The Digital Pipeline

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.

THE BASIC ISSUE is (still) how broadband access will come into American homes. As long as a large percentage of people still get their Internet over telephone lines, downloading digital video will be prohibitively slow. When people get the faster connection to the bigger broadband pipeline, almost anything will become possible. Today most people who have broadband access are getting it from their cable television company. This makes sense. Most homes are already wired for cable TV, and the fiber-optic cable the TV companies have strung or buried all over America can also carry huge amounts of high-speed digital information.

The problem is that cable companies see the Internet through the lens of their existing operation. Cable subscribers pay to receive what the company will let them have. They can buy packages with more or fewer channels. But they can only order off the company’s menu. And in most local areas, the cable company is a monopoly. The big telephone companies that own our telephone lines are required by law to let other telephone service providers (long distance or local) use their wires. Cable TV companies face no such requirement.

It’s not hard to see where this is heading. If cable companies bring broadband into our homes using their existing business model, they will expect to retain control over the digital pipeline. Such control, with regard to film, is already in place. Cable companies that have gone into the Internet business routinely limit streaming video to a few minutes—the length of a movie’s promotional trailer. If a Web site puts up a feature-length documentary, or a bootleg version of a Hollywood movie, your cable broadband provider will simply cut it off after a few minutes. The companies have done this because they see Web-based film distribution coming and they want to be able to control it and charge for it.

Of course, if measures are taken now to force broadband providers to allow open access to their pipeline, we could see a very different digital future. Using the existing wide-open Internet model, everyone with $5,000 or so could become a filmmaker with a global distribution network. The result would be a democratic explosion. We could see a video equivalent of the media revolution that came with mass literacy in the 19th century. That’s when nearly every big city had several daily newspapers, dozens of national general-interest magazines flourished, and novels—such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the works of Dickens—changed the world. It’s no accident that this same era saw the abolitionist movement, the birth of the labor movement, the first women’s suffrage campaigns, the populist rebellion, and the Progressive reforms.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky. He is the author of Black and Catholic in the Jim Crow South (Paulist Press).

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