Archive for May, 2012

“Just Like Buying a Bag of M&Ms”

In doing some research on digital movie distribution, I have become fascinated by the role of movie kiosks as tools for renting, and in some cases selling, movies. Probably the most visible–and most disruptive–version of the use of kiosks has been Redbox, which now has over 35,000 DVD vending machines in retailers, fast food restaurants, and airports across the United States and Canada. I’ve discussed Redbox in some detail in an article I published in the Canadian Journal of Film Studies, where I linked Redbox’s success, in part, to its ability to cater to families, especially those with young children, while also attempting to map out how Redbox’s cheap rentals (along wit Netflix’s streaming service) were changing the “value” of a copy of a movie. When consumers learn that they can pay a dollar or so for a night’s movie rental, there is little incentive to pay $15-20 for a copy of the film.

But this focus on Redbox’s role in shaping the value of cinematic texts (recall David Bordwell’s argument that “films have become files”) placed too much emphasis on the novelty of that particular company and ignored a number of other past precedents and new practices in automated video vending. Many of the origin stories about Redbox discuss Mitch Lowe’s past failed attempt to create a VHS vending service in the 1980s called Video Droid, but since then, I have been running into a number of other examples of services that have a longish history in both Europe and East Asia. Currently, I am still learning more about some of these services, and if you have any experience with them, I’d appreciate any guidance (in the comments, on Facebook, Twitter, or by email). One of the more dominant services appears to be Cinebank, a video vending machine (some locations called it a “video vestibule”) company operating in Germany, Italy, and Spain. Oddly, it appears that although the machines operate 24 hours a day, you must register in advance and can only do so during certain hours of the day, and in order to register users must provide their finger print. But from what I have been able to tell, Cinebank–or at least the company that manufactures their kiosks–has been in operation since the 1990s.

In other sites, video kiosks appear to be having less success. The British service Rent it Here has been in and out of administration in the last month or so, and from what I can gather, despite some early enthusiasm, another service, The Movie Booth, has also been relatively unsuccessful, but I am still trying to sort out some details there. These also appear to have disappeared, but there were a couple of predecessors to Redbox here in the United States. The most prominent one that I could find was MovieBankUSA, an off-shoot of Cinebank, the European automated video vendor, but unlike Redbox, MovieBank charged $3.50 per rental, and stories about this service also disappear sometime around 2008 or 2009, but like Redbox, the service was promoted as a convenience to consumers, one that was available 24 hours a day. Unlike Redbox, the service gave each member a PIN that could be used to access movies, and the service encouraged parents to create unique PINs for each family member so that their children couldn’t rent inappropriate movie titles. The service also used a “block” system, in which users could pre-pay $50 to get seventy dollars’ worth of rentals. Interestingly, MovieBank targeted not only retail locations but office complexes and apartment buildings. There was also a service in Singapore that also shut down, and like Cinebank, it required a thumbprint, but in the limited discussion I have seen (and much of this is only on Lexis-Nexis, so I can’t link), it sounds like Singapore’s small size, its later business hours, and the vaster selection at video stores (and online) made those options more attractive than kiosks.

There was also an attempt back in 2008 to rent or sell movies using flash drives pioneered by a service called Porto Media. At the time, there was a lot of skepticism regarding the service, and I don’t see any indication that the service ever took off. But in the last few weeks, another service, Digiboo, is attempting to try flash drives again, this time by targeting travelers in airports. I’ve seen a few Redbox kiosks in airports, and it seems that sites of enforced waiting (often without access to wi-fi) such as airports serve as ideal locations for cheap video rentals. Digiboo is quite a bit more expensive for rentals than Redbox, but it allows users the option to purchase, and unlike Porto Media, it benefits from increased processing power, with some downloads taking only about 30 seconds, with Digiboo’s chief marketing officer frequently comparing video vending to buying a bag of M&Ms.

It’s obviously too early to make any predictions about whether Digiboo will function as a useful alternative to Redbox. I know that I don’t often travel with a spare flash drive (although I probably should), but by contrast, I also plan my in-flight reading activity well in advance of any trip that I take, so I am likely not the best judge. What I am trying to uncover is why certain models (Redbox, Cinebank) seem successful while others disappear, often without any media attention whatsoever. Why might some locations and populations be more prepared to embrace kiosks while others are not? It’s easy to dismiss Redbox (and probably other kiosk services) as feeding into “lowest common denominator” entertainment, but rather than seeing kiosks merely as reinforcing the popular, it’s worth asking how they fit into a wider everyday media culture.

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Opening “Pandora’s Digital Box”

While doing research for my second book on the digital distribution of movies, I read with extreme interest David Bordwell’s latest book, Pandora’s Digital Box, a highly-accessible but thoroughly researched text that focuses primarily on how digital projection systems are affecting movie theaters. Although Bordwell touches briefly on the role of video-on-demand and day-and-date distribution, he looks at these practices in order to consider how they feed into the theatrical experience. While Bordwell acknowledges that many of these changes are revolutionary–our concept of “film” is completely transformed and our film production and exhibition practices have changed dramatically–Bordwell is careful to view these changes as being entirely positive or negative; instead, recognizing how much of cinema’s origins have been lost to history, he attempts to offer detailed technical and anecdotal accounts of the digital transition.

All of these changes beg the question: what happens to “film” in a digital age? And here, I think Bordwell’s background in the poetics and the production cultures of filmmaking provides a powerful answer. Film persists, he suggests, in the “craft routines” and the visual language of the medium (215). Those routines may be altered–and some may be rendered automatic–but the 100+ years of making movies on film still speaks to us and through movies in an increasingly digital age.

Bordwell’s book is highly readable, accessible for almost anyone interested in the film industry. As he noted on his blog, he sought to write the book in a “para-academic” style, one that depended on careful inquiry and in-depth research while also using language that will be familiar to non-specialist readers. The book, in keeping with our digital age, is available as a PDF download from his website for $3.99.

Bordwell starts with the premise that, in the digital age, “films have become files” (8) and builds from there to ask what this means for moviemakers, audiences, theater owners and workers, and others who are affected by the film industry. In other words, what happens when movies are reconceptualized as objects that can be accessed on-demand, rather than as material objects that require an elaborate shipping, delivery, and storage system? One answer to this question is that much of the labor associated with movie projection becomes de-skilled and automatized. Rather than skilled, unionized projectionists, projection becomes automatic, handled through a few mouse clicks.

Throughout his career, Bordwell has been attentive to the fact that the movie industry is shaped by relations of power, and this book is no exception. One of the persistent questions that is addressed throughout the book is the issue of how the digital changeover will affect both independent filmmakers and theater owners, whether those spaces are art-house, smart-house, or simply regional mom-and-pop theaters in small towns. As Bordwell suggests, digital projection provides the Hollywood studios and distributors with much greater control over the exhibition process, allowing them to monitor more precisely how often (and even when) a film is shown. He adds that, in the long run, the conversion to digital will provide distributors with significant savings.

For independents, there are other complications. The cost of converting (and then upgrading) equipment makes local, small-scale ownership of theaters more complicated, and Bordwell cites data from National Association of Theater Owners president John Fithian to suggest that hundreds of smaller theaters could close in the wake of digital conversion. Alongside of this discussion, Bordwell traces the changing role of film festivals as “distributors,” an argument that I’ve been exploring from a slightly different angle. As Bordwell notes, digital submissions have allowed for a massive expansion in the number and diversity of festivals. In 1980, he calculates that there were 100 festivals worldwide. By 2008, that number had reached 4,000 (157).

Given that theaters–even the larger commercial chains such as AMC, Regal and Cinemark–had less to gain from digital conversion, Bordwell spends quite a bit of time discussing the negotiations between theater owners and distributors and effectively makes the case that 3D, which was being touted as far back as the 2005 CinemaCon, served as a “Trojan horse” (73-74) that helped  spur the “need” for digital projection. Lured by the promise of ticket surcharges and the textual novelty of movies like Avatar, theaters were ultimately willing to convert, even though the 3D bubble would eventually burst, despite current efforts by James Cameron, Peter Jackson (who is pushing for 48 frames per second projection, rather than the standard 24 fps), and others to promote the format.

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Digital Delivery Links 5/29

I have a couple of other posts percolating right now, including one that will push against some of my ongoing research on rental kiosks, but for now, here are a few links:

  • In Media Res is hosting a themed week featuring contributions from several members of the Connected Viewing Initiative. Today’s post from Sharon Strover highlights some of the questions I’ve been thinking about in my own research for book two and in my CVI project with Max Dawson, namely questions about what it means to be an “on-demand user” and how social media sites function as an informal “TV Guide.”
  • Ted Hope has a post outlining the ways in which the JOBS Act will affect the practice of crowdfunding that is now commonly used to raise money for independent films.
  • This is a few days old, but Bill Murray’s “tour” of the set of Moonrise Kingdom is a great promotion of Wes Anderson’s latest film and a perfect illustration of how Murray has one of the most fascinating star images in Hollywood today. See also Murray’s willingness to give a group of scruffy film fans a “slomo walk,” rather than signing an autograph. And the notorious (and mostly unverifiable) Bill Murray Stories blog.

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Digital Delivery Links 5/25

Still recovering from a busy academic year and some writing deadlines, not to mention some road trips to accompany our host daughter on college visits. It looks like it’s going to be one of those years where I feel hopelessly behind on all things cinematic and televisual, but here are a few of the items I’ve read or watched with interest in recent days:

  • Somehow I’d missed the fact that Redbox has acquired Blockbuster Express from NCR (which means that Redbox kiosks will soon replace Blockbuster kiosks in your local Safeways, Publix grocery stores, etc), but the intriguing story here is that Redbox also has plans to start selling movie tickets in its kiosks, a move that might help to build a better relationship with the studios.
  • James Poniewozik discusses the uproar over DishTV’s new technology that allows viewers to automatically skip advertisements on prerecorded TV shows. Naturally the networks are upset and have sued Dish, but Poniewozik suggests that the network response will hurt them with consumers down the road. More on the Dish controversy, including speculation that this may be a negotiating tactic designed to reduce retransmission fees.
  • The makers of the crowdfunded and crowdsourced Iron Sky are running into complications with maintaining their “outsider” ethos, given that the film’s German distributor has been posting cease-and-desist orders to people pirating content related to the film.
  • The buying frenzy at this year’s Cannes Film Festival inspires more discussion of VOD and day-and-date distribution practices, with more of the VOD players calling for splashier, star-driven films for their increasingly crowded catalogs.As Ted Hope suggests, there are no simple answers in this “Saturation Point Era” of movie distribution.
  • Jim Emerson offers his own take on Cannes and passes along a fun little video featuring all of the overhead shots used in Wes Anderson’s films. Notably, when Anderson watches the video, he sees all of the labor that went into constructing each shot.

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Another Pandora

David Bordwell has just announced the release of a new book, Pandora’s Digital Box, a study of the conversion to digital projection in movie theaters. The book amplifies material written in a series of blog posts about the topic and is available through digital download for the low price of $3.99. I’ve profited immensely from Bordwell’s posts on digital projection in some current research I am doing for my second book, both in terms of his discussion of 3D and his analysis of how digital projection may be altering film festivals, so I’m certainly looking forward to diving in to this study.

In the announcement post, Bordwell also discusses the benefits of using the blog to reach film enthusiasts using what he calls a “para-academic” approach, one that feeds neatly into his longer-form writing. It’s a practice that I’ve been neglecting for the last couple of years for a variety of reasons, but as I’ve promised a few times in the recent past, I hope to return to these grounds more often in the future.

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The End of Film as We Know It

Given that I wrote quite a bit about digital projection in my first book, Reinventing Cinema, I feel somewhat obligated to mark the announcement from 20th Century Fox that they will end 35mm film distribution by the end of 2013. It wasn’t hard to predict that this would be the direction that the movie industry would take, but I am somewhat surprised that it happened quite this quickly. But as this Hollywood Reporter article points out, the National Association of Theater Owners now seems to support a total phase out from all studios by the end of 2013.

This move isn’t terribly surprising, and to be honest, I’m not sure that many moviegoers will notice the difference. I still wonder how the digital transition will affect how movies are distributed. Obviously, digital copies are far cheaper than film prints and much easier to deliver, which potentially benefits low-budget and independent filmmakers, but it’s a little less clear how digital projection will work for independent and repertory cinemas. NATO and the studios have pledged to help theaters adapt, but for smaller distributors, the virtual print fees (the subsidies paid by movie distributors to help theaters cover the costs of buying digital projection equipment) may be too expensive, making it more difficult for independent and low-budget films to reach theaters.

There are also some significant problems associated with archiving and preserving digital copies–namely the need to upgrade as digital platforms evolve. There may be some room for optimism here. As this article suggests, digital copies take up significantly less space than film copies, making it easier to store multiple versions of a movie, but given the number of movies that have been lost due to a lack of attention to preservation, it seems important to dedicate some effort to the preservation process.

More than anything, this news is yet another reminder that cinema, like most media, is a medium that is in a constant state of transition, both at the level of aesthetics and economics.


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