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A (tele)vision for the future

There are so many ways to watch entertainment these days: There are iPods that play videos, hi-definition televisions, digital films and now, videos on demand (VOD). If on-demand service is the future of entertainment viewing, then the future is here.

As of yet, there appear to be two major players in the game of on-demand entertainment viewing: Comcast Cable Corporation and True Indie, a company formed by Landmark Theaters co-owner Mark Cuban. Both are looking to make independent films more available to the public. But just how available should films really be? If the film industry follows in the footsteps of the music biz, then consumers are looking at another tradable commodity, one that is readily available and easily pirated.

In late February, Comcast Corporation and the Independent Film Channel (IFC) announced they would be bringing IFC movies to customers’ homes through the On Demand service, which will make movies available on the same day they are released in theaters. Even though this may prove helpful to many independent filmmakers, it’s doubtful they are thinking during filmmaking about how great their film will look on DVD.

According to IFC Entertainment’s President Jonathan Sehring, “This agreement creates a national art house for independent film lovers across the country and ensures, for the first time, that first-run films will be made available theatrically and on demand simultaneously.”

Here’s how it goes: In addition to its basic cable packages, Comcast will offer a selection of four or five independent films a month to choose from for a fee of $5.99 per movie.

Slightly before Comcast planted the idea, Cuban teamed up with Todd Wagner of 2929 Entertainment. Together, they launched a company called Truly Indie. With distribution being one of the most problematic and challenging obstacles for any independent filmmakers to overcome, Truly Indie claims to be “(the) way around the traditional distribution system,” according to its Web site Landmark has more than 60 theaters at its disposal and, like Comcast, will release movies on cable networks with on-demand viewing. The whens and wheres of these on-demand movies has yet to be seen, but deals are in the works. Cuban and Wagner also provide help with marketing, publicity and advertising campaigns for independent filmmakers.

Like any new endeavor, video on -demand shows immense promise, but is not without some risk. The upside to having on-demand service is it helps provide independent filmmakers with a needed expansion of distribution far beyond what’s available. With the help of proper distribution, an independent film can be placed in the right markets and theaters and be available and at consumers’ fingertips via cable companies. This will help to make a national audience for independent films.

The downside to all this is having movies so readily available to the public can add to the problem of illegal downloads. Programs such as Napster and Limewire will make this possible. Movie theaters may suffer financially as a result of on-demand films, but there are plenty of other reasons to make theaters less appealing. For instance, the average ticket price these days, even for students, is more than $8. When you add in $10 for popcorn and candy, you’re looking at an expensive movie-going experience. There might be a financial decline in theater sales due to the lack of patrons who have decided to either download the movie illegally or pay the cheaper price that Comcast offers.

According to the music industry group International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, the legal downloading of music increased more than 350 percent between 2004-2005 while the sales of compact discs declined. Is the movie industry is paying attention? Perhaps they should.

When compact discs became a tradable commodity, the music industry got nervous; however, even now there are people who enjoy the act of buying a CD. In that respect, movies are very much the same. Even if VOD takes off, there will still be those patrons who enjoy the cinema experience – from the previews to the ending credits, to buying popcorn, sodas and candy. Even though VOD has only encompassed independent films thus far, it’s only a matter of time before the majority of new releases follow in their footsteps and become VODs as well.