Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Rise of the Indie Game Developer

Two years ago, Swedish games programmer Markus Persson walked out of the development studio where he'd spent the last four years of his life making free-to-play flash games, went back to his apartment, and created Minecraft. His impulse was guided by the simple notion that game developers should only make games they care about. Less than two years after its release, Minecraft has been purchased by more than 1 million people around the world. There are more than half a million YouTube videos dedicated to the sandbox building game, numerous 24-hour live streams, and more than 3 million registered online community members. Not bad for a game made on a whim.

Given the growth of digital distribution, the rise of mobile platforms, industry-backed funding schemes, and a general feeling of competitive spirit, there has never been a better time for independent video game development. Innovation, creativity, and self-sufficiency are thriving in the global games industry; "indie" games are no longer approached with caution but are hailed as examples of brave, risky game making, led by a spirited wave of new creators who are embracing a DIY ethos. Minecraft, Super Meat Boy, Braid, and Limbo are examples of successful indie titles created by individuals or small teams that have managed to capture the attention of both the indie and mainstream space while retaining their creators' original vision. But for every Minecraft, Super Meat Boy, Braid, and Limbo, there are countless other titles--some just as innovative and spirited--that fall into obscurity and remain there, unnoticed and unappreciated. Given the means by which most indie games are published, unaided by the same marketing and promotion campaigns considered routine in the mainstream space, this is not all that surprising; nor is it surprising that luck plays such a big part in determining which indie titles "make it" and which don't. What does this unpredictability say about the future of independent game development? Can self-published games really continue to thrive in a space dominated by a handful of large studios whose overriding concern for financial gain leads them to repeat the same tired formula?

Minecraft and the key to indie success

The most astounding thing about Minecraft's success is that the game isn't even complete. Persson has kept it in beta stage until he's done implementing the various changes he has been working on since he came up with the idea for the game. It has been sold at various prices to date, according to Persson's progress; at the moment, you can buy Minecraft for €14.95 ($20.67) in beta stage. When it's finished, Persson plans to sell the game for €20 ($27.66). Take a second to reconsider the fact that the game has, to date, been purchased by more than 1 million people. Although Persson is better off financially now than the day he quit his programming job, he's no more enlightened about the reasons behind Minecraft's phenomenal popularity.

"I think it's a mixture of launching the game just as indie games were really taking off by pure luck, and the fact that people enjoy telling each other about what they make in the game," he says. "I think part of the label of 'indie' is that you make games for the sake of making good games rather than just to make money, so there's an inherent will there to be experimental and original. But as with any craft, I think it's important that you know why you're doing it. If you just want to express yourself or affect people, you shouldn't waste time trying to make business deals. Some of the time you can get lucky and find something new and exciting, but many times you just end up alienating the player unless you're very careful at exactly how you break the conventions. [In Minecraft], the combination of being able to create anything you want and the randomly generated worlds and encounters means there's a lot of room for personal stories."

This, perhaps more than anything else, is why Minecraft has gained the following it has. The game gives players freedom to leave their personal mark: there are no quests, goals, or rules; no linear story; and no guiding hand of the creator pushing players towards an inevitable end. Minecraft presents players with a sandbox world and lets them populate it with their own stories through engineering and a random combination of elements. Simplicity has a lot to do with it: building stuff out of blocks is something anyone can do. But more than that, it's the promise of possibility and depth that seems to be drawing players in. The Internet is buzzing with examples of the size, scope, and depth of Minecraft's world: a roller coaster; a topographically correct, albeit not to scale, rendering of Earth; and a highly detailed, full-scale version of the Enterprise from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Minecraft is doing something right. It's giving players what they want, and what they cannot seem to get from other gaming experiences. But what is that, exactly?

"I'm not so sure there's nothing indies can do that big studios can't," Persson says. "Valve took a chance with Portal but wisely chose not to spend too many resources on it, and it ended up being a huge success. I think it really comes down to risk management, where the almost guaranteed return of investment on a sequel to a popular game is more tempting than taking a chance on something more experimental. You can either try to replicate what someone else has done, and risk ending up drowning in the noise, or you can focus on making a game you yourself would enjoy playing."

"I choose to develop games I like to play myself, mostly because that's also the games I like making the most. I also happen to represent a fairly common demographic, so it works well. I think the current hype surrounding indie games will probably die out over time, and the more commercially successful companies might start to get more organized, but I see no reason why games can't continue to be made by small teams who make games for the sake of making good games, and still make a decent living doing so."

Whether it was more to do with luck than with timing, or whether it's simply a case of bringing together elements that players can't get from other gaming experiences, Minecraft has unwillingly set an example of how best to make it as an indie. You can almost hear the collective thoughts on independent game developers everywhere: "How do I do that?" Which leads to the bigger question of whether there really is a formula for success in the indie scene, or if it's merely about doing what you want and hoping for the best. Increasingly, the answer is pointing towards the latter, something that does not guarantee the indie golden age will last.

Journey, Monaco, and the role of publishers

By definition, independent video game development is the business of making games without the support of publishers. On the surface, the indie scene is about self-sustainability and creative control; underneath, it is guided by the same set of core values that have guided other independent movements before it. The Impressionist painters of the 19th century spearheaded one of the earliest indie movements in modern art: while artists had already begun to move towards self-sufficiency after the Renaissance in the 17th century, looking for alternative ways to fund themselves outside the patronage of the Catholic Church, it was the Impressionists that finally broke free from the established rules of academic painting and began to hold their own independent exhibitions.

The Impressionists were radicals, living by the principle that progress could be achieved only through the breaking of conventions. Their ideas were also part of the larger artistic, literary, and intellectual movement of Romanticism, whose roots lay in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution; the art of the time was guided by a newfound sense of individuality and emotion, emphasizing realism and the plight of the average man and unified by a communal independence and spirit of rebellion. The term "art for art's sake" was coined during this period, a principle that has continued to guide independent movements from politics through to video games.

But while the very nature of "indie" implies a DIY approach, the ideas driving growth, evolution, and transformation are arguably more important than the methods by which they are achieved. Artists do not particularly like the idea of patronage, but have always depended on it to survive. This is an important distinction to make, for while it's in the nature of indie developers to stay away from publishers, the truth is that the indie movement could not have reached a golden age without their support. While mobile platforms are slowly growing and providing independent developers with an outlet to make small, cheap titles, it's big publishers like Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, Apple, and Valve that have been the most influential in helping indies reach an audience. Platforms like Steam, XBLA, PSN, the App Store, and WiiWare have given indie games exposure and have served as a critical tool in helping audiences understand what indie games are all about. By doing this, publishers have provided indies with a much-needed audience.

One of the industry's most successful indie studios, Thatgamecompany, has been publishing on Sony's PSN since its debut title, Flow in 2007. The game was the first in the studio's three-game deal with Sony. The studio was founded in 2006 by Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago, graduates of the University of Southern California's Interactive Media MFA program. Their aim, now as when they began, was to create games that push existing boundaries through meaningful experience, something they could not have done without Sony's help.

"It's amazing how quickly publishers adopted a new business model and how they've adapted to a different process," Santiago says. "I think they have been great at that. Although, one area that I think does need to be improved going forward is access--right now indie development is synonymous with downloadable games, so there could be more done to improve access to these titles and help users understand how to get to these games, and in some cases, help them realise that they even exist."

Thatgamecompany hasn't had much trouble with the latter--upon its release, the studio's second PSN title, Flower, debuted in the top five PlayStation Store games and continued to stay in the top 20 as the months passed. Santiago points out that the PS3 audience is a hardcore audience, and if they want to play games like Flower then this suggests that there is plenty of room to create games that challenge existing gaming conventions.

"As a gamer, I certainly want to play more games like this," Santiago says. "I'm also someone who values games, music, films, and books that have a sense of soul and real personality to them. I would love to see more developers try and create games like this. We know there is an audience out there wanting this kind of stuff, and the gaming conventions we're familiar with are so limited; the craft of video game design is still so young so I don't think there is as much a need to rely on past design principles. There is opportunity to stand out."

Santiago and the Thatgamecompany team are self-professed followers of a game design school that advocates the process of making game mechanics work around an idea or emotional experience rather than the other way around. This is harder than it sounds: games are made up of rules that must be followed in order for the game to actually work, so putting emotion at the forefront of this process means there aren't any patterns to draw from. This method also served as the basis for Thatgamecompany's upcoming title, Journey--the last in the Sony three-game deal. At its core, Journey is an online experience that seeks to explore the territory that lies between current online multiplayer experiences (game first, social experience on top) and social games found on sites like Facebook (social experience first, game on top).

"The team focused on making the online experience completely embedded within the game itself. So when you start the game you're in the world, and as you move you can encounter other people, who are players--there are no gamertags and no messaging system, just other players who essentially become characters. You can play together, or you can keep playing by yourself. We wanted to give the player a sense of being small and humble, so they could feel more connected to a stranger. We threw away what we know about the online experience. It's similar to the idea that there is a narrow range of emotional experiences in games currently. You could say the range of experiences in online gaming is even narrower, so we felt there was a lot of opportunity to offer something different."

On the other end of the spectrum lie developers whose previous experience with publishers pushed them towards working independently. Andy Schatz, founder of Pocketwatch Games, designed his 2010 Independent Games Festival (IGF) award-winning title Monaco, a four-player co-op game inspired by French heist films and set in the city of the same name, while working for a AAA studio in 2003. After unsuccessfully pitching the project to a number of publishers, Schatz decided to go solo. While he recognises the importance of platforms like Steam, XBLA, PSN, and the iPhone in giving indie developers wider exposure, he is convinced that publishers are not doing enough in this space.

"Big-budget games are boring," he says. "Even the best ones are boring. Indie games often suck too. But because there are no corporate dollars involved, indie developers can make games that they are passionate about. Good indie games are never built for a demographic: they are built with the passion of the developer. In the best cases, that passion is infused into the game in such a way that it rubs off on the gamer."

Schatz believes that as long as big-budget titles continue to "suck," the indie scene will continue to grow bigger and bigger, and the quality of indie titles will improve. Although he does believe that there is some value in repeating things that work well, he says that game developers often hit a creative wall when designs begin to cross each other's territories.

"When designs get inbred, they no longer are good designs--they only work for the people that have played all the previous iterations of those designs. I'm a huge fan of RPGs, but modern console RPGs like Fallout and Oblivion have really bastardized the design into something that looks similar to the old games we love, but don't actually work on their own merits. Yet I still played both of those games because I understand RPG conventions. I thought they were both boring, but I played them nonetheless, probably because RPGs are an obsessive compulsive affair. I have a hard time believing that someone who is new to RPGs will really enjoy them. On the other hand, I really like the new Assassin's Creed multiplayer. It's not perfect, but it's genuinely fun, and it feels like it was designed from the ground up as a game and not just an inbred variation on a formula."

Schatz believes indie developers can get a lot further with critical success than with publisher support. For him, winning the 2010 IGF award for Excellence in Design was a big step in the right direction.

"Commercial success would be nice of course," he says. "It would be great to not be poor. But nothing gives me the inner satisfaction or feeling of self-worth like critical success. It's why I've been able to stay indie for the past six years despite modest and intermittent commercial success. It's part of the nature of the indie scene to cater to audiences that aren't being satisfied by big-budget games, so I think there will always be an indie scene making the games that the AAA guys and gals are too risk-averse to attempt. Us indies have to keep exploring, and we have to keep welcoming in outsiders. The current crop of indies won't be tomorrow's innovators: it will be fresh faces, the ones that think we are the ones doing it wrong. I love that I'm getting old and boring; it means that there's more out there that can surprise me."

Jonathan Blow, The Witness, and giving indies a helping hand

The indie golden age isn't just about a greater number of audiences enjoying independent games; it's also about bringing financial stability and a certain hierarchy to the indie development space. Indie developers once all stood on the same platform--a platform with limited resources, limited manpower, and limited funds. Now, a certain hierarchy has begun to form. Certain indie developers have now hit the big time, changing both their status and their position in the indie scene. Some have used their success to form their own studios; others have joined bigger studios; a few have even stayed put, continuing to work in exactly the same way they always have. However, as the indie scene continues to grow stronger, the same kind of oligarchic structure that rules the wider games industry will inevitably develop. The number of indie developers that have had success to date is a small one compared to the number of developers out there currently making independent games, meaning as they rise to the top, they will soon be in a position to help others, thus creating growing dependence and consolidation within the indie space.

Whether or not this is a good or bad thing remains to be seen. One could argue that as long as someone out there is making independent games that seek to challenge existing gaming conventions and provide audiences with new experiences, then the way the industry is structured doesn't matter much. But who is to say the indie scene will continue to uphold its indie values once success and mainstream attention begin to influence its structural foundations?

About a year ago, some of the most successful independent game creators joined together to form the Indie Fund, a project that aims to provide indie developers with a monetary alternative to the publisher model and thus help promote financial independence with the indie scene. Cofounder Jonathan Blow (Braid, The Witness) says the project is about more than just helping out fellow indies--it's about encouraging creation and helping the indie community get stronger.

"For me personally, I like the idea of using what money I have in an actual productive manner, to help make the world better in some way, and then hopefully get a return on it," Blow says. "In the game industry there are decades of a kind of road-to-nowhere funding model that many developers fall into. They need money to make a game, they get that money from a publisher, but the publisher gives them the minimum necessary and takes as much royalty as they can and pays as late as possible. So [developers] are in a poor bargaining position, and this happens over, and over, until the developer finally dies or somehow gets lucky. The publisher doesn't care if the developer dies, because there are 10 other developers just like them who are begging to sign a lousy deal. Indie Fund is about providing better terms than that and letting developers keep much more of the money from game sales, so as to provide an alternative to this model."

The way the Indie Fund model works is by handpicking a small number of projects out of the hundreds of submissions received so far and delivering monthly payments in return for monthly builds of the game. Once the game is released, Indie Fund asks for the initial investment amount and a small percentage of the revenue (proportional to the amount of funding needed to complete the game). If a game does not generate enough revenue to repay the investment to Indie Fund within three years of release, the agreement expires and the developer no longer owes any money. The application process itself is even more bare-bones: Indie Fund doesn't ask for a design doc or a full schedule--just a playable prototype that shows the promise of the idea. While this model certainly sounds risky, Blow believes having veteran indie developers judging each project helps to ensure against total failure.
"It's made easier by the fact that our developers operate on budgets that are very low compared to the budgets of publisher-funded games. Because we give the developer most of the royalties, an Indie Fund-supported game is a credible shot at financial independence, so people are willing to work very cheaply--eating-ramen-and-living-at-your-mom's-house cheaply, maybe--because they are mostly working for themselves. The other reason we're better than publishers is that we don't tell the developer what to do. We give them advice, but ultimately we leave them to make their own decisions. That's important because that decision-making power is what it means to be independent. When we sign a developer, we decide at that time that we have faith the developer has the talent and tenaciousness to make a good game. Thereafter, we do not micromanage or demand they make the main character a badass monkey man."

Besides nurturing up-and-coming indie developers, Blow is looking after his own project, The Witness, an exploration-based puzzle game set on an uninhabited island and due out at the end of the year. It is unlikely that luck will play much part in The Witness's success, since Blow's first title Braid was a critical hit. He touches on Santiago's earlier point about the indie method of shaping game mechanics around an idea or experience, rather than the other way around, and its relation to the idea that the act of playing a game has a negative impact on its ability to effectively communicate its ideas (since first and foremost players must actively engage in the act of play before they can begin to think about what they are playing).

"Games are fundamentally bad at telling stories because the stories basically have to be pasted in there and have nothing to do with the gameplay. However, when forward-thinking game designers talk about communicating ideas through a game, they aren't usually talking about just pasting something in there--they are talking about meaning embedded in the actual mechanics and play of a game. Thus what you experience during play is the meaning, and there's no contradiction."

"I am not going to try and craft a game to please critics, just like I am not trying to craft a game to please players. I am just trying to make the thing that is the best that I know how to make it, which seems to mean something different for every game I work on. What I care about is that some players out there, somewhere, really get and appreciate the work, and that something happens in the world, however subtle, that wouldn't have happened if I had not made the game."

Blow is of the mind that his work with the Indie Fund will ensure that the indie scene will not die out or transform into a carbon copy of the mainstream industry. The fact that indie developers continue to be free to fail will remain their great strength.

"They can be a bit crazy. They can do things that others would not, and some of those things can be very successful. But if you look at the games that indies are actively developing at any time, there is also a lot of conservatism--people just making games that are trying to be like mainstream games, but on a lower budget. So that's a bummer, but most of the big indie hits of the past several years have been non-conservative games. I would hope that more aspiring indie developers would pay attention to that fact."

Ask most indie developers some of their favourite indie titles of last year and Super Meat Boy is a guaranteed mention. Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes (aka Team Meat) started out like most indie developers--making Web and flash games and other "website server crap," as Refenes elegantly puts it. Also like with most indie developers, their hit idea originated from a prototype flash game--one that McMillen and friend Jonathan McEntee made in about three weeks. After the game became popular on the Newgrounds website, McMillen was approached to develop a console version.

"It's interesting, this thing about luck. I would say we have had horrible luck," McMillen says. "Our initial console launch was horrible. We launched [on Xbox Live Arcade] at the most competitive week in the most competitive month for games, alongside titles like Costume Quest. We thought we were screwed. But word of mouth picked us back up, and then Steam picked us up and carried us through the year. So yeah, while I think luck plays an important part in the whole indie business, it's the overall quality of the game that's more important. I'd like to believe that all the most successful indie games in past five years have also been the best."

McMillen, 30, and Refenes, 29, live in different states. This makes working together hard, but not impossible. Not that either of them has thought about doing anything differently: after working for big-budget developers and publishers, McMillen and Refenes are passionate about never working for anyone, or having anyone work for them (the words "I'd rather shoot myself in the face" were used). The two developers know what they want. They remain certain that other indie developers feel the same way, which is why they believe that while the indie golden age may one day pass, there are always going to be creators who want to work independently and who will succeed in creating engaging, and successful, independent games.

"I think it's important to understand that in the 1980s and 1990s studios were doing things the way indies are doing things right now--they just made cool games," McMillen says. "There are so many more levels to it now--publishers notice us, there are dedicated awards, etc. Every year the industry discusses whether they just experienced the heyday of indies and whether it's all going to go downhill from there. But it always seems to get better. Two years ago it was all about World of Goo and Braid; last year it was Super Meat Boy, Minecraft, and Limbo. From a design standpoint, every indie game that comes out and does well makes it more OK for big developers to go into that territory. I think because of Super Meat Boy there might be a super-hard platformer from a big studio soon; similarly, if Braid never happened, maybe Limbo may not have been picked up. Every indie success opens the door to new possibilities."

"It's always going to be sustainable because there are always going to be people who can only do things that way," Refenes says. "So even if [the current generation of indies] do grow into a mini-industry, there will be new indies after us. That's never going to go away."

Team Meat believes people loved their game because it was honest. Not necessarily because it pushed the boundaries of game design or tried to do something that has never been done before, but because it didn't talk down to gamers: it wasn't easy, and it wasn't trying to make money.

"I think people get tired of being talked down to by games," McMillen says. "A lot of mainstream publishers and developers treat their fans like they're dumb. They want to make sure everyone can beat the game, and this removes all real reward. They juice an IP for all it's worth. I can understand why people say that games aren't art--it's because the majority of mainstream games out there are pure business. Game design is all about risk, reward, reflex-driven, intelligence-based playing; sure, it's not something everyone can do. But if you do nothing new no one will care. As an indie you have to do something new. You have to do something better."- Laura Parker

Friday, March 4, 2011

Unintentional Diptych #1: Grey Gardens (1975) & Dogtooth (2009)

Aside from the obvious—sequestered filial oddity; country estates; and cats, too many to count in Grey Gardens and a very memorable one in Dogtooth—these two films complement each other in a very particular way that warrants mention: Both are presented so plainly and with so little outside frame of reference that the decidedly strange goings-on of each house begin to feel normal. That the direct cinema approach of Grey Gardens entails no voice-over narration on the part of documentarians Albert and David Maysles allows the two Edies to tell things their own way, and their bizarre worldviews—which seem, at least in part, a result of their relative isolation from anyone but each other—take on a consistent internal logic. So, too, do the just-as-strange habits and beliefs of the nameless Greek family in Dogtooth, who bark like dogs to scare off potential cats, rattle off wildly inaccurate definitions of common words (zombie = a small yellow flower; motorway = a strong wind), and listen to Frank Sinatra under the impression that the man singing in a language they don’t understand is their grandfather. What’s more, the father acts as translator and informs his children that the lyrics to “Fly Me to the Moon” are about honoring thy mother and thy father, sans the religious connotation. Family above all else indeed and, what’s more, the two films’ bizarre closed systems function well enough until intrusions from the strange, hostile outside world put them in jeopardy. This comes in the form of newspaper articles lamenting the disrepair of the titular estate in Grey Gardens and—egads—pop culture in Dogtooth.

Clues by which to glean the latent meaning of these two films are few and far between, and herein lies the ultimate intrigue (and fun): Each is so wonderfully off-putting as to not require a satisfying, catch-all explanation. They function as puzzles whose final pieces must be supplied by the viewer; there aren’t answers so much as there are guesses. Were this not the case, the effect of the two films would be lessened rather than enhanced. To call them oblique is an understatement but, in their own way, both Grey Gardens and Dogtooth act as fitful reminders of the inherent danger—and, in the latter, humor—of narrowing the lens through which we view the world. That only one of them is fictional (and thank god it’s Dogtooth) somehow adds an encouraging note to an unintentional diptych that is otherwise as disturbing as it is dispiriting. - Michael Nordine HTN

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Stale Bread and Stale Love?

Writers have been writing love stories for as long as some of us can remember. Every plot needs a love affair. Isn't that right? well perhaps not. Who says that one cannot write a story without a romantic relationship. After all many individuals live without a significant other for at least part of their life. Then why can't we enjoy the life of a lonely gas station attendant that works into the wee hours of the morning and goes home to an empty bed, blown up to fit a theatrical release. Why can't we enjoy the utter loneliness of a human being. After all we are all lonely in our lives, aren't we. We have all shared the feeling of being completely alone in a room rich in walking talking bodies. Having that someone that cares about you could at times be just as lonely as having no one. 

Why is hollywood stuck on love? Well for one thing the silver screen has often been considered a mirror for our dreams rather than a portrait of our reality. That projector in the back, and the sixty foot screen in front of us, isn't there to show us our lives. Hollywood is a glorification of everything. People in the movies don't look like us, they don't talk like us, they don't act like us. Though they seem to do all those things. Thats the art of the crew, the magician behind the curtains. They try to make you believe what is up there is you or your friends. So of course you can fall for a girl like Jessica Alba and she will love you too. Which draws us to think that the objective of a romance in a film is to make you believe that it could happen to you. To glorify a human need. 

That explanation makes a lot of sense. We have dozens of cooking shows and that fulfills a basic human need. Why can't we have romance and have it fill another need. When you see a television chef prepare a meal, it looks as beautiful as a perfectly formulated romance on the big screen. It's the illusion that you can one day have that in your life, no matter how unlikely that fact might be. Lets be honest most of us will never cook that dish as Chef Ramsay did, and most of us will never get to make love to Angelina Jolie (not my personal taste). Most people that fall in love will live a life of mediocrity lacking excitement, as most people will resort to eating take out, or a below average meal. Movies make you challenge your mediocrity and make you dream. 

It's the matter of hope. You can rob us of anything and everything, but the day you rob us of hope, you leave us with nothing. The story of pandora and her box is a great example of this. All the diseases of the world can be born by human kind if you give them one little ingredient, and that is hope. So we watch people fall in love on the big screen hoping we will one day too. 

Is hope the only reason we have romance in our films. Well perhaps not, life imitates art imitates life. So the love you see on that screen does in fact resemble the love you share with another person. It is a reality. Maybe you weren't on top of they eiffel tower the first time you kissed, but didn't it feel like you were. Maybe your heart was beating a million miles an hour and you could barely control yourself, but when you think back now wasn't it beautiful? Love is life. If we aren't in love with someone we are hoping to be. If we are not with someone than we are pursuing someone, or maybe just hoping that that someone would turn around and read the love in our eyes. 

Perhaps if you asked the lonely gas station attendant, he would tell you about Martha. Martha the hunched over dodgy eyed brunette that fills up at 5PM every day. She does it five bucks at a time because thats who she is. She makes him smile and she laughs at his jokes. He loves her more than he has ever loved a woman and he's waiting for the day when he can finally ask her out on a date. Now that's a film. Aren't we all waiting for that dodgy eyed brunette in our lives? Well maybe we aren't looking for those features, but we are looking for her. The films capture that thrust because writers live amongst us. 

Either we are in love, or we are falling in love, or hoping we were in love. Films are a duplication of our reality. So yes every good story has a romantic sub plot to it. What would happen if it didn't. Is love the formula for every great masterpiece? Well not necessarily. Shawshank Redemption didn't glorify love as most films do, and it was perhaps the greatest film made. Not every film has to be about love, just as not every film has to show the main actors enjoying a meal. 

So why do we put up with the monotony? Well because it makes sense. It's a subject that can be endlessly explored. We will never have enough of it. You can go through a million struggles in your life and you will still think about the girl you love as much as any of the other things, if not more. It takes up a lot of your mind and it takes up a lot of you. So when you sit back to watch a larger than life projection of life, romance makes it more credible, weather its real or not. Weather its a subplot or the main theme. Love is the ingredient of life, and therefore an ingredient to our art. 

So go our there Live, Love, and Eat. 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Is Netflix Screwing Itself Over By Focusing on Streaming?

Since it was founded in 1997, Netflix has quickly risen to become one of the dominant providers of home video entertainment. After rendering Blockbuster’s business model woefully outdated, Netflix has made a big bet on streaming, partnering with hardware manufacturers to offer its digital distribution services over many platforms. You can now buy dozens of phones, Blu-Ray players, and video game consoles that stream Netflix movies, and that number grows every day.
Recently, Netflix made substantial changes to its pricing plans, introducing a streaming-only plan for $7.99, while jacking up the pricing of its DVD/Blu-Ray plans. The net effect of this will likely be to drive more people towards the streaming-only plan, while causing some attrition for its higher end plans. This makes sense in the short-run; after all, Netflix’s disc subscribers require Netflix to spend over half a billion dollars on postage per year and maintain costly distribution centers. But by focusing on streaming for the future, is Netflix screwing itself over?

Edward Epstein (author of The Hollywood Economist) has a post at The Wrap laying out the potential pitfalls with this plan. The crux of the issue is that digital streaming is an entirely different market than DVD rentals, primarily due to legal reasons. With DVDs, the “first sale doctrine” allows Netflix to purchase a DVD and rent it out to anyone without getting the permission of the copyright holder. Obviously, licensing digital content is a whole different animal:
In the case of new movies, studios license slates of 20 or so titles in so-called output deals for hundreds of millions of dollars. The average cost for a single title in such a deal is about $16 million for a two-year license. Where Netflix can buy 10,000 copies of a major title for $150,000 to mail out, it will need to spend about $16 million to license it for streaming. Such a hundredfold increase in price can obviously be deleterious to profits especially since Netflix still has to maintain its mailing centers, and buy DVDs, for the subscribers who elect to continuing using the mail-in service either because they prefer DVDs’ higher quality and features or they don’t have the apparatus to receive digital streaming.

Netflix recently made a deal with Epix to get rights to films by Paramount, Lionsgate and MGM. That deal is said to cost about $900 million over the course of five years, not cheap by any measure and maybe not as good a value as buying DVDs (although of course, the eventual saved costs on distribution and postage may make this profitable). Moreover, Netflix recently offered to pay between $70,000 to $100,000 per episode to stream current episodes of hit primtime shows.

Many of Netflix current content deals — deals that have made Netflix Watch Instantly such an appealing option for many subscribers — were cut during a time when people had no idea what the hell digital streaming was or how to value it. This is why we can get Starz movies and episodes of The Office on Netflix; Netflix cut a backdoor deal with Starz for the streaming rights to its content, and its content deals for TV shows happened before properties such as Hulu or were as big as they are today. When these deals come up for renewal in 2012, you can bet that the price for this content is going to be much more onerous for Netflix.

In addition, Netflix faces increasing competition from a variety of sources. HBO is launching its own portal, HBO GO, which will allow HBO subscribers to stream HBO movies and original series. Meanwhile, Amazon is launching a Netflix competitor, and the new video games service OnLive may soon offer movies to subscribers. Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes (who, to be fair, has a horse in this race; Warner Bros. is an investor in OnLive) recently declared that Netflix hasn’t shown it can compete seriously in the content distribution space.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings strikes me as a monstrously intelligent guy; I’m sure Netflix has run financial models and done a great deal to predict what will happen if Netflix’s future is streaming-only. But with the world of content delivery in such upheaval these days, and movie studios loathe to cede power to Netflix the way the music industry ceded power to Apple, Netflix may face a more difficult road ahead than its current profits and growth would indicate.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Tightrope Dreamer

Most of todays world is too impoverished to have the leisure to acquire hobbies that can cost years in time and ample money. The few that do live above the poverty line can in fact find themselves enough time and money to explore the greater, or is it lesser things in life. Now why have I made it a point to bring this up to the avid readers of our dear blog. Well because this has to somehow relate to film. I'm a man of theories. I love creating little theories about life and human interaction that can than either be accepted or punctured by my fellows. Having cleared that, I propose that filmmakers in the US like other artist, become so at times due to the opportunities found in our great country, or by the picturesque self portrait created by hollywood. 

What I chose to propose today is simple; Hollywood is a magnet for dreamers who strut the fine line of financial independence and a pool of sharks ready to devour them on the other side. Is it really as bad as a pool inseminated with sharks? I would say giving up on your art definitely is. There must be a reason the word art so closely resembles the word heart. No, I don't mean to make heart into her-art, as her-story has become to history, I'm simply referring to the phonetics of it. Art comes from the heart. Well that is a slight misconception, inspiration comes from the heart, great art is well thought out. Though the point is made, the origin of inspiration is also the origin of passion and hence makes men and women do crazy things for their art. 

Putting that paragraph behind us lets now talk about the reality of hollywood life. Everyone in hollywood is a dreamer. A landscape of dreamers can be the wondrous and most deterring perspective. On one hand everyone hopes to make millions of dollars. Talk about being the next Spielberg, Aaron Sarkin, or Nicole Kidman is ramped in the streets of this dream landscape. But those that have suffered the reality for a few years have become privy to the thought of mediocrity. Most of these dreamers will simply become pegs in the great hollywood machine. They may even in part be responsible for hoisting the greats on their gritty shoulders. Yet be considered nothing more than mere masses themselves. 

In a world where nothing is predetermined and people live in possibilities of what may be rather than the reality of what is, you find ample beauty in the minimal tasks undertaken by the so called artists. Its beautiful to see the self expression of so many individuals and then unfortunately to judge it for better or worse. The struggle continues on, as thousands sacrifice their time for their passions. there is a beauty in these men and women taking mediocre jobs in hopes of one day launching their careers. The servers of this city do so for flexible hours for their auditions. They breathe for their art. In itself isn't that the most beautiful of things, to find pockets of passion in a crowd of lost individuals, for we are all a little lost. 

There is no one way to make it in the world of art. it's a constant struggle from day one till the end day. Which is what creates the best of art as is. Art is a struggle of ones emotions with ones physical being. Filmmakers know this too well. Unfortunately for them there is money to be had in a lot of unartistic jobs that make films possible. Many fall prey to the unions that create the magic but are not asked to invent it. Which is neither a strike against them nor those who are responsible to think it up. It is simply another pit fall as the lonely filmmaker treads the tight rope, risking individuality at every second of every day. 

He wears on his feet his dreams and possibilities and holds in his hands the great passion that burdens him at times but also balances him. He takes every step with talented precision and every breath with firm determination. He doesn't look back because even one step in is too far along the way to look back. He repeatedly glances at the end of the line, while maintaining his position firmly. He doesn't know the calculated yards between his destiny and his present predicament but he tries to keep a steady pace as the crowd cheers and jeers. 

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The Lamentable Weekend Gross — what happened?

Despite good reviews, Comic-Con buzz, and plenty of pre-release screenings, Scott Pilgrim Versus The World has made only $10.5 million of its $60 million budget thus far. Let's commence the Sunday afternoon quarterbacking.

So Scott Pilgrim came in fifth at the box office this weekend — barring word of mouth that verges on mind control, it's unlikely to go up next week. The film will probably break even in time, but what about the film failed to capture an audience right out the gate? Here are some theories....

1.) Michael Cera backlash: Most thought Cera made a fine Scott Pilgrim, but some folks are very vocally burnt out by his semi-twee brand of comedy. Somehow, this mild-mannered actor has become a lightning rod for intense vitriol. Here's a fake trailer that capitalizes on that attitude:

2.) Critical backlash: The movie has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 80%, but those critics who weren't too fond of film could have set the agenda more so than usual. Every film has its detractors, but as Linda Holmes at NPR observes, the reviews of Scott Pilgrim have been a soapbox for critics to razz on the film's demographic:

After referring to the first part of the movie as a "dork-pandering assault," The Boston Phoenix reviewer goes on to say that Michael Cera's performance is "irritating" in part because of "the non-stop Pavlovian laugh track provided by the audience at the screening I attended." (As far as I know, that's a first: "You made the audience laugh, you irritating actor in a comedy, and that's what's wrong with you.")
The review in the St. Petersburg Times begins, "First of all, I'm not a video gamer. I have discovered more appealing ways to not have a life."
The New York Observer sniffs that the film is "clearly directed at an audience with generational ADD."

3.) The film didn't have much to offer women: In the Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series, Ramona's character is much more fleshed out, as is Scott's propensity to be a Grade-A ass. The film does an admirable job of condensing the graphic novel series into a little less than two hours, but — in the process — Scott's character is a smidge de-jerkified and Ramona's given way less to do. The movie, while just as zippy as the graphic novels, contains more of Scott vying for a silent Ramona. Could it be possible that the film was more of a guys' night out than its creators realized?

In an intriguing essay over at Asking the Wrong Questions, Abigail Nussbaum found herself unable to square the misogyny she found in the movie with her enjoyment of the film:
This is a misogynistic film. It's also a fun one. When it comes to Hollywood blockbusters, that's often the best one can hope for, and Scott Pilgrim might almost be described as a better sort of misogynistic film because if offers distractions from its misogyny rather than foregrounding it as so many others do. But especially given that, according to my friends who are its fans, Scott Pilgrim the comic is a story that tries to combat much of the misogyny that underlies Scott Pilgrim the film and other works of its ilk, it's a shame that this is the best Edgar Wright could come up with—a film that uses flashing lights and bright colors to distract its viewers from the unpleasantness at its core.
 I still have yet to see it, but what did you guys think?