Monday, March 30, 2009

The Week in Review

The Hollywood Reporter explores how Texas has been adversely affected by stronger film incentive programs in other states. Meanwhile, a new study has been released that questions the long-term value of such incentive programs;

New reports indicate that people are spending more and more time in front of various screens. Yet this isn't translating to them spending money to watch the media on these screens...a problem that various sectors of the entertainment industry have only begun to address;

Reporting from the AFI Dallas Film Festival, SpoutBlog's Karina Longworth reports on a panel comparing the indie film and indie music businesses;

Will New York City be the first of many cities to offer the next generation of "hyperlocal" television stations? Several cable and telephone companies are experimenting with the strategy now. A key question is how (or to what extent) struggling local broadcast outlets will respond;

Add another talk show host to the mix: starting in November, it looks like George Lopez will be hosting a late night talk show on TBS;

There are reports that Disney may become a partner in the News Corp/NBC Universal joint venture, Hulu;

Apparently Cartoon Network is the latest cable channel to try to reinvent itself. Its goal, according to this article, is to produce more live action fare as a means of becoming a "dominant youth culture brand" that "really understands the needs of high-energy teen boys." OK then.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Latest Variety Show

During the last week or so, a war of words has flared up between trade publication Variety and entertainment blogger Nikki Finke. On March 23, Variety ran three different stories that, in different ways, attacked the practices employed by bloggers generally and Finke in particular.

No sooner had these two sites begun to attack each other than many other journalists and bloggers jumped in to offer their own take on the conflict. Among those who expressed distinctive opinions were David Poland (The Hot Blog), Sharon Waxman (The Wrap), and Kim Masters (The Daily Beast).

The reasons why this conflict arose of less interest to me than how it has played out so far. In a broad sense, the Variety-Finke brouhaha echoes the turf wars going on between traditional print journalists and Internet bloggers on every news beat.

Yet the particularities of this conflict are fascinating in a couple of key ways. First, this skirmish is notable for the response -- or rather, the lack of response -- it has generated from readers. From what I can tell, the general reaction across the different sites that covered the issue seemed to be "Who cares? Why should some silly battle between (narcissistic) entertainment journalists matter to me?"

As but one example, take Huffington Post. The online website tried to make this conflict into A Big Deal. Their article on the quarrel briefly appeared on the site's front page...only to all-but-disappear after but a few hours. It seems that this is but one more instance in which those covering the entertainment world have a distorted sense of how and why people come to their sites in the first place.

The second reason this conflict seems worth commenting on is due to how it ties into my own work as a media scholar. Yes, I enjoy looking at a variety of entertainment sites in part to learn more about what is going on in the entertainment business -- what is being made, who is doing what, and so on. But of even greater interest to me is tracking the way the "industry" presents itself -- how different people try to promote their interests, spin different issues, and construct the business in certain ways. Yet it is frustrating that as these sites become ever-more obsessed with being the first to report a deal, offer a review of a new movie, or break the news of an executive's departure, their energies gets diverted away from substantive analysis.

What's more, in the rush to run something first, the quality of the reporting gets sketchier and sketchier. Finke has been widely attacked in part because she has been seen as the mouthpiece for various executives with specific agendas, as well as for her lack of transparency in reporting (for example, she has been attacked for running a story and then, if she finds out the information is incomplete or incorrect, she simply removes that information or changes it to fit the latest news.)

Again, these issues certainly are not particular to entertainment journalism but rather are concerns facing all areas of journalism today. And clearly there is often much more at stake when, for instance, health or environmental reports are handled in an irresponsible fashion. Yet it is nonetheless worth considering how the public's -- and media researchers' -- understanding of the entertainment business might be affected as old and new media attempt to stake out their place in this changing landscape. What's more, given that this is the entertainment business -- a business in which so many careers and creative projects are at stake, not to mention a great deal of money -- it seems that we should care more about what constitutes entertainment news... and what are the best ways to report it.

The Finke-Variety conflict simply underscores the extent to which entertainment reporters and bloggers have become more interested in being first than being accurate, more invested in reporting a deal than thinking about precisely what that deal might mean for those working in (or wishing to work in) the media industries.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Week in Review: Brand Identity Crisis

As has been much discussed (and derided) elsewhere, the SciFi Channel is now SyFy. It is fascinating to see how a simple name (well, really just spelling) change might indicate a significant shift in programming practices and target demographics;

Hulu plans to devote a new section of its site to documentary programming. It is interesting that, though Hulu has always featured both television and movies, the primary way it has been discussed (at least so far) seems to be as a place to view (fictional) TV. It will be interesting to see if -- or what --impact this move has on the profile of nonfiction film;

There are signs that HBO plans to overhaul its brand image. This article asks how The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency might fit into the cable network's broader programming strategies;

3-D is back again - and so is speculation about the potential impact it will have on moviegoing practices;

Just what we need: more programs glorifying the wonders of Old Hollywood. TCM recently announced a ten-part mini-series, Moguls and Moviestars: A History of Hollywood while HBO, David Chase and Brad Grey are back together to develop a miniseries entitled A Ribbon of Dreams. It seems when times get tough in the film biz, the best thing to do is mythologize the past (through television, of course).

The Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism has released their 2009 report on the State of the News Media. As might be expected, in general, it doesn't paint a pretty picture for print and television journalism;

The current economic crisis is now affecting the TV syndication business;

And the award for wacky adaptation of the week goes to...the Coen Brothers, who are reportedly remaking True Grit.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Week in Review: Where Is a Stick of Chewing Gum When You Need It?

Some of the top stories that caught my attention this (ok, mostly last) week:

Chuck Tryon has written several compelling columns in the last week, including one on the week-long "war" between Jon Stewart and CNBC;

A management shake-up at News Corp. has generated much speculation about the future direction that will be taken at the company, especially in terms of Fox's Filmed Entertainment divisions. Particularly intriguing is the appointment of Fox Searchlight president Peter Rice to be in charge of entertainment for the Fox Network;

Growing independent film company B-Side has formed a theatrical distribution arm;

Actors in films and TV programs aren't the only ones struggling to renegotiate their contracts in a tough economic climate; commercial actors face challenges getting compensated for their online work as well;

SXSW is underway again. The buzz surrounding the festival seems to get bigger every year;

Cable TV's upfronts are about to get started. Early signs indicate it will be a disappointing selling season for cable and broadcast outlets alike;

TV Week explores the myriad reasons that local broadcast stations are struggling. What isn't explored here, however, are the potentially large-scale cultural ramifications of the changes broadcasters are making due to their economic difficulties;

Heathers: The Musical -- brilliant or crazy?

MacGyver: The Movie -- simply crazy.

Watching the Box Office

I've been holding off on writing this entry until after preliminary box office figures came in for Watchmen's 2nd week in release. However, now they are in - and they are pretty much in line with what I expected: Watchmen posted an approximate 67% drop from from its opening weekend, according to early estimates.

This is not the least bit surprising to me. The film seemed to largely satisfy (if not amaze or inspire for return visits) many of those who had read the graphic novel. However, from my casual perusal of the web and Twitter comments, it seemed to generally alienate (if not bore) those who had not read the book. Its complex narrative structure became inaccessible or incomprehensible. Further, by removing both the rich backstory of the main characters as well as the subplots and minor storylines to accommodate the time constraints involved in telling a feature-length film, it seemed to lose something in the translation to screen. While those familiar with the comic might have been able to "read the backstory" of the comic into the film (or be satisified in knowing that the DVD would supply many of these additional materials down the road), those who came to the material for the first time were likely to encounter essentially an arthouse superhero film.

The problem with it being an arthouse superhero film was even more complicated by the fact that a) it wasn't a very good one if viewed on its own merits, as opposed to in relation to the source material; and b) it had been marketed by Warner Bros. as "just another superhero action film." In the short term, Warners' decision to minimize the film's complexity in its marketing materials might have served it well: thus, the opening weekend box office was solid, if not breathtaking. However, with regard to the film's longer term viability, such strategies are more problematic. This is most immediately apparent from the way the film has quickly crashed and burned at the box office as fans of the comic book (at least, those that I know, and whose responses I have read online) seem to have decided that it is not worth seeing again in theaters. This is further compounded by the negative buzz, which has contributed to disinterest on the part of many of those who are not part of the relatively narrow niche of individuals who have read the book.

Now one can certainly argue that in the longer term, the film may do okay financially. I imagine the DVD sales will be quite solid for those who want to see all the additional materials that had to be excised from the film due to time constraints. In addition, the success of the film has led to a dramatic increase in the sales of the graphic novel, which in turn will lead to more interest in the movie...and so on.

Nonetheless, in spite of the potential long term viability of Watchmen, it seems quite likely that the film's disappointing box office returns -- if not outright failure -- will reinvigorate discussions about the extent to which Hollywood's business model for theatrically-oriented motion pictures is increasingly out whack with marketplace realities. It seemed that this discussion had begun to be initiated last year when Speed Racer crashed and burned at the box office. Yet that conversation was cut short by the astounding performance of Iron Man and The Dark Knight, thereby leading to the repeated declarations of the age of the comic book movie and the continuing longevity of the big budget event film as the raison d'etre for Hollywood.

Now it seems this conversation is likely to appear again. However, I wonder whether the questions asked -- or responses provided -- will be the right ones. It is well known that theatrical box office accounts for ever-diminishing amounts of the overall income for motion pictures. The premiere of feature films has become an exercise in establishing the brand for future markets (most especially DVD). Yet in spite of this, the size of (domestic) theatrical returns are seen as an indicator for future returns -- thus if a movie takes in smaller-than-expected amounts at the box office, it is anticipated that returns down the road (especially in terms of DVD and merchandise sales) will also be smaller than expected. Thus, tremendous energy is expended on promoting the film early on, in the hopes that it will not only take off (and "have legs" in theaters) but also in ancillary markets.

But what seems to have emerged in this day and age is that box office discourse has taken on a life of its own. We hear constantly about box office grosses everywhere-- in the pages of USA Today, on the nightly broadcasts of Entertainment Tonight and so on. These reports suggest to an uninformed general public that box office in itself has meaning -- that $100 million at the box office means $100 million to Warner Bros. Anyone who follows the industry to any extent knows that of course this isn't the case. However, the mere fact that it these numbers are reported regularly to the public means that studios have defined their marketing practices in part to drive excessive opening weekends so that the film builds or sustains buzz for aftermarkets. What all this means is that box office returns have become symbolic practices, leading to material realities that differ from those promoted by the popular media.

Watchmen doesn't merely have the potential to provoke a reassessment of the meaning of box office, however. It might also contribute to a reconsideration of the reasons why certain movies get made and others do not. It seems fairly safe to say now that, however satisfying a movie such as Watchmen may have been to some fans -- and however much it may be an even better film when re-experienced in various ways on DVD -- it never should have been made in the manner it was. This is not to say it should not have been made at all, but rather that, given its budget level, combined with additional marketing expenses, it is unlikely that any (relatively faithful) iteration of Watchmen could have done well at the box office. Of course, this lesson is one that has been learned repeatedly as director after director came and went from the project and one studio after another ran the numbers and put the project in turnaround. The film was not made for so many years in part because of the difficulties of adapting the script effectively and in part because of the challenges of maintaining something near the original vision of the graphic novel in a cost effective manner. (The problem with Watchmen, in particular, is that there is no way that it could have been made as a feature that was faithful to the source material without spending this kind of money -- which is why some have long argued it would have worked better as an HBO-style TV mini-series.)

But Warners made it anyway. From one (narrower) perspective, I am thrilled that the company was willing to take a (measured) chance on material that was more narratively challenging, thematically rich, and aesthetically complex than, for example The Incredible Hulk. But I have to wonder if, in the end, this very risk will end up setting back more ambitious projects in the long run. To what extent will a perceived underperformance of this film lead to more conservative behavior on the part of film executives down the road? As yet another reason for saying no when -- just as a few months earlier -- The Dark Knight might have provided a reason for saying yes?

And I'm not just speaking about comic book adaptations here, but any project which can not only be marketed as simple and accessible but also IS in fact that way when experienced in theaters?

It will be interesting to see if - or the extent to which - Watchmen is discussed by the press and industry in ensuing months. What lessons will be taken from the film? What will be the consequences of its box office performance, both in terms of what is greenlit and who will keep or lose their jobs? To what extent, in this age of multimedia conglomerates, can or will one film have any substantive impact on corporate practices and production decisions? And when - if ever - will the popular tales told about box office returns be challenged or complicated by a wider range of bloggers, reporters, etc?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Adventures in Teacher-land

In class yesterday, I blithely tossed out a reference to the Betamax.

Student's hand goes up.

"What's a Betamax"?


This event was accompanied by my equally disturbing realization that today's college freshmen weren't alive when The Simpsons started airing original episodes.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Watchmen v. Sex and the City

I saw this in the comments section of another blog and it seemed worth repeating here: Sex And the City (reported budget of about $60 million) earned about $57 million on its opening weekend domestic. Ultimately it brought in about $152 million domestic. It was released by New Line just as it was being dramatically downsized by Time Warner last summer.

The final numbers aren't in for Watchmen but it seems fairly certain that this film (reported budget of $150 million plus) earned less than SATC in its opening week (Hollywood Reporter says $55.7 million). I would be willing to wager it will not reach SATC's final grosses domestically. Warner Bros. distributed it North America (but Paramount has international and Fox gets a cut due to legal wranglings).

Now clearly domestic box office is a relatively small portion of the overall pie for media companies these days. Nonetheless, I find the divergent ways these films have been discussed and positioned in the media to be fascinating.

It is interesting to consider the gender politics involved in the press coverage, critical response, and online discussions about Watchmen v. Sex and the City. It amazes me that, in this day and age, every time a female-targeted movie "hits" at the box office, it is a "huge surprise" given its presumed "niche" audience (see also: Devil Wears Prada, Mamma Mia and most recently, He's Just Not That Into You). The lower budgets invested in these films, compared to male-targeted effects-driven action films, is itself indicative of the lower expectations. Yet Watchmen, because it is geared to the most desirable of audiences, is not conceptualized as niche in the same way -- though it is every bit as much of a niche product.

Oh-so-much more could be said about the ways the two films and their target audiences are conceptualized by various sectors of the industry (not to mention by the press). Alas, I must get back to work. Others' thoughts are welcome, however!

Also: it's worth underscoring that none of these remarks speak to my opinion of the aesthetic or narrative attributes of either film (personally I preferred Watchmen, but still had major problems with it). Discussing each film's relative merits, however, is the subject for a completely different blog entry.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Media Industries collection - now available!

I am thrilled to announce that the collection I edited with Jennifer Holt (UCSB) is now out. We are honored that such an amazing group of contributors (see table of contents below) provided original essays on a broad range of topics.

Here is a brief overview of the book:

MEDIA INDUSTRIES: HISTORY, THEORY, AND METHOD outlines the diverse ways that media industries have been studied in the past and offers an innovative blueprint for future research and criticism. Contextualizing the current moment of unprecedented technological change, media convergence, and globalization, the authors engage in cross-disciplinary exploration from a range of historical, critical and theoretical perspectives.

Bringing together newly commissioned essays by leading scholars in film, media, communication, sociology and cultural studies, MEDIA INDUSTRIES constructs a unique road map for industrial analysis of film, radio, television, advertising and new media. Collectively, these 21 essays provide a crucial resource for those encountering the study of the media industries for the first time as well as for those interested in conducting cutting-edge research in this burgeoning field. Rich explanations of key terms and foundational ideas vividly illustrate the dynamic transformations taking place across varied national, regional and international contexts.

MEDIA INDUSTRIES is divided into four sections: History, Theory, Methodologies and Models, and Future Visions. Case studies on such diverse topics as the relationship between ESPN and hip-hop culture, the historical interactions of Hollywood and Washington, the shifting power relations between online fans and media producers, the growth of regional media archives, and multi-national production and distribution ventures across Latin America ground the broader concepts of each section. Taken together, the work in this collection marks a crucial step in expanding discussions of the media industries across numerous disciplines in the humanities and social sciences while also helping to bridge the gap between the industry and the academy.

Table of contents:

Introduction: Does the World Really Need One More Field of Study?: Jennifer Holt and Alisa Perren.

Part I: History.

Editors’ Introduction.

1. Nailing Mercury: The Problem of Media Industry Historiography: Michele Hilmes.

2. Manufacturing Heritage: The Moving Image Archive and Media Industry Studies: Caroline Frick.

3. Film Industry Studies and Hollywood History: Thomas Schatz.

4. Historicizing TV Networking: Broadcasting, Cable, and the Case of ESPN: Victoria E. Johnson.

5. From Sponsorship to Spots: Advertising and the Development of Electronic Media: Cynthia B. Meyers.

6. New Media as Transformed Media Industry: P. David Marshall.

Part II: Theory.

Editors’ Introduction.

7. Media Industries, Political Economy, and Media/Cultural Studies: An Articulation: Douglas Kellner.

8. Thinking Globally: From Media Imperialism to Media Capital: Michael Curtin.

9. Thinking Regionally: Singular in Diversity and Diverse in Unity: Cristina Venegas.

10. Thinking Nationally: Domicile, Distinction, and Dysfunction in Global Media Exchange: Nitin Govil.

11. Convergence Culture and Media Work: Mark Deuze.

Part III: Methodologies and Models.

Editors’ Introduction.

12. Media Economics and the Study of Media Industries: Philip M. Napoli.

13. Regulation and the Law: A Critical Cultural Citizenship Approach: John McMurria.

14. Can Natural Luddites Make Things Explode or Travel Faster? The New Humanities, Cultural Policy Studies, and Creative Industries: Toby Miller.

15. Cultures of Production: Studying Industry’s Deep Texts, Reflexive Rituals, and Managed Self-Disclosures: John Thornton Caldwell.

16. The Moral Economy of Web 2.0: Audience Research and Convergence Culture: Joshua Green and Henry Jenkins.

Part IV: The Future: Four Visions.

Editors’ Introduction.

17. From the Consciousness Industry to the Creative Industries: Consumer-Created Content, Social Network Markets, and the Growth of Knowledge: John Hartley.

18. Politics, Theory, and Method in Media Industries Research: David Hesmondhalgh.

19. An Industry Perspective: Calibrating the Velocity of Change: Jordan Levin.

20. Toward Synthetic Media Industry Research: Horace Newcomb.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Changing Guilds, Changing Technologies

Most articles discussing the ongoing labor negotiations between the actors' guilds (AFTRA and SAG) and AMPTP (the body negotiating on behalf of the media conglomerates) have focused on the key sticking points in their respective deals. Recently, some journalists have discussed the likelihood that SAG members will shift to being AFTRA members (if they aren't members of both already), since AFTRA has already finalized its agreement with AMPTP. However, these discussions have been framed primarily in terms of economic exigencies.

One topic I don't remember seeing discussed prior to reading this article in The Hollywood Reporter involves the potential technological and aesthetic ramifications of a production opting to go with AFTRA instead of SAG. Yet the labor disputes are leading to precisely these types of shifts. This is the case because television programs adhering to AFTRA guidelines have to be shot digitally. Significantly, since AFTRA has already made its deal with AMPTP, a disproportionate number of upcoming prime time broadcast television series are being shot in accordance with AFTRA, rather than SAG, guidelines.

As this article notes:

Once the odd man out during broadcast networks' winter pilot season with an occasional multicamera pilot, AFTRA is dominating the field this year with at least 50 of the 70-plus broadcast pilots to be produced coming under its jurisdiction. If the trend continues, it could increase AFTRA's clout in the TV biz at SAG's expense, and it will give a shot in the arm to digital production because AFTRA projects are required to be shot on means other than film....

A union insider noted that the switch to more AFTRA production is part of a pendulum swing tied to the evolution of the viewers' tastes and the technology employed in television. Most primetime shows in the golden era of multicamera comedy in the 1960s and '70s were under AFTRA because they were done on tape. But as dramas began to dominate schedules and the cost of film went down, SAG began to gain ground.
The entertainment conglomerates' mandate for cost cutting in the face of a recession also contributed to the shift from film to digital. Cost savings from the switch are said to be about $30,000, or 1%-2% of the budget of a drama episode. That is significant given the fact that ABC Studios and 20th TV recently cut the budgets of all of their series by 2% in response to the economic crisis. Still, cost reduction was not as big an impetus for the dramatic shift from film to digital as was the turmoil around SAG.

What makes the transition more palpable for producers is the big advances in the digital technologies that eliminate previous shortcomings like inferior lighting and add advantages including easy digital effects.

It would be interesting to explore further whether -- or to what extent -- a shift from SAG to AFTRA not only changes the two groups' relative sizes and dynamics for the long term, but also substantively alters production practices on an industry-wide basis. Will labor negotiations lead to signficant changes in network TV's aesthetics? Will these changes be evident to many (or any) viewers?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Week in Review: Bye-bye Chernin, Hello (Again) Bart

Finally starting to dig through emails, articles, etc. Hopefully I'll be able to get a couple of substantive posts up this week, in between writing, researching and whatnot.

Some of the more intriguing articles from the week...
  • I'm still undecided about the relatively new website, The Daily Beast. However, industry observer Kim Masters has posted a few informative "insider-ish" columns, including this one about the recent departure of News Corp's second-in-command, Rupert Murdoch, and the potential power vacuum that could be emerging;
  • Robert Johnson (founder of BET) is testing the limits of the FCC's must-carry policy (in tandem with Ion) in the digital realm. His goal: develop an "urban-targeted" broadcast network using some of the additional spectrum provided to broadcasters as they move to digital. Comcast has now publicly objected to this effort;
  • The Simpsons will soon be the longest-running prime time series in TV history, surpassing Gunsmoke;
  • Can we anticipate more social scientifically-oriented "violence in the media" research being funded in the near future?
  • Samuel L. Jackson signs a NINE-picture deal with Marvel;
  • In yet another sign of cable's growing strength, Turner plans to take on CBS at this year's upfronts;
  • It looks like lifestyles of the rich and famous (2.0 reality version) will be omnipresent on cable TV for quite some time;
  • ESPN becomes the latest TV entity aiming to move into the local (sports) news business with its ESPNChicago venture