Archive for book review

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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Flow TV Book Has Arrived

Like Jonathan, I am very happy to have finally received my copy on Flow TV: Television in the Age of Media Convergence, edited by Michael Kackman, Marnie Binfield, Matthew Thomas Payne, Allison Perlman, and Bryan Sebok.  My contribution, “Representing the Presidency: Viral Videos, Intertextuality, and Political Participation,” attempted to make sense of the evolving strategies being used by political participants of all types to engage with the 2008 U.S. Presidential election through the production of videos that infused politics and popular culture, following up on a short essay I’d written on the ground-breaking “Vote Different” for Flow’s online journal and a co-written article with Rich Edwards that found its way into First Monday.

Although the book “took its sweet time” navigating the path to publication, as Jonathan puts it, the delay may have served me well in that it allowed my article to serve as a coda to some of the research I was doing at that time.  It also makes me want to revisit how the grounds have shifted when it comes to political video: what happens now that the Democrats are no longer the insurgent or oppositional party?  How have the Tea Partiers mobilized the powers of popular culture to support their opposition to the Obama administration?  I began to hint at some of those questions by looking at Mike Huckabee’s use of Chuck Norris to give muscle to his campaign, but there is much more work to be done.

The collection itself is a fantastic one, with essays very nicely juxtaposed to speak to questions about the implications of media convergence, and I’m pleased to be included in such good company, with essays by Jason Mittell, Derek Kompare, Heather Hendershot, John Corner, Hector Amaya, and many others.  I only wish I could have been at this year’s Flow Conference to toast the book’s launch with the writers and editors who helped put it together.

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Hollywood Gamers

I stumbled across Robert Alan Brookey’s engaging new book, Hollywood Gamers: Digital Convergence in the Film and Video Game Industries, via Will Scheibel’s Camera-Stylo blog, and because I’m working on a project that attempts to engage with issues related to film and digital convergence, I gave the book a quick read this weekend and this review is an attempt to think through some of Brookey’s more compelling concepts.  I’ll be the first to admit that my first book, Reinventing Cinema, did not do enough to address the ways in which convergence is taking place between the movie and video game industries, whether at the level of narrative (transmedia storytelling in The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) series, etc) or at the level of media ownership (Sony’s investment in the PS3, in DVD players, and in movie franchises), but there is little doubt that the relationship between movies and gaming is deepening on a number of levels, and Brookey’s book considers many of those changes from the perspective of someone who enjoys both movies and games.

Brookey uses a political economy approach to issues of media convergence, in places taking issue with some of the more utopian celebrations of “interactivity” that are introduced in some of the more uncritical studies of video games, a move that I think is generally useful, even if I am skeptical about some of Brookey’s conclusions (more on that in a minute).  Drawing from Ian Bogost’s discussion of the persuasive function of the “procedural rhetoric” associated with most video games, Brookey remarks that “interactivity invites video game players to participate in the persuasive practices built into the games” (27).  And, according to Brookey, what do most of these games persuade us to do?  Essentially, they ask us to buy into the production narratives associated with the story world of both the game and the movie.  In one of his most extended case studies, he describes the production narratives associated with the LOTR films, in which actors from the films describe their engagement–or lack of engagement in the case of Ian McKellan–with video games and the pleasures of playing a video game avatar.  In essence, they teach us how to read these textual worlds and how we fit within those worlds.  Brookey goes on to add that “video games reward compliance” (34), essentially turning interactivity into a form of compliance with the logic of the video game.

One of the strengths of the book is Brookey’s detailed description of game play, which he was able to achieve by a combination of playing the games and observing as others played, allowing him to detail the narratives of the games, as well as the relationship between the cinematic “cut scenes” and the action in the games themselves.  In addition to his accounts of the LOTR video games, he offers a fascinating reading of the video game adaptation of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather movies (themselves an adaptation of Mario Puzo’s novels), one that clearly identifies how the video game play works against the attempts by Coppola to challenge romanticized portraits of the mafia.

His final chapter is, perhaps, the most important one, in that he traces out the logic behind media convergence by noting how Sony’s development of the Playstation 3 was intimately tied to the DVD format wars in the mid-2000s, with Sony working to ensure that the Blu-Ray format would win.  This relationship between video gaming and DVD watching has only been intensified due to the use of PS3s and Nintendo’s Wii consoles as machines for playing movies.  The role of Sony in shaping the viewing platforms through which we obtain DVDs is well worth addressing, as is the techniques Nintendo has used in marketing the Wii to people who typically don’t consider themselves to be games.  At the same time, Brookey revisits some of the claims about the future of storytelling that have been associated with media convergence.  Specifically, he cites a Wired interview with Guillermo Del Toro, in which the famed movie director asserts that in the near future, “we’re going to see all the forms of entertainment—film, television, video, games, and print—melding into a single-platform ‘story engine.’”  Del Toro’s account also takes into account fan productions, likening the changes in entertainment culture to the oral tradition of storytelling.  Del Toro goes on to add that by encouraging fan participation, we will witness the creation of a “promiscuous form of mythology,” one that will “rewrite the rules of fiction.”  Brookey, citing the current state of “bad” video game adaptations concludes that such a future is unlikely to emerge from the logic of convergence (138).

This is, perhaps, where my disagreement with Brookey is strongest.  Although I recognize that financial interests often trump artistic ones when it comes to the production of games, I think Brookey’s political economy approach sometimes sells existing storytelling and interactive practices short.  To be sure, the practices of making machinima movies using video game engines have led to a number of creative reworkings of older texts, some of them with strong political critiques.  These texts, whether tour de force performances or political statements, show that not all uses of games are compliant ones (though many of them certainly are).  Like Brookey, I think it’s important to remain skeptical of celebrations of interactivity in video games (and I think his book deserves to be read widely by media studies scholars), especially when it comes to fan-created narratives.  Issues of copyright and media franchising help shape what kinds of stories can be told.  But it’s also worth asking how convergence can expand our storytelling repertoire in engaging–and potentially unexpected–ways.

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New Reinventing Cinema Review

I’m taking a quick break from my Full Frame blogging to mention that I have just learned about another review of my book, Reinventing Cinema, this time from Bad Lit blogger and American Film Institute researcher Mike Everleth.  Mike is especially attentive to my arguments that both utopian and dystopian claims about the future of cinema need to be challenged.  Here’s a nice pullquote that gets at the flavor of the review:

Our media landscape is definitely changing in the digital age, but we need to watch out for the doomsayers and hucksters. To navigate this new world, there needs to be more reasoned analysis on par with what Tryon has accomplished with Reinventing Cinema.

Be sure to read the whole review.

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Review: The Hollywood Economist

There is a tendency in meta-industry books about Hollywood to promise that the author will reveal hidden truths about how the studio system (or multimedia conglomerates) operate, one that promises to take us beneath the artificial sheen and airbrushed glamor of the star system or the breathless accounts of box office records found in trade publications such as Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.  Given that Hollywood entertainment is predicated on spectacle, such approaches are tempting.  They have pervaded the ideological criticism found in academic journals for decades.  And events such as the Oscars do little to obviate the perception of Hollywood as a space where celebrity images are carefully crafted.  Within that arena gossip blogs, whether about celebrities or the industry itself, seem to promise access to a “real” Hollywood that is carefully hidden from view like the back of a movie set (or an orchestra playing non-diegetic music), while other press accounts promise “unfiltered” accounts of how Hollywood really works.

Stepping into that realm, once again, is Edward Jay Epstein, whose latest book, The Hollywood Economist, promises to provide us with “the hidden financial reality behind the movies,” a book that picks up where Epstein’s previous work, The Big Picture, leaves off, with Hollywood studios increasingly focused on DVD profits, rather than theatrical box office.  It’s an intriguing premise, especially for those of us who are interested in the film industry and are concerned about how Hollywood economics might drive decisions about what kinds of movies are made and how they are released.  But like the hype that accompanies so many Hollywood movies, the book offers little that is terribly new, especially in its engagement with some of the recent trends in digital distribution.

Part of the problem with the book is that it consists primarily of recycled columns and blog posts written for Slate Magazine and a few other online publications, a complaint shared by the Entertainment Weekly critic, who also faults the book for not anticipating the trend toward 3-D projection.  Although it is somewhat unfair to fault Epstein for failing to predict the rise of 3-D (he does address it in a recent blog post on Avatar and in this interview with The Wrap), the complaint does illustrate the challenge of documenting in book form an industry that seems to be undergoing rapid, almost incessant, change.  Still, without providing a much needed frame for explaining such phenomena as the collapse of the indie financing model and the changes in DVD purchasing habits, Epstein’s account reads like a series of discrete events rather than offering an underlying logic (or illogic) to the system.

The book does begin to offer a brief glimpse of the challenges introduced by digital downloads and the movie piracy that is threatening to undermine the sell-through model associated with DVDs for much of the last decade.  As Epstein asks at one point, “Does any barrier, no less a fragile window, make sense in the quest for the couch potato in an increasingly digital age” (185)?  The answer, it seems, is essentially “no.”  To combat widespread piracy–note the recent articles about the “culture of piracy” in Spain–Epstein speculates that studios may move even closer to releasing movies simultaneously to theaters, on DVD, on download services, and on cable (217), a trend that might be reflected in the narrower DVD window for Alice in Wonderland.  Epstein also (I think correctly) argues that the piracy battle will not be fought only through legal and technological means but also through ideological ones, through “a global campaign to change the values of users” (217), a trend that seems to be reflected in Spain’s attempt to deal with piracy.

Although there are moments of keen insight, much of the material seems to be rehashed “insider knowledge” that most industry observers (even casual ones) will probably already know: Theaters are quite often more concerned about selling popcorn than movie tickets. Sex and nudity can often hurt box office and DVD sales through more restrictive ratings.  The Oscars are designed to persuade us that movies are more about art than profit.  Tom Cruise was cut from Paramount not because he was a weirdo but because he was getting too big of a cut from DVD and movie ticket sales.  Many of these claims are hardly new, and in places, they begin to feel a bit like padding.

Ultimately, despite the promise of taking us beneath the glossy surface of Hollywood culture, Epstein cannot resist turning the history of the entertainment industry itself into a cinematic narrative, one that romanticizes the early moguls and faces a second act crisis produced by television before facing a third act characterized by uncertainty.  Although the book has moments of insight about digital distribution and indie financing, the use of recycled blog posts often reinforces the felt perception that the reality of the entertainment industry is racing past any attempts to document it in a book format.

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Reinventing Cinema Review

Hey, this is pretty cool.  Here is a very nice pullquote from the review of my book in the December 2009 issue of Choice:

Expanding film studies beyond traditional boundaries, Tryon explores how cinema affects and is affected by developments in technology and culture that have altered the way movies are consumed, produced, and perceived. The book is readable and well researched, offering students an excellent opportunity to go beyond more traditional film studies. Highly recommended.”

For those of you who are curious, here is some interesting data on how Choice reviews books.

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Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture

It’s difficult for me to read Kaya Oakes’ engaging and well-researched new book, Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture without thinking about my interest in how the term “indie” has been deployed for the last two decades in the world of film.  If “independent film” refers to any movie produced outside of the studio system–in other words, if we apply a strictly economic model that focuses on ownership–then a number of films that don’t look very “indie,”arguably including many of George Lucas’s Star Wars films, seem to qualify.  At the same time, desktop distribution tools allow anyone to become a filmmaker who could (potentially) share her films with millions of interested viewers, suggesting that “independent film” could become so expansive a category that it risks losing all meaning.  Finally, a number of films, such as Juno and Little Miss Sunshine, seem to embody an “independent spirit” even while featuring recognizable actors and a healthy budget.  Although Oakes rarely discusses the category problems of independent film because her focus is on other media, namely music, publishing, and craft culture, her book provides an accessible, thoughtful analysis of how the concepts and practices of indie culture have circulated through a variety of media over the last two decades.

As Gina Meyers at Bookslut observes, Oakes makes clear from the outset that Slanted and Enchanted is a personal book and that her case studies are informed by her personal background as a participant as a producer of indie culture. She has published books with independent presses and worked as an editor for the independently-produced Kitchen Sink magazine.  Similarly, as noted in Rob Tennant’s review, her connections to the punk scene in Berkeley and the riot grrl scene at Evergreen State, thanks to a brief stay in Olympia, Washington, allow her unique access to some “indie” subcultures, while leaving others outside of her range of analysis.  This participant-observer approach allows Oakes to draw from her own experience, as well as to conduct interviews with a number of other indie artists, all of whom are actively involved in theorizing, and in some cases reinventing, their corner of indie culture.  Other subjects she addresses–including the DC hardcore scene, the Beat poets, and the contemporary crafting scene–are all offered as markers of a consistent, flourishing indie culture that may change shapes over the years but remains committed to a spirit of independent production.  In some places, this approach risks reducing “indie” to an empty concept, something that seems outside of history, leaving me looking, in places, for a slightly more specific understanding of how indie functions as an oppositional culture and why she chooses some of the historical antecedents, such as the Beats.

At the same time, Oakes is attentive to the ways in which some of the traditional economic definitions of independence–where “independence” marks both separation from and opposition to major media conglomerates–no longer holds.  When Oakes asks her students what indie signifies, their immediate response is “skinny pants,” a fashion signifier that might be found at almost any local mall and one that is central to places such as Urban Outfitters and American Apparel.  When we learn that the CEO of Urban Outfitters is a “staunch Republican” who has even donated money to Rick Santorum, it’s easy to become cynical about the current branding of indie.  Complement these skinny pants with a pair of Chuck Taylors, now produced by a company that is owned by Nike, and indie, like many subcultures before it, seems to have been completely co-opted, in a process documented as early as the late 1970s by Dick Hebdige.

But Oakes, in my reading, is careful to go beyond such easy oppositions, even when noting how they operate in mass culture.  Throughout the book, Oakes is attentive to the tension between indie as a philosophy (one that is now being reinscribed into a wider DIY culture) and indie as both a genre and marketing ploy. That being said, such an approach risks taking us in the direction of ferreting out “authentic” and “inauthetntic” versions of indie, a problematic distinction, to be sure, especially when we enter into the diverse distribution practices that mark contemporary film culture, especially when artists such as Steven Soderbergh seem to circulate between multiple formats, genres, and distribution practices.

Further, Oakes is attentive to the ways in which new distribution technologies have altered how we think about independent productions.  Noting that MySpace has completely altered the way that bands market themselves, even while Bit Torrent complicates the way music is distributed, Oakes, implicitly criticizing Chris Anderson’s concept of the long tail, expresses concern that “as indie music multiplies and changes, niche audiences abound, many of which are too small to make an impact” (205).  Although these new tools allow access to a virtually infinite range of content, it’s more difficult to reach a wider audience, leading to a situation in which “indie is simultaneously reaching a stage of oversaturation and corporatization” (207), hence some of the major challenges facing indie bands, filmmakers, and others.

Although Tennant complains in his review that Oakes avoids theorizing the new internet DIY cultures in significant detail, I think that Oakes’ book is a significant contribution to the literature on indie culture, especially in its detailed histories of the subcultures in which she was a participant.  If anything, I would have liked a little more synthesis and analysis in places, as well as a little more self-reflection on such loaded terms as “authenticity” and “community,” which are often taken for granted.   Slanted and Enchanted is a quick read but one that offers a thoughtful glimpse at how indie and DIY cultures retain such power and why they remain necessary as a challenge to the artistic and cultural status quo.

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And Then There’s This

Because of my interest in viral videos and political discourse, I was incredibly curious to read Bill Wasik’s And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture, a book that promises to diagnose the transformation of narrative in the age of viral media and to address the implications of those changes for public culture.  Wasik, who was responsible for the creation of flash mobs, a briefly popular phenomenon in which urban hipsters would briefly show up in a designated public space, perform a mundane activity, and quickly disperse, proves to be an effective observer of a number of viral phenomena and even offers–in a number of places–a useful vocabulary for talking about these transformations. Wasik reads these changes as having the potential to damage political discourse, as journalists (and audiences) clamour to find the next big thing.  In this context, I am less convinced by Wasik’s arguments about the implications of these new media; however, for those of us concerned about the effect of social media on political and entertainment culture, Wasik’s arguments (which stand, in part, as a useful corrective to Malcolm Gladwell’s bengin celebrations of viral “tipping points“) are worth addressing.

Wasik’s most useful contribution is by creating the concept of the “nanostory,” in which a story, whether a political narrative, a rock band, or a funny video, briefly becomes immensely popular (as measured through page views, blog mentions, etc) before fading quickly into obscurity. These “transient bursts of attention” (7), Wasik argues, become enticing, even addictive, in a new media climate (here Wasik draws on his own experience of trying to create viral content for The Huffington Post’s Contagious Festival, a monthly competition organized by Jonah Peretti (93).  And although I’d imagine that creating a successful meme or viral video could be enticing, Wasik is a little less clear when it comes to the pleasure of consuming such material, of explaining why people watch (and share) viral content.

Related to this desire for notoriety, Wasik identifies four traits common to viral culture: speed, shamelessness, duration, and sophistication.  It’s worth noting that two of these definitional terms have to do with time.  Throughout the book, Wasik expresses his “desperate desire to stop Internet time” (71), worries about “the dilemma of disposability” (183), or describes his concern about what Linda Stone calls the “continuous partial attention” (cited in Wasik, 41) that characterizes our multitasking, distracted, viral culture.  As I read these passages, I found myself thinking about Walter Benjamin’s arguments about the fragmentation of attention in early 20th century culture and wondered whether this characterization of internet culture as distracting is significantly different than past forms of entertainment and communication (or how one would measure such a thing).  Whether it’s true or not that we have access to more “inputs” isn’t quite clear to me (186), though it’s probably fair to say that the nature of that information has changed.

However, Wasik is much more persuasive when he traces the sophistication of many of the people who produce and consume viral media.  In some of my own work (forthcoming here and cited above), I have discussed how skilled producers of viral videos use intertetual cues, references to films, TV shows, and music, to introduce compelling commentary on political culture.  As Wasik observes, the Internet has become a site for countless forms of “cultural experimentation,” and savvy users are attentive to the ways in which viral media spreads.  In addition, in the best cases, meme-makers such as Lee Stranahan and  Andy Cobb (my examples) illustrate the ways in which the internet democratizes “cultural monitoring” (14).

More often than not, however, Wasik emphasizes the ways in which viral media, enabled not only by blogs but also by a voracious 24-hour news cycle (and, on cable news, a blurring  of the line between news and entertainment), often deal with “irrelevant foibles” (146) or “narratives that the facts cannot support” (151).  Wasik is right to be concerned about these issues, as only a quick glance at the health care debate indicates.  Days that could have been used to focus on creating meaningful reform were instead spent engaging rumors about death panels, ratined care, and other non sequitirs (not to mention BS rumors about Obama’s citizenship).  Although the “deathers” may no longer distract us, they dominated the news cycle, and the (manufactured) controversy derailed the legislative process and gave cover to those who were opposed to the public option.  And yet it’s impossible for me to see these nanostories as entirely frivolous or meaningless.  At the very least, it becomes crucial to “fight the smears” (182), if only to avoid the fate suffered by John Kerry uring the 2004 election.  But, in other circumstances, the “self-awareness” of viral media can produce the positive effect that we become more sophisticated viewers of the media we consume (and produce).  And, in the best cases, viral texts can provide sincere dialogue about important issues (I’d argue that the circulation of the George Allen “macaca” video did this, if only because it reminded us of how the political game has changed) or at least entertain us.  And yet, despite these reservations, I am generally persuaded by most of Wasik’s claims: short-lived, briefly popular, generally disposable videos have become a newly dominant genre and that, no matter what, these videos constitute a new way of talking about or narrating our daily lives.

Finally, although I have emphasized Wasik’s treatment of how nanostories affect politics, it’s worth noting that he also examines the role of nanostories in shaping indie rock culture, specifically focusing on how the desire to discover the Next Great Band can result in a kind of churn that pushes other more established bands to the side.  Here, Wasik offers an insightful reading of the role of KEXP (still my favorite radio station on the planet) in serving as tastemakers for any number of indie bands.  I think there may be some useful points here in thinking about how movie tastes are constucted online as well, especially as online reiewers become more prominent and as DIY filmmakers seek out reviews for their films.  Wasik’s book is an especially valuable contribution to the literature on viral media, in part because he treats it with some skepticism, especially when it comes to the ways in which viral media and nanostories are (often) implicated in the logic of the market and the transoformation of social relationships into marketing opportunities.  Wasik, more than most popular cultural critics, recognizes that the internet is not only a “meme-making machine” (81); it’s also a machine for organizing social, political, and economic relationships and that we need to engage with these new narrative modes in responsible and sustainable ways.

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Wednesday Links

I’m not sure how many local readers I have, but I just found out that the local art house, the Cameo, will be screening Sin Nombre this week (and for one week only).  I’ve heard really good things (in fact, I’d originally planned to drive up to Raleigh just to see it), so if you’re in the neighborhood, definitely check it out.

It’s a few days old, but I came across a New York Times article discussing the fact that Hollywood is now grabbing pullquotes from the blogosphere for trailers and other promotional items.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the article views this practice as somehow deceptive, implicitly suggesting that it’s somehow “egregious” to take the reviews of film bloggers out of context (rather than professional film critics).  But the article is missing quite a bit, especially when it comes to the role of film bloggers in nurturing and promoting independent, DIY, an documentary films when newspapers don’t always review those films (a point raised in the soucre, now lost, where I originally found this article).

Jonathan Gray uses the news that a number of shows being cancelled (including a personal fave, My Name is Earl) to ask a couple of really good questions that might also apply–in a slightly different way–to the indie film industry: “How could either the television industry or fans better circulate information about shows?…How could the industry, writers, critics, and/or fans try to improve our information center and improve how we hear about shows, rather than simply hope that next year the viewing public will all discover all the shows we love, and nothing we dislike will ever be canceled again?”

Alissa Perren mentions news that the Weinstein Company might be in financial trouble.  Like her, I’d hate to see another major indie company disappear (and David Poland offers an even blunter assessment of the Weinstein Co’s financial struggles), although I also share her sense that the traditional methods of distributing “niche” movies don’t seem to be working that well.  Alissa also points to the news that IFC was the most active buyer at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and addresses their apparent success with video-on-demand distribution options.

On a related note, Matt Dentler, citing a Variety article by Dave McNary, notes that some indies are seeing “hopeful signs” in using video-on-demand (VOD) debuts.  McNary, in particular, points out that VOD can provide alternatives for people living outsie of city centers who read about the latest indie films online, whether in film blogs or in more traditional venues such as The New York Times. Living outside of a major city, this has been my experience.  It’s unlikely, for example, that I would have seen Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience without VOD access, so my sense is that, promoted properly, these modes of distribution can reach out to a previously underserved niche audience.

David Hudson has a pointer to a Current TV interview with Errol Morris in which the Thin Blue Line and Fog of War director lists his “five favorite films, kind of.”

Also check out Nick Rombes’ interview with the LA Times about his book, A Cultural Dictionary of Punk.

Update: I keep forgetting to mention iReel, another competitor in the expanding world of online movie distribution.  iReel is affiliated with Paramount, so most of the movies, from what I can tell, are connected with Paramount.  The site invites members to rent or buy from their catalog.  There is a pretty decent collection (American Teen, Baraka, Iron Man, Ben Button, as well as older films such as The Virgin Suicides), and I’ll be curious to see how this model works in comparison to “free” ad-supported services (such as Hulu and SnagFilms) and monthly rental services such as Netflix.

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Fans, Friends & Followers

Scott Kirsner’s Fans, Friends, and Followers: Building an Audience and a Creative Career in the Digital Age uses interviews with a number of prominent artists who have been able to forge careers and gain widespread popularity primarily through promotional and distribution tools available online.  For those of us doing research on digital cinema, Kirsner’s book is a valuable resource, one that illustrates the ways in which content creators are navigating, and sometimes profiting from, what Chris Anderson has described as the “long tail” of digital distribution and what others have described as do-it-yourself (DIY) distribution.  While my own research, in Reinventing Cinema (Amazon) , focuses exclusively on filmmakers, Kirsner assembles a number of key figures from what he calls the “era of digital creativity,” including musicians, comics artists, visual artists, and novelists, in order to establish or explore how a set of practices have emerged that allow artists to escape the “gatekeepers” of traditional distribution and market themselves. While Kirsner’s book is generally optimistic about the potentials of DIY, a number of significant themes surfaced throughout the interviews.

One of the themes that a number of content creators mentioned was the desire to use digital tools in order to produce social change.  Kirsner interviews both Robert Greenwald (Outfoxed and Uncovered) and Sandi DuBowski (Trembling before G-d), both of whom used the house-party model as one tool not only for distributing their socially-conscious documentaries but also as a means for creating a conversation about them, one that could, especially in Greenwald’s case, turn into an active, politicized audience.  Greenwald also describes his efforts to move away from feature-length films and toward short videos that could have a more immediate effect on their audience (51-53), although Greenwald’s more recent project, Rethink Afghanistan, seems to offer a more subtle blend of both approaches by releasing short, timely segments online and then editing those into a feature-length film.  As Brian Stelter notes in the New York Times, Afghanistan is “being shaped both as a film and a campaign at the same time.”  Kirsner also makes a point of asking Greenwald to explain the collaborative process that has become such an important part of his documentaries, especially with much of the material on Brave New Films being produced by other video activists.

Kirsner’s interview with M Dot Strange also produced a number of key insights.  Strange, an animator and filmmaker, also discusses how he has cultivated an active audience, in part by openly communicating how he constructs many of his visual effects: “I’ve found that educational stuff can attract an audience. Share your techniques, and tell people about the software you’re using. You’re almost giving them the DVD extras before they buy the DVD” (54). Strange adds that many studios mask the “real” construction processes behind their films as “proprietary,” furthering mystifying the processes of production for potential filmmakers. While this theme isn’t explicitly addressed elsewhere in Kirsner’s book, this “pedagogical” component of DIY culture seems significant, and it is certainly implicit in the practices described by many of the artists he interviews.

Another question the book addresses–and I wish this had been a more explicit concern–is the energy required to promote the finished products made by these digital creatives.  M Dot does acknowledge that the new distribution models open up new models while reminding that everyone will not be successful and adding that “You’ve got to be like a carny: crafty and resourceful” (54).  Artist Natasha Wescoat acknowledges feeling “overwhelmed” by the promotional work and having “a couple of burn-outs” (78).  Similarly, DJ Spooky, consciously echoing former President Bill Clinton, suggests that he views his career as a “permanent campaign” (65).  Given the negative effects of the “permanent campaign” on governing, it is easy to speculate that such non-stop self-promotion may interfere with artists actually pursuing their creative goals, a question that was never satisfactorily addressed in the book. However, because I am also intrigued by the “extratextual” features that accompany most films (and because those extratextual features are important meaning-making devices in their own right), it’s worth treating the new distribution models and promotional practices themselves as forms of “creativity.”

Finally, I was interested in comedian and YouTube executive Mark Day’s discussion of “expertise” and the ability of successful digital entrepreneurs to turn that success into a second career as an “expert,” whether as a consultant or as a speaker at film festivals and other venues.  Given that many of these success stories are about timing and luck (among other factors), I found myself wondering about the other side of the digital coin, the less popular digital creatives who have remained on the periphery of this new DIY culture.  In most cases, I don’t think it’s fair at all to regard these figures as “failures,” but I wonder if there are other narratives that we call tell besides the digital Horatio Alger story, narratives that might emphasize the new forms of storytelling made possible by digital media.  Most of the people Kirsner interviewed were honest about approaches that didn’t work for them, so I’m not looking for a similar collection of failed attempts, just more narratives about what is possible.

That being said, I think Kirsner knows DIY culture as well as anyone, and he is well-positioned to document what is happening in a variety of digital media, to provide that crucial snapshot of digital DIY practices.  He is also aware that what he is providing is just that, a snapshot, pointing out that these practices are far from static and subject to alteration as new artists find new techniques for having their voices heard (and hopefully making a living from it).  The book also provides at least some statistics about what opportunities are actually available financially to even the most successful digital artists, making the book a useful guide to all of us interested in the ongoing practices of indie filmmakers, musicians, and artists alike.

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Wednesday Links

I’m back in Fayetteville after my mini-spring break tour, which consisted of a brief stop in Durham, NC, for the Internet for Everyone Town Hall, and a slightly longer stay in Spartanburg, SC, where I had a chance to catch up with George (and where he introduced me to Little River Roasting Company, makers of some of the best coffee I’ve ever tasted).  I’m still recovering from the trip, in part because I locked my keys in my car in a Florence, SC, fast food parking lot and spent 2.5 hours waiting for a locksmith, so I’m starting off with a quick links post.  I’m planning to write short reviews of The Watchmen and Waltz with Bashir, hopefully, but that may require a little more energy than I have right now.

  • The biggest news is that I mailed the index and page proofs back to my publisher this week, basically the final step (for me) in writing the book.  George was there to document the occasion with a couple of photographs.  While creating the index did cause some angst, I found it to be a somewhat rewarding experience, allowing me to uncover connections that were only implicit in the book’s original argument.
  • Just a quick note on the Internet Town Hall: I found the discussions rewarding enough, and as someone who teaches with technology, it was interesting to learn about the experiences that others have with broadband access.  Sometimes the discussion felt a little forced, with answers already implied in the questions, but I liked the mix of small group discussions and wider dialogues.
  • Now that I have a little spare time to explore new projects, I’m sitting down to read a review copy of Alex Halavais’s Search Engine Society (Polity), a book that explores how search engines are affecting thought.  I’ve known Alex via blogging for a while, so my reading is shaped by that, but I’m finding Alex’s book incredibly helpful in thinking through some of the challenges our department is facing with regard to the fairly panicked reaction to the use of digital technologies such as search engines in the classroom (a reaction that isn’t uncommon from what I gather).  In particular, so far, Search Engine Society has been helpful in providing me with a slightly better language for characterizations of the current crop of students as “digital natives,” a description that leaves out quite a bit.  More on that in a few days, hopefully.
  • A couple of years ago, I had the good fortune to catch Liz Witham’s A Certain Kind of Beauty, which focuses on one family’s struggles after they learn their son has MS, at Silverdocs.  Now the film is available in its entirety from SnagFilms, the very cool online streaming source for documentary films, where the filmmakers hope to raise money to support 160 people living with Multiple Sclerosis to attend support groups, a cause that would seem to extend the film’s overall goals.
  • If you haven’t seen Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, Aaron Hillis’s DVD review over at GreenCine should be more than enough to convince you.  I’m inclined to agree that it’s one of the best films of 2008, and I think that Aaron’s reading is pretty much right on.     Like Aaron, I’ve been mystified by reviewers who charcterized the wedding party scenes as overly sanguine multiculturalism because they miss the degree to which these expressions of community mask the family’s deeper pains.  It’s a beautiful little film, well worth your dime (or at least pushing to the top of your rentl queues).
  • While he misrepresents the new goals of GreenCine blogger Aaron Hillis (who is not seeking to relace David Hudson as a film blog and news aggregator), Adrian Martin does raise a valuable question about the future of festivals in the digital age.  Given the widespread access to DVD screeners and the massive growth of active film bloggers who have created all kinds of forums for talking about film, do we need to “physically stage” film festivals anymore? It’s an interesting discussion, and while I made some passing references to SxSW’s role in marketing Mumblecore in the book, I’d like to address these ideas in further detail.  I do think there is some benefit to sitting down face-to-face over drinks in Austin, Park City, Durham, or wherever, but Martin’s question is a provocative one (link via David, of course).
  • J.J. Murphy raises an important point about the state of independent film in 2008 and 2009.  Citing a friend who expressed concern that 2008 was a “bad” year for quality indie films, Murphy points out that there were a number of great films last year but that few of them played beyond big cities.  Murphy goes on to list an impressive-looking top ten, none of which played theatrically in Fayetteville to my knowledge.  This is probably old news for anyone who reads my blog, but Murphy’s post helps to underscore the ways in which our filtering a promotion systems still make it difficult for indie fans to find all of these compelling films.
  • I’m just now catching up to Girish’s list of links posted last Friday.  As usual, he provides a wealth of great reading material.  Some favorites: Anthony Kaufman’s Moving Image Source article on the demise of VHS and its implications for film history, and a Film Festival research bibliography (also cited in the above essay by Martin).
  • Oh yeah, and if you haven’t seen it, Kutiman’s remix “album” of YouTube musicians, ThruYou is pretty amazing, both as a work of art and as a commentary on the community-building practices on YouTube (or, at least, the desire for those communities).

That’s enough for now.  It’s nice to feel like I’m not scrambling toward a deadline, so hopefully I can start using the blog again as a way of tracking down and thinking about new research.  And just maybe I can get back in the habit of writing reviews again.

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CauseWired: Plugging In, Getting Involved, Changing the World

For the last year or so, I have been a (relatively infrequent) participant at newcritics, a blog founded by Tom Watson, where bloggers of all types can join in conversations about middlebrow culture.  Topics range from liveblogging episodes of Mad Men to debates about the Sopranos finale to sustained conversations about the Oscar nominees for best film in 1967, a series inspired by Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution.  The blog has been an alternative community for me over the last couple of years, so I was delighted to read Tom’s new book, CauseWired: Plugging In, Getting Involved, Changing the World, which focuses on the role of new media technologies in reshaping how people engage with social causes.  In the book, Tom, a journalist and consultant, writes authoritatively about a wide range of web practices ranging from the seemingly banal “Cause” application on Facebook to the use of microloans to finance small overseas businesses, the Barack Obama campaign’s innovative use of Web 2.0 technologies, and even the more immediate, spontaneous uses of blogging software and Twitter to keep people informed during a crisis.

Tom brands all of these practices under the label “CauseWired,” and his enthusiasm for these kinds of practices is evident for the outset.  He acknowleges this point in the book’s introduction, explaining that he does not believe “there is a good, impersonal, purely journalistic or academic way to cover this movement; you have to plunge in directly to understand it” (xxvi).  And, typically, Tom’s excitement about the potentials of online social activism leads to rewarding interviews with some of the key players in the movement.  Especially strong, in my opinion, was Tom’s discussion of Kiva.org, the micro-lending site that, accoring to Kiva’s website, allows “individuals to lend directly to unique entrepreneurs in the developing world.”  Tom also illustrates the potential of what he calls “flash causes,” those relatively sudden events that spur individuals into action using the tools at hand.  Specifically, he focuses Nate Ritter’s use of Twitter to update readers on the California wildfires during the summer of 2007.

In all cases, Tom identifies individuals or groups who make use of available technologies in order to promote a social or political cause, and while he wisely resists turning CauseWired into a modified how-to book, his book can serve as a guide for thinking about how to use digital media to support or participate in a cause.  In addition, while Tom is, no doubt, a proponent of online activism, he is, by no means, naive about the limitations of these online activities.  He admits, for example, that the Facebook Causes application has not always resulted in the financial support that organizers of various causes would like to see.  If my experience is any indication, I will often “join” or endorse causes simply because friends have joined and I feel some pressure to show solidarity with the politics.  But as Tom is quick to point out, even this desire for “social validation” can reap benefits in unexpected ways (37).

Further, as the Facebook example illustrates, Tom points out that the “CauseWired” practices are especially attractive to a new generation of activists who are just now coming of age.  Drawing from Hais and Winograd’s insightful Millennial Makeover, Tom traces out how teens and young adults are adapting their use of technology to their support for certain social causes.  Here, Tom draws from his own experiences with his teenage daughter and their shared participation in certain causes.

In the book’s conclusion, Tom acknowledges some of the potential limits of this new form of online activism.  In fact, many of the traits that make online activism so powerful also have the potential to derail some of its urgency.  Tom cites Andrea Batista Schlesinger, of the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, who worries that one-click activism may lead to a consumer-oriented approach that stands in the way of true, committed activism (189).  At the same time, Tom notes, the sheer volume of information about potential causes threatens to produce a kind of mental paralysis as people become increasingly inundated with messages inviting them to get involved.  I’ll admit that I would have liked to see more of this skepticism addressed up-front, especially given some of my own questions about one-click activism and the role it might serve in fostering passive responses to real social problems.  Also, because of how broadly he defines the concept of a cause, it’s virtually impossible to dispute the basic principle of social activism, but I found myself constantly coming up against the broader question of how much these causes can do to alleviate the genuine problems of economic inequality in the first place, especially as the banking industry continues to accumulate billions of dollars in bailout money.

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