Archive for media studies

“Just Like Buying a Bag of M&Ms”

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

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

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

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

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

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Opening “Pandora’s Digital Box”

While doing research for my second book on the digital distribution of movies, I read with extreme interest David Bordwell’s latest book, Pandora’s Digital Box, a highly-accessible but thoroughly researched text that focuses primarily on how digital projection systems are affecting movie theaters. Although Bordwell touches briefly on the role of video-on-demand and day-and-date distribution, he looks at these practices in order to consider how they feed into the theatrical experience. While Bordwell acknowledges that many of these changes are revolutionary–our concept of “film” is completely transformed and our film production and exhibition practices have changed dramatically–Bordwell is careful to view these changes as being entirely positive or negative; instead, recognizing how much of cinema’s origins have been lost to history, he attempts to offer detailed technical and anecdotal accounts of the digital transition.

All of these changes beg the question: what happens to “film” in a digital age? And here, I think Bordwell’s background in the poetics and the production cultures of filmmaking provides a powerful answer. Film persists, he suggests, in the “craft routines” and the visual language of the medium (215). Those routines may be altered–and some may be rendered automatic–but the 100+ years of making movies on film still speaks to us and through movies in an increasingly digital age.

Bordwell’s book is highly readable, accessible for almost anyone interested in the film industry. As he noted on his blog, he sought to write the book in a “para-academic” style, one that depended on careful inquiry and in-depth research while also using language that will be familiar to non-specialist readers. The book, in keeping with our digital age, is available as a PDF download from his website for $3.99.

Bordwell starts with the premise that, in the digital age, “films have become files” (8) and builds from there to ask what this means for moviemakers, audiences, theater owners and workers, and others who are affected by the film industry. In other words, what happens when movies are reconceptualized as objects that can be accessed on-demand, rather than as material objects that require an elaborate shipping, delivery, and storage system? One answer to this question is that much of the labor associated with movie projection becomes de-skilled and automatized. Rather than skilled, unionized projectionists, projection becomes automatic, handled through a few mouse clicks.

Throughout his career, Bordwell has been attentive to the fact that the movie industry is shaped by relations of power, and this book is no exception. One of the persistent questions that is addressed throughout the book is the issue of how the digital changeover will affect both independent filmmakers and theater owners, whether those spaces are art-house, smart-house, or simply regional mom-and-pop theaters in small towns. As Bordwell suggests, digital projection provides the Hollywood studios and distributors with much greater control over the exhibition process, allowing them to monitor more precisely how often (and even when) a film is shown. He adds that, in the long run, the conversion to digital will provide distributors with significant savings.

For independents, there are other complications. The cost of converting (and then upgrading) equipment makes local, small-scale ownership of theaters more complicated, and Bordwell cites data from National Association of Theater Owners president John Fithian to suggest that hundreds of smaller theaters could close in the wake of digital conversion. Alongside of this discussion, Bordwell traces the changing role of film festivals as “distributors,” an argument that I’ve been exploring from a slightly different angle. As Bordwell notes, digital submissions have allowed for a massive expansion in the number and diversity of festivals. In 1980, he calculates that there were 100 festivals worldwide. By 2008, that number had reached 4,000 (157).

Given that theaters–even the larger commercial chains such as AMC, Regal and Cinemark–had less to gain from digital conversion, Bordwell spends quite a bit of time discussing the negotiations between theater owners and distributors and effectively makes the case that 3D, which was being touted as far back as the 2005 CinemaCon, served as a “Trojan horse” (73-74) that helped  spur the “need” for digital projection. Lured by the promise of ticket surcharges and the textual novelty of movies like Avatar, theaters were ultimately willing to convert, even though the 3D bubble would eventually burst, despite current efforts by James Cameron, Peter Jackson (who is pushing for 48 frames per second projection, rather than the standard 24 fps), and others to promote the format.

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Digital Delivery Links 5/29

I have a couple of other posts percolating right now, including one that will push against some of my ongoing research on rental kiosks, but for now, here are a few links:

  • In Media Res is hosting a themed week featuring contributions from several members of the Connected Viewing Initiative. Today’s post from Sharon Strover highlights some of the questions I’ve been thinking about in my own research for book two and in my CVI project with Max Dawson, namely questions about what it means to be an “on-demand user” and how social media sites function as an informal “TV Guide.”
  • Ted Hope has a post outlining the ways in which the JOBS Act will affect the practice of crowdfunding that is now commonly used to raise money for independent films.
  • This is a few days old, but Bill Murray’s “tour” of the set of Moonrise Kingdom is a great promotion of Wes Anderson’s latest film and a perfect illustration of how Murray has one of the most fascinating star images in Hollywood today. See also Murray’s willingness to give a group of scruffy film fans a “slomo walk,” rather than signing an autograph. And the notorious (and mostly unverifiable) Bill Murray Stories blog.

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Digital Delivery Links 5/25

Still recovering from a busy academic year and some writing deadlines, not to mention some road trips to accompany our host daughter on college visits. It looks like it’s going to be one of those years where I feel hopelessly behind on all things cinematic and televisual, but here are a few of the items I’ve read or watched with interest in recent days:

  • Somehow I’d missed the fact that Redbox has acquired Blockbuster Express from NCR (which means that Redbox kiosks will soon replace Blockbuster kiosks in your local Safeways, Publix grocery stores, etc), but the intriguing story here is that Redbox also has plans to start selling movie tickets in its kiosks, a move that might help to build a better relationship with the studios.
  • James Poniewozik discusses the uproar over DishTV’s new technology that allows viewers to automatically skip advertisements on prerecorded TV shows. Naturally the networks are upset and have sued Dish, but Poniewozik suggests that the network response will hurt them with consumers down the road. More on the Dish controversy, including speculation that this may be a negotiating tactic designed to reduce retransmission fees.
  • The makers of the crowdfunded and crowdsourced Iron Sky are running into complications with maintaining their “outsider” ethos, given that the film’s German distributor has been posting cease-and-desist orders to people pirating content related to the film.
  • The buying frenzy at this year’s Cannes Film Festival inspires more discussion of VOD and day-and-date distribution practices, with more of the VOD players calling for splashier, star-driven films for their increasingly crowded catalogs.As Ted Hope suggests, there are no simple answers in this “Saturation Point Era” of movie distribution.
  • Jim Emerson offers his own take on Cannes and passes along a fun little video featuring all of the overhead shots used in Wes Anderson’s films. Notably, when Anderson watches the video, he sees all of the labor that went into constructing each shot.

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The End of Film as We Know It

Given that I wrote quite a bit about digital projection in my first book, Reinventing Cinema, I feel somewhat obligated to mark the announcement from 20th Century Fox that they will end 35mm film distribution by the end of 2013. It wasn’t hard to predict that this would be the direction that the movie industry would take, but I am somewhat surprised that it happened quite this quickly. But as this Hollywood Reporter article points out, the National Association of Theater Owners now seems to support a total phase out from all studios by the end of 2013.

This move isn’t terribly surprising, and to be honest, I’m not sure that many moviegoers will notice the difference. I still wonder how the digital transition will affect how movies are distributed. Obviously, digital copies are far cheaper than film prints and much easier to deliver, which potentially benefits low-budget and independent filmmakers, but it’s a little less clear how digital projection will work for independent and repertory cinemas. NATO and the studios have pledged to help theaters adapt, but for smaller distributors, the virtual print fees (the subsidies paid by movie distributors to help theaters cover the costs of buying digital projection equipment) may be too expensive, making it more difficult for independent and low-budget films to reach theaters.

There are also some significant problems associated with archiving and preserving digital copies–namely the need to upgrade as digital platforms evolve. There may be some room for optimism here. As this article suggests, digital copies take up significantly less space than film copies, making it easier to store multiple versions of a movie, but given the number of movies that have been lost due to a lack of attention to preservation, it seems important to dedicate some effort to the preservation process.

More than anything, this news is yet another reminder that cinema, like most media, is a medium that is in a constant state of transition, both at the level of aesthetics and economics.

 

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Reinventing Hillary

The “Texts from Hillary” Tumblr exploded on the web several days ago–Rachel Maddow mentioned it on her show several days ago–and I’ve gone back to the site several times when friends mentioned it on Facebook, but I think it’s worth discussing in detail because it seems to illustrate some of the ongoing changes in political parody.

First, like the Downfall Meme, I think the Texts from Hillary meme is extraordinarily flexible. It can be used to riff on any number of current events and celebrity personas. Recent posts have parodied Jon Stewart, Maddow (possibly a shout-out after Maddow praised the site), and Mitt Romney. More crucially, it illustrates how Clinton’s political persona has been redefined after her epic primary battle with Barack Obama during the 2008 election. While Clinton was depicted as out-of-touch and harsh, the meme redefines her as embodying what Benjy Sarlin of TPM calls a new form of “badass cool.” The image of Clinton on a military jet, wearing dark sunglasses, and examining her Blackberry can now be re-read to suggest her political authority, at a moment when Clinton now maintains high popularity with both Democrats and Republicans. Perhaps the best illustration of this badass cool is the following text exchange:

What this post also illustrates is the degree to which these political parodies continue to rely upon intertextual references. The 3 AM reference recalls an advertisement in which Clinton attacked Obama’s lack of experience by imagining a 3 AM phone call and asking whether voters trusted Obama to handle the situation. The ad was widely parodied as being too harsh and threatening, but now, it has been reworked to fit within Clinton’s jet-setting, confident style. I’ll be interested to see if (and how) the meme endures because it seems to be a powerful illustration of how political meanings can shift over time. Oh, and because it’s really fun.

Update: FYI, now Clinton is submitting her own contributions to the Texts from Hillary Tumblr. Very cool.

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What Else I’m Reading

Because I haven’t been posting in a while, here are some more things I’ve been following lately. In other news, I somehow completely forgot to mention my ninth anniversary of blogging last month (I started a Blogger blog way back in March 2003)  until I noticed how Atrios was commemorating his tenth (!) anniversary. This gives me about ten or eleven months to come up with a creative way of marking ten years of blogging by March of next year. Suggestions are always welcome. By the way, here’s another bulleted list for your weekend entertainment:

  • A longtime blog friend, Craig Lindsey, will be teaching a course on film criticism and column writing on May 5. The course is open to the public and will be held here in Raleigh.
  • One of the early inspirations for my blogging habit was Robert Greenwald, whose anti-iraq War documentaries showed me how social media could be used to promote political activism. Now he’s back (yet again), this time with a documentary, Koch Brothers Exposed, which is meant to document the poster boys of SuperPACs.
  • The cinetrix has posted another fantastic collection of links, but I’m highlighting this one because I’ll probably borrow at least half of these links when I teach Introduction to Film next fall (scroll down a bit for some terrific Welles and Kubrick links).
  • Hugh Atkin has posted what is, without doubt, the best political remix video of the 2012 election so far: Will the Real Mitt Romney Please Stand Up?
  • Michael Newman offers a compelling reading of advertisements for TVs, mobile devices, and 3D imagery.
  • For the 10th edition of Film Art, their introductory film textbook, Bordwell and Thompson are linking up with Criterion to create a series of videos for teaching many of the formal techniques of cinematic storytelling. Very cool.
  • Meanwhile Kristin Thompson warns against identifying trends based on a single year of box office numbers.

Hoping to have some more substantial blog posts soon, including reviews from this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, scheduled for next week (I believe this will be my fifth or sixth year of attending, another milestone that I find particularly unsettling).

 

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What I’m Reading: Digital Delivery Edition

Thanks to an unusual travel schedule (including trips to London, Dublin, Boston, and Atlanta), I’ve been completely out of the loop for the last month, so many of these stories are relatively old, but hopefully you’ll find some of them to be of interest:

  • There continues to be quite a bit of uncertainty regarding the future of digital delivery. Will Richmond Videonuze in particular calls into question a report from Bloomberg that predicts that streaming movie views will surpass DVD views in 2012. Richmond even speculates that Ultraviolet could be used to spark an increase in DVD sales, while pointing out that DVDs still play a vital  role in the entertainment economy.
  • Similarly, New Tee Vee tries to read the tea leaves regarding Netflix’s decision to purchase the domain dvd.com and decides (without a whole lot of evidence) that it’s much ado about nothing.
  • David Poland offers a number of reminders about the status of digital delivery, observing that Netflix now lacks any significant studio content in its streaming collections and that DVD sales have finally leveled off after declining consistently from 2006 to about 2010 or so. As usual, Poland’s skepticism for “home media hysteria” is a welcome antidote to some of the more utopian and dystopian claims about media use.
  • The Carsey Wolf Center (note: I am currently part of a research project affiliated with their Connected Viewing Initiative) is featuring an interview with Richard Berger, a senior vice president of Global Digital Strategy and Operations at Sony Pictures Home Entertainment on the history and aims of Ultraviolet. Particularly informative is Berger’s discussion of how Sony and other studios transitioned from a video-on-demand to an electronic sell-through model. Perhaps not surprisingly, Berger acknowledges that the biggest challenge facing Ultraviolet is the difficulty of fostering the impulse to collect that drove DVD sales for the last fifteen years or so.
  • Some interesting discussion of the role Hulu is playing in fostering the growth of new TV series.
  • Hacktivision points to some research indicating that people are indifferent–at best–to having Netflix viewing histories be shareable on Facebook and presumably other social media sites. Netflix is currently legally prevented from doing this (thanks to Bork’s Law). Although Reed Hastings continues to lobby to make frictionless sharing of viewing histories legal, but like Peter Kafka (linked above), I suspect that most people would prefer that this information not be public.
  • Mark Stewart speculates about the future of streaming video services in New Zealand, including Netflix and Quickflix, with a follow-up on his personal blog.
  • Finally, Anthony Kaufman has an intriguing article and blog post, both of which speculate on the reasons why we have so little information about the data behind VOD sales and rentals, even for indie films.

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Rethinking “Stop Kony”

A few weeks ago, I expressed some fascination with the Stop Kony phenomenon. My reaction was oddly timed in that Jason Russell, the “star” of the first video was detained while I was composing my blog post, but it was impossible to deny that the original video had made what appeared to be a profound impact on an international youth culture using a combination of social media tools, celebrity “attention philanthropy (to use danah boyd’s phrase),” and a persuasive narrative structure. At the time, my post was torn between addressing the political simplifications within the video and the colonialist and evangelical ideologies. Unlike the Alternet article I cited, I didn’t see the video as a means of promoting evangelical Christianity. Instead, I saw it as multiplying the powers of social media with the (widely under-discussed) communication networks of Christianity.  But the power of the original video was, without doubt, short-circuited by the circumstances of Russell’s detention, which allowed media commentators to place both Russell and the Invisible Children organization under greater scrutiny.

Still, I think it is worth unpacking how and why the original “Stop Kony” video worked and to see how the organization has responded to these complaints while maintaining their appeal to an international youth culture that might be responsive to using participatory media in order to support some form of service or activism. Boyd offers one of the more compelling maps of how the Stop Kony phenomenon circulated, pointing out how existing religious networks played such a vital role in circulating the video. Henry Jenkins and Neta Kligler-Vilenchik also point out that the video should not be reduced to simplistic accusations of “Slakctivism,” in which youth are depicted as participating in “one-click” activism. Although many people no doubt simply “shared” or “liked” the video on Facebook, thousands of others have mobilized for the day of action on April 20, and one of the reasons is that Invisible Children provides a structured format through which youth feel as if they can make a difference. Jenkins and Kligler-Vilenchik (like boyd) are also quick to point out that Invisible Children has been active for a decade, building these networks and fostering a climate in which a single video can make a significant impact.

These questions re-emerged for me when, yesterday, one of my students alerted me to the fact that there is a new video from Invisible Children, Kony 2012: Beyond Famous. Unlike the previous Stop Kony video, this one has had a slightly slower roll-out, reaching just over 750,000 viewers in its first two days, but it is notable in at least three respects. First, Jason Russell is almost invisible here. As a result, although we see things through the narrative point of view of Ben Keesey, the video is careful to expand its POV to place emphasis on local Ugandan activists who are campaigning for Kony’s arrest. Finally, it also offers a much broader picture of Kony’s activity, pointing out that he is now currently involved in three other neighboring countries, while acknowledging that Kony is not currently active in Uganda. This approach offers a somewhat more effective image of the conflict, which shows Ugandans themselves to be involved in the process. It’s also worth noting that Invisible Children sought to emphasize the multi-ethnic and cross-class alliances of groups involved in the Stop Kony movement. As I’ve suggested, I think it’s way too easy to categorize this as a movement that merely plays on the naivete of celebrities and youth. We should follow the practices of Invisible Children closely in order to understand how social media is affecting the way we communicate and the ways in which activism is being defined.

Update: Here are some more comments by Henry Jenkins, linking the Stop Kony phenomenon to his concept of “spreadable media.”

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Distribution Matters

One of the many compelling panels I attended was a Sunday afternoon “workshop” panel structured around the question of defining the concept of media industry studies. This question has been one challenging media studies scholars for a few years now and is a guiding question of Media Industries, History, Theory, and Method, an anthology edited by Jennifer Holt and Alisa Perren.  I don’t think I can possibly summarize the wide ranging conversation that took place, but some of the core concerns are worth summarizing. For one, Alisa proposed a call for what she called “distribution studies,” a focus that is central to much of the research I’ve been doing since Reinventing Cinema came out. I think it’s a useful term that allows us to take our critical thinking skills and to direct them toward a whole host of problems that are now confronting the TV and movie industries (among others). It also allows us to acknowledge that the distribution problems affecting one industry might overlap with those in others.

I found myself thinking about that panel–and I believe it is one that I will return to often over the next few months–while skimming a couple of recent blog posts that crossed my radar. First, Amanda Lotz discusses Comcast’s new Streampix service, a VOD platform that allows users to search through and watch a wide range of TV programs and movies. The problem, as Amanda observes, is that the cable interface is difficult to navigate, with episodes of TV shows (i.e., not the shows themselves) listed alphabetically with no date or episode number making it incredibly difficult to watch episodes chronologically. VOD movie distributors have made similar complaints for ages, with many people recommending that users choose a title beginning with a letter early in the alphabet to capture the attention (and digital coins) of bored scrollers. Her more crucial point is that Streampix seems to pay little attention to the cable interface while focusing intensely on making a user-friendly mobile interface, even while only a small percentage of users watch significant amounts of video content on tablets and phones.

On a related note, Cynthia Meyers offers a thoughtful critique of the rumors that Netflix is looking to be carried by cable operators. Like Cynthia, I am a little skeptical about the story, but I think that what is most valuable about her post is the way in which she parses the comparisons that have been made between Netflix and cable television. As she points out, Reed Hastings has frequently drawn a comparison between Netflix and HBO, especially in terms of their efforts to compete for consumers seeking out quality entertainment programming. But that comparison begins to fall apart when we look at how Netflix functions. Its flexible interface is far more useful than the clunky interfaces used by most cable companies. Netflix is already widely available–seeking a tiny slice of cable viewers makes little sense–and being “bundled” with other cable companies seems to offer few benefits (aside from all of the rights complications they’d face). There might be some benefit in creating a Netflix channel as a space for their limited original programming and select “long tail” titles that they want to promote, but I’m not convinced that there is enough value in that, unless, of course, they are becoming more concerned about their operating costs. But in both cases, interfaces, platforms, and other relatively invisible objects have the potential to profoundly shape how we access content, much less what we access. These blog posts clearly point towards some of the questions we ought to be asking about distribution practices.

There are some other issues that were raised in the panel that are well worth addressing, including methodological questions (How do we study it?) and even textual questions (What are we studying? Shouldn’t we still be looking at actual texts?). Those issues are beyond the scope of this blog post, but I think they need to be a part of our ongoing conversations as well.

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After Avatar: 3D, Cinematic Revolution, and Digital Projection

Like Jason Sperb (who chaired my panel), Bob Rehak (who also presented on digital effects and related issues), and Steven Shaviro (whose paper on “post-continuity” cinema I missed at the conference) I’ve decided to post a draft version of the paper I presented at this year’s Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Boston (you can find it below the fold). I ended up revising the conclusion considerably while at the conference, so I’ll quickly add that there were two or three different issues that I was trying to bring together in the article, concerns that will be addressed more fully in a couple of book chapters that are currently in the process of being published.

As audiences appear to have become increasingly disillusioned with theatrical 3D, I’ve found myself becoming more deeply interested in some of the ways in which 3D is being promoted both as a theatrical and a home format.  To some extent, that promotion has taken form through the use of auteurs to promote 3D as an idealized form for cinematic storytelling, a practice that can best be identified with Martin Scorsese’s promotion of Hugo. But there are also a number of other contradictions and challenges, most notably the news that some studios have announced that they intend to stop paying for the 3D glasses used in theaters in the United States (it’s worth noting that many European moviegoers already have to pay for 3D glasses, either through rentl or purchase). Finally, it appears that Cameron and others are now promoting the idea that 3D shouldn’t be a spectacular form anymore but that it should be normalized. Cameron, in particular, argued that once 3D TV is widely available, 2D movies will virtually cease to exist. Of course, I am far from convinced about Cameron’s arguments, but I think I’m more intrigued by the degree to which he and other 3D supporters continue to promote narratives of technological inevitability.

This draft is a bit rough and meant to provoke some questions rather than answering them, so please take it in that spirit. I’m hoping to have an SCMS wrap post soon that ties together some of the panels focused on media industries issues, but that may take a few days.

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Politics of Entertainment

Just a quick pointer to Jeffrey P. Jones’ insightful op-ed on the HBO movie, Game Change, which depicts the behind-the-scenes activities of the McCain-Palin presidential campaign. I haven’t had a chance to watch Game Change yet, in part because I dropped HBO a couple of years ago, but Jeffrey’s reading of the movie makes me really want to see it. Namely, he points out that politics has increasingly come to resemble reality television, while shows that are often designated as entertainment seem to be taking up the mantle of offering critical perspectives often ignored in the news media.

Jeffrey also points to a prominent interview by Rachel Maddow of Nicolle Wallace and Steve Schmidt, two of McCain’s key advisers, on MSNBC. As Rachel Maddow astutely observes, the book on which Game Change was based was widely seen as settling scores and casting blame on others for the failures of the McCain campaign, but the movie has helped to reframe the short history of Palin’s role as vice president, dramatizing the risks taken by the campaign when she was tapped as vice president.

Jeffrey’s discussion of Game Change is also making me want to go back to one of my long-term interests of writing about the politics of media. I’ve kind of put that on the back-burner for the last couple of years, but the current political campaign is reminding me of why movies like Game Change and articles like Jeffrey’s are vital, politically-important work.

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“Stop Kony” and the Viral Politics of Visibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Navigating Nostalgia

There have been dozens of articles that argue that this year’s Oscar race indicates that Hollywood is feeling nostalgic. Some of the leading contenders for Best Picture, including Hugo, The Artist, and even Midnight in Paris all offer plots about returning to the early days of cinema or recovering some other lost past. There’s probably some validity to this point, but I’m a little more skeptical when we address the question of what this trend means, what it says about Hollywood, movie audiences, or others who might be caught up in this wave of nostalgia. Neal Gabler’s Los Angeles Times column is most explicit in tracing this trend, arguing that even films like The Descendants evoke a filmmaking style more akin to ’70s character studies, making them fit into this trend.

First, I wonder if the nostalgia trend is anything new. Last year’s Best Picture winner, The King’s Speech, fits perfectly within this idea of nostalgia, even to the point of celebrating an “older” media technology, radio, for its ability to unify a nation, something that now seems impossible in the era of media fragmentation. Other nominated films include True Grit, a remake of a classic western, Toy Story 3, a sequel to an animated film that many young adults grew up watching repeatedly on DVD, and The Kids are Alright, a character film similar to The Descendants. In a sense, I think Gabler stretches his concept of nostalgia too thin here by including these ’70s-style character dramas, in part because there are usually several that come out annually, and some get nominated while others (such as The Ides of March) don’t.

Second, I’m growing increasingly skeptical about what anyone means by the term, “Hollywood,” especially to suggest a group of people who share a distinct set of tastes or beliefs. A glance at industry reports will show that the studios, once managed by the moguls that Gabler has discussed so eloquently, have been replaced by so many competing interests and production practices. So, even while Gabler acknowledges that “Hollywood’s executive suites are occupied by Ivy Leaguers and MBAs who report to giant international-minded media conglomerates,” it’s really difficult to generalize about how taste is cultivated within these groups.

But I think where Gabler seems to misread the nostalgia trend is when he argues that these films reflect a “self-loathing” in the industry. That doesn’t seem quite right to me. Instead, I’d argue that Hugo is not only a celebration of the magic of Georges Melies but also a retelling of cinema’s origin story, turning film (or, more accurately, the movies, in this post-celluloid age) into a special effects medium from its very origins. Even the Lumiere Brothers’ first public screening, which included a film of a train coming into a station, becomes a special effect, especially as it is touched up with 3D technology. It is certainly a celebration of cinema’s past (in much the same way that The Artist might be), but it also seems to be about how those early films helped foster a love of movies and moviegoing that continues to this day.

But if there is a connective tissue between these films and others that are marked by this type of nostalgia, I think that Matt Zoller Seitz is closer to the truth when he argues that many of these films are nostalgic for an era of tactile media. Noting the continued fading of film as a medium, and even of physical storage media such as CDs and DVDs, he points out that these films  (and TV shows) reflect “a fear that the virtual world is displacing the real one.” There are other issues at stake as well, including the sense that an era of recession and austerity has produced a sense that we are living in degraded times (a point that Matt touches upon), but I’m skeptical of the idea that this is tied to a self-loathing about the present moment of entertainment culture. Instead, there seems to be a recognition that something is in the process of being lost without any clear sense of certainty about our cinematic futures.

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MoveOn House Parties, Documentary, Political Activism

One day after hosting a half dozen neighbors for a screening of Charles Ferguson’s powerful documentary, Inside Job, I’m still reflecting on the experience and what it says about the role of documentary in contributing to forms of political activism. These questions matter to me for a number of reasons, most notably the fact that, like millions of others, I see an economic system marked by increasing instability and inequality and want to see a more just, balanced system. But I am also trying to make sense of the role of MoveOn and other online groups in using documentaries as organizing tools, both in some of my recent scholarship and in a course that I am teaching. After hosting the MoveOn screening and listening to (and participating in) the incredibly informed post-movie discussion, I continue to find myself evolving on the relationship between documentary and activism.

Upon watching Inside Job for a second time, I found myself reacting a little differently than I did when I first saw the movie about a year ago, before Occupy Wall Street began to, well, occupy public spaces and news media attention. If you care about your money, it’s almost impossible not to feel a sense of betrayal or outrage at the behavior of the large banking, loan, and insurance firms that created elaborate financial schemes to line the pockets of a small number of very wealthy people. This mirrors Ferguson’s own outrage, particularly when Frederic Mishkin bumbles through a half-hearted defense of the lack of financial regulation. But, much like last time, I found that the movie ended without offering any clear alternatives for political action. It’s clear, from the movie’s pointed critique of Obama’s economic appointments (which include Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers, among others), that Ferguson is skeptical about the power of voting alone to enact political change, a position that now seems even more deeply entrenched after the Citizens United decision. Inside Job still has an oddly sterile feel to me, given that it operates almost entirely within the sites of power. We hear from critics of deregulation, including Eliot Spitzer, but rarely do we see the actual effects of sub-prime mortgages (other than some stock footage of houses with for-sale signs out front). This may or may not increase our levels of outrage, but it makes it difficult to identify a single point of identification within the film. That being said, Ferguson’s film hammers home its arguments with tremendous authority, using visuals well to track changes in our economic system. Seeing bankers and regulatory officials squirming in their seats also offers a form of enjoyment.

But after Ferguson’s powerful Oscar acceptance speech, in which he reminded us that not a single financial executive had gone to jail for his or her responsibility in the financial meltdown, the film seemed to disappear. For that reason alone, I was glad that MoveOn picked it up as a part of its house party series. It’s worth noting that the current home video ecosystem likely contributes to that. The documentary was distributed by Sony Pictures Classics and through Sony’s Home Entertainment division, and (because of that?) it is currently unavailable for streaming on Netflix. None of the Blockbuster Video stores in the area had the movie available for rental. And when I called one local video store to ask for Inside Job, the clerk stepped briefly away from the phone, came back and gruffly asked, “do you want the adult version?” The movie was also unavailable through Redbox kiosks, which ultimately meant that we had to purchase a copy for our house party. I don’t think this is a specific “conspiracy,” just that our current distribution model provides much greater potential for independent and low-budget films to “disappear” from public consciousness and even easy (or at least inexpensive) access. As a result, even hosting a screening now seems like a valuable contribution to the wider political discussion.

But of course it’s worth asking about how to translate Inside Job’s outrage into meaningful political action (whatever that might look like). There is a degree to which everyone in the room was already not only predisposed to agree with Ferguson’s arguments but also prepared to anticipate many of them, with some of our guests calling out terms before the narrator (Matt Damon) could say them. Although this might seem like a version of “preaching to the choir,” I think it’s much more complex than that. The narrative behind the banking crisis is incredibly complicated, and even if we grant the fact that most MoveOn viewers already agree with many of Ferguson’s positions, putting them together into a coherent narrative is helpful. More crucially, it provides house party attendees with something tangible to structure our deliberations about both localized and national forms of political action. In fact, the credits were barely rolling when the first guest spoke up to create an argument for how to put an end to economic injustices depicted in the film.

And this is where I think some of our most crucial questions about documentary, online media, and activism come into play. Our reception of Inside Job was framed not only by our unique house party situation but also by the framing materials that accompanied the event. MoveOn sent out several emails and promoted the film on its website. For hosts, they provided us with a short script and fliers that would guide attendees into specific forms of action. There is a long history of this sort of political organizing, so it’s hardly new, but in some ways I found the responses to be relatively tepid, given the politics of most MoveOn members. Most notably, they encouraged attendees to “Move Your Money,” something most of us had already done. A more promising activity was the MoveOn Council idea, which would leverage the energy of localized teams to enact change on both the local and national levels. It’s difficult to judge what kind of impact a house party screening has in its immediate aftermath. There was no moment of crystallization when a light shined down from the progressive heavens and convinced me that we had (or that we would) make a difference, whatever that might mean. That being said, I think the critique of consumerism in this particular house party event runs much deeper than some of MoveOn’s most trenchant critics might suggest. Micah White, rather famously, attacked MoveOn for turning activist energy into a muted form he called “clicktivism.” These house party forums are not necessarily going to produce identical results across the board. On the one hand, it is certainly possible to walk away from a house party event and to feel some degree of cynicism and powerlessness about the possibility of effecting change, especially when MoveOn only offers relatively loose structures for directing forms of activist response. And yet, I would be reluctant to embrace a more top-down model. We need room for the critical thought of the thousands of people who attended screenings and know their local communities and the actions that are possible within them.

There are no easy answers when it comes to documentary activism. But I am energized by the fact that the house party model could help to revive the outrage, energy, and passion of Ferguson’s Inside Job, allowing it to gain new life in the era of Occupy Wall Street and the We are the 99% movements.

 

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