The Shape of Things to Come

“The only constant is change.” Like most clichés there’s truth behind that rather rote sentiment, and nowhere is that truth more evident than within the realm of technology - specifically for Twitch folk in the subsets of film-going and production. While sea changes like sound, CGI, and home video are few and far between, a robust volley of incremental shifts are fired out each year. Some stick, some don’t. Of course there are ways to gauge what might work and what might not, but you wouldn’t have so many people rolling million-dollar dice if they didn’t think they were on to the next truly big thing. With all that in mind, this ToM will veer slightly from the pack to address not specific films or filmmakers, but a few shifts in technology that might mean big things… or might end up the next Divx (not the codec, but the hair-brained disposable DVDs).

Blu-Ray / HD at home - 35mm film projects at a resolution calculated at roughly 4000 lines; standard-def TV and video offers around 240 / 480 lines. Calling that a disparity would be an understatement. Within the last five years, high-definition content and products offering up to 1080 progressive or interlaced lines – or a quarter instead of a 20th or 10th the clarity of film - have made major in-roads in home entertainment. Just earlier this year, the Blu-Ray format won out as the physical media of choice for HD content, and more and more labels are climbing on board and re-issuing enhanced editions of films many of us have already bought two or three times over.

HD at home is not without some serious issues. Cost sits at the forefront – on a good day, you can find early-gen Blu-Ray releases for $12 - $15, but new titles street at price points we haven’t seen since the very early days of DVD. Add to that the cost of displays and players – dropping, but still at a premium – and the inclusion of a here-to-fore tough to crack region-coding system and consumers are understandable hesitant. Double-dipping is another issue – nothing new to music lovers, movie fans had their first real taste of this financial crunch with DVD and the trend will only continue with current- and future-gen formats. Finally, reports about titles undergoing such heavy cleaning for HD re-mastering that they’re actually preened of film grain are increasingly common (Pan’s Labyrinth and the Dirty Harry collection are two maligned examples).

Better picture and sound can go a long way toward replicating the movie-going experience at home, but with theater attendance in steady decline for the better part of the decade perhaps it’s time to ask what movie-going even means anymore. Unfortunately for lovers of pure cinema, it’s possible that meaning is shifting toward something more generic and easy to market for a stay-at-home culture – the brightest picture and loudest sound just might win. To maintain some degree of control over how we view the films we love at home, it’s important to be active in supporting companies that do things “the right way” and call for standards that enforce respect for filmmakers’ visions before too much is lost and change isn’t an option.

Video-on-demand - for purposes of this section, we’ll be looking at VOD services that offer feature films and not original short content, like YouTube (more on that later). VOD services have been percolating for the better part of the decade and with rental giant NetFlix throwing their weight behind a service which will make more and more of their massive catalog available for immediate viewing over time, it’s hard not to see yet another battle for home viewing dollars brewing. Cable and satellite providers increasingly offer VOD services which give subscribers access to current TV and movies in reasonably-priced bundles, and services like TiVo have taken the concept of time-shifting to a new level by allowing people total control of when they watch exactly what they want. Specialized services like the one offered by The Auteurs are popping up, and Twitch-friendly labels like Dark Sky Films have begun posting titles on services like Microsoft’s XboxLive Markerplace.

For fans, a massive stumbling block with VOD is the lack of any sort of physical piece – there’s nothing to open, no elaborate package to fawn over and display on a shelf (I’m not talking down here – I do this just as much as the next fanboy/girl). People like stuff. A file – even if it contains a pristine version of Lee Marvin kicking ass and taking names in Point Blank - isn’t stuff, and it’s unclear whether consumer culture will shift it’s mindset toward the opposite. Extra content is another worry - a large part of what's made DVD so appealing to collectors is that on a given title you might find 10 hours of information about how your favorite film was made. With VOD, you get the movie... and that's it. Are people ready for a world where commentaries will cost an extra $1.99? There is, however an argument in favor of decreasingly clutter and simplifying your space that VOD speaks to – imagine, instead of walls of book shelves your friends will hate you for when they help you move, one box with 10,000 HD-quality titles crammed inside.

VOD services require a high-speed internet connection or cable / satellite service, luxuries still not afforded to all - sometimes due to geographic restrictions. Anyone can drive two hours to a Wal-Mart and pick up a DVD player, but you can’t force Ma Bell to pipe to DSL your way. As the internet becomes an increasingly necessary cultural component, these walls will come down. In fact, were I a betting man, I’d put money on VOD – in one form or another -winning the home video derby in the end.

Web / mobile media - a generation weaned on secretly watching YouTube clips in class will one day come to power. What will they want to see? No one seems quite sure - studios are trying in earnest, but no one has struck gold with original online or mobile content yet. There’s plenty of work out there, and a few titles – like Ed Zwick’s take on the millennial set, Quarterlife, have even migrated to bigger pastures (worth noting, perhaps, that show promptly crashed and burned). A-list writer John August recently co-created a web skein, and studios have been using mobile media as a marketing component with increased regularity in recent years.

What will the first transcendent narrative viewed on an iPhone look like? Well, kind of smushed, but that’s not that point – or perhaps it is. It might just be that it’s one thing to port content intended for TV or a theater to a 3.5’ screen, and another to design a project specifically for cellphones or PSPs. It’s unclear, to this writer, anyway, whether anyone is thinking this way. Some filmmakers have experimented with shooting projects on mobile-media cameras, and high-art establishments have sponsored exhibitions of clips produced by and for cellphones, but a spade’s a spade – “experimental” and “high-art” aren’t part of Joe Public’s filmic lexicon.

Web and mobile media's days in the sun may be a ways off – besides escaping their niche underpinnings, there’s a generation of web and cellphone users out there who think receiving voicemail or installing Quicktime is overly-complex – tough to imagine the same group attempting to follow a weekly narrative on their commute to work on a set of Bluetooth headphones. It may just take the YouTube generation coming into positions of creative prominence before we see narrative projects designed for web and mobile media tip into the mainstream.

3-D - when James Cameron talks, the entertainment industry tends to take notice. Despite being absent from narrative filmmaking since 1997’s record-setting Titanic, Cameron has laid a gauntlet for theaters vying to screen his next fiction piece, the long-gestating sci-fi epic Avatar - he wants it shown in 3-D. Cameron is so set on showing Avatar his own way, it’s believed that his request to delay the film from May 2009 to December was made in part to allow theaters more time to upgrade their facilities. It remains unclear whether the self-proclaimed “King of the World” would consider or even be able to withhold the film if facilities weren’t available in sufficient numbers come 12/09, but it makes for juicy pondering.

Special projection facilities like Omnimax and Imax have been around for some time, but large-scale narrative films needing as-of-yet uncommon facilities to fully represent a filmmakers vision are a new wrinkle. Cameron isn’t one to shy away from bucking convention, and while you can argue the artistic merit of his work it’s impossible to deny the numbers – he has a history of putting butts in seats. For an industry faced with – as noted earlier – habitually declining attendance, perhaps giving audiences something wholly unique is the best way to ensure they’ll come out, and not wait three months for the DVD / Blu-Ray / VOD release.

Theater chains are in a bad way finically, and are at least partly responsible for the slow adoption of superior digital projection systems. With shallow pocketbooks and an aversion to change in mind, will they embrace the re-emergence of a technology still thought by many to be a gimmick used to sell tickets to sub-par titles in the ‘50s and ‘60s? Studios seem to hope so – besides Avatar, several 3-D titles are on their way into production, including remakes of Piranha (from Alexandre Aja no less) and My Bloody Valentine (didn’t I just say something about a gimmick used to sell tickets to… hmm). A short amount of time will tell whether 3-D can overcome its roots and inject an air of mystique and exclusivity to the theater-going experience.

What did I miss? Are there trends out there that have you excited? Worried? Sound off below!

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