Digimart warns H'wood to speed up digital progress

MONTREAL — Digital cinema is expanding its footprint, but it still risks being stepped on by that new gorilla on the block, Internet-based video.

The second annual Digimart conference on digital movie distribution, which wrapped Wednesday, offered a warning to Hollywood: Move faster or be left behind.

Software entrepreneur Daniel Langlois, who helped start Digimart and owns the Cassavetes Theater where it was held, opened the confab by declaring that while d-cinema networks are being set up around the world, progress is slow “compared to what’s happening on the Web,” in part because companies are still “trying to use the traditional producer/distributor/exhibitor model when they need to reinvent themselves.”

While the filmmakers, producers, distribs, exhibs and tech entrepreneurs in attendance talked up various advances — from an alternative copyright system, called Creative Commons, to cheaper alternatives to the Digital Cinema Initiatives standard — the mainstream movie biz still seems disconnected from the explosive growth in new video technologies.

“I think there’s a comfort level in the mainstream movie industry with business as usual,” said Lance Weiler, director of the fright film “Head Trauma,” which screened Monday night. “They don’t really pay attention to innovations until someone starts to make money from them, or someone from the establishment — a big theater chain or a producer — reaches in and picks up on a new idea.”

Weiler carried his movie to the conference not in celluloid form but on a high-def computer server, which he plugged into the theater’s digital projector; he’s toted the server to 17 cities around the country for screenings he booked himself.

John Perry Barlow, one of the Internet’s gray-bearded philosophers and a former lyricist for the Grateful Dead, suggested the movie and recording industries shouldn’t treat their customers like criminals. “You’ve managed to turn an entire generation of young Americans into Hezbollah, and they hate you,” he said.

None of the filmmakers who spoke at Digimart had yet tried selling full-length movies in digital form, though several have harnessed technology in clever ways. Weiler used a series of spooky cell-phone text messages to promote “Head Trauma” and had an artist create an animated graphic novel for his Web site. Susan Buice and Arin Crumley, whose relationship tale “Four Eyed Monsters” screened Tuesday night, used a series of free video podcasts to generate interest in their movie and let interested fans enter their ZIP codes online to build a base for local theatrical exhibition.

At Digimart, dissatisfaction seemed to be brewing with the Digital Cinema Initiatives standard, set by a studio consortium in 2005. There were questions about how independent films could be shown on the system, and at what cost.

Even without the need to create a print, Crumley noted, there are still high costs to create a digital master. “DCI makes it hard to get onto a server and projector at a theater,” he complained.

Peter Buckingham, head of the U.K. Film Council’s Digital Screen Network, said many countries outside the U.S. had qualms about costs.

“You can’t get anything more secure or more high-quality than the DCI initiative,” Buckingham said, but questioned whether those criteria were essential in the Australian Outback or rural India.

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