Columns / Discourse / November 9, 2011

Check the Reel: Film and the Internet Age

The film industry hasn’t survived for over a century without adapting to changes in technology and culture. It learned to accommodate sound, color and digital cameras, but with the advent of television, studios faced the terrifying prospect of audiences shunning the theatre for movies at home. VHS and DVD posed similar problems, but through altered tactics and new, savvy filmmakers, the cinema remained a relevant force in the world.

Now, in the 21st century, film must come to grips with another invention, one that could either propel cinema to a new Golden Age or sink it like a lead swan. It has to deal with the World Wide Web.

The Internet has been around since the early 1990s, but it didn’t hit its zenith until the middle of the past decade when social networking, blogs, YouTube, and other net titans grew in popularity. Today, though only half the U.S. population uses the Internet regularly, its presence has become ubiquitous.

Film studios are perfectly aware of the Internet, and they fear it. It was responsible for the near collapse of one industry — music — and they see something similar happening to them too. Movie piracy is a greater reality than ever, thanks to tools such as Torrents and web streaming. Even legitimate modes of film purchase, like Netflix, suck money out of Hollywood’s life and blood, the weekend box office.

Film criticism, once limited to newspapers and word-of-mouth, now disseminates rapidly before a movie is released. Movie websites and blogs bring news of a film’s development, along with pictures, interviews and initial impressions, at breakneck speed. Before a film has been in theatres a single day, RottenTomatoes makes it clear whether people think it’s worth their money.

All industries are built around image management and financial security, and film is no exception. When movie studios see their films distributed without compensation and audiences disparaging them before their products even reach the market, executives grow edgy.

They rely, more than ever, on familiar brands that attract audiences even if online feedback turns sour — hence the increase in remakes and franchise sequels. Instead of aiming for evergreen films that can stay in theatres for several months to a year, Hollywood hedges bets on the opening weekend. Late bloomers and sleeper hits have no place in a world defined by lightning-speed information.

I would be lying if I excused these problems as nonexistent or trivial, but let’s not overstate the case here. The film industry is in a state of flux, exacerbated by current recession fears where no policy is set in stone. Hollywood didn’t fully adjust to television until the studio system collapsed, allowing for auteur filmmakers inspired by international cinema to take the reins. Something similar might be happening with filmmakers on the Internet.

Video sharing is not only a tool of piracy, but also a radical shortcut to distributing an upcoming director’s work. YouTube provides a breeding ground for the film industry’s next generation of workers. The video “Ryan vs. Dorkman,” an amateur lightsaber duel filmed with self-made special effects, got one of its creators hired to do visual work for Star Wars video games and the TV show “Heroes.”

The original “Paranormal Activity” used Internet buzz to drive the film’s jump from limited release to worldwide showings. Used correctly, the Internet is a godsend for independent filmmakers worldwide.

Likewise, the Internet provides legal means for would-be film buffs to get their start. Even ten years ago, films in the public domain still required some effort to acquire and watch. Now, you can watch most silent films for free on YouTube or Google. Websites host documentaries and avant-garde films that never made the rounds theatrically. Everyone has the opportunity to increase his/her film vernacular with just a few clicks of the keyboard.

How can we ensure the Internet continues to serve as a force of cinematic good? Stay active. If you are an aspiring filmmaker, upload your works online. Scout video sites for other directors and technicians in search of an audience. I recently discovered a YouTube user who uploaded the silent film serial “Les Vampires” with his own Gothic-electronica orchestration.

Last I checked he had less than a hundred views on each video. With your support, people like him could vitalize the industry in the 21st century.

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