These shifts can be measured by two stories about Fayetteville, North Carolina, the city where I work and where I lived for several years. First, Fayetteville’s Cameo Art House Theater is bidding good-bye to the film projectors they’ve used since the theater opened in 1998 by hosting a special screening of Cinema Paradiso, Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 love letter to film projection. To me, this good-bye is bittersweet. Although I appreciate the aesthetics of film projection, I’m happy that the Cameo will be able to remain open using digital projectors and that the city will continue to have at least one option for seeing art house movies on the big screen.
The second story makes me feel more nostalgic than I would have expected. According to the Fayetteville Observer, the last two Blockbuster Video stores in Fayetteville will soon be closing, their last DVDs to be sold in a liquidation sale. Unless I’m missing something, that means the last remaining (non-adult) bricks-and-mortar video stores in Fayetteville will soon be closed. Although I can barely remember the last time I rented a movie in a video store, this seems like a significant shift, one that is consistent with all of the contradictions associated with an emergent on-demand culture. Movies are available at the click of a mouse or remote. But we may find ourselves having less access to some titles than we might expect.
I’d imagine that most cities are undergoing similar transitions. Some independent video stores may be better prepared to weather the competition with streaming video. Other art houses may be unable to navigate the shift to digital projection. But these changes are happening fast, and it’s well worth asking what they mean for all aspects of movie culture.]]>
Wesley Morris’s review of 42 for Grantland captures some of these complications way better than I could, describing the dramatic challenges of depicting a character (or characters, if you count Robinson’s ever patient and supportive wife, Rachel, played by Nicole Beharie) who doesn’t change over the course of the film. Instead, Robinson must, in some sense, remain steady, unchanging, even when faced with a barrage of racist insults and abuse, as he was by Phillies manager Ben Chapman. He must, in some sense, remain virtually perfect. As Morris implies, Robinson’s story–and I cannot deny his bravery–essentially places him in “bubble wrap,” making it difficult to view the story with anything other than reverence. It’s possible that we don’t have enough historical distance from the events in 42, especially given that Major League Baseball continues to worry about reaching out to African-American audiences, but I think it’s also possible that Robinson’s story, like so many others, is caught in the process of mythmaking that is so central to the history of baseball. Even when we recognize the faults of some of the great early players–Cobb’s racism and violent anger, Ruth’s drunkenness, the gambling scandals–we still have so many stories that define players via heroic narratives.
42 seems somewhat conscious of this problem, and as a result, places near its center the writer who covered Robinson and traveled with him early in his career, Wendell Smith. But rather than reflecting on Smith’s role in shaping Robinson’s story, Smith becomes Robinson’s driver and faithful assistant. In many ways, the film’s most vivid character was actually the Dodgers’ general manager, Branch Rickey (played by a scowling and growling Harrison Ford), a move that seems to place Robinson somewhat on the margins. That said, the film gives us some small measure of Robinson’s heroism and the challenges he faced during his early career. It also provides a pretty vivid sense of the speed of baseball in a way that many sports movies fail to do. 42 shows Jackie dancing on the base paths, challenging pitchers with his tremendous quickness. We get a clear sense of Robinson’s amazing reflexes in the field and the excitement he generated for the many fans who came to idolize him. I’m not suggesting that we would have been better served by a movie that showed Robinson as flawed. And there is little question that his story should be remembered. But I would have valued a film that could have provided us with a better sense of the challenges that Robinson faced and the role of people like Wendell Smith in making Robinson’s story possible in the first place.]]>
But as Masnick also observes, these acts often criminalize behavior that many people do every day, often without thinking about it. In this sense, password sharing is, as David Thier argues, a “legalish” activity, easy to do and difficult to police. With that distinction in mind, when I first heard about the discussion of Wortham’s column, my initial reaction was to compare password sharing to speeding on an interstate highway. Almost everyone speeds on interstates, as opposed to, say, school zones, where the policing is tighter and the consequences of negligent behavior are potentially far more devastating. And as long as you are within a reasonable distance of the posted limit, police are likely to leave you alone. And when police have set up speed traps, other drivers typically alert each other by flashing headlights or tapping their brakes. Further, when we know we’re being watched, such as speed zones where the police have set up cameras or other automatic detection equipment, we play by the rules. Most people feel little guilt for slightly exceeding the speed limit and some even take pride in reaching their destination in a shorter time.
This isn’t a perfect metaphor, however, given that speeding drivers don’t affect the value of the highway on which they are driving. While we can make some judgments about which shows are most likely to be pirated, it’s a little more difficult to tell how much password sharing is taking place (although my own research suggests that it’s pretty rampant, at least on college campuses). The next closest metaphor I could come up with compared password sharing to something like taking from a soda fountain at a fast food restaurant. Although probably less common, it’s possible to imagine someone using their own cup (rather than paying 99 cents for a cup at the counter) and helping oneself to some diet soda or root beer. It’s possible that the same person could share their soda with someone else or several people and even go back up for refills. Each of these actions result in “lost” revenue for the restaurant. Instead of selling three large sodas, they’ve sold one or none. But the production costs of that soda (i.e., the contents of the fluid, the cup itself, etc) are often relatively minimal, especially compared to the production costs of a movie or TV show. So obviously, there are some ethical and legal issues at stake here, but as Thier and others have suggested, that blurry area where behavior becomes “legalish” raises some interesting challenges for content providers and consumers. No one is likely to send the copyright police to knock on Wortham’s door. And many of the VOD services, including Netflix, even allow for some flexibility regarding password sharing.
The ethical (and business) implications of many of these issues were addressed in a New York Times public editor column. One observer bluntly suggested that Wortham’s actions were essentially “stealing,” while others likened her actions to “piracy.” And given that the New York Times is itself attempting to adjust to a digital business model by limiting non-subscribers to ten or so free articles per month, Wortham’s actions might be read as a form of hypocrisy. How are her actions different than those readers who might try to work around the Times‘ own pay wall? Wortham admits to being somewhat “conflicted” about her practice of password sharing, and thus far, many VOD services have taken a somewhat casual approach to enforcement. Rather than stopping people from drinking soda from the same cup, most providers have allowed some sharing, although Wortham does mention that Amazon blocks people from watching the same show at the same time on two different devices while using the same account.
But as Wortham’s article points out, the focus on policing password sharing–or piracy for that matter–might prevent us from acknowledging the role of password sharing as a means of creating a shared social experience around a television series. By watching Game of Thrones or Friday Night Lights “together,” even if we are not in the same shared space, it is a form of collective activity. In turn, the Netflix “family accounts,” which allow limited password sharing may even open up a redefinition of what counts as a family unit (an issue I addressed in my article for Screen and that I discuss in my forthcoming book). In turn, Wortham points to the efforts of services such as GetGlue and the more recent Vdio that promote forms of simultaneous or near-simultaneous viewing. And I think this is where activities such as binge watching shows like House of Cards come into play. Many television fans are seeking to be part of a shared experience and seek out opportunities to discuss, dissect, blog, and tweet their favorite shows. Many of these viewers may be outliers compared to the casual fans who watch when they can, but each of these modes of watching and many others are enabled in our on-demand culture. And Wortham’s column gets at the complexities of these issues in a pretty powerful way.]]>
Update: Here’s part two of my Full Frame dispatches, which focuses on Fight Like Soldiers, Die Like Children; Good ol’ Freda; and First Cousin Once Removed.]]>
But in addition to offering an intriguing story, Girl Rising is notable for its use of the website Gathr to generate interest in the film and to encourage people to “demand” screenings of the film in their community. Gathr–a tool I discuss very briefly in my forthcoming book, On-Demand Culture–allows people to request screenings in their city, and if enough people request the film, it will play at a theater in the area. In fact, enough people have requested tickets for the film that it will be playing in a suburb of Raleigh on Monday, April 8 (go to the website for more details). Supporters of the film have made (as of Deadline’s report) more than 17,000 screening requests and more than 65,000 people have reserved tickets for the film, and as a result of this demand, Regal Cinemas has decided to schedule a one-week theatrical run for the film on over 150 screens across the country, an impressive achievement for an independent film.
To be sure, Girl Rising has a number of advantages over other indie films such as an all-star cast, politically important subject matter, and a collection of non-profit partners who are all promoting the film, but the success of this use of an on-demand model may provide a template for other filmmakers in the future.]]>
This plot description initially would seem to set the stage either for a film that exploits its female protagonists or one that functions as an implicit critique of a materialistic, excessive, and shallow youth culture bent on its own self-destruction. Add the fact that three of the Spring Breakers in question are tween stars Ashley Benson, Selena Gomez, and Vanessa Hudgens, and such readings (like Jackie Cooper’s complaint that Korine is celebrating the excesses of Spring Break) are even more tempting.
But these readings place too little emphasis–or seem confused by–the second half of the girl’s journey when they are arrested in a drug raid when they are doing cocaine during a hotel party. During the trial, they are bailed out by a cartoonishly excessive white, corn-rowed, drug-dealing hip-hopper who goes by the name of Alien (played by James Franco). The image of the girls, standing in front of the judge handcuffed, still wearing their day-glo bikinis visually emphasizes their vulnerability and the recognition that their utopian fantasies of transformation have been disrupted. And here, the film begins to take unexpected turns. Alien show sympathy for the girls’ plights, even while his excesses frighten the more religious Faith (Gomez). But the other spring breakers find themselves embracing and emulating Alien’s bravado, even to the point of engaging in some gunplay themselves.
These readings also seem to be unsure of how to engage with Korine’s playful engagement with the culture of images. Like Stephanie Zacharek, I do think that Korine’s depiction of the excesses of Spring Break have an air of superiority about them, even while relishing the ability to indulge in that depiction. But it’s the film’s fascination with guns (and their relationship with phallic power) that seems oddly crucial to the girls’ fantasies. This motif is recurrent throughout the movie. During the opening scene–in a college lecture hall, with seemingly hundreds students sitting bored behind laptops–two of the spring breakers draw pictures, one with a heart with the message “I love penis” inside it and another with a crudely drawn penis.
Later, these same girls commit their first crime, a robbery of a local chicken shack where they use squirt guns to frighten the customers and workers into giving up their money. Eventually, the girls pick up some of Alien’s incredible arsenal of guns, pushing these connections to absurd lengths. Instead of girls gone wild, it’s something closer to girl power gone wild. Like Glenn Kenny, I was fascinated by the “gendered role-reversal” here, but I’m still not convinced that Korine completely sustains any fully meaningful observations here. I’d also agree with Kenny that the set piece involving Franco’s Alien singing Britney Spears’ “Everytime,” while playing a white, poolside piano, the spring breakers dancing alongside, seems a bit too obviously “critic bait.” Still, Korine’s consciousness about the culture of images–especially as they are shaped by the personas of its young stars–makes it hard for me to dismiss the film completely.
Alongside of this critique, Spring Breakers also seems to be about the desire for transformation. Faith seems to be trying to break free from a restrictive religious culture, and the other girls also imagine that their spring break trip will allow them to reinvent themselves. In that sense, I think Korine is not engaging in a generation critique of kids today but tapping into or exploring how these fantasies of transformation operate and contribute to the culture of excess depicted in the fim.
Update: I think Michael Chaiken’s review brings together the multiple threads Korine is weaving together–the cultures of excess and materialism and the fantasies of power and materialism–in a pretty insightful way.]]>
Redbox’s selections in both their kiosks and on streaming heavily favor movie titles, and they continue to have access to movies that are not yet available through Netflix. The public release took place after a beta test saw tens of thousands of participants continuing their membership after the first month, when their free access to the service ended. So how might this news shape the evolving SVOD landscape? I have a few tentative hunches.
First, like the Consumer Reports reviewer, I think Redbox Instant will have to be made available on more devices before it achieves widespread popularity. Although the service supports Apple and iOS users, you currently cannot access Redbox Instant through a Roku player (although I imagine that will happen soon). But that’s a minor technological or logistical hurdle, for the most part.
More crucially, I think Redbox Instant provides a further illustration of our a la carte, menu-driven future when it comes to media consumption. Due to the fact that streaming services are competing for (often exclusive) streaming rights to movies and TV shows, my hunch is that this launch will contribute to the practice of combining multiple streaming accounts, turning Redbox Intant into something like another cable channel alongside of Netflix, Hulu Plus, and regular channels such as HBO or Comedy Central. As Redbox Instant CEO Shawn Strickland confirmed in the New Tee Vee article, “We think that the over-the-top space will evolve very similarly to the cable and network space,” although unlike Netflix, it’s worth noting that Redbox continues to report that they have no plans to invest in original content, and given the popularity of their existing model, I don’t see a particularly strong incentive for them to change directions on that.
Access to multiple SVOD services could contribute to slight increases in cord cutting, although given the popularity of live sports in particular, my hunch is that cord cutting will remain a somewhat limited phenomenon. And instead of a single “celestial multiplex” as Chris Anderson described it, in his discussion of the long tail, we will have instead–a series of competing, but often complementary, “cloud miniplexes” where we can go in different situations depending on the content we want to see at any given time.]]>