Talking Movies

April 23, 2012

NetFlix Killed the Video Store

In this blog’s first cross-over episode Think About IT’s Gerard Healy joins Talking Movies‘ Fergal Casey to discuss the arrival of NetFlix in Ireland.

1. What is NetFlix?


GH: So, NetFlix is here. What aspect of it should we discuss first?
FC: How about, “What is NetFlix?”
GH: “No one can be told what NetFlix is, you have to see it for yourself,” you mean?
FC: No, genuinely, what is NetFlix? I don’t understand this streaming business.
GH: (sighs) Fine… NetFlix allows you to stream movies and TV on your laptop, tablet or games console. Basically, it’s on-demand TV and films to a computer of your choice.
FC: How?
GH: It’s very much like YouTube. It’s essentially a website (or App in the case of Xboxes, iPads, other non-PC/laptop devices) that streams to your computer, except that it’s a paid service.
FC: So, they don’t post you DVDs in cute red envelopes?
GH: Initially NetFlix offered a “direct to your door” style service when it launched in the US, and it even extended into Canada, but NetFlix are yet to offer anything like this in Europe, and it seems unlikely we’ll ever see it as they’ve been trying to pull the service.
FC: Aw, but if they don’t do that then Netflix guilt is a thing of the past!
GH: I’m not familiar with this concept, but I gather you’re once again lamenting advances in technology, like when you moaned about the death of the cassette tape. It raises an interesting question about the future of physical media, which I’d like to discuss later.
FC: And we will, but damn it all I must lament this advance in technology! I’d rather looked forward to people I know having super-pretentious movies sitting around on top of a red envelope on their television for months on end. The same way people have Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on their shelves, but really they’re reading the latest Dan Brown…
GH: What’s wrong with Dan Brown?! His books are being made into well-paced, action-packed cinematic adventures. Speaking of which, what do you think of it from a cinematic perspective?
FC: I think Dan Brown movies are definitely not well-paced. Oh, you meant NetFlix! Hmm, well I think perhaps, perhaps, it increases the likelihood of people seeking out offbeat movies simply because it will be so much easier. I think it’s also likely to lead to an increase in dual cinema and online releases as has happened with Werner Herzog’s latest documentary Into the Abyss. But… as much as I’d like to think that people will hunt about in the scrub for interesting stuff now that it’s easier to do so on Netflix, really, to continue shamelessly plagiarising a quote from Brian Eno, I think most people will remain content to stay on the train-tracks of the mainstream. When it comes to physical distribution I think it might well prove to be the death knell for cinema releases for a certain class of films. Into the Abyss for instance doesn’t seem to have as many showings as I’d expect at the IFI, and that could well be because it’s available simultaneously on Volta. It might also act as the final nail in the coffin of film over digital, Christopher Nolan’s IMAX rampaging notwithstanding.

2. What impact is it likely to have on the home film market?

FC: I’d say minimal to be honest for the immediate future. The catalogue just isn’t strong enough. The problem is that the new films aren’t new enough, the old films aren’t good enough, and there aren’t enough films to hide this problem. If you were to join this you’d probably get less choice and quality than browsing the catalogue and then reserving titles from your local council library. And that’s before we mention the fact that if you’re on an Eircom broadband package or using 3G mobile broadband you’ll get about three movies watched before you hit your monthly limit for usage of the internet in its totality, and then pay thru the nose to watch additional movies to the tune of maybe your entire monthly NetFlix fee for accessing just one of their films.
GH: Is that scarifying factoid courtesy of The Weckler in The Sunday Business Post?
FC: What do you think?
GH: (sighs) Sometimes I wonder if he said The Matrix was now operational would you just believe him without thinking twice… We’ve already seen the death of Zavvi and Blockbusters on their knees, not to mention Game’s recent demise. I can only see this trend continuing. HMV need to be worried and Amazon might need to be as well. While they’ve innovated with their cloud computing platform (EC2), they are still dependent on their on-line retail, of which DVDs and Blu-Rays form a cornerstone.
FC: I remember when HMV was all music, then downloading destroyed that, then it became all movies, and now that’s changing too… This will hammer HMV when NetFlix get their act together.
GH: I think we should revisit this at the end.
FC: Agreed.

3. Why is its catalogue so poor compared to the US equivalent?

FC: So, before we address the threadbare quality of NetFlix’s catalogue I think we should first applaud their political integrity.
GH: Because they help stop piracy without needing a SOPA law?
FC: No, because they are, uniquely in the Irish political spectrum, beholden to no special interest group.
GH: What are you on about, Fergal?
FC: Click ‘Special Interest’ on the catalogue.
GH: Okay. (beat) Ah! I see what you mean. They have nothing in this category.
FC: A less charitable person might say this was ineptitude that summed up the whole catalogue, but I see what it really is – a proud statement of their political ethics.
GH: So, the catalogue is different from America because of tedious legal reasons involving individual contracts with studios, distributors, and copyright laws and clearances?
FC: Basically I think it’s the hold-up in getting Spaced released in America writ large.
GH: You actually don’t know do you?
FC: No, I thought you were researching this.
GH: Lucky for you, I did. Looking at it from the outside, NetFlix appears to be struggling to get all the necessary studies and TV networks to sign-up and publish their content. The likes of Sky and Apple have stolen a march on NetFlix, seemingly signing exclusive deals for the territory. Add to that the unclear and generally untested nature of internet copyright law in the UK and Ireland; it can only make the studios more hesitant. The NetFlix catalogue is clearly suffering badly as a result.
FC: Can I step in?
GH: To slate the catalogue?
FC: Yeah.
GH: Fire away.
FC:  The best thing about the catalogue is the action genre. It’s just fun, and heavy on the Statham which I approve. Recently added films, which pretty much sink the whole enterprise for many people, are running about a year behind the cinema with Blitz, The Mechanic and Drive Angry heading the films. The front page promises material that doesn’t show up when you browse the selection: Nurse Jackie, Torchwood, 24, Dr Who, Dirty Sexy Money. When you browse you merely find good stuff like two seasons of Dexter, a whole collection of South Park, and cancelled shows like Heroes, The InBetweeners, Prison Break, and The 4400. There’s no sign of recent essential shows like True Blood, Game of Thrones, or Boardwalk Empire.
GH: Well, we were warned not to expect ‘recent’ recent stuff.
FC: Ah, yes, but it gets worse. Horror is a mixed bag of cult classics, awful shlock, the Saw movies…and the Scary Movie movies. Scary Movie is a horror of a film but it’s not a horror film…
GH: You mean that it’s a car crash, right?
FC: Not quite. I can definitely look away. Sci-fi has some decent films and again a huge amount of genre confusion. Ditto Romance, Bitter Moon and Tokyo Decadence square off with rom-coms. Documentaries can’t tell the difference between genuinely good work and the tendentious conspiracy stuff David Aaronovitch mocks in Voodoo Histories. And then there’s the simply bizarre. Gay cinema hilariously omits Milk and Brokeback Mountain, and Indie consists of unsuccessful British films and good American indie films. The thriller section features Hard Candy (yay!) but it’s sadly sub-par as a section, saving old classics like Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects, while British films was so empty after tossing all the UK tripe into Indie they had to resort to dragging in TV like BBC miniseries The Day of the Triffids.
GH: My God, are you finished carping?
FC: Yes.
GH: Moving on!

4. Has Hollywood universally accepted NetFlix?

FC: Well, kicking and screaming is usually the way big businesses adapt to change. Not for nothing does Forbes advocate Blowing up the Enterprise as a leadership lesson to learn from Kirk. Nokia finally did it, and maybe Hollywood will too.
GH: What do you mean blow up the Enterprise?
FC: Get rid of something you love in order to compete with something new.
GH: What on earth has that got to do with David Lynch?
FC: Lynch said “Now if you’re playing the movie on a telephone, you will never in a trillion years experience the film. You’ll think you have experienced it but you’ll be cheated. It’s such a sadness that you think that you’ve seen a film on your f****** telephone. Get real.”
GH: That’s an interesting point.

FC: President Bartlett said “Decisions are made by those who show up”. Films are for people who go out, and NetFlix is for people who stay in. Lynch should be a bit less precious about new forms of viewing movies because I think generally his audience would be the type that stays in. Who knows, eventually NetFlix might start to fund auteur film-makers to produce his kind of content for them.
GH: But will people really look for films on NetFlix if they haven’t heard of them from the marketing push of a cinema release first?
FC: Let’s not over-state the power of a marketing push, apparently a 100 million dollar marketing budget for Marvel Avengers Assemble isn’t enough to avoid confusion with a TV show that started in 1961 and ended in 1970…

5. Will NetFlix see an end to piracy?


FC: If you believe The Weckler in the SBP placing a legal option next to an illegal option always withers the illegal option. I think the internet has kind of tutored people to expect content for free, like it’s a divine right. Indeed I read a very interesting piece on that last year. I’m sceptical that Irish people will download legally rather than illegally just because they now easily can. I think there’s a certain ingrained lawlessness in the Irish psyche that regards the law as an unjust imposition, and that any way to get around it is always worth exploring; I could at this point instance the entire nation apparently waiting to see how many people might not pay Phil Hogan’s household tax before deciding whether to pay it themselves. Having said which Moonshiners would seem to indicate the same mindset in America too so who the hell knows? Unless we get silly and suggest that Appalachian dwellers are suffering from a post-colonial hangover too.
GH: Sometimes I think you watch too much Discovery Channel.
FC: Wait till you see the series of Bear Grylls blogs I have lined up…
GH: I agree there will always be a hard core that will always pirate but I don’t think it’s as big as you give it credit for. You really have to start by looking at Google, Apple and Amazon. Once they properly enter the legal streaming sphere, things might really get interesting. That said, faster broadband is key to services like this surviving.

6. What parallels can be drawn between the challenges that NetFlix presents to cinema and previous challengers TV and VHS?

FC: I don’t think it’s quite the same as those two challenges, especially not TV.
GH: Do you not think there’ll be a flood of epics or innovations?
FC: No, because I think the rise of CGI devalues the production values that were behind the 1950s epics. A cast of thousands back then was a big deal, now it’s just blah because people presume they’re all CGI. That’s why flipping a truck in The Dark Knight had an impact, because it’s become so rare to bother doing something physically rather than digitally. Also I don’t think that HD and 3-D are the magic bullets dragging people into multiplexes they were initially thought to be. 3-D has proved to be a chore as far as most people are concerned, just look at how easy it is to see films in 2-D versions; and in many cases cinemas continue to run those versions after dispensing with the headache-inducing 3-D version. I’m still to be convinced that HD is actually a good idea because it tends to take the filmic sheen off of films. If you can see the make-up on the faces of the actors you’ve actually innovated to the point where the technology has become self-defeating.
GH: True, but one has to wonder what value the average consumer actually places on filmic sheen. The largest draws always tend to be the blockbuster and the best example of that in recent time has to be Avatar, which is an epic and an innovation.
FC: I think NetFlix actually poses a more essential challenge in that it might interrogate the medium itself. Is cinema something that’s visually driven story-telling, shown on a big screen, and viewed en masse? That’s a definition Hitchcock or Spielberg would recognise. NetFlix if it becomes too dominant might make it hard to tell the difference between cinema and television. If you’re watching NetFlix rather than cinema-going, and you’re watching what we’ve talked about earlier, the more personal movies, then at what point does a one-off story of a certain length, with a visual kick to dialogue scenes with high production values, that’s shown on a small screen, become indistinguishable from HBO? What would distinguish two episodes of Whitechapel back to back from a really good British crime movie?

7. NetFlix: the future/passing phase?

GH: So, is NetFlix the future or a passing phase?
FC: The revolution will not be televised, it will be streamed.
GH: Are you actually going to be serious now?
FC: Yes, I don’t think it’s going to affect things in Ireland until the catalogue ramps up – which apparently could take as much as a year or two. Right now NetFlix resembles a bookstore that’s opened with half-empty shelves. Yes, it will get better, but why open if it’s not ready yet? But I gather you think different about its potential effect.
GH: I think it’s the start of a revolution. I think it’s going to kill DVD and Blu-Ray stone dead. People will either go to the cinema, or stream films, and–
FC: Can I just cut in here and sort of agree with you in a tangential manner?
GH: Yeah…
FC: Jeffrey Katzenberg said a few years ago that in the future all tent-pole movies would be 3-D, and there would still be 2-D films, but that they’d be small personal projects. I think I’d agree with you that people will either go to the cinema or stream films, and I think they’ll go to the cinema for blockbusters where the mass manipulation of the emotions of the audience and the big screen wow factor is crucial, and they’ll stream smaller films which are more cerebral and demand close attention.
GH: And I think that DVD collections will become a thing of the past, something that’s solely for true enthusiasts like vinyl obsessives building a collection. Novelty box-sets will likely last for a short time before the DVD/ Blu-Ray itself eventually becomes the novelty. This could spawn a generation of DVD/ Blu-Ray enthusiasts like John Cusack in High Fidelity. Even now, I can imagine Nick Hornby drafting notes on High Definition.
FC: I stopped collecting DVDs when Blu-Ray appeared. I just thought “I will never watch most of these movies enough to justify the expense, and when I’ve got my collection to a nice point some new technology will just make it obsolete”. But the whole concept of a DVD collection left me cold. The idea of a bad film being worth buying purely for the extras, or the existential crises over differences in boxes between regions, or special editions with different cuts; it all made about as much sense to me as buying a rubbish book for the sake of a nifty introduction and a cool cover.
GH: Didn’t you read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for an introduction by Chuck Palahniuk?
FC: Yes. But I think the true equivalent would be a Dan Brown with a foreword by Paul Bettany explaining how he used the role of Silas to make a feature audition tape for the role of the Joker…
GH: I think NetFlix is the vanguard of Google, Apple (and possibly even Amazon) domination of the streamed media sphere. Google TV and Apple TV seem to only be a few months away, maybe a year.
FC: The idea of Apple TV terrifies me, Google TV a little less so, but Apple TV… (whistles) It just seems like something out of a dystopian novel the idea that Apple control so much of your life, how you listen, how you read, how you communicate, what you watch, on and on and on.
GH: I think I’m not well known for my love of Apple fanboys so let’s not get into a nodding contest here about how scared we are by Apple TV. Do you think the concept will take off?
FC: Yes, purely because those companies have so much power that if they want to synchronise things I think they can synchronise things.
GH: I think that you’d really have to see what they can come up with. Certainly anything that Google and Apple touch at the moment seems to be turning into gold. However, both Google and Amazon are yet to enter the market, and Apple is barely dipping its toes. True, Google owns YouTube, but it’s simply not positioning it in the same market as NetFlix.
FC: So it’s safe to say that this is the beginning of a revolution?
GH: Yeah, I think so. There’s a lot of industry weight behind it and user interest seems genuinely strong, and besides, these things only getter better with time. The real measurement of success is how many studios and TV network sign up.
FC: Can I ask you a strategic question about all of this? Do you see a connection on the macro scale between cloud computing and NetFlix – the idea that we’re moving from the need for constant and often unutilised physical possession to just paying for something in the ether when we need to actually use the service?
GH: Cloud computing is a hefty enough topic, and I’ve covered it at some length. It’s mainly a concept aimed at the smaller business, a way of offering high-end solutions (servers with high up time or premium applications) on a much lower cost basis. Rather than paying for server hardware, data centre storage, server engineers, server licensing, clustering, etc, users simply pay a per-usage rate. Like for hosted email, you might pay for each mailbox for each month of use. So in that sense, pay as you go usage, they are some similarities.
FC: Huh, perhaps Tyler Durden got his wish after all. We’ve rejected the basic principles of western civilisation, especially the importance of material possessions.
GH: I don’t think Fight Club is on NetFlix…
FC: (groans) The revolution will begin once NetFlix have got their bloody catalogue together.

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July 6, 2011

On Reading

I’ve just failed, yet again, to achieve one of my long-standing perfect reading scenarios and it’s made me reflect about my various ways of reading novels.

The perfect reading scenario in question involves reading F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby while listening to Rhapsody in Blue and Piano Concerto in F by George Gershwin. This of course involves reading the sparkling prose of the poet laureate of the Jazz Age to the accompaniment of the music of the Jazz Age’s pre-eminent composer, whose works might well have been performed at Gatsby’s parties. This should be done lounging outside in the sunshine; usually possible if done on the 4th of July – which is a vital component of this scenario; and drinking something deliciously iced, but undertaken; as ‘a broken series of successful gestures’ if you will; over the course of an afternoon and evening so that you get to Nick Carraway’s magnificent peroration about night falling on Gatsby’s mansion just as the sun goes down…

Oddly enough, purely by accident, I achieved a perfect reading scenario recently for Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon; in this case the scenario being entirely weather appropriate. I read the first 70 pages outside in the summer sunshine, perfectly suiting the reminiscences by Grady Tripp of his Kerouac wanderlust youth. The second half of the book, however, found me reading and reading on a thunderously wet day even as Grady Tripp, Terry Crabtree and the other characters resolved all their complicated problems during a terribly rain-sodden Pittsburgh weekend. And then, amazingly, just as Tripp achieved a final epiphany during the downpour I heard something. Birdsong. The rain here had stopped, the sun had come out, the birds were singing their relief; and damn if Chabon’s epilogue didn’t immediately return to a sunny small town in Pennsylvania.

That sort of thing, however, hardly ever happens. Most of the time the way I read is decided by the book’s length, not esoteric synchronicities. A short book like I Am Legend or Fight Club I tend to blast thru in one sitting. Meanwhile Robert B Parker’s Jesse Stone novels, masterpieces of pared-down quip-laden pulp fiction, are best devoured in three (one hundred-page) sittings over three days. Kathy Reich’s Temperance Brennan thrillers are longer and more substantial, so they’re best lapped up over two consecutive weekends. Finally there’s the way to read Patrick O’Brian’s Master & Commander novels. A chapter or two at a time, but spaced out so that the entire ten chapter novel takes at least two weeks. Only that way can one truly savour the flavour of each chapter, and O’Brian’s hilarious predisposition to writing chapters that deliberately ignore the preceding chapter’s cliff-hanger.

Nearly all these ways of reading require setting aside a chunk of time for that purpose. But of course one could say the same about writing anything worth reading…

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