Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

Mulholland Drive and Art Cinema

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When I watched Mulholland Drive on my own the other day, I noticed that the DVD came with a viewer’s guide:

David Lynch’s 10 Clues to Unlocking This Thriller
1. Pay particular attention in the beginning of the film: at least two clues are revealed before the credits.
2. Notice appearances of the red lampshade.
3. Can you hear the title of the film that Adam Kesher is auditioning actresses for? Is it mentioned again?
4. An accident is a terrible event… notice the location of the accident.
5. Who gives a key, and why?
6. Notice the robe, the ashtray, the coffee cup.
7. What is felt, realized and gathered at the club Silencio?
8. Did talent alone help Camilla?
9. Note the occurrences surrounding the man behind Winkies.
10. Where is Aunt Ruth?

Because I had never seen Mulholland Drive before, I was immediately cued for interpretation and investigation. Knowing David Lynch, that was not surprising. But I wonder: Does Lynch’s 10 cues contradict or reinforce the film’s art cinema tendencies?

On the one hand, this is perhaps the most explicit form of authorial address. Some of the questions (where is Aunt Ruth?) point to certain ambiguities and ask the viewer to hypothesize about them. On the other hand, the author is literally telling us what to think about. Art cinema, while soliciting a higher interpretation, is often not made to be figured out, solved, or “unlocked.” As Bordwell writes, “narration is more complex than art can ever be, the only way to respect this complexity is to leave dangling and unanswered questions.” So what is the usefulness of these questions when many of the answers remain ambiguous? Art cinema is supposed to be about unfocused gaps and less stringent hypotheses. Do we really need to find answers to these questions or can we allow them to be unanswered and dangling? It is possible that directing the viewer how to unlock the film may render certain interpretations while limiting others.

Thus, while Mulholland Drive deals with dream logic, loose causal relations, a self conscious style, and heavy interpretation, it still calls on the viewer to, as Murphy says, “piece together the various strands of what has been deliberately constructed to be a mystery.” But does playing detective fit with the mode of art cinema, where narrative comprehension is not the primary concern?

Bordwell vs. Chatman: Can there be only one?

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I have a tough time deciding whether I agree more with Bordwell or Chatman on the issue of the implied author. The problem is this: I can think of times when I consider narration to be constructed by a real author and times when I consider narration to be a product of the text’s intentions, the implied author. As you will see, I can’t come to a concrete conclusion that adequately explains why. The purpose of this post is to express my confusion on the concept of implied author, not to offer a sound analysis. In any case, I’d like to present three factors which may contribute to whether I understand a film as having an implied author or not.

1.) Familiarity with the Real Author
I went into The Singing Detective with quite a bit of extratextual knowledge. I had seen Potter’s Pennies from Heaven, I knew he was diagnosed with psoriasis, and I knew this was supposed to be the greatest masterpiece on television. So naturally I had Dennis Potter in the back of my head. During the mini series, I often compared The Singing Detective with Pennies from Heaven in terms of Potter’s mise en scene, dialogue, and genre play. I thought about how the plot related to Potter’s own life. And I wondered how Potter was going to tie the whole mini series up in the most mind blowing manner.

Let’s say I went into The Singing Detective knowing nothing about Dennis Potter but having seen Pennies from Heaven. Undoubtedly, I’d know the texts would be related. In addition to a downbeat tone and a slow pace, both involve musical numbers which alter the typical musical conventions, usually representing some Freudian psychological desire. In this case, if a friend said to me, “I really liked The Singing Detective,” I’d say, go check out Pennies from Heaven. I wouldn’t say “you should look at other works by the director.” Would my recommendation be based off Chatman’s concept of a career author, suggesting the film based on similarities shared by the implied authors, or based on the narration’s similarities, independent of any author at all (implied or real)? It’s hard to know.

2.) Level of Engagement
I found myself focusing on Potter’s role in creating the narration only at times when I was either confused or bored. Sometimes I wasn’t feeling very receptive to cues in the fabula construction and sometimes I just had no idea how to interpret those cues, no idea how to form a plausible hypothesis. In either case, I stopped hypothesizing…and drifted off. I thought about Potter’s overall goals in telling the story and why this was supposed to be so brilliant. I started to wonder why Potter was making certain choices (which admittedly, were disengaging me).

Conversely, when the narration offered interesting and thrilling scenes, I blocked out any concept of a “real person” prompting the narration. My favorite sequence in The Singing Detective was the scene where Marlowe’s teacher interrogates the class. Because I was so invested in what would happen, I wondered, why did the text include this? What is it trying to tell me here? In this way, when I was deeply involved in the story, I felt as though the text was communicating to me, not the real author. Or was I so engaged in the process of narration that I forgot about any author at all, implied or real? Again, it’s hard to know.

3.) Film Major vs. Regular Moviegoer
Not to seem elitist, but studying film allows us to view movies differently than other people. In my experience, when I watch a film for class, I usually have the real author in the back of my head. I know there is someone “behind the curtain” making choices, cuing the narration. I recognize how much time, money, and effort goes into making the film. But is the regular moviegoer as aware of this? I would assume they go to the movies to see whether the text will deliver an enthralling experience, not the real author. I don’t know though, does this matter at all?

There are other factors that may affect our understanding of who is the author, such as the level of ambiguity and self consciousness of the narration, the medium of the narration, and other general extratextual knowledge. But where I get caught going in circles is when I try to distinguish between the implied author and the narration. In much of what I’ve said so far, I could replace my use of text, implied author, and text’s intent with Bordwell’s narration. I can’t decide whether the real author makes choices which cue me to construct the narration or whether the cinematic narrator makes choices and sends me a message, which I then reconstruct and encode to form a narrative.

I guess one main question that I am grappling with is this: does narration exist from the viewer’s mind, the real author’s mind, or from the text itself? You might say there is an interaction between all three. But does the text fit into the equation? Can it “invent?” Bordwell would say no way. Perhaps then, because I am so indecisive, it’s best to side with Bordwell. I can’t assign a trait to the implied author that I can’t assign to narration, so it doesn’t really improve our understanding of narrative fiction at all. Yet something “feels right” about an implied author too. Maybe because that’s the way I think about literary fiction. I honestly have no idea.

The Intersection between Film and New Media: Narrative Databases

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In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich introduces the concept of a database as a term normally antithetical to that of narrative. A database involves many trajectories through many possibilities of a text. A narrative has one trajectory-a beginning, middle, and end. Yet Manovich says films can be both a database and a narrative, noting the machine-like structure of The Man with the Movie Camera. I’d like to explore films which are based on a database logic and compare them to the databases/narrative structure of hypertexts.

Jim Bizzocchi discusses Run Lola Run as adopting a narrative database since it is “a highly structured set of parallel plot events…[compelling] the viewer to examine the relationship between the consistency of event iteration and variation in event outcome.” Ultimately Bizzocchi decides of Run Lola Run: “if cinema does not afford explicit physical interaction, it can and does support implicit psychological interaction.” Certainly all films generate a degree of interactivity (in the most general sense) But I aim to research ‘higher level interaction,’ where films more closely resemble hypernarration than traditioanl film narration in the way they present time, space, and causal relations. Besides Run Lola Run, other examples include Short Cuts, Time Code, The Norman Conquests, and Rashomon. (all briefly mentioned by Bizzocchi, but not thoroughly examined) (Perhaps Mulholland Drive and Slacker would be interesting to look at as well) These films involve the construction of a complex narrative database requiring viewers to work harder to make plot connections. What can we learn from these films in relation to new media narration? How does their form and style tailor the story and to what effect? I wish to research how the films relate to Salen and Zimmerman’s four levels of interactivity in Rules of Play and how they compare to various hypertextual works such as Afternoon, Hot Norman, and Patchwork Girl.

Preliminary Thesis: Films containing narrative databases are useful tools in understanding the potential for new media narration since they provide a framework for introducing a higher degree of interactivity without compromising narrativity.

Sources:
Bizzocchi, Jim. “Run, Lola, Run: Film as Narrative Database.” MIT Paper.

Harries, Dan. The New Media Book. London: British Film Institute, 2002.

King, Geoff, and Tanya Kryzywinska. ScreenPlay: cinema/videogames/interfaces. London: Wallflower Press, 2002.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000.

Murray, Janet. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1997.

Rieser, Martin, and Andrea Zapp. New Screen Media: Cinema/Art/Narrative. London: British Film Institute, 2002.

Salen, Katie, and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of Play: Game Design and Fundamentals. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004.

Scholder, Amy, and Eric Zimmerman. Game Design and Game Culture. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, 2003.

Wardrip-Fruin, Noah, and Pat Harrigan. First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.

Objective vs. Subjective Reality in Barton Fink

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Barton Fink’s unique style and texture certainly made it aesthetically pleasing. I particularly loved the Shinning-esque hallway, the slow pan following Charlie when he first bangs on Barton’s door, the whoosh every time the door opens or closes, and of course, the character Lipnick. But beyond admiring some fantastic mise en scene, acting, and sound design, I couldn’t help but wonder: What was that movie about?

To help me with the question, I found an article called “Barton Fink, Intertextuality, and the (almost) unbearable richness of viewing” by Michael Dunne. The article mentions a number of theories on how to interpret the film; Barton Fink could be an allegory on creativity, a satire of Hollywood, or a piece about a man who sells his soul and goes to hell (aka the Earle Hotel).

Ultimately, Dunne concludes that reducing Barton Fink to a single interpretation does the film an injustice. For it is a film that blends the aforementioned theories in interesting ways, never completely confirming or disconfirming any of them. Thus, Barton Fink is a film less about the intentions of the author and more about the perceived meanings by the viewer. Dunne writes:

In keeping with these critical insights, we may understand that to encounter a film like Barton Fink, to feel conscious of parallels and contrasts to our prior aesthetic encounters, to feel uncertain just how it all fits tidily together, and to accept this uncertainty happily as part of this cinematic encounter-is to experience the (almost) unbearable richness of viewing.

The main uncertainty in Barton Fink is the question of what is real and what is not. So I’d like to run with this a little bit. George Wilson talks about the impersonal subjectivity in his essay, “Transparency and Twist in the Narrative Fiction Film.” He defines impersonal subjectivity as “non-POV shots that are subjectively inflected but do not share their vantage point with the visual perspective of any character in the film.” Sometimes, as is the case with Fight Club, the viewer may consider such subjective impersonal shots to be objective, especially when there are no explicit narrative cues to tell us otherwise. These impersonal shots are a subjective representation motivated by some psychological significance, like a character’s thoughts or emotions.

In Barton Fink, it is hard to pick out the impersonal subjective shots (that aren’t POVs) as there is no clear distinction between reality and fantasy. Upon first viewing, all events seem to be objective because they make logical sense within the story: Barton is given the assignment to write a screenplay and he works on it in his hotel. But how real is the hotel, really? It seems to be more like an artificial hell than a realistic place. The entire atmosphere is eerie and ominous. The seemingly friendly neighbor turns out to be a serial killer. The slogan of the Hotel Earle is “For a day, a lifetime.” And the fire doesn’t burn anything nor does it concern anyone in the hotel. But we don’t question the authenticity of any of these things because we attribute them to the “as if logic” of an eccentric place. That is, until the perplexing ending.

The pleasure of this film, as Dunne noted, is indeed hypothesizing (on subsequent viewings) which scenes, events, or characters are real or not real. If I were to pick out instances of impersonal subjectivity in Barton Fink, I would probably choose almost all of the hotel scenes. Why? Because every conversation, object, and character in the hotel could have some psychological significance to Barton’s feelings or thoughts as they exist outside of the hotel.

For example, Charlie’s deceptiveness-his transition from someone who wants to help Barton to someone who ruins his life- parallels Barton’s experience with Lipnick. Audrey’s confession to Barton may represent a hidden desire of Barton’s: he doesn’t want to admit that the author he respects is actually a drunk. The mosquito on Audrey may represent W.P. Mayhew’s parasitic relationship to her. As for the painting on the wall, Dunne projects that it “is probably intended to represent everything Fink lacks-sex, beauty, social acceptance, innocence, the healthy outdoors, the appeal of the West Coast.” So I think it’s reasonable to suggest that everything in the hotel is a manifestation of Barton’s consciousness or unconsciousness; all of it is subjective.

I don’t know what any of this means, (and I won’t attempt to analyze it in light of Dunne’s analysis) but I do think that in order to clear up the relationship between the subjective and objective, we must draw on our understanding of Barton’s psychology and personality. I guess what I liked so much about this film, and I usually hate feeling confused, is that the viewer must add subjectivity in the way they feel most appropriate (as oppose to Fight Club which reveals the objective truth in the end). This film would be a great candidate for the video essay. I’d like to alter how we perceive subjectivity in the film-what if the last scene in the movie came first?

Update: Leslie wrote a great response to this post so I’ll post my comment here:

Perhaps the beauty of Barton Fink is that it counts on our natural and involuntary tendency to read the film like we read The Singing Detective–to separate the objective fabula from the subjective. But in Barton Fink, such a task is impossible. Ultimately, because we can’t distinguish between reality and the fantasy, we may consider the entire film to be subjective. Perhaps the message, if there is any, is that all filmmaking is subjective and that it is the role of the viewer to construct objectivity from it. Even though there are always filters and slants in film, we still consider impersonal shots to be truth. (unless we know for sure that the character is dreaming, thinking, or hallucinating)

Distinguishing between the real and the not real is important to me, no matter how fruitless, because it changes how I construct the objective truth and the fabula at large. And I need to find some shred of objective truth. I can’t consider the whole thing to be imagined because I’d feel cheated. (like discovering it was all a dream) So I find it very intriguing to make a hypothesis about the film and then find proof to support it. (like the process of viewing any film) The film’s meaning may be indecipherable, but I refuse to write it off as such. Frustrated that I can’t get all the answers from Barton’s mind, I’m forced to speculate about the minds of the Coen brothers. I depend on the author (and my perception of their intentions) to help me find meaning in a text; I simply cannot rely on the text alone. Thus, for me, it is virtually impossible to enjoy the film without making some effort to figure it out.

Hollywood’s Web Shows: The Future of Television?

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I have argued before that the television industry would benefit from transforming its business model to enhance consumer engagement and adapt to new technologies. That is not to say that broadcast TV is in danger of disappearing (in fact a May 2008 Nielsen Report pdf found Americans are watching more traditional TV than ever) but DVRs, digital cable, and online video all make it increasingly difficult for networks to secure consistent viewers and advertisers. As a result, pilots, even beloved shows, either produce immediate results or face extinction. The system has become so reliant on statistics that a show whose viewership falls below 93% of its networks’ average viewers will be flat out NEXTed. (source: tvbythenumbers.com)

Wait a second. What about the people watching the show on DVD, on the Internet, or on mobile devices? How are they accounted for? And, if you’re like me, you don’t want to invest in a show when you know it’s likely to be abandoned without warning. But it is the nature of the business that a series won’t survive without the initial ratings. It’s a vicious cycle and breaking it would mean one of two things. Either audiences gain enough trust in the networks to risk their time and energy to invest in a new series, or the networks trust the audiences to improve the ratings of a show even after a poor start.

What we have here is what smart people call a Hegelian dialectic, the idea that the tension between two opposing forces is resolved through a synthesis. In this case, the tension between the networks’ old consumption expectations and the viewers’ new consumption habits has resulted in a new Hollywood experiment: web shows.

(more…)

The Dark Knight: Transmedia Brilliance Part 1

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I’m sure you’ve heard the statistics by now. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight poured in a record 155 million domestically in its opening weekend. It is now poised to reach the 300 million dollar benchmark after just 10 days. And some think it will overthrow Titanic as the highest grossing movie ever. It is indeed an incredible masterpiece. The stunning special effects, action-packed sequences, epic music, thrilling twists and turns, and of course a chilling performance from Heath Ledger all contributed to this powerful superhero movie. Not to mention the film’s critical acclaim, receiving a whopping 95% on Rotten Tomatoes. While all of these factors certainly created a “surround sound effect,” hyping up the movie in all directions, I’d like to examine another element driving the film’s success – its dedication to realism through extratextual content. (Before I go any further, I must warn you, I will draw on spoilers in my analysis…read at your own risk.)

As the Dark Knight got closer to its release date, Warner Bros. launched a “let’s give them everything we got” marketing campaign. There would be cool posters, exciting trailers, batman and Joker Peanut Butter Cups, partnerships with Dominoes, Got Milk, Comcast, Verizon, Kmart, General Mills (to name a few), and even a complete takeover of the mySpace homepage. All of these traditional forms of advertising certainly got people, and the media, buzzing.

But over a year before any of this, Warner Bros. collaborated with 42 Entertainment to launch an ARG (alternate reality game), so extensive, so compelling, that it made viral marketing efforts from Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project look like child’s play. Chris Thilk of Movie Marketing Madness, points out why the studio pushed an intricate online viral campaign in addition to its usual ‘branding barrage:’

“This separation is important since the two components are appealing to, if not drastically, at least partially different audiences. [Through the ARG] Online Warner Bros. has been able to activate a serious core of fans and Batman/comic enthusiasts who have reveled in being part of Joker’s army or in finding out what they need to do as part of the Gotham PD’s task force. But offline there is the larger movie-going audience that needs to be appealed to. So the elements that are crossing media need to not just be geared for audience that has “found” them through unlocking clues, but which sees them as part of the larger media landscape they live in.”

What Thilk is describing here is the movie’s remarkable ability to appeal to the casual fans and mass audience, who do not seek out online scavenger hunts but embrace the coolness of the trailer or the movie poster, as well as the enthusiastic fans, who may actively ignore traditional forms of advertising but revel in engaging, original content instead. And The Dark Knight’s ARG (check out the wiki) did not disappoint the latter.

It started on May 11, 2007 with the release of the official Dark Knight website. A week later, clicking on the bat symbol brought a user to the Harvey Dent campaign website, which simply contained Aaron Eckart’s picture and the slogan, “I believe in Harvey Dent.”

Meanwhile, in California, a comic book employee reported defaced Joker cards appearing in his shop with “I believe in Harvey Dent too! Hahahah!” stamped all over them.

Sure enough, when users went to ibelieveinharverydenttoo.com, they found a Jokerized Harvey Dent image.

Participants typed in their email address and  received their first exposure to Heath Ledger’s Joker.

So after only a week, fans realized a recurring pattern: As Thilk writes,

“Put up a mysterious site, promise something in return for enough participation, deliver on that promise and then shut things down with the message that there’s more to come. Across this online effort the reward is, more often than not, a piece of the movie’s traditional marketing campaign, be it a poster or a trailer or something like that. This puts the audience in a position of power – Getting a look at a new trailer or whatever becomes dependent on their activity or at least their alertness. They *need* to participate or the goodies will go away. At least that’s the perception that’s created through such efforts.”

This sort of interactivity is not only the essence of viral marketing; it’s also the heart of transmedia storytelling. When a studio provides mysteries and answers through cross media platforms, fans essentially become willing participants in marketing the movie. They embark on a puzzle solving quest, craving more information and comparing notes with each other to heighten the experience of the story world. The question remains however, are such fans participating in this hunting and gathering adventure on their own terms, or are they just puppets who are carefully guided through a pre-determined story for advertising purposes?

 At last year’s Comic Con, the Joker distributed “Jokerized” one dollar bills pointing people to WhySoSerious.com, a fgJoker costume website which told users to go to a certain location at a certain time. Hundreds of people followed the instructions. After the crowd assembled, a phone number appeared:


Those who called the number overheard a hostage message, solidifying the player as part of Joker’s crew and initiating the scavenger hunt. The San Diego participants collaborated with friends online, who would import the clues to the WhySoSerious website. In return, the ‘ground team’ received Joker masks and the online players got a first look at the teaser trailer for the movie.

Here in the second phase of the ARG, we see a level of immersion building. Fans joining Joker’s army were able to show friends their picture on the Rent-a-clown website, a fake clown rental company within the whysoserious game. Interestingly, participants in the ARG immersed themselves in the world of Gotham by working for the villain, a role not only much more realistic in the context of Gotham (Batman works alone) but also, arguably, more fun as well.

In retrospect, the focus around the Joker in the ARG fit the movie quite well. The Joker is so manipulative and conniving that in some ways, the fact that he instills chaos into real people makes sense. Players will do anything for answers (in this case information about the movie) and the Joker seems to exploit this within the ARG by sending participants around to solve complex puzzles, make phone calls, and go on real life scavenger hunts. In this way, the Joker demonstrates his power and his psychotic tendencies way before the film’s premiere–he has complete control over the players and the game. (it’s all part of the plan)

However, the blurring lines between reality and fiction have all kinds of moral and legal implications as well: do all of the players really know it’s all a game? Would they be tempted to break the law in honor of Joker’s “live in a world without rules” philosophy? As I examine the ARG further, you’ll see just how far players were willing to go.

to be continued…

P.S. Speaking of blurring lines between reality and fiction, could the ARG have had something to do with this recent incident?

A Step in the Right Direction

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Props to the MPAA. I was glad to read this article from Variety today, in which the Motion Picture Association of America is developing a one-stop website providing links to “purchasing theatrical tickets, buying or renting the DVD and legally downloading the pic.” This much needed Hub of everything movies gives a response to piraters who say, “I don’t know the difference between legal and illegal downloading sites” or “where else can I get online movies.” I hope the site will incorporate IMDB features, where users can rate, comment, and discuss each movie. It would also be a great asset for the site to link to related content in other media (the videogame, comic, novel) and related merchandise (I want my Wall-E stuffed…”robot?”!)

In addition to the MPAA’s site, Sony announced that they will be releasing their movies on their own distribution service BEFORE they are available on DVD. Good move from Sony, staying ahead in the game. All of this sounds very promising. Legitimizing digital distribution is a necessary adjustment in the digital age. The MPAA’s new site represents a shift from aiming to prevent online downloading and preserve their old business model, to respecting new consumers and striving to meet their needs. Instead of fighting our convergence culture, they are starting to embrace it. The movie business may not be headed down the same path as the music industry after all…

Transforming the TV and Film Industry in the Digital Age

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In today’s technologically savvy world, the role of the media consumer is evolving. The availability, mobility, and practicality of media convergence have enabled infinite possibilities in consuming media. No longer is it realistic for the media industry to deliver content through one medium and expect mass audiences to passively consume it. Instead, media executives must cater to a different kind of audience, one that has fragmented into millions of smaller interest communities and one that will not be satisfied in merely consuming, but also producing, sharing, and interacting as well. According to media scholar Henry Jenkins in the MIT Technology Review, “younger consumers have become information hunters and gatherers, taking pleasure in tracking down character backgrounds and plot points and making connections between different texts within the same franchise.” However, despite the strong economic incentives to embrace this “consumer 2.0,” many media companies remain hesitant to launch franchises reliant on transmedia storytelling. Certainly, the lack of a consistent and dependable business model makes constructing and executing a multiplatform story risky. But as long as media companies cling to old production and distribution practices, they will never reap the benefits from delivering more complex, interconnected narratives across multiple media to consumers who demand more involved, engaging experiences.

In this paper, I begin by explaining why the television and film businesses need to transform their business model to adapt new technologies and new consumers. I then argue that transmedia storytelling, when done correctly, successfully fulfills this need and promises many economic advantages. However, while a transmedia story franchise has potential to be highly lucrative, I recognize there are economic and creative challenges that remain problematic. I conclude by exploring what the entertainment industry can do to overcome these obstacles and benefit from everything that transmedia storytelling has to offer.

Chapter 1: Harnessing the technology and the consumer

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Undoubtedly, all of the entertainment industries—dance, theatre, gaming, comic books etc—have had to adjust to technological and cultural convergence. The music industry’s decline exemplifies the power of such phenomena. But the television and film industries, though primed to fully transition into the digital age, have neglected to make the quantum leap for two reasons. First, media executives have viewed the development of new technologies as threats to the industry, rather than gateways for new possibilities. And second, the television and film business traditionally expects the consumption of their content to be passive and non participatory, an assumption which sharply contrasts the socially connected, collectively intelligent, and increasingly empowered audience of today. In this chapter, I apply these criticisms to both the television and film industry.

Within the last ten years, the shift towards digital video, compounded with the proliferation of personal computers, iPods, and mobile phones, has allowed viewers greater autonomy in deciding when, where, and how they want to view their favorite TV shows and movies. A scary thought for television executives. No longer can advertisers be assured that consumers are up-holding their end of a long standing transaction. As Ivan Askwith describes in his MIT Master’s thesis Television 2.0: Reconceptualizing TV as an Engagement Medium:

At its core, the television business has always served as broker in an unspoken, but well understood, transaction between viewers and advertisers, wherein the advertiser provides free television programming, and the viewer agrees to watch commercials. Over time, the models have become more sophisticated, of course (leading to the development of Nielsen ratings, audience shares, viewer demographics, and so on) but this implicit contract has remained at the heart of the television business…Executives, advertisers, and audiences alike are beginning to realize that the conditions that once made this contract possible have all but collapsed. (Askwith, 14)

Askwith re-examines the term television itself ; as shows flow through a range of channels and devices, one must wonder whether we can still categorize an episode of The Office on an iPod as a ‘TV show’ in the traditional sense. With many network executives calling themselves not television producers, but content producers, it seems the television industry is adjusting and even embracing multiplatform technology. Well, partly.

The accessibility of the internet and its high speed, wireless connection has enabled consumers to stream and download content illegally at their leisure. Pirating and illegal DVD burning continues to be a huge concern. And of course, the television industry must contend with the dreaded digital video recorders (DVR). Not only can consumers easily acquire free content, but they can also store TV shows and films for subsequent viewings while dodging advertisements completely. Sounds like the apocalypse for the entertainment industry, doesn’t it? But just as television survived the VCR, so too has it endured DVRs. Jason Mittell discusses the effect of such new technology in his essay, “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television:”

Using the new technologies of home recording, DVDs, and online participation, viewers have taken an active role in consuming narratively complex television…audiences tend to embrace complex programs in much more passionate and committed terms than most conventional television. (32)

To adapt to television as an active medium, franchises like Heroes and Lost encourage fans to seek, collect, and aggregate character and plot information through multiple media platforms. No longer do TV shows have to rely on re-runs and DVD sales for newcomers to catch up. Instead, time shifting technologies allow fans to fill in narrative gaps at their leisure. Beyond that, hard core fans make full use of their DVR or high speed Internet connection by scrutinizing shots lasting only seconds and re-watching crucial scenes. Nothing goes unnoticed. So while new technologies make it easier to tell serialized stories, the need to maintain a consistent narrative becomes all the more important.

To say the television industry has not adjusted to the digital age would be inaccurate: television companies have given consumers access to content via network homepages or iTunes, where they can download shows and movies legally. But rather than competing against DVRs and online downloads to persuade viewers to watch their TV programming in ‘real time’, why not embrace these technologies, utilize them as tools for consumers to explore more complex narratives and share their discoveries with fan communities? Henry Jenkins writes in Convergence Culture:

Right now, people are learning how to participate in such knowledge cultures outsides of any formal educational setting…the emergence of these knowledge courses partially reflects the demands these texts place on consumers (the complexity of transmedia entertainment, for example), but they also reflect the demands consumers place on media (the hunger for complexity, the need for community, the desire to re-write core stories).

Thus, while the framework exists for the television industry to escape their restrictive business model, the industry must experiment further by producing and distributing content which facilitates consumer ‘hunting and gathering.”

Another part of the problem is that networks rely so heavily on quantifying engagement and commoditizing it through one dimensional measurements (i.e. Nielsen ratings), that they fail to recognize the need for a new conceptual model, one more suitable for the multiplatform media environment. As Askwith writes,

The problem is that the industry is attempting to understand, define and express a new concept (viewer engagement) primarily – and in many cases, exclusively – in terms of its ability to preserve an old end (the advertiser-supported model of television). Engagement is not a process that happens in front of a television set. Nor is it a simple description of how a viewer watches television, or feels when watching television. Instead, engagement describes the larger system of material, emotional, intellectual, social and psychological investments a viewer forms through their interactions with the expanded television text. (153-154)

But with the traditional advertiser supported business model, the television industry fails to understand and take into account all of Askwith’s five logics of engagement: entertainment, social connection, mastery, immersion, and identification. Instead, it utilizes misleading definitions for engagement, such as the oversimplified Nielsen Ratings and the inconsistent Ad*VIZR New Media Audit, to determine whether a show is popular or not. Askwith concludes, and I agree, that the industry has largely viewed extensions of television as a means to promote a program’s scheduled broadcast, thus preserving the “old” business model, rather than regarding expanded content as an opportunity to generate new forms of engagement.

The Film Industry

While not as conspicuously in need of a new business model, the film industry certainly has room for improvement. Upon glancing at the MPAA 2007 Entertainment Industry Statistics, it may appear that 2007 was a historic year. After all, the domestic box office grossed a record 9.63 billion dollars. Twenty eight movies made 100 million dollars or over and four posted over 300 million. Yet when the report is examined more closely, other statistics jump out. Ticket prices increased 5% and there was no change in the amount of tickets sold from last year (1.4 billion). Thus, the record setting figures at the box office were not a product of more movie goers, but more expensive tickets. Not only that, it now costs an average of 107 million dollars for a major studio to produce and promote a movie in theaters, a record high. While I understand theater exhibitions are just one line of revenue for a studio, that is a lot of money to pay for a movie no one wants to dish out ten dollars to see.

Certainly I am not proposing that the film industry needs to lower its ticket prices, minimize production costs, or even make better movies. The studios are money bloodhounds. They know how to generate profit off their blockbusters at every level of traditional distribution (theatrical, home video, TV) and at every possible stream of revenue (including merchandise, videogames, book). In this digital age however, the industry has yet to maximize the power of the web community. Many, if not all, blockbusters today are an extension of a franchise with an existing, passionate fan base. (superheroes and children’s books.) I contend that movie studios can do more to produce online content which would generate excitement from die hard fans as well as provide entry points to those who may not be familiar with the story. Thus, just like television, the film industry must adapt to consumers who engage with content in very complex, different ways.

The MPAA Entertainment Report in 2007 revealed the enormous influence of the Internet on movie going:

A forthcoming study conducted by the MPAA and Yahoo! found that 73% of U.S. moviegoers use the Internet to conduct research before going to the theater. Also, moviegoers who research online are more likely to see a movie on opening weekend, go to the theater more often, and see some movies more than once in the theater. (9)

The report provides compelling evidence that the Internet is the primary source for determining whether or not to see a movie. Yet studios have responded half-heartedly, allocating only 4.4% of the ad dollars to Internet marketing. That is too small of a percentage considering that the average person spends more time on the Internet than any other medium, with the exception of TV. (24) This is especially true for people under 30, who are the movie industry’s target audience.

Of course, it would be easy if the film industry just had to pour more money into online advertising. The real problem is that they are funding marketing campaigns which are overly dependent on traditional advertising tactics. Studios toss movie posters and banners on popular websites while sometimes forcing users to watch a trailer before an online video. These display and pre-roll advertisements are too similar to offline forms of advertising (print, TV), which consumers already find annoying. The difference on the web however, is that users have more choices than any other medium and they exhibit little patience for anything that takes away from their desired content. An article from BBC in May, 2008 reported web users to be exceptionally task driven:

Now, when people go online they know what they want and how to do it, [Jakob Nielsen] said.

This makes them very resistant to highlighted promotions or other editorial choices that try to distract them.

“Web users have always been ruthless and now are even more so,” said Dr. Nielsen.

“People want sites to get to the point, they have very little patience.”

As with any marketing campaign, a studio’s goal is to generate word of mouth so that people voluntarily spread awareness of their brand. But unlike the one way street of the old business model, which relied on studios bombarding consumers with advertisements in traditional media, today, a successful viral marketing campaign can best be initialized and sustained via online social communities. Through online social networks, blogs, email, video hosting sites, virtual worlds and many other web related technologies, connecting to an online community is not only incredibly easy, it’s practically unavoidable. These social media make it possible for word of mouth to extend across a local and global platform, where fans can voice their excitement about a brand in public arenas and formulate discussions with total strangers.

Accordingly, to spark ‘word of mouse’, studios have recently realized that their web presence must consist of more than a simple poster, trailer, and website. Such advertisements do not take advantage of today’s active, technologically savvy, information-hungry consumer. Similar to Askwith’s criticism of the television industry, the film industry must improve their understanding of our convergence culture and the new ways in which consumers engage with media.

It is not enough for a studio to produce new media content. Branded content that fails to be compelling will quickly be written off as a contrived marketing ploy. I will tackle what makes a transmedia campaign a success or a failure later, but in general, it is safe to say that there needs to be a sense of discovery for the consumer, either to expand the movie’s fictional world or to reveal a hidden part of it. The content must leave people wanting more so that they search for other branded content, rather than the other way around. Effective viral marketing can only occur when a studio trusts their fanbase to do the marketing for them and generate hype themselves. If studios can provide intriguing content, then fans will gladly discuss, theorize, and report their findings with their online communities, thus forming a word of mouth tidal wave.

Chris Thilk, on his blog Movie Marketing Madness, comments on the remarks of David Kosse, President of Universal Pictures Interntion. While he commends the executive’s instinct to embrace audiences with online tools, he asserts that Kosse is going about it in the wrong way:

Kosse mentions the MySpace site for Knocked Up and a YouTube clip of Rowan Atkinson for Mr. Bean’s Holiday as two ways the studio engaged in a “two-way dialogue” with the audience.

Except that those aren’t really conversational executions. You can tell because while the visitor and viewer can leave comments and “friend” the page or add the clip as a favorite, there’s no reciprocal communication. The studio talks to the audience, the audience has a mechanism to respond and the conversation ends.

That’s not an engaging conversation, that’s call-and-response.

Thilk’s remarks highlight the way marketing has changed in the digital age. The power has shifted from the studios telling consumers what movies they should see to audiences deciding on their own. Imagine if you could communicate with a character of a movie on AIM or Facebook? Or if studios encouraged user generated content and contests for best trailer remix or fan video instead of sending ‘cease and desist’ orders for such work? Studios must engage in an online dialogue to give fans a reason to blog, email, and chat. They must become part of the community.

Perhaps I have gone too far. Communicating directly with fans may be too big a step for movie studios…but upholding their end of the conversation by providing valuable story information is not. To accomplish this, many movies entice fans by blurring the real world and the fictional world. Take for instance, Christopher Nolan’s upcoming Dark Knight. Transmedial content includes the WhySoSerious alternate reality game, The Gotham Times, and the Gotham Cable News. These marketing devices are completely consistent with the film’s realistic and dark tone. The content not only includes the real actors from the movie and sets up the core themes, but it also invites potential movie goers to discover background story information leading directly up to the film’s explosive beginning. In this way, consumers become immersed in Batman’s world; they experience his adventures as a citizen of Gotham City, rather than as passive observers of a fictional place.

Thus, to adapt to the digital age, studios must find a way to reciprocate their side of conversation and provide content which tells the consumer that their efforts to enter a fictional world will be rewarded with valuable background story information or character development. When studios do launch online campaigns, they either become too dependent on old marketing strategies or their new media content is unoriginal and tonally inconsistent, limiting consumer enthusiasm.

Chapter 2: “The Economic Advantages of Transmedia” coming soon…