Hoovie co-founder Hilary Henegar talks with Bob Stein about the power of digital technology to democratize analog experiences and the pleasure of watching movies together.

Serendipity delivered Bob Stein into our lives. A founder of the Criterion Collection – that paragon of film-to-video distribution, whose catalog formed the backbone of my film education, before, during and after film school – Bob happened onto Hoovie by way of a friend, and he grasped immediately what it was that Fiona and I were trying to do.

Bob SteinA forwarded email led to introductions led to a Zoom call led to a series of conversations; he hosted a Hoovie; and he has since become a great ally and champion of our model for watching films together, virtually and in person.

A publisher and “enthusiast” of media in all its forms, Bob has spent his career fixated on the question of how we can use technology to experience media in collaborative ways. Given this shared interest, I was curious to hear his thoughts, reflections and visions for bringing people together through film – from his days at Criterion, to his groundbreaking work with CD-ROMs, to his MacArthur grant-funded Institute for the Future of the Book project, all the way through to his current explorations of VR – and how he sees Hoovie fitting in.

In 1984, when you launched the Criterion Collection, what was the problem you were trying to solve?

Bob Stein: I wanted to get a foothold into the new publishing technologies. And I wasn’t particularly interested in making things for personal computer screens. I didn’t like the aesthetics. Video discs were the one medium out there that conformed to my aesthetic at the moment; it made things look great. And there was a minimum level of interactivity.

What was the original concept for the Criterion Collection?

I think we just wanted to make it possible for the average intellectual, the sort of focus viewer fan watcher, reader user, to learn as much as she wanted to learn about a subject, about a movie, as she could. So it was definitely for the person who wanted to go a little deeper into what they were watching and liking.

And so King Kong and Citizen Kane were your first discs. What were people’s reactions?

I think among the sort of cinema cognoscenti it was an exciting moment because suddenly the sort of bastardized medium of video was showing some promise. Suddenly, people felt that, oh, there’s a life for movies and video that’s respectful of the films and has some promise going forward.

Criterion has become known for its high quality transfers as well as for being the first to offer “special features,” such as the “commentary track.” How was that received?

You know, mostly what people cared about with Criterion was the visual quality. And people were amused and fascinated by the supplementary materials. But clearly what was getting Criterion a huge amount of respect in the industry was the care of the transfer from film to video.

 

[Later, Bob shared with me this fascinating example of how Criterion innovated on the innovation of supplementary materials, merging two analog technologies for digital delivery. Read all the way through to the part about Keith Haring.]

You were the first ones to actually use letterbox for that format, right?

Yeah, we even gave it a name: “videographic,” or something like that.

Now, you are also a pioneer in another groundbreaking technology, the CD ROM, through your company, Voyager, which owned Criteria. What excited you about CD ROMs? What was the promise that you saw?

Criterion and the CD ROMs and everything that came after, they were all just really sort of my wanting to experiment with new technologies – and recognizing when each one was kind of good enough to start experimenting with.

I would have liked to have done much more highly interactive stuff at the beginning. But in 1984, when we started Criterion, there really weren’t any options.

As soon as the CD ROM became available, suddenly, you know, a new world opened up to us, and we just started doing stuff.

Can you give an example?

Well, I mean, the first one we did was what we call the CD companion to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. And very similar to the Criterion Collection.

We took an iconic warhorse like Beethoven’s Ninth, and had an expert sort of tell us everything about it that might be interesting. And included even a real-time commentary across the length of the symphony, in text. So as you listened, you could read a commentary about the symphony. It was very much the Criterion Collection concept applied to music.

And that had a huge reception. That was really, in some ways, the first commercially viable CD ROM, and Apple sold countless machines – people went out to buy computers just to be able to run that program.

[Check out this charmingly nostalgic New York Times piece from 1992 about Voyager’s “Multimedia Beethoven: The Ninth Symphony” CD ROM, or “electronic book”:

It is called an “illustrated, interactive musical exploration”; it submerges the reader/listener/viewer in the processes of the music. Everything becomes malleable. Each “page” has “buttons” that control which page is to come next, what is to be seen and what heard. One button can call up a glossary. Another can display a structural outline of the symphony: click the cursor on the appropriate words, and the exposition and recapitulation from the first movement can be instantly heard and compared. One “page” displays and plays four early drafts of the symphony’s “Ode to Joy” theme found in Beethoven’s sketchbooks. …]

That must have been very validating.

Yeah, it was.

As a founder of The Institute for the Future of the Book, you chronicled the shift from the printed page to the networked screen. Why was that important to do?

I got a phone call one day from the MacArthur Foundation. And one of the program officers called me and said, “We’d loved when you were a publisher, how can we help you go back into publishing?” I told them that now that the internet was here, it was not obvious what it meant to be a publisher. But if they gave me some money, I would think about it.

And so I mean, they ended up giving me a million dollars to think about it.

So I hired a bunch of really smart young kids, and we sat around a table together for a year and just talked. At the end of that year, we started doing experiments with putting a text into a browser with a dynamic margin where people could have synchronous or asynchronous conversations.


[Here’s an example of one of the Institute for the Future of the Book’s experiments in social study of text, using their WordPress plug-in CommentPress for a text from Lapham’s Quarterly.]

It turned out to be something that was exciting and useful. People understood immediately the validity of being able to do a deeper dive into a text by collaborating with others to understand what you’re reading.

In some ways, I’ve always thought that the area of social reading or social consumption of media was fundamentally much more important than the work we did with Criterion or Voyager because it focused on the fact that the most profound value of digital technology was its ability to put people together in a collaborative space.

I mean, surely, if we’ve learned nothing else, during this pandemic, we’ve learned about the power of digital technology to put us together in a collaborative space.

Now, I know, you’re really excited about VR and AR, and I was hoping you could talk a bit about what it is that lights you up about these technologies and, and maybe even how you define these technologies within the broader timeline of technological development?

Fundamentally, I’m a publisher, and what publishers are, are enthusiasts, you know. Publishers see something they like, and their heart starts to beat faster, and they want to tell people about it. And one of the reasons why I chose to live in New York, is that there’s a lot of live art that takes place here. Music, theater, dance – and I’m lucky enough to be able to go out on most nights to see stuff. And when I see something I love, I want to tell all my friends about it. And unfortunately, there’s no way to sort of transport the experience to them.

That sort of was, for me, the starting place for VR – recognizing that if one shot a video with a VR camera, not a 360° camera, but a 180° camera, where you just basically are getting everything in front of you, you could get a fantastic 3D image of everything that was in front of you. And your experience as a viewer would be very similar in some ways to somebody sitting in the audience at a theater.

For music in particular, this made a huge difference to me. I’ve never been a fan of filmed music, mostly because there’s a disconnect for me between the three-dimensionality of sound, and the flatness of two dimensional video. But suddenly, when you see music recorded in VR, there’s no longer that disconnect. The video and the sound are both 3D.

Interestingly, this is something we didn’t understand until we started doing it.

When you set a VR camera down and make a video of a performance – let’s say it’s a string quartet – the angle on the camera is wide enough that you see all four players. And the viewer ends up in the position of having to do the same edit that you as an audience member, right – where you are deciding where to look; you’re not depending on a video editor to basically impose their eye on your experience.

And we didn’t expect this. But this was the real game changer.

This is why music in VR is completely different – because you are an active viewer. The way you’re an active viewer in a live audience, as compared to the passivity of sitting there with a highly edited video that we get most of the time.

A video Bob shared from TED 2 (Monterey, 1990) of people trying out VR headsets for the first time.

But interestingly, like almost all of my work, the people who are technically very advanced are totally uninterested in what I’m doing because I’m not pushing the boundaries of the technology in any way. I’m just using the existing technology to do something interesting. And on the other side, the musicians are totally uninterested because they just can’t imagine anything ever really enhancing the live performance. So it’s an interesting problem that I’ve really started to come to terms with, which is that my work over the last 40 years has mostly been about trying to understand how we’re going to take the past – the analog past – with us into the digital future.

Why?

Because I’m not a techie. I’m not somebody who sits at my computer and figures out how to do new things with it that could never have been done before.

I’m much more a publisher in the sense that I see something in the analog world and get excited about how to bring it to the digital world, which really means the sort of the democratization of it, to some extent: How do you make this available to a million people instead of 100 people?

You’ve been hosting a virtual weekly movie club since the pandemic began. I’m sure you’ve imagined how the movie viewing experience can be enhanced through VR technology.

Well, in my little Monday night movie group, one of the people started watching the movie with us in his VR headset. Which he said was cool because it fills your entire visual field. And he found that wonderful. I’ve yet to do it.

You know, I don’t think that moviegoing has ever been particularly social. Right? You know, you go to a movie with a friend, and you watch the movie, and you come out, and you ask each other if you liked it, and sometimes you get involved in a sort of discussion. But it doesn’t usually go very far. Because the movie’s no longer there to reference. And you go to the bar, and you order drinks, and you know, it just rarely goes very far.

But in our movie nights, where we’re pretty remote – one of us is in Mexico, one in California, four in New York – we don’t go anywhere after. We sit there – and we talk to each other about it. We’ve watched at least one movie a week together for the last 30 odd weeks. And this week, because we have so many things we want to see now, we’re even starting a second night. I don’t know that we’ll do that every week.

But the pleasure in social consumption is very apparent. We save movies to watch together.

Ever since Criterion, my sort of penance for taking movies off the large screen and bringing them home has been to try to watch movies in theaters – obviously, not during the pandemic. But while I respect my own impulse for wanting to watch them in as close to the mode as they were originally intended for, I think that over time the larger screen at home and the presence of my trusted friends have overcome the feeling that I need to watch things in a theater.

Yeah, I totally agree with you. I remember watching Ash Is Purest White online with my regular Hoovie movie night group, and just knowing that my friend Mark was also watching it at that moment and was reacting in real time – it was exhilarating somehow. That emotional response to “co-watching” was surprising to me. That was the film that really, for me, proved the model of watching movies online together.

It’s a great film.

Oh, yeah. Yeah. And I love art films – you know, I wanted to make them at a certain point in my life – however, I will say, I am at a stage in my life where it’s harder for me to watch one by myself. And I think some films, actually, you shouldn’t watch by yourself. Like, there’s a film in our catalog about death and dying, and after watching it with other people, there’s no way I would recommend someone watch that movie by themselves. It’s just – it’s too too much. We need to be together for certain subjects.

There are very, very, very few things in life that are better done alone.

Mm hmm.