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Tracey S. Roth

Dot Com Commerce

Managing Editor, CUSTOMER INTER@CTION Solutions

[February 21, 2001]

Building A Better Couch Potato With Digital Cinema

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 DSL."

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 happy.

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 artificial intelligence?

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 tschelmetic@tmcnet.com.

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