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Microsoft tries to reel in filmmakers

In another boost to its media software aspirations, the company says that four independent films will be shown this week in the company's newest digital format.

In another boost to its media software aspirations, Microsoft on Monday said four independent films will be shown this week in the company's newest digital format.

The films will be shown at IFP Market, a conference taking place this week in New York to showcase films and works-in-progress from up-and-coming directors.

Aion Velie's "Taft," Tod Harrison's "The Big Bend," Elizabeth Dimon's "Private Property" and Ghazi Albuliwi's "West Bank Brooklyn" will be digitally screened in Microsoft's Windows Media Series 9 format, the company said.

"The use of digital media for distribution makes it possible for filmmakers to put their movie before audiences, providing the theatrical-quality image and surround sound that audiences desire," Dave Fester, general manager of Microsoft's Windows Digital Media Division, said in a statement.

The announcement highlights Microsoft's long-term goals as the company seeks to woo Hollywood to Windows Media 9 Series. In fact, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates unveiled the beta version of the technology earlier this month at a Hollywood-style gala in Los Angeles.

"This is a good example of the amount of emphasis that Microsoft is placing on WM9," said Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg. "While the PC desktop remains the core market for streaming media today, the battle for tomorrow is beyond the desktop and to enable Windows Media to become the standard format for digital entertainment. This means getting into the food chain of production and distribution of films as well as consumer playback."

One of Microsoft's chief concerns in embracing digital content is to make sure content creators don't cut the PC out of the equation for fear over rampant file trading of pirated movies or songs. The company is attacking on two fronts: Releasing digital production and streaming technologies with new features, such as 5.1-channel surround sound, and heavily touting built-in digital rights management (DRM) tools.

To that end, Microsoft secured an important distribution deal last week for Peter Gabriel's new album, "Up." The album is available for purchase and download in Windows Media Audio format protected by Microsoft's DRM technology.

"Microsoft sees digital media and digital entertainment as driving the next wave of PC upgrades," said Directions on Microsoft analyst Matt Rosoff. "Microsoft hopes to convince content owners Windows Media technology is a good way to deliver their content without it being stolen."

Windows XP Media Center Edition is one example of that effort. The new operating system, which will debut in the United States on Hewlett-Packard entertainment-oriented PCs this fall, features a copy protection mechanism for recorded television shows. People will be able to record programs to the PC but not play the shows on other computers or devices.

Microsoft is also gaining another advantage, one that could in the long run cripple competitors: Unlike competing digital media technologies from Apple Computer and RealNetworks, Windows Media authoring and streaming tools are only available for Windows 2000 Server and forthcoming Windows .Net Server 2003. And the more popular that Windows Media formats become, the more copies of Windows that Microsoft can sell--whether on the desktop, the server or embedded devices.

As Microsoft learned with Office, controlling key file formats is essential to driving sales, particularly when one format becomes the default standard that many adopt for compatibility reasons.

A recent Gartner report concluded Microsoft's strategy of giving away the Windows Media audio codec was "a disruptive tactic" designed to establish the format as "the de facto standard" for distributing digital music.

As the company looks to sell Windows Media 9 Series on its merits, the screening of the four films is potentially an important win for Microsoft.

Microsoft is a sponsor of the IFP Market event and is providing technology and services to support the film screenings, which will take place at the Angelika Film Center. Underwriting some of the technology costs is one way that Microsoft and its competitors have attempted to woo cash-strapped independent filmmakers to their digital content creation technologies, say analysts.

"This is...the first effort, in what will be a continued series of pushes by Microsoft to get into the heart and mind of Hollywood and to get it to take WM seriously as a replacement technology," Jupiter's Gartenberg said.

Microsoft and the four independent filmmakers aren't the first to distribute digital movies. Lucasfilm's second "Star Wars" prequel, for example, was filmed digitally. But few theaters in the country showed the film in the digital format because of the cost associated with putting in new equipment that, for now, would be rarely used.