Digital | CYBERIA

Get Shorty

by Mark Thompson

For many of us living in Japan, the Academy Awards ceremony serves as a reminder of where we are in the bigger scheme of things: behind the curve. We often haven’t seen many of the nominated or winning films, some won’t be here for another year, and others might not come at all. This is a distribution matter, and an explanation of it (if there even is one) is beyond the scope of this column. Suffice it to say, the Japanese market is a crucial one, and Japanese distributors tend to be extremely cautious with their release schedules. (Then again, I’ll never understand the logic behind Christmas films in August.)

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As I discussed here (“Enemy of the Corporate State,” Feb. 9), distribution concerns have also stymied the free flow of DVDs. Code embedded in most DVD discs prevents, for example, one from playing recently released DVDs from Hollywood in Japan’s Zone 2. This, allegedly, is because the studios don’t want to hurt relations with local distributors who want complete control over the flow of entertainment imports.

Will the Net change this? It’s inevitable, but expect it to take a while. We saw a sign of this when major TV broadcasters balked at a Canadian site that streamed their content on the Web. The site’s owner reasoned that content is free to anyone with a TV, so what’s wrong with distributing it through other “channels”? The site, iCraveTV.com, was eventually shut down.

When it comes to film, there is yet to be an equivalent of MP3, the technology that has rocked the music world. Cracks are starting to show in the wall, however.

Many documentary, animation and short films have long been relegated to the film festival ghetto, but they hit the mainstream on the Web. At sites such as Reelshort.com, Atomfilms.com and iFilm, you can not only view a variety of short films online, but many of the Oscar nominees (albeit none of the movies in the feature film categories).

The content, because of narrow bandwidth, is limited to short films (and to 33-Kbps modems and lower it might as well be a slide show). But in terms of distribution, exposure and simply cultivating a heretofore tiny niche market, these sites are new wrinkles in cinema. At the very least, this is where promising shorts can be discovered (think of them as demo tapes) that could lead to bigger projects.

The convergence of cinema and the Web isn’t just about Web sites with interactive games or insider buzz (a la “Blair Witch”), but totally new screens.

Recently it was announced that David Lynch will be working with Shockwave.com on a new “sophisticatedly crude” cartoon series for the Web. Other A-list filmmakers have also signed deals with the Macromedia subsidiary.

Of course, given Lynch’s infamous edginess and his experience with warped comic strips, this isn’t such a departure for the “wild at heart” director. But then there’s eye-opening Pop.com, a soon-to-be-launched site backed by the likes of Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard that will showcase short movies. Powerbroker Jeff Katzenberg has even predicted that the trend toward virtual theaters will have the same sort of impact that MTV had when it launched. (And you can bet he wants to build as much hype as possible.)

Other recent awards, which hardly registered on a Oscar scale, have had a lot of influence on the Web. They include the Best of the Web Awards at SXSW Interactive SXSW’s film festival has already proven its mettle in indie film circles). The Webby Awards might have bigger name recognition, but the SXSW selections appear to show a stronger connection to innovative talent on the Web.

While all of the winners and nominees deserve a look, first click over to 16 Color: The Internet Movie Machine, a showcase of the lowest of low-tech animation and winner in two categories (best designer community, best innovative use of the Web). Much of the fare isn’t a far cry from “South Park,” the self-consciously crude cartoon series that first found its audience on the Web. In short, it’s the antithesis of everything George Lucas and Disney stands for. (Perhaps the biggest sign of how far the Academy has come was the inclusion of South Park’s “Blame Canada” among the Best Song nominees and the attendance of its creators in evening dress drag.)

As the title says, the movies are 16 colors only, meaning instant visuals, no Quicktime or Real media necessary. It’s simple, ephemeral stuff, never coming to a theater near you, but that doesn’t make it any less significant. Many are entertaining cinematic haiku. One of my favorites begins with an angry GameBoy player and ends hilariously, 10 chain-reaction frames later, with the accidental end of the world. Cinema for people with Attention Deficiency Disorders? Maybe, but one “Titanic” a year is enough.

Like the promise of e-commerce, much of e-entertainment is about going to the source — be it Stephen King releasing a short story on the Net, MP3-only singles or a hacker gaining access to U2’s rehearsal studio sound board (remember that?). Granted, we’ll probably never anonymously trade no-name shorts like MP3s; marketing and distributors will always be part of the contextual pie. Without a doubt, though, the Net will bring the filmmakers (both new and established) closer to potential audiences. And just as the nature of MP3s is forcing some artists and labels to rethink the album concept, virtual theaters could easily challenge the need for big-budget, two-hour-plus features.

One notable feature of both iFilm.com and 16Color is user-supported rankings (and reviews), which pretty much backspaces the need for an Academy, or Richard Ebert. On the one hand, I suppose, this is a good thing, which could encourage more competition and a consistently high standards. On the other hand, I shudder to think what life would be without Billy Crystal’s jokes and Gwyneth Paltrow’s nape. Some things don’t need to change.