Release The Release Dates

2015-inez-vinoodh-vulnicura-03On December 17, 2014, thirteen tracks leaked from Madonna’s forthcoming “Rebel Heart.”  In response, the album was made available for pre-order on iTunes three days later, with six tracks immediately downloadable with any purchase. The result? Three of the tracks landed on Billboard’s Dance/Electronic chart, and “Rebel Heart” topped iTunes pre-orders in over forty countries.

On January 18, 2015, Bjork’s new album “Vulnicura” leaked in its entirely online. Two days later, on January 20, the complete album was made available on iTunes. Not only did “Vulnicura” receive rave reviews, it charted in the top twenty on five separate Billboard charts without a physical release (which is still scheduled for the album’s original release date in March).

These examples are indicators of two things: leaks are still an epidemic problem in the music industry, but if you make it available, consumers will just as readily break out their wallet as find a torrent. And artists are paying attention:

-Drake released his latest “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late” with no prior announcement on February 13, 2015 and it sold 495,000 copies in three days.

-Thom Yorke released “Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes” on BitTorrent on September 26, 2014 also with no prior announcement. Official figures have not been released, but the LP was the most legally downloaded album on BitTorrent of the year, and sales totals have been estimated in the millions. And all of this without any label backing.

-Beyonce released her eponymous LP on December 13, 2013, again with no prior announcement, exclusively on iTunes, selling 600,000 digital copies in its first week.

And so the question is, why is International Federation of the Phonographic Industry hellbent on clinging to the traditional ideas of the album release model?

This week, the IFPI announced that Fridays will be the new global release day for albums. According to the group’s statement, this move will “reduce the risk of piracy by narrowing the gap between release days in different countries.” But this is a laughable notion and betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of leaks. As seen in the examples above with two of the highest profile releases of 2015, complete albums or significant portions of them were traded online months before their scheduled release dates. Granted, in the case of Madonna, her leak was due to outright theft with a legal case still pending, but anybody willing to do the most cursory of glancing in different, and not hard to find corners of the internet, can easily track down many new albums long before they are due to drop. And generally speaking, the only people in possession of albums that far in advance are music industry professionals or journalists, but IFPI’s wording puts the bulk of the blame on the consumer.

And it’s much as the industry did in the era of Napster, when suddenly (and yes, illegally) fans found a much quicker, more convenient way to share and listen to music. And ever since, consumers have clearly shown they want music at their convenience, and given the chance, they’ll pay for it (hence the rise in services like Spotify, Rdio and more — though the paltry compensation they pay out to artists is a different issue altogether). And yet, the propping up of the decaying structure of record store release dates, as if it’s still an important fabric of the customer experience, shows a baffling incomprehension of how music fits into the lives of listeners.

Meanwhile, the IFPI also claims this new move to Fridays “will benefit artists who want to harness social media to promote their new music.” But again, there is a disconnect here. Established musicians like Kanye West (whose recent tweet of his new album title spawned entire articles) have evolved the idea of “campaigns,” choosing instead to surprise fans in fresh and interesting ways (for example, the rapper debuted one of his new songs during a fashion show launch for his new line of shoes). Chart-topping artists already have the machinery of social media and press working in their favor, plus the ability to easily move outside the box and try different promotional methods. Global, simultaneous Friday release dates does very little to assist in those efforts.

Meanwhile, for independent artists and labels — who could truly use a meaningful gesture in an era where album sales are a continual struggle, and acts must find revenue streams elsewhere — the IFPI’s announcement hardly benefits them, while only further cements the status quo. And Martin Mills of Beggars Group is gravely concerned.  “Whilst I acknowledge the needs of a digital world for co-ordination, it seems to me to be crazy to throw away one of the trading week’s two peaks, and the ability to restock and rectify errors before the week’s second peak,” he told The Guardian. “It astounds me that the major labels are not listening to their customers, their interface with their artists’ fans. I fear their consultation has been a charade, and the market leaders were always going to push this through. I fear this move will also lead to a market in which the mainstream dominates, and the niche, which can be tomorrow’s mainstream, is further marginalised. I fear it will further cement the dominance of the few – and that that is exactly what it is intended to do.”

Of course, there is already a significant marketplace gap between mainstream and niche releases, but Mills is not incorrect that further consolidation of the mechanics of sales will only exacerbate that issue. But the irony is that IFPI’s new plan will do little of its stated goals: piracy will still run rampant, artists will find new ways to use social media to reach their fans that go far beyond targeting a date on a calendar, and consumers will continue to engage in music on their own terms, not those determined by the industry. Home taping isn’t killing music, but the industry is doing a pretty good job of doing it to themselves.

Sizing Up A Trainwreck

trainwreck_foto_01Last week, the first trailer arrived for  Judd Apatow’s rom-com “Trainwreck,” and most film outlets reported on it as they would any other highly anticipated summer movie. But for Jeffrey Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere, it provided him an opportunity to expound his thoughts on the feminine virtues (or lack thereof) of the film’s writer and lead actress Amy Schumer.

In a post titled “Apatow’s Funny-Chubby Community Has New Member,” the veteran entertainment reporter described Schumer as “a chubby, whipsmart, not conventionally attractive, neurotically bothered female comic” who in “no way [would] be an object of heated romantic interest in the real world.” It didn’t take long for his comments section and Twittersphere to light up in the wake of his insensitive and sexist comments, but Wells doubled down in a follow-up post “Schlumpies & Dumpies.” Waxing nostalgic, Wells posited that “that sexual attractiveness standards have definitely evolved in favor of the notties” over the last decade or so, and he “grew up in a world in which conventionally attractive or semi-attractive people used to be the ones who got laid the most often.” And he wasn’t done there, adding that “Schumer is brilliant, talented and somewhat funny but she’s not grade-A or even B-plus material, certainly by my standards as well as those of any moderately attractive, fair-minded youngish heterosexual dude who’s feeling hormonal or what-have-you.”

Certainly, the galling offensiveness and absurdity of Wells’ comments don’t need further dissecting, but sadly, he is but a mere reflection of an industry that has a long tradition of treating women poorly both on screen and off, to the point where it’s nearly culturally ingrained. Indeed, one has to look no further than this weekend’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service” to see how acceptable the boorish depiction of women in mainstream entertainment has become. **SPOILERS AHEAD**

The film has been positioned by writer/director Matthew Vaughn as the anti-spy movie, one that riffs on the standard tropes of the genre. Except, it would seem, when it comes to how women are portrayed. The story follows troubled teen Eggsy (Taron Egerton) who is recruited by a secret spy service alongside a handful of other youths, and must complete a series of increasingly difficult tests in order to officially join the organization. He initially fails, with Roxy (Sophie Cookson) winning the gig, an initially bold and welcome narrative choice, but each step of the way, her character is undermined. Instead of becoming an ally with Eggsy (who is has to jump back into action when the Kingsman are betrayed and the world is at risk — so much for subverting spy tropes) she needs his help and support to conquer her fear of heights during one particularly trying trial, and again, when she has to balloon into space to destroy a satellite in the film’s final act. But other than that, she’s actually completely removed from the finale, with Eggsy taking center stage.

And fine, ‘Kingsman’ is about Eggsy’s journey to become to kick-ass spy agent, but the movie truly turns sour when during the hectic battle to save the world, our young hero is promised anal sex by a Swedish princess trapped in the baddie’s lair, if his mission succeeds. This moment, played for a gag, is revolting. For a movie that purports to want to do something different for spy movies, it plays the worst cliché possible, using a woman as nothing more than a narrative incentive with a sexual reward on top as the ultimate trophy for the film’s hero. And everywhere else in the regrettable film, women either lack agency (Eggsy’s single Mom must also be rescued from her abusive boyfriend), are part of the villainous scheme (the blade legged Gazelle), or stand by the sidelines (Roxy).

However, it’s sadly not a surprise the $80 million dollar movie got greenlit because, quite simply, studios, financiers and producers, largely don’t put into these issues into consideration, because it’s more important to sell sex — literally and figuratively — than substance. Even the film’s series of posters, riffing on the one-sheet for the James Bond flick “For Your Eyes Only,” don’t hesitate to make a woman’s rear-end the most prominent feature. A surprise? Hardly.

As “Welcome To The Dollhouse” star Heather Matarazzo’s recent blog entry “What The Fuck Is Fuckable” lays bare, actresses must become acclimated to a culture that puts appearances ahead of any talents they possess. Here’s an excerpt from her piece:

When I was 19 or so, I was standing in a Starbucks in West Hollywood with a director, talking about the upcoming film we were about to shoot. It had been a long road, but we had finally made it. Waiting for our coffee, I could see that he seemed a bit uneasy. I asked him if everything was ok. He said yes. I didn’t believe him, so I asked him again. He looked at me and said “Heather, I’m sorry, we have to give your role to another actor. The producers don’t want you.” I didn’t understand. I had been attached to this project for two years, and now two weeks before filming, I’m being let go. I asked him why. He looked me dead in the eyes and said “They say you’re not fuckable.”

It’s an anecdote that speaks volumes about the atmosphere of the industry, and the value it places on actresses, and one can only surmise how that attitude extends outwards when it comes to hiring women as writers, directors, producers, or executives.

It’s somewhat heartening to know that at least observers of the movie world are able to take comments like those shared by Wells to task, but his perspective is part of a larger problem in Hollywood that has long guided how business is transacted. But the industry is caught in a troublesome catch-22, where it is relying on the very people maintaining the status quo to enact progress and change. And while we are seeing a growing number of women-created television shows and films that are both popular and acclaimed, there is still much to be done at all levels to ensure this momentum continues to move forward, and isn’t stymied by the old modes of thinking that are still very much in place.

But at least pleasure can be taken in the small victories when they come, and Amy Schumer’s last laugh on “Trainwreck”-gate is a particularly nice one.

By Myself, For Myself

00315401The question of art, the artist, and the relationship of both to an audience, has reared its head in interesting ways over the past few weeks.

Last month, film director Steven Soderbergh continued his infrequent series of re-cutting famous movies and posting the results to his blog. Previous efforts had seen him turn “Indiana Jones & The Raiders Of The Lost Ark” into a monochrome experience, stripped of dialogue, and backed by the score from “The Social Network” score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. He has also spliced together both Alfred Hitchcock and Gus Van Sant’s versions of “Psycho,” and re-edited the notorious cinematic disaster “Heaven’s Gate.” All were interesting experiments that raised eyebrows as insightful curiosities, and interesting demonstrations and explorations of filmmaking technique and process.

But none of those editing bay larks quite earned the same amount of attention as Soderbergh putting his hands on Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The director is an unabashed fan of the movie, watching it three times in 2014 and reading a book about the making-of process too. And his awe of Kubrick’s picture is clear, as he wrote: “…if it’s not THE most impressively imagined and sustained piece of visual art created in the 20th century, then it’s tied for first.” With that in mind, Soderbergh still tinkered with the masterpiece, cutting his own version which runs less than two hours and seriously reshaped the original movie.

However, unlike the other recut films, Warner Bros. along with the Kubrick Estate, requested Soderbergh’s edit of ‘2001’ be removed from his site. And he complied.

It should be noted, that in all cases, Soderbergh turns off the Vimeo embed and sharing link mechanisms of his re-edits. You have to watch these versions on his site, so there is no way anybody is going to confuse them with the official films and certainly, the director isn’t making any money off these either.

But the larger question that looms overhead is: once a film is received by an audience, does it still belong to a filmmaker? Legally, yes. Culturally or artistically? That’s where the debate begins. Certainly, Warner Bros. and the Kubrick Estate are acting to protect the integrity of “2001: A Space Odyssey” but is it an overreach when Soderbergh’s project had no ill intent and served as an illuminating look another filmmaker’s approach with the material? But, would this discussion even happen it it wasn’t Soderbergh and just a film enthusiast tinkering with a movie? Would the legalities and ethics be seen as more clear cut? (For example, are these issues any different in regards to the recent four-hour, fan-created The Tolkien Edit of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy?).

Meanwhile, last week it was shockingly announced that Harper Lee was going to release “Go Set A Watchman,” a sorta-sequel to her literary masterpiece, and only published book, “To Kill A Mockingbird.” It was actually written before ‘Mockingbird,’ and rejected by her publisher at the time, who encouraged Lee to use Scout’s flashbacks sequences as inspiration for a new story. And did she ever.

However, very serious questions have been raised about the circumstances surrounding the effort. An interview with Lee’s editor about the announcement was evasive and strange, the circumstances of the book’s discovery are a bit odd (Lee’s lawyer was rummaging in her safety deposit box for some reason and stumbled across the “forgotten” manuscript), and there are concerns about whether or not the author has been pressured into releasing the novel (which is being done without any revisions to the original text) with some claims about Lee’s mental faculties to make such decisions.

And while these assertions have been denied, the allure of “Get Set A Watchman” is strong.  But what is the responsibility of eager readers, who don’t know the full story of Lee’s true feelings on wanting this book published? Does it betray the author to read the book if it really is something she wished to remain locked away? Would this situation be any different if the work was published posthumously? Would it be easier to ignore the messier ethical questions in the absence of the author?

When an artist or director or painter creates a new work, the common argument is that by releasing it into the world, they are consciously or not choosing to engage and share their work with an audience. That their work becomes part of a bigger social and artistic fabric, and one can’t control what happens next.

But perhaps the question isn’t where the artwork ends up, but the intent with which it’s created in the first place. Perhaps before this conversation starts, we must heed the words of Franz Kafka (who found fame after his death) as portrayed in Steven Soderbergh’s fictionalized fantasy of his life “Kafka,” who says, quite simply: “I write by myself… for myself.”

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!