WHEREFORE THOU ART #41
WE'RE READY FOR YOUR CLOSE-UP NOW

A couple of things happened recently that are really good news for film fans, and especially, for filmmakers. These things both were a matter of when, not if, and they're finally here.

I'm talking about the offering of full-length movies for download over the internet. Both Amazon and Apple have announced that they are initiating direct download-to-own services, and you can expect expect other companies to jump in over time.

Of course there are problems. Prices look a little high, topping out at around $15 per title, but interestingly, prices are variable, with some titles available for well under $10. This is especially surprising coming from Apple, which has steadfastly held on to its one-size-fits-all $.99 pricing of music at its iTunes store.

In addition, it appears neither companies will allow for burning a movie onto a DVD, which frankly, is ridiculous. The studios are apoplectic about the possibility (well, OK, the certainty) that somebody is going to make digital copies of their movies, so they're requiring the most stringent restrictions imaginable on their downloadable films. Which is ultimately self-defeating. For one thing, people expect their entertainment to be portable and mobile; second, some of these protective technologies are downright dangerous (last year SONY put a copy-protection scheme on CDs that infected users' computers with a virus-like program); and third, because all of these fancy protective technologies ultimately get hacked, usually by a teenaged boy in a suburban bedroom.

Then there's the whole compatibility thing. Amazon's movies won't be playable on Apple computers, or on iPods, which are now being touted as the big thing for personal video viewing (I don't know about you, but I don't think I'll be watching movies on a two-inch screen anytime soon, but I guess people do). Downloadable music, as many of you know, has this same sort of problem, and frankly, it's anti-consumer and, again self-defeating.

In addition, as of now Apple's only going to be offering films from the Disney family of studios (Disney, Pixar, Touchstone, and Miramax); Steve Job's seat on the Disney board probably explains that.

All of this nonsense will be worked out in time. It may be painful and expensive to the industry and to consumers alike, and it may take ten years, but it will get smoothed out. If there is competition in the marketplace (which is a big if, since our government has lacked the cajones to enforce our anti-trust laws for the last 30 years or so) consumer choice and convenience with eventually win.

On the up side, Apple has upped the ante with a device that makes the whole movie-downloading thing at least palatable. There's been this race to get your computer and broadband hook-up to be an integral part of your living room, of your home media center. Apple's now solidly in first place in that race with its plans to market a little box, tentatively called iTV, that wirelessly links your computer (which will be holding your downloaded movies) to your TV. Presumably, the gizmo has a remote control and all the things necessary to make watching one of these Apple-download movies seem just like watching a DVD. Which certainly takes the edge off of not being able to burn a DVD, but not entirely: what about playing a disk in your car, to keep the kids quiet? I guess it means you have to pony up and buy that $400 video iPod!

The part of all of this that's so exciting for filmmakers is the notion of a universally accessible online store for downloadable movies. This is huge. There are a couple of things that have historically prevented independent filmmakers from making it on their own. One was simply the cost of making a high-quality film. Either you mortgaged the farm and shot on film, or you used a videotape camera and wound up with the production values of a crummy soap opera. In the last decade, low-cost digital cameras, movie software, and computer capacity have changed all that. Now anybody with a script and some skill can make a presentable feature film on the very cheap. In the past year I've seen and been involved with numerous zero-budget documentary and feature films that approach big-studio quality, in both content and in production value.

The remaining piece of the puzzle was how to make the films available on the mass market. Unless a film had distribution, could get on TV, could get into Blockbuster, the film was little more than a vanity project and commercial (and probably emotional) failure, because few outside of the filmmakers friends, or an occasional affinity group, got exposed to the work. To meet the onslaught of independent films, film festivals sprung up everywhere, and were buried with submissions from frantic filmmakers hoping to get a screening where maybe, just maybe, some industry bigwig would see it, love it, and get behind it. Fat chance, even for the most deserving of films.

With on-line movie stores, this barrier between filmmaker and consumer collapes. Tech writer Chris Anderson studied this and gave it a name: The Long Tail. Anderson looked at the demand for films at Netflix, the great subscription film rental company that sends customers DVDs through the mail. Where video stores like Blockbuster are constrained by shelf-space and the need to have a large supply of current releases, Netflix can have an "always on" capability for tens of thousands of films, an available inventory wildly in excess of that at brick-and-mortar video stores. Anderson found something surprising: while current releases tend to be more popular, everything that Netflix makes available, almost without exception, gets rented by somebody. Maybe not a lot, but absolutely in a quantity greater than zero. Many movies have become mini-hits on Netflix by word-of-mouth or viral buzz, not because of some corporate marketing push, but simply because they were good films and they were available. And since it cost Netflix very little to stock movies for rent (in warehouses rather than strip-mall stores), there was a huge profit to be made by endeavoring to stock everything out there.

The Long Tail will be even more pronounced with downloadable movies. It's going to cost Amazon, Apple, or whomever next to nothing to add a movie to its online inventory, so the filtering process of what's made available will be extremely light, lighter, even, that of Netflix. So all of these filmmakers out there making minor masterpieces with their friends, heck, even the hackers making crummy homemade "epics," are, at long last, going to have a horse to ride. And assuming that The Long Tail is viable (and it's being proven over and over again in the realm of downloadable music), this means that every filmmaker out there is going to sell some product.

Now, of course, that vast majority of these films won't make much money; most won't even come close to making a profit. But all will at least have a shot, which is quantum leap from the way things were just a couple of moths ago. And that's nothing short of revolutionary.

© 2005 Paul Rapp
This article originally appeared in The Artful Mind and is intended to provide the reader with an awareness of intellectual property law and not legal advice.