitally is still a ways off.

And on the front line? Indie filmmakers know that, like musicians before them, it’s increasingly all about a direct relationship with the audience and building up a conversation with them. Compared to real time interaction, continuously developing material and new forms of cross platform material, the iTunes extras look a little dated, taking on some of the aspects of the DVD which they seek to replace.
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