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History, Cultural Memory, and the Digital Dark Age

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

Paolo Cherchi Usai’s clearly polemical book nevertheless raises many serious questions.

First published by The British Film Institute in 2001, when the digital revolution was just beginning, with a preface by Martin Scorsese, and subsequently republished in 2008 by Palgrave Macmillan, Usai’s text asks a number of deeply important questions about the headlong rush to digital, for as he writes, “it is estimated that about one and a half billion hours of moving images were produced in 1999, twice as many as a decade before. If that rate of growth continues, one hundred billion hours of moving images will be made in the year 2025. In 1895 there was just above forty minutes of moving images to be seen, and most of them are now preserved.

Today, for every film made, thousands of them disappear forever without leaving a trace. Meanwhile, public and private institutions are struggling to save the film heritage with largely insufficient resources and ever increasing pressures from the commercial world. Are they wasting their time? Is the much feared and much touted “Death of Cinema” already occurring before our eyes? Is digital technology the solution to the problem, or just another illusion promoted by the industry?” – this, of course, is the crux of the problem.

In my recent article on the increasing global reach of Netflix, “Netflix and National Cinemas,” published in Film International, I noted that “under the headline ‘Netflix Will Rip the Heart Out of Pre-Sale Film Financing,’ Schuyler Moore wrote in Forbes that: ‘Netflix is working mightily to expand its reach worldwide, so far including Latin America, Canada, and the U.K., with Europe next up at bat. When Netflix is done, people in every part of the world will be its customers, and those customers will be able to toggle what language they want to watch a film in.

This trend corresponds to the shrinking of the piracy window (the time between the theatrical window and the home video window), so by the time Netflix has a worldwide reach, it will also probably be available day and date with the theatrical release. This trend will have a huge effect on how independent films are financed.  Right now, independent filmmakers raise funds by selling their films through ‘pre-sales’ on a country-by-country basis to local distributors, but a worldwide VOD reach will rip the heart out of these sales, because it will destroy the value of DVD and pay TV rights to the local distributors.

The net result will be that independent films will be financed by pre-sales to Netflix, not the local distributors.  Instead of going to the Cannes Film Festival, filmmakers could be going to Las Vegas for a digital convention in order to pre-sell VOD rights to Netflix.  Indeed, Netflix will likely expand from creating original series to creating its own large budget films, with the initial premiere on-line.  Netflix may be a vibrant, important source of new financing that disrupts the studio system and bypasses standard distribution channels.’

The title of the article here tells all; it’s such an apt metaphor that it’s frightening. Netflix will indeed ‘rip the heart’ out of pre-sale film financing, but what Moore fails to consider here is the impact that this will have on national cinemas on a worldwide basis. Of course, Forbes is a bottom-line publication, a self-proclaimed ‘capitalist tool,’ and really isn’t interested in artistic concerns, or empowering anyone other than the already dominant global media forces. This is the voice of mainstream Hollywood cinema talking here, and it admits to the existence of nothing beyond that.

What happens to filmmaking in Sweden, France, Germany, Spain, Nigeria, Morocco and elsewhere is no concern of Moore’s, who seems to think that cinema is more a spectator sport than anything else. He embraces the Hollywood model of filmmaking – ruled entirely by commerce, and nothing else – and that’s that. It’s probably true, as Moore says, that ‘worldwide VOD reach will rip the heart out of these sales, because it will destroy the value of DVD and pay TV rights to the local distributors’ but the problem with this of course is that it’s more concentration in the hands of a few – everyone wants the “master switch” as Adolph Zukor put it, and Tim Wu so effectively explored in his book of the same title.”

And as Daniel Lindvall, editor of Film International wrote me on this issue, “Netflix was introduced on the Swedish market in 2012 and apparently has 1 million users in Sweden already (out of a population of 9.5 million). The most noticeable result so far is that the last of the non-chain ‘art house’ video rental shops here in Stockholm have closed down. But at the same time many thousands of the films that were available in these shops are not yet available on Netflix in Sweden, since they still have to buy rights for every country separately, which is too expensive for a small market when it comes to films that few people are likely to see.

Thus you can see some Bergman films on Netflix in the US but not in Sweden. I guess this will change given Netflix’s interest in changing it to further dominate the global market. As always, we are left with a choice between plague and cholera within the market system. And, again, the Internet proves to be a tool for concentrating media, not the dreamt-of opposite.”

It’s obvious that I agree more with Lindvall than with Moore, but beyond that, it’s also disconcerting to note that in the end, Moore is probably correct in his prognostications for the future of cinema on a worldwide basis. People would much rather watch from the comfort and safety of their living rooms than trek out to the theater for anything other than the most immersive spectacle; the clearest evidence of this is the complete collapse of video rental stores, even in such major cities as New York, a metropolis of eight million people, which seemingly can’t sustain more than few revival houses, and only one or two video rental locations, even though they offer the kinds of films you’re not likely to find on Netflix.

But beyond this, the problem, as many have noted, is that while Netflix pushes into streaming only territory, literally hundreds of thousands of films on a worldwide basis are simply not being distributed at all. The dream of having acesss to everything in the digital era is being steadily undermined by a bottom-line mentality that focuses on profits and nothing else.

This is the “blockbuster only” model of filmmaking, which has effectively defined the marketplace for the future – indies shifted off to the side on VOD, and for the mainstream, mass merchandising, saturation booking, and literally endless franchising. And for the classics – maybe Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz – mainstream Hollywood films all – but for Antonioni, Fellini, Ozu, Dreyer, Godard, Lupino, Arzner, Blaché, Akerman, and too many others – it’s marginal distribution, or none at all.

As John Talbird, a former student of mine who now teaches in New York, wrote me in response to my article, “at first, I liked Netflix, but now I’m beginning to realize it’s just another evil empire. Who cared about the demise of Blockbuster? But all three of the quirky independent video stores in my neighborhood have shut down in the ten years I’ve lived in Brooklyn. And Netflix isn’t even as good as it used to be. A lot of the Criterion titles which used to be available for streaming are no longer available. Also, their DVD titles aren’t as extensive as they at first appear. I’ve got six titles in my cue with ‘Very Long Wait’ next to them. More and more, the only alternative to Netflix is the public library or buying the DVD.”

To which I responded, “but the kicker is that soon DVDs and BluRays will be obsolete, as everything goes streaming. Netflix and the rest of the conglomerates don’t want you to own anything; they just want you to rent from them, eternally. And the visual quality is much, much poorer. My students are running into this problem too. Netflix doesn’t even have Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game – [universally acknowledged as one of the indisputable classics of the cinema] on streaming.”

So the issue here has multiple dimensions. As I discussed at length in my book Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access, the very idea that there is such a thing as digital archiving is a myth. Nothing could be more unstable, or more uncertain. The major studios routinely make 35mm fine grain negatives as backups for all their productions, and store them in their film vaults, because they know – as I document in the book – that digital archiving simply isn’t reliable – there are too may ways that files can become corrupt. As Michael Cieply wrote in The New York Times in 2007, “time was, a movie studio could pack up a picture and all of its assorted bloopers, alternate takes and other odds and ends as soon as the production staff was done with them, and ship them off to the salt mine. Literally.

Having figured out that really big money comes from reselling old films — on broadcast television, then cable, videocassettes, DVDs, and so on — companies like Warner Brothers and Paramount Pictures for decades have been tucking their 35-millimeter film masters and associated source material into archives, some of which are housed in a Kansas salt mine, or in limestone mines in Kansas and Pennsylvania. It was a file-and-forget system that didn’t cost much, and made up for the self-destructive sins of an industry that discarded its earliest works or allowed films on old flammable stock to degrade. (Indeed, only half of the feature films shot before 1950 survive.)

But then came digital. And suddenly the film industry is wrestling again with the possibility that its most precious assets, the pictures, aren’t as durable as they used to be. The problem became public, but just barely, last month, when the science and technology council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released the results of a yearlong study of digital archiving in the movie business. Titled The Digital Dilemma, the council’s report [offered this] startling bottom line: To store a digital master record of a movie costs about $12,514 a year, versus the $1,059 it costs to keep a conventional film master.

Much worse, to keep the enormous swarm of data produced when a picture is ‘born digital’ — that is, produced using all-electronic processes, rather than relying wholly or partially on film — pushes the cost of preservation to $208,569 a year, vastly higher than the $486 it costs to toss the equivalent camera negatives, audio recordings, on-set photographs and annotated scripts of an all-film production into the cold-storage vault.”

That was in 2007. Now, in 2014, everything is digital. But the problem remains the same. There are more movies being made than ever, but they’re not being shot on film — they’re digital. How are you going to archive them? What do you do when a digital platform is phased out, as DVDs now seem to be heading for their final spin? And what about the relentless mercantilism and Hollywoodization of filmic culture?

What do we do when physical materials disappear, and independent visions with them, to be replaced by a wilderness of solely commercial content? Wikipedia defines the term “Digital Dark Age” as “a possible future situation where it will be difficult or impossible to read historical electronic documents and multimedia, because they have been in an obsolete and obscure file format.”

But I would argue that this is only a very, very small part of the problem. A more pressing concern, it would seem to me, for books, films and music, is that the works of the past created in analog fashion won’t survive in the future because they’re not deemed to be commercial enough. If there’s only a niche market, then why bother? The digital databases of the past can be retrieved, but what happens when a nitrate negative decomposes – as 50% of all films before 1950 already have. That’s 50% – a shocking number.

This is an issue that will continue to expand in the years to come, and something to seriously think about.

News Flash – Bunny Eating Raspberries!

Saturday, May 10th, 2014

When I got up yesterday morning, this was the most popular video on YouTube.

It then had about 300,000 views. I went to the gym, worked out, came home, and it was still there, with 300,000 more views. By Saturday night, it had 2,285,415 views, and was still going strong. By 8:21 AM on Sunday, it had 3,703,441 views, and had knocked the trailers for several “big” summer movies out of the top spot. By Sunday afternoon, it had amassed 4,217,784 views, and by Sunday night, 5,461,489 views, and showed no signs of slowing down. As of Tuesday May 13th, it was still climbing, with an amazing 8,502,302 views. So what it is it?

It’s 33 seconds of a rabbit, in close-up, eating some raspberries, so you can’t say that it’s inaccurately described. At least no one is getting killed, there isn’t some horrible disaster, and perhaps that’s the point – this rabbit doesn’t know about any of this, and simply wants to eat some raspberries, even if she/he doesn’t know what raspberries are – they’re sure tasty!

Perhaps more than a century after the cinema was invented, we’ve gone back to the days of the Lumière Brothers, who simply photographed the world around them in static, one minute films with no camera movement, showing workers leaving their bicycle factory, or people walking in the park, or a baby having a snack – and why not? It’s pure, simple, clear, and innocent.

When Andy Warhol first started making films in the early 1960s, with such titles as Eat (45 minutes of a man eating a mushroom), Sleep (6 1/2 hours of a man sleeping), Haircut (33 minutes of a man getting a haircut), to say nothing of his long series of several hundred 3 minute “screen tests,” he was doing much the same thing.

Perhaps we’ve come full circle again, to meditate on real life.

‘In Broad Daylight: Movies and Spectators After the Cinema’ by Gabriele Pedullà

Sunday, August 18th, 2013

I have a review of Gabriele Pedullà’s book In Broad Daylight in the new issue of Film International.

As I write, “This slight but explosive volume, published in an English translation by Verso in 2012, has been kicking around on my work desk for about a year. I wrote a rather negative review of it for Choice, the library journal, and while I don’t want to recant anything I said there, I nevertheless find the book sticking with me in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I don’t agree with most of what Pedullà has to say, as I’ll detail, but he puts up a good fight.

Pedullà, a professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of Rome 3 and visiting professor at Stanford, is first and foremost a polemicist – he’s the guy who throws verbal bombs into the mix, and phrases statements of opinion as if they were fact. But for all of that, there is really very little that’s controversial here. Pedullà’s main thesis is inarguably correct, at least from my perspective; the era of dominance for the theatrical exhibition of motion pictures is finished. Or as he puts it on the opening page of his book,

‘The age of cinema, it is commonly claimed, is now drawing to a close. Day after day signs of a profound change in our relationship with moving images proliferate. The winnowing of box-office receipts, the shrinking size of the audience, the decreasing time lag between a film’s theatrical release and it commercialization on video, television’s growing cultural prestige: these indications, at once social, economic and aesthetic – only make the prophecy all the more credible. If cinema for decades represented the standard and even optimal filmic experience, the touchstone for all other forms of viewing, this formerly undisputed and indisputable centrality is today contested at its very core.’

All true, and yet, as I thought then, and still do now, Pedullà protests too much. The impact of web here is barely even mentioned, and as for ‘television’s growing cultural prestige,’ I have serious doubt about that. For Pedullà, the idea that viewing a film in a theater is the optimal way to see a film is an object of ridicule; summoning up derisively the words of Chris Marker as a member of the ‘old guard,’ Pedullà quotes Marker as noting that ‘on television, you can see the shadow of a film, the trace of a film, the nostalgia, the echo of a film, but never the film,’ and then takes Jean Eustache to task for the similar statement that ‘you can discover a film only at the movie theater.’

To these statements, which to my mind have more than a grain of truth to them, Pedullà’s disdain notwithstanding, I would add the words of the late director Roy Ward Baker, a friend of mine, who directed the only really first-rate film on the Titanic disaster (A Night To Remember, 1958). During an afternoon’s discussion in 1994 at his home in London, Baker told me that he’d been shocked by the impact of viewing a recent theatrical screening of A Night To Remember at a retrospective of his work at Britain’s National Film Theatre.

As Baker told me, ‘I felt like I was seeing it for the first time, you know? Like it was real again. I’d grown so used to seeing it on television, I’d forgotten what it was really like.’ Then, he leaned forward and said two sentences that I have never forgotten since; at least for me, they cut to the center of this entire argument. ‘You see’ Baker said, ‘on television, or on a DVD, you can inspect a film. But you can’t experience it.’ That comment hit me like a bolt of lightning; true, direct, and utterly incisive.”

You can read the entire review by clicking here, or on the image above.

Digital Age Prompting Closure of Military Base Movie Theaters

Sunday, January 20th, 2013

Military base movie theaters are closing because of the shift to digital projection.

Here’s an interesting piece by Dirk Lammers of the San Francisco Chronicle on the closing of numerous military base movie theaters around the globe, because they can’t get the funding to make the jump to digital projection. As Lammers writes of the photo above, “movie patrons wait for the showing of Hotel Transylvania inside the theater on Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota on its last day of operation, Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013. The Army and Air Force Exchange Service theater serving airmen and their families is one of 60 across the globe that’s closing because it’s too expensive to switch from 35 millimeter film prints to an all-digital projection format.

Stacey Darling loves watching family movies at the Ellsworth Air Force Base theater in South Dakota because it’s so much more affordable than taking her three children to the multiplex in nearby Rapid City. Darling, whose husband is an airman, has been catching second-run films on base for about 2 1/2 years, and was there Saturday for the theater’s last showing. The movie theater is among 60 around the globe run by the Army and Air Force Exchange Service that is screening its last picture show amid the industry’s conversion to digital projection.

Darling said she wishes she could go to the theater even more now that her husband, Senior Master Sgt. David Darling, has deployed to southwest Asia. [But] it’s just not cost effective for the exchange service to invest the $120,000 per theater needed to convert from 35 millimeter film to the new format at the theaters that are being closed, said spokesman Judd Anstey. ‘At locations where customer attendance is decreased due to a preference for off-installation entertainment venues, a determination has been made that continued operation is no longer a viable option,’ Anstey said.”

I have only this to say: $120,000 a theater to convert to digital? This is too much money? These theaters provide both entertainment and a meeting place for those in the armed forces; once again, one more place for people to gather together and share a sense of community is vanishing in the digital era.

Read the entire article by clicking here.

Google Glasses Video — They’re Real

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, for a promotional video on Google glasses.

I came across this promotional video for Google glasses, the new softwear device that produces overlays of information over the real world, providing constant access to the web, and at the same time flooding the user with promotional materials and advertisements.

More than 20,000,000 people have viewed this video thus far, which means two things; one, it will be widely adopted; two, that the introduction of Google glasses is not that far off. This folksy, low-key point-of-view video shows someone literally waking up with the glasses on, eating breakfast, walking over to the Strand Bookstore in New York, meeting with a friend, snapping digital photos of his surroundings, listening to music through the glasses’ audio system, and generally existing in an utterly plugged in world.

He seems to be entire comfortable with all of this, and guess what? If you have prescription glasses, you can get Google glasses made to order to fit your needs. I’m deeply ambivalent about Google glasses, but there seems to be little doubt that they’ll soon become “must have” items for the technically minded; a host of concerns, chief among them privacy issues, seem of most importance to me.

But soon you’ll be able to see for yourself what the world looks like, laid out in a grid — a grid where Google knows your location all the time, 24/7, and can sell you anything it wants to, all in the name of convenience, of course.

About the Author

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 numerous books and more than 70 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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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