Films, especially shorts, draw an Internet audience


Friday, July 14th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


CANNES, France - The Internet is awash in free movies: new and old, long and short, animated and live-action, color and black and white. The images are small and fuzzy, the content often bizarre and idiosyncratic.

Yet more and more Web sites are letting us watch movies for free, dramatically expanding our entertainment choices.

That was the consensus of dozens of Hollywood and Web executives at the recent Cannes Film Festival, a traditional watering hole for people in search of the Next Big Thing.

Few, if any, people in Cannes claimed that watching movies on personal computers was aesthetically pleasing - at least not yet. "It's a small screen; it's terrible," says Mary Jimenez of Icuna.com, a Hispanic-oriented short film site. "But we want to do it anyway. It's like watching a baby take its first steps."

The phenomenon of watching movies on the Net is indeed in its infancy, held back primarily by the size of the pipes coming into our homes. So far, most people appear to be watching Net movies at work, where they have the fastest connections.

That probably helps account for the burgeoning popularity of short films on the Net. "They're perfect for watching while taking an office break," says Jeremy Bernard of Reelshort.com. "Millions of people already have come onto the Web to watch short films, and I think that's only going to increase as broadband access increases." Internet movies also give workers "a great way to take a break from the boss," says Mac McGary of Honkworm, a digital studio.

But bosses may not be too amused by the development, especially when they find out what types of movies are being watched. Some are sexually oriented, with adult language and violence. Others are decidedly off-color and unsuitable for the maintenance of general office decorum.

At the Atom Films site, for instance, you can watch Bikini Bandits, which features scantily clad female robbers. At JoeCartoon, devoted almost entirely to dark humor, you can chop up a foul-mouthed frog that unwisely sits atop blender blades and hurls obscenities at you if you try to avoid slicing off his legs.

At Icebox, you can laugh at former President Lincoln by watching the popular short Hard Drinkin' Lincoln, which inexplicably portrays him as a "boozehound." At IFILM, you can witness the gradual, gruesome dismembering of a disturbed youth in The Beckers: Cannibalism and Your Teen.

Other sites traffick in cultish fare.

At MediaTrip, there's George Lucas in Love, a spoof of Shakespeare in Love, set at the the University of Southern California, where the creator of Star Wars studied. Numerous sites also offer the option of watching full-length features. You can view Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps at the Bijou Cafe. The Broadcast.com Video Channel offers free viewings of The Rounders and The Man Who Knew Too Much. And Channel Z has Frank Sinatra's druggie flick, The Man with the Golden Arm.


Going Hollywood

Hollywood directors are also getting in on the action.

Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks and Ron Howard's Imagine Entertainment are teaming up to launch Pop.com later this summer. Directors Tim Burton, James Brooks and David Lynch have signed up to create films and shorts for Shockwave.com. And SightSound.com recently debuted an original 32-minute pay-per-view flick, Quantum Project, starring Stephen Dorff and John Cleese.

Variety, the Hollywood trade publication, recently took note of the film stampede to the Net but scoffed at whether some of the sites will ever succeed.

"Webheads were underwhelmed" by the Quantum Project debut at SightSound.com in June, Variety noted, and many have blamed the demise of other sites on "dull and obnoxious content.

"Even executives from Internet-related companies expressed doubts about how many current sites will survive.

"Streaming a movie over the Internet is very difficult right now from an economic standpoint, and the experience is just not that enjoyable," says Mark Cuban, founder of Broadcast.com, now owned by Web powerhouse Yahoo. "And the question becomes how do you modify it, and that's what a lot of people are looking at and trying to figure out how to do.

"As for the proliferation of entertainment-oriented dot.coms, Mr. Cuban told journalists in Cannes that all but a few will fail.

"I've seen these things over and over and over again," he said during a panel discussion at the American Pavilion.

"When we started Broadcast.com, I read up on the start of the cable business, the satellite business and Ted Turner, and you know what? That played out exactly the same way. And the same thing is happening now. It's a gold rush, with people starting online channels with all sorts of competitors. But only a few are making money, and all but a couple are going to go away.

"Still, the Internet has inspired boundless optimism, especially among the makers of short films, perhaps because they finally have a home for their creations, rarely popular at the local megaplex.

Such was the case with Amy Talkington, who grew up in Dallas and recently partnered with Intel, Atom Films and Be Here Corp. to make the first so-called immersive film, premiering in Cannes.

Titled The New Arrival, the short can be viewed only on a personal computer equipped with a mouse pad or touch pad. You use the pads to navigate your way though the action, which was filmed with a 360-degree lens. You thus have the experience of being in the movie, with your perspective being that of the camera.

The lens, developed by Be Here, captures about 80 percent of a sphere, creating blind spots where the director and crew can hide.

During an interview in Cannes, Ms. Talkington said she sees immersive movies as capitalizing on the "interactive spirit of the Internet. That's what this is all about." In fact, she says, "We see this as a different medium from film. It's like painting vs. sculpture. It's a different art form based on the Internet, with its own genre, its own aesthetics. And I think that's the best way to conceptualize it." Ms. Talkington, whose short Second Skin won raves at Utah's Sundance Film Festival a couple of years ago, says Atom Films and Be Here approached her to make The New Arrival. It took a month to film and cost $25,000.

In conjunction with its Cannes premiere, The New Arrival was also posted at atomfilms.com, where it can still be seen.

Even Mr. Cuban, who expressed skepticism on the viability of entertainment-only Web sites, showed enthusiasm about the technological changes that will eventually affect the movies.


Crude model

In the short term, Mr. Cuban said, entertainment-oriented Web sites will have to adopt the pornography industry model to survive: They'll have to charge a monthly fee for "all you can eat.

"Think of all the things that pass across the Net," he said. "They're digital; they have to have a digital format. So as a result, the old financial model, where you have to create them, you have to print them, ship them, promote them, take returns and markdowns - all the grief that filmmakers and others currently have - they're all going to go away.

"Now, if everybody had broadband, a film distributor could make a lot more money if everybody could just pay $29.95 a month and download all the stuff that they could to their heart's content.

"All the money would go direct to [the Web site operator], the filmmaker and the person who put the deal together, and you wouldn't have to worry about all the fulfillment stuff in between. "This will affect all entertainment," Mr. Cuban said. "If you want all the Barry Manilow you can eat, then you'll pay $2.95 a month and you can download all the Barry Manilow you want. That'll be the end of the story, and Barry will make more money, the label will make more money and everybody will be happy.

"Further in the future, he said, "Our kids aren't going to ever buy a TV or a DVD. There is going to be what I call mega-broadband, which will start coming into our homes maybe seven or 10 years from now.

"[And there will be] some sort of digital display in your home or throughout your home. It's going to get really cool. Because when you have a gigabyte coming into your home, all the rules change," he said.

"The film business will evolve as digital cinema evolves," Mr. Cuban added, "so that when you go to the theater, there will be a whole new environment as well.

"Our expectations will evolve, and technology will take us to a new level. So if you're there at the forefront as these technologies evolve, you have a chance to do a lot and make some money." But Mr. Cuban warned that he is no soothsayer and that the future can never be foretold. "Technology always takes us farther than we ever expected," he said.

Still, one fact emerged from all the speculation and debate in Cannes: Big changes are ahead for movie fans.