What’s the difference between a digitally projected film in the theater, a digitally broadcast cable or satellite signal, a digital video disc or a digital subscriber line? Context, law and habit, primarily. While there’s certainly something to be said for seeing a film in a theater, I do get rather tired of the hoary nostalgia from the likes of The New Yorker‘s David Denby. While everybody would love to see their work on a big screen, most are pretty happy when it’s on lots of little screens. And the audience at large, however much their tastes may be maligned by critics, agree — DVD sales are bigger than the box office.
Jokes about funny clips of family pets aside, even the Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg admits that there’s scads of great content online. I watch almost everything on my laptop, and most of it comes via IP, with the rest ordered from web sites and shipped. For me, this has seriously blurred the lines between what’s film, what’s television and what’s ‘online video.’ How about we just start calling it all ‘motion pictures’ or, if you’re not feeling so old-timey, ‘video’ — because as far as digital devices are concerned, it’s all ‘data.’ So why is anybody bothering to perpetuate the charade that there are even lines left to blur?
Television critic Tim Goodman of the San Francisco Chronicle argued in his first podcast that we’re “light-years away” from watching all our content online, and that by producing better content, television will still dominate. “No network is going to give up their programming and give it to the internet,” he declared. Except, or course, all of them are doing that already — whether they like it (ad supported streams) or not (file sharing). If you step away from the box, you’ll realize that all the models of sending digital video, from theaters to set-tops to laptops, are similarly just destinations for the display of pixels sent as packets over a network.
For those who think that the culture would lose something if theaters are shuttered, they can stop worrying — congregating as a group to watch a program will never go away. AFI is hosting Pixelodeon, a festival of web video. My favorite local theater, the Parkway in Oakland, serves pizza and beer to guests on couches, and produce their own pre-show video segment. I love ad-hoc, outdoor events like San Francisco’s Potrero Walk-In Movies and Seattle’s Fremont Outdoor Cinema. Anyone with a projector and some friends can put together the social equivalent of a night out at the movies. You can even do it in Second Life.
Media critic Tom Maurstad suggests we’re in a “golden age of television,” and points to fantastic filmmaking like The Sopranos that just happens to be on television, and told in a serial format. But an independent film production like Little Miss Sunshine, which was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, was produced for a fraction of the budget for an HBO series. And more people will see the movie on a little screen than will ever see it in a theater. I watched it on a 12″ LCD screen, with earbud headphones. Steve Carrell and Alan Arkin were hilarious. But what makes it so different to produce and distribute than The Sopranos, especially if they start making sequels — Little Miss Sunshine II: Electric Boogaloo, anyone?
The point is that the cost of producing content is going down, the quality of content is (actually) going up: Robert Rodriguez originally made El Mariachi for $7,000, and intended to sell it on the direct-to-VHS for the Latin American market; The hit clip “Spiders on Drugs” was originally a short film produced for the festival circuit. And the cheapest content to produce — ‘reality’ programming like news, documentaries and home movies — are collectively more popular then ever.
The digital age is already here for video, meaning that the motion picture industry should stop thinking about ‘film versus television versus the web,’ and start thinking about new ways to explore the art of storytelling in the age of digital production and reproduction. It’s time to put down the Syd Field and pick up the Walter Benjamin. Because all video can and will be digitized and divorced from its original context at some point. Deal with it.