Hollywood is in a panic over digital entertainment on the Internet. With a host of lawsuits and regulatory actions--from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to the Grokster case--movie studios are doing everything they can to shut down file sharing. They say they're fighting piracy. But Hollywood has more to fear than pirates: you.
I think the entertainment industry is scared to death of amateur content, and wants to make life difficult for amateurs and alternative distribution networks. That's because technology poses a threat that the studios don't know how to handle.
Producing a film or a record once took rooms of expensive equipment and armies of technicians. Getting the finished product to the public required billions of dollars in infrastructure--theaters, stores, radio and TV stations. Now you can make a movie or an album at home, cheaply. I know--I've done both. As for distribution? Just hit Enter.
My wife is a filmmaker. Her latest film, which cost about $25,000 to produce, would have cost close to $1 million two decades ago. She shot it with inexpensive digital cameras, edited it with Apple's Final Cut Pro, and released it on the Web, where it has sold quite well. Her movie has been screened in theaters, and excerpts have run on network television. And it was made with gear most anyone can afford.
Going further, I produced a 30-second TV ad spot (mocking political candidate ads on MTV's "Rock the Vote") using the video function of my digital still camera. I posted it on my Web site and got nearly 200,000 downloads within a few days. Later, I made a 15-minute documentary the same way: I had it shot, edited and on the Web within a weekend.
I also master music CDs--on my computer. My brother and I run a small record label, for peanuts, producing and distributing music for our bands and those of our friends. We record in my brother's basement on a few thousand dollars' worth of equipment. Another brother has a band, Copper, that shot a music video and posted it on the band's Web site. It quickly generated tens of thousands of downloads. Copper streams its music, promotes its shows and sells its CDs on its site, too. Sure, the band would be willing to sign with a big record company, but it's doing far better on its own than it could have a decade ago.
We may be bigger media geeks than most, but there's nothing special about my family--we're doing the same thing as millions of other Americans. According to analyst Chris Chute of IDC, a market research firm, sales of camcorders and editing software have exploded: 4.7 million digital camcorders were sold in the United States in 2004, and 11 million units were sold worldwide. The latest trend is toward high-definition cameras. Sony's HDR-FX1, which sells for $3700, is as popular with pros as it is with amateurs.
For the past hundred years, the major entertainment companies have controlled the means of producing movies and records--there's a reason why the shorthand for their business is "the studios"--but now everyone can afford the equipment. That means the entertainment industry has to rely on its talent base and, judging by recent releases, it doesn't have a monopoly on talent.
True, it's not likely that amateur content will compete head-to-head with studio products. Multiplex cinemas won't be showing homemade movies anytime soon, although the success of 1999's Blair Witch Project suggests that anything is possible. But soon, people may very well watch homemade movies on their computers--or even make them themselves--instead of watching seemingly endless previews in a sticky-floored room full of strangers munching overpriced snacks. Likewise, few independently produced albums will go platinum, but for millions of record buyers, homemade music may eventually consume a big chunk of their time and money.
It's the death of a thousand cuts for the entertainment industry, and it's showing in slumping big-label music sales and this year's dismal box office returns. What's more, the amateurs are in it as much for fun as for money. Tech guru Jonathan Peterson says the problem is that the Big Media companies still see audiences strictly as consumers. They don't realize that many members of their audience want to create as well as consume. "The quality of 'amateur' content is exploding at the same time that Big Media companies are going through one of their all-time lows in music and television creativity," he says. "No wonder we're spending more time with our PCs than we are with our TVs."
The Supreme Court's recent ruling in the Grokster case makes it easier for copyright holders to sue people who deploy technologies that can aid infringement. It may encourage Hollywood to go after companies that threaten its remaining trump card: distribution. It's too late to call back all those digital camcorders and computers, but it's not too late to make it harder for people to share their work. We'll probably see more lawsuits aimed at shutting down file sharing--and it wouldn't surprise me if that's just the first step in an effort to squeeze independent distribution sites such as AtomFilms.com, even though they don't promote piracy.
The problem for Hollywood is that the lawyering may backfire. Under Grokster, sites that are promoted purely as ways for people to share their own work are safe; it's sites that are promoted as carrying pirated works that are vulnerable. I think this will encourage the growth of truly independent Internet distribution. And it is happening just as the technology gets good enough to support the big files needed for movies. Amazon.com is getting involved by streaming short films and by acquiring DVD-on-demand manufacturer CustomFlix. Then there's AtomFilms.com, ifilm.com and thelonelyisland.com, all of which distribute films directly, online.
If the folks from Big Entertainment are smart, they'll figure out how to make money off this sort of thing, instead of trying to sabotage it. Are they smart? Here's a hint: Back in the 1970s, they opposed the introduction of VCRs. Now, video sales and rentals are one of their major revenue streams. Maybe they've learned from that mistake. If not, they'll have their work cut out for them: Those millions of amateur Spielbergs represent a market that someone will serve--and a mass of voters that politicians will notice. The backyard video revolution has just begun.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds edits the online blog
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EXCELLENT WEB VIDEO
CAMERA: Sony's HandyCam HDR-FX1 ($3700; www.sony.com), a video industry standard, captures digital video in a filmlike 1080i hi-def resolution. It's a prosumer camera with emphasis on the pro.
EQUIPMENT: Lowel's DVCore Tungsten three-light kit ($950; www.lowel.com) polishes your video image. AudioTechnica's 4073A directional mic ($550; www.audiotechnica.com) captures clean sound free of the camera noise that internal mics pick up.
COMPUTER: Macintosh Dual 2 GHz G5 ($3800; www.apple.com). Double everything to handle memory-hungry HD video: two 400GB hard drives, 2GB RAM and dual displays.
SOFTWARE: Final Cut Pro ($1000; www.apple.com) now takes HD.
CAMERA: The Canon ZR 100 video camera (about $300) is light on features and effects--editing software does both better, and with more control. And if you drop it in the water shooting the lost chapter of Jaws, your PA can afford the replacement.
EQUIPMENT: Sennheiser MKE 300 external mic ($200; www.sennheiserusa.com). Because sound is half your movie.
COMPUTER: Any recent Windows PC ($500 and up) will handle relatively low-res video suited to the Web. The Mac Mini ($500; www.apple.com) has plenty of power for basic movie editing.
SOFTWARE: Windows Movie Maker 2 or Apple iMovie (both free) gives you the control to assemble your masterpiece.
In addition to running one of the most widely read blogs on the Internet, , Glenn Reynolds is also part of the growing trend of amateur, web-distributed filmmaking. In the course of reporting his column "Watch Out Hollywood," Reynolds talked to two independent videographers about how they're using inexpensive digital technology to produce professional material.
J.D. Johannes quit his day job and went to Iraq to make a documentary. He's also posting excerpts of the video he shoots on a documentary Web site and blog, . Here's how he does it:
"I shoot all my video on a Canon XL-2, but a pure blogger doesn't need the 3CCD quality for broadcast television.
All my video is edited on a Sony Vaio laptop using Adobe Premiere. I prefer tape because it creates a semi-permanent record, a library of sorts. Also, true broadcast quality takes up too much disk space. There are hard drives for the XL-2, but they aren't built to survive in Iraq.
The XL-2 obviously uses some heavy-duty LI batteries. I have been able to recharge them using a Humvee's slave cable system and a DC to AC inverter. (The chargers are all AC to DC, so I'm turning DC to AC then back to DC!)
On a five-day mission I will shoot about 5 to 7 hours of tape. The library has about 60 hours of Iraq and 5 hours of the United States in it, and the Web site only shows the 'second best' video--the best being reserved for the Television Affiliates and the documentary.
For the Web site, we used a Macro Media Flash Player. We decided on using streams that load fast at a lower quality because people hate to wait.
All the still shots are actually frame captures.
All in all, we were able to set up a little syndication network for under $10,000 and provide news coverage no one else would."
John Farrell is the author of Digital Movies with QuickTime Pro, and he also practices what he preaches. He directed a version of Shakespeare's Richard II. He estimated that it would have cost $150,000 to shoot on film, but he managed to make it for $50,000 in video (you still have to pay the actors, alas). He's also a big fan of services like CustomFlix and Amazon.com for distributing his films:
"I think CustomFlix is fantastic--and Amazon has helped. In a sense, with this model, a filmmaker no longer has to go out and market his film. Depending on what your subject matter, there are people out there already looking for your product and will find it because Amazon has become the place to go. With a documentary about nurses almost ready, and a new one I am planning on the Church and the sex-abuse scandal, I'm expecting bigger sales and a larger royalty check on a monthly basis, as I can get more movies out (one per year is the plan). No distributor. No rights have to be given up. I sell it the way I want to. Basically from your edit suite right to your viewer."
And you can see my wife's film, and online trailers, at . When her editing guy took a job in Europe I did the trailer myself, at home, using Vegas Video.--Glenn Harlan Reynolds
Virtual Film Festivals
New online content sites go live daily, giving amateur directors plenty of outlets to showcase their work. Here's a sample of popular content sites.
The grandfather of Internet films, went live in the late '90s, and streams films to more than 20 million viewers monthly. The site hosts a wide variety of videos, from comedy shorts to dramas to big-budget Hollywood trailers. Blockbuster: , a 3-minute short about the untimely rendezvous of an L.A. commuter and a jumbo jet--it's the film that largely defined the Web-release genre. Just days after its 2000 Web premier, the FX-heavy comedy had landed in inboxes around the world. Four weeks later, 405 filmmakers Jeremy Hunt and Bruce Branit had landed negotiations for a directing deal with Dreamworks, Warner Bros. and Universal.
With new releases every week, ' audience rivals iFilms, and the site streams selected videos in its free "DVD-quality AtomFilms HD" format. The site focuses mainly on amateur work, and narrowly defines content by countless subcatagories within eight major genres, and lists films by popularity. Blockbuster: Remember 2004's bipartisan satire This Land? It's hard to forget. The simple flash movie--set to the song "This Land Is Your Land" by site --brought more than 15 million viewers to AtomFilms in August 2004, and served as inspiration for AF's "Mock the Vote" political satire section.
True to its name, highlights short works from campuses around the globe, including some truly mesmerizing and experimental works. The site also ranks by popularity--a good thing, because some of the lower-ranked films have all the polish of a freshman term paper after an all-nighter.
Untrue to its name, doesn't post academic films. Instead, it posts films, videos and animations that appeal to a campus audience. So be warned: while the site posts some of the funniest amateur videos on the Web, much of the content is decidedly more Animal House than House of Mirth.
This is the online presence of the monthly L.A. comedy screening , where the audience rates its favorite 5-minute sitcom pilots. The material is all amateur (as in, unpaid amateur--you'll spot some pros in the credits) and the winning pilots come back the following month with a follow-up episode. Check out Channel101's New York-based sister show at .
Not all short films are created by amateurs. showcases work from some veteran TV and theater actors and writers--including Jay Tarses, Rupert Holmes and Kevin O'Rourke--who've chosen to bypass the usual process of developing TV pilots and take their ideas straight to the public.--Benjamin Chertoff