12.05.2005

Collapsing windows

This month's Fast Company offers a story about the coming digital revolution in Hollywood, and in doing so has summed up the Creativille manifesto-in-progress. In my short time in this space, I have preached about the need for accessibility and adaptability in arts, entertainment and culture. That's where the whole "intersection with business" thing comes in. Make what you want when you want, but if you want anyone to buy it, you'd better make it as easy as possible for people to get it.

In the article, "The New Wave" by Alan Deutschman, that argument is summarized nicely in a passage about how Hollywood must react to the quickly changing marketplace:

"What we have learned from the first decade of the digital era is that we’re the ones who will be in control of when, where and how we consume media. Give us cell phones, and we’ll tear out our landlines. Give us laptops, and we’ll chuck our desktops. Give us wi-fi, and we’ll take our laptops everywhere. Give us BlackBerrys, and we’ll leave our laptops at home. Let us download music, and we’ll never go to the store to buy CDs. Give us VCRs and TiVo, and we’ll watch TV shows whenever we want – and zap the commercials. Give us the news as it happens, and we won’t look at tomorrow’s papers."

That's the promise, and here's the threat: “If you don’t let us buy what we want, when we want it, we’ll take it anyway. But if you make it affordable and easy enough for us to get what we want – as Apple’s Steve Jobs did with iTunes and the iPod – then we’ll happily pay you and make you a star.”

Steven Soderbergh gets it. I wrote last month about his filmmaking venture with Mark Cuban's 2929 Productions. Soderbergh is interviewed briefly here as one of the 10 hottest people in Hollywood, and also is featured in a Wired Q&A that makes a nice companion piece to the Fast Company package. In the partnership with Cuban, Soderbergh plans to make six digital films that will be released in theaters, on DVD, on HDTV and possibly by download all at the same time. Asked about this radical change to Hollywood's longstanding cycle of successive windows that allow various segments of the industry to wring as much revenue from consumers as possible, Soderbergh hits the nail on the head: “Name any big-title movie that’s come out in the last four years. It has been available in all formats on the day of release. It’s called piracy." He predicts that all movies will go out in all formats within five years, and that “named” directors will start distributing their own films.

Now, you can say this is a response to piracy, but it's really a response to what consumers are demanding. There is certainly an element that will take what it can get for free, but mostly people just want choice. People who are willing to buy a crappy dub on DVD the day a film is released are doing so in part because it's cheap, but also because it's convenient. Similarly, people who want to hear a song right now are going to go download it, not trek down to the mall to line up at Sam Goody to pay $17.99 for a disc that might offer little reward beyond that one song. The music industry finally figured that out, and a look at sales figures that include iTunes downloads (the December Wired has a great graphic that isn't online yet) shows that the music industry is more robust than ever.

Will the shift to digital and same-day releases hurt the movie industry as a whole? No. Will some people get hurt? Theater owners can't help but be worried. But there's no slowing the march of progress, and those who stand in the way are sure to be trampled.

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