Forget EDtv Matthew McConaughey is strutting his stuff in cyberspace these days. A snippet of Judgement, a half-hour film McConaughey shot in 1995, can be seen by anyone with an Internet hookup and a little patience. And it isn't the only movie hitting the Web. With ambitious lineups of short films, animation, and even full-length features, streaming-video websites are giving a hint of how we may all watch movies in the future.
The new sites are using Hollywood-style marketing savvy to bring in the hits. AtomFilms (www.atomfilms.com) flaunts shorts featuring McConaughey, Neve Campbell, and in the future, George Clooney. Web Premiere Toons (www.cartoonnetwork.com) delivers quickies from underground-comix heavyweights like Gary Panter (Pee-wee's Playhouse). And ifilm.net (www.ifilm.net) is angling to become the premier online indie-film forum by posting festival entries; an exec from Robert De Niro's Tribeca Films sits on the board.
Thus far, the slick spin and novelty appeal have worked: ifilm launched this February, but already its most popular short, Edward Vilga's Peephole, has racked up 10,000 hits, and Francis Ford Coppola and producer Cary Woods (Scream) count themselves as site surfers. Web Premiere Toons, a spin-off of cable's Cartoon Network, is reaching the coveted adult male demographic as well as the prepuberty crowd. And with the number of cable modems expected to jump from 1.5 million to 16 million by 2002, the potential-viewer pool for Web movies is getting deep.
It all smacks of the kind of trend Hollywood is unable to resist, but fears about copyright protection have kept the major studios out of the game for now. In their absence, smaller players are moving in. While Atom's primary intent is to broker shorts to cable and commercial airlines, the company is using its website as a high-profile programming plug aimed at consumers. Trimark Pictures, the company behind such straight-to-video fare as the Warlock series, recently signed an agreement with online program guide Broadcast.com (www.broadcast.com) to license 50 films for Internet airing.
It isn't the first company to cut such a deal. Last month, Internet provider payforview.com (www.payforview.com) nabbed the rights to 750 older films, such as the Humphrey Bogart comedy Beat the Devil, from Reel Media International. ''We all realize this is how it's going to go, so we'd best embrace it now or be shunned later,'' Trimark exec Peter Block explains. ''At the same time that the [big] studios are skittish, they're all set up to jump on the Web and have been setting it up for years.''
So, ready to log on and tear up the cable bill? Not so fast. ''Today, transmitting video over the Internet is like shoving an elephant through a garden hose,'' says Atom marketing exec Matt Hulett. While streaming video spares viewers from time-consuming downloads, it's by no means ideal. Viewers are often treated to tiny images only slightly less fuzzy than those on Teletubby bellies. ''You're only 12 inches from the monitor, so it doesn't need to be full screen,'' says Cartoon Network online creative VP Sam Register in defense. ''If you want to see that, just go turn on the Cartoon Network.''
While the ''lean-in experience'' may work in small doses at the office, where even a pixelated five-minute short can ease the tedium of cubicle hell, pushing the envelope with home viewers may be trickier. Will people have the patience to sit through a feature-length film slumped in their desk chair when there's a TV nearby?
Rodger Raderman, founder and CEO of ifilm, is convinced they will. ''In the next few weeks we'll be offering full-screen films, and it won't be long before the image quality available on a mass scale is just as good as videocassette,'' says Raderman. ''TV is going to go away, and videocassette is going to be the new 8-track. There is going to be a convergence.''
It isn't such zealous future-speak that's drawing creative types to the medium, however. The freedoms of the Internet's still-wild frontier more than make up for the technical and legal snafus that abound. ''I've been involved with a million TV and film projects that didn't happen,'' explains Panter, whose interactive Pink Donkey and the Fly cartoon follows the trials of a lovesick insect and his hoofed paramour. ''Here I've had a lot of creative freedom, and it's just fun to be able to go ahead with something without endless pitches.''
And even for those who cringe at seeing their cinematography reduced to a glorified smudge, a digitally compressed screening is better than none at all. ''The conditions aren't ideal, but it's a struggle to get your work seen,'' says Vilga, who recently completed his first feature, Dead Broke, starring Paul Sorvino. ''You just hope that people are smart enough to grade on a curve.''
Despite fledgling technology, an uncertain future, and picture quality that makes you yearn for grammar-school flipbooks, there's no end in sight to the Internet screening-room expansion. ''It's a low-cost risk,'' says Block. ''But if you wait too long to find out what the future will be, it can pass you by.'' EDWebtv, anyone?