David Chen is going on vacation

It’s been a challenge for me to take vacations in the past. Even if there’s a lull at work, I still do podcasts every week, which I think of as a little digital garden that I have to keep watering, no matter what my life circumstances.

But as time has gone on I’ve started to let go of this mindset. I’m fortunate to have very capable co-hosts who are willing to step up and fill in for me while I’m gone. I also have a limited window of time to get away for a relaxing, refreshing break from this dark, rainy Seattle winter.

For the next two weeks, blog updates will be scarce. I plan to return in the last week of March. Thanks for reading, and if you’re looking for updates from me in the meantime, follow me on Twitter and Instagram.

Subscribe to The Ankler email newsletter

The Ankler is my new email addiction. It’s a daily newsletter that Richard Rushfield puts together and it is full of piss and vinegar, plus fun perspectives on all the movie industry news of the day.

I’ve enjoyed Rushfield’s work for quite some time and while I think The Ankler does have the shortcomings of any publication produced from only a single person’s perspective, it is still an absolute delight. I’d highly recommend it for anyone keen to stay abreast of all the rumors and gossip in Hollywood.

You can subscribe to The Ankler here. 

The state of the film industry is bleak

David Lieberman over at Deadline has a fascinating interview with Doug Creutz about the state of the movie industry. Overall, things are not looking good:

CREUTZ: It’s a classic tragedy of the commons scenario. Everybody’s optimal strategy is to go aggressively after blockbusters. But when everybody’s doing that, it’s bad for their collective outcome. In industries where you have overcapacity or shrinking market, typically companies get merged or they go out of business. That’s competition. That’s capitalism.

DEADLINE: Why isn’t that happening?

CREUTZ: All of the studios are owned by larger companies. So there isn’t this overriding financial pressure: “Oh my God, were going to go bankrupt. We better do something.” Paramount could lose money for 50 years and Viacom would not go out of business. It’s small compared to the overall company. There was an option on the table for them to sell Paramount to a Chinese bidder. There were lots of rumors about that. They opted not to. Why? Well, some of this has to do with it being a family business. The movie business is a sexy business to be in. Very prestigious. People have a hard time letting go of those assets. You wouldn’t see a merger unless two of the larger companies merged.

Disney is the only studio that’s really raking it in. But even for them, the growth trajectory seems uncertain:

CREUTZ: Disney’s doing great but investors expect them to continue doing as well as they are doing —  potentially, if not forever, then for the next several years. And they probably will. But in the event that they stumble, it’s going to be bad news for Disney stock. When you’re at 60% of industry profits, it’s hard to see how you go up much from there.

I was having a discussion with somebody this morning: “Now they’re doing all these live-action remakes of their animated films. Isn’t that better for Disney?” I said, “Look, how much better are things going to get?” They had the top five grossing films in the world last year and six of the top 10. I guess they could have 10 of the top 10. It’s possible. But at a certain point it’s like, “Okay, you are the industry, practically.”

If current trends continue, medium-budgeted films will keep getting squeezed out in favor of ultra-low-budget or massive-tentpole releases. By and large, the movie industry isn’t really a growth industry anymore — it has become a zero sum game, with studios all trying to out-blockbuster each other.

While it’s a great time to be a filmmaker, it’s insanely difficult to get noticed or to get any critical mass of attention these days. That will only get worse as time goes on.

An appreciation of ‘The Fugitive’ 

Matt Zoller Seitz, writing for Rogerebert.com, on Andrew Davis’ The Fugitive (1994):

The train crash itself is one of the great action sequences of the nineties, but for my money there are four others that are nearly as good: Kimble eluding Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) in the sewer tunnels a la Jean Valjean in Les Miserables (the inspiration for Roy Huggins’ original TV series); the raid on the house the results in the death of Richard’s fellow escaped prisoner (Eddie Bo Smith, Jr.); Richard’s escape from the Marshals on St. Patrick’s Day; and Richard’s fight on the train with Sykes, a great reminder in this age of wildly overscaled action that all you need to get the audience’s pulses pounding is a good guy and a bad guy whose motives are clear.

It’s worth noting that this film was shot and edited a few months after Oliver Stone’s innovative paranoid thriller “JFK” won an Academy Award for best editing. You can detect the Stone film’s visual signatures in Davis’ flash-cuts, as well as in the brisk yet legible way “The Fugitive” fills in the past and present at the same time. In that opening section, we’re continuously finding out exactly what’s meant by the ominous questions of the Chicago detectives, but in a way that spares “The Fugitive” of the indignity of having to stop the action while somebody delivers a recap.

It’s appropriate that Seitz is running Ebert’s namesake website. Like Ebert, Seitz’s reviews make me desperately want to re-visit the films he writes about.

Turns out, the internet can be used for good too

The other day, I re-blogged an article in The New Yorker about “how clickbait is killing criticism.” I was pretty skeptical of that piece, pointing out that in place of the old definition of “criticism” there’s now a whole new world of content out there that things like “clickbait” have enabled.

In a recent piece for The New York Times, Farhad Manjoo makes a similar point:

In the last few years, and with greater intensity in the last 12 months, people started paying for online content. They are doing so at an accelerating pace, and on a dependable, recurring schedule, often through subscriptions. And they’re paying for everything.

You’ve already heard about the rise of subscription-based media platforms — things like Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Spotify and Apple Music. But people are also paying for smaller-audience and less-mainstream-friendly content. They are subscribing to podcasters, comedians, zany YouTube stars, novelists and comic book artists. They are even paying for news.

It’s difficult to overstate how big a deal this is. More than 20 years after it first caught mainstream attention and began to destroy everything about how we finance culture, the digital economy is finally beginning to coalesce around a sustainable way of supporting content. If subscriptions keep taking off, it won’t just mean that some of your favorite creators will survive the internet. It could also make for a profound shift in the way we find and support new cultural talent. It could lead to a wider variety of artists and art, and forge closer connections between the people who make art and those who enjoy it.

Some interesting stats on Patreon are also disclosed: $100 million has been paid towards artists thus far, and in 2016, there were 35 artists making more than $150K each.

davechen.net, two months later

It’s been two months since I re-launched my blog back in January and since I’m about to take a brief vacation, I thought it would be interesting to take a look back at some of my stats during that time period. Note that these months do not provide a true apples-to-apples comparison, since I technically re-launched my blog mid-way through January, and March is not over yet.


Overall, I’m averaging about 20K page views per month and about 14K-15K visitors per month. I’m thrilled by this performance, and this level of readership has made the entire enterprise of re-designing the blog feel worthwhile.

By far my largest source of traffic is my Twitter page. This is not super surprising, as Twitter is able to surface my links quickly and reliably to anyone who’s following me. Plus, retweeting someone is not as huge of a commitment as sharing someone’s post on Facebook — I’ve seen some of my posts get good traffic that way. Traffic to archival material from search engines is also performing relatively well, and this blog’s Facebook page is slowly growing as a traffic driver.

Based on my observations, here are the posts that are likely to get the most traffic on this specific blog:

Any time I am one of the first to post about a video or a piece of content — I’ve been lucky to help surface some interesting videos on this blog, and any time I’m one of the first, I’ll usually be shared pretty frequently. Examples of this include these La La Land BTS videos, and this Breaking Bad movie (now taken down). But even if I’m not the first, sometimes people just want to check out specific pieces of content, as with this re-blog of SNL’s La La Land sketch.

Anything topical that people are interested in right now — posts on topics like the Oscars attracted significant attention right after the event. Any time you can tap into something people want to read about, think about, and discuss immediately, it’ll likely garner more traffic.

Any post that answers a specific question that people might be asking — After people watched Get Out, many of them wanted to know about the meaning of the Asian character that shows up seemingly randomly halfway through the film. My post addressing that question is on the first page of Google results for related queries.

***

I have a lot of ideas for how to grow the blog further, but I think that’ll have to be another post. There are several things I could be doing that I think would really help things (e.g., integrating AMP and Facebook Instant articles for starters).

In the meantime, I’m very grateful to my brother for helping with my blog re-launch, and also for anyone who has taken a look at the blog in the past few months. Thanks for reading, and if you want to follow along for regular updates, I’d recommend you follow me on Twitter or follow follow blog’s Facebook page. Or just check back here every day or two — I’ll usually have something new up (when I’m not on vacation).

The upsetting implications of the “Missing Richard Simmons” podcast

Amanda Hess, writing for The New York Times, has written a thorough takedown of the new (and apparently very popular) “Missing Richard Simmons” podcast:

The relationship between journalists and subjects shouldn’t be confused with friendship. Journalists have power over their subjects and a responsibility to try to minimize harm. But Mr. Taberski leverages his claim to friendship to reverse the equation, arguing instead that it’s Mr. Simmons who has the responsibility to speak to him, and to explain himself to his former acquaintances and fans. He compares Mr. Simmons’s relationship to them to the responsibilities of a licensed therapist. Mr. Taberski says he took care to ask Mr. Simmons’s manager “if there was something serious going on, like illness, so I could just let it be.” But is depression not an illness? Is a person’s gender identity not sufficiently serious to leave alone? Having decided that Mr. Simmons’s reasons for withdrawal are not “serious,” Mr. Taberski feels freer to pursue the guy.

“Missing Richard Simmons” speaks to both the possibilities and the limits of the emerging prestige podcast form. Many of the podcast’s tropes — the mystery framing, the crowdsourcing of clues from the audience and a format that focuses on the narrator as much as his subject — are borrowed directly from “Serial.” By turning a journalist into a friend and casting a man’s personal life as a mystery, “Missing Richard Simmons” has retooled the stale Hollywood documentary as an addictive media sensation. But it’s also turned it into a morally suspect exercise: An invasion of privacy masquerading as a love letter. Mr. Simmons is a public figure, and that gives journalists a lot of latitude to pry. But a friend who claims to want to help Mr. Simmons should probably just leave him alone.

Many recent true crime and mystery podcasts/shows have exhumed details from the lives of private citizens for public entertainment. While shows like Serial and Making a Murderer are ostensibly about correcting some systemic or institutional injustice, they still wreak havoc on the lives of those who are its subjects.

If we take “Missing Richard Simmons” at face value, then it appears to have all the devastating impact of other similar shows, only without the journalistic value — just the veneer of it. Truly upsetting.

How clickbait is killing criticism

Alex Ross, writing for The New Yorker, on how criticism, as an industry, is dying:

The trouble is, once you accept the proposition that popularity corresponds to value, the game is over for the performing arts. There is no longer any justification for giving space to classical music, jazz, dance, or any other artistic activity that fails to ignite mass enthusiasm. In a cultural-Darwinist world where only the buzziest survive, the arts section would consist solely of superhero-movie reviews, TV-show recaps, and instant-reaction think pieces about pop superstars. Never mind that such entities hardly need the publicity, having achieved market saturation through social media. It’s the intellectual equivalent of a tax cut for the super-rich.

The drive to revamp cultural coverage has overtaken major newspapers, including the New York Times, just as the wider public has been rediscovering the virtue of traditional reporting. In the wake of the 2016 Presidential campaign, with its catastrophic feedback loop of fake news and clickbait, people have subscribed in surging numbers to so-called legacy publications. Do these chastened content-consumers really want culture pages dominated by trending topics? Or do they expect papers to decide for themselves what merits attention? One lesson to be learned from the rise of Donald Trump is that the media should not bind themselves blindly to whatever moves the needle.

For a brief time in human history, when information was scarce and difficult to obtain, personal ads in newspapers were able to subsidize a whole host of other kinds of reporting. Now that that period is over, consumers need to make new and different decisions about which kinds of criticism are worth paying for.

Ross’s piece is yet another lamentation of a bygone era. But he gives short shrift to the fact that new kinds of criticism and discussion have sprung up in its place — not to mention new ways of funding them, like YouTube ad dollars or direct subsidies from the audience. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Crowdfunding healthcare perpetuates different kinds of inequities

Anne Helen Petersen, writing for Buzzfeed, on the trend of people using crowdfunding websites to raise money for healthcare:

Both GoFundMe and YouCaring provide step-by-step instructions for what they call a “successful campaign.” “Use a great photo or make a video,” GoFundMe advises. “This is your shot at a first impression and it should create a strong reaction, like ‘Wow!’ or ‘Awe!’ or ‘I need to know more about this’ … Try to use photos of the people involved whenever possible. They get stronger reactions than a graphic or text. Be sure to avoid blurry or low-quality images.” YouCaring suggests users pay particular attention to choosing their fundraiser’s name: “Many people will decide whether to read about your cause based solely on your fundraiser’s name.” Or, as GoFundMe puts it, “Which title sounds better? ‘I Need Money!’ or ‘Julie’s Rally Against Cancer?’…the second one, right?” […]

Of course, packaging need isn’t necessarily new. Every time we ask a family member or friend for money, we’re presenting our need in a way that makes it more likely they’ll respond; some people are better at it than others. But that’s also why most would rather not rely on their family, friends, or an ability to convincingly ask someone for money as a means of survival. It’s subjective and depends, at least in part, on a flair for drama. Marketing a need through crowdsourcing demands similar skills — creating or choosing a compelling image and an eye-grabbing, keyword-searchable title — but a campaign must also transform the underlying need into a persuasive narrative. As YouCaring points out, “Julie’s Rally Against Cancer” is more compelling than “I Need Money” — one situates “Julie” as the hero fighting a good fight; the other de-romanticizes the struggle down to its most essential (and truest) form: My need? Money.

This paradigm sets up a dangerous expectation in which giving is contingent upon being moved, entertained, or otherwise satisfied with the righteousness of a fight. I’ll give, this arrangement suggests, but only if you give something to me — tears, sadness, hope, cuteness — first. As Jeremy Snyder argues in the Hastings Center Report, this paradigm also creates a “strong incentive to sensationalize or embellish their stories in order to receive donations,” in part because the narrative has to be striking enough to compel individuals outside of one’s existing social network to give. You’re not just selling to your family members, in other words — you’re trying to sell to the entire internet.

If there was anyone that thought crowdfunding was in any way a proper solution for rising healthcare costs, this piece will disabuse you of that notion.

Why ‘Beauty and the Beast’ represents a troubling trend for Disney

Alison Willmore, writing for Buzzfeed, about Bill Condon’s new Beauty and the Beast:

Beauty and the Beast [1991] was considered more nuanced and more sophisticated in its interpretation, its not-to-type bookish protagonist, and its aesthetics, a landmark for the company — the first animated feature to have ever gotten nominated for Best Picture.

Sad and a bit alarming that 26 years later, this new Beauty and the Beast is so fundamentally stuck in place beneath its few middling gestures toward inclusivity. Being stuck in place is a conscious choice here, nostalgia having become very good business, but there’s something more than cynical to the way the film regurgitates so much from a past classic. The new Beauty and the Beast may be live action, but it feels less alive than the animated feature it follows. It’s not comfort food, it’s Disney saluting how much it’s done right — so much so that it insists, over a quarter century later, that it barely needs to change. It’s a corporation’s ode to itself, and to setting expectations for progress very low.

While the new films are doing gangbusters at the box office, I find Disney’s live action remakes to be artistically bizarre. More often than not, they are shells of their former, animated selves, often taking the same plot, the same characters and even the same look, then gussying them all up using modern day technology and production design. They rarely add anything new or worthwhile to the original story, and thus feel beholden to their predecessors.

Disney is a multinational conglomerate that is producing many different kinds of films. But it’s a bummer that it has chosen this decade to revel in its former glory with these remakes when it could be telling newer, more interesting stories instead.

Thomas Newman’s ‘Passengers’ soundtrack is beautiful

Sure, Passengers is a pretty morally reprehensible film and basically a feature-length adaptation of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s The Implication.” But one of the best things to come out of it was Thomas Newman’s beautiful, plaintive score (which was actually nominated for an Oscar last year).

The theme from “Spacewalk,” the track above, plays several times in the movie. It appears when Jim takes his first spacewalk outside the cruise ship he’s on and sees the wonder of the ship in the vastness of space. Later, he brings Aurora to show her as well.

When I play it, it reminds me that even in the most hopeless, dire situations, beauty still exists. It just needs to found and appreciated.

Why anonymous apps like Secret and Yik Yak failed

Miranda Katz, writing for Backchannel, on why apps like Secret, Yik Yak, and Whisper failed to gain traction or live up to their promise:

From the bulletin boards of the early internet to the subreddits of today, anonymity has always had a place online. But as Secret, Yik Yak, and Whisper all discovered, anonymous social networks are something of an oxymoron. An anonymous app that relies on social connections to be relevant all too easily breeds foul behavior, and quickly becomes antisocial. An anonymous app that lacks real-world social or geographical ties, meanwhile, struggles to be addictive. What does work, more or less, is an anonymous or pseudonymous group that forms around an interest, where a person’s identity matters less than their willingness to engage on a shared passion.

In Byttow’s view, a fatal flaw of anonymous social media is that using the apps doesn’t pay dividends. Users can’t build relationships or burnish their own reputations while operating without names. From time to time, people may have a piece of information they’d like to share with the world without revealing their identity, but that’s not enough to sustain a network. What makes an app sticky is positive reinforcement: more followers, more friends, more retweets. “For the most part people want to communicate with an audience,” says North. “People want credit for what they’ve said and done. Anonymity flies in the face of people’s need to have acknowledgment.”

This passage nails it: app retention is largely built around “stickiness” — what gets people to come back and keep engaging with the app. In an anonymous social network, the incentives are largely missing.

Father on BBC interrupted by his children: an analysis

Ben Thompson (of the solid tech analysis blog Stratechery) has written a detailed breakdown of the most viral moment of the week: a father getting interrupted by his child while on live national television:

Here’s the deal with these TV spots: you don’t get paid a dime. Why, then, does the BBC, or CNN, or MSNBC, or all of the other channels have an endless array of experts on call willing to call-in from their home offices not just get guests, but also convince them to put on a suit-and-tie and arrange books just so? BECAUSE YOU’RE ON TV!

Here’s the deal: the male ego is both remarkably fragile and remarkably easy to satiate. Tell said ego he will be featured as an expert in front of a national or global audience and he will do whatever it takes — including 12 years of academia and wearing a suit at home—to ensure it is so.

The flipside of said ego-soothing, though, is a potential level of embarassment that is hard to fathom. In this case Kelly is fulfilling his self-selected destiny: he is appearing as an expert across the world on the BBC. But it’s not going well! His daughter has appeared, and while he certainly loves her, he must, MUST, keep up appearances. Thus the hand, and not the overt affection.

(via Rira)

Breaking Bad – The Movie

Someone has edited all 62 episodes of Breaking Bad into a 127-minute long film. According to the creator:

What if Breaking Bad was a movie ?

After two years of sleepless nights of endless editing, we bring you the answer to that very question. A study project that became an all-consuming passion.

It’s not a fan-film, hitting the highlights of show in a home-made homage, but rather a re-imagining of the underlying concept itself, lending itself to full feature-length treatment.

An alternative Breaking Bad, to be viewed with fresh eyes.

This is a pretty interesting, well-executed experiment. Of course, it’s not Breaking Bad at all — countless scenes are lost, the pacing is dramatically different, and the timeline of the film (unlike the show) is largely linear. Nonetheless, a fascinating concept and a clear labor of love.

[Thanks to Shayne B from the Slackfilmcast for bringing this to my attention]

How fake news brings people together in pursuit of profit

Craig Silverman and Jane Lytvynenko, writing for Buzzfeed, on how a liberal troll and some Macedonian spammers both ended up profiting from spreading fake news:

There is perhaps no better expression of the current economics of internet content than an American liberal troll and spammers from the Balkans and Caucasus making money from completely fake online news aimed at American conservatives. The troll says he’s exposing ignorance, while the spammers are stealing any content that drives traffic and ad impressions. Regardless of motivation, the clicks and dollars are the same — and they reinforce the reality that misinformation about American politics is now an international business opportunity.

BuzzFeed News analyzed 11 hoaxes published by The Resistance that received the highest engagement on Facebook in the past two weeks and found they were copied and reposted by 48 different websites. Of those sites, 16 were confirmed using domain registration records as being run from Macedonia, 4 originated in Georgia, 2 are from Kosovo, and 1 is Bulgarian. The remaining 20 sites whose provenance is unconfirmed use similar WordPress themes to those run from Macedonia, and often post their content in the same pro-Trump Facebook groups used by Macedonians to spread their content. BuzzFeed News emailed 19 owners of the sites but did not receive any response.

Vimeo now supports 360-degree video

Nathan Ingraham, writing for Engadget:

From a playback perspective, 360-degree playback is now integrated into the website as well as the iOS and Android apps. You can watch video in either monoscopic or stereoscopic mode — the latter of which means you’ll be able to properly view this footage while wearing a VR headset. Not all headsets are supported today, however. For starters, Vimeo’s 360 video will work with Google Daydream, Samsung’s Gear VR and the Zeiss VR One. But support for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive is coming soon.

Watching these videos is pretty straightforward. On the web, you can just click and drag anywhere in the video to look around; on a smartphone, you just swipe around the screen. You can also use your computer’s trackpad to pan around, and there’s also a helpful little compass that shows which way you’re “facing” in the 360-degree landscape — tapping or clicking that restores you to the default point of view, assuming the uploader enabled it.

I am super excited about what stories 360-video will enable, especially on a site with as strong a commitment to filmmaking as Vimeo has.

How to radicalize your Facebook feed

Ryan Broderick did an experiment for Buzzfeed where he created a fake account for the purposes of getting only right wing news. While his conclusions aren’t super revelatory, it is notable how quickly things in his feed devolve from official RNC posts to fake news and neo-nazi memes. I’m curious what the results would be for a left-wing version of this test.

For their part, Facebook has denounced Broderick’s research.

Other publications have done similar research. For instance, The Wall Street Journal has a “Blue Feed Red Feed” feature that allows you to see posts from different across the political spectrum.

Also worth checking out: Broderick and his colleague, Katie Notopolous, created a glossary of far-right and memes that will be helpful to anyone trying to understand this world.