Archive for November, 2010

Saturday Links

I’m in the midst of two writing projects with relatively immediate deadlines, so I’ve been away from the blog for a few days.  Hoping that I’ll have a little more time to blog in the spring since I will only be teaching three classes (my smallest course load in something like five years).  Also hoping that I will see many of my readers at this year’s SCMS conference in New Orleans.  Here are the links:

  • Over at his CinemaTech blog, Scott Kirsner offers a nice overview of some of the key contributors to his recent Distribution U summit in New York.  Because I’ve been doing some research on fan adaptations recently, I was especially intrigued by the video presentation by Timo Vuorensola, maker of the Star Wreck series and the film, Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning.  In the video, Vuorensola is discussing his new project, Iron Sky and his very cool “Wreck a Movie” platform.
  • Anne Thompson offers an initial report on Amazon’s plans to create what amounts to a crowdsourced movie studio.  Users can submit storyboards, scripts, and even completed projects to the site where they can solicit advice from others.  Amazon, however, retains exclusive rights to all projects submitted to the service.  The one enticement (beyond Amazon’s “first-look” deal with Warner) is that they will be awarding monthly and yearly prizes.  Liz Miller of NewTeeVee reacts and warns aspiring filmmakers to read those rights agreements carefully.  Scott Macauley is also skeptical and uses the Amazon announcement to raise some red flags about crowdsourcing in general.
  • I’ve really been enjoying the interview series on the state of political remix videos that Henry Jenkins has been posting over the last few days.  I wrote about political remix videos quite a bit during and after the 2008 election and may be returning to the topic for a conference paper (and maybe a journal article) this spring.  Here is part three of Henry’s series.
  • According to research cited by NewTeeVee, viewers may be watching online video on anywhere from five to ten screens per household, thanks to smart phones, tablets, laptops, and other devices.
  • On a semi-related note, Time Warner is now experimenting with a new, cheaper cable bundle that would cost only $40 a month but would cut out some basic cable staples such as ESPN.
  • Finally, one of the sections of the book that makes me cringe a little is my discussion of interactive movies, in part because I lost track of how digital video could be used to create interactive features.  With that in mind, I really liked the recent Choose Your Own Adventure-style “Night of the Living Dead,” which repurposes footage from the original Night of the Living Dead (currently in the public domain, apparently). For people familiar with the original film (or even the plot devices of zombie films in general), it will likely be easy to steer the lead characters to safety; although it might be equally fun to create a little mayhem.  You can always backtrack later.  On a related note, here is a discussion of an interactive cinema iPhone app.

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Colombian Film Week

As I mentioned a couple of times, I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days in Bogota, Colombia, where I was invited to speak at the Semana del Cine Colombiano (Colombian Film Week), which gathered together a wide range of speakers who addressed some of the challenges facing filmmakers in Latin America who are seeking to gain wider distribution for their films. The symposium ended up being an incredibly thought-provoking experience, one that challenged me to rethink some of my assumptions about the role of digital distribution in reshaping the film market.  At the same time, I found myself drawing connections between the challenges that Latin American filmmakers face and the very similar challenges confronting independent filmmakers in the United States.  As a result, I am in the process of trying to think through some of these questions in what will hopefully be a more systematic fashion (perhaps in a journal article or something similar), but for now, here are some notes and other quick impressions that I was able to glean from my trip, which included attendance at the Premios Macundo, the Colombian Film Awards, designed to honor the best in Colombian filmmaking (for a basic overview of the Colombian film industry, Wikipedia offers at least a cursory discussion).

Perhaps the “meat” of the conference for me was getting a better sense of how film production and distribution works in Latin America.  Other speakers focused on the use of legal, economic, and ideological practices to sustain and encourage indigenous film production and consumption, and (as I’ll discuss in detail), it was impossible not to be impressed by some of the innovative practices that were being used to expand Latin American film culture.  The dominance of the Hollywood system around the globe is pretty well documented (see, for example, the book, Global Hollywood). But some numbers are worth mentioning here.  According to research presented by Paolo Goncalves, 8 of the top 10 highest-grossing films in Brazil came from the U.S. Similarly, 9 of the top 10 films in Argentina were U.S. films, while all of the top ten films in Mexico were made in the U.S.  In terms of shares of box office, Argentinian films constituted 16% of their country’s box office take, while Colombian films accounted for only about 4.8%, a problem that seems to have been exacerbated by attractions such as 3-D film.

One of the other challenges that speakers addressed was the small number of theaters available, especially outside of urban centers.  According to Goncalves, there is only one movie screen for every 91,000 residents of Brazil and one for every 81,000 Colombian, compared to a 1:8,000 ratio in the U.S. and a 1:10,000 in Ireland (a number that was relatively consistent across Europe).  Similarly, according to the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development, there are “only 19 movie theatres in Uruguay, of which 16 in Montevideo,” making access outside of urban centers extremely difficult, a point echoed in discussions of the Brazilian film industry (dozens of cities with over 100,000 residents in Brazil lack a single movie theater).  At the same time (or perhaps, in part, because of these limitations), piracy is rampant, with films circulating through unofficial channels, despite the somewhat incongruous presence of several Blockbuster Video stores throughout Bogota.

Although these numbers might be disheartening, especially for those of us seeking to foster a diverse audiovisual culture, I was impressed by the attempts to create alternative production, distribution, and exhibition practices that could provide greater access to Latin American films.  One compelling program was the Espacios INCAA, a program sponsored by the Argentinian government to encourage the construction of movie screens devoted exclusively to showing Argentinian films.  These screens are generally built near universities and in other city centers, offer lower ticket prices than theaters screening U.S. films, and seem designed to appeal to younger audiences who could, in theory, develop the habit of attending these films.  The program was successfully promoted on Twitter and Facebook and used social media to help build an audience for local films.  Although less focused on promoting local film, Brazil offers a similar incentive program to encourage building more movie theaters and expanding access to movie screenings.

One of the more commonly discussed practices was co-productions.  The most visible form of this activity was the Ibermedia Fund (English version), which is a joint project of 12 countries, including Spain, who all gave money to create a fund for which filmmakers could apply.  These projects would, if I understood correctly, have to be co-productions between two different countries.  One of the benefits, of course, is that filmmakers can draw from tax incentives from two different countries, while also allowing them to pool resources.  However, as a number of people observed, these co-productions are not always well-received for a number of reasons, in part because of the problems of incorporating creative personnel and/or settings from both countries into a single film.

Perhaps the most compelling attempt to rework film distribution was a Uruguayan initiative called Efecto Cine (official website) a traveling film exhibition series, which brought a series of ten Uruguayan films to the “outskirts of Montevideo and [to] 30 towns all over the country” using an inflatable screen (you can see some pictures of screenings and the set-up involved here).  These were free public screenings that anyone could attend–normally a ticket to a theater in Uruguay costs about $6.00 U.S.–and in just over four months, over 90,000 Uruguayans were able to attend a movie screening.

As an outsider, I was struck by the strong emphasis on theatrical distribution.  Given the increasing focus here on digital distribution, whether video-on-demand, Netflix, or iTunes, it would seem that digital technologies might provide an untapped resource, and to be fair, some panelists did address this potential, in particular, Steve Solot of Latin American Training Center, who pointed to the ongoing sense, in the United States at least, that the days of a “typical pipeline,” from theaters to cable and DVD, no longer exists.  Solot also noted that many distribution tools available in the U.S., such as iTunes, are not available in other countries, perhaps complicating the use of on-demand systems.  Still, Solot was especially attentive to the ways in which the challenges indie filmmakers face mirror those facing Latin American filmmakers (in fact, his organization works with the Independent Features Project).

Finally, the Colombian film awards, the Premois Macundo, served as yet another ideological approach for fostering Colombian film, in particular.  Because my Spanish is relatively weak, I was only able to get a partial understanding of what was happening at the Premios Macundo.  The awards, I learned later, were being run, for the first time, by the Colombian Academy of Motion Pictures, but it was interesting to see how the awards both corresponded to and diverged from ceremonies such as the Oscars.  The awards highlighted most of the familiar categories–best actor and actress, cinematographer, editing–but there were, if I understood correctly, three major film awards, one a kind of people’s choice award, another selected by the Academy, and a third selected by an international jury, with the latter award considered the most significant.  Although some might be tempted to lament the fact that the Colombian Awards seem to imitate the American awards, thus cementing them as a (good) model, I was struck by the ways in which the awards could function positively as means for promoting Colombian film, both within the country and abroad.  Both my fiancee and I were intrigued by a number of films, including Contracorriente (Undertow), and Los Viajes del viento (The Wind Journeys).

These comments risk scratching the surface of what is, in fact, a much more complicated set of industrial, governmental, and creative challenges and opportunities.  As usual, I was impressed not only by the vitality and creativity of the filmmakers but also of the people working to foster a vibrant Latin American film culture.

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Screen Weekend

I managed to devote a little more time than usual to movie and media consumption on screens big and small (and on a few canvases, too).  I’ll start with a quick pointer to an exhibit I caught at Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art, The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl, which featured a number of paintings, sculptures, and videos that explore the materiality of vinyl records and their role in audiovisual culture.  If you’re in the Raleigh-Durham area, it’s well worth the trip, with a great collection of experimental, avant-garde, and outsider art all focused on the ongoing cultural significance of vinyl in the era of digital music.  Some of my favorite bits included Mingering Mike’s fictive album covers that mock, imitate, and rework pop music album covers in innovative ways.  But the website for the exhibit offers a nice overview of all of the artists who are featured.

I also caught two movies this weekend.  The most visible one, Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter was, in some ways, better than I expected.  It followed three central characters, Matt Damon’s haunted psychic, George, a French journalist, and a young British twin, as they seek explanations and emotional resolutions to their brushes with the afterlife.  As usual, Eastwood is comparatively restrained and the cinematography is polished, evoking the classical Hollywood style.  But I struggled to accept some of the film’s logical implausibilities.  George’s brief romantic attachment to Melanie (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) seemed underdeveloped, and much of Melanie’s story, especially her interactions with a world-renowned scientist who asserts that scientific evidence exists for an afterlife, weren’t very believable (which makes me wonder if some scenes were left on the cutting-room floor). Eastwood’s a capable filmmaker, so it worked a little better than I expected.

Finally, I also caught Edward Burns’ latest, Nice Guy Johnny.  There has been a lot of discussion of Burns’ strategy to release the film via VOD and on iTunes, and for “small” projects like Burns’ film, I think it’s a sensible strategy.  But the film itself offered a relatively standard coming-of-age story, nothing that really broke through for me.  A “nice guy” named Johnny (hence the title) is prepared to sacrifice his dreams of becoming a sportscaster to satisfy his snotty fiancee’s middle-class ambitions, so he travels to New York to interview for a job at a box manufacturer (isn’t that what Milhouse’s dad does on The Simpsons?).  Then, of course, he meets the laid-back woman who encourages him to pursue his dreams.  They hand out on the beach by a bonfire at night and talk.  Complications ensue.

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Waiting for Superman

Several days after watching it, I’m still mulling Davis Guggenheim’s documentary, Waiting for Superman (IMDB), in which we are presented a number of claims explaining why our educational system is failing.  We are presented with apathetic teachers who casually read newspapers while students play a game of craps in the back of the classroom.  We are told that these apathetic teachers are protected by teachers unions and a tenure system that discourages innovative classroom performance.  After all, why do anything to improve student performance when you will not be rewarded with merit pay?  And we are told that students will be conditioned to do the bare minimum to get by, unless they are challenged to do more.  We get some righteous indignation from activists and teaching executives such as Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee, the latter of whom took on DC’s teachers unions. We are also presented with some of the most emotionally staggering images I’ve seen in some time as five students, of a variety of backgrounds and ages, wait to see if their name is selected in the lotteries designed to choose who will attend local charter schools.  All of this is grounded in Davis Guggenheim’s own experience both as a parent and as someone invested in improving (and supporting) public education.  Guggenheim even cites his past documentary work on public education, The First Year, which documents the experiences of five public school teachers.

However, despite the film’s alignment with Participant Productions, a movie producer that mixes films and activism, it is unclear to me after seeing the film what kind of response Superman is seeking to elicit. The website offers several actions that participants can take, including writing their local school boards to demand “better teachers,” while supplementing the film with statistical information about dropout and college attendance rates for individual states.  It also offers other forms of activism or involvement ranging from seeing the film (done that!) to attending school board meetings.  But within the film itself, we are presented with some pretty clear heroes and villains, as innovative educators are pitched against teachers unions in a struggle over how children will be educated.  As a result, Waiting for Superman has been embraced by a number of conservative bloggers and critics, as Patrick Goldstein documents.  Unfortunately, many of the films claims are misguided, at best, as Dana Goldstein of The Nation points out, listing off unionized school districts that do quite well in educating students, while pointing out that four out of five charter schools are no better than the public schools in their neighborhood.  I think it also gives a pass to some of the more harmful attempts to politicize education, most notably the introduction of intelligent design as an “alternative” to evolution in some science classes.

What seems significant about the film is that it seems to falter when describing the innovations that could be introduced to the classroom to improve student performance.  We see one teacher who makes learning fun by turning multiplication tables into a rap, but for the most part, actual classrooms are less prominent than the talking heads seeking to fix them.  At the same time, we are introduced to five children struggling to get a good education, including Daisy, a Latina girl who dreams of becoming a doctor or veterinarian, to help people.  We also get single mothers and grandmothers struggling to help their children get into a good college.  All of them seem to be banking on their local charter school lotteries, which amount to exercises in emotional cruelty, despite what appear to be their creators’ best intentions.  The five families wait, usually in crowded gymnasiums, watching and waiting for their number or name to be drawn, giving them a ticket to a better school, and presumably, a better life.  It’s implied that if Daisy doesn’t beat the odds–her chances of getting into the charter school are pinned at 1 in 20–she’ll face insurmountable odds in her dreams of attending medical school (a similar practice is depicted in the documentary, The Lottery).  Although Superman seems to imply that all five of these students–and others like them–all deserve the best education possible, I don’t think the film is critical enough of the charter schools themselves for offering this fantasy of escape in such a public format.

There are some things in the film that seem perfectly on target.  Canada’s anecdote about his childhood wish that Superman would come along and eliminate the slums and fix the broken schools in his neighborhood.  It’s a useful reminder that there is no Superman, but that the work of countless individual teachers, parents, executives, and students is needed to make a difference.  The film also argues for higher standards, for challenging students to improve, a position I essentially share.  In too many places, however, the film seemed to be offering reductive answers to complex problems.  I think it avoids the worst excesses of some anti-youth screeds–all of the five children depicted in the film are clearly very bright and ambitious–but by reducing its picture of public schools into something of a stereotype, it does a serious disservice to the work of countless public school teachers who are making a sincere effort to educate today’s students.  It also avoids addressing how we can truly engage students every day in order to instill the pleasures of learning (while also cultivating a better understanding of what we mean by learning).

Update: Via Craig Phillips on Twitter, a pointer to secondary education professor Mark Phillips’ column on Waiting for Superman.  For the most part, Phillips’ comments echo my own, but his post reminded me of another scene that bothered me that I’d forgotten about.  It’s an animated video showing a teacher pouring knowledge into students’ heads, until he/she reaches one unfortunate student for whom the teacher misses the hole, allowing knowledge to spill out all over the student’s desk.  It’s an oddly old-fashioned depiction of (rote) learning, one that Paulo Freire, in a slightly different context, would have called the “banking concept” of education.  Learning as a transaction.  Knowledge can be dumped into our heads, in much the same way that Neo is programmed to learn kung fu in The Matrix.  It’s a highly flawed view of how learning works.  Phillips adds a number of useful observations about how Guggenheim’s film simplifies a much more complex set of practices, so it’s well worth checking out his entire evaluation of the film.

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