Archive for May, 2010

Friday Links: YouTube, Netflix, Kickstarter

I’m now in serious countdown mode for our trip to Spain (just over two weeks to go), which is making it a little more difficult to focus on research stuff, but here are some of the film and media links I’ve been following over the last couple of days:

  • I missed it until now, Raymond De Felitta has been blogging the production of his film, City Island, for Salon and on his own personal blog, Movies Til Dawn.  The film stars Andy Garcia and Julianna Margulies, and I’m hoping to see it this weekend at our local art house.  Especially of interest, a post De Felitta made a few months ago when one of his producers compained about him posting “behind-the-scenes” footage from the set on his blog.  As he suggests, the producer’s concern about “bad” publicity is reasonable, but these clips (which would typically become DVD extras) can now serve as a means of building a connection with the moviegoing audience.  De Felitta’s honesty and thoughtfulness about this process is impressive, and the entire production blog is worth a read.
  • Ted Hope offers a pointer to a Coffee and Celluloid post by Joey Daoud on the positives and negatives of Kickstarter as a resource for crowdfunding movies.  Although Daoud recognizes the value of resources such as Kickstarter, he also points out that links and publicity didn’t always translate into donations.  He also points to a number of success stories, including Diaspora, a project focused on web privacy, which vastly exceeded their fundraising goal.
  • Via NewTeeVee, Netflix crunches the numbers on the future of video rental and concludes that DVD-by-mail will peak in 2013, when it will then be supplanted by streaming video, but what interests me is the fact that DVD-by-mail will remain a significant part of their business for the foreseeable future, at least until 2018 or so.  Still, they’re pushing the idea of streaming as the primary alternative really hard.  One other notable element that I missed: Netflix has plans to expand internationally starting in 2010 (scroll deep into the slide presentation, but apparently this has been on the horizon for a while).
  • Odd historical quirk of the day: the first megaplex built in the US, AMC The Grand 24, will be closing down after just fifteen years of operation.  The comments at The Hot Blog show how contested these sites are.  Although one commenter argues that the lack of any architectural creativity makes it impossible to lament the megaplex’s closure, others point out that the sentiment attached to the location may be associated with fondly remembered moviegoing experiences.
  • Via Documentary Tech, discussion of a recent report that shows that YouTube videos typically have half of their overall views within six days of being posted.  As the Documentary Tech writer speculates, this raises significant challenges for content creators interested in long-term engagement with their audiences, but it may also reflect a bias on YouTube toward current events and news commentary posted to the website.  It might also reflect the rising role of social media such as Twitter and Facebook in filtering and disseminating interesting, timely content (or that social media have a bias against older content in favor of being more timely).
  • The latest big-name director to step into the crowdsourcing fray: Luc Besson, according to The Hollywood Reporter.  Besson’s weareproducteurs.com invites audiences to vote on all elements of the film from casting to script to music. Thriller? Comedy? You decide.

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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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Indie Films and Digital Distribution

The announcement about Google TV has provoked some discussion about the tool’s potential for making it easier for independent filmmakers to find a wider audience for their films.  Google has promoted this new tool as the ultimate merger between computers and television.  You can use Google’s search tool to find any TV shows or videos (including those on YouTube and other video sharing sites) and watch them on your TV set.  And your TV becomes more like a computer, allowing you to go onto sites such as Facebook (oddly the video emphasizes that you can “update your status”).  But a number of indie filmmakers have begun to ask about the potential implications of Google TV for movie distribution.

Ryan Koo at No Film School has the most optimistic take on this potential, arguing that Google TV “is going to make it a lot easier to get independently-produced content onto the big (home) screen.”  Koo adds that, unlike Apple, Google TV is essentially an “open” platform that will not place restrictions on what content gets pulled from the web to your TV set.  For example, Google TV might provide a boost for the struggling YouTube Rentals program by making it easier to get movies from YouTube to your TV set.  Essentially, Koo concludes that Google TV will be essentially democratizing, though he adds one significant caveat: the problem of search engine optimization.  Although Google’s search algorithms may make it easier to get films to your TV set, it’s not quite as clear whether people will be able to find them.

Ted Hope also emphasizes the potential for Google TV to democratize distribution, while adding the need for continued efforts toward search engine optimization, arguing that “I just wish that people would offer more filters. It’s one thing to be able to find what we are looking for, but we still need to know what it is that we want — particularly if we want to make other work that that which is justified by a huge marketing spend.”  I’ve been trying to think through the “filtering question” for a while–I talked about it at length in this Second Cinema interview last year–and I’m still unsure whether these filters will ever match the diversity of content out there with the diverse interests of a wide range of audiences that might be seeking alternative forms of content.  Some of these challenges seem to be reflected in the somewhat bizarre genre categories found on sites like Netflix (what is a “heartfelt, fighting-the-system documentary?”), not to mention Netflix recommendation algorithms that push us toward some films and away from others.  But I’m a little skeptical about what it means to “solve” these filtering questions.

Scott Macauley of Filmmaker Magazine echoes many of Koo’s arguments while expressing a little more skepticism. Worth noting, Macauley cites an interview with YouTube’s Sarah Pollack, who argues that the YouTube rental program helped to raise the profile of a number of the Sundance films it offered for rent.  Pollack goes on to acknowledge that YouTube will need to work to convince viewers to pay for some of its rental content, especially when YouTube is primarily known as a site offering free videos.  But even here I think the questions about how viewers find or learn about this content remains unclear. Macauley does point out that many of the writers polled at Endgadget expressed concern that Google TV would likely require yet another set-top box until the platform became something that was built into TVs.  And like a number of the people interviewed by Endgagdet, I think there are a number of complications Google will need to address before their approach to revolutionizing TV will take hold.

The LA Times expresses a similar concern, noting that the cost of another set-top box might be prohibitive for budget-conscious web video users, although they also cite Best Buy Chief Executive Brian Dunn who argues that Google TV pushes us even further towards a “platform agnostic” model, in which the source or medium of the content matters less than the ability to access that content easily.

The unstated assumption in all of these arguments is that more choice (available in even more platforms), even if those choices are more expensive, is necessarily what everyone wants.  Given the popularity of services such as Redbox, which offers relatively little choice, I’m not entirely sure that’s the case.  To be sure, I’ve truly appreciated the expansion of choice offered by digital media–living in a town such as Fayetteville, NC was much more bearable thanks to Netflix and VOD–but I’m not sure that everyone is looking for the “deeper cuts” rather than the “top hits.”  But as I’ve suggested in my previous post, many of the questions addressed in the debates over Google TV (and other tools like it) aren’t over what the hardware can do as much as they are about what cinema as a social activity can be.

With that in mind, I am intrigued by discussions such as the one taking place at The Workbook Project right now, where Mike Ambs, responding to a blog post by Ted Hope, has invited filmmakers and audiences to “brainstorm the future of film.”  Ambs has created a fascinating flowchart (to which anyone can contribute) that seeks to define what makes film, and independent film in particular, something of value for all of us.  I’ll be returning to Ambs’s chart in a couple of upcoming posts because the chart raises a number of interesting questions about how independent filmmakers can create cultures of engagement around the movies they make.

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Narratives of Digital Distribution

There is an interesting debate about rising ticket prices taking place, and implied in those narratives are different attitudes toward the “future” of digital cinema and the primary locations where we will watch movies in the near future.  Patrick Goldstein argues that rising ticket prices now risk reaching a tipping point, especially with adult tickets for a movie like Shrek Forever After in 3-D now approaching $20.  That’s an expensive night out for a family of four, even if children’s tickets are significantly cheaper. David Poland acknowledges that there is an increase in ticket prices, especially for 3-D and IMAX, while pointing out that normal (non 3-D) ticket costs have only increased by a quarter or so, but worries that these stories will feed into a larger narrative about the future of theatrical distribution.

Poland is correct to point out that the discussions of rising ticket costs are part of competing narratives about how we’ll watch movies.  In particular, he argues that

What I am feeling inside the industry is a well-founded fear that the 3D business is overreaching already and that increasing ticket prices for often unnecessary 3D will soon turn off average moviegoers. This is balanced by a group that wants to change the whole system and hopes to use the misunderstanding of the facts in stories like this “rising ticket prices” thing to push their agenda forward.

As Poland observes, these narratives are often supported by using selective data that looks at tickets sold rather than total revenue (for example).  Although I’m inclined to believe that the industry is overreaching a bit when it comes to audience interest in 3-D, I’m more interested in how these narratives about box office are feeding into perceptions about the future of digital cinema.

One of these alternatives involves a renewed emphasis on the use of video-on-demand as a means for supplementing or bypassing theatrical distribution.  According to The Wall Street Journal, Time Warner Cable has pitched Hollywood studios on a “studio window,” in which movies would be released on-demand just thirty days after being released in theaters for $20-30 per view.  Several studios have expressed interest, and the model could be in place by the end of this year or early 2011.  As the WSJ article suggests, the new model would amount to a relatively radical overhaul of the “windows” that have traditionally protected theatrical revenues, and needless to say, theater owners are unhappy about the proposal.  In addition, these VOD models would also complicate existing details with cable channels such as HBO that often pay for cable distribution rights to movies (although many channels are now relying increasingly on original programming).

I saw this article via David Poland, and I think he’s right to be a little skeptical about whether this would work.  First, he’s correct to point out that younger moviegoers who comprise the largest audience for bigger blockbuster movies typically don’t control their cable bills (Mom and Dad do).  Second, he points out that such an approach would likely cannibalize theatrical, especially if studios felt some pressure to reduce rental costs.  But Eugene Novikov of Cinematical speculates that the VOD approach might be appealing to families who might have an eye for saving money during a time of economic belt-tightening (although this might not account for a family’s desire to get out of the house).  These VOD models have worked for art-house and indie films simply because access to these films is often fairly limited, and many of the films available on IFC On Demand (for example) would likely never play in most towns and cities.  But I think that studios are feeling quite a bit of pressure to make up for declining DVD sales, and they’re willing to try a number of experiments to make that up.

Implied in all of these debates are questions about the social and (arguably) metaphysical role of cinema.  Manhola Dargis revisits these concerns in her discussion of Olivier Assayas’ Carlos, which focuses on the story of Carlos the Jackal, pointing out that distributors and exhibitors are now turning toward digital projection, taking us away from “rich textural density of film” to the “ones and zeros” of digital media.  Her blog post provokes a range of comments, many of them lamenting the demise of film as a medium, while others challenge utopian claims about digital media providing idealized projection experiences.  Many of the points addressed by Dargis have already been considered by film scholars–note her citation of D.N. Rodowick–but like the debates about VOD, her arguments push against attempts to define the “future” of cinema.

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Friday Links

A few of the things I’ve been reading and watching while suffering from Cannes-envy:

  • In a decision that has received almost no attention, the FCC recently ruled in favor of “selectable output control,” which would essentially prevent consumers from copying a pay-per-view program.  The decision opens up the possibility that some movie distributors may move even close to day-and-date releasing patterns, i.e., opening a film in theaters and on cable at (almost) the same time.  But if you’re interested in industry issues, the New York Times’ Michael Cieply has a solid overview of the potential implications and industry reactions to the FCC ruling.
  • In other big industry news, Google is taking over your TV.  Obviously the big selling point is the idea of using Google search to find the programs you want to watch.  In addition, NewTeeVee speculates that Google TV will enable the “microchannel” future where everyone will have his or her choice of content (57 thousand channels and nothing on?).  Of course, you’ll have to buy the appropriate TV or set-top box, so it’ll be interesting to see whether people are that interested.  And of course it means that Google will become even more adept at targeted advertisements based on search and viewing histories.
  • Anne Thompson discusses the reported integration between iTunes and Rotten Tomatoes, the famous movie review aggregation site.  Although a number of commenters at Anne’s site have called this a “bad idea” because of the dubious methods Rotten Tomatoes uses to deem films “fresh” or “rotten,” this assumes people only glance at the aggregate number rather than individual reviews.  More than anything, it seems to signal some of the ways in which reception, promotion, and exhibition practices are all converging.
  • David Poland has an interesting–and convincing–read on the controversies over Megan Fox and Shia LaBeouf and about “truth-telling” in the film industry.
  • Also via Poland, one of the coolest TV ads I’ve ever seen, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s new Nike ad, “Write the Future,” which plays like a three-minute World Cup-inspired version of Run Lola Run. The full ad captures the ways in which the fortunes of a game, of individual players, and the nations that support them can change within a split second.

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Watching for Iron Sky

While doing some research about the movie I mentioned yesterday, Riot Film Collective’s The Cosmonaut, I came across a number of references to a similar project using a crowdfunded and crowdsourced approach, Iron Sky, by a film collective based in Finland (though supported by people around the globe) called Energia Productions, a group that first gained notoriety for making the Star Wreck film series, an ongoing cycle of Star Trek parodies.  One of the films in that series, Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning was distributed through the Wreckamovie platform, which allows for a more collaborative filmmaking process (the Wikipedia article appears to be written by a fan of the site, but gives some idea of what the platform can do), but as the site suggests, it allows filmmakers to harness the abilities of the crowd to contribute their talents–special effects, adding subtitles for different languages–to the making of a film.

Iron Sky itself is based on a satirical alternate-reality premise, in which a Nazi leader makes a major anti-gravity discovery in 1945 and launches several spaceships from a secret base on Antarctica, which land on the moon.  From there, the Nazis would build an invasion fleet that would return to earth when their power was sufficient, and in the year 2018, they return to earth.  The film itself is currently in pre-production (or at least the earliest stages of production), and through the blog (and web video sites such as YouTube), the crew has been releasing footage, including this teaser trailer, that establishes the tone of the film and helps to illuminate the filmmaking process.

Like a number of DIY filmmaking projects, I’m intrigued here by the degree to which the filmmakers have been able to integrate the task of creating a culture of anticipation around the Iron Sky film while also creating material that seems to fit neatly into the spirit of the Iron Sky, creating something that seems transmedia by design rather than merely due to the need to market or promote their work.  The announcement of the led actress, for example, seems to play off of the subject matter of the film in a rather creative way, while this interview with the scouting director combines a pedagogical element, revealing part of the production process, with the themes of the film, suggested by the old-fashioned radio tower seeming to burst out of the side of a globe.  Like The Cosmonaut, it also appears to be a truly global phenomenon, one that recalls some of the arguments raised by Henry Jenkins in his discussion of “pop cosmopolitanism.”

Like a number of projects, they have also made an effort to use Google Maps and similar tools to visualize the locations where the interest in a film might be the highest.  They also encourage fans to “buy war bonds” (using the iconic Rosie the Riveter logo, no less), which involve small investments in the production of the film.  Investors receive a copy of the DVD plus several other pieces of swag, including dog tags that tie into the war film premise.  In this sense, Iron Sky, like The Cosmonaut, seems to be building upon some of the transmedia work that helped to make District 9 into a successful film, one that engaged with social issues in a creative, entertaining, and enlightening way.

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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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Iron Man 2

Although I never got around to seeing the original Iron Man (IMDB), I’ve been curious about the character and the Iron Man world for some time, in part because the Tony Stark/Iron Man doubling seems like a relatively timely figure for some of the contradictions associated with the post-9/11 twist on the military industrial complex, in which military contractors such as Halliburton have become so highly visible.  Many of these contradictions are expressed through Robert Downey, Jr’s portrayal of Tony as garish rock star, living in lavish style, even while that performance hides the fact that the substance that fuels his suit, a rare element, is also toxic.

The film glosses some of these social issues briefly, and like Lance Mannion, I’m intrigued by a summer blockbuster that has a science geek at its heart, even one who is a millionaire playboy).  Stark is subpoenaed to testify before Congress where he is interrogated by the opportunistic Senator Stern played by Garry Shandling.  During this testimony, Stark drops one of the film’s most iconic one-liners, proudly bragging, “I have privatized world peace.”  Given Stark’s mental and physical health, it’s not clear how we are supposed to feel about Stark’s quip.  Are we supposed to read it as false and potentially dangerous bravado? Or are we supposed to recognize that government intervention will somehow negate the deterrent to war that the Iron Man suit represents?

Pushing the ideological questions a little further: A rival military contractor, Justin Hammer (played with a slightly creepy bravado by Sam Rockwell), attempts to steal the suit, and barring that, hires Ivan Vanko (Mickey Roarke), the son of a Russian scientist betrayed by Tony’s father.  Even the “origins” of the military-industrial complex in the 1950s, an era that celebrated technocratic efficiency, which Tony watches using a 16mm movie projector, are suggested through educational films depicting Tony’s father talking about the wonders of technology.  But much of this story gets submerged in the revenge narrative associated with Vanko, in part I think due to Roarke’s charismatic performance (he clearly delights in playing a supervillain and even gives the role some surprising depth) and in part due to the fact that the film really isn’t all that interested in the politics of privatization.  It’s much more interested in the personal conflict faced by Tony and the personal rivalries associated with Vanko and Hammer (see Lance on this point as well).

More than that, it really just wants to blow stuff up.  And  more specifically it wants to ensure that the character and the Marvel comic book world will continue to be viable through future iterations of the franchise, whether games, comic books, films, or other media.  This focus on building the franchise, most visible in a subplot involving Nick Fury and Black Widow that seems essentially unnecessary, led Nick Pinkerton of The Village Voice to complain:

If you’re not a comic-book reader, these scenes may as well have been scripted in Wingdings, while initiates will understand that Fury is here, essentially, to do press for the upcoming Avengers movie. This sub-subplot is symptomatic of the franchise-first mindset in the era of the $200M “Episode,” where films are constructed less as freestanding edifices than as elements in superstructures (for example: the transposition of the entire Marvel Universe to film).

I think this is a pretty apt depiction of franchise-era Hollywood, but I wonder if the complaints about the episodic nature of these films aren’t a little misguided, and like Pinkerton, I felt like I was watching a preview of the inevitable video game during the final scene, but when it’s done well, the world-building of a media franchise can be fascinating (and quite often contradictory), especially given the input of different directors and different media.  But given that the film is laying the groundwork for other Marvel characters, I think that the cultivation of anticipation is simply an acknowledgment that a larger Marvel world exists.  The overall effect of Iron Man 2, for me at least, was essentially technological and narrative competence.  The fight scenes were dramatic and thrilling enough, especially the Grand Prix scene in which Vanko torments Stark during a Grand Prix race in Monaco with a set of light-sabery bullwhips.  The film pushed the Stark-Pepper Potts relationship a little further.  Stark offered just enough snarky one-liners to fill a movie trailer.  But like the technocratic logic that the film recalls, it left me feeling a little cold.

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Friday Links

I’m kind of between chapters right now, so hopefully that means I’ll be able to post a few more substantial blog posts in the coming days.  For now, here are some links:

  • Pretty much everyone is linking to Mynette Louie’s blog post (can’t seem to find a permanent link) about “why microbudget filmmaking sucks,” so add me to the list.  It probably won’t be that surprising to see that she also highlights the pleasures of making films on a shoestring budget.
  • Anne Thompson has an article discussing the reasons that the streaming video community The Auteurs has changed its name to Mubi.  Also worth noting are Mubi’s plans to expand the site’s reach considerably, in part through outreach at festivals such as Cannes and Tribeca.  Here’s Efe’s discussion of why they made the switch.
  • James Cameron continues to evangelize for 3D, arguing that it will completely supplant 2D within 25 years.  I liked the 3D in Avatar well enough, but I think the futurist proclamations that 3D is revolutionizing cinema are a bit excessive and potentially risk alienating a large slice of the moviegoing audience.
  • This video of Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz practicing a stunt on the set of Knight and Day looks like an attempt to rehabilitate Cruise’s image a little by depicting him as having a sense of humor. It doesn’t work.  In fact it makes me less enthusiastic than before about seeing Knight and Day if that’s possible.

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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.

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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”).

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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.

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Re-Introducing Adaptation

Last fall when I taught my university’s Introduction to Literature course, I used a theme focused broadly on the issue of adaptation.  The goal was to provide the course with a “hook” that would help to frame a wide range of materials, both historically (from Sophocles to Sita Sings the Blues) and textually (poetry, plays, fiction, and film).  Now, I’m looking ahead to fall semester, when I will be teaching that course again and will have a chance to choose a new textbook for the course.

I liked the “adaptation, remix, remake” theme quite a bit and want to do something like that again.  In addition, I am currently in the planning stages of an essay focusing on adaptation for a book collection (more on that later), so this will be a good opportunity for me to bring some aspects of my research in line with my teaching.  Because the course is designed to introduce students to the practices of reading literature, especially close reading, I’m leaning toward going with John Brereton’s Living Literature and supplementing it with other readings where appropriate.

One of the activities that worked best last semester required my students to adapt a scene from Hamlet, either to video or for the stage (i.e., the front of the classroom).  Most groups chose video, and one group in particular even added “deleted scenes” and a “making-of documentary” that was very funny (and smart).  I may tweak this assignment and have students adapt short stories this time, but I think that one of the strengths of the activity was that it made Shakespeare more accessible.  One of the challenges of teaching adaptation–especially between literature and film–is that such evaluations often start with evaluations based on fidelity: did the director do a good job of remaining consistent to the book?  This is especially tempting in graphic novels that practically provide directors with storyboards for designing certain shots.

So, one of the challenges I’ve been thinking about is how to get around some of the more simplistic comparative analyses that privilege one text over another (this BYU instructional resource is really good on this point).  The approach I’d like to take is analogous to some of the work being done in adaptation theory by people like Thomas Leitch, who challenge the tendency in adaptation studies to focus on fidelity. It’s still way too early to be thinking about next fall–I’m using this blog post as an excuse to avoid grading–but I like the idea of using adaptation broadly as a means for thinking about how texts interact with each other, both within media and across them.

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Reinventing Cinema Review in Film & History

Michael Marino is the most recent person to review Reinventing Cinema, this time in the journal, Film & History. The review is generally positive, with Marino remarking that  “Tryon’s book is generally interesting and well argued and it is clear he is an expert on this topic. The book does an excellent job outlining the evolution of the medium of film in the age of digital technology. This topic in turn speaks to wider themes related to the intersection of technology and society.”

He does criticize the book for not appearing critical enough of the ways in which corporate culture–such as media conglomerates–threaten to suffocate the democratizing aspects of digital cinema, an issue I thought about quite a bit when writing the book.  Ultimately, I decided that the “giant media entities” described by Marino couldn’t be reduced to a single intentionality or effect–note Paramount’s decision to support a small set of micro-budgeted genre films–and tried to navigate a fairly careful line between the many players involved in the digital transformation of cinema.  Still, it’s an insightful review that helped me to see some of my key arguments from a different perspective.

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Labor and Digital Distribution

I’ve recently become intrigued by articles that attempt to depict the labor involved in some of the new video distribution models.  For a while, there was an entire genre of newspaper articles (here is one example) devoted to the behind-the-scenes operations at Netflix.  Because most customers only interact with Netflix via a web interface, we may never see an employee in person, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a significant amount of intensive labor involved in sorting DVDs or checking to make sure customers are getting the right movie.  With that in mind, I finally was able to dig up a similar article, from the official Redbox blog, depicting a typical “Redbox ninja,” David Dunning, who describes the on-site and off-site labor involved in restocking, monitoring, and even cleaning the kiosks.

There are several things that intrigue me about these articles (and the Redbox one in particular).  First, the behind-the-scenes structure seems to suggest the idea of hidden truths or insider knowledge finally being revealed to a general public.  Christopher Borrelli’s Netflix article, cited above, conforms to this structure, especially with his account of exurban warehouses as “mythical New Economy temples.”  This behind-the-scenes structure seems to echo a similar rhetoric seen in making-of documentaries on DVDs.  We are getting access to hidden truths about how we get access to the entertainment that now seems magically piped into our homes.

By describing these articles (and videos) as a genre, I don’t mean to imply that they are false.  Instead, they seem consistent with some of the practices of “industrial self-theorizing” discussed by John Caldwell in Production Culture. While Caldwell primarily discusses production narratives, including those authored by below-the-line workers, these “distribution culture” narratives help to structure our perception of what might seem like a relatively impersonal transaction.  How do you humanize a transaction with a kiosk? With a web interface?  Digging deeper, how do workers for these companies understand their relationship to potential customers?

The Redbox article is especially fascinating to me due to the ways in which it romanticizes Dunning’s daily tasks. Like all Redbox regional operations supervisors, he is a “ninja,” working invisibly, almost in secret, quickly and efficiently servicing the machines, often in the dark of night.  The article also emphasizes the “flexibility” involved with Redbox, the ability to choose when to work, as well as the ability to complete much of that work from anywhere.  Dunning keeps in touch with field operators via cell phone and services some machines remotely from his laptop.  The article also helps to put a human face on the transaction process.  One of the complaints about Redbox has been that it takes away from the communitarian aspects of video stores, the ability to consult or just chat with the clerks you see on a daily basis.  To alleviate that concern, the Redbox article depicts Dunning chatting with customers and providing them with codes for free rentals if they are forced to wait for him to service the machine.  Completing the picture is a range of comments that either offers praise for a local field representative or compliments Dunning and other field reps for putting such a positive face on the company.  Still others respond to the article by stating that they also wish they could work for Redbox.

Prior to this article, my most specific mental picture of Redbox workers had been based on a series of articles describing the fact that Wal-Mart and other retailers were conspiring with movie studios to limit the number of copies of a given DVD that anyone could purchase, but in that scenario, the emphasis was on the absurdity of a major retailer declining to sell something rather than on the specific behavior of the Redbox employees themselves. My reading here isn’t meant to dismiss the Redbox post (or the somewhat older Netflix article) as mere public relations spin.  In some sense, it is far more than that, especially in the attempt to deal with the hidden labor associated with cyberspace, an issue addressed at length in Ted Striphas’s discussion of the labor practices required to maintain Amazon.com in The Late Age of Print.  As Striphas points out, with regards to Amazon in particular, “what’s clear is that getting books and other products out to such a vast client base quickly and efficiently demands highly intensive–and intensive–work environments” (101).  These articles help to shape the perception of those operations, both for the consumers who rent or buy DVDs and for the employees who participate in those activities.

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