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Monday, July 31, 2006

Dolby's new 3-D technology ... Two upcoming events

- Dolby is announcing a deal with a German company, Infitec, that will allow theaters to project digital 3-D movies on standard movie screens, rather than the more expensive silver screens required by Real D's 3-D system. Since exhibitors bear the cost of 3-D technology, in general, having two competing vendors could help propel 3-D projection into the mainstream, and keep it there.

I had a chance to chat last week with Dolby exec Tim Partridge about the deal. He says the new Dolby/Infitec system should be available by the spring of 2007, and that he hopes to do demos before then -- but he didn't commit to a specific date.

Right now, he said, digital files of 3-D movies like "Monster House" are mastered for the Real D system. Dolby is hoping to have a digital 3-D standard created (by working with SMPTE) that can work on both systems. That'll be a challenge.

"We think this will be cheaper [than Real D]," Partridge said, as well as more flexible for exhibitors. With just one silver screen in a multiplex, for example, that means 3-D can only be shown in one auditorium. (Of course, moving it around even with the Dolby/Infitec system would probably require moving some hardware from one projection booth to another, along with the movie.)

"We want to grow," Partridge said, "and be widely adopted. [3-D is] a technology that clearly enhances the theatrical experience, and therefore it fits right into our mission. Yet the current solutions are not ideal."

Will Dolby actually prove to be the low-cost provider of 3-D tech? How good will the imagery look on the screen? Could this spark a price war between Real D and Dolby? I suspect we'll have the answers to at least some of those questions by ShoWest 2007.

- Two upcoming events worth knowing about: Building Blocks 2006, coming up August 15-17 in San Jose, and Digimart: The International Digital Cinema Market, coming up October 16-18 in Montreal.

Mova's new Contour `reality capture' system debuts at SIGGRAPH ...'s communal movies ... New-media power players

Steve Perlman is unveiling his new Contour "reality capture" technology at SIGGRAPH this week. According to this morning's piece in the NY Times, it'll bring down the cost of creating digital "doubles" for human actors, while also making them more realistic than the standard motion-capture approach. John Markoff writes:

    The Contour system requires actors to cover their faces and clothes with makeup containing phosphorescent powder that is not visible under normal lighting. In a light-sealed room, the actors face two arrays of inexpensive video cameras that are synchronized to simultaneously record their appearance and shape. Scenes are lit by rapidly flashing fluorescent lights, and the cameras capture light from the glowing powder during intervals of darkness that are too short for humans to perceive.

    The captured images are transmitted to an array of computers that reassemble the three-dimensional shapes of the glowing areas. These can then be manipulated and edited into larger digital scenes using sophisticated software tools like Autodesk’s Maya or Softimage’s Face Robot.

    “Steve is really on to something here,” said Ed Ulbrich, vice president of Digital Domain, a Hollywood special-effects company in Venice, Calif. “The holy grail of digital effects is to be able to create a photorealistic human being.”

    ...“It’s been used in stunts and big special-effects scenes,” Mr. Ulbrich said. “Now you can use it for two actors sitting at a table and talking. You have the ability to tell stories and have close-up scenes that make you laugh and cry.”

The story says that David Fincher is "planning to use Contour next year when he begins filming `The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,' a which Brad Pitt will play a character who ages in reverse."

Here's the Contour Web site. Interesting that they've dubbed this "reality capture" instead of "motion capture." That's good positioning.

Here's the Wall Street Journal's version of the Countour story. Nick Wingfield says that Fincher is only "considering" using Contour for his next project. (I wonder what motivated Fincher to give quotes for both stories... I'm sure both reporters must've asked what his link to the company is... so he must not have a stake in Contour's success, or be getting it at a discounted rate for his next film.) Wingfield writes:

    [Perlman] predicts the system will allow film makers to create photorealistic faces for roughly $2,000 per second of screen time.

    By contrast, he says, using older motion-capture systems to create faces of lesser realism can cost between $50,000 and $100,000 a second because computer animators must still do costly reconstructions of details not captured by the technology. Mova will begin offering capture-services to clients using Contour in the fourth quarter.

- Interesting piece from yesterday's NY Times about, a company that's trying to use an online community to cast and create a movie. Ginia Bellafante writes:

    Live Mansion is the creation of Ckrush, a film-production company specializing in low-budget fare aimed at teenagers and young adults. Its biggest hit is likely to be “National Lampoon’s Pledge This!” a sorority comedy starring Paris Hilton. But its greatest innovation has been to imagine movie making as a completely democratic enterprise, eliminating the need for market research by allowing the audience to vote for precisely what it wants.

    Members of Live Mansion will not only choose the actors and also the director and the soundtrack. The only hired professional is a screenwriter. Those who vote most often can accrue points that allow them to receive a producer’s credit when the movie is completed.

    “The idea here is obviously to build up an audience for the movie beforehand,” Jeremy Dallow, Ckrush’s president, explained.

    But the larger goal also seems to be to draw as many members to the Live Mansion Web site as possible in the hope of attracting a big advertiser base like that of My Space, which currently boasts tens of millions of users.

- This "New-Media Power List" from the Wall Street Journal (which you can see without being a subscriber) mentions most of the viral videos and movie-related podcasts that I've heard people talking about this summer, including "Four Eyed Monsters," Channel101, and the Mentos and Diet Coke guys. It's worth a look.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Viral videos (with bonus comments from JibJab, Mr. Evolution of Dance, and Aaron Yonda of `Chad Vader') ... SIGGRAPH starts in Boston

- My Entertainment 2.0 column today focuses on viral video. The headline is `Low-budget viral videos attract TV-sized audiences'. Here's the gist:

    Traditional network TV is far from dead, but viral video -- short clips that garner attention via e-mail links that circulate like wildfire -- is an important and impressive new force that is shaking up the world of content and advertising.

    ...``Just like the Internet changed the way people book their travel, or do their banking, the Internet's changing the way we relate to entertainment," says Ryan Magnussen, chief executive of Ripe TV, a Los Angeles company that produces video content for the Web, handheld devices, and cable TV. ``The value of NBC in the past was their distribution platform, which was incredibly powerful. But that's now starting to break down."

As part of my reporting, I got the chance to correspond via e-mail with Judson Laipply, who made "Evolution of Dance," and talk with Gregg Spiridellis, who (with his brother Evan) made "This Land" and "It's Good to Be in D.C.", and Aaron Yonda, part of the group that made "Chad Vader: Day Shift Manager." (Aaron wasn't quoted in the piece, unfortunately.)

Yonda works at a custom metal shop in Madison, Wisconsin, and hopes his viral video work might get him noticed and create opportunities in the entertainment industry. Many of the videos he has made with collaborator Matt Sloan, on the site, have gotten 11,000 or 12,000 views... but when YouTube put "Chad Vader" on its homepage on July 17, suddenly it hit a million views. Yonda told me the budget for the video was about $2000, and they made it over the course of two months. "The primary payoff is having people like it," he said. "The secondary payoff has been that people go and check out our other videos, which don't use [George Lucas'] copyrighted characters."

Gregg Spiridellis said that JibJab isn't planning to make a political video for this year's mid-term elections -- which is too bad. Their main focus right now is on attracting other talented animators and video-makers to their site. "We're trying to figure out new production models," he said. "How do we coordinate and produce and cultivate talent in a way that reflects the economics of online [entertainment]? It will be very different from the development process for a TV sitcom. How do you create a virtual organization to make stuff, where you don't have a bunch of writers sitting at desks in your office full-time?"

I asked Judson Laipply whether he thinks there is a formula for making viral videos go viral, and whether he had an edge over others, since he'd cracked the code once. He wrote, in an e-mail:

    I don't think that viral videos have a formula yet. In fact I think that is what makes it so interesting. What makes one person forward a video over another? Is it that something is so funny? That the skill level is high? An Original idea? I don't think I would have any advantage over the next person because of my previous success.

Judson said his next video -- a new "Evolution of Dance" routine -- will be out right after Labor Day.

- Also, SIGGRAPH 2006 opens today in Boston. About 25,000 people are expected, according to the Boston Herald.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Mark Cuban responds: New ideas on marketing movies and theaters

Mark Cuban responds to almost 900 people who posted ideas on his blog about marketing movies and the theatrical experience more effectively, and less expensively.

The most interesting thing to me is that Cuban is essentially conducting an online focus group here... where do you see representatives from AMC, Regal, or the National Association of Theatre Owners engaging and interacting with their customers online?

Cuban mentions a few ideas that his Landmark Theatres chain is developing, both of which sound intriguing:

    we are currently working on 2 theater projects. One is a theater just for kids under the age of 10. Just showing kids movies, with tons of amenities for parents and kids, along with retail geared towards kids. No parent will be able to get out of the theater alive if they dont buy the Curious George goodies we sell when we show a Curious George movie. And of course we will be able to make our own movies to show, and with our policy of day n date releases, we will be selling the DVD of the movie as well.

    The 2nd is what I call Rock N Roll Theater (ok Im showing my age), but bottom line it will be a theater geared towards 16 to 25 year old demo where the motto will be

    “If you expect silence during this movie. leave now. “

    Again, lots of retail. Lots of security. Lots of kids who can see what they want to see , txt who they want to txt, yell what they want to yell. In fact, part of the thought process has been for the movies we make and show, to post portions of the script of the movie so kids can learn lines from the movie BEFORE they come, or hopefully make them read it after they saw it the first time and come back , creating our own rocky horror show like environment.

Both of those sound like they'd mean an expansion from Landmark's traditional arthouse/documentary fare.... unless there is an untapped market of 7-year olds who are dying to see Al Gore's "An Inconvient Truth."

Friday, July 28, 2006

SIGGRAPH 2006 story from The Hollywood Reporter (plus bonus material from DNA Productions, Blur Studio, Alligator Planet, and Hatchling Studios)

This piece of mine ran today, I think, in The Hollywood Reporter: `SIGGRAPH 2006: Thanks to inexpensive technology, computer animation is booming. But which companies have what it takes to become the next Pixar?' (SIGGRAPH, for the non-wonks among you, is the massive annual computer graphics and animation conference.)

Here's the opening:

    The field of computer animation is having a "Sorcerer's Apprentice" moment. Like bucket-toting brooms from the 1940 Walt Disney Co. classic "Fantasia," animation firms are replicating at a frenzied rate nationwide, each angling to challenge the dominance of the Big Three producers of child-friendly digital features: Disney's Pixar division, DreamWorks Animation and Fox's Blue Sky Studios.

    When they convene Sunday-Thursday in Boston for the annual Siggraph computer graphics trade show, the crop of fledgling animation studios is likely to discuss the intensifying competition in their business -- for everything from financing to talent to distributors to the best foreign collaborators. Based in such places as Portsmouth, N.H., Dallas and Portland, Ore., these upstarts share two beliefs: that a good story is essential, and that they can make features for a fraction of what the Big Three spend, often by leveraging offshore resources.

Here's some bonus material that didn't make it into the piece...

- Somehow, John Davis, co-founder of Texas-based DNA Productions and writer/director of `The Ant Bully,' got snipped from the story. He told me, “If all the animated films are good movies, then there couldn’t be a better glut. I don’t think there can be a glut of action movies. I think we only have too many if they’re not good.”

“I do think having lower-budget animated films will open the door to having some different stories told," Davis said. "I’d like to see some smaller-budget, independent types of films. The budgets are so huge with Pixar and DreamWorks that they really need to be able to hit the broadest audience possible, and because of that, they’re always going to need to tell a particular type of story.”

I asked Davis about the IMAX 3-D version of `The Ant Bully.' (I happened to interview him while he was doing his approval session for the IMAX version, which he said “looks incredible.”)

“The IMAX guys came out, and we met with them," he said. "We had an IMAX team on site at DNA that did all the IMAX conversion, rendering out the left eye and right eye.”

“Once it was set up, it was fairly painless. The costs were something that Warners and IMAX cover. It is an added expense. It also means that our production couldn’t make use of certain 2-D cheats we’re ordinarily use, with special effects. [With many productions,] there’s smoke and flame and different effects where you can use 2-D. But with the IMAX version, all your effects stuff has to be in the 3-D space, otherwise it’ll look flat. So the IMAX 3-D stuff kept us honest about how we executed all the graphics.”

Davis said that, with a budget of less than $50 million, `The Ant Bully’ is one of the least expensive CG films that’ll be released this summer. They had about 250 people work on it. (Their last CG feature, `Jimmy Neutron,’ was made for $28 million.)

- Ralph Guggenheim of Alligator Planet: “The Weinsteins and Lions Gate have been really active in acquiring animated features for distribution. But there are several others who are now in the emerging new media area. They may not want to distribute features, but shorts and medium-length projects that can be shown on iPods, cell phones, and the Web. We think that’s a really exciting new area” – though it’s still unclear what level of production values the Web can support, he said.

- Tim Miller of Blur Studio told me he “wasn’t bowled over with `Ice Age 2’ or `Cars.’” He said, “We want to do warm and fuzzy, and edgy sci-fi, because I think that’s the next thing. I’d like to do horror CG films, R-rated stuff. Anything is fair game for CG. People just don’t know it yet.” He predicted that CG buddy movies “may burn out” as a genre.

- Marc Dole of Hatchling Studios says, “The average animated film since `Toy Story’ brought in $200 million at the U.S. box office. That doesn’t include `Final Fantasy.’ This year, the number already looks to be down to $111 million.”

Disney doing traditional animation again

Perhaps I was a bit conservative last Sunday, when I predicted that Disney would announce a traditionally animated, 2-D film project by the end of 2007. The Hollywood Reporter announced yesterday that it has happened already. Sheigh Crabtree writes:

    Disney Animation's new leaders Ed Catmull and John Lasseter may have earned their reputation as computer-animation maestros at Pixar Animation Studios, but now that they are overseeing Disney's animation efforts, they also are interested in exploring Disney's 2-D tradition.

    The studio is putting John Musker and Ron Clements in charge of developing "Frog [Princess]," which promises, according to sources, to put a female spin on the tale of the Frog Prince.

Musker and Clements did "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin," "Hercules," and "Treasure Planet," their last film for Disney, in 2002.

Churchill Club event...New blog on the cinema biz...`Vice' cinematography reviews...Crowd sim in `Ant Bully'

- The event last night on The Future of Movies in Palo Alto was, so far as I could tell, a hit. It was sold out, and a number of people called me throughout the day asking how they could get in. The speakers all showed up -- and they were uniformly great, though I thought Todd Wagner from 2929 and Bob Lambert from Disney stole the show. Todd mentioned, at one point, that he is a big fan of Disney CEO Bob Iger. "So am I," Lambert quipped.

Director Randal Kleiser was toting a video iPod that was capable of showing 3-D without glasses; he had a short clip from one of the `Spy Kids' movies.

When I asked for a show of hands in the audience -- how many people have downloaded movies illegally? -- only a few hands popped up. (Too old a crowd?) But Jerry Pierce of Universal bravely admitted to having done it, to understand, he said, how the process worked, how easy or difficult it was, and what the drawbacks or advantages were. He wasn't clear about whether he downloaded a Universal movie -- or one from the competition.

And Tim Partridge from Dolby said he thought the digital cinema conversion would take a long time -- but that being able to show movies in 3-D would help nudge it along.

Afterward, Wagner tweaked me for making fun of the anemic box office grosses of `Bubble' during the panel. (Only three people in our audience said they'd seen it.) He said they'd sold 100,000 DVDs, and sold the foreign rights for $3 million. Since the movie cost less than $2 million, Wagner marked it as a success.

Forbes publisher (and Churchill Club co-founder) Rich Karlgaard posted some of his notes from the event here. (He also mentions an event being put on by Forbes on media, entertainment, and technology in October.) Josh Gershmann and Ryan Lack from the PR firm Voce Communications also have a posting.

Update: here's the podcast of the panel, on Apple's iTunes Music Store (you'll need iTunes on your computer to see it; it's the podcast called `The Future of Movies.'

- Afterwards, it was fun to chat with the filmmakers and technology types in the audience. One person I hadn't met before was Benjamin Treviño, who runs an excellent blog on how the exhibition business is changing, called Movie Theater Research Central. Very much worth a look, and I'm adding it to the list of links here.

- NY Times movie critic A.O. Scott wasn't bowled over by `Miami Vice,' but he had some very positive things to say about the cinematography. (The movie was shot with a number of digital cameras, but mainly the Viper from Thomson Grass Valley.) Scott writes:

    The camera, with leisurely, voluptuous sensuality, ranges from crowded cities to the open sea, from billowy thunderheads to the rippling muscles on Mr. Foxx’s back. Like “Collateral,” “Miami Vice” was shot in high-definition digital video, which Mr. Mann, in collaboration with the brilliant cinematographer Dion Beebe, treats not as a convenient substitute for film but as a medium with its own aesthetic properties and visual possibilities. The depth of focus, the intensity of colors, and the grainy, smudged finish of some of the images combine to create a look that is both vividly naturalistic and almost dreamlike.

But Jack Matthews of the NY Daily News says that "...the digital cinematography occasionally breaks up in grainy nighttime shots..."

And the Miami Herald (my hometown paper) says, "Shot on high-definition digital cameras, the film's cinematography often looks grainy and drained of color -- a marked contrast to the vivid, MTV-slick style of the TV show."

Susan King of the L.A. Times talked to director Michael Mann and cinematographer Dion Beebe about some of the challenges of shooting digitally.

- Richard Verrier of the LA Times writes about Massive, the crowd-simulation software created for the `Lord of the Rings' trilogy, and used on `The Ant Bully,' released today. He writes:

    [Warner Bros.] "The Ant Bully" is the first U.S. animated film to use Massive, but others are coming soon. Industry leader Walt Disney Co.'s Pixar Animation Studios is employing the software for its upcoming films.

    So are the producers of the Warner Bros. film "Happy Feet," a Robin Williams comedy about penguins that opens in November, and the upcoming Miramax Film Corp. release "Renaissance," a black-and-white animated film that used Massive to create a neighborhood set in a futuristic Paris.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

From AlwaysOn: `How Far Will Consumer-Generated Media Go?'

I stopped in at the AlwaysOn conference at Stanford yesterday to catch a couple sessions, do a few interviews, and meet with a couple folks.

Most interesting to me was a panel titled `How Far Will Consumer-Generated Media Go,' which featured YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley, the CEO of MP3 Tunes, and execs from Yahoo and Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment. There may be archived video of it on the AlwaysOn site, but I sure couldn't find it. (The entire conference was Webcast.)

Top-level ideas: The panelists all seemed to agree that consumer-generated content isn't going to be a meteor that renders professionally-produced content extinct. They also seemed to agree that it's hard to monetize content that comes from the grassroots... since consumers don't like it when ads start cropping up on sites like YouTube and MySpace, and advertisers are wary about the kind of content their messages are associated with (risque, political, copyright-infringing, etc.)

Hurley said that YouTube was "built for personal media, but has been used a lot for professional media. It's a platform to distribute media...a new way to get in front of an audience."

Michael Arrieta of Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment predicted (hopefully) that people will "still watch movies, as well as user-created stuff."

Hurley downplayed YouTube's impact on old media. "We're not trying to replace the experience of TV or a movie theater," he said, noting that YouTube streams videos at fairly low resolution. He said that he expected advertising to help carry the company to profitability, and that YouTube had been part of the development of "a new clip culture." Users' attention span, Hurley said, is about two or three minutes, and he doubted the site would see longer-form content take off. He said that over 60 percent of all Internet video streams in the U.S. originate from YouTube, and that their nearest competitor (MSN Video?) was in the teens.

Arrieta said that he believed in the Internet as a new tool for discovering talent. "Sony's investment in iFilm," he said, "was because we saw it as a way to source talent." He acknowledged that they hadn't yet found the next Steven Spielberg, but that Sony had hired several filmmakers, discovered via iFilm, to work on small projects for the studio.

Arrieta said he's skeptical that the average person sitting at a computer in Des Moines is going to start cranking out feature films, but that he thinks they might create movie trailer mash-ups. Of course, the problem with letting users get their hands on studio content, he said, was "talent agreements and all sorts of copyright issues."

Hurley predicted that Internet video would "take a few years to leap to the TV set."

Funniest moment: when Wall Street Journal reporter Kara Swisher, who was moderating the panel, asked Hurley how it felt, at the Allen & Company Sun Valley conference earlier this month, to "be licked up and down" by the assembled media moguls.

`Monster House': Nearly Thrice as Good in 3-D

`Monster House' opened last Friday in 3553 locations, where it averaged $6,253 in ticket sales per screen.

The 3-D version, shown on 163 screens, earned $16,012, according to E Online.

Quite a diff.

Real D, which makes the 3-D projection gear, put out a triumphant press release:

    The 3D per-theatre location average for MONSTER HOUSE was more than $15,000 opening weekend, July 21. More than 11% of the gross for MONSTER HOUSE came out of the 178 screens that were playing the film in the REAL D Digital 3D format – this means that less than 5% of theatres showing MONSTER HOUSE delivered more than 11% of the box-office gross.

(I wonder about the disparity between Real D's numbers and those reported by E Online...but it still looks like a roughly $10,000 difference in per screen average between 2-D and 3-D, whatever the exact tally.)

Last year, Disney's `Chicken Little' grossed $11,000 per screen at conventional theaters in its opening weekend, and $25,000 in the 80 theaters that played the 3-D version.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Variety editor Peter Bart: `We're witnessing the reinvention of the mass media'

I went to see Peter Bart last night at The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. Bart is the editor of Variety, author of "Boffo: How I Learned to Love the Blockbuster and Fear the Bomb," and co-host, with Peter Guber, of `Sunday Morning Shootout' on AMC. (There's also a documentary based on his book "Boffo" that's in heavy rotation on HBO.)

A few of my (disjointed) notes from the talk:

- Bart talked about expensive movies intended to be studio "tentpoles," like Warner Bros. "Posideon." (That picture, Bart said, sank "like a North Korean missile.") He contrasted that with "The Devil Wears Prada," a much less expensive movie targeted to adults, which has become a sleeper hit this summer. "Counter-programming works," Bart said. "Prada" was geared to "adults who want to see something that's not a sequel or based on a comic strip."

- The problem with studios relying more on these franchise, mega-brand, tentpole movies, Bart said, means that they can't focus on quality movies that target a niche, and are made on a small budget. "Movies like `Pirates,' `Spider-Man 3,' `Superman' suck the energy out of the studio," he said. "It takes every bit of energy away from all the other films in the pipeline."

- Bart mentioned that he'd been involved in producing the original "Fun with Dick and Jane," with Jane Fonda and George Segal . "It was an OK picture, and it cost about $3.5 million." The remake, with Tea Leoni and Jim Carrey, cost $126 million. "It wasn't any better, and they still couldn't think of a third act."

- Bart was asked about a New York Times op-ed piece he wrote last week, in which he quoted an anonymous studio chief as saying, "What would happen if I made a movie I actually looked forward to seeing?" Could that possibly be true?

Bart said the studio chiefs of old, like Harry Cohn and Jack Warner, tended to be uneducated and insecure about their social status. To show how classy they (and their studios) were, they made movies based on the great Dickens and Tolstoy. "Today, heads of studios are well-educated and well-traveled, and they make movies they don't want to see," Bart said. "True."

- Someone from the audience asked a question about which stars are the most bankable today. Bart replied, "The business of stardom is becoming a little shaky." He mentioned that Tom Cruise is in the midst of renegotiating his deal with Paramount, the studio for which he recently made `Mission: Impossible 3.' When Cruises' salary and his share of box office revenues (first-dollar gross) are combined, Bart said that Cruise might take home $70 or $80 million for that kind of picture. "It's a wonderful business for Tom Cruise, and a marginal business for the companies financing his movies." Studios are increasingly hesitant about doing deals that guarantee major paydays for actors, and saddle them with all the financial risks.

- In response to a question from the audience about a resurgence of documentaries, Bart said, "Michael Moore is a brand," But Al Gore's documentary is also doing well, he continued, as are docs that are political, provocative, and linked to the green movement. "Documentaries are becoming a viable theatrical business," he said. "18 to 24 percent of Landmark's revenue comes from showing documentaries." (That's a figure I hadn't heard before, since Landmark is a privately-held company.)

- Studios are sticking, perhaps stupidly, to a strategy of picking recognizable properties or brands like "Superman" or "Pirates of the Caribbean," and trying to dictate public tastes, foisting them onto the public. "They inject it into every artery of the pop culture," Bart said.

That will likely change, as the movies continue to pull in more revenue overseas than they do in the U.S. "Dictating tastes is not going to work worldwide."

(As an aside, he also noted that some of these properties and brands can be dusty and irrelevant to today's young people. "The whole idea of Superman is intrinsically dopey today," Bart said.)

- Bart predicted that the Internet could lead to a filmmaking renaissance that he likened to the 1960s and 1970s. "The chokehold of a few beginning to diminish. You can get your own videos [out], your own ideas, and people will see them. Perhaps out of this will emerge a whole new period of creative achievement like we saw in the 60s and 70s."

- He called the `Lord of the Rings' trilogy "the biggest gamble in the history of the entertainment industry," making three films simultaneously with a relatively unknown director and cast. But it worked, in part because "those [Tolkein] books touched such a note in all of us, just like Harry Potter did."

"To return to books as the basis for films, rather than comic books or video games, [can be a] good artistic decision, as well as a good business decision," he concluded.

- Studio chiefs, Bart believes, realize that "there is nothing about the entertainment environment today that will be the same five or ten years from now." We're witnessing, he said, the "reinvention of the mass media."

Audio file: `The Digital Revolution: What to Expect from Film's Second Century'

The Commonwealth Club here in San Francisco organized a panel back in March called `The Digital Revolution,' featuring:

- Richard Chuang, co-founder of PDI/DreamWorks
- Jeff Fino, co-founder of Wild Brain (an animation studio)
- John Knoll, visual effects supervisor at ILM
- Stu Maschwitz, co-founder of The Orphanage

They talked about Pixar, `Bubble,' iTunes, DVDs, Robert Rodriguez, Bruce Willis, Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas, and indie movies like `Four Eyed Monsters' and `Radius.'

The audio is here (in RealAudio format, about an hour long).

Two quotes I especially liked...

Stu Maschwitz: "The democratization of tools is great, but everyone can buy a typewriter; not everyone can write the next great American novel. The most valuable asset and the most difficult thing to create is the thing you put in front of the camera, not the camera itself."

John Knoll on digital cinematography: "When three-strip Technicolor came up with an extremely different look, people got used to it. The same thing will happen with digital cinematography. As long as it looks good, people will accept it, even if it's not like what you saw 20 years ago."

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Fighting the MPAA

The August issue of Wired has a short item about Shawn Hogan, a millionaire software developer who has decided to fight an MPAA piracy lawsuit, rather than settling. David Goldenberg writes:

    Though he expects to incur more than $100,000 in legal fees, [Hogan] thinks it’s a small price to pay to challenge the MPAA’s tactics. “They’re completely abusing the system,” Hogan says. “I would spend well into the millions on this.”

Is Mark Cuban the high-def Ted Turner?

- New York magazine's John Heilemann profiles Mark Cuban, with special attention given to his recent hire of Dan Rather. Heilemann writes:

    At a moment of wrenching change in the news business and the media game generally, Cuban stands as a singularly interesting figure: hip to technology but no quaffer of the Kool-Aid (“The Internet is boring,” he recently declared, followed by “Broadband video is overrated, too”), instinctively contrarian, possessed of a gambler’s taste for risk and an outsider’s disdain for the Old Guard’s shibboleths. In all of this, the parallels with [Ted] Turner are inescapable—and go a long way toward explaining why Cuban would take a flier on Rather and why Rather found his entreaties irresistible.

    “One of the most attractive things about Mark,” Rather observed in a grateful tone, “is that, as much as anyone I know, he doesn’t give a damn about what anybody thinks.”

- Which gives me one last opportunity to plug this event on Thursday in Palo Alto, CA on the future of movies. Cuban's business partner, Todd Wagner, will be on the panel.

- Finally, via HD for Indies, MarketWatch is reporting that will unveil a digital video service within a month, perhaps called Amazon DV.

Monday, July 24, 2006

`Studios Shift to Digital Movies' ... YouTube and `Web Auteurs' ... Mark Cuban Seeks Your Help on Movie Marketing

- Two pieces from the NY Times, one from today and one from yesterday.

Today's piece, `Studios Shift to Digital Movies, but Not Without Resistance,' is by your humble blogger. Here's the opener:

    Every weekend through the summer, big-budget movies compete for dominance at the box office. On movie sets, a quieter sort of contest is taking place as a handful of companies are angling to have their digital movie cameras used to capture the action, supplanting the traditional 35-millimeter film camera.

    Many of this summer’s most prominent releases have relied on digital movie cameras, including “Superman Returns” from Warner Brothers, “Click” from Sony Pictures and “Miami Vice,” a Universal Pictures offering that opens Friday.

Cinematographer Curtis Clark, who shot some of the recent doc `An Inconvenient Truth,' and chairs the tech committee of the American Society of Cinematographers, tells me, "We’ve reached what may be looked at, five years from now, as a tipping point in the use of digital cameras." And Panavision's CEO, Bob Beitcher, says, "We don’t envision developing or building a new film camera." But the bottom line is that the majority of major features ($20 million and up, let's say) are being shot on film.

I'll try to post some supplemental material later today, if I can...

Yesterday, John Clark had a piece headlined `Hollywood Clicks on the Work of Web Auteurs.' Clark writes:

    ...If the Net begins spawning films — and not simply helping to market or deliver them, as has happened to date — studios’ grip on the business of putting pictures on screens may be challenged.

    “Their nightmare is a direct feed from moviemaker to audience,” said Walter Kirn, a frequent contributor to The New York Times who has been serializing his novel “The Unbinding” on and saw one of his other novels, “Thumbsucker,” adapted to the big screen. “Their only trump cards are that they are pools of capital for making expensive things. Otherwise they are cut out of the action.”

    Geoffrey Gilmore, director of the Sundance Film Festival, said: “We are probably at a period of greater change than we have had in the past 50 years. The industry is scared about what they should make and how they should deliver it. What’s the next step? Where’s the development coming from?”

    “MySpace: The Movie” first appeared on YouTube on Jan. 31 and since then has had millions of hits, enough viewers to rival big-budget films or TV shows. [David] Lehre, who is 21 and lived at his parents’ home in Washington, Mich., when he created the video, shot it there with friends. He scored the music himself so he wouldn’t have to deal with copyright issues, designed the graphics and Googled any technical questions he had. This development and distribution process makes even independent films, with their retinue of maxed-out credit cards and frenzied film festivals, look positively mainstream in comparison.

- Mark Cuban sounds like he's getting a little frustrated with the problem of trying to get people to come to the movies that his 2929 Entertainment produces, without spendinng an imprudent amount of marketing dollars on mainstream ads. He writes:

    Its not unusual to spend 8, 10 , 12 dollars PER PERSON that goes to a movie in the opening weekend. Shoot, its not unusual for studios to spend that much per person to get people to go to the theater through a movies entire run !

    How crazy is it to spend more on marketing than the revenue recieved when they go to the movie ? Its double crazy because that revenue is split with the theater. So if a studio spends 12 bucks to get someone to go to the theater, they might only be getting 4 dollars back in return.

And he poses a challenge:

    if you want a job, and have a great idea on how to market movies in a completely different way. If your idea works for any and all kinds of movies. If it changes the dynamics and the economics of promoting movies, email it or post it. If its new and unique, i want to hear about it. If its a different way of doing the same thing you have seen before, it probably wont get you a job, but feel free to try.

The comments that follow his post are worth a read.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

So QT is shooting `Grind House' on film? ... Animation Timeline

- Not sure the reporting on this item from Comic-Con is accurate, but it implies that Quentin Tarantino is shooting his half of `Grind House' on film. Last I'd heard, Robert Rodriguez was going to serve as the DP for Quentin's half of the movie, which'd make it surprising to hear that he was using a film camera. (I happened to be at Rodriguez's Troublemaker Studios in Austin the day that the Genesis digital camera got delivered.) From the Risky Biz blog:

    An audience member asked the directors to respond to the old film vs. digital debate (Rodriguez is shooting his movie digitally and Tarantino is shooting on film). "Fuck the recording device," Tarantino replied. "It's about the magic."

- This timeline from Sight & Sound magazine in the UK traces the evolution of animation from the Phenakistoscope in 1832 to `A Scanner Darkly' in 2006.

Speaking of animation, I had an interesting chat with someone at an IIFF event this week about Pixar, Disney, and 2-D animation. We both agreed the odds are pretty high that the newly-merged Disney and Pixar animation groups will announce a 2-D animated theatrical feature in the near-term. I'll predict here that it could happen by the end of 2007.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Christie Gearing Up to Crank Out 400 Digital Cinema Projectors Per Month

Back in March of 2000, Christie was the first company to license Texas Instruments' DLP (Digital Light Processor) chip to make digital cinema projectors, and in the six years since, CEO Jack Kline has been waiting -- at times not so patiently -- for digital cinema to move into the mainstream. Now, it looks like that may be happening. From a Christie press release today:

    To keep pace with the demand, the Company's Canadian facility has already increased manufacturing capacity to meet the demand, putting it on target to deliver up to 400 units per month by the end of 2006 - a 400 percent increase in production in one year. The company plans additional expansions in the coming year as 2K-resolution DLP Cinema, the heart of the Christie CP2000, becomes the industry standard.

But 2K might not always be the industry standard. The next challenge for Texas Instruments and Christie could be developing a higher-resolution projector to compete with Sony's 4K SXRD projector.

Friday news: `Monster House' in 3-D...A CEO for Movielabs (Finally)...Charles Swartz Retires From ETC...Google Video Linking...Lengthy Movies

- `Monster House' opens today. It'll show in digital 3-D in more than 215 theaters worldwide. Michael Coate offers this great list of places where you can see `Monster House' in digitally projected 3-D and digital 2-D.

The LA Times has a story today about the increasing interest in 3-D releases -- Sony has the `The Ant Bully' opening next Friday and `Open Season' on September 29th, both in IMAX (non-digital) 3-D. Dawn Chmielewski writes:

    "With rising production costs and especially marketing costs from the studios, we needed a way to help 'eventize' our most important productions," said Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution at Warner Bros. Pictures.

    For an industry that recycles its story lines — "Poseidon" and "Miami Vice" are recent examples — it's little surprise that the studios are dusting off old approaches for prying audiences out of their living rooms.

Also, I've got a short piece in Fast Company about Real D, the company making the 3-D projection technology used with `Monster House.'

- The MPAA has hired Steve Weinstein as president and CEO of Movielabs, a new R&D group that will predominantly focus on anti-piracy technologies. The release (in PDF format) is here. Here's Weinstein's bio from his most recent gig, at a Silicon Valley company called Macrovision.

MPAA chief Dan Glickman tells The Hollywood Reporter: "The evolution of technology continues to transform our industry at an ever-quickening pace. Movielabs will help our companies embrace opportunities and meet new challenges."

The MPAA first announced the formation of Movielabs last September.

- Charles Swartz is retiring as head of the Entertainment Technology Center at USC, for health reasons. I wish him well. Charles started at ETC in 2002, and turned the Pacific Theatre in Hollywood into a hive of digital cinema tests, demos, and discussions. ETC's executive board is conducting a search for Charles' successor.

- Google is now making it possible to link inside a video, to any point in its running time. Why is this cool? Because I think people will want to be able to view (and buy) very discrete portions of video content. Imagine being able to buy just your favorite five minute clip from `Taxi Driver' in digital form, and keep it on your cell phone, or pay to watch a couple minutes of what your friend says is the funniest part of a vintage TV show. Just as iTunes made it easy to buy a song without paying for the whole album, video of all kinds is going to be broken up into chunks -- and sold that way (or supported by ads that way.)

- If you have access to the Wall Street Journal, I guarantee you'll love this story about the endurance required to watch this summer's lengthy movies. In 1986, the average running time for the 20 most successful movies was 104 minutes. Last year, it was 118 minutes. Kate Kelly writes:

    Most of the blame for the movie marathons lies with studios' inability to rein in the growing clout of a select group of directors. With box-office returns increasingly unpredictable, studios try to hire the most proven filmmakers. But those directors tend to come with strings attached, including eight-figure salaries and plenty of autonomy over how a movie is made -- including running times.

    A case in point: Peter Jackson's directing deal for "King Kong." On the heels of his smashing success with the first two "Lord of the Rings" movies, each of which made well over $300 million domestically despite their length, the New Zealand filmmaker had a negotiating advantage when it came to discussing a "Kong" deal in 2003. So to realize his vision of the classic gorilla movie -- a project that Universal had already shelved once -- Mr. Jackson commanded a $20 million payment up front, a 20% share of the studio's share of the box-office gross and the right to "final-cut approval," or complete say, over a PG-13-rated movie of roughly 2½ hours, according to people familiar with the deal.

    But even when the rough cut exceeded three hours, Universal executives, feeling it was important to trust Mr. Jackson, didn't push back much, suggesting among other things a cut of less than one minute from a scene. The eventual result: a tepid $218 million in domestic ticket sales against roughly $250 million in production costs. "King Kong" and its 187-minute running time strained many moviegoers' patience -- prompting some to walk out early and others to gripe that it took more than an hour for the title character to appear. Many avoided the film entirely.

My sister and I, walking out of `Pirates 2' earlier this week, mused about cutting the movie by a half-hour. If they'd done that, the $225 million budget would've presumably dropped by about $45 million (at a cost of roughly $1.5 million a minute... and Disney could've made a bonus movie for that sum.)

Director M. Night Shyamalan on New Technologies, Filmmaking, and the Theatrical Window

When I was at ShoWest in Las Vegas this past March, the good people of Warner Bros. PR arranged a few minutes for me to chat with M. Night Shyamalan, who was showing a few scenes from "The Lady in the Water" to theater owners. I was hoping to use his comments more extensively in a magazine piece, but some of them did creep into this Hollywood Reporter story on digital cinematography.

But in the spirit of the blogosphere, I wanted to post the entire transcript of our conversation at the Paris Hotel here. In a very short span of time, we talked about digital cinematography, editing, the theatrical window, Steven Soderbergh, and Mark Cuban.

Scott Kirsner: Have you had other directors who've come to you, after you started speaking out about the theatrical window last year, and said, `Hey, we're on your side'?

M. Night Shyamalan: I haven't found anyone, other than the one --

SK: [Director Steven] Soderbergh --

MNS: -- vehemently on the other side, who has said, `I love that my film is going to be on DVD [while it's in theaters].' No one would say that.

Either [directors] feel, there's nothing I can do, or yeah, I'm with you 100 percent.

It's not a dangerous stance that I'm taking. That's what we do for a living.

SK: Do you think there will be more experiments, like `Bubble'? Those guys [Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner of 2929 Entertainment] have said they're going to do a couple movies, and they want to get other directors working with them.

MNS: My art form isn't there to be experimented with. They chose to make an experiment and the results of their experiment are in. [Box Office Mojo says the Steven Soderbergh drama `Bubble,' with a $1.6 million budget, made $145,626 in theatrical release.] If the results were the other way around, it would be a different story.

SK: What are your feelings about digital projection and shooting digitally?

MNS: Shooting digitally would bother me. I'm editing on film -- and I can't even find the materials to edit on film anymore.

SK: You still edit on film?

MNS: I do both, edit on the computer and film, and it's impossible to find [film editing equipment]. I have to get the equipment from a warehouse in Los Angeles which is all dusty. They're like, `Hey, you want to buy it?' I'm thinking about buying it, because no one wants it.

It's changing to digital. I'm concerned about humanity. If it was up to me, I would keep the stock from the 1970s that they shot `Dog Day Afternoon' with. That was more real to me. I would love to have the option to shoot with that. But I don't. I have very slick movie film now. You can shoot in any light, it looks very clean, everyone has this glossy quality.

SK: You're not eager to start shooting digitally, like [Bryan Singer did on] `Superman Returns'?

MNS: It's not my thing... I'm a little, you know, farm boy.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

A `collective anxiety attack' in Hollywood... Plus, text messaging and TV shows, Comic-Con previews, and YouTube

- The LA Times has an interesting piece this morning on the business environment in Hollywood following a string of studio lay-offs, which writers Claudia Eller and Richard Verrier describe as a "collective anxiety attack." They write:

    "We're running into some pretty choppy waters, and so you trim your sails," Sony Pictures Chief Executive Michael Lynton said, adding that the studios in general were having to be more prudent because "some of the cushions that were there in the past are no longer there."

    Among those cushions, he said: "More-predictable DVD sales, a much bigger TV network market for films, and reliable audience reaction to the TV marketing of our movies."

    Media analysts agree that in watching their bottom lines, entertainment companies are simply doing what is necessary to raise sagging stock prices and earnings. But they acknowledge that the conglomerates that own studios appear to be losing some confidence in the movie business.

- TV shows are using text messaging to encourage users to watch them live (rather than on TiVo)...and as a source of revenue. The Wall Street Journal says that "in the spring season, NBC's game show "Deal or No Deal" earned enough money from premium text-messaging votes to cover the more than $1 million sweepstakes prize money. Viewers of the show cast a total of 57 million votes, both online and via text message. NBC declines to disclose how many of those votes came from cellphone users, who paid 99 cents to participate in the sweepstakes."

- The LA Times and The Hollywood Reporter both have previews of Comic-Con in San Diego.

- From DVGuru, a blog entry about how YouTube brings you the Iraq war

- Finally, a reminder about this panel discussion I'm involved with next Thursday in Palo Alto, on "The Future of Movies."

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

CinemaNow Starts Offering DVD Burn Option (for 100 Titles)...Plus, No `Snakes' for Critics, and Netflix Does TV

- It's good news, of course, that CinemaNow is making it possible, starting today, for users to download a movie and burn it to a DVD. Some coverage of the deal: LA Times, Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The New York Times.

What are the implications and limitations of this new offering?

  1. Bad news for Movielink. They won't have a comparable service up until mid-2007, and are clearly vexed that the studios that created the Movielink joint venture have jumped into bed sooner with CinemaNow, using a different burning and protection approach than Movielink is pursuing.
  2. DVD burning, for most people, is still a complicated and time-consuming process. Things can go wrong. And the DVDs produced by CinemaNow will be lower-quality than standard DVDs, to make the download happen faster. The entire process takes 2-4 hours.
  3. CinemaNow's service will launch with only about 100 backlist titles; nothing new.
  4. From the LA Times story: "CinemaNow in the spring launched a closely watched online experiment with pornography producer Vivid Entertainment Group. That service, which allowed DVD burning, served as a high-profile test for the mainstream studios and demonstrated that CinemaNow's anti-piracy technology was robust enough and could produce discs playable in a standard DVD player."

- `Snakes' won't be screened for critics. First chance anyone will get to see it is late on August 17th. The Movie Marketing Blog lists some of the other recent releases that haven't been screened for critics, including 'Aeon Flux,' 'Cursed,' 'Phat Girlz,' 'Scary Movie 4,' 'See no Evil', 'The Benchwarmers,' 'The Fog,' 'The Hills Have Eyes,' 'Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion,' 'Ultraviolet,' 'Underworld: Evolution', and 'When a Stranger Calls.'

- NBC is partnering with Netflix to offer subscribers a chance to see new NBC series on DVD six weeks before they're broadcast. The two series being promoted are "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" and "Kidnapped," and they'll be available starting August 5th.

Cool idea. Would a studio ever use Netflix for a small DVD "buzz campaign" prior to a movie's release? (Or would that aggravate theaters to no end?)

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Anne Thompson on Pricing Digital Movies

Anne Thompson of The Hollywood Reporter writes about how studios might price digital movies in the future, selling through merchants like iTunes,, Guba, CinemaNow, etc.

She quotes Sony executive Ben Feingold, who runs worldwide home entertainment. He seems to be saying that studios are fond of the idea of charging the same price for a digital download as a DVD: "Currently there is basic parity in the electronic or physical landscape. That's what makes sense at this particular time," Feingold says.

And on high-definition downloads, Thompson writes:

    What is the right price for a high-resolution movie download? $5? $15? "The studios don't want to figure that out yet," one studio digital executive says, "not until digital downloads make real money, or Wal-Mart wants to get into that business."

The piece also mentions that Amazon's DVD sales represent about 5% of the studios' total DVD sales, and Wal-Mart represents about 35%. "...But Amazon's share is growing fast," Thompson observes. "With the potential for an enormous inventory, Amazon could wind up being the long tail that wags the movie-download dog."

D Cinema promotion at Universal

Michael Joe is now chief strategy officer at Universal Pictures, according to this Hollywood Reporter story.

Borys Kit writes:

    Joe, who previously held the post of exec vp, business development and strategic planning, will now serve as the company's chief strategy officer. While continuing to oversee business development, he will direct the company's windows strategy and digital initiatives, including wireless, interactive games and d-cinema. He will oversee the company's entry into new markets and new technologies and will also represent Universal on anti-piracy, public policy and MPAA matters.

    Joe, who will also report jointly to [chairman Marc] Shmuger and [co-chair David] Linde, will continue to manage Universal's advanced technology group, which he has overseen since January 2005.

Here's a Q&A with Michael Joe from earlier this year.

The Motley Fool on AMC discounting (and other movie stocks)

Rick Munarriz of The Motley Fool mentions a new pricing program called A.M. Cinema from AMC. It applies to movie showings before noon on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays: tickets are priced as low as $4. (Here's the AMC release.)

Munarriz also looks at the stocks of companies like Regal, Carmike, Imax, AccessIT, Netflix, and Hollywood Media.

The New Movie Community...Netflix Guilt...Reptiles on a Jumbo Jet

- I went to see `Pirates 2' last night, in the middle of its second week of release, and had the distinct feeling that I was catching up on something. Seeing a big movie during its opening weekend seems to be the new imperative, if you want to keep up with the watercooler conversation (and blog commentary). For those in the movie industry, being able to mention that you saw the movie weeks or months in advance of its release is the coin of the realm. No one except total unhipsters like me wants to be there in Week Two, though there was a decent crowd for `Pirates' at San Francisco's Metreon theater downtown.

This marketing campaign from Lionsgate for the forthcoming horror thriller `The Descent' seems to acknowledge this new dynamic: increasingly, people want to be insiders -- part of a community that sees things first, and tells their friends whether those things are hits or duds.

Lionsgate is putting on a sneak preview that audience members will pay to be part of (many sneaks are free), nine days in advance of `The Descent''s release. But they'll also get to see some extra behind-the-scenes footage -- the sort of stuff that will eventually show up on the DVD, I'd bet.

My guess is that savvy movie marketers will do more of this, trying to create a community for new movies, and generate a desire to be part of that early bunch of taste-makers. And increasingly, the decision about how to see a movie will be binary: either early (sneak preview or first week of release), or on DVD/Internet download/cable TV. There won't be a second or third or fourth week of theatrical release for many movies. So, do I see it first, or do I wait?

- Speaking of waiting, the Wall Street Journal has a fun piece about what I think of as Netflix guilt -- letting certain movies languish atop the TV for weeks or months. (They even mention `Hotel Rwanda,' one of the longest occupants of that spot in my living room.) Matt Phillips writes:

    Netflix Inc., which boasts nearly five million members, often trumpets how its all-you-can-eat rental model is changing the way people are watching movies. But Netflix may also be changing the way people don't watch them. Through its Web site, Netflix makes it easy to comb through a massive catalog of 60,000 films. It offers access to everything from Charlie Chaplin's 1921 silent tramp movie "The Kid" to recent Academy Award-winners like "Crash." And some members admit that when browsing the Netflix backlog, they overestimate their appetite for off-the-beaten-track films. The result: Sometimes DVDs languish for months without being watched...

    ...The result can be a type of guilt-fueled Netflix bottleneck for users, who may not feel like watching a film but are also loathe to return it, said Mike Kaltschnee, who writes a popular blog called HackingNetflix. He's experienced the sensation himself. He twice rented Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," kept it for weeks, only to send it back unwatched. He cites his Catholic upbringing for his inability to watch the sometimes-brutal depiction of Christ's last days. "It's childish almost. It's just a movie. But I could not put it in the DVD player," he said. "And I know I'm not alone."

- Aemelia Scott writes in about the `Snakes on a Plane' phenomenon, focusing mostly on the title:

    ..."Snakes on a Plane" is more than just a title and more than just a cult movie. It's an exposure of the inner workings of Hollywood. It's an admission on the part of movie writers, directors, producers and distributors that this movie is, as Samuel L. Jackson has put it, "Motherfucking Snakes on a Motherfucking Plane!" Through a tiny crack in the façade of the movie industry, moviegoers saw that the industry itself doesn't believe in its own magic. It's not just that the emperor wears no clothes when he parades through the streets; it's that everyone inside the palace freely admits that he's naked.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Movielink to allow DVD burning...YouTube makes a splash in Sun Valley

According to the LA Times, Movielink is on the very of announcing a new feature: the ability to burn a DVD of the movie you've just downloaded. Technology from Sonic Solutions will allegedly prevent would-be pirates from then making multiple dupes of that movie. (Here's the Wall Street Journal piece for you subscribers.) This is the first sign to me that Movielink is becoming a real business, and delivering something that consumers might want.

YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley made a big splash at last week's Sun Valley gathering of media titans, mostly for being the youngest guest there (29). But also for having a Web site that now attracts more traffic than any of the TV networks' sites, serving up 100 million videos a day. The LA Times says that many in attendance, though, were wondering whether YouTube is really becoming one of the Web's "anchor tenants" -- like a Google, Yahoo, eBay or MySpace -- or simply a passing fad. I wonder about this, too: YouTube's biggest challenge now is keeping its giant audience supplied with stuff that they want to watch. I think that the audience's expectations for Web video are going to slowly rise. Pointless and stupid is fun...for a while. If you're old enough, you may recall that `America's Funniest Home Videos' was once the most popular show on television.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Saturday links: A new video iPod? ... UMD, we hardly knew ye ... Kevin Smith ... More

Some Saturday links for you...

- Does Apple have a new video iPod in the works, designed specifically for watching content, rather than listening to music?

- Sony loves its proprietary media formats. Consumers don't. Say goodnight, UMD.

- Speaking of silly format stuff, since the studios couldn't agree on one high-definition DVD format, now the Blu-ray and HD DVD camps are gonna have to spend millions to try to win consumers to their side. HD DVD is shelling out $150 million in promotions.

- Kim Masters on Disney's new strategy.

- Entertainment Weekly has a piece about how motion capture and software created the Davy Jones character in `Pirates 2.' Some nice comments from John Knoll at ILM.

- Enric was at the opening night of the SF Silent Film Festival last night, and has some photos and a report.

- Mark Olsen writes about Kevin Smith in today's LA Times. Here's one passage that I found interesting, about how Smith has used the Net to communicate directly with his fans:

    ...[Smith] has an extremely active and direct role online in a circle of Internet sites. The websites allow him to interact with a broad swath of fans, sell merchandise and, as with the case of "Clerks II," heavily promote his upcoming releases.

    ..."Kevin is incredibly savvy when it comes to marketing," [Richard] Kelly says. "Part of preserving your auteur status, preserving your vision and continuing to make films the way you want to is developing an identity, a fan base and an audience that will always be there for you. I think Kevin has done that, and he's able to make exactly the films he wants to make."

Friday, July 14, 2006

A lengthy sample of `A Scanner Darkly'...How VFX Works with the Panavision Genesis

- The Movie Marketing Blog says that Warner Independent Pictures has made the first 24 (!) minutes of Richard Linklater's `A Scanner Darkly' available online. The movie was released July 7; today it expands from 17 screens to 190.

- Mike Curtis at HD for Indies has a few links related to how the Panavision Genesis camera integrated with VFX process for `Superman Returns.' In a piece from Film & Video, Jonathan Rothbart of The Orphanage says:

    “The interesting thing was that typically CG has more detail than film and more often than not we have to soften it for film. But with the Genesis, the detail level was so extreme, everything we did digitally was held up to scrutiny. Makeup was, too. There was so much detail that normally gets softened on film — shaving shadows, rough areas on the face — that they had to alter what they shot. For example, there were a lot of eye fixes because you could see [Brandon] Routh’s contacts. The digital Superman had to match how they altered Routh digitally.”

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Cutbacks at Disney, and Why Dick Cook Should Create a New Division

Disney isn't just cutting staff by 20 to 25 percent, but also the number of movies it'll release each year, to about 10. (That's down from 14 to 21 each year over the last five years.) Claudia Eller of the LA Times writes:

    The latest moves are part of a nearly decade-long retrenchment by Disney to boost profitability of its films as the financial risks in the movie business grow more treacherous.

    Disney's overhead cuts follow similar moves made recently at competitors Warner Bros., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. and Paramount Pictures and its newly acquired DreamWorks SKG unit. Despite Hollywood's box-office recovery this year, studio profits are still being eaten away by higher production and marketing costs. In addition, growth in the lucrative DVD business is slowing dramatically.

The reduction of the number of Disney releases, to ten a year, means that Disney's strategy is to spend more on each movie (`Pirates 2' cost about $200 million to make), lavish each movie with more management oversight, and market the hell out of them when they're released. This is like launching the Space Shuttle: it's expensive, and there are lots of things that can go wrong.

The only reason that 'the movie business [is growing] more treacherous,' as Eller writes, is that studios are increasingly adopting this `less is more' approach: in a world where the Internet supports incredible diversity, and Netflix lets a million niches bloom, hey, let's trying satisfying people by giving them fewer choices.

Disney doesn't do badly with big-budget movies: look at `Pirates 2,' `Cars,' and `Narnia.' (But don't look at `Hidalgo' or `The Alamo.')

I would humbly suggest that, in addition to making these ten big-budget movies a year, Disney studio chairman Dick Cook would be smart to start up a new division called Cheapskate Digital Pictures. Give the entire division a budget of $20 million -- one-tenth what it cost to make `Pirates 2.' Assign two executives -- no more -- to run the whole division. Give them the cheapest, rattiest office space you can find on the Disney lot. Make them suffer with just one assistant apiece, and hand-me-down Blackberries. And tell them that their objective is to not just turn a profit for the division...not just to make the next `Napoleon Dynamite' or `My Big Fat Greek Wedding,' or to find the next `March of the Penguins'... but to make more movies with their $20 million budget than the rest of the Disney studio is making with its annual budget of roughly a billion. (Of course, all movies would be shot digitally, and would rely on the Web to generate interest in advance of their release dates.)

Finally, some unrelated links:

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

3-D at Home...AccessIT Hits 500 Screens...Hollywood and Videogames...New `Cinesphere' Show at Universal Orlando

- Montreal-based Sensio and Universal Home Entertainment are releasing a batch of 3-D movies, including `Jaws 3-D,' `It Came from Outer Space,' and `Creature from the Black Lagoon' on DVD. The new releases are designed to take advantage of Sensio's 3D chip, which goes into devices like DVD players or digital projectors. The company is focused on bringing 3-D content to the living room.

- This release from AccessIT (aka Christie/AIX) says they've installed 534 digital cinema systems at 70 different theater sites (aka multiplexes).

- Reuters has this OK story about videogames based on films. The game version of `Cars,' from THQ, is apparently selling better than the game versions of `Finding Nemo' or `The Incredibles,' both of which raked in about $100 million. The `Da Vinci Code' game, however, ain't selling so well. It's from Take-Two Interactive, the guys who brought you `Grand Theft Auto.'

- This show at Universal Studios in Florida sounds cool. They're calling it `Universal 360 - A Cinesphere Spectacular.'

    Universal 360 is a first-ever combination of more than 100 great movies, 360-degree spherical projection, lasers, pyro effects, digital mapping technology – and four enormous spheres spread across acres of waterfront at Universal Studios Florida. The spheres, which are 30-feet tall and 36-feet wide, float in the park’s central lagoon and serve as giant outdoor projection screens. Digital mapping technology allows Universal to project supplemental images and effects on buildings surrounding the lagoon-transforming entire buildings into walls of flame. The show also features a specially developed soundtrack broadcast through more than 300 outdoor speakers.

`Making a Buck Off Your Pet-Trick Videos'...SF Silent Film Fest

- Jessica Vascellaro of the Wall Street Journal has a piece about making money from Net video. She writes:

    The explosive growth of Internet video is allowing people not only to find an audience for their amateur productions. Now they can actually earn money from them. San Diego-based Eefoof Inc., launched just over a week ago, shares 50% of its profits from text ads and banner ads with users who upload their own online video clips. Shares are distributed based on the number of hits a particular video receives. Recently launched, operated by Aware Media Inc., shares 50% of revenue from the ads appearing on profile pages to which users can upload their own video and audio files. Users can also sell their content via download at a price they set, in which case they earn 85% of the sale. In May, Blip Networks Inc.'s Blip.TV began giving members half of the ad revenue it earns from the still-photograph and video ads that users can have placed at the end of their videos. Revver affixes an ad frame to the end of a video clip and gives the users 50% of the revenue generated when the ad is clicked on, whether the video is accessed from a Web site, shared across instant-messaging services or emailed between friends.

At the end of the piece, she mentions a webmaster in Sacramento who makes "anime-inspired video clips" and, in the past, has posted them on YouTube. But After launched earlier this month, he and his friends have decided to start working on a full-length feature.

- Enric posts to his blog about the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which runs July 14-16 at the Castro Theatre. The complete schedule is here.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

For Tuesday: A box office q for you...Sony's deal with GUBA...SF Indieclub event...ASC demo

- When a movie like `Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest' has a $132 million opening weekend, movie theaters and studios hope that it's the start of a trend...that by luring you to the movie theater one weekend, you'll be more likely to return more frequently as the summer wears on. (`Honey, I'd forgotten how good the Sprite is here!') My belief is that people go to the movies when there's something that snags their interest, and a strong opening for `Pirates' will have no impact on `You, Me and Dupree' this Friday, or `Miami Vice' later in the month. What do you think?

- will start offering 100 movies from Sony for digital rental and download, following a similar deal with Warner Bros. John Boudreau of the SJ Mercury News writes:

    Guba's Sony catalog will grow to 500 movies in coming months, said Tom McInerney, the Web site's co-founder. New releases are priced at $19.99, and older titles sell for $9.99. Rental prices are $2.99 for new movies and $1.99 for catalog films.

- The San Francisco Indieclub is holding their `Summer Soiree & Screening' August 26, from noon to 5 p.m. "Fun-packed program includes professional guest speakers from our film community, screenings of our member's indie feature film trailers, shorts, documentaries & demo reels, film related discussions, networking w/ filmmakers, crew & talent, potluck luncheon, free raffle prizes & much, much more!" They request a $20 donation at the door. It's at 4150 Clement St in San Francisco, at the VA Medical Bldg Auditorium.

- If you're a member of the American Society of Cinematographers, and will be in LA tomorrow evening (Wednesday), Dave Stump will be showing some footage he shot with the Olympus 4K digital camera at the Pacific Theatre. It'll be shown at 4K on the Sony projector, at 2K, and on 35-millimeter film. Contact the ASC to RSVP (again .... if you are a member or affiliate.)

Monday, July 10, 2006

News items: From D Cinema Funding to Dan Rather on HDNet

Here's a bunch of worthy reads:

- From the LA Times: National CineMedia recently hired JPMorgan to raise $1 billion that will help fund the conversion of 13,000 screens to digital cinema.

- Chris Gaither of the LA Times reports on the evolving Web video economy. He writes:

    Hollywood and Silicon Valley are abuzz over how the Internet is reshaping the entertainment and news businesses. Broadcast and cable TV networks are making shows such as "Lost" and scores of news clips available for viewing on computers and iPods, as they experiment with business models. Amateurs also are jumping in the game, sharing funny home movies and other videos through sites such as YouTube.

    But a sharp rise in broadband connectivity is spurring the use of video across the Internet. In May, 72% of active Web users in the U.S. connected at home via broadband, a sharp rise from 57% during the same period last year, according to research firm Nielsen/NetRatings.

- There was a great piece yesterday by Mary McNamara in the LA Times on how studios have been pulling the plug lately when a movie project's budget skyrockets before the first day of shooting. She writes:

    ...[W]hat looks like a recent phenomenon — studios either cutting budgets at the last minute or demanding all sorts of assurances from those films that go over $100 million — is, according to [producer and former studio chief Bill] Mechanic, an accumulation of issues.

    "For the last few years, people just haven't been paying attention," he says.

    The mentality at the studios today doesn't help, either, says [producer and former studio head Mike] Medavoy. "It's hard to get a movie made today because everyone's looking for yesterday's hit," he says. "It's very marketing-oriented, like politics based on polling. But the marketing budget for most films now is huge because they have such a short window to get everything back."

- Jim Cameron will start shooting his next feature, `Avatar,' in February, targeting a 2008 release, according to Sheigh Crabtree in The Hollywood Reporter. Cameron says, "There's just so much CG, and the visual effects are a huge component. A lot of it is performance capture. We use different techniques (from, for example, Sony Pictures' upcoming 'Monster House'), but it's the same general idea."

- The Wall Street Journal says that U.S. box office revenues from Jan. 1 to July 4th are up 4.8 percent, and attendance is up 1.7 percent. 20th Century Fox, with hits like `X-Men' and `Ice Age 2' is happiest.

- Finally, Mark Cuban has hired Dan Rather to develop a news show for his HDNet satellite channel.

Friday, July 07, 2006

`Future of Movies' panel...Indian animation co's...`Scanner Darkly' rotoscoping...Sundance + Google...`Superman Returns' IMAX results

- Later this month, I'm moderating a panel in Palo Alto on `The Future of Movies,' which is being put on by the Churchill Club. It's on Thursday, July 27th. Here's the current speaker list and description:

    > Randal Kleiser, President, Randel Kleiser Productions, Inc.; Director, Grease, The Blue Lagoon, Honey I Blew Up the Kid, Lovewrecked
    > Bob Lambert, Sr. Vice President, Worldwide Technology Strategy The Walt Disney Company
    > Tim Partridge, Sr. Vice President and General Manager, Dolby Professional Division, Dolby Laboratories, Inc.
    > Jerry Pierce, Senior Vice President, Technology, Universal Pictures
    > Todd Wagner, CEO, 2929 Entertainment

    > Scott Kirsner, Editor, CinemaTech; Columnist and Contributing Writer, Fast Company, The Boston Globe, The Hollywood Reporter

    In the height of the summer movie season we'll look at what's changing about the way movies are made, distributed and experienced, with an all-star cast of speakers from Hollywood and the Bay Area.

    How is the relationship between studios, filmmakers, and the audience changing? Why does it seem that Northern California tech companies and Southern California content producers are so often at odds? How can they work better together? What are the new business models that will help movie-making remain profitable? Join us as these film industry leaders tell us what's in store for the future of cinema!

- The Wall Street Journal says that while outsourcing computer animation to India is definitely a trend, it's too early to tell whether the India-based companies will be successful on the order of Pixar or DreamWorks. One problem seems to be a lack of trained animators. Binny Sabharwal and Eric Bellman write:

    According to the National Association of Software and Service Companies, the animation industry in India is now worth $285 million and is expected to grow 35% a year for the next few years, reaching around $1 billion by 2009.

    But the business is so new that analysts say it is hard to project company growth as revenue flows are still unstable. What's more, some investors lack a good understanding of the business, analysts say, making it difficult to pick the long-term winners. Most companies have yet to deliver a consistent performance since the sector began taking off five years ago.

- The LA Times has this piece on digital rotoscoping in Richard Linklater's `A Scanner Darkly,' released today. The movie started with one team of animators, and was finished by another. Robert Levine writes:

    When [the] process began, in October 2004, Linklater and co-producer Tommy Pallotta believed that a team of 30 animators could finish the film in about six months for a budget of $6.7 million.

    In the end, completing "Scanner" required up to 50 animators, took more than twice the time allotted and cost more than $8 million.

    "It was very difficult," Linklater said. "It still takes about 500 hours of human labor to do a minute of film."

    The production ran into a few other difficulties as well. Sabiston had been hired to head the animation effort on "Scanner," as he had done on "Waking Life." But by the end of 2004, the film's producers became concerned that his team wasn't progressing as fast as they had hoped.

- The Sundance Channel is experimenting with renting and selling 18 movies that it owns, using Google Video. They're $3.99 for a 24-hour rental, or $9.99 to own, according to The Hollywood Reporter

- says that the IMAX 3-D version of `Superman Returns' has been doing boffo business: it contributed $6.83 million of the movie's $108 million total over the July 4th weekend, and the seven-day per-screen average was $89,804. Michael Stevens writes, "The film shattered every opening week record for an IMAX Hollywood simultaneous release, playing to sell-out crowds and strong audience satisfaction."

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Technicolor announces big digital cinema roll-out in Europe

Technicolor Digital Cinema, part of the Thomson corporation, announced this morning that it is putting digital cinema systems into 130 screens owned by the Kinepolis Group in Belgium. (Who knew there were that many screens in Belgium?) They're using projectors from Barco and digital cinema playback systems from Dolby. From the release:

    The company will convert approximately 50 percent of each of Kinepolis' Belgian multiplexes to digital cinema systems by early 2007, including its new eight-screen, fully-digital facility in Bruges opening today. Thomson will transition the circuit's remaining screens in Belgium by the end of 2007.

According to Technicolor's PR folks, this means that Technicolor is doing all of Kinepolis' 130 screens in Belgium by the end of next year. (Kinepolis has about 300 screens total, in Belgium, France, Spain, Poland, and Switzerland.

Other big European digital cinema roll-outs have been happening in Ireland (515 screens) and the UK (240 screens).

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Stats on Net video...and a new video-sharing site that pays producers

- Mary Hodder of Dabble has a blog post that serves as a report on the "state of Internet video," circa June 2006. Most interesting to me are these stats she cites from Hitwise, from May 2006:

Top ten video sites by market share/traffic

1. YouTube 42.94%
2. MySpace Videos 24.22%
3. Yahoo! Video Search 9.58%
4. MSN Video Search 9.21%
5. Google Video Search 6.48%
6. AOL Video 4.28%
7. iFilm 2.28%
8. Grouper 0.69%
9. Daily Motion 0.22%
10. vSocial 0.09%

- reports on a new video-sharing site with the unfortunate name Greg Sandoval writes:

    Eefoof's offer goes like this: Once a month the company tallies the number of page views for each submission. The company then looks at overall traffic and calculates what percentage of the page views was generated by each submission. Ad revenue is divided accordingly.

    "Once your account exceeds $25, we will send you a PayPal transfer," the company wrote on its site. Specific percentages weren't dislosed on the Eefoof Web site.

More screens for Christie/AIX...More on `Superman' in 3-D...Paramount tries fiber optics in Japan

- Dallas-based Rave Motion Pictures has signed up with Christie/AIX to install digital projectors in 445 theaters. According to the release, "Total digital conversion of Rave multiplexes is scheduled for completion by mid-2007." The Rave multiplex chain is relatively young -- founded in 1999.

- Lee Gomes of the Wall Street Journal has a short piece on `Superman Returns' in IMAX 3-D; he also writes a bit about Real D and James Cameron's upcoming 3-D feature films. Gomes sounds unimpressed by the dimensionalized version of `Superman Returns':

    ...[T]he actual image on the big screen still suffered from a milder form of what has dogged 3-D from the very beginning: that you are looking at everything through a haze. This problem was compounded in "Superman Returns" by the fact that IMAX chose mostly action sequences for 3-D conversion. Because those scenes tend to be full of jumpy fast cuts, even in 2-D they can be a blur. In 3-D, it was impossible to tell what was supposed to be where.

    There was, though, one sensational effect, though it came when you would have least expected it -- when nothing was happening. A pre-teen Clark Kent is bounding across the Smallville landscape, ending up in a barn floating a few feet above and parallel to the ground. His legs are pointed straight at the camera, which is positioned as though at the foot of a bed. Because he is perfectly still, you can marvel at the way he floats magically in front of you.

- Warner Bros. and Sony have been experimenting since last October with delivering 4K digital movie files to Japan via fiber optic line. Now, Paramount is joining the test program. They're calling it the "world's first field test for digital cinema distribution via fiber optics."

Monday, July 03, 2006

`Ten Days That Changed History'

One of the ten is the day in 1902 when Thomas Tally opened the Electric Theater in Los Angeles, a predecessor to the nickelodeon. Historian Adam Goodheart writes in the NY Times:

    APRIL 16, 1902: The Movies

    Motion pictures seemed destined to become a passing fad. Only a few years after Edison's first crude newsreels were screened — mostly in penny arcades, alongside carnival games and other cheap attractions, the novelty had worn off, and Americans were flocking back to live vaudeville.

    Then, in spring 1902, Thomas L. Tally opened his Electric Theater in Los Angeles, a radical new venture devoted to movies and other high-tech devices of the era, like audio recordings.

    "Tally was the first person to offer a modern multimedia entertainment experience to the American public," says the film historian Marc Wanamaker. Before long, his successful movie palace produced imitators nationally, which would become known as "nickelodeons." America's love affair with the moving image — from the silver screen to YouTube — would endure after all.

Thanks, Adam, for mentioning YouTube...

I have been noticing that YouTube videos (like this one) are incredibly similar to the kinds of movies Edison and his colleagues were making more than 110 years ago (watch Serpentine Dance on this page.) The new medium is stepping in the footprints of the old. The camera is trained on someone doing something interesting -- ideally something sexy -- and no edits or narrative are required.

Mid-year box office report...TV pilot on YouTube...Red digital camera

- In a story headlined 'Signs of Life at the Box Office (if Not a Full Recovery)', Sharon Waxman of the NY Times reports that 2006 is proving to be a better year for ticket sales than 2005, but not as good as 2004. She quotes one 17-year old who hasn't rushed out to see `Superman Returns':

    "The movies are repetitive," he said. "It seems like there's about eight stories. It's like I'm seeing the same movie, almost."

Sony Pictures vice chairman Jeff Blake seems to realize the world is changing...Speaking about young men, he says:

    "It was almost as if we lived in a world where this group would go to the multiplex every week and choose what they see. Now they don't necessarily go to the multiplex every week, and we have to convince them we have something exciting for them to see."

(Click the graphic at right to see the full-sized graph comparing 2005 to 2006 so far.)

- NY Times TV writer Bill Carter has a piece today about how the creators of a TV pilot called `Nobody's Watching,' which never made it on the air, are trying to spark interest in the show by posting it on YouTube. (You can see it here.) It just might work: `Nobody's Watching' had about 300,000 views so far (prior to the Times article), with zero marketing budget.

- No one has yet seen an image produced by Jim Jannard's Red high-def digital camera, but there's lots of anticipation for its next trade show appearance, at IBC this fall. Here, Jannard talks about redesigning the camera body after last month's Cinegear Expo. Let me guess what his engineering team is thinking: can we focus a little less on aesthetics and product design, and a little more on the innards?

Saturday, July 01, 2006

`The XXX factor' in the LA Times

This is not tech-related, but just a fun read from LA Times writer John Horn, whom I met last week at the LA Film Festival. Here's the opener:

    A drama about two Echo Park teenagers struggling to find acceptance, "Quinceañera" has become one of the season's indie darlings, winning awards and critical acclaim everywhere it goes.

    This from the same filmmakers who brought you hard-core porn titles such as "The Florida Erection," "The Hole" and "Toolbox."

    Not that long ago, it was nearly impossible for filmmakers, producers and actors to move from adult cinema into "legitimate" Hollywood. For every Barry Sonnenfeld (a former adult film cinematographer turned "Men in Black" blockbuster director), countless others failed to make the transition.

And here's an earlier CinemaTech post about `Quinceañera' from Sundance... I didn't get to see the movie, but did catch a panel featuring co-directors Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer.

I just saw a postcard promoting it at the Landmark Embarcadero last night -- and look forward to seeing it in August, when it'll be released.