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AT LARGE: Fade to black

AT LARGE: Fade to black

By the time you read this, I shall be comfortably ensconced in the Sydney Film Festival. Huddled in the State Theatre, caressing a cup of soup in a vain attempt to keep warm, I and my fellow filmgoers will bear witness to an art form that, even as it begins to claim legitimacy and respect, may be on its way out.

(I specify that I will be in the State Theatre because that is where the Festival belongs. The second venue is way too far away, and the movies there cost extra on top of my subscription. There seems to be a campaign of stealth to move the Festival away from the State by offering first-run Hollywood stuff at the second venue, but I will be having none of it. Here endeth my personal grandstand!)The reason I fear for the future of the cinema has little to do with the competence of the Sydney Film Festival organisers, however. The threat comes from digital delivery and presentation of movies direct to homes. Video rental companies such as Blockbuster in the US are racing to develop systems whereby they can deliver content "on-demand" to customers via the Internet. Meanwhile, Lucasfilm and others are developing ways to deliver first-run material to theatre owners in digital format so that film is not involved in the process.

Mark my words - these trends will converge. There will come a time when the initial presentation of a film will be via high-speed network directly to digital television in your home. Yes, I hear what you're saying - bandwidth, bandwidth, bandwidth. I know it's not exactly an imminent threat, and you should get that stammer seen to. But I'm nervous about the relentless march of digital cinema. I like watching movies in my home, but I like watching them at the cinema even better. I don't make very good popcorn at home.

In the last few years the Internet has grown from a repository of free utilities and hardware drivers to the point where many people have computer systems entirely populated by downloaded software. Everything from complete operating systems to industrial-strength applications is there for the clicking - without having to head into a store. This has proved such a successful model (to the peril of some in the channel who didn't see it coming) that providers of other electronic content are naturally drawn to it.

Record companies hit the bandwagon next, with first-release CDs available for download before they hit the shops. But even as the record companies strive to develop a royalty and copyright model that allows for such delivery, the Internet has usurped it and created Napster and its various siblings. Now it's out of hand. Just ask Metallica and Madonna, crying foul at Napster users listening to their stuff without paying. Poor diddums.

I read recently about a Web site where one could download first-run movies, even while they were still in the cinema. Not believing it for a second, I went to the site (vestigial respect for copyright forbids my sharing the URL) and, sure enough, downloaded American Beauty. It took three attempts and 12 hours to get an MPEG of the film at 640 x 480 with mono sound, but I got it. It's jerky, the picture's muddy and the sound is appalling. But it's there, proving that someone thinks it's a good idea. Picture Napster for movies.

The royalty situation will get fixed. The pirates will merely force the copyright owners to develop a model more quickly. The clear winners in this will be small producers and distributors of independent films, who will find themselves with a much lower cost of entry to the same distribution channels employed by big guns like Fox. Already, short films are a popular attraction on many Web sites. The losers will be those of us who like the social ritual of huddling in a cinema with our fellow beings and staring at a flickering screen for two hours. The way things are going, even the time-honoured custom of wandering zombie-like around a video store will soon be past.

As the technology to view movies at home has got better, the technology to draw people into cinemas has managed to keep pace. But the lead in the race may be changing, and home cinema over high-speed networks may soon offer a good enough (and timely enough) experience to keep people in the warm comfort of their lounge rooms instead of in the theatre. I hope I'm wrong. Until I'm proved right, I'll be in the cinema with my soup.

Matthew JC. Powell probably won't check his e-mail at mjcpowell@ozemail.com.au for a couple of weeks. He'll be in the stalls at the State Theatre, row E, seat 27.


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