Freeman leads cinema revolution with download after two weeks

Morgan Freeman does not seem the most obvious providential figure to deliver Hollywood into the internet age, but the 69-year-old actor is pushing the boundaries with his latest release, a comedy called 10 Items Or Less which reached US cinemas yesterday and will be available for digital download in just two weeks.

The mould-breaking concept was dreamt up by Mr Freeman and his production company, in conjunction with the chip-making giant Intel. Together, they formed a company called Clickstar which aims to deliver films to people's computers quickly and smoothly enough to allay Hollywood's fear of digital piracy.

Conventional wisdom in the film industry says that a film has to have a theatrical run of several weeks at least to maximise box-office revenues and prevent DVD, pay-per-view or other outlets from eating into a title's most prominent and prestigious revenue stream. Mr Freeman's philosophy views the problem from another angle - that many people live in places too remote to have access to the sorts of films they want to see, and offering them fast online delivery of new titles is actually a way of cultivating a wider audience.

He is following in the footsteps of Steven Soderbergh and the production company 2929 Entertainment, which made the decision earlier this year to release Mr Soderbergh's film Bubble simultaneously in cinemas, on DVD and on pay-per-view. The film, a low-budget neo-realist drama set in an Ohio doll factory, fared too poorly to be an indicator of how well the same strategy might work for other titles.

Mr Freeman's company considered offering 10 Items Or Less for download immediately, but backed off. Among other reasons, films shown exclusively in cinemas are eligible for awards. Titles categorised as straight-to-video are not.

The film, which was directed by Brad Silberling, is a comedy about an out-of-work actor and a check-out girl in a grocery store, played by Paz Vega.

If it represents a gentle toe-dipping for online distribution, next year's serial killer drama Lonely Hearts, starring John Travolta and James Gandolfini, will be more significant.

Clickstar's ambition is to use Mr Freeman's name and his Hollywood connections to secure permission for the online release of significant numbers of first-run films. The company's only serious competitor for the moment, Movielink.com, does offer high-profile recent films but has drawn complaints because the films have to be viewed within 24 hours. Amazon.com's Unbox service has suffered technical problems, while other companies such as Veoh and EZ Takes do not have a list of movies most people would find especially familiar.

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