United’s PR fiasco

Yesterday, United Airlines had a man forcibly removed from a plane after he refused to voluntarily leave an overbooked flight from Chicago to Louisville. Numerous incidents of the video are available online and they are harrowing:

Audra Bridges gave her account of the incident to the Courier-Journal:

Passengers were told at the gate that the flight was overbooked and United, offering $400 and a hotel stay, was looking for one volunteer to take another flight to Louisville at 3 p.m. Monday. Passengers were allowed to board the flight, Bridges said, and once the flight was filled those on the plane were told that four people needed to give up their seats to stand-by United employees that needed to be in Louisville on Monday for a flight. Passengers were told that the flight would not take off until the United crew had seats, Bridges said, and the offer was increased to $800, but no one volunteered.

Then, she said, a manager came aboard the plane and said a computer would select four people to be taken off the flight. One couple was selected first and left the airplane, she said, before the man in the video was confronted.

Bridges said the man became “very upset” and said that he was a doctor who needed to see patients at a hospital in the morning. The manager told him that security would be called if he did not leave willingly, Bridges said, and the man said he was calling his lawyer. One security official came and spoke with him, and then another security officer came when he still refused. Then, she said, a third security official came on the plane and threw the passenger against the armrest before dragging him out of the plane.

In response to the backlash, United issued this statement:

Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate.

We apologize for the overbook situation. Further details on the removed customer should be directed to authorities.

From Buzzfeed’s story, we glimpse the kafkaesque nightmare of trying to get a straight answer from authorities:

When asked why the airline had the man forcibly removed, and whether that was standard procedure in cases of overbooked flights, United refused to comment. Instead they told BuzzFeed News all further questions should be referred to Chicago Police. BuzzFeed News contacted Chicago Police and were told to contact the Chicago Department of Aviation. When BuzzFeed News contacted the Chicago Department of Aviation they were transferred to a TSA message bank. A TSA spokesperson later told BuzzFeed News they were not involved and to contact Chicago Police.

Aside from making me literally afraid to ever fly United again, this situation also makes me reflect on how United could’ve handled things better. The optics are horrible — United literally put customer needs behind the needs of its own employees.

Firstly, United could’ve increased the amount for the voucher offer until someone accepted it. Sure, $2000 of vouchers is a high price to pay, but this incident will likely cost them tens if not hundreds of times that amount in lost time/resources and negative PR.

Secondly, they could’ve had a better response and explanation for how this all went down immediately. This is a “call the leadership team together” kind of moment for any company, but their statement feels woefully inadequate. I anticipate we will get an update soon from the PR department about how this decision was made, and what will be done to prevent future similar incidents.

Finally, forcibly removing someone should never have been an option in the first place. It is demeaning and dangerous.

Side note: It’s been a rough PR month for United.

UPDATE: United’s CEO has issued this response:

IFFBoston 2017 announces full lineup

The Independent Film Festival of Boston has announced their full lineup for the year (viewable here). When I lived in Boston, IFFBoston was an amazing experience, run by friendly people who had a passion for great film. I’d highly recommend checking it out if you are in the area.

Their full press release is below. Ty Burr from The Boston Globe has a rundown of highlights from this year’s program.

***

Boston (April 10, 2017) – The Independent Film Festival Boston (IFFBoston) announced today the full lineup of films that will be screened at the 2017 festival. The fifteenth annual festival will take place April 26 – May 3, 2017. Tickets are on sale for the general public beginning on Tuesday, April 11th.

With over 100 films screening this year, IFFBoston will take place at the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square, the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square, the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, and at UMass Boston. Events will include filmmaker Q&A sessions, panel discussions, visiting filmmakers, and parties  as part of an overall event that showcases the best in current American and International cinema.

“STUMPED” directed by Robin Berghaus will open the 15th annual festival on April 26th at the Somerville Theatre. This documentary is a portrait of Will Lautzenheiser, a filmmaker and educator who became a quadrilateral amputee after suffering from a life threatening bacterial infection. It follows his extraordinary journey and recovery from forays into stand-up comedy to being the third patient to undergo double arm transplantation at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

“BAND AID”, directed by Zoe Lister-Jones will close the festival on Wednesday May 3rd at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. It stars Lister-Jones, Adam Pally, Jessie Williams and Fred Armisen.

Other notable films screening at the festival include:

  • Centerpiece Documentary Spotlight is THE B-SIDE: ELSA DORFMAN’S PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY directed by Errol Morris. New England Premiere
  • Centerpiece Narrative Spotlight is THE HERO directed by Brett Haley. New England Premiere. Starring Sam Eliott, Laura Prepon and Nick Offerman.
  • Documentaries by local filmmakers include LETTING GO OF ADELE directed by Melissa Dowler; ANGELO UNWRITTEN directed by Alice Stone; OYATE directed by Dan Girmus
  • PATTI CAKE$, starring Bridget Everett and Danielle McDonald.
  • Joshua Z Weinstein’s critically acclaimed film, MENASHE.
  • Janicza Bravo’s LEMON, starring Brett Gelman, Judy Greer and Michael Cera
  • LANDLINE directed by Gillian Robespierre, and starring Milton’s own Jenny Slate.
  • ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL directed by Steve James
  • DEAN directed by Demetri Martin starring Martin and Kevin Kline

IFFBoston will team up with the Mass Production Coalition to present an inaugural Student Short Film Competition, whereshort films selected by local colleges will compete for a cash prize.

IFFBoston will again partner with the UMass Boston Film Series to present the 3rd Annual The Mass. Works-in-Progress Pitch Session. This competition spotlights local filmmakers at various stages in their careers and at different stages of production with their projects. The IFFBoston/UMB Film Series’ WIP event takes place before a general audience of filmgoers, potential funders, broadcasters, festival programmers, brand partners and industry insiders. The goal of the event is to create a unique coalition of awareness and support for local filmmakers.

There will be several panel discussions during the festival. All panel discussions will be free to the public and will take place at the Somerville Theatre. Panel topics and guests to be announced soon.

Among the Official Parties: The opening night party will take place at Orleans in Davis Square, Somerville. Saturday night’s Awards Party will be at Tasty Burger in Harvard Square, and the Closing Night Party will take place at Osaka Steak House in Brookline.

Among the awards to be presented on Saturday April 29th will be the 8th annual Karen Schmeer Award for Excellence in Documentary Editing. This award was created to honor the memory of beloved Boston documentary film editor Karen Schmeer who was tragically killed in a hit-and-run accident in January of 2010. This award is presented by The Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship.

Xfinity is the Presenting Cable Media Sponsor of the 2017 Independent Film Festival Boston.

90.9 WBUR is the Presenting Radio Media Sponsors of the 2017 Independent Film Festival Boston.

Rule/Boston Camera is a Presenting Technical Sponsor of the 2017 Independent Film Festival Boston.

Talamas is a Presenting Technical Sponsor of the 2017 Independent Film Festival Boston. 

OFFICIAL SELECTIONS

INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON (IFFBoston) 2017

 

Narrative Features

BAND AID directed by Zoe Lister-Jones

LA BARRACUDA directed by Jason Cortlund & Julia Halperin

BEACH RATS directed by Eliza Hittman

CHUCK directed by Philippe Falardeau

COLUMBUS directed by Kogonada

DARA JU directed by Anthony Onah

DAYVEON directed by Amman Abbasi

DEAN directed by Demetri Martin

GOOK directed by Justin Chon

HEDGEHOG directed by Lindsey Copeland

THE HERO directed by Brett Haley

HIGH LOW FORTY directed by Paddy Quinn

THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES directed by Jim Strouse

LANDLINE directed by Gillian Robespierre

LEMON directed by Janicza Bravo

THE LITTLE HOURS directed by Jeff Baena

LOST IN PARIS directed by Dominique Abel & Fiona Gordon

MENASHE directed by Joshua Z Weinstein

PATTI CAKE$ directed by Geremy Jasper

POLINA, DANSER SA VIE directed by Angelin Preljocaj

SYLVIO directed by Kentucker Audley & Albert Birney

THE STRANGE ONES directed by Christopher Radcliff & Lauren Wolkstein

TORMENTING THE HEN directed by Theodore Collatos

TRIP TO SPAIN directed by Michael Winterbottom

YOUTHMIN directed by Arielle Cimino & Jeffrey Ryan

Documentary Features

ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL directed by Steve James

ANGELO UNWRITTEN directed by Alice Stone

THE B-SIDE: ELSA DORFMAN’S PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY directed by Errol Morris

BURDEN directed by Timothy Marrinan & Richard Dewey

CASSETTE: A DOCUMENTARY MIXTAPE directed by Zack Taylor

CITY OF GHOSTS directed by Matthew Heineman

THE CREST directed by Mark Christopher Covino

DEALT directed by Luke Korem

DINA directed by Antonio Santini & Dan Sickles

DOLORES directed by Peter Bratt

EDGAR ALLAN POE: BURIED ALIVE directed by Eric Stange

FINDING KUKAN directed by Robin Lung

FOR AHKEEM directed by Jeremy S. Levine & Landon Van Soest

THE FORCE directed by Peter Nicks

FURUSATO directed by Thorsten Trimpop

INTENT TO DESTROY directed by Joe Berlinger

LETTING GO OF ADELE directed by Melissa Dowler

MAINELAND directed by Miao Wang

THE MODERN JUNGLE directed by Charles Fairbanks & Saul Kak

ONE OCTOBER directed by Rachel Shuman

OYATE directed by Dan Girmus

RAT FILM directed by Theo Anthony

SPETTACOLO directed by Jeff Malmberg & Chris Shellen

STEP directed by Amanda Lipitz

STREET FIGHTING MEN directed by Andrew James

STUMPED directed by Robin Berghaus

SWIM TEAM directed by Lara Stolman

TROPHY directed by Christina Clusiau & Shaul Schwarz

WHOSE STREETS directed by Sabaah Folayan & Sabaah Jordan

 

Narrative Shorts

BAD DOG directed by Tom Putnam

CALL YOUR FATHER directed by Jordan Firstman

CLOUDY ALL DAY directed by Dylan Pasture

CTRL-Z directed by James Kennedy

CUBS directed by Nanna Kristín Magnúsdóttir

CYCLES directed by Joe Cobden

DOGS AND TACOS directed by Steve Bachrach

EINSTEIN-ROSEN directed by Olga Osorio

A FAVOR FOR JERRY directed by D.W. Young

GAME directed by Jeannie Donohoe

HUNT directed by Sean Temple

HUNTER directed by Jane Geisler

I’M IN HERE directed by Willy Berliner

ICARUS directed by Tom Teller

LAWMAN directed by Matthew Gentile

MEGAN’S SHIFT directed by Zeke Farrow

NIGHT directed by Joosje Duk

(OUT)CASTE directed by Shilpi Shikha Agrawal

THE PRIVATES directed by Dylan Allen

SLEEP TIGHT directed by Ani Simon-Kennedy

THE SNOW GIRL directed by Mixtape Club

SO IT GOES directed by Justin Carlton

STRAYS directed by Lance Edmands

THE SUB directed by Dan Samiljan

THEY CHARGE FOR THE SUN directed by Terence Nance

THRESHER directed by Alex Clark

WHEN JEFF TRIED TO SAVE THE WORLD directed by Kendall Goldberg

 

Documentary Shorts

BLIND SUSHI directed by Eric Heimbold

CIRCUS CITY, USA directed by Adam Wright

THE COLLECTION directed by Adam Roffman

CONFESSIONS OF A CANNABIS CONSULTANT directed by Mark Dugas

DETECTED directed by Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller & Jeremy Newberger

ELIAS’ STAND directed by Jyllian Gunther

FIBA ALLOW HIJAB directed by Tim O’Donnell & Jon Mercer

FOR YOU, ALEXIS directed by Douglas Gordon

THE GLORIOUS FUTURE directed by Laura Longsworth

GUIDED directed by Bridget Besaw

GUT HACK directed by Mario Furloni & Kate McLean

HAFE: THE STORY BEHIND directed by Sam Ketay

IF I DIDN’T MAKE IT directed by Casey Toth

IMAGINE KOLLE 37 directed by Michele Meek

JUANA directed by Navarro & Morales

LAVOYGER directed by Rachel Bardin

THE MEMORIES STATION directed by Derek Frank

NO HARM NO FOUL directed by Cheng Zhang

NOTHING COMPARES directed by Melissa Dowler

PIZZA BIRDY BATH WATERFALL directed by Tim O’Donnell

PREPARATIONS FOR THE FOREST directed by Daniel Mooney

RICH MAN DAN directed by Amy Augustino

SWIM FOR LIFE directed by Lise Balk King

TROLL: A SOUTHERN TALE directed by Marinah Janello

UBERMENSCH directed by Jesper Dalgaard

THE WATCHMAKER directed by Marie-Cécile Embleton

THE WIZARD OZ directed by Danny Yourd

WORKING STIFF directed by Sarah Hanssen

THE WORLD’S OLDEST MIME: A LIFE IN THREE ACTS directed by Riley Hooper & Noah Wagner

ZAIN’S SUMMER directed by Joshua Seftel

S-Town could be the most popular podcast of all time

The New York Times has some statistics on downloads for “S-Town,” the new podcast by the creators of “This American Life” and “Serial”:

In its first week of release, listeners downloaded episodes of “S-Town” 16 million times. It took eight weeks for the first season of “Serial” to reach that number, and four weeks for the second season to hit it, according to numbers provided by Serial Productions. “S-Town” is the first series released under the Serial Productions banner — the outfit is helmed by the makers of “Serial” and “This American Life” — and by podcast standards, it’s a blockbuster […]

In just over a week, “S-Town” has attracted 1.8 million subscribers to its podcast feed. “No one’s done that,” Mr. Quah said.

Other stats revealed: “Serial” now has a combined 267 million download count(!), while APM’s “In The Dark” true crime podcast has 6.6 million total.

Some thoughts on these stats:

  • I remember when “Serial” was first released, there was much excitement about how massive its download counts were. It was, at the time, the fastest growing podcast (in terms of subscribers) ever. These “S-Town” numbers seem to indicate that it will outgrow “Serial.” That being said, “S-Town” was released all at once while “Serial” grew its audience (and buzz) by releasing episodes week to week. We’ll see whether “S-Town” can continue this trajectory.
  • I’d love to know the downloads per episode over time, which I think gives a far better sense of how quickly a podcast is growing (or not).
  • I’ve listened to the first few episodes of “S-Town” and it is excellent. One of the best shows I’ve ever listened to, and certainly that rare show that is worth the hype.

You can download/subscribe/listen to the “S-Town” podcast here.

Microsoft unveils the specs for Project Scorpio

Digital Foundry landed a huge exclusive: a look at the specs for Project Scorpio, the next version of Xbox that’s scheduled to release Holiday 2017 (Disclosure: I previously worked for the Xbox Marketing team).

The short version? Project Scorpio will contain:

  • CPU: Eight custom x86 cores clocked at 2.3GHZ
  • GPU: 40 customized compute units at 1172MHz
  • Memory: 12GB DDR5 RAM
  • Memory Bandwidth: 326GB/s
  • HDD: 1TB 2.5inch
  • Optical Drive: 4K UHD Blu-Ray

For me, the 4K UHD Blu-Ray alone will make this system worth picking up. But I’m also excited about if/how the system will improve the look and resolution of games I already own.

I’m looking forward to see what Xbox will unveil at E3 when it comes to hardware as well as games.

Amanda Peet explains why she never reads reviews

Amanda Peet, writing in The New York Times, on why she never reads reviews of shows that she’s in:

When I was 26, I made the mistake of reading a review of a play I was in. “Whale Music” is a little-known gem by Anthony Minghella, and I still had three weeks left in the run. We were an all-female cast, and everyone got a nice review in The New York Times, except me.

Anita Gates wrote that I was “trying” to play my character — who was the bohemian sidekick — “as a sort of British lower-class Joan Rivers.” I love Joan Rivers, but this was an intimate English drama about 20-year-olds on the Isle of Wight…Over the next three weeks, I tried my hardest to be the opposite of Joan Rivers. By the end of the run, nobody could hear me.

A critic’s opinion had infiltrated my performance, and, as much as I resented her for making me so ashamed, I couldn’t stop thinking about her. Every night, I was performing against her review — trying to prove her wrong — instead of doing my job.

I vowed never again to read another review.

Peet’s essay is a reminder that there’s always someone on the other end of that review — a person who likely worked their ass off to be there, and who has aspirations and feelings too.

It’s also a testament to the fact that, if you’re a performer, reading reviews can be a taxing and unrewarding experience. Peet hasn’t read any reviews of her work in many years, and I’m sure it hasn’t hurt her life or career one bit. In my opinion, only those who significantly benefit from intense self-examination should read their own reviews. I’m not sure I include myself in the latter category.

Principal in Kansas resigns after student journalists question her credentials

The Kansas City Star has an amazing story of student journalists making a difference by looking into their new principal’s questionable credentials:

Days after student reporters at Pittsburg High School in Kansas dug into the background of their newly hired principal and found questionable credentials, she resigned from the $93,000-a-year job.

“She was going to be the head of our school, and we wanted be assured that she was qualified and had the proper credentials,” said Trina Paul, a senior and an editor of the Booster Redux, the school newspaper. “We stumbled on some things that most might not consider legitimate credentials.” […]

Students journalists published a story Friday questioning the legitimacy of the private college — Corllins University — where Robertson got her master’s and doctorate degrees years ago. U.S. Department of Education officials, contacted by The Star, confirmed student reports; the federal agency could not find evidence of Corllins in operation. The school wasn’t included among the agency’s list of schools closed since 1986. Robertson earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Tulsa.

Students found and The Star confirmed the existence of several articles referring to Corllins as a diploma mill — where people can buy a degree, diploma or certificates. And searches on the school’s website go nowhere. No one from the university responded to emails sent by The Star this week.

New Mac Pros are coming

The Mac Pro, long thought dead by many pro users, will return. Apple recently invited several journalists from places like TechCrunch, Mashable, and Buzzfeed, to an on-the-record conversation about the future of its Mac Pros and iMacs. John Gruber at Daring Fireball sums up the news most succinctly:

Apple is currently hard at work on a “completely rethought” Mac Pro, with a modular design that can accommodate high-end CPUs and big honking hot-running GPUs, and which should make it easier for Apple to update with new components on a regular basis. They’re also working on Apple-branded pro displays to go with them.

I also have not-so-great news:

These next-gen Mac Pros and pro displays “will not ship this year”. (I hope that means “next year”, but all Apple said was “not this year”.) In the meantime, Apple is today releasing meager speed-bump updates to the existing Mac Pros. The $2999 model goes from 4 Xeon CPU cores to 6, and from dual AMD G300 GPUs to dual G500 GPUs. The $3999 model goes from 6 CPU cores to 8, and from dual D500 GPUs to dual D800 GPUs. Nothing else is changing, including the ports. No USB-C, no Thunderbolt 3 (and so no support for the LG UltraFine 5K display).

There are also upgraded iMacs on the way for this year, with some models theoretically targeted at professionals.

I’m fascinated by the quotes from executives, such as this one Craig Federighi:

I think we designed ourselves into a bit of a thermal corner, if you will. We designed a system with the kind of GPUs that at the time we thought we needed, and that we thought we could well serve with a two GPU architecture. That that was the thermal limit we needed, or the thermal capacity we needed. But workloads didn’t materialize to fit that as broadly as we hoped.

Also, here’s Phil Schiller on the decision to take a different path:

As we’ve said, we made something bold that we thought would be great for the majority of our Mac Pro users. And what we discovered was that it was great for some and not others. Enough so that we need to take another path. One of the good things, hopefully, with Apple through the years has been a willingness to say when something isn’t quite what we wanted it do be, didn’t live up to expectations, to not be afraid to admit it and look for the next answer.

It’s rare for any major company, let alone one with a culture like Apple’s, to admit they’ve made a strategic error of this magnitude, so kudos to them for their honesty. The most recent Mac Pro was indeed a massive miscalculation.

But will a new Mac Pro next year be enough to satisfy professionals? Many are already fleeing the platform due to the lack of communication up to this point. I’m not sure this news will be enough to reassure them to stay.

A review of the Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience

I had a chance to see the Game of Thrones live concert experience this weekend at the KeyArena in Seattle. Overall, I found it to be a maddening experience.

On the one hand, I’m a big fan of the HBO original series, I’m obsessed with its music, there were moments of the show that were transcendently amazing, and Ramin Djawadi is one of my idols — a man whose work I’ve admired and listened to for years, and who I was thrilled to see live on stage. On the other hand, it seemed like a show that fundamentally didn’t trust its music to work its magic over the audience, relying on pyrotechnics and fancy staging to keep people’s attention.

Let me confess my biases: I love the conventional orchestral concert experience. Sitting in a big, quiet, dark hall while hearing Beethoven’s Ninth is my idea of a phenomenal time. I also enjoy shows like the Lord of the Rings concert, where a movie is projected on a big screen while the orchestra plays the score. In both of these scenarios, the music is the main event (or in the case of the movie, at least equal in stature to the other main event).

If you attend the Game of Thrones live concert experience looking for a good show, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. But if you expect the music to be the focus, you’ll be in for a rude awakening. The stage is massive and divided into multiple parts. Here’s a photo I took of the concert floor after the show:

The stage for the show is massive and divided into multiple parts. Here’s a photo I took of the concert floor afterwards:

While scenes from Game of Thrones (and/or related graphics) play on the gigantic LED screens, musicians can sometimes wander along the walkway or take positions alongside one of the other “stations” on the floor. Occasionally, fire or smoke would burst forth from the stage, matching what was happening on screen.

Now that you have a good mental image of what the show was like, let’s discuss some of its finer points:

  • We paid $100 each for tickets that had pretty good seats. For an extra $100-150, you could get a “Lannister Table” or a”Stark Table” like the one near the stage in the photo above. While this came with food and the chance to meet Ramin Djawadi, I cannot imagine it was a better concert experience. Those people must’ve always had to crane their necks to see what was happening, plus trying to view the screen would’ve also been a challenge.
  • Virtually every single one of the 20+ tracks that was played was an adaptation of a track from the score, vs. taken directly from score. This was a huge disappointment to me personally, as I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to these things. That being said, all the tracks are recognizable and occasionally rearranged in interesting ways.
  • The show was at its best when it played scenes from Game of Throne uninterrupted and allowed the music to simply accompany them. Tracks like those from “Battle of the Bastards” and “The Light of the Seven” were highlights for me, as you got to see huge portions of those scenes play out in real time on screen while hearing the amazing music that went along with them.
  • Unfortunately, most of the show relied on cheesy montages and graphics to show off the music and keep audience interest. Sometimes, there’d be smoke or fire to grab your attention too. But I’ll say this for the concert: It was never boring.
  • The concert suffered from the same problems that any orchestral show would suffer from when adapted into an arena show: poor acoustics. This was worsened by having some of the musicians stand far apart from each other for some tracks, which occasionally caused them to lose sync.
  • The montages and scenes that they played from Game of Thrones were edited bizarrely. They played scenes of graphic violence like those from “Battle of the Bastards” or “The Red Wedding.” But they would edit out the most graphic kills, or most gory moments. This reduced Game of Thrones from a hard R to a hard PG-13. I’m guessing this was so families could attend, and indeed, many children were in the audience. But if I were a parent of a child who scared easily, I would still avoid this show. I should also point out: The live experience spoiled everything through the most recently aired episode of the show.
  • One final note on the scenes they chose to play on screen: This is a show that features excellent musicians at the top of their game. When they get on that huge stage, many of the soloists have a bunch of swagger and playfulness. You want to cheer for them, as they’re clearly having a great time. Meanwhile, you’re watching a scene where characters are being brutally murdered (Game of Thrones is pretty dark, huh?). It all made for a weird juxtaposition and an unsettling feeling. As someone from the row behind me said at one point, “This is the most depressing concert I’ve ever been to.”

Conclusion

I was grateful to attend this concert. Seeing Ramin Djawadi performing on stage will be one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I think the vast majority of people who enjoy Game of Thrones and who like its music will have a great time. But if you prefer a more standard orchestra concert experience, you will probably be distracted by the concert’s ostentatiousness. If I could sum it up in one word, it’d be this: uneven.

I dive into all these issues in-depth via a Periscope I recorded after the show ended.

What is the future of moviegoing?

Bryan Bishop, writing for The Verge, on the vibe at CinemaCon this year:

Hollywood has been facing stagnating ticket sales, intense competition from streaming services, and an IP-focused studio tentpole monoculture for years. None paint a particularly rosy picture for the future, so perhaps it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that one sentiment stood out above all others at this past week’s CinemaCon: denial.

The movie industry (at least as it pertains to theatrical moviegoing) is entering a period of stagnation and decline. If theater owners don’t figure out a way to make good use of their spaces in ways that will engage younger people and grow their audience, then AMC may soon be heading the way of GameStop.

There is a ton of potential in the tech that Bishop talks about in this article:

Earlier this year IMAX launched the first of its “VR Experience Centre” pilot locations in Los Angeles, but at the time the company’s chief business development officer Rob Lister explained that the larger opportunity wasn’t in standalone locations like arcades, but in building on the relationships IMAX already had with exhibitors — essentially bringing VR stations to a movie theater’s lobby, or taking over an actual theater itself. It’s easy to connect the dots: if studios shorten the release window, movies will likely run for a shorter time, and so theaters will have to find new ways to monetize the locations and screens they already have. Location-based VR is an option, and a company called Nomadic VR was demoing one of the most intriguing options yet on CinemaCon’s show floor.

Larger, standalone installations like The Void have already paired untethered VR with interactive, physical locations, but Nomadic’s solution is to take that similar idea and turn it into a modular, scalable system that can be easily installed — and regularly updated — in locations like movie theaters.

I’d love to be able to try VR experiences at my local theater. But innovating starts with acknowledging that the current path is not working. And that’s something that few in the industry seem willing to admit right now.

Deconstructing the ‘Ghost in the Shell’ whitewashing controversy

Last year, Emily Yoshida wrote what is probably the best examination of the whitewashing controversy as it pertains to Ghost in the Shell. In the wake of news that Ghost in the Shell bombed this weekend with less than a $20 million domestic take, I wanted to share it once more:

Japanese audiences, unlike American audiences, don’t understand Motoko to be a Japanese character, just because she speaks Japanese and has a Japanese name. This speaks to the racial mystery zone that so much anime exists in, allowing viewers to ignore such unpleasant dynamics as oppression and discrimination even as they enjoy stories that are often direct responses to those dynamics.

Of course, it’s a different issue for Japanese Americans, who grew up forced to think about identity in a much more tactile way. For us, anime is something from our country, or our parents’ country, that was cool enough for white kids to get into just as fervently. We couldn’t see ourselves in Hollywood’s shows and movies, but we could claim anime as our own, and see ourselves in its wild sci-fi imaginings and cathartic transformation sequences. Of course, I use the words “see ourselves” loosely […]

Ghost in the Shell is the product of and response to decades of physical erasure and technological alienation. It’s pop cultural fallout, a delicately layered croissant of appropriation upon appropriation. It’s as timely as ever, but it feels wildly inappropriate for an American studio and the British director of Snow White and the Huntsman to pick it up and sell it back to us. At the same time, Japan and the US have been stealing and selling images to each other for decades, and the result hasn’t always been awful. I would still argue, though, that the knotty history that leads to Motoko Kusanagi will be lost in translation. This isn’t The Matrix or Pacific Rim, this isn’t just a look and a vibe being lifted. This is the entire history of Japan’s relationship with itself, the US and technology, and without that, you’re left with nothing but an empty prosthesis.

[Walter Chaw highlighted this article in his review of Ghost in the Shell. As usual, he is worth reading on this subject.]

Twitter changes default profile photo to person instead of egg

Harry McCracken, writing for Fast Company, describing how Twitter changed its default profile image to be a person instead of an egg:

A lot has changed since the Twitter egg debuted almost seven years ago. For one thing, the company’s design philosophy has evolved. Quirky is out; straightforward is in. Nowadays, “the playfulness of Twitter is in the content our users are creating, versus how much the brand steps forward in the UI,” says product designer Jen Cotton.

More significantly, the egg has taken on cultural associations that nobody could have anticipated in 2010. Rather than suggesting the promise of new life, it’s become universal shorthand for Twitter’s least desirable accounts: trolls (and bots) engaged in various forms of harassment and spam, created by people so eager to wreak anonymous havoc that they can’t be bothered to upload a portrait image […]

Starting today, however, the egg is history. Twitter is dumping the tarnished icon for a new default profile picture–a blobby silhouette of a person’s head and shoulders, intentionally designed to represent a human without being concrete about gender, race, or any other characteristic. Everyone who’s been an egg until now, whatever their rationale, will automatically switch over.

Twitter also has a blog post explaining how they arrived at the new profile image:

[P]eople have come to associate the circle head with masculinity, and because of this association, we felt that it was important to explore alternate head shapes. We reviewed many variations of our figure, altering both the head and shoulders to feel more inclusive to all genders. When the shoulders were wider, the image felt overly masculine, so we decreased the width of the shoulders and adjusted the height of the figure. As a result of these iterations, we ended with a more gender-balanced figure. We chose grays because they feel temporary, generic, and universal. With that, we included a higher contrast color combination to make this image accessible for those with visual impairments. Because of its coloring, the new profile photo also gives less prominence to accounts with a default profile photo.

It’s unfortunate that Twitter’s slowness to deal with its harassment problem has led to bizarre associations with Twitter Eggs. Maybe changing to the new default profile photo will prevent memes from sprouting up (“Twitter Default Person” just doesn’t have the same bite as “Twitter Egg”) but the same underlying issues will remain until Twitter does more to take on trolls.

What if ‘Blade 1’ only had shots of Wesley Snipes?

A crazy person made a new edit of Blade. Dubbed “The Solo Cut,” this is Blade if only shots of Wesley Snipes were used. According to the video’s description, “The shot was also removed if it was only Wesley Snipes but other people were speaking in it.”

Aside from being hilarious, it’s also unexpectedly poignant. Blade is juxtaposed against all these dark, moody backgrounds, just doing his thing by himself. I kind of want to give Wesley Snipes a hug after watching this.

[Thanks to Ben Aston for bringing this to my attention]

The Tobolowsky Files has returned

After an 18 month hiatus, The Tobolowsky Files has finally returned. The first two episodes of the new “season” have arrived, and you can download them here and here.

The problem with creating a podcast that requires 7,000 words of writing each week is that it’s difficult to publish it on a weekly basis. Stephen and I discussed how best to handle this and we agreed that we wanted to build up a backlog of episodes and come back weekly for a significant amount of time. Plus, Stephen’s new book will be out soon and we wanted to get some promotional attention on that thing. 

So, new episodes are here for at least 12 weeks. Possibly more later on. As Stephen has always said, the benefit of telling true stories is that they get to continue.

The Tobolowsky Files is not the most-downloaded show I’ve ever helped create but it’s the one that has the most passionate fanbase. So many people have found Stephen’s stories artistically insightful or emotionally meaningful to them. If you haven’t listened yet, I hope you’ll check it out on iTunes and see what people are so excited about.

Why Dave Chappelle’s new Netflix comedy specials won’t age well

Dave Chappelle is one of my favorite comedians of all time, but his new Netflix specials, The Age of Spin and Deep in the Heart of Texas, traffic in jokes that could easily be construed as transphobic.

Chappelle’s new specials made me laugh, but they also often made me uncomfortable (and not necessarily in the way I think they were intended to). I appreciated Chappelle trying to tackle the idea that for many people, the concept of transgender people is still something they cannot wrap their minds around. But too often he did this by making transgender people the butt of the joke. He spoke from a place that didn’t recognize their struggle as real, and that considered gender non-conforming individuals as somehow disordered, even as he acknowledged their right to self-determination.

Many around the internet are starting to weigh in about this. Eric Sasson writes about this for The New Republic:

Chappelle is even more tone-deaf on transgender issues. He seems to have little interest or patience with any notion of transgender identity, going on an extended rant about how he “misses” Bruce Jenner. He reduces gender assignment surgery to a crude joke about how strange it would be if he and his friend were to go to the hospital one afternoon to “cut their dicks off.” Worse, he acts offended when someone corrects his use of a pronoun, as if it’s somehow a burden on him to have to refer to a transgender woman as a “she.”

A particularly callous part comes when he cites “black dudes in Brooklyn, hard, street motherfuckers, who wear high heels just to feel safe.” You’d almost think that Chappelle is convinced that the progress trans people have made in the last few years has come at the expense of black progress. But discrimination isn’t a zero-sum game. And newsflash—many trans people are people of color. Statistically, they are also the most likely to be sexually assaulted. That Chapelle thinks it’s funny to joke about how they have it better than black men demonstrates the kind of myopic worldview that only a rich male comedian might have.

Tiq Millan, writing for Buzzfeed:

Chappelle tells a story about being at a party where a trans girl gets high or drunk and proceeds to get sick and pass out. For Chappelle, “Whatever it was, it was definitely a man in a dress.” He moseys over and unassumingly asks, “Is he okay?” He’s admonished for using the wrong pronoun and now is immediately offended. “I support anyone’s right to be who they are inside, but to what degree do I have to participate in your self-image? Why do I have to switch up my pronoun game for this motherfucker?”

And this is the crux of the cisgender problem — cis people’s tendency to center themselves in the transgender experience. These aren’t your pronouns. They belong to the person you’re addressing. Using the correct pronouns isn’t meant to validate someone’s whimsical sense of self; it’s a basic courtesy and shows respect for who someone is. If Chappelle is clutch-my-pearls offended by incidents like this, it’s not because of our demand to be respected, but because of what that demand says about his own fragile gender identity. The one thing I’ve learned about masculinity as a transgender man is that its power and definition relies heavily on how well it performs away from femininity.

Lauren Michele Jackson, writing for The Outline:

Chappelle is well aware that his comedy won’t be taken kindly in the world into which he re-emerged, where language means everything. In Age of Spin, he attempts to a stage an atmosphere in which he is knowingly out of touch and only halfway apologizing for it. (Perhaps this is why Netflix chose it to be the first “episode,” though it was more recently recorded). “I’m 42,” he says, before deadnaming Caitlyn Jenner in order to set up a stale game of oppression Olympics between (white) trans women and black (cis) men. It’s a repeated trope in both specials. He acknowledges the perks of his fame (“I’m black, but I’m also Dave Chappelle,” he says early in Age of Spin, in a bit in which he narrates the story of a friend’s arrest) and suggests that he’s jaded by the game of “who has suffered more” (“You was in on the heist, you just don’t like your cut,” is his reply to a white woman who tries to equate her oppression with his). And yet Chappelle finds himself embattled with other subject positions, convinced black men have it the hardest and conveniently forgetting the existence of black women, black gay men, black trans women, and black lesbians, until they’re needed in service of a punch line.

Both specials lay a trap for the sort of millennial sensibility that gives Age of Spin its name, and where “everybody’s mad about something,” as he says in Heart of Texas. Dave Chappelle is a 40-something who remembers watching the Challenger explosion on a television set wheeled into the classroom. In his world, trans women and gay men are akin to smartphones and the 24-hour news cycle: technological inventions he just can’t keep up with. It’s a very convenient, if not particularly innovative or convincing, gimmick.

Jackson’s whole argument is about how Chappelle’s specials feel frozen in time. I agree wholeheartedly — these jokes won’t age well. For some, they’re already terrible to begin with. When we look back on it in a few decades, we’ll be surprised anyone ever laughed at them.

Why you shouldn’t believe Hollywood’s excuses for whitewashing

Angie Han, writing now for Mashable, has a piece on why most excuses people make for racially insensitive casting are bunk:

Hollywood’s racial bias comes in many forms. Sometimes it’s “whitewashing” — casting a white actor to play a character who was originally conceived of as non-white, like the Major in Ghost in the Shell or Light in Death Note. (John Oliver has an excellent primer on the industry’s long history of whitewashing here.)

Other times, it might be favoring a white lead character in a narrative that borrows problematically from non-white cultures — like positioning Iron Fist’s Danny Rand and Doctor Strange’s Stephen Strange as the ultimate practitioners of mystical martial arts that they learned in made-up Asian countries.

Perhaps most insidiously, it can also mean simply overlooking POC talent, and defaulting to white characters and white actors time and time again, even when there’s no narrative reason to do so. We adore Tim Burton and the Coens as much as the next person, for example, but it’s hard to deny that their films tend to be pretty homogenous.

The new ‘Ghost in the Shell’ is a disappointment

[This post contains some plot details from the new Ghost in the Shell]

I saw the new Ghost in the Shell last night, and while I don’t think a faithful adaptation of the original animated film would’ve done well in the U.S., what we ended up getting instead was a generic sci-fi action film with a cookie cutter plot and wafer-thin characters. Sure, the production design and visuals are pretty great, and there are one or two decent action scenes, but the film is otherwise completely forgettable.

And don’t even get me started on the racial issues this movie brings up.The movie takes place in a city that clearly is supposed to evoke Japan (New Port City), but most of the primary characters are white. Scarlett Johansson not only plays a role that was originally brought to life as the Japanese character Major Motoko Kusanagi, but we learn in the film that she actually has a Japanese woman’s brain inside her. Her white body is literally replacing a Japanese person’s!

There will be TAKES left and right on this one. And there should be. I just wish Ghost in the Shell felt more worth getting worked up about.

A few other notes:

  • I was occasionally impressed with how streamlined the plot felt compared to the original. Gone are the 1995 film’s references to internecine government warfare and its lengthy philosophizing about the nature of man and machine. Instead, Major is the primary character in this film, and it’s her journey that we are meant to relate to the most. For good or ill, the new film rises and falls on the characterization of Major — and I don’t think it works out super well on that front.
  • Some of the action scenes do feel, shall we say, heavily inspired by the animated film. But hey, might as well use that valuable IP to the fullest.
  • There are numerous references/easter eggs that relate to the animated film. Those who are fans of the original will find a decent amount to keep their attention here.
  • The action set pieces are pretty impressive. You get a sense of Major’s physicality and how good she is at immobilizing and killing people. But the combat always felt super brief and didn’t really build to anything satisfying. Don’t see this movie expecting a great action film.
  • The ending of the new film is drastically different from the 1995 film. I won’t say what exactly happens, but the 2017 film feels like what people are referring to when they use the term “Hollywood ending” in a derogatory fashion.
  • Kenji Kawai’s music for the Ghost in the Shell animated film is iconic and irreplaceable, but composers Clint Mansell and Loren Balfe do an admirable job translating that sensibility into this futuristic action film.

Further reading:

The Pipe – a slow-motion video I shot in Hawaii

I’m back from an incredible Hawaiian vacation and ready to roll up my sleeves and get back into the blogging game.

While I was in Hawaii, I purchased a GoPro Hero 5 Session and used it to film many water-related activities. One of those activities was visiting the Banzai Pipeline, or “The Pipe.”

The Banzai Pipeline is one of the most dangerous surfing spots in the world, with an average wave height of 9 feet. When you see and hear those waves crashing onto shore, you truly appreciate the power of nature. It is insanely beautiful and the kind of setting you’d imagine if you dreamt about such things.

I shot a bunch of footage using high-frame rate modes on both my GoPro and my iPhone 7. The above video is the result.

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.