Monday, October 21, 2013

Film and the Internet

We've touched on various videos and video platforms over the course of these blog posts, so it seems almost criminal to ignore how motion picture has been changed by the Internet.

Please turn off your cell phone for the duration of this blog post.

Just like other media with previously established presence, film and television have had to find a way to adapt to the Internet. Its transition into the digital age has given us a healthy variety of  film services and community discourse, and may have spelled out the beginning of a long and slow change from below.


The story of film distribution will ring familiar if you remember the story of music distribution: Emergent technologies, along with the advent of digital transfer, have allowed for film and television to be distributed for free. While you could download film and television like you could download music, you could also find your shows hosted on sketchy websites where you can watch them in your browser. Google "free" and whatever favorite film or television keyword you'd like, and you could probably find such a site.

The MPAA, much like its music counterpart in the RIAA, has taken mostly unsuccessful steps to combat online piracy. Their campaigns to discourage piracy have been met with mockery and criticism, giving them a comical image that is fairly distinct from the RIAA's curmudgeonly, almost malicious public face. Movies make up a greater proportion of pirated material than music. The statistics remain vague on how much money in the film industry has been lost to piracy, and the numbers that the MPAA likes to throw out tend to be inaccurate

As this old institution kept bashing its head against the wall, new (and legal) ventures were popping up that capitalized on the Internet's capacity for film distribution. Such companies could negotiate with studios and movie owners for distribution rights, acting as a middleman for cash flow. YouTube's video platform offered the ideal framework for YouTube Movies, allowing users to pay for movies on demand. Amazon Instant Video offers a similar service. Hulu offers streaming videos of TV shows and movies, with an expanded platform to include clips, trailers, and behind-the-scenes footage. Direct payment for service, premium options, and ad revenue all contribute to the profitability of these business models.

Preceding - and reigning high above - all of these on-demand services, however, is Netflix.

And they're just such practical people, too!

Netflix started dealing in video-on-demand before "on-demand" was an industry norm, with its early business model revolving around actually mailing DVDs to customers. The business model was ready for digital distribution before digital distribution became popular, and the company gracefully transitioned to the Internet. The service now has over 37 million subscribers. When the fourth season of Arrested Development was ready to air, it was not released on television, but on Netflix.

Netflix continues to expand, seeking better deals for new movies and spurring the creation of Netflix-only original content. That isn't to say, however, that their current cache of movies is getting overlooked. Their movie library has over 20,000 titles and can be navigated with a simple search function. The interface also has various behind-the-scenes algorithms that recommend different movies based on what the customer has previously viewed. Through this functionality, Netflix becomes a platform where contemporary blockbusters are just as accessible as obscure 1940s noir films. 

This is a great equalizer in film consumption - no longer did you need access to film archives in order to have a breadth of older movies at your disposal. No longer were you forced to find outdated hardware in order to watch old VHS copies - or, shudder, beta copies - of old films. With the advent of digital distribution services like Netflix, anybody could become a film connoisseur. You could stream all of the Hitchcock movies one weekend, and stream the Marvel cinematic universe the next.

An increase in film consumption has led to a greater demand for talking about film consumption. And to this end, the Internet has allowed the cultivation of a new breed of "film buff".

A breed that's probably never handled one of these.

The Internet Movie DataBase (IMDB) ranks among Alexa's top 100 most visited websites, and houses information on actors, trivia, and anything else regarding general motion picture. Plenty of such online film databases have emerged over the years, reflecting the demand of discourse on film. Niche interests in movies can even be found in things like the Internet Movie Firearms Database, which chronicles specific firearm models used in film. TvTropes, despite all of its problems, does a great job in categorizing common themes in media, including film.

Movie review outlets have found lots of success online as well. The late Roger Ebert made a fairly seamless transition to posting his reviews on a blog-like format, with his website having multiple talented contributors that keep the site relevant. Reelviews is the brainchild of James Berardinelli, who began reviewing movies online as a hobby and has been described by the late Ebert as "the best of the Web-based critics". Other personalities like Plinkett and the Nostalgia Critic have also gained notoriety among online fans, while Cinemassacre and Red Letter Media offer teams of web personalities giving their input on movies. These are just a drop in the bucket, of course - if you could post text on the Internet, then you could be a movie reviewer.

As more people began to join the online conversation about movies, it became valuable to develop ways to streamline these opinions in a more digestible format. Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes aggregate reviews from film critics all over the web, giving viewers a convenient way to gauge popular opinion on a movie. These websites also have audience ratings, where the viewers themselves can chime in with their opinion. Review aggregation has become a successful online infrastructure that has considerable sway on media, even beyond film.

The activity within that infrastructure, on the other hand, is subject to some questionable results. The vetting process for who counts as a reviewer, for example, tends to be fairly lax, giving the input of Roger Ebert the same weight as the opinion of JoeNobodyWithABlog.com. There is also a developed illusion of objectivity when a popular opinion gains momentum in these aggregate reviews. It becomes harder to add a dissenting opinion without facing serious backlash. One film critic was met with death threats when he published a negative review of The Dark Knight Rises that broke the film's 100% streak on Rotten Tomatoes.

The fundamental problem here is that nobody is really more qualified to consume film than anyone else. Much as we see within nerd culture in general, the modern online "film buff" is the equivalent of an eagle scout, collecting certain popular opinions on film like merit badges. They consume media, then they consume how others have consumed media, and then they separate themselves from each other by discriminating against how others are consuming media. But, in the end, nobody's creating anything or being particularly productive - they're just gorging on the creativity of others.

This brings us to another problem: The increase in film consumption through the Internet has not come with an equal increase in film production.

What do you mean, I can't just point a camera at things and call it film?

We've spoken on YouTube's great successes in cultivating a rich environment for content creators. The quality of YouTube videos can range dramatically (and we definitely aren't counting vlogs or Let's Plays as "film"), but the high end can include web series that cost over a million dollars to make. Vimeo markets itself towards the more "serious" film crowd, celebrating indie filmmakers and being early adopters of HD.

These platforms certainly thrive, but it is infinitely easier to consume film than it is to produce it. Here belies the major difference between the development of online film and the development of online music.

Music and film have both seen technological improvements for consumer-grade gear as well as greater rates of consumption online. Successful music production relies on having technical skill with an instrument while possessing adequately high-end recording gear. Film production, on the other hand, needs teams of actors, appropriate scene space, direction of multiple audio-visual elements, and far more equipment than the typical recording gig.

Film's barrier of entry is much higher than music's barrier of entry, so people make fewer new films than they do new music. This means that a greater proportion of the music community can actually be involved with music production, inviting a level of discussion that will be more technical, creative-focused, and well-tempered than your average "I consumed this music this way and it me feel X because Y" discussion. I'm sure that discussions among film-makers are comparable to discussions among music makers, but it's rare to witness such conversations when there are so few visible film-makers among us online.

Music production is so varied - and music so diverse - that it is impossible to keep track of every album getting released.  This leads to a fairly decentralized music community, where enthusiasts of certain genres or bands rarely have to deal with people who like completely different genres or bands. Film, on the other hand, is not as diverse as music, and do not get released as frequently as albums do. Hollywood blockbusters remain the centerpiece of most film discussion, and also happen to be the lowest hanging fruit for having opinions on movies. The film community ends up talking about the same films far more often than music fans talk about the same albums. This causes the film community to be more centralized, meaning individuals are going to butt heads more often.

On the other side of things, you can also compare this centralization phenomenon to gamer culture. Video games are monumental tasks to create, and come out even less frequently than movies do. Gamer culture, as a result, is even more centralized than film culture. Gamers tend to congregate around the same subject material, which make individuals within the community butt heads even more often, which makes them appear louder and more obnoxious. Film straddles an uncomfortable middle ground between the relatively docile online music scene and the relatively shameful gamer scene.

So, what does this all mean for the future of film?

Not to spoil anything, but it probably isn't this.

Let's keep looking at music to help infer what might happen. The Internet was a source of extreme market disruption for the music industry, essentially toppling the status quo. This disruption was spearheaded by individual music enthusiasts along with amateur musicians. Platforms like Pandora and Soundcloud emerged to meet demand, and a new music landscape was born. For film, the platforms for film consumers have already been supplied, at least.

Some new films even get released with new technology in mind. The Veronica Mars movie project has successfully turned to Kickstarter to find funding. Some movies have started getting simultaneous releases to theaters and video-on-demand. This first started happening with films that were not expected to have box office presence, but now there are talks of Disney and Sony Pictures testing out the waters.

Meanwhile, Hollywood films grow stagnant. 74 out of the 100 "top ten movies of the year" from 2001 to 2011 have either been sequels to films, remakes of older films, or adaptations of other media into film. Couple this with the economic recession, and you see that it is the relatively unadventurous - but reliably profitable - film projects that get the millions of dollars in funding. In fact, modern movies are getting more similar - blockbuster films are so formulaic because there actually is a formula for them. Big-name directors like Spielberg and Lucas warn of Hollywood's inevitable implosion.

I had touched on this towards the end of my blog post on music, but it bears repeating: further stagnation of the film industry may get to a point where independent video productions become a more significant competitive force for public attention. We see this happen with indie games among gamers, so why not film?

It's possible, but it might not happen for a while. Movie production cycles are often years in length, and we might have to wait as long as 15 years from now before we can discuss a marked change in the landscape of film. Plus, the established film industry is probably more than capable of adapting to a different movie formula in a few years - after all, they are already cognizant of the power of aggregate reviews.

For the film industry to be disrupted, we require a stronger showing of independent film and content producers on the Internet. As YouTube develops, the independent projects may get bigger and better, which  will attract more funding. Will it ever get to the point where it can effectively counter the hypothetical Iron Man 8?

Only time will tell. After all, tomorrow is another day.

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