Be Afraid, Steven Spielberg, Be Very Afraid

For all the talk about IPTV and Video on the Net, Web video has really been just another place to watch what you could watch on TV — just as the Web was initially just another place to put your print advertising.

I can hear you saying, “But what about YouTube?” You mean the place where I can watch my 16 year-old’s friends making the same faces we used to make at that age in coin-operated four-for-a-dollar photo booths? Thanks, but no thanks.

The fact is, aside from watching a clip of the NY Times’ Maureen Dowd on the Daily Show and Eminem’s Michael Jackson take-off video, I haven’t come across much of anything I would chose to watch instead of, say, reading last week’s New Yorker.

Until now.

Last week I got an email inviting me to “a gala film premiere …at Santa Clara Convention Center” on New Year’s Eve where I was told that “the film CARMA will stream its way into film history.”

I know the executive producer, Anand Chandrasekaran, in his other identity as founder of a software company, Aeroprise. My first thought was: Here’s another guy who made it in tech and is now looking to find himself in art. What kind of movie premieres at the Santa Clara convention center? (Not to demean the Mission City, where I live and for which I have the highest regard. But movies premiere in…Hollywood, right?)

However, when the PR-ese — “breaking shackles,” “revolutionary” — was reduced to English, I saw an only-in-Silicon-Valley story with lots of potential for far-reaching cultural change.

In a nutshell: Carma is a full-length horror movie created entirely by a pair of Silicon Valley software engineers. It was written on a Palm Pilot, filmed on a Panasonic 24p (high-definition, film-quality) digital camcorder, edited on a Macintosh laptop, and distributed by FastMovie.TV (an Internet pay-per-view system with DVD quality) as streaming video — no download wait.

No Hollywood studios in sight. And that’s the point.

“If you look at the economics of film,” explains the 28 year-old Chandresekan who grew up in Coimbatore, India and describes himself as a “huge fan” of Quentin Tarantino, Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch, “it takes at least $2 million to get national release. So very few movies get released. Not every deserving movie gets a chance to be seen on the big screen.”

Carma’s online release democratizes the process. The movie is immediately available to anyone with Web browser. “Hollywood will be the Internet,” he adds.

“It is the structural change that desktop publishing brought to the world of publishing,” explains Suhas Patil, founder of Cirrus Logic founder as well as TiE, the influential international network that mentors entrepreneurs and new companies. Patil is an advisor to the filmmakers.

“The Internet connects the creative person to those who want to enjoy his work without any intermediaries, at a quality level that is expected for serious work,” he continues. “It was hoped when the Internet began in the mid-90s that it would be possible. Now it’s happening. It’s not an accident that two technical guys get together and get into media.”

In fact, Chandrasekaran and director Ray Arthur Wang bypassed traditional distribution offers to pursue their vision “because we don’t want to fade into DVD oblivion,” says Wang. The pair say that to their knowledge this is the first full-length feature (as opposed to documentary) film to be released this way. The model is on-demand pay-per-view, not drive-to-Blockbuster.

But while the pair are democratizing the process — the film was made on about $150,000, a sum that anybody who owns a piece of Bay Area real estate can easily raise — they are applying their technical know-how to making sure that it’s big screen quality. No jiggley Blair Witch camera work here.

“FastMovie.TV is a complete technology platform for DVD quality movie release on PPV Internet,” Chandrasekaran explains. “We approached it as engineers. We went through many tests to see if the technology would work. We wanted to make sure that the cinematic experience was a good experience and you could project it. And,” he adds, “Suhas poked holes in it like nobody’s business.”

Carma also explores cultural territory that doesn’t get much exposure in mainstream movie theaters.

“I watch so many films,” says director Wang, a native of Livermore, CA who has a PhD in electrical engineering and is also a classical pianist. “I felt the absence of an Asian-American male voice. Whenever you see Asian-American males they’re stereotyped; for example, in martial arts movies.

“I realized the only way I could make progress toward filling that void was to write and direct my own movies,” he continues.

“When you’re Indian and a film buff you’re stereotyped,” adds Chandrasekaran. “You’re talking about Bollywood. For me it was important to identify with a different cinematic vision.”

But as interesting as all this is, the question remains: Is Carma entertainment? Despite its unorthodox birth, the quality of this film is in fact every bit as good as a Hollywood product.

The story is about an abandoned car haunted by a psychopath’s dead mother and the inevitability of fate (Get it? Car-Ma). Imagine Quentin Tarantino meets Steven King, with a good helping of Alfred Hitchcock and No Exit thrown into the mix with an appropriately creepy soundtrack. Karen Black, who starred in Five Easy Pieces and Alfred Hitchcock’s last movie, Family Plot, provides the voice of the demonic mom.

To watch the movie, go to carmamovie.com, where you can also see free previews and buy a DVD. You’ll need to download DivX, but the site provides a link and I was able to download it to my Mac and run the movie with no problem (the gold standard).

The movie is $4.99 — a dollar more than Comcast’s pay-per-view. You have to go through an e-commerce checkout, which seems a little odd. After all, you don’t have to provide your name, address and phone number when you buy a movie ticket.

Now hand me the popcorn, I’m going to go watch Carma again.

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