A Hulu success story

I'm fairly certain this is the most successfully named movie in Hulu's catalog. Not that you need to make a movie with "sex" in the title to hit it big, but given the powerful bloc of young males voting with their mouse clicks and search queries, it was a built-in advantage. You still need to make something people want to watch; attracting that first click doesn't get you the full check, but with each ad break you keep a viewer through earns you additional revenue.

Still, the naming shouldn't be discounted here. The filmmaker Stevie Long didn't know his movie would end up on Hulu so it may just be chance, but knowing your distribution medium and tailoring something to break through on that medium is something more independent artists looking to break through should consider. When Jeff Bezos founded Amazon, he specifically wanted a name for the company that began with the letter A because so many directories for the web were organized alphabetically back then. Being on page 1 was a big deal.

Strictly Sexual is also a testament to the power of free, or in this case, semi-free. There are many sites that will charge you $5 for an online rental of indie films, but if you're an independent filmmaker who thinks someone will drop $5 on a movie they've never heard of, you're likely overvaluing monetary payback and undervaluing exposure. But Long's example shows you don't always have to trade off between the two. Per CNN, he's reinvesting his profits into his next film, "Porn Star: The Ugly Life of a Beautiful Girl," which he'll release directly on the internet.

Why mess with the formula?

American Psycho the musical

It's on!? But is it an adaptation of the book or the movie? They are quite different in key ways. Most people I know who love it have only seen the movie. I saw the movie first but read the book later during my backpacking trip through South America in 2003. The book is much more graphic than the movie; I imagine the musical will be even more sanitized than the movie was but will still draw adoring crowds of bankers who fail to see the satire and clamor to look into the mirror it holds up to their lifestyle.

It has been too long since I've read the book, so I don't recall which scenes from the movie were lifted straight from the book, but I can't help but picture one of the musical numbers in this movie being a trio sung by Patrick Batemen and the two prostitutes he's paid to participate in a 3-way conference call.

Why "TiK ToK" went #1

Why was Ke$ha's "TiK ToK" such a smash hit? This analysis fascinates me as an example of a field of research that attempts to deduce patterns of popularity in artistic work. Like studies that analyze faces that most people find attractive (we like faces that are symmetrical and that tend to be averages of faces across a large population), the film and music industries have tried to reverse engineer the hit and break it down to a reproducible recipe.

I haven't read Futurehit.DNA, the book whose research is applied here to TiK ToK, but some success elements it identifies in the song are quite specific. For example:


There are two crucial points in the song where the music basically drops out and forces the listener to engage. This is an essential point for any new song to prevent it from being passive. You need it to be active in order to engage people to listen multiple times and actively purchase. The first drop out occurs at 31 seconds when the verse ends and creates a half second of silence before the chorus kicks in. This actively accents the chorus and makes sure you are paying attention before it starts. The second point is just after 2 minutes when the bridge after the second chorus drops out most of the instruments and all the rhythm. Typically most listeners start getting bored right at the two minute mark, so having this change up right at this moment is the smartest move the producers could do. There’s also a subtle, yet crucial change in the chord progressions at this point. This is key as this also creates a shift that engages the listener. This draws from chapters 3 and 4.


The song is in D minor, but that chord first comes in at the 7th beat of the 16 bar progression. So when the song ends cold on the first note of that progression, it ends on Bb. This gives the listener a subtle feeling of an unfinished song, even though it ended on the 1st beat, which is typical of most songs. By not resolving the chord, the listener is more apt to hum the song and therefore more likely to need to listen to it again. This is detailed out in Chapter 5.

A few years back, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article called "The Formula" which delved into efforts to crack the formula of hit songs and movies.

Wait for it.

Sorry, I was just trying the Dropout strategy for my writing, inserting a random gap at about 2 minutes in to see if it would keep you interested.

Anyhow, Gladwell profiled a music company, Platinum Blue Music Intelligence (now Music XRay) which used software to analyze songs and predict their hit potential. The more interesting company discussed in the article was Epagogix, a company that claimed to be able to predict the box office potential of any film project given just the script.

It's not clear whether or not these companies can do what they promise with any degree of accuracy. The secrecy around their algorithms makes it difficult to evaluate their effectiveness. One could argue that if they did work, artists, studios, and labels might all have an incentive to keep it a secret from the public. No one likes to think they've been duped by some paint-by-numbers artistic work that preys on some Pavlovian wiring in their brain.

On the other hand, if these algorithms really did work, you'd think it would be well worth the cost to employ them and that a higher percentage of songs and movies coming out of the big labels and studios would be commercially successful.

CGI rotting sci-fi from the inside?

China Mieville is down on CGI's impact on sci-fi filmmaking. Avatar is his exhibit A.

Even those of us exhausted by yet another overlong mawkish gush — let alone one which reiterates the old cliche of Going Native and Leading Them to Freedom by Becoming the Most Awesome (White) Mohican™ — can admit that the special effects are impressive. But that’s a very long way from liking them, or thinking they’re a good thing. That computer-generated imagery (CGI) is rotting science fiction from the inside.

In the relentless search to produce the most ostentatiously spectacular scenes possible, CGI, which once had the potential to be a useful aesthetic tool, has become a mannerist absurdity. It is straightforwardly untrue that CGI “looks real.

Weinstein feedback to Errol Morris

From the entertaining Tumblr blog Letters of Note is this letter from then Miramax head honcho Harvey Weinstein to Errol Morris at the time The Thin Blue Line was in release.

Without the full context of their correspondence up until then, and having not seen Morris's performance on NPR, it's difficult to interpret fairly. But a few thoughts:

  • As feedback goes, it's efficient. Learning to give and receive honest feedback is critical in business, and being overly sensitive is a barrier to achieving good work. We're all human, of course, and it's perhaps impossible to take criticism of one's work with complete impartiality, but given enough repetitions, one can cultivate a professional receptivity that leads to more efficient interchanges. I like to think of standup comedians honing their routines in the most brutal of environments, the small comedy club, receiving instant feedback in the form of laughter or, in the worst case, jeers. There's a certain courage and maturity required to submit to unmoderated feedback, and more of the world needs it in the age of the internet, where anonymous feedback through mediums like email and blogs and Twitter comes with zero cost.

  • Plenty of successful executives have a cultivated the personality of an enfant terrible. But is the sarcasm really necessary? "If you have any casting suggestion, I'd appreciate that." That needless dig doesn't ease the reception of any useful feedback in the note. Just on a purely economic basis, I've never understood the fascination on the part of so many people in the entertainment business with being assholes, it would seem like a bad move in a world where it's difficult to predict who you might need to work with again given the variability of success on the part of even the industry's brightest talents.


The movie that provided me the most chuckles per minute at Sundance was one of the shorts that played in the Shorts Program I, perhaps the best shorts program I've ever seen at Sundance (which may have been why they chose it as one of the opening night screenings). It contained four shorts, one of them being the latest Spike Jonze film I'm Here.

But the short I'm referring to is the one called Logorama, and the best way to see it is to not read anything about it beforehand. Normally that's all I'd say, keeping this post spoiler free.

But there's a decent chance this short never gets picked up and released, and so I'm inclined to explain why, and those of you who don't want to know more can stop reading.

The difficulty of securing a release is not just that it's a short movie (and who watches shorts except at film festivals and on compilation DVDs) but that the filmmakers, French directing collective H5, madeit almost entirely out of corporate logos and brand characters, over 2,000 in total, without asking permission. Not only that, many of the brand mascots are depicted in ways their companies would likely choke on. Ronald McDonald as a machine gun toting, f-bomb dropping bank robber? Mr. Kleen as a gay tour guide at a local zoo? It's not just a satire of our branding-saturated society, it's a funny spoof of Hollywood movie tropes.

There is a full, albeit fuzzy version of "Logorama" online on this blog. I can't imagine this embedded copy is a legal one, but even with an army of lawyers this short might not see the light of legal distribution again, so a low-res stream may be better than nothing at all.

Ironically, the filmmakers did seem to have cleared the music which seems like putting a dab of sunscreen on your nose while jogging in the nude on a sunny day.

Some perspective

If you measure number of tickets sold and not movie gross (even adjusted for inflation, which it often isn't), Avatar is still only the 26th most popular movie ever. It's hard to imagine any movie, actually, any single media product, regardless of what it is (book, CD, videogame) ever coming within binocular viewing distance of Gone With the Wind, and that's fine. I am much happier with the diversity of entertainment options in this modern age and find most grumbling about the glory days of media past to be a function of clinging to outdated modes of production and distribution on the part of both artists and consumers.

Still, what has been impressive is Avatar's ability to get people to pony up $17, $18, even $20 a ticket to don 3-D glasses to watch a 3 hour movie. I had my doubts after seeing the extended trailer, but whatever its ultimate take, Avatar has become far more of a mainstream phenomenon than I imagined.

Avatar-inspired reading

What's surprising to me about Avatar is the corpus of critical writing it has inspired. With all apologies to Michael Haneke, whose White Ribbon would seem to be the frontrunner in inspiring critical discussion, what with its promise of tracing the origins of evil and World Wars I and II and the Nazis, no movie has generated as much fascinating reading for me this year as Avatar (Inglourious Basterds and A Serious Man, perhaps, are runners up).

It's unexpected, all this serious analysis for a James Cameron-penned screenplay that is largely derivative of familiar Hollywood tropes. Why Avatar has generated this back and forth and not other big Hollywood movies is curious; for one reason or another it has become a global cultural touchstone.

Here's just a short list of writings about Avatar that I enjoyed:

Avatar and the American Man-Child

When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like "Avatar"?

Avatar: "Totally racist, dude."

Avatar and American Imperialism

Obligatory Avatar Post

I hated Avatar with the Fire of a Thousand Suns

"They Killed Their Mother": Avatar as Ideological Symptom

A Chinese Take on 'Avatar'

This is just about the movie itself and doesn't even factor in how the movie was shot. When the inevitable $99 10-disc Blu-Ray Na'Vi Ultra Edition with 12" bronze figurine of James Cameron's penis is released, there will be enough making-of featurettes to make the movie's 3 hour runtime seem like a movie trailer.

The technology Cameron developed to allow him to look at live actors on a soundstage but see them as Na'Vi figurines in a digital landscape sounds like a George Lucas wet dream and may be itself a metaphor for the idea of American cultural imperialism, that is, Cameron wears goggles that allow him to see what he wants to see, a fantasy which uses reality as a mere skeleton. That Americans only see the world through their own red, white, and blue goggles; that's an argument I've heard many a time while traveling abroad, or that I read a couple times each day when answering user e-mails to Hulu (to those people I'll just say this; the reason we don't stream our content outside of the U.S. yet is because the rights we were granted were for U.S. streaming only. Content distribution rights in entertainment have long been sold geography by geography, and the global nature of the Internet doesn't change that overnight. This isn't some U.S.-centrism at play, Americans are just as locked out when it comes to streaming content from other countries, much to my dismay when trying to watch the latest season of MI-5/Spooks on the BBC website).

If you find other Avatar-inspired articles of note, please pass them along.

Hot rookies for your Oscar nomination fantasy draft

I would have titled this "a star is born" but it's fantasy football season and that terminology is on the brain. From the Toronto Film Festival two young actresses to look for come Oscar season when best actress nominees are announced...

Abbie Cornish from Bright Star. I'd never seen any of her work until I saw the new Jane Campion movie at TIFF. Cornish plays Fanny Brawne, a fashionista who falls into a feverish romance with poet John Keats, played by Ben Whishaw, whom I last saw playing Hamlet at the Old Vic in London in 2004. Campion is underrated as a visual stylist, and the beauty of the shots in this movie convince us that they could have inspired Keats' poetry.

Campion does not blow the romance out of proportion. We do not see the moments on screen literally inspiring specific words in his poems, and though we know Keats is to become one of the world's great Romantic poets, he seems no different than many a fervent young lover. Cornish's portrayal of Brawne feels both controlled and yet completely free and uninhibited, a quality I see in so many of my favorite performances. She has a very good chance at a best actress nomination.

Another young actress who will announce her presence in a memorable fashion this fall, is Carey Mulligan. She is the star of Lone Scherfig's An Education which opens in LA and NY today. My sister Karen and I caught a morning screening at TIFF.

Mulligan plays a 17 year old overachiever in her last year of high school, on the cusp of applying to Oxford where her father has always dreamed she'd go. But a chance encounter brings an older man (Peter Sarsgaard) into her life, bringing with him the fun and excitement of fine dining, jazz clubs, travel abroad, and access to the world beyond books and studies.

The movie is based on a memoir written as a look back on an affair at an earlier stage of life. One can imagine the voice of the older self dissecting transgressions of youth with a critical, chiding tone, but played by Mulligan, the movie has a sweetness at its heart. Mulligan is charming and cute as a button, and she doesn't just recall the look of a young Audrey Hepburn in scenes set in Paris but also the charisma. The role of the gamine, among others, is hers to own for years to come whether or not a best actress nomination comes at the next Oscars.

And even if An Education doesn't break big, she has plenty of movies shooting or in post which will introduce her to a global audience. Among others, she'll be seen in 2010 in Wall Street 2 playing Gordon Gekko's daughter and love interest of Shia Labeouf, whom she's dating in real life.

Some pics of Mulligan from Q&A after the screening...

Carey Mulligan

Carey Mulligan

Carey Mulligan

Carey Mulligan

Carey Mulligan

Indie downturn

I had a wonderful time at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this year; more on my first visit there soon.

With the high cost of attending a film festival like Sundance or Toronto (once you factor in plane tickets, lodging, transportation, and the cost of a film ticket there, assuming you can even secure the tickets you want, the $20 you pay for a movie ticket, popcorn, and drink at your local indie cineplex seems like a bargain), it's worth considering whether such a trip is worth it.

One reason these treks are still worthwhile to me is the contraction of the independent film market. Anne Thompson sees the dearth of purchases at this year's TIFF as continuation of this trend. I still enjoy a lot of what people refer to as "independent films" but fewer and fewer of them cross that bridge over troubled water between film festival and theatrical release.

Yes, I can still wait and see the movies on DVD at some point, but call me old-fashioned, I still love the experience of watching a movie on a huge screen in a darkened theater in the company of others. Drifting into the theater with other moviegoers giving off that palpable sense of anticipation, watching the movie trailers and making snap judgments about what will succeed, nibbling on popcorn or some candy, standing outside the theater afterwards and discussing our reactions to the movie we just saw, I love it all. Some people complain about the price of a movie ticket, but for my money, $10 or $11 for a movie ticket is still the best value for 2 hours of entertainment on a night out.

Back to independent film, most wouldn't make enough on DVD sales alone to continue to subsidize their production. Financiers back these movies assuming some revenue from theatrical release.

So yes, for independent film lovers, there is still value in the film festival pilgrimage (it's also a great way to diet; rushing from one screening to another at TIFF, I learned to subsist on water, popcorn, and body fat).

As to the fate of the independent film market, I am not as gloomy as most, though there will be blood in the near term. It should come as no surprise given what I've spent so much of my career working on that the reason I'm still bullish is that little thing called the Internet.

What do independent films need? Publicity and distribution. The internet is very good at the former, and getting better at the latter. The stigma against the internet as a distribution channel is understandable given how conservative the entertainment industry has always been (just tonight, on the Emmys, Neil Patrick Harris played Dr. Horrible in a skit poking fun at internet distribution of television). And internet distribution is still handcuffed by certain factors, including the shoddy internet infrastructure in the U.S. and the somewhat shaky and long chain of software and hardware involved in watching video streamed live through said the Internet. The reliability and quality of streamed video can't match that of a DVD disc played through your DVD player. Yet.

But that won't last forever. Take out the costs of film prints and old methods of marketing an indie film, trying to open it big in NYC and LA, and suddenly the height of the cost hurdle drops in a massive way. Forego the traditional windowing system and release a movie through multiple channels simultaneously and take advantage of concentrating your marketing efforts on a narrower window. Many independent movies that play the festival circuit won't generate revenue across multiple windows the way a Harry Potter movie will anyway, so why diffuse the spend across multiple windows?

I mentioned above how much I love seeing movies in theaters, but I'd absolutely pay to watch some of these movies at home on my TV, through PPV or streamed or downloaded off of the internet for $10 a pop, if that meant these movies would continue to get made.

If anything good comes from this downturn in the independent film market, I hope it's that filmmakers of all sorts look past their prejudice against the internet as a means for sharing their work and apply the same creativity they use to make their movies to exploiting the internet.


Google Reader asked some notable folks what their top picks were for Google Reader. Good idea, but I find it a bit offputting that so many folks chose their own website as one of their short list? Their sites are already listed and linked under their names, are we to believe they really spend time reading their own writing in Google Reader?


This past weekend, I was driving home on the 405 and saw a massive, odd-looking cloud standing alone in a clear blue sky, like a single head of cauliflower poking its head up through a bed of smog. Then I realized it was smoke from the fires in the San Gabriel mountains. It looked like a scene from 24, as if someone had dropped a nuclear bomb on LA. Here's one tightly-cropped time-lapse video of the smoke from the fires.

To truly appreciate how terrifying it looks, watch this wider-framed time-lapse which will give you a sense of the magnitude of this latest SoCal conflagration.


Hitchcock is a storyboarding app for the iPhone that can use photos. You're limited to the fixed focal length lens of the iPhone, but I could see it being a handy tool on set. We were shooting our Alec Baldwin Super Bowl commercial earlier this year in NYC, and the director Peter Berg grabbed my iPhone at one point and used the camera to help us visualize a shot he envisioned. He mentioned offhand that he wouldn't mind having a simple tool on the iPhone for quick previz.

It's $19.99, but there are more specialty tools coming to the iPhone that aren't intended for mass audiences, and those can justify higher prices.

Incidentally, I wish the iPhone app store had a way to put apps on a wishlist, or save them for later view. I often see apps that I think I might want to buy later, and I never have a way to remember them. Like this one cool app I saw last week, what did it do again, it was something about...oh, forget it.


A BMW concept diesel-hybrid. As with all concept cars, it looks absurdly futuristic, but it's heartening to see higher end manufacturers committing to the sustainability movement. Design can lift up the mundane and make it desirable, and having manufacturers like BMW or Tesla pushing the high end of this market can only help.


On Japanese simplicity.

In just over 30 years Hello Kitty has become a multibillion-dollar model of resourceful minimalism within the global juggernaut of Japanese pop culture. From Tokyo to Tehran, her expressionless, barely sketched visage adorns key chains, backpacks, toiletries and even a Hello Kitty-themed airline jet. Late last year an entire maternity hospital with Hello Kitty imagery adorning bedspreads and birth certificates opened to great fanfare in Taiwan.

But why is she mouthless? Because when you look at Hello Kitty, or “Kitty-chan,

The Downfall of the Downfall parody

Just brilliant, though you should go on YouTube and watch a few of the earlier Downfall parodies first to get the full impact (e.g. Hitler gets banned from Xbox Live, Hitler finds out Michael Jackson has died, Downfall of Grammar).

Some memes grow tiresome quickly; I have yet to tire of this one. But once a meme becomes self-referential, perhaps it has swallowed its own tail.

El Bulli, Dan Brown, et al

Man hits the culinary lottery and gets a reservation at El Bulli, then recounts his meal in comic book form. 30 courses! I felt engorged and exhausted just reading about all the dishes.


Bill Maher rants at Huffington Post about the idiocy of Americans in an article titled "New Rule: Smart President ≠ Smart Country." Bryan Caplan would be proud.

At times like this, trying to pass some form of healthcare reform, even a watered-down version because of the difficulty of getting any big change through the conservative institutional roadblock that we call the Senate, one wonders how the government has ever achieved anything on behalf of anyone other than a special interest.

Obama took his argument directly to the people in an Op-Ed in the NYTimes. I'm curious who was the last President of the U.S. to write an Op-Ed in a major American newspaper. I'm going to go out on a limb and say it wasn't the previous occupant of the office.

An interesting sidenote to the whole debate on healthcare reform is the uproar over Whole Foods CEO John Mackey's editorial in the Wall Street Journal arguing against the health care bill on the table. The Opinionator over the the NYTimes tracks the timeline of the whole brouhaha. If you disagree with Mackey, I don't think boycotting Whole Foods is the solution, but I do think CEO's of companies need to be careful of what they say because it's too convenient to read their comments as representative of the views of Whole Foods as a company, and it's dangerous to ascribe too many coherent policy decisions to a capitalist institution, even one like Whole Foods which many people associate with a progressive lifestyle.


Andrew Collins examines the global phenomenon that is Dan Brown, universally reviled by literary critics and other writers but whose next novel The Lost Symbol will command the largest first print run in Random House history at 6.5 million.

I'm not sure it's such a paradox that someone can be a bad writer yet spin a real page-turner. What grabbed me about The Da Vinci Code was the fabricated secret that tied together so many known quantities in history in a clever way, from The Last Supper to Mary Magdalene and everything in between.

The plots of his stories themselves never strike me as plausible or gripping, his characters are two-dimensional (and that may be generous, though perhaps I'm being sexist in finding gorgeous and leggy nuclear physicist Vittoria Vetra of Angels and Demons a bit implausible), nor is his command of the English language that noteworthy. After all, one chapter of The Da Vinci Code concludes with this sentence, one that would have failed me out of my first year fiction writing class in college:

Almost inconceivably, the gun into which she was now staring was clutched in the pale hand of an enormous albino.


A physicist writes that The Time Traveler's Wife may be the most scientifically accurate movie treatment of time travel ever. No comment on whether the cheesy slow dissolve of Eric Bana each time he travels through time is also consistent with the laws of physics, or whether his expressionless acting is a consequence of too many leaps through time and space.

The article's a good read, though, as I didn't realize that physicists had come to such consensus around these constraints of time travel. I still say The Terminator remains the most brilliant time travel movie because of its stunning revelation that by going back in time to change the future you just create it, illustrated in the movie by the Moebius strip of a plot in which John Connor sends Kyle Reese back in time to protect his mom, only to have Kyle Reese become his father.

In that twist, the movie adheres to one of the principles stated in this article, the so-called "self-consistency problem," that is, "You can't kill your own grandfather."


Justice Antonin Scalia and Thomas, the Twiddle Dee and Dum of the Supreme Court, argued in the minority against allowing a prisoner to challenge his murder conviction after many witnesses recanted their testimony and implicated another person as the actual murderer. Scalia, in his dissent (PDF), claims the following:

This Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is “actually