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Clicking and Streaming

Home entertainment searches for its digital future

Illustrations By Deanna Staffo

By Lee Gardner | Posted 6/24/2009

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It's difficult to think of a better film released in the last year than Hunger. The directorial debut of video artist Steve McQueen, it traces the events of the 1981 Provisional Irish Republican Army hunger strike in Northern Ireland's Maze Prison in which Bobby Sands (played by Michael Fassbender) starved himself to death, along with nine others, as the world counted the days. Given McQueen's background in visual arts, it's not surprising that Hunger isn't a straight historical drama, instead taking an elliptical, visually beguiling look at the grim realities of men living in filth and destroying their bodies to fight back the only way they can. McQueen makes clear the toll the brutal prison regime took on the Protestant guards as well. To top it off, the film hinges around a 17-minute-plus single-take scene of Fassbender's Sands and a priest played by Liam Cunningham performing a virtuoso duet for boyo patter and grim moral rhetoric.

When it first hit the film festival circuit in 2008, Hunger won several shelves full of awards, including the Toronto Film Festival's Discovery Award, the Cannes Film Festival's Golden Camera for McQueen, and a British Independent Film Awards Best Actor trophy for Fassbender. Riding a wave of rapturous early reviews, it was picked up by IFC Films for distribution in the United States and opened in New York and Los Angeles on Dec. 5, 2008--just in time for Academy Award consideration.

Assuming successful runs in the two biggest and most discerning movie markets in the country, Hunger would ordinarily have rolled out to art houses in bigger markets, then smaller markets all across the country; if it did well, it might even elbow its way into some mainstream multiplexes. But Hunger tanked in New York and Los Angeles--maybe shriveling hunger strikers and trembling guards were a bit too much as the recession deepened and the holidays approached--so it never made it to many of those other markets. It has yet to play Baltimore's Charles Theatre or the Landmark Harbor East.

"I hadn't thought of [booking] it, because it opened in New York and L.A. and played so poorly," acknowledges George Mansour, the Boston-based booker who programs films at the Charles.

But Hunger did wind up having a local run, of sorts, this spring via Comcast Cable. For the past two years, the Independent Film Channel, or IFC, has been making titles such as Steven Soderbergh's two-part bio-epic Che, gritty Italian crime drama Gomorrah, and Israeli/Palestinian drama Lemon Tree available on demand via its cable-TV arm at around the same time they hit theaters. For $6.99--a good bit less than the going rate at most movie theaters these days--you can sit on your couch and watch movies that have yet to make it to the local art house theater, and may never.

Americans' love of big popcorn movies seen on a big screen on opening weekend--especially summer weekends--is so well established and so lucrative that it's hard to imagine the basic model changing any time soon. In fact, the blockbuster business is only getting bigger, with more mainstream filmmakers embracing overwhelming technologies such as 3-D and IMAX. But at almost any level of film-viewing below the Terminator Salvations and The Hangovers of the world, all bets are off.

The rise of the internet has created a world where if you can type a title, no matter how old or obscure, into a search bar, hit return, and track down a DVD copy, legitimate or otherwise, for delivery to your door. The proliferation of broadband internet means that attaching the word "torrent" to your search may lead you to a site where you can just download a bit torrent of the movie in question straight to your laptop. And that's just the unofficial traffic in films: In addition to video-on-demand (VOD) offerings like IFC in Theaters, there are companies such as internet-based movie-rental giant Netflix that specialize in delivering DVD copies of thousands of titles to your mailbox, or now, through a broadband connection, directly to your TV. And web-streaming of full-length feature films with decent picture quality is on the rise.

In short, film lovers have become increasingly accustomed to wanting more and being able to get it, often whenever they want, and if they can't get it legitimately, many don't let that slow them down. As consumer desires and expectations expand, companies ranging from movie studios to online retailers are trying a slew of new technologies and approaches in an attempt to adapt and arrive at the Next Big Thing in home entertainment, whatever that is, before the rest of the pack. It's too early to tell how this will shake out in 10 years time, but film nerds will win out, as will some format or delivery system probably in the works right now. And just as some will win, others will lose.

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