Archive for July, 2012

The Next Question

After several years of writing, I’ve just submitted my revised manuscript for second book, On-Demand Culture: Digital Delivery and the Future of Movies. The book is still several months away from publication–there’s copy-editing and page-proofing to be done–but the lion’s share of writing and researching is complete. And quite naturally, completing such as task has me reflecting on my writing process for this book and thinking about what I would like to do next.

To a great extent, these questions are caught up in the personal. I started writing book two just a few weeks after meeting and falling in love with the person who would eventually become my wife, and although she has been supportive of my research, I also have little interest in maintaining my hermetic lifestyle and the writing pace that saw me through the completion of Reinventing Cinema. It’s also a “professional” question, in that I am aware, as many scholars have been discussing lately (I’ll cite many of them soon), that there is some value in writing in formats that are not considered “academic” or that we need more flexible ideas of what counts as a “sellable” piece of academic writing in an era in which academic presses are struggling (as the discussion of the University of Missouri Press illustrates). It’s also “political,” in the broad sense of that term. Writing in academic contexts can often be very insular, and I’d like to branch out from that and to see more scholars do the same.

With that in mind, I’ve decided that I’m going to be taking a little breather before I decide on my next Big Project. I’ve maintained a more or less frenetic writing pace since about 2007, and I think it’s time to recharge a little bit and figure out where I want to focus my writing efforts in the future. That’s not to imply that I am not excited about the work I have done in On-Demand Culture or in the scholarly essays that grew out of it. Instead, I think this might be an opportunity to go back to using the blog as a space for thinking about and testing ideas, for cultivating new approaches and new ways of thinking about the issues and ideas that matter to me. When I finished Reinventing Cinema, I already knew, even as I was sending off the manuscript, where I would be going with my next book, that I wanted to address the distribution “crisis” and especially how it might be affecting independent film. In the process of writing, my focus shifted slightly. I became interested in Redbox kiosks, 3D movies, digital cable advertisements, movie apps (such as the Netflix iPhone app), and other aspects of the movie industry, but they were all tied to the idea of digital delivery and to the underlying concerns behind my original set of questions: What is digital delivery and where is it taking us? What are the implications for the movie industry, for independent artists, and for audiences? The answers, as I hope my book will show, are complex and sometimes contradictory. I don’t have that gnawing question this time, that sense of crisis that propelled my research for the last three years since Reinventing came out.

But in thinking about the process for this book, it was (in some ways) much less “public” than the process for my first book. In some ways, that was a function of time. I chose to cut down on blogging so that I would have more time for bigger projects, such as academic essays and the book. Part of that was the changed nature of the academic blogosphere, and here is where I think that some of my experiences might fit into the (very productive) discussions that I have been following about blogging and academic writing. One of the reasons that I have likely slowed down on blogging is that the format seems less social than it used to be. There are a number of reasons for this shift, and Kathleen Fitzpatrick identifies a few of them. RSS feeds make it so that readers don’t have to go directly to the author’s blog, and perhaps more insidiously, Facebook has a “hovering” effect in that it sucks comments and content in, making them less visible on the blog. Comment spam also became a factor, especially starting around 2004 or so, which also adds a barrier–required registrations, demonstrating that you’re not a robot–to keep readers from commenting on the blog directly.

That being said, I think the blog format–informal and conversational–can foster valuable dialogue and can allow authors and readers to share and develop ideas. I like Kathleen’s idea of blogging as serialized scholarship, and her suggestion that we need better methods for “capturing thought in the idea of being produced.” Some of this process is “captured” in blog archives. I can see, for example, that I wrote quite a bit about Redbox and related phenomena, but many of the helpful responses I received along the way aren’t there. And like her, I’m not ready to suggest that humanities journals no longer serve as “tombstones” for thought, in the same way that Paul Krugman sees happening in economics journals, but I think the play between blogging, academic journals, and books can help to foster healthy discussion about a research topic, whether it’s Keynesian economics, the future of the book, or the ongoing evolution of the movie industry.

Further, as Jason Mittell notes, there is some value in using blogs and other social media formats as a form of pre-publication publicity. Jason had a much more “open-source” process for his second book, in that he posted entire chapters to his blog and Media Commons for peer-to-peer review, inviting feedback from anyone who wished to comment (he also points to Scott Higgins’ ongoing research, which has, so far, only been published on his blog. I’ve posted a few ideas, but rarely have I posted actual content here, but like Jason, I think these forms of “pre-publication” can serve a vital role of engaging with a wier audience, even while having your ideas tested by this more expansive form of readership. Their comments provide me with even more incentive to renew my focus on blogging, especially during a moment of media transition when it feels like so many writers are getting it wrong, as I tried to complain in my bullet-point post mentioning Neal Gabler and Ranall Stross’s recent articles.

Ultimately, these questions about format and informality even speak to the possibility of reconsidering the object that can be monetized by academic presses. Jeff Rice has been addressing the University of Missouri Press’s evolution by suggesting that presses ought to consider selling short articles/essays for a dollar or two via electronic formats, following the “singles” model used by iTunes to great success. I think there is quite a bit of value in that, especially when many journals charge exorbitant rates ($15 and more) for digital copies of single articles. I realize the motivation behind the higher rates–protecting the value of institutional subscriptions–but a bestselling academic “single” might provide academic presses with some additional revenue.

No matter what, I am excited that On-Demand Culture has taken this big step towards completion, not just because it frees me from an intense focus on a single deadline but because it allows me to begin thinking about the “next” question, about what I want I want to write about and even about the formats I’ll be using to engage with others about those ideas.

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Anticipating Batman

Just a quick pointer to an article in The Fayetteville Observer where I discuss the forthcoming Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises. I think some of my points come across much more strongly than I intended, but it was fun to talk about the film and hink a little about my own investments in Nolan’s films.

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Reboots, Shrinking Screens, Movie Geeks

Three quick liks while I am on the road and taking a day or two off from working on the book:

  • Via Daily Kos, a link to Neal Gabler’s latest column from the LA Times, which takes the recent reboot of the Spider-Man franchise as a sign that, for teenagers, at least, film history basically only extends back to last week. Yes, the cycle of rebooting seems to be accelerating–when it comes to movies at least–but I’m not sure that teens are any less interested in past films than they might have been twenty-five years ago when VHS was one of the primary means of accessing film history.
  • By comparison, Randall Stross of the New York Times worries that young people are only watching movies on smaller screens–iPods, iPhones, iPads, and maybe laptops–using Netflix or Hulu. Obviously people are using these devices to watch movies, but the article literally dodges the questions of how many, how frequently, and so on. There is no discussion of the fact that many Netflix users stream through a TV set, choosing to watch on the biggest screen available. And while theatrical movie attendance, in the U.S. at least, has remained steady, overseas box office is rising.
  • Finally, Munib Rezaie offers a much more nuanced take on some of the challenges raised by digital delivery, looking at the changing status of the film geek in the streaming era. He builds from my discussion of the DVD-era “film geek” to point out that instant availability–of movies, of information–changes how we think about our relationship to film culture. As Munib notes, the processes of talking about movies, getting recommendations, and even learning about films have changed thanks to new digital delivery technologies.

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