An Apple Original on DVD: The Definitive Unboxing and UX Review

In front of me is something that feels impossible:

This is a legal, officially sanctioned DVD of the movie CODA, an Apple Original (Apple Inc.’s name for their exclusive original movies on the Apple TV+ streaming service). This is not just any DVD, this is a DVD from the consumer electronics company that arguably has done more to bury DVDs than any other.

In its quest for thinness, lower power usage, and ever-quieter hardware, the company killed its last computer with a built-in optical drive more than five years ago, but the writing had been on the wall long before even that. Even earlier, when Blu-Ray won the format war for spinning disc distribution of movies in HD, Apple shrugged. Steve Jobs famously called the format “a bag of hurt” for its onerous licensing and ungainly technology stack; Phil Schiller, then the company’s head of marketing, suggested the best way to watch movies in HD on a Mac was through the iTunes Store. This was before the modern era of subscription streaming services and exclusive originals, but Apple eventually made that pivot.

So why does this DVD exist? Apple’s recent history, plus their new focus on exclusive material for subscribers suggests it shouldn’t1. It’s the same reason the movie was shown in theaters: it’s awards season, baby!

The Oscars’ theatrical requirements have been an infamous bone of contention for streaming media, but industry insiders have long been able to prepare for awards season at home. Distributors seeking votes send the “screeners” you may have heard of to members of the production guilds, critic associations, academy members, etc – any organization with members voting in film awards. While the option to stream screeners now exists2, DVD screeners remain a product in the industry’s lineup. Presumably, the stereotypical 85 year-old Oscar voter can’t be trusted to have good internet, and so the discs keep coming. As a member of the illuminati one of these groups, I was bemused to see that Apple’s quest for awards show clout has led to me receiving a DVD of an Apple Original in my latest screener haul. Like all Apple products, it deserves a thorough review.

Enough preamble, already. Let’s unbox!

The mailing envelope is an unassuming, but pleasant enough, black. Many screeners are shipped in business envelopes, so we’re already starting ahead of the pack.

In keeping with industry custom, a friendly letter with a synopsis and a stern warning against pirating (or indeed, doing anything with the film other than watching it once prior to the end of awards season) is included. Let’s take a closer look at that letter:

Warning: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to five years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.

DVDs cannot be donated because of the watermark and anti-piracy concerns. Once you have finished watching and/or the awards season is over, you should cut your DVDs in half to make sure that they cannot be copied after you dispose of them.

If you’re having technical difficulties or your DVD arrives damaged, please email [redacted]@apple.com for a replacement.

This is (amazingly) standard stuff. These letters often instruct the recipients to destroy the screeners before disposal; perhaps a dumpster diving stalker who knows you have the hookup is biding time outside your house, waiting to to retrieve that sweet, sweet, DVD action. (The way in which it is to be destroyed isn’t always described with this level of specificity, but it’s not unheard of.) If anyone has ever followed these instructions, I wonder how such a person deals with the warnings for appliances.

One has to wonder who at Apple got the short straw of monitoring the screener problems email account. Eddy Cue?

Just look at this beautiful envelope! At last, Apple prioritizing form over function!

Think I’m joking? Let’s compare with a non-Apple screener disc:

Behold the abomination that is the packaging for nearly all screeners. The gap in the right side of this envelope is tight, and there’s no easy way to grip the disc or loosen the sleeve; it’s surprisingly frustrating to pull the disc out. What led to this? Maybe someone wanted it to be the same height as a regular commercial DVD case, but those at least have the benefit of the handy toothed hubs to make retrieval and storage easy. On top of that, a keen eye may have already caught an extra paper cut in this example: this is a Blu-ray disc screener3, which means that the packaging is not even the correct imitation size (commercial Blu-rays come in containers shorter than DVDs). Three cheers to Apple’s envelope: if you’re going to do an envelope and not a case, own it, and make it easy.

The packaging isn’t a slam dunk, sadly. The disc was facing the same direction as the envelope in the earlier picture, right?

Wrong. The sleeve is rear-facing here, but the disc was facing front. Made possible by this misleading label:

For whatever reason, Apple chose to etch the label onto the naked, reflected surface, forgoing the more common practice of printing the label. Perhaps it has some retro charm, if you’re of the generations that remember the earliest audio CDs. But this is 2022, and we now expect more from our optical media’s packaging. Underwhelming aesthetics aside, this is just an invitation for accidental backwards storage, and subsequent fingerprints and scratches.

A mixed bag on the unboxing experience, overall. But how is the UX of the disc?

After the customary reminder that no, really, we are not sending you this movie to copy it to all of your friends, we get a blessedly simple menu with two buttons. Pick one of these and we’re off to the races! No animations, no waiting: load the disc, get in, and just watch the damn movie. This is standard for a screener disc, but let’s take a diversion to say that DVD menus are the original sin of physical media, and media companies should be banned from creating Interactive Experiences™ with the full force of the law. (Humorously, one of the reasons Steve Jobs called Blu-ray a bag of hurt was its baroque menu system, which for some reason tasks media companies with writing a Java app.) In summary: media companies should not be allowed to write apps4, and every DVD and Blu-ray should be like this.

CODA extensively uses American Sign Language, with subtitles for those of us not fluent in ASL. These are encoded in a subtitle track and overlaid by your DVD player at playback. This is to be expected, but DVD subtitles are crummy, with low-resolution text and unappealing typography5. Subtitles burned in to the video track, while vulgar and not the modern style, would arguably look nicer. Perhaps taking the Warner Bros route of sending Blu-rays with superior subtitles is against the screener mission of being as accessible to people who haven’t touched their AV setup since 1999 as possible, but this is a bummer nonetheless. Of course, the real loser here is humor: the only thing that could have made this endeavor more ironic would have been if it were a Blu-ray. Regardless, Apple’s longstanding and institutional affinity for typography is, sadly, not on display.

Fortunately, the DVD is as well-authored as can be expected. While it feels gross to watch a brand-new movie in standard definition in 2022, you can’t beat the price (free, should the circumstances and choices of your life get you access).

Despite some quibbles, this is an auspicious debut for Apple’s original entertainment on physical media. The superior mailing and packaging experience is to be commended. Fingers crossed for better disc labeling and a more historically amusing format choice next year!

UPDATE: The screeners have paid off, as CODA won the Best Picture Oscar last night. Some thoughts on this historical marker here.

Footnotes

1It’s not unheard of for Apple’s original movies to have a physical media release but it seems to be the exception, not the rule. Worth noting the first movie to do so wasn’t entirely in-house at Apple: A24 was the theatrical distributor for On The Rocks, which predates Apple’s in-house production company. ↩️

2Streamed screeners has many qualities appealing to the film distribution companies and annoying to recipients: they can be locked to an account or passkey, and access can be revoked after awards season is over. I am dubious as to whether this actually has the ability to put a dent in widespread screener piracy, but such concerns have not bothered the companies in the past. On the plus side, even the worst screening platform is going to have better video quality than a DVD these days. ↩️

3In a first, this year some screeners from Warner Bros were sent on Blu-Ray; that’s of no help to the purported “Oscar voter watching on a CRT TV and DVD player setup untouched since 1999” but it is a gift to Dune nerds in the industry who are a stickler for quality. ↩️

4Is it any wonder that no one enjoys their streaming apps? ↩️

5Perhaps some modern players can render the text in HD? Even if they can, it won’t be a universal experience. ↩️

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