Archive for March, 2010

Wednesday Links

Just a few quick links while I procrastinate on grading some papers:

  • For the fourth year in a row I will be blogging from the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, held annually in downtown Durham.  As always, I look forward to Full Frame not just because it presents some of the best documentaries out there but also because it coincides with the end of the academic year. My one beef with Full Frame is that they only screen each film once, often requiring guests to make difficult choices about what they’ll see and what they can skip.  The cinetrix has the lowdown on what’s playing and on some of the competing films.  Hoping to write a longer preview later this week.
  • Anne Thompson addresses some of the recent debates about the (over)use of 3-D, specifically for those films, such as Clash and Alice, that were “retrofitted” for 3-D after the success of Avatar and comes to a simple, logical conclusion: “it’s about greed.”
  • Ted Hope has a thorough report on a talk given by Peter Dekom (see also Dekom’s website), who expresses more than a little skepticism about some of the classic long-tail arguments.  I haven’t had a chance to play the entire lecture, but Hope’s summary suggests that it’s well worth a listen.

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Paying for It

I’m still turning over some of the questions I’ve been considering lately about new distribution models for movies and television, in particular some of the “long tail” arguments that have suggested that affordable broadband will create a “celestial jukebox” that will provide us with essentially unlimited choice and convenience at a reasonable price. Although there is relatively widespread adoption of watching TV and movies online, I think it’s worth considering how these changes might face certain forms of resistance among consumers who–consciously or not–cannot habituate themselves to new models of distribution (even if we achieve the FCC’s goal of providing broadband access to 90% of US homes by 2020).

Max Fisher, writing for The Atlantic, offers the provocative claim that “cable television is dead,” arguing that, in essence, cable TV requires us to pay for a show twice, first by asking us to pay monthly subscriptions and second by forcing us to watch advertisements during commercial breaks (assuming we don’t have a TiVo).  Arguably, we also pay for that show a third time due to the kinds of product placement and in-show promotion practices common to reality TV and similar genres.  Fisher goes on to posit that Hulu and iTunes, with their two basic approaches of offering either ad-supported or subscription-based programming will offer us a healthy alternative to the Comcastic middle man.  Such an approach, I’d argue, would potentially threaten to provide us with less access and choice, not more.  How likely, for example, are users going to be to browse a show if they are forced to pay for the whole hour?  My suspicion is that such an approach might lead to at least some degree of backlash and might drive users to less painful forms of free content.

Interestingly, Fisher goes on to argue that “networks, no longer forced to fill exactly 24 hours of daily programming, would act more like movie studios, releasing as many or as few titles as they wished. High-quality shows would prosper as networks dropped the unneeded filler.”  Of course, this is somewhat wishful thinking, as highly-rated shows don’t always correspond to shows that are critically-acclaimed.  Would a niche show like Mad Men that commands the attention of a small, but select audience, be able to compete in a purely digital marketplace? I’m not sure.

But in following some of the discussion of Blockbuster, Redbox, and 3-D projection, I’m beginning to see a mild backlash around the high cost of entertainment.  One version of this is Dawn Taylor’s Cinematical column, in which she discusses her reaction to the announcement by Regal, Cinemark, and AMC that they plan to increase ticket prices for 3-D movies by as much as 25%.  Taylor points out that these prices mean that a family of four could pay over $50 to go see Clash of the Titans on a Friday night.  Is that something that most families can afford on a weekly–or even monthly–basis?  Taylor’s answer is pretty blunt: “gambling that spectacle alone will keep people coming to theaters is just plain stupid. Spectacle gets old awfully quickly; 3-D will stop being a shiny new toy in a year or so, and people will still be struggling to pay their bills.”  Although I think she overstates her case somewhat, the perception that movies are inaccessible to the working class is a powerful one, given the history of movies as an “egalitarian” medium (note a similar post from the Louisville Mojo blog).

Obviously Redbox is, to some extent, part of the backlash, with its dollar-per-night rentals.  But even here, many video consumers seem frustrated by the choices they have available.  We are beginning to see stories about small towns where the only access to DVD rentals, for some customers, is via a Redbox kiosk or through Netflix.  Stories such as this report from Pasco, Washington, and this one from Ashland, Ohio, complicate (at least from my perspective) some of the more celebratory accounts of a digital revolution.  But at least the digital revolution seems to be offering new opportunities for enterprising students who can earn $26,000 a year from Warner Bros. for snitching on DVD pirates.

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Fast, Cheap, and Hypermobile: More Digital Distribution Notes

I’ve been spending the last few days recovering from and catching up after my trip out to California for SCMS, so I haven’t been able to follow some of the recent debates about new directions in film distribution as closely as I would have liked.  So consider this pot to be a quick recap and reflection on some of the conversations that are taking place.  These notes tend to ramble somewhat, and there isn’t really a thesis here, just an attempt to make sense of some of the ongoing discussions that have been taking place in recent weeks.

First, I think that David Poland is on target in his reading of the debate over Alice in Wonderland as a case study for narrowing the theatrical distribution window.  A number of people, including Patrick Goldstein, have made the case that Alice’s impressive box office haul is proof that the three-month window will not significantly affect theatrical attendance, with one studio executive smugly concluding, “Case closed.”  Although I remain agnostic on whether the three-month window will matter, Poland is certainly correct to point out that a single example (of a film that is riding the very top of the 3-D wave, no less) is not sufficient evidence to make a decision about how audiences might respond to shorter windows.  Poland is also attentive to the fact that shortened windows will likely do little to affect DVD sales, which is where the industry seems to be struggling most right now.

Poland also has an engaging critique of some similar comments from Edward Jay Epstein in an interview with The Wrap, whose most recent book, The Hollywood Economist is sitting on my nightstand now. Like Poland, I find Epstein authoritative and exasperating, often in the space of a single sentence.  I’ll have more to say about the book later, which I’ve often found to be recycling relatively ancient conventional wisdom–anyone who follows the entertainment industry closely knows that for movie theaters, popcorn is where the profits are.  Poland is rightfully skeptical regarding the potential for digital home delivery to replace DVD revenues (global DVD sales are projected to decline by 12% in 2010), leading him to conclude: “where they lose me is the leap to the idea that at some tipping point, consumers will be willing to pay premium prices for convenient, but inferior delivery systems.” This is a point I’ve been thinking about quite a bit as I look ahead to my next project, the idea that people will be willing to pay for fast and hypermobile.  As Poland infers, most movie consumers are casual fans, a fact that often gets underestimated in fan studies and, perhaps, in some industry analyses.  Many movie consumers likely look at the choices in their Redbox kiosk, conclude that the new Sandra Bullock movie looks good, and grab it.  There are certainly fans breathlessly awaiting the new Harry Potter or Twilight movie, but there is also a less visible audience that isn’t in any particular rush to see something, especially if it means paying a premium for that content.

More recently, Goldstein has reported that a number of exhibitors, including some AMC theaters in New York and Boston, have made plans to increase ticket prices for 3-D films by as much as 25%.  It’s not easy to guess that moviegoers’ patience will wear thin quickly if they are expected to pay such high premiums for 3-D, especially when the novelty surrounding this generation of 3-D, what Goldstein refers to as the “shock and awe phase” of 3-D, begins to wear thin, and 3-D no longer seems like an “event,” but a normal part of theatrical exhibition.  Even if James Cameron can argue that technological innovation can “reinvigorate” cinema entertainment in the face of a variety of digital threats, including piracy, individual innovations, such as 3-D (or even this bizarrely fascinating update on interactive cinema through the use of cell phones), won’t always seem like new experiences.

On the other end of the spectrum, we continue to see new modes of experimentation that seem to be shaping the distribution of independent and do-it-yourself (DIY) films.  Tribeca has joined Sundance and South by Southwest in making some of its films available on video-on-demand and in other formats, extending even further the idea of the film festival as distributor.  Similarly, Anne Thompson reports that Franny Armstrong and the team behind the self-distributed climate change documentary, The Age of Stupid (my review), have gotten behind a new film distribution platform called Good Screenings that assists people in organizing what the Guardian film blog calls “public screenings of low-budget social justice films.”  Similarly, Jon Reiss has posted video of his “Copenhagen Manifesto,” in which he calls for a further integration of art and commerce, arguing that the challenge for today’s DIY filmmaker is not a problem of distribution, given all of the freely available channels, but one of marketing, of making your film known in an increasingly crowded marketplace.

Again, no over-arching conclusions here, just an attempt to illustrate the volatility of current practices at both ends of the film distribution spectrum.

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The Place of Blockbuster

At this week’s SCMS, I presented a paper, “Redbox or Red Envelope: Closing the Window on the Bricks-and-Mortar Video Store,” exploring the implications of the rise of alternative forms of video distribution and the seemingly imminent demise of chain video stores.  Thus, it came as little surprise that Blockbuster announced, just as I was flying in to Los Angeles, that it might have to file for bankruptcy (although it did force me to tweak my paper slightly).  Although Vadim Rizov and others seem to suggest that Blockbuster’s collapse was inevitable, it’s easy to forget that ten years ago–maybe even five years ago–the big blue video chain seemed like an inevitable part of our media landscape, a dominant force in the video distribution biz, in much the same way that Coke and Pepsi 2-liters appear at your local supermarket.  And like Wal-Mart and other chain stores, they served as an easy target for people who are troubled by suburban sprawl and the homogenization of culture.  There are dozens of websites like this one demanding that we Boycott Blockbuster (many of which could–and should–continue to exist long after the last late fee is assessed.

I’ll be the first to admit that I am not a huge Blockbuster fan, but I also find myself a little puzzled by some of the responses to news that the rental chain will have to close as many as 1,300 stores in the next few months.  Aside from the obvious concern about lost jobs, these depictions of Blockbuster often obscure more complicated aspects of how individual stores might fit within a given community.  One example of this is Vadim Rizov’s post in which he speculates, based on the store’s homogeneous designs and emphasis on new releases, that few people will miss the video rental store: “Since being inside most Blockbusters was like being trapped in an airport waiting area, only with brighter lights and stacks of direct-to-video garbage everywhere, I believe few will mourn.”

I’ve been thinking about the particularity of retail spaces, in part, because I’ve been reading Ted Striphas’s smartly argued and eminently readable book, The Late Age of Print, in which he suggests that we should avoid looking at corporate superstores as “abstract concepts” (56).  As Striphas surmises, such accounts cause us to miss out on seeing what Meghan Morris has called the everyday “sense of place” associated with a given space.  Although it’s obvious that Blockbusters are sites of labor–the store’s employees are often targets of anti-BB screeds–they are also specific sites of labor, often integrated into communities in ways that may not be immediately visible.  Striphas’s case study–a Durham, North Carolina, Barnes and Noble that provided books and jobs to an underserved urban community–illustrates the ways in which individual stores may have very different political and social implications for a given community (and this leaves open the possibility that some of those effects may be harmful).

In a sense, Blockbuster has become a useful fiction, a symbol of all that is frustrating about video distribution, while fitting neatly into (often reductive) narratives about the competition between independent retailers and giant conglomerates–recall that Blockbuster was once owned by media giant Viacom. But even while it’s easy to treat Blockbuster as a quaint “tourist destination,” a relic of the media mergers-and-acquisitions era, when looking at the stores from the perspective of the film buff, it’s also worth thinking about how individual experiences of the former rental giant might disrupt that narrative ever so slightly.

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SCMS Blogging

In case you missed it elsewhere, I wrote yesterday’s SCMS conference report for Antenna.  It’s pretty much impossible to summarize my reactions to four different panels in the space of 600-700 words, but as you’ll see, I found many of the panels I attended yesterday to be incredibly productive and engaging.  While you’re in the neighborhood, you should read yesterday’s report from Derek Kompare, as well.

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Monday Links: Alice, Box Office, Green Zone

My spring break is now officially over, but for once, it has been fortuitously timed. Next week, I will be going out to Los Angeles for the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference, and thanks to having the break before the conference, I’ve had a chance not only to finish my talk but also to sort through some ideas for future writing projects. I’m not ready to divulge too much, but obviously the topics I’ve been thinking about in my blog are a pretty good clue for measuring what I’ll be writing about in longer form. Now, here are some links, some of them (at least) involving my attempt to peak through the window at this week’s South by Southwest festival and conference:

  • Deadline Hollywood Daily has a discussion of the role of Avatar (and, presumably Alice in Wonderland) in pushing theaters in Europe to convert to digital projection systems capable of showing 3D films.  Given that theaters in Denmark, Slovakia, and several other European countries have been able to charge twice as much for 3D, this isn’t terribly surprising.  What is surprising is that, in some countries, including the United Kingdom, taxpayers are helping to pay for this technological changeover.
  • Jeremy Kay at The Guardian has a thoughtful reading of some recent numbers from the MPAA about theatrical box office in 2009.  Worth noting: nearly 11% of all box office in 2009 came from 20 3D films.  Kay is certainly correct to point out that these numbers should be placed in context with DVD, cable, and VOD totals, but it’s worth noting that DVD revenues have actually declined in relation to theatrical in the last couple of years.
  • Further evidence that Twitter is not just a social media platform but a powerful tool for market research: the new Twitter ap, Trendrr that, according to Mashable, “tracks online conversations by gender, location, sentiment, influence, reach and volume.”  The Mashable article offers a nice breakdown of how the tracking service works, showing a number of screen shots of data on commentary on the 2010 Winter Olympics.  Although I’m generally enthusiastic about Twitter’s status as a media “water cooler,” it’s well worth thinking about how those conversations are archived and monitored by others.
  • Speaking of Twitter, here is a quick pointer to Jason Mittell’s thoughtful response to the recently reemergent debate about the state of film criticism.  I think Jason is right to illustrate the (positive) ways in which critical categories have been blurred due to the rise of film blogging.  He also raises some useful questions about access and audience toward the end of the post, pointing out that we may need to rethink what we value in academia when a widely read film blog can receive many more daily views than a scholarly book or article.
  • I’ll wait until I’ve had a chance to see The Green Zone to comment further, but I have to admit that I find Ross Douthat’s op-ed review of the film fascinating, not because I agree with his politics or his defense of the Bush administration lies about weapons of mass destruction (in fact, I find Daniel Larison’s more thoughtful response from the American Conservative website far more persuasive), but because I’ve been finding myself increasingly intrigued by how Hollywood films get appropriated for political debate.  I’ve discussed these issues quite a bit in terms of video-based satire (as have a number of other sharp-eyed scholars), and quite often the political readings conducted in these sites are pretty shallow, but they do help to set the conditions of interpretation for many people who watch the films (or who watch and participate in politics).

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Cool “Kids”

Via The House Next Door, I just learned about the contagiously fun lip dub video by the students of Lawrence High School in Lawrence, Kansas.  The video, shot in an impressive long-take through the halls of the high school, shows students dancing playfully to Kim Wilde’s ’80s classic, “Kids in America.”  The costumes, music, dancing, and even the tracking shots through locker-lined hallways reminded me of a forgotten John Hughes classic.  The students clearly had fun and displayed a lot of creativity.  It’s truly contagious, especially for those of us who grew up in the ’80s. Unfortunately, the original video was hacked and the music was replaced and hateful, even homophobic comments were annotated to the video, but the Lawrence students decided to fight back by reposting it. Congrats to the students at LHS for making a terrific and fun video:

Update: Via the comments at HND, David Bordwell’s take on the lipdub phenomenon.

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Alice in Wonderland 3D Imax

Because of my interest in 3D filmmaking practices, I was curious to see Tim Burton’s adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (IMDB).  Because the book has such vividly imagined characters and landscapes, it seemed uniquely suited to both the surreal visual imagination of Tim Burton and the perspectival potentials of 3D filmmaking. But when I caught the film at an Imax theater in Raleigh, I was disappointed by the degree to which the diegetic world of the film seemed almost completely flat, as if it was inhabited by cardboard cutouts standing in front of a green screen rather than a genuinely three-dimensional world.

In addition, the film reimagines Alice as a slightly mopey, but independent-minded Victorian young woman, one who remembers her travels into Wonderland as a childhood dream and who was taught by her father to embrace her irrational side.  Her independence is suggested through a couple of quick conversations–she refuses to wear a corset and pushes quietly against her mother’s Victorian sensibilities.  Forced into marriage with a snot-nosed lord, Alice finds her escape when the white rabbit pops up during their engagement party.  As a result, Alice’s journey in Wonderland becomes a means for her to find her independence, primarily through a third act action sequence that offered a relatively easy narrative solution to Alice’s story.

As both J. Hoberman and Roger Ebert point out, Burton originally shot Alice in 2D, and the 3D effects were added in post-production.  As a result, many of the scenes likely were not filmed with 3D in mind.  In a couple of scenes, such as the engagement party, complete with overstuffed Victorian nobles, the flatness works well, making these characters appear to be almost devoid of depth.  Wonderland itself seemed blander than I might have expected from someone like Burton, but as Ebert points out, this could be due to the washed out palette associated with 3D filmmaking, but for the most part, the 3D felt a little more gimmicky than usual, with Kenneth Turan correctly arguing that Alice “plays like one of the last gasps of the old-fashioned ways of doing things.”

There are some fun moments in the film.  Johnny Depp is charming as the Mad Hatter, and Alan Rickman’s hookah-smoking Blue Caterpillar is amusing.  The kids I was with also enjoyed Helena Bonham Carter’s performance as the jealous, mercurial Red Queen, but even some of the fun moments (especially the Mad Hatter’s tonally bizarre dance number at the end) seemed to pander more than entertain.  It goes without saying that the film itself is just one part of a larger media franchise, one designed to sell not only DVDs but also (and maybe more importantly) toys and video games.  As I watched Alice in Wonderland, it was impossible for me not to think about another film set in a strange new world, one built around the then-new special effect of color, The Wizard of Oz.  Given reports that Warner, Universal, and Disney are all planning Oz-related projects, this probably isn’t accidental.  As 3D becomes an increasingly attractive storytelling medium, it also requires stories that are both familiar and visually compelling.

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DVDs and Film History

Thanks to a project I’m currently developing on new models of DVD distribution, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the utopian claims about “long tail” retailing and its relationship to film history. In Reinventing Cinema, I expressed quite a bit of skepticism about claims that at some point in the future, film consumers and cinephiles would have access to the entire history of cinema at the click of a mouse, a claim expressed most vividly in this New York Times article by A.O. Scott (note also Kristin Thompson’s critique of this fantasy).  In addition to noting the sheer financial and infrastructure costs, it’s worth considering that such a fantasy obscures the larger question about who might have access to this perfect archive.

Now, with the decline of the DVD sell-through market, we are beginning to see just how precarious our film catalogs actually are.  In a post for Antenna, Bradley Schauer points to two notable stories about DVD consumption.  First, Sony announced that it is laying off 450 workers, many of them in their home video division.  More notably, the WSJ also points out that, for the first time since 2002, studios made more money from box office than from home video.  Schauer uses these details to contextualize his discussion of Warner’s decision to make much of its back catalog available via DVD-R copies of titles that are burned on-demand.  As Schauer notes, Warner’s strategy has two major effects: one, it takes classical Hollywood films further out of the realm of bricks-and-mortar stores.  Second, it allows Warner to market these products as “rare,” adding to their value as collector’s items.

But it also makes it possible that many “hidden gems” will remain invisible to casual (or even energetic) film viewers.  In that sense, both Schauer and Richard Brody, in a post discussing Humphrey Bogart’s The Harder They Fall, remind us of the significant curatorial role of TCM in presenting many of these forgotten classics.  These issues were turning over in my mind last night during a conversation with another local film professor, when we were talking about the implications of the degrading VHS tapes that contain dozens of films that have never been converted to DVD.  It’s easy to dismiss this in terms of market logic–if the films were that good, they’d be available on DVD–but obviously it’s not that simple, and even if the films themselves aren’t gems, we can learn quite a bit about film and media history from some of these “lost” texts.  That being said, one of the “lost” movies that we watched last night, a Star Wars Holiday special–featuring the film’s entire lead cast plus Bea Arthur, Art Carney and Diahann Carroll, of all people–did turn up online after a quick Google search.

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Paramount and Microbudget Filmmaking

I’m watching powerlessly as my spring break slowly slips through my fingers, but looking forward to attending this year’s SCMS conference out in Los Angeles and, soon afterwards, this year’s Full Frame festival.  Would love to catch up with any readers who are attending one or both of these events. For now, though, I find myself increasingly intrigued by the launch of Paramount’s microbudget division, Insurge, which promises to produce and release films with budgets of less than $100,000.

Eugene Hernandez has the most thorough report on the launch, noting that the studio plans to make its own films rather than purchasing existing films that have played at festivals and that may be seeking distribution (the website currently redirects to Paramount’s home page) .  Given that there are many terrific films playing at festivals this is a little disappointing.  In addition, Hernandez’s report suggests that Paramount plans to include a number of opportunities for fans to become involved–whether through voting for a cast member or choosing the film’s one sheet–while also promoting Insurge as seeking to “deconstruct the Hollywood system.”  In this context, Ray DeRousse cites Insurge head Amy Powell who comments that Insurge wants to produce “movies that a big studio would never release because they’re too risky, too silly, and they don’t star Sandra Bullock.”  The choice to define Insurge against Sandra Bullock, whose star reputation has been discussed in detail by Anne Petersen, is somewhat notable, given Bullock’s mainstream popularity, especially for older, female audiences.

Hernandez adds that Insurge plans to focus on youth-oriented features in genres such as horror, comedy, and animation, which potentially raises the question of how much these films will truly be an alternative to the mainstream.  It is notable that Paramount plans for the movies to “serve as a low budget proving ground for new talent,” while also hoping “to release the movies theatrically,” making Insurge feel something like a crowdsourced version of Roger Corman’s New World Productions.  Given the blurred boundaries between DIY, Indiewood, and art-house categories, I’ll be intrigued to see how this all plays out.  Even if just one or two of the ten Insurge films turn out to be modest box office hits, a microbudget division would seem to be a worthwhile investment, and it might also contribute to a slightly more expansive definition of what counts as an independent film.

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Generic Movie Trailer

Both Jim Emerson and Jonathan Gray have mentioned the extremely funny “Generic Movie Trailer,” which parodies conventions from Oscar-bait movies.  The parody works, in part, because the dialogue is reduced to paint by numbers plot terms, but it’s also fun to identify the films the fake trailer is referencing, such as Good Will Hunting, Rain Man, and Dangerous Minds (or any number of teacher-as-hero films).

But as Emerson suggests, it’s also predicated upon the recognition that so many of these films seem to play it safe rather than taking creative (or marketing) risks.

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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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Oscar Wrap

Although I was happy to see Kathryn Bigelow win for Best Director and Jeff Bridges for Best Actor, for the most part I found this year’s Oscars show to be uninspired, a perception that seemed commonplace, at least in my scene on Twitter.  The reactions from Ken Levine were similar to those that I saw in real time on Twitter throughout the entire broadcast.  The John Hughes tribute montage was pretty touching and then things got a little awkward when Judd Nelson and Macauley Culkin joined in.  The Best Picture award was rushed, perhaps due to the new rule that included ten nominees rather than five, but why not give each filmmaker an extra five seconds in the sun at the end of the ceremony?   And I found Baldwin and Martin to be remarkably banal as hosts.  I doubt I’ll remember any of their lines by tonight.  It’s also odd to think about the disconnect between an awards ceremony that nominates a number of independent films, even while the distribution channels that disseminate those films are increasingly endangered, as Ted Hope points out.

But despite these missteps (and despite the fact that much of New York City couldn’t watch the Oscars until around 8:30 PM), ratings for this year’s show were the highest in several years, with significantly more viewers tuning in this year.  As the Variety article points out, the last time numbers were this high, Titanic was one of the nominees, suggesting that the show benefitted from having a popular film as one of its most visible films.  Others have pointed out that “event TV” in general has been garnering high ratings.  It’s tempting to suggest that social media is a factor here in the “return to liveness.”  The real-time water coolers on Twitter and blogs would seem to encourage more people to watch simultaneously, but I’m guessing that even with a large volume of Oscar tweets, the percentage of people who were “watching Twitter on TV” was probably relatively small, at least compared to the vast “silent majority” who watched the show without tweeting about everything from Sarah Jessica Parker’s dress to the uncanny ability of the Oscar producers to find a black audience member every time a nominee from Precious won an award.

Which gives rise to a number of questions: First, I wonder how much Twitter affected my response to the awards show.  I’ll admit that I enjoyed live-blogging with everyone, but I wonder if the online snarkfest helped contribute to the Twitter consensus that the Oscars sucked?  Or whether the “trending topics” on Twitter reflect cultural biases that already exist on Twitter?  All I know is that my Twitter feed had almost 100 Oscar tweets for every tweet on another subject.

It’s hard to measure how this Oscar buzz fits within the overall hype that the Oscars are supposed to produce, especially when the expansion from five to ten nominees seemed to water down the ability of film companies to market films based on the prestige of getting nominated.  As Patrick Goldstein notes, the “Oscar bump” did not seem to have a measurable effect on the box office for a number of the films that were up for best picture, and the marketing of those films may have even cost more than the financial benefits of being nominated (note: Jonathan Gray and Henry Jenkins discuss some of these issues in a recent interview).  I’m skeptical about whether Oscar wins can tell us much about current cultural tastes or prevailing attitudes, as Goldstein suggests.   Although it was warmly embraced by critics, The Hurt Locker still hasn’t done significant box office.

I don’t have a tidy conclusion here.  Social media have obviously become a crucial element of Oscar coverage, providing real-time reactions from a (self-selecting?) group of fans and even anti-fans.  And the Oscars themselves continue to be one of the more significant hype machines for generating interest in and discussion of movies out there.

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One of the highlights for me at this year’s Oscars was the discovery of this year’s winner for Best Animated Short film, Logorama, and thanks to the power of streaming video, you can view the film in its entirety at both the official website and the Wreck and Savage blog.  Logorama takes place in a world composed almost entirely of corporate logos.  Skyscrapers are Colgate boxes, while Pringles guys order food at a diner from the Esso girl.  The lion at the local zoo is an MGM logo, and security is provided by the not-so-jolly Green Giant.  It would be easy for such a world to become tiresome and preachy, but the logos are given quirky, often belligerent personalities, giving the film a humorous and somewhat NSFW edge.

The plot centers around a couple of foul-mouthed cops (played by Michelin Men) chasing a bank robbing Ronald McDonald, and as the chase unfolds, the entire world of Logorama begins to fall apart quite literally–a couple of defunct or near defunct corporations even make appearances to great effect–until we get one of the funniest concluding tracking out shots I’ve seen in a long time.  I’m trying to avoid giving away too many of the sight gags because this is one film you should see for yourself, a great illustration that short films are not necessarily apprentice projects, as Taylor Hackford seemed to imply during last night’s Oscars, but an art form unto themselves.

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Anticipating Oscar

For a number of reasons, I’ve been more fascinated than usual by the Oscar chatter.  Although some of the “scandals” and controversies over The Hurt Locker have begun to get a little tiresome, they have, in some cases at least, provoked some highly pertinent questions about cinematic realism, especially when it comes to depictions of war.  But, aside from prolonging public discussions about some films that I find thought-provoking, the Oscars (and the anticipation of them, which may, in fact, be more important) are also worth thinking about because they offer us one of the more explicit and privileged public narratives available about the film industry.  They are, in short, Hollywood’s best opportunity to represent itself to a movie-consuming public (while remaining mindful of any number of other audiences, including film industry personnel and film journalists).

I addressed this issue briefly in Reinventing Cinema when I discussed a couple of Oscar sketches and speeches, one of which featured Jake Gyllenhaal telling the audience to see movies on the big screen.  A comedy sketch featuring Jon Stewart mocking the “wide screen” on his video iPod had a similar effect.  This is also why the Hollywood history montages, even if they often feel like filler, are so important by selling Hollywood as a popular art (and as a quick search through my blog illustrates I’ve been thinking about these issues for a while).

But the Oscars are also fun because they invite the same water-cooler discussions associated with other forms of “event TV,” such as the Super Bowl and, to a lesser extent, the Emmys and Golden Globes, an issue addressed in Sheila Seles’ Convergence Culture Consortium blog post.  Like her, I enjoy live-blogging (or, more likely in our evolved social media climate, live-tweeting) the Oscars and sharing my fascination about the awards with others.  Seles mentions in passing a New York Times article that reports that many of these TV event shows have been receiving record ratings.  This past Super Bowl even surpassed the final episode of M*A*S*H for total number of viewers, a fact that would likely bother me slightly if I wasn’t a huge Drew Brees fan.  The New York Times article attributes this reversal–TV ratings for top shows have been declining for some time–to the “water-cooler effect” associated with social media tools like Twitter, a phenomenon echoed in Max Dawson’s discussion of “watching Twitter on TV.”

The Oscar producers have been thinking about these social media issues quite a bit and have created an Oscars Facebook page and an iPhone application in support of the show, while also seeking to make the awards more “relevant” by having ten Best Picture nominees rather than five.  I have to wonder if the latter move will have any significant effect once viewers catch on to the fact that usually the race boils down to two or three films (this year, The Hurt Locker or Avatar).  It’s also less than clear what effect a Facebook page might have on attracting younger audiences.  Now that having a Facebook profile is becoming common across generations, I wonder if the people who “become fans” of the Oscars will be the same people who were already fans when it was just a 4-hour annual TV show.  Also, as with the death of film criticism, concerns that the Oscars aren’t relevant to today’s youth is an ongoing complaint.  Still, the tension between old media and new media is an interesting one, especially when it’s connected to Hollywood’s ongoing narrative about itself and the movies it creates.

Update: To some extent, I’ve been trying to think through the relationship between the Oscars and fandom in this post.  Obviously, the Oscars tow a fascinating line between traditional fandom and what Jonathan Gray has called anti-fandom.  The Oscars are, in many ways, a celebration of stardom and celebrity (“ooh…look at Julia Roberts’ dress”) and a way of mocking some of these institutions of celebrity, whether through celebrity-watchers like Joan Rivers or through political screeds like those at Big Hollywood.  Gray is especially attentive to the pleasures of being an “anti-fan,” and the Oscar water-cooler invites both kinds of responses equally successfully.

Update 2: Just a few minutes after my first update, I came across this Auteurs post that compiles some of the recent Oscar chatter, including Armond White’s entertaining (or eye-rolling, take your pick) New York Press article about how the annual awards are contributing to the media’s effect of ensuring that “the public stays culturally illiterate, intellectually docile and aesthetically numb.”  Talk about anti-fandom.  The Oscar-bashing is utterly incoherent politically (the Auteurs post nails its politics as a surreal cross between Guy Debord and Milton Friedman), but I do think his read of The Hurt Locker as an investigation into constructions of masculinity has some merit.

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