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?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Hunting Santa Claus- literally.

In 2003, Finnish director Jalmari Helander made a zany short film about smugglers in the business of hunting Santa Claus and inadvertently created a viral sensation. The short, “Rare Exports Inc.,”  and its 2005 follow-up, “Rare Exports: The Official Safety Instructions,” contained a playfully inventive hook: Helander imagined Santa as a naked, bloodthirsty species far from the charitable bearded gentlemen of Christmas lore. Captured and tamed, Santas could be shipped to consumers each Christmas season and delight clueless children around the globe. By meshing action-adventure tropes with dark comedic inspiration, Helander created an utterly unique high concept premise that practically demanded elaboration. Seven years later, he has taken the inevitable next step with “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale,” a feature-length adaptation of the material. Although it contains the same goofy spirit, Helander fails to build on the original lunacy, suggesting that great short films may owe part of their appeal to brevity.

That does not make “Rare Exports” any less fun than its predecessors, at least for a little while. The movie technically functions as an origin story, setting the stage for the Santa export business that Helander so cleverly explored in the shorts. It opens with an excavation of Santa’s Finnish tomb, establishing a mood filled with such a familiar kind of cinematic wonder—aided by Juri and Miska Seppä‘s exaggerated orchestral score, and the exoticism of the barren icy climate—that you almost expect Indiana Jones himself to waltz through the scene. Helander mercilessly cribs from the energy of kids fantasy movies from the 1980s, establishing his self-made Santa mythos with a mixture of innocence, wonder and otherworldly creepiness worthy of Tim Burton. “The Coca-Cola Santa was a hoax,” concludes wide-eyed loner Pietari (Onni Tommila), a young boy whose father owns a slaughterhouse on the outskirts of the excavation site. After spying on the Americans unearthing Santa, Pietari does his homework, and learns that the creature was lured into a frozen lake by an ancient civilization. It turns out Saint Nick wasn’t so jolly, but rather a dangerous pest intent on kidnapping naughty children.

Absurd as it sounds, Helander actually manages to play it straight for much of the running time. Using a spare cast and relying more on atmosphere than special effects (the Santa creatures are, after all, just wizened old men), his narrative suggests John Carpenter’s “The Thing” for the holiday season. Sadly, the appeal of the director’s openly derivative approach grows redundant after he establishes the basic threat of Santa unleashed, and the build-up goes nowhere. Only when Pietro’s father and a colleague discover an elderly man caught in a bird trap outside, unaware of the situation at hand, does the suspense nudge upward. But there’s no follow through; we never get the chance to see the full lethal potential of the beast in question.

With hardly any of the run-and-gun entertainment or consumerist satire present in the shorts, it seems as though Helander couldn’t find an ideal strategy for expanding his initial conceit. The climax borrows the worst clichés of modern blockbusters where the earlier scenes borrow some of the best. Helander’s trite, half-baked resolution is held down by murky action and lacks a thrilling showdown. It’s like he suddenly lost a sense of humor, which demolishes the unique vision evident in the shorts. If anything, Helander should have taken even more liberties with the Santa myth and pushed the excessive genre components to an extreme.

An obvious bid for a franchise, “Rare Exports” leaves room for plenty of sequels and the possibility that Helander, a capable filmmaker with the capacity for emulating the feel of a polished Hollywood product, could nail it better the next time out. Then again, perhaps his follow-up should return to the short film realm. The flaws of “Rare Export” offer an important reminder that looking good on YouTube does not provide qualifications for a bigger screen. - Eric Kohn

"The New Year" Review

Brett Haley’s The New Year is a modest little number in just about every way, from its meager budget (just under 10k) to its understated performances to its graceful handling of material that could have so easily devolved into maudlin made-for-TV schlock. Which is what makes it such a pleasant surprise. Why is it that so many young writer/directors feel a burning urge to amp up the drama and conflict in their stories to implausible degrees, producing work that shows filmmaking talent but lacks real world maturity? To his credit, Haley isn’t interested in those stylistic and emotional pyrotechnics. He is more concerned with telling an honest story, trusting that his audiences will respond to the sincerity of his cause.

The story is driven by Sunny (Trieste Kelly Dunn), a smart, pretty young woman who puts higher education—and, in turn, her boundlessly bright future—on hold in order to return to her hometown of Pensacola, Florida, in order to take care of her ailing father (a wonderfully restrained Marc Peterson). Sunny is clearly destined for bigger and better things, yet she accepts her role as caretaker and part-time worker at a local bowling alley without bitching or moaning. Her relationship with her boyfriend Neal (Kevin Wheatley) is respectful, unflashy, without any overt friction. A reconnection with her high school rival, Isaac (Ryan Hunter), injects hints of actual passion into the proceedings, yet Haley once again keeps this conflict measured and believable. If you’re looking for a violent love triangle showdown, you’ve come to the wrong theater.

As effective as Haley’s filmmaking craft is, The New Year belongs to Trieste Kelly Dunn, who delivers a performance that rightfully calls to mind Ashley Judd’s star-making turn in Ruby in Paradise. Dunn doesn’t overplay her character; instead, she imbues her with a quiet dignity that helps the audience to further appreciate her decision to put her life on hold in order to be with her father. Not many actual young people, especially those with such limitless futures, would accept this role with such grace, yet Sunny is different. Even when she slips up and commits a morally ambiguous act (kissing one boy while dating another? shame!), one can’t help but admire her. This performance, combined with her appearance in Aaron Katz’s Cold Weather, pretty much confirms Dunn’s status as one of American independent cinema’s brightest young actors. If these two roles don’t directly lead to meatier parts in bigger productions, then aspiring actors everywhere might as well quit and take a job at their local bowling alley, because this is as good as calling cards get.

At the 2010 Sarasota Film Festival, where The New Year first screened publicly in April, it surprised everyone by walking away with the festival’s Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature. It was a surprise because at large regional festivals like Sarasota, tiny movies never win this award (it usually goes to a more high profile picture with legitimate movie stars). But this wasn’t an instance of a local film stealing the prize—it’s set in Pensacola, after all. If anything, this overwhelmingly positive response proved that Haley’s hunch was correct, that many viewers out there still want to watch movies about real people struggling to live real lives, doing as good as they can with what little they have. Though, having said that, maybe people were swayed for the typical reason. Maybe they did vote for the legitimate movie star on display, after all. — Michael Tully

Thursday, August 5, 2010

3-D Stats are Trending Down

Hollywood would like to think that 3-D cures all ills. But the stats don’t lie, as a discerning public picks and chooses the 3-D movies that are clearly worth paying a premium for. Check out The Wrap’s analylsis of 3-D performance. The studios may want to reconsider throwing good money after bad when they try to buttress their returns on a bad B-movie with retrofitted 3-D. I quickly started to tune out Step Up 3-D, which actually had some good dancing, which I would much rather have seen in good old-fashioned 2-D. The intrusive 3-D wore out its welcome real fast. (Variety’s Justin Chang disagrees.)

When a smart filmmaker who knows what he’s doing—especially in an all-digital universe like CG animation—shoots with 3-D, the results can be spectacular. James Cameron and Pixar have set the bar very high. Few movies will deliver as stellar 3-D as Avatar or Up and Toy Story 3.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

When Did Gypsies Become A-List Celebs

How did the entertainment industry achieve its current standard. We look far into the past and starting from the middle ages where the performers, mostly gypsy were ill treated and ill reputed. Jesters were but mere clowns, and clowns as we all know don't hold much status. Then you take Shakespeare's actors. Men played women, women weren't present. There wasn't a million dollars to be made from Romeo and Juliet. Comedians and performers were the low end of the totem pole. They worked hard and passionately but it didn't go anywhere and they were never the respected members of society. 

Fast forwards to centuries later and the shoe is on the other foot. but how come this time it fits so well? Is it because civilization was a bit cross eyed and wore the shoe on the wrong foot to begin with. Shouldn't art be appreciated more. Well then you question the renaissance and other such movements that held art up to the standards. Art was everything, it was exquisite and beyond. Yet it wasn't a viable business. It was admired but it didn't effect much. 

Perhaps it was just theater and performing arts that were under appreciated. The value of art is something that not just every artist but every person should question. Then you have the great composers who rubbed noses with royalty. In the end there seems that the place for artists wasn't under-appreciated, but rather segregated to certain events or so. 

What is the difference between then and now. Well one can only speculate. The true solution to this question would most likely require years of study and a formation of a thesis that could perhaps earn me a Phd. Fortunately I don't have the patience for that. 

What is the difference then, simple, back then art was appreciated but there was no money in it. The difference between artists and business men is that business men strive to achieve supremacy and artists strive to exist. The goals vary and therefore artists stay poor or mildly rich. But now the business end of it has taken over and the artists are becoming richer and richer. They have accountants, managers, agents dealing with money. And those only make money when the artist makes money. life for them has changed, and they have become role models and in todays world idols. 

Kids wanna grow up to be them, they set trends, which in this consumeristic society means not only money but fame and success. There is more of a chance you know Will Smiths next film rather than the current foreign policy set by our dear president. To the point that presidents to be frequent comedy shows to boost their popularity. The world has become quite an interesting place. 

So then why. Well it could simply be because of the industrialization of the film industry. Starting with the early twenties and on and on. Films became important to a newly industrialized culture where working conditions were getting better and better, and people weren't working from dawn to dusk in farms or the corrupted factories. living conditions were getting better and better. People seem to have more time on their hands. 

Now they couldn't go out every day. So at first film started competing with theater. It seemed generally the same thing. But soon the extensive range of film started to impede on theater and the world started to change. Now we fast forward to the advent of home playing devices. They started to compete with home entertainment, which for the most part consisted of books and perhaps board games. Film started becoming a part of life like nothing else. It started becoming a part of the conversation. 

So what is the value of film now? Or the value of books and paintings? Is theater obsolete? All are important questions that vary with the one answering. But important none the less to ask. With all of art that we consume in todays world, do we really understand the need of it or do we just consume it just like every other product. The difference is that art will speak to your soul more than your physical needs. 

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Not Good: Goodbye UK Film Council

Between 1997 and 2009, turnover in the British film industry went up by 50%, contributing £4.5 billion to the economy, while cinema takings in the U.K. are at an all time high. This can be partly attributed to the creation, in 2000, of the UK Film Council, a publicly-funded body (whose budget comes from the takings of the National Lottery), with the stated aim "To stimulate a competitive, successful and vibrant UK film industry and culture, and to promote the widest possible enjoyment and understanding of cinema throughout the nations and regions of the UK. The UKFC has a mandate that spans cultural, social and economic priorities."

This past May saw the election of a new government, one that's making cuts to departmental budgets left and right in an attempt to stave off financial disaster, and their latest move, announced on Monday by Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, and without any kind of consultation within the industry, is to abolish the UKFC. And, while ther
e were many problems with the institution, it's very, very bad news for anyone with a love of cinema, either in the UK or abroad.

The UKFC's principle role was that of a funding body, aiding the development, production and release of British films. In the States, public funding of film is almost non-existent, but in most European countries, and indeed much of the rest of the world, it's a necessity; the studio infrastructure simply doesn't exist in the same way, and it's nearly impossible for a feature film to get made in the UK without some form of backing from at least one of the three
publicly-owned boards: the UK Film Council, BBC Films (the likes of "An Education") or Film 4 ("Slumdog Millionaire," among others).

The Film Council has three principal feature funding strands. Firstly, there's a Development Fund, investing roughly £4 million a year on working on screenplays, either in the First Feature Film Development Programme, for newcomers, like Sam Taylor-Wood's "Nowhere Boy," or the Feature Film Development Programme for more established names, including Jane Campion's "Bright Star," one of The Playlist's favorites of last year. This is vital, as it's something that private companies are often less willing to fund; it's less glamorous and more intangible -- too often, British films feel like they haven't progressed past a first draft, and this department helps refine projects before they get in front of cameras.

Once things are further along, there are another two strands. Firstly, there's The New Cinema Fund, which again looks to support emerging talent, with a particular focus on writers and directors from minorities. Recent successes have included "Man On Wire," "Fish Tank," "In The Loop," "Hunger" and "This Is England," films that, to be frank, may well have remained in development hell were it not for the UKFC. For more mainstream fare, there's The Premiere Fund, which has a patchier track record although there have also been some gems, like "Happy-Go-Lucky," or "The Escapist," from director Rupert Wyatt (whose success landed him the gig directed "Rise of the Apes" for 20th Century Fox).

They've certainly backed their fair share of stinkers, though, most notably "Sex Lives of the Potato Men," a raunchy comedy starring Mackenzie Crook ("The Office," "Pirates of the Caribbean"), which is generally regarded as one of the great disasters of the 21st century so far. And they've also missed plenty of opportunities; Garth Jennings' "Son of Rambow," one of the most critically and commerciall
y successful British films of the last few years, was turned down by every British funding board in existence, including the UKFC, and had to go to Europe to raise its budget.

But ultimately, a publicly funded entity can't just fund 12 "Fish Tanks" a year; they have a wider remit. You might hate the "St. Trinians" films (assuming you've seen them), and we certainly do, but, unfortunately, our opinion isn't any more valid than the phalanx of tweens that have brought them to huge grosses at the U.K. box office, and the Film Council simply can't ignore an audience like that, nor should they.

In fact, as a funding body, the UKFC is remarkably successful, returning £5 for every £1 that the council invests -- a rate of return that any studio would be jealous of. Which isn't to say that there aren't naysayers; one look at the comments section of Deadline's story on the matter will show a number of filmmakers who've been wronged by the UK Film Council to one degree or another. One of the most common complaints seems to be that the board awards people who are already familiar to them, at the expense of newcomers; the award-winning likes of Jane Campion, Mike Leigh and Stephen Frears win out, as do names who've won out with the council in the past, while fresh new talent are left out in the cold.

Except that this isn't really true. At all. Newcomers like Wyatt, Duane Hopkins ("Better Things") and Gerard McMorrow ("Franklyn") received substantial awards, and that's only in features. Filmmakers like Tom Harper ("The Scouting Book For Boys," which is still our favorite British movie of the year so far) were able to move up to the big leagues by having shorts funded by the UKFC; the board gives funding of some kind to over 100 every year.

It becomes clear that filmmakers like Arnold, Wyatt and Steve McQueen wouldn't be making the kind of contribution to cinema that they are without the support of a funding body like the UKFC, and cinephiles the world over would be worse off without them. The government have promised to continue funding the film industry, to the tune of £15 million, but it's unclear how this will happen; it seems most likely that the British Film Institute, a charitable organization, will take over this role, but they have a very different remit, focusing more on cinema heritage, and they haven't had an infrastructure in place for this for years. There's also the idea to split their budget and give it to BBC Films and Film4, which is poorly thought out to say the least, and likely to be even more unpopular.

But still, this ignores the impact that the UKFC has at every level of the industry -- it's not simply a funding body. Other initiatives include Skillset, a comprehensive training scheme for people wanting to enter the industry, and First Light, which enables young people to get a taste of digital filmmaking. They're also responsible for aiding distribution for smaller and non-mainstream films through the Prints & Advertising Fund, which has enabled films of all stripes to compete with Hollywood blockbusters - £2 million a year was spent on the distribution of international films, so it's not just British films that would lose out. The UK is still one of the top markets for cinema outside the States, and films like "Reservoir Dogs" and "Donnie Darko" partly owe their reputations to being taken to the hearts of British audiences.

They now partially fund the London and Edinburgh Film Festivals, and the Sheffield Documentary Festival, and enable increased cinemagoing for the disabled through the Cinema Access Programme. Even if the funding for the films themselves continue, it seems unlikely that many of these programs will be continued, and there's little point in funding movies if you don't have a trained crew to make them, festivals to show them at and the ability to compete in the marketplace.

Maybe it'll all be fine. Maybe all the functions of the existing UKFC will be preserved, moved to other bodies and be more efficiently run. There can be little doubt that there was fat to trim in the institution, and that cuts could, and should, have been made; the overheads were very high, even for an institution as large as this one, and a strong argument could be made that the top figures were overpaid. But at the same time, April had seen it announce plans to cut its admin costs by 20%, with the loss of 22 jobs, so plans were already afoot for streamlining, but were never given a chance to be put to use. To scrap the institution entirely seems to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and undoes a lot of very good work being done by very good people.

It's not expected to be disbanded until early 2012, so there's still time for the plans to be stopped, and there's a petition to sign and a Facebook group to join for anyone who wants to add their voices. Ultimately, it's a very short-sighted, wrongheaded move, done to make the account books presentable, rather than with any view of the big picture. Hopefully Hunt and his colleagues will see sense, otherwise it risks crippling the country's film industry, and leaving moviegoers everywhere worse off.

Monday, July 19, 2010

YouTube Launches $5 Million Grant Program

YouTube has announced the launch of a $5 million program to support amateur video creators and help them attract a larger audience to its Web site.

Several emerging YouTube video creators have been able to generate substantial revenues and command an audience that rivals those of the broadcast networks while managing all aspects of their business, from writing, filming, and producing content to the marketing, post-production, and distribution of videos. Despite this success, however, many video creators lack the resources and deep financial backing available to studio-backed production houses.

To remedy the situation, YouTube established the Partner Grants program to bolster the production budgets of a small group of YouTube video creators who are at the forefront of innovation. The grants will serve as an advance against the video creators' future YouTube revenue share, enabling them to invest in better cameras, shoot for higher production values, expand their marketing efforts, and hire more staff, with the ultimate goal of bringing a richer body of content to YouTube users and advertisers and raising the creative bar for online video.

"Ultimately the game has changed, and people are throwing the rules out the window," George Strompolos, partner development manager at YouTube, told the New York Times. "Folks who ten years ago couldn't even get their content shared to friends across the street are now connecting with audiences around the world. We see that not only as a cute thing, where someone has a viral hit, we see these people as the next content creators, the next brand in original programming. It's where our roots have always been, and we are doubling down on that type of programming."

SnagFilms to Expand Library’s Reach to New Platforms

Documentary distribution outlet SnagFilms—the parent company of indieWIRE—will unveil later today an expansion of the platforms for its nonfiction titles that is timed to its second anniversary, as well as deals with a range of companies for more films. Snag will bring its library of 1,500-plus films to a suite of new sources beyond the original web platform upon which it was launched. New outlets will include the creation of VOD channels with cable network Comcast and Verizon FiOS TV. Additionally, selections from SnagFilms’ library will be available for purchase on Apple’s iTunes and for rental from YouTube’s premium program. There will be both free and paid options for watching films on the new Apple iPad.

Overall, the deals being announced today will increase the size of the company’s library and also bring the titles to an array of outlets instead of relying just on the Internet. Notably, the move highlights a shift away from an entirely free model for accessing some documentary features and shorts.

Select SnagFilms titles will be available through mobile phone carriers worldwide via A3 Media Network, Snag will announce. In the fall, its library will be accessible to internet-connected TVs, Blu-ray players, gaming consoles and set-top boxes. Plans are underway as well for the launch of SnagLearning, a site that will be made available next month to educators in time for the new school year, with over 100 films available to educators for grade and subject, to which supplemental study materials will be added.

Also on tap, SnagFilms will now offer films produced by indie studio Lionsgate, large documentary aggregator New Video/Docurama, select student films from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, selections from the National Film Board of Canada, a Flip Cam film from the Disney Imagineers showing their creative process, and an array of extreme adventure and music films from the production arm of Red Bull.

Currently, SnagFilms is hosting its second annual SummerFest, which began July 15th. The series offers viewers screenings for two weeks of six documentaries headed to theaters or television in the Autumn. This year’s crop includes “The Age of Stupid,” “Shooting Robert King,” “Disco and Atomic War,” “Videocracy,” “The Socalled Movie,” as well as “A Fighting Chance,” which will later be shown on ESPN.

“Our first two years were aimed at building our library and making those films widely available,” commented SnagFilms CEO Rick Allen, in a statement to be widely distributed this morning. “Our 1,500 films are available on mainstream media sites.”

“We started SnagFilms two years ago for four simple reasons,” said SnagFilms founder Ted Leonsis in a separate statement being issued today by the company. “We wanted to use the scale and interactivity of the web to bring great films to a broader audience. We wanted to create new tools and revenue opportunities for the entire indie ecosystem – filmmakers, festivals, film schools, non-profits, journalists and advertisers. We wanted to provide context and a community for film fans and the industry. And we wanted to deepen the reach of what we call filmanthropy.”

A profile in The New York Times today that broke the news of the deals said that Snag is also working on a deal to put its films on Netflix, but the Times said that the pact is still in the works. The piece, by Michael Cieply, said that Snag is aimed at, “distributing as many as 100,000 films,” quoting Ted Leonsis.

Founded by AOL Vice-Chair Emeritus Leonsis, SnagFilms has become the web’s largest home for non-fiction films, with more than 1500 documentaries streamed free to consumers on 90,000 websites and webpages. 

“Two years in, we believe we are benefiting every aspect of the indie world,” Rick Allen said in his statement, “And define our success as a ‘double bottom line’ business that does well by doing good.” - Brian Brooks

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Indie Film is alive: "The Kids Are Alright" makes One Million

 With few new indie films hitting the marketplace (and the unusually intelligible studio film, “Inception,” raking more than $60 million), the specialty box office was once again all about “The Kids” as Lisa Cholodenko’s family dramedy expanded very nicely in its second weekend.  According to estimates earlier this afternoon, Focus Features released “The Kids are All Right” grossed $1,027,356 on just 38 screens (up from 7 screens last weekend).  That placed it 12th overall, beating out films playing in hundreds of screens more than it.

The warmly reviewed “Kids” - which seems like a bonafide contender for this year’s Oscar race - details a tempestuous summer in the lives of Nic and Jules (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore), a couple anticipating their daughter Joni’s move to college.  Joni (Mia Wasikowska) has just turned 18, and her younger brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson) wants her to make use of her newfound status as a legal adult to seek out the sperm donor to which both of them were born from.  Enter Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who immediately hits it off with his newfound biological children and in turn begins to send the family into quite the emotional tailspin.

Its sophomore gross amounted to a strong $27,036 per-theater-average, obviously a big drop from last weekend’s mammoth average but a promising one as the film continues to expand. It was the best per-theater-average of any specialty release in its second weekend, grossing well beyond “The Ghost Writer,” which averaged $18,350 back in February, and “Cyrus,” which took in $17,719 a few weeks ago. “Kids” total now stands at $1,776,863.

Speaking of “Cyrus,” Fox Searchlight’s comedy went from 200 to 446 in this its fifth weekend, and appears to have peaked. Grossing $1,075,000, the improvised dark comedy actually dropped off 16% from last weekend despite nearly double the screen count. Its $2,410 per-theater-average was down from $6,875 last weekend.  Still, the $7 million budgeted film total now stands at $5,065,000 with a few more million sure to come, making it one of the year’s top indie grossers. It’s just clearly not becoming the $30 million+ hit Searchlight had with “(500) Days of Summer” last year.

After debuting on an aggressive 110 screens last weekend (one of the widest foreign film openings in some time), Music Box Films took Daniel Alfredson’s “The Girl Who Played With Fire” to 141 screens and saw a 27% fall in grosses. “Fire” grossed $662,379 for a decent $4,698 average. The second film adapted from the popular book series, “Fire” was eleased just 4 months afters its intensely successful predecessor “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.”  “Fire” (which has already grossed over $50 million overseas) has now already grossed $2,001,137, an impressive number for a foreign release.

Meanwhile, two summer success stories continued to perform well. In its fifth weekend, Luca Guadagnino’s critical darling “I Am Love” went from 110 to 140 screens and grossed $420,000, averaging roughly $3,000 per screen and taking its total to $2,666,939. The film, which details the refined world of a wealthy Italian family (led by Tilda Swinton, who learned to speak Italian for the role), is quickly becoming a significant success story for distributor Magnolia Pictures.  It should cross the $3 million mark by the end of next weekend.

Crossing that mark this weekend was another summer hit, Debra Granik’s Sundance prize winner “Winter’s Bone.” The film, which follows a young woman living in the Ozark Mountains played by Jennifer Lawrence, went from 106 to 120 screens and grossed a strong $361,720.  That gave the Roadside Attractions release a $3,014 average and took its total to a stellar $3,078,392.

Another big Sundance winner - Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize winning doc “Restrepo” -  went from 25 to 31 screens and grossed $94,262 for distributor National Geographic. That gave the film a decent average of $3,041 and a cume of $410,497.

Finally, in its fourteenth week in release, Sony Pictures Classics’ foreign language Oscar winner, “The Secret In Their Eyes,” passed the $6 million mark at the box office. The film drew $96,213 on 81 screens over the weekend. - Peter Knegt

Whatever happened to the box-office bomb?

People are understandably excited about Christopher Nolan's Inception. To start with, it marks the director's first film since his 2008 mega-smash The Dark Knight, which took more than $1 billion at the box office. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a dream thief who breaks into people's minds and steals their ideas, thus suggesting not only a blockbuster requiring an intimate knowledge of Descartes' Principles of Philosophy to understand it but also a withering satire on the way Hollywood comes up with its summer movie ideas. Most importantly of all, of course, it affords audiences a peek at that most endangered of species, an original idea for a motion picture, making it the only movie this year that could reasonably fail.

Remember that? When films used to fail? Films get called "bombs" all the time, of course—or "disappointments" to use the modern term. This year Prince of Persia, The A-Team, and Robin Hood all "underperformed," taking $190 million, $84 million, and $61 million respectively, although for the true belly flops, we must turn to poor old Jonah Hex, which debuted last weekend with a dismal $5 million, or Uma Thurman's Motherhood, a comedy about a stressed-out Manhattan mother that took just 88 pounds when it opened in the United Kingdom earlier this year. On one Sunday, the box-office sales totaled just 9 pounds, meaning that only one person bought a ticket, thus providing a fresh twist on the old Buddhist paradox: Can a movie be said to bomb if nobody even sees it go off?

The movie bomb used to be one of the more raucous spectator sports in America—watching Hollywood gather together some of the finest talents in the land, throw barrowfuls of money at them, lock them in a sound stage, and not let them out until they had made the biggest, proudest, costliest turkeys yet devised by human hand. Bonfire of the Vanities. Waterworld. Last Action Hero. Cutthroat Island. Their names alone were legend. They bestrode the world like colossi, their charred, rusting bulks a testament to the reach of man's hubris, the folly of human dreams, and the price of bottled water at Spago. They were so famous, people wrote books about them; we pored over every directorial temper tantrum and movie-star sulk like fish inspecting a shipwreck, looking for signs of the times, auguries of things to come, or else just a cheap shot of schadenfreude, although frequently it would be the bombs themselves that had the last laugh. Their notoriety was so great, their shadows so long, that eventually they were subjected to the same revisionism that envelops anything that sticks around in the culture for long enough. Recent critical opinion has it that Heaven's Gate is not a bad film, just a ruinously costly one, and even Ishtar has its defenders—ironic, coquettish types who wink at you from behind their yashmaghs.

What's happened to those films—the megabombs, the nuclear flops? Look up the list of the biggest flops on Wikipedia and you'll find plenty of movies from the last 10 years: You just won't have heard of them. Did anyone here see The 13th Warrior, a 1999 Viking-and-cannibal flick with Antonio Banderas and Omar Sharif? Or what about Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, a computer-animated Japanese-American co-production about marauding phantoms featuring the voices of Donald Sutherland and James Woods? Sad to say I neglected to see Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, a 2002 secret-agent thriller starring Antonio Banderas and Lucy Liu, but I neglected even to hear about Soldier, a 1998 sci-fi flick starring Kurt Russell and Gary Busey. As for Anne Bancroft's last role, alongside Freddie Prinze Jr. and Jennifer Love Hewitt in the computer-animated dragon fantasy Delgo—well, here's to you, Mrs. Robinson. Jesus loves you more than you will know.

Together, these movies lost in excess of $1 billion at the box office. They didn't explode so much as implode, sucking up all traces of their existence like those depth charges you see go off in submarine movies, first pluming outward then, just as quickly, inward, smothered by the pound-for-pound pressure at 40 fathoms, of wherever it is that Japanese-American computer- animated co-productions starring Antonio Banderas like to lurk. There are some higher-profile productions in there—Gigli (2003), Battlefield Earth (2000), Catwoman (2004) all have something of the old negative glamour, the inverted stature—but to a large degree, we are in an A-list-free zone. The Alamo (2004) was all set to be a true $200-million stinker starring Russell Crowe and directed by Ron Howard until Disney got cold feet and stripped it down to a 95 million "disappointment" directed by John Lee Hancock and starring Dennis Quaid. Darren Aronofsky looked to be nursing along a beautifully misguided $70 million folly with The Fountain, his metaphysical head-scratcher set in three different time zones and starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, until Warner Bros. pulled the plug and forced him to make it for $35 million with Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz instead. Where's the fun in that?

In a way it was inevitable that Hollywood would wise up. The costs of franchise moviemaking had gotten too high, the risks too great. Failure was always such an un-American concept, anyway; it made perfect sense to simply abolish it. Not all failure, of course—we still get out Jonah Hexes and A-Teams—but here's what you don't see anymore: big box office failures of the magnitude of Waterworld, Wild Wild West, Hudson Hawk, Last Action Hero, or Cutthroat Island, the swashbuckler that derailed the careers of Renny Harlin, Geena Davis, and Matthew Modine—and the last film to actually force a movie studio to close, Heaven's Gate-style. By the time we got to Titanic in 1997*, Fox and Paramount would have the sense to split the costs between them.

That didn't stop the Los Angeles Times from running a daily "Titanic Watch" column detailing the troubled production's every snag and snafu. Through the '80s and nineties, the press grew very adept at spotting these things ahead of time. A fired DP. Rewrites. Reshoots. A runaway budget. Those deliciously evocative words "action comedy." They smelled blood in the water, and they moved in for the kill. There was only one problem: Their narrative of Hollywood Hubris was a leftover from another era, before cable and DVD rentals, before the rise of the overseas markets and all the other ancillary revenues with which blockbusters beefed up their box-office figures. The press was all over Last Action Hero, pronouncing it a bomb-in-the-making before it had even reached cinemas, but thanks to overseas revenues, the film ended up making $137 million. Waterworld similarly wound up making $264 million. By the time we got to Godzilla, which made $243 million worldwide, we seemed to be witnessing a new breed of movie altogether: neither a hit nor a flop, neither a blockbuster nor a bomb, but somehow both, circling the earth with the stateliness of blimps, quietly siphoning up rental revenues from Abu Dhabi; pay-per-view profits from Stockholm, Sweden; cable kick-back from Kiev, Ukraine.

Nowadays, they are everywhere: Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, Speed Racer, Land of the Lost, Prince of Persia, the bombs that won't go off, all of them swirling in the same dust-cloud of disappointment that in the old days would have led to them being tagged "flops," only now, thanks to Hollywood's nose for the "presold," standing a pretty decent chance of making their money back—painfully, arduously, slowly but surely. It's not pretty, but Prince of Persia is well on its way to making a small profit, thank you very much, and the same goes for most of the year's other "disappointments"—Sex and the City 2, The A-Team, The Book of Eli—all of them failing upward in the modern way.

I miss the time when we let these things die. Because I am a sicko with an overdeveloped sense of schadenfreude, yes, but also because I think that failures can be just as revealing as successes, maybe more so. One From the Heart is one of my favorite Coppola movies, as beautiful and intricate as a Faberge egg, and I'm a big fan of the bomb buried deep inside Apocalypse Now: That film's proximity to pretentiousness is exactly what makes it such a thrill. I think that Hudson Hawk is not a bad movie. I'm not so certain that Ishtar is a good movie, but it evokes the friendship between Hoffman and Beatty at a high point in both men's careers; there is something lustrous and familiar to their tomfoolery, like old friends who cannot leave a joke alone. Until Waterworld beaches itself on that supertanker with Dennis Hopper, the movie is possessed of a salty, wind-in-your-hair sense of adventure: Costner looks good against an aquamarine backdrop. And I will never turn off The Abyss when it comes on TV (not until the moment when Ed Harris comes back from the dead; then I'm outta there). James Cameron is one of the few filmmakers who regularly look as if they are going to deliver a 24-carat disaster only to make good at the last minute, thus pushing him into the company of such filmmaker-adventurers as John Huston and Howard Hawks, men for whom a movie wasn't really a movie unless it threatened to go into a life-threatening nose-dive at some point.

So yes, I will be first in line to see Inception, damp-palmed and a little nervous for Nolan, hoping he pulls magic out of the hat, grateful just for the suspense. - Tom Shone

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Is a Serial Killer Priest Going Far Enough?

I have been reading scripts recently and wanted to bring a certain thought to our readers attention. What constitutes as originality?

The answer to that question varies from person to person and for a writer becomes a hurdle in a world where so many thousands consider themselves writers, where it be screenplays, books, or simple poetry. Now can we consider all these self proclaimed writers worthy of their title. Well thats an issue I've been fighting for, for years now. Almost every literate person can write, but to be a professional writer it takes quite a lot more. One of these major facts is originality. Then there is plagiarism and simply tributes as well. We've seen Romeo and Juliet adapted into a million different films and that isn't a stretch since it was once called Tristan and Isolde. The tradition of star crossed lovers goes back beyond generations. Everyone wants to believe that their love is forbidden by society. 

Yes there are those that copy the story to the teeth and fail at achieving anything. Then there are those who change certain important aspects of it to make it an entirely new film or any piece of literature. Now you put Romeo and Juliet at opposite ends of the Palestinian and Israeli border, working at competing fast food chains on the border and you have an academy award winning short film. Or was the film a rebirth of Westside Story. Which in turn was a beautifully mastered reiteration of the Romeo and Juliet story. 

Make a priest an evil entity and you might achieve the same originality, that was until the Catholic priest scandals of recent history. Now it almost seems that the profession is somewhat tainted as is. However, the trusted local priest being a serial killer is one for the books. Now since we are going that far, how far is too far? Or is a better question; how far is not far enough? If you want to push the boundary than please do so, but do it completely and convincingly. A family film about a Rabbi that edges on psychosis but in the end turns out to be a nice guy, is neither a family film nor a adult drama. 

Here is where originality comes into question more so than anything else. The limits need to be pushed, and when they have adequately been demolished, the audience can look back and say this was a great film and not just a good film. These things are not easy to understand or implement as the case may be. A writer is to close to his/her work to simple say "Hmmm… more perversion would help this priest." The writer is merely capturing his reality and the rest takes place as it may. Workshops and such help, but in the end it is the writer that wrote the piece and only he/she has the ability to change it drastically. 

So we come back to what is originality. well originality has a lot of names and faces, thats what makes it original right. It is too easy to be comfortable in your ideas and depictions. The boundary of expression needs to be pushed and pushed and redefined a million times to create a million hits. That is not to say that sometimes it isn't pushed too far or simply exploited. But that is exactly the mystery factor in making great films. If there was a formula the studios would have already paid a billion to acquire it, but to the fortunes of writers, directors, and other creative individuals there is no one answer. Art is in the strive to reach the obscure an unknown. 

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Chris Thilk - Talking about Theaters

"I’ve been trying to figure out why a story about theater owners focusing on strategies involving 3D and digital presentations (Hollywood Reporter, 6/24/10) rubbed me the wrong way. Finally it occurred to me that the problem with this strategy is that they’re relying on Hollywood to continue to keep the theater-going experience relevant to the movie-going public instead of embracing their own future.

In the restaurant business new places are usually judged on “bread and circus,” the former being the food itself and the latter being the overall environment of the establishment. But, barring something horrible happening, the conversation about going to a movie theater is almost exclusively about the “bread,” the movie itself. If someone is asked about a new theater by a friend, the response is usually limited to a generic “It’s a nice place” or something equally as noncommittal. Especially with the rise of the multiplex in the 90′s, the theater going experience has become a generic one and if a particular theater closes it’s just fine to shift one’s habits to getting the exact same experience elsewhere.

So instead of relying on Hollywood and their current fascination with 3D theaters need to figure out ways to create consumer word-of-mouth. That’s the only way they’re going to survive the next five years in a healthy condition considering those same Hollywood studios are increasingly experimenting with release window changes that are going to impact theater business. The studios have their own best interests in mind and will go where the money is. So theaters need to look at alternate ways to engender a conversation not about the movies but about the theaters themselves if they want people to choose that experience over a Redbox rental and a night in." - Chris Thilk

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Starbucks is smart to stop charging for Internet access. Everyone should follow suit.

 Whatever you think of its coffee, Starbucks has always been a nice place to get some work done. The stores are clean, the music inoffensive, the furniture comfortable, and the electrical outlets plentiful. And if you just need a quick pit stop to charge your phone, transfer photos to your laptop, or play a little Minesweeper, the Starbucks mermaid is always just around the corner, whether you're in Boston, Bangor or Beijing. Convenience has no borders.

Unless, of course, if you want to use the Internet. While local coffee shops have long offered free Wi-Fi, Starbucks signed up with a series of mobile providers over the years to gouge customers on Internet service. The company now offers free access for two hours, but only for customers who've recently purchased an item using a Starbucks card. Additional hours sell at the eye-burning rate of $3.99, a price that would lead you to believe that Starbucks is using some kind of next-generation fiber-optic network built from recycled coffee grounds. In fact, the company gets DSL services through AT&T. Like their coffee, a huge chunk of that $4-an-hour is pure profit.

But Starbucks has finally seen the light. On Monday, CEO Howard Schultz announced that beginning July 1, customers at all "company-owned stores" in the United States will get free unlimited Wi-Fi service with a single click—no complicated sign-up process, and no purchase necessary.

("Company-owned stores" exempts locations in supermarkets, hotels, bookstores, and other crannies of American commerce.) Starting this fall, customers surfing Starbucks' network will also get free access to paid Web content, including the Wall Street Journal, Zagat and select downloads from iTunes. The company hopes that its Web efforts will continue a recent revitalization of its stores—Starbucks was hit hard during the recession, but sales began to increase earlier this year.

Starbucks is certainly late to the free Wi-Fi game. McDonald's, among other rivals, began offering no-charge Wi-Fi this year.* Still, compared to other service businesses, Starbucks looks prescient. The world's upmarket hotels, for instance, still charge $10 to $20 a day for the Internet, the closest you can come to seeing poor creatures getting fleeced without visiting a sheep farm. Here's hoping Starbucks' plan prompts radical change in the tourism and hospitality industries. Per-hour Wi-Fi is a dying business. The sooner that hotels, airports, convention centers, and other similar places realize this, the happier they'll make their customers.

The case against charging for Wi-Fi is partly technological: Thanks to smartphones and other cellular gadgets, a lot of us don't need to pay up anymore. Phones capable of Wi-Fi "tethering"—which allow you to get Internet access for your laptop through your cell plan—are becoming more numerous; there are several ways to turn on free tethering in your Android phone, and Verizon offers it at no additional cost on the Palm Pre. (AT&T charges a ridiculous $20 a month for iPhone tethering.)

People whose phones can't tether are buying devices like the Mi-Fi—mobile Wi-Fi hotspots that allow your computer to take advantage of cellular networks. These services are relatively pricey—Verizon's Mi-Fi plans start at $40 a month—but for frequent travelers (who make up the bulk of the business at many hotel chains), these devices are much cheaper and more convenient than paying for Wi-Fi at airports and hotels. If you spend just four days a month on the road, it's wise to get a Mi-Fi. And if you've got a smartphone, you obviously don't need to tether if you just want a small taste of the Internet. I used to have to pay for hotel Wi-Fi just to watch for urgent e-mail and find local restaurants; now I can do all that for no extra charge on my phone.

Thanks to the smartphone war between Apple, Google, RIM, Microsoft, and Palm, we're bound to see rates for these cellular plans fall, and smartphone adoption rates are skyrocketing. In the same way that you'd be a fool to make a long-distance call on your hotel phone, soon almost no one will need to pay for hotel Wi-Fi. The revenue well is drying up. The smartest hotels are coming around to this view. Many mid- and low-budget chains—including Best Western, Comfort Inn, and Holiday Inn—have recently switched to free Wi-Fi. It's the pricey places that continue to charge—you can get free Wi-Fi at the Ramada, but not at the Ritz.

Perhaps the theory is that people ponying up $500 for a room aren't going to budge at paying $10 for the Web. Maybe. But if you're not charging them for them extra for the soap or the toilet paper, why nickel-and-dime the Internet? Although there are no firm numbers on how much it costs hotels to provide Wi-Fi, it's likely no more than a dollar per room per night (and probably far less, considering the speed you usually get when you do pay; if you'd like to relive the joys of the dial-up Internet, visit your nearest fancy hotel's "business center.")

I expect some readers will attack me as a hippie freeloader looking for a Wi-Fi handout. You'll also point out that even if providing the network is cheap, there may be other costs associated with giving away Internet access. Local coffee shops have long lamented the problem of Wi-Fi-induced lethargy—there seems to be no better way to keep a nonpaying patron in the store than to give him endless electricity and Internet access. The Wall Street Journal reported last year that some mom-and-pop shops have begun blocking their wall plugs or prohibiting laptops during certain hours in order to discourage Internet moochers.

But the evidence for this trend appears thin. Other coffee shops report that Wi-Fi has been a draw, a way to market an establishment as friendly and welcoming compared to the Wi-Fi-crippled Starbucks. And the coffee behemoth says it doesn't expect to be overrun by Wi-Fi leeches. Currently laptop users spend an average of 60 minutes on Starbucks network, and smartphone users spend 15 minutes, a rep told me; the company doesn't expect those numbers to rise substantially when it rolls out its new plan.

And when it does, the hotels will really feel the pinch. Why buy Wi-Fi in your room when you can get it with your latte in the morning? Or, heck, skip the latte. The Internet is free. - Farhad Manjoo