Film Fund-amentals: The Third Decade

A week ago last Monday was the 21st Anniversary of the first web site. This site wasn’t much more than an introduction to the basic concept of a web site, but it was the first breeze before the great historic storm.

Back in 1991, Microsoft was just releasing Windows 3.0a, while Apple had just introduced System 6.0.8. Meanwhile, Bill Gates and IBM were fighting over control of DOS. Home computers were still viewed as expensive toys and the internet browser was still in the design stage. Typewriters were the backbone of any business and many people thought that a PowerPoint was somebody making a rude gesture.

Despite many futuristic predictions, the emerging power of the World Wide Web was barely a whisper. I should know. I mostly spent my time during this period ignoring the whisper until I was literally dragged into the computer age in the mid-1990s.

The same was true only more so with the film industry. Aside from theatrical distribution, the business was primarily focused on the videotape market, and its main concern about the future was the development of DVDs. Outside of Silicon Valley (and what was at the time, the small world of computer graphic designers and animators) the industry was largely clueless.

Now, as the web enters its third decade, the stampede is on. Digital distribution has become the major battleground, both for online access and – within the very near future – theatrical release. The entire film industry is undergoing a process of massive evolutionary change and it is still in the very early stage. A new world is about to emerge and nobody yet has a clue.

Take for example the sudden explosion of online productions involving major established names. Tom Hanks is out there with Electric City. People like Jerry Seinfeld are working over at Burning Love spoofs reality TV and provides Ben Stiller with a foothold in the digital realm.

Meanwhile, Joss Whedon is preparing to take his classic online show Dr. Horrible Sing-Along Blog to TV on the CW network. In fact, the traffic flow between online material and TV is getting mighty confusing as demonstrated by the return of Arrested Development on Netflix. Just add in the steady increase in people catching their shows on sites like Hulu, and you would think that the internet is simply an extension of cable TV.

But this is barely the tip of the digital iceberg. With the exception of Joss Whedon, most of the players behind these shows are digital newbies who are trying to use the online process as an oddball substitute for television. That is why a lot of this looks like old wine being poured into new bottles. Though some of these shows are attempting to adapt to various levels of the more unique interactive qualities of the digital form, they still feel a lot like experiments in late night TV programming.

But there is also movement from the other side. A variety of digital born-and-bred systems are beginning to prove successful. Earlier this summer, compiled a list of the top five YouTube based sites that have reached a user level of 1.5 billion. The top five companies are spread across the digital entertainment board, ranging from music (Vevo) to video gaming (Machinima). On the list is Maker Studios, the young media company that seems determined to be at the forefront of an online indie production industry that aims for major production on its own terms.

Maker Studios, and companies like it, will be the determining factor in the digital industry. Unlike the old guard moving into the digital market, these folks don’t have to focus on shaking off old habits. They might have to avoid acquiring old habits, but they don’t have to shake them off, which gives them a strong edge on the learning curve.

This is especially important because the digital media industry is already displaying the other evolutionary aspect: a sense of content and narrative structure that is radically different from either TV or cinema. This part of the change is still in its most infant stage and is hard to identify or describe. But online material involves an interactive approach as well as a more fragmentary structure combined with an extraordinarily subjective viewpoint that operates within a non-linear objective framework that presents itself with a maximum level of disassociation between the viewer and the viewed even while taking an unusually close and intimate approach.

Everything I just said in that last sentence is a pile of incoherent nonsense. It is also a pretty accurate presentation of the emerging digital world. We are witnessing its birth and most likely will find both the words and the theoretical framework after the fact, not before.

In some ways, it is like the dawn sequence from 2001. But it was really all summed up by the official first words of the commercial sound cinema: You ain’t heard nothing yet.