Site created 12/15/97.
page created: 9/8/99
The Digital Bits:
Behind-the-Scenes at a DVD
by Bill Hunt (with Todd
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
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
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
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
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
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.
editor and founder Bill Hunt (left) at his work station,
supervised by his ever vigilant cat, Lucy.
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
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
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
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
To: Bill Hunt [email@example.com]
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?
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
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
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
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
To: Bill Hunt [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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.
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.
webmasters, Hunt is a familiar sight
at industry events, meeting executives and fans.
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.