To listen to my half-hour radio piece about Bensonwood, click here or listen at the player below:
I spent the first eight years of my life in Fountain Inn, South Carolina, a small town now numbering around 6,700 people. When I prepared to move near Walpole, New Hampshire about a year ago to start at Florentine Films, I used my birth town as a model to imagine what Walpole might be like. This turned out to be unhelpful, as Walpole is practically star-studded even with 3,000 fewer folks: where Walpole has Ken Burns, Fountain Inn has Peg Leg Bates.
Though it sounds odd to American ears, Walpole is probably best described as a village, considering the ‘central settlement’ only has about 600 people. Yet in this village you can dine at the posh flagship cafe of LA Burdick, whose high quality chocolates are produced nearby and shipped hither and yon. If you sit long enough, you’re sure to see some of the Florentine Family grabbing a coffee or a bite to eat, seeing as the edit house is a five-minute walk away. And you might meet there, as I did, Gary Smith, record producer most famously for the Pixies.
I’m terrible at the thing businesspeople call networking, so the first time I met Gary I really had no idea who he was or what he did, even though the night ended with him, another guy, and me sitting on his porch swapping stories for a couple of hours. I didn’t see him for a several months until we met again at a birthday gathering for one of the Florentines. During the chitchat, he mentioned he was trying to find content for the small community radio station he ran across the river in Bellows Falls, Vermont. The opportunity was perfect for me–except that I was moving to Atlanta in about a month. D’oh, I thought.
I met with Gary a few days later to discuss what I might produce for WOOL FM, and he suggested a series of ten-minute vignettes on local companies. Not the podunk ones*, mind you, but regionally or nationally-known ones of the Florentine Films and LA Burdick flavor. He gave me a list, and I was again amazed at the caliber and variety of companies in and around Walpole. The idea was to cover one company per week in the three or four few weeks I had left.
The one I eventually decided to start the series with was Bensonwood, whose facility I had driven past dozens of times without really noticing it. Bensonwood designs and builds homes and commercial buildings all around the country using a pretty ingenious method, and Tedd Benson, the founder, was chiefly responsible for the national revival in timber-frame construction starting about thirty years ago. I interviewed Tedd, took a tour of the facility, and interviewed a few other people over the course of two days.
As I began putting the piece(s) together, it became clear that I wasn’t going to meet Gary’s output goal. The pace of my creative process is slow to begin with, and nearly glacial when haunted by the specter of possibly ruinous technical challenges**. Instead of doing three or four ten-minute pieces on different companies, I would tell one half-hour version of the Bensonwood story. In the end I finished it several weeks after moving to Atlanta.
**BLOG EXCLUSIVE: I recorded all my voice-overs in my car, as it was the most convenient and acoustically-suitable environment I had.
My goal was to achieve professional-level quality despite my limited resources, and it wasn’t until the final few hours of work I put into the piece that I felt I was getting anywhere close. I’m proud of the final product, even if it still sounds a bit amateurish to my ears. Gary and the folks at Bensonwood enjoyed it at any rate, and I hope you do too.
Readers may have noticed that in my TV viewing history, I didn’t list any multi-camera sitcoms. This is for the remarkable reason that, well, I don’t watch any and haven’t since long-ago lazy days watching the odd rerun in syndication. Nowadays sitcoms in that style feel anachronistic to me, and even the commercially and (sometimes) critically well-regarded ones like How I Met Your Mother just don’t do it for me. I find that I’m actually predisposed not to laugh at them, which is clearly not the intended audience response.
I’m not alone in this. For the distinguishing television viewer, sitcoms are overwhelmingly considered passé and even low-culture, even if many of those viewers loved the multi-camera Seinfeld back in the day. This article sums it up:
I saw an episode of The Big Bang Theory last weekend. This was not by design. I was on an airplane and my Kindle screen was frozen. I panicked. I’d already exhausted Sky Mall, there were four hours left on the flight and I needed a diversion. People seem to enjoy that show. It’s nominated for five Emmy awards this year. It’s about nerds. I like nerds. I gave it a shot.
You guys. That show is not good. Please stop telling innocent people like me that it is.
Here’s the thing about The Big Bang Theory. There were a few funny jokes and the performances aren’t bad, but I could just barely discern any of that through its slavish adherence to the old guard of formulaic television. It’s got the multi-camera setup, the excruciating laugh track, the lingering close-ups of over-exaggerated facial expressions responding to lame jokes. It feels so dated, so tired, that even if the writing were scintillating, I’d hate it. And the writing, my friends, is not scintillating.
Despite my agreement with this, I find myself wanting to defend the beleaguered the multi-camera setup, for much the same reasons outlined this excellent piece:
Multi-camera sitcom is a strange format that’s unique to television, because unlike single-camera, which is basically a little movie, multi-camera is a combination of different formats: a bit of film, a bit of radio, and a great big heaping helping of theatre. A multi-camera sitcom episode is a play, a performance.
Yep, and this does have its tradeoffs. I don’t like multi-camera sitcoms because the artifice of the production is so hard for me to ignore: sets look like sets (heaven forfend anything happen outdoors), lighting is white bright, and studio audience laughter–even when genuine–often sucks me right out. On the other hand, these theatrical aspects allow for stories to unfold in a different way, and lets a relationship and rhythm to develop between actor and audience that’s particularly important for comedy.
What’s odd to me is that theater is hardly considered lowest common denominator entertainment, but that sensibility applied to TV is. For that reason I wonder whether detractors of multi-camera are applying the wrong set of standards, and maybe even being a bit too distracted by the prettier single-camera aesthetic. Would the writer of the first piece have reacted so distastefully if she had watched the performance of Big Bang Theory live on stage rather than an airplane TV monitor? That’s not a apples-to-apples comparison I realize, but single- and multi-camera shows aren’t the same kind of fruit either. In terms of production, multi-camera sitcoms have much more in common with Saturday Night Live than they do with a single-camera comedy. The show is filmed in the course of single night, there’s usually a live studio audience, and jokes are rewritten on the fly in response to the audience. Does SNL represent such a dated format?
In the first article, the author claims that Arrested Development, a single-camera sitcom, “put the nail in the coffin of the traditional sitcom” for her. Interestingly, that show was created explicitly with the intent to mimic the joke-writing process in traditional sitcoms:
…Ron Howard had this idea to do a single-camera comedy that was as funny as a multi-camera comedy, which sounds sarcastic, actually.
[W]e often think of those kinds of sitcoms as being jokier, but really, there are more jokes per second, per page, than there are on a show like Sports Night, where there wasn’t an audience, and there was no compelling reason to rewrite. His question was, “What if we shot a show in digital video, so we could go very fast and didn’t have to spend an hour and a half lighting for each shot, we could just go out there and start shooting, like Cops or Blind Date? Could we spend that time sharpening the jokes and making a more ambitious production? What would happen if we applied the sensibility of multi-camera to single-camera?“
I may disapprove of most traditional sitcoms, but I will defend to the death their right to more than a single camera.
“You can’t judge a book by its cover” is an adage that I’ve never agreed with. Once upon a time that was true, perhaps, but covers are purposefully designed to signal helpful information about the book. Here’s the NYT fiction and business bestsellers for the week:
These two differ slightly in tone, I feel.
To be sure, the book cover won’t tell you everything about what’s inside–and it may try to mislead you–but the cover is a quick and easy way to get a sense of what the book’s about.
The opening title sequences for TV show serve a similar function. In mere seconds a well-designed sequence can signal all sorts of important things about the show, like genre, style, tone, and production value. Many of these are even able to give users a sense of the show without resorting to cheesy character montages or “turn and smile” shots as parodied here:
Vodpod videos no longer available.
The received wisdom is that opening credits have gotten shorter on average over the years. Probably true, but hard to know for sure since the variability of lengths has gone way up. Game of Thrones and Dexter’s opening credits each run over 1’40”, while Breaking Bad’s runs about 15 seconds. Many shows like Glee and Brothers & Sisters have a mere one-second flash of the title card. These days, opening credits are like the proverbial box of chocolates.
Because title sequences have gone from perfunctory kitsch to an important stylized element, they’ve gotten a lot better. In the last post I gave you my TV watching background; here’s some of my favorite sequences from shows (not far) past and present:
LOST (ABC, 2004-2010)
It’s still remarkable to me how much this simple sequence accomplishes. I didn’t start watching until three seasons had aired, mostly because the I couldn’t see how a show about stranded plane wreck survivors could be compelling. When I finally gave the show a chance, this sequence quickly made me realize my preconception of the show was quite wrong. And there’s just three elements: The show title in skinny gray letters coming into focus as they drift past on a sea of empty blackness, accompanied by an ominous musical cue (credited to JJ Abrams himself) that’s really more sound effect than music. Hardly big-budget (the producers say they created this in 15 minutes with After Effects and I believe it), but perfectly capturing the mood of the show. The splash of water in my tumbler of MacCutcheon is the oscillating whistling sound in the last few seconds. Perfect.
Mad Men (AMC, 2007-present)
No doubt about it: Mad Men is a cool show with cool opening titles. The style is distinctive and slick, and the imagery is unique and allows for some always welcome visual metaphor.
I don't get it.
But more than anything, it’s just cool. The music, “A Beautiful Mine” by RJD2, is modern electronica but works despite the show being set in the 1960s (for an example of modern music not working for a period show, see Boardwalk Empire). And that final shot, all bass and drums with the silhouette of Don Draper casually slumped in a chair, head cocked in concentration, makes for one of the best title cards you’ll see on TV.
Weeds (Showtime, 2005 – present)
There’s nothing mind-shattering about this one (and I stopped watching the show several seasons ago), but I almost never skipped through this sequence. The song is catchy (and in later seasons, they do covers to mix it up a bit) and matches the imagery of suburban clones quite perfectly.
The Walking Dead (AMC, 2010-present)
Another great example of how credits can set tone and mood. Quick tracking shots, a bit of time lapse, desaturated colors, weird filter effects. The main characters are introduced through scorched images of their pre-zombie life, nicely providing the star billing and a lil’ bit of character information. Last but not least there’s the great theme from Bear McCreary, whom I first discovered on Battlestar Galactica. You can watch him talk about composing The Walking Dead theme here, and to see a very cool fan-made opening titles of a different flavor, click here. Season 2 is filming all around me here in Atlanta as we speak, a fact that excites me more than I should admit.
Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011-present)
Watch this and marvel at the ability for what’s essentially a 100-second information dump to be visually arresting and reward multiple viewings with its stylized details. Game of Thrones has a complex storyline involving seven main factions spread across a vast world, so it’s inevitable a map is going to be involved at some point*. Instead of clunkily inserting maps with animated dotted lines into any episode that called for it, the show wisely chooses to give viewers a quick geography lesson at the top of each episode, and the locations visited on the map change depending on the episode. This saves flow and story, and having not read the books, the credits have helped me quite a bit as the show jumps from place to place. But looking at a map at the start of every episode would quickly become tiresome if not for some great animation, attention to detail, and a pounding score composed by Hans Zimmer protege Ramin Djawadi. I love the look of the map, which is made to look like a practical model (even the sun has its astrolabe), but is bent inside a sphere to give a better perspective as the viewer flies through Westeros and beyond. The way way the various kingdoms rise as cogs mesh and gears turn is a fantastic way to depict the intricate interrelations between the characters. The details are wonderful too: the etchings on the astrolabe, the sigils on the main buildings of each kingdom and beside each credit, the rendering of the water (particularly at 1’20”), and my favorite detail, the lenses flicking in and out when the camera zooms, as if we were examining the world through a spyglass.
*The Pacific miniseries had a similar problem, so HBO decided they would do two-minute introductory history lessons voiced by Tom Hanks; even the producers didn’t think they worked. And while I’m at it, might as well mention that I thought the titles sequence was a bit overlong and grand, but I always have time to rewatch the Band of Brothers opening.
Dexter (Showtime, 2006-present)
How would you introduce a show about a guy who is by day a mild-mannered blood spatter analyst for the police and by night a serial killer who targets other murderers? If you answered anything other than: “a montage of his mundane morning routine,” then this sequence proves you were way past wrong. This is my favorite titles sequence (evah!) because it takes a straightforward but absolutely inspired concept and executes it (heh) beautifully. The cinematography is exhilarating, and the jaunty but slightly demented music by Rolfe Kent adds a a dark shade of humor and mischief. Like LOST, this is also an example of a sequence that turned on its head what I thought the show–really the character of Dexter–was going to be. Seeing the violence of breakfast is not only inherently fun, but deftly communicates important subtext about protagonist Dexter; he’s someone who has mostly learned to mimic the rhythms of a normal life, but whose ‘dark passenger’ peeks out upon close inspection. Funny how dental floss resembles garrote wire in his hands…
About a week ago foremost TV critic Alan Sepinwall coined the TSORIS stat (Theme Song Over Remainder in Show), which attempts to capture how much of a show’s legacy is due to its theme song (Gilligan’s Island: 81%, Rockford Files: 44%). Nothing on my list would get a very high score for Opening Credits Over Remainder in Show (OCORIS), and I’m hard-pressed to think of a titles sequence to a show I didn’t like, let alone one that would stick in my mind more than the show itself.
In any event, you’ve seen some of my picks, so what are yours? Any notably bad ones? Or how about good nominees for high OCORIS scores?
I spent hours drooling in front of the TV as a kid, but mostly I channel-surfed and didn’t follow any particular show. It wasn’t until I was close to graduating college that I began watching TV with purpose. Speedy web browsing had largely replaced TV viewing by that point, but the internet had also exposed me to loads of info and critical opinion about good stuff on TV. Eventually enough of this info entered my brain that a synapse fired, causing a thought to occur that went something like this: “Hey, I might want to check some of this stuff out.” And so I did, and quickly discovered I was missing some great stuff.
A visualization of my childhood, where TV, chips, and socks were the order of the day.
First there was Rome, which had already ended its brief two-season run. Then came Arrested Development, whose three majestic seasons helped me get through my hastily written thesis. I stayed away away from new shows at first, instead focusing on successful shows that had aired for at least a season and often more. I watched the first three seasons of LOST, a show that quickly took hold of my heart, the summer before I left for Germany. While abroad I hit my stride, watching shows like Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, and Weeds in season-sized chunks.
Young expats are wont to pack media-filled hard drives along with extra deodorant and favorite snacks, and I was no exception. When I left for my year in Rwanda, I had dozens of movies and several seasons of shows like Deadwood. There I realized that I’d much prefer watching two hours of a good TV show than most any movie. I binned my movie collection when I got home, never having watched most of it.
For a lot of people television is about reality shows, but for me it’s all about scripted hour-long drama: Fringe, Mad Men, Dexter, Justified, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, and the best show I’ve seen, The Wire. This is not to say I don’t enjoy the more digestible half-hour stuff like Parks and Recreation, Archer, or the genre-dodging Louie, but they lack complex serialized storytelling, which is what TV does best. Long, skillful plotting takes viewers to deeper and unexpected places and gives characters time to fully fleshen. Payoffs can take years to realize, making them that much more delectable.
Not every show catches me, of course. Treme is usually well-done but often boring. Friday Night Lights was I’m sure good, but for some reason I stopped watching near the end of the first season and haven’t missed it. Sadder to me are the shows I quite liked but were canceled after one season. Terriers had a decent resolution at least, but Rubicon‘s de facto series finale was unfortunately pretty awful.
Not every AMC show is a success.
For all the shows I’ve listed and love (and there’s more), I don’t spend anywhere close to the American average of five hours a day watching TV. I don’t watch sports, and I almost never watch live TV. As the Nielsen data indicate (pdf), TV is the preferred timesuck for older folk, with teens watching half as much as retirees. I’m even worse than a Nielsen teen. I watch my few shows a week and I’m done, leaving my time be hoovered away by the internet. And honestly many shows don’t require a huge time commitment. If I adopted the 7-hour-a-day habit of African-Americans, I could clear out the first seasons of shows like Sherlock Holmes, Downton Abbey, and The Walking Dead at a rate of one per day, and most premium-channel shows would take less than two days per season. It doesn’t take long to see a lot of good shows.
Being abroad also gave me the habit of watching shows on my laptop, which I continue. Alan Sepinwall has written about being something of a TV-less TV critic. The internet has made sampling and following shows very easy, all while avoiding most commercials. For me, it’s a great time to be watching television, even when it’s usually not on a television set.
Up Next: My favorite TV opening credits sequences, for which all of this was merely background.
Back in the 1960s, a new kind of specialty movie theater gained in popularity among the movie-going public. At first there were only a handful, but within a decade or so 750 of these theaters had sprung up across the county and were doing a brisk business. Their star was quickly to fade, however, and by the time your humble blogger entered this world in the mid-80s, the burnout was nearly complete. No matter, for even if I had not already already been banned from going to regular theaters by school and parental fiat, I would still have been banned from these specialty ones by state law long after they had all but completely faded to black. They were showing porn flicks, after all.
I bring up adult movie theaters (as they’re called in polite company) because their arc gets at the heart of what bothers me about NATO’s open letter arguing against shortening the theatrical release window. As I said in Part II, NATO puts itself in an awkward position by arguing on one hand that simultaneous releases on DVD and other formats will cannibalize business, while on the other hand maintaining that theaters are the “optimum…exhibition arena.” These two notions are not mutually exclusive, but if the former is true then the latter probably isn’t. The mistake NATO is making is what I dub The Obscene Movie Fallacy*, which is to confuse what’s optimum with what’s really a lack of options.
*Notice how the name works on two levels, just as most summer movies aspire to do.
Adult movie theaters did well for many years because they represented the only option to see a pornographic film. But believe it or not, a public theater did not represent the optimal porn exhibition arena for most viewers. When given the option, most people preferred to watch their porn in the privacy of their home, first on VHS and now on the internet. The theaters went bust, and not because there was no ‘NAAMTO’ to defend the adult movie going experience.
In the case of adult movie theaters, the options revealed an overwhelmingly popular optimum, but when tastes are more varied, options also allow for optima (if you like). Seeing a big-budget Michael Bay-type film in an IMAX theater is best in some technical sense, but as much as NATO might like it to be, this is not the only criterion for optimality. For those who hate loud teenagers, the inability to press pause for a bathroom break, or ruptured ear drums, IMAX is hardly ideal. They’ll take the lesser picture quality for a more intimate and convenient experience, thank you very much.
So, is a theater the optimum exhibition arena? The correct and tedious answer is that it is 1) all the time for some, 2) sometimes for others, and 3) never for the rest. NATO knows this, but evidently think they are best serving their members by denying this and preserving their privileged position. Maybe I’m just a naive outsider, but this tack seems shortsighted. Facing bracing competition is a difficult prospect, but it makes more strategic sense than relying on the dividends of a tenuous agreement.
What’s more, the key assumption behind the release window system (that different formats of a movie will compete with each other in zero-sum fashion) may not even be true. When you stop peddling the nonsense that there is only one optimum (and thus one type of movie viewer), you’ll recognize that while Transformers 3 is the same film no matter the format, it is not the same product. A Blu-ray is not the same thing as a theater screening is not the same thing as video-on-demand. As a result, you’d expect different people to be interested in each product.
Since we’re talking about movies, let’s make it visual. Here’s how NATO implicitly imagines the movie viewing public (assuming simultaneous releases):
In this view, each movie has one audience which divvys itself up according to preferred format. Each format competes directly with another, with one format’s loss of an audience member being another’s gain. The choice of format is one-off and final: buying a movie ticket precludes buying a DVD–FOREVER!
Here’s how I suspect things look:
Here, each format (rather than each movie) has an audience. Each audience has three sub-groups: those who consider watching in one format (e.g. the green portion), those who consider watching in two formats (e.g. the yellow portion), and those who consider watching in all three formats (e.g. the red sliver). Who knows how well I got the proportions right for any given grouping, but they exist.
There are two important things here to recognize. The first is that each format of a given movie has some dedicated audience for whom choice is irrelevant. Maybe they don’t have DVD player and hate crowds so they rent VOD, or maybe they’re NATO acolytes who think it’s the theater or bust. Whatever the reason, simultaneous release windows matter not a whit to them, and shouldn’t to NATO either.
The second important bit is even when there is overlap (red, purple, pink, etc), the choice of format is by no means a mutually exclusive one. A movie buff might see a film in the theater four times and still buy the Blu-ray set. When I watched Saving Private Ryan on DVD for this first time, I pined for the chance to see the D-Day sequence in a theater. Yes, these overlaps are also where zero-sum choices occur, but it’s not obvious what the net effect is in these (probably) small areas.
I’m running late for an afternoon trip to the movies (truly), so here’s the last thing I’ll say in this meandering post of mine. I’m optimistic about the prospects of simultaneous release because it would allow for more specialized catering to movie viewers’ tastes. Some worry that only big budget tent-pole movies would survive in this environment, but I doubt that’s true. Instead, attentiveness to format would allow for a more diverse array of movies to be profitably made. Releasing in a theater is high status, but it’s high time we learned that not all movies are appropriate for theaters. For once we may be well advised to let porn be our guide.
In Part I, I gave a short history of the release window system for movies and how that system nearly destroyed my childhood. Slowly but surely, the window during which a movie plays exclusively at theaters before being released to DVD and Video on Demand (VOD) has shrunk. In the 80s the standard was six months, but now four months is the most common, with some films being released in other formats two months after, simultaneously, or even before the theatrical run. The National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) opposes shortening the four-month window, because they believe that would lead less people to see movies in theaters. The industry as it exists would thus not be sustainable.
When DirecTV announced a VOD service that would allow users to rent HD movies two months after the theatrical release, NATO penned an open letter opposing the service and got a couple dozen famous directors to sign it. I’m no expert, but to me the letter is bad PR (all emphasis mine):
AN OPEN LETTER FROM THE CREATIVE COMMUNITY ON PROTECTING THE MOVIE-GOING EXPERIENCE
We are the artists and business professionals who help make the movie business great. We produce and direct movies. We work on the business deals that help get movies made. At the end of the day, we are also simply big movie fans.
Besides the self-congratulatory first line, this opens the letter decently. I like that they identify themselves as movie fans, but as we’ll see, they then neglect this viewpoint almost entirely for the rest of the letter.
Lately, there’s been a lot of talk by leaders at some major studios and cable companies about early-to-the-home “premium video-on-demand.” In this proposed distribution model, new movies can be shown in homes while these same films are still in their theatrical run.
In this scenario, those who own televisions with an HDMI input would be able to order a film through their cable system or an Internet provider as a digital rental. Terms and timing have yet to be made concrete, but there has been talk of windows of 60 days after theatrical release at a price of $30.
This ended up being exactly what happened. $30 for a two-day rental after two months. No figures yet, but the speculation is that it ain’t doing so hot.
Currently, the average theatrical release window is over four months (132 days). The theatrical release window model has worked for years for everyone in the movie business. Current theatrical windows protect the exclusivity of new films showing in state-of-the-art theaters bolstered by the latest in digital projection, digital sound, and stadium seating.
This is the first big mistake. If you’re going to write an open letter (i.e. intended to be read by a wide audience), you shouldn’t be making arguments about what’s good only for the industry, but what’s good for the industry as it concerns the moviegoer. (Or more aptly: movieviewer. Too weird looking?)
As a crucial part of a business that last year grossed close to $32 billion in worldwide theatrical ticket sales, we in the creative community feel that now is the time for studios and cable companies to acknowledge that a release pattern for premium video-on-demand that invades the current theatrical window could irrevocably harm the financial model of our film industry.
Yep, this is a one-sentence paragraph, and the first half is out-of-place. I understand the desire to flash the industry’s mighty bona fides, but you shouldn’t do it while introducing a point about how a change might “harm your financial model.” Also, that last phrase is too dryly written and again offers no bone to moviegoers.
Major studios are struggling to replace the revenue lost by the declining value of DVD transactions. Low-cost rentals and subscriptions are undermining higher priced DVD sales and rentals. But the problem of declining revenue in home video will not be solved by importing into the theatrical window a distribution model that cannibalizes theatrical ticket sales.
Make no mistake: History has shown that price points cannot be maintained in the home video window. What sells for $30-a-viewing today could be blown out for $9.99 within a few years. If wiser heads do not prevail, the cannibalization of theatrical revenue in favor of a faulty, premature home video window could lead to the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue. Some theaters will close. The competition for those screens that remain will become that much more intense, foreclosing all but the most commercial movies from theatrical release. Specialty films whose success depends on platform releases that slowly build in awareness would be severely threatened under this new model. Careers that are built on the risks that can be taken with lower budget films may never have the chance to blossom under this cut-throat new model.
If you grant the premise that shorter or simultaneous release windows will cannibalize ticket sales (which is debatable), then this is a fair argument. This point could be made, however, without so obliviously regarding lower prices as bad. The horse is already dead I know, but flog it I will: customers like lower prices! You could admit as much in the letter without failing to point out the negative consequences that lower revenues might have.
Further, releasing a pristine, digital copy of new movies early to the home will only increase the piracy problem—not solve it.
Giving folks an early legal option for watching pristine digital copies may offset some piracy, but no one really knows.
As leaders in the creative community, we ask for a seat at the table. We want to hear the studios’ plans for how this new distribution model will affect the future of the industry that we love.
And until that happens, we ask that our studio partners do not rashly undermine the current – and successful – system of releasing films in a sequential distribution window that encourages movie lovers to see films in the optimum, and most profitable, exhibition arena: the movie theaters of America.
This last line is as sticky as a movie theater floor after a double feature. Earlier in the letter, NATO argues that movie theaters will lose business to DVDs in a head to head competition. This leaves NATO in an awkward position: if movie theaters are so great, why would they lose business to the suboptimal DVD?
My concluding thoughts on this letter can be found after you leap over the famous directors below.
We encourage our colleagues in the creative community to join with us by calling or emailing NATO at 202-962-0054 or email@example.com.
Guillermo del Toro
Gale Anne Hurd
M. Night Shyamalan
In truth, my beef with this letter isn’t its style or solipsism, but in the way it so keenly embraces an illusory status quo. This error, which I’m tentatively calling the Obscene Movie Fallacy, will be the subject of Part III. How’s that for an after credits teaser?
As a kid I wasn’t allowed to go to the movies, so I had to wait until a VHS showed up at Blockbuster before I could see a ‘new’ movie. Having to wait was frustrating, but in my naivete I figured it just took a long time to convert from film to video or something. What a silly child I was.
Now I know that agonizing waiting period was not due to some production constraint, but part of an agreement between studios and theaters. In the eighties, you see, new technologies like video and pay-per-view were allowing the masses to watch movies in their homes, not in theaters as God intended. Thankfully, a little Hollywood magic turned competition into collusion, and thus the ‘release window’ was born. Under this arrangement, films would undergo sequential releases: first theatrical, then video, then pay-per-view, and so on. This way, a movie wouldn’t compete with itself in different formats. If you wanted to watch a movie right away, you went to the theater. If you hated the theater or didn’t care about waiting several months, you could catch the flick at your house instead. Studios and theaters maintained their revenue streams, and except for kids like me who had no choice, everyone was happy.
For thirty years the release window system has been sacrosanct. This has been fine just fine for theater owners, but studios are having second thoughts. According to this Slate article from 2005, theater goers accounted for less than 15 percent of worldwide studio revenues, with the rest coming from DVD sales and TV rights. Understandably then, studios began to question the wisdom of delaying the real money-makin’ for several months while theaters made their money on popcorn.
As a result, studios have been monkeying around with the release window(s) since 2001. While the original theatrical release window was six months, by early last decade that window had been shortened to five months and then to four, as studios pushed out DVDs earlier for better holiday timing. The four-month window lasted for several years until Alice in Wonderland was released on DVD three (three!) weeks earlier than usual in order to beat the attention-stealing World Cup. And if that fortnight and a half body blow wasn’t enough, DirecTV introduced in April a video-on-demand service which allows users to stream HD movies into their living rooms a full eight (EIGHT!) weeks early.
Theater owners are not happy with these ill harbingers, and DirecTV’s new service prompted the National Association of Theatre Owners (or, more confusingly, NATO*), to write a letter arguing that reducing the theatrical release window below four months “could irrevocably harm” the film industry. Interestingly, this letter has been signed by numerous big name directors, who are evidently also worried about ‘protecting the movie-going experience.’ I read the letter a couple days ago, and was surprised at how little it did to clothe its naked self-interest. So amateurish is this letter, in fact, that in the next post I plan on performing an in-depth analysis of it; I would’ve just continued with it in this post, but I thought I’d do my own sequential release.
*Before she left to do good in Rwanda (and meet me), girlfriend Thelma used to be deputy executive director at NATO, a fact I love to share.