Future Cinema

Course Site for Future Cinema 1 (and sometimes Future Cinema 2: Applied Theory) at York University, Canada

The NYTimes’ A.O. Scott Speculates about the impact of the Future Screen

New York Times
March 18, 2007
The Shape of Cinema, Transformed at the Click of a Mouse

FOR some time now, it has been possible to imagine a moment when you — yes, You, the Person of the Year, the ultimate arbiter of cultural relevance — will be able to watch whatever you want whenever you want in the setting of your choice. The handful of Web sites that now offer streaming or downloadable feature films, along with wider video on demand through the cable box or satellite dish, offer a glimpse of what is to come.

Perhaps the most intriguing promise these sites hold, at least for those whose interest in film extends beyond the new, the recent and the aggressively hyped, is of a kind of virtual cinematheque. The retrieval and preservation of film history has been a project of many decades, accelerated and democratized by the rise of the DVD, which has put integral, aesthetically credible versions of hundreds of old films in easy reach of the multitudes.

Not that the effort has been systematic or complete: there are still hundreds more titles awaiting transfer to digital media. But the Internet, even if it currently lags behind the DVD market in terms of what is available, extends the promise of comprehensiveness and universal accessibility. It is now possible to imagine — to expect — that before too long the entire surviving history of movies will be open for browsing and sampling at the click of a mouse for a few PayPal dollars.

This aspect of the online viewing experience is not, in itself, especially revolutionary. It makes established home viewing habits a bit easier to indulge. What seems potentially more consequential is the rise of video on demand as a form of first-run distribution, a way not only for old movies to be saved, but also for new ones to be discovered. “Straight to video” is now more or less synonymous with “bottom of the barrel.” But the cost of prints and ads, along the small size of the audience for art and foreign films, has made straight to video, whether online or on disc, a more attractive option for the serious as well as the sleazy.

More and more movies that gain a bit of exposure on the festival circuit — where they are written about, primarily, in Web-based publications and blogs — will find their public not at the multiplex or the art house, but at your house.

This, at any rate, is the possibility held out by sites like GreenCine, Jaman, EZTakes and others like them, and also by Google Video, through which you can purchase or “rent” a wide variety of films. If you look at Google’s extensive documentary menu, you may be struck not only by the diversity of subject matter, but also by the variety of running times. One thing online distribution seems to accomplish is the erosion of the tyranny of the feature. It is nearly impossible for a film that runs less than 70 minutes to be booked into a theater by itself, or for, say, a 67- or 17-minute movie to be given a block of television time. But on-demand screen time is more flexible and may thus reward filmmakers for brevity or at least economy of expression.

But the filmmakers whose work circulates primarily through the various Web and on-demand applications will be entering a marketplace that is already glutted. The number of theatrically released films to open in Manhattan — that is, the movies that merit a review in The New York Times — has nearly doubled since the start of the decade, to around 600 a year. Add the films that play only at festivals, and the number reaches the thousands; include straight-to-video movies, on the Internet or DVD, and you have the potential of tens of thousands of movies competing for the burdened attention of the viewers.

How will they be sorted out? How will you know which ones you might want to see? I don’t ask this question defensively, as a cultural gatekeeper fretting over my waning authority — enough about you! some of us are trying to make a living here — but out of genuine curiosity. It has become something of a truism that Web culture is driven not by traditional, top-down forms of tastemaking like the judgments of professional critics or the strategies of corporate marketers, but rather by the lateral operations of social networks. Niches and coteries form organically, as like-minded people bond in cyberspace over shared enthusiasms.

And this, in turn, encourages a do-it-yourself approach to production and distribution. Just as a band, at least in principle, no longer needs a record label to be heard, so can a filmmaker forego the meddlesome mediation of a studio. Shoot your picture in your living room with your friends, edit it on your laptop, and I’ll watch it on mine, in my living room, with my friends.

Or something like that. Surely there can never be too many movies. Or, to put it another way, there will always be too many movies, more than anyone can keep track of. That more will be made, and that more will have a chance to be seen, is hardly cause for complaint. But by now we should have learned to regard utopian — or apocalyptic — predictions about the impact of the Internet with a measure of skepticism. The technology has yet to be developed that can increase the number of hours in the day, which means that, somehow, we will still need to choose among the thousands of movies at our instantaneous disposal.

What will guide those choices? Will the social networks that drive taste on the Web discover new and neglected works? Will they manage to circumvent both relentless marketing and criticial myopia? If the short history of the Internet teaches anything, it’s that any decisive, early answer is sure to be wrong.

I doubt that, at least in the foreseeable future, a filmmaker with a choice will refuse theatrical distribution in favor of the Web, or that a Web-distributed feature will match the gross of even a modest art-house release. But at the same time it seems likely that a hot new filmmaker will be soon discovered on a download site and given a shot at old-fashioned Hollywood success, a chance to make movies for the big screen. In any case, we’ll have to keep watching.

Sat, March 17 2007 » Future Cinema, database, digital cinema, distributed networks