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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.

The Importance of Net Neutrality

Monday, January 20th, 2014

Here’s a great piece about the recent court decision on “net neutrality” by Matthew Ingram in Gigaom.

As he writes, “the principle behind the phrase ‘net neutrality’ is that internet service providers of all kinds should treat data flowing over the open internet equally, without giving preferential treatment to data from one provider or platform. On Tuesday, however, the Federal Communications Commission’s rules governing that kind of behavior were struck down by an appeals court in Washington, D.C. — as reported by Gigaom’s Jeff Roberts — in a case launched by Verizon.

This decision — if it remains unchallenged — raises the possibility that large internet service providers could charge certain companies extra for delivering their content to subscribers, and give preference to the content coming from those who are willing pay them a fee, or have cut some other kind of deal. In effect, the democratized nature of the internet would be replaced by a feudal system in which the ability to reach a consumer would be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

As a Bloomberg article described it: ‘Proponents, including Web companies, say regulations are needed to keep Internet-service providers from interfering with rival video and other services. Those companies don’t pay today for what’s known as last-mile Web content delivery. The FCC has said that without rules, Internet providers could favor wealthier, established players at the expense of startups, squelching innovation.’

Craig Aaron, who runs an open internet advocacy group called Free Press, said in a statement that as a result of the ruling, ‘Internet users will be pitted against the biggest phone and cable companies — and in the absence of any oversight, these companies can now block and discriminate against their customers’ communications at will… the biggest broadband providers will race to turn the open and vibrant Web into something that looks like cable TV. They’ll establish fast lanes for the few giant companies that can afford to pay exorbitant tolls and reserve the slow lanes for everyone else’ [. . .]

Tim Wu, who more or less coined the term ‘network neutrality’ in a paper he wrote in 2003 while he was a professor at Columbia Law School, explained why internet users should care about the principle in a piece he wrote for Salon in 2006, comparing it to a future in which those with certain cars would get preferential treatment on the highway:

‘You might buy a Pontiac instead of a Toyota to get the rush-hour lane, not because the Pontiac is actually a good car. As a result, the nature of competition among car-makers would change. Rather than try to make the best product, they would battle to make deals with highways.’ In an interview with the Washington Post‘s Switch blog, Wu said that the decision leaves the internet ‘in completely uncharted territory. There’s never been a situation where providers can block whatever they want.’”

This is going to create one internet for the wealthy, and one for the poor, if left unchallenged.

You can read the whole piece by clicking here, or on the image above.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

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 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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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