My Two Cents
Saturday, 31 December 2022 23:04

A Moment of Reflection: Looking Back on Twenty-Five Years of The Digital Bits!

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On this final day of 2022, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the past year and, really, on the past twenty-five years here at The Digital Bits website.

First though, our own Michael Coate has just delivered one final History, Legacy, and Showmanship retrospective for the year, a look back at Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial in celebration of the film’s 40th anniversary. The piece features another epic and multi-page roundtable interview with film experts and historians. Note that the piece will also be updated early in the new year with additional images and information, but the interview as it is is thorough and well worth your time, so be sure to check it out.

Now then… it’s an extraordinary thing to look back at twenty-five years of this website, a site I first started back in 1997 to cover the advent of DVD and to introduce the appreciation of cinema to a wider audience. As a film student at the Universal of Wisconsin in Madison, I had the honor of studying the subject under two of the finest film historians and theorists working today, David Boardwell and Kristin Thompson, not to mention the pleasure of discovering not just the Hollywood classics but the wider world of international cinema. And it’s been my goal—both then and now—to share that love and joy of discovery with everyone who might be interested. [Read on here...]

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As a working video producer in the late 1990s, I had a unique window on the development of DVD. So when the format finally launched in ’97, I had access to many of the leading minds in the home entertainment industry. The Bits began as an email newsletter, and grew so quickly that I began posting news updates on my personal Earthlink page instead. But within a month, it got so much traffic that Earthlink actually called and strongly advised me to purchase a domain name, set up a dedicated server, and run the site as a business. So almost overnight, The Digital Bits went from a hobby to a calling, not to mention a full-time job.

(And for those of you who began reading The Bits from the very beginning, here’s a reminder of what the site looked like.)

To be fair, if someone had told me back then that I’d spend the next quarter of a century as the editor-in-chief of The Bits, I’d have said they were crazy. Back in 1997, the very idea of a website was still relatively new. But The Bits benefitted from the fact that—at the time—few other publications (and virtually no websites outside of a couple of BBS/discussion forums) were talking about the DVD format. For this reason, our first readers included an extraordinary who’s who of filmmakers, producers, and studio executives.

To my surprise, one of the first calls I ever received was from Warner Home Video’s then director of publicity, Ronnee Sass. I learned that WHV president Warren Lieberfarb, widely regarded today as the Godfather of DVD, was a fan of The Bits. The pair provided extraordinary access to everything the studio was working on with regard to the format, and opened many doors within the industry for me.

Another early phone call led to a meeting at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that was just as surprising: A startup called Netflix was planning to rent DVDs by mail, and they wanted to advertise on The Bits. So and almost overnight, we had servers, contributing staff writers, studio support, advertising, and a rapidly-growing audience of readers around the world—over a million and a half unique readers a year—all of whom were eager for news about their favorite films coming to videodisc.

Since then, I’ve served as an industry consultant, been quoted and interviewed on cable news, co-written an Amazon top-selling book (with Todd Doogan via McGraw Hill, The Digital Bits: Insider’s Guide to DVD), authored dozens of magazine articles (for Widescreen Review, Home Media Retailing, Geek Monthly, and others), thousands of disc reviews and news columns, and guided the site through the dawn of DVD, two format wars (the outcome of which we correctly predicted from the start), and the advent of HD on Blu-ray and 4K on Ultra HD, not to mention lossless audio and eventually Digital streaming.

Back in 1997, more than one person wondered why I hadn’t used the word “DVD” in naming the site, but it was clear to me even then that “digital” was the key thing—not the delivery format itself, which would come and go with time.

Over the years, of course, we’ve seen the growth of movie fandom (and sadly, seen fandom in general grow a little meaner and less patient with the rise of social media and YouTube). But I’ve also personally been encouraged by the discovery that each new generation is just as hungry to discover and immerse themselves in the film experience as I was when I first started out.

We’ve seen the way global events like 9/11 and COVID have impacted the home entertainment business. We’ve seen a dramatic evolution in the quality of the home entertainment experience, having gone from watching SD LaserDisc movies on analog 4x3 displays to 16x9, digital high-definition, and now 4K releases that are nearly equal to the very best theatrical experiences. And we’ve watched home theater go mainstream, as the costs to enjoy that experience have dropped lower and lower. Of late we’ve even seen a mini renaissance in physical media, as studios that had previously rushed head-long into streaming rediscovered the value of discs when the pandemic shut down the theatrical business. So I continue to believe that discs will be around at least until the end of this decade.

For me, as someone who’s been in this industry for thirty years now—and who’s written about film for most of that time—my love of storytelling has only grown, not just on the big and small screens but also on the page. And as much as I love cinema, I’ve come to love writing even more, first as a critic and columnist, then in the role of historian, and most recently as a novelist, which is an endeavor I hope to share with all those of you who might be interested in 2023 and beyond. (Twenty-five years spent analyzing narrative structure makes that progression almost inevitable.)

It hasn’t always been easy. Keeping The Bits website going through changing formats, the constant need to upgrade our hardware and software, the evolving threat of cybersecurity, and increasingly difficult economic times—including multiple recessions—has been a steep challenge indeed. More than once I’ve been temped to pack it in as I’ve watched other websites fold and friends move on to new pursuits.

But the greatest reward—and my greatest pleasure—lies in the many friendships I’ve made along the way, be they with fellow Bits contributors, industry colleagues, or longtime readers of this site. That human connection is what life is all about, and sharing the things you love with others is what makes that life worth living.

It goes without saying that I would like to thank our outstanding staff of editors, writers, columnists, and programmers here at The Bits, including Tim Salmons, Stephen Bjork, Michael Coate, Dennis Seuling, Sarah Hunt, Bud Elder, and Johnnie Young, not to mention our outstanding server and infrastructure team led by Donnie Rollins and Mike Hill. I love you guys, I’m proud of you, and I appreciate you all.

Special thanks are also owed to the many Bits staffers who’ve made significant and invaluable contributions to the site in the past, particularly Todd Doogan, Adam Jahnke, Matt Rowe, and Barrie Maxwell, but also Mark A. Altman, Joe Marchese, Mario Boucher, Russell Hammond, Robert A. Harris, Jeff Kleist, Greg Suarez, Brad Pilcher, Brian Ford Sullivan, Dan Kelly, Robert Siegel, Frank Ortiz, Jim Taylor, Bob Banka, Rob Hale, Florian Kummert, Graham Greenlee, Dallas Ragan, Chris Maynard, Andy Patrizio, Donald V. Day, Drew Feinberg, Stacey Locke, and Josh Lehman. (If I forgot anyone, please forgive me! Drop me an email and I’ll add you to the list.) I love and appreciate each of you as well. The Bits would never have become The Bits without you.

Thanks are owed to our many friends, supporters, sources, and colleagues within the film and home entertainment industries too, a complete list of whom—if one could even be accurately compiled—would surely number at least a thousand people. You folks all know who you are, and know that I value every single one of you. But I must certainly mention Garrett Lee and Martin Blythe, both of whom were early supporters of The Bits, Dave and Linda Lukas (of the legendary and sorely missed Dave’s Video in Studio City), and most especially Ronnee and Warren.

Finally, my thanks to each and every reader of The Digital Bits, both new and old—those who subscribed to that very first newsletter, those of you who discovered the site during the format wars, and those many of you who are still with us today.

I’m really very grateful for all of you. Thanks for twenty-five wonderful years and many more ahead.

So with that… Happy New Year from all of us here at The Digital Bits! And may the coming months bring all of us joy, friendship, and plenty of great movies to watch on Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD!

See you in 2023, my friends.

(You can follow Bill on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook)



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