Monday, October 17, 2005

iTunes for movies? Will downloads supplant theaters? Discuss.

God, I love my iPod. This is one of those culturally-paradigm-shifting inventions, like the automobile and toaster, that gets you thinking that life must have been a bleak and meaningless wasteland before it came along. It's enough for me to take pity upon the forgotten portable CD player nestled, alone and forlorn, in a drawer in my bedroom. Don't be sad, little fella. You done good. But it's a new day. For you to do the job my Pod does, I'd have to hump around my entire CD cabinet everywhere I go on a dolly. So enjoy your rest. You've earned it.

Now along comes the new video-playing model, and I'm like, damn. Will have to add that to the want list now. And its existence seems to be bearing out what I and the rest of the world have been predicting: it's only a matter of time — months, perhaps — before someone figures out a workable model for distributing feature films online. And I bet Steve Jobs will lead the pack.

Now as a cinephile, I must say I'll be sad if the theatrical experience ever goes away entirely. And to be truthful, I don't think it will. There's nothing that can compare to seeing movies the way they were meant to be seen: on a whopping great screen in an auditorium.

But, believing that, why don't I go more often? I read the polls conducted by the panicked industry and I hear many of the same concerns I have. It's too pricey (although it isn't pricey for me, as I never allow myself to be robbed at the concession stand; eating and drinking in a movie invariably has me running to the men's room just as the third act is kicking in). Other patrons are pricks. The movies mostly just suck.

People are getting used to a more personal entertainment/information experience. Big screen home theaters are more affordable, and will get more affordable still. More and more people have laptops, iPods, and PSP's; pretty much everyone has a cell phone now, perhaps even some homeless people. Are we forsaking communal experiences for individual or family-centric ones? And is that really a bad thing?

It's inevitable that the internet will become a huge distribution outlet for feature films. While I don't see much benefit in watching something genuinely epic, like The Return of the King or Kingdom of Heaven on an iPod's 2-inch screen, there is something to be said for film distribution following the iTunes model for music distribution. Imagine paying about what you'd pay, if not less, for a movie ticket these days to legally download a first-run feature film in DVD-burnable, high-definition quality. Hell, with extras, even. I'd be interested, and I bet lots of other folks would, too, though of course there will always be that contingent of cheap bastards who don't want what they can't have for free. (Hey, I've been one myself.) And I think theatrical exhibition could be saved, too, made attractive again in the eyes of filmgoers, if a few technological (as well as attitude) changes were made by the industry. In my next post I'll go into some ideas I've been chewing on for both enriching the theatrical experience as well as enlarging the share of the pie that poor, also-ran indie films usually get. It's utopian stuff, and it'll never be implemented because the industry would never do anything either a) so sensible or b) designed to get anything seen by the public that isn't their homogenized, generic crap.

But hey, this is my perfect world we're talking about here, so here, it would work!


Kazim said...

This is actually remarkably similar to something I was telling Ginny a couple of nights ago. As you know, I've recently become one of the masses of people who now owns an iPod and can't live without it.

We were talking about our DVD collection, and how hard it is to keep it organized, as well as keep the discs safe from three year olds who thinks they are fun to rub together, etc.

I said "You know, in a few years we'll probably find that we wasted our money on DVD's. When storage and bandwidth and both cheap enough, it's likely that we'll be able to just store our movie collection on a web server somewhere, and watch it in real time somewhere."

Or maybe the Netflix of the future will be of the instant-gratification model: you pay a monthly fee for access, and you can watch an essentially unlimited number of movies that are available all the time. When TV shows are also available in this way, it could make Tivo obsolete as well.

Of course they're going to have to find a new advertising model when this happens. Already, I am a leech at Air America Radio. I listen to my favorite shows on my iPod every day, and I never hear a single commercial. I'm not sure what kind of business model will rescue the situation when more people start catching on.

Anonymous said...

would you like some short bread cookies? :) guess who...

Martin Wagner said...

Um...a certain redhead...?

Martin Wagner said...

Kazim: Or maybe the Netflix of the future will be of the instant-gratification model: you pay a monthly fee for access, and you can watch an essentially unlimited number of movies that are available all the time. When TV shows are also available in this way, it could make Tivo obsolete as well.

What I'm sure we'll see soon is the all-in-one combination of television, home theater, and internet in your living room. Your big plasma TV will essentially be your hub to the world. You'll surf the web and get e-mail on it, play games on it, perhaps even take phone calls on it, and watch movies via an on-demand service not unlike what you mention. Thing is, there will be more and more first-run features distributed this way, as opposed to now, where you get movies during a release window somewhere between theatrical and DVD, and of course all you can select are a small smattering of major studio offerings.