The advent of new technologies is a slow process, with older technologies evolving till they reach a tipping point of commercial viability. Those moments make it appear like things are happening fast and suddenly, and that certainly seems to be the case now, with an apprent rush of new cloud media. What last.fm and spotify have been doing for music the past few years, other companies are potentially going to start doing for movies and even gaming in the next few years.

In terms of movies, this is fantastic news. For years, DVD shops have been dying off. In their place, if you wanted to watch a movie of your selection after work, were new distribution media, notably Torrenting. Now, Torrenting movies is by and large illegal, but the movie companies – both the rights owners and the distributors – have been very slow to step up with a viable, legal alternative. Lovefilm, the dominant UK DVD rental company, does offer streamed movies, but that never worked for me (dunno why not, I’m just on a PC running Vista, it’s not like it’s an awkward, uncommon setup). And while DVDs can be bought very cheaply, in an age of digital media, I’m among the many folk who really don’t want to clutter of physical formats any more. (That’s not to say my DVD cabinet doesn’t regularly get new additions – it’s sometimes hard to resist those Play bargains.) Meanwhile, cinemas – particularly those in central London, continue to charge farcical amounts to watch movies. A recent jaunt to the Odeon West End set me back £10.50 – and that was for a screening in one of their tiny auditoria, a cramped place not much larger than the average living room. A tenner might be justifiable for the proper experience of a massive auditorium with a vast screen and bone-rattling sound system, but not for the cruddy chopped-and-changed small auditoria, where the experience is no better than many people’s domestic movie-viewing arrangements. It’s a tricky position for the cinemas to be in.

Nick James wrote an editorial about the tricky position of over-priced cinemas and the temptation of the highly efficient distribution system of Torrents in a recent issue of Sight & Sound. After talking about the economic implications of illegal downloads, he made the point that legal music downloading is commonplace, in part because it’s cheaper. He mused why cinema wasn’t “the kind of cheap mass entertainment that booms in hard times” (Hollywood arguably thrived in the Great Depression), then bemoaned the “continued absence of an effective revenue-gathering model for download that’s foolproof.” That editorial (February 2009) struck a definite chord – cinema is too pricey, and legal, viable home cinema services were desperately needed. Yet, only a few months later, the situation is changing markedly. Like many males of a certain age, I’ve got an Xbox 360 attached to my TV. Microsoft’s Xbox Live has, since 2002, been slowly but surely evolving to offer more and more in the of media and home entertainment options. 2006 saw them launch their Video Store/Video Marketplace. Partnering with such major entertainment bodies as Paramount, Disney and Warner Bros, the service enabled Xbox Live subscribers to download TV and movies, for a fee paid in Microsoft Points (credits bought with real world currency). Recently, this service seems to have been expanded markedly (in the UK, dunno about the US), so last night we bought our first movie – and very efficient it is too. It’s was about £3 to buy a film, which you can start watching while it downloads, and which then expires after 24 hours after you’ve hit play. (Or lasts longer if you don’t hit play.)

That’s just one of a couple of new ways to watch movies I’m becoming better acquainted with. The other is The Auteurs. This new service, currently in beta, appears to have a remit to offer streamed rep cinema – for people who have no access to actual physical, real-world rep cinemas. Which basically means most of us – even London is pretty poor for rep cinema, with just really the BFI Southbank and some touring films offering an alternative to the conveyor belt of mainstream commercial cinema. The invite-your-friends email (thanks Lawrence) says it’s “an online movie theater [sic] where you watch, discover, and discuss films. // Fall in love all over again with the movies, and meet other people who feel just the same way. Great films, original editorial coverage, and a community of the most interested and interesting film fans in the world – all waiting for you. // Think of it as a virtual cinematheque: a place where you leave the dark of the screening room, and find yourself amongst friends.”

So basically, it’s a cloud cinema. Which really is a great idea. Clicking on the list of films, then selecting the “Available to view in your area” option gives a subsidiary list and pricing. The list isn’t bad already, which bodes well considering it’s still in beta: it’s pretty extensive, with lots of classics (Metropolis, Rocco and His Brothers),  so-called arthouse (Festen, Lilya 4-Ever), and even shorts (like Jan Svankmajer’s Food). Features seem to be £3, again – it’s a price that’s potentially more than you pay per film from Lovefilm, but here or on Xbox Live you’re paying for the convenience. One of the drags about LoveFilm is that it can never really satisfy specific “I want to watch X tonight” urges.

Another cloud system that’s also currently in beta is Gaikai. This is worth a whole blog rant in itself, but to try and keep things fairly succinct, it seems to have the potential to offer a means of streaming even the hugest games onto your computer, rather than loading them up in the form of vast software clients. There’s a demo of Gaikai in action here, from one of its dev team, games industry veteran David Perry:

That looks truly remarkable. Someone techie than myself has given a thorough evaluation of the system, with interview comments from Perry, over here. It’s fascinating stuff, we’re at a very exciting point for digital media distribution, movie watching and gaming. Of course movies are bigger than music tracks, and games are even more complicated than that, so there are potentially going to be all sorts of techie issues (latency etc) to iron out over coming months. And there are probably minefields of legal and rights issues to negotiate too, but if the movie industry can find a new models that work, why can’t the movie and games industries? We certainly live in dynamic times – digitally at least – with such new systems and media on the verge of hitting that viability point.

EDIT: chatting with L, one fundamental aspect of The Auteurs is its social networking dimension, but that’s probably a whole different blog entry too.

ANOTHER EDIT: I was lumping together Xbox Live’s Video Marketplace with The Auteurs here for the sake of a topical discussion. Of course, they provide very different services – one very mainstream, by way of a piece of gaming hardware; the other all about access to neglected, foreign, classic or arthouse films on your computer. The sort of films, in fact, you used to see on BBC2 when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, but are extremely uncommon on terrerstrial telly these days, and elusive on satellite/cable channels too – never mind only fleeting presences in even the best “arthouse” cinemas. All these technologies have the promise of functioning like vast, easily accessible libraries (with reasonable fees). Which is one of the things the internet is really all about – or was about in the idealistic days of the mid-90s. A repository.

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