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The Digital Bits:
Behind-the-Scenes at a DVD Website

by Bill Hunt (with Todd Doogan)

The following article was originally published in Video Store magazine (August 29 - September 4 issue):

Editor's Note: We asked regular contributor Bill Hunt, the founder and editor of The Digital Bits, to give us a behind the scenes look at the creation and maintenance of a popular DVD Web site. We regretted it almost immediately. He insisted on talking about some person named "Doogan." Nevertheless, what follows is a detailed account of what it takes to pioneer a DVD Web site, which has attracted several hundred thousand distinct users.

It's 11 p.m. on a Wednesday night, and while most people are tucked into bed, getting that required eight hours of sleep, my work day is only half over. Since I started working on The Digital Bits some two years ago, there have been plenty of strange and unexpected twists and turns. But probably the weirdest thing that's happened is that I've seen a lot more sunrises.

It usually works like this: about 7 p.m., I sit down to work on the next day's post for the web site... and when I next look out my office window, the sun is coming up. The upshot of this strange schedule, of course, is that I'm on a first-name basis with the staff of my local Starbucks (and thankfully, I've discovered that coffee can be written off as a business expense).

Kidding aside, I love my job. But if you had told me a few years ago that I'd be the editor of an Internet web site on DVD, I'd have said you should have your head examined. I fell into this job by accident. Or maybe a better way of saying it is that this job fell on me, like one of those anvils that's always dropping out of the sky in the Looney Toons shorts.

How Did It Happen?

I'd been working in the industry for some years before I started the Web site. And I'd been following the development of DVD for years before it finally came to market. So when the format finally debuted in March of 1997, I picked up a handful of movies the first week. And, prized copy of Blade Runner in hand, I began researching online which player to buy. A week later, I purchased a Toshiba SD-3006 over the Internet, and I never looked back.

But with all the questions about DVD floating around online, I rarely found any real answers. Lots of people, for example, were dying to know when their favorite movies were coming to DVD.

Over the years, I had built up a good list of contacts within the industry, so I started making calls to get that information. And I started sharing that information on the newsgroups. The Digital Bits actually began as an online newsletter about DVD, which I e-mailed to people. Within a couple of months, my few subscribers had grown to several thousand, and I needed to figure out an easier way of doing things.

So with no Web site knowledge whatsoever, I used my personal space on Earthlink to create The Digital Bits Web site. Within a week Earthlink was calling to say that I had exceeded my traffic allowance for the month and that I should set up a business Web site. Soon I purchased a dedicated server and "thedigitalbits.com" domain name, started the web site, and served 350,000 pages my first month.

Before long, advertisers were calling me, asking how much I'd charge them to run their banners. Now, the Bits is my full-time job, and the various pages of our site are viewed well over a million times a month. We have several hundred thousand unique readers, from all over the world, including heavy industry readership. And we continue to grow.


Digital Bits editor and founder Bill Hunt (left) at his work station, supervised by his ever vigilant cat, Lucy.
Digital Bits editor and founder Bill Hunt (left) at his work station,
supervised by his ever vigilant cat, Lucy.


Is He Nuts?

You'll probably think I'm nuts to live this kind of life, but let me give you an idea of what an average day at the Bits is like.

After being up until at least 3 a.m. most nights, I'm usually up by about 11 a.m. (now that sounds terrible, doesn't it?) By the time I get to the office (giant-sized coffee in hand), there are several phone messages that need returning and probably a couple of faxes waiting as well. Then there's the e-mail. We get at least a hundred e-mails a day, sometimes more if there's big news. It isn't possible to get back to everyone, but I do read everything and try to respond the those that are most important: industry contacts, information sources or readers with problems that I can help them with.

After that's taken care of, I make calls and send e-mails of my own, to learn the latest news, sleuth out interesting bits of DVD information, fact check rumors, and the like.

Then I spend a few hours watching the latest DVD movies that the studios have sent me to review - at least one or two a day (usually while inhaling a quick dinner). And the real work hasn't even started yet.

Sometime in the evening, I begin writing the next day's post for the Web site: a listing of the day's news, some reviews, and maybe an update to the Rumor Mill (by far the most popular section of the Bits, where we post "unofficial" information on upcoming titles). Every now and again, we'll do a feature story that takes readers behind-the-scenes, or post an advance look at an upcoming disc.

As much as I love all the writing, running a Web site like this is an almost overwhelming amount of work. I think of it like publishing a magazine, except that you have to finish a new issue almost every day. Somewhere in there, I try to work in having a life, including time with my wife, Sarah (who handles most of the business end of the Bits and runs our monthly trivia contest). As she constantly reminds me, the hours we spend working on the site together don't count.

Oops - gotta take this e-mail that just came in...

From: Todd Doogan [todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com]
To: Bill Hunt [billhunt@thedigitalbits.com]
Subject: Review

Bill,

I've attached my review for Cruel Intentions. Cheesy, but not a bad flick. Sure, it's nothing compared to Dangerous Liaisons, but Phillippe does a pretty good Malkovich riff. By the way -- what are you still doing up? Go to bed. Jeez-Louise! We can work on that Video Store magazine feature later today. Hey -- when are you going to mention me?

Doogan


Ah, yes... Todd Doogan. Todd's an interesting story. About a year ago, I get an e-mail from this guy who says he writes DVD reviews for TNT's RoughCut.com. "I've got an idea to pitch to you...," he starts, and goes on to say that he only gets to write one review a week, but he'd like to do lots more, and he'd like those "lots more" to be with the Bits. Then he sends me a sample review for Sphere, and bang - just like that, he's joined the Bits.

Since that time, Todd and I have collectively written some 200 disc reviews. Todd's become a paid staffer, an all-around partner in crime, and a good friend. He and I have gotten to know each other pretty well, and we talk nearly every day. But the funny thing is... I've never met him in person. Todd lives in Atlanta, Georgia, and I'm in Irvine, California, so the opportunity has just never presented itself. And the only picture I've seen of him is a screen shot he sent me, of a cameo he did in a low-budget film called Save Yourself. Trust me - knowing Todd, it's oddly appropriate.


Hunt's partner Todd Doogan, as he appeared in the AtomBoy FilmWorks movie, Save Yourself.
Hunt's partner Todd Doogan, as he appeared in the
AtomBoy FilmWorks movie, Save Yourself.


We Get Mail

Lots of readers send us e-mail. That's really the most amazing thing about this experience - there are just thousands of people out there, who love DVD, and who want to have a voice in this format. Our readers are like friends to Todd and me, and they're always sending feedback or just sharing their own experiences with DVD. Some have concerns about a particular studio's DVD work, some may ask our advice on the best players to buy, and some just want to know when their favorite movies are coming to DVD.

Every now and again, we get some real interesting ones. Some examples: "I can't believe your review of the Armageddon DVD!! This was the best film last year, and you must be some kind of idiot for trashing it like you did!!" Or, "Why don't you review more laserdiscs? Do you hate laserdisc or something?" Or "I love your Web site, been reading for awhile - what does DVD stand for?"

Readers contacting us via e-mail is also a big part of how we've been able to develop first-rate sources for inside information. We get a lot of studio people who tell us, "You can post this, just please don't use my name." The studios would be surprised to know just how many good sources we have - people involved in every level of the DVD process - who share information. I'm happy to say that many of the people who create DVD love the format as much as we do, and are eager to chat about their work. At times, we have to walk a very narrow line between irritating the studios by posting a piece of inside information or giving consumers information that we think they need to know. Our first loyalty must be to our readers - far too often they're at the mercy of an industry that pays them little respect.

But we try to take great care - it's a responsibility that we take very seriously. And we're very open to feedback from the industry. We've developed good relationships with people at the studios, too, such that they feel comfortable talking about their DVD plans off the record, and they trust us not to post it. We respect that, absolutely. The information we post in the Rumor Mill aside (and we work very hard to make sure it's accurate), we hear many more things that we never publish.

From: Todd Doogan [todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com]
To: Bill Hunt [billhunt@thedigitalbits.com]
Subject: You still up?

Remember how I was looking for a copy of Cold Eyes of Fear on DVD the other day? I found out that there's this cool comic/CD shop called Criminal Records nearby, that's started carrying harder-to-find DVDs. So I call over there, and they have a copy. The guy on the phone asks me why I would want that disc, since it isn't exactly topping the charts. I tell him that I'm a disc critic, and I plan to review it. "Really? Locally or for a magazine?" he asks. "It's an Internet web site called The Digital Bits." His reply: "Wow -- no kidding? Which one are you, Bill or Todd?" Apparently, he reads our site, like, all the time. Sweet.

Doogan


Sweet is right. It certainly has been amazing, the people that we've learned read the Bits. I've been told that both Roger Ebert and Warren Lieberfarb check in from time to time. I recently learned that Brett Ratner read our review of his Rush Hour DVD.

While visiting one of my favorite L.A. home theater stores a few months ago, the manager was describing some of their high-profile customers - people like James Cameron - and he said to me, "You know that a lot of those guys read your site, don't you? They come in here and talk about stuff they've read on the Bits all the time." And I'm convinced that Leonard Maltin even asked George Lucas about possible Star Wars DVDs (on a recent Entertainment Tonight), based on a question I sent him via e-mail. Learning that people we admire read our work is just really mind-blowing for Todd and I.

Here's a good example: a fellow named L. Robert Morris e-mailed me about a year ago, to ask when Lawrence of Arabia might appear on DVD. The name sounded familiar, so I looked at my bookshelf, and there was my copy of Lawrence of Arabia: The Official 30th Anniversary Pictorial History, written by the very same L. Robert Morris. That sort of thing happens all the time.

Another of my favorite stories along those lines involves director Ridley Scott. Last fall, we published a story in our Rumor Mill that Fox was planning to release all of the Alien films on DVD for the original film's 20th anniversary. One of Scott's associates read our story and told him about it. Scott immediately became interested in participating, and contacted Fox about doing a special edition DVD. Scott asked his associate to supervise the project, as he was leaving for Europe to direct Gladiator. I met this person, who has since become a good friend, and helped him when he asked for advice and input on the kinds of features I felt DVD fans would most like to see on the Alien disc. My involvement was minimal, but it was still really an honor to have had a hand in it, in some small way.


Unlike many webmasters, Hunt is a familiar sight at industry events, meeting executives and fans.
Unlike many webmasters, Hunt is a familiar sight
at industry events, meeting executives and fans.


And, Finally

The bottom line at the Bits is that our goal is to support the DVD format. We've never made any bones about the fact that we're not impartial about DVD - we love this format, and we're advocates of it. We introduce new people to DVD all the time. And when a studio does good DVD work, we're happy to promote that. On the other hand, if a studio makes silly decisions, like supporting Divx (may it rest in peace), we're going to be critical. We're not going to pull any punches.

All in all, it's been a fascinating journey, these last two years at the Bits, as we've watched DVD take off. Despite all the industry nay-sayers and critics who once said that this format would never get beyond the early adopters, Todd and I knew otherwise. We knew it because we've been in the trenches every day, dealing directly with consumers - all the good, everyday people out there who have made this format succeed. Make no mistake about it, DVD is going to be around for a long time. And The Digital Bits will be there as well, to help people enjoy every moment.

What do you know? There's that pesky sun again...




Note: all photos are by Sarah Hunt, except the Save Yourself image, which is used by kind permission of AtomBoy FilmWorks.


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