Apocalypse 28: Lessons from the film industry

Posted: June 18th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Apocalypse Series, Business, Culture, Journalism, Technology | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

My friend and indie filmmaker Michael Morgenstern has a blog where he covers, among other things, the shakedown that is taking place in the film industry. It sounds a lot like the one we’re experiencing in journalism–to quote Mike, the challenges are as follow:

“financing its films when the distribution model is defunct, monetizing the Internet where users expect to pay nothing, and conquering the crowd logic of moviegoers and the advertising budgets of the big players.”

In a three part series that you absolutely must read, Mike has laid out how indie film landed in its current quagmire and how he believes it might emerge. Key to his vision are two ideas that have also been touted by new media activists (journalism’s equivalent of indie directors) as models for news. One is micropayments; the other is using a central web portal as the launch and landing pad for non-digital offerings of the most popular content. I have two essential bones to pick with this vision–firstly, that the central web portal for journalism, film and maybe one day music will be Google and there are serious anti-trust issues there, and secondly, that the micropayments system assumes users will set up a digital credit card account accessible at all websites and there are serious privacy issues there. While Mike gets points from this business writer for being more economically savvy than most filmmakers I know, he brushes over both of these issues.

Furthermore, there is a problem in journalism that film doesn’t have–while news consumers will surely benefit from the new opportunities given to small players, news consumers will also lose if the old players are allowed to go under. Serious film aficionados aren’t really worried that there’s a social cost to seeing fewer summer blockbusters from big studios, while they are understandably bullish about the growing capacity of small producers to do high quality storytelling. Not only do the “big boys” in the news industry have good content to offer, the particular kind of good content they have to offer–expensive, investigative reporting–isn’t being replaced by the small producers as the distribution costs drop. That’s because the cost of that reporting isn’t on the distribution side; it’s on the production side, in the form of reporters’ beat expertise, time and travel. Micropayments won’t cover that.

I don’t know enough about film to know if Mike’s vision will work for them. But I know enough about journalism to know it won’t work for us.

Pixar Nails It, Again

Posted: July 2nd, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Business, Culture, Technology | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

I saw WALL-E last night and completely fell in love. There are many film critics better qualified than I to wax eloquent about the animation and the soundtrack. But what got me about the film was its approach to technology and industrialization.

To summarize, WALL-E lives on an Earth that is so covered with litter that it can’t sustain human life. His job is to clean up while the humans orbit the Earth in a space-station cum shopping mall and become fatter and lazier as they continue to buy, and throw away, more junk. But WALL-E also picks through the litter before he runs it through his compressor. He saves relics of human civilization that appeal to his sentimental side: tapes of “Hello, Dolly!,” a rubiks cube, a spork, some Twinkies for his pet cockroach, Christmas lights etc. All of these are the outgrowth, in one way or another, of the same technological and commercial trajectory that produced the mess WALL-E cleans. So, for that matter, is WALL-E.

In our current debates about globalization or climate change, we often talk as though there are two sides: humanitarian, environmentalist lefties who oppose technology and right-wing libertarians who believe it can do no wrong. Meanwhile debates about copyright or social media privacy controls often pit free culture radicals (who believe the Internet SHOULD be allowed to do everything it CAN do) against an old media establishment (who believe, the story goes, that the Internet should be allowed to do as little as possible).

WALL-E is a film that points out the middle ground in these binaries. Just because industrialization can pollute does not mean pollution is its necessary outcome. Nor does that destructive potential compel us to abandon its positive abilites, like making the computers that give us digital animation. Just because the Internet allows us to see everyone’s personal information and steal company secrets does not make those practices okay. Nor do the dangers of the digital world mean we ought to give up the convenience of the Google search.

Fitting, then, that WALL-E comes from Pixar, and thus from Steve Jobs, a titan of the digital age.

1, 2, skip a few…

Posted: May 12th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Culture | Tags: , | No Comments »

…99, 100.

That’s how I used to count to 100 when I was a kid and trying to be cheeky. In real life, you can rarely skip steps that easily, but sometimes, it works.

Last night I went to see the most charming movie about elderly folks who sing covers of classic and not-so-classic rock songs. It’s called Young@Heart and it reminded me a bit of Buena Vista Social Club set in Massachusetts. Both are movies worth seeing, and calling one’s grandparents immediately afterwards. A little cheesy, yes, but the music is pretty awesome and even a jaded Gen Yer like me can be inspired from time to time.

In one scene that really struck me, one of the singers, Bob Salvini, died of cardiac arrest just before a concert. He was meant to sing a duet of Coldplay’s Fix You with another very ill man, Fred Knittle. Suddenly, Fred has to sing the whole thing alone and doesn’t know Bob’s part.

All throughout the film, there are jokes about how the singers’ own musical tastes turn to opera or classical, except when they’re singing at Young@Heart. When the conductor gives them CDs of Sonic Youth or the Talking Heads, they can’t figure out which side goes up in the CD player.

But when Fred has to learn Fix You, he sits down at his Dell computer and pulls up this video from YouTube! to sing along to.

The result is heartbreakingly beautiful:

Web 2.0 technologies are reaching people for whom the big step is not from analog to digital, Ethernet to wireless, but from ink on paper to pixels on a screen. My grandmother, for example, cannot use a DVD player but she knows that “Google” is a verb and has an email account.

1, 2, skip a few…