Archive for April, 2010

Complexity and Digital Distribution

Although I was critical of Edward Jay Epstein’s most recent book, The Hollywood Economist, one of the book’s undeniable strengths is its description of the complex, even labyrinthine, financing models that have evolved around the production of movies. From completion bonds and pre-sales agreements to movies as “off-the-books corporations,” Epstein is attentive to the ways in which the ticket sales reported on sites like Box Office Mojo are only a small part of the story when it comes to Hollywood accounting.  And, as Epstein’s book carefully documents, there are a number of winners and losers in this system.  The big media players can usually leverage this complexity to their advantage, while in recent years at least, independent filmmakers–at least in Epstein’s definition of them–have struggled.

After reading Epstein, I finally took some to sit down and read Clay Shirky’s widely forwarded lecture, “The Collapse of Complex Business Models,” in which he argues that complex business models eventually collapse under the weight of their own massive bureaucratic structure.  Drawing from Joseph Tainter’s 1988 book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Shirky concludes that the democratization of content production and distribution has unsettled traditional models, unsettling “media’s supply-and-demand curve,” as well as the prices for obtaining media content.  For Shirky, this means that cheaply made videos without any professional backing can capture a massive audience.  The example he cites, the YouTube video of young Charlie biting his older brother’s finger, has been viewed hundreds of millions of times, numbers that rival any event television broadcast and likely surpass (significantly) the tickets sold to any Hollywood blockbuster.

Shirky goes on to acknowledge that many within media industries will continue to adhere to “the old complexity” in order to protect the interests of media executives, in order to protect profits and add value to the media they produce.  the move toward 3-D and the restructuring of the theatrical-to-DVD window to emphasize retail are a couple of examples of that in the film industry.  And it’s worth noting that the “Charlie” video is an exception rather than the rule.  For every viral hit, there are thousands of videos that remain unseen outside of a small number of people.  Still, Shirky’s argument is an intriguing, if slightly utopic, reflection on the potential for using the relatively inexpensive (online) distribution channels in simple ways.

Shirky’s argument seems to have appeared at a moment when many of these ideas are circulating throughout the blogosphere.  Bob, at the Indiepix blog, reports from The Conversation, a conference organized by CinemaTech blogger Scott Kirsner, where Nina Paley and others urged filmmakers to “make everything as simple as possible,” while Ted Hope’s keynote at the DIY Days conference expressed confidence in a distribution model “that is artist and audience centric that can usher in a true middle class of artist entrepreneurs.”

Finally, both Alex Juhasz and The Film Doctor point to David Shields’ aphoristic, manifesto-like new book, Reality Hunger, a book that also seems to be imagining the reformulation of media content (Alex is somewhat skeptical of Shields’ approach to the issue, though, and with good reason).  Like Walter Benjamin, whose modernist/montagist Arcades Project featured quotations from a wide range of texts and media, Shields mixes borrowed passages from other writers and thinkers with his own reflections on writing and production.   Key quote from Shields (borrowed, apparently from William Gibson): “Copies have been dethroned; the economic model built on them is collapsing. In a regime of superabundant free copies, copies are no longer the basis of wealth. Now relationships, links, connection and sharing are. Value has shifted away from a copy toward the many ways to recall, annotate, personalize, edit, authenticate, display, mark, transfer, and engage a work. Art is a conversation, not a patent office.”

Update: Just wanted to add quickly that I like David Weinberger’s characterization of Shirky’s argument about complexity as a “myth,” not in the sense of a fiction, but in the sense that his narratives offer “broad, illuminating ways of making sense of what’s going on.”

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Review: The Hollywood Economist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Media Industry Jokes

Ever since Sigmund Freud insisted, a little too adamantly for my tatses–that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, we’ve all known that jokes often express unconscious desires or have some form of hidden meaning or purpose.  No surprise there.  And, ever since George Plimpton punked an entire nation of sports fans with stories of a Buddhist Met with a 163-mph fastball, the April Fools article has been a staple of contemporary journalism, even moreso in the age of page views and click-through ad revenue.  And because those of us who hang out in the film blogosphere are not immune to such things, there are plenty of film and media bloggers who’ve taken the opportunity to comment on the state of the industry with their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks.

One story that almost seems like it should be an April Fools joke is the report from The Guardian that Sony and other studios may stop selling DVDs in Spain thanks to rampant piracy.  But apparently, this is one story that is being widely confirmed.  But part of the reason “piracy” is so widespread in Spain is that, as the LA Times puts it, “piracy isn’t against the law in Spain unless it’s done for profit.”  At the same time, David Poland notes that in an industry dominated by “red herrings,” it’s sometimes best to skip the jokes.

But one very fun April Fools prank comes from the folks over at Film School Rejects who have remade their page to make it appear as if all of the content was produced on April 1, 1980, when some movie called Clash of the Titans was set to re-invent special effects and viewers could anticipate the hottest new titles to hit VHS (complete with cool retro font and a debate about whether to get the film Betamax or laser disc).  There is even a paean to the fading “craze” of 3-D films and discussion of a media “upstart” named Ted Turner who plans a 24-hour cable news network.  On one level, of course, it’s an illustration of how far we’ve come in terms of media change.  “New” technologies such as the laser disc and VHS are long gone, and we take for granted the 24-hour news cycle that may very well be killing politics, but it’s also a fascinating, often irreverent account of how little has changed when it comes to the ways in which films are promoted for supposedly novel special effects.

Like The Film School Rejects, the blogger at Inside Redbox had a little (slightly less artful) fun with today’s license to joke, conjuring up a new Redbox service called BoxButler, in which the company promises that workers will stand next to kiosks to collect returned movies so that customers won’t have to wait in long lines or get stuck with the problem of a machine that is too full to take in more discs.  The post is a sly commentary on the state of the DVD rental industry, and even acknowledges the ways in which the labor and technology required to sustain a service like Redbox often remains unseen.

Update: How could I have missed Bieber or Die, Justin Bieber’s “takeover” of Will Ferrell’s “Funny or Die” website (h/t @annehelen)?