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Monday, October 31, 2005

How innovative will The Weinstein Company be?

There's a piece worth reading by David Carr in today's NY Times, headlined `Placing Bets on Miramax the Sequel.' Carr notes that the Weinstein brothers have raised $500 million in equity, and another $500 billion in debt, for their new venture, the Weinstein Company. But Carr thinks their approach looks pretty staid. He writes:

    No one denies the Weinsteins' talent, not after 800 movies, 53 Oscars and $4.5 billion in ticket sales, but it is hard to see how they will rewrite industry rules. The Weinstein Company will seek to distribute its own films theatrically in the United States, and the investors were wooed with visions of DVD, cable, video gaming, pay-per-view and direct-to-video, but that kind of corporate engineering is a far cry from having the instincts to skim the cream at Sundance.

But here are three signs that they may have some creative ideas about distribution and/or digital production up their sleeves:

1. Mark Cuban is an investor, and he tells Carr that Harvey Weinstein "...has been a catalyst for change..."

2. They're capping budgets for their movies at $40 million. While that's still pretty high, having any sort of ceiling will enable them to make more moderately-budgeted movies - rather than fewer high-risk vanity projects. I'm always a proponent of taking more shots on goal.

3. One of the directors they're working with is Robert Rodriguez, who has been a big fan of the freedom that Miramax gave him on prior projects, like shooting "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" digitally. Rodriguez could push the Weinstein Company in challenging new directions. His next project, which he's directing with Quentin Tarantino for the Weinsteins, is `Grind House'. It starts shooting next February/March. It'll be shot digitally. Rodriguez's producer (and spouse) Elizabeth Avellan told me recently, "I think Robert will never go back to film."

`Chicken Little': T-minus four days

I had a chance to visit the projection booth of a Regal Cinemas in Dublin, Calif. yesterday to watch while a Dolby Labs technician put the finishing touches on the projection system that'll show `Chicken Little' starting this Friday. The top-line report is: they're scrambling to get everything ready in time. The gear - from companies like Barco, Christie, Dolby, and Real D - all seems to be working fine. It's just that some of it has been arriving late. Also, theaters have had to make some last-minute modifications, like adding electrical lines, cooling ducts, and even cutting new windows into the auditorium so that the digital projectors can sit alongside a standard 35 mm projector, which are suddenly looking endangered. There's also the matter of installing new silver screens in every auditorium that'll show the pic in 3-D.

Dolby applications engineer Gene Radzik is in charge of outfitting four theaters in the Bay Area, including the Metreon in San Francisco, and he told me they don't actually expect to receive the hard drives containing the movie until Wednesday or Thursday - "the 11th hour," he said. The Barco 2K projector being used at the Dublin theater just arrived from Belgium last week. There's also the issue of getting USB keychain drives to theater managers. These drives contain the secure key necessary to give the whole digital system the green light to start showing `Chicken Little.' (IE, no showings before 12:01 AM on Friday).

I saw a five minute test clip from the movie, chock full of action sequences. And I gotta say, it made me want to see more. (I laughed out loud at a clever `Raiders of the Lost Ark' reference.) The 3-D was crisp and clear and tightly-synched - it looked as good as the projections you see in theme parks. The glasses are comfortable and light - they didn't bother me at all.

In other poultry news:

Bruce Mohl had a piece ion `Chicken Little' n yesterday's Boston Globe. He says that there will actually now be 84, not 85 theaters outfitted for 3-D. He says theater owners are shelling out about $25,000 for modifications, including that silver screen (Dolby is paying for the $105,000 cost of the projectors and servers, and hoping to recoup those costs by charging a `toll' to studios who want to distribute their films digitally):

    Theaters, concerned about recouping their 3-D retrofit costs, are increasing admission prices for digital 3-D showings as much as 20 percent.
    National Amusements Inc.'s Showcase Cinemas is raising prices $2 on Fridays and Saturdays and $1.75 the rest of the week for ''Chicken Little" in 3-D at its Revere and Randolph megaplexes. Adults will pay $12 and children $9 on Fridays and Saturdays.

And the NY Times has a really astute piece by Laura Holson on what `Chicken Little's' success or failure means for the partnership between Disney and Pixar. She writes:

    Disney will get some of its pride back if "Chicken Little" is a hit, analysts say. But more important, a hit movie would show Wall Street and Mr. Jobs that Disney need not depend on Pixar for creation of new animated movie characters that could be adapted for theme park rides, consumer products and television. If the movie is not well received by critics or moviegoers - something that looks increasingly less likely given the favorable early word - Mr. Jobs will gain leverage, because Disney would be seen as needing Pixar to help create new stories to refresh its creative arsenal.

Finally, I've got a column in today's Globe about a handful of New England films that imagine themselves as rivals to Pixar, Disney, and DreamWorks:

    In New England, at least three small animation start-ups are also scheming to join that elite clique. By using off-the-shelf software, rather than writing their own, and purchasing inexpensive hardware, they're trying to pull the price of producing a full-length animated feature down from the stratosphere. (''Chicken Little" has been estimated to have cost Disney about $60 million to make.)

Will more media companies jump in bed with Apple?

Today's announcement that Apple has sold a million videos in the 20 days since it added TV shows, short films, and music videos to its iTunes Music Store seems to have one goal: getting other media companies to participate. It's a surprising stat, especially since video-capable iPods only started showing up in stores in the last week or ten days. So far, Disney/ABC, Pixar, and the record labels are the major suppliers of video content to iTunes.

Now, when's Apple going to get around to renaming its online marketplace the iPod Media Store?

Sunday, October 30, 2005

TV and `Fast Food,' in today's NY Times

Jodi Kantor has a piece in the Sunday NY Times about what happens to television when the screens get extra large (wall-sized flat screens) and super-small (the video iPod).

She observes that the mobile screens will bring TV consumption to new places - the train to work, the wait at the dentist's office, the bathroom stall. But it's hard to watch some content - like a football game - on a cell phone screen and figure out what's going on, or where the ball is. Other content, like episodes of `Lost,' seem intended to be viewed on high-definition sets, as cinema-size images. Kantor writes of that show, "...its mysteries sometimes turn on intricate visual clues, as in a moment early this season when a shark menaced two characters clinging to the remains of a raft. In high-definition, viewers may have noticed that the shark was tattooed with a corporate logo, a significant hint about the bizarre ecosystem of the island."

Of tiny, portable screens, she writes, "Yet what the tiny new televisions lose in spectacle, they make up in intimacy. As large televisions become home movie theaters, small televisions may restore something personal and human-scale to the medium. And something wondrous: the long-lost surprise at moving images beamed directly into our personal space."

Also in the paper today: my friend Michael Joseph Gross has a piece about Richard Linklater and the movie version of `Fast Food Nation.' It's being produced by Jeff Skoll and Participant Productions. Gross writes:

    Participant's chief executive, Jeff Skoll, a co-founder of eBay, has promised to put his money behind films that make a difference. The company's corporate Web site,, explains that the company "believes in the power of media to create great social change."

    "Our goal is to deliver compelling entertainment that will inspire audiences to get involved in the issues that affect us all," it continues.

    In an interview, Mr. Strauss said that "Fast Food Nation" advances Participant's mission "in the sense of encouraging corporate responsibility."

    The marketing plan for each Participant film includes activist outreach, especially on another company Web site, Participant's first dramatic features, "Good Night, and Good Luck" and "North Country," opened this month - and the campaign for "North Country," whose plot involves issues of workplace discrimination and domestic violence, invites Web site visitors to "Sign the Women-Friendly Workplace Pledge" and "Implement a sexual harassment policy at your school." Although Mr. Strauss said Participant has had "internal discussions" about its "social action campaign" for "Fast Food Nation," the company will wait to announce its plans until the film is complete.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Shyamalan speaks about windows at Showeast

There's a great piece in today's LA Times by Claudia Eller, reporting on M. Night Shyamalan's speech yesterday at the Showeast conference in Orlando.

Night is worried that we'll lose the collective experience of movie-going if new movies are released simultaneously in different formats: theatrically, on DVD, on the Net, etc.

Eller writes:

    "Art is the ability to convey that we are not alone," Shyamalan told the gathering of more than 800 theater operators and suppliers at the convention's closing night dinner. "When I sit down next to you in a movie theater, we get to share each other's point of view. We become part of a collective soul. That's the magic in the movies."

    Then he added: "If this thing happens, you know the majority of your theaters are closing. It's going to crush you guys."

The article includes some predictable quotes from the usual players. NATO head John Fithian says the movies in 2005 haven't been as good. Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman Michael Lynton says that he thinks preserving release windows is important. But here's an interesting passage, about a debate I hadn't heard about previously:

    As recently as June, at a Directors Guild of America event in New York, Shyamalan and [director Steven] Soderbergh argued vehemently — though respectfully — about Soderbergh's support of simultaneous release, according to someone who witnessed the exchange. The spirited discussion was notable in part because both are regarded as creative risk-takers, not mere purveyors of formulaic "popcorn" movies.

    Shyamalan declined to discuss the summertime spat, saying only, "We're both fiery and passionate." Shyamalan said he believed Soderbergh "loves cinema," but if he prevailed, "I think he's going to kill it."

That might be a bit alarmist. What about this scenario: today, movies often linger in theaters for weeks, playing to mostly-empty houses after the opening weekend. What if new movies had a week (maybe two) in theaters, and then went to all other formats after about half-a-month? Those who wanted to be hip and with it, and see movies first in that collective environment, would have a chance. The studios could leverage the same marketing dollars from the theatrical debut for the DVD/Internet/iPod video/pay-per-view release. Theater owners would get more fresh movies cycling through over the course of a year - perhaps 20 or 40 per screen. And moviegoers wouldn't be able to say, nothing good is playing at the multiplex down the street...because new things would always be arriving.

That scenario would also give more directors the chance to get their films up on the screen.... perhaps producing the next M. Night Shyamalan and the next "Sixth Sense."

`Serenity' screening: A digital first

This event isn't open to the public, but it seems newsworthy nonetheless...

PR maven Rochelle Winters sends word of the first fully DCI-compliant screening of a feature film, taking place next month in LA.

From the press release:

    “Serenity” will be played-back from a “DCI-compliant” Digital Cinema Package
    (DCP): JPEG2000, 4:4:4, X'Y'Z', 12 bit color, encrypted audio and image,
    2048x872, separate reels 1-6, 48 kHz 24 bit 5.1 audio, KDM, CPL, and MXF
    packaging. The process of creating this first major studio DCI compliant
    package will be explored in the Q&A session following the screening.

    Panelists include:

    Paul Chapman, Sr VP, Technology; FotoKem Film and Video
    Brian Claypool, Sr Product Mgr, Digital Cinema; Christie Digital Systems
    Wade Hanniball, Director, Content Technology; Universal Pictures
    Camille Rizko, President; Doremi Labs, Inc.
    Bill Schultz, Gen Mgr, Digital Film Services; FotoKem Film and Video

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Silent movies + Live music

I had the chance to do a bit of time travel last night, visiting the Palace of Fine Arts for an evening of silent films with live music.

It felt like the chimes of coincidence were ringing in perfect tune...the Palace was built in 1915, and the movies being screened were also made in that year (one was from 1916). Also, the star of the three films was Roscoe `Fatty' Arbuckle, who in 1921 was arrested and accused of rape and murder after a three-day party at the St. Francis Hotel on Union Square. (Arbuckle was eventually exonerated after three trials, but the publicity, fueled by San Francisco Examiner publisher William Randolph Hearst, ended his career.)

The movies, "Adrift," "Mabel's Wilful Way," and "Fatty's Plucky Pup," are hugely entertaining and inventive. (It was my first time seeing all three.) You can practically feel everyone involved straining against the limits of what the camera could do and the film could capture. "Adrift" has some beautiful shots of Fatty and Mabel's cottage floating on the ocean, and "Mabel's" had a nice bit of backward footage that came as a sweet surprise.

Dave Douglas, the jazz trumpeter who has composed scores for these and other Arbuckle films, is heading off for a European tour, so if you're on that continent, catch him in Italy, France, Switzerland, Germany, Span, or Lithuania. It's a stupendous show.

NY Times piece: Sharing personal video

Quick link to a piece of mine in today's NY Times, headlined Now Playing: Your Home Video.

The gist:

    The entrepreneurs who have started companies like ClipShack, Vimeo, YouTube and are betting that as consumers discover the video abilities built into their cellphones and digital still cameras, and get better at editing the often-lengthy video from their camcorders, they will be eager to share video on the Web. While most of the services are free today, the entrepreneurs eventually hope to make money by selling ads or charging fees for premium levels of service.

    Sharing video on the Web is still a new notion. "A lot of people haven't really come to terms with the idea that they can publish their own video online," said Jakob Lodwick, the founder of Vimeo, based in Manhattan. "For the longest time, video has always been connected to a physical tape or a disc. There are still a lot of people who aren't even comfortable sharing their photos online yet."

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

HD Expo in LA

This event looks great, if you can make it to LA next week (and I can't, sadly): HD Expo, at the Petersen Automotive Museum.

Two panels look especially on "Closing Escrow," an indie movie shot on HD, which'll trace the process from concept to distribution. That one features Randall Dark and Scott Billups. Another on "HD and Beyond" looks at future technologies (including 3D, and 2k and 4k digital projection) and asks how they'll affect the entertainment industry. That one features Mark Chiolis from Grass Valley, Josh Greer from Real D, and Allen Davlau, the cinematographer who shot "E.T." and "Defending Your Life," one of my favorite comedies of all time.

The talk of ShowEast: Piracy, digital cinema, hurricanes

ShowEast, the annual trade show for owners of movie theaters on the East Coast, is taking place this week in Orlando...despite the hurricane that blew through on Monday.

Some items:

- John Fithian, head of the National Association of Theater Owners, says that the main reason theatrical box office revenues are down this year is that the movies have been bad. He says some patrons have complained about pre-show advertising, and "we're working with the advertising companies to improve the ad content." On high ticket prices, Fithian says, "we need a better PR effort to explain the value of going to the movies." How about enhancing the value of going to the movies?

- Dan Glickman, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, seems like a different breed of cat than his predecessor, Jack Valenti. For one, he's prodding the industry to see new technologies as positives, not negatives. He tells the Hollywood Reporter: "My admonition to the audience is that we have to look at these new technologies as opportunities, not as swords of Damocles."

Gregg Goldstein's story has some other great stuff, too:

    Glickman said the video iPod, for example, could help people in the film industry fight piracy, as it has in the music industry, by introducing a new revenue stream from legally downloaded content. "But ultimately, I'm not sure what impact it will have. I don't think people will want to watch a 1 1/2- or two-hour movie on something the size of their hand, but it could have value to advertise and promote movies. We're generally encouraging online movies, and there are all sorts of ways of working against piracy," which, Glickman said, is "the biggest threat to our industry."

    As for the future of portable video recording devices, Glickman cited the recently announced studio-funded MovieLab, noting that next month companies will be putting more money into distribution and other technology.

That's be a welcome shift from the mission initially sketched out earlier this year, which was all about fighting piracy.

- On digital cinema, Fithian said this:

    "It needs to be test-marketed in a couple hundred theaters -- don't do it all at once, and more importantly, make data from the tests available to everyone," he said. "We can't go through the fiasco that we did during the digital sound era," he added, noting that a large-scale digital rollout could lead to a nightmarish scenario of many blank screens and disgruntled customers if there were a problem with transmission. While not naming any company, he said, "All (digital) financing plans need to be backed by all studios." He also believes that "competition will be a good thing" among the third-party groups financing digital installation plans.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Hollywood Economist

I've just been reading this great series of articles on Slate by Edward Jay Epstein, who is also the author of the recent book "The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood."

The Slate pieces (under the rubric of "The Hollywood Economist") are truly enjoyable reading for anyone who wants to know more about the inner workings of the movie business. Epstein sifts through all of the industry's conventional wisdom, to find quite a few surprising truths, like why Pixar can't leave Disney. His piece on Sony's Blu-Ray high-definition DVD format is the first intelligent thing I've read on that topic.

Barry Diller elaborates: More thoughts on user-generated content

As part of some magazine stuff I’m working on, I had a quick conversation this A.M. with Barry Diller, CEO of InterActiveCorp, and former CEO of Paramount Pictures and Fox.

One of the things we talked about was his perspective on the value of user-generated content…since some comments he made earlier this month at the Web 2.0 Conference in San Francisco set the blogosphere buzzing. Diller conveyed the impression that he didn’t think we're on the verge of seeing a creative explosion sparked by a population of talented bloggers, musicians, and filmmakers who publish their work on the Net. (See also this OnoTech post on amateurs versus professionals.)

Diller told me today that he may have been misunderstood. There will be lots of user-generated content, he believes, but most of it will be consumed by small audiences. He doesn’t think there are a thousand as-yet-undiscovered J.J. Abramses or Steven Spielbergs or Madonnas, who will make TV or or movies or music that appeals to a large swath of the populace.

Diller told me, “What I meant was that you have to distinguish between so-to-speak user-generated text or video, which will have a designed audience of four or forty, as against those things that will have a really wide dissemination. And I think that there is a true dividing line between the two. It is certainly true that there is a talented person waiting to be discovered that will be more easily discovered, probably by the proliferation and the ease of use and instant publishing of the Internet.”

One exception Diller cited: some video, shot on the site of a news event by an amateur with a camera, may be seen widely. But “in terms of widely disseminated, mass communication engines, I believe that they will be dominated by people of professional talent.”

“That doesn’t mean that new talent isn’t being discovered all the time,” he continued.

“What it does mean is that real, professional talent – being in the professional discipline of it – is a small group always. By its very definition, it is small. Respectfully to all of us humans, there are simply not that many great poets, singers, actors, dancers. There are, thankfully, enough. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves, that suddenly vast numbers of previously undiscovered talent will emerge through this instant publishing process. I just don’t think it’s going to happen.”

“I am a total believer that talent outs. There is no talent hidden away in a garage that doesn’t eventually out. And of course because of its self-publishing nature [of the Internet], it has a chance to get there quicker.”

That clarification seems pretty clear. And I think I agree - there probably aren't large numbers of people floating around with the ability to make the next "Seinfeld" or "Silence of the Lambs." But are mass-market media products like those going to matter as much in the future? Will they continue to command the lion's share of our attention? Of that, I'm not so sure...and I wonder if Diller may be hanging on to a conceptual carton of milk whose expiration date is approaching.

What do you think?

Monday, October 24, 2005

Directors and videogames

Does Peter Jackson know something other directors don't?

That's the central question of Laura Holson's piece in this morning's NY Times, `"King Kong" Blurs Line Between Films and Games.'

She writes:

    Video games are among the fastest-growing, most-profitable businesses in the entertainment world. In the United States, domestic sales of video games and consoles generated $10 billion in revenue last year, compared with movie ticket sales of $9.4 billion. But with the exception of a few well-known directors - like George Lucas, who created a series of Star Wars video games, and Andy and Larry Wachowski, who wrote and directed "The Matrix" movies and helped create Matrix games - few in Hollywood have been able to successfully operate in both worlds.

Jackson apparently was frustrated by his relationship with Electronic Arts for the `Lord of the Rings' games, she reports. They didn't seem to want his involvement. So with `Kong,' he's working with Ubisoft, a French company.

Jackson is one of the few directors who wants to get more involved in videogames in order to "keep control over [his] franchises while sharing in enormous video game profits," Holson writes.

The `Kong' game will be out in November. It was budgeted at more than $20 million. And, most importantly, Jackson gets a percentage of the profits.

(The brilliant illustration at right is by Nana Rausch.)

The ShowEast press release deluge begins

The ShowEast trade show in Orlando seems to be happening, despite Hurricane Wilma; I'm just glad I ended up not arranging to attend.

So let the press-releasing begin...

  • Texas Instruments brags that digital projectors equipped with their DLP chip will be screening several movies at the show, including `Chicken Little,' `Walk the Line,' `Casanova,' `The Producers,' and `Rumor Has It.' (What they don't mention is that Sony challenged them to a shoot-off between Sony's 4K projection technology and TI's 2K technology - and TI has so far not accepted.)

  • Real D says that it has five-year licensing deals to install its 3-D gear in theaters owned by 24 different companies. But it sounds like the actual number of theaters still stands at 85, the number that it's working on with Disney for `Chicken Little.' Joshua Greer, the company's CEO, told me recently that the goal is 1000 theaters within two years.

  • Yipee!: a new 2K d cinema projector from NEC.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Will 'Little' open big?

Three big questions are looming over Disney's `Chicken Little,' which opens on the Friday following Halloween.

Thing 1: Can Disney make a computer-generated movie that brings in audiences, young and old?
Thing 2: Will audiences gravitate toward the 85 theaters showing the film in 3D, moreso than the screens showing the standard 2D version?
Thing 3: How much will Disney need its partnership with PIxar in the future? (Pixar is, of course, the leading cg animation studio, and the partnership is now being renegotiated.)

Gina Keating has a piece that ran over the Reuters wire today, headlined `Chicken Little' critical for Disney reputation.' Keating writes:

    "My gut instinct is they need to do something in the $350 million range to be seen as 'Disney's on its way back in animation,"' Rich Greenfield, an analyst at Fulcrum Global Partners, said. "If it does $200 million or $250 million worldwide, it will not be seen as the way to replace Pixar."

    Disney dabbled in CG for its 2000 film, "Dinosaur," which featured animated characters on filmed backgrounds, but was slow to adopt the technology that generated blockbusters like "Finding Nemo" for Pixar and "Shrek" for DreamWorks.

    Although about 150 animators had to be trained in CG to make "Chicken Little," the studio says it has closed the gap and is on track to release one CG animated film for each of the next three years: "Meet the Robinsons" in 2006, "American Dog" in 2007 and "Rapunzel Unbraided" in 2008.

The movie apparently got a positive review from Time critic Richard Corliss, who called it funny, charming, and exhilarating.

I also liked the quote the story ends with:

    "Chicken Little" director Mark Dindal, who watched the transition from hand-drawn to CG animation at Disney during the making of his film, said studio founder Walt Disney, who championed new technology, would have been proud.

    "It was like horses at the starting gate waiting to get their chance," Dindal said of the animators. "We just caught a wave of all this pent up excitement of people saying, 'We'll show you what we can do."'

DVDs burnt on demand, for indie filmmakers

Swell piece in today's NY TImes by John Anderson, headlined, "Once It Was Direct to Video, Now It's Direct to the Web." The piece focuses on IndieFlix, a Seattle company that has Whoopi Goldberg on its advisory board.

Anderson explains how IndieFlix works:

    Directors submit their films, which are then posted on the Web site ( When users log on and click to buy the films that capture their interest, IndieFlix burns them onto a DVD and ships them out. The price for a feature-length film is $9.95.

    [Founder Scilla] Andreen's motto: "Own a movie for less than a movie ticket."

    At a time when audiences are ebbing, piracy is threatening profits and at-home downloading takes gas mileage out of the movie-going equation, a company that helps filmmakers and audiences find each other on the Internet may be as natural a step in the evolution of cinema as portable DVD players or reserved seats. It may also be as close to a no-risk deal as filmmakers are likely to find: all they need provide is proof that the rights to their film have been cleared, and a master to be copied. And unlike traditional or even online distribution deals, the filmmakers retain all the rights.

Of course, the key to making this business successful, for filmmakers and for IndieFlix, is building up a large audience. A partnership with NetFlix would be a brilliant idea...imagine if NetFlix used its recommendation software to suggest purchasing an IndieFlix movie that had never achieved wide release. "Since you gave four stars to the documentary `Comedian' on NetFlix, you might also like the stand-up documentary `A Documentary' from IndieFlix."

(Those are IndieFlix founders Scilla Andreen and Gian-Carlo Scandiuzzi in the pic.)

Saturday, October 22, 2005

`Netflix to delay launch of online download service'

Headine pretty much tells the whole story.

Not a huge surprise, given these two things:

  • CEO Reed Hastings hinted earlier this month at the Web 2.0 conference that deals with Hollywood weren't exactly going swimmingly
  • When Steve Jobs, himself a minor Hollywood mogul (as CEO of Pixar), launched the video iPod earlier this week, he had all of one movie studio lined up to supply content (Disney, which is supplying only TV shows - not movies)

Netflix's stock started sinking after Hastings made the announcement.'s Sandy Brown writes:

    ...CEO Reed Hastings said the company would delay online downloads indefinitely thanks to pushback from Hollywood content providers.

    The studios are looking for ways to best monetize movie product in an environment in which piracy remains an ongoing concern, box-office results have been soft, and DVD sales have been inconsistent. Netflix will continue to pursue download technology, but Netflix plans will wait until Hollywood comes around and coughs up the content.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Videogamers: Your next job awaits

On Wednesday, I had a fun conversation with Allan Yasnyi, a well-regarded consultant and former TV exec, and the founding executive director of USC's Entertainment Technology Center.

We met at the Palm Restaurant on Santa Monica Blvd, always a fun spot. I basically asked Allan the same question a dozen different ways: why is it that movie studios insist on seeing new technologies as a threat, rather than an opportunity?

Allan had a great take on that. In the 1960s and 1970s, television executives who took the top jobs at movie studios brought in fresh ideas, reinvigorating the industry after it had flat-lined in the 1950s. He sees the industry as similarly stalled today. "And it will stay flat-lined until all the major studios are run by gamers," Allan says.

"It's historically the case that those who don't have legacy issues can think more creatively," he continues. "Gamers don't view digital as a barbarian at the gate. They understand what the audience wants." Allan says that bringing the audience into the experience, making it more immersive and more interactive, will be essential.

We talked a bit about machinima, and Allan seemed to like the notion of making a movie, and then offering the audience the ability to tell their own story using digital assets - like characters, sets, and music - from that movie. Couldn't that be a new revenue stream for studios? `You've seen the movie, now buy the digital paintbox and make your own spin-off or sequel...'

In the future, Allan imagines that movies will be perpetually edited to appeal to the tastes of different audiences. "If the 8 PM showing on Tuesday and Thursday needs to be different from Wednesday and Friday, that'll be possible," he said. One might be a family-friendly version, another racier. A football movie like "Friday Night Lights" might have added footage from the big game for special showings geared to hard-core sports fans.

Right now, piracy is the universal reason offered up in Hollywood for why new ideas shouldn't be tried, Allan said. "It's viewed as a reason not to do something," he said. "And there are always a thousand reasons not to do something. You have to find the one reason to do it."

Allan pointed out that while there aren't yet any gamers running studios, in the few months after someone new ascends to the CEO's seat, as Bob Iger just did at Disney, they have a rare opportunity to shake things up. He said that Iger's comments about tinkering with movie release windows could be a good sign of more experiments to come from Disney.

I'd say that, aside from what Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner are doing at 2929 Entertainment, Disney is definitely the player to watch right now.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

First public demo of Sony 4K projector and media block

Thanks to the fine people at Sony Electronics PR, I had a chance to be in the audience last night at the AMC Burbank for two successive demos of the Sony 4K digital cinema projector. The Sony execs present said this was the first time that a production unit had been shown (earlier demos were run on prototypes). Sony was also using a prototype media block last night that was being shown publicly for the first time; the media block is a device that decrypts and decompresses the video stream coming from the server.

Just some quick impressions, since I'm off to more meetings and interviews today:

    - Damn the picture was good. They showed a clip from "The Sound of Music" (the "Do-Re-Mi" musical sequence), and you could see every individual blade of grass on the mountaintop waving in the breeze. A clip from "Star Wars: Episode III" looked just like it must've looked when freshly rendered by the folks at ILM. "Mystic India," an IMAX film, looked bright and crisp - especially a shot with hundreds of worshippers holding candles. During the 6 PM demo (for which I was a bit late), I sat in the second row; in the second demo, I was halfway up the stadium-style theater, in a row that had been marked by the Sony folks as "two screen height."

    - The media block prototype was still flukey, dropping audio at one point during the first show, and requiring a reboot. "I have to state, this is a prototype. The projector is real, but this is a prototype," said Sony exec Gary Mandle, whose microphone had stopped working, too. Someone in the audience cracked, "This is a talkie, right?"

    - Sony hinted to me that they'll have some big announcements about customers for the 4K projectors at the Showeast trade show in Orlando next week. (At this point, they haven't yet started delivering the 4K projectors - they said that the first few will be shipped later this month. Some customers I've spoken to, like Landmark Theatres, have been expressing frustration at the delays and threatening to consider other options from 2K projector makers.)

    - The projector Sony was using was their 10,000 lumen version - list price, $98,550. It's not 3-D capable, and nor will the forthcoming 16,000 lumen version be. Sony execs indicated that they'll work on 3-D once they've finished the 16,000 lumen version (which they hope will actually be 20,000 lumens by the time they're done with it.) Sony said they hope to be cranking out 100 projectors a month by the end of this year.

    - They compared a still slide projected by the Sony SXRD-110 to one shown by the Christie CP-2000 (not moving images, though), which didn't look too shabby. The Sony projector offered a bit more detail - for instance, making individual hairs discernable.

    - Sony said they'll have more demo units of the SXRD in Hollywood by December, for on-going demos and testing.

    - The projector uses two Xenon short-arc lamps, but Sony said it could operate with just one in a pinch.

    - It's going to be exceptionally interesting to see whether the industry judges 4K worth waiting for, and puts any plans for 2K roll-outs on pause. Sony seems to be hoping that'll happen, but several people I talked to last night had questions about whether the 4K projectors were ready for a real-world environment - just plug them in and go. Last night, I counted eleven people in the projection booth supervising the demo, including at least six Sony engineers.

    As 2K projectors drop in price, the questions on everyone's mind will be, do audiences notice the difference between 2K and 4K? (And when can we see a side-by-side comparison of moving images at both resolutions?) Is the cost differential between the projectors worth it? Will being able to show 3-D films be considered crucial by theater owners?

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Spike Lee in San Francisco

Went to see Spike Lee tonight at a Commonwealth Club event, with my friend Traci (whom I've known since "Do the Right Thing" came out in the summer of 1989.) The ballroom at the Hotel Nikko was jam-packed. But unfortunately, the event was marred by scattershot moderating and a series of really odd questions from the audience. (Most people wanted to know whether Spike would read their screenplays, cast them in his next film, help out their worthy non-profit, or consider making an African-American martial arts film.)

Spike was in San Francisco promoting a new book about his career called "That's My Story and I'm Sticking to It."

He made a few interesting comments comparing today's indie digital filmmaking to the kind of guerrilla 8 mm filmmaking he grew up with.

Spike lamented the fact that the first book he wrote, "She's Gotta Have It: Inside Guerrilla Filmmaking" was out of print; actually, it seems like it's still available new or used on Amazon.

Whether digital or analog, Spike said guerrilla filmmaking is about "not taking no for an answer" - simply barreling ahead and making the film you intend to make, cobbling together whatever resources it takes. The latest generation of high-quality consumer digital video cameras, he said, make that even easier.

The reason I went to film school was to get access to the equipment," Spike said. "With this digital stuff, you can just go out and make a film. Not everyone can make a good one - but you can make a film. And you can use that to get better."

Monday, October 17, 2005

Directing for the (super) small screen

Two interesting pieces from the NY Times...

1. This morning, there's a piece headlined "Now Playing on a Tiny Screen," which focuses on the companies producing video content for cell phones, and how they're doing it. Turns out it isn't easy to create coherent narratives on a screen the size of a Wheat Thin. Laura Holson writes:

    LOS ANGELES, Oct. 16 - When Eric Young directed his first episodes for the cellphone serial drama "24: Conspiracy," it was the bullet holes that vexed him most. Mr. Young, hired to create 24 one-minute mobile episodes for a spinoff of the hit series "24," learned that making video for a pocket-size screen is far different from making it for a 27-inch television set.

    About 70 percent of the images he used were close-ups of actors, because panoramic shots appeared blurry. He said he used tiny speakers to hear what "the sound of a neck cracking" would be like on a cellphone after one of the episode's characters died from a snapped vertebra. But for gunshot wounds, the director was forced to make the bullet holes extra large and to double the amount of blood so they could be easily identified on the small screen.

    "We are all experimenting to see what works," Mr. Young said. "Every new medium finds its own way and rules. It will be true for this one, too."

Holson says that MTV is developing a series for cell phones called "Samurai Love God," which has been described as "Austin Powers meets Akira Kurosawa." It'll debut in February.

2. Richard Siklos observed in yesterday's NY Times that there are devices other than Apple's new video iPod that offer access to a lot more content. One, for instance, is DISH Network's new PocketDISH portable player, made by Archos, which gives you access to anything that comes over DISH Network. (Another, I'd point out, is the Sony PlayStation Portable, which offers access to lots of movies on Sony's annoying UMD discs). Siklos writes:

    Only a fool would bet against [Steve] Jobs, whose iPod now thoroughly dominates the digital music market against rivals like Sony. But here goes: at first blush, the video iPod is not about to revolutionize Hollywood in the way the iPod revolutionized music.

    Why? Two reasons. One is that studios are not rushing to make their most popular movies and shows available for the video iPod (note that only Disney shared the stage with Mr. Jobs last week, and the primary motive may have been its desire to repair relations with Pixar). Perhaps even more important, mobile gadgets with access to everything that is already on television are on the way.

Later, Siklos points out that media companies are "worried about piracy, for one thing, but they're also not quite convinced that there is a good business case for online distribution."

Sunday, October 16, 2005

`Why does that popcorn cost so much?'

Fun article from CNNMoney about the economics of running a movie theater. (It's a few years old - stumbled across it today.)

Didja know:

- Studios pay theaters to show trailers. But they pay for them after the fact, based on the number of people in the theater who saw them.

- Concession suppliers may put $25,000 to $50,000 toward the building of a new screen, if the theater will give them a long-term contract and split profits made on snacks.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

CG Animation in San Francisco

The SF Weekly, a free alternative paper in San Francisco, has a great cover story this week about Wild Brain, the fledgling computer animation studio that produced a well-regarded short film called "Hubert's Brain," does a lot of TV commercial work, and also produces a show on the Disney Channel called "Higglytown Heroes."

The company has long wanted to make a full-length feature, to earn a place on the stage next to Pixar and DreamWorks, and to do that, they recently raised about $40 million in venture capital. They've also just hired a new CEO, Charles Rivkin, who executed a turnaround at the Jim Henson Company.

Still, many venture capitalists look at animation studios as a risky bet:

    "The dirty little secret is that most investments in these indie production companies are absolute losers. People do them as vanity investments," says Randy Komisar, a former Lucasfilm president and partner at Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, and one of many potential investors who liked Wild Brain's pitch but ultimately passed. "The Pixars of the world are unusual. What Steve Jobs has done there defies gravity."

Writer Ryan Blitstein also points out that the SF Bay Area has become a real center of gravity for the animation world, as the business has shifted from hand-drawn 2D animation to computer-generated 3D animation:

    The companies drew their talent base and infrastructure from two sources -- Silicon Valley, which matured from a niche business in the 1970s to a major center of commerce by century's end, and the imaginative cartoon and animation studios that have existed here for decades. Through his Industrial Light + Magic (ILM) special effects shop and LucasArts video game division, now housed in the Presidio, [George] Lucas fostered both.

    Emeryville-based Pixar, the king of computer-generated (CG) feature films, used talent and technology cast off by Lucas to make movies that grossed billions at the box office. Although Pixar makes the process seem easy, it's a gargantuan challenge to produce these films, and even harder to remain independent while doing so. Redwood City's PDI helped create Shrek, one of the most successful animated movies of all time, but couldn't survive on its own. The company was bought by DreamWorks, then was spun off last year as part of DreamWorks Animation.

    No digital filmmakers or production houses in San Francisco have even come close to Pixar's achievements, but Wild Brain is one of many in pursuit. In the Presidio, another crop of Lucas expats called the Orphanage is using money earned doing effects for films such as Sin City to help bankroll original productions. South of Market, Giant Killer Robots, which worked on Fantastic Four, has hired several animators, and rumors abound that it'll soon take a stab at a film.

Two Spielberg items

I'm not sure whether this new collaboration between Spielberg and Electronic Arts, announced yesterday, will amount to much. Financial terms weren't disclosed. The biggest questions to me are, how much time will Spielberg spend working on his EA projects, and will EA be getting ideas that Spielberg considers not juicy enough for features?

GameSpot has a Q&A with Neil Young, who runs EA's Los Angeles studio - the guy who'll be working most closely with Spielberg.

Here's a snippet:

    GS: I know Spielberg's a big gamer, but he's first and foremost a filmmaker. How do you think his cinematic expertise, which is based on a passive experience, will translate into making games, which are an interactive experience?

    NY: Well, I think that each medium has its own narrative. And so, if you think about it, theater has a different narrative structure than film, which has a different narrative structure from games. We haven't yet decoded the narrative of our medium, in my opinion. There are certainly games like Eco and Half Life 2, to some degree, that have made some really interesting kind of strides in that direction, but there's so much more to do. If you mapped our industry to the film industry, we're sort of pre-Citizen Kane. We haven't figured out all the buttons to press and all the levers to pull. So decoding the narrative of the medium and delivering something that is a phenomenal game is the objective. And I think you do those things by collaborating with people who really deeply understand narratives.

Young says he sees the game and movie industries converging - but that doesn't mean that EA will start making movies.

Earlier, Spielberg worked on a game with LucasArts called "The Dig," and he was involved in a game called "Medal of Honor," released by DreamWorks Interactive. That was the games arm of the DreamWorks SKG studio, which was sold to EA in 2000.

Matt Richtel of the NY Times reports that the games will be originals -- not adaptations of Spielberg films. Richtel's piece concludes:

    Wall Street analysts have complained that Electronic Arts has lost some of its creative edge, relying too heavily on sequels of popular sports franchises, like Madden Football, while producing lackluster original titles.

Finally, there's apparently an interview in the Hollywood Reporter (no link yet) with Spielberg in which he talks a bit about the future of the theatrical experience. IGN has a short piece on it, titled Spielberg's Secret Project.

    "A good movie will bring you inside of itself just by the sheer brilliance of the director/writer/production staff," he says. "But in the future, you will physically be inside the experience, which will surround you top, bottom, on all sides. ... I've invented it, but because patent is pending, I can't discuss it right now."


Thursday, October 13, 2005

`Apple's Baby Step Toward Movies'

Peter Burrows of Businessweek writes that studio execs are still worried about piracy, and reluctant to tinker with the release structure that lets them sell a movie over and over again. That's why Bob Iger was the only Hollywood type at the unveiling yesterday of Apple's iPod for video.

    ...[S]tudios have more to lose than the music industry's top labels did when they cut their landmark deal with Jobs back in 2001. While Hollywood suffered through a funk this summer, the studios are in better shape than their music brethren, thanks largely to a decades-old distribution model that lets studios sell films many times over -- first via the box office, then as DVDs, and finally by selling the broadcast rights.

    As such, studios are balking at shuttering these release `windows' by letting Apple immediately release their latest hits. Even Disney won't make its TV shows available on iTunes until a day after they air.

    There are technical constraints, too. Using Apple's updated iTunes software, customers can download an hourlong TV show in 20 minutes. At that rate, a full-length movie would take half an hour. And analysts say it would consume half a gigabyte of storage space -- or five gigabytes-plus, if the movie was shot in a high-definition version.

My question: if movies were available for download by Apple, let's say at the same time that DVDs were released, wouldn't that be additive revenue for the studios? Yes, some people would buy the download instead of the DVD (which wouldn't matter if the studio's profit margin was the same or better for a download versus a DVD)... but some people would buy the download in addition to the DVD. What about the movie you want to be able to watch on your iPod video while on the treadmill at the gym, but also show to your kids on the DVD player in your SUV?

Also, courtesy of DV Guru, here's an interesting review from the Unofficial Apple Weblog of what it's like to download an episode of "Lost" from Apple's online store.

How soon before we see movies on the video iPod?

Not very, is my guess... studios and filmmakers think that 2.5 inch screen is fine for TV shows, but waaaaay too small for movies. And John Borland of writes that studios think Apple may not be offering enough protection against piracy:

    Film studios may be a harder sell [than TV networks], however. Hollywood executives have privately expressed deep reservations about the security of Apple's proprietary digital rights management protections, called FairPlay. They have largely refused to allow any permanent downloads of movies to be sold over the Net until the introduction of a new generation of DVD copy protection, expected to be ready by the end of the year.

Apple's desire to exert pricing control might be another issue. Pricing a song at 99 cents, and a TV show at $1.99, sounds reasonable... but will consumers swallow a $5.99 or $9.99 movie download?

'24 Hours on Craiglist'

I don't do movie reviews here, but just wanted to point you to the supremely-enjoyable documentary '24 Hours on Craigslist,' which is playing through October 17th in San Francisco.

The concept: find the best stories from postings on Craigslist on one day (August 4, 2003):

    An Ethel Merman drag queen searches for the perfect backup band for her Led Zeppelin covers. A suburban professional woman assembles a diabetic cat support group. A couple seeks the perfect rabbi for their marriage. A would-be mother finds her ideal sperm donor. Doors for sale, one night stands, compulsive roomates, transsexual erotic services. The mundane and the sublime, the ridiculous and the profound, all come together to paint a portrait of a thriving, humanistic community in the midst of an ever-accelerating culture.

The clever part: director Michael Ferris Gibson assembled the eight crews who shot the movie (with DV cams, of course) by putting a posting on Craigslist.

The DVD, featuring lots of extra footage and updates, is supposed to be out next year.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Mark Cuban, Magnolia Pictures, and DVD Distribution

I'd take the question mark off this headline from Wired News: Cuban to Launch DVD Label?

Having talked with Mark Cuban and his partner Todd Wagner a couple times in the past few months, this seems like an obvious step. Last week, when I sat down with Cuban at the Web 2.0 conference, he riffed on the idea of distributing DVDs to Wal-Mart or Target on the day they're released in theaters, and sending movie stars - he mentioned Cynthia Nixon of "Sex and the City," who's starring in the forthcoming "One Last Thing..." - to the stores to create a movie premiere atmosphere. To fully control that sort of distribution scenario - and to wring maximum profits from it - they'd naturally want to own the distribution company.

Holly J. Wagner (no relation to Todd Wagner, I presume) writes:

    Mark Cuban is hiring staff that could form the nucleus of a new DVD label, Wired News has learned, a move that comes as the dot-com billionaire attempts to shatter Hollywood's release window system by making first-run films available simultaneously in theaters, on cable TV, online and on DVD.

She cites an online job posting that Magnolia Pictures, part of the Wagner/Cuban family of companies, is trying to hire a Senior DVD accountant whose responsibilities would include "monitoring inventory levels, working with DVD replicators `to ensure sufficient supplies are available for replenishment,' and setting up electronic data interchanges, or EDIs, with vendors and customers."

Wagner (the writer) also references a bit of simultaneous release history I didn't know about. Cuban and Wagner plan to release the Steven Soderbergh movie "Bubble" in January in theaters, on TV, and on DVD (possibly also online, through Cinemanow)... but they won't be the first:

    The only film known to have debuted on TV, DVD and in theaters the same day so far is Noel, a holiday movie starring Susan Sarandon, Penelope Cruz and Robin Williams in an uncredited role. The film was released last November on cable's TNT, in a handful of theaters and on disc the same day. But the disc was a Flexplay disc that expired in 48 hours, and it was only available on Neither side will comment but sales were reportedly low, some in the industry say a mere 1,500 copies. The title eventually found distribution under the Screen Media imprint. Screen Media has a distribution deal with Universal Studios Home Entertainment that will put the title in stores on standard DVD for the first time Oct. 25.

Previz is the new 'killer app' ...

... So saith Debra Kaufman in The Hollywood Reporter.

She writes:

    The process, called "previsualization," or previz, is storyboarding taken to the next level: digital storyboarding with a certain degree of interactivity. Creatively, it allows a filmmaker to completely rough out a movie using the same lighting, camera angle and effects parameters as would be employed in the finished film. Essentially, it's a blueprint of the film but one created in a cost-effective environment where the whole point is experimentation, and changes can be made and viewed on the fly.

    It's not real time per se," [George] Lucas' previz specialist Daniel Gregoire says, estimating it took anywhere from "a few minutes to a half-hour" to render previz shots on "Sith." "What it does is give a sense of the environment, the dimensionality, the set scope, where you can and can't go."

Kaufman gets some nice quotes from Rob Legato, who's currently working with Jim Cameron on "Battle Angel," and Loni Peristere:

    At Zoic Studios, visual-effects supervisor Loni Peristere looks forward to integrating video game engines into the CGI pipeline. "We want to merge the two. We'll be able to sit with a director and block out scenes in real time, (as well as) make the whole process more efficient," Peristere says.

She also talks about some of the limitations of trying to use videogame engines for previz.

Psych: Video iPod is here

Here are the stats on the video iPod: 2.5 inch color display, up to 150 hours of video, up to 20 hours of battery life.

Apple says, "Choose from over 2 million songs, 20,000 podcasts, 2,000 music videos or your favorite ABC and Disney television shows, download them to your Mac or PC and sync them to your iPod. Add an optional audio cable to play music from the iPod to your home stereo or use an optional S-video cable with iPod to play VJ on your TV."

This is gonna be huge...Time to rename the iTunes Music Store the iTunes Media Store.

And it's fascinating that despite Pixar's well-chronicled spat with Disney over continuing to distribute Pixar's films, Disney committed to being the first to offer content to another Steve Jobs company.

"It's great to be here to announce an extension of our relation with Apple," Disney CEO Bob Iger quipped at the event. "Not Pixar, but with Apple."

A couple links:

  • The must-read story is from John Markoff of the NY Times, who observes that Jobs doesn't have the same broad support from TV networks and movie studios that he had from the music industry when he launched the original iTunes Music Store. He also points out that five shows from ABC and Disney Channel will be available from Apple the day after they air. (This is a deal that Disney could do because it both produces and broadcasts these shows; much harder for, say, NBC to do it with "The Apprentice," since it doesn't produce that show.)
  • Here's Apple's video of the Steve Jobs announcement today, which also featured Wynton Marsalis (much like the bar mitzvah of a millionaire's son on Long Island, you can't have an Apple product announcement without a celebrity cameo)
  • Leander Kahney of Wired News has a dispatch from the unveiling in San Jose, in which he mentions that Disney will be offering shows like "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" for $1.99 a show. There will also be music videos and short films from Pixar for $1.99. Video podcasts will be free. (Just as I'd feared: big media companies get to charge for their video, while indie producers and individuals have to offer it for free to get access to Apple's big audience. I'm not sure why Apple is biased in this way. Shouldn't anyone who distributes via their store be allowed to either charge for or give away content?)
  • 'Apple unveils video iPod' from
  • The San Diego Daily Transcript reports that other suppliers of video, like start-up Veoh Networks, are already announcing their compatibility with Apple's video iPod

Finally... just got off the phone with someone I'll call a senior executive at Walt Disney Studios, who told me that he expects the iPod video to "become an important part in the way all consumers are looking at content," and that while the studio may offer trailers for new movies, and older films from the archive, he doesn't imagine Disney releasing new movies to the iPod while they're still in theaters. But could they offer movies via the Apple Media Store once those movies are out on DVD? Stay tuned...

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Echostar grabs (a bit) of Apple's thunder

Assuming that Apple doesn't introduce a video version of its iPod tomorrow, DISH Network has just the device to tide you over...

It's the PocketDISH, a line of three portable video devices that range in price from $329 to $599. Macworld writes:

    The PocketDISH features a 2.2-inch, 4-inch or 7-inch screen, and can store from 20 to 40GB worth of content. In addition to working with select DISH Network digital video recorders (DVRs) equipped with USB 2.0 connections, they can also download and record content from Macs, PCs, digital cameras, mass storage devices and other equipment. It takes about five minutes to transfer an hour of DISH Network programming to a PocketDISH, according to the company.

According to DISH Network's press release, each PocketDISH has "a rechargeable lithium-ion battery for up to four hours of video and 12 hours of music playback."

Here's the official PocketDISH Web site.

(And if you want to see how a play-money stock market is handicapping the odds that Apple will unveil a video iPod soon, check this out: Yahoo's Buzz Game.)

A 4K test in Japan, this month

Surprising news this morning from The Hollywood Reporter and Variety, about a market test of 4K projection technology that'll involve Warner Brothers, NTT, and two projector manufacturers, Sony and JVC.

Nicole Sperling writes in the Reporter:

    The 4K projection and delivery test, which will take place over the next year, represents the first tryout of the high-resolution system in a commercial theater. To date, d-cinema tests in North America and abroad have been conducted with projectors featuring the lesser HD or 2K resolution.

    The field test will begin in three Japanese theaters Oct. 22 with the release of "Tim Burton's Corpse Bride." It will be conducted by Warner Bros. Entertainment, Warner Entertainment Japan, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone, NTT West and Toho Co. The announcement was made at a news conference today in Tokyo, where Warners debuted the full 4K release of "Corpse Bride" in addition to some demonstration footage from "Batman Begins."

From what I've heard, this test will start before Landmark Theaters in the U.S. gets delivery of its 4K projectors from Sony.

The Reporter piece continues, speculating that 4K tests could take the wind out of the sails of companies that make 2K projectors:

    "There is room for both 2K and 4K to exist in the market," Warner Bros. Entertainment technical operations president and chief technology officer Chris Cookson said. "In the more traditional venues where you sit farther from a smaller screen, 2K and 4K shouldn't look much different. There is a difference between the two resolutions in the newer, steeper theaters where the seats are closer to the screens and the screens are larger. We are welcoming both into the marketplace. They both offer a much more stable picture then film."

    However, Warners' beta test could slow down the current momentum of the 2K rollout plans currently being circulated throughout the distribution and exhibition communities. According to sources close to Christie/AIX's 2K rollout effort, which already has Walt Disney Pictures onboard, the company is close to signing several exhibitors to put Christie's 2K projectors into their theaters. Those theater chains might now want to hold off on that implementation until results from the 4K test are available.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Video iPod: Not just yet

Suggestions abounded last week that Apple was getting ready to announce a video version of its iPod this Wednesday.

Today, Think Secret says its sources have "clarified that while the October 12 event will not deliver a video iPod, Apple is expected to unveil a lesser update to the full-size iPod."

Why no video iPod right now? Think Secret says licensing talks between Apple and major video content owners are progressing slowly.

    While a video-capable iPod is in development, without the agreements nor infrastructure in place to deliver movies to customers through a store-like interface, Apple sees little value in releasing such an iPod at this time.

    Apple insiders have also said executives see consumers needing the capability to easily import the DVD movies they own to a usable format (similar to the encoding functionality provided for audio CDs with iTunes) in order for a video iPod to be truly successful. The complexity to date of accomplishing such a feat has meant only a minority of computer users have dabbled with watching full-length movies on their computer, with most of the, having acquired the content through file sharing services.

And here's a link to an item about a portable video device that's already on sale, the Sony PlayStation Portable: Paramount has created a Web site for the new movie "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" that specifically targets PSP owners.

New digital camera from ARRI

Sheigh Crabtree of The Hollywood Reporter has a piece today on the new "film-style" digital camera from ARRI, unveiled last week to cinematographers. (Film-style seems to mean that it looks and works very much like the film cameras that cinematographers are comfortable with.) They should be available later this month.

Crabtree writes:

    The ARRIFLEX D-20 camera, which made its debut Thursday, is the latest entry in a current crop of promising 35mm-sized single-chip digital cameras to emerge during the past year, each intended for high-quality motion picture production.

A subscription is required to read the full story. (But Matt Jeppsen of FresHDV has more detail in his post, including a link to a report from ARRI on some test shoots held this spring and summer.)

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Theatrical `lagniappe'

HDBeat posted an interview with Mark Cuban yesterday, which focuses mostly on his two high-definition cable channels, HDNet and HDNet Movies.

But they also talk a bit about day-and-date release, piracy, and offering "lagniappe" (that's the Cajun term for "a little something extra") to people who come out to see a movie in the theater. Cuban has a lot of ideas, and he's determined to try them out and see what works: what if you offered a free soundtrack download to people who bought a ticket to see a movie in the theater?

Here's the juiciest exchange, from a CinemaTech perspective:

    HDB: The non-traditional release of Steven Soderbergh's recent high-def films in theaters, on DVD and on HDNet simultaneously caused some controversy with the movie industry. What's the thinking behind multi-channel distribution? Was this just a 'test of the waters' or do you think this will become more acceptable within the film industry?

    MC: This is about giving consumers what they want, where and when they want it. If theaters don't like it, that's their problem, not ours. We are working to create incremental value by doing things like offering a free soundtrack download for people who attend "The War Within" at Landmark Theaters. By creating more value for the theater-going experience, we think people who want to get out of the house, will go to a theater. Those who can't will stay home and watch it on HDNet Movies, and those who aren't smart enough (*smiles*) to subscribe to HDNet Movies, can buy it on DVD.

    If you really want to see the studios upset, wait until we release all of our DVDs uncopyprotected and have an option for people to pay a few bucks more and get an AVI, WMV or DivX version they can easily copy on to their laptops, media servers or flash drives to watch the movie where and when they want and have a backup as well.

    I see no reason to treat my customers like criminals.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Digital guitar gods

Hopefully, the folks at Pillar Entertainment have done their research, and determined that the highest concentrations of head-banging worshipers of electric guitar gods are in places like Long Island (obviously), LA, Chicago, Detroit, Seattle, and San Diego.

Those are among the nine cities that will enjoy digital theatrical showings of G3's "Live in Tokyo" concert DVD. The showings are essentially promos for the concert DVD from Epic Records, which features Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, and John Petrucci. It arrives in stores on October 25th - same as theatrical events.

They'll be using digital cinema technology from AccessIT. Here's the press release.

Rock on...

Friday, October 07, 2005

'Serenity': Nine minutes of brilliant marketing

This is some really clever marketing... if you're not one of the hard-core fans of the TV show "Firefly," you may not have rushed out last weekend to see the movie based on the series, "Serenity." (The movie has grossed about $12 million so far.) So Universal Pictures, as an overture to non-converts who may nonetheless enjoy the flick, has made the film's first nine minutes available on the Net. has a short post about it; you can watch the opening sequence here. On my Mac, it streamed beautifully at full-screen size when I clicked the link for the highest quality.

Here's another link about Universal's campaign to get bloggers talking about "Serenity." Shankar Gupta observes that the movie "Flightplan" beat out "Serenity," in terms of box office, but the latter film has been generating more buzz in the blogosphere.

    As of Thursday afternoon, a Technorati search on the phrase "Serenity movie" returned almost 14,000 blog posts, compared to 1,538 posts returned on the phrase "Flightplan movie." The two films opened on the same date last week.

    Intelliseek's BlogPulse also revealed a massive spike in blog discussions that peaked on Oct. 1--the day after the movie's official release--with 1.067 percent of the blogosphere buzzing about "Serenity," compared to the .054 percent buzzing about "Flightplan."

'The Future of Entertainment' at Web 2.0

“Why won’t Hollywood give us any of their content to play with?”

That was the major theme of yesterday’s “Future of Entertainment” panel at the Web 2.0 conference. Techies are eager to experiment with new ways of delivering content that will make consumers happy. But TV networks and Hollywood studios aren’t just reluctant to offer up their content for experimentation -- they’re often prevented from doing so by the long-term licensing agreements that underlie today’s business models. (The session felt a bit like a replay of a similar panel at the AlwaysOn conference back in July; Mark Cuban was the common denominator.)

The panelists were stellar: you had Cuban, former FCC chair Michael Powell, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, and Evan Williams, a founder of Blogger and Odeo. (The photo at right shows Cuban, Hastings, and Williams, from left to right.) It would’ve been nice, though, to have someone representing a major TV or movie firm to explain exactly why they’re not ready to come out and play.

Some notes:

    - Reed Hastings contrasted the forces of control with the forces of freedom. The forces of control – players like the cable operators – “want you to have about 200 to 500 channels, and they’ll defend that model though exclusive content. On the other side, you’ve got the Internet, chaos, boot times, 404 [errors], but a lot of innovation.” Hastings said, “I’m sure the forces of freedom will win over time, but it will take a long time, because [cable companies] have got this exclusive content sewn up.” The forces of control worry about “eyeballs and time moving away from traditional television” – and of course, people moving away from the theater-going experience.

    - Hastings used Movielink of an example of how reluctant movie studios are to license their content for experiments in new ways of delivering movies. Even though Movielink is owned by the studios, “it only has about 600 titles from the studios, and another 1000 from other firms – out of a universe of 50,000 to 100,000 [total] titles,” Hastings said. By simply buying DVDs, Netflix doesn’t have to jump through the same contractual hoops that a company like Movielink does, trying to obtain new rights for Internet delivery that don’t conflict with those of existing rights-holders.

    - Cuban seems bullish about delivering movies on hard drives…it almost seemed he was suggesting the next Netflix model might be shipping movies around on hard drives (or perhaps keychain USB drives. Cuban indicated that he’s already viewing his own video content from drives plugged into his laptop or DVD player via a USB connector. “That’s how I watch all my media,” he said.) He’s not a big believer in delivering video over the Net – just not reliable enough – especially when you’re talking about delivering high-definition content.

    “We’ve all had this vision in our minds about delivery over the Internet – that it replaces all other methods. I’m still a big believer in the power of hard drives,” Cuban said, especially as their cost drops and capacity rises.

    - Hastings has a different opinion on that. He feels that NetFlix will eventually start delivering movies over the Net. “I’m more optimistic on bandwidth. If you could delivery [content] at night and cache it [on a home server, like a TiVo], you could actually get very high bandwidth, delivering multiple hours of high-definition to the home. It wouldn’t be real-time television. But for NetFlix customers, it’d be an improvement if they could get something in 12 hours [via the Net] instead of 24 hours [delivered through the mail.]

    - Michael Powell got some laughs with an anecdote about his son, who thinks music should be free (“Does he know who you are?” moderator John Battelle asked), but is willing to pay $60 for a videogame or $2.99 for a ring tone. He said his son’s monthly ring tone bill is about $40.

    - Battelle asked why the entertainment industry keeps suing its customers. Cuban gave a similar answer to the one he gave back in July. In the NBA, he said, “the number one job of a general manager is not to win a championship. It’s to keep his job. If I ran a huge studio, hanging out with the starlets, being paid a ton of money, you’ve got to have a bogeyman. [The threat of piracy is that bogeyman.] If they don’t hit their numbers, it’s not their fault. As long as there’s piracy, it’s not their fault. So it has to be there.”

    - Hastings predicted that video content on the Web won’t kill mainstream TV shows. “It’s going to extend [traditional TV] in the same way that blogs have extended the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.” I like this idea, that Web video will fill in the cracks – supplying stuff that you can’t get on TV, cable, DVD, or satellite.

    - Another question posed: Why is everyone getting so interested in delivering Web video all of a sudden? Cuban said, “It’s purely in response to $20 CPMs [ad rates] for audio and video. Period. End of story. It’s not that there’s all of a sudden this mass consumption of episodic content.” Cuban’s skeptical that consumers want to see long-running series and soap operas over the Web. He mentioned the Spot, a 1990s experiment along those lines. “How do you create inventory [to sell those ads]? You get a kid with a light saber, or get a mock-up of a jet on the 405. Build it, and they will sell it.”

    - A questioner from the audience asked Hastings “what’s going on with the TiVo/Netflix deal?” Hastings said, “The fundamental issue isn’t technical. It’s really licensing. Traditional media companies, like TV channels, have exclusive licenses on much content. Even the studio-owned distribution service, Movielink, has a tiny fraction of the total content, and it’s not because they don’t want it.”

    “Consumer expectations are extremely high,” Hastings continued, “They want iTunes for video. Unfortunately, it’s going to be many years before that happens – but it has nothing to do with technology.”

    (After the panel, I chatted with Hastings a bit…and he said he’ll be watching what companies like Apple and Brightcove do in terms of delivering video – he just doesn’t think they’ll have a lot of blockbuster, brand-name content.)

    Cuban said with a grin, “The smart media companies will make their content available through Netflix for download.”

    “Well said,” Hastings replied.

    - Hastings and Cuban both talked about how the costs of making a movie have come down – Cuban mentioned the Sony HD camera, and Hastings mentioned Avid’s digital editing gear. The advantage that big players still have is in building awareness about new movies. They’ve got the marketing firepower. “Downloading isn’t the big thing that’ll change everything,” Hastings said. “The cost of distribution is tiny. Stamping out DVDs – it’s like 1 percent of the cost of a movie, when you spend $50 million for advertising.”

    “How do you do demand creation [less expensively]?” he asked. “It’s great that the costs of production have come down. But how do we create demand for long tail [aka niche] content, and get five million people who care about [the documentary] ‘Enron’ to know about it?”

    “Don’t talk about `Enron,’” Cuban said. “Talk about ‘The War Within,’ which just happens to premiere tomorrow.”

    That's smart word-of-mouth marketing.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

'Smaller Video Producers Seek Audience on the Net'

That's the headline of today's piece by Saul Hansell, which primarily focuses on a new company called Brightcove. Brightcove wants to be an online marketplace for video, allowing any producer - small, medium, or large - to deliver video over the Net and charge money while doing it. The videos in question could be just about anything: mini-documentaries, stand-up comedy routines, "how to" videos, short films, or full-length features.

Hansell writes:

    Video delivered over the Internet, which has been embraced by media and Internet giants like Viacom and Yahoo, is quickly shaping up as a way for smaller producers to reach an audience without having to cut deals with movie studios and the big networks that are the traditional gatekeepers of television.

    As interest in video soars (there are more than a million video clips currently available online), a host of new ventures is starting to cater to the publishing and advertising needs of smaller video creators. One new start-up called Brightcove, for example, has developed a system of online video production tools that makes it easier for small operations to distribute video programs as well as charge for them.

Hansell talks about how Dan Myrick, co-director of "The Blair Witch Project," is planning to use Brightcove to deliver a serial feature film called "The Strand of Venice."

    [Myrick] and other producers are convinced that the low cost of digital production and distribution will allow Internet TV to thrive even with small audiences. "We can get by with 100,000 subscribers," Mr. Myrick said. "Networks are canceling shows on 3 million viewers."

The article says that Brightcove will support advertising, pay-per-view, or free content (which is supported by bandwidth and hosting fees paid by the producer; you can imagine someone like Microsoft perhaps offering a Bill Gates speech for free).

Some more on Brightcove: I wrote about them earlier this year in Release 1.0, and also interviewed founder Jeremy Allaire. I think I was also one of the first people to write about Jeremy's start-up (patting self on back) in my Boston Globe column last December.

Terry Semel of Yahoo at Web 2.0

Another quick dispatch from Web 2.0, mostly notes and quotes from Terry Semel’s morning “fireside chat” with John Battelle. Battelle asked Semel why he took the job as Yahoo’s CEO in 2001, when Internet companies were in a deep slump.

“This old Hollywood hand was looking for a different career. I absolutely wanted to do something different. I saw the Internet as the next way that people and young people would spend a lot of their time. I wanted to be a part of that.” Semel cracked that people saw him as “this moron from Hollywood” coming up to Silicon Valley.

Battelle talked about Yahoo’s hiring of ABC exec Lloyd Braun to run a media division of the company in Santa Monica. He referenced a recent NY Times piece that asked, “Is Terry Semel trying to turn Yahoo into the interactive studio of the future?”

It sounded like Semel doesn’t like the term “interactive studio,” but he very much agreed that he’s trying to leverage technology, content, and distribution. It struck me that while many content companies are technology-phobic (with anemic or non-existent R&D budgets, and cultures that value creatives over engineers), Semel is trying to create a company that is more balanced – one that can create interesting content and also great tools.

“To be a media company, technology is in the core of it – what you must excel at,” Semel said. “Yahoo is all about content” – but it also has wide distribution, reaching 400 million users. “I see us as a 21st century tech company that drives great media. I don’t think you can be one without the other.”

He also seems to believe in balance when it comes to “professional” content versus user-generated content. (Struck me that he buys into the potential of user-generated stuff more than Diller does.) In certain areas, like travel, Semel thinks user-generated content (like reviews or blogs or photos from trips) might be much more valuable than professionally-produced content. In those areas, Yahoo wants to provide the templates and tools to let people create and share their own content.

But Yahoo will also produce and license other, glossier content. Semel wants to “help design the future of what content may be on the Internet – start to lay the groundwork for what things might look like in this broadband universe… I think Yahoo should take the leadership position.”

Unlike traditional media companies (either TV networks or movie studios), Semel seems willing to give Yahoo’s content experiments a longer time to prove that they’re successful – or not. “In the world of television, you had to have a hit that night – and if you had a hit that night, it made a great year. If you had a flop, you had a bad year.” Yahoo’s trying new things in news and entertainment, and Semel wants to foster even more experiments, “and judge that experience 18 months from now.”

Barry Diller at Web 2.0

I’m down at the Argent Hotel in San Francisco this week for the Web 2.0 Conference. The big kick-off session today was a “fireside chat” between John Battelle, one of the conference’s organizers, and Barry Diller, CEO of InterActive Corp.

The most interesting exchanges, to me, were about user-generated video, and whether Diller, a former media mogul (Paramount, Fox, ABC, QVC) who evolved into an Internet mogul (Expedia,, Ask Jeeves) might one day again become a media mogul.

Diller essentially said yes.

“I absolutely see my company getting involved in making a product, in the vernacular…producing, financing, and distributing a filmed, or taped, or digital product, whether that’s a TV show, a movie, or whatever form it takes.”

Convergence as a buzzword is back. Diller said that the Net and traditional media and news and entertainment are on a certain collision course. “I think it’s going to be one world.” That “brings about a potential change-up of the players.”

New digital tool have already changed the way media gets made, just not how it is distributed. “Everything is going to end up being in digits. Making [entertainment] is already there. Distribution is going to get there. We’ve built up some expertise in this other way of distributing content," Diller said.

Diller’s a big believer in finding content through the search box (which is why he acquired Ask Jeeves for $1.85 billion in March)… but he also feels human editors will endure – smart people who will guide you to the good stuff.

Diller is kind of a believer in user-generated content – he mentioned the profiles on, which users submit in hopes of finding a mate – but not really in Average Joes producing interesting video content. “There’s not that much talent in the world, and talent always outs. There aren’t that many [talented] people in that many closets in the world – and they will out.”

“People with talent won’t be displaced by 18 million people producing stuff they think will have appeal,” Diller said. (The exception he cited is wacky “America’s Funniset Home Videos”-style content, which presumably doesn't require talent to produce.)

Writer J.D. Lasica asked a great question during the Q&A period. Essentially, it was this: Isn’t micro-content the great promise of the Internet?

Diller said he didn’t think big media content obviates micro-content. He clarified where he was coming from: “We’re talking about mass audiences and mass engines of communication and entertainment.” User-generated things will occupy a portion of people’s attention. But “there is never enough talent. I don’t think it’s hiding out somewhere.”

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Apple's video iPod: Is Oct. 12 the day?

The Associated Press has this story today suggesting that Apple might be unveiling a version of the iPod capable of playing videos.

Duncan Martell writes:

    While [Apple CEO Steve] Jobs has publicly downplayed the notion of a video iPod, saying that most people don't want to watch videos when they're on the move, many in the industry have been expecting such a product for some time.

    "It would be a very Jobsian move to say it's stupid and bring one out anyway," [Endpoint Technology Associates analyst Roger] Kay said, referring to an iPod that plays video.

AppleInsider also has a post - referenced in the AP piece - that Apple may sell music videos and other short video content via its iTunes Music Store. There's also another device that would work with the video iPod to wirelessly transmit video to a TV set. That's cool.