Thursday, February 9, 2012

Freeze Frame: The WSW roundtable take 5

We're back once again for another round of film discussion. This time out there's quite a bit to discuss, too. Once again our panelists for this month are:

Rachel from Rachel's Reel Reviews
Courtney from Big Thoughts From a Small Mind
Jess from Insight Into Entertainment
Tom from Movie Reviews by Tom Clift

And here are the questions:

1. The studio-supported SOPA and PIPA bills have brought the matter of online piracy to the public's attention. What can be done to fight piracy?

Courtney: The issue of online piracy is an important one, but I think SOPA and PIPA are trying to reach far too wide. The best thing studios can do is embrace online streaming technology a lot more.  We live in a world now where you can not only stream movies straight to your home entertainment systems but you can watch them on your phones as well.  People are still interested in seeing films on the big screen as long as they think the quality is warranted.  Just look at how fast The Dark Knight Rises sold out midnight screenings… and it does not open until the summer!  Another example on the smaller side of things is the box office success of films like The Help and Midnight in Paris.  Both were films that people when out of their way to see. However, you cannot then turn around and expect people to pay full price of films like Jack and Jill or Bucky Larson. Those are films people would be more likely to watch on Netflix or other streaming devices.   

Jess: Honestly, I'm not sure much can be done from a legal perspective to stop the actual piracy.  Doing a much better job explaining to the public why it's illegal would help. I'm a teacher and many of my students don't understand the concept of plagiarizing when it comes to writing their papers, so how can they really understand what piracy means in a practical sense. Those commercials that show at the beginning of DVDs equate it to a crime, but don't do a good job explaining what actual activities we should stop. Does it mean not putting photos on our blog? But if Google has them cataloged and freely available how is that wrong? - I know it is, but given that this kind of theft has become SOOOO simple, it's hard to recognize it as a crime. 

Tom: Trying to fight online downloading is a waste of time. Especially for the younger generation, the behaviour is not viewed as an immoral action. Meanwhile, legislation like SOPA will only limit the internet’s capacity to grow as a tool for information and communication. The studios need to focus on figuring out ways to earn money from downloads. Provide legal, high quality download options that are more convenient than the illegal alternative, and also make them money. That said, I doubt people will be willing to pay very much for this service, as there is a mindset that exists that web content should be free, or at very cheap. Clearly other revenue models need to be explored (such as advertising).

Rachel: Unfortunately, I'm not sure there is much to be done as long as the content is out there. And frankly there are so many larger problems in the world that piracy should be the least of our worries.

2. The layoff of longtime Village Voice critic J. Hoberman has once again brought up the question of what value movie critics have in today's world. As a movie critic, how do you define what you do and whom you do it for? How has the digital era, and especially the rise of the blogosphere, changed film culture, and how do you see your role in that change?

Courtney: The funny thing is I do not view myself as a critic as I do not have the formal training in film. The only time I am aware of being somewhat viewed as critic is when I am covering a festival as a member of the press. That is when I know that the eyes of both the festival, the studio, and the filmmakers will be seeing my work. It is the only time where I really take care in the phrasings I use, even if I do not like a film I try to express my reasons for my displeasure in a constructive way instead of just saying “that film sucked.” 

As a blogger, I know my audience is primarily other movie bloggers. While it would be nice if the average Joe checked out my site for thoughts on a particular film, I am always aware that I am mostly talking to like-minded individuals. The reason why the digital era, especially blogs and twitter, has hurt professional movie critics is that it turns their valuable contribution into nothing more than a numbers game for their employer. Why pay a critic so much money (including travel expenses), when all these people are already doing it for free? Plus there is the instantaneous-ness of social media sites to compete with. Audiences are now starting to tweet during movies, which makes it harder for the critic's voice to be heard when thousands of people are already debating about the film on twitter long before the review is even written.  This is sad considering that professional critics offer so much more value than bloggers, twitter etc. They can both inform you about a film but also educate you on aspects of cinema that you might not have otherwise been aware of.

Jess: There has definitely been a change in movie culture - movies used to be available once, so a critic was really important to influence people to go see that movie in a theater. Movies would run in a local theater for several weeks so the 24-hour news cycle didn't matter.  If you missed that film, you'd probably never see it. In our lifetime that has changed VERY dramatically - we had VCRs and could tape things on TV, then we could buy movies, then DVD, now streaming and on-demand. So the critic has become a bit less important in terms of getting people to the theater. However, as a contribution to the global intellectual discussion, I think the blogger and film critic has added enormous value - it might be harder to get your head around the entirety of thought on a film, but at least there are a lot of thoughts to think about. 

Tom: It’s an interesting question, especially because I have only begun film criticism in the digital age, and have only ever really published online. Certainly the internet has made a huge difference – there are now an enormous amount of high quality writers online working for free, which is making paid critics increasingly redundant.

Currently, I write primarily for my own enjoyment, although I do hope for it to become my career in the future. Hopefully by that time, online criticism has become a more profitable endeavour than it currently is.

Rachel: I actually don't think of myself as a "critic" in the traditional sense, but simply a lover and (sometimes) reviewer of film.  And I honestly can't remember the last time I read an entire review from a professional critic. I find myself more inclined to read what my fellow bloggers thought of a movie more for their passion and personality that I've come to know over the years. I find there is more of a connection there than with some stranger who gets paid to love or hate a film. That being said, I still pay attention to the scores on Rotten Tomatoes, as a whole, because for some reason it's burned into my subconscious that what the critics say in general influences my movie watching most of the time.

3. This year's Best Picture Oscar lineup has been criticized as being too middle-brow, especially with the inclusion of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, which only received one other nomination. Do you agree or disagree? Do you believe the new voting rules left the procedure open to undue manipulation? Is it time to return to strictly five nominees again?

Courtney: I have not seen Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close yet so I will not comment on that.  However, I will say that it does seem like a lackluster Oscar year overall. The Academy really took a step backwards this year. It was as if they patted themselves on the back for nominating films like The Social Network, Winter’s Bone, Inception, and Toy Story 3 last year and decided that they had been progressive enough. The majority of the selections this year are the type of things the Academy would have nominated back in the 80’s. There is nothing too challenging, nothing too popular, mainly dramas that all feature uplifting endings etc. Look at the Best Song category: only two songs, both from family movies, get nominated?  How is this possible when the industry releases over a hundred films per year? 

Clearly all this rule changes are serving one side more than it is another.  Just look at the documentary category. Many of the highly praised docs this year - Senna, Project Nim, The Interrupters - were either not eligible or did not make the final cut. I know they often keep the ratings of the live telecast in mind when making rule changes but I do not see how any of the rule changes will bring in more viewers this year. Besides The Help and Moneyball, the average person has not seen many of the films that were nominated. I am not saying go back to the five nominees for Best Picture, but the Academy really needs to decide what they want to be? Are the awarding the best in cinema? Or are they awarding who had the best academy marketing campaign.  There is something inherently wrong with a system where studios can lobby for their pictures/actors to win an award. It is like a parent campaigning for their son’s teacher to give the kid an “A+” on his report card. Having said that, this is the first year in a long time where I will actually be happy if the frontrunner, The Artist, wins the Best Picture award. 

Jess: I disagree that it's too middle brow. I think the increased number of nominations only makes sense given the change in the number of films that come out in a year. Are they any better at choosing them? Probably not, but I think that's okay. I think the new voting rules are a fairly strange way of picking a best picture and probably does the opposite of what they intended (is War Horse really 5% of voters favorite movie of the year? Really? I believe it is a great picture, and deserves its nomination, but it only seems strange to me that people would actually place it on top). I like the fluctuating number and I hope they'll continue to refine how that number gets chosen. As long as it's not the same as whoever is picking the Best Song nominees. That doesn't seem to be working at all.

Tom: While I’m not qualified to comment on the Oscar rules, I personally prefer have five nominees. The last few years it seems as there have been several token nominations, and this year it’s gotten even worse. The Academy has always had very middle-brow, and I don’t think that’s ever going to change.

Rachel: Though I have not seen Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close yet, it does seem to be the odd man out. Rather that's due to the Academy loving director [Stephen] Daldry or buying into the melodramatic 9/11 backstory is hard to guess, but the film is still the only one of the nine nominees on Rotten Tomatoes with a "rotten" score and hasn't found much more love among general movie audiences, unlike other potential contenders Drive and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. This perplexing inclusion is a huge question mark for the Academy's newest rules for Best Picture nominees, but I'd be willing to give it one more year before pulling the plug and saying definitely go back to only five nominees.

Take 1 (3D films, video-on-demand, movies for adults)
Take 2 (Best Picture voting, int'l marketing, Bridesmaids
Take 3 (Netflix, SONY's 3D glasses deal, Oscars)
Take 4 (Brett Ratner, 35mm film, Oscars)

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