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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Netflix Meets Facebook in the House

In my previous post, I discussed legislation that would allow Netflix to create a Facebook app that would (with your permission) publish your viewing history in your news feed. The legislation was responding to the Video Privacy Protection Act, which was passed in the wake of Robert Bork’s contentious Supreme Court nomination fight, prohibited video rental companies from publishing this information without the written permission of the customer.

But in a new wrinkle, the House version of this bill, sponsored by Virginia Republican, Bob Goodlatte, not only allows Netflix users to automatically share what they watch but also enables law enforcement officials to read individuals’ emails (or any other information based in the computing cloud, such as private social media postings) without obtaining a search warrant. There are some aspects of the bill that seem quite positive–Netflix and other services would be required to provide “clear and conspicuous” ways for users to opt out of sharing–but the loss of protections against private online communication is a big concern.

The Senate version of this bill includes those protections, but the ACLU (among other groups) has expressed concern about the risks to individual privacy when it comes to electronic communication. The Senate bill would already create tremendous value for Netflix and Facebook, who could obtain even more personal data about their customers (and I would likely opt out of any automated sharing, if only to avoid spamming my friends’ news feeds), but the House version of the bill erodes privacy rights considerably further.

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Netflix Meets Facebook

One of the quirks of digital movie rentals has been a legal impediment that prevented Netflix from integrating with Facebook and other social media sites. The challenge Netflix faced was a law, the 1988 Video Privacy Protection Act, but known informally as “Bork’s Law” because it was passed in the wake of Bork’s contentious Supreme Court nomination process. During the confirmation hearings, the Washington DC City Paper, an alternative weekly, obtained Bork’s movie rental records and published an article about them. Although his movie choices were relatively innocuous, it was rightfully seen as an invasion of privacy, and Bork’s Law was passed as a result. The result of that law was that Netflix was reluctant to create a Facebook app that would automatically post someone’s video rental or viewing activity.

Now, after several years of lobbying, the Senate has passed a bill creating an exception to this privacy loophole. According to Ars Technica the bill clarifies two areas of concern that Netflix faced. First, it makes clear that consent for sharing rental histories can be conducted over the Internet. Previously, this required written consent. Second, consent can be given for up to two years, rather than on a case-by-case basis. So, it’s probably safe to expect that Netflix will have a Facebook app in place relatively soon, opening up the potential that you will be alerted every time one of your friends binge watches an episode of Breaking Bad.

That said, if I remember correctly, the Facebook app would also allow Netflix to individualize accounts even further, especially given the practice of shared accounts. My tastes are obviously quite a bit different than other members of my family, which would mean that if I were to integrate Netflix and Facebook, I’d want to avoid broadcasting what they watched using a household account in my name. People already have a number of mechanisms for social sharing–GetGlue, Miso, etc–and typically volunteer this information when they want to share it. Social media is already the new “water cooler” for talking about TV and movies, so integrating something automatic seems likely to capture only a narrow group of users. In addition, given the continued ambiguities about privacy–expressed in part through the Facebook memes where people ask you to make their status updates private–suggest that many Netflix and Facebook users will opt out of this frictionless form of sharing (there’s actually quite a bit of research that supports this notion).

The bill still hasn’t been signed by President Obama, so there is still a ways to go before it becomes law. It seems like a reasonable update, as long as people are able to protect their privacy, but I think it also opens up the possibility for Netflix to engage in even more individualized forms of media recommendations.

 

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Redbox at Home

Just a quick note to point out that new details have emerged about the Redbox streaming video service. New Tee Vee reports that monthly subscriptions start at $6 a month, and that an $8 monthly subscription will also entitle users to four credits for kiosk rentals. Users will be able to access their Redbox streaming accounts from up to five devices, and the service will also offer video-on-demand rentals for as low as 99 cents. When I was completing my journal article on Redbox for the Canadian Journal of Film Studies, I finished by pointing out that Redbox would eventually move into streaming, so it will be interesting to see how they complement/compete with Netflix, YouTube, and others who are already doing streaming. If their listed prices are any indication, it’s possible that the service will continue to drive down the perceived value of digital video rentals and purchases even further.

Also worth noting is the fact that Redbox, rather than paying a flat fee for content (like Netflix does), will be paying for content based on the number of subscribers, a move that several studio executives have opposed in the past. Home Media Magazine has a good overview of some of the industrial implications of Redbox streaming.

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Rethinking the “Meme Election”

I have been turning over some ideas about the move to christen 2012 as the “Meme Election.” To some extent, this desire to revisit the 2012 campaign was driven by an Atlantic article by Megan Garber, which places emphasis on the Obama campaign’s deft ability to navigate various social media, an interpretation grounded in Obama’s own willingness to participate in various election-year memes, as well as the lively Obama Tumblr, which allowed the campaign to use a more playful tone. This playfulness is typified by Obama posing with McKayla Maroney, the “Not Impressed” gymnast from the U.S. Olympic team, whose scowl launched one of the more popular memes of the 2012 election.

Garber’s article seems to take for granted that Obama’s campaign was far more successful at using memes than Mitt Romney’s election team, and there is probably some truth to that, although to some extent at least, Obama’s team built upon an existing community of creative class workers who were more likely to support him than Obama. Many of the more popular memes (as Garber defines them), such as Eastwooding and Binders Full of Women (here’s my response), came from outside the campaign itself, as everyday people sought to participate by demonstrating their cleverness or by sharing the creativity of others, often to make a political point. As my somewhat infrequent blog posts show, I’ve been consistently amused by many of these memes and find them to be a fascinating expression of political culture, one that fits neatly with my enjoyment of (almost) all things snarky and satirical. Popular culture (as Henry Jenkins  reminded us in his discussions of “fan activism“) can be a powerful tool for conveying a political idea.

But I think this focus on image macros and other forms of visual cleverness may contribute to an incomplete depiction of how the 2012 election functioned. First, in the final days before the election–and even in the immediate aftermath–much of the debate was focused on the practice of interpreting polls. During the days leading up to the election, there were (for example) countless attempts to discredit polling expert Nate Silver, whose predictions turned out to be more or less spot on.  There was the “unskewed polls” guy, whose predictions were briefly shared, and certainly conservative fears about Obamacare, gun rights, and Benghazi, among other issues are shared in a viral (or meme-like) fashion. If we take the idea of the meme more broadly to include any “concept” that spreads via the internet, we have to take account for these attempts to circulate ideas, even if many of them are later proven false by fact-checkers (and of course, the critique of fact-checkers itself arguably became a meme). By talking about these issues as “memes,” I’m not ignoring other effects of calculating polling results or other aspects of the campaign, including the use of email and social media to fundraise and target voters (and I would argue that one of the under-reported stories of this year’s election is the intensification of campaigns using “Big Data” to identify and reach out to likely voters). Instead, I think we might benefit from a more nuanced perception of how memes function in the spaces of political and popular culture.

Garber is absolutely right about a number of points. Much of this communication is, as she puts it, “niche [and] networked.” To be sure, I disagree politically with many of my Facebook friends and often encountered image macros that didn’t reflect my political views, but the Obama Tumblr and other social media tools tended to attract participants who shared political views. She also points out the idea that we have reached the era of the “permanent campaign” (if we weren’t there already), one that involves an active, ongoing participatory political culture, one that isn’t necessarily tied to a specific political candidate, even if Obama benefited tremendously from social media. Much of that material will be frustrating, and memes can spread false information almost as quickly as it can spread truthful information. It can be profoundly clever and can dramatically change our perception of public figures (or at least reinforce emergent views of those figures). Perhaps rather than thinking about memes in terms of campaigns, we should understand them as part of an ongoing–often fraught–political conversation.

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On-Demand Update

The Amazon page for my second book, On-Demand Culture: Digital Delivery and the Future of Movies, is now live. The cover image and other details aren’t available, but you can check out the description and order it if you’re so inclined.

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The End of the Galaxy

It’s official, Cary’s gem of an art-house multiplex, the Galaxy Cinema, has announced that they will be closing the doors this weekend. The last movies will unspool on Sunday evening, and then the Research Triangle will have lost one of its most significant–and eclectic–movie theaters. The theater has been fending off an eviction notice for the last few months, along with development plans that would turn the location into the site of a grocery store. Even so, it’s impossible not to see the Galaxy’s struggles in the context of the turbulent futures of so many art house theaters as we convert from film to digital projection. David Bordwell has written eloquently about this topic, and independent art-house theaters across the country have been facing difficult decisions about whether to convert or not, given that most new digital projectors cost around $100,000. It’s a situation that affects another theater dear to my heart, the Cameo Art House in Fayetteville, where I saw dozens of movies every year before moving up to Raleigh. Both theaters are owned by local citizens who love movies and who have attempted to create not just a place for watching good, engaging, independent films but also places that give back to the community in a variety of ways through fundraisers, debate screenings, and other events.

The Galaxy has always been a hybrid space–one that offered Bollywood hits alongside of art house and independent movies and that catered to the diverse communities of professors, tech industry professionals, and others who called the Raleigh suburb home. The theater employees were knowledgeable about film and consistently friendly. It was clear that the workers were passionate about movies and about creating an atmosphere where film lovers would feel at home. It’s also the place where I had part of my first date with my wife, Andrea, so of course, there is some profound personal nostalgia that I will always have for the theater. There are a couple of other art house theaters in the Triangle–the Rialto in downtown Raleigh, the Colony in north Raleigh, and the Carolina in Durham, but it’s hard not to feel like a distinctive, local space has been lost, and I’d imagine that even with these other movie theaters, that I’ll be seeing far fewer movies in theaters (and maybe even far fewer movies) in the months to come.

I do hope that some of my local readers will consider the option of donating to support the survival of the Cameo Art House in Fayetteville. They have a page on their website calling for donations and explaining the costs (about $100,000 per screen) and the necessity of conversion, as well as the difficulty of financing this type of cost for theaters operating on the margins. It’s easy to say that movie lovers still have unprecedented choices when it comes to art house and independent films–the VOD menus on most cable sites offer a massive “multiplex” on-demand for costs that aren’t that much higher than a movie ticket, but the cultural pleasures of getting out of the house, of watching with others, are in danger of fading away. I realize that I’m verging on some of the nostalgic language about a dying movie culture that I generally try to criticize, but it’s hard to keep a sense of critical distance when those industrial changes hit so close to home.

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“Binders Full of Women:” 2012 and the Image Macro Election

Last night’s debate left us with two or three comments that will endure throughout the election season and beyond, but none will likely have the staying power of Mitt Romney’s remark that when he was seeking out job female applicants his staff brought him “binders full of women.” On one level, it’s easy to read Romney’s remarks as a slip of the tongue, but on another the comment seemed to confirm the viewpoint that Romney is a jerk who is oblivious to women’s needs. In her debate post, Amy Sullivan details the ways in which Romney (“Mitt the Man”) came across as insensitive to women, and the binders comment–which only came out when Romney was trying to avoid answering whether he supported the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act–has provided a shorthand for expressing that sentiment. Within minutes of of the comment (as CBS News reports), there were Twitter feeds (@RomneyBinders had 33,000 followers by Wednesday afternoon) and Tumblr accounts where many of the Romney binders images were posted, suggesting that the comments provoked a fair amount of outrage.

In keeping with the current election-year rhetoric, many of the Romney binders relied upon existing internet memes in order to make their political points, ranging from The Most Interesting Man in the World to a revival of the “texts from Hillary” meme (via That Wren Girl) and even a riff on the Ryan Gosling meme (borrowed from MoveOn’s Facebook page). Many other posts from the Binders Full of Women Tumblr use images of recognizable celebrities in order to mock Romney or tie his comments to misogynistic aspects of contemporary culture. In one image, Romney’s comments are aligned with Hugh Hefner and in another with John Cusack, and in probably my favorite, with the movie Dirty Dancing. Although these posts may not constitute an entirely politically coherent response to Romney’s remarks, they do help to make visible Romney’s lack of concern for a number of women’s issues (including his non-answer on the Lily Ledbetter question). Further, because of the popular culture associations–with TV, film, and other internet memes–many of these political expressions are instantly accessible.

In addition, these images help to reinforce the idea that the 2012 election’s media format is that of the image macro, a picture superimposed with text, usually with humorous intentions. If 2008 was the “YouTube election,” then it might seem odd that static images would make such a comeback, but I think there are a few reasons that this is happening. First, the role of Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook in this election eclipses what was happening in 2008. More people are sharing political information than before, and thanks to Twitter’s associations with micro-celebrity, more people are attempting to create clever responses to debates and other political events in order to achieve (very) temporary fame–a tendency that The Onion beautifully satirtized in a post anticipating the second debate. Second, image macros are more instantly accessible than video mashups, even while using some of the same principles of montage and associative editing that Richard Edwards and I discussed in our article on some of the more popular mashups from 2008, including “Vote Different.” Image macros are fleeting; they can be viewed more easily than videos. Richard and I argued that mashups created meaning through the clash (or meshing) of popular and political culture imagery, and most image macros follow this same logic. More crucially, they have a much lower barrier to entry in terms of their production in that virtually anyone can go to a Meme Generator site, post or (more likely) borrow an image, and then add the necessary text to create their contribution to a meme. Video editing, on the other hand, requires a much more significant investment of time on the part of the creator. Thus, rather than taking several hours to painstakingly piece together multiple clips from a movie with a political speech, meme participants can get something posted literally within minutes, shaping the response to a debate even before it has finished.

This might produce some anxiety about critical distance or a fear that we may be relying too much on snap judgements about who “won” a debate. But I would argue that these fleeting political comments actually open up the debates to greater scrutiny than ever before. And the “Romney binder” meme has, in fact, opened up Romney’s record for hiring women, and it turns out that his record isn’t that great. It’s difficult to predict whether a political meme will endure. Eastwooding seems to have faded relatively quickly even though it was able–briefly at least–to integrate itself with older, more established memes. Still, as a moment of crystallizing a political truth, these populist forms offer a fascinating, lightning-quick mode of expression.

Update: Tama Leaver gave a talk at this year’s Internet Research Conference that mentions this post–talk about up-to-the-minute research–and makes a useful distinction between “trolling,” which he defines as disruption for the sake of disruption, and “image macro politics,” which can work as a form of online activism or engagement. But even as I review Tama’s presentation, I find myself wondering whether “meme election” might be better, especially given elements such as the Paul Ryan Gosling Twitter account, which borrows heavily from the logic of “remix politics” but also makes only limited use of images or image macros.

 

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Knuckleball

Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s documentary Knuckleball introduces us to the tiny fraternity of major league baseball players who have made a career out of throwing the sport’s most confounding pitch. Unlike the guys who can throw blazing fastballs or curve balls that seem to drop off a table, knuckleball pitchers seem to defy all of the metrics–especially pitch speed–that we use to evaluate major legue talent. In fact, throwing a knuckleball, which involves releasing a pitch so that it has absolutely no spin, requires an astounding level of trust in factors that these pitchers cannot control, especially the wind currents that carry the slowly floating pitch in utterly unpredictable directions, leaving many of the pitchers to talk about their skills in terms that seem to have a Zen-like embrace of “letting go” of the pitch as it enters the world. This discussion of how the pitch works is fascinating by itself, but what fascinated me the most was how Stern and Sundberg were able to provide such a rich understanding of this tiny group of men, linked together across history and even across rivalries, because of a pitching talent that defies almost everything conventionally associated with major league pitching.

Knuckleball is structured around the 2011 seasons of two knuckleballers, Tim Wakefield, who was reaching the end of his long career, and R.A. Dickey, a former hard-throwing phenom who was reviving his career after discovering the knuckler during his 30s. Both men, along with Jim Bouton, Phil Niekro, Charlie Hough, and Wilber Wood, discuss the mechanics of throwing the pitch, but what comes across throughout the film is the uncertainty that both men face. Instead of the typical locker room jocularity, both Wakefield and Dickey are presented as contemplative family men, reflective about their unique status in baseball and the difficulty of playing a sport where their talents are often misunderstood and mistrusted. Wakefield acknowledges that even the most trusting managers and pitching coaches are quicker to give up on a knuckleballer after a few bad starts, but he is hanging on, hopefully just long enough to earn his 200th major league win.

Dickey’s story serves as a reminder that the knuckleball is often seen as a pitch of last resort–the pitch that minor leaguers will pick up when their talents have failed them and there seem to be no remaining options. In Dickey’s case, a deformity in his pitching arm scared off scouts who’d previously offered him a six-figure bonus after he led his University of Tennessee baseball team to the College World Series. Wakefield has a similar story. When he started his career, he’d been projected as a power-hitting first baseman but found that he couldn’t adjust to professional pitchers and, almost by chance, had a pitching coach notice his ability to throw a knuckler. Just a couple of years later, he was in the major leagues with the Pirates, nearly leading the team to the World Series. But like the floating, darting pitch, within two years, Wakefield was on a different path, released by the Pirates and picked up as a gamble by the Red Sox, where he would play for nearly to decades. Even Hall of Famer Phil Niekro suggests that he picked up the pitch only because he could never have thrown a big league fastball.

Because of this outsider status–a pitch based upon unpredictability and less dependent on traditional metrics–Dickey and Wakefield seem most comfortable with their small fraternity of knuckleballers, and Stern and Sundberg capture some fascinating and fun moments when most of the living knuckleballers get together and talk about their experiences. In other scenes, Dickey is shown seeking counsel from Wilbur Wood while visiting Los Angeles rather than discussing the pitch with his pitching coach. In addition, the film spends quite a bit of time looking at Dickey and Wakefield’s lives outside of baseball–their interactions with their wives and children, even on the road–reminding us that their successes depend in part on the families that supported and encouraged them–even when that meant living on $800 a month and moving dozens of times to minor league teams all over the U.S. If the knuckleballer is a solitary figure in the locker room, he is also a family man, older than most of his teammates.

The film culminates with Wakefield paying tribute to the others in his small fraternity, one that forever seems to be on the verge of extinction, given the small number of players that throw it. At the same time, Dickey’s success–he has blossomed into an ace pitcher since the film was produced–holds out promise that this small Zen-like fraternity will endure as yet another player seeks out another backdoor path into the major leagues.

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