Archive for digital cinema

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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Blog Silence

I’ve been doing quite a bit of under-the-radar work for the last month or so, which means I haven’t had a lot of extra time for blogging. Add to that my recent trip to England and Ireland, which Andrea and I thoroughly enjoyed, and I’m somewhat shocked to see the semester (and the academic year) quickly slipping away. But I just wanted to drop in quickly to say that I’m hoping to write a couple of blog posts soon, including one on the Stop Kony phenomenon. As Nicholas Kristof explains, Stop Kony, a short YouTube documentary is one of the most watched videos in the history of that website. It has been viewed 79 million times in less than a month and has inspired widespread forms of activism. And yet, as a number of people have pointed out, the movement has been widely criticized. I’m still in the process of formulating a response to the video(and all of the framing materials that have accompanied it), but as a case study in viral distribution it is well worth investigating.

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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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Hosting the 99%

Andrea and I are hosting a screening of Charles Ferguson’s scathing, Oscar-wining documentary, Inside Job, on Sunday, February 12, at 6 PM, as part of their movie party series. I’ve never hosted a MoveOn screening before–although I have attended several house party screenings in the past–so I’ve been intrigued by how excited I am by getting involved in this way. I’ll be interested to see if my reaction to the film changes on a second viewing, given that I felt slightly overwhelmed by Ferguson’s arguments when I watched Inside Job the first time. But more than anything, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to contribute to the wider conversation about the relationship between corporate deregulation and the “We are the 99%” movement. If you live in or near southern Wake County, you can find out more information about our screening here, but if not, perhaps you can seek out a screening in your own neighborhood. There are several hundred planned for this weekend across the U.S.

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Pushing Mobile

Breaking my blog silence to mention a report on a study that I received via email the other day from Greystripe, which bills itself as the “largest brand-focused mobile advertising network.” The sample size for the survey seems rather small to me, especially compared to the much richer studies conducted by Pew and Nielsen, but I think that part of what attracted my attention was their specific focus on emphasizing the ways in which mobile devices, whether smartphones or iPads, contribute to the practices of movie consumption.

To some extent, I agree with their arguments, although the basis for my agreement is probably at least partially anecdotal. One of the arguments they are trying to push is that mobile users are likely to seek out information–trailers, cast, showtimes–about movies using mobile devices, and there is probably some validity to this argument. Three of the first apps I downloaded to my iPhone were Flixster, IMDB, and The Oscars. The first two of these directly offer reviews and showtimes that I could use to find out when and where movies are playing, while The Oscars offers at least some information about nominated films. Their findings seem to confirm that one of the most common “entertainment activities” uses of smartphones is to check movie times or to find a nearby movie theater. They also place emphasis on the fact that mobile apps still function primarily to point us to other screens through advertising and promotion, encouraging users to watch trailers or other video advertising.

But there are places where their framing of mobile seems disingenuous. First, they use data that shows that 44% of respondents saw 1-3 movies per year in theaters and another 25% saw 4-6 per year to conclude that “almost 70%” of respondents watch as many as 6 movies per year, when a more honest way of reading these numbers would have to acknowledge that nearly 85% watched six movies or less in theaters per year (given that only about 16% said they watched more than six). These numbers don’t seem completely consistent with other numbers that I’ve seen, but they hardly paint a rosy picture of mobile users being frequent moviegoers.

They also seek to point out that half of all mobile users claim to decide what to see based on movie ads, but what’s left unstated here is whether these mobile users saw these ads exclusively on mobile devices, and I’m guessing the answer is no. More than half stated that peers were a major influence, and it seems notable that the survey pays little attention to social media as a factor.   Movie reviewers may be relieved to know that, especially for iPad owners, they continue to hold at least some influence, if these survey results are to be believed.

I’m addressing this survey for a couple of reasons: First, I’m becoming a little more attentive to the methodology behind surveys and survey questions, especially as I plan to immerse myself in more of that kind of research. These kinds of surveys–even at the small scale conducted by Greystripe–can provide keen insights, but their questions are too transparently focused on pushing mobile advertising to be believable, especially given the proliferation of screens and sites where we might encounter movie advertising. The Nielsen study cited above shows, in fact, that most people still spend significantly more of their time watching “traditional TV” than staring at tiny, mobile screens. But the survey–and others like it–seem dependent on pushing the idea of an emerging model of mobile spectatorship that seems greatly exaggerated, especially given that many people have a great deal of dissatisfaction with their mobile phones and are often leery of exceeding costly data caps on their phone service. In essence, we need much more rigorous conversations about what it really means to be mobile.

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Accessing the Cinematic Cloud

In case you missed it elsewhere, I have a new post on the Antenna Blog, “Accessing the Cinematic Cloud,” which responds to John August’s comparison of digital movie delivery with ATMs. August draws some interesting connections between early problems with ATMs and similar problems that confront consumers of digital cinema. My main response is to raise some questions about how these issues will be resolved and whether these new formats will really fulfill the promises of access, choice, and diversity. I’d very much enjoy hearing your thoughts.

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Catching Up

With Andrea out of town for the weekend, I’ve spent much of my time attending and participating in Duke University’s Marxism and New Media Conference. While my own work seemingly places much more emphasis on the category “new media” than “Marxist,” I deeply enjoyed and benefitted from testing the limits of current conversations in media studies about the practices of production, and in my own essay on social check-in services, about the creation of value in an attention economy. I’m not going to try to read today’s links completely through the lens of the conference, but I think it has sharpened my thinking on a couple of key points:

  • One quick bit of news: Star Wars Uncut, a fan film I discussed in the edited collection, Science Fiction Film, Television, and Adaptation: Across the Screens, has been released on YouTube in a director’s cut, one that includes more seamless video and sound editing. I discussed SWU as a paradigmatic example of a crowdsourced adaptation and still remain fascinated by it, though I have to admit that I still have some fondness for the original patchwork version that was auto-generated based on people’s votes.
  • Speaking of fan responses, I’ve been interested in the Vertigo meme, in which fans, responding to Kim Novak’s complaints about the use of the Vertigo theme in The Artist (which she referred to as a “violation”),  have been adding the music to a wide range of other texts. For one of the more thoughtful discussions of this project check out Jason Mittell’s discussion of how he Vertigoed The Wire and Kevin Lee and Matt Zoller Seitz’s announcement of the contest at Press Play.  Scroll down for one of my favorite examples, in which The Big Lebowski gets the Vertigo treatment. Moments like these renew my faith in remix culture.
  • This story is a few days old, but given my focus on digital cinema, I think it’s worth noting that Eastman Kodak has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
  • I’m intrigued by the discussion of this screening of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, in which the pre-show advertising automatically turned on during the movie, leading to overlapping images showing Ben Kingsley talking over ads warning us to silence our cell phones, animated candy bars, and other advertising ephemera. It’s a bizarre mashup and a horrifying depiction of the automation of theatrical projection in the era of digital cinema.
  • On a related note, Anthony Kaufman discusses some of the challenges for indie and art house theaters in the era of digital projection.
  • Worth noting, many of the videos I’ve mentioned today would be at risk of being pulled (and their websites would also be threatened with legal action) if SOPA and/or PIPA had been passed. Henry Jenkins links to a detailed discussion of some of the creative activism that has been inspired by the anti-SOPA movement. On a related note, New Tee Vee has an article that explores some of the possible motivations for piracy, specifically the lack of available premium content via digital platforms.
  • Curiously, given this complaint, however Janko Roettgers, also of New Tee Vee, argues that we are in a “golden age of content.” Roettgers uses the announcement that  both Hulu and Netfix are producing original series (rather than merely serving as a portal to access content produced by others) to argue that we have far more choices for watching than ever before. Videonuze also has a discussion of “online originals.”
  • On a related note, Aymar Jean Christian has announced the launch of a new academic blog dedicated to the study of the future of video and television, Hacktivision.
  • This has been around for a while, but via the cinetrix, I just learned about the promo video for a planned adaptation of William Gibson’s Neuromancer from 1986.
  • Joe Swanberg has a new film out called Marriage Material. Richard Brody reviews the film favorably and notes that it will be available to watch online for free for two weeks.

The Big V from Will Woolf on Vimeo.

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The Adventures of Tintin

Although I have been quick to reinforce the perception that most current 3D films are gimmicks (see for example, my complaints about the latest Spy Kids), I have been intrigued by the somewhat more innovative uses of the technique by Martin Scorsese in Hugo, and more recently, by Steven Spielberg in his adaptation of the Belgian comic by Hergé, The Adventures of Tintin. It’s tempting to read Spielberg’s film as a lightweight, kiddie-oriented rehashing of his Indiana Jones films, but I think this interpretation misses out on how the film is subtly navigating some of the questions raised by adaptation.

Even though I had some awareness of the popularity of Tintin in France and Belgium, I was somewhat unaware of the extent of that popularity until a Twitter conversation this afternoon (thanks to some of my comics-loving and Francophone tweeps) and a quick review of the box office numbers for the film, which has made almost as much money in France as it has in the United States. In fact, the announcement of two planned sequels seems to be built upon the film’s overseas success, even though the film has struggled here in the U.S.  As a result, many U.S. critics seemed unprepared for the movie’s engagement with the original, often reading the film primarily as an auteurist product tied to Spielberg’s preoccupations with childhood and B-movie adventurism (even relatively favorable reviews emphasize the connection to Indiana Jones).

I’m still in the process of researching the comic, but I think it’s important to consider how the film functions as an adaptation and how that relates more directly to Spielberg’s status as a filmaker.  It’s worth noting that the film’s official website both resembles the pages of a comic and provides quite a bit of backstory about the comic, including a detailed discussion of The Secret of the Unicorn, the adventure that provides the basis for the first film. We are also given quite a bit of information about the history of the Tintin character, including how to draw him and how Hergé developed the character. In essence, the website establishes Tintin as an auteurist project, one that was a crafted narrative.

In turn, Spielberg’s film contains a number of these elements, seeking to remind us that even in the age of 3D and performance capture, movies are not merely industrial objects. Instead, Spielberg hopes to show that they are works of art. This artistic signature comes across in part via some of the more inspired effects, especially a long sequence in which Tintin and his embattled crew move from a burning lifeboat to an airplane that crash lands in the Sahara Desert to a chase through a Moroccan city, all in the space of a single shot.

Dana Stevens’ review in Slate also touches upon one of the other challenges of the film–depicting realistic characters via the animation technique of performance capture. Stevens makes reference to the idea of the “uncanny valley,” the idea that when human replicas (whether robotic or animated) look “almost” human, they inspire repulsion in audiences or observers. That didn’t seem like a particular concern for me here, in part because the characters, especially the Thompsons and Tintin himself, seemed so clearly taken from the comic book page. For Maryann Johanson, however, the artificiality seemed to work against her appreciation of the film, in part because the use of CGI helped to reinforce the perception that Tintin and his crew were never in any serious danger. As she put it, “Raiders of the Lost Ark had soul….That sort of organicness is utterly missing from Tintin. There’s only so much organicness that can be faked via CGI that beautifully replicates grass or stone or skin or whatever.”

I’m still exploring my response to the film, in part because it may be something I will work into a couple of ongoing writing projects on 3D. The question for me isn’t whether the film is “good,” at least not in any traditional sense. Instead, I’m interested in exploring how the film engages with the politics and practices of adaptation and how those issues are navigated through the use of digital effects, especially 3D. I’ll admit that the 3D looked “better” in Tintin than it has in most other 3D films I’ve seen, but as I was watching, I felt myself thinking about how Spielberg, like Scorsese in Hugo, seemed to be trying to figure out how to tell stories using the new visual tools available to him.

 

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Window Treatments

Just a quick pointer to a couple of articles discussing some of the changes in the “windows” determining when and how DVDs will be available for rental via Netflix:

  • First, Warner has further stretched the so-called retail window for Netflix and Redbox from 4 weeks to 8. Because Netflix and Redbox have been seen as cannibalizing DVD sales, Warner required them to wait four weeks after a film was available for purchase to make it available to rent. Ryan Lawler at New Tee Vee seems to think this will have little impact on any of the major rental services.
  • Second, (in a related story) HBO has announced that they will no longer be selling DVDs directly to Netflix. This decision further illustrates the principle that HBO now sees the streaming and DVD service as a direct competitor, a reasonable argument given that HBO is increasingly focusing on delivering mobile content, while Netflix has been setting its sights on creating quality programming through its production of Lilyhammer and House of Cards, as well as new episodes of Arrested Development. Worth adding, Netflix, by one measurement, would rank as the 15th most watched TV channel. Netflix will still be able to buy HBO DVDs at retail and “rent” them through its DVD-by-mail service, but that will be far more costly, of course.

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Reading Retail and Rental

Following up on yesterday’s post, I have a couple f other quick thoughts about how we read trends in the movie industry. First, The Los Angeles Times lists the ten most-frequently rented movies in Redbox kiosks, both nationally and in the Los Angeles area. And in both cases, the film rented most often was the Adam Sandler vehicle, Just Go with It. Many of the other top choices–No Strings Attached, Due Date, and Despicable Me–were also comedies, while a number of popular films, such as The Tourist and Green Hornet, were considered to be box office duds. I’m a little reluctant to identify any kind of causal relationship here, though, because as the Times points out, the number of rentals over one calendar year can depend on any number of other factors, including the time of year when the film was released, as well as whether the studio released the film for purchase and rental on the same day. That being said, many of these rentals seem to be examples of convenience rentals (I’m tossing around the term “cinema of convenience” to describe these forms of access), movies that consumers watch when they just want to watch something, rather than the kinds of movies that people might go out of their way to see. That’s just an impression, but it leads into some other questions I’ve been thinking about.

On a related note, I found David Poland’s “reading” of his Best Buy experience to be a little more telling, albeit problematic on a couple of levels. I do think that it makes sense for journalists (and film scholars) to use ethnographic approaches to try to get some grasp on “everyday” uses of home video. I tried to do something like that with my Redbox article (which should be out very soon), and I think it’s incredibly easy to get swept up in some of the more utopian proclamations about digital delivery.

I suspect that Poland is right about two aspects of his trip to Best Buy. 3D TV is not yet ready for primetime (as signified by the lack of retail space and programming devoted to it), while internet-ready TV seems like something that offers additional value to viewers. As Poland notes, most of the TV sets on display emphasized the different kinds of  internet access (Netflix, etc) available. He’s probably also right that DVD retail (in whatever format) is probably in some peril. I don’t think users are ready to abandon physical media, given the continued popularity of Redbox and Netflix’s DVD-by-mail service.  But I think Poland oversteps when he argues that studios are ready for users to abandon physical media for a hodgepodge of streaming video, electronic sell-through, and DVD copies.

As a number of commenters noted, the process of making a digital copy is a time-consuming one, and although faster processors may make this easier, it may not be as convenient as it appears. Certainly having objects delivered to your home (via Amazon or whatever) is easier than driving to stores, but for bigger purchases–TV’s, laptops, etc.–there are a number of incentives for testing a product in-store, but it’s probably too early to suggest that streaming and other forms of digital delivery are necessarily more convenient or desirable than other options. Although Poland is probably right to suggest that Best Buy’s retail model will likely evolve, I think it’s also worth complicating how we define convenience, especially when it comes to the habits of movie consumers, many of whom are seeking easy or simplified choices. Redbox makes this easier by offering a limited range of top hits. Internet-enabled TVs make it easier to access a menu of movie and TV options directly through the TV set. I’m not so sure that “digital copy” approaches offer anything that makes it easier to pick out and watch a movie on a Friday night after work.

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Digital Distribution Links 12/22

I’ve got another post brewing about one of my other spring courses, a reprise of my graduate-level Technology in the Language Arts Classroom, but for now I’d like to try to get back in the habit of tracking some of the links I’ve been following:

  • The finalists for the most recent Amazon Studios contest have been announced. Winners receive prizes ranging from $1,000 for best actor to $100,000 for the best movie.
  • Aymar Jean Christian has two outstanding posts reviewing the year in digital video delivery. The first covers some of the changes in industry practices and the second looks at the potential of YouTube as a substitute for TV. So far, most of my online TV viewing has consisted of shared Daily Show, Colbert, and SNL segments. That could simply be a product of my taste cultures, but I wonder how viable it is for longer form and narrative shows.
  • Netflix inks a deal to distribute some BBC content in time for their launch in the United Kingdom and Ireland early next year. Worth noting: Love Film, the British streaming service owned by Amazon currently does not have a deal with the BBC.
  • More good news for Netflix: the tide of people leaving the service seems to have slowed down. That being said, satisfaction with the service has also declined considerably.
  • New Tee Vee offers some interesting viewer numbers for the music video service, Vevo.

 

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