PBS Vote 2008: Not Just for Television Any More

The Producer tipped me off to PBS Vote 2008, a spot where PBS is culling together the best of their documentary films, news coverage and web tools on the ’08 election, and presenting it to PBS viewers like you.

My favorite of these is a game called Budget Hero:

Play Budget Hero

You get to play “cards” like “Bring Troops Home Now” that change how much money the government spends, then watch your budget play out over time.

If you’re trying to find a source to help you follow everything that’s happening up ’til November, this seems like the place to go!

Sean Tevis runs for Kansas State Rep, XKCD Style

Sean Tevis
Image from seantevis.com
Sean Tevis is running for Kansas State Representative. He needs to raise $26,000 by July 28th. He plans to do this by enticing 3000 individuals to donate $8.34 each on the internet (plus asking his 2 wealthy friends for $500 each).

As of this posting, 2,326 have already donated. If you read his XKCD style campaign story, you will probably understand why.

Running for Office: It’s Like A Flamewar with a Forum Troll, but with an Eventual Winner

Tevis’s plea references numerous internet memes, and communicates his serious geek cred, while simultaneously covering the major elements of his platform. It is entertaining and informational and for several hours today the site was totally slammed. This is a grassroots approach gone viral. I would not be surprised if the majority of donors hail from outside Tevis’s district.

The success of this political ad campaign is not achieved by a large amount of money spent, but in intelligently engaging and entertaining a target audience, and delivering a call to action: For $8.34 you can be part of this event. See Palindrome’s comments on the desire to be part of a communal experience.

Check out Tevis’s site, where if you donate $500, they’ll “send you a limited edition campaign t-shirt, a coffee mug with the Kansas flag on it, and a DVD video from Sean Tevis’ mom telling you how wonderful you are, because you are.”

Dr. Horrible Defeats the Internet

Dr. Horrible Scene Image from Steve Garfield’s PhotostreamDr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is alive and kicking! After hordes of fans crashed their servers, the site appears to be back up and running. The first act is now available, streaming, for free. More info on the site crash can be found at Save Hiatus.

Since the site appeared to be on permanent hiccup when I got home yesterday, I bought myself a season pass on iTunes. I wasn’t the only one: Dr. Horrible is currently the top iTunes download for TV single episodes and season passes. For something that people expected to get for free, that’s kind of amazing. The long-tail-economics of that situation are better left to someone with more expertise, but I will say this:

Studios and record labels have based their attacks on peer-to-peer sharing on the basic premise that if a piece of media is available for free, no rational person will pay for it. Either Joss Whedon’s fans are crazy, or there’s something else going on. My suspicion is that there is something valuable ($4 worth of valuable) about becoming a part of the first wave of media consumers. This is why people dress up and wait in line for opening nights of movies (like Star Wars and Sex and the City), even though they could watch the same movie at a discount theater in a month, or get it for free from the library a couple months after that. As we move toward an increasingly information-rich society, the information itself becomes almost secondary to how it helps us relate to other people. We want to know where our information came from and how we can share it with others. People crave communal experiences, and getting to gab about Dr. Horrible on the day it appears is just one of those community-building events.

More Dr. Horrible news is on its way! Next time, a serious discussion of silliness. No joke.

Slow Food, Slow Film?

Lately, media-makers of all stripes have been doing their part to let us know that the world is going to come to an end if we don’t start taking our environmental impact more seriously. It’s a great message to put out there, but one that is especially tough for media-makers to follow in their own companies. Media-making requires a lot of resources.

Image from 416style
Image from 416style

I’ve been coming up with ways that media production could take a cue from the folks in the Slow Food and Slow Travel movements. The idea behind Slow Food and Slow Travel is that, in order to conserve resources, respect other cultures and foster a healthy planet, we need to do things like buy environmentally sound products, avoid wasting fuel, and support local economies. When I googled “slow film,” all I got were a bunch of negative reviews of movies. In film and new media, “slow” is a dirty word.

What if it wasn’t? What would “Slow Film” entail?

Slow Film

  • Cutting down on travel costs by maximizing fuel economy of rental cars and skipping extra scouting trips.
  • Minimizing equipment: Taking only the lightest and most power-efficient equipment.
  • Shooting using mostly natural light.
  • Hiring a local crew instead of bringing your own. Hiring local on-camera talent, or in a documentary, allowing local voices to tell the story themselves.
  • Choosing to make a film with a local setting or subject matter: This connects a film company to its community, and can be a boon to local businesses.
  • Patronizing local camera stores, restaurants, and other businesses while shooting.
  • Distributing over the web rather than burning DVDs.
  • Turning off power when not using post-production equipment.

What else would make good environmental sense, without compromising the quality of your project? Are there film companies out there that are dedicated to producing media in “slow” ways?

Panasonic’s AG-HMC70 falls short

Panasonic AG-HMC70
Image from Panasonic Press Release
I’m excited about this announcement from Panasonic. Or more accurately, I’m excited that the camera has finally launched. This shoulder-mounted camera, clearly targeting event videographers, offers quite a sweet spot of price and features:

  • 3×1/4″ CCDs
  • 12x Leica Dicomar Lens
  • 1440x1080i AVCHD (a.k.a. H.264 or MPEG 4 Part 10)
  • Records to cheap SD/SDHC cards
  • XLR inputs
  • BNC and HDMI outputs
  • Headphone jack (OK, this should really be standard, but still worth noting)
  • Street Price of around $2100

What more do you need, right? Then I get to the sticking point: 13Mbps bitrate for the AVCHD. That’s significantly lower than the limit for the spec (24Mbps) and is disappointing in a camera that is otherwise very promising.

ZDNet has a good description of the problems with low bitrate “HD” as well as an at-a-glance comparison of 13Mbps AVCHD and 24Mbps HDV (MPEG-2).

As you can see, there’s “HD” and there’s HD. This camera still has some utility, but mostly to institutional videographers. Handy for a school or church, but filmmakers looking for quality HD can probably find a better match for their needs.

The State of Independent Film

It seems fitting to write about the state of independent film on Independence Day (here in the US). Indeed, the topic is not only apropos, but fashionable. Much has been said about Mark Gill’s comments at the LA Film Festival last week. Some agree that the sky is falling, while others take comfort in his optimistic closing remarks. I won’t rehash all of that here, but I want to echo my support for John August’s take on the matter. In his postmortem of The Nines he suggests that success for an independent film is measured not in dollars but eyeballs.

You should make an indie film to make a film. Period. Artistic and commercial success don’t correlate well, and at the moment, only the former is remotely within your control.

So, you make the film you want to make. And because film is your passion, you’re not in it for the money. You’re doing what you love, not shooting for an early retirement. You try to break even, maybe gain enough capital or recognition to make another. So, how many people saw your film? Who heard your story? It’s a different way of looking at success.

Cameraman Image by Elsie esq.
August also writes some about the impact of BitTorrent on the success (financial and otherwise) of The Nines. In the end, he says he would have made the same movie but distributed it differently. This is emblematic of the changing tide in the indie film world. Despite the ever increasing availability of filmmaking tools, the artist’s ability to create an emotional connection with the viewer is as crucial as ever. The arena where technology is truly changing the game is in the methods for putting that story in front of an audience.

Digital distribution opens up avenues of connecting with an audience that weren’t available to independent artists ten, or even five, years ago. So make your film and do it cheaply enough that you don’t have to worry about the money. Then, see how many people you can share your story with. And throughout the process, revel in your independence.

Boston Media Makers: July 6 at Doyle’s

Boston Media Makers
Image by grazr
Boston Media Makers is one of the best social networking groups I’ve found since moving out here.

They are an exceedingly welcoming bunch. Everyone sits around a big table, enjoying a hearty breakfast, and presents the group with a new project, new shiny toy, or a question. Then everyone mingles for about an hour afterward, swapping cards and emails.

Here are the details:

Sunday, July 6
Doyle’s Cafe
3484 Washington Street
Jamaica Plain, Boston, MA, 02130

Sex and the City: Women v. Girls

Sex and the City
Image by Lots Of Sprinkles
I usually enjoy picking up the New York Times arts section, but this article struck me as odd, right from the title. Michael Cieply, who writes about the entertainment industry, tries to make a twisted little connection between the new Kit Kittredge film, a G-rated American Girl Doll spin-off, and the blockbuster Sex and the City movie. Cieply crows:

But this G-rated movie adventure is shaping up as Hollywood’s next serious bid for female viewers, some of whom showed their power by pushing the R-rated comedy “Sex and the City” to surprisingly strong first-weekend ticket sales of more than $57 million two weeks ago.

Unless the depression-era Kit Kittredge starts making bathtub cosmopolitans, I sincerely doubt this film has anything to do with the highly commercialized, Prada-encrusted Manhattanites that populate the SATC universe. Except of course, gender.

Why would anyone be surprised that women want to watch movies about women? Courting a female audience is hardly newsworthy, and reducing a kids’ picture to Sex and the City minus the sex seems tawdry and arbitrary. “Women’s pictures” have been around since Kit Kittredge was in diapers. In fact, Ann Hornaday wrote a great article for the Washington Post that looks at the girls-in-the-city formula at the heart of the Sex and the City brand.

Sex in the City, however fabulous it may be, still relies on materialism, stereotypes about women’s bodies and relationships, and an often celebrated ignorance of life outside of wealthy Manhattan neighborhoods. Don’t get me wrong, I love the show, but if I had a daughter old enough to understand the phrase “bikini wax” I wouldn’t let her anywhere near it.

Of course, most of the offerings for young girls aren’t much better. There are the films marketed to girls under the guise of the “Princess” and “Bratz” brands. Then there’s Gossip Girl, which is akin to Sex and the City with more sporadic female camaraderie. What would be newsworthy is a film that wasn’t based on a doll, or an established brand, but on actual girls doing actual girl-like things.

Why should writers have all the fun?

Writer's Strike
Image by hereinvannuys
The SAG is looking at extending or renegotiating their contract with the studios, and no doubt weighing their options in light of the most recent WGA strike. Even though it looks like a strike from Hollywood actors is unlikely at this point, it’s interesting to reflect on this extremely bizarre year for studio-produced media. . .

Looking back on the writers’ strike, I have to wonder if it actually changed the landscape of media consumption at all. Did we spend more time watching YouTube? Probably, but I’m guessing that the only careers launched were those of a few adorable kittens. Did we suffer without our regularly scheduled network programming? Possibly, but I was too busy watching Sex and the City reruns. Unless Ben Stiller plans to go around unplugging everyone’s TV’s and trashing their iTunes folders, it’s really going to be tough to make every screen in America go dark.

In the years since the 1988 writers’ strike, regular Americans have become accustomed to consuming media multiple times a day. And while that means we are able to consume more studio-made media (due to DVDs, video streaming services and bittorrent), it also means that it’s harder for the loss of any one type of media (new television dramas, blockbuster films) to make an impact on our daily lives. There’s simply too much good stuff being produced for us to consume all of it. And too much bad stuff that we’re willing to watch anyway.

Royalties for Digital Goods

Amazon Kindle
Image by jblyberg

Seth Godin recently posted on his blog about the Kindle ($359 from Amazon). He mentions publisher resistance to lowering prices on digital books, similar to studio or label’s resistance to lower prices on film, tv, or music. They all claim that lower prices would mean less revenue for the artists, authors, actors, etc.

If you eliminate the cost of physical products, you should be able to lower the total cost, raise the percentage that is paid to the content creator, and still make a profit. Unless the reason to keep prices high is to maintain the bloated physical distribution arm of a studio/publisher/label.

Maybe the idea is just to keep milking the connections that keep traditional distributors on top of the promotional game before an agile content aggregator/digital distributor/promoter comes along who doesn’t have to keep supporting the whole physical production and distribution department and can afford to simultaneously pay the creators more and charge the consumers less. Imagine what that would be like.