Many eager viewers facing the flood of cable television programming feel much like thirsty sailors stranded at sea, with channels, channels everywhere and not a thing to watch.
But high tech visionaries promise the Internet will soon
bring an end to the age of 200 channels with nothing on and
possibly transform the entertainment business at the same time.
"In the future, everybody is thinking about streaming,"
Takashi Asai, head of the Japanese independent film distribution
and production company Uplink, said at last months' Berlin Film
Streaming, or digital video transmission, lets users
download TV-like video off the Internet and watch it on their
Though still in its infancy, the technology is expected to
mushroom and expand its reach from short clips to full-length
features. Industry representatives at the film festival said a
world in which thousands of movies wait in cyberspace to be
downloaded at lightning speed could be reality in three to five
Few imagine that the Internet will squeeze out cinema the
size of the screen and the pleasure people take from a night at
the movies cannot be replaced with a set-top box, industry
But when it comes to home viewing, high-tech mavens said the
Internet has the potential to trump video in terms of quality
and outdo services such as pay-per-view, cable TV, digital
versatile discs (DVD) and pay-TV with the freedom of choice it
offers the audience.
Out With the Old
"In five years, there will no longer be video
distribution," said Stefanie Fringuelli, a media analyst at the
investment bank West LB Panmure.
To prepare for the new age of Internet distribution, she
said, film distributors will need to ensure they have Internet
rights wrapped up in their cinema distribution packages.
As filmmakers use more digital technology in production
conjuring up the netherworlds of "Star Wars: Episode I - The
Phantom Menace" or the raining frogs of "Magnolia" home
viewers will demand the kind of sharp digital pictures possible
on their computers, analysts say.
Douglas Witkins, the president of Los Angeles-based Picture
This Entertainment, said the Internet was already affecting
direct sales of movies on video in the United States and Canada
and that widespread Internet distribution was only a matter of
"Eight million U.S. college students are streaming
already," Witkins said. "That has scary repercussions for our
business. By one-upping other distribution windows, you run the
risk that pay-TV and video distributors won't pay anywhere near
what they did and you find yourself unable to recoup
But Witkins said it will be some time before the Internet
brought revenues comparable to video, pay-television or DVD, so
many U.S. companies would for now put the Internet at the end of
their distribution chains.
"You don't want to push it before its time but its time is
certainly coming," Witkins said.
He said his company, which distributes films targeted at
gays and lesbians, was already selling about 30 percent of its
films online as mail-order video and that it was increasingly
reliant on the Internet as a marketing tool.
Chance for Independents
While big budget pictures will continue to run the
distribution channels from top to bottom, collecting revenue as
they go, many in the industry see a chance in the Internet for
independent filmmakers to set their own distribution terms.
Jimmy Bredow Pedersen, promotion manager of the Danish Film
Institute, said that in the future avant-garde directors would
be able to get films directly to online audiences.
"(The Internet) has the potential to be an important window
for independent films, just as MP3 can allow anyone to get his
music to fans without the need of a record company," he said.
MP3 technology represents a significant leap forward because
it compresses the size of music as data without undermining
quality thus making it faster to download good quality music.
Pedersen said a streaming trial would start next month in
Denmark in which short experimental films will be shown via
broadband networks. If the trial works out, Pedersen said, the
days of the cigar-chomping studio boss having the last word may
Although some European companies are getting in on the
action, Uplink's Asai warned that his experience at festivals
like the one in Berlin caused him to question European
receptivity to technology when it comes to film.
"The movie industry here is extremely conservative," he
said. "They are thinking about cinema as art and for that
reason may miss out on the opportunities technology has to
He noted that the wider reach of broadband technology in the
United States, combined with the increasingly close cooperation
between Hollywood and Silicon Valley, meant that the United
States may extend its online dominance to movies, too.
Europe Sees the Challenge
But Alexander Van Duelmen, general manager of distributor
Kinowelt International, said that the new developments offered
more opportunities than threats.
"I don't think the Europeans are so far behind," he said.
"In fact, Europeans also have the chance to lead here. When you
think of markets like eastern Europe, where far fewer people
have (the video format) VHS at home, you have a huge opening to
start people off with new technology."
U.S. companies such as Atom Films, Pulse Entertainment and
Artisan are setting the pace for cyberfilm, joining forces with
major media companies like Viacom Inc.'s Blockbuster Video
determined to ensure that they do not become dinosaurs.
But European startups like Britain's Redbus Film
Distribution, German media giants Bertelsmann and Kirch and
smaller players like CineMedia and Kinowelt are making sure that
Europe keeps pace.
Beki Probst, head of the Berlin Film Festival's European
Film Market, said that 2000 was the first year that Internet
companies had applied to attend the festival and that 2001 could
see their breakthrough as players in the European film business.
"The Internet is just starting to play a role in film
rights deals here, both in terms of locating markets that might
be receptive to a film, and as a means of distributing movies,"
Probst told Reuters. "We hope to be a part of that."