Rethinking Spielberg

Some of my blog posts over the years, including my reviews of The Adventures of Tintin and Munich have been republished in a neat e-book anthology called The Take2 Guide to Steven Spielberg. I’m in good company here with Jonthan Rosenbaum, Matt Zoller Seitz, and dozens of others also included. The series editor John Pruzanski has also been working on several other volumes for a series of e-books on movie directors, so hopefully there will be more to come.

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Betting on the House

270px-House_of_Cards_title_cardMy social media feeds are practically overflowing with references to the second season of the hit Netflix series House of Cards, many of them assessing the show’s realism (or at least fidelity to recent political events) and its mechanics for maintaining suspense (we know Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood will succeed; the pleasure is in seeing how he manages to do so). The show doesn’t just confirm our perception of Washington as hopelessly corrupt, it revels in that. The show has prompted readings that identify it as feminist, while Alyssa Rosenberg identifies a far more problematic depiction of gender politics.

But even more attention has been paid (and more digital ink spilled) focusing on what the success of House of Cards means for the future of television. One of the best assessments comes from Matthew Yglesias, who offers a pretty insightful analysis of the structural aspects of the entertainment industry that currently favor Netflix over its chief competition, HBO (arguments that are not unlike some of the points Max Dawson and I raised in our essay, “Streaming U: College Students and Connected Viewing“). Yglesias points out that Netflix benefits from several key advantages over HBO: first, it’s significantly cheaper than HBO, especially for cordcutters who are not paying for a cable television subscription, and as Dawson and I argue, a large proportion of college students fall into this category. If college students are habituated into subscribing to Netflix, those habits may carry over after graduation. In fact, Yglesias astutely diagnoses that users are often likely to share HBO Go passwords (although this also happens with Netflix). Finally, Yglesias, like pretty much everyone else points out that Netflix has also tapped into the pleasures of binge watching by releasing all episodes of a “season” simultaneously, a technique that rewards the kinds of intense viewing that many fans have embraced.

This emphasis on binge watching has provoked a number of essays attempting to define binge watching and addressing whether or not the practices of binging are harmful or not. Nolan Feeney of The Atlantic offers an elaborate taxonomy of binge watching, detailing everything from how many episodes have to be watched to call it “binging” to whether binging is a harmful activity. Others, like Slate’s Emma Roller, defend the practices of binge watching by suggesting that it encourages more attentive viewing (Slate’s Alex Soojung-Kim Pang also defends binging). But the implication throughout is that our on-demand culture allows us immediate, intense, inexpensive, and uninterrupted access to texts that inspire passionate discussion.

That said, there may be some complicating factors that dislodge Netflix’s “disruptive” distribution model. As Gizmodo’s Leslie Horn reports, broadband caps that limit the amount of data that consumers can use in a given month are becoming more widespread (and with the imminent merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, likely to become even more common). According to Harris’s calculations, a particularly avid binge watcher consuming movies in high-definition, as Netflix and Amazon deliver them, is likely to use her entire data allotment in the course of a single weekend (the data costs for avid gamers would be even worse).  This potentially makes Netflix a more expensive alternative than a basic cable subscription with HBO added on. The future of streaming could follow a number of different directions, but it’s important to note that this mode of consumption may prove to be a temporary form that is upset by any number of technological, political, and economic forces. In the future, we may binge-watch the old-fashioned way: on DVD.

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Documentary, Ethics, Service Learning

To follow up my post on my junior seminar, I’ll quickly add a copy of my course schedule for my Introduction to Film course. In the English department, we have adapted the Intro course so that it will fit into the “ethics and civic engagement” competency for the new core curriculum here at Fayetteville State. With that in mind, I’ve reinvented the course to address issues of documentary ethics and to include a required service learning project in which students make a 6-7 minute documentary about a local community organization (last semester it was Fayetteville Urban Ministry; this semester, it’s the local chapter of the American Red Cross). Last semester was very much a “beta test” for the class, in that I had never taught anything like this. It ended up working out pretty well, but I’ve learned a few things that I can write up later if anyone is interested. Students will also be required to write a paper addressing an ethical concern related to documentary. For now, below the fold, is our weekly schedule.

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Primetime Politics

I’ve been out of the loop for the last few weeks, but several people have requested that I post my syllabus for my junior seminar, “Primetime Politics,” which focuses on representations of Washington D.C., in Hollywood films and TV series. Obviously there is way too much out there to cover, especially in a junior level course, so I decided to focus on a few major strains: historical films (and some documentaries) depicting actual presidents or public figures; backstage narratives that look at the behind the scenes aspects of DC culture (Scandal, Thank You for Smoking, and House of Cards all fall into this admittedly broad category); and finally parodies and satires of DC life (Colbert and Stewart are big, but I’ll also cover SNL’s depiction of politicians from Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford to Tina Fey’s uncanny depiction of Sarah Palin). I’m trying to avoid a fully straight-forward chronological organization, so I will start with John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln before doubling back to Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

At one time, I was leaning toward teaching only texts that were available on Netflix. When I discovered that Netflix’s selection was too thin for what I needed, I did decide to put personal DVD copies on reserve for a few films, but in making that choice, I ended up leaving out a couple of films (Bob Roberts, in particular) that I think would have worked well. I strongly considered including something like The Parallax View to reflect Watergate-era cynicism, but couldn’t quite work it in. I also considered using JFK as an alternate form of myth-making (to compare to Lincoln), but Oliver Stone’s direction typically gives me a headache. The class starts tomorrow (Tuesday, January 14), so I have time to do some last minute tweaks if you have any suggestions.

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Binging vs. Repeating: Netflix and Children’s Media

Quick pointer to a series of articles discussing Netflix’s decision to conduct a rolling release of their animated children’s series, Turbo: F.A.S.T. Unlike Netflix’s adult dramas, House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, in which all episodes of a given season were released simultaneously, Turbo F.A.S.T. episodes will be posted five at a time, in “pods” over the course of several weeks or months. Some of this is connected to the logistics of production–animated episodes take longer to produce–but another factor, according to Netflix, is that children have different viewing habits than adults.

Rather than watching episodes serially in a “binge” pattern, children are more likely to be content rewatching old episodes several times (as many parents know from their stock of well-worn children’s DVDs). In fact, according to a New York Times article on Netflix, children are very much “on-demand” viewers who rarely watch programming according to a broadcast schedule (a point Jason Mittell addressed several years ago in his discussion of his kids’ use of TiVo). The Times article offers several explanations for the bahevior of repeat viewing, arguing that it can be a form of learning, but it’s notable that several VOD services are reporting similar behavior. Amazon has stated that 65% of their most-repeated shows are targeted towards children, suggesting that TV’s role as an “electronic babysitter” has further evolved into an on-demand one, where children can discover or revisit favorite shows at their leisure.

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Media Distribution Notes

In case you missed them, I have a review of the second edition of Jeff Ulin’s book, The Business of Media Distribution, for Antenna, and an interview with Ulin for Filmmaker Magazine.

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Buying Into Indie…

Just a quick pointer to the news that acclaimed independent filmmaker Hal Hartley has announced that he is offering a couple of new perks for people who give to the Kickstarter campaign for his upcoming film, Ned Rifle, the third in a trilogy of films including Henry Fool and Fay Grim. Namely, he is allowing supporters to collect territorial theatrical rights to the film. For $3,000, you can have the rights to Hungary, while Spanish-speaking Latin America would cost $9,000, to name two examples (though rights to Canada, Israel, and many other countries are also available).

So, if you thought you could sell Ned Rifle in Canadian theaters, you’d pay in advance for those rights and then all revenue you collected from ticket sales would be yours. As Scott Macauley reminds us in his Filmmaker Magazine article, plenty of tech vendors already use Kickstarter for these kinds of pre-sale agreements, so why not filmmakers, too? In some ways, I don’t think this is vastly different than the practice of foreign pre-sales that many indie filmmakers have used in the past (see Edward Jay Epstein for the most thorough explanation of this practice). Hartley is still retaining DVD and all other distribution rights (TV, VOD, etc.), but it is a fascinating opportunity for someone who has connections with theaters in a given country or region.

More compelling is Hartley’s frank analysis of movie distribution and how his Kickstarter perks fit within that. He explicitly denies that he he is doing anything “revolutionary” here and also suggests that he isn’t trying “buck” the theatrical system that had existed. Instead, he describes this as a continuation of what he has always done: a limited theatrical release that helps to promote other formats, whether a cable TV screening, DVDs, or VOD.

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Blockbuster Exit and Other Digital Delivery News

I’ve been bogged down with a bunch of other projects, but given my research on how digital delivery is changing the film and TV industries, I couldn’t ignore the news that Blockbuster Video has announced that it will close its remaining 300 US stores. It’s a stunning fall for the video rental store that, at one time, seemed like one of the dominant forces in home entertainment. Gina Keating’s Netflixed provides one of the more thorough–and convincing–arguments explaining why Blockbuster failed to adopt to digital delivery, so this news is hardly surprising, but it still seems to mark the end of an era.

Like many others, I’ve also been fascinated by the recent debate between Netflix’s Ted Sarandos and others over whether theaters are “killing” the film industry by refusing to go to day-and-date distribution, in which movies would be released to theaters and on VOD (or streaming video) on the same day. Sarandos has backtracked somewhat from the (perceived) suggestion that he was advocating a pure day-and-date model to suggest that he was merely calling for a shorter theatrical window. Still, a number of indie producers have rightfully expressed some qualms about Sarandos’s arguments.

Finally, I’m intrigued by this report from Vulture about a conflict between TV studios, cable channels, and Netflix over how to divide up the rights to specific TV shows. Specifically, TNT and FX are fighting to retain exclusive streaming rights to the entire current seasons of their shows, rather than the current situation where they only have rights to the last five episodes. Given that syndication deals are no longer as lucrative as they used to be, cable channels are looking for alternative forms of programming.

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Primetime Politics

This spring, I’ll be teaching our department’s junior seminar, which I’ll be structuring around the theme of “Primetime Politics.” I’ve written quite a bit in the past about citizen-generated political mashupsonline parody videos, and image macros that mix popular culture with political commentary. To some extent, this grew out of a fascination with the debates about how social media tools were opening new forms of political engagement. But more recently, these interests have led me to think about how Washington, D.C. has been depicted in television and film. Washington culture has certainly become the subject of fascination for many TV viewers with shows like Scandal, House of Cards, and Homeland currently attracting enormous attention, while parodies of DC politics (SNL, The Daily Show, and Colbert) also continue to play a vital role in how we think about politics, even to the point that Daily Show appearances can lead to political operatives getting fired.

With that in mind, I’m planning to structure the course around popular culture depictions of Washington, D.C., both past and present. For now, I expect to bracket off most documentaries, like Fahrenheit 9/11, and instead focus on scripted entertainment and will likely focus to some extent on contemporary media, although I’d like to take a look at a few past texts. I’ve generated a longish list of TV and film texts that I’m considering, knowing that I likely won’t be able to show all of them in a 16-week course. I’d welcome suggestions of texts that I might be missing and with the TV series suggestions about specific episodes that you believe might resonate the most. For Scandal, for example, I am strongly considering showing season one, episodes six and seven, which traces a major portion of the “Amanda Tanner affair” plot, while also introducing quite a bit of backstory to the president’s campaign. For The West Wing, I’m considering showing the debate episode (between Matt Santos and Arnold Vinick) and one early episode. Below the break, I’ve listed some of the movies and TV shows that I’m considering and some (very) loose themes to organize them.

Obviously it’s somewhat inaccurate to suggest that we have evolved from a naive faith in Washington to a more skeptical or cynical view (one could hardly be more cynical than Kubrick in Strangelove), and the 1990s introduced a number of polarizing views on (sexual) scandal and the role of media in shaping political perception. K Street and The War Room potentially help to turn DC insiders such as James Carville into “stars,” a situation that eventually inspires Stewart and Colbert’s satirical response to these media narratives. I’m turning over writing an article or even a longer text on some of these issues, so suggestions about both readings and texts (movies, TV shows, and even novels or short stories) would be much appreciated.

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Reboot Cinema

HUGOI just wanted to point out a new article, “Reboot Cinema,” I contributed to a special “debate” on 3D in the most recent issue of Convergence. My article attempts to match up industry discourse on the value of 3D with promotional materials associated with the practice of “rebooting” popular characters or narratives. I originally wrote the article in response to the new cycle of Spider-Man films starring James Garfield and the end of the Christopher Nolan Batman films, but the industrial strategy of rebooting familiar franchises has certainly continued (as the planned Batman cycle starring Ben Affleck illustrates). That said, 3D has also been promoted, in both industry materials and in films by directors such as James Cameron (Avatar) and Martin Scorsese (Hugo), as a means of “rebooting” cinema itself, of providing audiences with new forms of textual novelty that were seen as reinventing what cinema could do.

I’d encourage everyone to check out the entire issue, though, given the other fantastic writers (Barbara Klinger, Miriam Ross, Francesco Casetti, and others) who participated in this forum.

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How Not to Win Friends or Raise Money on Kickstarter

I’ve been thinking about crowdsourcing and crowdfunding quite a bit lately for a couple of writing projects and have become increasingly fascinated by the techniques people use to ask for funds on sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo. For this reason, I’ve become intrigued by the reaction to the spectacular failure of the “Katie Allen is Getting a Life” campaign. As this indieWire article illustrates (see also the Film School Rejects superb takedown), the project has become aligned with “what not to do” when seeking to raise funds.

What’s odd about the Katie Allen campaign is that it seems to have quite a bit going for it, including three talented indie film actresses, but for someone who has expertise on the industry, Linda Stuart’s appeal is otherwise completely tone deaf. Including the actresses’ names in the space for the title makes little sense, and the lack of a video also seems like a missed opportunity, especially given that Thora Birch, Heather Matarazzo, and Jennifer Elise Cox are ostensibly attached to the project. I won’t repeat all of the points raised by the indieWire piece. It’s so astonishingly bad, though, that I have to wonder if Stuart posted this precisely to provide an object lesson on the ways in which directors attempt to pitch their projects to the public.

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Technology in the Classroom

It’s syllabus time again, and I’m revising my graduate-level course, “Using Technology in the Language Arts Classroom,” which I have taught several times in the past. It’s getting close to the end of summer–classes start August 22 at FSU–and I’d like to rework this syllabus a little, in part to keep it fresh but also because we have reworked the curriculum to make this course part of our professional writing certificate program, which means I’ll be addressing two very different audiences. So far, I haven’t done any serious tweaking to the schedule (which I’ve included below the fold), but I can anticipate that I’ll cut a few things.

First, Delicious and Google Reader are no longer available or no longer seem to have a significant place for most online media users, so I’ll likely cut that entire week (I only use Diigo about once a month now and rarely consult my current RSS reader). Scratch, the basic programming tool, didn’t seem terribly effective, and I had a difficult time teasing out any specific pedagogical purpose for it. If people can offer good reasons to keep this material, I will. I’ll almost definitely cut the Nicholas Carr “Google is Making Us Stupid” article. I’ve become completely unconvinced by his arguments. Oh yeah, I’ll drop the Rushkoff, too. I don’t know enough about programming to make a serious argument there, although it might be worth introducing the students to basic HTML and design skills toward the end of the semester.

That leaves at least two weeks to play with and maybe three. I do think a week on information literacy is vital but don’t have any readings that I find helpful. I’m tempted to do at least one week where we reflect on (and critique) the idea of a digital generation, using Siva Vaidhyanathan’s excellent article as a starting point. Beyond that, it would be incredibly helpful to know what tools, ideas, or concepts you might add (or take away) from my course as it is currently constructed. Facebook and Twitter comments or emails are welcome.

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On-Demand Culture Now Available

I’ve been waiting for a while to announce the fact that my second book, On-Demand Culture: Digital Delivery and the Future of Movies, is now available from major online retailers, including Amazon and Barnes and Noble. You can get an e-book version directly from the Rutgers University Press website. I’ve also started a Facebook page for the book where I will post (very infrequent) updates about reviews and other book-related news.

While I’ve been waiting for the final stages of the publication process to run their course, it has been fascinating to watch the continued evolution of the entertainment industry. When I was completing the manuscript, Netflix’s House of Cards was still in production, while Veronica Mars and Zach Braff still had not yet discovered Kickstarter. While I was able to discuss the role of social media sites in providing vast amounts of data for entertainment companies, I’ve been intrigued by the increasing discussions of  the relationship between movie consumption and “big data” since I put the finishing touches on the manuscript.

Writing a book in the present tense about events that are still unfolding is often challenging (which is why it’s often tempting to blog about these phenomena instead), but I hope that On-Demand Culture captures something about the spirit of this particular moment in the history of the media industries and that it adds to the ongoing conversation about where these industries are heading.

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The Heat

Reactions to the female buddy-cop movie, The Heat, starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, have been predictably polarizing. Many female critics have praised the film for its self-aware reworking of the tropes of the buddy-cop movie, while others, including Andrew O’Hehir, express disappointment that The Heat falls into storytelling cliches–drug dealers, many of them minorities, hiding out in abandoned warehouses–offering regressive humor in the guise of feminism. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Wells, citing A.O. Scott’s indifferent review, seems to offer a tacit disdain for the lowbrow (or possibly white bread) humor of the film, even resolving to “just man up” and fork over the fifteen bucks to see the movie. Implied in many of these reviews is the idea that a mainstream film with two female leads also somehow needs to be revolutionary or subversive in order to be worth our time.

A description of The Heat’s plot would lead us to believe that it is formulaic: Straitlaced FBI agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) joins forces with the edgy, emotional Boston street cop Shannon Mullins to pursue a drug kingpin. Ashburn is so conservative and isolated by her duty to her work that her only companion is a cat, a neighbor’s cat. Mullins is bawdy and sexually self-assured, and the streets of Boston seem to be littered with needy guys that she has abandoned. They each have their own motivations for pursuing the kingpin–Ashburn wants a promotion, Mullins wants to protect her brother–and like most buddy-cop movies, they violate a laundry list of police protocols along the way. Purely on that level, I can see why O’Hehir might be hoping for more, even when he acknowledges that much of this is completely “agreeable” and fun, especially the undeniable chemistry between the two lead actresses. O’Hehir’s reading is pretty close to my initial reaction to the film: it was a fun way to pass two hours at the movies with my family, even if it ran a little long in places.

But what sold me on the film was the NPR review by Linda Holmes. While her headline oversells The Heat a little bit by describing it as “revolutionary,” her review captures the aspects of the movie that are pretty rewarding. First, I think she’s right to point out that the film doesn’t overplay McCarthy’s weight, focusing instead on her manic energy (other than one early scene where Mullins struggles to squeeze out of a window). Second, Holmes points out some of the ways that the film uses typical female buddy-movie tropes and seems to turn them on their head. Throughout the film, there are several jokes at Ashburn’s expense regarding her conservative wardrobe (all buttoned-up pantsuits), which sets the stage for the inevitable makeover scene, which takes a place in a nightclub where Mullins (quite literally) rips Ashburn’s clothes to shreds in order to make her fit in at the nightclub where they are staking out a dealer. As Holmes points out, the scene is a “twisted, tortured parody” of typical makeover scenes where a character’s beauty is revealed only when she gets the right (usually expensive) clothes.

To some extent, we’ve been here before with Bullock. As Anne Helen Petersen pointed out some time ago, Bullock’s films are often filled with the promise of transformation, hence her appeal to her female fans. She is often cast as a “non-glamorous protagonist” who is able to transform herself–and her material conditions–by the end of the film. But what makes this film work for me is that this transformation isn’t based on romantic affirmation or even necessarily professional affirmation from a male boss. Instead, it’s almost completely based on the friendship between the two women. If this film were subject to the “Bechdel Test,” which asks whether a movie depicts two female characters talking about something other than romance with a male character, not only would it pass, but it also seems to suggest that romance is beside the point. Yes, Ashburn shows a slight attraction to an FBI colleague (played by Marlon Wayans), but the real story is is the female friendship. The police subplot, we know from having seen others in the genre, will work itself out, and it does so mostly in entertaining fashion.

I don’t think The Heat is revolutionary. It’s also easy to forget some of the precedents when it comes to the female buddy-cop genre (after all, Cagney and Lacey was a top-rated TV show for years). But it still offers something relatively rare, in much the same way that Bridesmaids upended the male “wild party” comedy subgenre. It offers two, talented female comediennes in entertaining roles that subtly challenges gender norms. And in a multiplex dominated by somber superheroes and zombie hunters, we need more of this type of counter-programming.

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Crowdfunding and Offensive Material

I’ve mentioned my fascination with crowdfunding tools like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo several times. It’s a great tool that allows people to support the production of projects they want to see, whether that entails movies, web series, books, software, or something else. There are some widely-discussed limitations to crowdfunding. Not all creative workers will be equally good at marketing themselves or their work, leaving many worthwhile projects unfunded. That said, I’m not terribly conflicted about seeing these tools become a means for people like Zach Braff or James Franco to raise money for projects that might not get funded by a studio. Sure, they’ll have an advantage over a relatively unknown artist, but I’m not convinced that the competition for crowdfunds (is that a word?) involves a zero sum game.  People may discover other projects they want to support after giving to a more familiar figure.

But one issue that (I’m somewhat embarrassed to say) hadn’t crossed my radar is the possibility that a Kickstarter campaign could be used to support a project that is not only offensive but also promotes sexual assault. This is what happened with a book project that was posted to Kickstarter a few weeks ago and which recently did achieve its fundraising goal (I’m not going to mention it directly by name to avoid giving it further publicity). Just before the project was funded, however, a group of activists called attention to the offending project and set in motion a campaign (1) to stop the project from being funded and (2) to strive to ensure that Kickstarter would be more vigilant about supporting this kind of project The blogger Casey Malone deserves a great deal of credit for writing a blog post that stirred people (including myself) to contact Kickstarter about this issue (Malone has a great rundown of why this particular project is so harmful).

To their credit, Kickstarter responded relatively quickly, apologizing for allowing such a project to appear on their site. The apology is pretty emphatic in acknowledging their error and the company has backed their apology by donating $25,000 to RAINN, an organization focused on stopping sexual violence. They have pulled the project page from their website to avoid giving it further publicity (although a cached page still exists for documentary purposes). But, claiming that they are unable to stop the funding process (which is managed by Amazon Payments), they stopped short of actually withdrawing funding for the project,claiming that it is beyond their control.

That’s probably not entirely inaccurate, but it is a little unsatisfying. It begs the question of whether Amazon would be able to stop payment, but barring that, the controversy raises a few questions about how crowdfunding functions and what possibilities are available for monitoring against harmful content. Kickstarter states that content that espouses violence against women has always been banned, but this project obviously slipped through. The reporting mechanism appeared to work only belatedly, once the project was nearly funded. So this raises some questions about how projects get approved, an issue that is extremely pertinent given the fact that crowds can’t always be trusted to be very smart, an issue that would become explicitly clear when looking at the comments section of just about any newspaper website in the country. Crowds can be manipulated through fear and other emotions to support positions or actions that are incredibly harmful.

That said, I’d also argue that there are also some blurry lines between content that is explicitly promoting physical or emotional harm and content that is disagreeable. This project clearly should be pulled, but I wonder about those gray areas (and I’m reluctant to give a specific example). At what point do you decide that something crosses the line between offensive and tasteless into something more genuinely harmful? It seems clear that Kickstarter is genuinely apologetic and that they have redoubled their efforts to prevent other projects that advocate sexual violence from showing up on their service, but other projects in the future may be a little more ambiguous.

There may not be an easy answer here, but like Kickstarter, I’d like to see crowdfunding services remain some of “the friendliest, most supportive places on the web.”

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