YouTube, iPods, Virtual Actors, 3-D -- What Is The Future Of Film?

New filmmakers bust down doors to Hollywood, launch movies on the tiny screen. What's next?

LOS ANGELES -- Wanna go see a movie?

This question is asked millions of times each week, by people of all ages, races, financial and educational backgrounds, all seeking one similar goal: entertainment.

Thirty years ago, it would have been answered with a quick peek at the newspaper to see which film was playing at the solitary, flat-floored, family-owned theater near you. Then, young filmmakers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas released the one-two punch of "Jaws" and "Star Wars," giving birth to an astonishing evolution in cinema via the age of the blockbuster, film schools, the concept of an opening weekend, VHS, DVD, megaplexes, THX sound and so much more.

"In those days, nobody wanted to go to film school," Lucas recently remembered of a very different Hollywood. "It was a very esoteric field. There was absolutely zero chance of ever getting to work in the industry at all. Your biggest opportunity [as a Hollywood outsider] would be becoming a ticket-taker at Disneyland."

Although they might be remembered as the greatest dreamers of their generation, even Spielberg and Lucas couldn't have imagined the transformation that the word "movie" would go through over the 30 years that followed their breakthroughs. Now, with the seeds for so many other technological and industry transformations beginning to sprout, one has to wonder: What will we mean 30 years from now when we ask, "Wanna go see a movie?"

"We were waiting to go into [Terrence] Malick's 'The New World,' " 31-year-old Chris Hampel remembered of the inspiration he and a few other struggling filmmakers had for "Sam Has 7 Friends," a movie you can currently watch -- but not in a way you'd expect. "I said, 'What are we gonna do in '06?, What's our resolution for production?' Well, Doug [Cheney] pulled out his video iPod, and then he said, 'We're going here.' "

Before you disqualify them, know this: "Sam" will eventually be released on DVD as a 120-minute movie, a normal length for any feature film. Writer/directors Hampel, Cheney and their collaborators attended film school, they tutored themselves on independent-film sets and honed their skills under the watchful eye of filmmaker Michael Mann on his last two films.

"We both worked [with Mann] on 'Collateral' and then most recently on 'Miami Vice,' " Chris McCaleb, another of the four writer/directors, remembers. "I was most recently an assistant editor for 'Miami Vice.' Hampel was [Mann's] right-hand man for three and a half years."

Now these former assistants are calling the shots alongside camera operators, costume designers, actors and numerous other peripheral industry players they've picked up along the way. They're kicking in the door to Hollywood, and they're doing it with help from a riveting tagline that could fuel any blockbuster: "Samantha Breslow has seven friends. On December 15, 2006, one of them will kill her."

Every day, they release 90 seconds of their movie to a steadily growing audience on YouTube, MySpace and in the video podcast section of the iTunes music store. Future plans include putting a "Sam" spin-off movie on rapidly-improving cell phone screens; for a generation accustomed to watching their DVDs on small screens, on their own schedules and in small doses, "Sam" is no different than throwing "Mission: Impossible III" on an iPod and watching an action scene during a subway commute.

"What Pixar is about is making and entertaining audiences," explained Pixar and Disney Chief Creative Officer (and director of the recent "Cars") John Lasseter, who recently further blurred the line between himself and people like the "Sam" filmmakers by releasing his movies and animated shorts to the iTunes store. "We're geeks here, and we've been involved in the technological revolutions right and left. But it's less about the technology and more about the stories and the characters and the worlds we create in the entertainment of our audiences."

That level of entertainment will need to always be the focus of "movies" if they hope to survive. At one time, film was widely perceived as being superior to television -- but with shows like "Jackass," "The Simpsons" and "24" becoming movies that look virtually identical to their small-screen predecessors, that no longer holds true. Turn on HBO, FX or Showtime these days and you'll find all the cutting-edge techniques that were once associated with the big screen. Also, with actors like Robert Duvall and Michael Madsen lending their names and likenesses to nearly photo-real video game versions of "The Godfather" and "Reservoir Dogs," it seems like the future of movies might be on the big screen, the small screen and the smaller screen -- and we might be holding a joystick in our hands and dictating the story line.

But according to filmmakers like "Narc" writer/director Joe Carnahan, the theater experience won't die because fans still want to watch most movies with other people, no matter how good our home theaters will be. "I don't know that we will ever lose the experience of the cinema, because there is something about being in a crowd," he said, arguing that even something like "Sam" would be better off on the big screen. "It's a symbiotic thing when you watch a movie with a really great crowd. You can't beat it. There is no presentation that you can do in your own home that gives you the palpable sense that you get from another crowd that is engaged and loving it and laughing and shrieking. It will always be a very communal experience."

The key, according to filmmakers like Lucas, James Cameron and others, is for "movies" to constantly evolve in ways that will blow away home theaters and handheld players. "People will always have to find a way to make the medium relevant," Tim Burton said. "Why would people rather go to a theater instead of watching it at home? Right now, there's a lot of talk about 3-D, but back in the '50s, there was too. Is every movie going to be in 3-D? We are getting to the point now where maybe it will."

But not everyone agrees on where filmmaking is headed, as a speech from Cameron made quite clear earlier this year. "I'm not going to make movies for people to watch on their cell phones," he declared. "To me, that's an abomination."

Currently, there are three different 3-D processes competing against one another. The first is Cameron's 3-D camera rig, which will be used for his "Titanic" sci-fi follow-ups "Battle Angel" and "Avatar." The second is more of a virtual-actor technique, which adds 3-D to CGI to create everything from "The Polar Express" to "Chicken Little." The third technique has a company called In-Three creating 3-D versions of classic movies like the "Star Wars" flicks, to make them newly relevant for forthcoming re-releases.

"You've got Jim Cameron saying it's going to be 3-D," Carnahan grinned. "3-D glasses? I get a headache from watching 3-D! I think that the techniques we have now are going to continue to improve, but I think it is going to be all digital. That I can guarantee. Film -- the emulsion or the way we show films today -- won't be around in 10 years, much less 30."

Some, like Lucas, have envisioned a futuristic Hollywood where filmmakers own virtual "actors" as intellectual property that can be rented out to each other for star power. Other filmmakers, like "XXX" director Rob Cohen, are exploring the possibility of resurrecting legends like Bruce Lee, to an even greater degree than Bryan Singer did with Marlon Brando in "Superman Returns" or Kerry Conran did with Sir Laurence Olivier in "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow."

According to Burton, however, a future filled with 3-D virtual actors like Jar Jar Binks and Gollum is as terrifying as anything he's ever put into one of his movies. "You never want to get rid of actors, because then you are going to get rid of the great bad acting that you grew up loving," he insisted, arguing that an eccentric star like Christopher Walken could never be created in a machine. "An actor can give a great performance, and then he can give an equally terrible performance, and you are not going to want to miss that."

You're also not going to want to miss a rags-to-riches story like Moneer Yaqubi, the 24-year-old actor who plays Sam's creepy photographer boyfriend -- and possible killer. "I've always tended to get mistaken for a certain actor a lot, this one on an HBO show which I am not going to name," grinned Yaqubi, a struggling L.A. actor whose dark curly hair and piercing eyes unmistakably evoke those of "Entourage" star Adrian Grenier.

"I recently had this group of girls come up to me and be like, 'You're on that show!' And I'm like, 'What show?' Because I get 'Entourage' all the time," he said. "They were like, 'Sam Has 7 Friends.' It blew me away. ... They were like, 'I love the show, and I can't wait every day to get into the office and watch it.' "

"Everybody wants to go into work and know what happens next," Hampel said of the movie, which is updated in real time (yes, on October 31, Sam attended a Halloween party) every day, and is often uploaded by the creators after an all-nighter of intense editing. "Everyone tells us, 'I have my Sam and my coffee, every morning.' "

"Sam" is an interesting phenomenon, because every 90-second episode is fast-paced and rapidly edited, which makes one wonder how a continuous 120 minutes of it would play out. Head over to iTunes and download all the back episodes of this experiment for yourself, and decide if it really is the future -- because it might make you realize that in this age of "Borat" and "Freddy vs. Jason," slowly unfolding plots and moody atmospheres are becoming increasingly less important.

"We are certainly culpable in that whole thing," Carnahan sighed, acknowledging that the future is quick edits and rapid-fire payoff. "We're the guilty party of stripping away people's attention spans and not requiring them to sit and appreciate things. Like, if [Michelangelo] Antonioni made a film today, forget about it. People would be snoring at it in 10 minutes."

Sure, the "Blow-Up" director was a maestro behind the camera and will always be remembered as an influential forefather, but did he have a MySpace page? "One of our central ideas of putting something on the Internet was to incorporate all of the things that the Internet has to offer, and one of those was to create this fourth dimension, blurring the lines between what was real and what is not real," Ryan Wise, the final "Sam" writer/director, said of the steps they've taken to engage an audience far more actively than someone like Antonioni would have ever considered. "So the major characters all have their own MySpace profiles that are maintained by a collaboration of us and the actors who portray the characters."

"Sam's boyfriend is Patrick at the beginning [of the movie], and he's her top friend, but then she breaks up with him and he isn't in her top eight anymore," producer Marcus Blakely explained, saying that any viewer can choose to be friends with one, two or all of the "Sam" characters and watch their MySpace pages change every day as if they were real. "[After they broke up], Sam's status said 'single,' and they'll write comments about 'Hey, come over to my place tonight.' Then, that next day's installment is them having dinner that night."

"It's a whole new level of storytelling," Blakely continued, sounding a bit like Lasseter.

"We've been in the top 100 for a while, and we are all the way up to the 43rd most downloaded, out of 7 million podcasts," the producer marveled, insisting that the numbers continue to grow as they get closer to killing off Sam on December 15. "We are the only independent producer in that 'TV and Film' category of podcasts."

The "Sam" crew even recently staged a fake exhibition in L.A. for the photography of Yaqubi's character -- advertised, naturally, on his MySpace page.

"And guess what show we're ahead of?" the actor beamed, triumphantly. " 'Entourage'!"

"The beginning of the future is now," said Lucas, looking back 30 years at his own experiences and ahead to all the factors that will only make the changes come more rapidly. "So much has happened in the last 10 years. When we first started using digital technology, I said, 'This is it. This is what's going to change everything.' Now it's starting to happen because, with digital cameras, people are able to put things on the Internet and distribute them that way -- anybody can make a movie."

Lucas cautioned, however, that if "movies" are to continue to exist, guerilla filmmakers must take the time to learn and respect their craft. "We need to get cinematic literacy into their grammar, through film schools, so that [young filmmakers] know the basics of how it works, and they'll be more sophisticated in their use of grammar and film language," he continued, discussing a future that Cameron might find somewhat reprehensible. "Everybody's going to make movies, and they can distribute them on YouTube or whatever. Some people will rise to the top -- which is the way it always works -- but no longer do we have these gate keepers that are making arbitrary decisions on who gets to make movies and who doesn't."

"Thirty years from now, no matter what the technology is, it will still be about the same thing," director Eli Roth ("Hostel") insisted.

"Maybe it'll be 3-D," Roth added about film's future. "Maybe you can actually enter the movie. But no matter what it is, it's still going to be some teenage kid at the movies pretending to yawn then trying to feel [his date's] boobs. That's my prediction."

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