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TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL

Freeman's film is in the express line to the Net

September 11, 2006|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

Morgan Freeman's new film, "10 Items or Less," is scheduled to arrive in theaters in December. But you'll be able to download a pristine copy of the movie over the Internet just days after it rolls into the multiplex. And Freeman -- along with everybody else who worked on the film -- couldn't be happier.

That's because "10 Items or Less" represents the latest challenge to the traditional model of movie distribution, which holds that new films must initially be shown only in theaters for several months. Freeman's new movie, which was directed by Brad Silberling ("Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events") and costars Paz Vega ("Spanglish"), will be made available for Web sales and rentals a mere two weeks after its theatrical debut.

"I think it will be the next biggest thing after the DVD phenomenon," Freeman says of transmitting full-length movies over the Internet. "Technology is leading us, and it's foolish to try to deny it." The most dramatic challenge to the age-old distribution pattern came in January with Steven Soderbergh's "Bubble." That movie was released nearly simultaneously in theaters, on cable television and on DVD.

"Bubble," which quickly fizzled in every platform, had the backing of Mark Cuban's 2929 Productions. "10 Items or Less" has an ally with much deeper pockets: Intel Corp., the Santa Clara, Calif.-based manufacturer of computer chips. And whereas "Bubble" starred unknowns, "10 Items or Less" is headed by a performer who won the best supporting actor Oscar for 2004's "Million Dollar Baby."

ClickStar, a joint venture between Intel and Freeman and producing partner Lori McCreary's Revelations Entertainment, will distribute "10 Items or Less" online. ClickStar also plans to offer downloadable documentaries.

Despite worries that no distributor would step forward to buy a movie whose broadband rights were already spoken for, ThinkFilm snapped up the "10 Items or Less" theatrical rights at the start of the Toronto International Film Festival, where the movie debuted over the weekend.

"We are a completely independent company, so we don't have any businesses or output deals that conflict [with Internet rights] where someone would complain," says Mark Urman, head of ThinkFilm's U.S. releasing arm.

Made for under $10 million and shot in just three weeks (Silberling's "Lemony Snicket" filmed for a whopping 132 days), "10 Items or Less" is a small step for everyone involved, especially Intel. Besides its investment in ClickStar, Intel partially underwrote the "10 Items or Less" production budget by pre-buying the film's Internet rights.

The movie, which runs a quick 82 minutes, stars Freeman as a fading actor researching a part about a grocery store manager. The man in charge of the dilapidated market (Kumar Pallana) isn't much to behold, but Scarlet (Vega), who's ringing up infrequent orders at the express line, certainly is.

The actor's ride home never materializes, and he realizes he has lived in such a cocoon that he can't think of anyone to call to pick him up. As a result, he has an afternoon to kill, and he and the clerk do just that. Scarlet prepares for a job interview, pays a visit to her ex, gets her car washed and shares part of her life with her soon-to-be-gone friend.

The movie was filmed in practical locations around Southern California. There's hardly any production design or artificial lighting, and almost all of the camerawork is hand-held.

"I wanted this movie not to feel rushed," Silberling says. "I wanted to be able to find new things, discoveries, along the way." Even though it's a low-tech production, Freeman is one of Hollywood's savviest digital authorities. His and McCreary's Santa Monica offices are a shrine to the future, complete with a small mock home that is wired with every imaginable tech toy, down to flat-screen TVs in the bathroom. The home's central feature is a large-screen high-definition television, on which a customer can shop for, buy and watch online entertainment.

That entertainment can be transferred among other devices in the house; you can pause a movie in the living room and resume watching on a different TV in the bedroom. The brains of the operation is an Intel-powered set-top box, carrying the company's new Viiv processing platform, which is designed for multimedia applications.

But for all the convenience it offers, the technology surrounding Freeman and McCreary offers more solutions for piracy prevention than anything else. The more quickly and easily movies are offered for legal downloading, the partners say, the fewer the people who will turn to illegal file sharing.

"We see technology as an opportunity, not something to fear," McCreary says. "So we want to make films that are easier to buy than to pirate. But it's a really fine line between giving the consumer as much freedom as possible and still having the studios comfortable that their copyright is protected."

Freeman doesn't expect ClickStar to replace the multiplex, which he says isn't going anywhere -- "it's like church," he says. Still, he adds, smaller, more personal movies such as "10 Items or Less" are increasingly difficult to get made and, more important, seen. Even if these labors of love somehow get a theatrical release, Freeman says, "a lot of movies this size don't stay around in theaters very long."

Kevin Corbett, Intel's vice president of content services, says there are currently about 40 million U.S. homes with high-speed Internet connection. "And we expect 1 billion people worldwide by the end of the decade," Corbett says.

But Intel will learn to crawl in Hollywood before it walks.

"Rather than go after these $100-million productions," Corbett says, "there are a lot of great movies made at a much smaller budget."

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john.horn@latimes.com

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