Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t really in any science fiction writer’s job description that he must predict the future. In a longish career thus far, my record as a futurist is pretty shabby. No devilish aliens have arrived to replace all the men on earth with robots, dinosaurs have yet to teach us to think, and television shows have not achieved consciousness, thank goodness. But readers of this column have the right to expect a head’s-up every so often from their net pundit, and I haven’t been shy about pointing out trends and making educated guesses about what might be crossing your screens someday. For example, in a 2002 column called Movies <http://www.jimkelly.net/pages/movies.htm> I wrote, “It is only a matter of a few years, it says here, before the means of distribution of movies and television will have to be reinvented. In the same way that the mp3 standard has changed the music industry, predictable improvements in bandwidth as well as data compression and storage will kill off not only Blockbuster, but your neighborhood mom and pop video rental stores. Count on renting Alien Re-reincarnation The Next Generation Part III: A New Hope from sequels.com by, say, 2007. Not long after cable and broadcast television channels will get a very hard shake indeed.”
It looks to me as if we’re pretty much on schedule for this particular apocalypse. No, Blockbuster hasn’t died, but buzzards have been spotted on the horizon. Blockbuster stock, which was trading at twenty-four dollars a share when I made this prediction in February 2002, has dipped below four dollars as I type this in March 2006. In my rural New Hampshire hamlet, one of the two mom-and-pop video stores has shut its doors. I confess I’m partly to blame: I joined Netflix <http://www.netflix.com> last year.
Netflix, despite its name, is primarily a hardcopy purveyor of cinema: you order your DVDs online but they arrive days later in your snailmail box. There are several all digital movie rental sites, which, while they can’t yet offer anything like Netflix’s prodigious library of film, do point toward the future of downloading. The best of these are Movieflix <http://www.movieflix.com>, CinemaNow <http://www.cinemanow.com>, Movielink <http://www.movielink.com>, and Starz <http://starz.real.com/partners/starz/starz.html>. CinemaNow and Movielink are pay-per-view sitesthat is, you pay for each movie, typically about three to four dollars, and after you download it, you can watch it as many times as you want in a twenty-four hour period. (One thing to be aware of, if you’re interested in trying these sites, is that they only work if you access them with Internet Explorer. The Firefox and Opera browsers need not apply.) Starz and Movieflix, on the other hand, offer an all-you-can-watch service for a monthly fee, thirteen and seven dollars respectively. Starz cycles movies onto and off of its menu weekly; its offerings are about what you’d expect from a premium cable service, i.e., some classics, a few straight to video dumps, and a bunch of movies that you probably saw six months ago. Movieflix presents a quirkier mix. I think you’ll get the idea if I tell you that today the two featured movies on its front page are the 1961 sword-and-sandal-epic Ulysses Against the Son of Hercules <http://www.oldies.com/product-view/4684D.html> and the 1963 thriller (?) The Sadist <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0057465>. Movieflix looks to be where B and C grade movies go to die.
Understand that with all of these sites, the movie you download lives on your hard drive. Unless you have a S-video jack or some way to stream content from your CPU to your TV, you’re going to be watching on your computer screen. Still, maybe that’s not such a bad deal if you want to bring Blade Runner <http://brmovie.com> along with you on that boring plane ride to Dubuque. You’ll need a broadband connection to take advantage of them, but then more than seventy percent of Americans have one, according to Web Site Optimization.com’s Bandwidth Report <http://www.websiteoptimization.com/bw>. How quickly can you get your movie? Typically thirty to forty minutes for VCR quality and maybe an hour and a half for DVD quality, depending on your download speed and the length of the flick.
There is another movie downloading option that doesn’t cost anything, but that also might put you on the wrong side of the law. The BitTorrent approach to file-sharing was invented by Bram Cohen <http://bitconjurer.org> in 2001, and it is estimated that torrents currently drive between a third and a half of the world’s peer-to-peer traffic. The BitTorrent protocol breaks huge files into more manageable chunks that do not have to be downloaded in sequence and which can come from many different computers, thus distributing bandwidth. When these chunks arrive on one computer, they become available to many others. With BitTorrent, the more demand there is for a file, the more “seeds” of the file on torrent-accessible computers become available and the faster the download. Thus, it is ideally suited for snagging popular and staggering large filesmovies, for instance. Bram Cohen gave us not only the BitTorrent protocol but also the BitTorrent Client <http://www.bittorrent.com>, a fine implementation of this essential downloading software. No offense, but I use µTorrent <www.utorrent.com>. Both are freeware and well worth your consideration.
The BitTorrent protocol is an example of the kind of brilliant innovation that will carry us into the digital future. The problem comes when you start to look around the web for torrents to download. If you click one of the popular torrent search engines, and type in the name of that movie you and your girlfriend saw on your first date or the TV show you missed last Tuesday, chances are that you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for. Depending on how obscure your tastes are, you can have your fave on your desktop in a couple of hours, or maybe overnight or, in the worst case scenario, over a couple of days. This is reminiscent of the heyday of Napster <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Napster> back at the turn of the century, only this time instead of the entire backlog of the music industry, what’s in play may ultimately be every movie and TV show ever made.
I’d mention some of more popular torrent search engines except that the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) <http://www.mpaa.org> is suing many of them over copyright infringement and they may well have gone dark by the time you read this.
We pause here for a brief rant: Don’t get me started on the dastardly MPAA! These Luddite fat cats are totally of control when it comes to their efforts to criminalize innocent, commonsense behaviors by folks like you and me. I haven’t got the space here to point out how wrongheaded they are, but check out the Electronic Freedom Foundation’s website, and in particular the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) Archive <http://www.eff.org/IP/DMCA> for the case against them. If we let the MPAA impede innovation and choke off the flow of information, we’ll be peering at websites through the eye of a corporate needle. You want Universal, Time Warner, Disney, and Fox sitting on the back of your couch, looking over your shoulders? Write your congressperson today. No really, I mean it.
Whew! Deep breath, Jim! That’s better. An additional warning I’d offer if you’re tempted to check out torrent search engines is that some of them are cesspools of spyware. My Spy Sweeper <www.spysweeper.com> software fought off several attacks while I was researching this column. Your hard drive may need a good hot shower if you click the wrong site. Why not try some of the excellent legal torrent search engines like Common Bits <http://www.commonbits.org>, LegalTorrents <http://www.legaltorrents.com/index.htm>, and Prodigem <http://www.prodigem.com>?
Like most people, I watch a lot of movies, but I must say that I am more often than not disappointed by the SF and fantasy offerings of the big studios. But filmmaking is in a creative ferment just now as the means of production fall into more and more hands thanks to the digital video revolution. It’s amazing what some very creative folks are accomplishing on shoestring budgets. Two showcase sites for this work are AtomFilms <http://www.atomfilms.com> and IFILM <http://www.ifilm.com>. AtomFilms specializes in shorts; there is a wealth of content to explore here. If you do nothing else, check out their Academy Award Hall of Fame page. As I write this, there are ten outstanding nominees in the short film category, many with a decidedly fantastic bent. The Polish-made The Cathedral, for instance, is a visual tour de force, while Canhead and Adam are very cool indeed. You may actually find yourself tearing up at Harvie Crumpet, which is narrated by the actor Geoffrey Rush. Next click over to the Scifi Section <http://www.atomfilms.com/af/action/scifi> and watch the grimly provocative 50% Gray and the wacky The Wand. IFILM also has a wealth of shorts for your viewing pleasure as well as trailers from commercial movies and music videos. Nifty pages include User Videos <http://www.ifilm.com/uservideo> and Viral Video <http://www.ifilm.com/viralvideo>. I can commend Rockfish and Grayson and MacBeth to your attention, but most especially The Old Negro Space Program <http://www.ifilm.com/ifilmdetail/2667497>, which is a sendup of all those Ken Burns documentaries, only with a definite alt history twist. Warning: if you value your keyboard, at no time should you drink anything while watching this hilarious little film. Parody is, of course, a staple of many of the short films you’ll find here; the current rage is to mashup Brokeback Mountain with any number of buddy films to point up hidden gay readings. Worth looking for on IFILM are Brokeback To The Future and The Empire Brokeback. Oh R2, oh 3PO, who knew?
Another staple of these short film collections are parodies, homages and fan commentaries on the two enduring science fiction film franchises, Star Wars and Star Trek. You’ll find plenty of each on IFILM and AtomFilms. However, neither of them have what may be the most ambitious fanfilm ever made. Click instead to Star Trek New Voyages <http://www.startreknewvoyages.com/1024/home.php>, the website of a plucky group of Trek devotees who have dedicated themselves to producing episodes that will finish the celebrated Five Year Mission. You may recall that mission “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations” was cut short by the abrupt cancellation of the now-classic show. Although STNV was originally an amateur production, a surprising number of old Trek hands have signed on to help, including SFX supervisor Ron B. Moore, writers David Gerrold and D.C. Fontana, and actors George Takei and Walter Koenig. The STNV crew seems to have avoided copyright hassles by making their work available for free. You can’t buy them or watch them on any TV channel, you can only download them from the site.
To boldly go, indeed!