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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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Of course, this brave new world of obscure DVDs ordered up with one click and new films streaming instantly to your home doesn't excite everyone, least of all those who have done the most to support discerning cinema culture over the past 50 years or so--namely the art-house theater and the serious video store.

George Mansour, now 75, has been booking art-house films since he was 30 years old, so he has witnessed the early waves of foreign films shaking up these shores, the collapse of the old Hollywood studio system and the rise of the independent filmmaker, the advent of home video, and the heyday of crossover "indie" hits. In addition to consulting for New York's famed Angelika Film Center, he now books 21 screens around the country, including those at the Charles. Asked if VOD programs like that of IFC affect the business such films do at theaters he books, he answers, "I think it does.

"Magnolia and IFC and companies like that are trying to have their cake and eat it too--trying to have theatrical runs and also have the money from on-demand," he continues. "It's fine for them, but it is cutting into the grosses of the small, independent art houses. I don't know whether ultimately it's going to be something that's self-defeating."

Neither IFC or Mansour will discuss numbers for box office or VOD take, but Mansour cites recent Magnolia Films' theatrical release The Girlfriend Experience, Steven Soderbergh's hotly hyped film about an escort played by porn star Sasha Grey, as a film he suspects may have done better at the Charles if it hadn't also been available via VOD. (French director Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours, which opens at the Charles on June 26, had a run on IFC in Theaters earlier this year.)

"Maybe if I were a little more Olympian about this idea [I could say], 'Well, this is a great way for someone in Lincoln, Nebraska, or some cut-off rural area, to be able to access specialized movies," Mansour says genteelly. "But why not wait three months, four months? At least give the theatrical run a chance for it to breathe and to generate grosses and to keep the places that advertise and that make people aware of these movies alive."

"For the kinds of movies we release, I think there's room for both" theatrical release and VOD, IFC's Bocca says. "And I don't think that the theatrical experience will go away, because it's a social experience. There's so much more to it than watching a movie on a big screen." In the long term, she argues, "DVD has a larger chance of being in jeopardy" as a format than the classic art house.

Video Americain owner Barry Solan would likely agree. Solan acknowledges that internet-based movie access, whatever the form, continues to hurt his two Baltimore-area stores, but he remains philosophical. "There's been a decline, but it's been a fairly slow decline," he says. "Less than most video stores--most video stores have gone out of business."

Asked about how Video Americain has beaten the odds for 20 years (the Cold Spring Lane location opened in 1989), he cites "insanely cheap" rents and the fact that his stores "have a rather tenacious audience who appreciate what we do" ("Rental Hygiene," Arts & Entertainment, March 7, 2007). Given the four-store Mid-Atlantic chain's long-established reputation as among the best video stores on the East Coast, that's not surprising. "Right now we're in a pretty stable place--the numbers seem to have leveled off," he says. "We continue to do what we've always done, which is to get every kind of film all the time." Which is not to say he doesn't see where things are headed.

"I used to say that [it's like] there's a fog and you knew your killer was out there and there were three or four [things] it could be but you never knew which one it was going to be," he says. "But the fog lifted, and it's Netflix. Netflix has the biggest gun, and Netflix will eventually kill the stores."

As for the DVD itself, it might not be going anywhere for a while. Streaming may be coming on strong, but Blu-ray technology has given movies-on-disc a boost with its exquisitely sharp picture, rich sound, and boatloads of features. "I personally don't see a great rush of people who wanna build a collection of movies on their computer," Warner Home Video's George Feltenstein says. "But they want to have them to watch on their 100-foot screen. That's what Blu-ray offers." And just as it took DVD a number of years to catch on, it will take it a number of years to die out says Netflix's Steve Swasey. After all, he notes, "the VHS tape is still clinging to its last breath of life. You still have Americans with VHS players on their rack and tapes they just can't part with. DVDs are only 10 years old."

Mike White just wants to watch more movies, and the format matters less than the fact that he knows they're out there, out of his reach.

"What about all those films that still aren't available on DVD, and were never available on VHS?" he asks. "Are we ever going to catch up to that point? Or is that going to be version 4.0, where we actually have that dream that we've all had--you know, it's three o'clock in the morning and I suddenly want to see The General with Buster Keaton, and I can just go to my interface unit and punch a code and there it is. It's what they've been promising us for years. 'Oh yeah, we'll have every movie in the world and it'll download immediately.' You'll turn on the chip in your head."

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