Widescreen TV, Bob, and SpeedCine

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

CinemaScope In the early 80s, I was convinced that the next big thing in home video was going to be Widescreen TV.

But how to do it? Instinctively, I thought of the 16mm anamorphic lenses I used for my college film society screening, and I start fiddling around with ideas about how that could be transferred to TV. Making anamorphic VHS tapes didn’t seem to be an impossible task; it would actually be cheaper to transfer an anamorphic film directly than to pay to have someone pan and scan it. But how to spread the images out?

My solution was to get someone to create a round sheet of a specially-made plastic that could be mounted in front of any TV. When you adjusted the wheel, it would spread out the VHS tapes into widescreen images. That was the plan. But the more I thought about my stroke of genius, the more impractical it sounded. I realized the only way to make a proper Scope TV was with a wide screen tube—a niche product for rich people. As I would have to raise millions to manufacture something like that,I gave up on the idea.  Some might say that my idea is now a reality with HDTV, but not in my book. Not even with letterboxing. But it does seem that, after over 20 years, Philips has finally done something closer to the original Rosefelt specifications.Phillips Cinema 21:9 Last August I discovered another movie thing I wanted that didn’t exist. When I wanted to watch a legal online movie, I looked it up in Google, and discovered it really wasn’t much help. You might find out a title was available on Amazon on the first page and from a second company on the third page, but it could be available on a lot of sites that Google wouldn’t find at all, the most notable being iTunes. (I figured it was hard for search engine crawlers to find films that were hidden inside software like iTunes.)

So you wouldn’t know if you could rent it or not unless you looked it up separately in Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Jaman, EZTakes, IndiePix Films, Hulu, SnagFilms, Fearnet, babelgum and all the rest.

The only way to quickly find any movie you wanted to see on Google was to not pay for it. Google made locating Torrent files a breeze. This seemed crazy to me. How were we ever going to get people to pay for movies online if we couldn’t do something as basic as show where they were?

As with widescreen TV, it was something I wanted, so I thought there would be others who would want it to. But this time I didn’t need millions of dollars and a factory to create a product. The internet had changed that. But still…you needed some money. And I didn’t have it.

Bob Harris I called up my friend Bob Harris in San Francisco. Bob and I had been good friends in Madison, Wisconsin as teenagers, and we had re-established our friendship in recent years. I knew that he was very successful working with computer databases, but I hardly thought he would want to get involved in something as speculative as my idea, and certainly not without getting paid for it. But he saw the potential in the idea too, and despite his heavy workload, he signed on. By the time Labor Day weekend was over, he had created a functioning prototype of SpeedCine. I figured we could get it online by October, or maybe November at the latest. It took eleven months.

SpeedCine was created by two guys working in their home offices in their spare time from their day jobs. We never once laid eyes on each other during the entire year. While most movie sites are Hollywood productions, created with tens of millions of venture capital, ours was a no-budget independent, made with sweat equity and less than ten thousand dollars.

Bob devoted an entire year of his life to helping me realize my dream, while also doing extremely demanding work on his other projects. Obviously, without him, SpeedCine would never have happened, but he contributed so much more than programming. The site might seem ridiculously simple today, but it emerged from literally thousands of hours of discussion. It didn’t start out simple; it started out very, very complicated. Early on, SpeedCine had so many features and options that for all practical purposes it was worthless. It took a long, long time for us to realize that it got better every time we took something out of it. Generally it was Bob teaching me these lessons. I started out the movie and graphic design guy; he was the technologist and philosopher. Gradually, these roles blurred. I’m not going to say that it was always an easy collaboration, but I learned a lot, and I think he did too.

As we got nearer the launch, we hired a second programmer, Ben Amada, to assist Bob. A few weeks ago, Bob decided to leave SpeedCine to focus on his other business responsibilities. Only when he knew that I could carry on without him did he allow himself to bow out. It’s a big loss to me personally that he’s no longer with the site and it’s a bigger loss to SpeedCine.

This might seem like a very odd analogy, but lately I’ve been thinking about that story about late-career Dietrich, working on one of her post-von Sternberg movies. Leaving the set, she was once heard to say, “Joe…Where are you?” I feel like that a lot.

Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg

Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich