Film in America—whether Hollywood or indie—is on the verge of a major revolution as it finally converts to digital technology. The replacement of 35 millimeter film with digital files is already upon us. Today most movies are viewed as DVDs. As broadband access slowly spreads to more American homes, Web-based digital distribution of film will eventually replace the DVD. At the same time, movie theaters will be converting to digital projection. This all will happen—probably in this decade, certainly in the next. The only question remaining is: Who will control the new distribution process? The answer will determine what stories get told in America, and who gets to see them.
The digital film revolution is not quite here—movies are still mostly shot on actual film and projected onto a theater screen the way Thomas Edison did it, by shining light through a plastic print. There are still only 192 digital-projection movie theaters in America, versus 38,000 old-fashioned ones. The holdup among theater owners has been the cost of the digital equipment. It’s five times as expensive as the analog gear. But as anyone who’s bought a personal computer lately knows, the prices will only go down, and the change will come eventually. In the end, theaters will change because online distribution and radically improved home playback equipment will force them to change or go out of business.
Online distribution, over broadband home Internet connections, will be the driving force of all the changes looming in the film industry. And this is where public policy will determine the future shape of American culture. Our culture will either become more tightly controlled by an ever-shrinking number of ever-bigger transnational corporations, or we will see a great democratic opening that will generate new visions of who we are and what we could become.