Funeral Sites

At least one prominent eulogist is ready to close the book on Microsoft's beleaguered Cinemania for good. In case you've missed recent developments, Microsoft -- after having decided earlier this year to put the kibosh on its excellent if poorly marketed Cinemania CD-ROM program -- has been systematically removing the reins of its popular Cinemania Web site from people who actually know something about film and turning them over to the company's general-interest Sidewalk site. About a month ago, Cinemania was purged of many staff and its writing content was significantly reduced; what largely remains are weekly short reviews by various critics and a database of old reviews and information.So for the past couple of weeks, a not-yet-published piece by film critic Roger Ebert for the November issue of Yahoo Internet Life -- in which Ebert writes a RIP primarily for Cinemania's CD-ROM -- has been circulating. In the piece, Ebert denounces Microsoft for never having made a more serious commitment to public awareness of Cinemania and for letting a good product with content licensed from Ephraim Katz's The Film Encyclopedia and books by Leonard Maltin and Pauline Kael and Ebert himself languish. This is especially tragic, Ebert sniffs, since other film-related sites on the Internet don't have the resources Cinemania had or its standard of reliability and professionalism.Well ... let's back up a little. When I've monkeyed around with the Cinemania CD, I've largely been enchanted by just how much fun it is to link randomly from one thing to another, to get somehow from director Max Ophuls to actress Joan Fontaine to costumer Edith Head -- and be shocked, for example, to discover Head worked on 700 movies. Now that's browsing, and indeed it has been educational. But as for Maltin, Katz, etc., c'mon: When I need those guys, I pull their books from the pile on my desk.Cinemania's Web site, on the other hand, under critic Jim Emerson's astute direction, has gone beyond that to give readers a pleasing mix of thoughtful criticism and the online equivalent of bathroom reading (interviews, gossip, what-not). But even in its glory days, Cinemania was never the only game in town -- it just had the deepest pockets and got out of the gate faster than any other cinema-centric software or Web site.Cinemania may be a ghost of its old self, but in a way that might be the best thing for the further evolution of film criticism and film culture on the Internet. Ebert may be right when he says in his Yahoo piece that no other Web site features a significant database of reviews for films older than, say, five years, or has the editorial expertise to automatically fact-check content. But so what? Hasn't the great thing about the Net been watching which cyber-homesteaders survive their stand against adversity and gradually create something unique for the medium?Sites such as Film.com (www.film.com) and the Best Video Guide (www.tbvg.com) have worked from the ground up to create new forms of and forums for film criticism, and to involve users by increasing interactive activities for film buffs. All of these things do more than replicate the experience of publishing, and while it's taking time and no one knows where it's leading, these adventurous sites are slowly doing it, and with little backing. (In the interest of full disclosure, I contribute to both Film.com and TBVG, and have contributed to Cinemania.)As with everything else about the Net, it's the long view that matters when talking about film-related Web sites. What has happened to Cinemania is unquestionably regrettable -- yet where cinema and cyberspace are concerned, I think it's safe to say we haven't seen anything yet.

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