Preview of CES and the Digital Dozen of 2009
much of 2009, soothsayers in the multibillion-dollar home-entertainment
industrry measured the long-term commercial viability of the DVD
and Blu-ray platforms against the inevitable direct distribution
of movies to consumers. With the 2010 International Consumer Electronics
Show and Sundance right around the corner, it's as good a time as
any to examine the options that will become newly available in the
The CES is important because there's no better place on Earth to
observe the confluence of art, technology and commerce. Exhibitors
large and small will descend on Las Vegas this week to tout the
advances not only in sophisticated home-theater units, but also
mobile hand-theater tools, which combine normal telecommunications
functions with cutting-edge delivery, display, audio and, yes, even
projection capability. I wouldn't be shocked to find an iPhone app
that could also microwave popcorn.
As usual, most of the media's attention at the Sundance festival
will be focused directly on the celebrity mosh pits and swag dispensaries,
While its relationship to CES may not be obvious to the casual observer,
it's become a sad fact of life in the indie world that many, possibly
most of the films being screened in the rarified air of Park City
will find their largest audiences in places other than the local
multiplex or art house. Almost all of the titles will find their
way to DVD eventually, but absent the kind of marketing hoopla that
would make them stand out in a crowd in the local video store. Given
that cold reality, the increasing availability of highly affordable
and technically sound home-theater systems -- along with myriad
delivery systems -- should come as welcome news.
Such valuable rental services as Netflix and Facets Multimedia do
an excellent job of alerting their subscribers to the release of
obscure festival fare, as well as award-winning documentaries, foreign
and independent pictures. Savvy channel surfers may also be aware
of such pay-per-view services as IFC Festival Direct, which offers
a selection of films in competition, occasionally on the night of
their festival premiere (the Mumblecorian Alexander the Last,
for example, from South by Southwest). Likewise, IFC debuted such
major foreign selections as Gomorrah, Hunger, A Christmas
Tale and Dog Eat Dog on the service before the award-winners
made an appearance in hinterlands theaters or on DVD.
Last August, Guillermo Arriaga's The Burning Plain,an
intense drama featuring Academy Award winners Charlize Theron
and Kim Basinger, could be seen a month ahead of its theatrical
release, in hi-def, on DirecTV Cinema. (It arrives in DVD this month.)
The Sasha Grey sizzler, The Girlfriend Experience, directed
by hi-def pioneer Steven Soderbergh's, got its head start
through Amazon Video on Demand and HDNet. The practice confounds
critics, who aren't sure exactly when to review a noteworthy title,
but it helps sell cable subscriptions and HDTVs.
If the PPV distribution model for first-run films is still finding
its legs, there's no reason why early adopters need wait for it
to catch up to the capabilities of their home-theater units. One
of the sure-fire photo opps at any CES comes when Toshiba, Samsung
or some other manufacturer unveils a video monitor larger than most
studio apartments in Manhattan. If Christmas sales of flat-screen
television monitors are any indication though, it's the 50- and
60-inch models that are driving the industry.
At the last two CES conventions, Blu-ray was the hot-ticket item,
along with portable projection units that rivaled those in many
The big noise for home-theater and tech geeks at this year's show
should come from the direction of companies planning to add the
capacity for full 1080p viewing of 3-D movies on their TVs and Blu-ray
players. Last month, the Blu-ray Disc Association announced it had
reached agreement on a long-awaited standard that would allow for
the delivery of parallel images, each in full resolution, to create
the stereoscopic effect. Cinephiles may not jump at the opportunity
to invest in such units, but parents who spoil their kids with every
new technological hoo-hah might find some value in a system that
allows such entertainments as Up, Ice Age, Cloudy With a Chance
of Meatballs and Avatar to be screened, at home, in their
the first Blu-ray machines equipped for full-on 3-D are expected
to be announced at CES, with an estimated arrival time of third-quarter
2010. If so, the first major title to drive marketing efforts
almost surely will be Avatar. Disney/Pixar and DreamWorks
would also contribute by unleashing 3-D editions of titles previously
only available in 2-D.
Sports enthusiasts have already been teased with sneak peaks of
the format's live-action capabilities.Last month, fans attending
the Cowboys-Chargers game at Cowboys Stadium were given the option
of watching the activity on the field, as played, or on the facility's
massive new hi-def video screen in 3-D.
Of course, several prominent 3-D titles already have been released
on DVD and Blu-ray, including the Miley Cyrus and Jonas
Brothers concert films, and this week's Final Destination.
The experience remains something of a mixed bag, aesthetically
and otherwise, though. The eyeware contained in the packages is
still made of cardboard, with the familiar red- and blue-cellophane
anaglyph lenses providing visuals ranging from muddy to sharp,
at any given moment. For some reason, the eyeware still isn't
being shaped to fit heads larger than those of the average 12-year-old.
To that end, Sony Corp. has entered into a partnership with RealD,
whose more stylish black-lens glasses and projection equipment
already are in nearly 5,000 movie theaters. The eyeware resembles
the sunglasses worn by Jack Nicholson -- indoors and out
-- and is comfortable for adults and kids. For years, engineers
have been testing television screens that would eliminate the
need for any glasses.
Hoping to get a jump on the deluge of headlines that will emanate
from CES on Wednesday's press day, Discovery Communications, Sony
Corp and IMAX Corp. announced plans Tuesday for a joint 24-hours-a-day
channel, distributed by Discovery, dedicated to showing content
in 3-D. It comes in the wake of announcements by ESPN and DirecTV
of their own 3-D strategies. ESPN said it will launch a 3-D network
on June 11, with soccer's World Cup as the first major attraction.
Glasses will be required of home viewers, but, they will be designed
to withstand regular use, not to be discarded. It's also possible
that Philips will use CES as the forum to announce plans for a
3-D monitor that wouldn't require glasses.
Disney/Pixar, Sony, DreamWorks, Warner Bros., Universal and Fox
all have a vested interested in seeing 3-D flourish among home-theater
aficionados. The major studios already control what gets shown
in the multiplexes, PPV and video, and art-house fare is shoved
out of the way when blockbuster season is in full gear. If they
could, they'd eliminate the middle-men and niche players entirely.
If indie and mid-budget titles are going to survive in the marketplace,
current distribution models will have to change dramatically.
The average cost of marketing a studio movie now exceeds $35 million,
a figure specialty films can't possibly match. (By comparison,
the entire production budget for Paramount's Up in the Air
was $30 million.) Releasing across multiple platforms, day
and date, is one strategy being applied by the indies.
Once upon a time, the video window opened when the theatrical
window closed on prominent titles. That was before studios measured
a film's success by its box-office performance over a 10-day period,
however. To the consternation of video-store proprietors, the
space separating the theatrical, DVD, digital download and pay-per-view
windows has practically disappeared. Thanks, in large part, to
the affordability and uniform quality of hi-def home-theater systems,
no longer is the financial promise of PPV dependant on the frequency
of wrestling, boxing and mixed-martial-arts events.
This year's CES will also provide a showcase for the technology
designed to make the PPV delivery and downloading of entertainment
content less expensive and far more convenient. Netflix already
has begun streaming movies and TV shows from its extensive catalogue
to subscribers equipped with such devices as PlayStation 3 and
Xbox 360; Roku Digital Video Player; select Insignia, LG, Samsung
and Sony Blu-ray players; TiVo HD; LG and Sony HDTVs with Internet
connectivity; and LG and Samsung Blu-ray home-theater systems.
The Netflix subscription plan doesn't cost extra, but the receivers
range from $79-$1,500.
Netflix's competition is working overtime to perfect delivery
systems of their own. In addition to Amazon Video on Demand, there's
Apples iTunes Store, Blockbuster on Demand and Boxee. The latter
announced last month that it is introducing a set-top box that
would allow subscribers to stream content -- including Digg, Flickrm,
Hulu, Last.fm, MLB, Netflix, Pandora, and YouTube -- directly
to their televisions.
Meanwhile, many of the same hardware and content providers hoping
to jump on the 3-D bandwagon are continuing their efforts to dominate
the mobile marketplace. Broadcasters in the Open Mobile Video
Coalition have been working with consumer-electronics manufacturers
to develop portable devices -- cellphones, "netbooks,"
USB "dongles," DVD players -- with a tiny chip built
into them to receive digital-television transmissions. Another
concept being trotted out at CES will be a pocket-sized "bridge"
device able to receive mobile DTV signals and then retransmit
them via wi-fi networking, thereby eliminating the need for a
The biggest news coming out of CES may not be product-related,
however, Everyone is awaiting the announcement of year-end numbers
on sales of all consumer-electronics products. While the overall
economic slump may be far from over, the sector lately has been
given a few reasons for optimism, The huge box-office tally over
the Christmas weekend should bode well for disc sales and rentals
down the road, while deep-discounting at the retail level helped
spike sales of Blu-ray equipment during the long Thanksgiving
Manufacturers and studios have been waiting impatiently for most
of the last two years for the format to pick up the slack in the
declining DVD business. The explosive growth of DVDs in the late-'90s
and early 2000s conditioned bean-counters to expect exponential
gains in year-to-year profits.
The boom times stalled for two key reasons.The profit margins
on playback units plummeted because they were built to last and
consumers discovered that bargain-basement players performed nearly
as well as top-shelf items. No matter how often some companies
re-mastered, repackaged and re-hyped its most popular movies,
there was little urgency on the part of consumers to rise to the
bait. As advertised, DVDs remained in playable shape far longer
than VHS cassettes, a fact not lost on rental companies hoping
to dine on the studios' lunch.
(DVDs were originally intended as sell-through products, with
prices low enough to discourage rentals. That gambit may have
worked on catalogue and family titles, but not the dross cluttering
new-release shelves. Today, remainder bins located in convenience
stores and truck stops overflow with movies that once sold for
Not surprisingly, perhaps, the studios became their own worst
enemies when it came time to introduce the brilliant new technology
that would jump-start sales of both hardware and software. In
the time it took them to choose Blu-ray over HD-DVD, two Christmas
buying seasons had passed. Consumers, satisfied with their DVD
units, simply refused to subsidize another format war, such as
the ones between VHS, Beta and LaserDisc; DVD and Divx;and TiVo
Film buffs have also benefited from the inability of Hollywood's
battleships to turn on a dime. Netflix and Facets serve their
needs far better than Blockbuster ever could, while niche distributors
continue to mine gems from a United Nations' worth of home-grown
cinemas. If the DVDs don't always include chatty commentary, making-of
featurettes, gag reels, deleted scenes and digital copies, no
one seemed to be complaining.
The acceptance of DVD by the art-house crowd, academics and young
people prompted the studios to work harder, too. When the sale
of hits faltered, they turned to their television divisions for
product normally reserved for syndication, as well as library
titles that could be recycled. This was great for consumers, but
the companies could dig only so far into their archives before
the supply was exhausted. (Some bought time by cutting full-season
packages in half and selling them separately, or in themed sets.
Complete-series sets now invariably follow in the wake of a la
carte releases.) The opportunity to re-purpose everything in the
archives, once again, through Blu-ray and broadband, is what's
currently on everyone's minds.
Meanwhile, though, niche companies are mining the archives and
libraries of companies around the globe, as well as the personal
collections of experimental artists and family trusts. For their
customers, the marketplace remains vital and surprisingly broad.
If nothing else, it allows movie buffs in the boonies to enjoy
the same pictures raved about in the year-end roundups of critics
based in New York, L.A. and London.
This may not represent the best of all possible worlds, but given
the alternatives open to movie lovers at the start of the last
decade, it ain't bad.
Digital Dozen for 2009
In compiling my list of favorite DVD and Blu-ray releases from
2009, I attempted to spread the wealth among several niche companies,
as well as Criterion and the major studios. I saw no reason for
adding DVDs of films that enjoyed successful theatrical runs within
the last 18 months, unless the supplemental features were transcendent.
What would be the point?
1) Exiles (Milestone): A long-ignored portrait of Native-American
hipsters in Eisenhower-era Los Angeles.
2) The Human Condition/AK 100: 25 Films by Akira Kurosawa/Eclipse
Series 15: Travels With Hiroshi Shimizu (Criterion): Japan,
in a very large nutshell.
3) Anvil! The Story of Anvil(VH1 Films): Documenting the
eternal promise and spirit of rock 'n' roll.
4) Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Diamond Edition (Disney):
Even better, in Blu-ray.
5) Sin Nombre (Universal): A harrowing story of flight
6) The Saragossa Manuscript (Facets): Perhaps, the craziest
cult classic from the '60s.
7) A Woman in Berlin(Strand): Paying the price for buying
into Hitler's madness. Watch with Facet's "Germany, Pale
Mother" and weep.
8) Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics: Volume I (Sony):
If not classics, exactly, wonderful entertainments.
9) Life on Mars: Series 1 (Acorn): Great television from
Britain ... where else?
10) Lemon Tree (IFC Films): Two women trapped in the no-man's
land between Israel and Palestine.
11) The Battle of Chile (Icarus)/Z (Criterion):
The fragility of democracies in fact and fiction.
12) All You Need Is Love (MVD/Zeit): Tony Palmer's epic
history of popular music in 17 toe-tapping, head-banging episodes.
January 5, 2010