In the same 2.28.05 column in which I lamented the disrespectful treatment of Marlon Brando on a just-aired Oscar telecast, I ran a not very prescient piece called “Really Big Change.” It began as follows: “Somewhere down the road, movies will probably open simultaneously in both theatres and on rental-only DVDs. Or maybe through some kind of broadband download service. Maybe not all the movies at first, but some and then eventually more.” Rental-only DVDs on a film’s opening day? The DVD market was fated to dry up even then and I wasn’t even smelling it. But HE reader Rich Swank saw it all and then some.

“That was an excellent piece on day-and-date DVD releases, but I don’t think you went far enough,” he wrote. “You alluded to new technologies and delivery systems, but I think that’s the whole ballgame. The future is in broadband, on-demand delivery and Digital Video Recorders (DVR). And unless something changes in the near future, the studios are about to assure that’s the case.

“As you’re probably aware, a VHS/Beta-type war is brewing over the next generation of hi-def DVDs. Roughly half the studios (with Sony as the team leader) are supporting Blu-Ray; the other half (led by Warner Bros.) is supporting HD-DVD.

“Most consumers probably won’t make the switch right away, especially since both systems are backwards compatible with current DVDs. But the format war, if it is drawn-out enough, will likely scare off the ‘early adopters.’ This will further delay penetration of the new technology into homes.

“In the meantime, broadband compression technology will improve, and companies like Microsoft and Sony will increase their drive towards developing an all-in-one box that will act as the complete entertainment/information center for the home. We’re almost there now, anyway. Once that technology is set, distributors will be able to offer a much wider variety of on-demand films, most likely in HD.

“And if the computer is integrated with the television, you’ll also be able to download additional content like that found on a DVD. That will all be stored on a DVR for use whenever desired.

“As the I-Pod has vibrantly shown, consumers no longer need to possess intellectual property in media form. They will be perfectly happy to maintain their movie library on a hard drive, especially if those movies are available to view online at any time.

“In my opinion, DVDs have already seen their peak. Within 10 years, they will be as useless as record albums.

“The theater experience is also dying. Last night, I saw a 54″ widescreen Sony LCD TV at a warehouse store for less than $2,500.00. That means even now the average consumer can put together a widescreen HD home theater experience, with Dolby Digital surround sound, for less than $3,000.00. And the prices are only going to keep dropping.

“Why pay $10 plus parking to see a movie on someone else’s schedule, in minimal comfort and at the mercy of the movie critics and ninny-nannies sitting around you?

“Besides, the media giants already have a solution for the communal experience you discuss. Microsoft runs an “X-Box Live” site, where you can play multi-player
games simultaneously and audio link via headsets.

“How hard would it be to adapt this technology so that, if you desired, you could join a film chat room with any number of people watching the movie at the same time? And you could set your own level of interraction. Just want to hear general ambient laughter or screams? That’s one setting. Want to be able to comment to the guy next to you? That’s another setting. But you’ll never have to deal with a
screaming baby or a ringing cellphone again.

“And that brings me to another issue beyond the scope of your article. The next generation may not be satisfied with simply passively absorbing a movie. Isn’t the gaming industry already bigger than the movies? Why pay James Caan $2 to 3 million to appear in a Godfather sequel when you can pay him a few thousand to do voiceovers for the Godfather video game?

“People are always going to need a place to go out on the weekends, especially young people, so I doubt the theater experience will ever totally die off. Broadway still thrives, even with all the alternate choices. But the Hollywood model as it exists today, and certainly as it existed 10 to 20 years ago, is already on life support.

“Ask not for whom the bell tolls, Mr. Ebert — it tolls for thee.” — Rich Swank, Orlando, Florida.