At a more-subdued-than-usual 2006 Sundance Film Festival, digital films and filmmaking were not so buzzed about, which is ironic since the era of end-to-end digital production and distribution is here--a utopian dream or dystopian nightmare depending upon whether you're Steven Soderbergh or M. Night Shyamalan.
It looks like this: you're a filmmaker with a feature whose native format is digital video (high-definition, 24P, or some combination thereof), edited online using software such as Final Cut or Avid, with computer-generated special effects, or CGI, uploaded for satellite distribution to digitally-equipped neighborhood theatres, or (and this is what has Steven and, um, M., at odds) on-demand home viewing the same day the DVD hits Netflix.
Yes, digital cinema is no longer new or novel, but it is clearly, and inevitably, the wave of the future. And its arrival is not only changing production and distribution models, but also causing the collapse of what is known as the exhibition window (the time between a motion picture's theatrical release and its release on DVD and other ancillary markets).
We'll get back to more of the digital cinema big picture. But what was happening in and around Park City, you ask (aside from Paris Hilton and Carmen Electra trolling for goodies in the swag suites)? Well, the Digital Center featured products designed to enhance digital workflow for busy, budget-minded indie filmmakers such as Avid's new editing suite, Avid Xpress Studio HD, Adobe's new Production Studio, and HP's Compaq nw8240 Mobile Workstation.
Curiously, Panavision once again demoed its Genesis digital video camera which, with a $100,000+ price tag, is far out of reach of pretty much every independent filmmaker trudging the up and down Main Street (the hub of all the hubbub in Park City).
Even filmmakers whose features originate in 35mm (or 16mm) often create what is known as a digital intermediate, or DI print, for offline editing and color correction. Laser Pacific was in town promoting its proprietary inDI process. Visit the site for lots of boggling technical jargon.
But how did the films utilizing these technologies fare? Comedian Bob (formerly "Bobcat") Goldthwait's feature directorial debut, Stay, about a young woman who commits an impulsive act of bestiality (yes, bestiality) and spends the rest of the film regretting it, suffered from a garish, candy-colored palette common to DV, as well as clunky editing (common to first-time filmmakers). The print (presumably screened in high-definition digital video since all Sundance screening rooms are equipped with such) was marred by a strange striation that covered the actors' faces.
A still from the Beastie Boys concert doc Awesome! I Fu**in' Shot That!
The Beastie Boys concert doc Awesome! I Fu**in' Shot That! looked like it was shot with a Verizon camera phone, but is actually the result of 50 Hi-8 camcorders in the hands of lucky audience members who captured the band's triumphant 2005 return to Madison Square Garden.
The film is as frenetic and kinetic as the Boys, a classic midnight movie. The sound is, indeed, awesome! But the, uh, cinematography (if you could call it that) takes some getting used to. Every now and again, scenes from the actual big-screen concert feed appear, and their higher definition and professionalism make you cry out for more, but no matter. Hardcore fans (like Ben Stiller, who knew the words to every, single, song) will dig it.
Now, as a filmmaker, I have a vested interest in seeing digital cinema succeed. After all, it's cheaper and easier to work with than soon-to-be-archaic 16mm or 35mm film. With that said, however, I have yet to see a DV feature as exquisite as Laurie Collyer's narrative debut, Sherrybaby (Collyer's background is as a documentary filmmaker). Featuring a knockout performance by Maggie Gyllenhaal as a struggling single mother just out of rehab, Sherrybaby boasts beautiful light, perfect composition, and the soft edges and contrast found only in film (or, in digital video with hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of frame-by-frame color correction).
Interestingly, over the festival's closing weekend, former Sundance glory boy Steven Soderbergh (who won the 1989 jury award for Sex, Lies, and Videotape) conducted his "day and date" digital experiment with his latest feature, Bubble, which could have been a Sundance contender, what with its low budget, improvised acting, and cast of unknowns.
"Day and date" is studio parlance for simultaneous release into markets that were previously staggered. The studios, for instance, have already embraced day and date domestic and international theatrical releases of most blockbusters in order to thwart piracy (previously, there was a three- to four-month "window" between domestic and international theatrical release).
The newest wrinkle in day and date is simultaneous release into theatrical, on-demand, and DVD markets, thereby collapsing the three- to four-month window between North American theatrical and on-demand/DVD release. Soderbergh and his producing partner, Mark Cuban (and production/distribution company, 2929) are strong proponents of simultaneous release, arguing that a film's fans should be able to see the flick wherever and whenever it is most convenient for them (in the theatre, at home, etc.).
Cuban and Soderbergh are aided in this endeavor by the emergence of digital cinema. After all, once you've uploaded the master print, what does it matter whether a theatre manager downloads the feature for exhibition in a movie theatre, or a consumer downloads the print for home viewing?
In the opposing corner are filmmakers such as M. Night Shyamalan, who want to preserve the communal "theatrical experience" (you know, where you overpay for movie tickets and concessions, and spend a fortune on parking and babysitters), and fear that collapsing the theatrical window will only erode theatrical revenues.
With all of the major studios signing digital distribution deals (they'll pay "virtual print" fees to companies like Technicolor), it looks like Shyamalan is going to be on the losing end of this issue. But, though Shyamalan and his allies will probably lose the war, they did win the Bubble battle: the film bombed at the box office.
(Note to Soderbergh: If you really want to test the viability of day and date theatrical/in-home/DVD release, try it with Ocean's Thirteen.)
So, digital wasn't as "hot" as Paris Hilton at this year's Sundance Film Festival. It will have the last laugh. Digital cinema is sure to endure long after Ms. Hilton's tan--and inexplicable fame--fade into obscurity.
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