Archive for September, 2011

Week in Review

First, I want to pass along the exciting news that I will be giving a talk at Georgia State University on October 17, 2011. The title of the talk, “‘Make Any Room Your TV Room:’ Mobility, Personalization, and the Fragmentation of Movie Culture,” is meant to echo Lynn Spigel’s Make Room for TV, and the paper will explore the marketing and promotion of portable media players. I’ll post some more specific details in the next few days, but speaking at GSU will be especially exciting for me in that I am a big fan of the work being done by their communication faculty and graduate students. And as a GSU alum (M.A., English, back in the day), it will be a nice little homecoming, too.

I’ve been engaged all week with some pressing deadlines, but there’s a lot to talk about in the world of digital delivery. First, Sony has announced that they will no longer subsidize the purchase of the RealD 3D glasses, passing the costs along to theaters. David Poland speculates that Sony’s tactics could reopen discussion between the MPAA and theater owners about what 3D format is best for everyone, but that it’s more likely to devolve into both sides trying to get the best deal, moviegoers (who are paying $12 a ticket, btw), be damned.

The fragmentation of Netflix continues to generate quite a bit of conversation as entertainment pundits try to envision where we’re going. Anthony Kaufman argues that Netflix is essentially cutting off the “long tail” by dropping its deals with many independent distributors. David Poland has a slightly better take here, suggesting that the “long tail” fantasy has now been exposed, reminding us that production costs aren’t “scalable.” That is, mid-level indies could never sustain themselves based on what Netflix could pay. On a related note, Poland continues to lobby for SnagFilms to take up the slack here, suggesting that they are best positioned to obtain rights to (and subscribers for) an platform specializing in distributing indie films.

Netflix’s problems have inspired at least one media industry observer to suggest that the company has built “a sprawling, beautiful castle..on quicksand.” In fact, Bill Gurley makes the case that Netflix’s focus on streaming video will continue to cause problems, in large part because the first sale doctrine does not apply for streaming video, meaning that the company has to negotiate streaming rights for every film they want to show. On a related note, there is some evidence that more Netflix consumers use DVDs than streaming for their TV viewing.

The studio-supported digital download platform Ultraviolet is starting to make some noise, with Sony announcing that Friends with Benefits and The Smurfs will be their first two films released using the service. It still mystifies me that studios are expecting users to pay premium prices to store something in the cloud when they can pay significantly less to pay for temporary access to the same content, usually on streaming services. But it’s worth noting that Wal-Mart (which has been characterized as the world’s largest film distributor) may be joining forces with Ultraviolet, a move that would allow DVD buyers at Wal-Mart to pay for the right to store and access their movies online.

Finally, it seems significant that Amazon announced the release of its new video-enabled tablet, the Kindle Fire, in the midst of all the Netflix drama. As New Tee Vee points out, the Kindle Fire will not only provide competition with other tablets (such as Apple’s iPad), but it will also serve to promote Amazon’s streaming video service. Amazon’s announcement was accompanied by the news that they have also acquired the rights to stream a number of Fox television shows, including Arrested Development, 24, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

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Red State

Kevin Smith’s Red State has gained more attention due to Smith’s creative distribution and exhibition model than for the actual content of the movie. Rather than selling his film at the Sundance Film Festival to the highest bidder, who would then market the film for a big opening week, Smith engaged in a little slacker street theater, selling the film to himself before providing explanation of  how he would self-distribute Red State through a variety of techniques, including road shows and live “event” screenings, as well as more traditional practices such as video-on-demand and DVD offerings. Smith further linked this innovative distribution plan to his own origin story, as one of “Harvey’s Boys,” the mid-1990s generation of film directors who broke through to mainstream success, in part thanks to the marketing savvy of Miramax. As a result, Red State is bringing together a wide range of fascinating threads: the definition of “independent film,” the future of movie distribution, and the role of the distributors and exhibitors in shaping our access to movies. And to some extent, these questions have overshadowed one of Smith’s more engaging films–something I’ll return to later.

The Red State screening I attended was in Cary, North Carolina, at a local independent theater, and like a number of other theaters, we watched the film starting at precisely 7 PM EDT. Soon after the credits rolled, the theater projected a password-protected Ustream broadcast from the Beverly Theater (referred to as a Babble-On Podcast), one that invited questions from viewers located in other theaters using the Twitter hash tag #redstatekev (the filmmakers used a similar technique during their worldwide premiere a couple of years ago). Questions sent in by remote viewers were mixed with questions posed by the live studio audience, and Smith would take the questions and riff off of them, often telling anecdotes about the making of the movie. Given Smith’s college tours and his frequent podcasts, the technique worked relatively well, even if it came across as a little self-congratulatory in places, and even if the audio was often muffled. The Twitter stream itself was mostly cluttered with crude jokes, spitballs  from the remote audience, but Smith’s assistants were able to rescue a couple of good questions that would allow him to talk about Michael Parks’ performance as a Fred Phelps-style anti-gay preacher or about his screenwriting process.

As Smith acknowledged in the Q&A, Red State is a film that may potentially challenge viewers, especially given Smith’s creative engagement with genre conventions. The film focuses on a closed-off, but publicity-hungry religious cult called the Five Points Trinity Church led by a charismatic family patriarch, Abin Cooper (Parks), who preaches against homosexuality and promiscuity. It opens with a scene featuring member of the church protesting at a funeral of a local teenager, recalling the images of Westboro Baptist Church protesting military funerals. Later, we are introduced to three misfit teenagers who meet a woman through an Adult Friend Finder website. When the woman promises to have sex with all three of them simultaneously, they are intrigued and drive out to her trailer, where, of course, the woman (played by Melissa Leo) has other plans, drugging and kidnapping them and delivering them to Cooper’s church, where the congregation engages in a mixture of worship and torture, speaking in a shorthand of Bible verses and references that suggest a shared–and completely closed-off–point of view. The torture scenes seem to prepare us for something like a satirical torture porn film, but just as we are prepared for Red State to follow one genre path, it suddenly–almost defiantly–chooses a different one.

The kidnapping of the boys comes to the attention of a local sheriff who, in turn, contacts an ATF agent, Joseph Keenan (played by John Goodman), leading to a hostage standoff, in which the ATF agents surround Cooper’s extremely well-armed compound, pulling us even further away from standard horror fare. Here, Keenan is presented as essentially benevolent, but as the shooting escalates, he is forced to balance concern for the hostages with concern for the public relations nightmare that might ensue, especially given past crises, such as the standoff with David Koresh’s Waco cult. As a result, Smith is able to subtly satirize not only the homophobic rants of people like Fred Phelps (and the media culture that provides them a platform) but also the “red state” policies that have loosened gun control laws and increased surveillance through the Patriot Act.

These shifts in tone evoked some of Tarantino’s genre games–especially in films like From Dusk ’til Dawn–but without QT’s self-conscious dialogue (there’s not a Star Wars reference to be heard in the entire film, which shows major restraint on Smith’s part). Smith also defied our expectations with regards to killing off certain characters (and actors), often in gruesomely funny ways, with the result that the film never settles in on a single point of identification. These moments where Smith defies genre expectations seem to have flustered some critics, but given Smith’s larger aims, I’m willing to more or less buy into what he was doing. I’ll admit that I’m probably being a little more generous to the film, in part because Smith created an event in which he sought to connect with his audience and where he truly advocated for his film. The $20 price tag for the Red State event seemed a little steep, especially for remote audiences, but I think it also offered some added value that might not normally be associated with a typical Friday blockbuster opening. As Smith himself noted, he spent several years writing and putting Red State together, and a traditional opening would likely build to a single weekend, with the movie disappearing soon after, but Smith’s self-distribution model allows him to spend a little more time enjoying the reception of his movie. I don’t think that this form of self-distribution will work well for every filmmaker–Smith has spent almost 20 years building up goodwill with his audience–but as a means of harnessing the potential of social media and digital delivery to distribute a certain brand of do-it-yourself filmmaking, it worked pretty well.

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Further Reflections on Qwikster and Netflix

Earlier today I posted some quick snap judgments on the Netflix announcement that they would be spinning off their DVD-by-mail business from their streaming video service. The DVD-by-mail service will now be called Qwikster (which I still think is a goofy name, although I amused that someone has already claimed the @qwikster Twitter handle), and subscribers who maintain both the DVd and streaming services will now be billed separately. Prices, we are told, will not change after Netflix’s recent price increase, and the DVD-by-mail service will now allow users to rent/borrow video games, as well as DVDs. My initial reaction is that this decision goes against Netflix’s brand as a long-tail company that provided users with a vast selection of DVDs that would be delivered, in a relatively timely fashion, to people’s mailboxes, fulfilling expectations for convenient and cheap access to a comparatively large media catalog (note: Will Richmond makes a similar argument regarding Netflix’s core business model). By cutting off the DVD-by-mail service, Netflix is hanging on to digital delivery, with its limited catalog of titles.

Of course, as Scott Macauley points out, venture capitalist Mark Suster sees this as a “genius” move, one that will allow each company to separately focus on these different interests. Suster adds that Hastings’ email is brilliant because he apologized for past communication failures and offered a transparent explanation of his business plans (which seem to involve getting rid of the DVD altogether). But Suster’s argument, which builds upon Clay Christensen’s work, seems to place too much emphasis on the idea that technological change is always beneficial, implying that DVDs are “obsolete” technologies, and implicitly comparing the stubborn use of DVDs as equivalent to using “shitty” products like MapQuest when Google Maps was available. New delivery methods are not necessarily better. DVDs (and other physical media) often provide richer movie consumption experiences and, in some cases (such as classroom instruction), they are more practical.

Similarly, New Tee Vee argues that Netflix is simply paying attention to Wall Street in recognizing that DVD is a dying business and using Qwikster to protect Netflix’s lagging stock prices. There’s probably some truth to that, but I think New Tee Vee is also correct that splitting off the two will only reinforce the divide between the two services, making it even more likely that consumers will quit one or even both services, especially given the increasing impatience with high entertainment prices (the so-called “affordability crisis,” which affects not only cable subscriptions but also movie ticket prices and other subscription services).

Thus, like Henry Blodget, it’s hard for me to see Hastings’ blog post/email as anything other than further justification for reduced services and smaller catalogs, the two attributes that won me over to Netflix after years of supporting (mostly) independent bricks-and-mortar video stores. Blodget does offer one further alternative explanation for why Netflix may be making this move, and it has to do with the nature of the divide between DVD/physical media and streaming video.  Citing Bill Gurley’s blog post, he points out that the two delivery systems are actually significantly different. For the DVD service, Netflix simply buys whatever DVDs it feels it will need to meet consumer demand, but for streaming, there is some speculation that Hollywood studios may be demanding a monthly licensing fee for every Netflix subscriber. Splitting off the two services might make it easier to make this fee more manageable.

Ultimatley, public perception matters, and as David Poland notes, this is where Netflix really seems to be losing. Poland’s comparison to the announcement of “New Coke” is an apt one. This may be a good business decision–although I’m not fully convinced–but it makes me (and apparently many other people) like Netflix a lot less. It’s a surprisingly tone-deaf move, one that honestly makes Netflix look like just another digital delivery system.

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Pushing Aside the Red Envelope

Learned via Atrios that Netflix is officially splitting of its DVD-by-mail service from its streaming video service into a separate business rebranded as Qwikster (Wired’s article offers a pretty good overview of what’s happening, but see also the Los Angeles Times). Overly cute misspellings aside, this move doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me. As Atrios points out, Netflix is not alone in offering relatively limited catalogs of streaming films that can be viewed on a computer or TV set. In fact, I’d argue that Wal-Mart’s Vudu and Amazon offer relatively competitive (if not better) catalogs, especially for new releases.

In fact, what gave Netflix its reputation was its ability to deliver access to more obscure titles that you couldn’t find at your local video store, often in just a day or two. In fact, Netflix’s DVD-by-mail service was one of the most prominent examples in Chris Anderson’s discussion of “the long tail,” the idea that consumers wanted access to deeper catalogs. You could get lesser-known movies and TV shows quickly and easily. Now, Netflix seems to be pushing that aside for something else, and given that Netflix’s deal with Starz is set to expire, their primry source for new movies is also about to disappear, so I’m not sure what their streaming catalog will have to offer.

Reed Hastings’ letter to Netflix subscribers makes clear that (as of right now), there won’t be an additional price increase, although users will now see separate transactions for Qwikster and Netflix if they continue to subscribe to both services. And users will soon be directed to two separate websites, divorcing streaming and DVD from each other even further. I’ve been skeptical about Netflix’s streaming video plans for some time, but I think this move only reinforces the idea that digital delivery is not living up to the promises of providing access to any movie, anytime, anywhere (a point that David Poland also makes quite a bit). Instead, unless something else changes, we will have piecemeal access to limited catalogs that change quickly and sometimes unpredictably. And we will probably pay more for them than we expected a couple of years ago.

Update: Via a friend on Facebook, NPR has a fantastic take on Netflix’s condescending treatment of its customers. NPR’s shoe analogy in particular is especially apt. It’s like Netflix suddenly decided “to sell right shoes and left shoes for 12 dollars each where pairs of shoes used to be 20 dollars and thinking that consumers will notice the lower 12-dollar price but not the fact that it buys only one shoe.”

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Documentary and Digital Distribution (in Spanish)

Taking a quick break from other projects to mention that my recent Jump Cut article, “Digital Distribution, Participatory Culture, and the Transmedia Documentary,” has been republished and translated into Spanish for the Barcelona-based magazine, Blogs and Docs.

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IMR Interactive Documentary Week

In Media Res, the video curation project sponsored by MediaCommons, is focusing on a theme this week that I find especially fascinating: interactive documentaries. Given that I recently published an essay on this topic in Jump Cut, “Digital Distribution, Participatory Culture, and the Transmedia Documentary,” I am excited to see some of the new work being done with documentary and interactivity. One fascinating example of the shifting grounds of interactive documentary: Kathleen M. Ryan’s discussion of “augmented reality” as a means of building more immersive documentary experiences. Also fascinating (and closer to some of the arguments I make in my essay) was Jennifer Proctor’s call for a “slow internet,” one that would encourage using the web for building narratives that require sustained attention over time. Be sure to check out all of this week’s In Media Res posts and join in some of the lively conversations that are taking place.

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