..Gary Dretzka
..Noah Forrest
..Leonard Klady
..David Poland
..Douglas Pratt
..Ray Pride
..Kim Voynar
..Michael Wilmington


May 23, 2008
May 8, 2008
May 1, 2008
April 8, 2008
March 19, 2008
February 22, 2008
February 16, 2008
February 5, 2008
Nov 8, 2007
Nov 2, 2007
Oct 30, 2007
Sept 27, 2007
Sept 4, 2007
Aug 17, 2007
Aug 4, 2007
July 31, 2007
July 25, 2007
June 12, 2007
May 18, 2007
May 15, 2007
Mar 8, 2007
Feb 26, 2007
Feb 18, 2007
January 10, 2007
January 2, 2007

pa

 



..MCN Weekend

A Preview of CES and the Digital Dozen of 2009

Throughout 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 coming year.

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 brick-and-mortar theaters.

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 intended format.

Details on 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 built-in chip.

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 weekend.

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 $25,)

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 and Replay.

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.

***

My 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 and redemption.

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.

- Gary Dretzka
January 5, 2010

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