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Theatrical vs. VOD – The Future is Now

Sunday, April 2nd, 2017

As Lindsey Bahr of the Associated Press notes, theatrical vs. VOD is a key issue for filmmakers today.

As she writes, “would you pay $40 to watch a movie in the comfort of your own home 10 days after its big-screen release? How about $30 after 45 days? These are just a few of the ideas being thrown around by major Hollywood studios looking to more effectively compete with streaming services, television, smartphones and everything else that consumers can choose to spend their time with nowadays.

Premium video on demand (PVOD) is less disruptive than Sean Parker’s troubled Screening Room idea, which would have offered movies in the home for $50 on the same day they’re released in theaters. Yet PVOD still had many questioning its merits this past week at the theater industry’s CinemaCon in Las Vegas, from big studio execs to small theater owners, and stars and filmmakers in between.

For most exhibitors, shortening the theatrical window, as the industry calls it, from the traditional 90 days is seen as a bad idea, especially for those who’ve invested large sums of money to upgrade seats and projection tools at the behest of the studios. ‘The shortening of the theatrical window would be horrible for the entire industry,’ said Glen Gray, an exhibitor from South Florida.

As would be expected at an annual gathering of exhibitors, from big theater chains to single-screen operations – many studio executives were quick to emphasize their commitment to the theatrical experience. Dave Hollis, the executive vice president of distribution at the Walt Disney Company, used his platform to speak on behalf of his company and other Hollywood studios to tell exhibitors that they ‘all believe deeply that films should be seen in a theater’ and that they ‘have a common goal to get people to see them in your cinemas.’

Even Amazon Studios, with its blatant streaming strategy, offered encouragement to theater owners. ‘We really believe in the theatrical experience by fully supporting the theatrical window for our releases,’ said Jason Ropell, Amazon’s head of motion pictures, noting that Manchester by the Sea‘ is in its ‘19th week and counting’ in theaters.

But there’s no question the marketplace is changing. The North American box office may have reached record highs the past two years, yet attendance has remained nearly flat for over a decade. In other words, growth is coming from higher ticket prices, not more people seeing movies.Warner Bros. marketing and distribution chief Sue Kroll was the rare executive at CinemaCon to speak openly about theatrical threats.

Customers, she said, ‘want more choices in where and how they consume our content. Where there is demand, somebody is going to step in and fill that void,’ Kroll said. ‘We have to be creative and innovative in addressing the challenges of this marketplace, as we always have [and] move toward a future that will be beneficial and profitable to all of us.’

Moments later, director Christopher Nolan took the stage to preview footage from his ambitious, large-format celluloid epic Dunkirk and offered a different view from Kroll, who is distributing his film. ‘The only platform I’m interested in talking about is theatrical exhibition,’ Nolan said. The usually quiet audience erupted into applause. Earlier, the director told The Associated Press that while the threat [of VOD]  is nothing new, it’s also not something filmmakers are, ‘particularly excited about.’

‘You really want your film to be in theaters as long as possible because that’s where they are meant to be seen,’ Nolan said. Indeed, most of the filmmakers sided with Nolan, including Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve, who said he will ‘always make movies for massive screens,’ and Downsizing director Alexander Payne. ‘I don’t work in television, I work in cinema and I like my films to be seen on the big screen. Period,’ Payne said.”

And yet the future of cinema is undoubtedly through streaming platforms, in digital cinema formats, however much we might want to return to the immersive nature of the theatrical experience, sharing a viewing of a film with a large audience. But theatrical exhibition, once the norm, is now becoming a niche format, except for the most grandiose blockbusters, which seemingly demand Dolby Surround Sound and IMAX screens.

Amazon may tout the virtues of theatrical distribution, but Manchester by The Sea would play just as well on the small screen as it does in theaters, and the bulk of Amazon’s product, such as Mozart in the Jungle and the forthcoming series The Last Tycoon, is distributed through streaming video, where Amazon makes most of its money.

So theatrical is superior, but in the end, streaming video will win out for home viewers.

Video: The Theatrical Experience

Thursday, December 17th, 2015

If you’re going to watch a movie, you should see it on the big screen if at all possible.

Here, in another episode of Frame by Frame, I discuss the decline in theatrical film viewing in favor of at home video on demand streaming, as used in platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and others, as DVDs fade into the distance, and theatrical screenings become a more and more rare experience. This is unfortunate, because the only way you can really see a film – and see all the detail within each shot, is on a big screen, which is the size that 90% of all films were originally made to be seen in, before the advent of television.

Now, of course, TV is fading away, as more and more people are content to watch films in their living room, and given the relative convenience and safety of seeing a film at home – as I note – who can blame them? But nevertheless, the fact remains that, as my late friend the director Roy Ward Baker once told me – and I never forgot it – “on a DVD or television, you can inspect a film, but you can’t experience it.” And it’s absolutely true, which is why seeing a film in a theater remains – after all these years – the optimal way to really see a film.

Check out the video above to find out why.

Video: Independent Filmmaking in the 21st Century

Thursday, December 17th, 2015

Here’s a brief video by Curt Bright about the difficulties facing indie filmmakers in the 21st century.

For some time now, Curt Bright and I have been creating educational videos for a UNL series called Frame by Frame, covering various aspects of film, media, and the digital world as we enter the first decades of the 21st century. In this episode, I talk about the problems facing independent creators now – most specifically, how to get their work out before the public in an oversaturated marketplace.

Where once every film had to open in a theater in order to make back its investment, now there are so many different platforms available that distributors throw their cash at those films where they have the highest degree of financial exposure, resulting in a world in which only mainstream blockbusters make it to a large audience. Here, I discuss ways to work around this, and get a more balanced view of what’s going in the world of cinema on a national and international level.

Thanks to Curt Bright, as always, for such a great job in shooting and editing these videos.

Black & White Cinema: A Short History on Amazon Now!

Sunday, October 11th, 2015

My new book is out now on Kindle, and in paperback and hardcover on Amazon!

From the glossy monochrome of the classic Hollywood romance, to the gritty greyscale of the gangster picture, to film noir’s moody interplay of light and shadow, black-and-white cinematography has been used to create a remarkably wide array of tones. Yet today, with black-and-white film stock nearly impossible to find, these cinematographic techniques are virtually extinct, and filmgoers’ appreciation of them is similarly waning.

Black and White Cinema is the first study to consider the use of black-and-white as an art form in its own right, providing a comprehensive and global overview of the era when it flourished, from the 1900s to the 1960s. Acclaimed film scholar Wheeler Winston Dixon introduces us to the masters of this art, discussing the signature styles and technical innovations of award-winning cinematographers like James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland, Freddie Francis, and Sven Nykvist. Giving us a unique glimpse behind the scenes, Dixon also reveals the creative teams—from lighting technicians to matte painters—whose work profoundly shaped the look of black-and-white cinema.

More than just a study of film history, this book is a rallying cry, meant to inspire a love for the artistry of black-and-white film, so that we might work to preserve this important part of our cinematic heritage. Lavishly illustrated with more than forty on-the-set stills, Black and White Cinema provides a vivid and illuminating look at a creatively vital era, as featured on Turner Classic Movies in the series “Artists in Black and White.”

Critical Commentary:

“Dixon, no stranger to film history, gives us a complete overview of the black and white movie era, from the 1900s through the 1960s. He introduces us to the masters and talks about the styles and innovations of cinematographers long gone. Dixon also tells us how the crews working behind these cinematographers helped shape a bygone era of cinema . . . this book will help to inspire others to think about the artistry so that that this classic era of cinema is never forgotten. With more than 40 photos, the book provides a look at a vital era of film.” – Daniel Solzman, Flicksided

“Like artists painting with light and shadows, [cinematographers] perfected the lighting techniques and other innovations that often turned commerce into black-and-white art . . . Covering a hitherto neglected subject, this should be essential reading to all those with an interest in cinema history.” —Roy Liebman, Library Journal

“There’s an interesting new book by Wheeler Winston Dixon called Black & White Cinema: A Short History, and it tells the history of black and white movies, its origins and impact, and it’s really well worth reading. It’s filled with all kinds of insights about black and white cinematography, and the many artists who mastered the tricky interplay in capturing light and shadow.” – Robert Osborne, Turner Classic Movies

“Dixon covers the entire history of black and white movies in one volume, and talks about the films and cinematographers who created these films, and often got little credit for their work. Fascinating and compelling, this is essential reading for anyone who loves movies.” – Robert Downey Sr. director, Putney Swope

“Dixon has an encyclopedic knowledge of film history, and a subtle and well-honed aesthetic sense. He rescues important films from oblivion, and finds fresh angles of approach to films that are already familiar.” -Steven Shaviro, author of Connected, or What It Means to Live in the Network Society

“Wheeler Winston Dixon’s colorful study of black-and-white cinema reaffirms yet again his unfailing expertise as a critic, historian, and dazzlingly fine writer. Indispensable for students, scholars, and movie buffs alike.” – David Sterritt, Chair, National Society of Film Critics

“In his latest book, Black and White Cinema, Wheeler Winston Dixon rediscovers the art of cinematography in those glorious black-and-white movies from Hollywood’s classic age.” –Jan-Christopher Horak, Director, UCLA Film & Television Archive.

My thanks to all who helped bring this book to life, and to the great cinematographers who inspired it.

Amazon’s New “Never Before on DVD” Store

Friday, May 25th, 2012

As has been widely reported, most notably by Marc Graser in Variety, Amazon has just launched a new “never before on DVD” movie service, featuring some 2,000 titles that studios don’t feel have enough traction for commercial release, but which have enough interest for cineastes and collectors to purchase on a made-to-order basis, much like the titles offered through the successful Warner Archive service.

In this case, a consortium of studios have decided that it’s more cost-effective to let Amazon do the retailing, rather than opening their own divisions, a la Warner Archive’s service; the studios involved include Disney, Sony, Warner Bros., Lionsgate, Universal, 20th Century Fox and  MGM. The real surprise here for me is Disney, who are notoriously protective with their back catalogue.

Many of these titles will be of no interest to readers of this blog, as you can see from the image above; TV shows, mainstream commercial fare and the like dominate the offerings. But hidden in the stacks are some films of real merit, so readers should check it out for themselves and see what’s of interest. Most of these titles were previously available, and still are available, as streaming video on Amazon, but now you can get them in a more stable format. So take a look, and see what’s on offer.

Of course, with only 2,000 films or so for sale, that means the vast majority of these studios’ films are still locked away in a vault somewhere, and this is just a drop in the bucket. Between them, the studios mentioned above could easily put some 20,000 or even 200,000 films up for potential buyers, and why don’t they? Since the discs are made-to-order, what have they got to lose? I guess that’s the only downside to this announcement; while it’s nice that 2,000 titles never before on DVD will now see the light of day, one should never forget that there are literally hundreds of thousands of films yet-to-be-released, still waiting in the wings.

You can read Marc Graser’s piece in Variety by clicking here, or on the image above.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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