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The Tragedy of John Carter

It’s easy to say that there’s something wrong when Avatar loads up with ridiculous amounts of money while John Carter seems doomed. A big giant Mars sized chunk of that can be put down to Disney’s dysfunction, but even its Clash of the Titans style ads for John Carter shouldn’t have sabotaged it that badly.

The name obviously does it no favors. It’s hard to say what John Carter stands for in most people’s minds, but it’s not this. And it hasn’t exactly been a good year for splashy adaptations of classic stories. Spielberg’s Tintin couldn’t even reach 80 million in the United States, but that also offers some hope. American classics are often better known abroad than in the United States. Burroughs has more of an audience in South America and Europe than he does in his homeland.

If the foreign arms of studios handle John Carter correctly, the movie can make more than enough money abroad. Just as Pirates 4 and Tintin did.

One more thing in John Carter’s favor is the lack of any real competition. In a weekend where the top competitor is the Lorax, where a trunk relic like A Thousand Words is being dug up, and Act of Valor is stumbling around as a mercy movie that’s the closest thing to being in the same category, John Carter may have a shot. Or not. I overheard Jersey Shore types chomping at the bit to see A Thousand Words, I doubt any of them had similar feelings for John Carter.

So what went wrong? The name. The confusing trailers. The ‘what the hell is going on here’ effect. Instead of hyping the special effects, presenting a somewhat coherent story in the trailer and keeping some of the goofier shots out, the marketing was botched badly. Which is a shame.

Is Publishing an Author’s Short Stories Collection a Good Idea?

I’ve been reading through some short story collections by major Science Fiction authors and after a few volumes of that, I’m not so sure that these collections are even a good idea.

Why? Authors repeat themselves, reworking the same themes and ideas. The story that looks unique in a copy of Fantasy and Science Fiction or in an anthology about alien dragons or telepathic fantasy worlds or alternate history heroes, looks a lot less unique when it’s sandwiched side by side with a dozen others with the same author’s perspective.

For the “Where do you get your ideas” crowd, it can be interesting to see that Anderson’s Goat Song is a reworking of the same themes and ideas as Queen of Darkness and Air (wielding archetypes to manipulate people, a war between technological order and chaos using myth, etc) but it’s also somehow disappointing.

Magazines and anthologies bring together different approaches on a theme. John Campbell used to hand out the same idea to different writers to see what emerged. But one writer reworking the same ideas can feel stifling after half a dozen stories.

Success and Failure at the Box Office

As we all know Mission Impossible 4 or MI Ghost Protocol or MIGP was a huge hit. Sherlock Holmes 2 or SHGOS was a bomb. Fast forward a bit and MI4 has just barely cleared 200 million dollars domestic and Sherlock Holmes 2 made 20 million less than it. Since Holmes 2 or SH2GOS had a 20 million dollar budget, the performance is close enough to say that both movies performed sub par, with MI4 or MI4GP getting the worst of it since it had the bigger star and the bigger splashdown. But the US take doesn’t really matter anymore. Over 60 percent of the revenues for both movies came from the foreign box office. 287 mil for Holmes, 369 mil for MI. Internationally MI4 is the decisive winner, but Holmes pulled in enough that it was worth it.

That brings us to Underworld Awakening, the fourth unwanted movie in a series which only took off because its commercials featured a woman shooting her way through a floor in the first movie, that managed to score 50 million and another 40 million overseas, making this crap that Americans like better than people outside the country. It also means Len Wiseman is still in the game. Who besides us wanted to see a fourth movie of this? The Russians where Underworld picked up a quarter of its foreign take.

Red Tails, Lucas’ vanity project, has slipped badly, but when was the last time an aircraft movie, especially a retro one did well? Can anyone remember Flyboys? Or Stealth? Or Wing Commander? I’m not too sure it’s been done since Top Gun. That’s too bad because I wouldn’t mind an American version of Les Chevaliers du ciel, but even Lucas’ own Star Wars prequels took it light on the fighter action.

More Copyright Wars

From a book review of an industry friendly copyright book in the New York Times

That’s what happened with the music industry, which, spooked by the proliferation of pirated file sharing on Napster, struck a bad deal with iTunes that allowed Apple to replace the sale of $15 albums with 99-cent songs. “Even if they continue to grow,” Levine writes, “those 99-cent-song sales won’t come close to making up for the corresponding decline in CD sales.”

The average album had 10-15 songs on it, which comes to about the same thing to 99 cents a song. How much did the industry really want people to pay per song? And if you eliminate the cost of actually packaging and manufacturing the albums, then 99 cents a song may even be a better deal. Apple takes its chunk, but does it really take more than Wal-Mart and K-Mart?

The real deal is that the industry didn’t want to change its business model of packaging whole albums that people had to buy to get a few songs they wanted. That business model helped encourage piracy. Sure manufactures would make more money if they forced people to buy printers with every computer or floor mats with every car. But that business model was killed by the internet.

Similarly, the best TV shows, like “Mad Men,” are produced by cable channels like AMC that hold back their content from Hulu, a network-owned platform for distributing TV over the Internet. The Hulu model has succeeded on the premise that “if someone was going to make their product available online for nothing, it might as well be them,” as Levine says of the networks.

I don’t know that Mad Men qualifies as one of the best shows on TV, but Cable has been sinking more money into developing shows that appeal to a more upscale audience. Hulu distributes shows that are mostly free to watch on TV already.

Levine says, is an open Internet model of free video that, by denying the networks any revenue to invest in shows like “Mad Men,” would instead produce the likes of the viral video “Charlie Bit My Finger.”

I’m not so sure one is that much worse than the other, but networks get revenue from advertising, cable networks get revenue from advertising and from their gated community. But free to watch networks spend money on shows, and can pay for it with advertising too.

Recently, France has begun to revive a business model that thrived in the 19th century: a collective or blanket license that, by adding a fee to Internet connections, would allow the convenient downloading of copyrighted music and divide the money to compensate producers and artists.

The fee based internet thrived in the 19th century? Wow. That is some revisionist Steampunk history right there. Must have been that Babbage based internet.

Anyone praising a media internet tax is a shameless shill for the entertainment industry. It’s completely indefensible, not least because it asks paying consumers to pay twice, once for what they buy and once as a confiscatory tax for the industry.

Let’s say we have a universal internet tax/fine, who should get it? Anyone who makes content that is distributed on the internet? Yeah right. Sorry we’re not going back to taxing cassette tapes for the music industry.

Germany has laws forbidding the aggressive discounting of books in chain stores, which has preserved independent booksellers while making it harder for Amazon to introduce the Kindle.

While keeping books more expensive. I like independent bookstores, but does this law do anything to promote reading or help writers?

But regardless of your position in the business-of-culture wars, it’s hard to resist Levine’s conclusion that the status quo is much better for tech companies and distributors than for cultural creators and producers. That status quo may benefit consumers in the short term. But if it continues, Levine argues, the Internet will increasingly become an artistic wasteland dominated by amateurs — a world where music, TV and journalism are virtually free, and where all of us get what we pay for.

My own position is skeptical toward both sides, which means I am skeptical that industry advocates care about creators. Creators are collateral damage for both sides. I am even more skeptical of the idea that the industry will stop making professional music, books and movies because of internet piracy. They had plenty of time to stop in the last ten years.

What the review and probably the book does not mention is that piracy encourages the industry to target the dumbest consumers even harder because they are less likely to have the know how to pirate. The industry has dumbed down its own product, but that is only one of the reasons.

The specter of amateurs is not all that horrifying, what is horrifying is that the future will belong to Cory Doctorow and Lana Del Rey, people who have nothing of worth to offer but strike a convenient pose that connects with a demographic. Creators who are much better self-promoters than they are artists.

I Guess It’s Nice and All…

I guess it’s nice and all that Star Trek and Star Trek TNG have enough commercial vitality to them that Paramount is actually taking the time to continue spiffing up the old shows. I like the redone Encounter at Farpoint look, not because I’m a big fan of tinkering with old shows but because it does a better job of making the older episodes match the later episodes. This way Encounter at Farpoint looks like it could have aired in Season Seven, aside from Q’s youthful looks. But it’s also a reminder that the franchise has no life except reselling the same commodities over and over again. A new show can’t be made, so get ready for spiffing up more originals.

Why People Hate Star Trek Voyager

GiantFreakingRobot has a list of six reasons why he believes Voyager never really worked. His first mistake is pointing to Voyager as the beginning of the end for the franchise. Actually DS9 was the beginning of the end. It was the first TNG spinoff and its ratings plummeted badly requiring repeated reboots. Toward the end it had a fraction of its former ratings.

The reasons themselves? Janeway was more Kirk than Picard, at least a crazy unbalanced version of Kirk. She charged in a lot of the time and threw her weight around. Except for the last two reasons, the others are too stupid to comment on. The only one that matters is did Voyager really make full use of its premise. No it didn’t and the easiest way to see that is to compare it to Stargate Universe which took a similar premise and tried to live it. Or Enterprise’s third season. Neither of them were perfect but they were much more committed to the concept.

Some of Voyager’s best episodes used the premise, like The Void. But it also managed great standalone episodes that didn’t, like Blink of an Eye, which could have popped up on any of the Star Treks. Voyager doesn’t get enough credit for its good episodes, but at least unlike DS9 it wasn’t constantly being rebooted from Exploring the Wormhole to War Show to Sisko as the Chosen One Fighting the Red Devil Orbs.

Robot is close enough when he says that the problem was the characters. They were a big part of the problem. None of the post-TNG shows ever had a cast that really meshed together naturally. It was a bigger problem on Voyager, because unlike DS9 and Enterprise, not only didn’t the cast mesh, but most of the characters were either unlikable or not very interesting.

DS9 had actors who could carry the bad material. Enterprise’s actors were congenial enough that the bad stuff wasn’t as irritating. Voyager had few buffers except for the HoloDoc and Picardo’s prickly charm. Janeway, Chakotay, Paris, Kim, Tuvok, Seven and most of the cast were irritating one note characters and the actors couldn’t or wouldn’t bring anything to tone them down.

Robert Picardo and Ethan Philips seemed to be the only actors on the show trying to be sympathetic. Mulgrew went the other way. Beltran had occasional flashes of charm but mostly phoned it in. Robert Duncan McNeill decided to go as obnoxious as possible. Garret Wang couldn’t really act too well. Jeri Ryan was playing an emotionless sexbot with minimal nuance. Tim Russ has a great sense of humor, but chose to disregard a lot of what Nimoy did with Spock, and between the abrasive writing, made Tuvok as unlikable as possible.

It may not be completely fair to blame the actors for a show’s problems, the premise and the uneven writing were at fault, but the cast really did not step up to the task. Sure they mostly had one note characters, but they didn’t really try to bring any nuance to the material. They never made it come alive and they never made the show come alive.

DS9 didn’t really have great writing, but it had a supporting cast of people like Coombs, Robinson and Alaimo who would make the most of a single throwaway line. And that made up for Brooks and Visitor’s bad acting. It had Colm Meaney who could walk through the most banal material and still make you feel something. It had Rene Auberjonois who did with a similar character what Tim Russ failed to do, make him seem vulnerable despite his abrasiveness.

Imagine the actors switching places for a moment and suddenly Voyager would start looking better and DS9 would start looking worse.

When Every Movie Became a Cartoon

It’s hard to say when exactly Hollywood’s main product became 250 million dollar CG cartoons. The Phantom Menace was probably the opening shot and then came everything else and here we are where the movie factory is just turning out people running around against a green screen and shouting at stuff.

Whether it’s Rise of the Apes or The Phantom Menace or Transformers or Wrath of the Titans, these are just really expensive cartoons with cartoon logic and plots. Tintin makes sense since it’s what Hollywood has been doing for over a decade now, grabbing a recognized brand name, building a loud explosion filled cartoon around it.

Past the 200 million range it doesn’t seem like movies are even being made anymore. It’s modern day versions of comics and serials with huge budgets and worldwide distributions. Stories get in the way of foreign box office sales. Any dialogue more complex than a punch line doesn’t translate as well. And no one really wants to see it anyway.

Movies have become what television used to be. A way to get a bunch of people in the same room and then shut off their brains. It’s not as if there’s a point to these anymore. They’re getting more and more disposable, there’s no acting and no reason for them to exist. Spielberg’s blockbusters at least made you feel something more than bored. These are just cartoons, lavish expensive cartoons.

Steve Jobs’ Second Chance

Not many visionaries get a second chance the way Jobs did, and if he hadn’t managed to get back to the top at a desperate Apple, his obituary would probably read famous Apple co-founder and mention his Pixar connection. But Jobs got his second chance and he leaves Apple as a company at the top of its game.

Even the underwhelming iPhone 4S launch only helps shore up the image of Apple adrift without Jobs. As Google’s Android does to Apple what Microsoft did to it back in the day, creating a universal open platform that can be used by numerous hardware manufacturers, Apple’s likely decline will be attributed to Jobs’ death, rather than to the business model of the company.

There’s no question that Jobs helped revolutionize the portable market, but he also left Apple at a time when the company is fast approaching its limit. There’s only so many other things that can be grafted on to the iPhone or the iTouch and the Classic is out to sea and the Nano is now officially a kids toy. There’s not many other places left to go and once that evens out, Android will begin gaining even faster. But Jobs leaves as a visionary and a genius on a high note. It’s not a bad exit.

Should Roger Ebert Still Be Reviewing Movies?

Forget, should Roger Ebert have ever been reviewing movies. He shouldn’t have, but his reviews at least used to be plausible. They were things that looked like reviews of movies. Not your uncle’s random stuff typed on a page. Now that’s exactly what it is. Your uncle musing about stuff and then commenting on a movie. Reading these things now is just embarrassing. And I’m not sure anyone does.

It’s not just about Thor. It’s about every review Ebert does. The Thor review is almost passable. Ebert actually at times comments intelligently on the movie and the source material. Even if the whole thing is drowned by his asides and his extended recap of most of what happens in the movie. But that’s rare.

Ebert has taken to Twitter. His condition has made him a media personality. But his reviews which were always sloppy, have stopped even trying to pretend that they’re anything but his random impressions composed in a few minutes or less.

The Meaning of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

ferrris bueller

There have been some ridiculous essays about Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. All dealing with its perceived importance.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is not a great movie. It’s an enjoyable one. Among many others. You can analyze The Breakfast Club, but there’s no point to analyzing Ferris Bueller. It’s a movie about the ultimate idealized teenager, with the vocabulary of a 30 year old, the skills of a con artist and the luck of the Irish who thanks to Matthew Broderick’s performance remains sympathetic. Not accessible, but entertaining.

Ferris Bueller is the Peter Pan of a generation. Played by an actor who looked like he never really grew up. It’s the wish fulfillment of every movie about staying young forever packed into one marathon session. It’s about having to grow up, but offers the fantasy of being able to do it on your own terms. That’s what Ferris Bueller offers his friends. It’s why he has the popularity he does.

Most movies go up and down. Ferris Bueller never goes down. The antagonists never have a chance. The movie is all joie de vivre on terms that an aging man with a creative imagination who loved Chicago and was obsessed with the teenage years thought up. And it works.

There are only a few actors who could have done it. Broderick or Fox. And the movie endures better than even The Breakfast Club, because it promises freedom from teenage angst, while at the same time recognizing it for what it is. Hughes’ movies treated the transitions of being a teenager as a complex fantasy environment. But if Breakfast Club or Pretty in Pink were the deep involved dramas about coping, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is about freedom from angst. Bueller is a teenage superman, not bound by the limitations of being a teenager, while enjoying all of its privileges. And if that’s not perfect escapism for teenagers and adults in a country that worships freedom and youth, I don’t know what is.

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