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Friday, January 30, 2009

This Internet Thing is Starting to Seem Important Somehow

There's been a lot of interesting news this week, so I wanted to share a few links and reactions.

- YouTube is apparently working on a deal with the William Morris Agency to bring more professionally-produced content to the site. I do think celebs will attract a big audience on the site if they can figure out how to make short, funny, sexy stuff on a really tight budget. That tight budget thing is gonna be the issue...(And what about William Morris' 10% cut of all this action?)

- Netflix is successfully creating the perception that they will win the race to deliver movies over the Net to televisions. CEO Reed Hastings said this week that "streaming is energizing our growth." Netflix's fourth quarter results this week beat Wall Street's estimates, with revenues of $359 million.

- Paramount, Lionsgate, and MGM hope to launch a new subscription TV channel for movies, to compete with HBO, Starz, and Showtime. No cable or satellite or telco provider has agreed to carry the channel yet, so it will appear first on the Web, this May. It'll be called Epix. Ummm, didn't Starz already try its own Web-based movie service...called Vongo? That didn't work so well. Of course, Epix might have some radically innovative new take on how to build and Internet movie service...

Let's hope.

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

In L.A.? Free Event on Technology and the Movies, February 19th

I'm really excited to be partnering with USC to put together an evening event on Thursday, February 19th. It's being jointly organized by the Stevens Institute for Innovation, the Annenberg School for Communication, and the Entertainment Technology Center.

We're calling it "Innovation in Hollywood: Past Present & Future," and it happens just before the 2009 Oscars, on the USC campus. I'll be giving a quick overview of Hollywood's tech history, and then moderating a panel of modern-day innovators. It's free -- but you do have to RSVP. I hope you can make it, or spread the word to folks in LA who might want to join us.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Worth a Gander: Web site for 'Objectified,' Gary Huswit's New Doc

Gary Huswit made a splash in 2007 with 'Helvetica,' a documentary that told the story of the world's most influential typeface. (It's airing on PBS this month.)

His new doc is 'Objectified,' about product design, and it'll premiere at SXSW this March.

The site is here. Hard to think of what else you'd want from the Web site for a film that has yet to be released: there's a trailer, a list of some of the better-known interviewees, a newsletter you can sign up for, a blog, and products you can buy. Most interesting option: for $500, you can become an "Objectifier." What do you get?

    - An Objectified T-shirt
    - An Objectified limited-edition silkscreen print by Build
    - A “Helvetica” Blu-ray special edition by Experimental Jetset
    - An invite for you and a guest to either the New York or London private sneak preview (whichever’s closer to you) of Objectified in early 2009, before the general public sees it
    - A copy of the DVD of Objectified when it’s released
    - Your name (or your company’s name if you prefer) will appear in the “thank you” section of the film’s credits
    - More perks as we think them up

Also interesting that the first place Huswit released the movie's trailer to was Gizmodo, a site for techies and gadget hounds. That spawned dozens of comments, including, "Wow! That movie looks amazing. I had never heard of Helvetica before, I'm going to be checking it out."

A great way to tap into big audiences online that will likely be interested in the film...

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Some Interesting Data on Oscar-Nominees and Piracy

Andy Baio looks at how quickly the 2009 Oscar nominees showed up online in pirated form.

Baio writes:

    Out of 26 nominated films, an incredible 23 films are already available in DVD quality on nomination day, ripped either from the Oscreeners or the retail DVDs. This is the highest percentage since I started tracking.

    Only three films are unavailable — 'Rachel Getting Married' wasn't leaked online in any form, while 'Changeling' is only available as a low-quality telecine transfer and Australia as a terrible quality camcorder recording. (Update: A DVD screener of 'Australia' was just leaked today.)

    ...Surprisingly, it seems like this year's Oscar movies took longer to leak online than in previous years. If I had to guess, it's because far fewer camcorder copies were released for this year's nominees. This could be because of the theaters cracking down on camcorder recordings, but I suspect it's because fewer nominees were desirable targets this year for cams.

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'Panic Button' Panel on Indie Film, and Post-Sundance Analyses

IndieWire offers up a summary of one of the Sundance panels I was sad to miss last week, 'Panic Button: Push or Ponder?', which looked at the future of the independent film business.

Producer Ted Hope, who was on the panel, offers his perspective, and links to the YouTube videos of the session.

(Sundance has also just posted video of my panel on new distribution strategies, along with most of the other panels from the 2009 fest.)

Here's the NY Times assessment of film acquisitions at Sundance this year. Total sales seem like they'll hit about $15 million, essentially the same as 2008.

And the Boston Globe's Ty Burr has a piece today headlined, 'The Magic Fades Away at Sundance.'

Interesting tidbit from Burr's piece:

    Everyone agrees that the standard models of indie theatrical distribution and exhibition are broken; everyone at Sundance and in the industry is grappling with how best to replace them.

    Some are even sure they have answers. Consultant and panelist Peter Broderick touted a brave new world of "hybrid distribution," controlled directly by the filmmaker that combines website direct sales, video on demand, Internet and TV deals, cellphone distribution - and, yes, a theatrical release when and if necessary. Much of this is already in place, Broderick pointed out, and, in some cases, has proven successful. What look like microprofits to a studio can be extremely macro to an independent director.

    The most unsettling thought, though - the real game-changer - is that the movie theater audience may have gone away for good. Said panelist Mark Gill, head of the independent production company the Film Department, "My son doesn't care what format [a movie] comes in. He cares how fast he can get it and if it can come to where he is."

Do we want to treat that as a problem, or an opportunity?

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Talking About My Next Book, Feb 1st in Boston

Rhonda Moskowitz was kind enough to invite me to speak at one of her monthly Connect the Docs meetings in Boston.

I'm going to be taking part on Sunday, February 1st at 7 pm, at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. The suggested contribution is $7, and the event takes place upstairs in the MiniMax Room.

My next book focuses on how filmmakers, musicians, and other artists can build an audience -- and a career -- in the digital era. I'm going to present some ideas from the book, and hopefully get some feedback from the crowd of real, live documentarians.

My working title for the book is "Fans, Friends & Followers: Building an Audience -- and a Career -- in the Digital Era." But that may change. (Your feedback is welcome.)

My plan is to have the book ready for purchase by March, when South by Southwest rolls around. If you're interested in receiving an early excerpt, simply drop me a line.

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What's Unique About the 2009 Oscar Noms?

We've had a CG-animated film win an Oscar ('Toy Story' won a special award in 1995, and 'Shrek' won in 2001, when the Best Animated Feature Film category was created.)

We've had a digitally-edited film win an Oscar ('The English Patient,' in 1996, was edited using an Avid, as was 'Titanic' in 1997.)

We've had lots of Best Visual Effects winners that have relied on computers.

But what have we never had, so far? A Best Cinematography winner -- or even a nominee -- that was shot using a digital camera.

Until this morning, that is, when 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' showed up on the list of nominees.

If it wins, what a milestone for all the cinematographers and techies who've helped test and improve digital cameras over the past decade. (And what a kick-in-the-teeth tipping point for our friends at Kodak, which is still running magazine ads about how much better film is than digital.)

Here's a piece from Film & Video about cinematographer Claudio Miranda's use of the Viper digital camera, from Thomson Grass Valley. (This piece offers even more.)

Update: Mike Phillips points out, in the comments and via e-mail, that perhaps as much as 80 percent of 'Slumdog Millionaire' was shot with the SI-2K digital camera from Silicon Imaging. says it was used on more than half of the film. Ben Cain of HD Cinema has some criticism of the results.

What do you think? Is it as big a deal if 'Slumdog,' a film/digital hybrid, wins?

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

IFC, SXSW Experimenting with Festival Releases

IFC continues to tinker with release windows, trying to expand the audience for indie films. The latest experiment involves releasing Joe Swanberg's 'Alexander the Last,' along with films from Javor Gardev and Matthew Newton, on cable video-on-demand the same time they play the South by Southwest Film Festival in March.

Here's the Variety coverage.

From that piece:

    "It's our job to connect talent with audiences," said SXSW's [Janet] Pierson. "Conversations are getting louder about how festivals can and should aggressively help filmmakers."

    "It's a smarter way to make the release an event," added Swanberg. "Better than just sitting in a theater, waiting on people to come."

    ..."At a time when the U.S. marketplace for truly American independent and foreign films is rapidly changing, and many films are having difficulty getting exposure, IFC Films has created opportunities for a wide range of films to find an audience," said [IFC president Jonathan] Sehring.

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Two-Sentence Reviews from Sundance

Just for kicks, every year I post two-sentence reviews of the films I manage to see at Sundance. Here's this year's crop:

Against the Current. Joseph Fiennes plays a grieving financial writer who decides that the way he’ll leave his mark as a person, and pay tribute to his late wife, is by swimming the length of the Hudson River over the course of three weeks. The film raises deep questions about how much we can influence the lives of our friends, but what keeps the proceedings from getting too heavy is the needling, sarcastic repartee between the two buddies at the center of this film, played by Fiennes and Justin Kirk.

I Love You, Phillip Morris. The movie seems to have some real points to make about the power of love, but any attempt at conveying a message (or even connecting with the audience) is overshadowed by the broad hamminess of the first twenty minutes, when a car crash convinces Jim Carrey to come out of the closet and acknowledge that he’s gay, gay, gay. To pay for his fabulous new lifestyle, he’s decides to become a con man.

Five Minutes of Heaven. Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt deliver incredible performances as two adults linked by a senseless sectarian killing committed by Neeson’s character in mid-1970s Northern Ireland. But the breathless intensity of the first fifteen minutes slackens into a very slow, pensive mid-section, which leads to an ending that is apparently much more pat than what transpired in real life.

Why We Laugh: Black Comedians on Black Comedy. Why wouldn’t a history of black comedy be roaring good fun to watch? When you search for social import in everything, hire Angela Bassett as your narrator (why not a comedian?), and sprinkle in talking heads from Congress and the NAACP explaining over and over again the boundary-smashing, pioneering role that was played by one comic after another.

We Live in Public. Brilliantly captures the Warhol-esque milieu created by Internet entrepreneur-artist Josh Harris in late-1990s Manhattan. Then, it ties Harris’ edgy, disturbing experiments with digital connectivity and surveillance to the current Facebook moment, when our smallest thoughts and doings are shared with a global audience.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Some Big Questions for 2009

I wanted to post a few rough notes from Sunday's Sundance panel on distribution, focusing mainly on some of the challenges that filmmakers and distributors and exhibitors are grappling with in 2009. Your ideas and comments are certainly welcome, below.

- Should festivals be used as a launching pad for new films, making them available immediately afterward? How can filmmakers prepare not just their finished film in time for screening at the festival, but make sure that DVDs and digital downloads/rentals and marketing campaigns are ready to go, too?

- If indie filmmakers experiment with release windows, making films available on DVD and digitally while they are still playing in theaters, will they be frozen out by exhibitors? Will that sort of experimentation -- trying to address by piracy by making films available when audiences want to see them, in whatever format -- kill the art house circuit? Is there a way to ensure that both filmmakers and exhibitors benefit, perhaps by sharing profits?

- If the influence and impact of newspaper reviews is on the wane, in part because of the decline in the number of movie critics on staff at papers around the country, what will supplant that? Will new voices emerge to help viewers sort through the thousands of indie movies that are released every year, to find the gems? Will it be a handful of new influencers, or a thousand bloggers covering a thousand niches? Will "established media" like the New York Times ever start reviewing movies that go directly to DVD or the Internet, without the requisite theatrical run in Manhattan? ("Princess of Nebraska," by Wayne Wang, represented a tentative toe-dip-in-the-water by the paper last year; that film went straight to YouTube.)

- Blogs and Web sites and social networks seem like they work well when a filmmaker is trying to sell DVDs or downloads, or drive online views of a film on a site like SnagFilms or Hulu. But can online work well when it comes to putting butts in seats at a movie theater? That was once the role that newspaper ads and reviews played... but the sense is that we need some new strategies for getting ticket-buyers out of the house and into theaters.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Audio & Video: Sundance panel on 'Models & Experiments in Indie Distribution'

Just wanted to post some rough audio from yesterday's distribution panel at Sundance... lots of good advice about theatrical, DVD, and digital distribution, including mini case studies of 'Ballast' and 'Good Dick,' two Sundance films from 2008.

The audio is a bit quiet at points (recorded on my iPhone), so crank it up. Sundance will usually post higher-quality audio to iTunes in a few weeks, and video often shows up on the Sundance site.

The MP3 is about 1 hour and 18 minutes long.

Update: The official Sundance video is now up on YouTube:

Part 1:

Part 2:

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Monday, January 12, 2009

Last Week, This Week: CES & Sundance

1. A few last things worth reading about CES...

- Netflix CEO Reed Hastings talks about how his company's future hinges on integrating Netflix's streaming movie service into lots of new TVs, Blu-ray players, and set-top boxes.

- This NY Times piece summarizes some of the big trends from CES last week, including 3-D at home, Palm's new social networking phone, and Net-connected TVs.

- Variety colleague Ben Fritz and I were blogging last week from CES. I just posted some audio clips of a conversation I had with four studio home entertainment execs and some remarks that Jeffrey Katzenberg and John Lasseter made during the Sony keynote last Thursday.

2. Sundance starts this Thursday. The Journal offers a look at some of the films getting early buzz, and predicts a lukewarm year for acquisition action. The Salt Lake Tribune also has a look at what's different about this year's fest. Robert Redford seems perfectly happy to have a low-key year: "What might be a positive is that if there is less hoo-ha, less of a circus atmosphere," he tells the paper, "there will be more tendency to focus on what it is that we're really about, which is the independent filmmakers and the quality of the work."

3. And one more link... this NY Times piece is interesting because it is yet another article that suggests that the global credit crunch is slowing down the deployment of digital cinema and 3-D projection technologies to theaters.

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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Talking Indie Distribution, Next Sunday at Sundance

I'm thrilled to be moderating a panel next Sunday at Sundance, called "What's Next? Models and Experiments in Indie Distribution." If you're in Park City, it's at the New Frontier at noon on January 18th. If not, I'll try to blog/podcast, and Sundance eventually posts audio and video on their site.

Panelists are:

    - Lance Hammer ('Ballast')

    - Matt Dentler, Cinetic Rights Management

    - Connie White, Balcony Releasing/member of the Sundance Arthouse Project

    - Christian Gaines, Director of Festivals, Withoutabox, a division of IMDb

    - MJ Peckos, Mitropoulos Films

    - Cora Olson ('Good Dick')

    - Steven Raphael, Required Viewing

The panel description is below. If there are any questions you think I should ask, post them here...

    In today’s brutal marketplace, filmmakers and distributors are forced to think outside the box. From DIY theatrical to multiplatform releases and viral marketing, there are as many new strategies today as there are successful films. Join us as we showcase films capitalizing on the newest opportunities, as well as the distribution companies articulating the clearest visions.

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Thursday, January 08, 2009

I'm in Vegas this week...

...and blogging from the Consumer Electronics Show on behalf of Variety.

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Apple Dropping DRM from Audio, Keeping It On Video

Apple announced today that it plans to ditch digital rights management (DRM) restrictions on the music it sells through the iTunes Store. By the end of March, all 10 million songs on iTunes will be DRM-free. (Here's more from Macworld's Web site.) Cleverly, Apple will also sell you an "upgrade" to your existing music library, peeling off the DRM wrapper, for just 30 cents per song. Music without DRM is much easier to move from one device to another.

But DRM (Apple's is called FairPlay) will still be affixed to all videos sold by iTunes.

How long do you think that will last? Especially given that everyone in Hollywood pays lip service to having learned important lessons from the digital distribution experiences of the music industry?

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Outreach & Connection, at Making Your Media Matter 2009

I was thrilled to be invited to next month's Making Your Media Matter conference, organized by the Center for Social Media at American University.

The panel I'll be part of includes Wendy Levy from BAVC, Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar of 'Made in LA', and Andrew Mer from Snagfilms, and it'll focus on how you build an audience for your work and how you gauge the impact that you're having -- two topics I've been very interested in lately. It's in D.C., and registration is $100.

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Monday, January 05, 2009

CES Trends: Net-Connected TVs and Home 3-D

Judging from a bunch of news stories that appeared this morning, two big trends for this year's Consumer Electronics Show are TVs that have a built-in Internet connection for downloading or streaming video (these have been present at CES for several years.... but consumers may soon actually start to purchase them) and 3-D content in the living room.

The trend toward Internet-connected TVs seems to favor Netflix, which has been making deals with several TV manufacturers; it also has the potential to slow sales of Blu-ray DVDs.

Some links:

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