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MOVIES AT HOME DIRECT FROM HOLLYWOOD

George Lucas, long a proponent of digital movie making and distribution, has infuriated cinema owners and film distributors in Australia (and around the world) with his April 1 announcement that by the end of 2004 technology will be in place to beam movies digitally – with superb sound and image – directly into homes equipped with standard satellite dishes used for pay tv reception. “It’s obscene,” says one exec, as Andrew L. Urban reports.

Imagine it: you have a small satellite dish attached to your roof and a remote control pointed at a set-top unit with flashing lights. You (with family and/or friends) consult the newspaper for the latest movie ads and select the just completed blockbuster, Indiana Jones 4 – The Return of The Kingdom and punch in the code number. In 3.6 seconds, the movie begins playing on your fabulous home entertainment system in all the glory of better than-DVD digital quality. Your account has been debited with US$9.

"sound quality is often worse than in my backyard dunny"

This scenario, played out in millions of homes anywhere in the world – from Mombasa to Melbourne, from Budapest to Beijing – is “scaring the living daylights out of the cinema owners and film distributors who have been bleeding the public’s purse dry for years as they deliver sub-standard film prints to fading theatres, where sound quality is often worse than in my backyard dunny,” says Sydney entertainment sound specialist Ben Hooft.

For Lucas, sound has always been crucial: "For George, it's 50% of the experience," says Star Wars producer Rick McCallum. "He's always been obsessed by the soundtrack - his soundtracks are complex pieces of art." Not surprising, really, since Lucas started out as a sound recordist and went on to become a documentary filmmaker. He tackled the camera "and finally found his true passion: editing," says McCallum. "Francis Coppola taught him to write - but now he knows every facet of filmmaking."

Driven by his disappointment that the soundtracks of his films are never shown – heard – to best advantage, Lucas issued an ultimatum to his team: never mind satellite delivery to theatres around the world, let’s get it directly into their homes. NOW! (In an interview with Urban Cinefile in 2000, Rick McCallum predicted satellite delivered films into cinemas by 2005.)

His team responded – as has a furious Australian film distribution executive, who (having begun looking for alternative employment in the digital field), prefers to remain anonymous: “George Lucas is not only threatening thousands of jobs, perhaps millions around the world, but a whole lifestyle we have developed in Australia, of going to the movies as a social event. The sound and picture quality is a furphy: George wants to make history – and a few extra billion dollars as the outsider to Hollywood who captures the first truly global distribution monopoly. It’s obscene.”

And billions is probably right: even at just US$9 per delivery, a film like Indiana Jones 4 could gross US$1 billion in a matter of days, with a fraction of the cost of prints and advertising around the world. Of course, the flipside means that distributors and cinema operators don’t get to earn revenue from handling the movie.

"techno-crazed stunt"

The senior executives at the major Australian chains (Hoyts, Village, Greater Union and BCC) have issued a joint statement condemning the initiative as a “techno-crazed stunt feeding the egos of the nerds who came up with this stupid idea and threatening to destroy the very traditions of cinema.” 

But some movie people are happy: Troy Lum, head of the relatively new but highly successful Hopscotch film distribution company specialising in art house and cross over films of high quality and popular appeal (eg Bowling for Columbine, The Barbarian Invasions) says it’s good news for independent cinemas and specialist film distributors who will press the appeal of the communal film experience. “We will have the only movies showing in cinemas; it’s wonderful.”

Lucas says, “the public wins,” but insiders want to know, at what cost.

Published April 1, 2004

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George Lucas


Rick McCallum


Troy Lum


Indiana Jones







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