Building A Better Couch Potato With
Mea culpaI admit it. I have traded the occasional file on Napster.
But never a Metallica song, so the band members need not show up on my
doorstep with their lawyers in tow to squeeze a nickel per download out of
me. If you're like me, and are prone to wanderings of the mind while you
wait for songs to download, you may have wondered where this technology
will end up, regardless of whether it is eventually ruled illegal in the
U.S. (I am 100 percent convinced if this happens it will merely move
itself off American shores to places U.S. copyright law can't reach,
despite the fact that the Recording Industry Association of America has
not yet admitted such places exist.)
In any case, in a sudden fit of boredom one night last week, owing to
the fact that I couldn't stand the idea of one more cable TV rerun of a
cop drama, I was hankering after a proper girl film, preferably one put
together by the BBC and including lots of corsets, carriages, tea trolleys
and brooding, ill-tempered heroes. Being too lazy to drive round the
corner to the local Blockbuster to rent a copy of the film version of Pride
And Prejudice or Jane Eyre (both of which contain the requisite
corsets and cads), I thought how marvelous it would be if I could download
them. Just like thatthe whole movie, available online, and downloaded
in under a half hour due to some marvelous and
probably-still-in-the-development-stage method of extreme file
compression. Without the proper cabling at that moment, I might have to
watch it on my computer screenwho cares? I spend half my life in front
of a monitor, anyway.
Obviously, getting my movie this way wasn't an option for menot yet,
anyway. I can, however, already hear Hollywood shuffling nervously and
making sure it keeps close tabs both on the developing technologies and on
the phone numbers of the very same lawyers who continue to close in on MP3
trading sites such as Napster and Gnutella. On Hollywood's side,
surprisingly, is the U.S. government, which has assigned its National
Institute of Standards and Technology to addressing digital cinema with
the intent of protecting the entertainment industry. Why? Because pop
culture, of which both film and music are a large part, is one of the
United States' most lucrative exports. Discovering that Internet users are
pirating and exchanging films for free over the Internet, eroding the
mega-profits to be reaped, might cause nearly as much concern to the U.S.
government as the discovery that, for example, Boeing was handing out free
airplanes to any foreign country that asked for one nicely.
The film industry, like any very lucrative business, does seem to
understand that as the technologies will develop anyway, there might be a
viable future in digital film and video. (I'm using the term
"film" in an abstract, and not literal, sense, since digital
technologies obviously eliminate the need for the physical film.) For the
first time, this year's Sundance Film Festival devoted space to digital
films in the form of its newly-created Sundance Digital Center. Demand for
information about new digital technologies was so high among attending
filmmakers (the few people who attend the festival to actually learn
something instead of to be photographed by People magazine while
sporting the latest designer ski togs), the festival could no longer
ignore the subject.
Why is Hollywood willing to spend more than a little money
investigating the applications of digital filmmaking? In addition to
trying to head off a Napster-like clone that will allow users to exchange
movies for free over the Internet, the movie industry can see the upside
of the technology (if it tilts its head and squints its eyes). First,
small, independent filmmakers have been using digital film for years for
short films and movies made on shoestring budgets. (The major studios
having learned the hard way that giving a producer $100 million and Arnold
Schwartzenegger does not necessarily a good film make.) Digital is faster,
cheaper and easier, and allows films to get to theaters quicker. Secondly,
digitally-stored movies could be delivered to cinemas much more easily.
The current process of shipping 35-mm film reels (which may costs
thousands of dollars each to print) to multiplexes across the planet, only
to have those theaters show the prints so many times they develop cracks,
scorch marks and scratchesand then having to make sure the prints get
sent back to the distributors to ensure no theater is showing the film
without paying royalties, is, in a nutshell, a pain in the ass. Last but
not least, Hollywood may know about people like me at home with a
broadband connection, hankering after a costume drama and willing to pay a
few bucks for the privilege of not having to relinquish my comfy position
on the sofa, just within reach of my glass of iced tea.
A little digging reveals that most of Hollywood's major studios have
created something on the order of a "new media" division to
explore how to best take advantage of new options in both the creation of
digital film and television and the delivery of the resulting products.
Universal Studios made news last week with the announcement of an alliance
with self-proclaimed "broadband entertainment network" Intertainer.
Intertainer is a Culver City, California-based purveyor of video on
demand, or VOD. According to the company's Web site, users can
"choose music, movies, television, fashion, books and video games,
delivered on-demand in full-motion, full-screen video to a computer or
television. Intertainer subscribers need only a multimedia-capable PC and
access to one of the broadband platforms, including cable modems and
The company has either received investments from or formed partnerships
with the following companies: Sony, NBC, Columbia TriStar, Warner
Brothers/Warner Music Group, Sextant In-Flight Systems, Disney, Microsoft,
Intel, ESPN, Comcast, Artisan Entertainment, The American Film Institute,
A&E/The History Channel and EMI Recorded Music, not to mention the
newly-minted agreement with Universal. Sounds serious, hmm? The company
has so far shown a history of partnering with technology companies to
avail itself of their gadgetry (i.e., Microsoft and Intel) in order to
better offer content (i.e., The History Channel) to consumers.
Thus far, Intertainer is little more than an experiment, as it is only
available in the Cincinnati area. The service is free and is accessed by
consumers via subscription to local digital cable services. Intertainer
may or may not be coming to a city near you, but chances are, a similar
VOD service is.
So it seems that the entertainment industry has learned a lesson and
sharpened its claws after Napster fired the first shot in the digital
entertainment revolution. Get there before the pirates do, and the prize
can be controlled and configured for profit. I don't imagine anyone will
ever be able to stay completely ahead of the hacks, but if the legitimate
players can bring me Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett at will, I'll be
What's in the (relatively) distant future? How about interactive
digital entertainment deployed on a grand scale, not just in video games?
Interactive digital cinema meets virtual reality? Virtual reality meets
In that case, I may have to start watching my costume dramas supplied
with smelling salts, lavender water and a glass of Madeira, instead of
diet soda and pretzels.
Tracey E. Schelmetic welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.