Regular readers of this column may be surprised at how often my bed features as a location of movie viewing. Whether it’s in Hollywood, New York or Berkeley, I have an irresistible attraction to the hollow pallor of the computer screen as I skirt the embrace of Morpheus. If it were ever any more than myself and my laptop, this would be the kinkiest sex column of all time.
This week is no different. It’s not just because I burned all my furniture as firewood, but also because my bed happens to be hosting a premiere of sorts for the latest Julie Delpy film, “2 Days in New York.” Sadly, none of the stars will be in attendance. Indeed, the premiere was vacant to the point where I was actually the only one watching the film. Another column on illegal Internet streaming? Not quite. Last week, Magnolia pictures, the North American distributors of the film released the entire movie for online streaming and rental nearly an entire month before its theatrical release on August 10.
This is not a pioneering concept. It had its nexus in a series of big movie flops in 2005. Audiences across the board were down 10 percent. The list of box-office bombs for that year read like a veritable litany of sure-fire successes — commercial concepts with Oscar-winning names attached to them. For someone like me, who measures time in Woody Allen films, 2005 was the year of “Match Point,” when after 30 years of stateside cinema, the master abandoned the New World for the Old.
The crisis seemed to culminate in August when Robert A. Iger, CEO of the Walt Disney Corporation, issued what theater owners called a “death threat” to his own industry. Like several New York Times columnists, Steve Jobs and a host of other movie bigwigs, Iger saw the solution to the industry’s woes in the simultaneous release of a film through multiple platforms. Platforms could include theaters, iTunes and cable television. If digital pirates wanted online cinema, Iger would give it to them — for a fee.
He made good on his claims. With ABC television, which is partly owned by the Disney company, Iger began to offer legal television downloads through Apple’s iTunes store, just an hour after they had aired on TV. Indeed, Apple, feeling limber after resuscitating a well and truly Napstered music industry seemed poised to work another miracle with movies. In October 2005, they launched their video iPod before committing to full-length movie downloads in September 2006.
As fate would have it, 2006 proved to be a banner year for Hollywood, and many of these more radical ideas were put on the backburner and experimented on with smaller, less risky projects. These were films, like Steven Soderbergh’s 2006 film “Bubble,” distributed by — surprise, surprise –– Magnolia pictures! The test was a disaster and the film flopped. Perhaps Soderberg’s most recent offering “Magic Mike” has a future in streaming. It has all the hallmarks of a good laptop watch –– primarily, gratuitous amounts of male nudity.
For all online distribution’s false starts and failures, the concept seems to be ramping up again. After “2 Days in New York,” Magnolia will continue to release other films over this “online-first” model. With celluloid distribution being phased out in 2013, it seems that, with a whimper and not a bang, the age of films exhibited and distributed on physical film is drawing to a close.
Without a doubt, there are benefits: Smaller indie films that wouldn’t get a look at theatrical distribution are finding that they can distribute digitally and online. The digital revolution, it seems has made good on at least some of its promises to be a democratic one. Netflix, for one, has begun to self-distribute smaller films under the Red Envelope Entertainment label that perhaps might not have been given distribution under the old system.
And yet, for all the promise it yields, I’m not entirely sold on the model. It’s a philosophical, rather than aesthetic, issue that I have with digital distribution. Novelist Jonathan Franzen, speaking about the advent of e-books in publishing, said that digitization cheapens the voice of the author. The permanence of a printed book manifested in ink and paper is a testament to the truth and confidence of its author. A screen, by contrast feels “like we could delete that, change that, move it around.” Don’t let “The Social Network” fool you. For all its pretenses, the Internet is written in pencil, not in ink. For all the echoes of paranoia, I think Franzen has a point.
Franzen’s vision is reminiscent of the edits filmmaker George Lucas made to his “Star Wars” films when they were rereleased in 1997. One particular exchange that drew the ire of fans was the alteration of a shootout between Greedo and Han Solo to make the former shoot first. Fans and cinema enthusiasts argued that it undermined Solo’s character development.
Newcomers to the series would be none the wiser; Lucas withheld the original cut of Star Wars in 1997 and then again for in 2004’s DVD re-release which featured still more changes. The originals were finally released on DVD in 2006. In the future, with celluloid distribution set to be phased out and digital distribution to the theater and home poised to become the norm, directors like Lucas may be able to dramatically change their film without alerting the public through rereleases of a physical product.
I must admit, it’s pretty heady stuff to be contemplating at 10 after midnight over a cute romantic comedy. I nearly turned the film off, but I don’t quite have the will for that. And hey, more online movies mean more indies, right? And you can’t fault the market research guys: The idea of converting one’s bedroom into a first-run movie theater has been begging attention since Tarantino made VHS cinephilia cool in the ’90s. I then made the decision that tomorrow, I would be a better and more ethical consumer –– well, at least I’d try. But nursing my battered sense of self-pride to sleep, it was hard to know whether either I or the commercial forces of progress had scored a victory.