It's not clear whether Purple Violets, the new living-and-loving-in-New York film from writer-director Edward Burns, would be a good first-date movie.
As the first full-length feature to premiere exclusively on Apple's iTunes store -- not in theaters -- your date would have to be cool with coming over to watch the movie on your laptop computer. Or desktop computer. Or even on the gorgeous little 3-inch-by-2-inch screen of your iPod Touch -- since nothing says romance like sharing ear buds.
"You don't need to be sitting in a massive theater to experience two people sitting on a park bench trying to figure their lives out," Burns said in a phone interview. In fact, he reflected, "a lot of my stuff you could almost listen to it as an audio play, there's so much wall-to-wall dialogue."
But hey, if you're going to pay the $14.99 to download the movie, you should probably watch it, too. It's full of visually appealing scenes, most of them featuring elegant New York condominiums or Selma Blair. Burns' knack for photographing both is evident even on the playing card-sized iPod.
Still, Purple Violets' direct-to-Net debut is a melancholy milestone for film lovers.
All nine of Burns' films, going back to his breakout 1995 success The Brothers McMullen, have seen a limited initial release in New York and Los Angeles. The last time moviegoers in St. Louis got to see a film of his premiere there, Burns said, was 1998.
"So any fan of yours that really likes your stuff and wants to see it when it comes out, can't," he said. "We didn't want to go through that again -- the false hope that your movie might be the one in several thousand that does break through."
Releasing a film online eliminates costs associated with printing and distribution, while also making the film available, in essence, everywhere.
On the downside, watching a movie on your iPod -- while it does have some advantages -- is inherently less of what new media strategists call a "lean-back experience" than leaning back in a movie theater seat.
But very-small-screen viewing is not going away. Netflix began allowing its users to stream some movies this year, and online services such as Jaman, CinemaNow and IndieFlix offer a broad spectrum for streaming or download.
ITunes has a catalog of 500 movie titles, including The Princess Bride, Mean Girls and, more recently, An Inconvenient Truth. Apple says that top-performing movies such as these can be downloaded hundreds of thousands of times, though none has broken 1 million.
Eddy Cue, vice president of iTunes, said Apple was not worried about exactly when and under what circumstances people watch downloaded movies, though he did offer long train commutes and the gym as examples. "The important part is that people have a lot less free time," said Cue, which means they are less inclined to plan out exactly when or where, or upon which device they'll do their viewing. "We want to give them as many options as possible."
For its part, the two-hour-long Purple Violets is a rather familiar love-and-career story that at times feels more dependent on coincidence than it does on surprise. In an early scene, novelist Patti (Blair) and friend Kate (Debra Messing) happen to be dining in the same restaurant as best-selling thriller writer Brian (Patrick Wilson) and Michael "The Murph" Murphy (Burns), their respective college boyfriends from a decade earlier.
As the story plays out, flames are rekindled and dreams revived. Whatever audiences make of the movie, one thing is sure: The screen may be small, but the production is full of pure cinematic ease -- the kind that allows a book to be written between fade-out and fade-in.
Still, you can see why Apple liked the film. Its mix of wealthy young lawyers and wealthy young artists, and its unending string of plush cribs, seems well-suited to the company's carefully cultivated aesthetic -- artsy and hip, but with a dash of world domination. "Is that the ideal way you'd want someone to watch your film?" said Burns of the new iPod. "No. But does it look pretty" -- uh, darn -- "good?"
And he's right -- all you have to do is get over the idea that that's a movie screen in your pocket.
David Sarno writes for the Los Angeles Times.