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By Chris Tenzis | April 9, 2000

In an era when everything can be broken down into zeroes and ones, everyone seems to be racing to be number one. To be the first to release a digital film, a web site or a new wireless technology means much more than to consider the implications of what sort of impact being first and not best might have. In the beginning, the information age promised a future of better communication, easy access to resources and most recently, a marketplace for commerce. Now the information age boasts the ability to broadcast digital films through broadband internet connection.
The possibilities are so infinite that no one can truly estimate the implications the future holds for film distribution and exhibition. Dozens of online “film festivals” and online film sites have cropped up in the last year, all with the hope that by the time broadband hits, they will already posses a stable of product to release to the viewing public.
Although broadband is years away, that doesn’t seem to be stopping anyone from being first. Yet when broadband comes, who will watch? Currently, most households cannot afford a computer necessary for even basic internet use. Some cannot even afford basic phone lines. In the future, these same people will not be able to afford broadband. Until all economic groups are able to participate, internet distribution holds as much promise as the early nickelodeons and kinescopes that people watched in the early twentieth century and will remain nothing more than a novelty.
Many young filmmakers churning out shorts are beginning to rely on these web sites for distribution. Less than ten years ago, there was an average of 15,000 short films being made annually with virtually no demand nor means to distribute. But in the last few years, sites like AtomFilms ( and iFilm ( have been obtaining product constantly with promise of exhibition on the web, some ancillary distribution (DVD sales, airline programming, etc.) and even pay. The present has never looked better for the short filmmaker. But what will these companies do when broadband does become even the slightest bit accessible? No doubt they will continue to look for new product and only the most recent acquisitions will be promoted, pushing earlier films into an archive to be lost among hundred of other short works, if the contract continues that far into the future. Most contracts, including the most exclusive, only last up to three years before the site has the option to discontinue exhibition. In addition, by the time broadband hits, many of these sites will be scrambling for long format programming and the short film will find itself where it was just a decade ago. Short filmmakers be aware; the present day exhibition of tiny, fragmented, out-of-sync images may just be the Golden Age of Shorts.
The main way filmmakers have benefited from web distribution is through exposure. More than anything, a filmmaker hopes for a wide audience, and with enough word of mouth (or in this case, web site hits), notoriety and even feedback. With enough contracting with non-exclusive web distributors, a filmmaker can reach thousands of viewers without the cost of ever having to strike a print or shell out endless festival fees. However, because of the degraded quality of the image and the short attention span of the average viewer, only a certain type of film is well received. They are usually films that run under four minutes which don’t rely upon visuals but rather voice-over and heavy dialogue. In other words, the best films on the Net are usually nothing more than illustrated radio. There is a lot of cinema garbage now, and there will continue to be, which is not to say that today’s filmmaker is at fault. It is the acquisition committee’s responsibility to siphon through what is good and what is merely accessible. But because there is such demand to accumulate product in order to compete with other web sites, today’s sites lack a distinct quality and any singular vision. Instead, their inventory is a mish-mash of whatever they think the public wants to see, in short, illustrated radio with a high concept, often referencing pop culture. If this mode of acquisitions persists, what will distinguish one web site from another? This digital homogenization reeks of Hollywood today, which is exactly from which the next wave of filmmakers is attempting to be liberated. Until these sites can break away from this sort of market driven programming and instead celebrate the independence of vision and ideas, then web distribution will continue to regurgitate all that is antiseptic about contemporary cinema distribution.
There is no doubt in my mind that today’s current web sites devoted to film exhibition will be bought by one or more corporations. All films with exclusive contracts with these sites will then become property of these companies and the filmmaker will lose all rights. The companies will then see fit to promote only those films they deem the most commercial that will bring them the highest gross and the rest (indeed, the majority) will be forgotten. Perhaps the path for the next wave of filmmakers is to consider a singular, common exhibition in which all films can be digitized, broadcast, listed and cross-referenced by director, writer, cast and year of completion. It would then be up to the filmmaker to create a grass roots promotion to draw people to the site. This is the model Lithuanian filmmaker Jonas Mekas used when he created the Filmmakers Cooperative in 1962. In addition, those who work in the film industry would equally benefit from a site that allowed individuals to exhibit their show reels and their resumes, affording all filmmakers an opportunity to network and proliferate new works.
Film is the ultimate expression and there is no reason why anyone should prevent technology from assisting its advance. Unfortunately, we are living in a digital era where ideas are not the commodity but rather the sites that exploit them. As it was demonstrated at the first ever Yahoo! Online Internet Film Festival, where the industry prophesized, “Anybody who can make pretty pictures move across a screen is going to get VERY rich,” the emphasis is on neither community nor quality nor uniqueness, but on the bottom line and thus cinema will continue to be a slave to commerce.
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