Archive for January, 2013

Preparing Young Minds

Here’s an editorial I wrote for the Raleigh News and Observer in response to Governor Pat McCrory’s misguided comments about the need for university liberal arts programs.

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Netflix, or Binge Viewing on a “House of Cards”

This week, my wife and I have been binge viewing season one of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes’ amazing drama set in the early 1900s, which depicts the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and the servants who work for them. As fans of the show will know, the characters are beautifully drawn, and the show powerfully captures a pivotal historical era, beginning with the sinking of the Titanic but making reference to World War I and other historical events along the way. Much of the show’s drama hinges on issues of social mobility–the family struggles to navigate British inheritance laws that prevent daughters from inheriting property, while many of the servants reflect on desires for different work opportunities–a focus that has proven to be intellectual catnip for both of us (and obviously many, many others). But what has enabled us to become so engaged with the show so quickly is our ability to binge watch season one on Netflix, and we’ll finish the entire first season in four days (and then move to Hulu for season two).

For consumers like us, this is a great deal. We probably won’t catch up with the episodes in time to follow season three “live,” but it’s a nice way of watching, especially given our inconsistent schedules that might make live viewing difficult. There’s nothing new there, of course. DVD box sets started serving this function years ago, and people have been talking about on-demand TV and movies for a while now. It’s also not a bad deal for Netflix and Hulu to make this licensed programming available. I’ve binge watched a few other shows via Netflix, in particular, and there are usually enough movie selections to keep me engaged. But as Andrew Wallenstein and Alyssa Rosenberg point out, in a couple of sharp analyses, Netflix’s strategy of promoting binge watching may not be as successful or effective when it comes to their original programming. Although Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has touted the ability of streaming services to escape from the boundaries of linear TV programming, both Rosenberg and Wallenstein imply that the plan to release all 13 episodes of House of Cards simultaneously may work against getting maximum value for the show.

Wallenstein, in particular, highlights the dangers of “too much, too quickly” when it comes to Netflix. He points out that the goal of producing original programming (like House of Cards and the revival of Arrested Development) is to entice new subscribers into joining the service. Wallenstein then speculates that by dropping all thirteen episodes at once, Netflix may actually be encouraging people to join the service for one month, binge watch the original shows, and then cancel their subscription until a new show comes along that they want to watch. Rinse. Lather. Repeat. I suspect that, to some extent, Wallenstein is right. In an era of one-click, on-demand culture, people can walk away from delivery services like Netflix or Hulu simply and easily. Starting or quuitting a subscription service takes just a few minutes, and if House of Cards is all that somebody wants to watch, then it’s pretty simple to do that.

Rosenberg, drawing from reporting by Deadline Hollywood Daily, adds that Netflix is financing these productions, in part through the use of debt that will (obviously) eventually have to be paid down. Along with Netflix’s plans to expand overseas, this has led Moody’s to classify Netflix as a “risky investment,” and leaves Rosenberg to speculate that Netflix may have to increase its subscription rates to subsidize these costs and to keep investors happy. To avoid these problems, Wallenstein offers a somewhat compelling solution: instead of releasing all episodes of its original programs simultaneously, Netflix should adopt something closer to a linear programming model, in which it would release 3-4 new episodes of a show per month. Thus, users could engage in limited binge viewing, but they would be compelled to maintain their subscriptions for several months to follow an entire season of an original show (my hunch is that such a strategy would be less relevant for licensed shows like Downton Abbey).   Wallenstein also makes the point that extending the show’s run over several months would also extend its social media presence over several months and that people who learn about the show late (as my wife and I did with Downton) could learn about the show from Twitter and Facebook posts and could catch up quickly in order to be in-the-know when the next set of episodes drops.

I have some doubts about whether Wallenstein’s proposal makes sense. If binge viewing is the primary mode through which consumers encounter Netflix, then alienating these audiences through artificially producing temporary scarcity seems uncool. In addition, I wonder how many people have the energy to start and quit Netflix every time the distributor introduces a new or original show. I’d imagine that Netflix hopes that people will be drawn in initially by an original show unavailable elsewhere and that the practice of binge watching that will keep them coming back for more. Like Wallenstein, I also wonder about the “casual viewer” who may not binge watch a specific show. It’s practice that I mention in passing in my chapter on Redbox in On-Demand Culture, but I suspect that it needs even more attention.My hunch is that the scarcity techniques will have less impact on these more casual practices. People can pick up or return to a show whenever it is convenient. More than anything, this discussion shows that there are still a number of questions that we can still ask about the viewing norms and protocols that will develop in an era of digital delivery. Binge watching is obviously the most visible form of this practice–especially when Netflix automatically redirects you to the next episode of a TV series–but this practice may eventually be subject to other issues such as changing distribution practices and limited libraries and data caps.

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Writing Elsewhere

I’ve been doing quite a bit of writing elsewhere this month, so in case you missed them:

  • I have a blog post for ProHacker that discusses a strategy that I developed to create and post podcasts for my online course. I’ve been using the same workflow for several weeks now, and it’s continuing to work well for me.
  • I have an article in the upcoming (Winter 2013) print issue of Filmmaker Magazine that addresses some of the issues in my forthcoming book, On-Demand Culture. the new issue isn’t up yet on the Filmmaker Magazine website, but it looks fantastic, and I’m delighted to be included in some incredibly good company. In the article, I tried to unpack some of the complicated issues that are shaping movie distribution, while also discussing how independent filmmakers have been incredibly resourceful in creating their own tools–Kickstarter, etc–to find an audience (and funding) for their work.
  • I recently wrote a blog post for Antenna on the politics of representing torture in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. My ultimate conclusion is that even if it never directly states that torture led to the intelligence that allowed us to find bin Laden, the film feels as if torture helped. That being said, I also think the film leaves us with some ambivalence about how that search was conducted, making Zero Dark Thirty a much more subtle film than its many critics have suggested.

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My First Petition

I’m reposting a diary I wrote for Daily Kos (the first one I’ve written there) where I discussed a petition that my wife and I wrote asking the White House to respond to our concerns about the ban on funding for the CDC to do gun research. I’ve never started a petition before, although I consider myself to be relatively active politically and have long espoused the power of social media in mobilizing political action. I’m not sure why this particular issue drove me to try writing a petition, but it’s probably a combination of my belief in supporting research and my hope that this research will lead to a significant reduction in violence. For those who might think that this petition is simply a cover for reducing access to guns, please note that I’m open to supporting whatever conclusions the CDC might reach. I’ll try to keep track of how the proces works and discuss that here. So far, in about two hours, we’ve collected 61 signatures, and the post has moved up the Daily Kos recommended diaries list. I suspect that hitting the critical threshold of 150 signatures–if we get there–will make a big difference because at that point the petition will be “visible” on the White House petitions page. No matter what, I’ve been moved by the comments on Kos and the shared solidarity over this issue. The text of the Daily Kos diary is below the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Netflix and TV Narrative

Via a Facebook friend, I came across Alyssa Rosenberg’s insightful post about Netflix’s announcement that they will be releasing fourteen new episodes of the cult TV series, Arrested Development. As Rosenberg points out, this is hardly big news–many in the TV industry were already aware that new episodes were being produced–but what is significant about the announcement is that Netflix may be recognizing that it is well positioned to cultivate new forms of storytelling that may not be as feasible on linear broadcast television.

For one, Rosenberg observes that Netflix can produce episodes of varying lengths, given that they don’t have to worry about squeezing eight minutes of advertisements into a 30-minute episode or even the conventions of a 30- or 60-minute episode typically seen on premium cable series. Most of the episodes will still run for thirty minutes, but some will be slightly longer, and the online (and on-demand) format enables that. In addition, Rosenberg reports that although the episodes will be linked so that events become clearer as viewers watch more and more episodes, users can watch them in any order they wish, with each episode focusing on a specific character or point of view. I’ll be incredibly curious to see how this plays out in actual practice because if it works well, it could represent a pretty powerful formal innovation in serial storytelling.

When working on my forthcoming book, On-Demand Culture, I used Arrested Development as an example of how on-demand viewing menus could be used to revive niche series, but this announcement may signal that series producers are starting to explore how these online menus of series can be used in more complex ways. To some extent, I’m sure there are a number of examples of web series that make use of variable episode lengths, but given the high-profile visibility of Arrested Development, this could help to push others to innovative storytelling techniques as well.

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Tar Heels and Film Criticism

Just a quick note to mention that I’ve been selected to the North Carolina Film Critics Association and that our awards nominations for 2012 were recently announced. I’m happy to point out that we have made some effort to promote local filmmaking through the Tarheel Award, which recognizes films with at least some connection to the state and enjoyed being part of a more official voting process. We’re voting on winners in the next few days and will hopefully announce the full results soon. This is also an opportunity to get other North Carolina film reviewers connected. I’ve met Ken Morefield and Daniel Johnson had a few conversations with Craig Lindsey at Full Frame over the years, but I’m looking forward to connecting with some of the other members in the future.

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Sunday Links, Hulu, Video Privacy, and 56 Up

Embracing the last quiet Sunday morning before classes start back to catch up on some of my online reads. This semester will involve a number of transitions for me in that I’ll be teaching an online class for the first time (Introduction to Business Writing, which is also a new prep for me) and I’ll be preparing to teach a completely revamped Introduction to Film course next spring. I’m also in the final stages of polishing up my second book (page proofs should arrive in my inbox in the next few days). But all of these changes point toward the possibility that 2013 could be an exciting year. Here are the links:

  • I’ve been writing bits and pieces about the Video Privacy Protection Act, the 1988 law that is now being revised to allow companies like Netflix greater freedom in sharing customers’ rental habits. The bill is designed to give Netflix more freedom to create an app on Facebook similar to Spotify that would allow users to post what they’re watching in their Facebook news feeds (I’d assume something similar would be in place for Twitter, too). Think Progress has a great article on the implications for the bill, but I also wanted to highlight an Ars Technica article that documents how much (over one million dollars) Netflix has spent over the last two years lobbying Congress to pass this bill. It’s also worth glancing at some of the other media companies have spent to pay for lobbying efforts.
  • David Poland attempts to forecast where the studios will go this year in terms of cultivating new delivery systems. Since this is a major aspect of my next book, I was intrigued by Poland’s analysis. The most striking prediction is the speculation that Disney may eventually “eat” Netflix and seek to split its independent and children’s content into separate systems. I’m hoping to write further about some of these issues elsewhere, but Poland’s hunches–from my experience–have been pretty solid.
  • Hulu CEO Jason Kilar has apparently left the company. Om Malik reviews his tenure at the company and where Hulu might go from here.
  • Michael Atkinson has a review of 56 Up, the latest in Michael Apted’s long-running documentary series. I think that my introduction to the series came at around 35 Up, so like many others, I now feel as if I have quite a bit invested in the series, and I’ve also been fascinated to watch as it has evolved from an effort to document class stratifications in Great Britain to something more profound about the changes associated with aging, and how that experience is altered by having your life documented periodically.
  • For my online course this semester, I decided to use audio podcasts to deliver the course lectures. After struggling mightily with a podcast function on our university’s course management system (CMS), I had the good luck of stumbling into a slideshow instructing people on how to embed podcasts on Blogger (which I can then link to in our CMS). The cool part is that you can upload your podcasts to the Internet Archive where they are stored for free and where they uploaded very quickly. My two 7-minute mini-lectures both went up in about five minutes or less.

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Top Ten 2012

Inspired by IndieWire’s amazing compilation of Top Ten lists and by Umberto Eco’s reminder about the pleasures of list-making, I’ve decided to do my own list of favorite movies from 2012. This year;’s list is shaped by a number of changes in my life. I didn’t get to the theater as often as I would have liked, and my favorite theater was forced to shut down when the owners of the property decided to redevelop the space and build a grocery store. I also missed the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival for the first time in several years, which means that I was unable to catch many docs, something I hope to correct in 2013. I’m hoping to devote more energy to reviving the blog this year, and my piecemeal–in no particular order–top ten list is a way of getting that started.

  1. Moonrise Kingdom: Wes Anderson’s compelling and comic story, set in the early 1960s in a small New England town, focuses on a young boy, Sam, on a scout trip who runs away with Suzy, who lives nearby. they exchange notes and plans and filly escape together prompting a madcap search led by Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, and Bill Murray. Really enjoyed the off-beat performances, the period music, and Anderson’s usual attention to mise-en-scene.
  2. Looper: gritty, futuristic sci-fi at its finest. Joseph Gordon-Leavitt plays Joe, a “looper” who waits in an appointed location–a corn field in Kansas–where he assassinates criminals sent back in time. Joe ultimately faces meeting himself as an older person, leading to one of the more fascinating ethical dilemmas about time travel I’ve seen in a long time (and one of the few movies I had time to review this year). The interplay between Leavitt and Bruce Willis also works really well.
  3. Lincoln: Daniel Day-Lewis’s uncanny portrayal of Lincoln has received the most attention, but I loved the movie for its attention to the mundane aspects of governing and the challenges that the president faced when negotiating to get members of the opposing party to support his proposed amendment to end slavery. An oddly apt commentary on the fiscal cliff negotiations and current complaints about divided government.
  4. The Master: Paul Thomas Anderson offers an unsettling engagement with the post-World War II sense of meaningless confronted by many vets, including Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix), who wavers between submission to and resistance against a Scientology-style cult led by Philip Seymour Hoffman. I was ambivalent about this film, but Jason Sperb, who has written a book on PT Anderson, ultimately sold me on it.
  5. Django Unchained: Tarantino continues his engagement with the politics of images and genres with his subversive, playful mashup of spaghetti western and slave narrative. It’s easy to dismiss Tarantino as a pastiche filmmaker, but his depictions of iconic film images–the “mandingo” fights, Samuel L. Jackson’s “Uncle Tom”–are far more subtle than they first appear. I still think this film would make a great companion with Perry Henzell’s similar spaghetti western-inspired anti-colonialist The Harder They Come.
  6. Argo: Although its depiction of the Iran hostage crisis vastly simplifies the historical record–little attention is paid to the hostages who went unrescued–Ben Affleck has deftly crafted a terrific retelling of one of the most audacious rescue efforts in recent history. The levels of performance–spies pretending to be movie executives–were terrific fun.
  7. Take this Waltz: low-key character study by Sarah Polley about a woman’s struggles in an unhappy marriage.
  8. Silver Linings Playbook: although its depiction of psychological disorders was often too glib, Russell’s film won me over with the chemistry between Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as a pair of misunderstood lovers.
  9. Beasts of the Southern Wild: I wavered between embracing the film’s originality and struggling with something that felt a little inauthentic about the whole thing. On the whole, though, I liked the depiction of Bathtub, a tiny, isolated Louisiana Delta community ravaged by a massive hurricane.
  10. Perks of Being a Wallflower: heartfelt adolescent drama about growing up as outsiders (the “misfit toys”). It gets all of the awkwardness of high school pretty much right and even offers a kind of utopian space where Charlie, Sam (Emma Watson in a great post-Hermione performance), and friends can feel safe and connected. Solid late-80s/early-90s period detail, too.

I still haven’t seen Zero Dark Thirty or Holy Motors, so I may make one or two updates in the near future. Just missing the cut were Bernie, Les Miserables, and Safety Not Guaranteed.

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