Archive for May, 2011

Teens and Moviegoing

There is an interesting article by Daniel Frankel and Brent Lang at The Wrap discussing the decline in movie attendance by teenagers. They note that box office attendance was down 5% in 2010 and that box office revenue is down 13% so far in 2011 (even with all of the 3D movies). More tellingly, they point out that a number of films that should target teens–Fast Five, for example–have a much smaller than expected proportion of viewers who are teenagers.

Frankel and Lang offer a number of hypotheses. Scott at Go Into the Story explores one of these theories: the idea that teenagers no longer have “the same loyalty to movie theaters as a delivery system,” especially given that watching on computers or on big screen TVs offset some of the advantages of watching on the big screen. There is probably some truth to that claim, although I think that movie theaters and other semi-public spaces continue to offer a way for teens to get out of the house on a weekend night.

My guess is that one of the biggest disadvantages of going to theaters is that they are pricing teenagers out of buying tickets. With 3D tickets sometimes exceeding $12-13, it is little wonder that many teens feel like they can’t afford to pay for a night at the movies. I’m a little less convinced that movies themselves seem antiquated to a generation that grew up playing video games and going online, as Frankel and Lang speculate, but it’s certainly a trend worth watching and something that would seem to shape the kinds of movies that get produced in the future.

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Thursday Links

Expect light blogging for the next few weeks, due to a couple of big upcoming events, including a trip to Costa Rica, where the Best Fiancee Ever and I will be recharging our batteries for a few days. I’ve also been working on a new book, which tends to pull me away from the blog. Even so, here are a few links:

  • The new Muppets movie has been using parody trailers as a form of promotion. Viewers in theaters are presented with what appears to be a trailer for a romantic comedy called Green With Envy, featuring Jason Segal and Amy Adams, with the Muppets showing up halfway through. It’s a pretty creative parody of rom-coms and shows the Muppets at their playful, often slyly subversive, best. The Muppet Hangover 2 parody, “The Fuzzy Pack,” is also very funny.
  • New Tee Vee has a cool infographic illustrating the almost exponential growth of video uploads to YouTube. In 2007, YouTubers were uploading eight hours per minute. By 2011, that number has increased to 48 hours per minute. If my back of the envelope math is correct, that means that it would take nearly 3,000 days to watch all of the video posted to the site every day. I’d argue that it also makes it difficult to make broad generalizations about user practices.
  • Roger Ebert seizes on an article by Boston Globe writer Ty Burr to argue that 3D films are now negatively affecting the projection of 2D films. Ebert and Burr both note that 3D projectors are often used to show 2D films, and when the polarizing lens (which creates the 3D effect) is left in the projector, it makes the image dark and murky. While I suspect that they are both right, I find it interesting that Burr’s “informal survey” of moviegoers showed that most of them were indifferent or unaware of the difference in quality.
  • Home Media Magazine more or less confirms what seems to be conventional wisdom: most movie consumers now prefer to rent videos (in whatever format) rather than buying them.
  • Disney is joining the retro-3D party with their plans to rerelease their 1994 animated hit, The Lion King, in 3D in September of this year. This means that Disney will beat out the re-release of Titanic by several months. Given recent reports about a 3D backlash (see below), I’ll be interested to see how these 3D re-releases are received.
  • David Poland crunches the numbers for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and concludes that moviegoers last week offered a “clear rejection” of the 3D format, with ticket sales for the 2D version vastly outpacing the 3D.
  • Canadian cable provider, Shaw, has increased its bandwidth caps, which is good news for Netflix and other streaming video sites that depend heavily on the higher caps. Netflix had already been providing Canadian subscribers with a lower quality streaming image in order to help customers avoid fees for exceeding their monthly bandwidth allotment.

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Sunday Links

Here’s what I’ve been reading over my post-rapture Sunday morning cup of coffee:

  • Via Chris Becker, a link to a Nielsen study that traces how tablet devices are being used in conjunction with television consumption.
  • Chris is also writing about her media experiences in London. In one of her first reports, she discusses differences between U.S. and British television scheduling. One notable feature: she reflects on her own consumption of American season finales and notes that British TV–which tends to follow a year-round schedule–doesn’t have a similar intensive month of season finales.
  • David Poland discusses the weekly box office totals, specifically looking at unexpectedly low numbers for the most recent Pirates movie. I try not to obsess too much over box office totals, but Poland’s speculation that 3-D (in particular the 3-D ticket prices) may actually be having a negative effect on movie attendance is worth considering.
  • Here is some indication of how Dish TV will be their purchase of Blockbuster Video: they are offering a free three-month subscription to Blockbuster’s DVD by mail service as an enticement to subscribe to Dish’s satellite service.
  • Stacey Higginbotham traces out some of the contradictions embodied in the advertisements for mobile devices offering high-definition service and the bandwidth required to actually deliver true HD. As she explains it, “The physics of the spectrum don’t support it, and from an economic perspective, the current pricing plans offered for cellular data make it expensive for consumers. Since I don’t see that pricing going down anytime soon, I’m puzzled.” The article offers some helpful links to resources on the technological and political issues shaping mobile video.
  • Higginbotham’s complaints echo an earlier lament from Jeff Belk regarding a number of Verizon ads that are promising faster mobile video. But given my recent obsession with promotional discourse, I’m linking to this one, mostly because of the Verizon ad that seems to directly evoke the old idea of the Radio Boys, the technological hobbyists who built their own radio sets in the 1920s (see Alison Powell for a quick overview of the concept).
  • Also from Nielsen, a quick overview of online video consumption broken down by ethnicity. As New Tee Vee points out, African Americans and Hispanics watch far more video online than white viewers (and as they also note we should be reluctant to use this demographic data to come to any conclusions that would reinforce racial and ethnic stereotypes). Still, Nielsen’s New Digital American Family Report seems to offer quite a bit of information that will be interesting to media scholars and others interested in U.S. media consumption habits.
  • Tech President has a discussion of a North Carolina bill that would limit the ability of community broadband services to compete with media conglomerates such as Comcast and Time Warner Cable. Lawrence Lessig is urging people to contact Governor Bev Perdue (D) and to encourage her to veto the bill. I’ve put Perdue’s contact information below. If you live in North Carolina, please consider sending a message that you support community broadband
  • Finally, it’s subscription only (free registration for temporary access), but this New Scientist article on the use of “text mining” to predict future events is a little unsettling. As the article puts it: “We are all part of a vast market research project, whether we like it or not.”

North Carolina friends, please call Governor Bev Perdue at (800) 662-7952 or send her an email at governor.office@nc.gov. Ask her to veto the bill that would kill community broadband networks.

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Wednesday Links

Grades are in. Conferences are done. Summer is pretty much officially here. Here are some links to stories I’ve been following:

  • There has been quite a bit of discussion of the news that Netflix has passed BitTorrent as the website that takes up the most bandwidth on the Internet. NewTeeVee uses the news to speculate whether this means that Hollywood has “won” its battle against movies being distributed on peer-to-peer networks like BitTorrent, a question that seems to gloss some of the larger questions about Netflix’s heavy investments in streaming content. Both NewTeeVee and the Washington Post emphasize the fact that cable companies are threatening to charge Internet users based on how much data they consume, rather than using flat monthly fees. Also worth noting: NewTeeVee points out that the explosive growth of Netflix in Canada has forced the company to lower the quality of its video streams to account for the somewhat more restrictive bandwidth costs there.
  • The IFC blog has an interesting discussion of how digital projection will affect art house and independent theaters, speculating that the high cost of conversion–approximately $60,000 per screen–could make it difficult for many independent theaters to survive. This is something I saw as a concern when I wrote Reinventing Cinema, and it appears that the challenges are becoming even more complex, especially given that many independent filmmakers are producing movies solely on digital, without any existing film print. The article also points to Anthony Kaufman’s discussion of how indie and art house theaters often thrive by building communities around the cinema–he cites the example of Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse and Florida’s Enzian Theater. Also worth noting: Roger Ebert’s Newsweek column, which discusses the decline of communal screenings of “quality cinema” (which deserves a longer blog post).
  • Ebert’s comments make Robert Altman’s cynical Hollywood satire, The Player, seem all the more prescient. I love teaching the film, and show the opening sequence often as a powerful example of how long takes can be used. Now Jim Emerson has an extended reading of that shot, complete with a reminder that the fictional studio’s slogan, “Movies: Now More than Ever” is a reference to Nixon’s 1972 presidential slogan and Altman’s citation of that slogan in his 1975 film, Nashville.
  • I’m still hoping to do some work on the role of online video in the 2012 presidential campaign, and so I’m intrigued by the YouTube Town Hall, where politicians can post two side-by-side videos presenting competing positions on a specific issue, and users can then vote on which position they prefer. Winning videos would then be posted to the Town Hall Leader Board (via TechPres).
  • Sone news about a couple of creative cowdsourced and crowdfunded movies. First, the Australian film, The Tunnel was released. The film was funded by selling each frame of the film for $1 to raise the $135,000 budget. Like some other crowdfunded films, The Tunnel will be released via BitTorrent, illustrating that not all peer-to-peer distribution entails piracy. The film will also get a limited theatrical release and Paramount Australia and Transmission Films will conduct a DVD release.  Salon also has an update on Iron Sky, the Finnish space Nazi parody, noting that filmmakers have announced an April 2012 theatrical premiere.

Update: via @KelliMarshall, a Tech Crunch article on Netflix’s bandwidth numbers. The TechCrunch article has some amazing graphic depictions of how “peak period” internet traffic is divided. Well worth a look if you’re interested in the changing media landscape.

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Working Class Hero

I’ve been interested in Christopher Dodd’s attempts to establish a voice as the new leader of the MPAA. One of the themes that seems to be coming up quite a bit is the idea that, despite the red carpet and other forms of glamor, Hollywood is also a site of (blue-collar) labor.  It’s a theme in his comments about piracy from ComicCon a few weeks ago when he sought to define piracy as a crime against labor:

[Piracy] also affects all the names in the closing credits and so many more –middle class folks, working hard behind the scenes to provide for their families, saving for college and retirement. And since movies and TV shows are now being made in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, movie theft harms middle class families and small businesses all across the country.   Those who steal movies and TV shows, or who knowingly support those who do, don’t see the faces of the camera assistant, seamstresses, electricians, construction workers, drivers, and small business owners and their employees who are among the thousands essential to movie making.

More recently, Dodd has deepened this message in a speech he delivered a few days ago, in which he explained that Hollywood needs to market itself better as an institution, comments that echoed his ComicCon speech, again characterizing Hollywood as a “a blue-collar industry,” while adding that if you commit piracy, “you’re stealing from the middle-class people whose families rely on this industry to make ends meet and build a better future for themselves.”  There have been attempts to connect piracy to a crime against labor in the past, but it seems like an explicit approach for Dodd here. And, quite obviously, there is some truth to Dodd’s arguments, in that the movie industry is supported by a wide range of blue-collar and white-collar work that typically isn’t visible on-screen, although Dodd is (most likely) much more concerned about protecting the industry’s financial bottom line.

After attending a panel on piracy (mostly about video piracy) at this year’s MIT conference, including Jinying Li’s excellent discussion of piracy as an alternative public sphere in China, I’ve become more attuned to these sorts of debates, and Li’s talk in particular, raised some questions about the role of China’s movie quota system in driving the distribution of many American films underground there. John Caldwell’s Production Culture is also a key text in thinking about depictions of labor in Hollywood, as well, but I think it will be interesting to see how Dodd uses the idea of below-the-line labor in order to craft his message about Hollywood.

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Time Travel Theory of History

I’m rushing to post this before I catch a plane to the Media in Transition conference, but I just learned about Mike Huckabee’s new “Learn Our History” animated series via TPM, and I can’t resist a quick post (hopefully I’ll be able to edit this later). The series features a group of plucky teenagers who travel through time to learn about history as it “really” happened. The website’s FAQs emphasize that our history books teach students to “blame America first” and that (as a result), history is no longer fun.

As you might imagine, Ronald Reagan plays a key role, and the kids travel to hear an animated Reagan repeat several of his most famous soundbites (“government is not the solution to our problem, it is the problem”), with the kids nodding in agreement. But the videos themselves seem so earnest and unambiguous that they almost seem like self-parodies, as if one of Stephen Colbert’s writers was moonlighting for Fox News. Take a look:

There are two other videos that TPM spotted, and all three are worth a quick look. One narrates the history of World War II in two minutes and celebrated America coming together to defeat the godless Nazis. Two odd notes here: one is that we hear Reagan invoking God at the beginning of one video and then hear Hitler doing the same thing in the very next video. Second is the “you go girl” girl-powerism cited by one of the female teenagers when she spots a Rosie the Riveter poster. The other is a more detailed version of the Reagan video, complete with rioting inner city criminals (mostly black, of course).

I get the impulse here, and there is a long history of complaints about history being “too liberal,” but I find the mode of communicating this history here incredibly odd. By being so transparently conservative, it’s reductive to the point of self-parody, and the attempt to make the teens hip (does anyone still say “you go girl” without some degree of irony?) is equally off-key. Now it’s time for someone with editing skills to make the remix.

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Tuesday Links

Grades are in, and the meetings are over. Summer is (unofficially) here, and so are some links:

  • A fascinating article about the Raleigh-based company behind the Mohu leaf, a TV antenna that picks up free over-the-air TV HD signals. The antenna itself sounds very cool, but I’m even more intrigued by the tone of the article, which depicts the company as a cros between a Silicon Valley upstart and an old-fashioned Radio Boys-style discussion of gadgetry.
  • It’s old news by now, but Warner has purchased Flixster and Rotten Tomatoes and is now planning its own video on demand service. There has been some discussion of the fact that it could be a conflict of interest for a movie company to own a website that aggregates movie reviews. But Warner’s continued move toward their “Digital Everywhere” initiative is probably the bigger issue here.
  • On a related note, Netflix may soon begin offering its streaming service in some Latin American countries, most likely Mexico and Brazil.
  • There is also an interesting discussion of the possibility that Netflix might cut deals with television networks to help to support struggling TV shows, such as the deal between NBC and DirecTV last year to keep Friday Night Lights going.
  • Matt Dentler discusses an article by Brian Stelter reporting that TV ownership has declined (very slightly) for the first time in over twenty years, as measured by the percentage of households owning sets, with a drop from 98.9% households with sets down to 96.7%. Stelter spells out some of the causes: with the transition to digital signals, many lower-income families may have been unable to afford the newer, more expensive sets, plus many younger consumers have likely decided to consume TV on their laptops and mobile devices, with Matt succinctly concluding that “at the end of the day, a monitor is a monitor, no matter if it transmits television broadcasts or a broadband connection.”

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“Make Any Room Your TV Room”

This weekend I will be attending MIT’s 7th Media in Transition conference. This year’s theme, “Unstable Platforms,” fits my current research interests almost perfectly, and I’m looking forward to hearing a number of smart presentations. My talk is titled, “‘Make any Room Your TV Room:’ Media Mobility, Digital Delivery, and Family Harmony,” and is available for you to read on the conference’s website. The paper–and my talk in general–develops some of my current research on “platform mobility,” the ability for video content to move video content seamlessly between multiple platforms. In particular, I’m interested in how advertisements and interfaces for tools like the Time Warner iPad app promote those technologies using images of both family harmony and individualized consumption.

If you’re in the neighborhood, it’s a very cool conference, so check it out. If not, the conference website has posted many of the participants’ papers online for your reading pleasure. Thanks to Catherine Grant of Film Studies for Free for posting links to several of the participants’ papers.

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The Speed of Speculation

Like pretty much everyone else in the world, I’ve been fascinated by the coverage of the news that Osama bin Laden has been killed. Unlike the people dancing in the streets, many of whom were documented in a Rachel Maddow blog post, in front of the White House, near Ground Zero, and in Times Square, I have a hard time seeing this as a moment of pure jubilation. Not so much because I mourn bin Laden, but because of what we have all lost over the last decade, thanks to the terror war. The chanting and cheering seems grounded in an anger that I still find unsettling. I’m not in a position to reflect on what this means for the war on terror. There are countless others who are already doing that, including Nicholas Kristof, who offers a pretty good place to start. But I have been intrigued by the discussions of how the bin Laden story broke, especially the distinctions between how the story was covered on TV and how people responded online. More than anything, I think that it’s worth reflecting on how social media help to restructure the way that news stories of this magnitude are reported and how viewers respond to them.

Although I was home alone when the speculation began, around 10 PM, I wasn’t paying that much attention to Facebook or Twitter for a change. I had been grading for most of the evening and was kind of surfing aimlessly while listening idly to the Phillies-Mets game on ESPN (much like Tom Watson, whose reflections on last night’s news are worth reading) when the broadcasters abruptly mentioned that Osama bin Laden may have been killed and that President Obama would have a major announcement. I immediately flipped over to CNN and began digging around my “most recent” Facebook feed. As I saw quickly, the news had been building gradually for half an hour or so. The earliest mention–from a reporter friend–simply mentioned speculation that bin Laden was dead. My guess is that, like me, many people were driven to watch TV or listen on the radio because of something they saw on Facebook or Twitter, suggesting that it would be reductive to suggest that people saw social media as a substitute for televised news.

Like many, I’d imagine that I began following this story during this brief window between the first reports that bin Laden was dead and Obama’s official announcement, a period that Myles McNutt has powerfully described as a “space of speculation.” McNutt observes that people were speculating about the news on Twitter, well before official reports were confirmed. To be sure, such speculation can often follow false paths, but I think that McNutt is correct to suggest that our memories of an event of such dramatic proportions are shaped not only by what we learn, but how we learn about it. Significantly, this speculation begins to create its own archive, as we seek to re-create what happened. One example of this would be the tweets by Sohaib Athar (@reallyvirtual), who lives in Abbottabad, where bin Laden was captured. Although his tweets were likely overlooked when they were first posted, they now serve as a tool for reconstructing what happened:

As you can see from looking at the image, Athar heard the explosions and the helicopter crash and, along with others in his Twitter feed, began assembling a sense of what was happening in real time. Alongside of this speculation, the “traditional” media was also seeking to put together what happened. Brian Stelter has a couple of interesting posts about this work (here and here), but again, the speculation was especially intense online, where (as Stelter reports), Twitter saw nearly 4,000 posts every second at the peak of activity. Certainly my Facebook page hummed with activity, as we sought to make sense of what had happened and what it meant.

Within minutes, of course, people were already teasing out the implications and coincidences: that the story broke during an episode of Celebrity Apprentice, that this was the eighth anniversary of Bush’s Mission Accomplished speech, that it was also the anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s death. It didn’t take long for the event to fit into various internet memes. An LOL Cats post showing a triumphant Obama mocking the birthers hit within minutes of the announcement, linking the story to the increasing complaints about Donald Trump’s posturing. And as I discovered while reading David Poland’s blog this morning, someone has already revived the Downfall meme, redoing the subtitles yet again to show Hitler reacting to the news that bin Laden was killed. The language is often caught in the jubilation of the moment (Osama’s compound was “owned”) and often quite silly (Hitler comments in this version that he was looking forward to watching the American Idol finale with bin Laden), but the timeline for the video suggests that it was posted before midnight on May 1, which means the creator must have worked incredibly quickly.

Again, I write this in the midst of a sense of profound ambivalence. It’s clear that this is a moment of historical significance, one that has been shaped in the media, old and new, that helped to shape it. But I’m skeptical of the unfettered triumphalism that has led people to compare bin Laden’s death to VE Day (to name one example). Now, I feel like we’ve moved from one mode of speculation to the next. Rather than trying to anticipate the content of Obama’s announcement, we all have to sit, watch, and wait to see what happens next.

Update: Worth noting, Media Bistro has an intriguing post in which they discuss the fact that the New York Times literally had to stop the presses to reflect the late-breaking news. Eileen Murphy of the New York Times estimates that the last time that happened was during the first Gulf War in 1991, which shows just how rare it is.

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