A very hot topic on the festival circuit right now is alternative forms of distribution. Translated, this means - "What is the best way for your movie to be seen by the most amount of people?" Theatrical distribution for most films is not an option, and probably shouldn't be for a lot that do get it. Even if one does have a theatrical release of a film, distribution is still an area of great interest and concern, post its theater run. The goal is to get the film seen by as many eyes as possible while extending the life of the film. Currently, the hottest solution to this problem is digital distribution. This is basically online distribution with video on demand (VOD), via sites like YouTube, Hulu, Amazon, iTunes and Tivo. Digital media companies (ie: b-side, Cinetic Rights Management, and IndieFlix) assist filmmakers trying to secure digital rights for their films and offer the filmmaker an audience they would never get theatrically. The selling point is the ability to get the movie in front of eyes around the entire world - literally - via the aforementioned internet sites and various other mediums.
Online viewing is by far the easiest and possibly most cost-effective way to reach the masses. But, I honestly don't think online movie viewing (of feature films) is going to be very successful, when viewed from one's computer screen. I think this for a couple of reasons: 1) People prefer to watch feature-length movies with others (making it a shared experience) and, 2) The computer is an interactive device (which is counterintuitive to movie watching).
Movie Viewing is a Shared Experience
While people do watch movies alone, I feel like the preferred method is to do it with others. Entertainment (movies, plays, etc) is usually enjoyed in pairs - or more (a pair of tickets). Watching things with other people enhances the storytelling and story-receiving experience. When watching a show or movie with family and friends, it's common to look at each other after hearing the punchline of a joke, or after a tragic turning point. Watching alone removes that experience and sense of connection with the other person, or people, and possibly even from whatever it is being watched.
While online media sites like YouTube and iTunes work incessantly to improve the quality viewing (specifically for movies), in hopes more people will watch their content from their computers, they cannot change the viewer's environment. This is where TV and computers differ. TVs are created to go into rooms that allow for, and usually invite, multiple people. The computer monitor, is typically attached to a laptop (note the singularity of "lap") or a stationary desktop ( again, designed for a single user), designed for offices or work spaces - a much less friendlier environment for movie watching.
While computers now come equipped to watch DVD's and access the internet - enabling a laptop or PC to act as a TV - it is still primarily designed for a different purpose and for a single user. Having access to internet sites that allow the user to watch a movie online, streaming or via download, doesn't change the singularity of the event. How many times have you moved a chair over to a friend's computer monitor to watch a feature-length movie? Short movies, TV shows and user-generated snippets rule for online viewing.
Computer Monitors vs. TVs
Computer monitors/displays are attached to computers - which also come with a keyboards/mouse/printer, etc.. This is an interactive single-user device. The act of viewing a movie is meant to be a passive one, allowing the viewer to access the imagination via the story by simply watching and absorbing it. Watching a movie on a computer tempts the viewer with access to other items (email, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc) and subliminally suggests multi-tasking.
I don't know about you, but I find it difficult to just sit in front of laptop and not interact with it - even while watching something short. I can have multiple windows open at once and "multi-task." I can "watch" an old video clip of George Carlin on YouTube while I write a blog. This is not quality viewing. If I were a filmmaker, I would want the audience to be fully engaged in my movie, and not just look up when they hear story-altering music or laughter. While some people might be able to fully engage in an online feature without checking their email, or updating their Facebook status, I am not one of them (nor are most of the people I know). Dividing one's attention across multiple media at a single time compromises comprehension of the media being put out (movie) and also the ability to optimally perform the additional functions (email, letter, etc).
The Convergence of Interactive Media
In October, I blogged and reposted an article from the New York Times announcing that Netflix HD Streams Coming to XBox. The article's title aptly describes its contents. This is an example of an interactive product (XBox) converging with a non-interactive product (TV) and producing a desired result - shared movie watching experience.
Also in my post, I mentioned the HDTVs designed to stream online videos on-demand, without the additional use of a set-top box (ie: XBox, cable box, etc). The technology making this possible is tru2way. October ushered in Panasonic's first tru2way HDTV retail stores in Chicago and Denver. According to the press release, "These tru2way HDTVs will allow consumers to access all digital cable services such as electronic program guides and the full range of interactive and video-on-demand programming – all accessible directly via the television’s remote control - without the costs or clutter associated with a traditional external cable set-top box." This is a joint effort for Panasonic and Comcast.
Earlier this month I attended the International Film Festival Summit and listened to a panel discussion on this topic: Distribution Revolution or Evolution? , moderated by Mike Jones of Variety. The panel's conclusion (my takeaway): It's a toss up and the filmmaker needs to make his/her own decision based on what s/he thinks is best for the film.
A couple of weeks after the conference, Cinevegas' Roger Erik Tinch wrote a blog, "Distribution and Consumption in 2009," sharing his thoughts. His conclusion: "Ultimately it’s all about harnessing the speed, accessibility and virality of the internet to bring home viewing content back where it belongs: on the T.V."
I agree with Tinch. Shorts are fine to be loaded and viewed online in hopes of viral takeoff. Features should follow a different model. Online trailers are great and are necessary to inform, but the feature-length movie itself should be watched in comfort, with people paying full attention. If it's not in the theater, then the next best place is at home, on TV.