With a new academic year on the horizon, I’m starting to turn my eyes back toward the classroom and another semester of teaching first-year composition. I’m still in the process of rethinking how I’ll teach the course, but I stumbled across a video produced by some graduate students at Clemson on the (real) meaning of the term rhetoric, which often bears the unfortunate connotation of “empty words.” It’s a great little introductory video that might work well for students (thanks to Kairos for the link).
Archive for July, 2011
Funny or Die has an amusing satirical video mocking the outrage of Netflix users over the company’s recent price increases. The video features a deadpan Jason Alexander asking for donations as upper-middle class people lament the new prices and how they will affect their ability to access all of the movies they want.
A couple of quick remarks once you’ve seen the video: There are some pretty amusing highlights, including some jokes about how bad some of the films are on Netflix, how people have come to take a service like Netflix for granted, and how piracy continues to haunt digital delivery. To some extent, there seems to be a mild amount of resentment toward Netflix and its users here, perhaps because digital delivery is bringing down the (exchange) value of all media content. But it’s a pretty nice companion to the Onion’s famous satirical video about Blockbuster from a few years ago.
Sheri Candler has a thoughtful follow-up to her previous post about the potential for crowdsourcing to turn into a form of exploitation. Although I argued that participants in a project like Life in a Day might get involved for non-monetary reasons, I generally agree with her thesis that filmmakers should compensate contributors for their involvement, but I am pointing to the argument because I think it illustrates one of the thornier issues out there when it comes to media culture today and the role of the “audience” in producing value for an entertainment property.
I’ll start by stating that one aspect of Sheri’s argument still perplexes me a little. She treats contributors to Life in a Day as if they are aspiring independent filmmakers who contributed out of a desire to be discovered, noting the attraction of having “your work would be held up there right alongside theirs.” I’m sure there were a number of filmmakers who contributed out of a desire to be discovered, but again, I’d argue that a number of other motivations (self-expression, curiosity, boredom) likely drove people to contribute. I’d also wonder how many filmmakers out there believe this is an opportunity for discovery given that they were likely to get just a few second–probably a minute at best–of screen time in the final product.
But I think Sheri offers some astute suggestions for compensating participants in the project. Her suggestion of a $100 licensing check for contributors whose footage appears in the film seems like an effective payment compromise, but I’d argue that some of her other suggestions are even more effective. As she suggests, Kevin Macdonald and Ridley Scott could have done monthly video chats with YouTube users as a way to engage with contributors (an approach that likely would have helped to sustain enthusiasm for the project and build anticipation for the theatrical release). Sheri also criticizes the producers of Life in a Day for pulling the film offline and argues that it should have been freely available on the web under the assumption that positive buzz would have drawn people into theaters. I’m a little skeptical on that point. Making the film available for free likely reduces the urgency to see it on the big screen, although I am well aware of the exceptions to this rule.
Of course, crowdsourcing is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the role of audiences in producing value (and I think Sheri is acutely aware of this point). We also produce value by going on Flixster or Netflix to rank films, by mentioning movies and TV shows on Twitter or Facebook (data which is now compiled by marketing companies). A number of scholars have even argued that the mere process of watching TV is a form of labor because your attention is being sold to advertisers. To some extent, crowdsourcing is always implicated in that process of producing value, but as Sheri suggests, there are ways of rewarding participants by creating more inclusive, engaging forms of culture.
One year ago this weekend, directors Ridley Scott and Kevin Macdonald commissioned YouTube users to produce video depicting an aspect of their daily life and to submit it to a designated channel on the video sharing site. The directors would then take that footage and compile it into a feature-length documentary, Life in a Day (more info here). Now, on the anniversary of that event, YouTube, along with National Geographic Movies, is distributing the film theatrically in a limited nationwide release (a list of theaters is available here). As a number of people have observed, the story of the film’s production is awash in the language of crowdsourcing, with Life in a Day’s YouTube page describing the movie as “user-generated feature film.” I haven’t yet seen the film–although I hope to see it soon–but the planned release has sparked a renewed discussion of the implications of crowdsourcing within the movie industry. Specifically, what does it mean if studios are profiting off of the work of hundreds, or in this case, thousands of participants who contributed footage (some estimates suggest the filmakers received over 81,000 submissions of over 4,500 hours of footage) that was considered for the documentary?
Marketing and publicity expert Sheri Candler looks at the process for Life in Day and points out that participants likely signed a consent form (which they, of course, did voluntarily), giving over rights to the footage. More crucially for her, they are now expected to participate in the marketing of the film as part of the “marketing SWAT team” designed to create buzz and fill seats at a local movie theater. Although she acknowledges that contributors receive a “co-director” credit, that credit doesn’t appear on IMDB, and users do not profit financially from their participation. Finally, she worries that users cannot even see the film since it is not available online. Candler has some reasonable arguments regarding the potential for financial exploitation here, and this is something that I have been weighing quite a bit when reviewing the appeals toward crowdsourcing made by a number of independent filmmakers.
Edward J. Delaney, writing for Documentary Tech, takes this a step further, arguing that many of these crowdsourcing initiatives create a “false relationship” between the user/audience and the producer/filmmaker. Delaney’s argument is enticing, especially given the use of affectionate terms to describe people who contribute to the production of a film. Delaney and Candler are likely right to surmise that some participants are seduced into believing that their participation will serve as a bridge into the film industry, that they will be “discovered” (to use Delaney’s phrase) due to their contributions. There is certainly a culture of celebrity within YouTube, one that is reinforced through the various “success stories,” in which amateurs gain international attention through their videos. And, yes, National Geographic is a profit-making institution making a film in which many of the participants are working as volunteers. Crowdsourcing leaves open the potential for exploitation, and fan activity, in particular, is uncompensated, even while studios can use that activity to build attention (and presumably profit).
But, as I suggested on Twitter, we need a more nuanced understanding of why people chose to participate in Life in a Day. The film has been billed as a kind of anthropological “project,” a snapshot of a moment in the history of the world. There might be significant non-monetary reasons to contribute to such a project, including the attempt to provide a more vivid portrait of that particular day. Where are we? What is our world really like? How can we make the world a better place? Sure, it’s easy to take advantage of people’s good intentions, but to some extent, the argument that people are being duped assumes that they are unaware, dupes of participatory culture. I don’t think there is significant evidence to support the claim that “most [participants] probably think it might get them somewhere.” Candler is certainly correct to argue that filmmakers should make a conscious effort not to exploit their audience when using the techniques of crowdsourcing, and certainly many projects (including Life in a Day) have the potential to generate enormous value for major media conglomerates, but to some extent, I think that perceiving crowdsourcing merely as free labor misses the many ocmplicated motivations that might inform people’s desires to participate in producing or promoting a movie or TV show.
In the new issue of Flow TV, Wheeler Winston Dixon considers the Redbox phenomenon, a topic that I’ve been fascinated with for a long time now (here, I mention my SCMS talk about Redbox, and a quick search of my archives showed at least 30 posts mentioning it). As Dixon points out, Redbox seems to present some unexpected challenges to simplified narratives about digital delivery–streaming, VOD, etc–as the future of movie consumption. Unlike Netflix, Redbox retains some qualities of a bricks-and-mortar video store, in that you have to go physically to the kiosk to obtain a movie. Even more complicated for digital enthusiasts, Redbox offers a narrow selection of movies, usually about 200 per kiosk, compared to the tens of thousands available on Netflix and other streaming or VOD services. As Dixon asks, “But the curious thing about Redbox machines is that they exist at all; why are people still renting DVDs when they can so easily stream films, or download them to their computers?”
No doubt, Dixon is correct to identify price as a key factor in Redbox’s emergence. $1 per day is comparatively cheap, especially against VOD and even arguably Netflix, and this is where Redbox is actually quite a bit different than typical bricks and mortar stores that have to pay rent for comparatively large retail spaces, as well as wages for multiple employees per store. But even this pricing logic is part of the logic of digital delivery, in which consumers are increasingly being condition to view content as cheap and even to view temporary access (rentals, windows, etc) as a viable alternative to ownership. In other words, Redbox is part of the same trend in which DVD sales, regardless of format, are plummeting (side note: this is why I think UltraViolet will struggle to find a viable niche).
Dixon also surmises that Redbox users may also be unable to afford cable and may be less likely to be frequent computer users. There is potentially some truth to the latter (especially when it comes to broadband access), but with estimates that nearly 90% of homes have some form of pay television, I would need a little more hard data to conclude that most Redbox users have limited access to other forms of entertainment. And here is where some of Dixon’s biases toward art house (or at least non-commercial) forms of cinema seem to limit his approach and where I had some reservations about his arguments. Dixon starts with a pretty surprising assumption, commenting that Flow readers have likely seen a Redbox kiosk and “perhaps you’ve had occasion to even use one, too, although given Flow’s readership, this latter prospect is somewhat unlikely.” Dixon goes on to dismiss the typical Redbox customer as a ” lowest common denominator viewer,” one who is interested solely in “Top 40 hits,” enthralled by (or perhaps dupes of) gossip magazines.
There are a number of issues here. On the one hand, Dixon’s comments seem to ignore the fact that Flow offers some of the best criticism out there of popular texts (reality television, Glee, blockbuster films). And while Dixon is no doubt correct to point out that Redbox likely won’t have the latest Criterion title–you can go to Hulu for that–we’ve recently rented Black Swan, Barney’s Version, and several other films that might be popular but that are, I would argue challenging, engaging, and (in the case of Black Swan), even difficult films. Redbox does cater to families with children, often in rural, suburban, or exurban areas, so that will no doubt shape the available choices, but as an inexpensive complement to other forms of digital delivery, one that can encourage relatively spontaneous movie rental decisions. We sometimes stop off and grab movies from Redbox on our way home from the gym, especially when those titles aren’t yet streaming on Netflix, and usually return the movies the following day.
My point here is that it’s difficult to extrapolate how a technology or service is being used merely from a quick glance at movie titles or even from other features of the service. We have cable, broadband, and Netflix (streaming and DVD), and yet there are occasions where grabbing a movie from a kiosk is preferable, especially now that there are no independent video stores within 20 or 30 miles. I’d also argue that it’s probably somewhat rare to have an individual or family that consumes movies through a single platform given the diversity of choices out there. Finally, despite the changes in access enabled by cloud computing, it seems likely that the physical presence of the DVD will continue to play a role in digital delivery much longer than many of us might expect, even if we are getting discs out of a kiosk rather than buying them at Wal-Mart.
Update: I forgot to mention in this post that Redbox president, Mitch Lowe, who attempted to create a kiosk rental system as early as the 1980s using VHS tapes, has stated that he will be stepping down to pursue other opportunities. It will be interesting to see how that affects Redbox’s practices as a company and whether they will move more aggressively into streaming video in the near future.
A few days ago, to celebrate their 15th anniversary, indieWire held a symposium on the state of independent film distribution at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. The panel included a number of heavy hitters from the world of indie film including Richard Abramowitz from Abramorama, Amy Heller from Milestone, Bingham Ray (SnagFilms and FSLC), Ira Deutchman (Emerging Pictures), Bob and Jeanne Berney from FilmDistrict, Mark Urman (Paladin) and Arianna Bocco (IFC Films/Sundance Selects). And for those of us who live outside the New York metropolitan area, indieWire was kind enough to post a video of the entire panel (which runs for over an hour). For those of you who are interested in the changing models of film distribution, it’s well worth watching and helped me to develop a slightly better framing for some of my own research on digital delivery. Some quick highlights:
- Urman and Deutchman, in particular, emphasized that the “speed” of distribution has changed considerably in the last decade. Indie films fifteen years ago could often expect to be in theaters for up to a year, whereas now, even a successful film might be in and out of theaters in 90-120 days, meaning that “everything has to be done at an accelerated pace,” as Urman put it.
- On a related note, Deutchman observed that new delivery models work against the “sense of urgency” formerly associated with moviegoing. Given the accelerated distribution process, moviegoers can now anticipate that a film they want to see will be on VOD or DVD just a few weeks after its theatrical debut, making it more difficult to sell viewers on seeing movies in theaters (or on any other platform for that matter).
- The “speed” of audience response has also changed, with one panelist noting that his daughter texted him within ten minutes of the start of a movie to complain about how bad it is.
- There was some interesting debate about how Netflix was affecting the indie film industry, in particular. For most of the panelists, Netflix seemed to be a virtual monopsony, the only significant buyer of streaming/DVD content (“the only game in town”), which would result in driving down prices. Others were more sanguine, suggesting that Netflix could put indies on an even keel with other studios.
- Most of the panelists seemed to agree that Netflix was working hard to get out of the DVD business as quickly as possible, a desire that is likely a major (though not the only) motivation for their recent price hike.
- Deutchman (I believe) also noted that Netflix and HBO were becoming more alike, especially given Netflix’s move toward distributing original content, such as the U.S. remake of the British mini-series, House of Cards, while HBO was increasingly turning toward on-demand distribution.
- Bocco and Urman discussed the problems of VOD interfaces and the difficulty of crating massive amounts of content. Bocco, if I remember correctly, acknowledged that the alphabetical listing of titles might even bias browsing consumers toward titles beginning with letters earlier in the alphabet. One panelist also mentioned that a VOD description of Shutter Island failed to mention that Leonard DiCaprio was in the movie, suggesting that descriptions of VOD films are often horribly incomplete, making it difficult for people to find movies they’d want to see.
- Dana Harris, the host of the event, pointed out the lack of data on VOD purchases, especially compared to theatrical box office and even DVD sales, an issue that I’ve been confronting in my own research. Bingham Ray confirmed that there has been much great transparency regarding DVD sales and rentals than VOD rentals. Bocco (who works for IFC, a significant VOD player) pointed out, however, that it is a little more difficult to interpret VOD numbers.
- Amy Heller raised some important concerns about foreign language films, noting that the viewing conditions for DVDs and especially for streaming video may not be beneficial for international films, especially for multitasking viewers who may be doing chores or surfing the net while they watch a movie, making it more difficult to follow subtitles, asking rhetorically, “Am I going to read subtitles on my phone?”
- There was some discussion of the role of piracy, with Bocco asserting that “young people don’t want to pay to watch.”
- Finally, there was quite a bit of discussion of “eventizing” the moviegoing experience in order to get people to attend film screenings. A number of directors, including Robert Greenwald, Franny Armstrong, and Gary Hustwit (and, in a different way, Kevin Smith), have been very successful at creating events around film screenings, but it’s far from easy to create and sustain these kinds of experiences.
It’s difficult to summarize all of the details of such a wide-ranging event, especially given the occasional lack of consensus from the panelists, but one of the strengths of the discussion was the historical memory of the participants, the recognition of how things have changed over the last decade or so. There’s lots to think about here, especially given the fact that the digital delivery models are still being developed.
Here’s what I’ve been reading and watching over the last couple of days:
- David Leonhardt of The New York Times attributes the ongoing recession to a lack of consumer spending.
- Greg Sandoval of CNET asks whether Netflix is killing DVDs in the same way that Apple “killed” floppy discs.
- Tama Leaver links to a creative artwork that comments on the issues of digital rights.
- Anthony Kaufman mentions the release of the second edition of Ian Scott’s American Politics in Hollywood Film and asks whether Hollywood films inevitably reinforce the mainstream political establishment (and like Kaufman, I am curious to read the book).
- Kaufman also discusses (and criticizes) the proposed anti-piracy “Protect I.P. Act.” In fact, over 90 law professors have written Congress to state that the bill, as it is written, is unconstitutional. Kaufman learned about the issue from the filmmakers behind the documentary Citizen 3.0.
- Henry Jenkins interviews Brian David Johnson, author of Screen Future: The Future of Entertainment Computing and the Devices We Love. Johnson is a futurist at Intel Corporation and is interested in “reinventing television.”
- NCR may sell its Blockbuster kiosks.
- Chris Cagle calls attention to a call for papers from the excellent journal, The Velvet Light Trap, on the issue of media materiality.
Here are some of the links I’ve been following over my first cup of coffee:
- CNET reports that Netflix anticipates at least some backlash over their price increases. In response, Blockbuster has stepped up their efforts to market their DVD subscription plans.
- Ryan Lawler traces the anticipated sources of advertising revenue for TV advertising as more and more people turn to connected TV sets and streaming TV.
- The Economist has launched its new documentary film website, providing documentary filmmakers with yet another site for finding an audience for their films.
- The IFC Blog reports on an MIT study that considers biases in the “star systems” that are typically used to evaluate movies on sites such as Netflix, where those rankings inform recommendation algorithms. The author of the study, Devavrat Shah, suggests that external factors, such as the user’s mood, may affect ratings and proposes that more accurate rankings would be produced if films are paired.
- On a related note, USC’s Annenberg Innovation Lab has launched a new tool, the USC Annenberg Film Forecaster, that seeks to quantify anticipation for an upcoming movie. The tool measures both the number of tweets and the sentiment expressed in those postings. One interesting example: they were able to track the fact that Green Lantern was getting quite a bit of buzz but that approximately 40% of it was negative. One of the difficulties they are addressing is how to teach the tool to recognize sarcastic tweets. The tool is also limited by Twitter’s ostensibly younger demographic, suggesting that adult-oriented films may get fewer mentions.
- This is more for fun, but someone has created an amusing infographic showing which Netflix films are popular in different parts of the country.
A quick survey of my morning blog reading:
- Netflix has announced that they are raising their prices, which tehy will do by splitting their streaming and DVD-by-mail plans. New Tee Vee speculates that Netflix may be making the move to entice more people to choose the streaming-only plan, reducing infrastructure costs. Either way, customers are given a choice between two bad options. The Los Angeles Times more politely attributes the price change to the “challenging economics” of the entertainment industry, but as the IFC Blog points out, Netflix can’t really pretend to be hurting for money, given their recent plans for expansion into Latin America.
- The median age for viewers of broadcast television inched up to 51.6 years old, according to Media Life.
- IndieWire blogger Anthony Kaufman has relaunched his blog as Reel Politik, and his new focus will be the intersections between film and politics. As Kaufman notes in his inaugural post, these issues are worth considering, given the hotly contested upcoming election. Kaufman also sees his blog as a potential counterpoints to conservative and right-wing blogs that attempt to shape the perception of Hollywood. Kaufman’s earlier post on the politics of Hollywood blockbusters and a more recent discussion of the new Sarah Palin doc provide ample evidence of why this kind of blogging can be beneficial. I’ve considered shifting more explicitly toward this focus here, so I’m glad Anthony is tackling this.
I’ve been caught up with some big summer projects, but I am hoping to get back in the blogging habit soon. Here are some media industry stories worth following:
- I’ve been loosely following the news that Netflix has plans to expand their streaming service into Latin America. Ryan Lawler reports that the streaming service may function as an effective competitor with cable television, in part due to growing broadband penetration in South and Central America.
- The Pew Internet and American Life Project has some great research on smartphone adoption rates.
- IMDb has launched its new app for Android tablets.
- Two different LA Times articles report that DirecTV’s premium VOD plans–in which movies would be available for viewing 60 days after their theatrical debut for $30–has been less than successful. Patrick Goldstein concludes that this is further evidence that “home” consumers are now renters, not buyers. Ben Fritz implies that the studios were unhappy with DirecTV’s approach to promoting premium VOD and that they are looking to rework the business model. Fritz also points out that theater owners are happy to see premium VOD go.
- Jeff Rice has some interesting thoughts about what Google+ says about our commitment to privacy (or lack thereof) when it comes to social media (by the way, I’m on Google+, if you want to find and/or follow me there).
- Steven Zeitchik, drawing from an article by Ben Fritz, has an interesting discussion of the recent run of successful R-rated comedies. On a related note, I saw Horrible Bosses last weekend and was a little disappointed. There were some nice narrative flourishes, but the depiction of gender roles pretty much made me want to cringe throughout the entire movie.
- Hulu and Facebook have resolved their problems and are now integrated, so you can watch your favorite TV shows from your favorite social network (thanks to Chris Becker, whose News for TV Majors is back to running ful steam ahead, for the link).
- On a related note, here is some interesting demographic data on how people are using internet-connected TVs.
- This Variety article is a little unclear on the implications, but apparently the British government now has plans to oppose News Corp.’s plans to purchase BSkyB.
Via Jim Emerson, one of the best trailer remixes I’ve seen in ages. The video intercuts between the trailer for the new Adam Sandler movie, Jack and Jill (featuring a paycheck-cashing Al Pacino), and scenes from the 1979 Paul Schrader movie, Hardcore, in which George C. Scott discovers that his missing daughter has been working in the porn industry. Great stuff.
Like longtime Red Sox fan and sports commentator, Bill Simmons, I’ve always been a skeptic when it comes to sports curses. Living in Atlanta as a kid, my sports memories are more shaped by mediocre teams, incompetent management, and a little bad luck, but the idea of a sports curse always seemed more like a sidebar, a creative narrative to give a game or a team a little more flavor (although I briefly flirted with the idea of curses as a teenager when the Braves temporarily evicted then-mascot Chief Noc-a-homa from his perch in left field, and yes, in retrospect, I am fully aware that the whole concept of the chief was a little embarrassing) . But, despite Simmons’ claims that true Sox fans “never” talked about being cursed, it’s clear that these narratives have a tremendous amount of power, especially for those long-suffering fans who have never experienced the excitement of winning a World Series. Alex Gibney’s new documentary for ESPN, Catching Hell (IMDB), thoughtfully explores this terrain, asking questions about how these curse narratives develop and why they have such power.
Gibney’s film focuses on two of the more memorable moments in the history of sports curses, Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, in which Bill Buckner watched Mookie Wilson’s ground ball roll slowly between his legs, and Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series, in which Cubs fan Steve Bartman reached for a foul pop-up, knocking it away from Cubs left-fielder Moises Alou. The latter play extended Luis Castillo’s at-bat and eventually led to the Marlins scoring eight runs. As Gibney points out, both events have taken on far more weight than they deserve. Buckner’s error likely never happens if Calvin Schiraldi doesn’t give up several ninth inning hits. In the 2003 NLCS, bad bullpen management by Dusty Baker and an error by shortstop Alex Gonzales also played a key role in the Cubs’ Game 6 loss. Gibney also points out that both events took place before the final games of their respective series, but that, for many fans, those final games had an air of inevitability: once the pivotal moment hit, the series was lost. But curses (or at least the narratives about them) defy logic. Once an iconic moment of futility or fate has been established, that image–whether of Buckner looking helplessly as the ball rolls away or of Bartman sitting impassively as thousands of fans boo him and chant “asshole” at him–seems to offer some kind of greater truth, an explanation for why the Sports Gods seem to be punishing a given team.
To explore how Bartman becomes the chief villain in the renewed narrative of Cubs futility, Gibney uses the massive archive of official and unofficial recordings of the game. As one of the game’s producers acknowledges, there were several cameras that captured the Bartman foul ball, and once he was identified as the “culprit,” he was incorporated more deeply into the narrative of the game. Fox broadcaster Steve Lyons, among others, acknowledge some culpability here. Although Lyons sought to deflect blame from Bartman (who hadn’t been identified by name at the time), he admits that incorporating the foul ball so deeply into the narrative of the game helped create the conditions in which Bartman became a villain for Cubs fans. Exacerbating the situation, fans outside the stadium on Waveland Avenue, who had come to celebrate a Cubs playoff victory, were watching the game on a TV and were reacting to the error, blaming the fan. Eventually, Bartman, who made an inviting target due to his bright green turtleneck, earphones, and impassive demeanor, was escorted out by security, with countless Cubs fans shouting threats and throwing objects at him.
To explain how Buckner and Bartman have become the objects of ire for their respective fan bases, Gibney, via an interview with Unitarian minister Kathleen C. Rolenz, resorts to the Biblical idea of “scapegoating,” in which an innocent goat is weighed down with the sins and mistakes of an entire village and is then cast out of that village, banishing those elements from the community. And with the Bartman narrative, scapegoating seems to offer a plausible explanation. The Cubs’ fans immediately turn on Bartman, a response that is only exacerbated when Bartman seems to shrink into his seat, and yet, as many of the fans who sat near Bartman acknowledge, they were also reaching for the foul ball. One fan even triumphantly holds up the ball after it bounces to him before being warned by a friend to sit down. Amateur footage of the bleachers at Wrigley Field seem to show fans turning immdiately, but rather than resignation, their response is shockingly hostile, a reaction that may have been cued by Moises Alou’s angry reaction. Since then, Bartman has virtually disappeared, with ESPN’s Wayne Drehs offering one of the few “public” moments when he stalks Bartman to a Chicago parking deck.
The “scapegoat” explanation is less convincing when it comes to Buckner, however. This may be due to the fact that the Red Sox have since won two World Series and to the fact that Buckner continued to play Boston in 1987, and then briefly in 1990. Like Simmons, Buckner regards the curse as an effect of the media, and when he talks about forgiveness, he doesn’t feel the need to forgive fans as much as he does the sports media that have replayed his clip for decades. Sure, Buckner once seemed like part of a constellation of players and managers who represented a long history of playoff frustration in Boston, but I’d imagine that Grady Little probably evokes more resentment at this point for Red Sox Nation for leaving Pedro in too long during another key game.
Significantly, the film’s obsessive focus on Bartman and Buckner also causes it to ignore other notorious curses. The Chief Noc-a-Homa curse was a mild diversion for Braves fans in the 1980s, one that allowed owners to complain about corporate greed when the chief’s “teepee” was displaced to add 150 extra seats in left field, but in the wake of the 1995 World Series, it’s pretty much long forgotten. Other teams have similar levels of futility and manage to avoid romantic notions of curses. Finally, the focus on baseball ignores the lesser known and somewhat allegorical Curse of the Detroit Lions, suggesting that Gibney chose examples that fit his “scapegoat” thesis while ignoring others.
With that in mind, I think there are several things to like about Gibney’s film. He’s clearly a sports fan, and his microscopic, almost obsessive, examination of these two pivotal sports moments–one review suggests that Gibney treats these moments like they are crime scenes–helps us to think about how they work and about how Steve Bartman, a lifelong Cubs fan, could be driven into a life of permanent seclusion, with one reporter describing him as the “J.D. Salinger of sports fans,” someone who cannot use a credit card for fear of being publicly identified. Gibney also recognizes the role that narrative plays in shaping our experience of sporting events. Stories of curses offer alternative explanations for why “we” don’t win. In addition, Gibney also subtly criticizes the sports media for perpetuating some of these storylines, in particular for making Bartman into a target for frustrated Cubs fans. Finally, as Christopher Campbell acknowledges, Catching Hell also conveys something about the ways in which sports fandom can descend into something resembling an angry mob during moments of frustration, and as Campbell observes, we need more attentive explorations of how sports fandom, in particular, works.
I do think the “scapegoat” explanation of the Bartman phenomenon works, to some extent, but even the documentary seems reluctant to use it as a full account for why he became so deeply vilified by Cubs fans, at least in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 collapse. But as an archive of two of the most discussed moments in baseball playoff history, Catching Hell offers some thoughtful reflections on the intersections between sports and entertainment.