Archive for April, 2013

Cinematic Transitions

The announcement from John Fithian, the president of the National Organization of Theater Owners, at this year’s CinemaCon confirmed what was pretty much already universally acknowledged in the film movie industry: 35mm film distribution will cease in just a few months, to be replaced by digital distribution in theaters. According to The Hollywood Reporter, 85 percent of North American screens and 67 percent of European screen have already converted to digital, making film stock an “endangered species.” But this is just one of many transitions that are taking place in reshaping how we access and watch movies.

These shifts can be measured by two stories about Fayetteville, North Carolina, the city where I work and where I lived for several years. First, Fayetteville’s Cameo Art House Theater is bidding good-bye to the film projectors they’ve used  since the theater opened in 1998 by hosting a special screening of Cinema Paradiso, Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 love letter to film projection. To me, this good-bye is bittersweet. Although I appreciate the aesthetics of film projection, I’m happy that the Cameo will be able to remain open using digital projectors and that the city will continue to have at least one option for seeing art house movies on the big screen.

The second story makes me feel more nostalgic than I would have expected. According to the Fayetteville Observer, the last two Blockbuster Video stores in Fayetteville will soon be closing, their last DVDs to be sold in a liquidation sale. Unless I’m missing something, that means the last remaining (non-adult) bricks-and-mortar video stores in Fayetteville will soon be closed. Although I can barely remember the last time I rented a movie in a video store, this seems like a significant shift, one that is consistent with all of the contradictions associated with an emergent on-demand culture. Movies are available at the click of a mouse or remote. But we may find ourselves having less access to some titles than we might expect.

I’d imagine that most cities are undergoing similar transitions. Some independent video stores may be better prepared to weather the competition with streaming video. Other art houses may be unable to navigate the shift to digital projection. But these changes are happening fast, and it’s well worth asking what they mean for all aspects of movie culture.

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42

There is a moment in 42, the new biopic about Jackie Robinson, that I had always believed to be true. It takes place during Robinson’s rookie season in 1947 at Crosley Field in Cincinnati, just across the Mason-Dixon line from Kentucky, the home state of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ All-Star shortstop and Kentucky native Pee Wee Reese. Early in a contest between the Dodgers and Reds, Robinson became the subject of boos and racist taunts from fans. To silence Robinson’s critics, Reese reportedly walked over to his teammate and put his hand on Robinson’s shoulder, communicating clearly that he would stand with his teammate. It’s a powerful gesture, a statement of support from one ballplayer to another in the face of almost universal opposition, given that many of Robinson’s teammates even opposed his presence on the team. Unfortunately for historians of the game and for those of us seeking a little extra humanity in the face of violence, it’s also most likely not true. But given the emotional punch of such a scene–Robinson is finally embraced in public by his team’s leader–it provides a nice bit of drama for the film. But it also illustrates the difficulty of making a biographical film about the one major league baseball player who has moved beyond fame into something closer to canonization.

Wesley Morris’s review of 42 for Grantland captures some of these complications way better than I could, describing the dramatic challenges of depicting a character (or characters, if you count Robinson’s ever patient and supportive wife, Rachel, played by Nicole Beharie) who doesn’t change over the course of the film. Instead, Robinson must, in some sense, remain steady, unchanging, even when faced with a barrage of racist insults and abuse, as he was by Phillies manager Ben Chapman. He must, in some sense, remain virtually perfect. As Morris implies, Robinson’s story–and I cannot deny his bravery–essentially places him in “bubble wrap,” making it difficult to view the story with anything other than reverence. It’s possible that we don’t have enough historical distance from the events in 42, especially given that Major League Baseball continues to worry about reaching out to African-American audiences, but I think it’s also possible that Robinson’s story, like so many others, is caught in the process of mythmaking that is so central to the history of baseball. Even when we recognize the faults of some of the great early players–Cobb’s racism and violent anger, Ruth’s drunkenness, the gambling scandals–we still have so many stories that define players via heroic narratives.

42 seems somewhat conscious of this problem, and as a result, places near its center the writer who covered Robinson and traveled with him early in his career, Wendell Smith. But rather than reflecting on Smith’s role in shaping Robinson’s story, Smith becomes Robinson’s driver and faithful assistant. In many ways, the film’s most vivid character was actually the Dodgers’ general manager, Branch Rickey (played by a scowling and growling Harrison Ford), a move that seems to place Robinson somewhat on the margins. That said, the film gives us some small measure of Robinson’s heroism and the challenges he faced during his early career. It also provides a pretty vivid sense of the speed of baseball in a way that many sports movies fail to do. 42 shows Jackie dancing on the base paths, challenging pitchers with his tremendous quickness. We get a clear sense of Robinson’s amazing reflexes in the field and the excitement he generated for the many fans who came to idolize him. I’m not suggesting that we would have been better served by a movie that showed Robinson as flawed. And there is little question that his story should be remembered. But I would have valued a film that could have provided us with a better sense of the challenges that Robinson faced and the role of people like Wendell Smith in making Robinson’s story possible in the first place.

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Soda Fountains, Speeding, and Password Sharing

I’ve been fascinated by the recent controversy over technology reporter Jenna Wortham’s “confession” in the New York Times that she uses shared passwords to access subscription video services such as Netflix and HBO Go. In particular, Wortham mentions that she and a group of friends rely on a single user’s HBO Go password to watch the popular show, Game of Thrones (which also happens to be the most pirated show on TV). As Wortham’s comments suggest, the act of password sharing is relatively commonplace, so much so that I imagine Wortham gave very little thought to describing her friends’ behavior on the pages of a national newspaper. Of course, as Mike Masnick of Tech Dirt reports, Wortham’s behavior is also, strictly speaking, illegal, a violation of both the Digital Millennial Copyright Act (DMCA) and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), and her actions could be punished by up to a year in prison. As Masnick describes it, her actions specifically violate the anti-circumvention clause of the DMCA becuase she is engaging in activity that allows her to work around a technical protection measure.

But as Masnick also observes, these acts often criminalize behavior that many people do every day, often without thinking about it. In this sense, password sharing is, as David Thier argues, a “legalish” activity, easy to do and difficult to police. With that distinction in mind, when I first heard about the discussion of Wortham’s column, my initial reaction was to compare password sharing to speeding on an interstate highway. Almost everyone speeds on interstates, as opposed to, say, school zones, where the policing is tighter and the consequences of negligent behavior are potentially far more devastating. And as long as you are within a reasonable distance of the posted limit, police are likely to leave you alone. And when police have set up speed traps, other drivers typically alert each other by flashing headlights or tapping their brakes. Further, when we know we’re being watched, such as speed zones where the police have set up cameras or other automatic detection equipment, we play by the rules. Most people feel little guilt for slightly exceeding the speed limit and some even take pride in reaching their destination in a shorter time.

This isn’t a perfect metaphor, however, given that speeding drivers don’t affect the value of the highway on which they are driving. While we can make some judgments about which shows are most likely to be pirated, it’s a little more difficult to tell how much password sharing is taking place (although my own research suggests that it’s pretty rampant, at least on college campuses). The next closest metaphor I could come up with compared password sharing to something like taking from a soda fountain at a fast food restaurant. Although probably less common, it’s possible to imagine someone using their own cup (rather than paying 99 cents for a cup at the counter) and helping oneself to some diet soda or root beer. It’s possible that the same person could share their soda with someone else or several people and even go back up for refills. Each of these actions result in “lost” revenue for the restaurant. Instead of selling three large sodas, they’ve sold one or none. But the production costs of that soda (i.e., the contents of the fluid, the cup itself, etc) are often relatively minimal, especially compared to the production costs of a movie or TV show. So obviously, there are some ethical and legal issues at stake here, but as Thier and others have suggested, that blurry area where behavior becomes “legalish” raises some interesting challenges for content providers and consumers. No one is likely to send the copyright police to knock on Wortham’s door. And many of the VOD services, including Netflix, even allow for some flexibility regarding password sharing.

The ethical (and business) implications of many of these issues were addressed in a New York Times public editor column. One observer bluntly suggested that Wortham’s actions were essentially “stealing,” while others likened her actions to “piracy.” And given that the New York Times is itself attempting to adjust to a digital business model by limiting non-subscribers to ten or so free articles per month, Wortham’s actions might be read as a form of hypocrisy. How are her actions different than those readers who might try to work around the Times‘ own pay wall? Wortham admits to being somewhat “conflicted” about her practice of password sharing, and thus far, many VOD services have taken a somewhat casual approach to enforcement. Rather than stopping people from drinking soda from the same cup, most providers have allowed some sharing, although Wortham does mention that Amazon blocks people from watching the same show at the same time on two different devices while using the same account.

But as Wortham’s article points out, the focus on policing password sharing–or piracy for that matter–might prevent us from acknowledging the role of password sharing as a means of creating a shared social experience around a television series. By watching Game of Thrones or Friday Night Lights “together,” even if we are not in the same shared space, it is a form of collective activity. In turn, the Netflix “family accounts,” which allow limited password sharing may even open up a redefinition of what counts as a family unit (an issue I addressed in my article for Screen and that I discuss in my forthcoming book). In turn, Wortham points to the efforts of services such as GetGlue and the more recent Vdio that promote forms of simultaneous or near-simultaneous viewing. And I think this is where activities such as binge watching shows like House of Cards come into play. Many television fans are seeking to be part of a shared experience and seek out opportunities to discuss, dissect, blog, and tweet their favorite shows. Many of these viewers may be outliers compared to the casual fans who watch when they can, but each of these modes of watching and many others are enabled in our on-demand culture. And Wortham’s column gets at the complexities of these issues in a pretty powerful way.

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Full Frame 2013 Part 1

In case you missed it elsewhere, I’ve been covering Full Frame this year for Filmmaker Magazine. My first report, focusing on Gideon’s Army, Citizen Koch, and American Promise went up yesterday. All three films come highly recommended, but I wanted to add here that American Promise, which follows the paths of two African-American males from age five through their senior year of high school, has continued to resonate for me. In addition to raising questions about the black male education achievement gap (an issue that has become especially pertinent for me given my work at an HBCU), the film powerfully conveys the challenges of parenting and growing up that many of us face. In particular, I appreciated the film’s honesty in depicting the college application process–and the potentially demoralizing effects of being rejected to the colleges you have identified as your top choices. It’s a film that has the potential to open up a powerful dialogue about any number of important questions.

Update: Here’s part two of my Full Frame dispatches, which focuses on Fight Like Soldiers, Die Like Children; Good ol’ Freda; and First Cousin Once Removed.

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Theater On-Demand Rising

I was fascinated to learn about the innovative distribution pattern for the indie film, Girl Rising, which tells the stories of nine young women from across the globe as they seek to improve their circumstances through obtaining an education. Each segment in the film is narrated by a famous actress, including Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep, and Selena Gomez, and the website offers a powerful opportunity to explore how the subjects of the film are faring, providing a nice afterlife for the documentary.

But in addition to offering an intriguing story, Girl Rising is notable for its use of the website Gathr to generate interest in the film and to encourage people to “demand” screenings of the film in their community. Gathr–a tool I discuss very briefly in my forthcoming book, On-Demand Culture–allows people to request screenings in their city, and if enough people request the film, it will play at a theater in the area. In fact, enough people have requested tickets for the film that it will be playing in a suburb of Raleigh on Monday, April 8 (go to the website for more details). Supporters of the film have made (as of Deadline’s report) more than 17,000 screening requests and more than 65,000 people have reserved tickets for the film, and as a result of this demand, Regal Cinemas has decided to schedule a one-week theatrical run for the film on over 150 screens across the country, an impressive achievement for an independent film.

To be sure, Girl Rising has a number of advantages over other indie films such as an all-star cast, politically important subject matter, and a collection of non-profit partners who are all promoting the film, but the success of this use of an on-demand model may provide a template for other filmmakers in the future.

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