Archive for film promotion

Hollywood Imploding

I was revisiting Steven Soderbergh’s widely-discussed “State of Cinema” address from the San Francisco International Film Festival when I came across today’s news that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas–speaking at an event at USC–stated that the Hollywood studio system would “implode.” Given that Spielberg and Lucas were speaking at the opening of USC’s Interactive Media Building (where students would theoretically be preparing themselves for careers in the entertainment industry), their comments seem even more ominous. Like Soderbergh, the two star directors describe a distribution culture that is both on the verge of collapse and closed off to innovative storytelling. But while this Hollywood narrative of collapse invites quite a bit of buzz–articles about Spielberg and Lucas’s talk have been circulating widely on Twitter and Facebook–it’s also a story with a number of holes in it.

First, Spielberg asserts that “There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.” Such claims are tempting, especially when looking at the tepid results of films like the Will Smith vehicle After Earth, but these box-office bombs are often balanced with low-risk successes such as The Purge, which has made $43 million so far on a budget of $3 million (not to mention all of the countless Paranormal Activity sequels). Thus, suggesting that studios “would rather” focus solely on making big-budget films misses the mark considerably.

Spielberg and Lucas, echoing Soderbergh’s earlier comments, imply that personal projects will now inevitable wind up being distributed online or on television. Soderbergh, who has in the past placed microbudgeted films on the big screen, reported that he released his HBO biopic, Behind the Candelabra, via HBO because it was seen as too much of a financial risk to distribute theatrically, while Spielberg similarly stated that Lincoln was “this close” (imagine thumb and index finger inches apart) to being distributed through the cable channel. Implicit in these comments is the idea that TV (or streaming) offers an inferior experience to film, even though both directors have worked in both media throughout their careers. There is something mournful in their comments (not unlike those from Soderbergh).

That said, in the post-DVD, on-demand era, such claims about theatrical distribution have been circulating for a while. Mark Gill was making similar warnings back in 2008. But even with Gill’s dire descriptions of indie distributors shutting down or paring back on buying new titles, what’s happening now is far from a collapse. Instead, what we are witnessing is what amounts to a realignment and reworking of traditional business models. Scott Macauley captures this in his report on the 2013 Cannes Film Market, where he points out the lack of consensus around today’s distribution marketplace. Most notably, he observes that VOD is working best in the United States, that China continues to be a “difficult” market, and that older audiences still hold tremendous appeal for the art-house circuit thanks to the success of films like Exotic Marigold Hotel.

But what’s most perplexing from my oint of view is the discussion of (1) the future of moviegoing and (2) the culture of videogames. In terms of moviegoing, Lucas makes what seems like a remarkably odd prediction, suggesting that movie theaters will morph into a Broadway model, where individual films will premiere with $50-100 tickets and will linger in theaters for over a year. Given some of the incentives for theatrical churn (more movies=more opportunities for ticket sales, big screen movies must quickly “compete with” pirated versions), this idea seems counterintuitive at best. While I can imagine event screenings, even of big budget releases (say, Iron Man 4, in which Robert Downey and the gang do a live Q&A with theaters across the globe), these event screenings depend on scarcity models, not on long-term access. Once the film has been in thousands of theaters for several weeks, scarcity is no longer a selling point.

Their points about video games are just as odd. Spielberg argued–somewhat oddly–that video games had failed to create any characters with which the player could feel “empathy.” Lucas echoed this claim by suggesting that the next revolutionary video game would be one aimed at girls and that would mix action with an “empathetic” character making it the “Titanic of video games.” While I’m not an avid gamer, empathy in games seems to be beside the point. That’s not to suggest that a game can’t be used to tell a powerful story, but their accounts of gaming seem to discount (or outright ignore) many of the pleasures–especially the social aspects of online, multiplayer games–of gaming. Games don’t have to offer a choice between “actual relationships” and “shooting people.”

There is little question that the industry is changing. Tentpole films do serve as a major focus for the studios. Although the theaters were showing art house projects by Polanski, Ozon, Kore-Eda, Soderbergh, Jarmusch, and Payne (among others), the mise-en-scene of Cannes itself was dominated by large banners promoting hollywood blockbusters. Entire hotel walls were covered by posters for The Lone Ranger, The Great Gatsby, and The Hunger Games. But it’s also clear that the festival’s Competition films still mattered. They drove the discussion at Cannes, and whether we encounter these movies on the big screen, on cable, or on our laptops, they will still generate conversation, and distinct artists will still work to ensure that their voices are heard.

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Crowdfunding, Indie, and Occupy Cannes

Like many other observers, I’ve been fascinated by the rise of techniques such as crowdsourcing and crowdfunding in the world of independent film. Both of these techniques seemed to emerge in response to the widely discussed independent film “crisis” of 2008, which saw several major studios shut down their specialty or indie divisions, as Mark Gill famously documented in his 2008 Los Angeles Film Festival keynote address, which warned that “the sky [was] falling” when it came to the financing and distribution of independent film. Gill’s speech was part of what appears to be a moment of transition, one that was shaped not only by the collapse of more traditional financing models–such as the pre-sales described by Edward Jay Epstein–but also by the ongoing shift from DVD sales and rentals to streaming video and on-demand distribution, among other issues. In this context, a number of filmmakers began experimenting with do-it-yourself approaches to filmmaking that sought to get the audience involved in the making of a movie from the very beginning, whether through involvement in the production, financing, or promotion.   These filmmakers, however fairly, were often defined directly against the so-called studio indies or “dependies” distributed by Miramax and others, raising questions once again about what it means to be an independent filmmaker.

For this reason, I’ve become increasingly fascinated by the crowdfunding project being proposed by the longtime production company, Troma Entertainment, the company responsible for a wide range of low-budget genre films, including The Toxic Adventure and The Class of Nuke ‘Em High. Their proposed project is a documentary they are calling Occupy Cannes, which would depict their efforts to rent a theater in Cannes where they would attempt to sell their latest title, Return to Nuke ‘Em High. Their campaign has received an impressive level of attention from Time Magazine, where Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman reports that he hopes to show how film festivals have been “perverted,” a shift that Kaufman attributes in part to the return to business models based on vertical integration. It’s a fascinating idea and the Troma proposal asks for a relatively meager sum of $50,000 to finance the project, while also incorporating some basic crowdsourcing aspects, in which they invite supporters to choose which movie poster design they prefer for Occupy Cannes.

But what fascinates me about this project is how Troma works to define themselves as a more truly independent production company, while also highlighting their long history of making movies. During their crowdfunding video pitch, a woman takes us into Troma’s “vaults,” where we are introduced to several prominent actors–including Marisa Tomei and Samuel L. Jackson–who appeared in Troma films early in their careers. More crucially, however, we are reminded of the fact that Troma not only funds all of its films independently but also pays for and produces all of its own publicity materials (one example of this for Return to Nuke ‘Em High is a Tumblr blog ostensibly by one of the characters in the film). as you might expect, Troma is attentive to the fact that crowdfunding techniques are not viable for most independent filmmakers, especially for those who don’t have long industry careers or large fan bases to build upon. No matter what, I’ll be curious to see how Troma–a company that is very attentive to creative marketing techniques and to playing with (and parodying) Hollywood imagery–engages with this new indie economy and culture.

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Documenting the Doctor

A good friend of mine, Chris Hansen, is making a documentary about Doctor Who fandom in the United States, and he is interested in hearing from (and interviewing) fans of the show in all of its incarnations and also the scholars who study it (not that those two categories are mutually exclusive, of course.

I’ve known Chris for a long time, and one of my first memories of meeting him was seeing his vast collection of Doctor Who novels, so I know he’ll approach this subject with an appreciation of the series and its fans, unlike some of the Star Trek docs that have treated their subjects condescendingly. Chris also works in an academic setting, so I think he is also well-positioned to understand and present how scholars approach fan studies and similar forms of scholarship.

If you’re interested in being involved in the documentary, you can get in contact with Chris at the link above. If you want to check out some of his past films, they are available online.

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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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Streaming Independents

A few days ago, to celebrate their 15th anniversary, indieWire held a symposium on the state of independent film distribution at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. The panel included a number of heavy hitters from the world of indie film including Richard Abramowitz from Abramorama, Amy Heller from Milestone, Bingham Ray (SnagFilms and FSLC), Ira Deutchman (Emerging Pictures), Bob and Jeanne Berney from FilmDistrict, Mark Urman (Paladin) and Arianna Bocco (IFC Films/Sundance Selects). And for those of us who live outside the New York metropolitan area, indieWire was kind enough to post a video of the entire panel (which runs for over an hour). For those of you who are interested in the changing models of film distribution, it’s well worth watching and helped me to develop a slightly better framing for some of my own research on digital delivery. Some quick highlights:

  • Urman and Deutchman, in particular, emphasized that the “speed” of distribution has changed considerably in the last decade. Indie films fifteen years ago could often expect to be in theaters for up to a year, whereas now, even a successful film might be in and out of theaters in 90-120 days, meaning that “everything has to be done at an accelerated pace,” as Urman put it.
  • On a related note, Deutchman observed that new delivery models work against the “sense of urgency” formerly associated with moviegoing. Given the accelerated distribution process, moviegoers can now anticipate that a film they want to see will be on VOD or DVD just a few weeks after its theatrical debut, making it more difficult to sell viewers on seeing movies in theaters (or on any other platform for that matter).
  • The “speed” of audience response has also changed, with one panelist noting that his daughter texted him within ten minutes of the start of a movie to complain about how bad it is.
  • There was some interesting debate about how Netflix was affecting the indie film industry, in particular. For most of the panelists, Netflix seemed to be a virtual monopsony, the only significant buyer of streaming/DVD content (“the only game in town”), which would result in driving down prices. Others were more sanguine, suggesting that Netflix could put indies on an even keel with other studios.
  • Most of the panelists seemed to agree that Netflix was working hard to get out of the DVD business as quickly as possible, a desire that is likely a major (though not the only) motivation for their recent price hike.
  • Deutchman (I believe) also noted that Netflix and HBO were becoming more alike, especially given Netflix’s move toward distributing original content, such as the U.S. remake of the British mini-series, House of Cards, while HBO was increasingly turning toward on-demand distribution.
  • Bocco and Urman discussed the problems of VOD interfaces and the difficulty of crating massive amounts of content. Bocco, if I remember correctly, acknowledged that the alphabetical listing of titles might even bias browsing consumers toward titles beginning with letters earlier in the alphabet. One panelist also mentioned that a VOD description of Shutter Island failed to mention that Leonard DiCaprio was in the movie, suggesting that descriptions of VOD films are often horribly incomplete, making it difficult for people to find movies they’d want to see.
  • Dana Harris, the host of the event, pointed out the lack of data on VOD purchases, especially compared to theatrical box office and even DVD sales, an issue that I’ve been confronting in my own research. Bingham Ray confirmed that there has been much great transparency regarding DVD sales and rentals than VOD rentals. Bocco (who works for IFC, a significant VOD player) pointed out, however, that it is a little more difficult to interpret VOD numbers.
  • Amy Heller raised some important concerns about foreign language films, noting that the viewing conditions for DVDs and especially for streaming video may not be beneficial for international films, especially for multitasking viewers who may be doing chores or surfing the net while they watch a movie, making it more difficult to follow subtitles, asking rhetorically, “Am I going to read subtitles on my phone?”
  • There was some discussion of the role of piracy, with Bocco asserting that “young people don’t want to pay to watch.”
  • Finally, there was quite a bit of discussion of “eventizing” the moviegoing experience in order to get people to attend film screenings. A number of directors, including Robert Greenwald, Franny Armstrong, and Gary Hustwit (and, in a different way, Kevin Smith), have been very successful at creating events around film screenings, but it’s far from easy to create and sustain these kinds of experiences.

It’s difficult to summarize all of the details of such a wide-ranging event, especially given the occasional lack of consensus from the panelists, but one of the strengths of the discussion was the historical memory of the participants, the recognition of how things have changed over the last decade or so. There’s lots to think about here, especially given the fact that the digital delivery models are still being developed.

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Streaming Ebertfest

While finishing my dissertation, I lived and taught in Chamapign, Illinois, and one of the coolest annual events there was Roger Ebert’s yearly festival, the “Overlooked Film Festival,” now known simply as Ebertfest. Few public figures have ever given their hometown such a cool gift: a weekend of old and new classic films projected in a genuine movie palace, the Virginia Theater, whose stage Ebert mentions once played host to performances ranging from the Marx Brothers, Donald O’conner, and even Houdini. Champaign’s Art Theater will also host “encore” screenings of many of the films. In addition to screening some fantastic movies, the festival attracts a number of the actors, screenwriters, and filmmakers for Q&A sessions that were always informative and engaging.

I’m too far away and too busy with end-of-semester work to make the trip up to Champaign this year, but the festival is doing us all a service by making those Q&A sessions available online through a Ustream channel. Although this practice has become much more common with festivals, Ebert has assembled a great line-up of filmmakers this year, so I think the videos with be worth your time (maybe I’ll play it in the background while I’m grading some freshman comp or film papers).

Ebert has a thorough discussion of this year’s lineup, so I won’t repeat that here, but some of the highlights include 45365, a film that has truly grown on me over the years, the Italian film, I Am Love, and a restored version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. There are several others, including Lena Durham’s Tiny Furniture, that I’d love to see. If you’re in the neighborhood, check them out, and then stop off for a martini at Boltini’s on the way home.

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Sunday Links

More film and media stories I’ve been following this weekend:

  • Time Out London has an article discussing the transition to digital projection and its implications for projectionists. It’s a pretty solid piece, and although it discusses the nostalgia for film, it also notes that the financial incentives for digital projection likely mean that the traditional projectionist is an endangered species.
  • Flow TV has a new issue out, and Randall Livingstone’s article on the “Get a Mac” ads, featuring John Hodgeman and Justin Long as PC and Mac, respectively, is well worth a read. One of Livingstone’s key points is that the laid back everyman, Mac, is presented as easily accessible: “The myth employed in these ads tells us it is easy and straightforward to be this person—to become Mac; it’s a myth that supports the dominant ‘classless-society’ thesis and hides the real societal hurdles that such a personal movement would have to navigate. Livingstone’s article also explores how the rhetoric of the Mac/PC campaign permeated other advertising campaigns.
  • Dawn Hudson has been selected to be the new CEO of the MPAA. David Poland offers one of the most thorough analyses of the transition.
  • Jason Sperb, while acknowledging his appreciation for the original Tron, explores some of the reasons Disney decided to relaunch Tron as a franchise now and successfully grounds that in Disney’s longer history of marketing nostalgia, exploiting technological innovation, and producing transmedia properties. I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about Tron for a project I’m doing, and Sperb’s comments offer a nice overview of the logic behind Tron: Legacy.
  • The National Association of Theater Owners cites several more articles that criticize the studios’ decision to release movie on video-on-demand after a 60-day theatrical window. The most prominent comes from Avatar director James Cameron, who describes his opposition to VOD as “enlightened self-interest.” The AMC Theater Chain has also released a statement against premium VOD.
  • Thompson on Hollywood has an interview with Barbara Kopple, who is promoting her latest film, Gun Fight, which is about the ongoing debates over gun regulation. I will be seeing Kopple’s film at this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, so I’ll have more to say later, but for now, I wanted to mention that I recently taught Harlan County., U.S.A., her 1976 documentary about a coal mine strike, and my students and I were blown away by the film’s immediacy and power.
  • Finally, in maybe my favorite post of the day, Richard Brody reports that the Chinese government has banned time travel films because they “disrespect history.” Apparently the genre is currently quite popular in China, but the concern is that time travel is the source of simple “culture shock” amusement and that “the producers and writers are treating the serious history in a frivolous way, which should by no means be encouraged anymore.” Maybe it’s time to dust off some of my research on time travel movies, after all.

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Poetic Transmedia

Although I haven’t been able to track some of the more innovative uses of transmedia storytelling over the last year or so–too many other obligations–I have to admit that I find myself transfixed by the powerful use of web video to introduce viewers to Terrence Malick’s latest film, Tree of Life. Although the website offers little conventional material–unless I’m missing something, there is no mention of the cast or a plot summary–it has succeeded brilliantly in increasing my anticipation for the film and for seeing it on the big screen.

As you enter the website, it invites you to follow one of two forking paths, the father’s way or the mother’s way, while a haunting, almost mournful score plays in the background. Once you choose, you encounter a split screen with half the screen filled by a semi-circle of video clips and the other a white space with some cryptic text that evokes a moral parable. Below that are some of the social media responses to the website, and although many of them are direct expressions of fandom, others emphasize the aesthetics of the website, Malick’s characteristic use of slow pans and subtle camera movements. None of the video clips offer any dialogue (unless I missed something), meaning that the images and score tell us the entire story. Contemplation prevails over plot summary. Included in the white space is a small flash video player that shows the clip the user has selected. Choosing the opposite path–going from the father’s to the mother’s path–offers a mirror image: the semi-circle of video clips is now on the opposite side, suggesting that the two halves complete each other.

As a result, the website seems, at once, to offer a compelling depiction of the film that Malick has created and to critique the typical film website that places emphasis on narration and character. As one of the social media comments cited on the website suggests, “so glad that someone has really gone for it and made a movie trailer that evokes the atmosphere of a film rather than a head ache inducing compression of the entire plot.” And, yet, I am also aware that, like the media franchises that are implicitly criticized in this comment, the Tree of Life website is also involved in producing its own culture of anticipation, its own community of fans.

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Documenting Wikipedia

I am currently in the midst of the most recent version of my Wikipedia Project in my composition classes, and as usual, I’m pretty excited about the level of reflection that my students are bringing to their analyses of crowdsourced information production. When teaching the project, I have sought to adopt a “Wikipedia neutral” position, explaining that I see Wikipedia as a complex artifact within web culture. But now that I have done the project three (or maybe four) times, it is starting to feel a little stale.

Thankfully, a new documentary, Truth in Numbers, looks like it will offer a fresh–and highly accessible–perspective on the widely used encyclopedia.  I haven’t yet seen the film–although given that is available via streaming access, I will soon–but the trailer addresses one of the concerns that many of my students only partially grasp, and that is the question about anonymous users. While they recognize that anonymity potentially harms the writer’s credibility, they are less attentive to the idea that individuals or corporations could edit information on the site in a way that supports their own financial or ideological interests.

As Cinematical notes, the film also traces Jimmy Wales’ role as a “benevolent dictator” in shaping the editorial policy of Wikipedia.  For those of you interested in Web 2.0 issues, this might be worth a look.

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Friday Links

Here are some of the stories I’ve been following the last couple of days:

  • University of Wisconsin media studies professor Jonathan Gray has one of the more thoughtful discussions of the pro-union protests that have been taking place in Madison over the last few days, with a promise to offer more posts in the days ahead.
  • Patrick Goldtsein looks at the attendance for Oscar contenders such as Black Swan, The King’s Speech, The Fighter, The Social Network, and True Grit and attempts to address why adult moviegoers have been returning to the box office this year. My sense is that there probably isn’t a simple causal explanation, although it helps to have relatively marketable directors (Fincher, The Coens) and stars (Bridges, Wahlberg, Portman, Firth) involved in some of these projects.  True Grit is a “remake” of a familiar film, and others fit into or engage with familiar (and well-liked) genres.
  • Via The Film Doctor, Mark Harris’s GQ column about Hollywood’s reluctance to make movie dramas.  Harris offers a checklist of sequels, prequels, and comic book adaptations to imply that the studios have abandoned these kinds of films, but even though 2011 apparently promises a record number of sequels, that does not preclude the existence of other films.
  • Liz Losh considers whether blogging itself is becoming dated, comparing her practices of teaching it to “teaching Latin.” But she adds that she still learns quite a bit about the students in her relatively large classes from the blog posts that they write. But to me, asking whether blogging is dead sounds an awful lot like a conversation we’ve been having about film criticism for some time now.
  • Although I’ve been writing primarily about the digital distribution of movies, I’m also aware that the questions about VOD also have important implications for TV. With that in mind, I found ESPN’s discussion of their “multipltaform distribution” practices interesting. Especially notable was the claim that online distribution does not cannibalize traditional viewing on cable.
  • On a related note, Advertising Age discusses the distribution turf wars between Google TV and Hulu (among others).

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Streaming Cinephilia

The news that Hulu has acquired streaming rights to over 800 Criterion titles is a couple of days old by now.  Cinematical has the basics: 150 titles will be available to Hulu Plus subscribers almost immediately, with about 800 total within just a few months. Non-subscribers will be able to see a narrower selection of titles through Hulu’s free service, but for a brand typically associated with television content, a clunky video interface, and disruptive ads, this is kind of a big deal, one that seems designed to attract cinephiles away from Netflix. At the same time, it illustrates that digital distribution models are far from settled, with some potentially interesting implications for internet-based cinephiles.

It’s worth noting that, if New Tee Vee is correct, the Hulu Plus-Criterion deal is exclusive, which means that Netflix will no longer be able to stream these titles (although it’s less clear from what I’ve read whether they would have access to renting and mailing the physical DVDs). This type of deal suggests that, despite claims about a giant celestial cineplex in the (computing) cloud, in which we will have comparatively easy access to the history of film, what we will have instead is something closer to a range of competing miniplexes, each with access to a limite range of content, with frequently changing marquees depending on what content is available at what price at any given time.  Even with this Hulu deal, Criterion continues to emphasize DVDs as “their core business.” At the same time, streaming video makes it feasible for Criterion to offer films that have been too expensive to market as DVDs, making the deal even more appealing for internet cinephiles.

The Criterion films on Hulu will not be interrupted by advertising, and as Matt Singer at the IFC blog surmises, Criterion’s standards for streaming quality are typically very high–note the current quality of streaming Criterion titles currently appearing on–and the service also plans to make some of Criterion’s popular supplemental features available online, something that typically hasn’t been available through other VOD services. I’d imagine the value of streaming these supplemental features is significant.  Because I’ve been using Netflix on my Wii, I’ve missed out on supplemental features for some of the films I’d normally watch on DVD, and I’ve wondered how (or if) those kinds of features–director’s commentary tracks, making-of videos–would become widely available.  I’d be tempted to withhold some of this content on streaming sites to entice people to buy the DVD, rather than streaming, but my guess is that offering at least some supplemental content online makes sense (in fact, as a commenter on the Criterion blog points out, this kind of content might be “ideal” for some of the smaller screens).

Both David Poland and Scott Macauley consider the industrial implications for this deal, with Poland, a frequent critic of Netflix’s business model, suggesting that Netflix has overreached in its pursuit of TV and major studio content, paying too much for content that is likely to age quickly. Poland adds that there is little “customer loyalty” online, which means that people will migrate to content they desire rather than remaining loyal to a specific platform. I think this is basically right, although I think some consumers may remain with Netflix out of laziness rather than loyalty.  Macauley essentially agrees, reflecting that he’ll remain loyal to Netflix for now but speculates that if Hulu bought the rights to IFC films, he might switch services (I’d imagine that at least some people are already or would end up paying for both).

For now, one of the more significant aspects of this deal is the degree to which it alters Hulu’s place in the digital distribution ecosystem, changing it from a service primarily defined by its TV holdings to one that is at least somewhat focused on fostering (and profiting from) internet cinephilia.  At the same time, it indicates that many of our favorite movies are simply shifting from one celestial multiplex to another one down the street.

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Wednesday Links

I’ve got a separate post on the Hulu-Criterion deal brewing, but for now, here are a few links:

  • Interesting film history note: Cinematical has an article about Australian filmmaker Phillipe Mora’s discovery that a crude version of 3-D filmmaking was developed in Nazi Germany, sometime around 1936.  Mora has found at least two films that use 3-D imaging.
  • Scott Rosenberg has a thoughtful post on some of the complaints about The Huffington Post’s practices in paying (or not paying) for much of the content that appears on its site. I think that what is especially notable about Rosenberg’s post is his discussion of the role of (paid) platform designers who design the code that allows sites like HuffPo and Google to operate.
  • Jim Emerson’s post reminded me that The Self Styled Siren’s For the Love of Film (Noir) blogathon is up and running.  There are already dozens of insightful links, and it’s all for a good cause, film preservation, too. Write, link, donate, if you can.
  • More discussion of the fact that customers are choosing to rent, rather than own, digital content, at least when it comes to movies.
  • Liz Shannon Miller reports on a talk by Intel futurist Brian David Johnson’s predictions about the future of television. As a number of us have been saying for a while, there are important social aspects of television viewing, which means that some form of liveness will persist (if only so we can live-tweet the Oscars and Super Bowl).
  • Radiohead is releasing a new album, but they’ve decided to skip the “Radiohead model” of inviting buyers to pay what they want this time. Scott Macauley considers the implications for the film industry.
  • Catherine Grant has compiled some links on “film festival studies” for her indispensable Film Studies for Free blog.

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Sunday Links

Still in the process of transitioning to my next project.  Here are some of the things I’ve been reading and thinking about this weekend:

  • Laura R. Walker and Jaclyn Sallee make an argument for funding public broadcasting in a Washington Post editorial. One noteworthy statistic: an estimated 170 million people make use of some form of public broadcasting every year, well over half the U.S. population.  Their series Frontline and P.O.V. have been significant supporters of documentary film, as well, so even if the films are not watched on PBS stations, their financial support for these films is still crucial.
  • Anne Thompson, Erik Kohn and Leonard Maltin continue their Three Critics series with a roundtable discussion on the “Forces of Change” in Hollywood in 2011.
  • Volkswagen jumps the gun on the Super Bowl advertising attention sweepstakes with their Star Wars-themed ad.  As Patrick Goldstein observes, it’s a clever bit of messaging for Volkswagen in its efforts to imbue “magical” powers to a mid-sized sedan.
  • Ted Hope works with Lance Weiler on exploring transmedia extensions of Weiler’s latest entertainment project, structured around Weiler’s film, Hope is Missing.
  • Echoing the philosopher Michel Foucault, Andrew Keen warns us that “sharing is a trap.”  Keen builds upon the ideas behind Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon to suggest that social media produces a new form of visibility, one that can control (or at least profit from) our actions on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites.  Keen implies that participation in these sites is essentially inevitable, which is probably an exaggeration, and (correctly) points out that our practices of sharing will lead to the data being sold to advertisers.  Keen’s discussion, however, seems a little too dismissive about the pleasures of sharing via social media, the enjoyment many of us get when hanging out at the digital water cooler.

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Wednesday Links

Social media, film, and other topics I’ve been following over the last few days:

  • Via Tama Leaver, a New York Times article on Wikipedia’s efforts to increase the percentage of female contributors to the website.  Currently, only about 13% of the contributions are by women, while the average age of contributors was in the mid-20s.  There is some interesting food for thought here when it comes to how knowledge is constructed within Wikipedia (and perhaps the web more broadly).  I’m in the process of starting up my (slightly updated) composition students’ Wikipedia project, and this article might provide good discussion material.
  • Tama also points to an article reporting that Google has created a device that allows people to post tweets by making a telephone call in response to the internet blockade in Egypt.  Like a lot of people, I’m reluctant, at best, to ascribe the events in Egypt to social media, but I do think that social media tools might allow people to organize more efficiently, and they can also make these events visible in different ways.
  • In honor (?) of the Oscar nomination for Banksy’s documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, street artist Mister Brainwash (who was, in some sense, the subject of the film) has created a somewhat perplexing street mural.  I only wish MBW had gotten around to this a month ago when I was writing an article on fan adaptations and activism.
  • The Self-Styled Siren is hosting a film noir blogathon later this month.  Given that I’ll be teaching an early noir, The Maltese Falcon, for the first time in several years (I usually do The Third Man), I’m hoping to participate.  The blogathon is linked to a fundraiser designed to solicit donations for the Film Noir Foundation to go toward their film preservation efforts.
  • Lots of discussion about Amazon’s plans to offer a streaming video service linked to their Amazon Prime membership.  For $79 a year, not only do you get free shipping on all Amazon products, you also get free streaming videos.  This would complement Amazon’s existing streaming video-on-demand service and seems to represent a logical step after the online bookseller purchased the UK-based LoveFilm recently.  It will be interesting to see how Amazon functions as a competitor for Netflix, but as New Tee Vee points out, this could also encourage people to buy more stuff through Amazon thanks to their “Prime” membership.
  • I think I found this via Girish, but it’s worth noting that Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism has a very cool new online launch.  Girish also points to Cinema Scope’s new online presence.
  • Finally, New Tee Vee also has an article discussing BBC research on how to improve online video recommendations.  Interestingly, they found that older viewers were more likely to vote on videos.

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