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Try a Hard Drive-in Movie

Movies via the net could do more than hit your local video hire shop.

Cliff Stanford has made one fortune by bringing the internet to the mass market, through Demon Internet, and now he'd like to make another by using the net to deliver movies. This week the Redbus Film Group, of which Stanford is chairman, said it had secured the rights to some notable films, but the two-year old film distribution company won't launch an internet service until high-speed access is more widely available.

Not everyone is waiting. There's already a fast-growing market for what the traditional media business calls "video on demand", but the net knows as "streaming media". The net can't yet deliver what Stanford wants - "sfull-screen TV pictures with VHS quality" - and what the mainstream film-watching public requires. But if you want to be entertained for a minute or three, are receptive to independent productions, and don't mind watching a screen image the size of a credit card, the internet already has lots to offer.

It's been disparaged as "cinema for the MTV generation" and "short attention span theatre", but you get a front-row seat without leaving your desk, and the latest releases are only a mouse-click away. The leading websites include Atomfilms and iFilm, a film community site, Yahoo! Broadcast and ShortBuzz. Pseudo and LoadTV also provide streamed content but in a more TV-like style. (LoadTV has Death Row Records' music videos.)

Michael Cornish, managing director of Atomfilms in Europe, says: "We stream more movies than any other website, as far as I know: we're shipping one to two million movies a month, and it's growing month on month. But if you're expecting a television-like experience, you'll be disappointed." But this is just the start of a development that could change the industry, and some of the major players have noticed.

Film industry hot shots Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg think streaming video has, in the latter's words, "unlimited potential": their company, DreamWorks, is working with Imagine Entertainment on a site called Pop.com, which is expected in the spring. Warner Bros Online is also exploring web-based video through its Entertaindom site, launched late last year. Others will follow.

Perhaps the digital wind of change that blew through the publishing industry in the 80s and the music industry in the 90s will have a similar impact on the film industry in the coming decade. Certainly the arrival of affordable digital cameras, powerful personal computers and video-editing software will enable a wider range of people to make movies. However, it's really the internet that has changed the picture. Thanks to the net, movies that wouldn't normally be seen outside a film festival are now available to a global audience. In fact, the net has suddenly made short films a prized commodity, with more than a dozen websites competing to attract the best.

While there may not be much money in it, there are real prizes: the Charged webzine and Film.com are running ChargeCoupled, a competition for one-minute movies, while the web-based Hollywood Film Festival has recently added a Hollywood Digital Film Festival.

It's a somewhat arty market, but Cornish says this reflects the demographics of the net, which is skewed towards young males. "It also reflects what's available: the big entertainment companies are not putting their movies on the internet, so you're seeing alternative forms of content. Having said that, we've got the best British content [at Atomfilms] including several Bafta award winners and Nick Park's Aardvark films...." In the US, at least, the net has been adopted by experimental film makers, and the Binary Theatre specialises in student films.

British independents and film students don't seem to have taken their chance. The Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, for example, runs Uncut, a series of monthly meetings for up-and-coming film makers, but Christine Atha of the ICA's education department says the internet hasn't made any impact so far. She couldn't think of anyone who'd put a film online.

Nor could Eric Janssen at the London International Film School, "the oldest film school in the world". He said: "none of our students are doing it at the moment - the technology is moving way too fast for us - but it won't be long now, that's for sure."

That's a shame because the cinema is going digital in a hurry. "We have digital editing, digital production, digital projection, and in the future we'll have direct digital distribution," says Cornish, "so film will disappear. It's happening at a speed far greater than people realise." Gill Henderson, chief executive of the London Film and Video Development Agency, which has a 700,000 budget to support independent film, video and television, says: "From the short film maker's point of view, the net is going to be the easiest, quickest and cheapest way of distributing your work. The changes [digital technology] will bring to the exhibition [of films] could in some ways be the most revolutionary part of the process.

"It will blow open a lot of things like copyright and [restricted] territories for selling films. I don't think a lot of people have thought this through, yet." Everyone also agrees that the breakthrough will come with high-speed broadband internet access via ADSL phone lines or cable modems. These work at least 10 times faster than standard 56K dial-up modems. "By moving to broadband you get a quantum leap in the quality of the entertainment experience," Cornish says, "because the picture size moves from being quite small to quite large. It's as simple as that! You can also bundle in a lot of ancillary information, as with DVD, which makes it much more compelling. So broadband becomes the inflection point for really serious growth."

And when that happens, the film students, experimental movie makers and pop video directors who are attracting an audience on today's web will have to compete with full length features made with big budgets and Hollywood production values. Companies like Stanford's Redbus Internet Distribution will be on the web selling streamed movies on a pay-per-view basis, to save you the trip to a video rental shop. Stanford says: "we're working on compression techniques to get the bandwidth down to 512 kilobits per second, which is well within the capabilities of cable modems and ASDL. We could be ready by the end of this year, maybe." You could be logging on to the web to watch movies sooner than you think.

Stream that video... or download it?

Short-film and TV-style websites like to use "streaming media", which means the movie starts within 20 or 30 seconds of clicking the icon or hot-link to display it.

The advantage is that you can start watching a video without having to download the whole thing, which could take 10 or 20 minutes. The main disadvantage of streaming a film or video clip is that it will inevitably suffer from a slow frame rate, gaps (dropouts) and image corruption due to network congestion and delays.

It will also be small, because a small image requires less data - and therefore less bandwidth - than a large one. Websites often offer a choice of 56K and 28.8K videos for different modem speeds. The smaller 28.8K version needs less bandwidth and will usually stream better.

An alternative is to download films to your hard drive and play them back later. This avoids network congestion and bandwidth limitations, though bigger and better images still mean a bigger file download.

An advantage of downloading films is that, once saved to disk, you can play them as often as you like, or "burn" them onto a CD for long-term storage. However, it's annoying to download a 10MB or larger movie file, find you don't like it, and delete it after watching the first few seconds.

Surfers with broadband (high bandwidth) internet connections such as ADSL and cable modems should get good results with streaming video. Those with dial-up modem connections will get better results by downloading files.

Downloading files can take some time, so it helps to have a free or flat-rate internet connection, even if the "free" periods are only in the evening and/or at weekends.

However, it's also essential to have Headlight Software's GetRight or a similar utility, which can be downloaded from the net.

In the web's early days, if the phone connection was dropped (or often if it wasn't) a file download would stop, and you'd have to start again from the beginning.

For maximum aggravation, downloads usually stopped when 90-95% complete. However, GetRight can automatically redial and resume a broken download (if the server supports the resume feature).

You can also run it in the background and download a file over several sessions, when you happen to be on the web for other purposes. This is a very efficient use of bandwidth and should make short films available to all but the most parsimonious users.

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