Archive for cultural studies

More than Gift Shops

I’m winding down from a short trip to Orlando, where Andrea and I (along with her daughter) spent the New Years Eve weekend visiting the two halves of the Universal Studios theme park (by the way, we were actually in Islands of Adventure when a small fire broke out on one of the rides), followed by an evening trip to Downtown Disney (in what is now a tradition of fun New Year’s adventures).  It’s the first time I’ve been to an amusement park in (quite possibly) twenty years, and the first time since high school that I attended a theme park that is explicitly connected to a movie studio.  When visting Orlando (or Universal Studios in general), it’s easy to see why authors might be tempted to embrace Jean Baudrillard’s arguments about simulation: the parks and the city itself seem to be entirely populated with artificial representations.  The Harry Potter section of Islands of Adventure almost seamlessly simulates the powerful blend of past and present Britishness found in J.K. Rowling’s novels and in the movies.  Artificial snow drapes the rooftops of some of the shops (or shoppes); fake owls hover in one of the restaurants; and street vendors hawk (extremely tasty butter beer).  The ride simulations, especially The Mummy and Spider-Man, create the sensation of actually inhabiting the worlds of the movies and graphic novels, allowing riders to feel the effect of swinging from building to building or of descending deeper into the hidden chambers alongside of Brendan Fraser.

It’s also very easy to see how people can criticize these parks and the city as beacons of consumerism.  It’s easy to spend hundreds of dollars paying for park admission, parking, food (the meal pass appeared to be a good money saver, but it wasn’t really *that* helpful), and, of course, souvenirs.  In addition to the butter beer, one can also buy wizard wands, capes, and other foods related to the Harry Potter franchise.  And of course, almost every ride exits through the gift shop (to echo the title of a recent documentary), where you are presented with pictures of you and your family enjoying (or reacting to) the rides, presenting you with (a simulation of?) family enjoyment that you can also purchase.  Downtown Disney itself straddles this line.  It’s not part of the actual park, but it offers a kind of simulation of the public square where customers can walk along streets or sidewalks watching “street performers” and other activities that you might see in a “real” city.

But I think we lose quite a bit of specificity in viewing these spaces as mere simulations or as ideological ruses designed to lure in tourist dollars, especially the international tourists who filled our hotel to capacity (rather than visting other parts of the world).  After visiting the parks, I’m not quite sure I have a good  answer to that question.  Certainly I enjoyed the rides.  The Simpsons ride simulation managed to be both incredibly funny and a thoughtful engagement with the show. and the Terminator 3-D show provided an impressive visual spectacle, one that used 3-D relatively well.  Other sections creatively engage our interest in the ways in which cinematic illusions are created.  One of these shows, the Horror Makeup Show (in which Andrea “volunteered” to participate in a couple of stunts) demonstrates how some blood and guts effects are produced, providing viewers, participants, or visitors with a small degree of “insider knowledge” while also linking the park to Hollywood’s past (the show’s hosts make reference to Hitchcock and other Golden Age horror filmmakers).  Similarly, Disaster invites users to “star” in a disaster movie directed by a hologrammatic auteur played by Christopher Walken.  Volunteer “actors” from the crowd of various types are placed in basic costumes and shot in front of a green screen in order to create the effect of being in a disaster movie, allowing you (in the cheery rhetoric of the ride’s web page to make “your big screen debut!”  Again, it’s kind of a crash course in Filmmaking 101 and allows for some form of participation in and movement through a motion picture.

These “ride shows” make explicit something that is prevalent in many–though not all–of the rides and shows at Universal, a form of direct address to the consumer-visitor that is not quite as evident in the movies themselves.  While waiting for various rides, characters (or actors) will directly address the visitors, alerting them to safety rules and other aspects of park etiquette.  In fact, part of what made the Simpsons ride work so well is the fact that these “rules” could be seamlessly integrated with clips from past episodes of the show in which Homer and family visited the Krustyland amusement park, itself a sly parody of Disney World, one that allows Universal to claim a level of “edginess” ostensibly not present in their perpetually cheery rival.

Because I haven’t had a chance to visit them, I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about how theme parks fit within a wider entertainment culture, and after two days visiting Universal parks, I’m now curious to engage even further with the dynamics enacted within the park.  Yes, the parks do create some form of illusion.  Once the fire broke out, it was clear the spell was broken.  Although the fire was quickly contained and no one was hurt, the mere presence of black smoke was enough to drive people toward the park’s exit in a mass exodus.  And our ability to know how some effects are produced may not “inoculate” us against other ideologies produced by Hollywood.  However, it’s impossible to deny the pleasures of participation and engagement produced by the parks themselves.  I never felt like I was in Hogwarts while visiting the Harry Potter section.  My reaction was immediately “meta:” they did a good job of creating an illusion (a reaction that most reviews seem to express in one form or another).    In this sense, amusement parks extend the story in creative and engaging, if expensive, ways.

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Wednesday Links

The last nine days have been a blur of grading, birthday celebrations, Prius buying, and travel to Charlotte (twice), where two of my family’s preferred sports teams, the Falcons and Celtics, beat up on local squads.  Driving the Prius has, itself, proven to be a fascinating experience (hoping to blog about that soon), but for now, here are some film and media links while I hide out in an uncomfortably loud Starbucks, coincidentally just a few short blocks from Tryon Street in Charlotte:

  • Hoping to have more to say about the “Filmography 2010” video, a compilation of clips from over 200 films released in 2010, all compiled into a coherent narrative, but for now, check out the comments from Scott Eric Kaufman.
  • Another cool video: someone has used split-screen to depict the events and different dream levels of Inception in real time.
  • MediaCommons’s In Media Res archive has a week of posts dedicated to analyzing film spectatorship.  Of special interest is a recent post by Sarah Sinwell on cell phone cinema.
  • I think there is a tendency to overstate the degree to which Netflix is shaping the film and TV industry.  But there are some interesting changes worth following including Netflix’s recent expansion of content available in Canada, the agreement to stream recent ABC and Disney TV shows, and their ongoing conflicts with Comcast.  Still, Wilson Rothman anticipates a future in which the Red Envelope is marginalized once studios get a handle on video-on-demand models.
  • I was also intrigued to learn that some rental DVDs are now being stripped of special features.  I’d been thinking about the degree to which streaming DVDs makes it less likely that we will watch special features, but now many rental DVDs (including the new Scott Pilgrim DVD) are being distributed without them, presumably as an incentive to get special features fans to buy the DVD.
  • Also worth checking out: The Avengers Assemble! online series, which depicts members of the Avengers comic series tackling real-world problems like the health care debate and the BP oil spill.  I like the handheld camera and the low-fi aesthetic.
  • I’m also fascinated by the ongoing discussions of Flix on Stix, a kind of competitor for Redbox, which allows people to download movie rentals on their thumb drives.  The movies can be rented in a few minutes, and renters can purchase a viewing window of 1-12 days (for anywhere between $1-4), depending on how long they think they will want to have access.
  • A very cool text for those of us interested in media history: a memoir/review essay on the changing role of the projectionist.  As the article illustrates, digital cinema is just one part of a longer evolution in the duties performed by projectionists.
  • A good LA Times article on ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series.  Although there may be a slightly cynical side to this (ESPN seeking to rebrand), it has also provided access to some pretty powerful and thoughtful documentaries about the sports world.

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Wednesday Links

Recovering from a cold, but hoping to put together a more substantial discussion of my trip to Bogota soon:

  • Jeff Deutchman’s crowdsourced documentary, 11/04/08, which assembles footage of people’s reactions to the election of Barack Obama as President, had a simultaneous premiere in approximately 20 cities the other day. The film will soon be available from Amazon, YouTube, and other online retailers.  Matt Dentler and Christopher Campbell have the details.  I missed the premiere because of travel, but I have to wonder how the documentary looks nearly two years after Election Day through the political lens of ongoing political and economic uncertainty.  Hoping to watch it soon.
  • Barack Obama joins Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” project, addressing bullied and isolated gay teens with a message of comfort.
  • The LA Times has an interesting discussion of the reemergence of consumers choosing to rent rather than purchase movies on DVD (or in streaming formats).
  • David Poland cites the Kickstarter success story, Blue Like Jazz.  One of the commenters suggests that Jazz’s success may be tied to its appeal to Christian audiences.  No matter what, raising over $300,000 online for a movie is an impressive achievement.  Hoping to have more to say about this project soon.
  • Anthony Kaufman’s latest “Industry Beat” column discusses the ongoing indie crisis, with one indie producer, Michael London, suggesting that making independent “movies has become more a hobby than a livelihood.”
  • Fun video of the day: an indie director and Charlie Chaplin fan comes to the conclusion that he has spotted a time traveler on a cell phone at the premiere of one of Chaplin’s films.  Needless to say, commenters at Cinematical are skeptical.
  • Scary video of the day: Citizens Against Government Waste uses race-baiting fear tactics to persuade us that progressives are in the process of destroying the American economic empire.  The video plays like a cross between the Apple 1984 ad and the sequel to Red Dawn.
  • Netflix is investing bigtime in streaming content, with a tab that might exceed $2 billion (h/t Chris Becker).


Wednesday Links

Taking advantage of the brief break in the middle of my work week to bring you the latest links I’ve been reading and watching:

  • YouTube has made its gallery of videos for the crowdsourced documentary Life in a Day open to the public.  YouTubers contributed over 80,000 videos for consideration to be included in the final documentary.  NewTeeVee and Cinematical have all the details.
  • Scott McLemee writes about his decision to bite the bullet and buy an e-book reader.  I’m still resisting buying one, but I think that Scott usefully demonstrates how they might be useful under certain circumstances.
  • Johnathan Zittrain asks whether the “future of the internet” he predicted has come to fruition.  Some interesting thoughts on the state of the “generative internet” as it exists today.
  • Bob Stein has a discussion of James Bridle’s The Iraq War, a compilation of all of the edits to the Wikipedia article on the recent Iraq War.  As a historical document and an attempt to wrestle with how knowledge is constructed in the internet age, this seems like a fascinating project.  This echoes a project I’ve assigned for my first-year composition students several times that asks them to anaylze the changes made to a “controversial” Wikipedia article.  Interesting stuff.
  • Adam Jackson discusses the future of cloud storage for digital media and its implications for consumers, touching on the implications for corporate control over our data and concluding that we’re better off with physical copies (DVDs, etc).
  • On a related note, Mark Hayward discusses the implications of Google’s recent moves regarding net neutrality.
  • And, just for fun, Neo-Lebowski, where Morpheus introduces The Dude to the nature of reality.  Somewhere, I think film geekdom just exploded.


Monday Links: e-books, Facebook, Hitchcock, and More

Here are some the things I’ve been reading, watching, and thinking about this morning:

  • First, Inside Higher Ed has an interesting discussion of Daytona State College’s plan to convert to a textbook system based entirely around e-books.  There are obviously some benefits here: no more heavy books, cheaper textbook prices, and more profits for publishers.  The campus bookstore would–at least in the short run–appear to be the biggest loser, financially.  I’m still ambivalent about e-book readers, in part because I appreciate the tangibility and permanence of physical books, but this is an interesting experiment, especially given that most students essentially rent their textbooks at a prohibitively high cost.
  • On a related note, Kairos News has been exploring questions about why open-source textbooks appear to be struggling to catch on.  Part of the problem, of course, has been that these open source projects, fairly or not, are perceived as vanity projects.  I can imagine that many tenure committees would look with skepticism at the open-source model, so there is probably a need for some form of institutional change and continued education from open-source advocates.
  • Continuing with the education theme, Catherine at Film Studies for Free (one of the best open-access models out there) provides a pointer to yet another wonderful tool for the Introduction to Film classroom: Majestic Micro Movies’s video primers on film aesthetics.  Catherine cites four videos dealing with topics such as deep focus, shallow focus, tracking, and short-reverse-shot.  They’re witty, fun, and provide some context for why these techniques are often hotly debated.  Their YouTube and Facebook pages are great resources for students and teachers of film.
  • More classroom stuff: The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that a recent study published in the Journal of College Student Retention has concluded that frequent Facebook users are more likely to stay in school and shows that students who have more friends on Facebook are more likely to return for their sophomore years.  Because the study is based on a survey at a single university, Abilene Christian University, I’d like to see the results reproduced elsewhere before I put much stock in them.  Is a public HBCU or regional state university going to be different than a private, religious institution?  A bigger question might be causation versus correlation. Perhaps the networked students are already disposed toward returning to school and Facebook is simply an expression of that.
  • Tama Leaver points to an Economist article on “the future of the internet.”  Like Tama, I appreciate the article’s acknowledgement that the internet seems to be continuing its fragmentation into various “walled gardens,” many of them highly profitable, as well as the discussion of the ongoing attempts to create tiered internet provision (different levels of internet service for different prices), moves that the author characterizes as a virtual “counter-revolution.”
  • The journal Off Screen devotes its most recent issue to internet-based film criticism. Especially noteworthy: Paul Salmon’s “A Film Prof at the Cineplex.”
  • Finally, Christine Becker links to David Carr’s article arguing that there is “too much” TV out there.  A couple of key quotes: “Our ability to produce media has outstripped our ability to consume it. The average photograph now gets looked at less than once simply because there is almost zero cost and effort to producing one.”  And perhaps more crucially: “We don’t watch TV anymore as much as it seems to watch us, recommending, recording and dishing up all manner of worthy product.”  Database TV seems to hold out the prospects of unlimited choice, and yet, as Carr suggests, recommendation algorithms, DVRs, and other tools have become more adept at assessing tastes, analyzing us and, in some sense, choosing what we want to watch.

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Next Saturday Links

Thanks to a much busier week than usual, I’m just now catching up with some of my online reading, but here are some worthwhile things I found over first two cups of coffee:

  • Fred Fox, Jr., author of the notorious “Jump the Shark” episode of Happy Days, defends himself against charges that the Fonz jumping the shark was the beginning of the end for that show, and describes his reaction to becoming one of the most notorious phrases in ad hoc TV criticism.
  • NewTeeVee asks whether smaller cable channels, such as The Hallmark Channel, might be squeezed out thanks to the recent negotiations over carriage fees between cable providers, such as Time Warner, and channels such as TNT and ESPN.  We have over 100 channels I’d never miss–The Military Channel, Hallmark, etc–so I understand the temptation to eliminate some, even if I’d like to see niche programming get more protection and support.
  • On a related note, NewTeeVee also explores the implications of cheap iTunes rentals of individual TV episodes for television.  They also offer an assessment of Hulu’s impact on broadcast TV.  Perhaps lost in all of this is the impact of box sets of TV series, which now seem almost transitional as we look at how audiences access TV now.
  • David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson have a compendium of useful essays from their blog that address topics covered in Introduction to Film classes.  These blog posts might serve as useful supplements to pretty much any Introduction to Film textbook and serve as a useful reminder of how the blogosphere is cultivating new forms of film criticism (rather than killing it as many critics have recently claimed–more on this in a longer blog post).
  • I’ve been following Scott Rosenberg’s series defending the practice of linking with quite a bit of enthusiasm.  He is responding to Nicholas Carr’s assertion that linking serves as a form of distraction, one that inhibits understanding, rather than aiding it.  Rosenberg’s third post is especially useful in that it provides a brief taxonomy of what kinds of textual effects links can have.  In general, links offer new, more visible and more immediate forms of engagement, allowing us to connect with others who have similar interests.
  • Interesting discussion with indie filmmaking expert Peter Broderick on the future of festivals and much more (via Documentary Tech).
  • Also from Documentary Tech, news that the Freakonomics documentary will be released via iTunes before coming to an art house theater near you.  To be honest, I’m not sure that this move is all that surprising or unusual for a film dedicated to such a specific (if relatively wide) niche.  The point, especially for indie films and documentaries, seems to be to provide multiple access points and to entice audiences to view the film on the platform of their choice.
  • Radiohead joins the Beastie Boys and Bon Jovi in turning their fans into amateur cinematographers.  Here’s the story: a group invited 50 concertgoers to record a live performance of the band using Flip video cameras that were then edited together into a concert video.  Kind of fun, right?  But what’s kind of cool here is the fact that Radiohead has given their Prague-based fans the actual soundboard recordings of the concert, turning what was originally an engaging amateur video into a band-endorsed concert film.  The DVD is available for free from the film’s website, with the band’s blessing.


Tuesday Links

I had no idea that it has been nearly two weeks since I last posted.  At some point, I’d like to get back to a more consistent blogging schedule, but the last few weeks have been dedicated to article revisions, frantic book chapter drafting, and even more frantic syllabus planning.  All good things, but also things that take away from blogging.  For now, here are a few recent links that others might have missed:

  • The New York Times has an interesting article about several indie rock labels that have taken on the role of film distributors.  What seems interesting about the article is the attempt to define screenings as “events,” and screening at non-theatrical venues.  Obviously, many of these practices have been around for a long time–filmmakers have done movie “tours” for ages–but there are some interesting connections here.
  • I think it’s brilliant that Star Wars: Uncut won a creative arts Emmy. Just for fun:  Here’s the trailer.
  • Scott Kirsner has a good overview of the New York Times series on the future of television.  One of Scott’s takeaways is that audiences seem relatively satisfied with the ways they currently access TV (or at least unwilling to change them), choosing to continue paying for cable rather than accessing TV online.  There’s also the requisite push for 3-D TV, with industry types hoping that 3-D TVs will account for half of all sales within five years.
  • Finally, there is also a terrific discussion in the Times of some of the work by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Dan Cohen and others to use the logic of the web to reimagine peer review.

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Sunday Links

Here’s what I’ve been reading and watching and playing over my Sunday morning coffee:

  • I’ll admit that I knew little about Scott Pilgrim comic book series before production on the film began, but now that it’s due to reach theaters, I’m intrigued by some of the clever marketing and promotional techniques they’re using.  The interactive trailer for the film seems to fit perfectly with Scott Pilgrim’s unapologetically geeky spirit.  What seems especially notable here is that much of the supplemental material that normally would have been put on the DVD (making-of documentaries, director’s remarks, cast interviews) is now being repurposed as promotional material (danger: you really could spend an afternoon playing with the interactive trailer).  NewTeeVee has an excellent discussion of how the interactive trailer was produced.  On a related note, these fictitious movie posters–based on the action-film career of one of the movie’s key characters–are also goofy fun.
  • Via Deadline Hollywood Daily, an interview with James Cameron about the Avatar sequels and about his process in producing some of the “extra” scenes for the Avatar DVD.
  • Cinematical also has a discussion of the trailer for “internet sensation” Fred Figglehorn (played by Lucas Cruikshank)  and the planned Nickelodeon movie, simply titled Fred: The Movie.  Fred’s videos receive millions of views on YouTube, which suggests this could turn into a sleeper hit.
  • Martin Scorsese discusses why he is doing more TV work, including directing episodes of a series for HBO.
  • Jim Emerson provides yet another overview of the responses to Christopher Nolan’s Inception.
  • Cinematical has a discussion of Fox’s decision to participate in BlogHer.  Money quote: Fox executive Mary Daily remarked that “”mommy bloggers are the most fertile marketing demo to come along since comic book geeks.”  Related: Steven Zeitchik discusses this week’s box office battle between Julia Roberts and Sylvester Stallone in terms of the genders of their target audiences.  Hoping to come back to this issue in a longer post later today.

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Friday Links

I finally caught Inception last night and may have more to say about it later.  My basic impression of the film was that it was more clever than good.  The dream sequences seemed far too linear and scripted and far too much like 1980s action movies–cue the snow chase scene with explosives–to be convincing as dreams, unless you’re Michael Bay, I guess.  Still, the concept of implanting thoughts in people’s dreams is an interesting one and  plays with some of the tropes of the conspiracy thriller.  More on that soon, but for now, here are some links:

  • Jason Sperb offers an excellent reading of the overuse of the word “maverick” when discussing independent filmmakers.  It echoes one of the beefs I have with defining “independence” as an intangible category, a la the Independent Spirit Awards, but he also points to the strengths of two recent studies of independent film production by James Mottram and Sharon Waxman.
  • Inside Redbox offers an interesting tidbit that actually offers me some encouragement: apparently public libraries lend more movies than either of their major competitors, Redbox or Netflix.  These numbers don’t include Netflix’s streaming service, which would change these overall numbers considerably (and I’m a little skeptical of their methods for counting the number of movie “rentals”), but it’s easy to forget that libraries are a major source of media content.
  • Speaking of Redbox, they are starting to move more assertively toward offering a small selection of Blu-Ray discs in their kiosks at a price of $1.50 per day, rather than the $1.00 price for normal DVDs.  Also related, more information on the cost differences between streaming video and mailing DVDs for Netflix (see also NewTeeVee).
  • Ted Hope has a thoughtful post weighing the “filter problem” that challenges both consumers and producers of independent film.  Hope’s central question is one that has haunted indie filmmakers for a while now: “when we all have over 1000 films on our To Watch list, how do we begin to make a choice?”  See also Hope’s Curator’s Note at In Media Res, which presents a short clip associated with Braden King’s transmedia project, Here.  The YouTube clip accompanying the note is engaging, and as Hope argues, it’s crucial to expand our definition of transmedia storytelling beyond the genre texts (The Matrix, etc), with which its typically associated.  Perhaps one (limited) answer to Hope’s question is that we all contribute to the process of finding, discussing, and curating the stories that interest us whenever possible.
  • Documentary Tech has a series of posts about what promises to be an intriguing documentary, Nathaniel Hansen’s The Elders.  The most recent post offers a flavor of the interviews Hansen has conducted, while an older post traces Hansen’s fund raising efforts through Kickstarter and the audience response to some of the interviews he had posted online.  But like many recent documentaries, Hansen seems to be succeeding in combining online and film content.
  • And in news that has my inner-documentary fanboy grinning, Helvetica and Objectified filmmaker Gary Hustwit has announced the third film in his “design trilogy,” Urbanized, a film focused on issues of urban design.

Update: I missed this before, but Cinematical has an article about SnagFilms’ second annual Summer Fest, an online program of new documentaries posted prior to their television or theatrical debuts.  The lead-off film, The Age of Stupid, did have a one-day event screening, a simultaneous premiere in dozens of cities across the US and beyond, but many of the planned films are relatively new, including Videocracy, a documentary I caught at this year’s Full Frame.

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Tuesday Links

Starting to get caught up on all of my reading and hoping to get back into a more consistent blogging schedule soon.  Here are a few links I’ve been thinking about lately:

  • This summer has been marked by ’80s movie nostalgia (and maybe anti-nostalgia).  Just a few of the flashbacks from my teen years include: the Karate Kid remake (which I’m still refusing to see), the 25th anniversary of Back to the Future, the John Hughes tributes, and soon, the Footloose remake.  Maybe the most fascinating response to this 80s nostalgia overload has been the collaborative project, Our Footloose Remake, a do-it-yourself project where over 30 directors combined to direct one scene each from the iconic Kevin Bacon flick.  Each scene features its own Ren McCormick (the character played by Bacon) and its own distinct style, according to the NewTeeVee report (where you can also see the trailer.  The film is starting to circulate in theaters in New York and LA, beating the Paramount version by several weeks.  If I ever have to see Footloose (a film I saw way too often on our battered VHS copy in the 80s) again, this is how I want to see it.
  • NewTeeVee also has a discussion of Apple’s decision to “skip” Blu-Ray and go straight to streaming video, with Jobs comparing the format to “high-end” audio formats that sought to replace the CD.
  • David Cox of the Guardian weighs in on the use of 3-D in the final installment of the Shrek franchise and concludes that the technology will not “save cinema.”  Although I appreciate his skepticism, I’m intrigued by the assumption that cinema needs to be “saved,” especially when he concludes that “If cinema is to flourish, it’s to these qualities [story, character, etc] that it must look, not to technological doohickey.”  I’m always intrigued by these crisis narratives about cinema/Hollywood/moviegoing, but what’s less clear to me is what cinema needs to be saved from.
  • David Poland has one of the more sensible takes I’ve seen on Hulu Plus, the new Hulu pay service, and feeds into some of the issues I’ve been mulling over when it comes to how we’ll access various media in the future.  If people are willing to pay $10 to access certain content (which continues to feature ads), where, exactly does that take us?  Poland’s sobering answer: “It’s all connected. The long tail is destined to be a series of shorter tails, sewn together. And ‘Free,’as a concept… is not only bullshit (outside of promotion), but is dead.”
  • On a related note, Phillip Lenssen provides us with a “guide” on how to access the internet in 2025.
  • Nikki Finke and Sharon Waxman weigh in on the news that Netflix has secured a deal with Relativity, allowing Netflix exclusive rights to stream Relativity’s films, rather than selling broadcast rights to a pay-TV network such as HBO or Showtime.  Although Finke seems to dismiss the deal because of Relativity’s catalog of films, I think it’s pretty significant that an internet streaming service is making this kind of deal, with the “pay TV window” now essentially moving online, at least for one company’s slate of films.


Transmedia Time

I’ve been reading Jonathan Gray’s excellent new book, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and other Media Paratexts (New York University Press, 2010), this week in preparation for a couple of summer writing projects, one that looks at cross-media adaptations in science fiction and another that examines how independent and do-it-yourself filmmakers have used paratexts and transmedia narratives as promotional tools for their films.  One of the strengths of Jonathan’s book is its loose definition of paratexts to include toys, games, trailers, and other promotional materials to show how they all contribute toward the production of meaning.  To name one key example, he shows how the Star Wars toys, in addition to being a form of marketing, played an active role in contributing to the meaning of the films (note Jabba the Hutt’s increased role in the films after he became a popular toy).

As Jonathan acknowledges, one of the complaints about paratexts is that they can often be dismissed as a form of marketing or advertising.  These complaints certainly focus on “cheesy” tie-ins, such as the Domino’s Pizza’s Gotham City Pizza Jonathan discusses (208-210), but have even become a part of the debate when it comes to the use of transmedia to promote independent films, with J.J. Murphy and Mike S. Ryan taking DIY-film advocate Ted Hope to task for his “Twenty New Rules” for indie filmmakers, in which Hope argues that filmmakers should be more savvy about using social networking and other tools to create a sense of anticipation for the movies they are producing, especially when that marketing work seems to take away from focusing creative energy on the film itself.

To address some of these concerns about “cheese,” Jonathan differentiates between “incorporated” and “unincorporated” paratexts (208-214).  Incorporated paratexts are those that fit neatly within the narrative world established by the storyworld and allow audiences to further explore that world, while unincorporated texts are those that serve simply to hype the text and “contribute nothing meaningful” to the storyworld, a la Batman’s pizza (210).  Although I’m certainly sympathetic to the saturation of marketing and promotion, I’m a little skeptical of this binary, if only because of the fuzziness of the concept of “meaning” here.  It’s certainly possible that any number of fans found meaning in the existence of the Gotham City Pizza, if only because it served as further evidence of the long tentacles of that movie franchise and as further expression of the film’s global marketing reach (recall that many Dark Knight fans hoped the film would surpass Titanic as the top-grossing film of all-time).

But in making this distinction (and in a discussion leading out of Lost and Heroes’ transmedia webs), Jonathan introduces another point that I found especially engaging when he observes in passing that “transmedia storytelling also has both rebooted and serial forms” (214).  The concept of the “reboot” has become commonplace enough in both industry language and academic studies and is a useful one for thinking about how franchises, such as the James Bond films, are given new life every few years through a reimagining of character, setting, and narrative.  But for whatever reason, Jonathan’s use of these terms here helped me to frame a question that I’ve been mulling for a while now:  Is there an effective vocabulary for thinking about the spatiotemporal relationships between paratexts in the era of transmedia?  I’d appreciate references here (either via comments or email, if I’m missing something obvious).  But I wonder if such a vocabulary might be useful, especially if we are trying to get away from value-laden dichotomies between “central” and “peripheral” texts?

I’ve jotted down a few “back-the-envelope” terms for getting started:

  • Serial Narratives: a series of ongoing, extended narratives; many TV series, including Lost and 24, rely on serial formats, picking up where previous episodes left off.  Film sequels also follow this logic, such as the Harry Potter films, which follow Harry’s growth and maturation (and, yes, I realize this is complicated by the fact that they are based on novels)
  • Reboots: takes an existing franchise or narrative and reimagines it, often to the point that the new franchise will retell a similar narrative, such as an origin story, a second (or third or fourth) time in order to establish the new diegetic world of the text.  Obviously the Batman franchise is one of the most powerful examples, with Christopher Nolan’s reboot serving as an ideal reworking of the Burton/Schumacher iterations of the franchise.  It will be interesting to see of some of the 1980s remakes (Karate Kid and The A-Team) successfully reboot those franchises.
  • Anticipatory: paratexts that build interest or engagement in a given “franchise” or text.  ARGs that come out in advance of a film might be included here, as would trailers, cast interviews on late-night talk shows, and other overtly promotional forms.  Many of the promotional forms that have been discussed by DIY filmmakers might be recast as “anticipatory” in order to see them not as mere marketing but as a form of creative production that is worthwhile and engaging in its own right.  These “anticipatory” texts can even become a form of political activity when groups such as Brave New Films encourage “fans” to promote upcoming screenings of their political documentaries by linking to video clips they have posted online.  And fan participation in the making of a film such as Iron Sky or The Cosmonaut (scroll down to my older entries) might fit here as well.
  • Extensive: paratexts that expand a storyworld, making it more inhabitable and detailed.  Jonathan cites a number of video games and ARGs that succeed in encouraging audiences/users to explore a world in further detail, but deleted scenes, making-of documentaries, and other special features on documentaries might fit into this category as well, as would attempts by documentary filmmakers to solicit participation after seeing a politically-oriented film (note the work of Participant Media in shaping forms of political activity).

I don’t think these categories are adequate to describe all of the relationships between different forms of paratexts.  I’ve tried to keep the term “extensive” relatively broad and to avoid imagining it as a “future” for an original text.  After all, people may come to a movie after playing the game or the movie may inspire a fan to purchase a game, a toy, or a Happy Meal.  These ideas are admittedly a little rough, but I think that a sharper vocabulary for thinking about these relationships might help us to escape some of negative connotations associated with term such as “marketing add-ons” and “ancillary texts.”

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Anticipating The Cosmonaut

One of the most fascinating film projects I’ve come across in a while is The Cosmonaut, a crowdfunded film project by the Madrid-based Riot Film Collective.  The film’s plot is pretty intriguing: it’s set in 1975 and tells the story of the first Russian cosmonaut to go to the moon, and when he is unable to return to earth, he is declared missing.  But through radio transmissions, he claims to have returned to earth and found it to be abandoned.  These radio transmissions eventually begin to destroy the stability of his loved ones.  It’s an intelligent premise, one that sounds like it will use the conventions of science-fiction in a fascinating way.

But what seems equally interesting about the film is the fact that the collective has found a way to make the crowdfunding model work for film production.  For as little as 2 euros users can become a “producer” of the film and receive “gifts” from the crew.  Essentially, by buying from the film’s store, you are supporting the making of the film.  In addition to the crowdfunding model, the Riot Film Collective has lined up endorsements and sponsors to help finance it.

In addition to an innovative use of crowdfunding to support production costs (and to cultivate an audience that is doubly invested in the success of the film), the Riot Film Collective has decided to focus on a radically open process to creative control over their images, opting to invite people to remix teaser trailers and to rework any element of the film they choose.   Peter Broderick discussed these issues a few months ago, and pointed out that the filmmakers have posted the film’s script (in Spanish, PDF) and an aesthetic dossier describing the film (I’ll try to look at this later; my Spanish needs work).  Further, rather than worrying about piracy, the filmmakers have chosen to post the entire feature-length film online in HD (for free) in addition to releasing it on DVD, on TV, and in theaters, using a Creative Commons license that will encourage others to remix, edit, and rework the original film.

Also worth noting, the folks at Pulpfilms have been following this story for a while and have noted that the filmmakers have started a video diary series to document the filmmaking process, an approach that can not only help to build anticipation for the movie itself but can also serve as a kind of “pedagogy” for the new production and distribution models they are using.  By the way, I’ll be passing through Madrid in a few weeks and when I do, I’m hoping to catch up with these guys for a quick interview, but this is an exciting project, one I’m very much looking forward to following in the weeks and months to come.

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Buying Dreams

I’ve been taking a break from blogging for the last few days, partly to focus on writing, but also because the Wordherders server got hit by a pretty vicious bit of malware.  I think everything is OK now, but at ant rate, I just wanted to offer a quick pointer to this Yahoo story about the news that one of the most iconic film sets in recent history, the Iowa farm where Field of Dreams was shot, is up for sale for the bargain price of $5.4 million.

Many years ago, I wrote a chapter of my dissertation on time travel and nostalgia in Field of Dreams and Frequency, and I remember being fascinated by the ways in which the location became a kind of tourist attraction where people could enact the final scene of the film, visiting a baseball field in Iowa as a form of escape.  The chapter honestly didn’t work very well, and I’m sort of relieved that it’s collecting dust in the basement of Purdue’s library, but I’ll always have a soft spot for the movie and am intrigued that the site continues to attract so many visitors.


Save Ferris!

Both Lost Remote and Tech Crunch have discussed a creative activity yesterday where an individual or group of people posted the activities from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off using Twitter, Foursquare, and a number of other social media tools. The events played out over the course of several hours yesterday, starting with a series of posts on @ferris_bueller’s Twitter account.  Other cast members, including Sloane Peterson and even Mr. Rooney joined in, while Bueller and the gang also checked in at Wrigley Field using Foursquare.

There have been a number of similar uses of Twitter in the past. One colleague mentioned a group that blogged Bram Stoker’s Dracula a while back, but this use seems especially geared toward Gen X popular culture nostalgia (and seems oddly fitting on a warm spring day when most of us would rather not be working).  It also seems consistent with some of Barbara Klinger’s arguments about the pleasures associated with repeat viewings of comfort movies, in which she reads “quotation as part of the theatricality of everyday life.”  Specifically, many of the lines from Ferris Bueller have become part of what Klinger calls our “national lexicon” and reflect more general desires for escape from the tedium of work or school (“Do you realize that if I played by the rules, right now I’d be in gym”).


Remake Angst

Because of a planned essay on movie adaptations–I’ll be a little more specific about details in a few weeks–I’ve been thinking rather broadly about the concept of making and remaking texts.  Although adaptations and remakes perform vastly different tasks–one reinterprets a text, often a novel or comic book, into a different medium while the other reworks an older film–there are similarities between the two practices, especially when it comes to fan or audience reactions.  Both are reinterpreting an “original” (or at least prior) text, and both risk alienating audiences who don’t wish to have their experience of that prior text tarnished.

With that in mind, I’ve been fascinated by the response to two announced remakes.  The first, a new reboot of the Planet of the Apes films, seems to have been met with relative indifference.  This could be due to the fact that the most recent “re-make,” Tim Burton’s 2001 version, was less than popular with audiences and critics.  Or it could be that the Planet of the Apes transmedia world is relatively expansive–including novels, TV series, and multiple sequels.

But the other announced remake, a reworking of the 1981 Dudley Moore-Liza Minnelli film Arthur, has been received with varying degrees of panic and righteous indignation. One frequently retweeted comment complains, “*head desk* They are going to remake ARTHUR. That’s it. Just shut Hollywood down. It’s over for them!”  Karina Longworth (who is one of the few people who has expressed curiosity about the remake) cites a commenter on Nikki Finke’s blog, angrily denouncing the remake plans: “Of all the remakes, this is the most blasphemous of all. This is worse than remaking Casablanca.” A second commenter agrees, adding (with an odd echo of the McCarthy hearings), “This remake is a complete travesty and I hope it dies a gruesome death in a money pit abyss (altho clearly Rusty and Greta aren’t costing much). A complete insult to all involved in the original, particularly the late Steve Gordon. Shame on everyone working on this remake. Have you no sense of decency?”

To be honest, I don’t have strong feelings about the original Arthur film.  The performances are relatively charming, but the film’s glib treatment of Arthur’s alcoholism is sometimes cringe-inducing.  Like Karina, I’m happy to see Greta Gerwig, one of the strongest talents to come out of the Mumblecore movement, getting more work, and given her performance in Greenberg, I think she’ll handle the “poor girl from Queens role” nicely.  But the outrage over remaking here seems oddly disproportionate, especially given that most of the commenters at Finke’s site likely haven’t watched Arthur in a decade.

Part of what fascinates me about these reactions is the degree to which they talk about how Hollywood is bereft of ideas, illustrating this point with increasingly absurd and presumably sacrilegious remake ideas, culminating with a commenter asking, “What’s next, a new “Citizen Kane” in 3D with a CGI-ed Orson Wells speaking with an Australian accent?” I think I’d actually pay to see that movie, actually.  I’m certainly prey to mild ambivalence over remakes, especially when they tangle with my popular culture nostalgia, but for an industry that is almost entirely based on remaking, reworking, and reimagining older texts and ideas, I don’t quite understand why the Arthur remake isn’t being treated as business as usual.