Make It Transparent

TRANSPARENT_102_02858 (1)A.JPGLast weekend, I wanted to do one simple thing: watch Amazon Studios’ “Transparent.” The critically acclaimed show had just won two Golden Globes, and while I had wanted to track down the series before, I already knew that Canada’s Amazon store does not offer the company’s Instant Video service, and so I figured I’d have to wait until some other way to seeing it became available. But the buzz the show received Sunday evening prompted me to tweet if there was any legal method to watch “Transparent” in Canada.

The folks at Shomi, a new streaming service launched last fall in Canada by telecom giants Shaw and Rogers Communications, replied cheerily on Twitter that they had landed the rights to the show. A little digging revealed it would be available starting on January 23rd. Great! But soon enough, problems arose. Firstly, to access the service you had to be a pre-existing customer of Shaw or Rogers, and secondly, Shomi was not available at all in Quebec. I’m not about to switch my internet or mobile service to another company so I can watch a television show, and even if I did, it wouldn’t matter anyway — Shomi is not available in the province where I live (presumably due to a myriad of dull bureaucratic and licensing reasons). So, what do I do when I have no legal or reasonably easy avenue in which to watch this show? The answer is transparent (sorry).

It’s not complicated. If you make entertainment media easy to access and consume legally, customers will spend money, even as the music and movie industries continue to perpetuate the fallacy that piracy alone is eroding their business. According to numerous studies — here’s some findings from the University of Amsterdam in 2010, and more data from the Dutch Institution for Information Law in 2012 — file-sharers are spending more money on music, movies, and books, than those who don’t download any pirated material at all. There are a number of reasons why people download content illegally, but surely one of them is the ability to watch what they want, when they want to. As Netflix has shown, if you make content convenient, on demand, and affordable, customers have no problem handing over their credit card information.

Of course, this made had it increasingly difficult for telecoms to continue to sell their bread and butter cable packages, and thus, it makes sense that those corporations are trying to stem the tide of those who are cutting the cord. Shaw themselves reported this week that in the first quarter of their 2014/2015 year, they lost 18,372 satellite and 11,923 cable users, while they gained 11,379 internet customers. Those figures speak for themselves, and anecdotally, I can probably count on one hand the people I know who are still paying for a traditional cable package. But if Shomi is to survive and become a viable competitor to Netflix and iTunes, particularly when offering distinctly different programming, it will have to quickly overcome its business model. Requiring potential customers to already be clients of Shaw and Rogers, will not incentivize non-clients to sign up for their other business offerings; it will simply drive them to other existing services (or to the shadowy corners of pirate sites) where their entertainment needs will be met without any prerequisites.

For the record, I still haven’t watched “Transparent.” But here’s hoping that Amazon quickly figures out how to get their original content north of the border, and made available more easily to a wider audience. Or that the folks behind Shomi can break free of old school corporate thinking and truly become a real player in Canada’s streaming market, which can use more options and competition.

 

Eating Oscar Season ‘Cake’

cake9Cake, more brazenly than any other movie in recent memory, reveals that the Oscars are a sport, and—like all sports—they’re won by whoever wants it most (provided the player has deep pockets, as this league has no salary cap),” David Erlich wrote at Slate this week.

With Jennifer Aniston gaining legitimacy as a possible Oscar Best Actress nominee more based on a savvy, well-oiled, and somewhat relentless PR campaign, and less than on the merits of the indie drama (which has received mixed notices at best) or her reportedly raw performance, Erlich believes that “Cake is not a reflection of a system in which films exist for awards more than awards exist for films—it’s a product of it” and it “has epitomized the grotesque caricature that awards season truly is.”

Full disclosure, I have not yet seen “Cake” and can’t speak to its artistic merits, but its awards season traction is less a product of the Oscar system than a picture like “The Theory Of Everything.” Here’s a film that out of the box is calibrated to tick all the right boxes, play things dramatically safe and narratively predictable, resulting in a picture that’s as edgy and easy to go down as a glass of water with lemon. Even before a frame of it was shown at its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, it was touted as an Oscar contender, because it had all the right things going for it: based on a true story, with a romance at the center, and a showy lead role, playing a disabled character, for a rising young actor  — the only thing “The Theory Of Everything” had to do was not be terrible. And while it was hardly great, it came out perfectly manufactured to fit squarely, snugly, and easily into the right, easily sellable box.

And this is the biggest problem with the Oscars: the process most rewards conventional filmmaking. That’s not to say that the Academy doesn’t often recognize adventurous, bold, or groundbreaking moviemaking, but when those kinds of pictures do edge their way into nominations they are seen as admirable exceptions or surprises. They are at the most gestures of acknowledgment but rarely are those films or performances seen as true contenders.

The Oscar season is less sport, than it is politics. It’s a compressed few months where studio marketing teams and PR consultants galvanize into a machine that’s not unlike a run for office, and position their movies and talent accordingly. Parties are thrown, interviews are conducted, advertising is targeted. The “Cake” campaign is remarkable not because it’s a mediocre movie that’s in the conversation, but that it has simply been one of the most effective at elbowing its way into a system where thoroughly average pictures like “The Theory Of Everything” are allowed to automatically pass the caucuses, which should be of far more concern.

But, the Oscars are not a meritocracy, and never have been. The quality of a film has become a secondary matter. When Ava DuVernay‘s hugely acclaimed “Selma” missed out on a nomination from the Producers’ Guild Awards earlier this week, the chatter wasn’t about whether or not deserved to be there — it was accepted that it did. Rather, talk swirled about whether or not the team behind the movie managed to get enough screeners of the film out in time to the voting body.

And this is what the awards season is — electioneering. Whether or not “Cake” or “Selma” or “Boyhood” or “The Grand Budapest Hotel” are deserving of a place at the table is mostly dependent on if they’ve talked with and dazzled the right people. The Oscars are about likeability, which is why films like “The Theory Of Everything” are always a safe bet, or topicality, where voters can feel like they are supporting something “that matters.” It’s also the reason why one of the year’s most stunning cinematic achievements, “Under The Skin,” never had a chance. It’s a challenging, sometimes harrowing picture, with thematic undercurrents that defy easy description. It’s film that requires actual investment and attention, a viewing experience that demands one to submit to its spell and let it wash over you.

But alas, this is not how voters generally view films. They receive piles of DVDs on their doorstep, are invited to an endless number of screenings, and so it’s hardly a surprise only the most digestible pictures, with the most saleable campaign narratives tend to get their attention and time. And it makes it far easier to sit down for a movie when you’ve already been told why it should be “for your consideration.”  Jennifer Aniston may be having her “Cake” and eating it too, but it’s merely the dessert at the end of a long meal that was spoiled to begin with.

Welcome

While one shouldn’t wait for the clock to roll over on a new year to start projects, it seemed like a convenient marker for me to try something a little different than my usual gig over at The Playlist. Forgive the paint job (it’ll probably change), and the name (a placeholder for now, but who knows, it might stick), but if I wait for all the details to be perfect, I’ll never get this rolling.

Anyway, at Framed I’ll be writing about the stuff I’m watching, reading and maybe even listening to, that will mostly fall outside the purview of my day-to-day grind of movie and television coverage. For example?

• I’m halfway through the second season of “Friday Night Lights,” which I’ve been told by everyone is a semi-disaster, but stick-it-out-because-the-show-gets-back-on-track later. And certainly, the fingerprints of the writer’s strike and trying to grab a bigger audience with juicier plotlines is all over this thing. Dead body hiding! Trips to Mexico for magic surgery! Juvie kid tries to make good! Julie being rebellious and generally being awful! Thankfully, Eric and Tami are forever, and same goes for Saracen and Landry, so they provide solace in between bouts of yelling at the television. (There also seems to be an awkwardly obvious push for Indie Cred in this season with prominent music placement of Wilco and Vampire Weekend among others, and the casual namedropping of The Decemberists.)

• Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods And Kings” managed the double feat of being hilariously self-serious and unaware of its camp value (except Ben Mendelsohn who knew better than anyone else involved the trash he was in, and acted accordingly, as per usual),  and monstrously dull at the same time. And while there was a mini-controversy over the film’s casting of white actors in roles that probably should’ve been played by those of Middle Eastern or African descent/origin, Scott wasn’t entirely wrong when he claimed (in the most borderline offensively dismissively way possible) that he wouldn’t be able to finance the movie without big league stars. Okay fine, but here’s a counterargument.

Director Terence Nance (“An Oversimplification of Her Beauty”) offers a beautifully funny, pointed, fierce, and fiery takedown of ‘Exodus’ over at The Talkhouse. Just how provocative is Nance’s shot through the heart of ‘Exodus’? Here’s what would be the closest thing to a thesis statement:

So, this movie is evidence that Ridley Scott is a white supremacist.

Get your panties out of a bunch.

Yes, it goes for the throat, and while I might not agree with the degree Nance takes it, I absolutely admire the passion and articulateness behind his argument. It’s must-read stuff.

• From the provocative to the plainly obvious: Cary Grant is the male love object. Men want to be as lucky and enviable as he is—they want to be like him. And women imagine landing him. Pauline Kael’s opinion’s may be divisive and I’ve never particularly been a fan, but there’s few that would disagree with that assessment of the actor’s onscreen allure from her 1975 profile on Grant, recently unearthed and made available for all to read online by the New Yorker.

• Lastly, if I have one movie resolution for 2015, it’s this: less talk about film formats, and more conversation about storytelling. I don’t care if I watch a movie from a 70mm print, from a hard drive, or beamed directly into my brain from the index finger of James Cameron. I just want to experience great stories, and interesting, well drawn characters, whether it’s in two hours at the multiplex or spread across many episodes on a computer screen.

So, this is just a little idea of what I’ll be doing weekly. Sometimes it’ll be longer, sometimes shorter, but hopefully always engaging. Comments encouraged!