Narratives of Digital Distribution

There is an interesting debate about rising ticket prices taking place, and implied in those narratives are different attitudes toward the “future” of digital cinema and the primary locations where we will watch movies in the near future.  Patrick Goldstein argues that rising ticket prices now risk reaching a tipping point, especially with adult tickets for a movie like Shrek Forever After in 3-D now approaching $20.  That’s an expensive night out for a family of four, even if children’s tickets are significantly cheaper. David Poland acknowledges that there is an increase in ticket prices, especially for 3-D and IMAX, while pointing out that normal (non 3-D) ticket costs have only increased by a quarter or so, but worries that these stories will feed into a larger narrative about the future of theatrical distribution.

Poland is correct to point out that the discussions of rising ticket costs are part of competing narratives about how we’ll watch movies.  In particular, he argues that

What I am feeling inside the industry is a well-founded fear that the 3D business is overreaching already and that increasing ticket prices for often unnecessary 3D will soon turn off average moviegoers. This is balanced by a group that wants to change the whole system and hopes to use the misunderstanding of the facts in stories like this “rising ticket prices” thing to push their agenda forward.

As Poland observes, these narratives are often supported by using selective data that looks at tickets sold rather than total revenue (for example).  Although I’m inclined to believe that the industry is overreaching a bit when it comes to audience interest in 3-D, I’m more interested in how these narratives about box office are feeding into perceptions about the future of digital cinema.

One of these alternatives involves a renewed emphasis on the use of video-on-demand as a means for supplementing or bypassing theatrical distribution.  According to The Wall Street Journal, Time Warner Cable has pitched Hollywood studios on a “studio window,” in which movies would be released on-demand just thirty days after being released in theaters for $20-30 per view.  Several studios have expressed interest, and the model could be in place by the end of this year or early 2011.  As the WSJ article suggests, the new model would amount to a relatively radical overhaul of the “windows” that have traditionally protected theatrical revenues, and needless to say, theater owners are unhappy about the proposal.  In addition, these VOD models would also complicate existing details with cable channels such as HBO that often pay for cable distribution rights to movies (although many channels are now relying increasingly on original programming).

I saw this article via David Poland, and I think he’s right to be a little skeptical about whether this would work.  First, he’s correct to point out that younger moviegoers who comprise the largest audience for bigger blockbuster movies typically don’t control their cable bills (Mom and Dad do).  Second, he points out that such an approach would likely cannibalize theatrical, especially if studios felt some pressure to reduce rental costs.  But Eugene Novikov of Cinematical speculates that the VOD approach might be appealing to families who might have an eye for saving money during a time of economic belt-tightening (although this might not account for a family’s desire to get out of the house).  These VOD models have worked for art-house and indie films simply because access to these films is often fairly limited, and many of the films available on IFC On Demand (for example) would likely never play in most towns and cities.  But I think that studios are feeling quite a bit of pressure to make up for declining DVD sales, and they’re willing to try a number of experiments to make that up.

Implied in all of these debates are questions about the social and (arguably) metaphysical role of cinema.  Manhola Dargis revisits these concerns in her discussion of Olivier Assayas’ Carlos, which focuses on the story of Carlos the Jackal, pointing out that distributors and exhibitors are now turning toward digital projection, taking us away from “rich textural density of film” to the “ones and zeros” of digital media.  Her blog post provokes a range of comments, many of them lamenting the demise of film as a medium, while others challenge utopian claims about digital media providing idealized projection experiences.  Many of the points addressed by Dargis have already been considered by film scholars–note her citation of D.N. Rodowick–but like the debates about VOD, her arguments push against attempts to define the “future” of cinema.

1 Comment »

  1. The Chutry Experiment » Indie Films and Digital Distribution Said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 5:11 pm

    [...] “deeper cuts” rather than the “top hits.”  But as I’ve suggested in my previous post, many of the questions addressed in the debates over Google TV (and other tools like it) [...]

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