March 2, 2012
You can’t say you weren’t warned. A year ago New York Times critic Dave Kehr was proclaiming the end of DVDs: Goodbye, DVD. Hello, Future. Unit sales were down 40%, Blockbuster had gone into bankruptcy, and Netflix was shifting from a mail-order purveyor of DVDs to “a streaming video company delivering a wide selection of TV shows and films over the Internet,” in the words of chief executive Reed Hastings.
Kehr pinned his hopes for home video on Blu-ray, citing that format’s ability to deliver high-definition versions of films. But despite industry efforts, Blu-ray has never really caught on with consumers. Released to the public in 2006, Blu-ray currently accounts for 23% of total disc sales, according to Home Video Magazine. When you examine the Top 20 Sellers last week, that proportion can drop even further—15% of sales for The Help were on Blu-ray, 11% of “Downton Abbey”—unless, like Disney did with Lady and the Tramp: Diamond Edition, you force buyers to purchase a Blu-ray package.
Especially for older library titles, studios are scaling back on disc releases. Warner Bros. (which also controls most of the classic MGM titles), Universal, 20th Century Fox, and Sony are now all offering what they refer to as “MOD” or “manufacturing on demand” titles, essentially burning new discs only after they are ordered. MOD discs lack the extras—and the longevity—of consumer discs, but in many cases they are now the only way to see obscure movies.
The industry seems to be heading toward forgoing discs of any kind, aiming instead for an environment in which viewers stream content to their computers and televisions. Cable companies have been offering “video on demand” options for some time, both at home and in hotels. Also in the hunt for viewers: Apple’s iTunes, Hulu, Wal-Mart’s VUDU, and Amazon Instant Video, Vimeo, and Netflix. Even PBS is into streaming. This week the broadcaster announced its first Online Film Festival.
Search engines want a piece of the action as well. Search for “Harry Potter” on Bing, and you will get an option to “Watch Now.” Google, meanwhile, will be happy to send you to YouTube.
MediaHound, a search aggregator that resembles a Kayak for TV and movie titles, shows some promise. Pop in a title, and MediaHound will give you options for purchasing and streaming. Right now it does fine for recently released titles, but draws a blank for lesser-known items.
Is this good news or bad for film buffs? On the one hand, it’s easier than ever to find and purchase specific titles. I caught the sparkling Pre-Code comedy Havana Widows a few years ago on Turner Classic Movies, but despaired of ever seeing it again. Now it’s available at Warner Archives, and for a fairly reasonable price.
But step outside releases from major studios, and it suddenly gets much harder to pin down a title like Ride the Pink Horse or Under a Texas Moon.
I find watching films on my computer disconcerting. Without a high-speed Internet connection, a film may sputter, skip frames, or stop entirely during playback. Rewinding and fast-forwarding are ostensible options, but in reality they disrupt the feed so much that they are unusable.
The quality of the image suffers as well. Projected nitrate, even that which has been restored and preserved on polyester stock, has a lustrous look and sheen to it. At low resolution on a computer monitor, it can seem pixellated, corroded with digital artifacts, lacking balance and contrast.
But get used to it, because streaming is taking over the home consumer market. It is impacting the archival world as well. As Annette Melville, director of the National Film Preservation Foundation, wrote me, “Viewing film online is already becoming the 21st century way to enjoy films that once screened on the repertory circuit. But it also holds promise for revolutionizing access to archival films—films of historic interest that were formerly seen only by scholars who had the resources to travel to film archives to do research.”
The NFPF has assembled five DVD packages under its highly recommended “Treasures” umbrella, 214 titles in all. They range from studio features to home movies, from animation to documentaries. But the NFPF also posts titles for streaming to its website, like these films recently discovered in New Zealand. (Check out comedienne Mabel Normand’s charming Won in a Closet, or the early Western Billy and His Pal, starring director John Ford’s older brother Francis.)
“With the web, we can make available other movies—without costly-to-produce ‘extras,’ such as new music and commentary. We don’t see this web exhibition as replacing the Treasures DVD sets—or the experience of enjoying films in a movie theater—but rather as a way to democratize film access,” Melville said.
Democracy comes with a cost, however. “Exhibiting films on the web is far from ‘free,’” Melville said. “Currently the NFPF is planning two major web premieres for later in 2012. The biggest obstacle is paying for the bandwidth to carry the surge in web traffic. We had a wake-up call when a single repatriated film went viral, increasing our web-hosting bill more than 3000%! Clearly to continue on this route, we will need donors committed to increasing film access and willing to support it.”
As a consumer, you’ll pay coming and going. Yes, you can watch some titles for free on IFC (like The Larry Sanders Show), Hulu (currently offering six silent titles—with commercial interruptions—from The Criterion Collection, including Pandora’s Box with Louise Brooks and Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights), and other sites. But most titles cost between $3 and $10.
And now cellphone carriers want to charge you for hogging bandwidth while streaming and downloading movies. As The Wall Street Journal put it, AT&T Ends All-You-Can-Eat.
December 2, 2011
Several recent articles have reached the same dismaying conclusion: film as a medium is doomed. First came a report that, starting in 2012, Twentieth Century Fox International will no longer ship 35mm prints to Hong Kong and Macau. Only DCI-compliant digital formats will be available. Then came Debra Kaufman’s sobering article for Creative Cow: Film Fading to Black, a detailed account of how companies like ARRI, Panavision, and Aaton no longer manufacture film cameras. (Devin Coldewey added his own take on Kaufman’s work for TechCrunch.) Several sources reported on financial difficulties facing Kodak, one of the most storied names in film (try WHEC.com’s “Is Kodak in trouble?” for some hometown perspective.)
Julia Marchese of the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles went so far as to start a petition, Fight for 35mm, stating that, “The major film studios have decided that they eventually want to stop renting all archival 35mm film prints entirely because there are so few revival houses left, and because digital is cheap and the cost of storing and shipping prints is high,” adding that, “I feel very strongly about this issue and cannot stand idly by and let digital projection destroy the art that I live for.” (As of today, she has collected over 5,700 signatures.)
In a more metaphoric than practical sense, New York Times critic A.O. Scott weighed in with Film Is Dead? What Else Is New?, citing doomsayers like Roger Ebert (“Video commands the field”) and Anthony Lane (“Enjoy it while it lasts”) before suggesting that film is “fragile and perishable” in part because it is based on nostalgia.
If you need more concrete proof of how film’s dominance in culture has eroded, take the sales figures for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3: $400 million in a day. That’s more than most big-budget films will gross in a year, if they ever reach that point. Or read Film Journal‘s How do we win back younger moviegoers?, which presents some eye-opening statistics: the 12 – 24 age group, once thought to be the backbone of the film audience, purchased only 32% of movie tickets in North America in 2010. That’s down from 60% in 1974.
The sudden confluence of “Death of Cinema” reports is surprising, as predictions of its demise have been around for decades. Radio was supposed to kill off movies back in the 1920s, for example, then television was suppossd to do it in the 1950s. In his book 2007 The Virtual Life of Film, D.N. Rodowick argues that, “As almost (or, truly, virtually) every aspect of making and viewing movies is replaced by digital technologies, even the notion of ‘watching a film’ is fast becoming an anachronism.” But “new media” are themselves based on cinema, “the mature audiovisual culture of the twentieth century.” So what we know as cinema will continue to exist even if film is replaced as a medium.
Ironically, it turns out the film is an excellent archival material, far more stable and reliable than any existing digital archival platform. (The photos accompanying this article show A Pictorial History of Hiawatha, filmed in 1902–03 and restored in 2009 by Julia Nicoll for Colorlab. Even in its deteriorated, pre-restoration shape, the film retained its images.) Stored properly, film can last for decades, something that cannot be said about floppy disks or Iomega Zip drives. Two-inch, reel-to-reel videotape used to be the broadcast standard for television. Only a handful of playback machines still exist. For that matter, when was the last time you viewed a 3/4-inch videotape?
Film has a tactile beauty that digital lacks. I guess it’s a similar contrast between print photographs and digital ones, between writing with a fountain pen or on a computer. Few would pass up the speed and convenience of new technologies. It’s much easier laying out an article with InDesign than physically cutting and pasting galleys onto dummy pages, just as it’s easier to edit with Final Cut Pro than with grease pencils and gang synch blocks. But I miss the physical contact that the old methods entailed, the tape splicers and take-up reels, the linen-lined bins filled with strips of film.
Earlier this week, Alexander Payne, director of The Descendants, spoke to me about the film vs. digital divide. “I attend a lot of festivals,” he said. “When I see movies projected digitally, and then I see them on film, they look better on film. Film has a warmer feeling. Flicker is better than glow.”
Payne acknowledged digital’s incursions. “In the US theaters project at about a 50-50 ratio of film-to-digital, Norway is about 90% digital, Iceland I think is 99% or getting there,” he said. The director also admitted that watching film can be a dismal experience “if the projectionist has turned the bulb down to save money, or doesn’t know how to frame the film.
“But I think we’re losing something. I remember an interview Jean Renoir gave about medieval tapestries, where he said something to the effect that the more codified and standardized a medium gets, the closer it comes to death.” Digital processes are “trying to approximate the medium’s representation of reality—’Look how real it is,’ they say.”
Payne had just attended a screening of the restored version of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, calling it a “transformational” representation of life. “Why can’t we have that?” he asked. “I had to fight tooth and nail to make my next film in black and white. Interestingly, I have to shoot in digital in order to give it a filmic look. I’m going to screen black-and-white films like Ordet, not just for the cinematographer, but for the whole crew. I’ll say, ‘I want one shot, just give me one shot that looks like that.’”
On at least one level, Payne doesn’t believe that film is dying just yet. “Say you’re a teenager, and you want to be alone on a date,” he said. “Where else are you going to go on a Friday night?”