[ Digital cinema, democratization, and other trends remaking the movies ]

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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

News items: Current digital cinema stats from Christie/AIX...Disney downloads with CinemaNow

- Buried in this press release from AccessIT are some interesting stats about how quickly the company's Christie/AIX subsidiary is digitizing movie theaters. Christie/AIX "has completed the installation of approximately 400 digital projection systems in 17 states with a goal of reaching at least 500 in-time for July 4th weekend. Complete digitization of the Emagine and UltraStar chains concluded early this year, as the first of multiple installations at Cinetopia and Galaxy Theatres, and the initial phase of up to 2,300 systems at Carmike Cinemas commenced."

- Disney is announcing that as of June 6, its movies will be available for purchase from CinemaNow as a digital download. Pricing will be similar to DVDs -- around $20 for new releases and $10 for library titles.

The big deal in this annnouncement is that Disney's movies (I'm not sure if this will apply to other downloads from CinemaNow) can be transferred onto a Windows Portable Media Center -- but not an iPod. Thus far, downloads from Movielink can only be watched on a PC or laptop. This puts Apple under pressure to start finding some movies to sell on its iTunes Music Store. (Disney's deal with CinemaNow is non-exclusive, so expect that studio to be one of Apple's first targets.)

To recap, Movielink is offering download-to-own titles from Universal Pictures, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Warner Bros., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Paramount Pictures. CinemaNow is offering movies from Disney, Sony, MGM and LionsGate Entertainment.

(Here's the LA Times report..)

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Coming from Texas Instruments: Handheld 3-D Projectors for Consumers?

Texas Instruments CEO Rich Templeton dangles an interesting possibility during an interview with BusinessWeek Europe: portable 3-D projectors for consumers, using the company's DLP [Digital Light Processor] chip technology. (This is the same chip that's inside digital cinema projectors made by companies like Christie, NEC, and Barco.) A snippet:

    Templeton: If you really want to stay tuned, there's going to be some interesting effects like 3D. Since these DLPs are millions of mirrors moving, we can switch them at a very high rate of speed, and that lets the creative producers do some really stunning effects. We're working on 3D in the cinema right now. But it doesn't take much to figure out that we could do this on small handheld projectors, and there's a certain class of user called a teenage male gamer, and you can imagine what they might do with 3D gaming.

    BusinessWeek: Would you need special 3D glasses for that or would it just be an in-picture effect?

    Templeton: We've got people working on both.

Monday, May 29, 2006

The Future of Disney/Pixar Animation...Marketing Movies Digitally

- Richard Corliss has a piece about Pixar's `Cars' in Time Magazine (he calls it `an instant classic'), which divulges a bit about what's ahead for Disney and Pixar -- perhaps including a return to 2-D animation. Corliss writes:

    ...Lasseter may have an uphill journey: not just keeping Pixar on track (Brad Bird's Ratatouille, about a gourmet rodent in Paris, is next, probably followed by Toy Story 3), but also in steering the Mousemobile back to speed. In 1994, when The Lion King capped a series of animation hits, Disney's bright future seemed as sure a bet as Pixar's does now. Then Toy Story came out, and computer animation took over. Before buying Pixar, a desperate Disney had scuttled its traditional animation unit. Lasseter may restore that. "Of all studios that should be doing 2-D animation, it should be Disney," he says. "We haven't said anything publicly, but I can guarantee you that we're thinking about it. Because I believe in it."

- David Carr's column in today's NY Times is headlined `Studios Turn Thumbs Down on Film Critics.' Studios are looking for new ways of reaching audiences -- particularly online -- that can help them avoid the poison pens of movie reviewers and the need to purchase print ads. Fox Atomic, a division of Fox Filmed Entertainment targeting teens, plans to produce eight movies a year with no accompanying print advertising budget. The Web is a large part of the new strategy. Carr writes:

    In part, Hollywood is taking some hard lessons from the music industry, which saw the threat but not the opportunity that the Web presented. Witness the prerelease excitement over "Snakes on a Plane," the reductively titled New Line Cinema release starring Samuel L. Jackson and a lot of reptiles, which has become a cult classic on the Web months before its August release., conceived by Brian Finkelstein, a Georgetown law student, has had 500,000 visitors and has become a maypole of kitsch and speculation about the movie.

    "It is an Internet meme," said Mr. Finkelstein. "It is funny and very quickly understood, a simple joke with broad appeal."

    The movie, sometimes known as SoaP for short, is benefiting from a huge no-cost push and New Line is doing more than getting out of the way: the company spent seven figures on an elaborate Web site of its own, and more unusually, shot new SoaP scenes integrating some of the suggestions ricocheting around the Web.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Digital Drive-Ins...the IMDB's Founder...A Howard Stringer Update

- In my monthly Entertainment 2.0 column in the Boston Globe, I have a look at the impact of digital cinema on the drive-in theater, 406 of which are still going strong in the U.S. From the piece:

    The country's remaining drive-ins, including five in Massachusetts, have managed to endure the onslaught of television, the multiplex, and the VCR, as well as the rising real estate values that can make selling the land beneath a drive-in irresistible. But the newest concern among drive-in owners is the advent of digital projection and the predicted obsolescence of celluloid.

    ``I would not want to bet my business on the ability to keep obtaining 35-millimeter film prints into the future," says John Vincent, one of the owners [of the] Wellfleet [Drive-In on Cape Cod]. ``We've taken a keen interest in digital projection because we want to be around for the next 50 years or so."

There's also a fun photo gallery they put together to accompany the piece.

- Richard Siklos in the NY Times has a great piece about Col Needham, the little-known founder of the Internet Movie Database, one of my favorite Web sites of all time. Siklos suggests that IMDB could soon become the front-door for a new Amazon digital download service that would allow customers to purchase movies and then burn them onto DVD using their laptop or PC. He writes:

    [Studio executives are working with Amazon to develop] a download service that could let people burn DVD's on their desktops. Though Amazon and Mr. Needham decline to talk about plans, Imdb could play a more prominent role in the retailer's media strategy. Paramount Pictures, Universal Studios and Warner Brothers are all involved in the project, executives close to the project have said.

    Several weeks ago, one media executive who had been briefed on Amazon's strategy but did not want to be identified because it was still being formulated, pointed out one aspect of Imdb's popularity: if you use search engines to look for the title of virtually any past movie or television show, or the names of celebrities from those realms, Imdb often comes up as the first result.

    In the retail business, that is the equivalent of excellent shelf frontage, or, in television, of having a single-digit channel number rather than being relegated to Channel 284 on the cable lineup.

- Finally, Siklos and Martin Fackler have yet another story in the Times about Sir Howard Stringer's attempts to revitalize Sony. They write:

    Sony's next and biggest priority, Sir Howard told his managers, is to create new software that will allow it to better link the content and hardware the company produces. "We take great pride in the power of Sony hardware," he said "However, when we think about Sony's software, we have to honestly admit that our capabilities remain quite modest."

    He also noted that Sony has to start new digital downloading services — another area where it has fallen far behind. To jump-start that effort, Sony hired a senior Apple executive, Tim Schaaff, last fall to oversee its software development. Company executives said Mr. Schaaff would focus on Marlin, a consortium of Sony and other consumer electronics giants developing a way to securely share content among different media products.

Friday, May 26, 2006

News items: Digital Cinema in Singapore...Box Office Tallies...Is the MPAA Hiring Hackers?

- BusinessWeek serves up this short report on digital cinema in Singapore, where the government is helping to finance some digital projection equipment.

- Carl Bialik of the Wall Street Journal offers a look at how global box office estimates are tallied. He writes:

    Buy a ticket in most theaters in Austria, Chile, New Zealand and more than a half-dozen other countries, and a unit of media-tracking company VNU NV will instantly update its global database. Studio executives can access the database online, and adjust marketing strategy accordingly. In countries where theaters' ticketing systems aren't hooked into a central network, local studio offices develop their own estimates by conducting a telephone survey of theaters. Then each nation applies its own projection of Sunday sales, considering regional tastes and what kind of movie is being shown. (Family fare does well on Sunday, but action movies have already done much of their weekend business by then.) The offices send these numbers to Hollywood; on Sunday morning studio employees tally them, along with the North America figures, and then spread the word.

(If you're interested in the topic, here is a recent Edward Jay Epstein piece from Slate about box office estimates.)

- The LA Times reports that a lawsuit has been filed against the MPAA (rather than by them, for a change) asserting that the association hired a hacker to spy on a company called Valence Media. The MPAA replies that Valence is just trying to obscure the fact that the company, which operates the Torrent Spy site, is knowingly supporting movie piracy.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Studios sue Cablevision over new kind of `DVR'

A gang of studios and media companies including Paramount, Disney, Fox, and Universal is suing Cablevision over a new service called RS-DVR. The acronym stands for "remote access digital video recorder."

From Cablevision's perspective, RS-DVR is cheaper than installing a TiVo-style set-top box in a subscriber's home. Instead, anyone with a digital cable box can request that certain shows be recorded on a server that sits in a Cablevision facility -- they'll essentially run your TiVo for you.

Cablevision only began testing the service in March. According to the Red Herring:

    Cablevision, the sixth-largest U.S. cable operator, said it does not anticipate any copyright complications because the only difference between customers recording on DVR boxes versus RS-DVR is the location of the hard drive on which the recording is made.

    “We are not recording shows and making them available as video on-demand content,” said Jim Maiella, a Cablevision spokesperson. “We are merely replicating the existing DVR functionality. The customer is making the recordings. We are just storing them.”

The studios don't agree. They think RS-DVR resembles a video-on-demand service. From the Multichannel News piece:

    “Cablevision’s proposed service is an unauthorized video-on-demand service that would undermine the video-on-demand, download, mobile-device and other novel and traditional services that plaintiffs and other copyright owners have developed and are actively licensing into the marketplace,” the [plaintiffs assert in the lawsuit].

    Several of the plaintiffs, including NBC and Fox, have cut deals to sell programming via Apple Computer Inc.’s iTunes store. Others, including ABC and CBS, have plans to distribute programming via their own Web sites.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Paramount + Technorati: Adding blogger comments to movie Web sites

Paramount Pictures and Technorati announced a multi-picture deal today to add blogger comments to movie Web sites, beginning with the global warming documentary "An Inconvenient Truth."

You can see how it works here (the blog posts are at the left side of the page).

I wonder whether movie studios will be any more inclined to include negative blog posts on their sites than they are to include negative reviews in their print and TV campaigns...

Hollywood & Games Summit, June 27

Here's the agenda for the upcoming "Hollywood and Games Summit," being held next month in Beverly Hills. It is being organized by The Hollywood Reporter (disclosure: I occasionally write for them) and the Game Developers Conference.

From the site: "The Hollywood and Games Summit celebrates the collaboration between the two most compelling modern art forms — film and videogames. The Summit features business and creative visionaries from both industries addressing synchronized production, who and how to pitch to the other side, capturing the movie feel in gameplay, sharing marketing buzz, and cross-pollinating production techniques (such as pre-visualization)."

Keynoting is director Paul W.S. Anderson, who made `Resident Evil,' `Alien vs Predator' and `Mortal Kombat' (none of which I've seen; I'm more a fan of the other Paul Anderson.)

Monday, May 22, 2006

`Cars' premiere in Charlotte: Biggest digital debut ever...outdoors

Texas Instruments is crowing about this Friday's worldwide premiere of Pixar's `Cars,' which will be held at the Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, NC. Along with their partners, projector-makers NEC, Christie, and Barco, they're setting up four 115-foot outdoor screens at the race track for about 30,000 audience members. That's a big premiere. To get the necessary brightness on such large screens, they'll be aiming three digital projectors at each screen. (The images wil be overlaid on one another, rather than tiled.)

More about it here (apparently it's now sold out.) And Goodyear is getting into the promotional fun.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Cancelled TV Shows (and Movies That Never Got Picked Up)

The Wall Street Journal lists a few cancelled TV shows that are now available online, like `Strangers With Candy,' `Love Monkey', and Paul Haggis' EZ Streets.

How long before someone starts collecting great movies online that never managed to get theatrical distribution or DVD release? (There are probably a few already on Google Video.)

Friday, May 19, 2006

Remix the `A Scanner Darkly' trailer

Director Richard Linklater, Warner Bros,, and RES Media are offering wanna-be editors a chance to remix the trailer for `A Scanner Darkly' and win fabulous prizes.

The contest is here. The prizes for the best new version of the trailer include a trip to the US premiere, PCs, Adobe software, and an autographed poster. The official trailer is here, for inspiration. It features an animated Robert Downey Jr., which is enough for me to get in line on July 7th.

Jim Ramo of Movielink at FilmAngels

I had a chance last night to moderate a conversation with Movielink CEO Jim Ramo at the FilmAngels gala in San Jose. It was held at the Camera 12 multiplex downtown -- an interesting venue for talking about film financing and digital distribution.

Jim has had an impressive career that has taken him from CBS to Times Mirror Cable to DirecTV to Shelter Ventures to, now, Movielink, a joint venture of five movie studios.

I don't have copious notes, since I was conducting the conversation onstage, but Jim mentioned some interesting stats:

  • Movielink offers about 1500 titles today. The main barrier to adding more titles, he said, is clearing the music rights for movies made before 1995. (It seems that even if older movies have been cleared for sale on DVD, they may not have been cleared for Internet downloading, which falls into the same category as TV video-on-demand.)
  • I asked him whether Movielink was interested in offering more indie titles. He said yes, but that they probably wouldn't do deals with individual filmmakers, but rather with a larger distributor/aggregator. He said the key would be making sure all the rights were cleared -- and that someone would pay the $500 it costs to encode a movie from a DVD.
  • Jim divulged some usage stats I hadn't heard before. He said Movielink gets a million unique visitors a month, and sells about 100,000 downloads each month. The gender split among users is 60/40 male/female, and the demographic that uses Movielink most is people between the ages of 21-54. Jim said that younger Net users may be already accustomed to illegal downloading.
  • Of the current movies available, Jim said the split was about 10/90 between new releases and archival content. But the 10 percent of new releases generate 60 percent of the buys.
  • We talked a bit about Chris Anderson's long tail concept. Jim said that one problem with studios releasing every movie they've ever made -- which Jim would like to offer -- is that the costs of clearing the rights, and of digitizing the movies, can be prohibitive if the studios feel they might only sell 100 or so downloads of that movie per year. In other words, the costs to them of making the long tail of their movie libraries available is daunting.
  • Jim hinted that Apple is talking to the studios about offering movies through iTunes, using its proprietary DRM format, Fairplay. He said that Steve Jobs isn't that interested in supporting other content marketplaces. That is one reason that Movielink -- which uses Microsoft's DRM format -- doesn't sell movies to Mac users.

I also caught presentations made by two groups of filmmakers working on indie movies that seem promising. (All told, there were five presentations.) One, already in post-production, was `Her Best Move,' which seems a bit like an American take on `Bend It Like Beckham.' The cast includes Daryl Sabara from `Spy Kids' and actual soccer pro Brandi Chastain. The other film, `Harrison Montgomery,' is still in fund-raising mode, but the filmmakers say they've gotten Martin Landau interested in playing the title character, an eccentric pack rat who lives in San Francisco's Tenderloin.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

`Pixar's magic man': Fortune on John Lasseter

Brent Schlender of Fortune has a great piece in Fortune about John Lasseter that covers his career, his role in making Pixar successful, and his new job as head of Walt Disney Feature Animation. In one passage, Lasseter talks about Disney's early dalliance with computer animation:

    ...[I]n 1980 or 1981, I saw some video of the very beginnings of computer animation, and it was like a revelation. I wasn't really looking for them but just came across some tapes from one of these new computer-graphics conferences. When I saw this stuff I thought, Wow, this is cool. Even though it was just spheres floating around and stuff like that.

    Around that time Disney made a deal to do a live-action movie called "Tron," with some computerized special effects. I didn't work on it, but some friends did, and I saw the very first dailies, and what I saw - the potential I saw - blew me away. Walt Disney had always tried to get more dimension in his animation and when I saw these tapes, I thought, This is it! This is what Walt was waiting for! But when I looked around, nobody at the studio at the time was even halfway interested in it.

    Tron was made by a different part of the studio, unrelated to animation. This young live-action executive named Tom Willhite picked me out of the group because I kept talking to him about how we could use this new technology in animation. So he let me and a colleague put together a 30-second test, combining hand-drawn, two-dimensional Disney-style character animation with three-dimensional computer-generated backgrounds.

    I was so excited about the test, and I wanted to find a story that we could apply this technique to in a full-blown movie. A friend of mine had told me about a 40-page novella called "The Brave Little Toaster," by Thomas Disch. I've always loved animating inanimate objects, and this story had a lot of that. Tom Willhite liked the idea, too, and got us the rights to the story so we could pitch it to the animation studio along with our test clip.

    When it came time to show the idea, I remember the head of the studio had only one question: "How much is this going to cost?" We said about the same as a regular animated feature. He replied, "I'm only interested in computer animation if it saves money or saves time." We found out later that others had poked holes in my idea before I had even pitched it.

The project was killed and, in 1983, Lasseter was fired ... though he'd return to the company more than two decades later, when Disney acquired Pixar to reinvigorate its animation division.

Institute for International Film Financing: Notes from May 16 event

I moderated a panel discussion last night at the meeting of the Institute for International Film Financing in San Francisco... some quick notes and impressions. (I should also mention that they're also putting on an event tomorrow night in San Jose that will feature Movielink CEO Jim Ramo as a speaker.)

- eBay attorney Michael Richter talked a bit about some of the indie film investing he has been doing of late. (One of them is Kedar Korde's `Platonically', about love in the post-dot-com Bay Area.) Some of Richter's guidelines for investing:

  • Character is key
  • `I invest in people'
  • Better to come across as passionate, rather than arrogant/egotistical (seems like a fine line to me)
  • Looks for people who finished previous projects on time and on budget (seems like this data can easily be fudged)
  • Business plan should be good; script should be great
  • Producer/director should "treat my money better than your own" (IE, not ensure that they get paid back before outside investors)
  • Look for people with tons of prior experience
  • The way to minimize risks as an investor, he says, is to focus on projects:
    • with name talent
    • a marketing strategy
    • a distribution plan
    • a director/producer with industry contacts
    • diversification/investing in a slate of films, not just one

- A guy I sat next to mentioned that Cyan Pictures in New York has picked up `The Oh in Ohio,' a movie I saw and enjoyed at South by Southwest, for distribution this summer.

- Paul Sigmund of Q Media Partners, a San Francisco TV production firm, mentioned that there's "lots of demand for original broadband content," with people sometimes paying between $2000 to $3000 for individual episodes.

- Colin Wiel of the Keiretsu Forum said that angel investors who ordinarily invest in tech companies might be attracted to film investing because it is "fun." Investors in search of fun sound like a dangerous species to me.

Digital Domain acquisition: Is there a future for `blue chip' visual effects firms?

A Florida investment company called Wyndcrest Holdings is purchasing the visual effects firm Digital Domain for $35 million, according to the LA Times and the Hollywood Reporter. Two of the partners at Wyndcrest are director Michael Bay (`The Island,' `Pearl Harbor') and former football tosser Dan Marino. (That's Bay at right.)

My working thesis about the visual effects business is that, despite the growing number of big-budget movies relying on computer-generated imagery, the ability of "blue chip" visual effects firms (such as ILM, Sony Pictures ImageWorks, Digital Domain, and Rhythm + Hues) to command premium prices will drop. As hardware and software gets cheaper, and as more young people are trained with the skills to create impressive computer-generated shots, more start-up firms will be able to deliver high-quality visual effects sequences. They'll be so eager to build up their reputations that they will under-price the more established firms. (This is already starting to happen, of course, and it'll only accelerate.) The more established firms will try to make the case that, for movies with hundreds or thousands of visual effects shots, it doesn't make sense to farm the work out to a bunch of smaller shops. Unfortunately, Robert Rodriguez (and others) are already proving, with pictures like `Sin City,' that it can make sense to distribute work to several small visual effects firms.

Digital Domain and the rest of the big guys have always been able to charge a high price for their services by saying, `We can do effects that others can't, and deliver them on a timetable no one else can match.' They'll have to keep proving that's true, or find a new basis for competition.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Fortune mag on `The Future of Hollywood'

Marc Gunther of Fortune writes about some of the technological waves washing up on Hollywood's shore, and how they might reshape things over the long-term.

It's a good piece, although I wonder if Gunther underestimates the established media companies' abilities to learn from changing audience tastes and viewing habits. (The main focus of the piece is on Fox and News Corp., which of course recently purchased MySpace.) Gunther writes:

    The Hollywood studios have had an uneasy relationship with technology... They hated television. They went to court to try to outlaw the VCR. These days, they have to contend with digital piracy, Internet distribution, and TiVo boxes. They are keeping a wary eye on the user-generated content on YouTube and the dazzling new video game players from Microsoft and Sony.

    "I don't think it's an overstatement to say that it's been the most revolutionary period in the history of mass media," says Peter Chernin, the chairman and CEO of Fox, W.F.'s studio, as well as second-in-command to Rupert Murdoch at parent company News Corp.

    Chernin gets no argument when he says there's a revolution going on - the debate is about what it means for Hollywood's future. Many people believe that digital technologies threaten the established order in much the same ways that digital music has rocked the foundations of the music industry and Internet news, blogs, and classifieds have taken readers and advertisers away from newspapers.

Some of the article's data points and observations:

  • Distribution is becoming cheap and ubiquitous. That's good news for anyone making media.
  • Movie rental revenue is dropping, but some of that revenue for the studios is being replaced by DVD sales.
  • More than 30 million high-def TV sets have already been sold in the U.S.
  • Sales of TV shows on DVD were $4 billion in 2005 (a business that many media companies doubted, since the shows had previously been available for free)
  • Fox sells its one-minute "mobisodes" of "24" (short episodes designed for viewing on cell phones) to cellular carriers for three times what they cost to produce.
  • Smaller projects have big potential. `Sideways' cost $16 million to make. "Eventually," Gunther writes, "the film brought in $70 million at the domestic box office, $40 million overseas, and $75 million from DVD sales. It was sold to HBO and cable's Independent Film Channel, and it will earn revenues for years."
  • Wired editor Chris Anderson anticipates a world of "microhits and ministars" -- media products with small audiences that, if made cheaply enough, can find an audience and do well.
  • But studios will always be tempted to swing for the fences, with big-budget blockbusters.

(Thanks to Srini Vasan of Animatix Studios for the link.)

Monday, May 15, 2006

Polling theater-goers, via cell phone

The New York Times reports that our pals at Nielsen are planning to survey movie theater audiences, via cell phone, about marketing messages they've absorbed at the cineplex. Julie Bosman writes:

    The text messages will ask cellphone users about specific products, brands and services that appeared during the theater visit, perhaps in an ad before the movie or in a product placement. Or, the studios could use the technology to get an instant reading on the response to blockbuster films on opening weekends.

    Nielsen wants to use text messaging, because of the instant feedback it produces, long before the moviegoer goes home and is influenced by other marketing messages.

    The information will be used by businesses, which may include movie studios, television networks and advertising agencies, who pay Nielsen for collecting data. But the data company is quick to point out that the text messaging is voluntary and will not involve consumers who fume at unsolicited cellphone messages.

    Cellphone numbers will be collected from visitors to, a ticket-purchase Web site. When moviegoers are buying tickets, they will be asked if they would like to take part; they are asked again in a follow-up message.

Participants in the program will be able to earn points toward rewards like free movie tickets.

I'm hoping that this program doesn't encourage people to use their cell phones to text during the previews or main attraction -- I find the sight of bright cell phone screens in a dark theater to be almost as distracting as cell phone conversations -- but I have a sinking feeling that it will.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Ballooning effects cinema in division for William Morris

- The Wall Street Journal has a front-page piece today headlined, `With Special Effects the Star, Hollywood Faces New Reality.' The gist of it is that visual effects costs are driving movie budgets up past the $200 million mark, for films such as `King Kong,' `X-Men: The Last Stand,' and `Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest.' (That's Davy Jones from `Pirates' at right.) Merissa Marr and Kate Kelly write:

    The price tags underscore that effects, not stars, sell big movies these days. Of the top 10 U.S. all-time box-office hits, all but "The Passion of the Christ" were visual-effects vehicles. Just one of last year's domestic top 10 -- the slapstick romantic comedy "Wedding Crashers" -- had actors, rather than effects as its star.

    To keep drawing people to theaters, studios feel pressure to keep pushing computer-generated realism to new levels. In 1985, "Back to the Future" featured more than 100 special-effects "shots" -- short sequences of about five seconds -- depicting state-of-the art fantasies such as a flying sports car and fading body parts. Two decades later, movies can include 2,000-plus effects shots.

    For "King Kong," made by General Electric Co.'s Universal Pictures, director Peter Jackson accumulated close to 3,500 effects shots, as he navigated armies of dinosaurs and tinkered with the finer features of the giant ape. According to executives at Mr. Jackson's digital-effects company, 500 shots were started and not finished and another 350 hit the cutting-room floor.

    Around the time of the film's release in December, Universal publicly pegged the tab at $207 million, after originally budgeting around $150 million. Two people involved with the movie say the final cost was closer to $250 million.

I think a more interesting story would've focused on the intense bidding between special effects studios that increasingly makes it hard to make a profit producing special effects...something I frequently hear people at Digital Domain, ILM, Sony Pictures ImageWorks, and Rhythm + Hues complaining about.

- BizWorld reports that the first digital movie, `Prime,' is being shown in Ireland. That comes more than a year after Avica annnounced that it was planning to digitize every theater on the Emerald Isle.

- Finally, the 108-year-old William Morris Agency is launching a division to focus on digital media, according to the LA Times. Claire Hoffman writes:

    "...[T]he new division [will] work with its long roster of clients in film, television, music, publishing, corporate consulting, theater and sports to secure work in digital media areas such as video-on-demand, broadband and mobile.

    The division plans to take on technology companies as clients and help them make media and entertainment connections.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Director Wolfgang Petersen on tech and `Poseidon'

I had a chance to chat for a few minutes with Wolfgang Petersen last month at ShoWest in Las Vegas, just before Warner Bros. showed theater owners a trailer for `Poseidon,' which opens tomorrow.

I'd been meaning to post the audio of our conversation -- but I think the background noise is too distracting. (I was standing in a press line with six or seven other journos even more loud-mouthed than me.) Petersen hasn't yet shot a movie digitally, but he says he's open to the possibility.

Scott Kirsner: What was new for you in making this movie, in terms of visual effects?

Wolfgang Petersen: You know how quick it all goes nowadays. [Industrial Light & Magic] did all the major visual effects work that had to do with ships and water, because we did `Perfect Storm' together. But it's a world apart, since `Perfect Storm' [was made] five or six years ago. It's unbelievable what ILM can do now with the credibility of water and ships.

We have one shot in the film that's two-and-a-half minutes long. It is the boldest, most challenging shot ever done in motion picture history by ILM. It starts underwater, goes out of the water, around the entire ship -- with all the details of the ship -- and ends on a close-up of Josh Lucas. That shot is two-and-a-half minutes long, without any cut. The computer, to render that shot, needed 18 days and 18 nights. It had never been done in the history of motion pictures.

SK: What are your feelings about shooting digitally, and seeing your movies projected digitally? Have you considered shooting your next movie with a digital camera?

WP: I'm very open there. I like very much working with all kinds of digital formats. I'd say we're probably not completely there yet, but we're going fast. I will definitely be the first guy to say, `Let's do it now digitally.' I like that a lot. So many things are so much easier: how you can manipulate images, how you do color timing, making something a little darker or lighter. It's so, so easy a process.

SK: What about projection? At this convention, the exhibitors are still in wait-and-see mode about digital projection, and whether the audiences feel that it's better quality.

WP: It takes some time. It will get better and better, and the exhibitors will [eventually] buy these projectors. [The projectors themselves] will get less and less expensive. In a few years, it will be absolutely perfect quality, and you wouldn't want [to see a movie] any other way.

SK: But you don't think digital projection has surpassed film yet?

WP: Not yet -- but it will come. Also, the beauty of digital is you can play a film for three months, and it has the same exact quality as Day One. That's not bad.

Digital Cinema Society: New camera tech, from NAB

I've been meaning to link to this for a while: video reportage from last month's NAB conference in Las Vegas, brought to you by the Digital Cinema Society. (Disclosure: I'm a dues-payin' member.)

The videos will be most interesting to the camera wonks among you (this means you, Mike): coverage of new displays, software, lenses, and cameras from companies such as Panasonic, Canon, Red, Thomson, Sony, and JVC. Especially worth watching is the Steadicam demo. The interviewer is James Mathers, the DCS' president and co-founder.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Brightcove + TiVo: Getting Net Video onto the TV

The Internet is a great tool for distributing video content ... and yet the computer screen is such a bad place for watching it. Brightcove and TiVo are hoping to solve that problem for anyone who owns a Series 2 TiVo that's connected to the Internet. The two companies will deliver Net video to a TiVo set-top box. The specifics of how that will work, or timing, haven't been announced, but they're reserving the right to insert advertising in the videos, create subscription plans, or charge pay-per-view rates.

Here's the Reuters coverage and here's the Wall Street Journal story. Nick Wingfield writes:

    While most people watch video distributed by Brightcove on their computers, Jeremy Allaire, founder and chief executive of the company, said, "increasingly they want to be able to have the same programming...on set-top devices and portable devices." Mr. Allaire said the companies plan to eventually expand the number of content providers who can offer video to TiVo users.

    For TiVo, the deal is part of an increasing effort to let its customers access content on the Internet, including digital photos and videos. TiVo's primary function remains as a digital video recorder, or DVR, a device that allows users to record cable or satellite-TV signals onto hard disks. DVRs have become popular because they let users pause live television and skip commercials.

Brightcove has already partnered with companies like the New York Times and National Lampoon to supply content that you can't get on traditional TV.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Digital Cinema at the Drive-In

Of all the demos I've been invited to recently, here's the one I'd most like to attend (but can't): NEC's demo of their Starus NC2500S, which they call the "world's brightest projector with DLP CInema technology from Texas Instruments," later this month at the Transit Drive-In in Lockport, NY (close to Buffalo). They say the NEC digital projector can actually deliver a brighter and higher-resolution picture outdoors than a traditional 35-millimeter projector.

They'll be showing `The Chronicles of Narnia,' along with "some familiar drive-in material," which I presume means ads for the concession stand featuring dancing hot dogs.

Big Month for BitTorrent

The file-sharing service BitTorrent will start offering movies and TV shows from Warner Bros. as soon as this summer, according to Chris Gaither of the LA Times. Gaither points out that BitTorrent can be harder for novices to use than Apple's iTunes Music Store.

The New York Times coverage says this about pricing: "about $1 for some television programs and increasing to about the price of a DVD or video rental for full-length movies." The Times adds:

    To use the service, consumers will visit, download the software and then browse the selections on the Web site. They will be prevented from copying and distributing files they purchase through two mechanisms: one that requires them to enter a password before watching a file, and another that allows the file to be viewed only on the computer to which it was downloaded.

Also, at the Tribeca Film Festival last week, director Steven Soderbergh mentioned that he plans to use BitTorrent to release a short film he's making.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Nouveau film financing...United 93 marketing...Widest digital release yet...John Waters, David O. Russell, and others at BAM

- Documentarian Robert Greenwald is using the Net to raise money for his next movie, `Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers.' (His last issue-oriented pic was `Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price,' released last year.) According to an e-mail I received from his Brave New Films organization, they were hoping to raise $300,000, and managed to bring in $347,094 from 2701 donors, who each put in an average of $60. "All of the money will be put to use specifically for this film," Greenwald writes, "both for production and...outreach, education and distribution." Everyone who donated at least $50 will get an on-screen credit. (But you don't get a copy of the DVD - that's extra.)

- From the interesting e-mail marketing campaign for `United 93,' which is trying to turn the drama into a patriotic (and religious) must-see:

    ...[V]isit Motive Entertainment’s, where you can see the MOVIE TRAILER and download free teaching and preaching resources to engage in key issues like, “Why do Islamic terrorists hate America? How should we respond as Americans? As Christians? As Jews? As Muslims?”

- Kodak says that `Mission: Impossible III' is the largest digital release to date, playing on 170 digital cinema screens in North America. (According to Kodak, that's more than one-third of all the digital screens available.) From the press release:

    In its digital release, [M:I3] needed to be encoded in two different compression formats, packaged for four different server brands, and distributed via hard drive and satellite.  The movie was encrypted to prevent piracy, so a unique pair of ‘keys’ – software codes – for each screen had to be created and sent separately.

I wonder which two compression formats they're talking about. I though DCI had determined that only JPEG 2000 was kosher...

- If you're in New York on May 21st, I'd suggest heading to BAM for a program they're putting on with the Sundance Institute called "Four Independents That Turned The Tide," featuring screenings and a panel discussion with Hal Hartley, David O. Russell, Allison Anders, and John Waters. According to the release, "...[T]he audience and panelists alike will have an opportunity to explore the origins, evolution, and future of independent film and how it altered aesthetics, social discourse, and the film industry." Info at

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Marketing digital cinema, high-def DVD news, movie piracy

- UltraStar Cinemas in southern California this weekend becomes the first multiplex showing all digital movies on all its screens, including MI:3. They also are doing a fine job of marketing digital cinema as a premium experience -- something many other theater owners don't think is possible.

- The arrival of Blu-ray discs in stores has been pushed back a month, to June 20th.

- This Reuters piece says that only about 1 in 5 users of the Peerflix DVD trading service plan to buy high-def DVD players or discs in 2006.

- The MPAA says that piracy cost the movie industry $6.1 billion in 2005. $2.3 billion of that is from Internet downloading, the MPAA says. From the LA Times piece:

    The new study also found that the typical copyright thief was a male who was 16 to 24 years old and lived in an urban area. In the U.S., college students caused most of the piracy losses, the survey found.

    "As an industry we have to continue to educate people about copyright laws and the consequences of breaking those laws," [MPAA prez Dan] Glickman said.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Tim Burton's `Nightmare' in 3-D ... `Shrek' for sale?

- This is the first digital 3-D release I'm really excited about: `Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas,' opening October 20th from Disney. The Hollywood Reporter says that Industrial Light & Magic will be doing the dimensionalization, as it did with last year's `Chicken Little.'

- The LA Times says that DreamWorks Animation could follow Pixar's lead and be snapped up by a studio. Lorena Muñoz writes:

    "Anytime you have a franchise like 'Shrek,' it is always of interest to a major media company," said Anthony Valencia, media and entertainment analyst for TCW Group, a major Pixar shareholder based in Los Angeles. "Any media conglomerate wants to have the same arrows in their quiver that their competitors do. Down the line, a company that feels they don't have a presence in animation may feel uneasy about that vis a vis Disney."

    When Viacom Inc.'s Paramount Pictures Corp. acquired live action studio DreamWorks SKG late last year, it became a logical suitor for DreamWorks Animation. Already it has agreed to distribute DreamWorks Animation's movies that use computer generated imaging.