Cool and Hot Media, and Me

13 10 2008

There has been a decided lack of activity on this blog in the last two months as I’ve been in the home stretch on a few projects–all of which seemed to come together at once. One of them, my book THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT, is about finished (the last big chapter went out this past Saturday) and I’ve begun to stick my head up and look around at the roiling landscape.

With the crumbling stock market, you’d think I’d take a look at that. But, the reality is for me is that (since I’m just an editor and a teacher) I don’t have millions in equity and, therefore, it’s all paper money for me. In other words, what interests me most right now is not what’s happening right now, but what’s going to be happen in a few years — when the rest of the world decides they want to start spending some money again.

The major studios are betting the bank on several things, all of which involve technology, so that’s not bad for people like us, who get it. As they did back in the Good Old Days when television threatened, they are looking for the flashy baubles to interest the audience into coming into the theaters. For now, they’ve decided on 3-D, which has me checking the calendars to see if we’ve flown back into the Fifties.

I’m not going to disagree with those people who actually have the ability to influence the direction of these major companies, by dint of their being on the board of directors. They obviously think they know where they’re going. But I see 3-D as a mere way station along the way to immersive entertainment.

Remember Marshall McLuhan — cool and warm media? McLuhan, a media theorist from the 60s and 50s, described in his book Understanding Media, the concept that some media are inherently more focussed than others. If I remember my theory correctly, film, he said, provides a more complete experience and, therefore, demands less involvement from its audience than others, like comics, which demand that the reader fill in more information. The media which demands less of you is said to be “hot” and comics would be “cool” .  It has to do with the amount of sensory perception that is required of an audience.

3-D is an interesting attempt to force the audience to participate more in a visceral way, but it’s nowhere near as complete as a complete immersive experience, such as a VR booth, or even a simple Game Boy.

I sat in on a class the other day, at USC’s Interactive Media division. I had spoken there several weeks ago about shaping story, in a linear sort of way. The students went out and shot a film, which they assembled in the traditional straight-line form. Then, after getting a critique, they had to reassemble it and introduce the elements of game-playing to the story. Many of the students created simple trees — at a certain time you could choose between having the character do one action or another. In one case, the lead character could wake to his alarm, or press the snooze button and go back to sleep.

You get the idea.

By far, the most interesting re-construction involved a story about a young woman who, depending on the order that you made your choices, left her apartment with a toy under her arm, met a man on the street who was drawing a boat, was either followed by him or not, walked past another woman who was sitting in a park, or was passed by that other woman on another street. The material was, often, introduced by quotes that crawled across the screen, or by the young filmmaker herself who shot herself in a bathtub (the theme of the piece was water, I should say) saying the quotes.

There was more to it, but one of the thoughts that I had coming out of the screening was that this was a complete example of cool media, using McLuhan’s vernacular. My mind kept on making associations between each decision tree there. It hungered to create connections and ranged over a wide range of them as I thought, processed, accepted or rejected them. The face of the woman, as she stopped to take a phone call, seemed different when I didn’t know that the second woman was around the side of the park building, compared to when I had already seen that other woman. Was the performance different, or did I just feel that?

I began to pay attention (to “lean forward” to use my vernacular) in different ways, and I got involved.

Many of the other films simply repackaged the linear content and paused, old PC game style, at places to allow us to make a binary choice. The works that involved me more, were the ones that did not try and tell a linear story in a non-linear way.

So, how does this overlap with the 3-D issue? Maybe you can see where I’m going with this. Simply making a movie in a cool and groovy three dimensional process is only going to hold my interest if 1) the story is good enough so it would have worked in 2-D or 3-D, or 2) it uses 3-D in a way that sucks me in differently than I could have in 2-D. If I want to reach out and push aside a bush that’s blocking my view of a crucial plot point, that’s pretty cool. If the bush is simply placed there to give me a sense of three dimensional depth… well, good cinematographers (and photographers and painters, for that matter) have been doing that forever without the need for a third dimension.

In other words, if 3-D is a gimmick, like it was in the 60s, then we’re going to move on really fast.

In the home, for much the same reason, the studios still think that Blu-ray is a cool idea, even though the marketplace still doesn’t see enough of a difference to make them move over. Even if the players come down under $200, from their initial thousand-buck range, it’s still a non-starter if the audience doesn’t see any reason to switch. What is going to be better about Blu-Ray than standard definition DVD, other than a slightly better picture quality (and tell me how many parents are going to give a rat’s ass about that, if they’re using DVD as a baby sitter?).  Some people will like the increase in disk capacity because it gives the opportunity to put more stuff on the DVD. Assuming that the studios give us that.

But that’s going to cost more money in content creation, so I don’t imagine we’re going to see too much of that soon. Some people, like the Peter Jacksons of the world, will be able to give us lots of cool stuff. But every LORD OF THE RINGS set of DVDs came with tons of extra content anyway. I can’t imagine that many more people are going to gravitate to paying the extra money if it’s on one or two disks as opposed to seven.

No, the real game changers in the world of entertainment are going to be changing the experience of the viewer. That might mean immersive and interactive play (and it’s why the coolest work here at USC is probably going to be coming from the Interactive Division for a while), or it might mean rapid delivery of regular ordinary movies from a streaming or downloading server, minutes after I’ve made the decision that I want it to watch it now. That’s faster than going to a movie theater, or snapping up a disk at Rocket Video.

One of the biggest time and money drains on the iPhone is the ability to buy its applications (or download the free ones) as soon as you see it on that very iPhone. Hey, I think, I wonder if there’s an app for keeping track of the presidential polls. I do a quick search (which I can do, because I’m in a 3G city), find one and press INSTALL. Voila. I’ve bought it.  Almost no thought involved.

And that’s part of the future of our entertainment industry as well. It’s not that it’s all about impulse buying. But it’s about changing the way that I do the buying — fulfilling my needs better. 3-D would work if it gave me a cooler (McLuhan’s term, there, not mine) experience, rather than just a mild titillation.

The really successful storytellers of the near future, are going to be the ones who figure out how to give us that new kind of experience, in this new package.

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Oh, by the way, until I finish with the cut of my documentary in mid-November, I’m still going to be a bit erratic. To catch my lucid prose (or incoherent, it depends on how I’m feeling) you can get me every Friday — more or less — over at Film Industry Bloggers.

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HD-DVD and Blu-Ray End War, The World Yawns

16 02 2008

Reuters reported today that Toshiba Corp is planning on shutting down their HD-DVD format for hi-def DVDs, admitting to the world what everyone else has been saying since Warner Bros announced in January, before CES, that they were planning on releasing their DVDs on Blu-Ray only. Between that, Wal-Mart’s decision yesterday to go all Blu-Ray and Best Buy’s and Netflix’s earlier announcements that they were going to sell/rent Blu-Ray as well.

The real question is — who cares?

I know that the studios would love to have a new DVD format, so they can resell all of the DVDs that you all already bought on standard def DVDs. However, I also know that, tempting though it may be, I don’t know many people who are dying to buy a Hi Def version of ANIMAL HOUSE to replace their perfectly good regular ordinary DVD.

Here’s how I look at it. 90% of the market out there couldn’t really tell the difference between DVD and Blu-Ray if they looked at the boxes the disks came in. In general, HD doesn’t pass the “Mom test,” in which you ask yourself if your Mom would care if we improved her technology. The day that I hear my mother tell me that she really appreciates the increased resolution and crisp 5.1 Dolby sound on Blu-Ray disks compared to her four year old DVD player, is the day that I retire from the business and start tending bar in the Caribbean. For most people there is very little motivation to shift to the new format. You can, conceivably, make it attractive — by making the player cost extremely low and providing such cool extra features that Mom and Dad will swallow the cost of replacing their existing DVDs (an extra special — it will wash your dishes while you watch the aforementioned ANIMAL HOUSE would work nicely for most people). But it’s dubious that you can make any money on that model.

You will, of course, get new purchasers of DVD players and material to move over, but that will be a gradual process.

So that takes care of most people. What about the geeks?

There will always be the Toy people. If it’s new, they’ll want it. And some of them will be willing to pay a premium for it. But that isn’t much of a market.

And the rest of the geek market — well, most of them are looking at their media online or through their iPods and Apple-TV type devices. Many of them are downloading the material legally and illegally. So, where is the market in that? It’s there in some small quantity but, once again, is it enough to base an entire market on?

What we’re left with, if you follow my argument, is a small market of high end people who aren’t so high end as to pull their content off of the web, combined with a slightly larger market of people who have to buy a new player anyway, haven’t accumulated a bunch of standard def content already, and will be completely price driven.

I know, I know. I am leaving out the (I’m told) increasing number of people who love to watch movies on a big ass television with their friends. But I’m waiting to see if those people really exist. Frankly, I think most of them are watching football and NASCAR, but that may just be a prejudice on my part.

Needless to say, I’m not racing out on this news and buying shares in Sony.