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October 04, 2008



Scott Kirsner is a journalist who writes about innovation, with a special focus on the ways that new technologies are changing the entertainment industry.

He writes regularly for Variety and The Boston Globe, and has been a contributing writer for Fast Company, BusinessWeek, and Wired. He edits the blog CinemaTech (est. 2005), and is the author of The Future of Web Video, one of the first books about the business and creative possibilities of online video, originally published in November 2006 and updated in March 2007. Scott’s writing has also appeared in the New York Times, The Hollywood Reporter, Salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and Newsweek, among other publications.

This is so far, the book of the year for me! Scott makes you understand the future of filmmaking, a lot of the stuff that's in the book is not new, but the way he analyzes the different phases of cinema starting from 1894 untill tomorrow it's simply fascinating.

He's been generous enough to share the introduction of his book with everybody, but also he's sharing one of the best chapters, the number 10th: Coming to Terms with the net.

Today I'll be sharing the introduction of his book that you could find in the next page. Tomorrow the amazing chapter 10th, so stay tuned.

" Whenever you buy a ticket to see a movie on a Saturday night, the secret technological history of Hollywood is included free with the purchase price.

When you walk the downward-sloping aisle to pick out a good seat, you’re doing something that Thomas Edison was convinced would never happen; although Edison was among the first to capture motion on film, he was sure it’d be more profitable to charge individual viewers to watch movies at personal viewing stations, rather than projecting images on a screen for a large audience.

The movie has sound because the Warner brothers, despite several failed attempts to improve the silent film experience by adding a soundtrack, tried one more time, and happened to hire an ebullient vaudeville performer named Al Jolson to star in one of their first talkies. Unless you’re a classic film buff, the movie you’re seeing is likely in color, and that wouldn’t be the case were it not for a chance meeting at the Saratoga Race Track between Herb Kalmus, the founder of Technicolor, and Jock Whitney, a wealthy playboy who wanted to make movies. That encounter kept Technicolor from running out of money, and led to the making of Gone With the Wind, the 1939 blockbuster that finally convinced Hollywood to switch over to color.

Even if you decide to stay in on Saturday night and watch a movie, that’s a choice that’s linked to Hollywood’s hidden technological history, too. Walt Disney and William Boyd (who played Hopalong Cassidy, the righteous cowboy) were among the first people in Hollywood to understand that television might actually represent a new business opportunity, rather than just a threat to ticket sales. Recorded movies on tape and DVD exist thanks to the patronage of Bing Crosby, who paid a team of engineers in the 1950s to develop the first prototype video recorder.

The story of how new technologies enabled Hollywood to become America’s dominant culture factory, and remain in that role for more than a century, hasn’t been told before. It’s a story that’s relevant not only to avid movie-goers and industry insiders, but to businesspeople, artists, and inventors working in any field who are interested in the relationship between innovation and the status quo. How does innovation ever prevail when just about everyone working in a given field would prefer that things remain the same?

Innovators rarely win on the merits of their idea alone, or on personal charisma – despite the wonderful fables recounted endlessly in business magazines and books. New ideas always encounter stiff headwinds. Some succeed, while others flicker and fade.   

Hollywood is one of the best examples of an established industry (and the movies an established art form) that, like every established industry, relies on innovation for its survival, but resists innovation at every turn. That makes it an ideal place to explore the obstacles that innovators face, and the persistence, luck, and cleverness required to vault past them. It also offers insight into the mindset of those who fervently defend the status quo.

How did I stumble down this particular rabbit hole? After writing a few magazine articles about cinema and technology, and briefly working as a newspaper movie critic, in 2005 I was lucky enough to be invited to a gathering that the director George Lucas was organizing at his secluded Skywalker Ranch, in the emerald hills of Marin County. It was a one-day conference to explore the latest wave of technologies that were changing the way movies are made and experienced.

As I drove through the gates to Lucas’ 4,700-acre homestead on a brilliantly sunny Saturday in late April, I wasn’t sure who else would be there, but I’d been told that for the first conference Lucas had organized, two years earlier, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorcese, and Francis Ford Coppola had all made the trip. I was nervous, and I had no idea about the dress code (“Auteur casual”?)

This time around, the cast of characters sipping iced tea in the library of the ranch’s Victorian-style main house included Ed Catmull and John Lasseter, two of the founders of the pioneering computer animation company Pixar; Robert Zemeckis, the director who’d overseen the “Back to the Future” trilogy and won an Oscar for Forrest Gump; Robert Rodriguez, the fiercely independent director, cameraman, composer, and editor from Texas who’d totally abandoned film cameras for digital cameras with movies like Sin City and Once Upon a Time in Mexico; and James Cameron, director of the top-earning movie of all time, Titanic.

Standing toward the back of the library, seemingly rooted in place, was Lucas himself, wearing jeans and one of his trademark plaid shirts, sleeves rolled up to the forearms.

Like everyone else in the room, Lucas was a die-hard innovator. In the three-and-a-half decades since his making first feature film, THX 1138, he’d poured his energy and resources into developing new technologies to solve the creative problems he encountered, and allow him to put images on the screen that hadn’t been seen before. Lucas had guided (and personally bankrolled) research-and-development projects to advance special effects, sound and picture editing, and cinematography; at almost every speech he gave, or every lunch meeting with a studio head, he harangued the rest of Hollywood to follow along.

Some of Lucas’ efforts had been successful – Industrial Light & Magic, his special effects firm, had grown into Hollywood’s leader in computer-generated visuals, with more than 1000 employees, a shelf-full of Oscars, and over $1 billion in estimated annual revenues – but others had left him feeling frustrated with the pace of change, like his push to persuade theaters to switch over to digital projection. He was a
pioneer who’d learned through hard experience what it takes to make new ideas truly permeate an industry. And most of the other people at the conference came with similar war stories.

After lunch, the filmmakers and technologists walked over to a nearby building, and filed into the Stag Theatre, a sleek, Art Deco-style screening room. Like students hoping to avoid being called on by the teacher, the attendees occupied the back eight rows of seats, and left the rows in front empty. Lucas ambled to the front of the auditorium, and kicked things off by observing that Hollywood was still cool to the concepts of digital movie-making and digital projection. “The last time we had this gathering, I said that the next time, this theatre will be full of people who’ve accepted digital,” Lucas said. Gesturing to the empty rows, he continued dryly, “As you can see, digital has been accepted wildly.”

The afternoon was filled with show-and-tell presentations. Lucas talked about replacing hand-drawn storyboards, used for planning an action sequence, with digitally-crafted animations called “pre-viz,” which offered a better sense of space, speed, and movement. Zemeckis and Cameron made the case that digital 3-D projection could help cinemas compete with the latest wave of high-tech, high-definition entertainment equipment that consumers were installing in their homes. Lasseter, who’d once worked for Lucas, showed a stunningly-clear digital clip from The Incredibles on the big screen, and compared it with a scratched-up film print that had just come back from a suburban multiplex. Rodriguez talked about blending live-action footage with virtual sets, built by expert programmers rather than master carpenters, in Sin City. “I don’t think I’ll ever shoot on a real set again,” he said. With virtual sets, he continued, “You can get it to look the way it looks in your mind.”

All of the A-list directors who had converged at the ranch shared the same restless energy: like cinematic innovators stretching back to Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers, they were eager to experiment with new tools and technologies that could stretch the bounds of what was possible on the screen, and deepen the immersive experience of entering a movie theater. But they needed others to buy into their
vision and support them. One theme that kept surfacing was how difficult it could be to persuade others in their industry – whether equipment suppliers, studios, financiers, or cinema-owners – that a given innovation was worth the risk and investment it inevitably required.

“We all have bloody foreheads from beating our heads against the wall,” Lucas said. “You’ve got to be patient. Keep beating your head against the wall, and eventually it will fall over.”

Lucas was expressing the frustration that innovators feel in any industry when they try to introduce a new idea. Instead of being thrown a ticker-tape parade, they’re often met with hostility or indifference. Sometimes, the status quo defeats the innovative concept, or at least delays its introduction.

In the course of my later conversations with Lucas, Cameron, Rodriguez, Catmull, and other Hollywood innovators (and in my interviews with people trying to make change in other industries), it became increasingly clear that successful innovators spend a lot of their time honing their ideas and products – but they spend even more time chiseling away at resistance. Yet most coverage of Hollywood and the wider business world succumbs to the “better mousetrap” mythology: if you invent something that makes
someone’s job easier, or creates new opportunities, they’ll welcome it.

But the savviest innovators acknowledge that not everyone loves change. In their minds, the world can be divided into three groups:

• Innovators

• Preservationists, and

• Sideline-sitters.

Innovators and preservationists couldn’t see the world more differently.

Innovators view change and new technologies as an opportunity. Preservationists view change as a threat. Innovators are willing to take risks that could lead them in new directions, creating new artistic possibilities, new businesses, or new revenue streams. Preservationists want to protect the way they do things today, the traditions they’ve grown up with, the skills they’ve learned, and the businesses they’ve already built.

Between the innovators and the preservationists are the sideline-sitters: they aren’t interested in having to learn something new or change the way they work right now (even though they know they may have to eventually), and they don’t have the time to experiment with a new technology. They aren’t active nay-sayers; they’re simply content to wait to see how things pan out.

(In the movie industry, of course, the term “preservationist” also can refer to someone who works to make sure that important films are preserved for future generations; I’m using it here in a different way, to refer to individuals who seek to preserve the status quo.)

These three groups – innovators, preservationists, and sideline-sitters – exist in every business, and every art form. All change is the story of how innovators combine new ideas and new tools to create something spectacular and compelling, overcoming the resistance (whether active or passive) of the other two groups. In the end, the preservationists and sideline-sitters are often forced to acknowledge that those annoying, persistent innovators haven’t destroyed the art form or damaged the business, but rather taken it someplace new, strengthened the bond with the audience (or the customers), and expanded the opportunities for turning a profit.

The weekend gathering at Skywalker Ranch – Lucas dubbed it simply the “Digital Conference” – was an invitation-only conclave of innovators. But in Hollywood, as in all other industries, the innovators are out-numbered. I encountered plenty of preservationists and sideline-sitters while researching this book, and writing articles for two of Hollywood’s venerable trade papers, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. Even in 2006 and 2007, they still weren’t sold on the merits of shooting movies with digital cameras, distributing them to theaters via satellite instead of in battered metal canisters, or selling them directly to consumers over the Internet.

If I’d been working a hundred years earlier, I might’ve spoken to Edison about his opposition to the idea of projecting movies on screens; written about how Louis B. Mayer, the imperious head of MGM, stubbornly refused to attend a talkie; or interviewed Bette Davis about her reluctance to star in a Technicolor movie.

Although it may have a slightly higher glam factor than, say, the insurance business, Hollywood is a perfect case study for the way that any big, successful, well-established industry responds to new ideas. Over more than a hundred years of technological progress, as cinema has changed as an art form and matured as a business, there have been constant battles between the forces of innovation and the forces of preservation.

This book is a chronicle of those battles, and how innovations ultimately helped the industry survive and maintain its powerful connection with audiences. But it’s also a parable for innovators, whether they are free agents, employees of small start-ups, or part of a big organization.

By traveling from the days when silent films were accompanied by the noisy whirr of a projector and the plink-plink-plink of a live pianist, to the era of the $100 million computer-generated spectacle made by Lucas, Cameron, or Pixar, projected digitally and accompanied by booming surround sound, we’ll develop a better understanding of the brilliance, tenacity, and luck required of innovators – and the unpredictable obstacles they must overcome.

So, as the red velvet curtains part to reveal a blank silver screen, this is the story of Hollywood’s battles between innovation and the status quo."


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