Monday, August 31, 2009

Academy Changes Best Picture Voting Rules; decides Logic is overrated.

In his new The Wrap Oscar column “The Odds,” Steve Pond reveals new voting rules to accompany the top ten best picture Oscar contenders. The goal, says Academy executive director Bruce Davis, is to eliminate the possibility that one of the films could win with less than 18% of the vote. This seems like a reasonable—if arcane—solution. And one that will change the way Oscar campaigners have sought to persuade voters to choose their number one favorite. That’s less important now. The top five favorites will now become key.

Pond explains:

Instead of just voting for one nominee, the way Academy members have always done on the final ballot, voters will be asked to rank all 10 nominees in order of preference—and the results will be tallied using the complicated preferential system, which has been used for decades during the nominating process but never, until now, on the final ballot.

As a result, a film could be the first choice of the largest number of voters, but find itself nudged out of the top prize by another movie that got fewer number one votes but more twos and threes.

It sounds crazy, but there’s good reason to make the change at a time when dividing the vote among an expanded slate of 10 nominees could otherwise allow a film to win with fewer than 1,000 votes (out of the nearly 6,000 voting members).

Thursday, August 27, 2009

What The Hell Happened to the Mid-Sized Scifi Movie?

By Jesse Alexander

This is a weird post. Maybe even a rant. And my ire could be significantly misplaced, but WTF - This is something I've been thinking about all summer: Where is the middle? I'm talking movie budgets here.

You know, the monetary cost of producing a science fiction film for theatrical release. Someone like myself who makes a good living in the entertainment business probably shouldn't be discussing such things in public, but this summer we've had our Terminator 4, Transformers 2, GI Joe, Star Trek and Harry Potter all in the two hundred million dollar budget range, and Moon costing somewhere around five million dollars. So does that mean the only science fiction movies getting a theatrical release are at the opposite ends of the budget spectrum? District 9 is reported to have cost somewhere around thirty million bucks to produce, but I wonder if Weta Digitia; would've billed the same number of hours if Peter Jackson hadn't been the movie's producer. I dunno. Still — let's say that one's in the middle, and I think it's really the best of the lot. Neill Blomkamp is the mega shizz in my opinion.

Hmmm... I wonder if those sixteen minutes of Avatar cost the same as District 9. Maybe. They certainly cost more than Moon. Reports have Avatar costing somewhere north of three hundred million bucks, and it looks seriously and completely awesome: I think that blue Legolas guy looks cool! So don't get me wrong, I'm very happy that science fiction has become such a popular form of global entertainment that financial investments of the aforementioned magnitude make sense to somebody. But one thing does kind of suck about it. Most of that money is spent on CGI. Maybe Avatar will be the game changer, but for me — CGI jeopardy isn't usually that compelling. Are you still blown away by green screen vistas and pixel generated monsters? Are you still terrified by tidal waves and explosions that took rocket scientists months to render?

I like that stuff. I like it a lot in fact. I read Cinefex every month. But CGI just doesn't freak me out or put me on the edge of my seat like it once did. I think one of the great things about science fiction movies that don't have a gazillion dollars to spend is that they need to make choices. They need to come up with ways to use filmmaking techniques and practical effects to adjust for the fact that they can't afford 1000+ CGI shots. They've gotta build suspense the old fashioned way: Hide the creature for a while. Shoot on location. Blow stuff up. Crash a car. Pay a stuntman to do a full body burn. That's the stuff I miss. I miss movies like Star Wars, Escape From New York, Alien, Aliens, Outland and Predator. Movies where a big part of my suspension of disbelief came from recognizing a world where physics could be painful and not everything was in focus all the time.

Lost and BSG have been kicking ass with this approach on the small screen. And with Blomkamp's District 9 and his amazing short films, I have hope that we could be on the verge of a new crop of middle budget sci-fi flicks coming to theaters; movies that can transport me to a different reality by taking a world that I recognize and making it extraordinary through traditional movie making techniques and state of the art CGI. Gamer looks like it might do this. Neveldine and Taylor's gonzo Crank flicks give me hope that it's gonna viscerally rock. But I hear it cost around sixty million, so I wonder how much of that they spent on CGI?

Oh well — see you in line for Avatar. Jesse Alexander is creator and executive producer of NBC's Day One, and has worked on Alias, Lost and Heroes.

Theater chains pull newspaper movie listings

As if newspapers weren’t smarting enough from the loss of classified and real estate listings and the revenue that comes from those, now comes a report that two of the biggest theater chains have begun scaling back their movie listings in print papers.

According to Editor and Publisher, Regal Entertainment Group and AMC Entertainment – the top two theater chains in the U.S. – have either reduced or cut completely the listings in print papers. Instead they’re directing ticket buyers to online ticketing services, which don’t charge for listings but instead take a cut of the ticket price for their revenue. Basically theater chains, which are seeing their own web traffic rise, feel there’s more value in continuing to promote their own sites as a hub for people online than there is in continuing to pay for newspaper listings, despite the argument that such listings have benefits in terms of consumer awareness.

What’s most interesting to me in this story from a media industry point of view is that it’s a case where newspapers are not losing money to a service that duplicates an area they’ve dominated but in a cheaper and more user-friendly way, as in the case of classifieds shifting over to craigslist. Instead these movie listings are now moving over to “legitimate” businesses that are working with the exhibitors. That’s a very different foe to go up against since Fandango, Moviefone and the other ticketing services actually have revenue models and are partners with the theaters, not just upstarts who come in and seemingly swipe ad money by offering for free the services the newspaper used to be paid to provide. - Chris Thilk: MMM

Sunday, August 23, 2009

I Never Want To Hear The Word "Franchise" Again

Recently, I read speculation about whether Sam Raimi would stick with the Spider-Man "franchise," and couldn't help picturing Raimi in a polyester fast-food uniform. Somewhere along the way, epic tales of the human spirit stopped being stories and became "franchises."

The entertainment industry's pervasive use of the word "franchise" goes deeper than the plague of endless sequels, reboots and remakes. It's worse, even, than the gurgling entertainment pipeline, which constantly gives us more of the last thing that made money. When we talk about "franchises," we're speaking of entertainment as fast food, empty calories, the ultimate in disposable junk.

The word "franchise" used to be reserved for Burger King and McDonald's, Best Buy and Circuit City. It used to be reserved for Pete Seeger's proverbial "little boxes, all the same," retail cubes where you could buy a standard product from sea to deoxygenated sea.

Somehow we've gotten used to using that term to describe our favorite stories — lately, I type the word "franchise" in a news story or feature almost without thinking about it. Here's a Google News chart showing the frequency of the word "franchise," combined with "movie," over the past two decades:

What you see in that chart, though, is the entertainment industry's last dregs of soul dribbling away. It's the final vestigial pieces of forebrain atrophying, leaving only behind a hindbrain that doubles as a profit center. It's the scowl behind the panderer's wink.

(Although, to be fair, there are worse terms than "franchise" out there. There's always "storyverse," which people have started using seriously recently.)

Of course, I get why the word "franchise" has such currency — it's popular because of the rise of multi-platform entertainments. The Transformers toys, the Transformers cartoons, the Transformers video game, the Transformers comics and the Transformers drama product (featuring Shia LaBoeuf) all form one seamless enter-globule, with each different version dovetailing. So just like you can Drive Thru a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Raleigh, or an identical KFC in Durham, you can read similar stories of Optimus Prime's spiritual exile in the comics and the novels.

But understanding why we talk about "franchises" doesn't make it any better — if anything, it makes the idea of treating escapism as a fungible commodity, that you repackage over and over again in different shapes, even more annoying.

Most of us are corporate vassals, of one sort or another, in every other part of our lives — so it's disheartening to think that our fantasies, the places in our imagination we go to escape from being so thoroughly owned, are also turned into units that are packaged, repackaged, rebranded, focus-grouped and target marketed to death.

None of this is news — and if we managed to stop everyone on Earth using the word "franchise" outside of the context of fast food or voting, it would still be going on. But eradicating the word "franchise" is, at least, a step in the direction of rooting out the thinking that word represents.

If, every time people started to use the word franchise, they had to stop and think for a moment about what they really meant, maybe they'd be one step closer to connecting with the power of Story. I'm serious — you remember Story, right? That thing where people go through a series of events that test and confound them, and along the way they become different people, and maybe we also find ourselves straining and building the thinking and believing parts of our brains as we follow them? That thing. Story.

So what word should we encourage people to use instead of franchise? Maybe universe, that works.

Or maybe don't actually need a word to replace "franchise." Think about it: is there anything you can say using that word that you couldn't better say without it? There's a kind of Orwellian imprecision about the word, as if we're trying to stay as far away from the process of creation as possible. Instead of "Will Christopher Nolan stick with the Batman franchise?" you can always say, "Will Christopher Nolan direct another Batman movie?" It's more precise, and says what you actually mean — but it's also more connected to the process of creating something, instead of the vague corporate speak.

Because if you choose, instead of saying "direct a movie," to talk about "franchises," what you're really asking is whether Christopher Nolan will continue to swear allegiance to a particular corporate product, and stay under contract with a particular set of paymasters. Who will own Christopher Nolan's brain over the next few years? It's group-speak of the worst kind.

So I'm making a pledge — the "F" word will never appear under my byline again. And I encourage anyone else who talks or writes about entertainment to do the same thing. It's a small, but meaningful, step in taking back our fantasies from the brand managers.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The ultimate in Custom DIY Distribution

Remember the Flaming Lips-soundtracked documentary trailer a while back in February? About the mushroom hunters Gary Lincoff and Larry Evans? Well, the Canadian doc is about to get some unique love.

To promote his new documentary Know Your Mushrooms, the CBC reports that Ron Mann is releasing the film on a customized USB stick -- one shaped like a cute, tooth-filled shroom (seen to the right). I'd love to see DVD storage folks come up with a shelving unit for this.

Following a British company that released Ghostbusters on a 2GB flash drive with digital rights management, the Toronto-based filmmaker is taking a more share-friendly approach. Basically, people buy these USB keys for $59.99 -- which, I might add, are said to be almost sold out -- and are then encouraged to upload and share the film. Mann says: "We did this as a fun project. It wasn't a commercial venture." Nevertheless, it's a smart idea -- warm people to the film, and then how can they resist the charm of shroomy movie keys?

But best of all, he doesn't plan to stop there. Remember the 1999 cult film Grass? He's gearing up to re-distribute that flick on a USB key shaped like a joint. The possibilities are endless!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

is Hollywood afraid of Twitter?

While word of mouth could always make or break a movie, it usually took days to affect the box office. But the rise of social networking tools like Twitter may be narrowing that time frame to mere hours. And that has Hollywood on edge.

This summer, movies such as "Bruno" and " G.I. Joe" have had unexpected tumbles at the box office - just within their opening weekends - while "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" survived blistering critical reaction to become a blockbuster.

Box-office watchers say the dramatic swings may be caused by Twitter and other social networking sites that can blast instant raves - or pans - to hundreds of people just minutes after the credits roll.

"Almost every time after I go out [to a movie], I'll tweet about it," says Lindsay Wailes, a cook and barista from Westminster. "I tweeted about 'G.I. Joe' as soon as I left the theater." Her take on the movie: "If you like science or plot, this isn't a movie for you; if you like explosions for no reason, you'll love it."

She also listens to what others have to say: She turned her back on the shock comedy "Bruno" because of downbeat Twitter reviews. "A lot of my friends are crazy young people - I'd expect them to like 'Bruno' more than an actual critic, and even they said, 'It's crass, don't see it.' So I didn't bother."

Studios are trying to gauge the impact of an avalanche of tweets, and how it affects the staying power of a movie. Was the 39 percent box office drop of "Bruno" from Friday to Saturday a case of disappointed moviegoers tweeting from theater lobbies? Or did a limited fan base for "Bruno" exhaust itself on that first day?

"I think Twitter can't be stopped," says Stephen Bruno, the Weinstein Co.'s senior director of marketing. He's trying to stay ahead of an audience's appetite for instant information.

"Now you have to see it as an addition to the campaign of any movie," he says. "People want real-time news and suddenly a studio can give it to them in a first-person way. The blogs have to go to our feeds for the latest trailers and reports."

Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures, says studios are worrying about a time when "people will be twittering during the opening credits - and leaving when they don't like them." But he also warns, "the next step [for the Twitter Effect] is for studio marketing to manipulate it."

The Weinstein Co. has already done that big-time for the Friday release of the Quentin Tarantino- Brad Pitt World War II epic "Inglourious Basterds."

The company packed a screening at San Diego's Comicon with people who won access via Twitter. It also staged "the first ever Red Carpet Twitter meet-up" during the movie's premiere at Mann's Chinese in Hollywood, generating celebrity tweets including Sarah Silverman's "just made me smile forever" and Tony Hawk's "another Tarantino classic."

Twitter has broadened the reach of bloggers and other aspiring opinion-makers.

"Just two years ago, if I saw a movie I loved or I hated, I'd be able to tell a dozen friends, tops," says John Singh, who works for the movie and social networking Web site Flixster. "Now, I can be walking out of a theater as the credits are rolling and immediately tell 500 people what I thought. ... It's never been this easy to be this influential."

Bruno says that the savvy use of Twitter can build up a force that's sometimes just as powerful as "word of mouth": "want to see." Take "The Proposal," a film that had little advance buzz, yet has become one of the summer's most profitable productions. (It cost $40 million and is grossing upward of $159 million.) Flixster, which runs the Movies application for iPhones, worked with Disney/Touchstone to promote the Sandra Bullock- Ryan Reynolds romantic farce. Flixster's Singh credits the campaign with increasing the film's opening-weekend haul by 30 percent.

"Nothing else can get you the same mass of people all immediately saying how they felt about a movie 30 seconds after it ends," says James Lombardi of Baltimore, who sometimes uses Twitter to get a fix on a movie.

Positive reviews from her Twitter friends can persuade Wailes to attend a film if she's "undecided." If it "gets raves from people I network with, since I know I have something in common with these people, I figure there must be something in the movie that I might want to see." Since even the four-star professional reviews for "Up" sent mixed signals to her - was it a kids' film with a lot of adult scenes? a comedy with a lot of heartbreak? - she was on the fence about seeing it.

"But when I saw so many great reviews on Twitter, about both the silly elements and the heartfelt montage, they encouraged me to go."

Others see the Twitter Effect as more urban legend than viable trend. Gregg Kilday, film editor of the trade paper The Hollywood Reporter, notes that it's impossible to separate the factors that would explain a film's drop or rise in box office.

"Even if you don't have Twitter, a lot of people, especially kids, have long had the ability to text each other, sometimes from within the theater," he says. "And for a lot of the mass-market movies, the potential audience will go whether friends tell them they're good or not. Universal did a great job of marketing 'Bruno' and getting awareness of a character who was not well-known, but they may have been trying to mass-market a figure that had no mass appeal."

Brandon Gray, president and founder of, notes that, just a few months ago, the hit teen-romance vampire film "Twilight" dropped 41 percent from Friday to Saturday, without any discussion of the Twitter Effect.

"There have been many indications through the years that films targeting teens and young adults will have a huge Friday, and a more front-loaded weekend," Gray says. "That's just kind of how it goes."

Ira Miller, owner of the Rotunda Cinemas, says: "Even 'The Ugly Truth' opened bigger on Friday and then dropped." recently ran a home-page poll in which 88 percent of the voting sample said Twitter had no effect on them. Joel Cohen, the company's executive vice president and general manager, thinks "we may be putting too much weight onto the Twitter Effect. But you can see Twitter's benefits as a communications tool that spreads the word about a film, and the negatives have yet to be proven."

Cohen theorizes that Twitter may have a larger influence on the success of smaller films such as the hit documentary "Food, Inc." than it does on major studio releases. (Gray cautions that, compared with the money generated by studio features, the $3.6 million gross of "Food, Inc." is "just a drop in the bucket.")

Bowles, who distributed "Food, Inc.," acknowledges that "we did some Twitter-specific things, including a Twitter-cast with the movie's director, Robby Kenner." But he's cautious when it comes to describing Twitter as a "revolutionary" force.

"Revolutionize moviegoing? No. But all the tiny little bits together [Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, and others] can add up to something meaningful."

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Austin Film Society funds local Filmmakers

The Austin Film Society cashes out $112,000 to 2009 Texas Filmmakers Production Fund. The Film Society unveiled 25 projects which received support from the organization’s 2009 Texas Filmmakers’ Production Fund. In addition to $90,000 in cash grants, the group gave away $6,000 worth of Kodak film stock, $5,000 in in-kind services from Seattle-based Alpha Cine Labs and $1,000 in-kind services grant from local effects house TexFX. Recipients this year include David and Nathan Zellner’s latest project, “Pardon My Downfall,” Kyle Henry’s narrative, “Fourplay,” Erik Mauck and Chelsea Hernandez’s “The Road to Livingston” and James Marsh’s “Potlatch.” For more information and a full list of recipients, visit the AFS website.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Competing formats, bonus material under consideration by music industry

From Movie Marketing Madness: Various reports have come out about moves being made by the music industry – including Apple – as they seek to shore up sales not just of single songs but of full albums.

As Epicenter rounds-up, Apple and the major labels seem to each be working on their own formats for full albums that would be loaded with bonus content, creating an incentive to purchase that complete album instead of just a single at a time as has become the norm among buyers. The two formats don’t seem to be, as Van Buskirk at Epicenter says, at war since the parties are working together to some extent and the different formats are likely going to be used in different stores.

This story dovetails nicely with a question Scott Kirsner posed the other day when he asked what the future of “DVD extra” material is in the age of digital distribution. The two options he offers are that they will be folded into the movie’s online marketing campaign or that some will be offered for free but others (particularly those with high production costs) will be available as a la carte offerings for a buck or two on top of the film itself.

In the comments on Scott’s post I came down on the side of these features being made available during the marketing campaign, but on a staggered schedule that supports not only the movie’s theatrical (or other initial) release but then as a way to continue the conversation about the movie into its home video or secondary release life.

For the music industry I think the best thing that could be done is to go back to the traditional 45 LP, cassette single model: When someone buys the most popular song of the moment they get a B-side from the album as well, giving them a “free” taste of the rest of the album and thereby giving them a stronger reason to complete the album.

But I think it’s interesting that both the music and movie industry seem to be re-thinking the value proposition of additional content. What needs to be stated, though, is that in order to truly become a factor in the consumer decision making process additional content needs to have as much value as the core content itself. That can be value in the form of replay-ability or in the form of social capital, something that gets peers talking to each other on the same level that core content does.

That’s why I think free bonus material is a better model.

Imagine if, when you bought a song on iTunes you were given the option to subscribe to a video podcast by the artist. (Or you can use movies or books or whatever in this idea as well.) So you listen to the song and then a week later you get the latest episode of the podcast delivered to you and think “The song they played in that episode was pretty good.” and you go buy that. After a song or two you’re probably going to go ahead and just buy the rest of the album.

Regardless of the model there’s obviously a place for bonus material that supports and enhances the core content being sold. It’s just a matter of figuring out how that best works out.

Even more restrictions added to the home video rental market

from movie marketing madness:

So Warner Bros. not only wants to join Universal and 20th Century Fox in withholding its new releases from Redbox rental kiosks for a month (28 days, to be exact) after the hit home video, but it also is seeking to renegotiate its contract with Netflix along similar lines.

Great, good idea. Let me know how that works out for you, when people go to Netflix, realize they can’t get the latest Harry Potter movie there. I’m sure that won’t at all be “What do you mean I have to wait a month?” followed by a sour feeling toward both WB and the movie specifically.

This whole discussion seems to be predicated on the idea that the decision between buying and renting puts those two options on equal footing. As if consumers see both as equally viable options and it’s kind of a toss-up based on availability.

Only it’s not. Renting and purchasing are very different. Very few people are going to see a movie is unavailable at their rental outlet of choice and think “Oh, well then I’ll just go buy it.” That’s not where their head is at. They want to see the movie (for the first or repeated times) and then be done with it. If someone’s in the mood to buy, they will. If they’re in the mood to rent and can’t, they’ll become what are commonly called “dissatisfied customers.”

Not only that, but all this has me wondering what percentage of DVD sales are actually the result of a previous rental. As in, someone rented the movie (once or multiple times) and then decided it was worth buying. So by making a movie unavailable where and when people want to get it at the moment its hype is at its second greatest peak (theatrical release being the first greatest) is there the potential that sales are actually being hurt?

I’m all for a lot of experimentation in this new media age as companies seek to find the model that works for them and for consumers. But generally those experiments err toward making something over-available and then pulling back based on results, not by creating artificial scarcity.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Roger Ebert fears the gathering Dark Age

Apparently unconnected items appeared within two days of each other in the Los Angeles Times, and together confirmed my fear that American movie-going is entering into a Dark Age. The first was in a blog by Patrick Goldstein, who said: "Film critics are in the same boat as evening news anchors -- their core audience is people 50 and over, and getting older by the day. You could hire Jessica Alba to read the evening news -- or review 'G.I. Joe' for that matter -- and younger audiences still wouldn't care." The other was in a report by John Horn that despite "The Hurt Locker's" impressive box office success, "younger moviegoers are not flocking to the film, which could limit its ticket sales."

The obvious implication is, younger moviegoers don't care about reviews and have missed the news that "The Hurt Locker" is the best American film of the summer. There is a more disturbing implication: word of mouth is not helping the film in that younger demographic. It has been Hollywood gospel for decades that advertising and marketing can help a film to open strongly, but moviegoers talking with each other are crucial to its continuing success. That has been Summit Entertainment's game plan for "The Hurt Locker," which opened in a few theaters and has steadily increased its cities, becoming a real success without ever "winning" a weekend or benefiting from an overkill marketing campaign.

Certainly most of those who see "The Hurt Locker" become enthusiastic advocates of the film; but apparently those younger viewers who have seen it haven't had much of an influence on their peers. While the success of the film continues to grow as it steadily increases its number of theaters, the majority of younger filmgoers are missing this boat. Why is that? They don't care about reviews, perhaps. They also resist a choice that is not in step with their peer group. Having joined the crowd at "Transformers," they're making their plans to see "G. I. Joe." Some may have heard about "The Hurt Locker," but simply lack the nerve to suggest a movie choice that involves a departure from groupthink.

Of course there are countless teenagers who seek and value good films. I hear from them all the time in the comment threads on this blog. They're frank about their contemporaries. If they express a nonconformist taste, they're looked at as outsiders, weirdoes, nerds. Their dates have no interest in making unconventional movie choices. They're looked at strangely if they express no desire to see that weekend's box office blockbuster. Even some of their teachers, they write, are unfriendly to them "always bringing up movies nobody has ever heard of." If you hang around on these threads, you know the readers I'm referring to, including "A Kid," who writes so well that if she hadn't revealed her age (just turned 13) we would have taken her for a literate, articulate adult.

If I mention the cliché "the dumbing-down of America," it's only because there's no way around it. And this dumbing-down seems more pronounced among younger Americans. It has nothing to do with higher educational or income levels. It proceeds from a lack of curiosity and, in many cases, a criminally useless system of primary and secondary education. Until a few decades ago, almost all high school graduates could read a daily newspaper. The issue today is not whether they read a daily paper, but whether they can.

This trend coincides with the growing effectiveness of advertising and marketing campaigns to impose box office success on heavily-promoted GCI blockbusters, which are themselves often promotions for video games. No checks and balances prevail. The mass media is the bitch of marketing. Almost every single second of television coverage of the movies is devoted to thinly-veiled promotion. Movie stars who appear as guests on talk shows and cable news are almost always there because they have a new movie coming out. Smart-ass satirical commentary, in long-traditional in places like Mad magazine and SNL, is drowned out by celebrity hype. It was Mad that first got me thinking like a critic and analyzing popular culture.

No critical opinion--indeed, no opinion at all--is usually expressed by the hosts of these programs. The formula is rigid: (1) "Thanks for coming to see us," as if it's a social call; (2) "I hear you play (fill in description of role);" (3) "What was it like working with (name)?"; (4) "Do you think (this film, even if a comedy, sends a positive message?); (5) "What are you doing next?" This formula is interrupted for one (1) film clip and some funny remarks by the guest, which have been prepared and discussed in advance and are cued by the host's straight lines.

Just once I'd like to see a TV host of cable anchor say, "I'll make you a deal. I will play an ad for your new movies for free, right now, and then I will ask you questions that have not been vetted by your publicist, and you will answer on your own." This might result in some good television, as it once often did. But even smart people like Jon Stewart and Paul Giamatti can be seen enacting the guest-appearance charade. Giamatti's new movie is about a man who has his soul extracted, and finds it looks like a garbanzo bean. Why couldn't Stewart ask him, "Do you believe you have a soul?" And Giamatti might have replied, "Do you believe garbanzo beans go to heaven?"

Having succeeded in taming and orchestrating the media, studio marketing executives are understandably reluctant to take chances like that with their publicity. Some movie star might go on the air and say--why, anything! I started interviewing stars at a time when they still talked with an interviewer without a publicist hovering. Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, Shirley MacLaine, Charles Bronson, Jeanne Moreau, Sidney Poitier, Kirk Douglas, John Wayne, Sarah Miles, Oliver Reed, Michael Caine...would say anything. Heedlessly. Now even the smartest stars are kept on a short leash.

The movies themselves aren't left on their own, either. Paramount's decision to refuse advance critics' screenings of "G. I. Joe" was explained with refreshing honesty by Rob Moore, vice chairman of Paramount Pictures, to Christy Lemire of the Associated Press: "After the chasm we experienced with 'Transformers 2' between the response of audiences and critics, we chose to forgo opening-day print and broadcast reviews as a strategy to promote 'G.I. Joe.' We want audiences to define this film."

That hasn't meant no advance screenings. Indeed, the movie was recently scoring 85% on the Tomatometer, although today (August 6) it is down to 65% and dropping. Why so strong at the beginning? The studio screened it (in the words of the invaluable Goldstein, for "certified fan-boy zealots"). While some of them do articulate their reasons (I'm convinced Harry Knowles, bless his heart, really believes what he says), many are simply delighted to deliver an "exclusive early look" to their websites, making good on their half of an implied deal.

What usually happens in the 24 hours before a North American opening day is that the Tomatometer reading starts to drop as the International Date Line creeps inexorably toward Newfoundland, and MSM critics from Australia and the UK begin to check in. Another corrective is that the score on often skews lower than the Meter because it monitors (dare I say) reputable critics and not fanboy zealots.

In any case, as I often say, I love the movies enough that anytime someone spends the money for a ticket I hope they have a good time. Nevertheless, I lament the 105,000,000 hours of life that North Americans have lost to "Transformers." As Gene Siskel liked to say, "It's your life, and you can't ever get it back."

Some weeks ago I went so far as to suggest the gap between some critics and some moviegoers may be because the critics are more "evolved." Man, did the wrath hit the fan. I was clearly an elitist snob. But think about it. Wouldn't you expect a critic to be more highly evolved in taste than a fanboy zealot? And what about "A Kid?" Should she be shunned by her peers for having her own ideas? And what about another one of my readers, the 15-year-old who says he has viewed dozens of my "Great Movies?" If you're his friend, isn't it worth wondering what he's stumbled onto? And what about your date this Friday night? If he or she only wants to see the movie "everyone" is going to see, is that person going to be much good for conversation?

In any event, I have good news for Patrick Goldstein and others like us. If the core audience for film critics is getting older by the day, then so is the overall audience for mainstream media. That means we're all appealing to the only demographic we have. As a remedy to pull us out of this nosedive into a gathering Dark Age, I have a simple proposal: Double teacher salaries and cut class enrollments in half. - Roger Ebert

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Path

There is one rule in the game. And it needs to be broken.
There is one goal. And when you attain it, you die.

Six sisters live in an apartment in the city. One by one their mother sends them on an errand to their grandmother, who is sick and bedridden. The teenagers are instructed to go to grandmother's house deep in the forest and, by all means, to stay on the path! Wolves are hiding in the woods, just waiting for little girls to stray.

But young women are not exactly known for their obedience, are they? Will they be able to resist the temptations of the forest? Will they stay clear of danger? Can they prevent the ancient tale from being retold?

The Path is a game about growing, about changing, about making choices, about accepting the consequences of these choices. A game about playing, and failing, about embracing life, perhaps by accepting death.

This may be one of the best games ever made. There is nothing action packed about it. There is nothing quick. There's only choices. I LOVE THIS GAME. Worth the 10 Dollars, my friends. Well worth it.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Has NBC Given Up On Sci-Fi and are they blaming "Kings?"

By Graeme McMillan

At an appearance at the Television Critics Association Press Tour this week, NBC's Angela Bromstad said that Kings failed because it was "too highbrow and sophisticated" to sell to their audience. But is that the show's fault, or the network's?

Talking about the failure of Kings on the network, president of prime time entertainment Bromstad told the audience,

"I think that it was an amazingly big swing and a great production, and Michael Green is a phenomenal writer... I think our challenge now-and hopefully what you see with the new shows is in a really crowded marketplace-you have to sell something. People want to know what something's about. That was a very complex idea. It was a show that was originally developed when I was there before [with] Laura Lancaster. We thought it was too highbrow and sophisticated to sell in a 30-second spot. It doesn't mean we're not looking for big ideas, but they have to be big ideas an audience can grab onto and relate to."

Maybe it's just me, but there seem to be a lot of things that seem wrong with that quote (Kings was "too highbrow and sophisticated" to sell in 30 seconds? Really? Don't get me wrong, I think that it was a wonderful show, intelligent and, yes, sophisticated, but at the same time, it could easily have been sold on the family drama aspects, the religious/spiritual aspects or even the wartime political aspects - the fact is that NBC didn't do any of these; saying that it was too hard without even trying sounds like false justification after the fact), but the most worrying is the message it seems to send that NBC has given up on programming that doesn't appeal to the lowest common denominator, and that because of that, SF is in trouble on the network.

Looking at the shows on offer from that network, there's some evidence to support that theory. Heroes and Chuck - as much as I like them both (And I genuinely do like Heroes, despite the snark) - are both firmly in the populist category, far from the sometimes obtuse Lost or willfully discordant Dollhouse, for one thing, and also tend to stay away from the occasional uncomfortable questions offered by the otherwise-cuddly Fringe; the danger is never too real (whether in terms of tension or scale), the status quo always within one reset. That shouldn't necessarily be a surprise; NBC drama in general is softer and more comforting than what you'd see on Fox, after all, and the network has already taken enough hits in terms of attempts at SF edginess - even if the results were Bionic Woman and My Own Worst Enemy, in addition to Kings - that you could see why they'd want to turn away from the idea.

(It's strange that a network that can produce - and support, despite weaker ratings than expected at launch - shows like 30Rock and The Office is so resistant to doing the same thing to non-comedy shows that are equally less-likely to stick to stereotypes and expectations.)

Additionally, NBC has given up the 10pm slot by stripping Jay Leno's new show across the week at that time, surrendering what used to be their time slot for high profile serious drama. It's the time slot that, ideally, Kings would've been in, a sign that the show had more to it than the obscure advertisements that NBC managed to produce for it after being confounded by how highbrow and sophisticated it ended up being, but it's hard to stifle the thought that perhaps the Sunday time slot it started with was a sign that the show was already being dumped as a result of confusion over what to do with it.
All of this makes me concerned for Day One, Jesse Alexander's new series launching next year. Closer in tone to Lost than Heroes, and asking more of the viewer than an episode of Law & Order, Day One is the kind of smart, engaging show that Kings was... and, worryingly, Bromstad is already making comments about a willingness to consider the show a mini-event, as opposed to an ongoing series. To be fair, she's made these comments before, and Alexander has already responded by pointing out that "[i]f the audience is there, we'll stay on the air," but it's bad buzz that the show doesn't need before it's made it to air.

That said, Day One has a lot of things going for it that Kings didn't: A defining opening event, for one, giving the show a "what if?" hook that can be summed up in one line, as opposed to Kings' alternate world scenario. The potential for more crowd-pleasing action scenes than Kings offered, for another. And - currently, at least - a better time slot and the backing of a network that should know better than to move new series two weeks into their run because they're worried that ratings are all. Day One has the potential to be a great series in the same way that Lost is, or Battlestar Galactica was; I just hope that it's allowed to fulfill it.

McG on McG

McG is busily listening to critics of Terminator Salvation and setting up straw-man arguments to respond to:

"I listen to everything. It's interesting because a lot of people don't like me, but a lot of people just don't like my name. I can't take that too seriously because that's been my name my whole life. It's not something that I prescribed myself."

Really? Your parents really called you "McG"? You didn't come up with that one yourself?

Look, if your movie is bad, if your movie didn't live up to par, can't you just say "okay, this is what didn't work and why people felt this way was because...yada yada yada, we'll get it right next time."

Fair Use?

by Ben Parr

We’ve known that the Associated Press has some odd policies in regards to social media and the web for a while. The AP social media policy says that employees need to control not only what they said on Facebook, but what their friends said as well. We also got wind last week of the AP’s plan to find where anyone uses AP material online in an attempt to stop what it considers unauthorized use of its content. To say it’s causing controversy would be an understatement.

Part of the AP’s plan is to charge for use of its articles if you quote 5 words or more. They signed a deal with iCopyright in April last year to accomplish this goal. iCopyright is a widget that handles not only print and email, but republishing as well. Well the widget’s starting to get some attention, if only for the jaw-dropping starting price the AP is charging for quoting its stories: $2.50 per word.

The process goes like this: you copy and paste the excerpt or article you want to reprint. Next you pick your price, ranging from $12.50 for five words to $100 for 251 words or more. Here’s the price list, if you are not an educational or non-profit organization (they get a discount):

While this isn’t particularly shocking, it’s still part of a series of disturbing statements and actions the AP has taken in terms of web content.

This plan’s going in the wrong direction.

Let’s first be fair to the AP before we heap on the criticism. They’re the source of a lot of our news and a valuable journalistic asset. They are also trying to protect their content from what they see as illegitimate copying and unfair use.

Still, the entire policy is a battle against the direction of progress, and the price point is way off. Social media helps spread information faster and to more people, which is the point of a wired service like the AP. The company’s complaint is that blogs and news aggregators (i.e. Google News) are taking its content and making all the advertising revenue. What they forget is that they provide a great deal of traffic and attention to content creators in the process.

We don’t know the answer to this conundrum. But we do know that the AP’s current plan is riddled with holes. Laws protecting fair use come into play and are essential to freedom of the press. The AP really needs to define their policy on fair use vs. reprinting. It also seems obvious that no small-scale publisher is going to pay $12.50 to quote a line from an article. when quoting and linking on the web are common practice.

What do you think? Is what the AP’s asking for fair? Or is the price absurd?

Monday, August 3, 2009

Hollywood Hubris

Over at io9, Greame McMillian wrote an interesting piece about James Cameron's upcoming Avatar and why it "can't fail"...


You can tell that a lot is riding on James Cameron's Avatar by the fact that people are already talking about the backlash. But are Cameron and the movie studio the only people who can't afford it to fail?

2009 has been a hard year for fans, let's face it. Two high-profile movies had successfully wooed them with trailers, internet teasers and big promises from press junkets, and then failed to deliver when they finally appeared. To add insult to injury, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles was dealt a death blow after finally convincing doubters that it had a reason to exist that didn't rhyme with Bummer Blau. Even the renewal of Dollhouse couldn't stop the pain (And, for some, just made it worse in a "Why this and not that? Why is the universe so random, oh God, why?!?" way, to be honest), and even a summer full of Star Trek and Transformers was overshadowed by the potential hall of suck that GI Joe is rumored to be (Although it may surprise us all, and the anti-hate backlash has begun, bizarrely and happily enough). In all the rush to talk about the technical successes of Avatar, one thing seems to be being overlooked: We need this movie to be a success as much as anyone else does. The alternative will be too heartbreaking.

In a way, Avatar itself is almost secondary to the whole thing. I mean, yes; we want to see it and we're excited about seeing it and the footage that's been screened is what we're all talking about and getting excited by, but it's like Watchmen and Terminator Salvation; we're buying into the hype and the promise that this won't just be a good movie, but one that will change our lives in some way. There's every potential that the movie can be good, even amazing, and still seem like a disappointment (It'll be interesting to see what Watchmen will seem like, years later, when it can finally be viewed away from the hyperbole that surrounded it). It's not enough for Avatar to be a good movie anymore; it has to be the best movie starring Sam Worthington about alien warfare in space that we've ever seen.

Where did this pressure come from? Why do some films become avatars (heh) of the hopes and dreams of collective nerddom, and suffer from those raised expectations when the movie is finally ready to be seen by the world? Some movies actively seek to become the nerd grail - Hi, Tron Legacy! - in a way of building enough buzz to try and cross over into the mainstream through noise and net presence as much as anything else (Call it The Dark Knight effect, I guess), but it seems to me that, just like Amy Winehouse's love, it's a losing game: By baiting fans continually with teases and hints and promises that they've never seen anything like this before, they're actively creating a million fictional movies in a million different heads that will be more exciting and personal than the real thing could ever be. The only way to win by doing that is by doing something that isn't what fans expect; getting back to Dark Knight for a second, the structure of the movie and the machismo nihilism - while both were frustrating - came out of left field, and in surprising the audience, deflated whatever expectations they may have gone in with. Watchmen didn't have the luxury to try that, and Terminator Salvation... well, we don't like to talk about that anymore.

Getting back to my point, though; Avatar could still win. So much of the movie is still shrouded in secrecy, and it's that element that allows Cameron and his crew the opportunity to deliver something that we really won't be expecting. What people have seen so far shows that one of the concerns everyone had - that the visual effects would disappoint - isn't really a problem anymore, but even though finding that out raises the stakes slightly (Now we get the "They conquered the effects! What could go wrong now?!?" euphoria, for one thing), we still don't really know enough about the movie itself to come up with a version in our heads that we could fully expect to see.

I hope that they manage it, and that the finished movie lives up to all of their promises and hype; the last thing we need to finish the year is another example of our selfish dreams gone sour.

So... where does that leave the rest of us?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Chris Thilk Dismisses that “Twitter effect”

Here’s my biggest problem with all the emphasis and analysis that’s been devoted to Twitter and its perceived impact on movie marketing efforts: It’s the very definition of missing the point. Any studio that’s now throwing someone full time at Twitter with nothing else is probably missing half of, if not more, of the conversation. I’m not just talking about blog monitoring here, I’m talking about Flixster. I’m talking about Facebook. I’m talking about the dozen other places that people can post their opinions about the movie they just saw. Don’t focus on Twitter – focus on the online conversation. Do your research, figure out where the buzz around a movie seems to be centered. Figure out a conversation strategy that’s based on that research. Don’t get blinded by Twitter. Keep your eyes open for the whole thing.
- Chris Thilk (Move Marketing Madness)

Saturday, August 1, 2009

On my shelf - Battlestar Galactica: The Complete Series on Blu-Ray

At a time when spending should nothing but on an "as needed" basis, I have done something I have been preparing for since the trumpets announced it's creation months ago; I have bought Battlestar Galactica: The Completer Series on Blu-Ray and I have to tell you all, money well spent. (Although I do not consider it "complete" since the epilogue telefilmThe Plan was not included on it... errrr) I sold off almost all of my remaining DVD collection (the times have hit us all hard), including the individual seasons of Battlestar Galactica, in order to purchase this sweet gem.

Why on blu-ray? Well, let me address this question first by addressing a comment a fellow fan of the show had made. "What's the point? it all looks grainy" Yes, it does, but only in the first season and a half and only on purpose. In a recent interview about the release, Producer David Eick stated that they added the grain in the early seasons to make everything look more gritty. When the HD technology become available to them [the show] around the end of Season 2 they made the transition. After watching the earlier pre-HD seasons on blu-ray I can tell you first hand that a lot of the grain (but not all) has been cleaned up and the HD seasons are BREATHTAKING. The final episode of the series is so crisp and gorgeous that I thought Roger Deakins had shot it, but no, it was Stephen McNutt. He and his team did an amazing job, I simply can not wait until he works on something else that gave him that kind of freedom.

The other major reason to own the set is that is contains 95% of all the extras, special features and bonus content of the previous DVD releases as well as online videos and footage, over 10 hours worth, but it lacks the recent "Face of the Enemy" webisodes that aired online during the Season 4 mid-season break. Regardless, its worth the buy.

I also recently came across a copy of Season 4's Soundtrack- the best of the series to date- and some of its tracks have made their way onto almost all of my playlists. Bear McCreary is a musical genius. Sadly, he was overlooked by the Emmy board and not nominated (like most of the show every year so far) but trust me, he is a outstanding. I recommend that as well.

More "Oh no": Seattle Film Org Makes Urgent Plea: $70,000 by August 15th

by Eugene Hernandez via indiewire

The clock is ticking at Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum. Facing a budget shortfall the organization needs to raise $70,000 by August 15th or the fifteen year old non proft will be forced to cut programs and services.

Executive director Lyall Bush sent out a plea to his group’s ten thousand person email list just over 24 hours ago and he told indieWIRE today that more than $10,000 has already been donated.

“People are emptying their piggy banks,” Bush said this afternoon, noting that small donations have been coming in steadily the past day.

He’s both optimistic, but realistic about their ability to raise another $60,000 in two weeks.

“I am writing to you to ask for your help,” Lyall Bush wrote in his email message yesterday, “I am asking you for $10, the price of an average movie ticket. The Film Forum has done many great things this year, but much like other organizations our income is off by 30%. And while we remain scrappy and imaginative in tough spots, this time is different.”

Bush attributed the shortfall to a recent drop in donations and gifts from individuals and foundations in the wake of the ongoing international economic crisis. Meeting with his staff recently to decide how to address the financial problems, someone suggested putting out a plea to their constituents and they settled on asking just $10, the cost of one movie ticket.

Founded in 1995, NWFF screens some 200 films each year at a two-screen cinematheque that also includes office space, a library, worskshop space and a 1,000 title film vault.

“We are in business to fill a need,” Bush told indieWIRE today, touting NWFF “To provide an aesthetic, emotional and intellectual epxeorence, to suppprt an emerging film commmunity here. It’s a pretty beautiful thing [what] this organization has offered this city for 15 years.”

If they can’t raise the money to cover the budget, Bush said, the organization will face cutting its expenses for film retrospectives, filmmaker travel, classes for emerging and aspiring filmmakers and children, as well as equipment rental for filmmakers.

“Across the board, from our screens to our classes to our filmmaker support, the whole community would feel it and the whole city that we serve would feel it,” he said today, reiterating that solving the budget problem is within reach. “Ten dollars from ten thousand people solves our problems.”

As of late morning local time today, Bush estimaged that about 220 people had donated something so far, with gifts ranging from $7 to $500. The exact total raised since sending out the plea was $10,500.

“I am asking you urgently,” Bush concluded in his email plea to the community, “If you have benefited from our equipment, from the images on our screens, from our classes, from our network of people, from our famously great parties, we are asking you to say yes, you believe, yes you can give $10. Yes.”