On Wednesday, I talked about the roadblocks that will slow down the adoption of digital delivery for movies and replacing DVDs and Blu-Ray. But that shouldn’t be taken to mean that the internet is all bad for film. Far from it, in fact.
Even aside from giving movie bloggers like myself an outlet to talk your ears off, the internet is unquestionably a boon to people who go to the movies for entertainment. Online ticket purchasing can cut down time in lines, and even if one prefers to hand one’s money over to the cashier directly, just the ability to look up the showtimes for every film all week is a big help. But even if we just keep the discussion to digital content delivery, as with the previous article, the internet has the potential to usher in, if not a new golden age, at least one of shiny bronze.
While streaming DVD-quality movies is something essentially restricted to those with high bandwidth connections (let alone trying to stream Blu-Ray-quality), it’s possible even for someone on a relatively slow connection to stream at 480p or, if necessary, 360p. One has to become familiar with the idiosyncrasies of one’s own connection to know what it can handle without having to stop frequently to buffer, but it can be done without a lot of trouble. The video and audio quality drop a notch, but for casual viewing, even 360p is often “good enough”. It’s what I’m usually relegated to viewing things at online, and while I would certainly like to be viewing things at a higher quality, it’s rare that I really have a problem watching a film because of it.
And with the capability of streaming films, even at sub-DVD quality, comes the opportunity to greatly expand one’s film viewing. Picture yourself back in the 1970s for a minute. There’s a film that all of your friends saw and thought was wonderful, but you were busy working or didn’t have the cash to spare. It’s out of the theatre now. You’d really like to see it… but you’re not going to. It’s gone. Unless a theatre decides to bring it back for a second run, or a TV station puts it on for their Saturday Night Movie, you are out of luck. There’s no home video yet. Even into the 1980s and 1990s, when home video was finally available, there’s still a bit of a game of chance involved. If your local video store doesn’t have a copy of the film — say, if it’s something a little obscure from a few years ago — you’re still out of luck. But today? Legal streaming sites abound. Netflix, Hulu (especially Hulu Plus), VUDU, iTunes, and Amazon all have fairly vast libraries. Redbox is getting into the streaming act as well, and there are doubtless others I’m forgetting. A fair number of films, even known quality films, can be seen for free on Hulu and Crackle; and if you’re willing to pay a subscription or rental fee, then it’s rare that a film can’t be found at all. With a few obscure exceptions, the days of a film being an unattainable holy grail are over.
The advent of the internet has also seemingly revived a format. When Hollywood started, short films were the norm. People would pay a dime and go watch something that was 30 minutes or less. Eventually studios started splicing together longer reels, and the shorts started to go by the wayside. Sometimes they would be placed in front of the features, but as the decades rolled on, this seems to have become less and less common. The short film format never went away… but the familiarity of it did. I remember, when I was growing up in the 80s and 90s that it seemed like a short film, even as a lead-in to a feature, was a rarity. And it’s understandable that the format fell out of vogue as feature films took dominance. Nobody wants to pay to see just one short film. Theatres don’t want to screen a short film when they could get more money for a feature. And matching a short film to a feature film, so that the audience overlap is strong, isn’t easy — there’s a reason why the only time we still see it, it’s a cartoon in front of a cartoon.
But internet video streaming is almost ideally made for short films. Even at high resolution, it doesn’t take long to buffer an entire short. YouTube’s entire business model is, essentially, short films and video clips. Funny or Die is comedy sketches put on the internet — and what’s a sketch outside of a sketch show, but a short film? And of course all the streaming services that vend feature films are just as happy to deal in short films — they don’t have to deal with the opportunity costs of something taking up time on a screen.
And so the short film has come back. Amateur filmmakers and experienced pros alike can put their short film on the internet, and no longer have to wonder if anybody will ever see it. If it’s good, the audience will find it. Where the short film categories at the Oscars used to be complete footnotes to most people — something critically acclaimed that they’d never see — they are now slowly becoming more familiar. Hulu had a few of them available for viewing leading up to this year’s Oscars — including the Disney short Paperman, which had already had decent exposure from being the lead-in to Wreck-It Ralph. And it’s having an effect on the theatres as well. I don’t remember the short films getting any attention from theatres in years past, at least if we don’t count little arthouse theatres that make a point of highlighting the obscure. But this year a package of all the Oscar-nominated shorts was made available at major movie chains. I can only conclude that the perceived competition from the internet, coupled with the internet’s ability to raise peoples’ awareness and foster discussion, inspired Cinemark, Regal, et al, to want to get their share. And the end result of all this is that a few more Oscar categories are no longer “for critics only”, becoming something for the regular public, at least if the public wants to participate. And that can only be a good thing.
There’s one last little thing of note about the internet’s impact on film, and it’s just a little bit of an oddity… although perhaps not so much if we look back at the early days of Hollywood. The lines between content distributors and content creators are becoming blurry once again. Studios can put out their trailers, short films, even features if they want to, on their own web sites, becoming their own distributors. Amateur filmmakers have an unlimited audience instead of an audience of just a few. And the companies that have been streaming films are now looking into creating their own. Hulu has its original TV series. Netflix has just created one with the novel approach of making it all available at once. It’s not too far a stretch to think these companies may try their hands at feature films before too long… because Amazon already is. Amazon Studios has several films in production, even having a “rough draft test movie” of I Think My Facebook Friend Is Dead available for free “purchase” and download. I haven’t checked it out yet. Maybe it’s great, maybe it’s terrible. But it’s notable in that here is something that is being created outside of the usual channels. It isn’t a major studio film, yet anything with the backing of Amazon could hardly be classified as an indie. I have no idea if Amazon intends to try to push this to theatres, but even if they don’t, they already have a distribution channel in place; they were distributing films long before they were making them. Good or bad, it’s the start of a trend that could be very interesting to watch unfold.
And really, that’s the most positive thing about the internet’s influence on film: we don’t know how it’s all going to unfold. The next big revolution in content delivery or creation may be something we don’t see coming. And in an industry that is often lamented for having bouts of stagnation and repetition, anything that brings in a fresh shot of novelty can be a significant boon.