A portion of Andy Samberg stans—or, as I call them, Stanbergs—rejoiced at this week’s news that he and costar Cristin Milioti recorded a commentary track for Palm Springs, last year’s time-loop rom-com. A new cut of the film with the commentary embedded in is now available on Hulu, a first for the streamer.
Whether it’s the start of a new trend or merely a tribute to the inherent awesomeness of Palm Springs, it’s a sign of the filmgoing public’s continued interest in commentary tracks, and the fact that there is still plenty of fresh tech terrain to explore in that world. If anyone in Hollywood is taking suggestions, I certainly have one: Commentary tracks belong on podcasts, and it’s ridiculous that they’re not available that way already.
Once upon a time, DVD commentary tracks (and the laser disc versions that preceded them) were a cinephile’s best friend. They either served as crucial educational resources (“You can learn more from John Sturges’ audio track on the Bad Day at Black Rock laserdisc than you can in 20 years of film school,” Paul Thomas Anderson told the Los Angeles Times in 1999) or they were depositories for priceless gossip. Take, for instance, Ben Affleck’s legendarily punchy Armageddon chatfest. As DVD sales rapidly declined following their early-aughts peak, though, the commentary track has largely fallen out of fashion.
Not only have consumers long since gravitated away from physical media, their viewing habits have also shifted dramatically in the last decade or so—both in the way we watch and the breadth of our options. As I have previously written about at length, there are simply too many TV shows and movies to keep up with currently. (Yes, even in quarantine.) In the race to stay conversant on the latest surprise megahit, such as Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, or be able to trash Wonder Woman 1984 while the entire internet is doing so in unison, fewer and fewer people seem to take the time to sit back and watch a commentary track for a movie they already love.
While it’s exciting that Hulu is attempting to revive this practice for the streaming era, the way to generate interest is by making the aural gold that already exists more readily available, rather than creating new content. And that auditory treasure might as well live in the same place where people already know to go for recordings of other people talking: their podcasting apps.
Just as our viewing habits have shifted since the days when hordes of fans would eagerly gobble up every special feature on their Matrix Reloaded DVDs ASAP, so have our listening habits. The popularity of podcasts continues its skyward trajectory, with an estimated 1.75 million shows in 2021, a number that has reportedly tripled since just 2018, according to Podcast Insights. At least a small segment of that growth is just podcasts about movies, such as Blank Check, The Bechdel Cast, and Black Men Can’t Jump [in Hollywood].
The way directors and stars talk about their work on commentary tracks is pretty similar to the way they do as guests on these and other podcasts. As such, film buffs who listen to movie podcasts have already primed their brains to follow commentary tracks without the visual resource of the movie itself. Sure, some of those tracks in isolation would be loaded with information that lacks context or with useless tidbits like “This is actually the first scene we shot,” but that routinely happens on podcasts.
Besides, a lot of podcasts are already taking a leap by recording their own unofficial commentary tracks for fans to listen to while watching along. Behind Blank Check’s Patreon paywall, fans can find tracks from hosts Griffin Newman and David Sims dissecting every single Marvel movie, every entry in the Alien franchise, and more. Last summer, Chapo Trap House got in on the act, recording commentaries for each of the Star Wars prequels. If the listening habits of movie nerds are already trending in this direction, there is an untapped bonanza of downloads awaiting whoever can find a way to get all the official commentary tracks on iPhones everywhere.
Therein lies the problem, of course. Who is this mythical figure who can cut through the legal red tape preventing these audio files from finding a new medium? Is it Steven Spielberg? He seems like someone who could pull off such a feat. Perhaps all it would take, though, is someone like John Carpenter—a cinematic luminary with a prodigious output of commentary tracks—to lead the way. Once that door is open, much like the way Carpenter opened the door for the slasher genre, many other filmmakers would walk through it.
Imagine walking around a gorgeous lake at sunset, listening to Carpenter meticulously describe the staging of each death in the original Halloween. All the tools to make this happy future a reality already exist. Whoever puts them together will make a killing.