It’s All Motion Pictures, People


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.



It worries me that we’re rushing towards this convergence of TV, movies and web video and ignoring what makes each medium unique.

Web video as it stands today has some major distinguishing qualities that have barely been explored. The mere fact that a web video is usually experienced alone, while movies and TV are experienced in groups gives it an important first-person intimacy that you don’t find elsewhere.
I would just hate to see things like that get lost in the shuffle.

And what about interactivity? I hope its not a passing fancy that we’re willing to sacrifice just because its more comfortable to sit on your couch and use a remote to watch videos.

Anyway – thanks to NewTeeVee for helping to keep track of this whole movement.

Chris Baum

Great post, Jackson. The idea that watching something for entertainment without regard to the method is so right on.

It gets REALLY interesting when we get to the point where the population at large can watch video wherever they want, whenever they want, without thinking too hard about how it works.

CES and SXSW are starting to hint at that, but we’re still a ways away from these things being seamless.

That time is coming. Thanks for continuing to point how that path lays out.

Jackson West

Chad, that’s really interesting. I was using the video for ironic effect — since the criticism of online video and the like is that it’s just “people filming their cats.” And in this case, it’s a cat vegetating on the couch in front of the tube — watching cable industry propaganda, no less!

And Evan raises another one of my favorite points about findability. One of the things I’ve been hearing here in Austin is about how, no matter how good your content is, unless it’s ‘promoted’ it may never find an audience. Hopefully social networks matched with low-level artificial intelligence could take a lot of the guess work, and maybe marketing dollars, out of the equation.


There is a wealth of content out there now–good, bad and excellent. As online distribution grows the key is going to be finding great content–content that you like.

We see this today with recommendation engines and social networking capabilities. But, these need to move to the next level.

Remember the story from a few years back “why does my Tivo think I’m gay?”

When software can learn my likes and dislikes over time and match that against other people I tag and then deliver–automatically–great content to me, then we have a revolution.

Chad Johnston

I don’t know if you did this on purpose or not..but..
The youtube video happens to have a National Cable and Telecommunications Association commercial in the background touting cable as an “American dream” success story. Meanwhile, the US is close to 16th in the world for broadband deployment and connectivity, and the telcos pump propaganda into our homes about making America a better place…as they continuously shape legislation to their benefit (profit) and remove all public service requirements…
I just couldn’t help finding the commercial and your article kind of ironic.
Chad Johnston

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