A week ago, the video site YouTube announced a service upgrade that could change the dynamics of the film industry. But it did it so quietly that only a few online video fans noticed. And most of those who did got mad because they couldn’t run it on their home computers. Wonder why they even tried, because it wasn’t for the home user at all.
YouTube has hiked the permissible resolution of its videos way beyond HDTV standards to 4k. That’s twice the number of pixels you see on an IMAX theatre screen. The 4k format needs serious bandwidth and video processing power to stream smoothly, and a screen at least 25 feet across. And as far as I know, the Red One is the only cine camera which can shoot at this resolution.
So why is YouTube supporting a rare and slightly futuristic standard? Perhaps because Google, which owns YouTube, wants to get into the movie distribution business. Films have been distributed electronically since 2005, when the first standards were published by Digital Cinema Initiatives, a joint venture of MGM, Warner Bros, 20th Century Fox, Paramount, Sony, Universal and Disney. The industry likes it because it will save billions of dollars by distributing on rewritable magnetic and optical media instead of film. And now, it looks like YouTube wants to take the phenomenon online, backed by the biggest search engine, Google.
Financially, online distribution holds up because computer communications get cheaper over time. We can’t expect a revolution right away but maybe five years from now, the cost of gigabyte internet could fall so low that it would be cheaper to send an encrypted video to movie theatres over the wire than to courier it on disk. YouTube, which currently has a 10.59 minute time limit on clips because it’s still so expensive to host and stream video, is already used by filmmakers to host promos and trailers. And when bandwidth costs fall, it — or one of its competitors — could become an online distributor, with interesting implications for the film industry.
Limited or occasional releases would become possible, erasing the contentious distinction between art cinema and the mainstream. Independent cinema would not have to be discovered on the festival circuit and then sink into celebrated obscurity for want of a commercial release. The power of discovery would lie with the audience, where it belongs, and word of mouth would become the most significant element of promotion.
Cinema shovels the goods to the viewer down the distribution pipeline, pushing it with an overwhelming publicity blitz. And then, all too often, the audience is underwhelmed and the film flops. But online distribution opens up the possibility of staggered releases to test the waters as they go along, which would prevent embarrassing bomb-outs like Raavan. And most significantly, it puts choice in the hands of the audience, who would be voting with their wallets and their social networks.
How much choice? Well, if you’re dying to see a truly obscure Suomi cult epic on the big screen, you can. All you have to do is harvest a theatre-load of like-minded friends off Facebook, rent a show in a theatre and pay for a download. Easier than piracy and much more comfortable.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine. The views expressed by the author are personal