Archive for digital cinema

Documentary, Service Learning, Video Annotation

In case you missed them elsewhere, here are a couple of recent publications where I discuss my Introduction to Film and Visual Literacy course, which I have revamped into a class focusing on documentary ethics In the course, students watch documentaries, and we discuss them, in part, in relationship to ethical principles. The course also includes a service-learning component, in which my students create short documentaries about a local community group. Here are the articles:

  • Local Truths, Tactical Pedagogies: Documentary, Ethics, and Service Learning,” Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier 2.2 (Spring 2014). This article discusses the course in general and how I responded to my university’s decision to significantly rework our core curriculum to a “literacy” model.
  • Using Video Annotation Tools to Teach Film Analysis,” Profhacker, June 2, 2014. This article focuses specifically on a video annotation tool I was able to try out, Social Book. The tool allows students to comment direct;y on specific scenes within a film. It also makes it easy to locate student comments by going to their avatar on a timer bar.

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Betting on the House

270px-House_of_Cards_title_cardMy social media feeds are practically overflowing with references to the second season of the hit Netflix series House of Cards, many of them assessing the show’s realism (or at least fidelity to recent political events) and its mechanics for maintaining suspense (we know Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood will succeed; the pleasure is in seeing how he manages to do so). The show doesn’t just confirm our perception of Washington as hopelessly corrupt, it revels in that. The show has prompted readings that identify it as feminist, while Alyssa Rosenberg identifies a far more problematic depiction of gender politics.

But even more attention has been paid (and more digital ink spilled) focusing on what the success of House of Cards means for the future of television. One of the best assessments comes from Matthew Yglesias, who offers a pretty insightful analysis of the structural aspects of the entertainment industry that currently favor Netflix over its chief competition, HBO (arguments that are not unlike some of the points Max Dawson and I raised in our essay, “Streaming U: College Students and Connected Viewing“). Yglesias points out that Netflix benefits from several key advantages over HBO: first, it’s significantly cheaper than HBO, especially for cordcutters who are not paying for a cable television subscription, and as Dawson and I argue, a large proportion of college students fall into this category. If college students are habituated into subscribing to Netflix, those habits may carry over after graduation. In fact, Yglesias astutely diagnoses that users are often likely to share HBO Go passwords (although this also happens with Netflix). Finally, Yglesias, like pretty much everyone else points out that Netflix has also tapped into the pleasures of binge watching by releasing all episodes of a “season” simultaneously, a technique that rewards the kinds of intense viewing that many fans have embraced.

This emphasis on binge watching has provoked a number of essays attempting to define binge watching and addressing whether or not the practices of binging are harmful or not. Nolan Feeney of The Atlantic offers an elaborate taxonomy of binge watching, detailing everything from how many episodes have to be watched to call it “binging” to whether binging is a harmful activity. Others, like Slate’s Emma Roller, defend the practices of binge watching by suggesting that it encourages more attentive viewing (Slate’s Alex Soojung-Kim Pang also defends binging). But the implication throughout is that our on-demand culture allows us immediate, intense, inexpensive, and uninterrupted access to texts that inspire passionate discussion.

That said, there may be some complicating factors that dislodge Netflix’s “disruptive” distribution model. As Gizmodo’s Leslie Horn reports, broadband caps that limit the amount of data that consumers can use in a given month are becoming more widespread (and with the imminent merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, likely to become even more common). According to Harris’s calculations, a particularly avid binge watcher consuming movies in high-definition, as Netflix and Amazon deliver them, is likely to use her entire data allotment in the course of a single weekend (the data costs for avid gamers would be even worse).  This potentially makes Netflix a more expensive alternative than a basic cable subscription with HBO added on. The future of streaming could follow a number of different directions, but it’s important to note that this mode of consumption may prove to be a temporary form that is upset by any number of technological, political, and economic forces. In the future, we may binge-watch the old-fashioned way: on DVD.

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Buying Into Indie…

Just a quick pointer to the news that acclaimed independent filmmaker Hal Hartley has announced that he is offering a couple of new perks for people who give to the Kickstarter campaign for his upcoming film, Ned Rifle, the third in a trilogy of films including Henry Fool and Fay Grim. Namely, he is allowing supporters to collect territorial theatrical rights to the film. For $3,000, you can have the rights to Hungary, while Spanish-speaking Latin America would cost $9,000, to name two examples (though rights to Canada, Israel, and many other countries are also available).

So, if you thought you could sell Ned Rifle in Canadian theaters, you’d pay in advance for those rights and then all revenue you collected from ticket sales would be yours. As Scott Macauley reminds us in his Filmmaker Magazine article, plenty of tech vendors already use Kickstarter for these kinds of pre-sale agreements, so why not filmmakers, too? In some ways, I don’t think this is vastly different than the practice of foreign pre-sales that many indie filmmakers have used in the past (see Edward Jay Epstein for the most thorough explanation of this practice). Hartley is still retaining DVD and all other distribution rights (TV, VOD, etc.), but it is a fascinating opportunity for someone who has connections with theaters in a given country or region.

More compelling is Hartley’s frank analysis of movie distribution and how his Kickstarter perks fit within that. He explicitly denies that he he is doing anything “revolutionary” here and also suggests that he isn’t trying “buck” the theatrical system that had existed. Instead, he describes this as a continuation of what he has always done: a limited theatrical release that helps to promote other formats, whether a cable TV screening, DVDs, or VOD.

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Blockbuster Exit and Other Digital Delivery News

I’ve been bogged down with a bunch of other projects, but given my research on how digital delivery is changing the film and TV industries, I couldn’t ignore the news that Blockbuster Video has announced that it will close its remaining 300 US stores. It’s a stunning fall for the video rental store that, at one time, seemed like one of the dominant forces in home entertainment. Gina Keating’s Netflixed provides one of the more thorough–and convincing–arguments explaining why Blockbuster failed to adopt to digital delivery, so this news is hardly surprising, but it still seems to mark the end of an era.

Like many others, I’ve also been fascinated by the recent debate between Netflix’s Ted Sarandos and others over whether theaters are “killing” the film industry by refusing to go to day-and-date distribution, in which movies would be released to theaters and on VOD (or streaming video) on the same day. Sarandos has backtracked somewhat from the (perceived) suggestion that he was advocating a pure day-and-date model to suggest that he was merely calling for a shorter theatrical window. Still, a number of indie producers have rightfully expressed some qualms about Sarandos’s arguments.

Finally, I’m intrigued by this report from Vulture about a conflict between TV studios, cable channels, and Netflix over how to divide up the rights to specific TV shows. Specifically, TNT and FX are fighting to retain exclusive streaming rights to the entire current seasons of their shows, rather than the current situation where they only have rights to the last five episodes. Given that syndication deals are no longer as lucrative as they used to be, cable channels are looking for alternative forms of programming.

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Reboot Cinema

HUGOI just wanted to point out a new article, “Reboot Cinema,” I contributed to a special “debate” on 3D in the most recent issue of Convergence. My article attempts to match up industry discourse on the value of 3D with promotional materials associated with the practice of “rebooting” popular characters or narratives. I originally wrote the article in response to the new cycle of Spider-Man films starring James Garfield and the end of the Christopher Nolan Batman films, but the industrial strategy of rebooting familiar franchises has certainly continued (as the planned Batman cycle starring Ben Affleck illustrates). That said, 3D has also been promoted, in both industry materials and in films by directors such as James Cameron (Avatar) and Martin Scorsese (Hugo), as a means of “rebooting” cinema itself, of providing audiences with new forms of textual novelty that were seen as reinventing what cinema could do.

I’d encourage everyone to check out the entire issue, though, given the other fantastic writers (Barbara Klinger, Miriam Ross, Francesco Casetti, and others) who participated in this forum.

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How Not to Win Friends or Raise Money on Kickstarter

I’ve been thinking about crowdsourcing and crowdfunding quite a bit lately for a couple of writing projects and have become increasingly fascinated by the techniques people use to ask for funds on sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo. For this reason, I’ve become intrigued by the reaction to the spectacular failure of the “Katie Allen is Getting a Life” campaign. As this indieWire article illustrates (see also the Film School Rejects superb takedown), the project has become aligned with “what not to do” when seeking to raise funds.

What’s odd about the Katie Allen campaign is that it seems to have quite a bit going for it, including three talented indie film actresses, but for someone who has expertise on the industry, Linda Stuart’s appeal is otherwise completely tone deaf. Including the actresses’ names in the space for the title makes little sense, and the lack of a video also seems like a missed opportunity, especially given that Thora Birch, Heather Matarazzo, and Jennifer Elise Cox are ostensibly attached to the project. I won’t repeat all of the points raised by the indieWire piece. It’s so astonishingly bad, though, that I have to wonder if Stuart posted this precisely to provide an object lesson on the ways in which directors attempt to pitch their projects to the public.

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James Franco Tries Crowdfunding

James Franco is now following in the footsteps of Zach Braff by experimenting with crowdfunding for a new project in which he is involved: a trilogy of movies based on his short story collection, Palo Alto, by a group of young filmmakers. Franco is seeking to raise $500,000, a hefty sum for a group of unknown directors, so it will be interesting to see how successful Franco will be in using his star image to get audiences to back this project.

There are a couple of notable features about Franco’s fundraising campaign. First, unlike Braff, the Veronica Mars team, and a number of other high-profile filmmakers, Franco has opted to use IndieGoGo a crowdfunding service that allows the fundraisers to keep the money they raise, even if they don’t achieve their monetary goals. So, Franco’s students are likely guaranteed to receive significant backing, even if they don’t raise the full half million. As a result, there may be less pressure on people to invest in the project given that they may not view their contribution as directly needed.

Second, Franco has explicitly promised to donate any profits from the films to Art of Elysium, a non-profit organization that encourages entertainers to visit sick children in the hospital, so even if Franco may be using his star image to attract attention to this project, he may not profit directly from the results.

I’m unfamiliar with Franco’s short story collection, so I’m not sure how they’ll work cinematically–an issue that I’m guessing may affect other contributors as well. But it’s interesting to see a star use his image to promote a project in which he is not the primary artistic force.

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The Imploding Blockbuster Roundtable

The media studies blog Antenna has posted a roundtable on Spielberg and Lucas’s recent comments about the imminent “implosion” of the Hollywood blockbuster model featuring comments from a range of media scholars, including Thomas Schatz, Alisa Perren, R. Colin Tait, Brenda Austin-Smith, and myself.

I’m not sure I have much to add to my comments here or on the Antenna blog, but I found Alisa’s observations (and Brad Schauer’s response) about the “generational” aspects of Spielberg and Lucas’s speculations to be helpful. Alisa points out that Spielberg and Lucas are reacting this way in part because they are finally being adversely affected by the blockbuster model, while pointing to Jason Bailey’s reminder that it is profoundly hypocritical for the two men most responsible for this model to be complaining about it now (especially given how much they have profited from it).

Bryan Bishop of The Verge implies that Lucas may have offered a slightly more optimistic interpretation of the current trends in distribution, pointing out that Lucas remarked that online distribution offered content that is “usually more interesting than what you’re going to see in the movie theater. And you can get it whenever you want, and it’s going to be niche-marketed, which means you can really take chances and do things if you can figure out there’s a small group of people that will kind of react to it,” while adding that such a film can be successful (and that a filmmaker can make a living) if you have a relatively small audience of even one million people or so.

Both filmmakers still seem most wistful about the speed with which movies cycle out of theaters and into other formats, with Spielberg lamenting that movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. stayed in theaters for about a year, while now, movies are “in hotels two weeks after they hit theaters.” But that has been part of an evolution that has been taking place over the last decade or so with the rise of the megaplex theaters  that depend on keeping theaters seats filled week after week. Movies that have been out on the big screen for a month probably aren’t going to do that.

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Hollywood Imploding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cinematic Transitions

The announcement from John Fithian, the president of the National Organization of Theater Owners, at this year’s CinemaCon confirmed what was pretty much already universally acknowledged in the film movie industry: 35mm film distribution will cease in just a few months, to be replaced by digital distribution in theaters. According to The Hollywood Reporter, 85 percent of North American screens and 67 percent of European screen have already converted to digital, making film stock an “endangered species.” But this is just one of many transitions that are taking place in reshaping how we access and watch movies.

These shifts can be measured by two stories about Fayetteville, North Carolina, the city where I work and where I lived for several years. First, Fayetteville’s Cameo Art House Theater is bidding good-bye to the film projectors they’ve used  since the theater opened in 1998 by hosting a special screening of Cinema Paradiso, Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 love letter to film projection. To me, this good-bye is bittersweet. Although I appreciate the aesthetics of film projection, I’m happy that the Cameo will be able to remain open using digital projectors and that the city will continue to have at least one option for seeing art house movies on the big screen.

The second story makes me feel more nostalgic than I would have expected. According to the Fayetteville Observer, the last two Blockbuster Video stores in Fayetteville will soon be closing, their last DVDs to be sold in a liquidation sale. Unless I’m missing something, that means the last remaining (non-adult) bricks-and-mortar video stores in Fayetteville will soon be closed. Although I can barely remember the last time I rented a movie in a video store, this seems like a significant shift, one that is consistent with all of the contradictions associated with an emergent on-demand culture. Movies are available at the click of a mouse or remote. But we may find ourselves having less access to some titles than we might expect.

I’d imagine that most cities are undergoing similar transitions. Some independent video stores may be better prepared to weather the competition with streaming video. Other art houses may be unable to navigate the shift to digital projection. But these changes are happening fast, and it’s well worth asking what they mean for all aspects of movie culture.

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Soda Fountains, Speeding, and Password Sharing

I’ve been fascinated by the recent controversy over technology reporter Jenna Wortham’s “confession” in the New York Times that she uses shared passwords to access subscription video services such as Netflix and HBO Go. In particular, Wortham mentions that she and a group of friends rely on a single user’s HBO Go password to watch the popular show, Game of Thrones (which also happens to be the most pirated show on TV). As Wortham’s comments suggest, the act of password sharing is relatively commonplace, so much so that I imagine Wortham gave very little thought to describing her friends’ behavior on the pages of a national newspaper. Of course, as Mike Masnick of Tech Dirt reports, Wortham’s behavior is also, strictly speaking, illegal, a violation of both the Digital Millennial Copyright Act (DMCA) and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), and her actions could be punished by up to a year in prison. As Masnick describes it, her actions specifically violate the anti-circumvention clause of the DMCA becuase she is engaging in activity that allows her to work around a technical protection measure.

But as Masnick also observes, these acts often criminalize behavior that many people do every day, often without thinking about it. In this sense, password sharing is, as David Thier argues, a “legalish” activity, easy to do and difficult to police. With that distinction in mind, when I first heard about the discussion of Wortham’s column, my initial reaction was to compare password sharing to speeding on an interstate highway. Almost everyone speeds on interstates, as opposed to, say, school zones, where the policing is tighter and the consequences of negligent behavior are potentially far more devastating. And as long as you are within a reasonable distance of the posted limit, police are likely to leave you alone. And when police have set up speed traps, other drivers typically alert each other by flashing headlights or tapping their brakes. Further, when we know we’re being watched, such as speed zones where the police have set up cameras or other automatic detection equipment, we play by the rules. Most people feel little guilt for slightly exceeding the speed limit and some even take pride in reaching their destination in a shorter time.

This isn’t a perfect metaphor, however, given that speeding drivers don’t affect the value of the highway on which they are driving. While we can make some judgments about which shows are most likely to be pirated, it’s a little more difficult to tell how much password sharing is taking place (although my own research suggests that it’s pretty rampant, at least on college campuses). The next closest metaphor I could come up with compared password sharing to something like taking from a soda fountain at a fast food restaurant. Although probably less common, it’s possible to imagine someone using their own cup (rather than paying 99 cents for a cup at the counter) and helping oneself to some diet soda or root beer. It’s possible that the same person could share their soda with someone else or several people and even go back up for refills. Each of these actions result in “lost” revenue for the restaurant. Instead of selling three large sodas, they’ve sold one or none. But the production costs of that soda (i.e., the contents of the fluid, the cup itself, etc) are often relatively minimal, especially compared to the production costs of a movie or TV show. So obviously, there are some ethical and legal issues at stake here, but as Thier and others have suggested, that blurry area where behavior becomes “legalish” raises some interesting challenges for content providers and consumers. No one is likely to send the copyright police to knock on Wortham’s door. And many of the VOD services, including Netflix, even allow for some flexibility regarding password sharing.

The ethical (and business) implications of many of these issues were addressed in a New York Times public editor column. One observer bluntly suggested that Wortham’s actions were essentially “stealing,” while others likened her actions to “piracy.” And given that the New York Times is itself attempting to adjust to a digital business model by limiting non-subscribers to ten or so free articles per month, Wortham’s actions might be read as a form of hypocrisy. How are her actions different than those readers who might try to work around the Times‘ own pay wall? Wortham admits to being somewhat “conflicted” about her practice of password sharing, and thus far, many VOD services have taken a somewhat casual approach to enforcement. Rather than stopping people from drinking soda from the same cup, most providers have allowed some sharing, although Wortham does mention that Amazon blocks people from watching the same show at the same time on two different devices while using the same account.

But as Wortham’s article points out, the focus on policing password sharing–or piracy for that matter–might prevent us from acknowledging the role of password sharing as a means of creating a shared social experience around a television series. By watching Game of Thrones or Friday Night Lights “together,” even if we are not in the same shared space, it is a form of collective activity. In turn, the Netflix “family accounts,” which allow limited password sharing may even open up a redefinition of what counts as a family unit (an issue I addressed in my article for Screen and that I discuss in my forthcoming book). In turn, Wortham points to the efforts of services such as GetGlue and the more recent Vdio that promote forms of simultaneous or near-simultaneous viewing. And I think this is where activities such as binge watching shows like House of Cards come into play. Many television fans are seeking to be part of a shared experience and seek out opportunities to discuss, dissect, blog, and tweet their favorite shows. Many of these viewers may be outliers compared to the casual fans who watch when they can, but each of these modes of watching and many others are enabled in our on-demand culture. And Wortham’s column gets at the complexities of these issues in a pretty powerful way.

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Theater On-Demand Rising

I was fascinated to learn about the innovative distribution pattern for the indie film, Girl Rising, which tells the stories of nine young women from across the globe as they seek to improve their circumstances through obtaining an education. Each segment in the film is narrated by a famous actress, including Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep, and Selena Gomez, and the website offers a powerful opportunity to explore how the subjects of the film are faring, providing a nice afterlife for the documentary.

But in addition to offering an intriguing story, Girl Rising is notable for its use of the website Gathr to generate interest in the film and to encourage people to “demand” screenings of the film in their community. Gathr–a tool I discuss very briefly in my forthcoming book, On-Demand Culture–allows people to request screenings in their city, and if enough people request the film, it will play at a theater in the area. In fact, enough people have requested tickets for the film that it will be playing in a suburb of Raleigh on Monday, April 8 (go to the website for more details). Supporters of the film have made (as of Deadline’s report) more than 17,000 screening requests and more than 65,000 people have reserved tickets for the film, and as a result of this demand, Regal Cinemas has decided to schedule a one-week theatrical run for the film on over 150 screens across the country, an impressive achievement for an independent film.

To be sure, Girl Rising has a number of advantages over other indie films such as an all-star cast, politically important subject matter, and a collection of non-profit partners who are all promoting the film, but the success of this use of an on-demand model may provide a template for other filmmakers in the future.

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New HBO Models

Yet another shift in the world of entertainment: HBO is now considering a deal that would allow consumers to drop their full cable subscription to pay for a package that would combine a $50 monthly Internet bill with a $10-15 monthly subscription to HBO that would also allow consumers to use their HBO Go  mobile service. HBO will not go to an Internet-only subscription, but this is seen, in part, as a movie to reduce the piracy of popular HBO shows such as Game of Thrones.

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Free Movies!

Just poking my head up from a big pile of grading (don’t worry–it’s all online, so no trees were harmed) to point out this poster that ted Striphas found at the Indiana University library. The positioning of Netflix as the “bad guy” reminds me of the anti-Blockbuster campaigns back in the late 1990s, by playing off some of the perceived weaknesses of the streaming video service while reminding us about all of the benefits of checking out movies and TV shows from the library, such as their great (and free) selection of titles.

netflix library

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Redbox Instant Goes Live

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

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

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

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

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

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