20th Century Fox used to be one of the most respected film studios in the business. Its catalog of films is virtually legendary: Miracle on 34th Street (the 1947 version, not the 1994 remake), The Day the Earth Stood Still (the 1951 classic, not the crappy remake from last year), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Seven Year Itch, the original Planet of the Apes film series, Young Frankenstein, the Star Wars films, the Alien series, The Princess Bride, Wall Street, Home Alone, Die Hard, and dozens of others.

In 2008, however, it went from a respected studio to one big joke, thanks to the fact that starting at the end of ’07 and continuing through all of ’08, the majority of the films it released either barely broke even or were outright box-office flops (Space Chimps, Max Payne, Australia, Meet Dave, The Rocker, and City of Ember, among others). While other studios were turning out blockbusters that earned $100 million like clockwork, Fox was fumbling the ball over and over again. For instance, it released The X-Files: I Want to Believe in the second week of The Dark KnightÁ¢€â„¢s phenomenal run last summer, not to mention about ten years after anyone — even hard-core Files fans — could bring themselves to care; it interfered with the production of the Vin Diesel vehicle Babylon A.D., which, admittedly, would have probably failed no matter what; and it spurred fanboy wrath by suing Warner Bros. for profits from Watchmen, profits that Fox arguably didn’t deserve.

Now it’s reached a new low by revealing that from now on all extras — commentaries, background features, deleted scenes, etc. — on DVDs of its films won’t be included on any discs designed for rental purposes. This means that if you rent your DVDs from Blockbuster or some other store or service (possibly Netflix — more on that in a second), you wonÁ¢€â„¢t have the option to decide if you like the extras enough to later buy the DVD — youÁ¢€â„¢ll be forced to buy them from stores, sight unseen, and have to hope that the extras are special enough to warrant the purchase of the disc, regardless of how you feel about the film.

This misguided attempt by Fox to force consumers to buy its DVDs in order to shore up flagging sales within the industry — and, more accurately, to force consumers to buy DVDs of crappy Fox releases like The Happening — is currently the subject of a hot debate across the Internet. The policy goes into effect on March 31 with the release of Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire (Fox’s “indie” division, Fox Searchlight, can at least lay claim to Slumdog, The Wrestler, and Juno in the past 15 months) and Marley & Me, one of the studioÁ¢€â„¢s only unqualified hits in ’08. Other Fox films, like the much-ballyhooed The Wrestler, will also undergo this new “upgrading.” Many movie fans are in an uproar over the decision, while some feel that such a choice on the studioÁ¢€â„¢s part wonÁ¢€â„¢t really matter to the so-called Á¢€Å“layman,” i.e. everyday audience members who donÁ¢€â„¢t buy DVDs for the extras but rather just for the film itself.

HereÁ¢€â„¢s the problem with this second line of reasoning, though: until the advent of Star Wars, most fans didnÁ¢€â„¢t really care how films were made. But when George LucasÁ¢€â„¢s original opus was released in 1977 and he began letting fans in on the process of how he made his masterpiece, the Á¢€Å“laymanÁ¢€ began to get interested in how films were made, and over time became almost as knowledgeable about the process as devoted film students, critics, and academics. In turn, once DVDs came along in the late ’90s, studios released more and more behind-the-scenes extras on DVDs, not only to boost sales but also to satisfy a new generationÁ¢€â„¢s need for info on how their favorite films were put together.

This decision by Fox is, in and of itself, a terrible one. For one thing, the studio is being stupid and selfish, but if it’s successful, other studios could follow suit. This would be damaging to the DVD industry overall, as many smaller films that most folks casually pass by on store shelves might never be seen if viewers canÁ¢€â„¢t preview the behind-the-scenes features when renting said films. Much of the newer generation of moviegoers isnÁ¢€â„¢t familiar withÁ‚ films like the original La Femme Nikita; Ang LeeÁ¢€â„¢s latest and greatest, Lust, Caution; the cult ’70s TV series Kolchak: The Night Stalker; or the great British series Ultraviolet. All of them include fantastic and insightful extras on their discs; if other studios choose to follow FoxÁ¢€â„¢s game plan and film fans rent these discs from Blockbuster or some other source but canÁ¢€â„¢t preview the extras, no matter how much they like the film or series contained within, they may choose to put off purchasing them, especially in a recession as bad as the one weÁ¢€â„¢re in. And as we all know, most times when someone puts off buying a DVD, they tend to forget about it after a while. ItÁ¢€â„¢s the ultimate out-of-sight-out-of-mind: Á¢€Å“Yeah, IÁ¢€â„¢ve been meaning to buy that. IÁ¢€â„¢ll get to it … eventually.Á¢€ But they donÁ¢€â„¢t, so great films like Ed HarrisÁ¢€â„¢s Appaloosa, which has some insightful extras, languish on the shelf. (It failed at the box office last fall due to New Line/WarnerÁ¢€â„¢s lack of a strong marketing campaign.)

ItÁ¢€â„¢s uncertain yet whether FoxÁ¢€â„¢s new policy will affect Netflix, which does allow customers to rent discs with special features like commentaries and making-of documentaries. More than likely it will, as Fox isnÁ¢€â„¢t exactly known for playing fair with the talent (directors, writers, actors) it employs. For rental retailers there’s the legal option of purchasing special-feature DVDs from Best Buy, Wal-Mart, or other outlets and then renting them to customers, but what retailer in his right mind would want to buy a dozen copies of Australia or Meet Dave at standard prices and then hope to recoup his losses on such a purchase?

Thus far, other studios arenÁ¢€â„¢t planning to follow the Fox example. Warner Bros., free of their Fox partnership to develop the Watchmen DVD on their own, will release an extended version of the film with a boatload of extras. These of course will be available to rental retailers as well as for public purchase. The problem still remains, however: Will FoxÁ¢€â„¢s move to force customers to buy DVDs sight unseen if they want extra features be successful? And if so, will other studios follow in due course? If The Dark Knight hadn’t been available for rent with extras attached, it would’ve been a success in direct purchase sales anyway. But what about films like Marvel/Universal’s Incredible Hulk or little gems such as Dark Horse IndieÁ¢€â„¢s My Name Is Bruce? The latter failed at both the box office and on the DVD purchase level thanks to New Line/WarnerÁ¢€â„¢s unwillingness to pour money into advertising, yet the extras on the DVD, for the most part, make the film worth owning. Again, if such a film were more widely known but a potential viewer couldnÁ¢€â„¢t judge it by the DVD extras in a rental situation, it would die a quicker death at the purchase level.

By vowing to remove all extras from DVD rentals, 20th Century Fox continues to prove that not only does it not possess any respect for general audiences, moreover it couldn’t care less. What comes next? When X-Men Origins: Wolverine comes to DVD a few months after its May theatrical release, will Fox decide to cut out all scenes featuring Hugh Jackman at the rental level so that you have to purchase the DVD in order to see him in the film? This may sound a bit Machiavellian, but for a studio as money-grubbing as Fox, one never knows.