Archive for June, 2012

A Galaxy So Close to Home

Many of my Raleigh readers will likely know that one of our local independent theaters, the Galaxy Theater, a funky suburban multiplex that offers a mix of art house and Bollywood films, may be demolished. Developers have eyed the location–in the heart of downtown Cary–as a potential site for a new shopping complex featuring a high-end grocery store. Making matters worse, the theater appears to be several months behind on its rent, according to the Raleigh News-Observer. The theater owners are working on rallying the community, and like many other locals, I think closing the Galaxy would be a big, even devastating, loss to the local  movie scene and would efface another small part of our history.

The Galaxy will always be a site of intense sentimentality for me. It’s where I went on my first date with my wife, where we saw Is Anybody There?, a drama featuring Michael Caine as a retired magician who befriends a boy whose parents run the retirement home where he lives. I can still point to the parking space where we pulled up in her car and remember squinting into the dark as we sought to find empty seats, one of the rare occasions I’ve arrived late to a movie. Since then, my wife and I have seen dozens of movies there, and I’ll often catch others while she is working, usually enjoying a beer and sometimes a samosa while I watch, often relaxing with a book beforehand on one of the couches in the lobby beforehand. When I do go, the ticket takers invariably recognize us, greeting us personally with a smile and friendly conversation. I’m sure there are hundreds of other people who have similar memories or experiences associated with the Galaxy. No matter what, theaters can provide us with a sense of connection to others, the opportunity to share in the pleasure of watching movies together. And the Galaxy’s unique mixture of Bollywood and art house movies creates a fascinating hybrid space, where different communities cross paths, even if only for the brief instant of passing through the lobby or standing in line for tickets.

The Galaxy’s struggles are familiar to anyone who has been following the fate of independent film and art house theaters. Digital projection has raised a number of challenges for independently-owned theaters, who face the expense of buying expensive projectors with little help from the studios. As this indieWire article reports, hundreds of theaters may face closure, and there is some speculation that the studios are relatively unconcerned about this loss in the number of screens. Furthermore, given that so many independent films are now available through alternative platforms, such as video-on-demand and digital downloads, the place of art house theaters isn’t as clear as it used to be. Even worse, as David Bordwell points out, the core audience for art house movies–Baby Boomers and others who grew up on the ’60s art cinema–isn’t getting younger, and a new generation of moviegoers is accustomed to practices of time-shifting and watching on-demand, rather than tailoring their lives around a movie schedule. The Galaxy has worked hard to diversify, hosting special events like live Wimbledon viewing parties and screenings, like the Kevin Smith Red State Q&A, making it more than simply a place for viewing movies.

Given all of the movie options in a long-tail culture, it’s difficult for art houses to compete, a problem that is exacerbated by the ongoing (and inevitable, at this point) shift to digital projection. But it’s also important to hold onto whatever local sensibilities remain, and the Triangle community would lose quite a bit if the Galaxy were to close. Speaking selfishly, I know that I would lose a tangible reminder of an important part of our first date–thankfully the sushi place where we stopped appears to be still going strong–and a crucial place of relaxation after grading papers or writing articles, a sentiment that I’m sure is shared by others. I know that one person’s opinion isn’t enough to stop a bulldozer and that a fancy grocery store might seem like a safer bet than a business based on predicting the tastes of a bunch of movie buffs, but it would be a significant loss for the community if the Galaxy is shut down. No decisions have been made at this time, and the theater’s owners are gearing up for a fight. Here’s hoping we can keep the Galaxy and its spirit alive.

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Endless Entertainment

Just a quick pointer to a fascinating bit of stunt comedy, in which Mark Malkoff took on the challenge of finding out how many hours of Netflix he could watch in a single month. Reasoning that he wanted to get the most value out of his $7.99 monthly streaming bill from Netflix, Malkoff watched 252 feature-length movies in a single month, meaning that he paid approximately three cents per movie. It’s an intriguing experiment to me, in part because it takes the promises of the long tail to absurd lengths, and for the most part, Malkoff was an attentive and reflective participant. He also notes, for example, that his use of streaming video consumed a lot of data, even joking that his cable company is likely “mad” at him for using so much bandwidth, and calling attention to one of the “hidden” costs of streaming video and long tail economics.

He points out that he had more than enough films to watch, given that Netflix has thousands of titles available on its streaming service, so although it is easy to complain about a “content drought” on Netflix, these complaints may be shaped by expectations that we should be able to stream the most recent titles. He also discusses, in this New Tee Vee interview, how he used a balance of social media and recommendation engines, such as Instantwatcher, to find movies that he wanted to see. He also points out that streaming (at least on Netflix) still makes it difficult to watch with the bonus features familiar from DVDs. To correct the situation, he gets a bemused Jason London to comment on Dazed and Confused and a bedraggled Andrew McCarthy to pull him on a wagon through Central Park while he watched St. Elmo’s Fire on his iPad (a subtle reminder that streaming content is also mobile). The video is quite obviously great PR for Netflix, although Malkoff professes that he was never in contact with the company until after the experiment was complete, but it’s also a quirky illustration of how our viewing expectations and practices have changed in the streaming era.

Update: I forgot to link to Malkoff’s complete list of movies that he watched over the course of a month. There are a number of really good films here, ranging from film studies staples (Bonnie and Clyde) to silents (plenty of Keaton and Chaplin) to indie and cult classics (Tiny Furniture, Big Lebowski), although toward the middle he seemed to decide to be a little masochistic and watch some of the “worst” movies possible (Battlefield Earth, Gigli).


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Selling (to) China

Steven Zeitchik and Jonathan Landreth have a fascinating must-read article that explores how the Chinese market is affecting creative decisions made by Hollywood studios (also Check out Zeitchik’s blog post on the topic). Because of China’s growing middle class (and the further opening up of their movie quota system), studios are working harder to produce content that will satisfy the relatively strict censors at China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television while also working to court Chinese businesses for production funds.

Some of these changes are relatively minimal: The movie Battleship was tweaked to give Chinese scientists credit for first identifying the alien invaders. Others are more substantial. The remake of Red Dawn (which seems to have been in process for ages) was re-edited to change the U.S. invaders from Chinese to North Korean, while Chinese bioelectric engineers were added as “experts” to the movie Salmon Fishing in Yemen, when there were no similar characters in the original novel. In all cases, narrative and character decisions are being made with some awareness about how (and even whether) the film will play legally in the Chinese market.

Zeitchik and Landreth characterize these decisions as a form of “censorship” in a couple of places, but I’m not quite sure that’s the right way of describing what is happening (or I would at least like to qualify the concept of censorship here). Yes, undesirable images may be censored, and in some cases literally cut, from movies, as happened when Chow Yun Fat’s scenes were removed from one of the Pirates of Caribbean movies. And these decisions may shape the kinds of projects that get funded. I’d imagine, for example, that a studio might now be much more reluctant to finance a project like Seven Years in Tibet. But “economic censorship” is quite a bit different than state censorship, and filmmakers theoretically could reject working with Chinese companies, as Relatively Media did when it was threatened with a boycott by human rights groups angered that they planned to film in a location close to wehere activist Chen Guangcheng was being held under house arrest. And if this means that we will get fewer racist caricatures of Chinese people and cultures, then I think there is some value in respecting these markets. This doesn’t mean that state censorship isn’t functioning here–China’s censorship practices are well-documented–but it is still the case that most of the motivations for Hollywood for altring content are economic.

Still, I think the article is an important read if only because it illustrates the degree to which these forms of economic censorship function in shaping cinematic storytelling, and more significantly, how these changed storytelling practices are being driven not necessarily (or even primarily in some cases) by American sensibilities but by those of a wider, globalized audience and by the state and economic interests that seek to shape the content of Hollywood entertainment.

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Documenting the Doctor

A good friend of mine, Chris Hansen, is making a documentary about Doctor Who fandom in the United States, and he is interested in hearing from (and interviewing) fans of the show in all of its incarnations and also the scholars who study it (not that those two categories are mutually exclusive, of course.

I’ve known Chris for a long time, and one of my first memories of meeting him was seeing his vast collection of Doctor Who novels, so I know he’ll approach this subject with an appreciation of the series and its fans, unlike some of the Star Trek docs that have treated their subjects condescendingly. Chris also works in an academic setting, so I think he is also well-positioned to understand and present how scholars approach fan studies and similar forms of scholarship.

If you’re interested in being involved in the documentary, you can get in contact with Chris at the link above. If you want to check out some of his past films, they are available online.

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Streaming Quality Cinema

Roger Ebert has a thought-provoking post on the role of streaming video in financing independent and art house films, in which he argues that declining DVD sales will make it more difficult for DVD companies to pay for quality film restorations, leading to a situation in which “ non-blockbuster titles will undergo a sudden income crisis.” Ebert explains that in the past, DVD companies could rely on retail sales through direct mail or Amazon, to video stores, and to Netflix. But due to the availability of streaming video sites, DVD sales have been declining and video stores have been closing, while Netlix has begun to purchase fewer DVDs because of its increasing emphasis on streaming. Further, studios make less money selling streaming rights than they do selling DVDs.

Ebert’s argument builds upon the news that consumers will likely watch more movies online in 2012 than they do on DVD, a situation that is obviously unlike to reverse itself. I know that in my own household, my stepdaughter and exchange-student daughter rarely watch DVDs, other than infrequent trips to Redbox. I still receive DVDs from Netflix, but they typically collect dust. When we decide to watch something, it usually involves flipping through menus on Netflix, using both genre categories and (less often) our instant queue, to find something to watch. Very rarely do we have “appointment screenings” of movies, unless I am doing research on something. Ebert acknowledges that he divides his viewing relatively evenly between streaming and DVD, and I think we have reached a stage where, for many families, skimming streaming services has become a major option for passing time during the evening. In some cases, this may involve maintaining a Netflix membership and complaining periodically about the thin streaming catalog or rotating between Netflix, Hulu, and an independent site, such as Fandor (a site that deserves a lot of credit for not only supporting older titles but also for its 50/50 revenue split with independent filmmakers).  But in the near future, it seems unlikely that there will be a single catalog where everything will be readily available.

With that in mind, we need to be attentive to the ways this will affect different aspects of the film industry. Ebert is probably right to surmise that film restorations may become prohibitively expensive for everyone other than a small number of boutique companies like Criterion, but I wonder how newer independent films will be affected, given that most of them will likely never be converted to film prints. Direct DVD sales (and sales through Amazon) are still likely to play a crucial role in financing independents (note my previous post on crowdfunding and the practice of pre-selling DVDs), but streaming and other forms of video-on-demand are also likely to play a critical role, and I suspect that Ebert is right to speculate that this may require consumers to pay more to support these films. As Ebert puts it, “Sooner or later, one way or another, streaming will have to pay for the films it streams. That means us.” Thus, we seem to have reached a strange point in which more choices than ever are (or at least appear to be) instantly available, even while those choices may be splintered between a variety of platforms and devices that sometimes make it difficult for consumers to seek out specific movies. At the same time, despite this wide range of choices, the loss in DVD sales continues to make it difficult to pay for and maintain catalogs of older films.

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Crowdfunding Revisited

Taking a quick break from working on revisions to book two to point out some recent discussion of the use of crowdfunding to raise money for independent films. Since the 2008 closure of several major indie distributors, there has been a slow but steady turn toward alternative funding and distribution models, and there seems to be some evidence that prominent indie filmmakers are using crowdfunding techniques.

Writing for the Sundance blog, Elisabeth Holm discusses The Canyons, a collaboration between Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader and novelist Bret Easton Ellis on The Canyons, a drama about a group of power-hungry Hollywood types. Notably, in addition to raising funds through Kickstarter (the team has already raised $148,000-plus with a day of fundraising left), Schrader and Ellis also invited supporters to help cast the movie, using Let It Cast, a kind of open-source casting system that allows actors to post auditions for parts online. But I think that what is striking about The Canyons is the degree to which the film ‘s crowdfunding promotions are tied up in more traditional forms of promotions and tie-ins. Although it is relatively common for indie producers to promise copies of the DVD when the film is completed, it struck me that selling the DVD before the movie comes out functions somewhat like  “foreign pre-sales” might have in the past; that is, it is essentially selling some “rights” to the movie (in one case, broadcast rights, in another, the right to own a copy of the DVD)  before it is finished in order to finance the completion of the movie. This is sort of obvious, but by selling enough copies of the DVD before the film is made–by my count, they pre-sold well over 700 DVDs–they can also demonstrate interest in the film before it is even finished. At the same time, the campaign seems to offer, more than most Kickstarter projects, a ticket to a limited form of access to celebrity. Gifts for larger donations include the opportunity to meet Schrader or Ellis, to get script notes from Schrader, and in one case, Schrader’s set gift from Robert DeNiro on Taxi Driver (an engraved belt buckle). It’s an interesting example of how older forms of independent cinema are now being repackaged through these crowdosurcing models.

Lucas McNelly discusses a similar project featuring a familiar Hollywood actor, Matthew Lillard, who is usually remembered for his role as Shaggy in the Scooby-Doo movie or as one of the wise-cracking teens in Scream. Lillard has raised over $128,000 (with a week left, as of today) from over 1,800 backers, suggesting that he has a much broader base of support, even if the donations have been smaller. The movie, Fat Kid Rules the World,  which has already played at South by Southwest, is an adaptation of a novel, providing it with an existing fan community beyond Lillard’s reputation as an actor. There are some creative perks–one donation amount will allow you to have Lillard (as Shaggy) record your outgoing voicemail message–but as McNelly suggests, Lillard’s active attempt to engage with potential fans has been crucial to the campaign’s success. Lillard spent a marathon 3 hour session on Reddit, chatting with fans and allowing them to ask him anything they wished. This is not suggest that one approach is superior, but instead to point out that inside and outside are becoming increasingly blurred when it comes to the use of crowdfunding models.

For something a little more substantial, Geoff King (author of the forthcoming Indie 2.0 and several other books) pointed to a BBC report on crowdfunding and its place in the indie sector, which they framed through a discussion of another successful indie project, Andrew Semans’ Nancy, Please (note: I had the opportunity to review Semans’ poignant and observant short film, All Day Long several years ago, so I can’t wait to see his latest effort). Some data from the BBC piece: over 5,000 films have successfully raised funds on Kickstarter, and as King notes 17 films from this year’s Sundance and 33 from this year’s SXSW were Kickstarter projects. Definitely quite a bit to think about here as indie funding models continue to evolve.

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