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WORKING WEEKEND: Digital Hollywood's Analogjam

3 May, 2002 By: Bruce Apar

If the movie studios want to slowly but surely typecast themselves as out of touch with the digital generation, they should continue their practice of forcing preview attractions on DVD viewers.

Late one Saturday night, I started watching MGM's screener of No Such Thing, directed by Hal Hartley. It's an off-center, stylized monster tale that also satirizes the banality of mass media. I was paying enough attention to the trailers to maintain my professional – as well as neighborhood – standing as well informed about coming attractions. I had no good reason to skip past them. Good trailers can serve as entertaining shorts … in small doses. A lengthy string of them can end up looking like trailer trash.

About 60 minutes into No Such Thing, I decided I had to get some shuteye. So, I stopped the DVD, looking forward to resuming it the next day. When I did, and the same trailers started playing, I impulsively pushed the remote's MENU to get back to the movie. Alas, that little open-faced hand, the universal symbol of “Oh, no, you don't!,” popped up in the screen's upper left corner.

I finally figured out the FAST SCAN function would at least speed up the trailers to 8X normal speed play, so finally I was on my merry way back to watching the movie itself. But by then, I had felt as though my free will had been co-opted by an inability to skip commercials I already had seen once, thank you.

I'm not singling out MGM by any means. Other studios have tried the same thing. And I say tried because there's no confirmation that this is yet considered standard policy. They must be testing it, right? We're investigating the answer to that question at this writing. (The MENU-disabled trailer fixation also was present on Hart's War, another MGM screener, yet on previous MGM movies for public consumption, the viewer was not trapped in a trailer park.)

The lengths to which a rightsholder goes in the name of controlling intellectual property is understandable – in theory. I'm not one of those “content is freeniks” who think once I take somebody else's IP into my legal embrace I can do anything I want with it. But, the studios' insidious insistence on turning trailers into unstoppable forces of nature makes even this longtime studio sympathizer also sympathize with those who resent Hollywood's more ham-handed, control-freak tendencies.

This intrusive approach to digital ergonomics – disabling a DVD's menu option just long enough to peddle product – also betrays Hollywood's one-track thinking. Since tinseltown specializes virtually exclusively in feature-length (film) and episodic (TV) narrative entertainment, it has not shown affinity for a digital media mosaic in which shorter form and even freeform entertainment will emerge to challenge the allure of popular arts from another century.

In the contexts of short form and freeform – which may or may not be linear and are enabled by digital devices such as DVD and other digital players – the digital generation consumes content in bits and pieces, the very cell structure that differentiates digital media from the irreducible wholeness of analog media.

Nobody intimate with the inner workings of Big Entertainment Inc. is silly enough to think it is about to abruptly wax magnanimous and hoist the flag of freedom of choice. Just ask any AOL subscriber who thinks (s)he has logged off the service, only to find AOL blocking the exit – like a rude host or a bully – with yet another sales pitch it's rubbing in your face. In another act of seeming desperation, AOL doesn't let you go directly to e-mail or wherever you're headed when you first log on either, employing the same kind of overly pushy salesperson ploy as “The Attack of the Tiresome Trailers.” Considering the checkpoints encountered when visitors are both entering and exiting its fortress, AOL's new slogan should be, “You've Got Jail!”

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