Archive for December, 2011

Reading Retail and Rental

Following up on yesterday’s post, I have a couple f other quick thoughts about how we read trends in the movie industry. First, The Los Angeles Times lists the ten most-frequently rented movies in Redbox kiosks, both nationally and in the Los Angeles area. And in both cases, the film rented most often was the Adam Sandler vehicle, Just Go with It. Many of the other top choices–No Strings Attached, Due Date, and Despicable Me–were also comedies, while a number of popular films, such as The Tourist and Green Hornet, were considered to be box office duds. I’m a little reluctant to identify any kind of causal relationship here, though, because as the Times points out, the number of rentals over one calendar year can depend on any number of other factors, including the time of year when the film was released, as well as whether the studio released the film for purchase and rental on the same day. That being said, many of these rentals seem to be examples of convenience rentals (I’m tossing around the term “cinema of convenience” to describe these forms of access), movies that consumers watch when they just want to watch something, rather than the kinds of movies that people might go out of their way to see. That’s just an impression, but it leads into some other questions I’ve been thinking about.

On a related note, I found David Poland’s “reading” of his Best Buy experience to be a little more telling, albeit problematic on a couple of levels. I do think that it makes sense for journalists (and film scholars) to use ethnographic approaches to try to get some grasp on “everyday” uses of home video. I tried to do something like that with my Redbox article (which should be out very soon), and I think it’s incredibly easy to get swept up in some of the more utopian proclamations about digital delivery.

I suspect that Poland is right about two aspects of his trip to Best Buy. 3D TV is not yet ready for primetime (as signified by the lack of retail space and programming devoted to it), while internet-ready TV seems like something that offers additional value to viewers. As Poland notes, most of the TV sets on display emphasized the different kinds of  internet access (Netflix, etc) available. He’s probably also right that DVD retail (in whatever format) is probably in some peril. I don’t think users are ready to abandon physical media, given the continued popularity of Redbox and Netflix’s DVD-by-mail service.  But I think Poland oversteps when he argues that studios are ready for users to abandon physical media for a hodgepodge of streaming video, electronic sell-through, and DVD copies.

As a number of commenters noted, the process of making a digital copy is a time-consuming one, and although faster processors may make this easier, it may not be as convenient as it appears. Certainly having objects delivered to your home (via Amazon or whatever) is easier than driving to stores, but for bigger purchases–TV’s, laptops, etc.–there are a number of incentives for testing a product in-store, but it’s probably too early to suggest that streaming and other forms of digital delivery are necessarily more convenient or desirable than other options. Although Poland is probably right to suggest that Best Buy’s retail model will likely evolve, I think it’s also worth complicating how we define convenience, especially when it comes to the habits of movie consumers, many of whom are seeking easy or simplified choices. Redbox makes this easier by offering a limited range of top hits. Internet-enabled TVs make it easier to access a menu of movie and TV options directly through the TV set. I’m not so sure that “digital copy” approaches offer anything that makes it easier to pick out and watch a movie on a Friday night after work.

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Narrating Media Change

As the end of the year approaches, we are greeted with countless articles and lists that try to make sense of the past and, in some cases, seek to predict what will happen next. We see lists of the best films or TV shows, articles identifying the most important media innovations, and in some cases lists of predictions for where the media industries are heading. Video Nuze, for example, has a long-running series featuring predictions by various new media pundits and entrepreneurs about where we’re going in 2012. These lists are inviting, in part, because they seem to offer some control over unpredictable change. Our video rental and purchasing habits seem to have changed dramatically, while theaters are devoted to 3D movies, and so we see reporting that tries to break down box office numbers and other forms of data.

But, as David Poland points out, much of this reporting and predicting is based on a very selective reading of box office data, reproducing misleading assumptions and identifying change where there is actually quite a bit of continuity. In fact, as Poland observes, trend pieces about the movie industry are complicated by the many different streams where movies can be accessed. Further, despite claims of a box office slump, Poland points out that two of the six major studios were actually up this year, for example. But I’m less interested in questions about whether the industry is profitable than I am in considering the explanations being offered to account for the box office slump.

As Poland observes, we’re continuing to hear some of the same explanations–more competition from other media, internet piracy, and so on. An AP article on the “slump” even suggests that a struggling economy and a “backlash” against sequels might be factors, even though the very same article acknowledges that “big franchises” (Harry Potter, etc) continue to do well. These explanations were offered the last time there was widespread discussion of a box office slump.

Similarly, David Carr’s New York Times article overstates some of the changes that are taking place. Carr, for example, seems to reinforce the “platform agnosticism” argument, the idea that consumers don’t care where they watch content. Some of the other changes Carr identifies are also hardly new. Carr claims that “the multiplatform and infinite-channel universe can manufacture its own celebrities,” but this type of claim ignores the ways in which conglomerates are involved in the process of manufacturing celebrity.

Tech Crunch offers a more precise approach by placing some of the more common claims about media change under greater scrutiny. They identify 12 things that “won’t happen” in 2012, challenging assumptions about mobile technologies, cord-cutting, tablets, and the death of television. I’m writing in a state of distraction, so I don’t know that I can wrap this entry as effectively a I would like, but I think the main point is to suggest that we need a more adept understanding not only of how box office numbers work but also better explanations of media change.

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Rethinking Technology in the Classroom

I’m in the process of rethinking my “Technology in the Language Arts Classroom” graduate course that I last taught (as far as I can tell) in spring 2010. The course is a required class for the M.A. in teaching here at Fayetteville State and is designed primarily for high school teachers (although I have taught some middle school teachers, too). Tweaking this course demand quite a bit of reflection, not only about the pedagogical demands of the high school classroom but also about my own considerations of how “technology” factors into education. In the next few days, I will post a revision of my syllabus, but for now, I’m interested in raising a couple of questions about what has changed for me since I last taught the course.

Many of these changes are based on observing my wife and children as they engage in different kinds of classroom experiences. I’ve always included blogging requirements in my classes, but thanks to one of my wife’s children, I’ve learned more about Glogster, a tool that seems targeted towards high school students. In teaching Glogster, I won’t necessarily be endorsing it, but I’d like my students to get a better understanding of how different blogging platforms might encourage different kinds of expression.

Further, as I have become more comfortable with PowerPoint, I’d like to spend a little more time discussing various uses of presentation software. My wife was required to produce a narrated PowerPoint as an assignment for a course she was taking, and I think it could be a useful tool, but one that ended up being way more complicated than either of us expected, so while I am thinking about requiring that students produce a narrated PowerPoint, I am dong so with the expectation that they might struggle with making one (and if they struggle, I hope to turn that into a learning experience, not something that will be a source of frustration).

I’m also trying to rethink how I will tweak the wiki requirements. In some versions of the course, I had ambitions that students taking the class would create a wiki, usually about topics related to the course, but the assignment always seemed too ambitious and, in some ways, redundant, especially given that most of the terms they could have defined were already on Wikipedia. But several of my students recognized that the storage space on wikis could be useful for their course materials, so I would like to find some way of encouraging them to play with a wiki, probably Wikispaces.

Both of my wife’s children have had assignments that invited them to create movies using iMovie (other options were available, so this wasn’t required), so I am considering a more detailed discussion of that as well. But one problem I have encountered–and it’s related to the iMovie assignment, which asks students to interpret a popular staple of modern American literature–is that the web allows assignments to circulate a little more visibly. This kind of sharing can help teachers looking for a creative way to get students to produce interesting work, but it also (quite obviously) makes it easy for students to find those assignments, whether they copy them directly or simply consult them.

Probably the main shift that has taken place, though, has to do with my own attitudes toward social media. I’m still somewhat active on some social media sites, although I’m often torn between more personal interactions on Facebook (and fun distractions like Scrabble) and the professional connections that I usually find on Twitter. I’m blogging less frequently due to time constraints, but all of these social media tools now feel like a part of our social fabric rather than an innovative curricular change. Even if students or teachers don’t blog, they are likely aware that blogs exist. I’ve heard about assignments that require students to create Facebook or MySpace pages for characters in novels or plays. There’s nothing wrong with such an assignment, but I wonder what kind of pedagogical purpose it actually serves.

I’d welcome any suggestions, observations, or experiences regarding these issues, but I will likely post a revised syllabus later this week. Here is a draft version of my Spring 2010 syllabus, if you’re interested.

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Digital Distribution Links 12/22

I’ve got another post brewing about one of my other spring courses, a reprise of my graduate-level Technology in the Language Arts Classroom, but for now I’d like to try to get back in the habit of tracking some of the links I’ve been following:

  • The finalists for the most recent Amazon Studios contest have been announced. Winners receive prizes ranging from $1,000 for best actor to $100,000 for the best movie.
  • Aymar Jean Christian has two outstanding posts reviewing the year in digital video delivery. The first covers some of the changes in industry practices and the second looks at the potential of YouTube as a substitute for TV. So far, most of my online TV viewing has consisted of shared Daily Show, Colbert, and SNL segments. That could simply be a product of my taste cultures, but I wonder how viable it is for longer form and narrative shows.
  • Netflix inks a deal to distribute some BBC content in time for their launch in the United Kingdom and Ireland early next year. Worth noting: Love Film, the British streaming service owned by Amazon currently does not have a deal with the BBC.
  • More good news for Netflix: the tide of people leaving the service seems to have slowed down. That being said, satisfaction with the service has also declined considerably.
  • New Tee Vee offers some interesting viewer numbers for the music video service, Vevo.


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Streaming U

It’s now safe to officially announce some very exciting news. Max Dawson (Northwestern University) and I have been invited to join a team of researchers as part of the Connected Viewing Initiative (CVI), sponsored by the Carsey-Wolf Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara. As the CVI website reports, the project is designed “to imagine the future of modern media, while also turning a critical lens on the often inflated speculation about the social and commercial promise of new technology.” With the changes in media distribution–streaming video, electronic sell-through, and cloud storage–we are at a pivotal moment, one that raises any number of questions.

The particular project that Max and I proposed, Streaming U: College Students and Connected Viewing, looks at the ways in which college students are navigating the volatile video distribution market. Our research will focus on the connected viewing behaviors of students enrolled at two different universities, in part to gauge some of the arguments that have been made about today’s so-called “digital natives.” I’m flattered to be included in such an outstanding group of scholars and excited to be working on what I think will be a truly engaging research project.

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Reframing the Documentary

For the first time in several years, I will be teaching Fayetteville State University’s senior seminar in the spring. The course fell into my lap late in the semester, so I haven’t had the time to prep that I would normally want, but I’m excited to have the opportunity to explore a set of research questions in detail with my students. The last time I taught this course–way back in 2007 (!)–I focused on the theme of “Documenting Injustice,” a phrasing that I hoped would encompass a wide range of activist, narrative, non-fiction texts in a wide range of media. Because the course is taught in a fairly traditional English department, I wanted not only to include a focus on literary texts but also to respect approaches based in textual analysis. Thus, while I’d enjoy teaching a course on the political economy of digital cinema (say), I don’t think my students would receive the “capstone” experience this course is supposed to represent.

That being said, the students who have signed up for the course know that I am the “film guy” in our department and know a little about my interests. So, with that in mind, I have decided to do an updated version of that course, which I am tentatively calling “Reframing the Documentary,” in part to entertain some slightly different questions about various forms of non-fiction. For the previous course, I sought to discuss a wide range of media forms–written non-fiction, photography, and film–and I’ll maintain that cross-media focus this time. Once again, I will require my students to read Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives and Agee and Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, texts that explore different aspects of documentary and observation with the goal of some sort of social change. But unlike last time, I am going to add David Eggars’ category-defying narrative, Zeitoun, in which he tells the story of a Syrian-born Katrina survivor, writing from Zeitoun’s voice.

In addition, I want to introduce some significant case studies on photography, such as the Dorothea Lange “Migrant Mother” photographs, Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier,” and others. I’m planning to avoid directly studying most of the recent controversial photographs (especially the Abu Ghraib photos), although I may teach at Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure. Instead, I’d like to look at some of Morris’s essays on older photographs, possibly including this essay on whether photographs lie (new to me: Morris’s New York Times essays on photography have been anthologized in a book). Or, more likely, that I will be teaching The Thin Blue Line, Morris’s blog posts on documentary re-enactments. I’ll supplement this discussion of Morris with screenings of either Strange Culture or Road to Guantanamo (or both).

From there, I ams till trying to decide how to engage with some of the “limits” of documentary. By that, I mean definitional limits, rather than where documentary itself is limited. I will likely include the animated Israeli documentary, Waltz with Bashir, and I’m thinking about doing a couple of mock documentaries, most likely Confederate States of America, and, thanks to some recent research by a former student, the boundary-defying film, The Watermelon Woman. One other area of emphasis will likely be autobiography, and I’m leaning towards Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation, if only because I am familiar with it and because its production history is pretty catchy.

Finally, given some of my own recent work on “transmedia documentary,” I will likely finish with a couple of recent documentaries that used online media to expand the limits of what counts as a documentary, including The Age of Stupid. Following up on this idea of “transmedia documentary,” I’d very much appreciate any suggestions about online videos, photography series, or articles that depict aspects of the Occupy Wall Street movement. One “text” that I would certainly like to discuss would be the “We are the 99%” tumblr blog, but I may also set up a discussion of how iconic images of #OWS, such as the macing incident at UC Davis, have been remixed or repurposed.

I recognize that this post is all over the map–and mostly consists of a list of possible texts–but I am still brainstorming to some extent, trying to decide how, exactly, I want to frame this course. I am looking forward to doing an in-depth study of documentary, activism, and narrative, but I’d welcome any reminders about texts that I’ve neglected, including short essays, short stories, or other explorations of how we document our lives and how we use non-fiction images, sounds, and narratives to represent significant social and political events. Feedback (on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments) is welcome.

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I’ve been away from the blog for a while. There are countless reasons for that. Many of the items that might have served as quick commentary posts have appeared instead on Facebook or, less frequently, Twitter. I’ve been frantically trying to finish a draft of my new book manscript by the end of the semester (I mailed it off on Saturday, standing in line at the post office for an hour). Teaching has produced the usual demands of grading and prepping and advising, among the usual activities that come with being a professor, but teaching has generally been pretty exciting this semester. I’ve also been doing some other writing that I can discuss in further detail in the next few days, hopefully.

I’ve also been spending a lot of time helping my stepson and my exchange-student daughter navigate the college sports recruiting process. I won’t go into specifics, but it’s a far more complicated process than most people realize, especially for sports that don’t generate a lot of revenue. In fact, getting recruited to many of these sports may actually be a reflection of qualities that have less to do with performance on the field or court (although obviously those skills matter a great deal). Getting recruited is certainly tied to networks, but you also have to have quite a bit of tenacity and skill at self-promotion and quite a bit of savvy about how the process works. This isn’t a complaint as much as it is an observation.

But as the year comes to an end (and especially with a draft of a book manuscript reaching completion), I’ve been finding myself reflecting on the future direction not only of this blog but also of my direction as a scholar and/or writer. To some extent, I’ve been trying to think how I can use the tools available to me–blogs, social media, academic conferences, etc–in order to continue doing work that is rewarding to write (and hopefully to read).

For that reason, I’ve been mulling Steven Berlin Johnson’s recent blog post, in which he discusses “the anatomy of an idea.”  Some of his conclusions aren’t that unexpected. Research (or “the discovery process,” to use Johnson’s phrase) is social. To a great extent, this has always been true. Writers and editors read and share drafts. Colleagues discuss ideas at cocktail parties. But I think that Johnson is probably right to emphasize the importance of the diverse forms of social activity that can foster inquiry. I certainly benefitted from a wide range of suggestions and advice when writing my first book, and while I have been less public about the process for my current book, I continue to learn from my fellow bloggers. As a result, I’m hoping to make a greater effort in the coming months to re-immerse myself in the network, not necessarily in the closed playground of Facebook (although I must continue to satisfy my Scrabble addition) but on Twitter, which tends to foster open-ended, public conversations much more effectively, and in the blogosphere.

I don’t want to commit to specific goals or to writing specific kinds of posts, though I miss writing both the essayistic posts where I took the time to develop ideas in detail and the movie review posts where I sought to  bring some of my own idiosyncratic concerns to reading contemporary films. Time demands have made writing film reviews a bit more difficult, but I’ve genuinely missed the opportunity to use this space to reflect about some of the ideas that matter to me.

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Film Studies Ryan Gosling

Waking up from a very long blogging slumber to point out the completely geeky but utterly hilarious Film Studies Ryan Gosling tumblr blog.


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