In the 1940s and 1950s, travelling projectionists with reels of National Film Board of Canada movies would bear the cold and endless miles to reach small towns, where they'd show flickering images in church basements.
Today, a trove of NFB films is had by flicking your thumb over an iPhone.
The film board is among a growing number of arts institutions focusing on apps as a way to tap a wider public. For many of these institutions – from the NFB to the Toronto International Film Festival and the Art Gallery of Ontario – the push is toward software programs designed for iPhones and other personal devices, which allow users to have an institution's film vault or art collection in their pocket.
The NFB's iPhone app, launched in October, is an extension of the film board's revamped website, which offers 1,700 films for free. Users can download a film and keep it for 24 hours: This helps to conserve minutes on a mobile payment plan and allows viewers to watch films during commutes or while travelling – and although the film disappears after a day, there are no limits to the number of times it can be downloaded. The NFB is also considering charging a fee to keep films for longer periods of time, or for permanent ownership.
The program is a success. After only one month, the app was downloaded nearly 80,000 times, and roughly 300,000 films had been played. There are plans to develop a version using the Google-based Android system, and the NFB is currently in talks with Research in Motion on a BlackBerry app.
"A lot of producers and distributors see the Internet as a threat in our industry. At the film board, we really saw it as an opportunity," says Deborah Drisdell, the NFB's director general of accessibility and digital enterprises. "We have a lot of niche audiences, and it has been difficult to reach our audiences directly. With the way distribution is structured, there are a lot of gatekeepers: theatrical exhibitors, distributors, broadcasters. So we weren't always getting our films out [to audiences]the way we used to."
At the Toronto International Film Festival this year, BlackBerry introduced an app as part of its sponsorship deal. It enabled festivalgoers to see information about the films, schedules and ticket information. It also had a GPS function for finding participating cinemas.
Similarly, in October Toronto's all-night arts festival Nuit Blanche let people download iPhone and BlackBerry apps with information about nearby art happenings that night, maps and transit directions.
Taking its cue from The National Gallery in London and the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Art Gallery of Ontario is also aiming for the appisphere. In a pilot program with the University of Toronto, they're developing an app for BlackBerry users – due soon – that will allow users to view the gallery's European collection, and share comments about the paintings.
"It's something we have seen coming for a number of years," says Virginia Vuleta, the AGO's deputy director of information technology and new media.
The museum is already experimenting with cellphone-based "tour guides" for its photography exhibit Beautiful Fiction. Users call a toll-free number to get more information about specific photo installations. Rather than a virtual tour of a collection of paintings, this acts like a guided tour while you're in the museum.
In the first two months of the exhibit, nearly 5,000 calls were made to the toll-free number. AGO organizers project that more than 12,000 calls will be made by the time the exhibit closes at the end of January.
The gallery hopes their apps achieve several goals. "First of all, there's our responsibility to our public, to connect them with the collection and get them engaged with the collection," says Vuleta. "There's also the ambition to give people an excellent experience in the building – that would be to deliver maps of the institution, help them connect with items we might have for sale in the retail store, or book a table in the restaurant."
Vuleta adds that the idea is not to change the traditional gallery experience, but to provide this as a supplement – and hopefully build a base of future members and donors.