The Roots of Satellite Movie Distribution
by Martin Pitts
Movie distribution is affected by advancements in technology as much as other areas of the industry. A pivotal influence occurred a number of years ago, beginning with the efforts of a marketing company to command the attention of the college audience with a new strategy. This company staged free screenings of films two weeks prior to their general release at selected colleges throughout the U.S. The showings generated buzz about the movie among students. The purpose of these screenings was not for market research, but for film promotion. The more positive the word-of-mouth buzz, the bigger the box office numbers. To get the students more involved, this marketing agency started staging live promotional appearances by actors and other key people after the screenings. To facilitate a simultaneous screening of the movie in several locations at once, digital satellite technology was used.
My role in this was as writer/producer for the live shows directly following the movie screenings. All the major Hollywood studios were on board: Disney, Universal, Paramount, Warner Brothers, Columbia and Sony. The live shows were staged at one university and transmitted digitally by satellite, and sometimes optical fiber, to colleges all over the U.S.
Typically, we would transmit to between 30 and 60 schools. The interactive element of the show involved students around the country participating in a Q & A session with celebrity guests and directors over a video/audio connection at their location or through Internet chat rooms set up for the event. Questions ranged from those about technical production details to others about the stars and their performance experiences.
When these events were initially planned, the single most important question for the studios was how to prevent piracy or unauthorized copying of the movie at any point in the satellite transmission. The solution was to use 128-bit encryption similar to what the U.S. government and National Security Administration use to protect classified information. All SSL (Secure Socket Layer) Internet sites, like those that protect credit card information, now use this 128-bit, and sometimes 256-bit, standard. This encryption protected all content sent via satellite. Movie companies were intrigued by this secure way to distribute movies.
Although DVD and hard drive distribution is still typical, encrypted satellite distribution is becoming increasingly used to send movies throughout the world in real time. The added security of satellite distribution also provides another obstacle for piracy: there are no files that can be copied or DVDs that can get lost. Digital distribution of movies via satellite will soon become the new standard, the staged shows used as a marketing tactic having set a precedence for Hollywood studios’ emerging application of this technology.
Martin Pitts is a director of documentary and live network television. He’s a member of the Directors Guild of America, the Cinematographers Guild and the Writers and Directors Unit of the Actors Studio. His teaching background includes courses at IAFT and UCLA, and workshops for USC and AFI.