Archive for Television

Monday Links: e-books, Facebook, Hitchcock, and More

Here are some the things I’ve been reading, watching, and thinking about this morning:

  • First, Inside Higher Ed has an interesting discussion of Daytona State College’s plan to convert to a textbook system based entirely around e-books.  There are obviously some benefits here: no more heavy books, cheaper textbook prices, and more profits for publishers.  The campus bookstore would–at least in the short run–appear to be the biggest loser, financially.  I’m still ambivalent about e-book readers, in part because I appreciate the tangibility and permanence of physical books, but this is an interesting experiment, especially given that most students essentially rent their textbooks at a prohibitively high cost.
  • On a related note, Kairos News has been exploring questions about why open-source textbooks appear to be struggling to catch on.  Part of the problem, of course, has been that these open source projects, fairly or not, are perceived as vanity projects.  I can imagine that many tenure committees would look with skepticism at the open-source model, so there is probably a need for some form of institutional change and continued education from open-source advocates.
  • Continuing with the education theme, Catherine at Film Studies for Free (one of the best open-access models out there) provides a pointer to yet another wonderful tool for the Introduction to Film classroom: Majestic Micro Movies’s video primers on film aesthetics.  Catherine cites four videos dealing with topics such as deep focus, shallow focus, tracking, and short-reverse-shot.  They’re witty, fun, and provide some context for why these techniques are often hotly debated.  Their YouTube and Facebook pages are great resources for students and teachers of film.
  • More classroom stuff: The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that a recent study published in the Journal of College Student Retention has concluded that frequent Facebook users are more likely to stay in school and shows that students who have more friends on Facebook are more likely to return for their sophomore years.  Because the study is based on a survey at a single university, Abilene Christian University, I’d like to see the results reproduced elsewhere before I put much stock in them.  Is a public HBCU or regional state university going to be different than a private, religious institution?  A bigger question might be causation versus correlation. Perhaps the networked students are already disposed toward returning to school and Facebook is simply an expression of that.
  • Tama Leaver points to an Economist article on “the future of the internet.”  Like Tama, I appreciate the article’s acknowledgement that the internet seems to be continuing its fragmentation into various “walled gardens,” many of them highly profitable, as well as the discussion of the ongoing attempts to create tiered internet provision (different levels of internet service for different prices), moves that the author characterizes as a virtual “counter-revolution.”
  • The journal Off Screen devotes its most recent issue to internet-based film criticism. Especially noteworthy: Paul Salmon’s “A Film Prof at the Cineplex.”
  • Finally, Christine Becker links to David Carr’s article arguing that there is “too much” TV out there.  A couple of key quotes: “Our ability to produce media has outstripped our ability to consume it. The average photograph now gets looked at less than once simply because there is almost zero cost and effort to producing one.”  And perhaps more crucially: “We don’t watch TV anymore as much as it seems to watch us, recommending, recording and dishing up all manner of worthy product.”  Database TV seems to hold out the prospects of unlimited choice, and yet, as Carr suggests, recommendation algorithms, DVRs, and other tools have become more adept at assessing tastes, analyzing us and, in some sense, choosing what we want to watch.

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Next Saturday Links

Thanks to a much busier week than usual, I’m just now catching up with some of my online reading, but here are some worthwhile things I found over first two cups of coffee:

  • Fred Fox, Jr., author of the notorious “Jump the Shark” episode of Happy Days, defends himself against charges that the Fonz jumping the shark was the beginning of the end for that show, and describes his reaction to becoming one of the most notorious phrases in ad hoc TV criticism.
  • NewTeeVee asks whether smaller cable channels, such as The Hallmark Channel, might be squeezed out thanks to the recent negotiations over carriage fees between cable providers, such as Time Warner, and channels such as TNT and ESPN.  We have over 100 channels I’d never miss–The Military Channel, Hallmark, etc–so I understand the temptation to eliminate some, even if I’d like to see niche programming get more protection and support.
  • On a related note, NewTeeVee also explores the implications of cheap iTunes rentals of individual TV episodes for television.  They also offer an assessment of Hulu’s impact on broadcast TV.  Perhaps lost in all of this is the impact of box sets of TV series, which now seem almost transitional as we look at how audiences access TV now.
  • David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson have a compendium of useful essays from their blog that address topics covered in Introduction to Film classes.  These blog posts might serve as useful supplements to pretty much any Introduction to Film textbook and serve as a useful reminder of how the blogosphere is cultivating new forms of film criticism (rather than killing it as many critics have recently claimed–more on this in a longer blog post).
  • I’ve been following Scott Rosenberg’s series defending the practice of linking with quite a bit of enthusiasm.  He is responding to Nicholas Carr’s assertion that linking serves as a form of distraction, one that inhibits understanding, rather than aiding it.  Rosenberg’s third post is especially useful in that it provides a brief taxonomy of what kinds of textual effects links can have.  In general, links offer new, more visible and more immediate forms of engagement, allowing us to connect with others who have similar interests.
  • Interesting discussion with indie filmmaking expert Peter Broderick on the future of festivals and much more (via Documentary Tech).
  • Also from Documentary Tech, news that the Freakonomics documentary will be released via iTunes before coming to an art house theater near you.  To be honest, I’m not sure that this move is all that surprising or unusual for a film dedicated to such a specific (if relatively wide) niche.  The point, especially for indie films and documentaries, seems to be to provide multiple access points and to entice audiences to view the film on the platform of their choice.
  • Radiohead joins the Beastie Boys and Bon Jovi in turning their fans into amateur cinematographers.  Here’s the story: a group invited 50 concertgoers to record a live performance of the band using Flip video cameras that were then edited together into a concert video.  Kind of fun, right?  But what’s kind of cool here is the fact that Radiohead has given their Prague-based fans the actual soundboard recordings of the concert, turning what was originally an engaging amateur video into a band-endorsed concert film.  The DVD is available for free from the film’s website, with the band’s blessing.


Tuesday Links

I had no idea that it has been nearly two weeks since I last posted.  At some point, I’d like to get back to a more consistent blogging schedule, but the last few weeks have been dedicated to article revisions, frantic book chapter drafting, and even more frantic syllabus planning.  All good things, but also things that take away from blogging.  For now, here are a few recent links that others might have missed:

  • The New York Times has an interesting article about several indie rock labels that have taken on the role of film distributors.  What seems interesting about the article is the attempt to define screenings as “events,” and screening at non-theatrical venues.  Obviously, many of these practices have been around for a long time–filmmakers have done movie “tours” for ages–but there are some interesting connections here.
  • I think it’s brilliant that Star Wars: Uncut won a creative arts Emmy. Just for fun:  Here’s the trailer.
  • Scott Kirsner has a good overview of the New York Times series on the future of television.  One of Scott’s takeaways is that audiences seem relatively satisfied with the ways they currently access TV (or at least unwilling to change them), choosing to continue paying for cable rather than accessing TV online.  There’s also the requisite push for 3-D TV, with industry types hoping that 3-D TVs will account for half of all sales within five years.
  • Finally, there is also a terrific discussion in the Times of some of the work by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Dan Cohen and others to use the logic of the web to reimagine peer review.

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Scott Pilgrim Knows the Weather

I’m becoming increasingly engaged by the Scott Pilgrim hype, in part because of the self-aware nature of much of the promotional material, including the “interactive trailer” that I mentioned a few days ago.  What seems to work well, for me at least, is that the advertising seems especially adept at engaging multiple audiences–Michael Cera fans, nostaglic gamers, fans of the original comic book–in pretty creative ways.  But one of the oddest bits of promotion I’ve seen features Jason Schwartzman and Micheal Cera doing the weather forecast for Atlanta’s Fox affiliate.  It’s funny and just a little strange, especially for me, as a former Atlanta resident.

Although this promotional segment can’t be said to have been “authored” by the filmmakers behind Scott Pilgrim, it’s fun to watch Schwartzman and Cera playing with the relatively naturalized codes we associate with weather forecasting: reading high and low temperatures, detailing the five-day forecast, and standing by as busy, often surreal graphics play in the background, with the two of them having the most fun with a school bus that incongruously shoots past several times. In places, Cera seems a little lost, standing on the periphery of the screen, but it did make me laugh several times.


Transmedia Time

I’ve been reading Jonathan Gray’s excellent new book, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and other Media Paratexts (New York University Press, 2010), this week in preparation for a couple of summer writing projects, one that looks at cross-media adaptations in science fiction and another that examines how independent and do-it-yourself filmmakers have used paratexts and transmedia narratives as promotional tools for their films.  One of the strengths of Jonathan’s book is its loose definition of paratexts to include toys, games, trailers, and other promotional materials to show how they all contribute toward the production of meaning.  To name one key example, he shows how the Star Wars toys, in addition to being a form of marketing, played an active role in contributing to the meaning of the films (note Jabba the Hutt’s increased role in the films after he became a popular toy).

As Jonathan acknowledges, one of the complaints about paratexts is that they can often be dismissed as a form of marketing or advertising.  These complaints certainly focus on “cheesy” tie-ins, such as the Domino’s Pizza’s Gotham City Pizza Jonathan discusses (208-210), but have even become a part of the debate when it comes to the use of transmedia to promote independent films, with J.J. Murphy and Mike S. Ryan taking DIY-film advocate Ted Hope to task for his “Twenty New Rules” for indie filmmakers, in which Hope argues that filmmakers should be more savvy about using social networking and other tools to create a sense of anticipation for the movies they are producing, especially when that marketing work seems to take away from focusing creative energy on the film itself.

To address some of these concerns about “cheese,” Jonathan differentiates between “incorporated” and “unincorporated” paratexts (208-214).  Incorporated paratexts are those that fit neatly within the narrative world established by the storyworld and allow audiences to further explore that world, while unincorporated texts are those that serve simply to hype the text and “contribute nothing meaningful” to the storyworld, a la Batman’s pizza (210).  Although I’m certainly sympathetic to the saturation of marketing and promotion, I’m a little skeptical of this binary, if only because of the fuzziness of the concept of “meaning” here.  It’s certainly possible that any number of fans found meaning in the existence of the Gotham City Pizza, if only because it served as further evidence of the long tentacles of that movie franchise and as further expression of the film’s global marketing reach (recall that many Dark Knight fans hoped the film would surpass Titanic as the top-grossing film of all-time).

But in making this distinction (and in a discussion leading out of Lost and Heroes’ transmedia webs), Jonathan introduces another point that I found especially engaging when he observes in passing that “transmedia storytelling also has both rebooted and serial forms” (214).  The concept of the “reboot” has become commonplace enough in both industry language and academic studies and is a useful one for thinking about how franchises, such as the James Bond films, are given new life every few years through a reimagining of character, setting, and narrative.  But for whatever reason, Jonathan’s use of these terms here helped me to frame a question that I’ve been mulling for a while now:  Is there an effective vocabulary for thinking about the spatiotemporal relationships between paratexts in the era of transmedia?  I’d appreciate references here (either via comments or email, if I’m missing something obvious).  But I wonder if such a vocabulary might be useful, especially if we are trying to get away from value-laden dichotomies between “central” and “peripheral” texts?

I’ve jotted down a few “back-the-envelope” terms for getting started:

  • Serial Narratives: a series of ongoing, extended narratives; many TV series, including Lost and 24, rely on serial formats, picking up where previous episodes left off.  Film sequels also follow this logic, such as the Harry Potter films, which follow Harry’s growth and maturation (and, yes, I realize this is complicated by the fact that they are based on novels)
  • Reboots: takes an existing franchise or narrative and reimagines it, often to the point that the new franchise will retell a similar narrative, such as an origin story, a second (or third or fourth) time in order to establish the new diegetic world of the text.  Obviously the Batman franchise is one of the most powerful examples, with Christopher Nolan’s reboot serving as an ideal reworking of the Burton/Schumacher iterations of the franchise.  It will be interesting to see of some of the 1980s remakes (Karate Kid and The A-Team) successfully reboot those franchises.
  • Anticipatory: paratexts that build interest or engagement in a given “franchise” or text.  ARGs that come out in advance of a film might be included here, as would trailers, cast interviews on late-night talk shows, and other overtly promotional forms.  Many of the promotional forms that have been discussed by DIY filmmakers might be recast as “anticipatory” in order to see them not as mere marketing but as a form of creative production that is worthwhile and engaging in its own right.  These “anticipatory” texts can even become a form of political activity when groups such as Brave New Films encourage “fans” to promote upcoming screenings of their political documentaries by linking to video clips they have posted online.  And fan participation in the making of a film such as Iron Sky or The Cosmonaut (scroll down to my older entries) might fit here as well.
  • Extensive: paratexts that expand a storyworld, making it more inhabitable and detailed.  Jonathan cites a number of video games and ARGs that succeed in encouraging audiences/users to explore a world in further detail, but deleted scenes, making-of documentaries, and other special features on documentaries might fit into this category as well, as would attempts by documentary filmmakers to solicit participation after seeing a politically-oriented film (note the work of Participant Media in shaping forms of political activity).

I don’t think these categories are adequate to describe all of the relationships between different forms of paratexts.  I’ve tried to keep the term “extensive” relatively broad and to avoid imagining it as a “future” for an original text.  After all, people may come to a movie after playing the game or the movie may inspire a fan to purchase a game, a toy, or a Happy Meal.  These ideas are admittedly a little rough, but I think that a sharper vocabulary for thinking about these relationships might help us to escape some of negative connotations associated with term such as “marketing add-ons” and “ancillary texts.”

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Indie Films and Digital Distribution

The announcement about Google TV has provoked some discussion about the tool’s potential for making it easier for independent filmmakers to find a wider audience for their films.  Google has promoted this new tool as the ultimate merger between computers and television.  You can use Google’s search tool to find any TV shows or videos (including those on YouTube and other video sharing sites) and watch them on your TV set.  And your TV becomes more like a computer, allowing you to go onto sites such as Facebook (oddly the video emphasizes that you can “update your status”).  But a number of indie filmmakers have begun to ask about the potential implications of Google TV for movie distribution.

Ryan Koo at No Film School has the most optimistic take on this potential, arguing that Google TV “is going to make it a lot easier to get independently-produced content onto the big (home) screen.”  Koo adds that, unlike Apple, Google TV is essentially an “open” platform that will not place restrictions on what content gets pulled from the web to your TV set.  For example, Google TV might provide a boost for the struggling YouTube Rentals program by making it easier to get movies from YouTube to your TV set.  Essentially, Koo concludes that Google TV will be essentially democratizing, though he adds one significant caveat: the problem of search engine optimization.  Although Google’s search algorithms may make it easier to get films to your TV set, it’s not quite as clear whether people will be able to find them.

Ted Hope also emphasizes the potential for Google TV to democratize distribution, while adding the need for continued efforts toward search engine optimization, arguing that “I just wish that people would offer more filters. It’s one thing to be able to find what we are looking for, but we still need to know what it is that we want — particularly if we want to make other work that that which is justified by a huge marketing spend.”  I’ve been trying to think through the “filtering question” for a while–I talked about it at length in this Second Cinema interview last year–and I’m still unsure whether these filters will ever match the diversity of content out there with the diverse interests of a wide range of audiences that might be seeking alternative forms of content.  Some of these challenges seem to be reflected in the somewhat bizarre genre categories found on sites like Netflix (what is a “heartfelt, fighting-the-system documentary?”), not to mention Netflix recommendation algorithms that push us toward some films and away from others.  But I’m a little skeptical about what it means to “solve” these filtering questions.

Scott Macauley of Filmmaker Magazine echoes many of Koo’s arguments while expressing a little more skepticism. Worth noting, Macauley cites an interview with YouTube’s Sarah Pollack, who argues that the YouTube rental program helped to raise the profile of a number of the Sundance films it offered for rent.  Pollack goes on to acknowledge that YouTube will need to work to convince viewers to pay for some of its rental content, especially when YouTube is primarily known as a site offering free videos.  But even here I think the questions about how viewers find or learn about this content remains unclear. Macauley does point out that many of the writers polled at Endgadget expressed concern that Google TV would likely require yet another set-top box until the platform became something that was built into TVs.  And like a number of the people interviewed by Endgagdet, I think there are a number of complications Google will need to address before their approach to revolutionizing TV will take hold.

The LA Times expresses a similar concern, noting that the cost of another set-top box might be prohibitive for budget-conscious web video users, although they also cite Best Buy Chief Executive Brian Dunn who argues that Google TV pushes us even further towards a “platform agnostic” model, in which the source or medium of the content matters less than the ability to access that content easily.

The unstated assumption in all of these arguments is that more choice (available in even more platforms), even if those choices are more expensive, is necessarily what everyone wants.  Given the popularity of services such as Redbox, which offers relatively little choice, I’m not entirely sure that’s the case.  To be sure, I’ve truly appreciated the expansion of choice offered by digital media–living in a town such as Fayetteville, NC was much more bearable thanks to Netflix and VOD–but I’m not sure that everyone is looking for the “deeper cuts” rather than the “top hits.”  But as I’ve suggested in my previous post, many of the questions addressed in the debates over Google TV (and other tools like it) aren’t over what the hardware can do as much as they are about what cinema as a social activity can be.

With that in mind, I am intrigued by discussions such as the one taking place at The Workbook Project right now, where Mike Ambs, responding to a blog post by Ted Hope, has invited filmmakers and audiences to “brainstorm the future of film.”  Ambs has created a fascinating flowchart (to which anyone can contribute) that seeks to define what makes film, and independent film in particular, something of value for all of us.  I’ll be returning to Ambs’s chart in a couple of upcoming posts because the chart raises a number of interesting questions about how independent filmmakers can create cultures of engagement around the movies they make.

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Friday Links

A few of the things I’ve been reading and watching while suffering from Cannes-envy:

  • In a decision that has received almost no attention, the FCC recently ruled in favor of “selectable output control,” which would essentially prevent consumers from copying a pay-per-view program.  The decision opens up the possibility that some movie distributors may move even close to day-and-date releasing patterns, i.e., opening a film in theaters and on cable at (almost) the same time.  But if you’re interested in industry issues, the New York Times’ Michael Cieply has a solid overview of the potential implications and industry reactions to the FCC ruling.
  • In other big industry news, Google is taking over your TV.  Obviously the big selling point is the idea of using Google search to find the programs you want to watch.  In addition, NewTeeVee speculates that Google TV will enable the “microchannel” future where everyone will have his or her choice of content (57 thousand channels and nothing on?).  Of course, you’ll have to buy the appropriate TV or set-top box, so it’ll be interesting to see whether people are that interested.  And of course it means that Google will become even more adept at targeted advertisements based on search and viewing histories.
  • Anne Thompson discusses the reported integration between iTunes and Rotten Tomatoes, the famous movie review aggregation site.  Although a number of commenters at Anne’s site have called this a “bad idea” because of the dubious methods Rotten Tomatoes uses to deem films “fresh” or “rotten,” this assumes people only glance at the aggregate number rather than individual reviews.  More than anything, it seems to signal some of the ways in which reception, promotion, and exhibition practices are all converging.
  • David Poland has an interesting–and convincing–read on the controversies over Megan Fox and Shia LaBeouf and about “truth-telling” in the film industry.
  • Also via Poland, one of the coolest TV ads I’ve ever seen, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s new Nike ad, “Write the Future,” which plays like a three-minute World Cup-inspired version of Run Lola Run. The full ad captures the ways in which the fortunes of a game, of individual players, and the nations that support them can change within a split second.


Hollywood in the Carolinas

During a recent visit to Wilmington, North Carolina, the Best Girlfriend Ever and I dropped by EUE Screen Gems Studios for their tour.  The studio is currently best known as the site where CW Network television series One Tree Hill and Dawson’s Creek are (or were) filmed, but the facility has been used for a number of movies and TV shows, including Blue Velvet and The Hudsucker Proxy, and intermittently HBO’s hilarious Eastbound and Down, as well as a number of Geico ads, among others (my girlfriend happened to notice the backdrop for one of the gecko ads in the distance of one studio).  Because I’m not a specific fan of either show–I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen an episode of One Tree Hill–the tour was not really an experience of fandom for me, as much as it was a chance to see how such tours are constructed and the attempts to create an “on-set experience.”

The history of the studio itself was fairly interesting. It was built by Dino De Laurentiis, who did not realize the proximity of the nearby Wilmington airport at the time, a situation that has created some complications in filming there (though these are apparently handled relatively easily).  One of the surprises for me was the distinction between the show itself as an intellectual/entertainment property and the studio as a site where the shows (or movies) are filmed.  Because of this distinction, the only merchandise available on the property was associated with the Screen Gems name, not the individual properties or shows produced there.  Much of the tour involved exploring several of the One Tree Hill sets, including the kitchen and bedrooms of several characters, as well as the recording studio owned by one of the show’s characters.  Although I know little about the show, it was hard not to be impressed by the attention to detail, by the attempts to make a relatively flimsy set look like a genuinely lived-in (or worked-in) location.  Details such as photographs, books, and even magazines seem carefully placed to suggest that the space is occupied by a family (or individuals).  Non-functioning refrigerators filled with food products, many of which were part of product placement strategies, also helped to complete the picture.

Even cooler for me was stumbling across a bulletin board with an annotated script plan on it, often with notes suggesting the tone of a key scene here (including one that said simply “they bond here,” of two of the show’s key characters).  The tour concluded with a short video consisting of snippets of TV shows and movies that had been filmed on the studio lot shown in one of Screen Gems’ screening rooms.  Significantly, the room was outfitted with a medium-sized TV set so that production personnel could see how the show would play on a smaller screen.  Throughout the tour, the guides, most of whom were UNCW film and theater students, related on-set production anecdotes, including some of the challenges of avoiding continuity errors.  Obviously, no photographing or filming was permitted on the tour to avoid potential spoilers (or other concerns), but because of Wilmington’s history as a site for movie and TV production, it was quite a bit of fun to see how the studio creates a narrative about the show and other work done on the site.


Videocracy [Full Frame 2010]

Note: This is the first in a series of reviews of films that played at this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham.

Many web surfers have probably stumbled across clips from Italian television on YouTube.  Studio hosts joke with laughing and cheering audiences during inane “talent” competitions while half-naked young women dance or pose beside the host in an absurd demonstration that the “vast wasteland” thesis about television may not be far from the truth.  Much like their American compatriots in the world of  reality TV, celebrity is seen by these competitors as a form of escape, whether from their boring workaday lives as mechanics or office workers or from the anonymity that makes them feel as if their lives lack purpose.  This fascination with celebrity may seem harmless, but when the Italian president, Silvio Berlusconi owns most of the country’s major TV stations and is, in some sense, the county’s biggest celebrity, these questions become a little more troubling.  Swedish filmmaker Erik Gandini explores this phenomenon in his documentary, Videocracy, which he made, according to the Onion reviewer, out of a desire to explain Italy’s absurdities to his friends back in Sweden.

Gandini traces these absurdities by following three primary subjects: a soft-spoken mechanic who dreams of becoming a reality TV star, imagining himself to be a cross between Ricky Martin and Jean-Claude Van Damme; a famous talent agent who is introduced reclining in a pure white house and who demonstrates his admiration for fascism by playing his ringtone, which is a Mussolini “hymn;” and a papparazzo who attempts to use a prison stint to make himself into a celebrity, eventually to the point that he seems to lose touch with reality.

This exploration of the ways in which the fascination with celebrity might occlude political thinking is a worthwhile project, but like the Italian TV Videocracy sets about to criticize, the film gets lost in the funhouse of opulence and eye candy.  Shots of half-naked young women auditioning to appear on Italian TV are filmed in a gauzy, dreamlike fashion that only seems to reinforce–or even heighten–their prurience, as Ella Taylor points out in her Village Voice review.  Further, the film does little to convey the shallowness of political thinking.  There is no real guide through the Italian political scene, other than Gandini’s halting, impressionistic voice-over.  More striking, we never (or rarely) hear from any of the women striving to appear on these shows, much less anyone who is critical of them or of Berlusconi’s degree of control over Italian TV and politics.  Although the film has some strikingly funny and absurd moments, the film seems to enjoy much of what it is ostensibly criticizing.

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Paying for It

I’m still turning over some of the questions I’ve been considering lately about new distribution models for movies and television, in particular some of the “long tail” arguments that have suggested that affordable broadband will create a “celestial jukebox” that will provide us with essentially unlimited choice and convenience at a reasonable price. Although there is relatively widespread adoption of watching TV and movies online, I think it’s worth considering how these changes might face certain forms of resistance among consumers who–consciously or not–cannot habituate themselves to new models of distribution (even if we achieve the FCC’s goal of providing broadband access to 90% of US homes by 2020).

Max Fisher, writing for The Atlantic, offers the provocative claim that “cable television is dead,” arguing that, in essence, cable TV requires us to pay for a show twice, first by asking us to pay monthly subscriptions and second by forcing us to watch advertisements during commercial breaks (assuming we don’t have a TiVo).  Arguably, we also pay for that show a third time due to the kinds of product placement and in-show promotion practices common to reality TV and similar genres.  Fisher goes on to posit that Hulu and iTunes, with their two basic approaches of offering either ad-supported or subscription-based programming will offer us a healthy alternative to the Comcastic middle man.  Such an approach, I’d argue, would potentially threaten to provide us with less access and choice, not more.  How likely, for example, are users going to be to browse a show if they are forced to pay for the whole hour?  My suspicion is that such an approach might lead to at least some degree of backlash and might drive users to less painful forms of free content.

Interestingly, Fisher goes on to argue that “networks, no longer forced to fill exactly 24 hours of daily programming, would act more like movie studios, releasing as many or as few titles as they wished. High-quality shows would prosper as networks dropped the unneeded filler.”  Of course, this is somewhat wishful thinking, as highly-rated shows don’t always correspond to shows that are critically-acclaimed.  Would a niche show like Mad Men that commands the attention of a small, but select audience, be able to compete in a purely digital marketplace? I’m not sure.

But in following some of the discussion of Blockbuster, Redbox, and 3-D projection, I’m beginning to see a mild backlash around the high cost of entertainment.  One version of this is Dawn Taylor’s Cinematical column, in which she discusses her reaction to the announcement by Regal, Cinemark, and AMC that they plan to increase ticket prices for 3-D movies by as much as 25%.  Taylor points out that these prices mean that a family of four could pay over $50 to go see Clash of the Titans on a Friday night.  Is that something that most families can afford on a weekly–or even monthly–basis?  Taylor’s answer is pretty blunt: “gambling that spectacle alone will keep people coming to theaters is just plain stupid. Spectacle gets old awfully quickly; 3-D will stop being a shiny new toy in a year or so, and people will still be struggling to pay their bills.”  Although I think she overstates her case somewhat, the perception that movies are inaccessible to the working class is a powerful one, given the history of movies as an “egalitarian” medium (note a similar post from the Louisville Mojo blog).

Obviously Redbox is, to some extent, part of the backlash, with its dollar-per-night rentals.  But even here, many video consumers seem frustrated by the choices they have available.  We are beginning to see stories about small towns where the only access to DVD rentals, for some customers, is via a Redbox kiosk or through Netflix.  Stories such as this report from Pasco, Washington, and this one from Ashland, Ohio, complicate (at least from my perspective) some of the more celebratory accounts of a digital revolution.  But at least the digital revolution seems to be offering new opportunities for enterprising students who can earn $26,000 a year from Warner Bros. for snitching on DVD pirates.

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Friday Links: Redbox, JFK, and Tricky Dick

My first sets of papers and other projects are starting to trickle in, so blog time may be curtailed once again, but I am hoping to see Shutter Island again and may even have time to weigh in with a review.  For now, here are a few links:

  • Via the Inside Redbox blog, a discussion from Home Media Magazine of what is now being called the “retail window” that Warner and other studios have instituted in order to protect themselves against perceived losses caused by Redbox and other rental services.  I’ve been speculating for a while that the “retail window” probably won’t do very much to increase DVD sales.  People who are looking to shell out $1 to pass the time on a Friday night aren’t the same ones who will buy a DVD for their collection.  I realize that dollar rentals drive down prices across the board, but are the people who use Redbox kiosks really going to be so driven by the demand for one specific film that they’ll purchase it?
  • I’m hoping to write a longer post about the much-discussed History Channel JFK documentary to be made by conservative activist Joel Surnow (best known for his work on the TV show 24), but Jeffrey Jones has an interesting read of the debate over the documentary and how it comments on the contemporary politics of images.  As Jeffrey observes, “With a distrust of elites, a delegitimized news media, a populist-paranoic rise in anti-intellectualism, and a hyper-ideological political culture, what constitutes historical truth (and even contemporary reality) is and will be hotly contested in the foreseeable future.”  And a big part of this conflict is the variety of media platforms where these debates will play themselves out.  Documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald has been spearheading one of the most visible responses in attempting to depict the Surnow documentary as nothing more than tabloid fodder.
  • And if you wanted more evidence that the 60s will never die, even after most of the politicians and many of cultural figures have faded away, Jim Emerson points to Adam Curtis’s six-minute documentary that argues that we have all become Richard Nixon, thus turning us into “increasingly paranoid weirdos.”  The film is at its most powerful in tracing out the extent to which a “culture of fear” (to use Glassner’s phrase) permeates public discourse as well as the degree to which that has accompanied an increasing mistrust of institutions, especially political ones, to make a difference in our lives.  Although compelling, I found it a bit reductive in a few places.  After all, didn’t 52% of us (more or less) vote for a guy who promised to restore hope and to bring change to government?  That being said, as a diagnosis of how “we” have become atomized and skeptical of any public officials, it raises some powerful points.
  • I haven’t yet jumped into the Film Preservation blogathon (organized in part by the Self Styled Siren) yet, but I will point to Catherine Grant’s contribution, which starts with one of my favorite meditations on the materiality of film: Bill Morrison’s Decasia.


Tuesday Links

I’ve reached that nice part of the semester where class prep is starting to feel a little more routine but I haven’t yet accumulated a stack (or multiple stacks) of papers to grade, so I’m slowly but surely starting to map some ideas for future projects (hopefully more on that soon).  For now, a few links that are worth checking out:

  • The New York Times has an interesting round table, organized by Manhola Dargis and A.O. Scott, on the state of indie film culture.  For people interested in these issues, there is quite a bit of useful material here.   The article is framed by the discussion of the ongoing crisis in indie distribution and worrying that “serious, middle-size movies will become an endangered species.”  But what’s notable about the discussion is its openness to video-on-demand and other new formats, referring to them as a “new era of spectatorship.”  On a quick skim, one particularly astute observation comes from Howard Cohen of Roadside Attrctions who observes that the 90s “boom” in indie profitability benefited from the advent of the DVD.  Now that the format is seeing declining sales, indie films are especially affected.  Others, including Cohen, deconstruct the idea of a past “golden age” of cinema during teh 1960s and ’70s, noting that audiences for films such as 400 Blows likely weren’t significantly larger than today’s art-house audience.  If I’m reading the article correctly, it looks like this will be the first in a series of articles investigating the transformation of independent film distribution and culture.  And based on what I’ve seen so far, it should be well worth following.
  • Some interesting research from Silicon Alley Insider on how people use Twitter.  Some of these findings seem relatively consistent with what I’ve seen in the past: slightly more than half all who use Twitter are female.  Most people rarely or never tweet, and 10% of people who tweet account for 90% of all tweets.
  • Eugene Hernandez has a post on a Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) panel on the role of social media tools in helping to preserve and cultivate a vibrant indie film culture.  Worth noting is Ted Hope’s efforts to champion “DIWO cinema” (do-it-with-others) as an alternative to the more-widely discussed concept of DIY.  Hope expands on these ideas in his blog.  Implicit in some of my work on digital distribution is the idea that fans can become participants in the promotion of a film, and in some cases, can become involved in creating the film text itself.  As someone who relishes talking about movies (as you might have guessed by now), I think this is an interesting discussion.
  • On a relate note, Patrick Goldstein has a thoughtful article on the complicated efforts to find distribution for Richard Linklater’s critically-acclaimed Me and Orson Welles.
  • Henry Jenkins offers part two of his response to David Bordwell’s blog post on transmedia storytelling (I addressed some of these issues the other day).  One key takeaway: For Jenkins, “the core aesthetic impulses behind good transmedia works are world building and seriality.”  I think he’s probably right about this point and correct to add that these storytelling impulses may work better for some genres than others.


Tuesday Links

Some of the recent film and media links that have crossed my radar recently:

  • Martha Irvine’s Washington Post article about the increased competition that movie theaters face now that digital distribution streams, such as Hulu and iTunes are becoming viable, has spawned quite a bit of discussion. Irvine, in my reading, offers a pretty thorough analysis, noting that theaters may increasingly serve as locations for special premium events and, following Charles Acland, author of Screen Traffic, predicts that current practices will lead to “more blockbuster action films geared toward the theaters, while character-driven films might open at theaters to create buzz, but ultimately get more play online.”  Like most of the experts Irvine interviews, I don’t think movie theaters will be obsolete any time soon, but the article does address a number of the important shifts that are taking place in the practices of moviegoing.
  • Henry Jenkins has a report on some fascinating research on the relationship between movies and video games conducted by Alexis Blanchet, showing that over 20% of games produced for some popular platforms have movie tie-ins.  Blanchet has also passed along to Jenkins a “graph which looks at film to game translations based around their original ratings.” You can check out Blanchet’s own website, in French and English, for further information.
  • Steve Pond and Anne Thompson, among many others, have weighed in on the new voting process for the best picture Oscar.  Rather than simply counting the number of first-place votes, a tiered system, in which voters rank their favorites from 1 to 10 in order of preference, will now be used.
  • Anne Thompson also has a discussion of a promotional video for the reboot of At the Movies, the show that helped launch the reputations of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert but had seen its ratings falter in recent years.   For what its worth, I generally like the update: A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips seem very knowledgeable about cinema and speak about it with eloquence and enthusiasm.  That being said, I found myself contemplating ways in which the format could be tweaked, especially given that both Scott and Phillips seem to have similar backgrounds.  As I watched, I wonderedhow it would play to have a panel of four participants discussing movies and movie culture more broadly, with two regulars (Scott and Phillips, perhaps) and a slate of rotating guests, not unlike the approach used on Real Time with Bill Maher.  Such an approach might be an effective way of introduing a diversity of opinions and perspectives into the mix.
  • Finally, Microsoft UK’s Ashley Highfield offers a stern warning to TV producers to get their online acts together lest they face an “iTunes moment.”


Wednesday Links

More film and media news that has caught my attention over the last couple of days:

  •  I’ve followed the work of Participant Media, the socially-conscious film production company that encourages its audiences to become politically active, for some time now.  The mix of political documentary and participatory culture speaks to a number of my interests, so I’m fascinated to see that in their promotion of the engaging new documentary by Robert Kenner, Food Inc. (my review), that they have joined forces with Chipotle to host special screenings and garner some free advertising.  The POV blog discusses Chipotle’s rep for using fresher (and sometimes organic) ingredients, one of the reasons Participant is working with them.
  • Sujewa pointed to Criterion’s newish sales strategy of charging $5 to allow viewers to download one of the movies from their catalog, allowing them unlimited viewing for several days.  If the viewer enjoys the film, they would then have a $5 credit toward the purchase of that film only.
  • A good discussion of David Hudson’s return to and reformulation of his “Daily” blogging at The New Yorker blog.
  • Anne Thompson and Matt Dentler weigh in on the beta version of film search site Speedcine. I’ll try to take a closer look later, but I’m doing a little speed blogging right now.
  • Mark Cuban explores some of the reasons behind Netflix rival Redbox’s explosive success.
  • NewTeeVee reports that TV and movie streaming “soared” over the last six months.
  • A nice article on the distribution of Sita Sings the Blues, this time from Eric Kohn.

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Thursday Links

Or, yikes, it’s almost August!  Fall semester is on the horizon, which will give me yet another ball to juggle, but here are some new film and media links:

  • Mary Madden has a new report for the Pew Internet & American Life Project reporting that online video consumption has increased dramatically over the last two years.  Some quick notes: 62% of adult internet users have now watched an internet video, nearly doubling the percentage from December 2006, while “89% of internet users ages 18-29 watch content on video sharing sites.” These claims seem to echo research by Forrester that discovered that approximately 25% of web users watch some TV online, although only 13% watched TV online “at least once per month.”
  • It’s still somewhat unclear, however, how “ancillary” content, such as webisodes, plays into fan experiences of TV shows.  In an (admittedly unscientific) survey at ComicCon, one NewTeeVee reporter found that many of the Lost Super-Fans she polled watched these episodes infrequently or not at all.
  • “Daily” blogger David Hudson has found a new home with and a slightly newer format with The Auteurs, one of the more compelling movie portals offering free classic and independent films in a quality streaming format.  Instead of David’s usual extended links posts, he is now doing quick links on Twitter supplemented by a daily recap of the most important or engaging film reads of the day.
  • Speaking of The Auteurs, I’m strongly considering the possibility of assigning films exclusively or semi-exclusively from their catalog.  Because there isn’t an easy way for me to requite students to watch films uring a lab or at a university screening, having something like The Auteurs available might make it easier to ensure that students can find the movies I want to teach.   Skimming the first couple of pages of their catalog, I can see at least three films–Citizen Kane, Blade Runner, and Breathless–that I normally teach.  At the very least, it looks like a great resource for the teaching of (classical Hollywood and European, especially) film.
  • Patrick Goldestein has an interesting report on a failed viral marketing effort by Fox to promote their teen romantic comedy, I Love You Beth Cooper, in which the film company paid Kenya Mejia $1800 to end her valedictory address with the declaration, “I love you Jack Minor!”  The video features the usual shaky camera and other markers of autehnticity (including a fake narrative in the video’s description), but it all just comes across as clumsy and forced, in part, I think, because of Mejia’s discomfort in delivering the line.  And it had the overall effect of making me less interested in seeing Beth Cooper, if that’s possible.  The Wall Street Journal–significantly another News Corp property–got to the story first.

Update: Via Michael Newman on Twitter: the Outlet Wall is a brilliant solution to your “cord clutter.” The comments are recommended.

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