Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Danger of the Digital Age

In an AP article on Wired's Web site, John Rogers reports that Universal Pictures, Warner Bros. Entertainment and a company called Digital Cinema Implementation Partners are working on
a new digital film delivery system that, if successful, could give theater operators the flexibility to put a popular movie on an extra screen as quickly as the demand for it arises. At the same time, theater operators could boot out a surprise stinker and even book in for a day or two an art-house film with a small but devoted audience.
Everyone quoted in the article sees this as a boon for the little guy. Art house movies can be booked more economically and with greater flexibility. Imagine how much wider David Lynch's Inland Empire would have been distributed if he didn't have to travel with the prints from city to city like an old-fashioned record promoter (Lynch told me in an interview for the current MovieMaker that digital exhibition would have cut down on his costs tremendously).

These points are valid, I concede that. But, I view this development with greater trepidation. To me, this system could actually benefit the big studio behemoth more than the little-film-that-hopes-to-break-out. With the ability to add a screen without shipping a new print, exhibitors are more likely to elbow the little movie out of the way in favor of the latest blockbuster. In the past and present situation, indies-- the ones lucky enough to guarantee screen space-- could at least rely on screening for the week they had booked at a given theater. Now, they won't even have that comfort.

To me, there are two possible scenarios that could emerge from this and they are not mutually exclusive. The first is that in-demand will ghettoize more and more indies to the small screen, either through set-top delivery or other pay-per-view services or through Web sites like GreenCine. The second is that indie theaters like Landmark will implement this on-demand delivery as well. Then indies and art house flicks will be able to be distributed to more art house chains (in the foreseeable future independent theaters likely won't be able to afford this technology) with greater efficiency. In both scenarios, independent films will be relegated to niche exhibition avenues, making them less likely to cross over. But, perhaps more of them will be able to be screened. One can imagine a scenario where an art house chain used this technology to show several different films on one screen in a given day. The downside: less showings per film. The upside: more films shown.

But, the fear for indies is that art house chains will act like conventional multiplexes and use the technology primarily to privilege the bigger hits, not to give screen time and space to the more obscure titles. I would be hard to imagine a Little Miss Sunshine giving ground to a Kill the Poor.

Look, I'm all for technology that cuts down on costs of exhibition. That can only help everybody-- ticket prices for consumers (though I have my doubts about that) and distribution costs for cash-strapped (and even self-distributing indies). But, I'm just worried that this technology could be used to help those that don't need it at the expense of those who do.


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