Some of Hollywood's brightest stars recently set out to launch "the next big thing" - a downloadable movie. The $3m Quantum Project stars John Cleese and Stephen Dorff, and is directed by the Oscar-winner Eugenio Zanetti. It's the first time anything of this scale has been attempted: a 40-minute drama charting a young physicist's journey through alternative reality, delivered on a format that approaches the same standards as DVD.
Quantum Project is the vanguard of the new internet movie business, and its makers believe it will change the Hollywood system for ever. The company bankrolling the project, sightsound.com, is keen to position itself at the centre of this new market of downloadable film. "I don't want to overstate this, but there is no other way to say it: it's absolute history. This is an historic endeavour," says Scott Sander, the company's chief executive.
A while back, I downloaded the trailer. Over a jump-cut montage of images of the brain and the cosmos, a booming voice proclaims that this movie is "where technology and humanity, science and spirit, the internet and the imagination collide . . . Be part of the project!"
It looks and sounds much like the trailer of any other blockbuster. My experience of watching on a small window while sitting in front of my PC was hardly relaxing escapism. Moreover, for the average domestic user, it would take 16 hours to download the whole film, which is why I haven't.
AtomFilms (atomfilms.com), another major player in this new space, has come up with an ingenious solution to these problems. It distributes only short films, between 30 seconds and 30 minutes, which are speedy to download and easy to digest for the attention-deficient net-user. On 7 May, it launched its own big project, Angry Kid, made by Aardman Animation.
Angry Kid is 24 episodes, lasting 60 seconds each, featuring the eponymous parka-wearing teenager in his meticulously styled Seventies suburbia, in a mixture of claymation and live action. He cycles his Chopper, shouts at his dad and gets snarled up by dogs. It's difficult not to like him and his gauche reactions. The production is sly, witty and quirky. But with each outing being so short, it's difficult to feel as close to the Angry Kid as to those other members of the Aardman community, Wallace and Gromit.
In a sense, the quality of the creativity and experience is of secondary importance in this debate. These dot coms are making an assault not on the tradition of movie-making, but on the many middlemen who strike the deals of distribution, from the studio heads to the people who run the local video store.
Michael Comish, who heads AtomFilms's London office, argues that the internet will change the relationship between talent and the consumer, and so make the creators more responsive to the whims and wishes of the public. As a consequence, in the coming weeks, Sander will be subjecting himself to what he describes as "the swift and brutal democracy of the internet". If the public love or hate Quantum Project, he will know it even before they have finished watching. Even his marketing strategy is democratic: "The studio system is all about carefully controlling the buzz for an upcoming movie. We're opening the vault and passing around all that stuff normally controlled by the studios: the footage, the trailers and the electronic press kits."
It is classic Hollywood shtick. The creators of the New Hollywood in the 1970s, and Independents movement of the 1980s spun similar oppositional myths, only to be incorporated into the system. So far, Hollywood studios have been slow to realise the internet's potential, only to be outflanked by the marketers of Blair Witch and South Park.
But this month's issue of Red Herring, the magazine-bible of technology venture capitalism, sports a cover picture taken by Helmut Newton (a concession to movie styling), under the headline "Hollywood, Too!" The studios are catching up; 1.7 million copies of the trailer for Lord of the Rings (due out in 2001) were downloaded in the first 24 hours of its release.
When the last great revolution in cinema distribution came (the arrival of the home VCR), many were fearful that Driller Killer, and his associates, would injure the industry of family entertainment. In the end, those seedy corner shops were turned into local footholds of global conglomerates at the base of the studio distribution chain. Today, it's only a matter of time before the angry kids of the internet movie business stop wearing their parkas and slip into some studio Armani, and use their distribution system to control and market the stars in ever more sophisticated ways.