Dawn of the ‘UltraViolet’ DVD: Will the Cloud Doom Cinema?

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While you were busy last week debating Walt’s moral break on Breaking Bad, or preparing for the return of The Walking Dead, Hollywood was ushering in the beginning of a brave new era.

The headlines pointed to an industry turning the page:

      • On Wednesday, Universal Pictures backed down from a plan to release the upcoming Ben Stiller-Eddie Murphy comedy Tower Heist via video on demand a mere three weeks after its theatrical debut. The initiative outraged theater chains, who are worried about the ways in which VOD will cannibalize attendance.
      • That same day, film critic Roger Ebert called attention to an article about camera manufacturers Panavison and Aaton  ceasing production of cameras that use film, shifting all their attention to digital models. Cue the requiem for analog.
      • One day earlier saw the DVD release of Horrible Bosses – the first film on the new “UltraViolet” platform—quickly followed by Friday’s release of Green Lantern. Together, the two Warner Bros. films represent a noteworthy shift in the business strategies of major movie studios – and a broader acknowledgment among industry leaders that the ways in which Americans watch movies are shifting profoundly.

It was the UltraViolet debut that left me thinking about the current state of cinema. The concept is kind of cool: By purchasing a DVD or Blu-ray copy of a film, you are also purchasing the rights to a copy that will reside in a digital locker in the cloud, accessible for streaming or download on all your mobile devices. One purchase, comprehensive access – it’s the industry’s latest attempt to boost home video sales, all by banking on the value of digital convenience. (Some critics point to the lack of involvement by iTunes—the market leader in digital film purchases—and suggest that UltraViolet will falter as Apple finalizes its own form of iCloud Movies)

I decided to give UltraViolet a spin last week and popped in the Horrible Bosses Blu-ray late one night. The next day, I continued the movie on my iPad during my morning commute, snuck in a little viewing time during lunch on my work computer and shifted to my iPhone while in a cab on the way home. What impressed me most was the ease of streaming and installation, and also the quality of the viewing experience on the iPad 2. If the goal of UltraViolet is portability and facilitating viewing-on-demand, then mission accomplished (pity, though, that the format didn’t debut with a better title).

(MORE: The 100 Greatest Films of All Time)

It was only later, after my wife started asking me about the movie and the acting, that I began to shift from satisfied customer to alarmed cineaste.

Not to sound pretentious, but I have long been a believer in the value of the communal viewing experience—the act of going to a movie theater, shutting off the phone and engaging not only with the screen but the reactions of others in the dark. But the more my wife asked me about Horrible Bosses, the more difficult it became to recall specific details. Puzzled over my lack of focus I gradually realized that, conceptually, UltraViolet is the antithesis of what I (perhaps naively) think moviegoing should be. Not only does it remove viewers from the theatrical experience, and encourage isolated and solitary viewing, but it also fosters fragmented viewing. I digested 98 minutes in 20-minute increments over 24 hours. Turning on my iPhone to see the film’s final scenes, I had difficulty remembering where I had left off on my computer six hours earlier.

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