iPhones, Sundance and the Loss of Rabbit Ears

28 01 2009

One thing that seemed to be epidemic at Sundance this year was not the famous Sundance cough, but the iPhone cough.

This isn’t really an earthshaking technology point I’m making here (and those of you looking for trenchant analysis can skip down a paragraph or two), but for the first day or two up at Sundance, when thousands of Cool-Groovy-Industry-Types flooded Park City, iPhone 3G service came crashing down.  People with the original iPhones could get service — phone and data — but the rest of us had trouble getting phone signals and had horribly erratic, mostly non-existent, data/web access.  Blackberrys weren’t affected. Neither were old crappy AT&T phones.

I guess it took AT&T a day or two to get additional cel sites up and running, and the problem eventually was solved.  But this technological hiccup once again raises the point about adoption of broadband into areas that aren’t early adopters.

We all know that a large percentage of the American population still watches television over rabbit ears (6.5 million homes) and that moving some people off of dial-up is a painful process (a recent article in Ars Technica says that 19 percent of dial-up users say that “nothing” would get them to upgrade, not even lower prices) . Yet these are exactly the audiences who watch large amounts of television. That’s why we’ve seen Comcast give free cable to these households — you can’t leave that audience behind (too many advertisting-ready households), even if they see no reason to jump ahead.

Yet, at a recent get-together, I was talking with some friends about the various web video sites and what each one offers.  One of the people there made the point that no one is making any money off of video on the web — especially User Generated Content. And he is probably rights about that and it’s that reality, compounded by the large number of people who don’t know or can’t be bothered to make the switch to digital television, that will ultimately make it much harder to attain the much vaulted web-based delivery of media.

I like plugging my computer into my television and watching high quality shows from Hulu (when my DVR refused to record the second night’s worth of 24 it was no big deal — since it was on that web site the next day). I regularly download and pay for shows from the iTunes store. It’s easy and fits within my budget (the day when teachers pay moves into the area when we can actually afford to live in Los Angeles doesn’t look in sight right now). Many people, like Daisy Whitney, have dropped their cable altogether and watch everything from the Web. But the advertising is never going to come over to sites like Hulu en masse until the rabbit-ears people do.

So, how do we get that to happen?

I have to admit, I’ve got nothing when it comes to that. But it isn’t going to happen until the experience feels like our “real” televisions. That means we’re going to have to be able to switch on our Apple-TV’s and not wait at all for the program to start. We’re going to have to watch without stopping for “buffering.” And it’s going to have to be as easy as turning to a channel and hitting the POWER button. (My wife still complains about all of the remotes we’ve got lying around the house.) When all of that happens, then Mom and Grandpa might move over to Daisy Whitney’s virtual television neighborhood.

I’m not suggesting that everyone out there is going to switch to iPhones and that every town needs to figure out how to get themselves out of the Park City Problem. But I’m close.  If we want to get to the goal of ubiquitous broadband the way Ken Rutkowski talks about South Korea or Alex Lindsay talks about Japan, we’re going to have to have better wireless, better wired, and better experiences than I did in Sundance.

Unconfuse Yourself About Blu-Ray

27 01 2009

Some of us, for some reason, think Blu-Ray is the wave of the future.  Me? I think that it’s the wave of a little blip in time — like now. As I’ve said before, I don’t really think that most people care enough of image quality (or see the difference in image quality) to make them want to go out and repurchase all of their favorite DVDs in their library. It’s no shock that Blu-Ray disks, therefore, haven’t been selling the way the geniuses at the AMPTP would have hoped. New DVD player purchasers may want to go to Blu-Ray, and people who rent may be inclined once they get those players, but I don’t see the population running en masse to the format.

That having been said, it’s important for those of us in the content creation field to be savvy about Blu-Ray and have it in their arsenal of talents. And that ain’t always easy.  Until now.

On a special edition Larry Jordan’s great audio show/podcast, Digital Production Buzz, Larry and Bruce Nazarian (DVD guru, president of the Inernational Digital Media Alliance, and owner of the web site Recipe4DVD) give an amazing overview of Blu-Ray history, technology and methodology.  Bruce, who gave an amazing talk at Macworld this year about burning a Blu-Ray disk using regular old fashioned DVD disks, is incredibly knowledgeable about all of these topics and Larry is his usual great interviewer — asking questions that he obviously knows the answers to but which help explain the topic to people like me who don’t have a clue.

Go over to the website right now and get the podcast, if you haven’t gotten it already in your podcast feeds.  It’s a fantastically educational tour through this complex subject.

Editing and The Best Picture

23 01 2009

I love an article in today’s Los Angeles Times.   Called “Can ‘The Reader’ win best picture without an editing nomination?”  It basically lays out the statistics about how few films have ever won for Best Picture without a Best Editing award.

The article doesn’t examine any of the whys behind this, but I’ve long said that most Oscar voters don’t really have a good enough idea what editing is (“It’s cool cutting, right?”) to separate best film and best editing.  If they like a film they’re generally going to vote for it for best editing. That’s why Best Editing winners are often good predictors of what’s going to win for Best Picture later in the awards show.  For me, this means that something that the editors have not judged worthy of a nomination (to reiterate, only editors members can nominate for best editing — everyone can, however, vote in the category once the nominees have been chosen) is rarely going to inspire a filmmaking awe in the Academy as a whole.

Any thoughts on this?

Why Paramount’s Decision To Pay to Go Digital Is Good For FIlmmakers

23 01 2009


Do you know what the acronyms DCIP and VPF mean? Hey, in a world where we’ve needed to learn what DSL means (or at least what it does) what’s a few more letters between friends, right? And it could be very important for your future, if you’re an independent filmmaker.

Well, J. Sperling Reich has a great blog that I found called Celluloid Junkie which basically talks about the business of exhibition. That means, what happens when your film gets into the theaters. In the latest posting, “Paramount Goes Direct-To-Exhibitors With D-Cinema Deal” Sperling talks about how digital projection is going to end up in our local movie theaters.

Many of you may have seen ads for Hollywood movies that announce that they will be screening “digitally” in some theaters. In essence, what this means is that the movie theaters have installed large video projectors, capable of screening films at 2K resolution — slightly higher than High Def video. Now, these systems (along with their hookups to higher quality audio) are not cheap to install. An article in Gizmodo puts the costs at roughly $70,000 per installation. The article goes on to say:

The five major studios involved will help out by paying a “digital print fee” of about $800 to $1,000 per film, which is about how much it cost to send out physical prints. By doing so they’ll help offset the billion dollar bill the theaters will be stuck with when upgrading all of their projectors. This means we’ll be seeing more films shown digitally, as well as more films shown in digital 3D, a gimmick that you’ll learn to loathe soon enough. But hey, more digital projectors is definitely something I can get behind.

That fee that the distributors finally agreed to pay is also the aforementioned VPF (“virtual print fee”). And it took years for the studios to realize that it was the only way they could encourage theater owners to buy those expensive projectors, an argument that still lacks weight among many theater owners. That is why the two organizations that are pushing the Digital Cinema Initiative (the DCIP, and Cinedigm) have been been looking for ways to entice the owners into jumping into the pool.  For awhile it looked like the distributors were going to pay some of the installation costs in some way — partnerships, loans, etc. That approach didn’t attract much enthusiasm from either side. And that’s when the VPf came along.

And hasn’t really taken off.

Sperling’s blog entry talks about Paramount seems to be returning to the idea of offering exhibitors direct financial assistance in some form. And, for that, who needs the DCIP? Sperling notes:

What’s significant about Paramount’s announcement is that previously studios have refused to cut deals to reimburse exhibitors for digital cinema installations directly with exhibitors for fear of future anti-trust litigation.  Instead, they relied on digital cinema systems integrators to provide a buffer between themselves and theatre owners.  But, with the digital cinema rollout at a near stand still, Paramount seems to be throwing caution to the winds.

Sperling’s reasoning behind this is that Paramount would like to see more digital theaters because they’d like to use the technology to see more theaters that could easily show 3-D films like their upcoming MONSTERS VS. ALIENS. I spoke a few posts ago about the distributors’ illusion that 3-D will save their worlds, so I buy into Sperling’s argument that this is why Paramount is breaking ranks, even while I disagree with Paramount’s reasoning. And I certainly like the idea that studios are thinking beyond the simple “let’s lay off the workers” model to saving their financial future.

But the most exciting thing, for me, about Paramount’s decision  to throw their money behind Digital Cinema has little to do with 3-D. I’m much more interested in how the projection technology can help the indie filmmaker.

My favorite film at Sundance this week was, bar none, Ondi Timoner’s documentary WE LIVE IN PUBLIC, which is about Josh Harris, a 1990s New York internet entrepeneur who used streaming video technology, and a very art-event orientation, to convert a Soho basement into a month-long living experience for a large group of people and which would be on camera every minute of every day. Every room — living rooms, bathrooms, bedrooms — had video cameras in it, recording the action. The film, which is uses this even as a mere starting point for a discussion of privacy and innovation, was a powerful experience (someone who sat next to me at the screening, looked at me at the end and said “That film freaked me out.”).

Ondi sat on a panel that I ran and mentioned that she had been editing the film up until just a day before the festival and it is truly a testament to the development of digital non-linear editing technology (she worked on an Avid) that she could be editing and finishing so late in the game, it is equally amazing to me that she was able to output a digital tape or two, bring it up to Sundance and simply show it. There was no need for complicated lab runs — color correction had already been done, sound was already added, multiple copies could be created rather quickly.

Observant readers will note that this is hardly new — filmmakers have been able to finish video for television on this very timeframe for years. But that’s only because each and every one of us agreed to buy the projectors that made this possible. We called them “televisions” but that didn’t matter. The public, acting as the exhibitors, agreed to shoulder the cost for the distribution of the studios’ content.  Paramount has finally admitted that that very model won’t work in theatrical distribtution but that it is still important to get that technology into theaters.

So they’re going to pay for some of it themselves.

What this means for us, as filmmakers, is that we’ll be able to create all sorts of films, using all sorts of capture formats, and finish them at our own pace and in our own manner and there will be thousands of theaters able to help show them. With high-end HD camers out there (JVC just announced a sub-$4000 camera at Macworld, RED has a more expensive series that are still within reach of the serious filmmaker) it might just throw some of the balance towards us. We can leave 3-D behind us, and take advantage of the digital theater that the studios hunger for 3-D brought us, and bring really great images to an audience that just might get interested.

Who knows, the studios might just be helping out the indie filmmaker.  You can say “thank you” in a few years.


A side note here — I met Sperling by stumbling across him on Twitter. The mass, social-networking, text-message service proved to be a real boon for me at both Macworld and Sundance as I was able to keep up with people, parties, announcements, etc. from people who I thought would be interesting. The service, which was initially mocked because its users were posting mere status reports on their life (“Going to bed now, see ya!”) has now transformed into a great referral service for information. Guy Kawasaki, for instance, uses Twitter to post links to news and analysis articles. Services like Twitpic allow users to post images of events as they are happening. A number of people like John C Dvorak and Dave Hamilton have used it to get personalized information (Dave asked his followers today for dinner recipes that “involed sundried tomatoes” and within five minutes received great responses.).  It’s turned into a great resource and information finder. For those of you who are looking to develop networks in this difficult job climate, you’d be smart to start using Twitter, to figure out whether it works for me.

I know that I would have never found Sperling’s great web site without finding him on Twitter.

Electronic Media — Speed Pays

20 01 2009

President=Elect Barack Obama became President Obama today and gave his inauguration speech.  It ended at approximately 12:25.  About one minute later, or so, the following post went up at Zach Holmquist’s blog.

It’s a Wordle tag cloud, which lists every word in the speech — the more often the word is used, the bigger the word.

Tag Cloud - Inaugration Speech

Tag Cloud - Inaugration Speech

3-D, This Year’s Savior

19 01 2009

3D Film Image

3D Film Image

There’s an exhibit here at this year’s Sundance Festival, at the Sheffield, which highlights two different 3D technologies (the correct phrase, I’m told, is not 3D, but stereoscopic). And while I really loved the expansive, trippy, artwork that was displayed on the screens (created by the talented Justin Knowles, from CGI Studios) you have to wonder if stereoscopic is really something that audiences are clamoring for.  

Back in the 1970s, I remember a few 3D films which always involved the filmmakers tossing something directly at the audience. It was the fastest way to create the “oooh” effect in the audience. Last year, when I was at the CILECT Conference in Beijing, I saw an incredibly impressive 3D experience which was completely controlled by the viewer. So, the technology is impressive. But, like HD televisions, it’s hard to see how the audience is going to need to buy into the technology, especially if it requires buying anything.

The problems with convincing people to buy into the stereoscopic world were obvious at the exhibtion, just from the physicality of the presentation. First off, there were two incompatible technologies (how did that work for you HD-DVD??) — one with two stacked projectors and the viewer wearing a pair of glasses that combined the two into one brain image. Then there was the Mitbubishi style — 60fps projection, which alternated left and right eyes. It required a pair of expensive glasses that blinked the alternating eyes, synchronized with the screen so each eye saw only the frames designed for it. This amounted to, sorta, a 30fps image with depth.

Two competing technologies. Let me say that again — two technologies.

Each required a computer to play back the movies, but each required different standards. Good luck with that.

Second, in both cases, there were a limited supply of glasses and when too many people were using them, you got to stare at an unwatchable image.  Very 60s trippy, but not very satisfying. Unless the consumer is willing to buy a large supply of glasses, you’re going to have a limited supply at home as well (especially with the Mitsuibishi electronic glasses). And as soon as your seven year old kid marches off with one of your pairs, someone’s not going to be able to watch 3D in your house.

[I actually offered the kind Mitsubishi sales woman some advice — the company that invents a pair of glasses with a cheap tracking device, is going to make a mint. Think of how many times you use your car door remote to locate your car in a large parking lot.]

In its defense, at least the 3D experience offers enough different from the 2D one to make the average viewer notice (as opposed to HD, which I still maintain is not different enough to convince most of the American public to repurchase all of their SD DVDs). But if filmmakers spend the next three years throwing objects at the camera, in order to create that “oooh” moment, we’re going to grow tired of this gimmick rather quickly. It’s hard to believe that there are millions of people ready to throw away their 2D movies so they repurchase a more expensive experience that won’t involve things being thrown at them. And while people didn’t mind watching Ted Turner’s colorized movies on TV years ago, I don’t know anybody who refused to watch those movies in black and white when they were at more convenient times. In other words, 3D doesn’t rise to the level of “must have” or “it will change my life so it’s too cool to pass up.”

Except in games. The Beijing experiment, in which I could control how I perceived the space around me, was so immeasurably more satisfying than its 2D equivalent, that I was immediately thrust inside the experience.

Films are, basically, a directed experience — someone else is helping us through the story.  Games are much more player-driven and, as such, benefit from an expanded world. There is much that 3D can do to help us explore our world in film (I edited one short in 3D and it was not a wonderful experience), and I assume that as filmmakers get better at telling stories in that landscape, we will get more mature works. But it is in the world of immersive entertainment, where presenting the audience with a world that they can control, that steroscopic has some value.

To that end, everyone would get a better return on their investment if they stopped paying to give us Miley Cyrus in 3D, and instead invested in giving us Master Chief in 3D.

The Sundance Film Festival and Me

17 01 2009

sff09-tiles-graphicI’m up at the Sundance Film Festival  where I’ll be speaking on Monday and signing copies of my book on Tuesday.

Here are the details for the Monday afternoon panel:

Monday, January 19, 2009
From 2-3:30 p.m. – New Frontier on Main Street
Long time film editor, USC Professor and author Norman Hollyn will moderate a panel with 2009 Sundance filmmakers on a topic loosely based on his book “The Lean Forward Moment: Create Compelling Stories for Film, TV, and the Web.”  Hear directly from directors, producers and editors with films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival about how they find their “lean forward” moments and turn those into compelling stories that entertain millions.

Panelists include:
Jason Stewart, editor of 2009 Sundance Film “World’s Greatest Dad.”
Sterlin Harjo, director/writer of 2009 Sundance Film “Barking Water” and 2007 Sundance Film “Four Sheets to the Wind.”
Ondi Timoner, director/producer of 2009 Sundance Film “We Live in Public” and 2004 Sundance Grand Jury Prize Winner “Dig”

I will also be signing copies of the book the next day at Dolly’s Bookstore, right in the heart of Park City at 510 Main Street, from 1:00 to 2:00pm.  That’s on Tuesday, January 20th.  That’s right, watch the inauguration and then come and have me sign a book.

Awards Season and Copy Protection

7 01 2009

Macworld just started up in San Francisco and I am heading up there tomorrow to attend the LAFCPUG Supermeet on Wednesday at 5pm and to speak at the Peachpit Booth (#812) at 12noon on Thursday.  Since I’m hopping on a plane first thing in the morning, I needed to fill out my Oscar nominating ballot this evening in order to get it into the mail in time to make it to Price Waterhouse by the Monday deadline.

The confluence of the two events is interesting since both events mark the celebration of questionable giants moving in different directions. I love Apple products (I’ve had Apple computers since the Apple ][+ and, yes, I am that old) but it’s way too easy to carp at every move the company makes (just listen to every Mac podcast except the generally informative Mac OS Ken, which still seems to think that anyone who criticizes the Mac is either prejudiced or a moron).  I’ve loved movies since before I can remember, but it’s easy to pick apart the moronic attitude of the majors, who (helped out by the economy) seem to be in a race to the bottom of the financial heap.

There wasn’t a lot of big news out of the Macworld keynote speech today, but no one really expected any.  New editions of iWork and iLife, and a 17″ MacBook Pro to round out the Unibody laptop line proved Steve Jobs’ point that, sometimes, it doesn’t make sense to bend your development cycles to meet an early January trade show. Of far more interest to me was Apple’s announcement that, finally, they were removing DRM from iTunes purchased music. In exchange, they gave the record companies something that Jobs has been resistant to doing for years — variable pricing.

Now, you have to figure that Apple would have removed copy protection from the music they sell long ago if the record companies would have let them. After all, they believe that open systems work best (except when they’re Apple’s, in which case closed systems work best). But it’s always mystified me why Apple thought that the consumer wouldn’t buy music if some of it was priced differently than others. After all, they have the MacBook and the MacBook Pro — two laptops differentiated slightly by their feature set and largely by their pricing. And Apple was able to allow downloads of material for free when they felt like it (several television studios allowed free downloads to Emmy voters who were provided with special codes). And there’s all ranges of prices on the iPhone app store.

So, Apple has finally realized that we’re Big Boys and Girls and can deal with “value”. And, in exchange, they got to remove DRM from their music.

DRM, for those of you who don’t know, stands for Digital Rights Management, and is basically copy protection — that makes it more difficult to make lots of copies of music to give to friends who are too cheap to pay their own 99¢ (and, as of now, 69¢ and $1.49). Apple’s form of DRM was very generous — users could make up to five copies of a song and I know very few people who had more than five computers, laptops, iPhone and iPods.  So it seemed to work out except for those people who are vociferously against all DRM.

Still, music without DRM is better than music with DRM, right?.  So this is a welcome change. And when you add that to the December decision by the RIAA that they will stop suing kids, grandmas and other people who they say are stealing music, this looks like the industry is beginning to realize that they can make more money selling tee-shirts and movie rights to songs than the individual songs themselves.

Then, there’s the MPAA (the Motion Picture Association of America).  They are the motion picture industry’s watchdog — with a lobbyist in Washington, ratings boards on either coast, and a bevy of expensive lawyers out to make sure that we don’t copy all of their films for use on the Interwebs.

There are several reasons why the film industry wants us all to move to Blu Ray disks and none of them really have anything to do with increased quality.  Though there is a small amount of quality increase, it’s not large enough for most people to want to go out and spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on a new player.  One major reason is so that they can sell new copies of the same old movies and television shows that we’ve been buying on standard definition DVDs for years.  If there’s a Cool Groovy High Def copy of ANIMAL HOUSE out there, that must be worth tossing out our sloppy, horrible standard def version, right? Never mind that Blu Ray isn’t really hi-def quality, and that most people aren’t going to see enough of a difference to make a damned bit of difference in their viewing experience. If Universal can sell us another copy of that Belushi classic, that’s a great thing when the rest of the market is going to hell, isn’t it?

The second big reason why Universal wants us to buy a Blu Ray ANIMAL HOUSE is that the copy protection on Blu Ray disks is way tighter than on standard DVDs and they like that a lot. Combined with television sets that check on that copy protection format, it is much harder for those evil pirates to make illegal copies of John Landis’ epic film. If the studios can make inroads against the gazillions of pirates out there, they guarantee that they can wring a few more dollars out of the market.

By the way, according to most of the majors, I’m one of those pirates. At least potentially.

And this brings us back around to the Oscar nomination ballot I filled out tonight (I thought SLUMDOG MILIONAIRE and CAPTAIN ABU RAED were awesome, by the way).  Everyone knows that Academy voters get inundated with Oscar nomination screeners starting in November, attempting to get us to nominate their films — under the theory that a Best Picture nomination will help the box office of their films enough to offset the cost of making and shipping those screeners.

But the very people that Fox, for instance, wants to nominate their pictures, are also dangerous film pirates, according to them.  Nearly every film’s DVD is preceded with instructions to destroy that DVD after we vote for it — some even give us instructions to break the disk in half (which is actually dangerous, if you’ve ever tried to do it). The disks inform us that they are being loaned to us and “may be recalled at any time.” And, in the absolute height of distrust, Fox Searchlight this year is asking each of us to return a statement to them that we swear that we’ve destroyed their DVDs.  If we don’t agree to tear them apart and report that back to them, we should simply send them back to the Fox lot, unopened, because we clearly have nefarious thoughts of ripping the films off of the DVDs and flushing them out en masse over the Internet (some day remind me to tell you the story of what New Line told me when a copy of LORD OF THE RINGS that they sent out, never got to me).

So, am I suggesting that the studios should give up on DRM and let everyone copy and distribute the films themselves?  Obviously not.  But in a world where one of the daily trade papers, DAILY VARIETY, has been staggering along with far fewer ad pages than is healthy in the most ad-intensive period of the year (Oscar campaign season), it might behoove them to treat the consumers of their product as customers rather than thieves.

Is there really a connection, then, between the trend in computer circles to remove DRM, and the trend in entertainment circles to pile it on?  Is one an example of a rising business and the other an example of a dying beast, gasping its last breath and grasping at whatever food is dropped in its path?  I think there is, at least in the sense that there are two modes of thinking here.  Both of them are strong business models, of course. No one thinks that Apple is in business to lose money. But no one would argue that the executives at Paramount, for instance, have better insights into where things are going than those at Apple. Whether Hulu succeeds or fails is a factor, it seems to me, of who is allowed to attain control of its business plans in the corporate structure — the thinkers who did brilliant work two decades ago, or those who are trying to figure out where we’ll be in two decades (and, usually, those people weren’t even buying music or movies two decades ago).

I love being in the Academy and getting to see my choices lose year after year. But at least I can submit my choices. I wonder if the Academy will even be around in 20 years, so I can worry about what to fill in on my top slots then.

Why Kvetching About Small Screens Makes You Look Stupid

3 01 2009

lofaDavid Lynch’s infamous hissy fit about how horrible it is to watch Big Movies on small screens was one of the funny viral videos of 2008. But now three commentators on the New York Times’ Tech Talk podcast start out 2009 with the same dumb comment.

Talking about Slingbox’s new beta software which will let Blackberry users see some of their DVR’ed content streamed to their phones, they make the point that no one wants to watch LAWRENCE OF ARABIA on a two-inch screen.

Well…. Duh. Who does? And who’s making you?

The problem with a comment like that is simple – users will always find their preferred level of experience and content producers/filmmakers will follow.

I doubt I’d want to watch 2001 on a Blackberry or iPhone screen. But I’m happy to watch “Ask A Ninja” or ZiO’s “Designing Minds” that way. That way I can get those experiences at the gym, or waiting in my doctor’s office, or in a room in my house without a TV.

I’ve said it before, now I’ll rephrase it. “It’s all about the screens baby.” There are many different types of content. Why shouldn’t there be many different ways to absorb it?

(As a side note, that means that there should be many different ways to MAKE it.)

What I worry about is these complainers whining about the problem of forcing square pegs into round holes and convincing people to stop making square pegs. What they should be doing instead, is encouraging people to make more square holes.