Watching movies • 1 November 2010 • The SnowBlog
Just so you don't think it's all-sociopath-all-the-time here, I wanted to say something about the rather childish enthusiasm I'm seeing for 3D movies at the moment - and I'm not talking about the audience; I'm talking about the childlike enthusiasm of the film industry.
I'm far from the only one who keeps an eye on both the music and the movie industries as a way of peering into possible futures for book publishing. All three sectors package essentially intangible products of uncertain and frequently inscrutable appeal for a fickle customer-base and all three are struggling with the impact of changes in technology. It's getting easier to physically make (if not to author) music, movies and books and it's getting easier to consume them - without paying if you want. The movie industry started out with total ownership of the system. You couldn't make your own movie - not one with titles and lighting and a soundtrack - and you couldn't pirate one to watch at home because you needed a cinema with a couple of giant projectors to show it in. But the movie industry realised they could make a lot of cash by loosening the strings by which they kept hold of the means of production and distribution. First they let TV companies show movies, then they sold them directly to consumers on VHS tapes. The first of those steps allowed movies into the living room - but only when the TV and movie companies agreed you could watch them. The second step sold off control of scheduling too. Or course with VCRs you could tape a movie off of the TV anyway, so selling official VHS copies of a movie was really just a way to keep up.
Making movies is still pricey but the cost has been plummeting for a century now. Cheap solid-state video cameras cost under a hundred pounds and fit in your palm. Whereas two or three thousand pounds will buy you a pretty decent 'prosumer' HD camcorder. Movies still need actors and lighting and insurance and crafts service, but everything from capturing the images (and sound) on down the production pipeline costs a tenth of what it did fifteen years ago. What used to be high-end quality can now be achieved for peanuts, in Hollywood budget terms. Once it became possible to shoot a movie with enough pixels for cinema release on an indie budget a lot of new players piled into the industry. That's good news for viewers and bad news for Hollywood.
By this point in the history of movies, you can watch them on your phone, your computer, in your car, on your iPod - and if you don't want to go to the cinema you can build one in your living room for a thousand pounds or so (which a surprising number of people do) with a big flat-screen, a decent DVD player and a surround-sound speaker setup. The strings have been loosened almost as far as they could be and there's no more money to be made from loosening them further. The industry has tried to offer total convenience in movie-watching while maintaining total control of copying and distribution and of course it hasn't worked. It's not even possible. What they really need is a way to start again.
And that's what 3D movies offer. They create a new premium-level viewing experience that isn't available on your phone or PC. The means of production is pricier - which suits Hollywood. There are no prosumer camcorders likely to shoot HD-resolution 3D any time soon. If Hollywood can make you think that 'proper' movies are in 3D and everything else is amateurish then they can buy themselves another decade of controlling the movie industry at the creative end. For cinemas, it's a chance to pull ahead of the living room again and offer something you can't get at home (for which multiplexes are busily charging a premium all over America at the moment). And in a few years' time, that advantage can be auctioned off by selling us all 3D televisions. It's also a chance to side-step piracy concerns by creating something that needs special equipment to view.
Blu-Ray was supposed to do a lot of this, but from what I can tell, people haven't been biting. Until we all switch to 60+" TVs, most of us can't spot the faults with standard DVD. But we can all tell if we're watching 3D or not. So at a stroke, Hollywood, the cinema chains, the electronics companies and the media stores get a new lease of life and a new level of control. And the only drawback I can see is that most people don't actually seem to particularly care for 3D movies. It's a technology with a lot of supply and relatively little demand. But you wouldn't know it from the amount of advertising you see. Sadly for the industry, I think cinema has done far too good a job teaching us that movies are flat to suddenly persuade us we've been missing out all these years.
It'll be almost as interesting to see what happens if 3D fails as if it takes off. And for anyone looking to predict the future of the book industry by gazing at its more forward-looking cousins it's clear that we're a long way away from anything analogous happening with books. But you can see how such a thing might start. I've talked in the past about how cool a multimedia, semi-intelligent book might be. I'm not thinking so much about novels here as textbooks and non-fiction. Embedded video, content which updates itself, and rearranges itself based on user preference. My examples included nature books which talk you through the process of identifying a bird or a plant, asking follow-up questions based on your answers, before taking you to the relevant entry. Or textbooks with live quizzes at the end of the chapters, where what you read next depends on how you scored. Science books with experiments in them. Programming books which actually run their own example code and yours too. If any of these things catch on, you could easily imagine a world where plain 'dead' paper books might be considered a hobbyist's platform with the industry pinning its hopes on semi-intelligent, interactive 'live' publications.
If the day comes when book piracy is a serious problem for the industry, enhancing books so that they're more than simply big text files will become a priority.
From the comments we tend to receive, I'd say that most of us are against any changes to the historical idea of what a book is. We want it to be an attractive, paper object with a familiar feel and smell. It will be interesting, then, to see how many of us are leading the charge in ten years' time to persuade the book-reading world to leave all that behind and to spend their money on 'live' publications. Who knows, some of the 'live' multimedia content we're pushing might even be 3D.