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31 October 2006

Locus Magazine
Commentary by Cory Doctorow

The March of the Polygons:
How High-Definition Is Bad News for SF Flicks

The science fiction film industry dwarfs its literary cousin, but as screens get sharper, its future is getting fuzzier.


Sell a novel and the first thing your friends will ask you is, "Are they going to make a movie out of it?" Tell someone you're a novelist and the response is inevitably, "Has anyone made a movie out of any of your books?" The developer in central Oregon who's building a Tolkien-themed housing estate has never read The Lord of the Rings, but he's seen the Peter Jackson movies.

There's a lot more money in Hollywood movies than there is in New York publishing. Sell a screenplay for a successful movie and you could earn sums that dwarf any advance you could hope to see for the book — even the option for the screenplay can come into big money.

The amazing thing is for all the money a writer on a big-budget SF movie can command, it's still a tiny fraction of the incredible, farcical budgets for the overall motion picture. Spending a lot of money on a film is part of the marketing — I remember interviewing the publicist for the stink-o TV-to-film adaptation Lost in Space whose main boast for the picture was that New Line had spent $70 million on his screen-turd, making it the most expensive movie to come from the studio to date. Of course, by today's standards, $70 million is chump-change.

These days, $200 million is a good round number to put on a bragsheet. What's more, that kind of spending pays off. A blockbuster movie with blockbuster marketing will generate tremendous sums outside of the box office, through licensing deals and the vital "windowed" releases to foreign markets, DVD, video-on-demand, pay TV, broadcast TV, airplanes, and so on.

It's that longevity that's key to the payoff. A $200 million movie will have a hard time earning out in the box office — unless we're talking about one of the rare smash-hits, the life-cycle of a wide release film is a brief moment of cinematic exhibition and then a fast shuffle into the after-market, clearing the way for the next $200 million movie.

But that longevity is now threatened by an unlikely menace: the high-definition screen. And no genre is more imperiled than science fiction/fantasy.

- - -

What do you spend $200 million on, anyway? Well, there are big salaries for actors, big budgets for marketing, and the skim the studios take. But the rest of it is production costs: sets, locations, extras, and special effects.

Special effects have come to define each season's new hotness at the box-office. Since the days of morphing, we've gone to the big screen in order to see what impossibility was wrought by the new crop of computer wizarding tools. Whether it's flying Yodas, morphing Terminators, or lumbering Ents, nothing is so memorable about a movie than the impossible things we see on the screen. And no genre is more amenable to visual impossibilities than science fiction.

Every year, the effects are more impressive, the impossible more daring. That's because today's special effects are almost universally generated on computers, and computers get better every year. Moore's Law describes the trend in processor performance, doubling every two years and getting faster every year. Other laws describe even steeper curves for storage, bandwidth, and bus-speeds. If Moore's Law applied to cars, you could replace your $12,500, 10-year-old, 39 miles/gallon Toyota with a $50 car that weighs 200 pounds and gets 500 miles to the gallon today.

It's a good reason to go to the box-office, but it's also the source of an awful paradox: yesterday's jaw-dropping movies are today's kitschy crap. By next year, the custom tools that filmmakers develop for this year's blockbuster will be available to every hack commercial director making a Coke ad. What's more, the Coke ads and crummy sitcoms will run on faster, cheaper hardware and be available to a huge pool of creators, who will actually push the technology further, producing work that is in many cases visually superior to the big studio product from last summer.

It's one thing for a black-and-white movie at a Hitchcock revival to look a little dated, but it's galling — and financially perilous — for last year's movie to date in a period of months. You can see what I mean by going to a Lord of the Rings festival at your local rep-house and comparing the generation-one creatures in Fellowship of the Ring to the gen-three beasts in Return of the King.

Which brings me to high-def screens. We've heard a lot about these for the past several years. The FCC is desperate to move us all into HD-land so they can order the shutdown of the old analog TV towers and sell their electromagnetic spectrum to mobile-phone companies. Sony and Toshiba are duking it out to see which HD standard will prevail for next-gen DVDs, Blu-Ray, or HD-DVD (I think you need your head examined if you buy either of these, mind — both are completely useless thanks to Draconian anti-copying technology).

HD is poison for special-effects movies. Whatever sins are hidden in a standard-definition 12-inch TV set are thrown into stark relief by big, crisp displays. Whatever longevity can be wrung from a movie by releasing it to smaller, more forgiving screens is cut short by the living-room behemoths that are being pushed on us today.

It's not just HD, of course. The accelerating pace of development in CGI means that there's an ever-decreasing window for staggering releases to secondary European and Asian markets, who are just as picky about dated graphics as American audiences.

Luckily, there's a countervailing trend that has the potential to extend secondary revenues for longer periods: the trend to smaller screens that are intensely personal: music players, phones, and video-game devices. These devices already have a thriving, and tragically under-served community of video aficionados who love being able to carry a show around in their pockets.

But rather than serve these next-generation customers, whose screens are just the right size to airbrush away any of the liver-spots brought out by harsh exposure to Moore's Law, the studios are squabbling over them and treating them like second class citizens. There's no studio-sanctioned tool for moving your DVD collection to your iPod, nor are any of the cable-companies offering set-top boxes for taking your TV with you in your pocket.

Instead, these companies are squandering their opportunity with fights over what kind of anti-copying technology they'll require, and how many times they'll be able to sell you your movies and TV shows (Microsoft's new Zune players don't support the media from Microsoft's Plays for Sure players — if you were silly enough to buy both, you're also going to have to buy all your entertainment all over again).

Which may not be bad news for creators, who've never gotten a great deal from the studio system. As Moore's Law pushes tools into the hands of more artists than ever, as the Internet makes it possible for those artists to reach wider audiences than ever, the small screen is an attractive platform for the kind of short, small-screen-native video that circulates on, YouTube, and Google Video. These artists can push the boundaries of last year's tools to places that the mainstream studios will never go — after all, who's going to take chancy gambles with $200 million production budgets?

And if there's one thing that Internet-native creators love, it's science fiction and fantasy. The Internet is fandom's natural habitat — the first-ever non-technical discussions on the Internet were about Star Trek, and fannish discourse has permeated every Internet subculture. There's an opportunity there for us — maybe not the opportunity to win the Hollywood lottery, but how many of us ever won that lottery to begin with?

© 2006 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.