Archive for technology

Redbox Instant Goes Live

Screen shot 2013-03-17 at 3.47.56 PMAlthough it was hardly unexpected news, I’m intrigued by news that Redbox has launched a subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) service to compete with Netflix, Redbox Instant, in collaboration with Verizon. Like Netflix, the service will cost $8 per month, but the selection for the streaming service, at least for now, is slightly smaller at 4,600 titles, although that also includes the right to rent four DVDs per month from the company’s ubiquitous kiosks. In addition, consumers can rent or buy up to 4,000 titles from the website, providing users with a fairly wide variety of choices when it comes to accessing content.

Redbox’s selections in both their kiosks and on streaming heavily favor movie titles, and they continue to have access to movies that are not yet available through Netflix. The public release took place after a beta test saw tens of thousands of participants continuing their membership after the first month, when their free access to the service ended. So how might this news shape the evolving SVOD landscape? I have a few tentative hunches.

First, like the Consumer Reports reviewer, I think Redbox Instant will have to be made available on more devices before it achieves widespread popularity. Although the service supports Apple and iOS users, you currently cannot access Redbox Instant through a Roku player (although I imagine that will happen soon). But that’s a minor technological or logistical hurdle, for the most part.

More crucially, I think Redbox Instant provides a further illustration of our a la carte, menu-driven future when it comes to media consumption. Due to the fact that streaming services are competing for (often exclusive) streaming rights to movies and TV shows, my hunch is that this launch will contribute to the practice of combining multiple streaming accounts, turning Redbox Intant into something like another cable channel alongside of Netflix, Hulu Plus, and regular channels such as HBO or Comedy Central. As Redbox Instant CEO Shawn Strickland confirmed in the New Tee Vee article, “We think that the over-the-top space will evolve very similarly to the cable and network space,” although unlike Netflix, it’s worth noting that Redbox continues to report that they have no plans to invest in original content, and given the popularity of their existing model, I don’t see a particularly strong incentive for them to change directions on that.

Access to multiple SVOD services could contribute to slight increases in cord cutting, although given the popularity of live sports in particular, my hunch is that cord cutting will remain a somewhat limited phenomenon. And instead of a single “celestial multiplex” as Chris Anderson described it, in his discussion of the long tail, we will have instead–a series of competing, but often complementary, “cloud miniplexes” where we can go in different situations depending on the content  we want to see at any given time.

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Netflix Social Goes Live in the U.S.

Netflix finally has its Facebook integration in the United States. Just a few weeks after the last legal obstacle was eliminated, the subscription video-on-demand service has launched Netflix Social, the app that will allow users to share their viewing histories with their Facebook friends. The app–as I understand it from the launch video–allows two levels of sharing, one that will appear on your Netflix interface and another that will allow you to post your viewing history directly onto Facebook. While users don’t have to use the integration, if you opt in, the default sharing takes place only on Netflix, and you have to check an additional box to share your viewing history on Facebook. Users can opt not to share a specific title by clicking a box as the episode is starting or later by removing it from their social viewing history.

Once you integrate, Netflix will create two new rows to your interface. The first is called “friends’ favorites” and lists all videos that your friends have rated four stars or higher. The second, “Watched by Your Friends,” allows you to scroll through your lists of friends to see everything they’ve watched (or at least everything they’ll admit to watching). As far as I can tell from the video, the system only allows you to connect one Facebook account per Netflix account, which means I likely won’t be using Netflix Social, in part because it will be too burdensome for me to differentiate what I watch from what others in my family watch, although I’d imagine that Netflix will eventually focus on that issue.

I still wonder how widely this feature will be used, though. Many years ago, I mentioned or discussed “Nefflix Friends,” a sharing tool that I actually had used. The tool allowed you to view others’ queues and ratings for movies and TV shows. At the time, I was single and my viewing profile probably reflected my tastes more successfully. I was also somewhat less concerned about privacy and felt little need to worry about others seeing what I’d watched. Now, I’m a little less enthusiastic. When we see the video demo, it’s a little creepy to see someone looking into a friend’s queue to find that she has “been watching a lot of TED talks.”

I’ve obviously been thinking about these issues for a while, as my recent SCMS talk demonstrates, but it will be fascinating to get a sense of how people integrate this feature into their viewing practices, if they do so at all.

Update: Forgot to include an embed of the video announcing the launch:

 

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Netflix, or Binge Viewing on a “House of Cards”

This week, my wife and I have been binge viewing season one of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes’ amazing drama set in the early 1900s, which depicts the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and the servants who work for them. As fans of the show will know, the characters are beautifully drawn, and the show powerfully captures a pivotal historical era, beginning with the sinking of the Titanic but making reference to World War I and other historical events along the way. Much of the show’s drama hinges on issues of social mobility–the family struggles to navigate British inheritance laws that prevent daughters from inheriting property, while many of the servants reflect on desires for different work opportunities–a focus that has proven to be intellectual catnip for both of us (and obviously many, many others). But what has enabled us to become so engaged with the show so quickly is our ability to binge watch season one on Netflix, and we’ll finish the entire first season in four days (and then move to Hulu for season two).

For consumers like us, this is a great deal. We probably won’t catch up with the episodes in time to follow season three “live,” but it’s a nice way of watching, especially given our inconsistent schedules that might make live viewing difficult. There’s nothing new there, of course. DVD box sets started serving this function years ago, and people have been talking about on-demand TV and movies for a while now. It’s also not a bad deal for Netflix and Hulu to make this licensed programming available. I’ve binge watched a few other shows via Netflix, in particular, and there are usually enough movie selections to keep me engaged. But as Andrew Wallenstein and Alyssa Rosenberg point out, in a couple of sharp analyses, Netflix’s strategy of promoting binge watching may not be as successful or effective when it comes to their original programming. Although Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has touted the ability of streaming services to escape from the boundaries of linear TV programming, both Rosenberg and Wallenstein imply that the plan to release all 13 episodes of House of Cards simultaneously may work against getting maximum value for the show.

Wallenstein, in particular, highlights the dangers of “too much, too quickly” when it comes to Netflix. He points out that the goal of producing original programming (like House of Cards and the revival of Arrested Development) is to entice new subscribers into joining the service. Wallenstein then speculates that by dropping all thirteen episodes at once, Netflix may actually be encouraging people to join the service for one month, binge watch the original shows, and then cancel their subscription until a new show comes along that they want to watch. Rinse. Lather. Repeat. I suspect that, to some extent, Wallenstein is right. In an era of one-click, on-demand culture, people can walk away from delivery services like Netflix or Hulu simply and easily. Starting or quuitting a subscription service takes just a few minutes, and if House of Cards is all that somebody wants to watch, then it’s pretty simple to do that.

Rosenberg, drawing from reporting by Deadline Hollywood Daily, adds that Netflix is financing these productions, in part through the use of debt that will (obviously) eventually have to be paid down. Along with Netflix’s plans to expand overseas, this has led Moody’s to classify Netflix as a “risky investment,” and leaves Rosenberg to speculate that Netflix may have to increase its subscription rates to subsidize these costs and to keep investors happy. To avoid these problems, Wallenstein offers a somewhat compelling solution: instead of releasing all episodes of its original programs simultaneously, Netflix should adopt something closer to a linear programming model, in which it would release 3-4 new episodes of a show per month. Thus, users could engage in limited binge viewing, but they would be compelled to maintain their subscriptions for several months to follow an entire season of an original show (my hunch is that such a strategy would be less relevant for licensed shows like Downton Abbey).   Wallenstein also makes the point that extending the show’s run over several months would also extend its social media presence over several months and that people who learn about the show late (as my wife and I did with Downton) could learn about the show from Twitter and Facebook posts and could catch up quickly in order to be in-the-know when the next set of episodes drops.

I have some doubts about whether Wallenstein’s proposal makes sense. If binge viewing is the primary mode through which consumers encounter Netflix, then alienating these audiences through artificially producing temporary scarcity seems uncool. In addition, I wonder how many people have the energy to start and quit Netflix every time the distributor introduces a new or original show. I’d imagine that Netflix hopes that people will be drawn in initially by an original show unavailable elsewhere and that the practice of binge watching that will keep them coming back for more. Like Wallenstein, I also wonder about the “casual viewer” who may not binge watch a specific show. It’s practice that I mention in passing in my chapter on Redbox in On-Demand Culture, but I suspect that it needs even more attention.My hunch is that the scarcity techniques will have less impact on these more casual practices. People can pick up or return to a show whenever it is convenient. More than anything, this discussion shows that there are still a number of questions that we can still ask about the viewing norms and protocols that will develop in an era of digital delivery. Binge watching is obviously the most visible form of this practice–especially when Netflix automatically redirects you to the next episode of a TV series–but this practice may eventually be subject to other issues such as changing distribution practices and limited libraries and data caps.

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Sunday Links, Hulu, Video Privacy, and 56 Up

Embracing the last quiet Sunday morning before classes start back to catch up on some of my online reads. This semester will involve a number of transitions for me in that I’ll be teaching an online class for the first time (Introduction to Business Writing, which is also a new prep for me) and I’ll be preparing to teach a completely revamped Introduction to Film course next spring. I’m also in the final stages of polishing up my second book (page proofs should arrive in my inbox in the next few days). But all of these changes point toward the possibility that 2013 could be an exciting year. Here are the links:

  • I’ve been writing bits and pieces about the Video Privacy Protection Act, the 1988 law that is now being revised to allow companies like Netflix greater freedom in sharing customers’ rental habits. The bill is designed to give Netflix more freedom to create an app on Facebook similar to Spotify that would allow users to post what they’re watching in their Facebook news feeds (I’d assume something similar would be in place for Twitter, too). Think Progress has a great article on the implications for the bill, but I also wanted to highlight an Ars Technica article that documents how much (over one million dollars) Netflix has spent over the last two years lobbying Congress to pass this bill. It’s also worth glancing at some of the other media companies have spent to pay for lobbying efforts.
  • David Poland attempts to forecast where the studios will go this year in terms of cultivating new delivery systems. Since this is a major aspect of my next book, I was intrigued by Poland’s analysis. The most striking prediction is the speculation that Disney may eventually “eat” Netflix and seek to split its independent and children’s content into separate systems. I’m hoping to write further about some of these issues elsewhere, but Poland’s hunches–from my experience–have been pretty solid.
  • Hulu CEO Jason Kilar has apparently left the company. Om Malik reviews his tenure at the company and where Hulu might go from here.
  • Michael Atkinson has a review of 56 Up, the latest in Michael Apted’s long-running documentary series. I think that my introduction to the series came at around 35 Up, so like many others, I now feel as if I have quite a bit invested in the series, and I’ve also been fascinated to watch as it has evolved from an effort to document class stratifications in Great Britain to something more profound about the changes associated with aging, and how that experience is altered by having your life documented periodically.
  • For my online course this semester, I decided to use audio podcasts to deliver the course lectures. After struggling mightily with a podcast function on our university’s course management system (CMS), I had the good luck of stumbling into a slideshow instructing people on how to embed podcasts on Blogger (which I can then link to in our CMS). The cool part is that you can upload your podcasts to the Internet Archive where they are stored for free and where they uploaded very quickly. My two 7-minute mini-lectures both went up in about five minutes or less.

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Are We “Bored” with 3D

Somehow I lost track of the fact that my interview with Craig Lindsey about “3D Boredom” was published in Raleigh’s Indy Weekly. I think Craig asked some really good questions and did an excellent job of paring down a thirty-minute conversation into a good discussion of the issues. I still find myself going back to one or two basic observations about the place of 3D in the entertainment economy:

First, I still see it playing a key role in driving the transition to digital projection in theaters, both in the United States and especially abroad. That’s going to continue for a while, especially as the number of 3D screens in China increases dramatically over the next decade or so.

Second, in terms of consumer interest, I think we’ve reached the stage where consumers and studios alike will be making cost-benefit analyses to determine if the 3D will be worthwhile. For consumers, in particular, they are beginning to ask if the extra $3-4 per ticket worth it. The answer, I’d argue is far more complicated than simply an aesthetic appreciation of 3D or a decision about whether a film “needs” 3D (although those are factors).

In general, though, I’ll say that the conversation with Craig was a fun, engaging, and productive one, and I hope you enjoy his synthesis of it.

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“Just Like Buying a Bag of M&Ms”

In doing some research on digital movie distribution, I have become fascinated by the role of movie kiosks as tools for renting, and in some cases selling, movies. Probably the most visible–and most disruptive–version of the use of kiosks has been Redbox, which now has over 35,000 DVD vending machines in retailers, fast food restaurants, and airports across the United States and Canada. I’ve discussed Redbox in some detail in an article I published in the Canadian Journal of Film Studies, where I linked Redbox’s success, in part, to its ability to cater to families, especially those with young children, while also attempting to map out how Redbox’s cheap rentals (along wit Netflix’s streaming service) were changing the “value” of a copy of a movie. When consumers learn that they can pay a dollar or so for a night’s movie rental, there is little incentive to pay $15-20 for a copy of the film.

But this focus on Redbox’s role in shaping the value of cinematic texts (recall David Bordwell’s argument that “films have become files”) placed too much emphasis on the novelty of that particular company and ignored a number of other past precedents and new practices in automated video vending. Many of the origin stories about Redbox discuss Mitch Lowe’s past failed attempt to create a VHS vending service in the 1980s called Video Droid, but since then, I have been running into a number of other examples of services that have a longish history in both Europe and East Asia. Currently, I am still learning more about some of these services, and if you have any experience with them, I’d appreciate any guidance (in the comments, on Facebook, Twitter, or by email). One of the more dominant services appears to be Cinebank, a video vending machine (some locations called it a “video vestibule”) company operating in Germany, Italy, and Spain. Oddly, it appears that although the machines operate 24 hours a day, you must register in advance and can only do so during certain hours of the day, and in order to register users must provide their finger print. But from what I have been able to tell, Cinebank–or at least the company that manufactures their kiosks–has been in operation since the 1990s.

In other sites, video kiosks appear to be having less success. The British service Rent it Here has been in and out of administration in the last month or so, and from what I can gather, despite some early enthusiasm, another service, The Movie Booth, has also been relatively unsuccessful, but I am still trying to sort out some details there. These also appear to have disappeared, but there were a couple of predecessors to Redbox here in the United States. The most prominent one that I could find was MovieBankUSA, an off-shoot of Cinebank, the European automated video vendor, but unlike Redbox, MovieBank charged $3.50 per rental, and stories about this service also disappear sometime around 2008 or 2009, but like Redbox, the service was promoted as a convenience to consumers, one that was available 24 hours a day. Unlike Redbox, the service gave each member a PIN that could be used to access movies, and the service encouraged parents to create unique PINs for each family member so that their children couldn’t rent inappropriate movie titles. The service also used a “block” system, in which users could pre-pay $50 to get seventy dollars’ worth of rentals. Interestingly, MovieBank targeted not only retail locations but office complexes and apartment buildings. There was also a service in Singapore that also shut down, and like Cinebank, it required a thumbprint, but in the limited discussion I have seen (and much of this is only on Lexis-Nexis, so I can’t link), it sounds like Singapore’s small size, its later business hours, and the vaster selection at video stores (and online) made those options more attractive than kiosks.

There was also an attempt back in 2008 to rent or sell movies using flash drives pioneered by a service called Porto Media. At the time, there was a lot of skepticism regarding the service, and I don’t see any indication that the service ever took off. But in the last few weeks, another service, Digiboo, is attempting to try flash drives again, this time by targeting travelers in airports. I’ve seen a few Redbox kiosks in airports, and it seems that sites of enforced waiting (often without access to wi-fi) such as airports serve as ideal locations for cheap video rentals. Digiboo is quite a bit more expensive for rentals than Redbox, but it allows users the option to purchase, and unlike Porto Media, it benefits from increased processing power, with some downloads taking only about 30 seconds, with Digiboo’s chief marketing officer frequently comparing video vending to buying a bag of M&Ms.

It’s obviously too early to make any predictions about whether Digiboo will function as a useful alternative to Redbox. I know that I don’t often travel with a spare flash drive (although I probably should), but by contrast, I also plan my in-flight reading activity well in advance of any trip that I take, so I am likely not the best judge. What I am trying to uncover is why certain models (Redbox, Cinebank) seem successful while others disappear, often without any media attention whatsoever. Why might some locations and populations be more prepared to embrace kiosks while others are not? It’s easy to dismiss Redbox (and probably other kiosk services) as feeding into “lowest common denominator” entertainment, but rather than seeing kiosks merely as reinforcing the popular, it’s worth asking how they fit into a wider everyday media culture.

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“Stop Kony” and the Viral Politics of Visibility

For a variety of reasons, I feel like the last person on the planet (or at least on Facebook) to have learned about the Stop Kony phenomenon. I had just landed in England on March 3, when the video launched, and by the time I was back in the United States ten days later, the video had been viewed an astounding 78 million times, making it one of the most viewed videos in YouTube’s history. But although the video has generated almost unprecedented attention, I’ve been watching the reception of it with a great deal of ambivalence, in part because it reveals some of the potential risks of the power of social media. But despite these risks, I think that critics who dismiss the video outright also miss out on what the Stop Kony phenomenon actually means about a nascent desire to be involved, active, and potentially, transformative.

Stop Kony, if you haven’t heard, is a 30-minute video that seeks to mobilize young social media users in an awareness campaign to get the United States government to take action to arrest Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Kony’s military group has brutalized villagers in Uganda, Congo, the Central African Republic, and southern Sudan, deploying child soldiers who have, in some cases, been instructed to kill their parents. Kony has been operating in this region for years and has, as the video asserts, benefitted from being “invisible” to the rest of the world due to a lack of interest in the (U.S.?) news media and due to the fact that Kony doesn’t really threaten American interests (the video seems to have no particular concern about whether or how non-U.S. activists should get involved).  The video, directed by Jason Russell, is up-front about its desire to affect and reach out to policy makers and to affect public opinion, gleefully acknowledging its efforts to leverage the stardom of people like Angelina Jolie, George Clooney, Oprah Winfrey, and Rhianna to promote intervention in Uganda.

But what makes “Stop Kony” so troubling is the video’s underlying narrative structure, which seems to have more to do with celebrating the possibilities of viral activism than it does with genuinely educating the social mediasphere about Kony’s criminal activity and what should be done to stop him. In fact, the video opens with the oft-quoted statistic that there are 750 million people on Facebook and then goes on to attribute the uprisings in Iran and Egypt to social media, a somewhat dubious claim (although media journalist Sharon Waxman accepts it uncritically), before suggesting that an “older generation” is “very concerned” about losing control to a younger social media collective. From there, Russell, who narrates the video, describes and depicts the birth and childhood of his son, using his own (white, middle class) child’s innocence as a stand-in for that of a Ugandan child’s. Only about 4-5 minutes into a 30-minute video are we introduced to Jacob, a survivor of Kony’s attacks, but Russell’s promise to help Jacob, we are told isn’t about the Ugandans, but it’s “about you,” about the ability of social media activists to change the world. Russell imposes some artificial forms of urgency here, telling viewers that “time is running out” and that the movie will “expire” (be taken down? it’s not clear) on December 31, 2012. Russell underscores this activist public by showing cheering, mostly middle class crowds of young adults and teens.

From here, the video offers only the most basic overview of Kony’s tactics and activities, noting only in passing that Kony is no longer active in Uganda, while also establishing the (somewhat tenuous) thesis that if we “all” knew about Kony, then the U.S. government (again, no mention is made of non-U.S. governments, although the International Criminal Court is briefly cited) would be forced to act. In response, Russell suggests, using an interview with Shepherd Fairey, that social media allows us to “redefine propaganda,” so that people who feel powerless can make an impact. The desired actions fall into this new form of social media activism: users can sign a pledge and post their support on social media platforms, which they, in turn, are able to track. They are encouraged to donate to Tri, a non-profit involved in the anti-Kony efforts, and donors receive the “action kit” that allows them to create posters that will be disseminated all over every major city on April 20, 2012, an action that now seems redundant given the attention the cause has already received.

It’s worth noting–as Waxman observes–that the video clearly targets younger users of social media. The messaging seems designed to reach college students and teenagers and appeals to and through social media expertise. Similarly, Nicholas Kristof argues that although the video has a number of distortions and inaccuracies, it serves an educational purpose, making viewers more aware of Kony’s crimes, while adding that we “shouldn’t let nuance get in the way of action.” That being said, these simplifications and distortions reinforce a patronizing view of international politics, one that is based in colonialist discourses of a “white man’s burden” (or what the LA Times aptly describes as the “White Industrial Savior Complex”) regarding Africa. A related complaint has been that Invisible Children has an underlying (and mostly unstated) goal of promoting evangelical Christianity, a claim related by Alternet’s Bruce Wilson. That being said, Wilson’s primary bit of evidence was a talk that Russell gave at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, encouraging the Baptist student body to get more involved in the fight against Kony, so rather than viewing the video as a deliberate attempt to proselytize, I would argue that the video appropriates the evangelical language of reaching out and converting others, language that fits rather neatly into some of the more utopian accounts of using social media to effect change.

The video’s inflated sense of self-importance becomes all the more evident when we consider the fact that Russell so prominently features himself and his son as the moral centers by which we view Kony and the conflict in Uganda (a position that has become even more compromised given that as I was writing this entry a report surfaced that Russell was arrested in San Diego for a variety of crimes including public indecency, drunkenness, and vandalizing cars). The focus on Russell and on a network of middle-class social media users proved especially puzzling to the Ugandan people who were supposed to benefit from Stop Kony’s campaign of networked visibility. In an Al Jazeera report linked by Xeni Jardin, we learn that Ugandans were puzzled by the video’s emphasis on Russell and by the calls to create t-shirts bearing Kony’s image, even while the video states that its intended purpose is to make Kony “famous” in order to see him captured. Ugandans complained that the video depicts events from nearly a decade ago, out of context, and some felt it was a cynical attempt to raise money. The outdoor screening was eventually stopped when viewers began throwing rocks, and future showings of the film in Uganda were postponed.

But the biggest concern I have about the video is one that was articulated by Engage Media, which observes that the Stop Kony rhetoric frames activism in ways that are cause for concern. The Twitter hashtag #stopatnothing is most significant here. This kind of viral social media activism can often lead to some of the same forms of uncritical acceptance that we have seen in other media, and in some cases, it potentially amplifies some potentially violent rhetoric. Engage is also attentive to the fact that the videomakers should have taken into account the local groups who were affected by Kony, providing them with the tools and the platform to share their message with the world (assuming that is what they want). Russell–and others, including Nicholas Kristof, who should know better–make a number of assumptions about the desires of a potentially disparate group of people, with Kristof concluding his op-ed with the phrase “If I were a Congolese villager…”  Which, of course, reduces a diverse grouping into a homogeneous whole.

So, yes, I am disturbed by the Stop Kony phenomenon, and in fact, as I wrote, I found myself becoming even less sympathetic with the tactics Russell is using, even if I recognize that Kony is a cruel individual. I don’t like that the video positions me as an impediment to justice when I ask for more nuance and subtlety and question the video’s uncritical embrace of the Ugandan military. And, yes, I am skeptical about Russell’s self-importance. But despite the video’s numerous flaws, I still find myself trying to make sense of how the video is using and mobilizing the good intentions of an international and socially-networked youth culture to try to make a difference in the wider world. To be sure, condemning a child-killing mass murderer in Africa is a relatively easy target, and the project’s militant rhetoric (#stopatnothing) is concerning, but the questions about empowerment, activism, and collectivity should not be easily or quickly dismissed.

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Pushing Mobile

Breaking my blog silence to mention a report on a study that I received via email the other day from Greystripe, which bills itself as the “largest brand-focused mobile advertising network.” The sample size for the survey seems rather small to me, especially compared to the much richer studies conducted by Pew and Nielsen, but I think that part of what attracted my attention was their specific focus on emphasizing the ways in which mobile devices, whether smartphones or iPads, contribute to the practices of movie consumption.

To some extent, I agree with their arguments, although the basis for my agreement is probably at least partially anecdotal. One of the arguments they are trying to push is that mobile users are likely to seek out information–trailers, cast, showtimes–about movies using mobile devices, and there is probably some validity to this argument. Three of the first apps I downloaded to my iPhone were Flixster, IMDB, and The Oscars. The first two of these directly offer reviews and showtimes that I could use to find out when and where movies are playing, while The Oscars offers at least some information about nominated films. Their findings seem to confirm that one of the most common “entertainment activities” uses of smartphones is to check movie times or to find a nearby movie theater. They also place emphasis on the fact that mobile apps still function primarily to point us to other screens through advertising and promotion, encouraging users to watch trailers or other video advertising.

But there are places where their framing of mobile seems disingenuous. First, they use data that shows that 44% of respondents saw 1-3 movies per year in theaters and another 25% saw 4-6 per year to conclude that “almost 70%” of respondents watch as many as 6 movies per year, when a more honest way of reading these numbers would have to acknowledge that nearly 85% watched six movies or less in theaters per year (given that only about 16% said they watched more than six). These numbers don’t seem completely consistent with other numbers that I’ve seen, but they hardly paint a rosy picture of mobile users being frequent moviegoers.

They also seek to point out that half of all mobile users claim to decide what to see based on movie ads, but what’s left unstated here is whether these mobile users saw these ads exclusively on mobile devices, and I’m guessing the answer is no. More than half stated that peers were a major influence, and it seems notable that the survey pays little attention to social media as a factor.   Movie reviewers may be relieved to know that, especially for iPad owners, they continue to hold at least some influence, if these survey results are to be believed.

I’m addressing this survey for a couple of reasons: First, I’m becoming a little more attentive to the methodology behind surveys and survey questions, especially as I plan to immerse myself in more of that kind of research. These kinds of surveys–even at the small scale conducted by Greystripe–can provide keen insights, but their questions are too transparently focused on pushing mobile advertising to be believable, especially given the proliferation of screens and sites where we might encounter movie advertising. The Nielsen study cited above shows, in fact, that most people still spend significantly more of their time watching “traditional TV” than staring at tiny, mobile screens. But the survey–and others like it–seem dependent on pushing the idea of an emerging model of mobile spectatorship that seems greatly exaggerated, especially given that many people have a great deal of dissatisfaction with their mobile phones and are often leery of exceeding costly data caps on their phone service. In essence, we need much more rigorous conversations about what it really means to be mobile.

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Catching Up

With Andrea out of town for the weekend, I’ve spent much of my time attending and participating in Duke University’s Marxism and New Media Conference. While my own work seemingly places much more emphasis on the category “new media” than “Marxist,” I deeply enjoyed and benefitted from testing the limits of current conversations in media studies about the practices of production, and in my own essay on social check-in services, about the creation of value in an attention economy. I’m not going to try to read today’s links completely through the lens of the conference, but I think it has sharpened my thinking on a couple of key points:

  • One quick bit of news: Star Wars Uncut, a fan film I discussed in the edited collection, Science Fiction Film, Television, and Adaptation: Across the Screens, has been released on YouTube in a director’s cut, one that includes more seamless video and sound editing. I discussed SWU as a paradigmatic example of a crowdsourced adaptation and still remain fascinated by it, though I have to admit that I still have some fondness for the original patchwork version that was auto-generated based on people’s votes.
  • Speaking of fan responses, I’ve been interested in the Vertigo meme, in which fans, responding to Kim Novak’s complaints about the use of the Vertigo theme in The Artist (which she referred to as a “violation”),  have been adding the music to a wide range of other texts. For one of the more thoughtful discussions of this project check out Jason Mittell’s discussion of how he Vertigoed The Wire and Kevin Lee and Matt Zoller Seitz’s announcement of the contest at Press Play.  Scroll down for one of my favorite examples, in which The Big Lebowski gets the Vertigo treatment. Moments like these renew my faith in remix culture.
  • This story is a few days old, but given my focus on digital cinema, I think it’s worth noting that Eastman Kodak has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
  • I’m intrigued by the discussion of this screening of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, in which the pre-show advertising automatically turned on during the movie, leading to overlapping images showing Ben Kingsley talking over ads warning us to silence our cell phones, animated candy bars, and other advertising ephemera. It’s a bizarre mashup and a horrifying depiction of the automation of theatrical projection in the era of digital cinema.
  • On a related note, Anthony Kaufman discusses some of the challenges for indie and art house theaters in the era of digital projection.
  • Worth noting, many of the videos I’ve mentioned today would be at risk of being pulled (and their websites would also be threatened with legal action) if SOPA and/or PIPA had been passed. Henry Jenkins links to a detailed discussion of some of the creative activism that has been inspired by the anti-SOPA movement. On a related note, New Tee Vee has an article that explores some of the possible motivations for piracy, specifically the lack of available premium content via digital platforms.
  • Curiously, given this complaint, however Janko Roettgers, also of New Tee Vee, argues that we are in a “golden age of content.” Roettgers uses the announcement that  both Hulu and Netfix are producing original series (rather than merely serving as a portal to access content produced by others) to argue that we have far more choices for watching than ever before. Videonuze also has a discussion of “online originals.”
  • On a related note, Aymar Jean Christian has announced the launch of a new academic blog dedicated to the study of the future of video and television, Hacktivision.
  • This has been around for a while, but via the cinetrix, I just learned about the promo video for a planned adaptation of William Gibson’s Neuromancer from 1986.
  • Joe Swanberg has a new film out called Marriage Material. Richard Brody reviews the film favorably and notes that it will be available to watch online for free for two weeks.

The Big V from Will Woolf on Vimeo.

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Technology in the Classroom Blog

This is just a quick update to point interested readers to the blog/website I’ve created for my English 518, Technology in the Language Arts Classroom course. Thanks to everyone for their suggestions and advice about the course.

Links to the readings should go live by midnight, January 11, but I wanted to make sure interested readers would be able to see the course as it stands right now.

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Rethinking Technology in the Classroom

I’m in the process of rethinking my “Technology in the Language Arts Classroom” graduate course that I last taught (as far as I can tell) in spring 2010. The course is a required class for the M.A. in teaching here at Fayetteville State and is designed primarily for high school teachers (although I have taught some middle school teachers, too). Tweaking this course demand quite a bit of reflection, not only about the pedagogical demands of the high school classroom but also about my own considerations of how “technology” factors into education. In the next few days, I will post a revision of my syllabus, but for now, I’m interested in raising a couple of questions about what has changed for me since I last taught the course.

Many of these changes are based on observing my wife and children as they engage in different kinds of classroom experiences. I’ve always included blogging requirements in my classes, but thanks to one of my wife’s children, I’ve learned more about Glogster, a tool that seems targeted towards high school students. In teaching Glogster, I won’t necessarily be endorsing it, but I’d like my students to get a better understanding of how different blogging platforms might encourage different kinds of expression.

Further, as I have become more comfortable with PowerPoint, I’d like to spend a little more time discussing various uses of presentation software. My wife was required to produce a narrated PowerPoint as an assignment for a course she was taking, and I think it could be a useful tool, but one that ended up being way more complicated than either of us expected, so while I am thinking about requiring that students produce a narrated PowerPoint, I am dong so with the expectation that they might struggle with making one (and if they struggle, I hope to turn that into a learning experience, not something that will be a source of frustration).

I’m also trying to rethink how I will tweak the wiki requirements. In some versions of the course, I had ambitions that students taking the class would create a wiki, usually about topics related to the course, but the assignment always seemed too ambitious and, in some ways, redundant, especially given that most of the terms they could have defined were already on Wikipedia. But several of my students recognized that the storage space on wikis could be useful for their course materials, so I would like to find some way of encouraging them to play with a wiki, probably Wikispaces.

Both of my wife’s children have had assignments that invited them to create movies using iMovie (other options were available, so this wasn’t required), so I am considering a more detailed discussion of that as well. But one problem I have encountered–and it’s related to the iMovie assignment, which asks students to interpret a popular staple of modern American literature–is that the web allows assignments to circulate a little more visibly. This kind of sharing can help teachers looking for a creative way to get students to produce interesting work, but it also (quite obviously) makes it easy for students to find those assignments, whether they copy them directly or simply consult them.

Probably the main shift that has taken place, though, has to do with my own attitudes toward social media. I’m still somewhat active on some social media sites, although I’m often torn between more personal interactions on Facebook (and fun distractions like Scrabble) and the professional connections that I usually find on Twitter. I’m blogging less frequently due to time constraints, but all of these social media tools now feel like a part of our social fabric rather than an innovative curricular change. Even if students or teachers don’t blog, they are likely aware that blogs exist. I’ve heard about assignments that require students to create Facebook or MySpace pages for characters in novels or plays. There’s nothing wrong with such an assignment, but I wonder what kind of pedagogical purpose it actually serves.

I’d welcome any suggestions, observations, or experiences regarding these issues, but I will likely post a revised syllabus later this week. Here is a draft version of my Spring 2010 syllabus, if you’re interested.

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Special Effects at In Media Res

In Media Res is focusing its lens on special effects this week, with a series of clips organized by Bob Rehak, Dan North , and Michael Duffy. I have been invited to contribute a clip, and my post, “Avatar Comes Home: 3D and the Death of DVD,” will appear on Thursday. My post will be looking at the challenges that 20th Century Fox faced in selling the Avatar DVD, given that the movie was marketed as offering an unprecedented 3D theatrical experience. Advertisements for the Avatar DVD also faced the challenge of selling DVDs in an era in which audiences have begun to question the necessity of collecting movies, especially given the new forms of access promised by digital delivery. I’ll save further details for later when my curator’s note goes live, but I recommend checking out all of this week’s clips.

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Week in Review

First, I want to pass along the exciting news that I will be giving a talk at Georgia State University on October 17, 2011. The title of the talk, “‘Make Any Room Your TV Room:’ Mobility, Personalization, and the Fragmentation of Movie Culture,” is meant to echo Lynn Spigel’s Make Room for TV, and the paper will explore the marketing and promotion of portable media players. I’ll post some more specific details in the next few days, but speaking at GSU will be especially exciting for me in that I am a big fan of the work being done by their communication faculty and graduate students. And as a GSU alum (M.A., English, back in the day), it will be a nice little homecoming, too.

I’ve been engaged all week with some pressing deadlines, but there’s a lot to talk about in the world of digital delivery. First, Sony has announced that they will no longer subsidize the purchase of the RealD 3D glasses, passing the costs along to theaters. David Poland speculates that Sony’s tactics could reopen discussion between the MPAA and theater owners about what 3D format is best for everyone, but that it’s more likely to devolve into both sides trying to get the best deal, moviegoers (who are paying $12 a ticket, btw), be damned.

The fragmentation of Netflix continues to generate quite a bit of conversation as entertainment pundits try to envision where we’re going. Anthony Kaufman argues that Netflix is essentially cutting off the “long tail” by dropping its deals with many independent distributors. David Poland has a slightly better take here, suggesting that the “long tail” fantasy has now been exposed, reminding us that production costs aren’t “scalable.” That is, mid-level indies could never sustain themselves based on what Netflix could pay. On a related note, Poland continues to lobby for SnagFilms to take up the slack here, suggesting that they are best positioned to obtain rights to (and subscribers for) an platform specializing in distributing indie films.

Netflix’s problems have inspired at least one media industry observer to suggest that the company has built “a sprawling, beautiful castle..on quicksand.” In fact, Bill Gurley makes the case that Netflix’s focus on streaming video will continue to cause problems, in large part because the first sale doctrine does not apply for streaming video, meaning that the company has to negotiate streaming rights for every film they want to show. On a related note, there is some evidence that more Netflix consumers use DVDs than streaming for their TV viewing.

The studio-supported digital download platform Ultraviolet is starting to make some noise, with Sony announcing that Friends with Benefits and The Smurfs will be their first two films released using the service. It still mystifies me that studios are expecting users to pay premium prices to store something in the cloud when they can pay significantly less to pay for temporary access to the same content, usually on streaming services. But it’s worth noting that Wal-Mart (which has been characterized as the world’s largest film distributor) may be joining forces with Ultraviolet, a move that would allow DVD buyers at Wal-Mart to pay for the right to store and access their movies online.

Finally, it seems significant that Amazon announced the release of its new video-enabled tablet, the Kindle Fire, in the midst of all the Netflix drama. As New Tee Vee points out, the Kindle Fire will not only provide competition with other tablets (such as Apple’s iPad), but it will also serve to promote Amazon’s streaming video service. Amazon’s announcement was accompanied by the news that they have also acquired the rights to stream a number of Fox television shows, including Arrested Development, 24, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

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The Daily Show on Bookstores

Via Tech Crunch, a sketch from The Daily Show, in which Jon Stewart and John Hodgman discuss the closure of Borders Bookstores, which they attribute to internet distributors such as Amazon and e-readers such as the Kindle.

There’s even a joke toward the end in which Stewart suggests turning Borders into a historical tourist attraction (as in the Onion video about Blockbuster from a few years ago). This one isn’t as funny as the old Onion video, but I think it taps into ongoing perceptions about the decline of physical media and, in this case, about a decline in print literacy as well. There’s also the implication that bookstores are inconvenient and that people would rather stay at home (Hodgman’s suggestion that Borders could transform itself into a bunch of living-room-like pods).

It’s odd to watch the video because I don’t really see myself in the characterization they create in the video–I like going to bookstores and I’ve been holding out on getting a Kindle because I really like physical copies of books, for a lot of reasons–but at the same time, I’ve probably been in a Borders once in the last six months, and I can’t remember the last time I bought a book in a bookstore. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t think Borders was solely a victim of the shift away from physical media, but their closure certainly reinforces the narratives that are being presented in this vido.

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Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D

There really isn’t much to say about the narrative of the latest installment of the Spy Kids franchise. It’s an incoherent, garbled mess, one that seems to have written pretty much on auto-pilot. The jokes and sight gags were equally tedious, making it difficult for me to grasp how the franchise had managed to last this long. There is a basic message about spending time with family, one that is reflected in the film’s time-travel plot, but even that seemed utterly cynical. Of course, All the Time in the World has been promoted almost entirely on the basis of its use of “Aroma-Scope,” the scratch-and-sniff cards that incorporate smell into several of the film’s scenes. But as Maryann Johanson observed in her review, these 4-D elements seemed to expose the limits of the New Gimmick Cinema.

Like Johanson, I found that the film worked to hard to make it appear that the incorporation of scent was seamless. During the opening sequence, a robotic dog, voiced by Ricky Gervais, explains that when a number appears on screen, viewers are suposed to scratch the corresponding number on a card they were given upon entering theaters. Simple enough, of course, but given that you are fumbling with a card in a darkened theater (one that is even darker thanks to the darkened lenses on your 3D glasses), you have to glance down away from the screen and feel around a little for the appropriate number.

Even worse, the scents were almost too mild for me to smell. Johanson also complains that most of the scents actually resembled “cardboard,” while other critics noted that pretty much all of the smells recalled “fruity gumball.” The faint smell actually became even more of a distraction since I wasn’t sure whether I was just missing the smell or whether I needed a key or coin to scratch off the surface of the card.  So, I spent one or two minutes fumbling with the card without any real payoff from the movie. In addition, even walking to the theater while carrying 3D glasses, the card, my ticket, my phone, and a book meant that my hands were full. While entering the theater, I almost felt as if I needed an equipment check.

That being said, it was interesting to observe when Rodriguez incorporated smell into the movie and how the movie teased viewers with references to various scents. For the most part, the smells were introduced during scenes with little dramatic significance. In one scene, the two kids were exiled to a lounge in the spy headquarters building soon after a big action sequence. The kids stumble into the kitchen and dive into the snacks they find there, unleashing three different smells in succession, most of them of the synthetic fruit variety. To some extent, this choice seems to acknowledge that viewers might find Aroma-Scope distracting.

I’ve been struggling against the impulse to create an opposition between immersion and distraction when describing Spy Kids 4D. The film, to a great extent, is not meant to be an immersive narrative but instead offers a spectacle (broadly defined). Spectacle isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but for the most part, the execution in this film came across as relatively lazy, as if Aroma-Scope was enough to drag us off our couches and back into theaters. But when my biggest memory of the film is of fumbling in the dark to find the right number to scratch, something isn’t working.

Update: Last night’s comments were admittedly somewhat impressionistic and written when I was pretty much exhausted. I’ve mentioned in some other places that I saw the movie in a completely empty theater, so that may have made the movie more difficult to enjoy, but crowdsourced grades on Box Office Mojo and other sites suggest that Spy Kids 4D hasn’t really connected with audiences. The more crucial question for me continues to be how these forms of augmented cinema fit within current trends. It’s hard for me to imagine too many other films using “Aroma-Scope” or any other variation of the scratch-and-sniff cards, although some might.

Rodriguez has tapped into various forms of kitsch quite a bit in his previous work, and many of his Spy Kids films use what might be called a form of juvenile kitsch meant to entertain younger audiences, even while amusing their parents (Pixar does this quite well, of course). As I was writing about the film this morning on Facebook (and this comparison crossed my mind last night), I found myself comparing Sky Kids 4D to Speed Racer, another critically maligned movie that deployed a similar presentational, rather than immersive, aesthetic. Both films knew we were watching a movie and frequently winked at us, and Rodriguez’s movie focused more on staging the stunts and scents while playing to our sense of anticipation of experiencing the smells. But it felt more like I was at Universal Studios on a movie ride rather than simply watching a movie.

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