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Digital Delivery First For Some Smaller Film Suppliers

8 Dec, 2006 By: Jessica Wolf

'10 Items or Less' released theatrically two weeks before its download debut.

For some smaller films, the digital realm may make a world of difference. At least, that's what a few boutique suppliers are hoping for.

Palm Pictures recently announced it will release titles to peer-to-peer downloading service BitTorrent.com before or simultaneously with theatrical releases. Actor Morgan Freeman's latest movie 10 Items or Less hit theaters Dec. 1 in a limited run just two weeks before its download debut at ClickStarInc.com, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based site founded by Freeman's production company and Intel Corp.

For Palm, the decision to roll out titles digitally prior to any other kind of distribution will be made on a title-by-title basis.

The supplier regularly acquires film-festival arthouse features that grab a lot of national press, but have a rather low theater count during a theatrical release, said Lisa Nishimura-Seese, GM of Palm.

“Palm is a very, very director-friendly company,” she said. “And many directors have different feelings [about downloads]. Some really embrace the format. They get that this is an incredible opportunity to get their film in front of many, many more people.”

Palm will work closely with directors to select which titles go digital first or simultaneously with a theatrical release, she said.

Erik Martin, who heads up digital strategies for Palm, said the company is playing catch-up with consumer behavior.

“We want to reach the people who are already downloading illegally,” he said. “We know our stuff is up there, especially some of our foreign releases. We need to get a fairly priced, high-quality version that doesn't scare them away with too much DRM [digital rights management or copy protection]. I think they would be willing to buy it.”

Palm believes downloads need to be a little bit cheaper than a DVD for the user to consider it a value, especially since the quality tends to be a bit lower than a DVD and the downloads will carry no extras.

“Something around $10 is a good ballpark,” Martin said. “Anything above that might be too high.”

There's a way to make money in this market, but pricing has to be consistent, Nishimura-Seese added, pointing out the success of Apple's iTunes and its consistent pricing.

BitTorrent isn't the only digital distributor the company is looking at for future releases, Martin said. That particular service is attractive because the file-sharing bandwidth makes downloading quicker and easier than some other sites, he said. Also, BitTorrent is platform-agnostic and doesn't require restrictive, closed-universe DRM, Martin said.

In fact, Palm constantly samples downloading services, testing out the interaction on sites on computer systems that mirror what average consumers have available.

Freeman and 10 Items director Brad Silberling appeared on a Los Angeles area morning talk show the week their film hit a selection of theaters and talked up its imminent digital release.

Both said they support digital distribution. Freeman pointed out the slew of documentaries that come and go from theaters across the country very quickly, but which could grab a much greater audience via digital downloading.

But, Freeman said, he believes there always will be movies in theaters.

Watching a film on the big screen, with other film fans, is like “going to church,” Freeman said on the radio program.

Freeman's ClickStarInc.com, which is still under development, next spring reportedly will offer Lonely Hearts, starring John Travolta and James Gandolfini.

Palm's Martin thinks the downloads will one day replace DVD.

“Who wants a plastic disc?” he said. “I don't know if it's five years or 10 years away, but it's coming.”

Nishimura-Seese is a little more attached to the collectibility of hard goods, but admits that's not a prevailing mindset for some demographics.

“The reality is that there is a generation coming up right now, and more coming in the future … and many of them are going to be consumers who never, ever buy physical product,” she said. “We've got to get real with that.”

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