Note: For a complete list of my favorite films of 2010, please visit my wholly deficient list over at criticWIRE.
Obligatory Repetitive Introduction
In the past, in lieu of ranking movies and being held hostage by the dissonance between the film release calendar and my own experience of the ebb and flow of filmgoing, I have listed my favorite cinematic experiences of the year. I want to get back to that; as the way in which I get to watch movies and talk about them continues to diversify, as the idea of cinematic experience expands to multiple devices, formats, cities, communities, I think this list is here to stay. The age of the theatrical release calendar is dead for me; we’re living in a new time, where the movies can be found in every area of life, from online conversations to your home entertainment system, the back of a car seat to a projection screen at a restaurant, your phone to a portable tablet. So, I am going back to my old model, probably for good; over the next ten days, I’ll be posting my Top 10 Cinematic Experiences of 2010. Not necessarily films (although sometimes), these are the experiences that defined my year in film culture. Subjectivity alert!
6. The Home Consumer, Finally: PS3, Netflix Streaming, VOD & Blu-ray at Home
On December 25th, 2009, I was handed big box, wrapped in traditional paper, from under the family Christmas Tree (which itself had been mounted and decorated with great skill by my Jewish stepfather, naturally.) The box was heavy and, despite my age, I was actually excited to be opening it. A glance at the tag on the present; a gift from my wife. I tore into the paper like a rabid four year old and beheld the gift I was dreaming of; a 160 GB Sony Playstation 3. A huge smile was pasted onto my face and, as I kissed my wife in gratitude, I began looking forward to installing the system to home theater and getting connected to the future of cinema*.
As excited as I was to finally get my hands on the device, I severely underestimated the impact it would have on my movie viewing rituals; my PS3 has become the hub of my cinephilia, a device that delivers amazingly crisp image and sound quality with Blu-ray, an excellent up-conversion of standard DVDs and, after a few months of using a DVD disc to access Netflix, a fully integrated Netflix application that allows me to play their available movies instantly to my TV. Throw in my cable box, which offers HD movies through Video On Demand (VOD), especially the IFC and Magnolia model that features many films on VOD weeks ahead of their theatrical release, and my Netflix DVD service, which delivers Blu-ray discs right to my door, all of this on top of my professional obligation to watch hundreds of submissions a year, well, I think we’ve reached “peak film”.
Hello, Master: My Sexy Machine
This is not an advertisement for Sony or their device (I chose the PS3 over the XBox and the Wii precisely because of the Blu-ray capability), but more a statement that, having been following the new distribution patterns for movies for years, with one eye as a programmer who has been challenged by these changes and the other as a consumer and parent who is finding less and less time (and money) to get my ass out of the house and into a movie theater, 2010 is the year I moved solidly into the home consumer column. I find the change staggering given the history of the business, so I thought it might be worthwhile to trace my own history to see how I finally arrived here.
In 1997, I was hired by IFC (and Bravo, back when they were a couple) as their Manager of New Media. In addition to participating in the oversight of the design and direction of the company websites, I was tasked (literally on my first day on the job) with what was a new project; creating content packages for the emerging Cable Modem market. The strategy was smart; all of the networks’ cable television clients were launching a new product, Broadband internet, that would revolutionize access to the internet. These cable companies, echoing the model of then web behemoth AOL, all wanted to become the “hub” of their customer’s online experience; all of them were building content-rich launch pages, where customers would log into the broadband service and be offered branded content, controlled by the cable company, that would also be housed on the cable provider’s broadband “system”.
IFC, working through the channel sales office, was making a smart bet on that strategy; bundle high speed online content into network carriage agreements, get the brand in front of eyeballs, and be first. My job was to create that content and deliver it to the cable broadband operators; we went local, creating video and “chat” rich events at local film festivals, streaming films at high speed (our first, Lance Weiler and Stefan Avalos’ The Last Broadcast, was probably one of the first feature films ever streamed on high-speed internet in this country, although I can’t be sure) and doing streaming simulcasts of network films when possible.
Soon after, there was a rush to launch online film companies; Atom Films emerged as an early leader in this area, and we at IFC had moved into streaming “bonus content” for the network’s TV programs, including John Pierson’s Split Screen** and the legendary Greg The Bunny, while also collecting “new media” rights for short films as well. All of them being filtered through the broadband network, all of it being housed by cable operators.
In other words, cable providers were thinking like cable TV providers. It’s not a surprise, but if you look around today, you’ll see a graveyard full of “home page hub” strategies, short film streaming companies and cable company broadband launch pages. Cable companies are almost completely absent from branded content delivery online (although many of them now control multi-platform networks and content) now. What has been staggering is how fast things have changed due to the fact that control has shifted, value has shifted, the experience has shifted to smaller, more nimble companies (Netflix and YouTube being the prime, opposite, examples) who are following two revolutionary changes in high speed internet delivery; tools for user generated content, which has empowered everyone, from filmmakers to the proud owners of cats to democratic revolutionaries all over the world, to become content providers and companies who have built content delivery systems without the expense of having to actually build physical networks; Netflix piggybacking an open, net neutral internet has allowed the company to explode and content delivery will never be the same.
As a consumer and an industry professional, these thirteen years mark a staggering change, a road full of missed opportunities for some, opportunities taken by others and a truly amazing show of power by you and me, the end users who have, somehow, found a way to both join the conversation, create work and enjoy the work of others in ways that never seemed possible before. When I look at my two year old boy, I realize that he will never know a world without Blu-ray, without VOD, without streaming to a 50” HDTV and frankly, I get a little conflicted. I loved my VHS, my Atari 2600, my walks to the video store to pick out which tapes I would bring home to watch, but I also love my vinyl records and my pictures taken on a film camera. I can have my own memories and he will have his, but I’ll always be watching to see what comes next. I’m too invested now, too amazed by how far it has all come, how quickly, how well. Consider me converted.
*I will not mention my addiction to FIFA10 and FIFA11 video games here. That’s another story altogether.
**Feel free to ask my friend Janet Pierson about our early meetings regarding new media rights for Split Screen; it’s a wonder she’s so kind to me to this day…