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Thursday, May 29, 2008

TiVo/Disney: The Clock Starts Ticking ... NOW

Renting movies and watching them within 24 hours is great for people who:

    - Never fall asleep during a movie
    - Don't have children
    - Don't receive phone calls that interrupt a movie
    - Don't ever remember that there's a live broadcast (like a sporting event) that they'd rather be watching, mid-way through a movie

But a new partnership between TiVo and Disney dictates that, while you can now rent some Disney movies and have them delivered directly to your TiVo, you must watch them within 24 hours. If you start at 8 PM, they vanish by 8 PM the next night. Here's the Variety coverage.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sayonara, Akimbo

Akimbo was one of the first set-top boxes that tried to use an Internet connection to deliver "long tail" content. While it wasn't possible for just anybody to send their video content to an Akimbo user, the company was open to doing all sorts of deals with all sorts of aggregators. They were truly ahead of their time.

But Akimbo realized it was going to be hard to build a significant base of users of a new piece of hardware (the "TiVo problem"), and switched to a different strategy: peddling the content library it had put together to other companies. That didn't work out, and now Akimbo is calling it quits, according to GigaOm and NewTeeVee.

I wrote about some of the challenges facing Akimbo in 2005, for Release 1.0 (PDF here.)

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Sunday, May 25, 2008

NY Times Talks to Sloss & Cinetic

The NY Times runs a feature today about John Sloss and Cinetic Rights Management.

Brooks Barnes writes:

    John Sloss is one of the top sales agents for independent films. Mr. Sloss, 52, has handled the sale of such diamonds in the rough as “Little Miss Sunshine,” the perky 2006 film about a family traveling to a children’s beauty pageant. He sold the $8 million project to Fox Searchlight for $10.5 million, setting a festival price record that still holds.

    Now Mr. Sloss and his New York company, Cinetic Media, are rolling out a new business called Cinetic Rights Management. The executive and his team — he just hired Matt Dentler, the highly regarded director of the South by Southwest film festival — will act as sales agents for filmmakers who have been left on the sidelines. And here is the twist: The goal is not exhibition in theaters but rather distribution via the Internet and other growing delivery routes like cable on-demand services.

    The idea is to create value for that other 90 percent of independent movies [which don't get picked up by distributors], or at least for a good chunk of them.

Article doesn't get deep into the specifics of deal terms, which I've covered here and here.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Sony Will Distrib Live Perfs to Digital Cinemas ... Pogue Really Likes New Roku Box

- Sony Pictures is creating a new business unit to send live performances (pre-recorded live performances, that is) to digital cinemas, according to the NY Times, Variety, and Wall Street Journal. They're starting with a Cirque du Soleil show, 'Delirium,' and then moving on to the final Broadway performance of 'Rent.' The Times observes: "Sony is the first big studio to dip its toe into the arena, which until now has been left to niche players like Colorado-based Fathom Events, which simulcasts from the Metropolitan Opera." Some events will be offered in 4K digital projection...which should look super-sharp.

- Tech reviewer David Pogue really likes the new $99 Roku set-top box, which streams movies from Netflix. (Though he does have some qualms about the video quality.) Pogue writes:

    In the game of Internet movies, the Netflix Player is revolutionary. It’s the first Internet service that delivers movies to your TV without a per-movie fee — an incredibly strange, liberating feeling. It’s also the first that doesn’t require you to download or store your movie collection.

    Finally, it’s the first without a 24-hour time limit. If you feel like watching a movie again, you can watch it next week or next year, without paying a penny more.

    Roku also says that this box is wired for the future. When Instant Watching goes to high definition, the Player will be ready. Roku also says mysteriously that its deal with Netflix is not exclusive; technically, the box is equipped for future rivals.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Netflix/Roku Alliance ... USC's Anytime/Anywhere Content Lab ... More with Spielberg and Lucas

- The WSJ, Wired, and TechCrunch all have news and reviews of a new $99 set-top box from Roku, which will deliver movies from Netflix. From the Journal:

    At $99.99, the Netflix set-top box is priced like a DVD player and is as simple to hook up to a television. A high-speed Internet connection can either be plugged into the box or the device can pick up a wireless signal.

    Netflix's new set-top box, made by Roku, will stream movies from Netflix's library directly to customers' televisions.
    Similar Internet-to-TV devices made by Apple Inc. and Vudu Inc. cost $229 to $295.

    "We think this is something that offers a big value at a low cost," said Reed Hastings, Netflix's chief executive officer.

    The Netflix box, made by Silicon Valley startup Roku Inc., is the first of several devices that will pipe Netflix's streaming service to TV sets. South Korea's LG Electronics is expected to include the streaming capability in a Blu-ray DVD player that it plans to debut during the second half of this year.

Wired writes:

    Choosing content to watch is done on your computer, using the familiar Netflix interface. Anything that’s available for instant viewing can be added to the player’s queue -- in fact, the box checks your DVD queue and adds any available content to the Roku player automatically. The upside is that browsing the amount of content on Netflix is much easier on a computer than TV; the downside is that you’ll find yourself wanting your laptop by your side.

    What's not to like? Well, the choices are still limited. Netflix has 100,000 DVDs available, but only 10% of them can be procured for streaming. Also, fast forwarding and rewinding is a bit of a chore, given the limitations of video streaming, although the player smartly displays a visual time line of scenes to help with navigation.

$99 seems to me to be a decent price point for a set-top box... though there's still the issue of setting it up, which can be intimidating for many.

- Jon Healy of the LA Times pays a visit to the Anytime/Anywhere Content Lab at USC, where they assess new entertainment technologies for the home. From the post:

    David Wertheimer, the ETC's executive director and a former digital guru at Paramount, said that while studios focus on their product, the lab concentrates on the user. The hope, he said, is that its work will show studios and tech companies how to "meet in the middle and provide new kinds of products" that appeal to the next generation of consumers. In addition to interviewing USC students on campus every week about their media consumption habits and attitudes, the ETC brings about 20 students into the lab to talk to its board and try out some of the gear it has assembled.

- Entertainment Weekly has a nice, long Q&A with Lucas and Spielberg. From it:

    How much did George nag you to shoot film-free, with digital cameras, the way he did on the Star Wars prequels?

    SPIELBERG: All through three years of preparation. It's like he was sending these huge 88 [millimeter artillery] shells to soften the beach, y'know? He never swears at me. He never uses profanity. But he calls me a lot of names. And in his creative name-calling, he topped himself on this one, trying to get me to do this digitally.

    What did he call you?

    SPIELBERG: I guess the worst thing he ever called me was old-fashioned. But I celebrate that. He knows me like a brother. It's true, I am old-fashioned.
    LUCAS: I think the word ''Luddite'' came into it. In a very heated discussion.
    SPIELBERG: I said I wasn't, I was Jewish! [Laughter]
    LUCAS: The end of it is, I said, ''Look, Steve, this is your movie. You get to do it your way.'' And in the end, I didn't force Steven to do it. That doesn't mean I didn't pester him, and tease him, and get on him all the time.
    SPIELBERG: It was all 35-millimeter, chemically processed film.... I like cutting the images on film. I'm the only person left cutting on film.
    LUCAS: And I'm the guy that invented digital editing. But we coexist. I mean, I also like widescreen and color. Steven and Marty [Scorsese] have gone back and shot in black-and-white [on Schindler's List and Raging Bull, respectively]. I don't get on their case and say, ''Oh my God, this is a terrible thing, why are you going backwards?'' I say, ''That's your choice, and I can appreciate it.''

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Spielberg Concedes He May One Day Have to Shoot Digitally...

...but he hopes it isn't soon.

From some Chicago Tribune Cannes coverage:

    "Making a film on celluloid," [Spielberg] said, is a threatened mode of expression.

    "Digital cinema is inevitable. It's right around the corner. And someday," said Spielberg, "even I will have to convert."

The official Cannes site has a slightly longer Spielberg quote that offers some more nuance:

    "The film is being released digitally on a lot of screens, about 300. Making a film digitally and releasing a film in the same digital process gives a beautiful image. It creates an extraordinarily clean, sharp image, but making a film on celluloid - as I’d like to do with all of my pictures –then transferring, releasing it, and projecting it digitally is a very inferior image. So the decision to go out to a vast number of motion picture theatres was a simple decision for me to make. But digital cinema is inevitable, it’s right around the corner and even someday I will have to convert, but right now I love film.”

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In-Three Will Dimensionalize 'Dawn of the Dead'

Neil Feldman of In-Three sends a note this week with news that his California company just got the green light to "dimensionalize" its first feature, George Romero's 'Dawn of the Dead.' (In-Three uses custom software to turn movies shot in 2-D into 3-D.) According to The Hollywood Reporter, the project should be completed this year.

"We have been busy significantly speeding up, lowering the cost, and improving both the quality and capability of our proprietary Dimensionalization process for converting 2D content into 'perfect 3D,' Feldman writes.

Of course, dimensionalizing 'Dawn of the Dead' is a slightly lower-profile project than doing 'Star Wars: Episode IV,' a 3-D clip of which was shown at ShoWest in 2005... but isn't it always the B-movies that gamble first on new technologies?

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Jaman Tries Ad-Supported Streaming

Jaman, the Silicon Valley movie marketplace geared to indie content, is introducing ad-supported streaming this week. That adds a second revenue stream to Jaman's business model, which was originally built atop selling downloads and rentals of films.

I don't think this is a surrender, indicating that downloads and rentals aren't working for Jaman, but it has undoubtedly been a challenge for the site to get visitors to hand over their credit card information... and ad-supported streaming makes it easier to simply start watching a movie that looks half-way interesting. Jaman will offer 100 ad-supported titles to start with.

Here's the TechCrunch coverage ... and the official press release.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

HBO Shows Will Appear on iTunes, Some at a New Price

Apple has been famously inflexible about pricing on iTunes: TV shows are $1.99, songs 99 cents. (NBC flew the coop last year over Apple's unwillingness to alter that policy.)

So now Apple is changing the rules, to be able to add HBO shows to its library (only when they are released on DVD.)

From the Wall Street Journal's coverage:

    ...It's the first time HBO has agreed to sell downloads of individual episodes of its shows. And Apple, in a departure, has agreed to charge more than its uniform price of $1.99 per television episode. Some of HBO's shows will cost $1.99 per episode while others, including "The Sopranos," "Deadwood" and "Rome," will cost $2.99 per episode.

Variety also has a story. Diane Garrett writes:

    Deal reps HBO's first electronic sell-through pact. The feevee channel has been reluctant to cannibalize its subscription fees and DVD sales. HBO did, however, experiment with free iTunes podcasts of "In Treatment" as a way of boosting the aud of the five-day-a-week skein.

    It’s no coincidence that “Sex and the City” was one of the first HBO skeins to go on sale at iTunes Tuesday; a feature film followup is due in theaters later this month. Eventually, most of the channel's library is expected to go on sale through the iTunes Store.

    Jobs has apparently decided that access to content that will drive hardware sales of iPods, iPhones and Apple TV devices is more important than maintaining rigid pricing. He previously resisted variable pricing on music and TV skeins for the sake of simplicity, although some of the global iTunes Stores do offer variable pricing.

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Can User-Gen Movies Give Microsoft's Vista a Boost?

Interesting story in today's New York Times about a contest that Microsoft is running, called the Ultimate Video Relay. The goal is to get budding filmmakers to continue a story begun by Kyle Newman, director of the forthcoming feature 'Fanboys.'

From the Times:

    [The contest] is intended to promote the higher-end version of Vista — Windows Vista Ultimate — among videophiles, early adopters of technology and filmmakers.

    The contest...has its own Web site (, a spinoff of the Windows Vista Ultimate Web site ( The relay reference comes from the invitation to computer users to complete a story titled “The Cube” in several stages. The tale, a humorous cross between “The Matrix” and “The Office” (or “Office Space”) begins with a six-minute clip that can be watched on the relay Web site. The clip is directed by Kyle Newman, the director of “Fanboys,” a coming movie about “Star Wars” aficionados.

    The online clip is labeled Act I of “The Cube” and ends abruptly. Contestants are supposed to finish the story by providing first a middle (Act II) and later an end (Act III). The entries will be judged by visitors to

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Friday, May 02, 2008

IndieShares Launches, Running a Competition for Screenplays and Trying to Fund the Winner

The Seattle start-up IndieShares is taking a slightly different approach to online fundraising, which I posted about recently. They're asking site visitors to vote on which idea they like best for a movie (based on a short video pitch delivered by an actor or actress -- not the screenwriter). Then, according to an e-mail I received from IndieShares president Jay Schwartz, the general public will have the chance to invest (not donate) money to its production costs, in increments as small as $10.

I asked Schwartz a few questions via e-mail. The first was about who'd actually be making the film of the winning screenplay.

He wrote back: "We have contracted with an existing producer for our first film that is well known and has an impressive track record. Furthermore, since IndieShares will be responsible for putting the investors' money to its best use, we will only deal with those parties and companies that are bondable."

Can't you disclose who this mystery producer is?

Schwartz said it will be Eugene Mazzola, who started an equipment rental firm called The Cine Companies, and now runs Bridge Productions. (Mazzola's IMDB page also includes a credit in 'The Ten Commandments' as Ramses' son.) Mazzola is on IndieShares' advisory board, and he was also a first AD on the hit metaphysical documentary 'What the Bleep Do We Know?'

Schwartz wrote, "The Production Services Agreement obligates Bridge to engage (meaning subcontract) with only bondable talent, including the director and DP. IndieShares is also going to sign two more production companies to our master production services agreement within the next two months, which will enable to us to produce films simultaneously under investor-favorable terms and conditions."

Finally, I asked about budget. "Our initial budget range is $5MM and below, but after the first film we anticipate that budget limitation being removed," Schwartz wrote.

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How 'Crystal Skull' Almost Didn't Have a Digital Release

Variety's Pamela McClintock writes today about the continuing spat over whether the digital 3-D roll-out is proceeding quickly enough. But there's an interesting aside in it about the plain old 2-D digital release of the new 'Indiana Jones' movie.

McClintock writes:

    There was an outcry among theater owners earlier this year when Par suggested it wouldn't supply digital prints of Spielberg's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," because Spielberg wanted the movie played only as film on 35mm screens. Filmmakers including Spielberg sometimes balk at having their movies shown in digital when they were shot on film.

    Not providing a film like "Crystal Skull" on digital would slight theater owners who have made the conversion, according to exhibs. Theater owners have long argued that there's no reason to make the transition if the product isn't there.

    Par changed its position and will be releasing digital prints of "Indiana Jones." Exhibs aren't entirely mollified, though, since digital prints will go only to those houses where all the screens are digital. If there's a mix of screens in a theater, that theater will get only a film print.

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Thursday, May 01, 2008

Attention TV: Prepare to Be Reinvented (Again)

It bakes fresh bread, dry cleans your clothes, walks your dogs, and combines traditional TV content with on-demand movies, Internet video, and DVR functionality.

It's Sezmi, the latest box that hopes to befriend your TV set. (Sezmi was known as Building B when I wrote about them last year in Variety.)

Jon Healey of the LA Times writes:

    The company's underlying assumption is that TV viewing is shifting away from scheduled programming in favor of on-demand viewing. Its set-top box can hold about 1,000 hours of video, whether they be time-shifted broadcasts or programs pushed to subscribers based on their viewing preferences. Its software is designed for a different approach to TV, too, eschewing the typical grid-like program guide in favor of customized lists for each member of the subscriber's household. Those menus can change over the course of the day to reflect the viewer's habits, [co-founder Phil] Wiser saids -- for example, putting talk shows at the top of the list in the morning, dramas at the top at night.

    Borrowing a concept from online search, Sezmi's software will make it easy to hop from a show to related programs.

Scott Woolley of Forbes has a very comprehensive write-up:

    Unlike struggling Internet-based "add-on" services such as CinemaNow, Amazon Unbox and AppleTV, Sezmi aims to replace the cable or satellite box completely. Sezmi hasn't announced a full channel lineup but promises a "comprehensive" tier of favorites such as ESPN, FX and CNN, as well as premium channels such as HBO. Its DVD-player-size box also plays pay-per-view movies and Web video from YouTube and other sites.

    Sezmi wrote a clever and simple user interface that shows channel lists the traditional way or groups content into zones, such as football, movies or new content brands ("All Comedy Central content," for instance). Shows and clips related to that zone get stored on the box's huge 1-terabyte hard drive, giving it all the powers of TiVo and then some.

Analyst Will Richmond says that 'Sezmi Portends Major Disruption to TV Industry. He does have some caveats, though:

    If SezMi can work out its economics with partners and deliver that pricing to consumers, it would be a very compelling alternative to today's cable/satellite offerings. The key is to whom? In my briefing many types of customers were mentioned: analog subscribers, new HD TV purchasers, over-the-air households, and others. Given how ground-breaking its service is, in my opinion SezMi needs to go after digitally savvy audiences first.

Finally, here's the Gizmodo coverage.

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