Web opens new pic pipelines

Digital download sites offer a number of viewing possibilities

With the first major studio deals inked only recently with AOL, Hollywood may be late in embracing digital downloading for film, and the industry continues to proceed with caution.

“Content providers are likely to partner with various outlets because they don’t want to become beholden to one player, which is what has happened in the music business — iTunes has become a dictator,” says Tom McInerny, CEO of Guba.com, a user-generated-content Web site that has segued into the legit downloading of feature content.

Apple’s Steve Jobs has made the studio rounds, trolling for iMovies content. Many analysts believe that without the introduction of a new device that will allow users to view films on something larger than an iPod, demand will remain tepid.

Digital download sites, however, offer a number of viewing possibilities. Pics can be watched on a computer screen or, through a number of interfaces, on a TV. If users have the patience to wait for the sometimes lengthy download, the experience is akin to watching a DVD.

How do independents stand to profit from the new technology? To what extent is difficult to say right now, but there are definite upsides.

“We provide an outlet — a single outlet,” says CinemaNow prexy Bruce Eisen, “whereby indie filmmakers can distribute their content in multiple formats — rental, ad-supported, electronic sell-through, burn-to-DVD — throughout the world or on a territory-by-territory basis.”

Amy Heller, co-prexy of Milestone Pictures, whose theatrical releases include Takeshi Kitano’s “Fireworks” and the Soviet classic “I Am Cuba,” sees a tremendous advantage to that. “I may not be able to find enough people in one city to make a theatrical release worthwhile,” she says, “but through digital downloading I’ll find my specific audience all over the world.”

One early success story is the Beastie Boys DVD title “Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That!,” which was offered digitally on Movielink. The title appeared on the Web site day-and-date with its DVD release.

“We knew that it had very little value as a theatrical release,” explains Mark Urman, head of U.S. theatrical for the pic’s distributor, ThinkFilm. “But the Movielink arrangement proved very successful in creating an additional revenue stream. Especially, I think, because it’s perfectly suited for that arena. It really is a film that you could watch on your cell phone.”

Nevertheless, a title’s success as a digital download still depends on a distributor’s promotional efforts.

According to Eisen, “An independent can create awareness through their own Web postings on MySpace, their own Web sites and through other media.”

Movielink’s chief marketing officer, Mary Coller Albert, says her company has inked deals with indies to kick off a promotional Independents’ Month in September. In order to publicize those titles, not all of which are likely to be household names, Albert says many will be grouped into themed packages.

GreenCine.com may be the real go-to site for independents. GreenCine’s VOD service began in 2003 with 12 titles, but today boasts upwards of 12,000, more than CinemaNow and Movielink combined. Many titles were acquired through direct deals with indie filmmakers.

The site has been extremely successful selling and renting DVDs from both studio and independent sources, but bringing in studio titles for VOD and digital downloading has been difficult, says head of acquisitions Jonathan Marlow. “Given the contracts offered by the studios,” he says, “we’d have to reinvent the whole system for each studio. We’d end up losing money.”

Docs are likely to be big winners in the sector, as well. Not only will soon-to-be-launched Clickstar feature a channel called Jersey Docs in conjunction with Danny DeVito’s Jersey Films, but AOL also will be offering a documentary channel.

Still, in the eyes of some, digital downloading has a long way to go before it exercises any real impact on the market.

“Because bandwidth to the home is growing slowly even while hard-drive capacity is skyrocketing,” says indie entrepreneur Mark Cuban, “it’s faster to deliver multiple movies via UPS than the Internet. Retailers and rentailers control a huge percent of revenue for every new movie released today.

“If they were smart, they would require the studios to allow burning of movies to a flash drive, hard drive or DVD in any format. The studios would have no choice, and the independents like us would jump at the chance.”

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