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Friday, March 31, 2006

Netflix's growing role as indie movie distributor

Who knows more about the movies you watch and enjoy than your pals at Netflix? They're starting to become a powerful player when it comes to marketing movies - and they're only going to get more powerful. When a new movie comes out on DVD - even if it hasn't ever had a theatrical release - they can call your attention to it if it fits your preferences.

Netflix has been dabbling a bit with buying rights to movies that don't get distribution, but might appeal to a subset of the Netflix audience. They've always played this down, saying, we don't want to be in the distribution business in a major way.

But this Anne Thompson column in The Hollywood Reporter says that Netflix exec Ted Sarandos has so far acquired rights to 175 features and documentaries. That's a surprisingly big number to me.

Sarandos emphasizes the company's main advantage as a distributor: streamlined marketing. "There's no inefficiency in marketing, no billboard spending," he says. "We're working on creating the economies of a sequel, without making it first. Every movie has an audience. It's reaching them that's the science."

Thompson writes:

    More distribution experiments are in the offing. Sarandos plans to buy about 100 movies a year, including some for theatrical release. With "Cowboy del Amor," the company successfully booked the docu into several cities, grabbing newspaper reviews -- which direct-to-DVD movies can't get. With its first foray into production financing, Netflix fully financed the docu "The Comedians of Comedy," licensed it to Showtime and released it to retail DVD stores.

    Most recently, Netflix is partnering 50-50 with Roadside Attractions to acquire and release "Puffy Chair," a low-concept Sundance romance with marketing challenges that is expected to earn positive reviews when it opens on five digital screens June 2. "We can reach people through targeted e-mails who are otherwise not reading traditional media," Roadside Attractions co-president Howard Cohen says. "It's one of the best uses of the Internet: utilizing individual, direct, quick feedback. They collect information on a large number of people, process it and act on it."

Here's a 2003 article from MovieMaker that talks about Sarandos' strategy back then. (At the time, they'd picked up rights to six documentaries.) Here's Sarandos' bio from the Netflix site.

`Superman Returns': First live-action Hollywood release in IMAX 3-D

Audiences watching `Superman Returns' in IMAX theaters will behave a bit like Clark Kent, wearing glasses for some sections of the movie, and taking them off for others. IMAX and Warner Bros. have decided to convert about 20 minutes of the movie into 3-D for the movie's IMAX run. A special cue will instruct audience members when to put on their glasses and when to take them off. The release date is June 30th.

IMAX is using its "proprietary" 2-D to 3-D conversion process with the movie, not the "Dimensionalization" process that In-Three has demonstrated. (Seems like there's a lawsuit pending between the two companies over patents. Here's a timeline of the legal dust-up.

The IMAX Web site doesn't yet include anything about `Superman' in 3-D.

Also: CNN Money notes that IMAX is for sale, and that two of the possible buyers are Time Warner and Sony.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Are theater owners complete meatheads?

A lot of the press coverage of the movie industry assumes that theater owners are intellectually capable of purchasing popcorn, tallying up ticket sales, and not much else. This Wired interview with AMC CEO Peter Brown falls into that category, taking Brown to task for refusing to show movies (such as Steven Soderbergh's `Bubble') that are simultaneously released to TV or on DVD.

Here are some observations (maybe a few are even facts):

1. Movie theaters today enjoy the exclusive right to show a product that isn't available (legally) anywhere else, for a certain period of time: first-run films.

2. They're going to fight to preserve that exclusive for as long as possible, negotiating deals with studios that are clearer about how long the exclusive will last. (IE, when does the studio plan to release the movie to DVD, the Net, or cable?)

3. Any business would do the same thing, because being the only game in town is a nice competitive advantage.

4. But eventually, to combat piracy and make the most of their advertising dollars, some studios may decide to release some movies in multiple formats at the same time.

5. Theaters will continue to boycott these, but may not be able to hold that line forever. Some of them will be hits (unlike `Bubble') that people would pay to see in a theater.

4. The smartest theater owners are already thinking about how to compete in a world where some movies are released simultaneously in multiple media. In that world, the theater becomes what I'd call a `rentable living room.' It performs tasks that your living room can't perform, even if you can purchase a fresh release on Friday via a click of your video-on-demand remote control:

  • It's not your living room.
  • The screen is bigger.
  • The picture is better thanks to digital projection.
  • The movie may be in 3-D. Seats may rumble. There may be speakers built into your headrest.
  • You may choose to see the movie in a giant theater with a Godzilla-sized screen and lots of fellow movie-goers.
  • Or you may want to pay a bit extra and see it in a small screening room with a group of your friends. You'll get to sit on leather couches and lounge chairs, order platters of food from a menu, and probably even select the movie your group wants to see from a vast catalog of titles, new and old. (Not to mention that you'll be free to get up and perform a little movie karaoke if you want.)
  • Just as Borders (and many other chain and indie bookstores) have an endless series of authors parading through, theaters will find a way to regularly bring in actors, directors, screenwriters, producers, and film profs to talk about the movies that are playing.
  • Exclusive content (live concerts, Broadway shows, motivational seminars by Tony Robbins, and the like) will still be available
  • Theaters will offer real loyalty programs. Since it's to their benefit for you to come more than once a month, why not discount the second ticket you buy in any month by a buck or two? The third time, perhaps they let you bring a friend for free...
  • Theaters will link up with film schools and indie filmmakers in their community, offering a venue where they can show their work. These may be one-off screenings, but the content will likely have an audience locally and a built-in promotional engine.
  • Theaters will sponsor participatory competitions that go from week to week, bringing people back. These don't necessarily have to be video game competitions. They could be `name that movie' or `name that actor' competitions, or `American Idol'-styleface-offs among local filmmakers: whose short movie is best? Who can make the best movie in 48 hours?

Some theaters are already dabbling in some of this stuff. (They're not stupid -- really.) But expect to see a lot more.

Your thoughts on what you'd like to see your neighborhood cinema doing?

(Somewhat related link: Carmike Cinemas is one of the largest chains to commit to a full-on digital cinema roll-out. Their senior execs spoke this week at a Bank of America conference in New York.)

Days look numbered for Sony's UMD ... Shari Redstone speaks out about release windows

- The latest proprietary media format to fizzle? Sony's Universal Media Disc format, developed for its PlayStation Portable. Anyone who wanted to produce movies on UMD had to pay Sony a license fee, and the movies only played in that one Sony device.

Now two studios, Universal (coincidentally) and Paramount seem to have stopped supporting the format, according to this piece from The Hollywood Reporter. Wal-Mart also seems to be reducing the shelf space devoted to UMDs. Thomas Arnold writes:

    Observers speculate the studios released too many movies, too fast. Within five months of the PSP's March 2005 launch, 239 movie and TV titles already were either in the market or in the pipeline -- a significantly higher tally than games, according to the DVD Release Report.

    But while sales were initially strong -- two Sony Pictures titles even crossed the 100,000-unit threshold after just two months -- the novelty quickly wore off, observers say. The arrival last fall of Apple's video iPod only hastened the PSP's decline as a movie-watching platform.

- At a Bank of America conference in New York yesterday, National Amusements president Shari Redstone (she is also vice chairman of CBS and Viacom) spoke out in defense of the theatrical release window. According to The Hollywood Reporter:

    "Movies are meant to be seen in the theater," and exhibitors must focus on further improving the theatergoing experience and bringing the "wow factor" back to it, she said.

    Michael Campbell, chairman and CEO of Regal Entertainment Group, also addressed the issue of window collapses Wednesday, saying talk about such moves has been overblown.

    "The hype is greater than the reality," he said. Campbell argued that "the vast majority of the studios" have agreed that theatrical windows are important and they "know that they're committed to the theatrical" window, which he said shrank by only four days last year.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Paramount's first digital cinema release

Without a bit of fanfare, Paramount Pictures released its first movie for digital theaters earlier this month: `She's the Man,' on March 17th. (It's listed here on the Texas Instruments site.)

Paramount was the last major studio to have not done a digital release, but when I was last over there, they hinted to me that one was on the way. I was assuming it'd be `Mission: Impossible 3' later this year.

`She's the Man' is only playing in three digital theaters - one in the Seattle area, one in Michigan, and one in Brooklyn. That last theater, the Pavilion, happens to be owned by AccessIT.

They, of course, are the company that manages more digital cinemas than anyone else in the U.S. right now (they only own that one multiplex, which they use as a showcase). While AccessIT hasn't announced any sort of on-going deal with Paramount, they did do a deal with DreamWorks in November... and following Paramount's acquisition of DreamWorks, Paramount distribution is being handled by Jim Tharp... the very same DreamWorks distribution exec who did the deal with AccessIT last year. (And `She's the Man' is a DreamWorks movie.)

One source tells me that from here on out, every Paramount release will be available in digital form as well as film.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Can the movie industry evolve? (Plus: inDplay, Current, TiVo, EchoStar, and Jason Reitman)

- Patrick Goldstein of the LA Times has a great column today that asks the question, can the movie industry evolve along with its audience?

Goldstein writes:

    Unfortunately, when it comes to embracing new technology, most people in showbiz are in deep denial. In his recent state of the industry speech at ShoWest, Motion Picture Assn. of America chief Dan Glickman offered the tired bromide of a "Got Milk"-style campaign to promote theater attendance. National Assn. of Theater Owners chief John Fithian gloated over the failure of "misguided experiments" in same-day release of movies on DVD and in theaters.

    But perhaps the worst combination of denial and hypocrisy was on display at the Oscars, when Academy President Sid Ganis touted the theater experience, saying, "I bet you that none of the artists nominated tonight have ever finished a shot in a movie, stood back and said, 'That's going to look great on DVD.' " Ganis is a genuinely decent man, but it's hard to imagine a more egregious instance of Hollywood's "Do as I say, not as I do" elitism. No institution has more fiercely protected its right to watch movies on DVD than the academy, whose members are treated to Oscar screeners every holiday season, while we get a lecture about how we should settle for endless pre-show ads and overpriced popcorn.

    As it turns out, the New Yorker magazine on the stands the week of the Oscars featured "Capote" director Bennett Miller (one of those "artists nominated tonight") in a big two-page ad for a new Intel system that pictures him in his "streamlined home theater/media room, which he uses to download and view movies."

He cites a survey from OTX that found that young males saw 25 percent fewer movies in 2005 than they did two years earlier. OTX also found that the average consumer's entertainment spending is up 500 percent over the past decade - but not much of that is going to movie tickets. Goldstein continues:

    Young people still love movies. But with the exception of a steadily shrinking number of Big Event films, they don't have an overriding desire to see them in a theater. And they aren't willing to wait until the studios have cashed in their DVD profits. If it takes months for a movie to come to their preferred medium, they'll find other content to absorb. Like it or not, this is a generation trained to access media when and how it wants it, not when it best fits the studio's profit picture.

Well worth a read.

- A start-up called inDplay launched its "online rights acquisition system" yesterday -- basically a way for filmmakers to sell various rights to their movies online. Here's the press release and here's the site. Will it work? The odds are stacked against marketplaces like these, since it's tough to attract quality product (films) and rights-buyers with money, in equal numbers.

- The LA Times also has a report that Current, the cable network co-founded by Al Gore, which airs user-submitted videos, is expanding its reach from 20 million to 28 million homes.

- The Hollywood Reporter notes that a suit over patent infringement between TiVo and EchoStar (operator of the DISH Network) starts today. The patent at issue involves the ability to watch one show while recording another. From the piece: "If TiVo wins, it could sue cable companies that offer other set-top boxes or at least force them to pay licensing fees. Defeat would probably relegate TiVo to a niche place in the market it created, analysts say."

- Finally got the chance to see `Thank You For Smoking' over the weekend (after missing it at Sundance and SXSW), and really enjoyed it. Director Jason Reitman has also been posting blog entries that seem as though they're actually written by him -- not his publicist. Cool precedent for other directors.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Two panel discussions, and the relationship between movies and videogames

Some Sunday links:

- Screenvision held a panel discussion last week about the future of movies. Executive producer Joel Stillerman predicted:

    ...that companies like Nickelodeon, MTV and Comedy Central — all of which now make films — "will be more powerful than the major studios" in a few years. "They have specific expertise to develop material for an audience, and they are brilliant marketers," he said. "These brands will emerge as the pre-eminent players in the movie business." Mr. Stillerman also predicted the continuing rise of film companies like Walden Media and Participant Productions, which "make movies that are motivated by personal world views."

- Enric Teller is putting up short clips from a panel discussion held here in San Francisco last week on the "Digital Film Revolution," featuring panelists such as John Knoll (of Industrial Light & Magic), Richard Chuang (founder of PDI, now DreamWorks Animation), Stu Maschwitz from The Orphanage, and Jeff Fino from Wild Brain. Here's the introduction and here are the other clips.

- This should be obvious by now: hit movies do not always generate hit videogames. In a lengthy report on the relationship between movie studios and game-makers, the Los Angeles Times' Julie Tamaki points out that of the ten best-selling videogames of 2005, only one was based on a movie (`Revenge of the Sith').

Across the country, the NY Times quotes Vin Diesel, who thinks that the videogame version of `The Chronicles of Riddick' "has more story in it than the movie did."

Friday, March 24, 2006

More on Universal download-to-own ... HD-DVD players delayed

- Dawn Chmielewski has a solid piece in today's LA Times outlining how the partnership between Universal and the UK's Lovefilm (their version of Netflix) will work, selling consumers a digital version of a movie and later mailing out the DVD. She writes:

    Although limited to a single studio and 35 titles, the service marks a turning point for Hollywood, which has been reluctant to sell permanent downloads of major films for fear of contributing to Internet piracy or cannibalizing DVD sales.

    "This is a no-brainer," said Josh Bernoff, an analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. "Every studio really should be doing this in every geography."

    The download-to-own experiment could help determine whether consumers will pay a premium for the convenience of getting movies in multiple formats. Universal's service costs about $34.72 per movie, compared with $24.30 for a regular DVD.

Of course, the higher price is justified, since it costs more to sell people both a download and an actual DVD. Amazon has been taking that approach with music, offering a digital download while the CD is making its way to your mailbox. Seems like a transitional strategy to me, until consumers get used to owning digital media ... I mean, after all, isn't the point of a digital good that companies don't need to make and move physical goods anymore?

If the British test proves successful, Universal may do this in the U.S., Chmielewski writes.

- There must be one consumer out there who's dying to get his/her hands on a high-definition DVD player, and finds these delays frustrating? Anyone? I find them sort of amusing at this point (same way I'm amused by Microsoft's delay of its next edition of Windows and Office.) According to Andrew Marsh of the Wall Street Journal:

    Toshiba will "synchronize" the launch of its HD DVD players, originally expected to be on sale by the end of March, with the release of titles by the studios, a company spokesperson in Tokyo said. The first titles in the new format are expected on April 18 from Warner Home Video, a unit of Time Warner Inc.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Universal and Lovefilm launching first download-to-own movie service

CNN has this piece announcing the first download-to-own movie service, launching in the UK on April 10th with `King Kong.'

From the story:

    Films will be available to download the same day the DVD is released. Consumers will get the film in three formats: two digital files available for instant download -- one for a PC or laptop and one for a portable device -- and a DVD copy sent by mail.

    Initially, 35 Universal films will be available, including "Pride And Prejudice," "The Bourne Supremacy," "Love Actually," "Nanny McPhee" and "Bridget Jones."

    They will be priced from £19.99 ($35) for the latest releases to £9.99 ($17.50) for older films. Downloading a film will take between 40 minutes and an hour.

    "The time is only 12-18 months away when you will be able to put the kettle on, get the kids ready and then have a great movie ready to watch," Lovefilm chief executive Mark Livingstone told [the UK's Press Association].

Wonder if that means that Universal will be first to venture into download-to-own in the U.S.....

`Apocalypto' ... Another near-simultaneous release ... Netflix ... `Snakes'


- Time Magazine has a report about Mel Gibson's `Apocalypto' that touches on their use of the Panavision Genesis camera. I happened to talk to cinematographer Dean Semler recently -- they're still shooting down in Veracruz, Mexico, about 2/3rds of the way finished -- and he was pretty astounded that the digital camera has been holding up in the heat and humidity of the jungle. Semler says he typically watches takes in his "Batcave" -- that'd be a black tent outfitted with a high-definition monitor. If there are three cameras being used, he can switch from one to another during a take. He's even got a remote control that lets him change the aperture of a given camera during a take. For some shots that require high frame rates (of which the Genesis isn't capable), they've used a film camera.

- The next "near-simultaneous" release from 2929 Entertainment (Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner) is the Herbie Hancock documentary `Possibilities.' In theaters in LA and New York on April 14, on DVD April 18, and on the HDNet cable channel April 23. I should note here that they now have their own DVD distribution business, just started up recently.

- The Netflix annual report says the company "continue[s] to invest resources to develop solutions for downloading movies to consumers. Our core strategy has been and remains to grow a large DVD subscription business; however, as technology and infrastructure develop to allow effective and convenient delivery of movies over the Internet and when meaningful content becomes available, we intend to offer our subscribers the choice of receiving their movies on DVD or by downloading, whichever they prefer." Let's see if they can actually make that happen. The last time Netflix talked about selling movie downloads, in October, the future didn't sound bright.

- Your daily dose of `Snakes on a Plane' news.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Upcoming digital cinema / tech events ... Variety ShoWest wrap-up

Three links to upcoming events related to the movies and technology:

    - Digital Cinema Summit at NAB, April 22 and 23. Keynotes from James Cameron and NATO head John Fithian. Will look at projectors, the digital cinema roll-out so far, 3-D, digital cameras, and color management.

    - Digital Hollywood, March 27-30 in Santa Monica. Very focused on Internet delivery of entertainment, video games, TiVo and other DVRs, digital rights management. Not much interested in theatrical distribution and exhibition.

    - OnHollywood 2006, May 2-4 in Los Angeles. Focused on the intersection of Silicon Valley and Hollywood. A bit more info here.

Variety on Sunday posted a final piece from ShoWest 2006. Gabriel Snyder writes:

    Things were especially bad last year. As box office receipts dropped by double digits during the summer season -- at the end of the year, the decline was 5.8% by the MPAA's tally -- nearly anyone with a gripe about their last trip to the movie theater offered it up as a definitive explanation for why moviegoing is no longer an American pastime.

    So perhaps it's no surprise that the big proposals coming out of the exhib confab were aimed at PR: an advertising campaign that would do for theaters what "Got Milk?" did for dairy farmers and "Beef. It's what for dinner" did for cattle ranchers.

    The idea first was floated by Fithian in recent months, but it got the biggest support from Dan Glickman, head of the Motion Picture Assn. of America.

    Also on the table is a proposal to push the FCC to lift the ban on jamming cell phones at movie theaters.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Glickman, unscripted

After this morning's panel at the NAB Futures Summit, I had a quick hallway conversation with MPAA chief Dan Glickman. I'm paraphrasing here, since I wasn't taking notes:

Me: When do you think studios are going to start selling digital versions of movies that people can download and own?

Glickman: I think they're looking at it seriously, but there's still some reluctance. It will happen, because I think the movie industry doesn't want to have the same thing happen to it that happened to the music industry.

Me: You mean what RIAA head Mitch Bainwol was just talking about, with the industry's revenues dropping by a third?

Glickman: Yes.

Me: But the interesting thing is, while the studios are offering rentals on services like Movielink, they're still not selling digital movies that people can own, like the music industry is doing with iTunes. I mean, there's no legal way to buy a digital copy of a movie that doesn't disappear or deactivate after a certain period of time.

Glickman: Well, for anti-trust reasons, they can't talk about those kinds of business issues at the MPAA, but I would watch Disney and Fox. I think they'll be the first to move on that.

Disney closes unit working on Pixar sequels, axes 32

The LA Times reports that Disney is closing down its Circle 7 animation studio, which was working on Pixar sequels such as `Toy Story 3.' The group was set up by Michael Eisner to prepare for a scenario where the Disney-Pixar partnership dissolved. (Disney held rights to make sequels of Pixar movies.) Claudia Eller of the Times says that rivals derisively called the unit "Pixaren't." Pixar always worried that the quality of product churned out by Circle 7 would affect their reputation. Eller writes:

    Thirty-two employees, or nearly 20% of the 168 artists, production managers and support staff, were told they would lose their jobs effective May 26.

    The remaining 136 will be absorbed into Disney's feature animation division and redeployed to work on such productions as "Meet the Robinsons," "Rapunzel" and "American Dog."

    ...Workers should find themselves in demand, with computer animation enjoying a boom. Studios such as DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc., 20th Century Fox and Sony Pictures are poised to release a slew of digitally animated movies this year.

NAB Futures Summit: MPAA, RIAA, NAB, and CEA talk tech and policy

I'm at the National Association of Broadcasters' Futures Summit today, down in Pebble Beach. It's rainy today, so no one's on the golf courses and the room is full.

I had a fun panel first thing in the morning, featuring Mika Salmi, CEO of Atom Films and Rik Kinney, EVP of NeoPets. We talked a bit about why users gravitate toward certain sites (among them NeoPets, Atom, MySpace, YouTube) and spend scads of time there.

The main emphasis was that the old broadcasting paradigm was about telling viewers or listeners what was interesting, and trying to provide thin, general interest coverage of the news. The new paradigm is about viewers and listeners selecting the stuff they're interested in. It may be weird or poorly-produced (we looked at some breakdancing videos from Google Video), but users make the choice about what they want to view. And often, with news, they want the most informed, deepest information about a topic. They don't want to hear Wall Street reporting from the local TV station in Augusta, Georgia - they want it from Bloomberg.

We talk a bit about the "Sears catalog" approach to media - trying to be all things to all people. That seems increasingly outmoded. I put forth the idea that users will create queues (a la NetFlix) of video content from the Net they want to watch on their TV. Some of it may be news or sports segments produced by the local TV station, added automatically based on an individual's interests. Some of it may be home-grown videos added because a friend or colleague recommended them. You'll want to watch this queue on your TV - and no good technology exists yet to bring Internet programming to the TV, easily.

Morgan Guenther, whom I met a few years ago when he was president of TiVo, is up next. He talks about the start-up he's running, AirPlay Network. They're trying to get people using their mobile phones to play along with reality shows, sporting events, and game shows. (I.E., guess what play the quarterback's going to call next.) You can play against groups of your friends. The big challenge, to me, seems to be sending out the voting choices and collecting the votes quickly enough, before the next play happens.

The final panel of the conference is titled, `Tomorrow's Policies and Technologies: Where From Here?' On the panel are Gary Shapiro, head of the Consumer Electronics Association; James Casserly, a lawyer who seems to represent the cable industry; Dan Glickman, head of the Motion Picture Association of America; Mitch Bainwol, head of the Recording Industry Association of America; and David Rehr, head of the National Association of Broadcasters.

- First topic is, All Digital Broadcasting in 2009. NAB chief David rehr says he doesn't think most Americans realize that if they buy an analog TV set today, it won't work after February 2009. He views that as an opportunity. Everyone agrees that its best to have the FCC and other gov't agencies involved as little as possible.

Glickman says he's for the broadcast flag. (That's a code added to a TV show, for instance, that prevents people from redistributing it.)

20 percent of American homes already have HD TVs, says Gary Shapiro of the CEA.

Rehr says there are 700 HD radio stations broadcasting already. Not enough people have receivers for it, though.

Shapiro says the RIAA hasn't been involved in the HD radio standards process over the last decade, and now they're trying to introduce legislation to slow it down, and prevent manufacturers from building receivers. He says the RIAA was 'missing in action all these years' - and that the RIAA wants to get a performance royalty for its artists from HD radio plays.

- Dan Glickman talks about content protection. "As Mitch just said, return on investment is the key to any business." The MPAA is trying to balance new technologies with content protection. Stories and entertainment are what people want from all this new technology, and it's important, he says, to make money by producing it. "Sensible, reasonable, intellectual property protection is the bottom line."

"You'll never stamp out piracy," Glickman says. "You just have to manage it the best you can, and technology is one of the best ways to manage that piracy." The right strategy is by offering hassle-free, reasonable-cost ways to buy stuff, and using DRM to protect content. "If we can't find ways to get more and more people to see and listen to our stuff, our business is not going to be very good on a bottom-line basis."

Rehr says its important to move the broadcast flag forward, and keep controversial issues away from gumming up the legislation.

Shapiro responds to Glickman: what's reasonable and senisble to you isn't the same thing as what's reasonable and sensible to consumer electronics makers. He lashes out at the MPAA for trying to neuter new technologies like the VCR and the iPod.

Glickman says the problem is that consumers often want content for free. He emphasizes that it's important for his members (the movie studios) to offer content in a hassle-free, reasonable-cost way -- "or else we'll be left in the lurch."

Shapiro responds by pointing out that some content (music, TV, movies) has always been available for free. He picks up a bottle of Dasani water, and says that people can get tap water for free - but they still buy Dasani. Shapiro starts to build up a head of steam. He says the music and movie industries always complain about phenomenal losses, and warn that their industries will disappear if technology prospers. "Every one of those technologies has created new opportunities for creativity... This panel represents 12 big companies -- not tens of thousands of new creators and artists that have been allowed to flourish because of these new [consumer] devices. You don't have a monopoly on creativity."

Glickman says, "I don't want to adapt ourselves out of business. It's important to protect creators' rights."

Bainwol says that the music industry is down by a third. (I presume he means overall revenues.) Shapiro says that people may be spending their money on video games. But Bainwol continues: 14 million iPods were sold in the fourth quarter of last year, so it's clear that "people love music," he says. But the recording industry's revenues are still sagging. The result is that "a third of the artists are gone, wiped away, they can't sustain a living. There's a real cultural and economic impact," Bainwol says.

Shapiro says that plenty of new technologies and new ideas don't wind up having an impact on media (he mentions an idea about using radios to issue coupons), but that it's still important to experiment.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Google Video: Actually, divide that by ten

Anne Thompson of The Hollywood Reporter says that the first feature film offered for sale on Google Video, `Waterborne,' actually did one-tenth as well as originally reported. She quotes the filmmaker, Ben Rekhi:

    "They told me last week that there was a glitch in their accounting," he says. "A design flaw. They said they never misled me, that they were giving me estimates that were not accurate. What had been 3,000 downloads went down to 300. It was shocking and depressing. It was one-tenth of what I thought it was."

This is pretty embarrassing for Google. A company with so many PhDs in its employ should be better at counting.

But Rekhi is still optimistic about online distribution - and I agree. He says:

    "Too long the power equation has been in the other court. Distributors put your back up against the wall and own your films for 20 years. That we can empower ourselves and circumvent that distribution method is amazing. People are looking for content. I only believe that the online distribution model will get bigger and better."

Saturday, March 18, 2006

`Snakes on a Plane': The songwriting contest

So New Line Cinema has decided to play dice with the Internet...

`Snakes on a Plane' is the Samuel L. Jackson movie that started generating Internet buzz following this blog entry by Josh Friedman, who was asked to do some script doctoring on it last August.

The Internet could turn `Snakes' into the must-see movie of this summer (it's coming out in August), or the latest in a line of storied flops (I'm thinking `Ishtar,' `Gigli,' `Crossroads.') To be a hit, and benefit from all that Web word-of-mouth, I think the movie needs to be a campy 1970s disaster movie throwback that doesn't realize for a second that it's campy. What if `Snakes' is actually a good thriller? Well, I don't think it'll do as well, but we'll see.

Now, New Line Cinema has decided to try to intentionally (rather than accidentally) use the Net to promote `Snakes,' launching a songwriting contest. If you win, your music will be in the movie.

There's also a clip from the film available. Some of the snakes look pretty bad. Maybe they're just rubber stand-ins for the CG reptiles who'll be in the release?

Friday, March 17, 2006

The Sun-Maid Girl Gets a Digital Make-Over

I mentioned a while back that Jeff Kleiser and his vfx firm, Synthespian Studios (formerly known as Kleiser-Walczak), were working on a TV commercial for Sun-Maid Raisins that involved animating the Sun-Maid girl for the first time. (She is more demure than the St. Pauli Girl but foxier than Betty Crocker.)

Sun-Maid president Barry Kriebel e-mailed this week to let me know that the ads are done (there's a 15-second version and a 30-second version), and up on the Sun-Maid Web site. The camerawork is especially nice. They started airing this week.

Time Mag weighs in on the digital cinema revolution

On the flight back from ShoWest last night, I read this piece by Richard Corliss, which covers most of the major changes happening in the motion picture industry, and includes comments from folks like Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith, George Lucas, M. Night Shyamalan, Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann, and National CineMedia chief Kurt Hall, who says that "digital cinema is probably a lot further away than most people would think."

Corliss writes:

    We are at the bright dawn of the movies' digital age, but the Hollywood establishment still has its shades drawn. In the Oscar show at the Kodak Theatre (named after a company that is crucially invested in the film-stock status quo), the most popular live-action digital movie in history, George Lucas' Star Wars: Episode III--Revenge of the Sith, won no awards, not even one for technical achievement. The year's boldest, most innovative digital experiment, Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller's Sin City, got no nominations at all.

    The Oscar revelers seemed unaware that movies have two big problems: the way they're made and the way they're shown.

    It has often been noted that if Henry Ford were to come back today, he would wonder why no one had come up with a better idea than the internal combustion engine. A similar thought may occur to any visitor to a movie shoot. Dozens, maybe hundreds of technicians adjust the lights, apply the makeup and dress the set, much the way it was done almost 100 years ago. And as in D.W. Griffith's day, the film still runs through a camera, then is processed, reproduced many times and sent to theaters.

    The addiction to doing things that way baffles Lucas. "Do you still use a typewriter?" he asks a TIME movie critic. "Do you go to a library and consult books for most of your research? Is your story set in type, letter by letter? No. Your business takes advantage of technological advances. Why shouldn't my business?"

Delays for Blu-ray and HD-DVD

Time says that delays with the Blu-ray disc drive may be what's causing Sony to push back the launch of the PlayStation 3 gaming system until early November.

And The Hollywood Reporter says that the "when the first HD-DVD players, from Toshiba, begin arriving in stores this month, there won't be any software for at least another three weeks." That's because Warner Home Video has pushed back the release of its first few HD-DVD movies from March 28 to April 18. Thomas Arnold writes:

    Stephen Nickerson, the studio's senior VP market management, attributed the delay to technical issues.

    "Everything we do is new," he said. "We're using new copy protection, new compression, new codecs, and we want to make sure the product that goes out is flawless."

    The remaining 17 titles in the first wave of Warner's HD-DVD launch -- the total also has been scaled back from the 24 announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in January to 20 -- will be released in subsequent weeks, he said. These include "Batman Begins," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "The Matrix."

What's your guess about how long high-def DVDs will survive in the marketplace before they're supplanted by digital downloads and video-on-demand? One year? Two? Three at the outside?

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Is this the first movie available on iTunes?

The Washington Post says that a made-for-TV movie from Disney, "High School Musical," has shown up on the iTunes Music Store.

Not exactly a theatrical feature, but what's interesting is the pricing: $9.99 and you own it.

I do wonder whether iTunes can get in the business of renting movies (i.e., movies that would vanish from your hard drive after 24 hours or a week), given that so far every product you buy from them is something you own for good.

Your thoughts?

ShoWest stream-of-consciousness

I have finally caught a cold, thanks to my nutty travel schedule (LA last week, Austin on Sunday and Monday, Las Vegas on Tuesday through Thursday.) So here's a stream-of-consciousness post about some stuff I've heard and seen at ShoWest...

- I wonder who is buying new film projectors in 2006. Do they imagine that they'll get 30 years out of them? Don't they realize the resale market could implode as theaters start shifting to digital-only auditoriums (which could happen later this year or in 2007, as studios release more movies digitally) and getting rid of old equipment?

- I'm glad that Rico's Nachos were here handing out free samples. Eating Rico's Nachos reminds me of going to the United Artist Movies at the Falls, my closest multiplex, when I was about 15.

- Seems like there is a really good chance that there will be a re-release of Peter Jackson's `King Kong' in digital 3-D.

- Everyone's buzzing about how the list of `digital cinema pioneers' was selected. Honestly, three people from NATO, and no one who helped pioneer digital cinema servers?

- Jeffrey Katzenberg sat in the row behind me at last night's screening of Pixar's `Cars.' I wonder what he thought about it. Couldn't see if he laughed or kept a poker face. John Lasseter was given a newly-created ShoWest award for being an `Animation Pioneer.' He accepted the award once at the 6:00 PM show, and then again at the 6:30 screening in another auditorium. The movie looked brilliant, projected on a Christie DLP 2K projector, on the 55-foot screen at the Theatre des Artes in the Paris Hotel. And it's quite good - another in the string of finely-honed Pixar releases. I do wonder how it'll appeal to girls, though. (Only one major character, the Porsche voiced by Bonnie Hunt, is a woman, and the theme is stock car racing.)

- Doug Darrow of Texas Instruments told me that the tipping point with stadium seating, when suddenly every theater decided it needed to have it to remain competitive, was about 250-300 screens in the U.S. That's exactly the point we're at today with digital screens.

- Avica chairman Nicholas Clay told me that since the company announced its intention to digitize every screen in Ireland, that number has climbed from 480 to about 600 (by the time they're done.) Clay says Avica is 25 percent done with the project, but the company hasn't started running digital shows yet. That should happen this month, he said.

- Also on the international front, DG2L of NYC and Bombay says they, in partnership with UFO Moviez, have done 200 theaters thus far. None of them are DCI compliant (about 1K resolution), and so they show only Bollywood movies. They plan to hit 500 by June.

- Real D, which sells equipment that allows digital projectors to show 3-D movies (such as Disney's `Chicken Little'), says they're in 105 theaters worldwide today, and that footprint will double by July, when Bob Zemeckis' `Monster House' is released.

- Had dinner with Harry Mathias of NEC, a cinematographer himself who predicted that by the time half the screens in the US are converted to digital, it'll be hard for producers of film (like Kodak) and processing labs (like Delux and Technicolor) to make money in that business. Film will disappear from commercail theaters really quick, even in less-developed countries, he says. He thinks we'll likely have 10,000 digital screens by 2007 or 2008, and hit the halfway mark (about 18,000) by 2010, for sure.

- The movie I was most looking forward to seeing at ShoWest was `A Prairie Home Companion.' I was underwhelmed. Heavy on singing, light on plot and character development. Found myself wishing it was a backstage documentary rather than a feature with Virginia Madsen playing an angel.

Monday, March 13, 2006

TI announces list of `Digital Cinema Pioneers'

Texas Instruments is giving awards to 22 people the company has dubbed "digital cinema pioneers." It has been verified that each one of them has at least one arrow in his or her back. The list:

    - Wayne Anderson – National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO)
    - Wendy Aylsworth – DC 28
    - Phil Barlow – Industry Consultant
    - Al Barton – Sony Pictures Entertainment
    - Curt Behlmer – DC 28
    - Jim BeShears – DreamWorks
    - Ed Catmull – Pixar Animation Studios
    - Chris Cookson – Warner Bros.
    - Doug Darrow – Texas Instruments
    - Rob Hummel – Industry Consultant
    - Michael Karagosian – NATO
    - Bob Lambert – Disney
    - Julian Levin – 20th Century Fox
    - George Lucas – Lucasfilm
    - Rick McCallum – Lucasfilm
    - Shannon McIntosh – Producer
    - Fred Meyers – Lucasfilm
    - Loren Nielsen – Entertainment Technology Consultants
    - Walt Ordway – DCI
    - Jerry Pierce – Universal
    - Garrett Smith – Paramount
    - John Wolski – NATO

Some links from SXSW

Always trying to save you shoe leather ... here are some links from the booths at the film trade show at South by Southwest that I found most interesting ... mostly related to new distribution avenues, and new communities for film lovers:

- Spout- tagging films based on their content, and creating groups of people who can swap film recommendations

- IFC Media Lab

- Film Baby - sister company to CD Baby (they sell physical DVDs, but are also planning to do digital distribution through Google Video, and eventually, iTunes - though Apple isn't being all that cooperative)

- EyeSpot - enabling people to edit video online...either their own, or for instance editing a music video of a band whose music they like

- IndiePix

- Current - little-seen cable network that's here canvassing for content

- CustomFlix - CD duplication and distribution on demand, owned by Amazon (so films get visibility on

`Downloads enter Hollywood's mainstream'

Here's my Entertainment 2.0 column from yesterday's Boston Globe.

The premise:

    The idea of digital delivery is starting to gain momentum, as studios make more of their movies available to Internet download services like CinemaNow, Movielink, and Vongo. Two other big players could jump in, too., says the company may be considering adding movies to its iTunes Music Store, and last week was reported to be in talks with Universal, Paramount, and Warner Bros. about offering their movies on the site. Moviebeam, a start-up funded by Disney, Cisco Systems, and Intel, started selling a set-top box earlier this year that can store 100 new releases, and will soon support delivery of movies over the Net.

The piece starts with a visit to the set of "10 Items or Less," the Morgan Freeman movie that Clickstar and Intel will release later this year.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Early buzz on Disney's `The Wild,' an outsourced CG project

At the Burbank airport yesterday, all the ads for Disney's "The Shaggy Dog" had been replaced by ads for Disney's "The Wild," out next month.

It'll be interesting to see how much money Disney puts behind its marketing campaign for "The Wild," which comes neither from Pixar or Walt Disney Feature Animation, but rather an outside animation firm in Toronto called C.O.R.E. Digital Pictures. Adding to the marketing challenges is the fact that the movie, about animals escaping from a zoo, echoes "Madagascar" in plenty of ways.

Cartoon Brew has an item that says the movie's budget was $80 mil.

Jim Hill compares "The Wild" to "Madagascar," and talks about his impressions on seeing some early footage last fall.

The official site and trailer are here.

And even more background here.

`Digital cinema isn't ready for prime time'

That's the quote from National CineMedia's Kurt Hall in this Reuters piece that ran yesterday, headlined `Digital cinema may not be ready to roll.'

Hall's message will resonate loudly with theater owners next week at ShoWest, because his company is handling the digital cinema roll-out for three of the nation's largest chains: Regal, AMC, and Cinemark.

Hall has some motivations for saying that digital cinema isn't ready:

  1. It's a negotiating ploy. If Hall seems too eager to buy thousands of digital projectors and servers, he won't get the best price.
  2. His organization simply isn't ready to start its roll-out.
  3. The three big chains that fund his joint venture don't see the competitive advantage today in introducing digital.

Hall's attitude could change fast if the smaller theater chains that *are* involved with digital cinema deployments (like UltraStar in southern California) start marketing their digital screens as something they have and their bigger competitors don't. And the pending digitization of Carmike Cinemas, the country's third-biggest chain, by Christie/AIX could cause Hall to change his tune.

In other news: MPAA says attendance was down 9 percent in 2005, and that movie marketing costs are up. And Forbes reports on Disney's annual shareholder meeting.

Friday, March 10, 2006

`Other Digital Stuff’: Conference on Alternative Content for Digital Screens

I’m at the Digital Cinema Laboratory on Hollywood Boulevard (aka the Pacific Theater) for a conference called “Other Digital Stuff: Expanding the In-Theater Experience.” The organizer is the Entertainment Technology Center at USC, run by Charles Swartz.

The opening panel is being moderated by Bob Lambert, SVP for New Technology at Disney. His panelists are:

    - Joe Berchtold from Technicolor Digital Cinema
    - John Fithian, president of NATO
    - Chuck Goldwater from Christie/AIX
    - Kurt Hall from National CineMedia
    - Julian Levin of Fox
    - Howard Lukk of Disney, executive director of production technology
    - Steve Perrin from the UK Film Council, deputy head of distribution and exhibition

Lambert opens by noting that as digital cinema has evolved, its proponents have spent very little time talking about ways that digital projectors might be used, aside from showing features: videoconferencing, sporting events, video games. “There was always this `other’ category,” Lambert says. “Serious theater buffs always scoffed at the fact that this other stuff would share the stage with theatrical content.” They termed it ODS, or “other digital stuff.” People who thought that showing anything other than features in a movie theater liked to pronounce ODS as “odious.” (Fithian claims to have coined the phrase at the NAB trade show a few years back.)

Lambert’s first question: how is the roll-out progressing? What’s your assessment of the digital cinema roll-out so far? What’s working and what needs more attention?

Berchtold says, “I don’t think the roll-out has started yet.” He thinks we’re still at least a couple months away from having systems in the field that are near-DCI compliant.

Fithian says, “I believe that 2006 is a fundamental transition year for digital cinema technologies in our space.” As evidence, he points out that there are a number of exhibitors in the audience. “We still don’t have completely DCI-compliant systems in the marketplace – but we’re close.”

He continues, “We were often accused of being the dinosaurs holding back the revolution…[but] exhibition was the part of the industry that just wanted to get it right.” He mentions some of the standards wars of the past and present – Betamax and VHS, Blu-ray and HD-DVD – and says the DCI standard was “a tremendous accomplishment for an industry that can sometimes not work together well.”

“A few years ago,” Fithian says, “digital cinema wasn’t as good as film. We’re now at the juncture where we can give the patrons a better experience.” 2006 will be the year in which digital cinema becomes real, he says.

Goldwater says he has a different perspective than Berchtold. He jokes that Fithian is serving as a buffer between him and Berchtold from Technicolor. “To us at AccessIT, and our partners at Christie, the state of digital cinema is strong, and getting stronger every day. We will have close to 200 digital cinema installations by the end of this month, all of which are JPEG servers from Doremi.” He mentions the three chains they’re working with: UltraStar, Carmike, and Emagine.

Goldwater says that he’s been talking to Sony, WB, and Paramount, all of whom are making plans to do their first JPEG 2000 releases in April.

If Christie/AIX is in a higher gear right now than Technicolor, it struck me that National CineMedia is still in neutral.

Hall says the company today has lots of experience delivering digital content to 11,000 screens. Today it’s mostly pre-show ads, and a bit of ODS, but they send out 1.5 million digital files a day. “I would say if the industry roll-out [of digital cinema] starts by 2008, we would’ve done a very good job,” he says. National CineMedia is hoping to drive the price of equipment down through “redesign and volume purchasing,” he says. NCM is wary of “rushing into something with bad technology or bad design or systems that’re too expensive, or systems that will be obsolete in a year or two...We’re taking a very deliberate approach. [2006] is a proof-of-concept or testing year.”

Levin from Fox points out that there are 140,000 screens outside the U.S. Making sure that they accept the DCI standard, without feeling as though it is an American standard being imposed upon them (which of course it is) is important.

Lukk from Disney spouts some more stats: there were about 100 digital screens in the U.S. before Disney’s release of “Chicken Little.” Today there are 301 screens – about 151 of which rely on JPEG 2000 servers, 150 have MPEG servers. Disney’s “Eight Below” opened on 109 digital screens. “The Incredibles” played on just 40. “The Shaggy Dog,” which opened today, is on 98 digital screens.

“We did have a science experiment,” Lukk says. “Today, we’re in the reality of doing larger-scale operations. [2006 will be] a very ugly year. There are a lot of problems that we have to work through. You need scale to find out these issues. When you release to six or 40 screens, you don’t realize the things you do when you release to 100 screens [operationally and technically.]”

“We can afford to stumble a bit right now,” Lukk says. “We can’t afford to stumble with thousands of screens.” He’s happy that some theaters now have more than one digital auditorium, so that movies from several studios can play alongside one another (rather than this week’s new digital release bumping off last week’s), or so that digital pictures can be shifted from a large auditorium to a small one in the later weeks of their run.

Lukk then tosses out a metaphor that people will come back to again and again throughout the day. “Put on your swimsuits. Come on in. The water’s a little cold – but it’ll warm up.”

Perrin from the UK Film Council says, “We jumped into the water a long time ago, and it was even colder then. We installed our 50th digital cinema system this month. We have 3500 screens in the UK [in total]. That’s about 10 percent of the screens in the U.S. On a pro rata basis, in the UK, it’d be like having 500 screens installed [in the U.S.] He says the UK Film Council is concentrating on getting “non-blockbusters” on its digital screens – ideally produced in Great Britain – films like those that were nominated for Best Picture Oscars this year.

Lambert asks what the panel thinks about ODS. Fithian says he believes that “feature films will continue to drive the box office…everything else is gravy.” But later, Fithian says that one thing that will be powerful is showing movies with niche appeal on Monday or Tuesday nights – movies that might work in four or five cities, or just one metropolitan area, but not the entire country. He says that digital could be “potentially the most exciting thing for independent filmmakers.”

Goldwater says, “Digital technology empowers exhibitors to accomplish more with the underutilized space and time in their theaters. I think there is a lot of exciting potential yet to be realized -- though exhibitors are [also] looking to optimize the performance of feature films.”

Levin says he thinks digital cinema needs to focus on types of entertainment not available at home (IE, not the Super Bowl). Feature films and 3-D content, for instance.

But Perrin thinks that digital cinema will be powerful for events like the Olympics. Hall notes that NBC might not like the idea of sharing its TV rights to the Olympics with movie theaters.

I asked the panel how digital movies are being loaded onto servers today – are the theater personnel actually doing it, or are the distributors sending out people to make sure movies are loaded and good to go? Lukk says it’s a mix today, but that Disney is trying to get theater personnel up-to-speed quickly on the use of the equipment, learning about security keys and the like. (After the session, Goldwater says that Christie/AIX trains theater personnel to handle everything themselves.)

The following session focused on 3-D, with Steve Shklair of Cobalt Entertainment and Joshua Greer of Real D. I was out in the lobby for most of their clips, but I saw an amazing test that Steve shot at a U2 concert. Afterward, he told me that he just got back from shooting several of the band’s shows in South America. So look for the 3-D U2 concert film soon, in IMAX theaters – and potentially also some of the “smaller screen” theaters that Disney used last year for its 3-D release of “Chicken Little.”

Linkage: Amazon movie downloads...JC Cam...Cloning stars...Digital cinema releases

- Today's Wall Street Journal says that has been in discussions with Paramount, Warner Bros, and Universal about selling their movies as digital downloads. Jeff Bezos says that digital media is important to the company, and they're apparently hiring like crazy. From the Journal piece:

    Amazon executives, led by Bill Carr, vice president in the digital media group, approached the studios about a year ago on this issue, the people familiar with the situation say. At the time, DVD sales were still strong, and the studios felt no need to rush into an alliance with Amazon. But in recent months, the landscape has shifted drastically, as DVD sales, the cash cow at most studios, have started to slow.

- The Risky Biz blog has some video of the JC Cam, ideal for going a few rounds in the ring. The first punch-able camera?

- Edward Jay Epstein has a piece in Slate titled "Can You Clone a Movie Star? A report from Hollywood's digital frontier." He writes:

    Hollywood studios, whose main profits derive not from producing unique films, but from creating licensing platforms in the form of franchises, would clearly benefit from owning cyber-stars who never age. These stars could be used over and over again in sequels—including, if necessary, digital modifications that maximized their audience appeal. Their image could also be licensed to game and toy manufacturers without any restrictions. And like actors in the bygone studio system, these cyber-stars would be the studios' indentured chattel, playing whatever roles they were assigned. The advantage of such robotic compliance to a studio was spelled out in Andrew Niccol's 2002 movie Simone, in which a Hollywood producer-director (Al Pacino) explains that stars have become a bottleneck in studio production. "We always had stars, but they used to be our stars," he ruefully complains to his studio boss. "We would tell them what to do, what to wear, who to date." To restore this control, he creates a computer-generated composite of a star who incorporates the best features of Marlene Dietrich, Audrey Hepburn, and Lauren Bacall and programs the digital file, called Simone, to do whatever acting he requires.

- I'm told that Universal's "Inside Man" (directed by Spike Lee) will be released to digital cinemas in the US this month - making it the third film that that studio has released digitally (the first was "Jurassic Park III). A reliable source also tells me that Paramount will likely do its first-ever digital cinema release in 2006.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Open house at Technicolor's Digital Cinema Test Center

Technicolor invited a few journos to its new Digital Cinema Test Center yesterday morning. For me, it was a good chance to get up to speed on Technicolor’s ambitious plans for digital cinema: the company plans to digitize 15,000 screens over the next ten years, starting this May with a beta test in 200 to 250 theaters. I got invited to attend courtesy of Curt Behlmer, who joined Technicolor recently as its senior vice president of digital cinema operations, and whom I first interviewed in 2005, when he was cooking up an independent financing plan (Digital Cinema Ventures) to install digital cinema equipment.

At a high level, Technicolor was sending three messages:

- Their aim is to be the dominant player in converting U.S. theaters to digital projection, surpassing Christie/AIX, which currently has the lead.

- They’re going to be rigorous about identifying the best possible servers and projectors on the market (2K and 4K) before they get to the meat of their roll-out

- They don’t want to make any sudden moves that might rattle studios or exhibitors. “We’re not here to do it fast – we’re here to do it right,” Joe Berchtold said yesterday. He’s president of Technicolor Electronic Distribution Services. Technicolor CEO Lanny Raimondo underscored that, saying that the company was taking “a prudent and measured approach to the roll-out.”

So they’re not exactly moving like greyhounds chasing a rabbit. Technicolor, you may recall, installed about 60 digital cinema systems back in 2002 and 200, in partnership with Qualcomm – and then hit a kind of air pocket once the Digital Cinema Initiatives standards-setting process began. Berchtold said that the company learned, from that earlier experience, about “a lot of things that broke.” This time, they seem to be trying to make sure they’re the d cinema provider with the most reliable, industrial-strength gear.

At the Test Center (really two screening rooms, one large and one small, with a single large projection booth serving both), they’ve got an impressive array of hardware: projectors from Sony, Christie, NEC, Sanyo, and Barco, and servers from Quvis, Kodak, Doremi, Dolby, and Sony. They’ve developed scorecards for things like performance, feature sets, and DCI compliance, and a battery of 144 tests that they plan to run the equipment through.

If they could’ve hired the Samsonite gorilla to throw this stuff down the stairs, they probably would’ve. They’re shipping hard drives around the country, and observing how much damage they sustain. They’re cutting the power to projectors and servers, and seeing how difficult it is to get them back online. They’re evaluating how easy it is to shift a movie from one server to another, in case an exhibitor decides to play a picture in a bigger auditorium at the last minute.

The first chain to participate in Technicolor's beta test is Century Theatres. Behlmer told me that he didn’t think the early part of the beta test would include Sony 4K projectors – simply because production models are in such short supply, and they’re not bright enough (yet) to be used with larger screens.

Technicolor showed us some 2K clips from “Superman Returns” and “The Chronicles of Narnia,” and a 4K clip from “iRobot.” (I couldn’t discern the difference. There was also a 4K clip from “Spider-Man 2” that was "down-converted" and shown on a 2K projector.) There were two studio distribution execs present: Dan Fellman from Warner Bros. and Julian Levin from Fox. Levin made an interesting point: the DCI spec doesn’t mandate a particular kind of delivery vehicle for digital movies. You can get them to a projection booth by satellite, hard drive, DVD-ROM, land line, or hot-air balloon. Levin said he worried that that could result in lots of different equipment being required to “ingest” the files. Levin said he is “hoping the industry will converge on one or two delivery formats. [More than that is] inefficient and not cost effective for exhibition.”

So now we’ve got Christie/AIX out converting theaters, and Technicolor ready to get rolling in a limited way in May. We’ll really have some momentum once National CineMedia announces what their timetable is. (They’re going to manage the conversion for Regal Cinemas, AMC, and Cinemark, the three biggest chains.) Perhaps next week at ShoWest?

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

BS, Digital Cinema

The Rochester Institute of Technology is probably the first university to offer a Bachelor of Science degree in Digital Cinema. From the school's news release:

    The new major will have two tracks for students to choose from: applied and science. Graduates from the applied track will be trained to work in Post Production facilities in such areas as color and gamma correction of digital intermediates, CG element and match move compositing, format conversions and other issues concerned with preserving the cinematographers’ and directors’ intents. Students who choose the more science intensive track will be prepared in the theories and fundamentals of motion media science that will enable career choices that depend on the design, use and understanding of imaging hardware and software algorithms that support production work flow, effects, distribution and presentation of electronic and traditional cinema.

(Thanks to Bob L. for the link.)

SXSW and ShoWest

Heading out on Sunday to a double-header of events... first, Austin's South by Southwest, to moderate a panel on the impact that blogging is having on the world of film (Monday, March 13 at 3 PM), and then to ShoWest in Vegas for a bunch of interviews, panels, and screenings.

Here's our panel for SXSW:

How can blogs help filmmakers get their movies made, and build an audience for the finished product? How can they help fans get better information about the movies and directors they care about? Are blogs more or less credible than 'traditional' media, and can bloggers make money doing by doing it? Some of the film world's most-clicked bloggers plan to give you the inside scoop about how this new form of journalism is evolving.

Moderator: Scott Kirsner Editor, CinemaTech


Karina Longworth Editor, Cinematical

David Hudson Editor, GreenCine

David Poland Publisher/Editor, Movie City News

Cynthia Greening Sr Editor Independent Film, Cinema Minima

Joe Swanberg, Director, "LOL"

Doug Block, Director, "51 Birch Street"

I suspect at least one of these people will blog about the panel, for those of you who can't make it...

Monday, March 06, 2006

The Oscars: A very fine line between irony and hypocrisy

Last night, "Brokeback Mountain" co-star Jake Gyllenhaal and Academy president Sid Ganis made two of the evening's only political speeches: about the value of seeing movies on the big screen, not on those nasty DVDs.

I know that Academy members feel this is an important issue, for one economic reason and one emotional reason. Emotionally, movie theaters are the temples where we're supposed to gather to share the communal experience of watching movies. Economically, how movies do at the box office helps set star salaries, and for studios, a successful theatrical release helps market a movie for its later debuts as a DVD or a video-on-demand selection.

Of course, my guess is that most people in the audience at the Kodak Theater last night don't see their movies in mediocre, poorly-maintained multiplexes. They see them in one of three ways:

- On a screener DVD provided to them for free

- In a studio screening room, with leather sofas and pristine projection

- At a premiere, for free

- In a better-than-average theater, admitted free as a member of the Academy during the voting season

A great question for Jon Stewart to ask the audience after the speeches from Gyllenhaal and Ganis would've been, "OK, so how many of you bought a movie ticket in 2005 and saw a movie in an actual open-to-the-public theater?"

Stewart himself mentioned in one of his pre-Oscar interviews that the only movie he'd seen in a theater - he has two young kids - in 2005 was "The 40-Year Old Virgin." He went to the premiere to support his friend Steve Carrell.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Disney's Bob Iger faces the shareholders

The Wall Street Journal notes that Disney CEO Bob Iger will face the company's shareholders for the first time at the annual meeting this coming Friday. Merissa Mar writes:

    ...Mr. Iger still faces challenges as he tries to move the entertainment giant forward. One question is whether Pixar is really worth the $7.4 billion Disney is paying for it. The answer will depend on Pixar maintaining its stellar run of movies and the company being successfully integrated into Disney. Mr. Iger has argued that animation is vital to Disney's future because it drives so many parts of the company.

    The next question is whether Mr. Iger has brought the fox into the henhouse by welcoming Mr. Jobs, an aggressive executive who is likely to want a strong voice at the company. The hope is that Mr. Jobs will bring his technology genius to the table in helping to crack the biggest problem facing Disney -- how to navigate a fast-evolving media landscape where traditional business models are under siege and "old" media face an uncertain future.

Disney's stock is up about 17 percent since Iger took over in October. But Marr says that Wall Street is still waiting to see "where the next `big idea' will come from to propel the company's growth into a digital future."

Friday, March 03, 2006

A round-up: Panavision, Clickstar, Camera operators, and Apple

Just back from a quick trip to LA to do a bunch of interviews. Some tidbits from my conversations... and a few story links...

- Stopped by Panavision yesterday. They have about 35 Genesis digital cameras in circulation today, and say there's incredible demand for them - they could use about 100. Right now, they're being used on Mel Gibson's `Apocalypto,' shooting in Mexico, the new James Bond pic (which is also using a film camera), and John Boorman's `A Tiger's Tale,' which sounds like it starts shooting soon in Ireland. Shooting just wrapped on `Scary Movie 4,' which used a Genesis. Yesterday, Dean Devlin had a screening of `Flyboys' at Panavision. His WWI aviation-and-young-romance flick was one of the first projects shot with Genesis, in the UK.

- Had a chance to visit the set of the Morgan Freeman-Paz Vega picture `10 Items or Less.' That's the comedy that'll be distributed online by Clickstar, a joint venture between the production company that Freeman and Lori McCreary run, and Intel. McCreary says she expects a theatrical release later this year, followed two or so weeks later by an online version that can be purchased or rented.

- Camera operators in Hollywood are worried about a new contract that would allow directors of photography to operate cameras, instead of camera operators, who traditionally do it. Richard Verrier writes:

    The controversy has its roots in a grievance Local 600 filed last year against Warner Bros.

    Warner had asked the union to allow Steven Soderbergh to act as both DP and camera operator during the filming of "Ocean's Twelve."

    Local 600 refused, citing staffing requirements, but Soderbergh, for creative reasons, took on both roles anyway.

    The union then filed a grievance against Warner Bros., saying it failed to obtain a waiver. The studio later paid $17,000 to settle the matter.

- AppleInsider says that Apple may be developing a movie download service that'd make available a library of new and older movies for a monthly subscription fee. Users would also have the option of buying titles individually. (Courtesy of The Movie Blog.) CNN Money had earlier guessed that Jobs might have movies up his sleeve at this week's new product unveiling, which took place on Tuesday.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

High-def movies via cable and satellite, from News Corp.

The Hollywood Reporter has this item about a speech at the Bearn Stearns Media Conference delivered today by Peter Chernin:

    News Corp. is betting that people will pay $25-$30 to watch Fox films at home in high-definition quality via cable and satellite TV 60 days after their theatrical release.

    Speaking during the second day of the annual Bear Stearns Media Conference in Palm Beach, Fla., in a session available via webcast, News Corp. president and chief operating officer Peter Chernin said Tuesday the conglomerate has been "talking to the cable operators and satellite operators about the idea of a 60-day, high-priced high-def rental" offer costing $25-$30.

And proving that Netflix has now become an establishment player, dismissive of any other technology that might ever threaten it...

    Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, also speaking at the conference, dismissed video-on-demand and Internet download services as worthy competitors, in part because of the limited selection of movies they offer.

    He said Netflix, which pioneered the DVD-by-mail subscription model, will enjoy growth of 50% year-over-year for the next five years, beginning this year with projected earnings of $30 million-$35 million.