Movies online: The future is (almost) here

The Internet cinema revolution of 2009 is real -- although the convergence of all media is nowhere in sight

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published June 17, 2009 10:17AM (EDT)

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For the better part of a decade, people like me have been pronouncing that theatrical motion-picture distribution, at least when it came to independent films, was going the way of the passenger pigeon and the daily print newspaper. (You won't believe this, kids, but somebody used to come to your house every single morning with a rolled-up log of paper wrapped in plastic and rubber bands!) Some mystical convergence of the Internet, cable TV, the hand-held SmartHooble and other, yet-to-be-invented networks and devices would open the doors to a hellish new Nirvana of unlimited, 24/7 hi-def cinema, from the most massive Hollywood spectacles to the most obscure art-house offerings.

Well, the future is here, sort of. And as usual with the future, it's not a yes-or-no proposition. Online movie delivery has exploded in the last year, at least compared to its virtual nonexistence before that. Within a few clicks from this page, you could be watching a documentary about barehanded fishing in Oklahoma, the Soviet-era magic-realist classic "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" or "Hotel for Dogs." Come September, Sally Potter's new film "Rage" will premiere as a series of episodes on Babelgum, at the same time it's released in theaters and on DVD. The Palestinian film "Laila's Birthday," an international festival favorite with no theatrical deal, was recently made available for three weeks on the Auteurs, a new cinephile streaming site that's currently in beta.

Those are just examples; I could pick dozens more. But online distribution remains an insignificant factor in the film economy (if anything, movie theaters are thriving in the current recession), and it represents a tiny proportion of the video watched on computer screens. One could argue, in fact, that feature films and the Internet are mismatched forms of media; the former demands long stretches of undivided attention while the latter thrives on multitasking, rapid response time and brief info-bursts. When was the last time you spent 90 minutes or more sitting at your computer and looking at the same thing?

Still, more and more movies are available online every month, and new modes of delivering them seem to crop up almost as fast. Last October marked a turning point of sorts. That was when YouTube streamed the week-long premiere of indie pioneer Wayne Wang's "The Princess of Nebraska" (as a companion piece to his theatrical release, "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers") and Hulu streamed its first full-length feature, the George W. Bush-related documentary "Crawford."

Those examples represent one model for online distribution: streaming video-on-demand, or VOD, that's free to the user and best understood as a promotional opportunity for the filmmaker and distributor. In the case of Hulu, some advertising revenue presumably flowed back to the makers of "Crawford" -- probably in the range of a few cents per viewer -- but the real value lay in getting the movie out to a large audience during an election season. (A Hulu source reports that "Crawford" remains the most-discussed video in the site's history.) YouTube's Screening Room site is not ad-supported, but Wang's film got 153,000 views in a week, far more eyeballs than he could likely have gotten from a small-scale, bicoastal theatrical release. DVD and television deals followed, so quite possibly the experiment paid off.

Free VOD streaming definitely isn't the only game in town. There are three basic themes in digital distribution -- the other two, essentially, being online video rental (paid VOD streaming) and online video purchase (paid downloads) -- and many variations upon them. Some online exhibitors, including iTunes, Netflix, Amazon and IndiePix, try to enable various ways of leapfrogging their content over the Berlin Wall between your computer and your TV set. Others, including Hulu, Joost, Jaman and the Auteurs, deliver content to your laptop and leave the rest to you. Yes, I hear you, technophiles: It's easy to connect newer computers to newer HDTV sets, and it's possible to do so even with most combinations of older machines. At this point, very few ordinary users bother to learn how.

I'm setting aside the big-picture, what-does-this-all-mean questions for a future post, and I'm not really considering the separate but closely related universe of VOD via cable television, which has been pioneered in the last year or two by IFC and HDNet (with a new entry, Cinetic Film Buff, set to launch in July). What follows is a basic consumer guide to what I've found in a couple of weeks of searching for movies on the Internet. There is absolutely no way that it's comprehensive, and hey -- the supposed value of this medium is that it's a two-way street, right? Let us know what I've missed, what you watch and how you watch it, and how this whole confusing situation could be improved.

My quickie conclusion, at this point, is that no single device or delivery mechanism is likely to dominate the others, at least for the foreseeable future. Individual films will be made available in multiple ways, either consecutively or all at the same time. (Just because a film is available free on SnagFilms or Hulu, it doesn't follow that no one wants the convenience of renting it from iTunes or Amazon.) In fact, the best sites here accept Internet permeability as a given, and operate on the principle that a rising tide lifts all boats: Hulu's search utility can point you to video on other sites, and buy-buttons on SnagFilms take you to outside retailers. For many movies, digital distribution will just be just another "window," following or accompanying theatrical release, DVD and cable. But for a bewilderingly large potential universe of indie dramas, documentaries and foreign-language films, the Internet may soon become the only viable way of reaching any large-scale audience.

A note on video quality: I tested most of the streaming sites on an ordinary DSL broadband connection (roughly 1.5 Mbps), so occasional stalls and hiccups were part of the process, but were not overly intrusive. When I streamed video via a far slower satellite broadband connection (about 500 Kbps) it was definitely necessary to allow videos to load for 15 minutes or more before trying to play them. As throughout the Internet, the viewing experience was generally at or below standard-definition DVD, and nowhere near HD or Blu-ray. I didn't test the iTunes or Amazon HD rentals, but the HD-quality streaming offered by the Auteurs was easily the best-looking video I acquired anywhere.

iTunes I'm guessing you don't need this concept explained too much. Apple's online store offers a fast-growing library of movies and TV shows, heavily slanted toward mainstream appetites, for delivery to your computer, your widescreen TV (if you've got the company's proprietary Apple TV service) and, of course, your iPhone or iPod Touch. Two-day streaming rentals can be as cheap as 99 cents (although they should pay you to watch "Garfield") or as much as $6 for new releases in HD. Purchases start around $15. Basically you're talking about a digital version of a pretty boring video store, where the convenience factor is very high and the selection, at least from a snooty film-buff POV, leaves a lot to be desired. What I Watched: The porn-themed 2008 comedy "The Auteur," which played festivals but barely got a look in theaters. I rented it for $3.99, which seemed like a good deal at the time. (See below.)

Amazon Video on Demand For my money the cleverest of the big-box-style online operations. Amazon offers you many ways to watch the films you rent or buy, including direct-to-TV connections through TiVo, the Roku Digital Video Player and certain models of Panasonic and Sony HDTVs. (There's even a page explaining how to hook your Windows or Mac PC to a regular TV set.) Amazon also has an intriguing, if erratic, selection of indie and art-house films (much of it drawn from the impressive library controlled by Cinetic Rights Management, the leading agency in this burgeoning field), and is actively seeking deals for more. Right now, for instance, they're offering an exclusive $9.99 rental of Jennifer Lynch's dark and evil thriller "Surveillance," which isn't in theaters until June 26. As it turned out, I could have saved 3 bucks by renting "The Auteur" here for 99 cents. What I Watched: French avant-gardist Chris Marker's "The Last Bolshevik," a $2.99 rental (and for sale at $11.99).

Netflix You might argue that that the big player in online DVD rental doesn't really belong on this list, given that Netflix definitely doesn't want you to watch movies on your computer screen. Still, it will deliver a motley selection of 12,000 films and TV episodes through the Internet to various "Netflix-ready devices," including TiVo, the Roku box, and certain TV sets and Blu-ray players. At the moment, content skews heavily toward mainstream Hollywood releases, but I'm not a Netflix subscriber -- the last thing I need in my household is more DVDs! and will leave that to others to judge. What I Might Have Watched: "Superbad," because I never saw it and it looks awesome.

YouTube It's just possible you've heard of this site. It's free! It's got lots and lots and lots of user-generated videos! At least some of them don't violate somebody's copyright! OK, I'd be surprised if 1 percent of the stuff people watch on YouTube, or even one-tenth of 1 percent, were authorized streams of feature-length films. People certainly watch butchered, badly pirated clips from feature films by the gazillions, but let me remind you that that's not legal or ethical and will leave you with a bad headache from the murky video quality. YouTube's Screening Room got a moment of media attention last year for its one-week premiere of Wang's "Princess of Nebraska," but a modest sampling of indies and documentaries can be excavated there, alongside an intriguing assortment of shorts. (The Internet-based revival of short films is a topic for another time.) What I Watched: "I Am Because We Are," the preachy but effective doc about AIDS in Malawi that was written and produced by Madonna.

Hulu Only 16 months old but arguably the medium's leading site for free, ad-supported (and non-user-generated) video, Hulu has attracted an exponentially growing audience (roughly 40 million unique users, as of May) and is best known for harboring recent episodes of hit TV shows. As is generally true with free VOD sites, Hulu videos are easily exportable to other sites, personal blogs, etc. Movies remain a relatively small element of Hulu's content, but company insiders report that feature films often outperform individual TV episodes in terms of viewer eyeballs, and say they're working to "unwind" the complicated rights contracts that can make digital distribution difficult. (That's where the aforementioned geniuses at Cinetic come in.) Hulu's current catalog of 350-plus films skews strongly toward older Hollywood movies that have played out their economic potential in all other methods: "Basic Instinct," "Speed 2," "Rob Roy." But there's also an active community of documentary viewers and more than a few surprises. What I Watched: First the 2007 doc "The Future of Food" and then "Casino Royale" (the awesomely cheap-looking original 1967 version, that is).

Joost How many ad-supported video-streaming sites with nonsensical names can the Internet support? Every site that sells or streams videos has at least some interactive or social-networking component, but Joost (which might be described as Avis to Hulu's Hertz) aspires to take full advantage of the new-media universe. You can search or browse videos in traditional fashion, or you can write and peruse numerous blogs and feeds, connect through your Facebook page, download a Joost app to your iPhone, and so on. How useful are those bells and whistles to movie buffs? I'm not really sure. Joost leans heavily toward TV episodes and music videos, and most of the films are the same old, same old -- ancient Hollywood product near the end of the "long tail," to use industry parlance. Still, a recent content deal with Cinetic yields some nuggets: I stumbled on Richard Linklater's "Slacker" and Israeli director Amos Gitai's "Free Zone." What I Watched: The classic 1960 Newport Jazz Festival doc "Jazz on a Summer's Day."

Babelgum A free video-streaming site like Joost and Hulu, Babelgum is extremely unlike them in one crucial way: Its content is curated by its publishers, who carefully pursue a certain global-indie-hipster vibe, while aiming to stay this side of obscurantism. Short films and music videos predominate, but the collection of feature-length movies available here is quirky and interesting, ranging from the 1959 western "No Name on the Bullet" to Andrew Bujalski's archetypal mumblecore flick, "Funny Ha Ha." You have to admire Babelgum for being unafraid of specific flavoring; within a few minutes of your arrival you'll know whether you're in or out. As mentioned above, Sally Potter's new drama "Rage" will premiere on the site in September, around the same time it opens in theaters. Similarly, Babelgum is streaming the documentary "End of the Line" (about the global overfishing crisis) right now, as part of a joint marketing venture with National Geographic and Greenpeace, simultaneous with its New York theatrical opening. What I Watched: Lars von Trier's comedy "The Boss of It All."

Jaman Not quite a clearinghouse for Jamaican sinsemilla and not quite the Spanish word for ham, Jaman is a tremendously clever hybrid of pay-streaming, free-streaming, download-to-own and social networking, focused entirely on film and leaning heavily toward independent, classic and foreign-language offerings. You can watch movies on the proprietary Jaman player (which downloads to your desktop) or send them to your TiVo. Many of the same movies you'll find free on Hulu or Joost are also free here, but Jaman's strength is its impressively wide and eclectic catalog of films for sale or rent. (Most rent for $2.49 a day, and cost around $10 to own.) There appear to be substantial Jaman communities, for example, around Bollywood movies, Asian martial-arts flicks and LGBT-oriented titles. Many indie film buffs will find something close to one-stop shopping here, and irresistible impulse buys to boot. What I Watched: the 1953 BBC broadcast of Peter Brook's production of "King Lear," with Orson Welles in the title role. Video quality wasn't awesome, but come on.

SnagFilms Still technically in beta, this free-streaming documentary site, launched last year, has become an Internet mecca for nonfiction mavens. Thanks to an easily exportable widget (hence the name), SnagFilms' catalog of 700-plus docs can be found on literally thousands of other Web sites, many of them issue-oriented blogs or newsletters. CEO Rick Allen says his advertising-supported model will eventually offer decent financial returns to filmmakers -- at least if and when the number of online viewers begins to approach cable TV. I found the SnagFilms interface user-friendly and highly "agnostic" -- you can watch the film free on their site, buy a DVD or download the movie from whomever's selling it, link to your Facebook profile, donate money to a related charity and so on. What I Watched: The weird and gripping rural New Mexico anarchist doc "Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa." It played without a hitch.

IndiePix Primarily an indie-oriented DVD retailer that specializes in niche documentaries and prides itself on its royalties to filmmakers, IndiePix stuck its toe in the Internet waters recently by offering some of its releases in a download-to-own format that's easily burned to DVD. (Nothing is free on the IndiePix site, but quite a few of its documentary titles can be streamed free from SnagFilms.) Soon to follow is pay-streaming functionality, likely to launch this fall with Jeremiah Zagar's terrific (and underexposed) family documentary "In a Dream." What I Watched: Well, I've seen the excellent post-Katrina doc "The Axe in the Attic" on DVD, which is among the site's smattering of download options.

The Auteurs An exciting new streaming site, currently in beta, that focuses on cinephile-oriented classics and offers a super-clean interface, terrific HD-quality streaming, easy connections to Facebook and Twitter and a welcoming vibe. Whether there's a viable market for what entrepreneur Efe Cakarel is selling I'm not sure. He's made an interesting deal with the Criterion Collection to stream several of their classic titles free, from Antonioni's "L'Avventura" to Masaki Kobayashi's "Harakiri" and Agnès Varda's French New Wave classic "Cléo From 5 to 7." Paid offerings are numerous and miscellaneous; on a single page I saw Buster Keaton's 1926 "The General," Wong Kar-wai's 1995 "Fallen Angels" and Andrei Zvyagintsev's 2003 "The Return." As mentioned, "Laila's Birthday," a recent festival favorite about a taxi driver in the Palestinian territories, was available on the Auteurs right after its New York theatrical premiere. (It got minimal response, which may reflect the site's apparent emphasis on classics over new films.) What I Watched: Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda's supernatural allegory "After Life" (a $5 rental).

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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