Archive for film promotion

Repetition Compulsions

I’ve mentioned a couple of times here that the first movie I ever “owned” on VHS was an edited-for-TV version of The Karate Kid, which my sister and I must have watched at least twenty times, to the point that the tape itself was completely degraded (in fact, I’d argue that I’ve seen the film more often, though less recently, than legendary KK-watcher and ESPN Sports Guy, Bill Simmons).  I’m not terribly proud of this fact about myself, but as a child of the 1980s trapped in suburbia, my options were somewhat limited, and as a sports-meets-coming-of-age movie, it’s not half-bad.  So, I greeted the news of a remake featuring Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith with mild derision.

It sounded like a bad idea, an unnecessary and silly remake, but nothing that would occlude my memories of the original film.  On principle, I’m not necessarily opposed to the idea of remakes or reimaginings of older cultural texts, whether adaptations of novels or plays, so why be so protective of an older movie?  Plus, it’s not as if I felt the need to defend the Macchio-Morita version.  It satisfied some vague repetition compulsion when I was a teenager, but I no longer want to revisit it, so when I found out about the trailer for the remake (via a Fayetteville Observer blog), I watched it more out of a sense of curiosity than anything else.

And although I still find the remake completely unnecessary, I found the trailer oddly intriguing.  like many popular remakes, the new film borrows heavily from the older one: the kid moves far from home to a “foreign” environment (more on that in a minute), he gets bullied by a gang of karate thugs, and his mentor teaches him karate using a variety of unorthodox methods.  Many of the shots–the Kid riding away from his old ‘hood looking out the window of a car, a high-angle shot of the mentor’s garden–directly echo the original film.  But the context is a little off.  Instead of moving to LA and getting bullied by a bunch of WASPy jerks, Jaden moves to China instead, perhaps suggesting the film has its eyes trained on international markets.  But although the film has a professional polish, part of me felt as if I was watching a “sweded” version of Karate Kid, rather than a Hollywood remake, as if someone who half-remembered the original film took some of the more memorable scenes and threw them together and made up the rest.  Mocking the “wax on-wax off” scenes in the original with new moves (“take off jacket”) was mildly funny, but the rest seems like an extremely expensive fan production, albeit one trained toward launching one career and reviving another.

I still have almost no interest in seeing the remake, but seeing the uncanny echoes of the original in the trailer had the obvious effect of reminding me about my childhood pleasure at watching the original while also illustrating just how much things have changed since the original came out, twenty-five or so years ago.

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More Avatar Links

Three weeks after hitting theaters and film critics still can’t stop talking about it, even to say that they are refusing to talk about it:

  • Dave Kehr offers a nice critique of the claims that Avatar is a game-changing film, thanks to its success in popularizing 3D.  As Kerr notes, a transition in cinema, whether digital 3D or the introduction of sound, is typically “not something that happened overnight, but a gradual process.”  As he observes, 3D will require not only the technological tools but will also require the social acceptance of 3D as a viable format for a variety of film genres.
  • Jonathan Gray has a good analysis on the extratextual frames through which audiences view Avatar.  Like Jonathan, I think Avatar offers an intriguing example of how expectations for a film are typically established before the viewer actually enters the theater, but Jonathan offers an especially useful read of how Avatar’s anti-fans seem to “enjoy” their status as critics.
  • This knowledge likely informs Michael Atkinson’s decision to save himself three hours and skip Avatar.  Atkinson’s explanation prompts Jim Emerson to ask whether it’s OK for a critic to skip this month’s version of The Most Important Film Ever.  The quick answer is, sure, he can avoid any movie he chooses.  But I think Atkinson misses the point when he offers a simple opposition between the film’s story and its visuals, suggesting that the visual pleasure offered by a film like Avatar is mere childhood fantasy or that visuals and the technological mastery of them by Cameron are somehow outside the “story.”
  • Meanwhile, Emerson also has a nice round-up over the debates about Avatar’s politics, sparking a pretty intriguing debate about the film’s politics in the comments section.

Update: I don’t think I’ve mentioned it elsewhere, but Michael Cieply offers a similar argument to David Kehr that Avatar’s influence on future filmmaking practices isn’t fully clear.  Yeah, there are some 3D films in production, but few with the scope of Cameron’s film.  Cipely’s article comes with a nice graphic timeline tracing the long history of 3D film experimentation.

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Thursday Links: Netflix, Indie, Hulu Notes

Yes, I should be working on my syllabi.  But a few recent news stories keep distracting me (and I’m not even ready to start thinking about that Apple tablet thingie):

  • A number of people have reported the story that Netflix and Warner have made a deal that would significantly expand Netflix’s ability to offer streaming versions of Warner films in exchange for delaying rental of Warner titles until 28 days after they go on sale.  This gives Warner a short retail window that might allow them to boost DVD sales while providing Netflix with access to more streaming content.  As NewTeeVee points out, it’s much cheaper for Netflix to stream videos rather than distributing them on DVD by mail.
  • Wired Magazine has an interesting article about The Asylum, a low-budget studio “specializing in shamelessly derivative knockoffs that are not-so-affectionately dubbed ‘mockbusters.'”  I’ve seen a couple of their titles, I think, at my local Blockbuster (including Snakes on a Train), but although the studio made approximately $5 million last year, they typically are ignored when we talk about “independent filmmaking,” one presumes because their films are perceived as schlocky or derivative.  But, as the Wired article astutley points out, there is a long history of this sort of practice, and given the glut of indies out there playing one or two festivals, we might benefit from thinking about studios like The Asylum, and how they fit into narratives of independent cinema, because they do make films that get relatively wide video distribution.
  • The most recent comScore analysis shows that viewers watched 31 billion online videos in November alone.  Google sites (i.e., including YouTube) accounted for nearly 40% of the total.  The nearest compeitior, Hulu, clocked in at 3%.
  • NewTeeVee also has some interesting, if somewhat odd, notes on Hulu’s audience, as compared to attendance at a number of blockbuster films.  I’m not sure what we learn from seeing that 42 million people saw a video on Hulu in October while nearly 20 million attended New Moon on its opening weekend, but the comparisons are worth a look.

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Box Office, Politics, Avatar

Although I still haven’t had time to see Avatar yet, thanks to holiday travel and teaching obligations, I’m fascinated by the reception of the film, both as a political artifact and as a box office juggernaut.  There can be little doubt that Avatar is a huge box office success and may, in fact, surpass James Cameron’s other epic success, Titanic, in terms of all-time (non-adjusted) worldwide box office dollars.  Yes, if we adjust dollars or take into account total number of admissions, Gone with the Wind has better numbers, but given the sheer number of competing forms of entertainment, Avatar’s numbers seem to inspire a kind of awe in a number of entertainment reporters and observers.  But it’s also a film that has turned into a kind of political football, which is not surprising, given the film’s popularity.

Some of these thoughts began to crystallize for me when I read RC’s post at Strange Culture, which asks where Avatar will “land” in terms of all-time “domestic” rankings.  As I mentioned in the comments, it’s important to focus on worldwide gross, especially given that blockbusters often see two-thirds of their overall box office from overseas audiences.  If I were to guess, I would imagine that the technological spectacle of the film translates well regardless of subtitles or dubbing, making it “easier” to translate to non-English audiences.  Part of me wonders, as I did back in the Dark Knight days, why we’re all so invested in Avatar’s box-office numbers, as if we ourselves are somehow involved in breaking these records or feel the need to witness these records being broken.

But RC also mentions the phenomenon of repeat viewings, which seems to be aiding the film’s overall numbers.  RC points out that many repeat viewers are reporting that they are “upgrading” their viewing experience, going from 2D to 3D or IMAX, in order to see the film anew, a significantly different characterization of repeat viewers than we saw with Cameron’s previous film, Titanic, where most repeaters were characterized as teen girls with a crush on Leonardo DiCaprio.  Although Titanic was seen as a technological achievement, the love story narrative–complete with cheesy Celine Dion music–seemed to obscure the film’s use of technology.  With Avatar, for the most part, the technology itself seems to be obscuring the eco-friendly narrative.

That being said, the film has become a political football, especially for prominent conservatives who want to attack the film for being out of touch with mainstream values.  The most recent–and absurd–version of this attack comes (via Glenn Kenny) from Jonah Goldberg, who argues that the film’s biggest failing is…its framing of “the culture war” because the film gave the impression that “there are no secular people on the right.”  I’ll buy the idea tha the film is critical of the Iraq War or that it supports environmentalism, but this kind of reading treats the film solely as a partisan political message, not something with a complicated, even contradictory, ideology (and, quite honestly, gives good, well-supported ideological readings a bad name).  Worse, it reads everything not just in terms of left-right politics but the very narrow frame of contemporary U.S. elections, as if Cameron simply made a $350 million campaign ad, not an entertainment product.  The good news is that Avatar’s box office success seems to put a lid on the idea that “average Americans” are put off by Hollywood’s liberal excesses.  If Avatar is both liberal and excessive, most people don’t seem to mind.

The other popular “meme” about the film is that it has a derivative script.  I jokingly said it looked like “Dances with The Blue Man Group,” but I think that Anne Thompson offers a useful critique of the charge that Cameron’s films are derivative.  Yes, he certainly borrows (hmm..) liberally from past films and narratives, but the film itself is an original property (i.e., it’s not based on an existing media franchise) and its originality is, in part, the visual world Cameron has created (historically, I think Speilberg’s Oz comparisons, cited in Thompson, sound pretty apt).  I’m not saying that the film is “original,” because that’s a loaded term in academic film criticism, but that to fault the film for borrowing heavily from other narratives misses the point (it would be like faulting Wizard of Oz for borrowing from past coming-of-age narratives).

I’m not trying to make claims on Avatar’s politics here.  I’ll say more about those soon enough, I’m sure, but I continue to be fascinated by how the film functions as a political and cultural intertext, how audiences read the film’s politics and aesthetics and what that might mean in terms of seeing the film as a cinematic “game changer.”

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Tuesday Links: Gondry, Blu-Ray, Transmedia Indie Films

A few pointers to videos, blog posts, and other distractions, to celebrate the end of the semester:

  • Jason Sperb’s “incomplete” blog essay on Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind.  Jason makes some powerful connections here regarding Gondry’s videophilia with a careful attention to the film’s efforts “to celebrate the endurance of the ephemeral, rhizomatic communities that film periodically creates (every cinema is a community, and every community is a cinema).”
  • Movie Marketing Madness has a couple of interesting articles today, one focusing on the fact that Blu-Ray DVD player sales are increasing and another exploring Warner’s decision to withhold DVDs from Redbox rental kiosks for one month after the initial retail release of the DVD.
  • NewTeeVee reports that Paramount has temporarily extended its agreement to provide Redbox with new releases in exchange for further data on rental patterns, despite current “wisdom” that Redbox is costing the entertainment industry billions of dollars.
  • New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis discusses the politics of women and Hollywood in a candid, no-holds-barred interview.
  • Janko Roettgers, writing for NewTeeVee, asks whether DVRs remain “relevant” in the age of Hulu and other online streaming sources for TV content.  Although the evidence is mostly anecdotal, Roettgers raises some interesting questions about how new technologies affect patterns of use.
  • Ted Hope has a thoughtful post I’d like to address in further detail speculating about the reasons why the art-house movie audience appears to be graying and concludes that, in part, it’s due to the lack of opportunity for participation in the creation of indie film narratives: “Transmedia holds tremendous potential in its efforts to turn the presentation into an actual dialogue, although we still lack the defining work that goes beyond cross-platform to an actual back and forth, with both sides being equal creators.” This seems like a valid point to me, though one barrier might be the costs, both financial and physical (i.e., in terms of human labor), in sustaining a truly effective transmedia project.  Obviously there are a number of free video and blog hosting sites out there (among other resources), and innovative authors can exploit them, but it’s a bigger challenge without a studio’s marketing resources at a filmmaker’s disposal. Like him, I’d love to participate in any forum or think tank that engaged with these issues in a serious way.

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Saturday Links: Super, DVD Box Sets, Klosterman

A few links to celebrate the end of finals week:

  • One of the more compelling aspects of digital cinema is the increase in access to production discourse for the average movie consumer.  John Caldwell touches on these issues in his important book, Production Culture, and I tried to address those practices in Reinventing Cinema.  Now as DIY and indie filmmaking are developing a more recognizable presence on the web, I’ve become interested in how these conversations about movie production have become tied to the practices of film promotion.  With that in mind, I’m intrigued by what Ted Hope is doing with Twitter in his role as producer for the upcoming film, Super.  Using Twitter’s new list function, Hope has curated a list of 30 cast and crew members involved in the production of the film, as a way of building interest in the film.  It helps that one of the cast members is Rainn Wilson (The Office), who already has a massive Twitter following, but once again, we can see how social media tools are altering and expanding notions of film culture.
  • Via The Film Doctor, I found this interesting interview with pop media theorist Chuck Klosterman, where he talks at length about the role of the web in mediating fan cultures and practices.   Among other observations, Klosterman argues that the web has intensified and transformed the celebrity process.  He also notes that fans [of Twilight in particular] “have incorporated this film almost like a verbalized cog in their conversation.”  Film stills sent via email or posted on Facebook or MySpace pages become, as the interviewer puts it, an updated version of the emoticons we might have sent in the past.
  • Also worth noting: On Film in Focus, Jenna Bass has a recent post listing essential (online) resources on film festivals.
  • Finally, Slate’s Grady Hendrix has a discussion of his distaste for the DVD box set, calling it “the newest and most terrifying form of ritualistic abuse we inflict on one another.”  DVD purchasing in general is down, but I think Hendrix tackles some of the reasons why box sets, in particular, may not always be welcomed as gifts.  I disagree with some of his basic arguments, however, in particular his claim that “Television episodes were never meant to be viewed in rapid fire order.” Perhaps that’s the case, but show like 24 and Lost very easily lend themselves to the kind of intense viewing that DVDs offer, and I likely would have never survived my dissertation without Buffy breaks–2 or 3 episodes per night after a long day of writing during a time when I didn’t have TV reception.  To be fair, I likely wouldn’t inflict an entire TV series on an unsuspecting relative, but DVDs in general, with their power to anthologize and curate, have reshaped TV discourse, and that’s something that shouldn’t be so quickly dismissed.  

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Friday Links: Paramount, Moviegoing, Wikis

I’m in the last throes of the semester and ready to start thinking in earnest about spring semester and some writing projects that have been, shall we say, dormant for the last few weeks.   Here are some of the links that have crossed my radar over the last few days:

  • ProfHacker has an interesting post on a new wiki sponsored by the Modern Language Association for discussing “the evaluation of digital work.”  These questions have been the subject of debate at my university as we revise our promotion and tenure standards, and it’s good to see a professional organization such as MLA become more actively involved in endorsing digital work.  Obviously (for example), my blog has become a significant site where I have done work that might be defined as scholarly (or at least as a form of “service”), but we are just now developing a language for talking about materials that aren’t peer-reviewed journals that happen to be online.  This type of definitional work is valuable, however, not only for protetcing the intersts of younger scholars but also for imagining new forms of knowledge creation and dissemination.
  • The Auteurs recently tapped into my ongoing fascination with end-of-an-era listmaking with their recent thread calling for users to submit the “most memorable” movie images of the past decade.  A number of personal favorites showed up, including images from Punch Drunk Love and Eternal Sunshine, but this form of listmaking fascinates in part because of its collaborative nature and also because it places emphasis on how a single frame can convey so much information or have so much power.  The stills also provide a short visual history of the past decade in filmed entertainment.
  • Speaking of lists, Anne Thompson’s end-of-year and end-of-decade lists are also quite good.  I’m glad to see someone who shares my admiration for Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, a film that continues have incredible power as a commentary on post-9/11 New York.
  • Two divergent narratives are developing to characterize current moviegoing practices.  First, Patrick Goldstein looks at box office numbers and concludes that audiences are still enthusiastic about seeing movies on the big screen.  But according to a National Endowment for the Arts study, moviegoing is on the decline, with fewer adults reporting that they attended a movie in a theater last year.  The latter study seems, to me, to be a poor measure of the health of moviegoing, especially gven that it obscures the frequent moviegoers who attend movies often.  Nevertheless, the writers at Big Hollywood misread the statistics to suggest that there has been a 7% drop in movie attendance since 2002 and to further argue that such a drop can be attributed to Hollywood being “out of touch” with their ostensibly conservative customers.  Yeah, the same ones who elected Obama to be President about a year ago.  And the same ones who are eagerly consuming those movies on DVD, cable, and elsewhere.
  • On a related note, Variety reports that single-screen theaters are continuing to struggle in their competition with multiplexes.  I addressed this issue in passing in my book, noting that digital projection, especially, could hurt single-screen and smaller, independent theaters.
  • Finally, in one of the more compelling stories of the day, at least for low-budget filmmakers: Paramount has decided to open a division designed to focus on producing and releasing micro-budget films, focusing in particular on films with budgets of less than $100,000.  Filmmaker Magazine and Cinematical have bothe responded.  The decision is likely connected to Paramount’s recognition of the success of Paranormal Activity, which was made for approximately $15,000.  A number of commenters at Filmmaker Magazine are skeptical, speculating that Paramount may focus on developing genre films with a better chance at the kind of grassroots success that greeted Paranormal Activity and Blair Witch Project.  But it is nice to see at least one major studio investing modestly in supporting low-budget filmmaking.

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Forrest Gump’s Blind Side

In a recent post, Melissa Silverstein of Women & Hollywood observed that the Sandra Bullock vehicle, The Blind Side, eclipsed New Moon to become this week’s number one film at the box office, attributing much of the film’s success to lead actress Sandra Bullock and her appeal to female audiences.   That’s probably a fair assessment, as far as it goes.  Both Silverstein and Annie Petersen have been incredibly attentive to Bullock’s star power (as I mentioned a few days ago), arguing that Bullock’s spunky, quirky charm works well for female audiences while not necessarily alienating male viewers.

When I watched Blind Side a few weeks ago, over Thanksgiving, I found the film entertaining enough.  Bullock is charming and the cameos by college football coaches are amusing.  But as I’ve let the film settle and as I’ve witnessed its quiet, but remarkable, surge in popularity (thanks to strong word of mouth), I’m becoming convinced that The Blind Side has become this decade’s Forrest Gump, both in terms of its (ideological) content and its box office prospects.

Both films emphasize cross-racial, southern friendships, in which charcacters are offered forms of earthly redemption through their generosity or kindness to a character who is (or appears to be) mentally challenged, but who can through his simplicity, offer a deeper understanding of the meaning of life.  Gump teaches us through his cryptic aphorisms to accept the simple things in life.  Michael Oher, in The Blind Side, becomes a device for allowing wealthy whites to “rescue” African-American characters living in poverty.  Notably, both films use sports and other forms of male homosocial bonding (i.e., the military) as crucial aspects of the male lead’s psychological development.

The Oher narrative is especially insidious given that it is based loosely upon Oher’s childhood experiences but only works by exaggerating Oher’s passivity and naivete about football and schoolwork.  In short, it reduces Oher into Forrest Gump, as Max Weiss of Baltimore Magazine points out (with Weiss speculating that this may explain Oher’s supposed distaste for the film).  When I first posted this observation on Twitter, I was being somewhat coy, but as the discussion has evolved, I’m finding it increasingly convincing (even to the point that I now see Bullock as a kind of female Lieutenant Dan).

I bring this up not especially to criticize The Blind Side, although I find it problematic, but to point out that the film’s appeal rests, in part, on its ability to reach multiple audiences.  It certainly benefits considerably from Sandra Bullock’s status as a lead–imagine Hillary Swank or any other major actress in her role–but it’s easy to forget how much emphasis was placed on the role of sports in the film’s marketing (and on promoting the film during pro and college football broadcasts). And thanks to a brief conversation about the role of social media in shaping the reception of this film–more on that in the next few days–I’m wondering whether the film’s success can be attributed, in part, to campaigns, in particular among conservative bloggers, such as those writing for Big Hollywood, encouraging their readers to support the film (despite the supposed jab at President Bush).

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Avatar, World-Building, and Revolutionizing Cinema

In recent weeks, I’ve become casually interested in the hype surrounding James Cameron’s Avatar, a $500 million, special-effects laden, 3-D epic that serves as Cameron’s first feature-length narrative film since 1998’s Titanic.  It’s easy to forget that when Titanic came out, there was concern that the film would sink Cameron’s career and, potentially, a major studio.  But since then, Cameron has assumed a powerful position in the pantheon of blockbuster auteurs, alongside of Spielberg, Jackson, and Lucas (I’d include the Wachowskis here, but they need something besides the Matrix films to really qualify).  As the Avatar buzz begins to build, I’ve become fascinated by the ways in which the film is being positioned as the latest effects spectacle to simultaneously offer us a glimpse of a new world, one populated by an alien race with a distinct language and music, and a new way of seeing the world, one made possible by new cameras and more powerful computing power for rendering lifelike characters.

My thoughts on the promotion of Avatar began to crystalize when I read a recent profile of Cameron in this month’s Wired.  As usual, the article places emphasis on Cameron as a techno-auteur, someone who is equally adventurous in developing and testing new technologies as he is in taking storytelling risks.  In my book, I have a brief discussion of Cameron’s involvement in urging theaters to adopt the digital projectors that would be equipped to display 3-D films, a goal that the article ties directly to 3-D’s (thus far unrealized) potential to provide greater realism.

But I found it even more compelling that Joshua Davis’s profile also places emphasis on Cameron’s exhaustive efforts to create a convincing, coherent world for the Na’vi, the alien race depicted in the film.  We learn, for example, that Cameron recruited USC professor of linguistics, Paul R. Frommer, to create a new language for the Na’vi, discussing details such as whether modifiers would precede nouns, and training actors to speak the language phonetically (more on the language-creation here and in this even more thorough LA Times article).   Cameron also hired Jodie Holt, chair of UC Riverside’s botany and plant sciences department, to create a taxonomy of the plant life found on the planet where the Na’vi lived, as well as experts in astrophysics, musicology, and archaeology, to help imagine the world he’d created.  And while much of this content may not appear directly in the film, it will show up in the Pandorapedia, a book-length encyclopedia, part of which will be available online, but which has also been linked to the video game.

To some extent, these practices aren’t entirely new.  Fans have been learning Klingon since the 1960s.  Lucas and others collaborated in creating a vast textual universe inhabited by the Star Wars characters, and the Wachowksis create such an elaborate world for the Matrix characters that the final film was virtually incoherent for many casual observers (but much clearer for ardent fans).  Video games are also nothing new, but given the comments in this review from North Jersey.com, I’m curious to check out how the game engages with questions of narrative identification, given that you can play as either a human soldier or a Na’vi.

And yet, as the Wired title promises, Avatar is being positioned as the latest film that “could change film forever.”  On the one hand, it’s easy to dimiss such claims as so much marketing hype (or perhaps the utopian longings of the technogeek).  But I’m also fascinated by the language of transformation that seems to permeate so much of the pomotional materials, whether that is tied to a change in how stories are told visually or to a revitalization of a struggling film industry, as we see John Horn and Claudia Eller’s L.A. Times Cameron profile.  Here, Cameron is a prophet, capable of moving (digital) mountains, and potentially, providing us with a new cinematic language for visuallizing them.  Thus we find that Jon Lewis’s proclamation in the late 1990s that we have reached the “end of cinema as we know it” becomes both the status quo and continued hope for Hollywood filmmaking.

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Sunday Links

For your Sunday afternoon reading pleasure:

  • I’m always somewhat ambivalent about end-of-an-era listmaking (as my remarks about A.O. Scott yesterday suggest), but the indieWire list of “25 Things the Oscars Did Right” over the last decade is pretty good, a solid analysis of the last decade of film and a thoughtful reflection on the politics of Oscar.  Of note: their observation that the two Oscar wins for Milk indicate some progress on public support for gay rights.  They also highlight the Oscar success of a number of deserving indie and documentary filmmakers including Errol Morris, Michel Gondry, and Fernando Meirelles (for City of God).  Also worth noting: their list of 50 Oscar snubs from the last decade.  Among the most notable for me: Marjane Satrapi for Persepolis.
  • McHrebin picks up on some of my arguments about the Twilight films, providing some more data on the film’s enthusiastic fan base, pointing out that the openness of the text provides viewers with the potential to add to it.
  • Jon Reiss, whose book, Think Outside the Box Office, is now available, discusses the new distribution landscape for a column in Screen News Daily.  Although I find myself cautioning against words like “revolutionary,” Reiss is attentive to the ways in which indie filmmakers have become marketers and reflects on the ways that these promotional activities can become an organic part of the film text.
  • On a related note, Xiaochang Li discusses one of the panels from this weekend’s Future of Entertainment conference focusing on the uses of transmedia storytelling for encouraging social change, asking whether “Does transmedia as a narrative strategy [has] not only formal implications, but also ignites some political ones?”  As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit over the years, not only through the political uses of mashups but also through the work of documentary filmmakers that combine feature-length documentaries with supplemntary materials on the web, some of which can support and encourage political activism.
  • Finally, Catherine Grant has compiled another amazing reading list, this one focusing on adaptation, transmedia, and intertextuality.

Update: Via the Film Doctor on Twitter: Umberto Eco on our habit of making lists.

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Twilight, Sandra Bullock, and Taste Cultures

The ongoing discussion here in blogworld of the Twilight films has me thinking again about how film criticism, cinephilia, and taste cultures intersect.  Although I’ll admit that I know little about the Twilight saga beyond what I’ve absorbed from observing and talking to my girlfriend’s daughter, I’m fascinated by the ways in which the films have become the latest case study in the ongoing debates about female audiences and box office success.  Already, just hours after New Moon has opened, Melissa Silverstein and others have pointed to the fact that the film is breaking box office records, in this case, shattering the record for box office totals for midnight screenings.  Silverstein adds that online ticket seller Fandango is reporting that the film is selling more than ten tickets per second on their site.

Despite these impressive numbers, Silverstein is quick to point out that Twilight’s success is being seen by many as an accident, a phenomenon that cannot be reproduced.  Underpinning that observation is the point that “the film blogosphere” continues to devalue the tastes of the tween girls who have made these films a box office success.  In a round-table discussion with a group of female film writers, Silverstein and her colleagues discuss whether the Twilight films receive “respect” from the film blogosophere, which Silverstein and many of her colleagues characterize as overwhelmingly male.  On the one hand, I’m tempted to complicate this formulation a little. I’m skeptical of the idea that there is a singular film blogosphere.  On the other, I’m certainly aware that there are some dominant players among the gossip blogs in particular and attentive to the fact that film bloggers have become a crucial means by which taste cultures form, whether among Hollywood franchises or among the art-house blogger communities.  Silverstein’s round-table is well worth reading, especially when the writers discuss their ambivalence about the content of the series (it’s use of a traditional rescue narrative, Bella’s fining meaning in relationships while rejecting her studies), while also recognizing the core appeal that the books and films offer.*

But one of the questions informing this particular post comes not from the Twilight films but from other forms of taste-making connected to canon formation.  A few days ago on Twitter, I snarked about an A.O. Scott article about the best films of the decade (which, believe it or not, ends in just a few short weeks).  My complaint: Scott’s article didn’t mention a single film directed by a woman as belonging among the decade’s best or most memorable films.   I’d planned to write a longer post mulling on what this article says about canon formation, cinephila, and taste cultures, but other obligations got in the way.  Fortunately, however, the cinetrix took my passing remark and ran with it, connecting Scott’s decade-in-review article to the masculinized version of cinephilia described by David Bordwell in a blog post many months ago.  To be fair, Scott remarks that many of the most memorable movies of the decade–the ones that will fill DVD bins in big box marts (or, as Scott surmises, the great web portal in the sky) for years–offer “geek-revenge fantasies” that dismiss or ignore women: “Movies seem to be, increasingly, for and about men and (mostly male) kids, with adult women in the marginal roles of wives and mothers, there to be avenged, resented or run to when things get too scary.”

Scott’s remarks obscure quite a bit here, conflating box office success and critical acclaim.  The “geek-revenge” movies, many of them associated with Judd Apatow, have no doubt received quite a bit of attention, but a recent post by Annie Petersen on Sandra Bullock’s appeal to what Petersen calls the “minivan majority,” places some of these comments in perspective, pointing that a Bullock romantic comedy, such as The Proposal, can gross as much as $300 million worldwide on a $40 million budget.  Petersen is right to point out that the Bullock audience may be less visible on the web and that her appeal may not work on many of the male critics who review and comment on her films.  Petersen’s account of Bullock’s appeal to female viewers is well worth reading, but I mention it now to raise the point that Scott’s narrative of the 2000s as the decade of Apatow, Saw films, and stories of “arresred male development” overlooks quite a bit.

I don’t have a larger conclusion here, but these threads have been weaving together in my mind over the last few days, especially as the frenzy of end-of-decade posts begin clogging up my RSS feeds.  An underlying point of Scott’s article is worth addressing: new distribution and exhibition formats, such as Netflix, Hulu, and The Auteurs will shape how our “screen memories” are formed, likely in ways we cannot yet predict.  But these  can also obscure how large groups of people consume, think about, and discuss movies.

Update: Worth noting: New Moon broke the opening-day box office record previously set by The Dark Knight, an especially impressive achievement given that the film opened during the fall, when opening nights tend to be smaller.

* It’s worth adding, of course, that not all viewers and readers of the Twilight saga will follow this dominant reading or even focus solely on the Bella/Edward/Jacob love triangle.  Obviously that’s a major aspect of the story, but nearly two decades of fan studies should tell us that “dominant ideology” readings of Twilight can miss quite a bit.

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Film Criticism’s “New Moon”

I’ve been thinking about the Twilight series quite a bit lately.  No, I haven’t developed a thing for vampires or Kristen Stewart, although my girlfriend’s daughter, Yasmine, is a huge fan of the series (and I happen to think that Stewart is a talented young actress).  Instead, I think it’s a fascinating example of how internet buzz can develop around a transmedia franchise such as the Twilight books and movies and what it might mean for film fandom.  Anne Petersen, gossip scholar extraordinaire, has a witty, thoughtful post about this phenomenon, noting that her web traffic spikes considerably whenever she mentions the movies or pretty much anyone connected to them (and, no, this isn’t *really* a shameless plea for traffic).  More significant, however, is that Petersen also points out that gossip sites that are dependent upon building high volumes of traffic to build advertising revenue might be tempted to drop a few Kristen Stewart-Robert Pattinson rumors just to keep the fan base clicking in.

I mention these details because I’ve been reading John Hartley’s Television Truths, a book that devotes significant attention to the speed of publication (or transmission) associated with various media.  The sections I’ve read focus less on the web or bogosphere than older media, but I think his arguments are perfectly suited to describing the accelerated pace by which information is produced in the film blogosphere.  I’m not ready to argue that this process–in which gossip and entertainment bloggers rush to satisfy the voracious interest in the Twilight films–is harmful.  After all, I use Twitter, the microblogging tool known for short, quick posts.  Nor am I a purist about posting ads on blogs.  But I think it does speak to one of the ways in which the “industry” of blogging–the modes of producing a profit–begin to shape how film gets covered and even risks drawing attention from lesser-known films.  As Annie’s colleague, Nick, observes: “there can never be enough information on a star; therefore, more information is always needed.”

That being said, I think we lose a lot if we don’t reflect carefully on the specific attractions Twilight and its sequels offer its (predominantly, though not exclusively, young and female) audience.   With that in mind, I’m intrigued by a couple of stats mentioned by Anne Thompson, who notes that New Moon ticket pre-sales are significantly outpacing Twilight.   On one level this shouldn’t be surprising: more audiences have had a chance to discover (or become devoted to) the series through the original film, the DVD, the books, and online fan cultures.  More intriguing is Thompson’s discussion of the high level of activity on Flixster surrounding New Moon, which Thompson reports is seeing more discussion than the biggest grossing film of 2009, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.  I’m not sure that this metric can be used to predict that New Moon will surpass Transformers‘ numbers, but it does show that the fan base for it is probably quite a bit deeper and may (I’d imagine) attract more repeat viewings.

I don’t really have a grand conclusion here, but it’s interesting to see how social media tools such as Flixster and blogs have become an important part of the reception, promotion, and discussion of New Moon and other Twilight films.

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Thursday Links

A quick post today because I have a to-do list that seems to be growing by the minute:

  • Some recent research by Wharton Operations and Information Management professor Serguei Netessine and doctoral student Tom F. Tan seems to challenge Chris Anderson’s assertion that the internet is creating a “long tail” of niche alternatives to mainstream fare.  I’ve only had time to skim the article about Netessine and Tan’s research, but I’ve been somewhat skeptical about many of Anderson’s arguments for some time.  No matter what, their arguments are well worth engaging.
  • Catherine Grant continues her indispensable work at Film Studies for Free, compiling a list of all of the University of California Press books on film that are now available as public-access e-books.  I’ll just refer you to the list and (as usual) offer a note of thanks to Catherine for creating this list.
  • Kairos has just opened up its call for nominations for its 2010 Awards.  Categories include best webtext and best academic blogPast winners include a collection of many of my favorite blogs and scholars, so nominate your favorites now.
  • I’ve been a little out of the loop lately, but I’m intrigued by a post about the promotion of Paranormal Activity, a new low-budget film, on The Fayetteville Observer’s entertainment blog.  In particular, I’m intrigued by the use of footage from a test screening in this video as a way of guaranteeing the movie’s authenticity as a truly scary movie.

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Sunday Links

In celebration of being listed as one of the 100 Top Blogs about Film Studies, here is a long links post full of pointers to some recent debates about film distribution, documentary, and the new media landscape:

  • Pretty much every post Ted Hope writes is worth reading, but I found his list of “18 Actions Towards a Sustainable Truly Free Film Community” especially engaging.  A quick glance at the list will show Hope’s deep enthusiasm for the ways in which social media can revive independent film.  In particular, Hope emphasizes practices such as mentoring, curating, and networking as useful practices for indie filmmakers.
  • Also via Hope, a reminder about Jon Reiss’s research on digital distribution, coming soon to a bookshelf near you in the form of his book, Think Outside the Box (Office).  Reiss has posted sections of his book on his website, and it looks like a great resource for those of us who are thinking about the new distribution practices.  I think it’s easy to underestimate how significant these “nuts-and-bolts” guides can be in helping to reshape media practices.
  • Speaking of indie distribution, Anne Thompson’s Toronto International Film Festival coverage offers a starkly pessimistic account of the prospects for a number of well-received films that face a tough distribution climate.  When the word “bloodbath” is invoked in the title, you know it’s not good news.
  • Via The Film Doctor, several notable links including an intriguing online documentary project, Consuming Kids: The Commercialization of Childhood, which looks at the increasing practice of marketing toward children.  The seven-part video series is anthologized here.
  • The Good Doctor also provides a pointer to this excellent video on media convergence produced by Karl Fisch and Scott McLeod.
  • The New York Times has a fascinating analysis of Wikipedia’s response to Joe Wilson’s outburst uring Barack Obama’s health care address.  Robert Mackey’s blog post traces the history of the debate by looking at the Joe Wilson discussion and track changes pages, noting that a number of editors worried at first that Wilson’s remark would be too transient to be worth documenting in an encyclopedia entry.  Include in the discussion is a debate about whether the merits of Wilson’s charge were actually true and whether that should be included in the entry.  The discussion is, in fact, a great illustration of the politics of knowledge, showing the ways in which history is written on the fly in this 2.0 age.  It’s also a perfect model for my students’ Wikipedia projects, which they will start drafting later this week.  Sometimes the gods smile upon you, my friends.  So I guess I owe Rep. Wilson my heartfelt thanks for being a bit of a jerk and breaking with two centuries of American political protocol (link via Tama Leaver).
  • Here’s Part One and Part Two of a recent debate about instituting micropayments to help subsidize the lagging newspaper industry from PBS’s MediaShift.  I’m skeptical about whether micropayments would work, but it’s an interesting conversation nonetheless, especially given that newspapers now have a wider readership than ever before, even while advertising and subscription revenues are rapidly declining.
  • In the spirit of indie distribution, a quick reminder that Sally Potter’s latest film, Rage, will be available to mobile viewers starting on September 21 and on the Babblegum website starting September 28 (thanks to Matt Dentler for the tip).  The film will be available on DVD in the US, starting Tuesday, September 22.
  • Finally, a blog post from Henry Jenkins announcing the call for papers for the first Digital Media and Learning Conference. My conference dance card is relatively full, especially given the relatively thin state travel budgets this year, but it looks like a really cool event.

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Age of Stupid Premiere

A few months ago, I began hearing about Age of Stupid, a feature film about climate change by McLibel director Franny Armstrong and starring Pete Postlethwaite as “a man living alone in the devastated world of 2055, looking at old footage from 2008 and asking: why didn’t we stop climate change when we had the chance?”

Now, via Jon Reiss, a reminder that Age of Stupid will be having its global premiere this week at over 500 theaters in 45 countries.  As Reiss notes, the makers of Age of Stupid have used a number of hybrid or transmedia strategies to raise awareness of the film.  For those of you in the Raleigh-Durham area, the film will be playing on September 21st at 7:30 PM at the North Hills Stadium 14 Theater.

The website itself offers a number of social media features and the making-of page explains that the filmmakers “crowd-funded” the entire 450,000 pound budget, positioning the film as part of the emerging model of digital distribution.  An, in keeping with the film’s environmental politics, even measures The Age of Stupid’s own carbon footprint.  A 50-minute documentary on the production of The Age of Stupid, which I’ll try to watch asap, was also recently launched on The Guardian’s website.

There’s a lot to like here, at least from my perspective, as someone interetsed in seeing the emergence of new distribution models.  The film’s producers have succeeded in creating something of a special event, a “live” premiere sent from a solar-powered tent (in keeping with the film’s environmentalist goals) to theaters around the world.  It’s a cool way to build conversation about an important social and political issue and to build anticipation for what looks like a compelling film.  You can check here to see if the film is playing in your neighborhood.

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