Thursday, March 13, 2008

At the (Digital, Interactive, On-Demand) Movies

A little over a hundred years ago, the good people at The Ladies' Home Journal looked into their crystal ball and came up with a page of predictions for the future that ranged from quaintly wrong to strangely prescient. There were even a few that missed the mark, but should have been right, such as the prediction that university education would be free to everyone, economically disadvantaged students would have room, board, and clothing subsidized if they couldn't afford them, and health care (including optometric and dental) would be available to every child who needed it.

Two of the most striking predictions, though, actually got it somewhat right: "Man Will See Around the World", and "Grand Opera will be Telephoned" to private homes. The LHJ foresaw cameras capturing images that would be transmitted electrically to screens thousands of miles away. And they predicted that "Great musicians gathered in one (sp) inclosure in New York will, by manipulating electric keys, produce at the same time music from instruments arranged in theaters or halls" throughout the country.

How surprised would the audacious seers of the LHJ be to see us now. Today, nearly everybody under 20 believes that instantaneous access is an addendum to the Bill of Rights, and the Metropolitan Opera - HD Live series, launched by director Peter Gelb, has been packing movie theaters around the world.

At a panel discussion titled, "Digital Cinema for Indies", at last week's SXSW Interactive, the conversation focused on the "top down" issues of distribution: studio costs for film digitizing and promotion, theater costs for installing digital equipment, and the ongoing problem of getting butts in seats. This conversation seems to be continuing at ShoWest in Las Vegas where, as CNBC's Julia Boorstin notes, "The movie theaters owners and studios are together moving towards digitizing the 38,000 movie theaters nation-wide."

Good for them. The problem is, the landscape has changed in an important way that the ladies of the Home Journal couldn't predict, and the film studios at ShoWest don't get. Interactive technology has changed us. Getting access to the content and entertainment we want, where and when we want it, has become addictive and that genie's not going back in the bottle any time soon. I may want to go to a movie theater occasionally, but I also expect to see films, on-demand, on my computer, my TV, and even my iPhone. These days, entertainment is being influenced from the bottom up as much as from the top down, and viewers voices are getting louder all the time.

If filmmakers, studios, and theaters, want to continue to be relevant to audiences, they'd better start thinking more about where audiences want to see entertainment product, and less about forcing them into appointment viewing. It doesn't take much to turn a creative visionary into a dinosaur. Just ask David Lynch.

No comments: