Sunday, November 30, 2008

Must female characters in children's properties be merely vehicles for an ethical lesson?

My wife works in the Transmedia industry. She has dealt with properties ranging from adult to teen to children to general marketing. For those who do not know, Transmedia refers to a larger storytelling medium that creates a world that transcends merely one medium. You can't just have a novel, a movie, and a video game, but you must have a contiguous narrative.

In preparation for a possible contract on a famous girl's property she began to read the book, "Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers' Schemes" by Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown. It was also inspired by the fact that we have a young daughter, and so does her boss. So in general because of career reasons, and family reasons it is a topic that has become near and dear to our hearts. There are few things more revolting than Bratz dolls. Unfortunately though, even as natural allies to the book's message, it has managed to turn us off to it's subject matter. In a stereotypically academic way, the authors are out of touch with mainstream society. I won't even go too deeply into their penchant for picking properties that never really found purchase, who people are largely unaware of, while missing out on perfect examples that would have resonated for a much greater audience, or their recommendation for documentaries that cost hundreds of dollars, ensuring that those documentaries bypass the concerned parent market almost completely.

The main thing that we have noticed, as we are very concerned with narrative, is the notion that characters should be reduced to mere objects for a moral lesson. In adult literature/film, it is considered a masterpiece if the characters touch on something deep within us. Yes, the ethical lesson is there, but it need not be there as a result of the characters exemplifying it. Many a great tragedy has touched our hearts with characters who are destroyed, never redeemed throughout the course of the entire film. In Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream", none of the characters, not even Ellyn Bursten's innocent single widow is saved despite the warnings of her more worldly son played by Jared Leto. Everyone in the film ends tragically. Leto loses his arm to Gangrene from shooting up, Marlon Wayans goes to a southern prison, Jennifer Connolly cuddles with the heroin she earned by being part of a double anal penetration show, and Ellen Burstyn goes insane from a speed induced craze as prescribed by an inattentive doctor. No one in that movie ended up in a good spot. But it made it's point about the horrors of drug addiction, in a way that few films have before or since.

In "Packaging Girlhood", Lamb and Brown make various complaints about some really nitpicky details of some fictional girl's lives. They range from the extremely trivial, such as Peaches Tickle's 50s housewife style in 'Jojo's Circus' where they completely ignore the dynamism inherent in the character, who is an attentive Mother and wife, who is treated well by her husband, has lots of supportive friends who she is supportive of as well, and helps run the family business as clowns in the circus. Jojo Tickle, the main character an Peaches's daughter is a very happy well adjusted child who is the leader of her group of friends. It is one of the best and most uplifting shows that show girls in a positive light without presenting some sense of arbitrary opposition between men and women. The men are men and the women are women in the show, but there is no conflict between them and their identities. No one tells people what they can and cannot do because they are women. Jojo's parents perform stereotypical tasks, her Mom bakes and her Father fixes things, but in both cases they teach Jojo how to do what they are doing. In making a nitpick about Peaches's clothes, they diminish their point.

Another example, is speaking of the American Girls franchise. They make one good point about it in that the pretty white girl characters, the word pretty is used over and over, but in the book about the black slave's book, the word fancy is used over and over. That I believe is a legitimate complaint, but their other complaints about Addy the girl who escapes from slavery is that no one compliments her on her many accomplishments. They don't point out that she is a capable person. Ultimately she is congratulated on her ability to control her emotions to keep her opinions to herself. In a society where there was a very real danger for an 'uppity' black girl opening her mouth, this is an important lesson to learn. It's an important lesson for anyone to learn regardless of circumstances, controlling one's emotions is one of the highest arts and the core of self-discipline. The book itself is about her containing her rage at being a slave, so the lesson about restraint is the core message. There are, however, character considerations as to why it is especially important for THIS character. In their desire to make girls feel good about themselves, our academic critique would have us completely ignore the literary merit of the time and place in which Addy lives. They do not want her to be human, they want people to build her self-esteem like a clueless Boomer parent raised on 'The Power of Positive Thinking'. Is there anything telling us that a slave Mother might even consider thinking about making a production of raising her daughter's self-esteem? Would that even be in character for her? Why would it be something that she even values? Raising self-esteem for it's own sake is a very 20th century bourgeois conceit and not something I would expect from an early American culture. As is the idea that every accomplishment requires fanfare. She knows what she did, she knows she saved her Mother's life when she almost drowned, she knows she escaped from slavery, is pointing this out really necessary?

The authors would enslave characters to the notion of making girls feel empowered. Somehow this to me does not seem empowering. It is an idealization of what they want girls to be, and not a continuous tradition as to what girls historically have been. It also propagates the notion that girls still need to be pandered to to find their own power. The implicit assumption that girls ARE inferior and need to be built up until they no longer are. The idea that it is not ok for girls to resemble girls in the past is just as undercutting as many of the stereotypes they decry in their book.

No doubt Girls are underrepresented in children's properties. On the Disney channel, in both 'The Wiggles', and 'Imagination Movers', the female characters are tokens and completely subservient to the male characters in the show. This needs to change, but people within the industry such as my wife and her company are actively working to do so. As it is, a girl's property that she worked on has come out and they can see the fruits of their labor in how it is presented by the owner of the property, but it is not because they explicitly set out to empower girls by harping on the way they dress as much as it is that they portrayed girls with thoughts, feelings, aspirations and most importantly projects of their own.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Hollywood's Technological Rot

So here we are, it's about an hour past dawn of the information age, and I find myself incredulous. Those best positioned to benefit from such an achievement are unable to get over their old business models.

Television has been the standard mode of communicating fictional properties for the last half of the twentieth century. The audio/visual medium has been refined to an enduring artform. It has revolutionized the way we do business and facilitated the rise of an unprecedented technological culture. It's biggest drawback? It only communicates one way.

Big businesses have relied on TV commercials ever since we saw the successes of Betty Crocker and Lucky Strike Cigarettes in the 50s. If it were not for television it might have taken a bit longer to put a washer and dryer in every home. You wouldn't have a dishwasher let alone Cascade dishwasher detergent. You can positively forget about a Microwave, and your George Foreman grill would be who is George and why do I want his grill?

Now, all of this has been measured through statistical means. If you have a commercial running in a locality you can measure whether orders for your product are up there or not. But what if you are already a common brand? How can you tell if your commercials are reaching their target audience once you are no longer trying to teach consumers that your brand exists? How should Coca Cola know that it's advertising investment is reaching the maximum number of eyeballs per dollar? Well, as far as I can tell, they rely on Nielsen ratings. Nielsen ratings rely on people keeping a diary of their viewing appetites. Knowing how well people maintain their diet diaries should tell you something about how effective this all is. I participated in a study related to a heart condition I have, and I didn't even fill out all the paperwork properly to study a condition that I have which is potentially life threatening. While I am not the most dilligent when it comes to things of this nature, I imagine that I am probably not an isolated demographic.

This brings us to where we are today. A world with DVR and On-Demand, stop-gap measures intended to satisfy the needs of a vestigial TV organ located somewhere in the Frontal Cortex. These are intended for those of us who simply cannot accept the reality of where we are today. Proprietary delivery networks are a thing of the past. They are obsolete. They are not yet extinct but they are outmoded, and unecessary.

They are also the entirety of what makes Hollywood. Hollywood is a distribution system, a brokerage, and little more. It has been one of the most multinational institutions in the world for quite some time now. It has outsourced its filming every chance it got. The greatest example of this are the Mountains behind the Bronx in, "Rumble in the Bronx.", I know, I know that's not really a Hollywood film, but that's a part of my point, the distinction of 'Hollywood' really only matters in terms of the distribution. Where it is filmed is likely not Hollywood, where the actors are from or even live currently is likely not Hollywood. What makes something 'Hollywood' is if the bigwigs behind the scenes decide whether or not to give it access to its distribution networks. Now that's Hollywood. The second thing that it is, is a brokerage. People go there to get funding for a film. It is less necessary to kowtow to Hollywood as a Brokerage than as a distribution system however. Hollywood as a Brokerage will remain more relevant than Hollywood as a distribution system in the long run.

Now Proto-OnDemand video as you see from your cable television will eventually yield to actual On Demand video. Why no major studio is on top of this yet, I do not know. They content themselves to be delivered online by Netflix and iTunes. This makes no sense at all. The reason for this though? They don't know how to 'account' for non-traditional mediums. This is patently ludicrous. There is nothing that allows you to more accurately track your viewership and it's habits, than a website. The amount of data one can glean from the usage statistics available in your standard web server package is far and away more comprehensive than that of a television. We're talking Ox Cart vs Mercedes C-Class here.

Certainly, Hollywood should continue to milk its DVD/Blue Ray distribution system, no reason not to, but it needs to recognize the necessity for it to make every effort to put a bullet in that model as soon as possible. The big studios should be working to own their own distribution networks via the interweb. As it is, the difference between On Demand cable, and internet is a polite fiction. It's about proprietary networks, but the underlying technology is essentially the same. The only advantage that cable companies have is dedicated hardware.

I'll now present you with BBB. The three B's are:
1) Brand
2) Bandwidth
3) Back End

1) Brand
This is the most important aspect of your product. It is the overall view of your product, how do people feel about your product? What does your product do? Does it do it well?

2) Bandwidth
This is currently the second greatest hurdle after the lack of imagination at media conglomerates. This is where you are going to incur the bulk of your fixed costs.

3) Back End
This simply refers to the quality of your web presence. The nuts and bolts that keeps your delivery system up and running.

If you have a solid brand, like Warner Bros, Fox, or Legendary, people will come to you to seek your films. Right now you likely have videos that almost no one is watching. How many sales are you receiving on Gallipoli right about now? Your brand will drive people to your site. There is no good reason why someone should go to the site of a major studio and not be able to have instant access to their entire canon right then and there. Don't withhold parts of your canon, keep the entire canon up for download at any given time. Indulge the whims of your audience. Bring them in with the summer blockbuster, and upsell them on the older film of the same genre.

I'll skip the bandwidth issue as it's being properly addressed and I have no good advice for it. Instead we'll go straight to back end, which will touch on some of the bandwidth issues. Something you need is the ability to have a community on your website, and also to connect to other people's networks. You need to be able to embed your videos on Facebook, MySpace or Blogspot. In fact people should be able to set up to X amount of time of your video, keyframed anywhere they want to display on their blog. Sampling of this nature should be encouraged. It's viral advertising, and will drive traffic to your site, totally free of charge. You should develop a method similar to bittorrent where the content is downloaded from other users who are currently connected to the download seed. This will drastically reduce your needed bandwidth while the users download Act 1 Scene 1 from you, but everything else from the other users who are currently watching the video.

As a quick addendum to back end. You need a warez hacker department. Don't spend so much money on your legal team that goes after piracy. Spend money on your team of College undergraduates who will while away their days for $ 15 an hour seeking ways to foil torrent streams. If 9 out of 10 copies of your video up online illicitly are actually a boring infomercial or scat porn, people will give up and associate piracy with poor quality. If you combine this with a cheap model, they'll come to you first. Take the incentive for piracy out by making it less work to pay for your film than it is to find a decent pirated copy. This cannot be done at a rate of $ 20 per DVD. There is too much incentive for piracy at that price.

Let us return to Brokerage for a moment. Not the kind I was speaking of before, but a new kind. Venues like iTunes and Netflix can be brokerage services. They sell your video for a cut of the profit. This should also apply to your users. Your users should have API access to allow them to earn rewards based on traffic that drives new business to your site. So not only do you not seek to stop them from using your IP on their website, you encourage it, so long as it's not the entire finished product. If you need to understand more about APIs and how they work, consult the models used by Amazon and CCP. CCP is the maker of Eve Online, they have a model that allows you to access personal game data in web applications.

Now this part is to Jesse Alexander and Jeff Gomez, with whom I've had conversations about this sort of thing before.

Don't accept gripes concerning old business models to be equally valid. They are not, and they should not be considered as such. The newer models are not only inevitable, meaning non-negotiable, they are also superior in every way. Nielsen ratings are archaic and primitive compared to the most basic webstat programs. There is no reason you shouldn't be able to get data up to the minute, or even up to the second regarding who is watching what.

If you build a new distribution model, make sure that it's cheap. Don't charge $ 4 a rental for new releases. Charge $ 2 a rental. Make it so cheap that people will think nothing of paying to watch it ten times. Also, have an advertising revenue model. Give people a cheaper account upon which they can watch advertisements rather than pay for the account. Give your back catalogue to people for a monthly subscription cost. $ 20 a month gets you up to 40 movie views. The people that will max out that number are few and far between. It's likely a certain number of your accounts won't even watch one movie some months, and it will all balance out. Make sure you or whoever you represent maintains control over the content delivery. Stop farming it out to distribution systems. After the cost of maintaining the website and the servers, all of the profit stays in house. Don't draw a distinction between hi-def and lo-def in your pricing model. Just give it all for a low price. The distinctions of picture resolution are going to matter less and less to your audience.

The key here is high volume low margin. The cheaper it is, the more often people will utilize these services, aka, the higher your ratings will be. The more control you have over your own distribution, the more nimbly you can respond to market shifts.

When you show your film/show on TNT, TNT controls the delivery brand. Put TNT out of business. If you must outsource don't outsource the brand, outsource the labor. Your site can be maintained by a third party and marketing can be handled by a third party, but don't send people to TNT to watch your video, send people to 'My Film Studio'. That is how you can ensure that you know every last little minute detail about who is watching what, and their habits when doing so. When approaching potential ad buyers, giving them them the data, will be a simple matter of cut and paste.

A TV and a Computer are the same thing. Just repeat this mantra to anyone who doesn't understand. A TV and a Computer are the same thing. Don't allow them to think otherwise, it's not good for them and it's not good for you. There is only one network, the internet, period.

One day, and one day soon, you will be able to map hyperlinks to what is going on on the screen. Imagine being able to click on Vick Mackey's Dodge Charger while it's on screen. This is the future of Quicktime and Flash video they can already do this today. These tools are not being utilized effectively, because the people who control the content cannot conceive of why they might be useful.

We have gone from the release of "I am Legend" dominating the ad space in 'Rainbow Six: Vegas' because they didn't get enough ad buyers, to Barack Obama buying ad space in a dozen video games on the cheap in a short period of time.

All digital delivery mediums are rigorously logged. There is no excuse for not comprehending how to know who is watching your videos.