You won't—trust me on this—be attending SIFF online next year. That said, let us now praise online cinema, and a theater that requires no dressing up, no overt fabulousness, and no valet parking. And if your shoes stick to the floor or the popcorn's stale, that's your problem.
Ideally, you'll have three tools at your online filmgoing disposal. The first, a big fat chunk of bandwidth, is of course a lovely and welcome addition to any adventure. The second is a big fat chunk of video RAM, which not only creates a pleasing symmetry to the bandwidth, but keeps your machine from imploding in the middle of things. (Mac users, your mileage may vary, and you can just quit your smirking right now.)
Last and most important, if at all possible be sure that you're watching these films while sporting a low to moderate fever—the kind where shapes distort and sound is tinny and the air seems to have turned slightly liquid. At that point, life really does imitate art.
Webcasting has been kicking around for several years, usually in the entourage of would-be impresarios who see the Net as a chance to make the pictures they couldn't foist on Hollywood. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, unless you're trying to make the kind of brainless self-important fare that Hollywood does really well—in which case you may need to find a friend who'll be honest with you about your future in film. You did get that MBA like Mom suggested, right?) These folk have been relatively unsuccessful in their efforts, though unfortunately it's not from lack of trying.
No, the Net is not the place to see big, splashy blockbusters. (I'll make an exception for the Star Wars trailers, though—somehow that just feels right.) But if it's fresh and alluring visions you're seeking, new and oddly pitched voices, consider this: A decent digital-video camera costs less than $2,000 these days, and servers such as VideoFarm.com will give you a gigabyte of space and a suite of editing software for well less than $100/month. Is the bar low enough now?
As the offline world readies its gigaplexes for digital video, a growing number of auteurs have taken their art online. Last week, the Net's first simultaneous online-offline film premiere brought us Dead Broke, made for $800,000 and starring actors you've actually heard of (Paul Sorvino, Tony Roberts, et al.). That bodes well for Web cinema moving beyond the Z-List Actor Syndrome that afflicted CD-ROM games for years. Whether the Net is the next Cannes or Sundance or Seattle depends, however, on filmmakers finding the rhythm of the medium.
Short subjects—music video, animation, experimental pieces—fare well online, in part because there's no reason to skip a brief film simply because of theater location ("What, drive 10 miles for an eight-minute film?!"). The Net favors the tapas-bar approach to moviegoing—the strategy that seems plausible at the beginning of SIFF until you factor in parking and other physical-world logistics. Better, it's easy to click out of something that sucks without feeling self-conscious ("Oh, geez, I'm the last one left in the theater besides that guy, and I think he's the director.") And the variety is terrific: Sites like iFilm.net keep a rotating selection of fresh dainties available.
Live action, though, isn't Webcasting's strong suit. Lips and the words they speak are often out of sync. Images jerk and jitter. The viewing screen is rarely larger than a sticky note—and when the "projector" breaks, you're usually facing a reboot. Expect the Net's first "date movie" to premiere approximately never.
In fact, the most successful Webcast to date is a monument to cheap and amateurish animation. Back in 1996, the first South Park "episode" made the rounds online as a Christmas card and became an instant Net classic. (It's a handy download to have in the archive when you're trying to remember what the fuss was all about, and if the show was ever as funny as it was hyped to be. Yes, it was.) Point is, it worked.
Coming full circle is the imminent tankage of the South Park movie in theaters—the bubble burst at Net speed a year ago. They should have stayed in the venue that worked best for them: Online cinema may not be grown up yet, but it is making great strides in being juvenile, with a kind of fevered style.