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ASCII Theater turns your PC’s Command Prompt into a movie streaming app of dubious legality

Let’s see how long this lasts

A still taken from the 2023 Barbie film, captured in MSCHF’s ASCII Theater that turns imagery into ASCII symbols and colors. Image: Warner Bros. Pictures/ASCII Theater via Polygon
Cameron Faulkner (he/him) is Polygon’s commerce editor. He began writing about tech and gaming in 2013, and migrated from The Verge in 2023.

There are numerous conventional and good methods for watching movies. You can buy a Blu-ray, rent a digital copy, and thanks to MSCHF’s latest experiment, you can watch them in a way they should never be witnessed: as moving ASCII art in your PC’s Command Prompt app, as reported by The Verge.

The company just debuted ASCII Theater, a project that will stream a new full-length movie every day for free. The catch (or, I guess, its signature feature) is that it renders the films imagery completely in ASCII, the text format known mostly for the detailed pictures people can build with it. What’s being served up on launch day? None other than Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, complete with subtitles, since there’s no audio. Hereditary will be shown on Jan 31.

How ASCII Theater works is as strange as the project itself. Head over to the ASCII Theater website, then copy the string of code displayed near the top of the window, paste it into Command Prompt (or Terminal if you’re using a Mac), then hit Enter and the movie will promptly begin at the start.

A GIF showing ASCII Theater in action, with Barbie on display GIF: Warner Bros. Pictures/ASCII Theater via Polygon

Watching the beginning of Barbie in ASCII Theater was an interesting, but not an enjoyable experience. I became more entranced with the ASCII characters themselves, constantly changing shape and color to play their role in creating the complete picture, which itself was pretty tough to make out unless you shrink the window. If I hadn’t already seen the film, I would have a hard time telling what was actually happening on-screen. Watching the entirety of Tenet on a Game Boy Advance cartridge sounds like a preferable alternative.

If you, like everyone who sees this, is wondering how long this experiment can last before it’s shuttered for infringing copyright law, that’s something The Verge’s write-up dives into. Amrita Khalid interviewed Xiyin Tang, assistant professor of law at UCLA, who told them that “Given that the going rate for hiring a firm and bringing a lawsuit will likely exceed that amount, it’s unclear what monetary benefit will accrue to a studio for suing, especially given the limited run and exposure (24 hours) each film will have.”

MSCHF’s director of marketing told The Verge that it plans to keep ASCII Theater up “until it gets shut down.”

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