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

23 01 2009

MONSTERS VS ALIENS, and WE LIVE IN PUBLIC

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.

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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.


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One response to “Why Paramount’s Decision To Pay to Go Digital Is Good For FIlmmakers”

29 01 2009
The Future of Digital Cinema (Digital Projection) and It May Help Out You, the Independent Filmmaker « Dumbworld (05:03:26) :

[…] Independent Filmmaker Posted on January 29, 2009 by dumbworldorder Or at least that is what this guy thinks.  It sounds like some of the studios will pay up to $1000 per a “virtual print” to […]

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