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

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Does disappointing summer box office have studios considering (GASP) original material?

In answer to the question posed in the headline, all I can manage is “maybe, but I wouldn’t bet anything important that the system will change.”

Box office returns are off this summer. Attendance is down 13% from last year, and even with 3D inflation pumping up a few films, overall revenue is off 7.5%. (And those numbers will probably get worse for June, thanks to the World Cup.)

So studio execs, who would like to keep their jobs, are starting to get uneasy. According to a couple reports, they’re actually uneasy enough to consider abandoning the recent reliance on sequels, proven properties and bullshit board game adaptations. Without material like that to provide movie stories, what will studios mine as raw material? Supposedly, they might actually go for original material. Should you believe it?

Vulture and Deadline are both running pieces reporting the execs from Paramount, Universal, Fox and Warner Bros. have been making frantic calls to agencies like CAA and WME, hoping to meet with agents in order to, in the words of one agency source that talked to Vulture, “Get us the original material. We need some original shit, because now our bosses are on us.”

Deadline runs a quote from one ‘major producer,’ who says,
…this sluggish summer might be a blessing in disguise for talent and producers who want to take risks but have been hamstrung for the past two years by studios that have been operating in retreat mode, and looking for the safest bets possible. The lack of originality this summer might get off this safe track and in the mindset to take some risks again, and that would be a good thing.
One of Vulture’s sources, JC Spink of the management and production company Benderspink, says more concisely,
People are feeling marketed to, as opposed to catered to…I think we’ve all gone a little bit overboard as an industry. There hasn’t been room for original material for a little while now. It’s a shame, because I don’t think it’s what anyone [who works in the business] came out here for.
(Spink was an executive producer on The Hangover. This comes, appropriately, just as CNN reports that The Hangover, a film that isn’t a license, a sequel, or a TV update, has become the most-ordered title On Demand. Actually, of the top five On Demand films only one, Twilight, sitting at #2, is an adaptation or part of a franchise.)

So that all sounds promising and ducky, and I don’t buy it for a second. Why? Because I have faith only that agents will make what seems like the best business decision and execs will make the easiest decision. This is promising on the front end, but don’t for a moment be fooled that, even if some miraculous agency/studio ‘creative confab’ bears any fruit, it means we’ll get good original movies.

Who do you think packages many of the dull, derivative big-ticket movies that have bored us all this year? Agencies and management companies. And there is no shortage of high-concept crap scripts out there just waiting for a convincing agent to foist upon a studio exec desperate to keep his job.

Beyond the talent packages that lead to big studio films, there’s another big problem that has to be addressed. The conservative and often ego-confused creative mindset at studios creates bad movies.

Could Clash of the Titans or Prince of Persia or Robin Hood have been good movies? Sure. If the first Pirates of the Caribbean can still stand as a fun, respectable summer adventure, those movies could also have turned into something worth your two hours and ten bucks. CAA could send a lost ark of original scripts printed on solid gold pages to Fox, but if the studio makes them the same way they make so many other movies, the results are still likely to stink.

And, just to leaven the pessimism a little bit, consider that this is just talking about big studio movies. There are quite a few wonderful small and indie films playing this summer — if you’re not exploring your indie and arthouse theaters you’re missing out on some great stuff. - Russ Fischer (/Film)

Monday, June 14, 2010

Are Today's Stars Easily Replaceable?

Just because you have a famous face, doesn't mean you're not expendable. An article on Jam Showbiz points out the growing trend of high profile replacements. Of course, there's Megan Fox's removal from the Transformers franchise and the Terrence Howard/Don Cheadle swap in Iron Man 2. Then there's the buzz that Kellan Lutz and Ashley Greene took things to the brink with salary demands for the Breaking Dawn films. They managed to hold on unlike the original Victoria, Rachelle Lefevre who lost her role to Bryce Dallas Howard in Eclipse. When the news of their ousting first hit the web you may have experienced distress, disappointment or perhaps just concern for the character's sake, but after the initial blow, did you ever think twice about it?

Take a look at Howard's situation. Whether it was really all about the money or not, Howard's chance to put on the War Machine suit was snatched away by Cheadle. Both are fine actors, but it's hard to let go of the guy you met in the first film, right? Wrong. When the news first arrived back in October of 2008, it came as a shock. Was there anything any movie fan could do about it? No. Was Cheadle at least a top-notch replacement? Yes. When the time finally came for Iron Man to return to theaters, I doubt most recalled the original Jim Rhodes and, if they did, it didn't make them enjoy the film any more or any less.

This provides a perfect taste of what's to come in Transformers and Eclipse's case. Fox and Lefevre are memorable faces, but certainly not irreplaceable ones. As Jam Showbiz points out, the stars of Transformers are the robots, not Shia LaBeouf. The loss of the Autobots and Decepticons would be a devastating blow, but there are a bunch of curly-haired cuties who can pick up where LaBeouf left off. The same goes for The Twilight Saga. Supporting cast members are able to reap the benefits of the franchise's success, but it's the main players -- Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart and Taylor Lautner -- that hold it together.

On the other hand, the situation with the Spider-Man franchise can demolish even the biggest star's assurance. There's no reason to think that dropping Tobey Maguire and starting over would have a higher chance for success than bringing the original team back and just focusing on making film four as high quality as the first and second. So is anyone safe? How would you feel if we lost one of the boys in The Hangover in round two? If they were all replaced, probably enraged, but if Justin Bartha slid his way out and maybe Chris Pine took his spot, it'd be like getting a shot; you feel a nice jab, but within a few moments it's like nothing ever happened.

However, Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis and all other series headliners have to be on alert because there's no denying that this reboot craze has the power to slide their long term deals right out from under them. The Hangover: The College Years, I can see it now. It's only been three years since the last Spider-Man film and the suits are ready to wipe the slate clean and start over. For all we know Iron Man will stop dead in its tracks and we'll have Iron Man Jr. or some nonsense coming our way. Not that the Scream vets were expecting to take the franchise beyond film three, but at least Wes Craven is giving them a proper sendoff in the new installment after which we'll be expected to latch on to the fresh faces.

It's a scary thought, but whether it's for financial reasons, personal issues or bad attitudes, everyone's disposable regardless of how famous your face is. Not everyone is as lucky as those Harry Potter kids to make it to the end of an eight-film series. Some just have to enjoy it while it lasts. - Perri Nemiroff via Cinematical

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Sony 3D Promos At-Home 3D: At Expense of Theater Experience?

“I refuse to say the sky is falling,” declared Sony chairman Amy Pascal, when I asked her about the grim summer box office so far. She was observing the Sony 3D show-and-tell Wednesday on the Sony lot. Clearly, not only is the studio earmarking a number of 3D features for 2010 and beyond—including Resident Evil Afterlife in 2011 and Spider-Man 4 and Men in Black III for 2012 (Will Smith putting on his shades takes on a new meaning), but the entire corporation is moving aggressively into the 3D space both at home (PS3, 3D games, Bravia HD 3D televisions, Blu-Ray 3D devices) and in theaters (see videos below and Sony News).

Sony America CEO Sir Howard Stringer hosted the event on the old MGM studio’s Stage 8, as the press corps sat on white vinyl sofas and donned their 3-D glasses. “Creation, distribution and display,” are Sony’s catch-words as they hawk their content, games, and stereoscopic equipment. “We’re blazing a trail in every part of the 3D universe,” said Stringer, who also praised Sony’s 3D technology center which aims to educate and inform filmmakers on the best use of 3D tools. Stringer stressed that Sony was pushing “high quality,” “immersive” 3D. Not that “jarring,” “mediocre” after-the-fact stuff. (They did the honors on Alice in Wonderland.) Sony plans to spend $100 million marketing this 3D effort, with 6000 retail displays reaching 200,000 consumers; they will also hit social media. A 3D Playstation games and sports spot featuring Peyton Manning and Justin Timberlake will air during World Cup matches.

And Sony Imageworks has been playing in the digital visual effects playpen for some time, from Bob Zemeckis’s Polar Express to Monster House. On the hardware side, Sony cameras and 4K projectors are shooting and displaying 3D images. The SXRD 4K projector is on 2000 screens now in North America; they eventually expect 11,000. As HD TVs continue rolling out, the Bravia 3D TV will be available in Sony Style stores and online for $2000 for a 40-inch and $3000 for a 60 inch set. It includes a transmitter and two pairs of glasses.

While it’s no surprise that Sony is selling Bravia 3D televisions (will people want to wear the active shutter glasses?). immersive 3D games for the PlayStation 3 or making more 3D movies, I was blown away by the quality of the sports imagery they’re going to show on ESPN 3D, which launches with the World Cup Mexico South Africa soccer match on Friday at 6:30 AM PT, which thanks to ATT, Direct TV and Comcast will have 40 million available subscribers at launch.

While skateboarding, basketball and baseball looked great, I was especially taken with the golf—you felt like you were there on the green, with birds singing, the hushed crowd, Phil Mikkelson rolling his hole in one, right atcha. Sony also announced Discovery Channel CEO Tom Cosgrove as new president and CEO of the new 3D Channel combine from Discovery, Sony and IMAX, the first 24/7 3D channel. Sure enough, they showed us stunning Discovery 3D ocean shots of eels swimming into the frame, schools of fish, floating sea horses, leaping dolphins and close-up shark snouts. The car racing and concert footage was also impressive.

And Sony Pictures Chairman Michael Lynton announced that animated Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs will be the studio’s first 3D Blu-Ray, released June 22. Lynton expects 30 or more 3D pics industrywide in 2011 to be shown on some 14,000 screens—and more like 23,000 screens by 2012. Sony promises that what PS3 did for Blu-Ray, it will now do for 3D, because PS3 users are early adopters and voracious technophiles. Folks who buy the Bravia 3D TV will get vouchers for stereoscopic 3D games.

As guys settled into sofas on adjoining Stage 7 to try out 3D games, it hit me that this is the last thing the movie business needs: immersive 3D games and home entertainment on fancy screens on top of all the other competition for viewer attention. Big 3D event movies were keeping Hollywood rolling in green—and they’re all banking on more 3D. The Sony demo made me want to go home to my PS3: it streams music, plays Blu-Rays, downloads TV and movies (via Netflix streaming), and will now play 20 stereoscopic games such as Super Stardust—not to mention 3D Motion Control for the Playstation Move. No question Sony will own the 3D space. But are pokey old movie theaters going to be left behind? - Anne Thompson