Hollywood releases a sequel to cinema

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MORE PEOPLE visited the cinema in July this year than in any month since 1971 thanks to the release of Star Wars - The Phantom Menace and Notting Hill. But as cinemas here celebrated the record attendance, news came from America yesterday that should be making the film industry nervous.

Yesterday, the producers of the Robin Williams spiritual melodrama What Dreams May Come announced that they were making a 40-minute film, The Quantum Project, for release over the Internet next May. Though the $3m budget is tiny by Hollywood standards, it represents one of the first times an established film maker is making a movie specifically for Internet distribution.

The Quantum Project, which will use heavy computer animation, is about a physicist who has a mystical experience. It will be directed by Francis Glebas, the director of Fantasia 2000 from Walt Disney. Thanks to digital technology the downloading of movies via the Internet is a reality and there are fears in Hollywood about emptying multiplexes.

Although the technology is still too unwieldy to pose a major commercial threat - downloads are too slow and projection quality dismal - Internet movies are a reality likely to grow dramatically as compression technology improves.

The first film to be distributed over the Net, in tandem with its theatrical release, was Pi, last year's low-budget hit. Pi and The Quantum Project are linked with the Pittsburgh-based online film and music distributor sightsound.com, which charges a modest fee for downloads of low-budget new movies and campy classics such as the 1950s anti-drug rant Reefer Madness.

Rodger Raderman, chief executive of Showcase ifilm.net, another company planning a full-length Internet film, believes the Internet could be a liberating force for film makers. "The genie is out of the bottle - eventually anybody will be able to publish anything anywhere," he said. "To be seen, film makers have had to partner with a very small number of powerful distributors. Now we can put film directly in front of the consumers."

The Internet threatens to reverse 10 years of growing cinema attendances in the UK. In July, a good showing by films such as The Matrix and The Mummy, as well as the Hugh Grant and Star Wars hits, helped to lift the month's total. Cinemas recorded 14.6 million admissions - a 48 per cent increase on July 1998.