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Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Wired wrestles with`King Kong'

Jonathan Bing of Wired Mag is onto a great story about the production of Peter Jackson's "King Kong" - the on-going video blogging that the director and his cast and crew have been doing from the set.

Here's a taste:

    The diaries started modestly last September as a way to give Jackson's Lord of the Rings fans a glimpse of his next project. Starring Naomi Watts as heroine Ann Darrow (the role made famous by Fay Wray), Jack Black as filmmaker Carl Denham, and Adrien Brody as writer and hero Jack Driscoll, King Kong is the most anticipated movie of the high-stakes Christmas season. By the time the film is released in December, the director will have posted nearly 100 entries, with a collective running time of six and a half hours. Edited into broadband-friendly installments of three or four minutes each, they are basically snippets that viewers usually see on the DVD: a tour of the set, a roving camera introducing key players behind the scene, a peek inside the sound booth during last-minute dubbing. But the Kongisking journals are more than a mere tease. They have blossomed into a real-time documentary about the making of King Kong, the world's first comprehensive, downloadable study of how a $175 million movie gets made, down to the last fleck of modeling clay.

The video production diaries are here, at

(Thanks to vfxblog for calling this one to my attention.)

Monday, September 26, 2005

Angels + Directors = Movies

Enric Teller, who runs a great blog called Cirne, called my attention to this SJ Mercury News article which ran earlier in September, about the FilmAngels. It's a group that connects wealthy individuals with people who are trying to make movies. (I posted about them after attending the September meeting of the group the Merc describes.)

From Glenn Lovell's piece:

    ``We think San Jose is the single best place to get films financed,'' said Thomas Trenker, a former San Francisco investment banker now playing film angel. ``It's not only the capital of Silicon Valley with all these business-savvy entrepreneurs, it also has a vital independent film scene.''

The pic at right is by Patrick Tehan of the Mercury News, from the set of a movie called "CarBabes," which was shot in Los Gatos, CA.

NY Times on the New Era of 3-D

David Halbfinger of the NY Times has a piece on the front of the Business section today about the "rebirth" of 3-D, and how it might help push digital projectors into more theaters.

Some interesting elements of the story.

- It says that 85 theaters will be outfitted to show Disney's "Chicken Little" in 3-D next month. That's a bit lower than the "approximately 100" theaters Disney and Dolby announced in their joint press release back in June.

- "The main disadvantage of the Real D [3-D] system is cost: the company charges at least $50,000 upfront for each theater, and $25,000 a year." Halbfinger doesn't tell us if that's in addition to, or instead of, the $85,000 conversion cost he mentions earlier in the piece, for turning a traditional projection booth into a digital projection booth. (I'm hoping it's instead of.)

- Once theater-owners have spent that money, "Real D guarantees at least two 3-D movies will play in those theaters each year..." Tom Stephenson, the CEO of Rave Motion Pictures says, "Is that enough? No, but if it turns out people are really drawn to this technology, you'll get more than that." One would hope so.

- Halbfinger describes the structure of standard digital cinema financing deals that are now taking shape:

    Theater owners pay roughly $10,000 toward the $85,000 cost of converting each auditorium. The balance is recovered, typically over 10 years, from the movie studios, which pay "virtual print fees."

    These fees, which start at around $1,000 for each copy of a movie delivered to a theater, are intended to approximate the studios' financial savings on film prints and shipping. They have agreed to steer that money to the suppliers of digital cinema equipment.

- The story ends with a curious wet blanket quote from the National Association of Theater Owners. Most of the digital cinema servers I've seen use industrial-strength, corporate-style servers - not PC components. But NATO's consultant compares them to PCs:

    "In order for the market to have confidence in the digital experience, we need real experience," said Michael Karagosian, digital cinema consultant to the National Association of Theater Owners. "We need at least 1,000 systems, with all the vendors delivering content to theaters in a flawless way, so the movie arrives, it's shown, the audience is entertained with the same reliability as today with film."

    That's a tall order, he cautioned. "We now have a 99.98 percent availability rate" for film projection, he said, referring to the incidence of equipment malfunction. "That means that 2 out of 10,000 shows fail, where you have to get a voucher. We don't expect to hear, 'The server didn't work.' But there are plenty of stories already about expired encryption keys, the date set wrong, somebody didn't push the right button."

    He added, "We're talking about putting desktop technology in the theater. Do you trust your boot-up every time?"

'Minority Report' spawns two companies

From my Boston Globe column today, "From sci-fi effects, real potential."

This is the story of how John Underkoffler, a former researcher at MIT's Media Lab, happened to get wrapped up in the production of "Minority Report" when that movie's production designer visited the Lab in 2000. Underkoffler had built a demo showing how computers might be controlled by hand gestures...and two years later, Tom Cruise and Colin Farrell were doing just that in the Spielberg movie.

Now, Underkoffler has a consulting firm called Treadle & Loam Provisioners, which works with TV and film producers, and he is also developing the "Minority Report" technology for customers like Raytheon, the giant defense contractor.

That second company he started is called G-Speak. You may have seen them in the Vicon booth at last month's SIGGRAPH show in LA. There's a bit more background on their Web site.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Yahoo's vision for video

Not a lot of truly revolutionary ideas in this piece from today's NY Times, titled "It's Not TV, It's Yahoo." The gist is that Lloyd Braun, formerly of ABC Television (and the creator of "Lost," my current favorite show), thinks Yahoo needs to create some of its own content, to better compete with AOL/Time Warner. They recently hired CNN correspondent Kevin Sites, for instance, and are planning to send him to a succession of wars, natural disasters, and other compelling visual crises, to produce original text, audio, and video dispatches for Yahoo. Braun also believes that new tools will be vital - and Yahoo is developing some - to help people sort through the vast sea of video that will soon be available on the Net.

Some snippets:
    At Yahoo, why not create programs in genres that have worked on TV but not really on the Web? Sitcoms, dramas, talk shows, even a short daily humorous take on the news much like Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" are in the works.

    There will be elaborate attention-grabbing events and video-heavy programs in nearly every category of content Yahoo offers, from sports to health. The first is called "Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone," an audio-video-photo-blog-chat room, run by Mr. Sites, an experienced foreign correspondent, who plans to visit multiple war zones over the next year.

Writer Saul Hansell says that Yahoo's CEO, Terry Semel, has a strategy built on four elements. First is search, to compete with Google.

    Next comes community, as he calls the vast growth of content contributed by everyday users and semiprofessionals like bloggers. Third, is the professionally created content that Mr. Braun oversees, made both by Yahoo and other traditional media providers. And last, is personalization technology to help users sort through vast choices to find what interests them.

The "convergence" word seems to be back in vogue:

    Increasingly, Mr. Semel and others are finding that the long-promised convergence of television and computers is happening not by way of elaborate systems created by cable companies, but from the bottom up as video clips on the Internet become easier to use and more interesting. Already, video search engines, run by Yahoo and others, have indexed more than one million clips, and only now are the big media outlets like Viacom and Time Warner moving to put some of their quality video online.

    "The basis for content on the Internet is now shifting from text to video," said Michael J. Wolf, a partner at McKinsey & Company.

Toward the end, Braun seems to be talking about developing all sorts of cool intelligent recommendation software, to point you to videos related to one you're watching:

    One of Yahoo's secret weapons, Mr. Braun says, is that it can personalize information for the interests of each user, such as its My Yahoo page and the song recommendations provided to users of its music service. Mr. Braun is weaving this technology into a video player Yahoo will introduce near the end of the year.

    "It will almost be like a television set," Mr. Braun said, except as people watch one program, on the center of the player, other areas will offer additional programming choices, based on their past viewing habits. It will let them use Yahoo's video search to find programs from amateur videographers and video bloggers. And it will, of course, promote the glitzy shows Mr. Braun is creating.

Friday, September 23, 2005

From Engadget: IPTV needs exclusivity

My pal Nabeel Hyatt pointed me to this solid essay from Stephen Speicher, which appeared on Engadget yesterday. The title is "IPTV needs exclusivity."

Speicher points out, accurately I think, that the only way for IPTV to take off is for it to offer something that today's cable, broadcast, and satellite providers don't: content that you can't find anywhere else. He uses Fox as one example (buying the rights to the NFL) and Sirius as another (signing on Howard Stern.)

Speicher writes:

    Most of the major PVR players have implemented mechanisms to handle Internet-delivered content. TiVo has begun testing downloadable Independent Film Channel (IFC) content. Microsoft’s Media Center Edition has its “Online Spotlight” where consumers can see repackaged mini-content. Akimbo, Dave.TV, etc. are all trying to get into the game. However, each of the players is missing compelling and exclusive content. There is nothing to drive the users to the new platform. Each is attempting to use either a) the same content available elsewhere or, more often, b) a hodgepodge of syndicated “micro-content.” Neither solution is compelling enough to create the needed paradigm shift.

I also happen to think that one of the things that will drive moviegoers and theaters to adopt digital cinema is exclusive content... stuff that you can't see unless you're at a digital theater. Disney's 3-D version of "Chicken Little" is a good baby step, but what about releasing a film that can only be seen digitally?

SPMTE Digital Cinema forum in November

The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers is dedicating part of its 2005 Fall Technical Conference this November to digital cinema.

From the Web site:

- "SMPTE believes the 2005 Fall Technical Conference is an ideal time to report to the conference attendees on the present status of this exciting and now fast-paced industry movement." (They're certainly optimists.)

- "Because of the importance of this achievement [creation of the DCI spec] SMPTE has asked representatives from DCI to conduct a detailed tutorial explaining the core sections of their specification."

- In the afternoon, they'll be talking about the JPEG 2000 compression algorithm. And "[r]epresentatives from National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) will outline their present thinking on a rollout model for digital cinema." (That should be interesting.)

Links from vfxblog

Don't the guys at vfxblog ever sleep?

They've got great posts on:

Thursday, September 22, 2005

EchoStar turns 25

Just a couple quick links to a set of feature stories I wrote for the Hollywood Reporter this week, on the occasion of Echostar's 25th year in business. (They operate the Dish Network.)

The main piece is "EchoStar at 25: Innovative marketing and new technology help the satellite service provider stay competitive." It focuses a bit on EchoStar's colorful history, but mostly on the challenges the company faces today.

Here's the gist:

    Twenty-five years [after the company was founded], EchoStar is a publicly traded entity with a $13 billion market cap, nine Earth-orbiting satellites and 11.5 million subscribers to its Dish Network. The Englewood, Colo.-based company competes ferociously for pay TV customers with cable operators and with News Corp.'s DirecTV, which boasts 14.7 million subscribers but also enjoyed a two-year head start in the small-dish arena.

    ...[A]s the company marks its silver anniversary, it faces fresh competitive crosswinds that could threaten its future growth. Telcos such as SBC Communications and Verizon are beginning to offer video alongside their traditional phone and Internet services, and cable operators are developing "bundles" of services by marketing low-cost voice-over-Internet telephony.

    "I think the competitive front is changing here, and it's changing more in favor of cable," Kagan Research analyst Derek Baine says.

    Other observers cite the difficulty of acquiring and retaining customers without overspending on marketing and/or on new technology including digital video recorders.

    Beyond the changing marketplace, the biggest questions confronting EchoStar are whether consumers are gravitating more toward buying bundles of services and how the company's relationship with SBC will change as SBC begins to sell its own TV offering, delivered through fiber-optic cable.

Accompanying the main event are a couple of sidebars:

  • Tech talk

    A hand-held video player is the company's latest innovation.

    Watching television used to be about sitting back on the couch with a remote control, but EchoStar plans to change that with its latest innovation: a portable video player called PocketDish, set to debut next month.

  • Dishing it out
    As cable operators and satellite providers eye each other's customers, new entrants are jumping into the scrum.

Soderbergh: Why I'm experimenting

At the Toronto Film Festival, Steven Soderbergh spoke with Manohlia Dargis of the NY Times about his new movie "Bubble," and the deal he did with Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner. The trio have banded together to produce a series of low-budget movies, shot digitally, and release them in several formats simultaneously: theaters, DVD, and cable TV. "Bubble" is the first in this series. Next up are "The Good German" and "Che."

Dargis writes:

    "At the time that we started having these conversations," Mr. Soderbergh said, "what really prompted it is they had bought Landmark Theaters. And I knew they had HDNet. And I was sort of tracking where the whole DVD thing was going. And I guess it was about a year and a half ago when we met in New York. And I said, O.K., here's an idea: You're trying to brand your network, we all feel like these windows are going to collapse. Let's set up a situation where I make a cycle of films for a certain amount of money and they go out day and date on all formats" - simultaneous theatrical, cable and DVD releases - "and let's see what happens. And when they say yes, they just go."

    Which is how Mr. Soderbergh ended up with a high-definition camera - the same one George Lucas used for the last two "Star Wars" movies - in Belpre, [Ohio] where he set his sights on his three unlikely stars.

HD & Digital Cinema: Bright spots at Sony

By way of announcing a restructuring that will cut 10,000 jobs, Sony Corp. put out a press release that discussed not just lay-offs, but the company's overall strategy for the future. Digital cinema and high-definition products for the home was one small piece. From the release:

    Sony is already the world's leading HD company and is uniquely well positioned to enjoy the forthcoming consumer transition to high-definition products. We have a full range of broadcast and consumer hardware products, as well as content assets that lead the industry in HD digitization. Our goal is to make HD World [the company's high-def business] a major integrated profit pillar. Sony has superb high-end HD technological resources such as production equipment as well as the 4K projector which pioneered the era of digital cinema. We will further develop these and apply them to our consumer lineup. Blu-ray disc - the highest capacity next generation optical disc format, supported by many leading companies in every key industry - will also be a dynamic driver of HD business.

I'd say they're overstating things a bit by touting their 4K projector as having "pioneered the era of digital cinema," considering they were first demo'ed this year at ShoWest and Cinema Expo, and that none have actually been installed in U.S. theaters yet. (Landmark Theaters is apparently installing the first couple this fall. That's the Sony 4K projector above.) More accurate, I think, would be to give Barco and Christie credit for pioneering the era of digital cinema, with their lower-res 2K projectors that are actually in use today.

Here's some high-level background on Sony's current situation, from Yuri Kageyama's AP story on the restructuring:

    [Sony] has had to rely on its movie division such as the popular "Spider-Man" series and its successful PlayStation video-game consoles to maintain profits in recent years.

    Sony has also been criticized as falling behind in slimmer TV models, such as liquid-crystal and plasma display sets, that are increasing popular around the world, losing market share to relative Japanese newcomer Sharp Corp. as well as old-time rival Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., which makes Panasonic brand goods.

    Sony also fell behind Apple Computer Inc.'s iPod in what should have been its forte -- portable music players -- clinging to CD and minidisc formats and its own proprietary but unpopular format for digital music files. The iPod models are proving a big hit in Japan, where Apple began its iTunes store in August to rave reviews.

    Over the last five years, Sony shares have lost two-thirds of their value, and are trading at about 4,000 yen ($36).

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Seeing Starz: Bob Greene on digital distribution

On my way through Denver today, I stopped by at the headquarters of Starz Entertainment Group, located in an imposing stone-faced tower south of downtown. I sat down with corporate communications czar Eric Becker and Bob Greene, SVP of Advanced Services. Starz, of course, runs some of your favorite premium cable channels, and they also have an Internet movie subscription service called Starz Ticket.

Our conversation focused on new ways that movies might be distributed and experienced. Greene made a number of really interesting observations and comments over morning coffee:

- Consumers want it to be easy to move content that they download (like movies) from one device to another; studios naturally want it to be hard, to keep a lid on piracy and excessive copying. Plus, “moving content around [from one device to another] doesn’t necessarily translate into increased revenues” for the studios, Greene says. They'd rather sell it to you once for your PC, once for your TV, once for your portable video player, etc. (Starz Ticket gives you a license to watch movies you get on three different computers.)

- Greene is bearish on the prospects of releasing movies simultaneously in every format (what's called "day and date"), in part because it hurts the value of his long-term licenses with the studios. (Starz has rights to some movies that last a decade.) But he also makes the case that it won’t make economic sense for the studios. “It’s impossible. The math won’t work. ...[Some people] will go buy the movie, some will see it in theaters, and some will download it,” Greene says. But the problem, according to Greene, is that fewer people will do several of those things (see in theater/see on premium cable/rent/buy), as they do today.

- Despite that, during our conversation, Greene toyed with the idea that studios might sell first-run movies for a premium price to people who wanted to watch them at home as soon as they're released. If you liked the movie, you might pay a few dollars more to own it permanently, and perhaps a few dollars on top of that to purchase the soundtrack or DVD-style extras. But ultimately, it sounds as though Greene doesn’t think the economics of that model will work for the studios.

“What if ten people are in the living room?” he asks. Will that group pay $5 or $7 each to the studio (or whoever provides it) to get access to a first-run movie at home? Today, Greene observes, “people are willing to pay multiple times for a movie, maybe adding up to $40 or $50. But they’re not willing to pay all that money up front, for the first-run viewing in their home.”

- Greene doesn’t think we’ll see an iTunes for movies anytime soon, because of rights issues. Different companies hold different rights. Starz, for instance, can sell movies only as part of a subscription-based offering, either on cable or on the Internet. They can’t sell movies as downloads that you’d own, a la iTunes.

(I'm not convinced that within two or three years, someone - maybe Apple, maybe not - will work with studios to sell digital downloads of movies that you'll own through a storefront with a very comprehensive selection.)

- Greene suggested that one major studio is working with Netflix to provide new releases for an Internet download or rental service being developed by that company. He wouldn’t say who, though. (Starz views Netflix as a competitor, much the same way it regards HBO and Showtime. For more background on Starz and Netflix, see this CinemaTech entry from July.)

- Greene says that movies delivered digitally ought to be cheaper for consumers than those burned onto a DVD or shown in a theater. He also feels they should be truly transportable – not tied to just one device. I’m in complete agreement with him there.

- Greene thinks that consumers will be eager to put movies on handheld video players, like the Sony PlayStation Portable, devices from Archos, and a potential video iPod from Apple. He indicated that Starz is working on an extension to its Starz broadband movie service that’d support portable video players.

Commentary on MovieLabs, from Princeton prof

Ed Felten is a professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton. And he's got some sharp commentary on this week's announcement of MovieLabs.

The gist is of his post is that now that the studios are going to try to develop their own anti-copying, anti-camcorder, anti-swapping, and anti-piracy technology, they're going to discover just how hard it is. That, Felten writes, will force them to acknowledge that maybe not all illicit content trading can be stopped.

That's just what many people in the tech sphere have been arguing all along. They say you need to make content easier to acquire legally than it is to get illegally, and stick a reasonable price tag on it. Case in point: the iTunes Music Store, now the leader in legal music downloads.

Well worth a read.

Movielabs: The message is still about piracy

I'm not a proponent of stealing music or movies or other intellectual property.

So I think it's important that the movie studios are focused on protecting their product.

But I think it sends the wrong message that the latest joint R&D project among the major studios, Movielabs, is all about fighting piracy.

Forbes had a report (actually written by Ben Fritz of Variety) on Monday:

    The first batch of projects planned for Movielabs is sure to raise concern among those who feel Hollywood is already going too far in trying to regulate how consumers use content.

    These projects go beyond previous efforts in "digital rights management"--software that limits how people can use digital content--to monitor and limit consumer activity in order to prevent piracy. They include software that could detect illegal file-sharing online, constrict access to home networks by outsiders and identify users' locations in order to regulate distribution of content in different territories.

    Movielabs will also focus on technologies that could prevent the user of camcorders in theaters, which has become the most common way films are stolen before being pirated online or on bootleg DVDs.

Fritz also mentions that Movielab's budget will be $30 million for the first two years, and that the Motion Picture Association of America is overseeing the search for a CEO. New MPAA chief Dan Glickman helped create the momentum behind the Movielabs idea, Fritz reports.

Another quick snippet:

    The studios have worked together previously in the technology arena, as in Movielink, the still-small Internet video-on-demand company, and Digital Cinema Initiatives, which recently completed its work creating a unified technical specification for d-cinema.

    But Movielabs appears to be the most ambitious joint venture to date, leading some in the technology community to question why the studios have chosen to focus exclusively on piracy prevention.

The NY Times also had a piece on Monday, by David Halbfinger, which quoted James Gianopoulos, co-chairman of 20th Century Fox:

    "It allows us to develop more ways of getting creative content into the home, to mobile devices, theaters and so forth, without exposing us to more sources of theft," Mr. Gianopulos said. "The more comfort you have in the security of the content, the more able you are to expand the consumer's access to it."

Then why not have the new R&D lab focus on two things -- like piracy and new delivery mechanisms that will give consumers more choice on how they view movies? That'd send a message that the studios were concerned not just with theft of their property, but with providing their customers with more options as to how they enjoy movies.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

'Disney Moves Away From Hand-Drawn Animation'

The NY Times has a fascinating piece today that chronicles Disney's turbulent transition from hand-drawn to digital animation, in anticipation of November's release of "Chicken Little," the studio's first computer-generated film produced in-house. (IE, not by their partners at Pixar.) The story opens by describing a summit in April 2003 that brought together two opposing camps at the studio: the pencil pushers and the mouse jockeys. Fifty animators convened to debate the pros and cons of hand-drawn versus digital. It was called "The Best of Both Worlds" seminar - quite a diplomatic name.

Some snippets from Laura Holson's piece:

    "...[A]t the end of [April 2003, David Stainton, president of Walt Disney Feature Animation,] lobbed another grenade. He told more than 525 employees gathered at a town hall meeting that the studio would stop making hand-drawn movies for the foreseeable future. Those interested in computer-generated animation could sign up for a six-month "C.G. boot camp."

    "What I was saying to them was, 'You've got to embrace it or there isn't going to be a place for you,' " Mr. Stainton said. (That's him at the left in the photo, posing with Piglet, center, and Richard Cook, right, chairman of Walt Disney Studios. Photo courtesy of The Laughing Place.)

    Some animators resisted. "There was a period of time here when they were buying computers and we never really saw anything," said Chris Sanders, the director of "American Dog" who created "Lilo and Stitch." "You're like, 'Well, do we have computers?' 'Yes, we do.' 'Really? Where are they?' 'They're around.' 'Where, exactly?' 'Downstairs.' 'So, computer animation, we can we do that?' 'Uh-huh.' 'Like theirs?' 'Uh-huh.' " Mr. Sanders laughed. "It went around like that."

Wall Street analysts think "Chicken Little" will prove a major turning point for the entire Disney organization:

    From a psychological standpoint, 'Chicken Little' is very important for Disney," said Hal Vogel, a financial analyst who has covered Disney for years. "Everything is touched by animation and if they don't refresh it, it becomes frayed at the edges."

There's a cutting quote in the story from Glen Keane, a Disney animator who worked on "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Little Mermaid," and is now working on a new movie called "Rapunzel Unbraided."

    "I loved 'Shrek,' " Mr. Keane responded. But the characters, particularly Princess Fiona, looked plastic to him. "Every frame of that film was a bad drawing to me, personally," he said.

Toward the end, Holson points out that the animation biz has gotten a lot more competitive - a trend that's bound to continue.

    In 1995, only six animated movies were released - half of them from Disney, according to the company. By contrast, nearly 20 animated films are expected to be released in the next two years - three from Disney. That has led some Wall Street analysts to suggest that as animated movies become more mainstream, they will no longer command the huge profits that studios have enjoyed from them.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Unasked questions: More on the Disney/Christie digital cinema deal

More on yesterday's news...

The Orlando Sentinel has a piece from Bloomberg that quotes the CEO of Access Integrated Technologies, the company that's supplying the servers:

    "This is a partnership that will kick-start digital cinema in the U.S.," Mayo said.

    Exhibitors will pay only for installation and maintenance, and Disney will pay Christie/AIX each film's one-time cost of creating a digital print.

    "That's the revenue stream that pays us back for the installation cost," Mayo said.

Forbes is carrying a piece written by Ben Fritz of Variety. He notes:

    ...[T]o reach its goal of 2,500 [digital] screens, Christie/AIX will need outside funding, most likely from Wall Street investors.

    To attract that coin, Christie/AIX needs studios to provide digital content. Disney is the first to offer to do that.

    "We're the first, among what I hope will be many, to make a commitment from the studio level," said Disney exhibitor head Chuck Viane. "That enhances the ability of Christie to put financing packages together for exhibitors.

Here are two questions that I haven't seen any reporter asking:

- To theater owners: Are you happy with the prospect of paying installation and maintenance costs for these systems? What is Christie/AIX telling you about how much installation and maintenance will cost?

- To Disney and other studios: Won't, in the short term, digital cinema potentially increase the complexity (if not the cost) of distribution, since you'll now be distributing movies in the old celluloid 35 mm format, as well as the new digital format, via either satellite or hard drive?

(At right, that's 'Chicken Little,' the star of Disney's forthcoming film, which will be shown in digital 3-D in 100 theaters.)

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Heeeere's HDTV!

They're trumpeting the arrival of HDTV over in the Netherlands, at the International Broadcast Conference. But this time it's really here, saith the speakers.

From David Benjamin's excellent dispatch:

    Keynote speaker David Hill, chairman of Fox Sports Inc. and president of the DirecTV Entertainment Group, said that because an array of HDTV equipment, especially flat-screen 16:9 displays are finally becoming “mainstream affordable,” there will occur a “massive uptake at Christmas [2005] for HD” by consumers.

    But an even stronger catalyst for HD adoption worldwide is that governments from the U.S. to Japan to Australia and Germany are mandating the phase-out of analog television broadcast, to be replaced by digital broadcast, which is increasingly high-definition capable.

    Stating the case bluntly, panelist Peter Wilson of High Definition & Digital Cinema Ltd. (U.K.) said, “Regardless of what the market says, the government says that sales are going to increase.”

Wilson later observed that the average price of an HDTV set has dropped from $3,147 in 1998 to $1,216 in 2005. An ESPN exec predicts that there would be 100 million HDTV sets in the U.S. by the end of 2008.

And Fox Sports chair Hill was looking even further out: "There is no doubt that HDTV will revitalize the television audience. But as great as HD is, the true excitement is when every set in the world is capable of receiving 3D television. And we are capable of providing 3-D TV!”

Disney and Christie, sitting in a tree

This isn't the world's most significant press release, but it seems to hint at progress nonetheless.

Disney is saying they'll supply movies to digital cinema systems from Christie/AIX. The Christie/AIX joint venture hopes to install between 2,500 and 4,000 systems around the U.S. and Canada over the next two years. They've already raised enough capital to fund the initial 200 systems, according to the release, and plan to have 150 of those operational by Christmas. "Under the plan, Christie/AIX will act as a financing intermediary between content owners -- including major studios and independent distributors -- and exhibitors who will utilize DCI-compliant digital cinema systems including 2K projectors and related hardware and software," the release says. That means theater owners won't have to pay for digital cinema systems (projectors plus servers for storing the movies) themselves.

This doesn't mean that Disney will exclusively give its digital movies to theaters with Christie/AIX system; I expect they'll distribute to any digital cinema systems that follow the rules laid out by the studios' Digital Cinema Initiatives group.

Hurricane Katrina, in IMAX

Wow - this is an unbelievable story from Tuesday's USA Today: before Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, writer and director Glen Pitre was working on an IMAX documentary about what might happen to New Orleans if a powerful hurricane ever hit the city. The film's producer is MacGillivray Freeman Films, which also made the Imax documentary "Everest."

USA Today's Scott Bowles writes:

    The writer and co-director of the movie [Pitre] owns a home in the city and flew back before the storm to board up his house. When Katrina finally passed, he says, "I realized we needed to show people what really happened here, because TV news wouldn't do it justice."

    Pitre and [co-director Greg] MacGillivray sent gear and photographers back to the region. They borrowed a helicopter from Universal Pictures, which was filming Miami Vice in Florida.

    "The helicopter still had all of the police logos from the movie," Pitre says. "So while the media was getting shooed away, we could fly anywhere we wanted."

    But he wasn't prepared for what he saw. Bodies littered the roadside. Residents begged for help.

    The filmmakers became rescue workers, giving out food and sodas from their van to parched residents. They offered their radios to those who were desperate for communication. They rescued a Labrador retriever that had been trapped in a home. The dog, now named Hurricane, lives in Los Angeles with a photographer.

No release date is yet set for the movie. Hard to imagine that it won't be one of the most widely-seen IMAX movies to date. (Though I do pray there won't be a 3-D version.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

"Digital Hollywood" conference (and other upcoming events)

I don't think I've posted yet about the Digital.Hollywood conference coming up next week, Sep 19-21, in Santa Monica.

The agenda looks great, with speakers like Blair Westlake (Microsoft), Jordan Greenhall (DivX), Curt Marvis (CinemaNow), Jennifer Feiken (Google Video), Martin Kudkovitz (Disney), a whole mess of DreamWorks Animation execs (including "Madagascar" director Tom McGrath), Sinbad (yes, Sinbad), and Rick Dees.

I won't be there, since I'm hosting this event on marketing strategy in Colorado Springs.

And I suppose this is as good a place as any to plug an event coming up later this month in Berkeley, California, "Getting Ready for Prime Time: Online Video and the Future of Television," organized by the diligent Jeff Ubois. I'll be running a panel titled "Content Discovery and Search." Here's the description:

    BlinkX, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo have all released video search engines, and there has been a great deal of discussion about the end of channels and schedules. How will users find content that matters -- or have it delivered directly to them?

My panelists are Karen Howe of Singingfish (AOL); Suranga Chandratillake, CTO and Co-founder, BlinkX; Jeff Karnes, Director of Media Search, Yahoo!; and Kevin Marks of Technorati.

If you're in the Bay Area on September 30th, and interested in how TV is changing, I'll look forward to seeing you there.

Hollywood Reporter on the future of entertainment

The Hollywood Reporter has a giant package on the future of entertainment, jammed with interviews with notables including Kevin Kelly, a founder of Wired; Jim Cameron, Chris Albrecht from HBO; George Lucas; Sony's Yair Landau; and Blair Westlake, Microsoft's point person in Tinseltown.

There are also brilliant pieces on by folks like futurist Bruce Stirling and yours truly.

My piece is called "Next level: Where will new digital tools take the art of cinema?"

Here's a taste, clipped from the middle of the story:

    Closer collaboration between live and computerized co-stars is only one avenue being explored by a forward guard of innovators whose aim is to change the way movies are made, distributed and experienced. Some of the forces motivating these technophiles have been at work since the beginning of cinema -- a desire to stretch the bounds of what's possible and the need to keep pace with changes in the way Americans consume their entertainment, for example. Other forces are new, such as the cheap tools that have made filmmaking more accessible to auteurs who lack studio backing and the relative ease of sharing movies over the Internet, legally or otherwise.

    "It feels like the cycles of new technology used to come in 20-year intervals in our industry," ThinkFilm head of theatrical distribution Mark Urman says. "Now, they seem to be coming in 20-month or 20-week intervals. It's accelerating so fast now that you almost need to be a science-fiction writer to imagine what the experience of the movies will be like in a few years."

    Some changes that might be around the corner seem to threaten the role of studios and movie theaters; others could revitalize them, helping high-quality movies get made for less money and finding interested audiences more efficiently.

    "Chaos, change and confusion can create opportunity," says Todd Wagner, CEO of 2929 Entertainment, which also owns the Landmark theater chain. "Viewed that way, this is a great time."

I interviewed a lot of really smart people for this piece - and couldn't fit everything in, for reasons of length. So I wanted to share here some additional comments from Ed Leonard, who is the chief technology officer at DreamWorks Animation, which didn't make it into the article.

    "The kinds of stuff we do today, at the highest ends, are going to become accessible and reachable at the lower ends. Which means we'll be reaching even higher.”

    “Look at something like `Toy Story' - what's easy to do now, was hard to do then.”

    "Moore's Law says that computing power will double [every two years]. We used to joke that we have Jeffrey's Law here. [He's referring to Jeffrey Katzenberg, the company's CEO.] Our demand for processing power will always exceed what's possible. Or, simply put, Jeffrey wants more than Moore. Our appetite has always gone just a bit beyond what's possible.”

    Leonard went on to talk about the high-end videoconferencing tools DreamWorks uses to knit together teams in Redwood City, California with those in Glendale and elsewhere around the world. “We do a lot of work, in collaboration with northern and southern California. We have a partnership with Aardman Studios in Bristol, England. We can sit in one virtualized space and edit the film across the ocean. These virtual collaboration technologies we've deployed here allow us to do things without airplanes.”

Monday, September 12, 2005

From the set of 'King Kong': Digital doubles

The 'King Kong' crew posted another video blog entry last week. It delves into the process of creating digital doubles for each of the film's lead actors, to be used for dangerous stunt sequences...and sometimes to be inserted into computer-generated environments where the standard "green screen" technique might not look convincing.

Director Peter Jackson says, "Of course, digital doubles will never replace actors. That's the big fear, and I think it's a lot of old nonsense, really... Digital people don't have hearts and souls, and they can't provide everthing that an actor can provide in a performance."

Besides, if you're in a position to cast Naomi Watts and spend a couple months on set with her in New Zealand, why would you choose a digital double over that?

Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner announce more movies

IndieWire reports from the Toronto Film Festival about a new slate of seven digital films being bankrolled by Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner, the impresarios who own Landmark Theaters, HDNet, HDNet Films, and 2929 Entertainment. Among them: movies about Spalding Gray and Hunter Thompson; a documentary about surfing in Israel; and pictures directed by Hal Hartley and Steven Soderbergh (that's him at right).

IndieWire writes, "Each of the Soderbergh films, and the new slate of movies, are intended for simultaneous distribution through the company's landmark day-and-date strategy of releasing a movie in theaters that are owned by parent 2929 Entertainment and on the HDNet Movies Network (all of which are owned and run by Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban). Theatrical distribution is handled by the company's Magnolia Pictures division and home video/DVD releases will be distributed through a yet to be announced arrangement."

Mark Cuban has a blog entry promoting some of the HDNet Films and 2929 Entertainment that have got release dates approaching, like "The War Within" and "Good Night and Good Luck," which was directed by George Clooney, and features him as well.

Cams for Kids

DV Guru has the first news I've seen about Vidster, an $80 digital video camera produced by your friends at Mattel.

The product doesn't seem to be for sale yet, at least on Amazon, and oddly, a search on Vidster at the Mattel Web site produces nothing. Is this product the toy world version of vaporware?

Gizmodo had an item on Friday.

Seems like Hasbro has its own $80 cam, called Vcam Now, which you can pre-order from Amazon - though it hasn't been released yet.

(Note - that last link is a crass product placement, connected to my Associates account. But also note that the image at right is of Mattel's Vidster, not Hasbro's wonderful Vcam. Furthermore, not that I've used neither of these two cams.)

Technicolor hits a milestone with 'Charlie'

Technicolor says that the international release of 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' marks the 100th movie it has distributed digitally.

    "With the global introduction of the digital version of the film, Technicolor Digital Cinema has now managed over 285,000 digital cinema screenings worldwide to date for eight studios, more than any other provider in the marketplace today," according to the release carried by

Technicolor says it has now handled 285,000 digital cinema screenings worldwide, working with eight different studios.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

How Nick Park discovered stop-motion animation

Nick Park, creator of the animated clay duo Wallace and Gromit, talks about the technology that initially drew him to stop-motion animation in a great piece today in the NY Times by Stuart Klawans:

    "One day, when I was playing with my mum's movie camera - an eight-millimeter Bell & Howell, not even a Super 8 - I discovered it had a strange thing: a single-frame button, which actually said 'animation.' I don't know what use it would have been to most people. Digital cameras today don't have stuff like that. But my dad explained it to me. I remember him saying how with animation you can do anything; it's limited only by your imagination.

    "I was already obsessed with drawing cartoons and making models of them, so this was a gift: a button that creates a movie."

And he was off.

The story also touches on the production process used by Park and Steve Box, co-director of the film "Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit":

    Once they had worked out the characters and incidents, Mr. Park and Mr. Box storyboarded the entire picture, fed the results into the Avid editing machine and added voices and temporary music. "That's where the writing happens," Mr. Park says. "We edit the whole thing before we shoot it, because we can't afford to film much that we don't use." Production itself took two years, with up to 30 animators working each day on as many sets: positioning the puppets, taking a picture, repositioning the puppets minutely, taking another picture. "Each animator might get through three seconds a day."

It's due out October 7th.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

A gathering of wallets

I felt like the poorest person in the room last night at the Silicon Valley Capital Club in San Jose. The "FilmAngels Meeting" was organized by the Institute for International Film Financing, a group run by Thomas Trenker that attempts to make connections between investors and filmmakers. So the group that gathered to hear pitches from six (I think it was six) different teams of filmmakers was full of what they call "high net worth individuals" - many of them with lots of experience bankrolling films - plus me.

Everyone had a PowerPoint presentation that promised phenomenal returns on your investment - 400 percent or more. There were lots of people citing break-out low-budget hits that were marketed cleverly, like "Napoleon Dynamite," "March of the Penguins," "The Blair Witch Project," "What the Bleep Do We Know," and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." After every 20 minute pitch (ten minutes of presentation, ten minutes of Q&A), a clipboard was circulated in the audience - sign up if you're interested in hearing more, and perhaps ponying up some money. (The lowest price of entry sounded like it was somewhere around $50K.)

Among the pics that were pitched:

"Gotham Café", based on a Stephen King short story. Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak is one of the producers (and he's got a cameo), so the project was pitched as a chance to invest in "another Steve and Steve."

Ralph Guggenheim, one of the early crew members at Pixar, was there touting Alligator Planet - not an individual movie, but rather a San Francisco studio geared to producing animated kids films, cheaply and quickly.

Producer Brant Smith was present, looking for a last injection of money for "Quality of Life," a feature about graffiti artists in San Francisco's Mission district. The first showings are coming up in October.

Ron Fricke was there as part of an impressive team that's working on a project called "Becoming Buddha," about the spiritual journey of Siddhartha on his way to... you guessed it, becoming Buddha.

"Two Moons" is a picture about a teenage girl who lives a double-life in 3-D chat rooms; "Skin City" is a documentary based on the book by Jack Sheehan, who was in the house to talk about his experiences with the Las Vegas sex trade (writing about it, not making a living in it).

As I understood it, this was one of IIFF's first pitch meetings of this sort... in the future, I'm sure they'll be deluged by skilled filmmakers hunting for money.

Friday, September 09, 2005

How Champagne is made

I've always wondered how the research firm BigChampagne puts together its regularly-updated list of the most popular illegal movie downloads on the Net. (This week, 'Wedding Crashers' barely edges out 'War of the Worlds,' and 'The 40-Year Old Virgin' shows up for the first time.) has a Q&A with BigChampagne CEO Eric Garland, who explains how they collect data on Internet movie piracy:

    "Garland: The process involves passive observation of what users are downloading to shared directories, sharing over time, and what they're searching for - all recorded and analyzed continually. Our systems are constantly monitoring activity globally, and have been doing so for more than four years.

    p2pnet: Do you study just a few of the bigger sites, or all of them?

    Garland: The networks included in Big Champagne's reporting support or under gird virtually all of the most popular p2p applications.

    p2pnet: Such as ....?

    Garland: Big Champagne's core database includes information about activity on the original Napster network, the Scour Exchange, AudioGalaxy, Fasttrack (originally popularized by the Morpheus client and later, Kazaa), Donkey, gnutella. We also collect information about Warez usage trends, and about torrents, and we've profiled a number of smaller communities (Soulseek, for instance) as well."

Beyond that, it gets pretty darn technical.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

New movie on 'The Art of Motion Picture Editing'

The documentary "Edge The Art of Motion Picture Editing" got a very favorable review in the New York Times today.

The Times says that "Edge" is "full of intellectual provocation. It performs a rare and valuable critical service, which is to connect nuts and bolts (or rather celluloid, scissors and glue, along with their digital equivalents) with big ideas about time, technology and the workings of the human mind. By now, no one can doubt that movies have influenced our way of perceiving the world, and this film helps to show just how they have done it." (The reviewer, A.O. Scott, also wonders why the filmmakers have appended a clunky dot-com to the end of the title; I suspect it's simply to promote their Web site.)

The doc is currently playing a short engagement at the Pioneer Theater in Manhattan. But the filmmakers are also selling the movie on DVD and VHS via their own Web site for $30, and also offering a $15 Internet download of the whole 75-minute film.

There's also a juicy five-minute Quicktime clip from the film in which several editors and directors talk about the impact of non-linear digital editing on their profession.

Associated with the September 13th showing of the film in NY is a Q&A with two editors, Andrew Mondshein (who edited "The Sixth Sense") and Christopher Tellefsen (who edited "Kids" and "Gummo"). Why not go?

Yet another experiment with release windows

Martin Scorcese's new four-hour documentary on Bob Dylan will get a theatrical release in 30 cities later this month, as well asfull DVD distribution, in the week leading up to its September 26 premiere on PBS, reports Indiwire. (Cinematical also has an item.)

One interesting aspect: the theatrical screenings of "No Direction Home: Bob Dylan" will be free, arranged by Emerging Pictures. (The Web site only lists 22 venues - most of them art houses or non-traditional theaters, like the University of Miami's Cosford Cinema or the Portsmouth Music Hall in New Hampshire.)

My guess is that there will be only one showing (or perhaps one day of showings) in each city, to get buzz going and whet Dylan fans' appetites for either buying the DVD or watching the doc on television. The Emerging Pictures site describes the showings as "invitation only."

The trailer is here.

Foisting off multiple formats

Let me pose a question: how many different times can you sell someone a piece of media that will play on a single device?

Back when we all had Sony Walkmen, we bought cassette tapes to play in them. When the Discman arrived, we bought CDs. With VCRs, we bought videotapes. With DVD players, we bought DVDs. Consumers have never really balked at purchasing media on a new format when that format offered advantages over a previous format - even if they already owned a particular movie or album, they'd buy a second copy.

There was an interesting side note in David Pogue's review of the Motorola ROKR phone today:

    "No, you can't use songs as ring tones, at least not the songs you've bought from Apple's music store. (You can use ordinary MP3 files as ring tones, but loading them onto the phone isn't trivial.) This, too, is almost certainly a limitation driven by corporate interests. Cellphone carriers charge $1.50 to $3 apiece for ring tones; Cingular certainly wouldn't want to hand that lucrative business over to Apple's music store."

Essentially, Cingular hopes you will buy a snippet of your favorite song from them to use as a ring tone, and buy it again from Apple to play on the same device. It's interesting to note that Apple charges less for the full song, at higher quality, than Cingular charges for a ring tone excerpt.

Will that stand? I'd like to think it won't, and that the answer to my opening question is one. But are there examples you can think of where it isn't?

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Is that a projector in your pocket?

Assuming you didn't make it to the Internationale Funkaustellung trade show in Berlin this week, you may not have heard the news that Toshiba, Mitsubishi, and Seiko Epson have been working on small, battery-powered digital projectors. They use colored LEDs in combination with a DMD (digital micromirror device) chip, so they can run much cooler than a traditional LCD projector you might encounter in a conference room. (Toshiba's apparently doesn't need a cooling fan.) Start-up and shut-down time is much quicker, and the LEDs last longer than a standard bulb.

DigiTimes and New Scientist have articles on the Toshiba projector, which seems like it is closer to reaching the market. (Barry Fox writes, "...the Toshiba model will be the first of its kind to go on sale before the end of 2005, and will cost about €1000 [$1250].")

DigiTimes has a separate piece about the Seiko Epson projector.

What would you do with one of these? Obviously, the main market will be suits toting it around with their laptops to deliver sleep-inducing sales presentations. But what about impromptu movie showings in a booth at a dark bar? At the gate area while waiting for a delayed flight? Creating a home-made drive-in on your garage door? Late night cult flicks on the dorm room wall? (I could go on...)

Steve Jobs: Master of the Press Conference

Somehow it seems derisive to call what Apple does every few months press conferences, or product launches. They're more like happenings... or great parties...or a Broadway show it's impossible to get tickets for. They're carefully designed to make you wish you were there, to hang on Steve Jobs' every word. Other companies should take note: this is how you release a new product. It's a masterful mix of personality (Jobs), impeccably-designed products, demoes that usually work, celebrities, and suspense - Apple always saves the coolest announcement for last.

Spin Magazine has a report from today's iPod event, where Jobs unveiled the new iTunes mobile phone from Motorola. Here's a link to the video.

Jobs says they've sold 500 million songs so far through the iTunes Music Store; 1.8 million more every day. iTunes has 82 percent market share in the U.S. They've got 10 million customer accounts on iTunes - all of those attached to credit cards. The average account has purchased about 60 songs. "As far as we can tell, Apple may be the second largest Internet store, behind only Amazon," Jobs says.

What happens when Apple unveils a mobile video player, and starts selling videos to those 10 million people? I think they're gonna be the player to beat.

Tim Burton's 'Corpse Bride': A few firsts

The July/August issue of Editors Guild magazine notes that "The Corpse Bride" is a breakthrough film on several counts:

    "...[I]t’s the first feature-length, stop-motion film edited using Apple Final Cut Pro (FCP), it’s the first feature shot using commercial digital SLR still photography cameras and, perhaps most significantly, it’s the first movie to choose digital cameras over film cameras based on the criterion of image quality."

Editor Jonathan Lucas shares some stats from the production: the shoot lasted 52 weeks (compared to 12 to 14 weeks for a typical feature); each week, they produced just two minutes of film, on average; they relied on a Canon EOS 1D Mark II digital camera -- the same kind a professional magazine or newspaper photographer might use.

There's also a great quote from director Tim Burton in the accompanying sidebar:

    "My love for stop-motion started with [film animation pioneer] Ray Harryhausen. One of the beautiful things about Harryhausen’s work is that no matter what it is that he was doing––a monster, a low-budget science fiction film––you always felt there was an artist at work behind it; you always felt someone’s personality. It’s like bringing an inanimate object to life. It’s moving a three-dimensional object frame by frame, and you think, `Wow, there’s something really beautiful and old-fashioned, hand-made and artistic about that.' To me, there’s something very special about that."

The film is scheduled for a wide release on September 23rd.

The story of Pixar

I somehow missed this event back in May, but discovered a link to it on Luxo, a blog dedicated to Pixar... it's a nearly two hour long panel discussion and Q&A with two of the founders of Pixar, Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith, and two of the more recent additions, "Incredibles" director Brad Bird and "Finding Nemo" screenwriter Andrew Stanton.

The event, "A Human Story of Computer Animation," was held at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. There's video of it right here.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Variety: 'End of summer bummer'

Variety says that distribution executives "are still grappling with whether this year's poor results have larger implications for the biz," in a story yesterday by Ben Fritz and Gabriel Snyder.

Two great quotes:

    One positive effect of the continued focus on the box office slump, said Sony distrib prexy Rory Bruer, is that it will make the theatrical biz confront its long-term problems.

    "I don't know if this year is somewhat of an anomaly," Bruer said, "but in regards to just the theatrical business itself, it's probably one of those things that makes everyone look at their business and ask, 'What are we doing right and what are we doing wrong?' "


    In the end, the biggest lesson of Hollywood's slump this summer may be that box office is not destined to grow year after year. "I don't know any industry that continues to grow forever, especially a mature one," said [Paramount distribution president Wayne] Lewellen.

Inside the Wardrobe has a great Q&A with the special effects team involved in Walden Media's forthcoming "Chronicles of Narnia."

Here are two quick excerpts; the answers are from Howard Berger of KNB FX, the make-up effects specialist:

    CS: Obviously you did a lot of design preparation before you entered the project. How was it working with Andrew on set? If you had already built something was it hard to make changes?

    Berger: What was great is that Andrew [Adamson, the director], because he comes from a digital background, came into this saying, "I don't know much about this practical stuff. Teach me." Some directors you get don't care, but Andrew wanted to know everything. He wanted to absorb everything that we could teach him. There were a lot of things that were storyboarded in the animatics that were to be digital, but we ended up doing practical, because we were able to build all of our mechanical heads. Andrew understood the limitations of what we were able to do but also understood how much we could do.

(Adamson was the director of "Shrek" and "Shrek 2.") Later:

    CS: Do you think there's been a backlash to all-CGI movies like "Star Wars" or "Sky Captain"?

    Berger: I never believed in fighting the digital revolution. I think it's a great tool and we utilize it all the time. There's some stuff we can't do and we're the first guys to go, "That should really be digital." I'm really big on augmenting and I feel that this film has used every trick in the book. There are digital creatures, there's a combination, there's augmentation, everything. But we approached it because we're practical effects guys, from doing as much as we can practical and giving the director as many possibilities on set as possible. And then what he needs to fill in, he can. That's where Dean Wright has come in and Rhythm & Hues and Sony ImageWorks. We knew we could never do Mr. Tumnus' lower half--the goat-dog leg thing--practical in all these shots, and we never fooled ourselves that we could. We tried stuff for specific things, but we ultimately knew that we were going to go the digital route, so it was a good combination.

DVD purchasing: On the wane?

The San Francisco Chronicle had a good piece yesterday on what's behind the slow DVD sales that have been hurting the stock prices of Pixar and DreamWorks Animation.

Dan Fost writes, "By 1999, the average owner of a DVD player was buying 20 DVDs each year, according to Dan Ernst, an analyst with Soleil Securities. These people tended to be early adopters who eat up new gadgets, and then want the content to play with."

Later, the story quotes Ernst:

    "`What we're experiencing now is the later adopters are either lower income or certainly more frugal on their discretionary spending,' Ernst said. `They're buying fewer DVDs per home.'

    The number has dropped to about 14 DVDs sold per household per year.

    Wagner, at Home Media Retailing, said there are any number of possible explanations floating around Hollywood. It could be that more people are renting DVDs through companies like Netflix and Blockbuster now that rental prices have dropped and the excitement of owning movies has given way to the realization that they are sitting unwatched on a shelf.

    It could be that people are buying used DVDs, which hold up over time much better than VHS tapes..."

I spoke with someone - let's just call him a well-known director - on Friday who said that the wrangling over the two high-definition DVD formats would delay things long enough that neither would gain widespread adoption. He predicted that the next format will be pure data: either Internet downloads or video-on-demand.

The problem with 3-D: Not enough dimensions

Hollywood often looks to the Slovenian tech industry for new trends... and once again, Slovenia delivers: 6-D cinema.

X6D is a joint venture between Ljublijana-based Kolosej, Edwards Technologies in California, and Cinema Park Network in Turkey.

From the release:

    "The seats feature dual motion capacity, built-in special effects - such as a scent system, ticklers, wind and rain - and a cordless interactive control. The latter allows each viewer to influence the course of the film and take part in a range of interactive games.

    Also featured are a state of the art lighting system programmed individually for each show, a multi-channel sound system, and a combination of digitally controlled cranes which permits the reformation of the theatre as part of the experience."

By the end of this year, they promise to open the first X6D locations in Europe; the goal is to have ten open by the end of 2006.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Death of American movie theaters has been greatly exagerrated, says Fithian

"There have been any number of commentators and articles written about the looming death of the American movie theater, and that's just absurd as a factual proposition," says John Fithian, head of the National Association of Theater Owners. He's quoted in Hugh Hart's column from yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle. (It's the second item down.)

Can you imagine the National Association of Vaudeville Promoters making a similar statement in the late 1920s, before it was eclipsed by cinema?

"Theater operators who've been around for a while know the business is cyclical," Fithian says, pointing to bad stretches at the box office in 1985 (followed by a hot streak in 1987) and 1991 (followed by a record year in 1997). This year, 562 million tickets have been sold so far, versus about 637 million in the same period last year.

"Movies this year frankly haven't been very good," says Fithian. "We think that will probably change in the fall-winter period when we have a bunch of really big movies coming out. And when the movies come back, the audiences come back. There is nothing structurally wrong with the movie theater business that a few good movies can't fix."

Fithian also talks with Hart about ads at the movie theater, the shrinking DVD release "window," and financing schemes for digital cinema.

(Fithian photo courtesy Mr. Brown's Movies.)

Friday, September 02, 2005

The Digital Subcontinent

I hate to point you to a press release, but it seems like it's gonna be a slow news day.

DG2L, a New York company with R&D operations in Mumbai, announced this week that it has finished outfitting 150 cinemas in India for "near 2k" digital cinema. The project will eventually hit 2000 cinemas operated by UFO (United Film Organizers.) They're claiming this will be the biggest digital cinema roll-out, and they're probably right.

The big question: will Hollywood give digital releases to these foreign circuits, even though they don't project at 2k resolution?

(At right, that's a screenshot of DG2L's software for managing a digital cinema.)

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Picture Yourself in a Mercury

Landmark Theaters has struck a deal with Mercury "to sponsor a series of projects and events related to independent film over a two-year period," writes Elaine Dutka in Wednesday's LA Times. "Starting in October, the theaters will present preshow `making of' featurettes, and interviews with directors, and the carmaker might even arrange to admit patrons for free."

Dutka continues:

    "Whether it's a much-needed infusion of cash into the art-house world or an intrusion into the moviegoing experience remains to be seen. The issue is, unquestionably, a hot one. Advertisers are placing their bets on theaters and movie product placement, now that TV commercials can be zapped by TiVo or muted via remote control. And some patrons are already up in arms over the proliferation of ads."

Some people have assumed this deal simply means suffering through more pre-show ads, which'd be a shame. But if Mercury and Landmark do what they say, producing content that's related to particular movies, I think it could actually improve the experience.

I saw the incredible "Grizzly Man" this week at the Landmark Embarcadero in San Francisco. It was preceded by several trailers for movies I don't plan to see, and an unfunny short film sponsored by Stella Artois, the beer maker. Would it have been better to have a five-minute short of Herzog discussing his approach to "Grizzly Man," perhaps with some clips from his earlier work? You bet.

Landmark co-owner Mark Cuban seems to understand the delicate balance here. In the Times piece, he says, "If we do anything to affront our customers, we'll all lose more than we gain."

And Lincoln-Mercury marketing exec Linda Perry-Lube says, "We're doing a slow dance, making sure that what we do is relevant and engaging rather than off-putting."

We'll have to see what actually shows up on the screen.

Wait a Bit Longer for Apple's Video iPod...

(... but if you're getting impatient, Archos can hook you up.) has an interesting piece by Cody Willard today headlined "Apple vPod Concept Hasn't Ripened Yet."

Willard doesn't expect Apple to unveil a video version of its iPod until 2006, at the earliest. He writes:

    "...the video iPod and iShow products just aren't reality yet, and the market is probably not ready for them anyway. Part of the secret of Apple's success in the MP3 market was that it had let the market develop and get beyond the very early adopter stage before it got into the business. Being the first mover is not always advantageous, especially in the consumer market."

(iShows, I presume, is Willard's name for the future video version of the iTunes Music Store.) He continues:

    "Millions of people had been freely trading MP3 files and burning CDs from MP3s and listening to those CDs in their cars and stereos before Apple made its move. While there are millions of video files being traded on piracy networks and sent via email, and hundreds of millions of videos available for download on the Internet, the mainstream user isn't exactly downloading those files, burning DVDs from those video files and watching them on a TV set. That day is coming, and Apple is certainly going to make a move into that market when the time is right. But that's not next week. And probably not anytime in the next quarter, or two or three."

Before then, I'd recommend keeping an eye on the portable video player that Archos is producing in partnership with the Dish Network. Should be out in October. There will be three versions, with LCD screens ranging in size from two inches to seven inches, and capable of storing anywhere from 80 to 160 hours of video. A Dish spokesman told me recently that they'll work not just with Dish Network DVRs, but they'll be able to pull video content from other DVRs as well - not to mention your PC.

Roger Ebert's screening room

Just for fun... here's a link to a video tour that the Oprah Winfrey show did of Roger Ebert's townhouse in Chicago. (The link is courtesy of Cinematical.)

Marvel at his vast DVD selection! Envy his private screening room! Wonder (if you're a wonk like me, at least) whether Roger is using a traditional 35 mm projector or an LCD projector in there. (Ebert hasn't been the biggest booster of digital projection, as you can see here and here.)

But Ebert is entitled to his opinions; he's a sharp guy, and not at all a Luddite. In this piece from MacWorld, published back in 2000, he's enthusiastic about using desktop computers to make movies, noting that "...a lot of kids are growing up visually literate because of all this technology, and they will probably grow into a number of good directors. They have some role models--Spike Lee, Richard Rodriguez--who made films without raising lots of money, and I'm very encouraged."

A couple more excerpts from that Q&A, conducted by David Ferris:

    Q. Then how will the aspiring home moviemaker use the Web to get his or her works out?

    A. I've suggested there could be a site where movies are pooled and they could be seen for free for a certain amount of time, say one or two months. Someone sees them and tells a friend. After two months, some movies will have gotten a lot more hits than others--Darwinism is the word I've used. At that point, those ones may be distributed on the big screens.

    Q. Fast forward a few years. How and where are people going to watch movies?

    A. Convergence is the key word at home. Broadcast, cable, the Internet, and satellites will somehow magically come together and seamlessly blend. People will move files around over high-bandwidth networks. Really high-quality home theater systems are common now and will become more common within five years, with an 8-foot screen and a projector. It will become very common for people to sit in their living room, pull down the projector, and watch a movie with very high-quality video and sound--movies available on demand.