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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

So Darn Predictable

Many, many moons ago, I expounded upon the time when the business models of high tech and Hollywood would clash, that time has arrived.  The best current example is Microsoft's new foray into the original entertainment content arena with their 'Xbox Originals'.

Paraded this week and led by Nancy Tellum, Head of MS's Xbox Entertainment Studios, was MS's strategy in the highly volatile and competitive digital content business.  What Microsoft (like all of the other original content providers) has to figure out is what mix of shows to offer, who their core audience is, how much to charge, if advertising is viable, and what are, in MS's case, the interactive features to be offered.  The MS team has been hard at work developing a slate of content and has decided to use the shotgun approach.  Offered will be a blend of unscripted reality shows, documentaries, dramas, comedies, sports, and live show-castings.

MS's core audience is gamers, generally males 18 to 34 though women make up a large portion as well- this audience must be expanded and that is why the programming is so varied.  The audience is potentially huge.  Over 85 million Xbox gaming consoles have been sold globally and 48 million of those are connected to Xbox Live, providing MS a significant baked-in user base.

The Content

To be made available on Xbox 360, Xbox One, Windows 8 PC, and Windows 8 Phone, the shows will also offer unique interactive capabilities making each a one-of-a-kind entertainment experience.  The new shows, starting this June, will feature the following:

'Halo' - a series based upon the huge Halo game franchise. This series is being produced and directed by Steven Spielberg.

'Every Street United' - an unscripted series of eight 30 minute episodes and a one-hour finale.  It centers on the global search for soccer's most gifted and undiscovered street stars scouted for in eight countries.

'Bonnaroo' - the three day Tennessee music and art festival which will be live-cast. MS will be the exclusive broadcaster and interactive features will allow viewers to toggle between two live stages, choose camera angles, and Skype with band members.

'Humans' - a one-hour, eight episode drama about a parallel world where the latest must-have is a 'Synth', an advanced robotic servant.  But purchasing a refurbished Synth will spell trouble.

The roster goes on: 'Signal to Noise', 'Atari:Game Over', 'Deadlands', 'Extraordinary Believers', 'Fearless', 'Gun Machine', 'JASH', a comedy variety show, and 'Winterworld' a sci-fi thriller.

What's The End Game?

For tech firms like MS, Netflix, Google, Amazon etc. and for traditional Hollywood media it's a win/win.  Lots more production in an ever expanding arena with ever more content hungry viewers with a fear-of-missing-out mentality.

For cinemas, the trail is before you. Having now converted to d-cinema (and having done so in the right way) the potential for offering your customers a wide variety of content, exclusive of movies, is like never before.  There is no reason why every cinema operator should not be contacting MS and inquiring how they can offer the Bannarro festival on their big screen with big sound via a hook-up of an Xbox to their d-cinema projector.  Again, this is a win/win.  MS would, I believe, look kindly to expanding its audience and include cinemas in that mix.  The opportunity is there - cinemas just have to recognize it and act upon it.  That is how cinemas will prosper in the future.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Popcorn Movies / Doing The Fandango

Popcorn Movies - A New Genre
Can't Wait To See Summer's Popcorn Flicks

Coined by Betsy Sharkey of the LA Times, popcorn movies are those films "whose primary mission is to entertain. That's it. No thinking, tear-jerking, reflecting required.  They must have a popcorn soul."

What than are the requirements that make an unforgettable popcorn film and not just another run-on-the-mill popper.  The perfect popcorn movie must first be a big box office bruiser.  It must have the muscle to meet our high-impact expectations. It must also have:

- Bigger than life characters, be they superheros, sci-fi monsters, or horror makers.  One way or another, good or bad, the characters must arose emotions.  The heroes, to be super, must have foes that are as complex and compelling as they are.  Baddies that stay with you days after you view them. Think swimming shortly after viewing 'Jaws'.

- Special effects must be off-the-chain. The big screen demands big visuals and big sound.  The effects should Wow!  They should visually take you there and experience what you could never in real life.

- A great Popcorn movie should make you want more.  Make you demand a sequel or more. You can't get enough.  A film that is touted to be a Popcorn flick better not disappoint.  If advertised as a bruiser it better deliver.

So, happy Popcorn movie viewing.  This summer's roster will hopefully provide a number of 'popcorn poppers' - look for them and enjoy the fantasy and mindlessness of this 'must see' genre.

Movieclips Does The Fandango
Doing the Fandango

Fandango - a lively, over-the-top Spanish duo dance in triple time or, the name of the largest cinema online ticketing service in the U.S. Fandango, which is owned by NBC/Universal, inked a deal last week to acquire Movieclips, the operator of movie-oriented YouTube channels.  The importance of this transaction is that Fandango sees its future, at least a big part of it, in offering more diverse web-based services.

Operated by Zefr Inc., Movieclips manages 25 YouTube channels which offer film clips, trailers, and original video productions.  It has more than 7 million subscribers and averages 200 million viewers per month! Started in 2009, Movieclips partnered with the Hollywood studios to pay them for distribution of short clips and trailers from popular movies. "This is a tremendous opportunity for everyone in building the ultimate destination for moviegoers and fans alike",  Rich Radden of Zefr told CMG. To which Paul Yanover, President of Fandango added, "Movieclips will further our service to fans, enhancing the Fandango experience with new video content.  This deal will provide consumers an even better way to explore and share their passion for movies."

The is a good strategic move for Fandango as it expands on their movie ticket selling business which serves over 23,000 cinema screens.  Financial details of the acquisition were not disclosed.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Biopic on Monroe - Barbie Debuts On Big Screen

Marilyn Monroe Biopic Finally Gets Nod
Monroe and Chastain

A new movie entitled, 'Blonde', based on the life of Marilyn Monroe finally got the green light.  To star Jessica Chastain as Monroe, the film will be based upon the Joyce Oates' novel of the same name.

The project, which has been in the works since 2010 and was originally to star Naomi Watts, never got off the ground. To now be directed by Andrew Dominik, who described the project as "a really sprawling, emotional nightmare fairy-tale type movie, about an abandoned orphan who gets lost in the woods", the film is to depict Norma Jean as child to Monroe as superstar.

Oates' 700 page novel was published in 2000 and is a fictional bio but it does accurately  deal with many of Monroe's famous relationships - from JFK to Joe D. It will be quite the screenplay and edit job to get the full thrust of  'Blonde' on screen and do Monroe justice in dealing with her inner demons. Jessica Chastain, a natural red-head, has received two Oscar nominations for best supporting actor for her roles in 'The Help' and 'Zero Dark Thirty'.

'Blonde' is to start shooting in August and is being produced by Brad Pitt's Plan B Productions.

Barbie Makes Big Screen Debut
Old Barbie

55 year old Barbie (she doesn't look a day over 20) will make her movie debut in a live-action comedy.  Rumor has it that the film will depict Barbie in many of  her most popular 'looks' (of which she has over 150) from princess-to-president-to-mermaid and on and on. Which of the 'looks' will be used for the movie is currently under wraps by Sony and Mattel (Barbie's owner).

New Barbie
Columbia Pictures' (a subsidiary of Sony Pictures) President, Hannah Minghella stated that the Barbie movie concept was "unexpected, clever, and truly funny".  This will be the second team-up between Sony and Mattel, the first being the agreement to make a movie based upon the 'Masters of the Universe' characters: 'He-Man' and 'Skeletor'  The 'Masters' project is now in development.

Production of the Barbie film is scheduled to begin by year's end.

Monday, April 21, 2014

CINEMA BuzzFEED - 21 April 2014

Stone at Beijing Film Festival

Never one to mince words, in a surprise statement during a presentation at the Beijing International Film Festival, Oliver Stone told the stunned audience that China needs to confront its past regarding Mao Zedong and the realities of what occurred during the Cultural Revolution. "This is necessary if China's cinema is to be taken seriously" Stone told the attendees.

Stone's comments caused a real problem for the attending guests when he began to discuss the failure of Chinese film makers to confront the true legacy of the Chinese Communist Party and China's revered founding father, Mao. "Mao has been lionized in dozens and dozens of Chinese films, but never criticized", said Stone, "it's about time to make a realistic movie about Mao and the Cultural Revolution. We need to see the history.  These things happened, they affected everyone in this room."

Stone's pronouncements, which were received with much controversy by the Chinese press, are not foreign to his outspoken reputation.  The Cultural Revolution was a social-political movement set in motion by Mao.  It's goal was to re-introduce and re-invigorate the Communist doctrine into Chinese society. It also gave Mao the opportunity to reassess his power after the dismal failure of The Great Leap Forward which effectively paralyzed China politically and was an enormous economic disaster.
Started in 1966, the Cultural Revolution caused widespread turmoil, concluding a mass purge of many middle-class Chinese (estimates put the death toll at over 30 million). The Revolution officially ended in 1976 after Mao's death.  By 1980, the policies of Mao's Revolution had been entirely reversed and capitalist based economic policies were instituted.

"We're talking about the essential essence of this nation, of  how it was built, this whole century, you've not dealt with it", Stone told the audience.

4K Resolution Buzz

Talk about 4K resolution is everywhere, with products for the consumer, commercial, and cinema markets. So what is really involved in the deployment and from who, where, and when will the demand for 4k come.

What are the biggest challenges in delivering relevant 4k content?  Producing 4k content is expensive whether for cinemas or TV.  The equipment necessary to produce the 4k image is expensive, so there is a scarcity of this equipment and the expertise to use it.  At the exhibition end, most of the digital cinema projectors and servers can not reproduce 4k images without costly upgrades. Additionally, the technology does not support the resolution in its native format. Instead, software systems using various compression methods and scaling techniques are utilized which effectively diminish  the benefits of the 4k image.

4k has a way to go, be it for the consumer, commercial, or cinema markets. Technical hurdles, cost, and adoption by end users all need to be addressed so I don't see Hollywood jumping on the 4k bandwagon in a big way for the foreseeable future.  These realities, coupled with the fact that 8k resolution has been introduced really puts a damper on 4k.

Jim Lavorato

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Star Wars: Cloaked In Secrecy

One film that has become a very closely guarded secret in Hollywood is the new Star Wars Episode VII.

It now appears that portions of the new movie will be shot in Abu Dhabi - as photos of a film set being built in the dunes near the resort of Qasr Al Sarat are similar to Tatooine, the desert-like home of  Luke Skywalker. Tunisia was used as the setting in the earlier Star Wars films, but the current political situation there is not favorable for film making, so it appears that Abu Dhabi got the nod.

Since Disney Studios announced their plans for three additional episodes of the space saga to be made, there has been questions as to where the first installment would be filmed and who would be cast in the leading roles.  It has been pretty much determined that the original trio of actors: Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), Harrison Ford (Han Solo), and Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) will appear in the new film.  Their appearances will be a huge plus for stalwart fans and regular moviegoers alike.  To date, the only character that Disney has officially confirmed to return is the robot R2-D2.
Recent photo: Hamill, Fisher, and Ford

With a $200+ million budget Episode VII should be quite the movie experience, but fans are very put-off. Star Wars' fan website, theforce.net, has expressed displeasure with Disney's very secret approach to details regarding the new film.  It is known that the film's director, J.J Abrams, was given full access to George Lucas's personal notes detailing what he envisioned for Episodes VII, VIII, and IX of the saga. Lucas always planned for nine films, so his notes are invaluable and Abrams and his team have had several Q and A sessions with Lucas regarding his storyline.  Lucas had previously stated that, "Only two of the main characters will appear in all nine films, and they are the robots, R2-D2 and C-3PO. In effect, the whole story is told through their eyes".

Star Wars Episode VII is due to be released in December 2015.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

China Enters 'World of Warcraft' Hollywood Style

China Film Group (CFG), the government run agency that overseas China's film industry, has signed a multi-million deal with Legendary Pictures to fund two fantasy films based upon the epic video games - World of Warcraft and Seventh Son. CFG is the only authorized importer of foreign films into China and this will be the first time the agency will be funding Hollywood made productions from scratch.  The scheduled release date for Seventh Son is February 2016 with Warcraft to follow in March.

Following the purchase, last year, of the AMC Theatre Group (the U.S.'s second largest theatre circuit) by the Wanda Group, a Chinese-based development company, the deal with Legendary Pictures indicates that the Chinese are very serious about building a robust and vibrant cinema industry to compete with Hollywood - both in terms of production and distribution.  "The partnership with Legendary is a new attempt in this progress. I believe our collaboration will become an effective step for both parties in terms of resource integration and market expansion", stated La Peikang, Chairman of CFG.

With China predicted to overtake the U.S. as the world's biggest box office generator by 2020, China sees the movie industry as a means to spread its culture and values throughout the globe. The current annual quota of foreign films allowed distribution in China is only 34. The CFG has indicated that the quota will be increased to 44 films, prompted by the Legendary deal.  China limits foreign film releases (principally U.S. films) to bolster the box office of homegrown movies. However, this strategy isn't working so well as the Hollywood blockbusters dramatically outperform the big budget Chinese productions.  So, the strategy now is - if you can't beat them, join them - thus the co-production of Hollywood movies for distribution in and outside of China.

I say, all the best. More quality production and more competition the better the end result of what we will be viewing on the big screen.

Jim Lavorato

The Cinephile is DEAD!

Cinephile - a person with a passionate interest in cinema, movie theory, and film criticism.
Are Group's like the ICS any longer relevant?

With the vast amount of movie and TV content being produced each year, and internet access to all of it - everyone has become a cinephile. With access to more content than anyone could have imagined just a few years ago, becoming a cinephile is now simple.  But, on the flip-side to this all access pass, is the need for time to consume this huge array of entertainment.  "The vast majority of the world's books, films, TV, and art you will never see", says Linda Holmes, media consultant and author, and she is right!

Easy access but not enough time to digest it all. This comes to the topic of FOMO (fear-of-missing-out) which is now rampant not only in regards to cinephilia but for our quest for information in general.
FOMO refers to the anxiety and inadequacy humans feel when using social media.  This concept isn't specific to the information age but the proliferation of social media, which has caused people, on a global scale, to feel they are missing out on something other than what they are doing - like reading this blog - to the point that they are constantly checking their phone say during a party, rather than enjoying the party.

To be honest, the only solution for cinephiles is to admit that they can't become a cinephile in the 'old'  meaning of the term - thus the cinephile is dead.  People must come to grips with the fact that they are not going to be able to watch every movie, to accept that much of what they miss will be great, and to admit that this is Ok - that , however incomplete their knowledge, they still love the cinema.

Perhaps it isn't that cinephilia is dead, it has just become irrelevant.  There is now no difference between a cinephile and the average media consumer.  Once a member of an elite group, technology and social media have granted everyone admission to the cinephile club, and maybe this is as it should be.

Jim Lavorato

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Smartainment - The Future for Cinema?

Smartainment or smartaining is the production of entertainment content that is also educational or informative.  This term can most definitely be applied to the content available from the National Geographic Society's Cinema Program, which offers an alternative to regular big-screen movies.

To find out more about their Cinema Program CMG spoke with Howard Owens, Nat Geo's President.

CMG: Howard, how would you assess Nat Geo's Cinema Program?

Owens: It speaks to National Geographic's premise that cinemas are a place for upscale, aspirational and smart, fearless programming.  That is the audience we are trying to reach, both adults and children.
Howard Owens, Pres. Nat Geo

CMG: There was some question that having a cinema program would represent a move away from the traditions of the Society. Do you believe the success of the cinema program have quelled critics?

Owens: Yes, in fact it has done the opposite of what critics predicted. We have enhanced the Society's brand with new life and made it a contemporary brand.  National Geographic tries to bring out the inner explorer in everyone in an entertaining and enlightening way.  With the cinema program we are embracing the Society's core values of exploration, endurance, and mind over matter.  We don't do programming about the lowest common denominator or that talk down to our audience.  We want to elevate the conversation with programming that we're part of. This holds true for our TV channel as well.

CMG: You use the term 'smartainment' to describe Nat Geo's brand of programming, what does that mean to you?

Great photo from Nat Geo
Owens: It is programming that entertains but also informs and educates, and the success of our cinema program affirms that people want more engaging, highly entertaining but smart, aspirational content that's not afraid to be fun and fearless.  So, we're looking to expand that in unique and different ways.  We learn more about the digital content space everyday and we are really trying to use all aspects to keep our audiences more engaged in our shows and to allow an opportunity for advertisers to have a more intimate relationship with our audiences and not just run ads, however clever.

CMG: Thanks Howard.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Cartoons With A Conscience - and $$$s

Fox and U.S. Forest Service Team Up on 'Rio 2'
Hollywood appears to be using cartoons to educate and moralize on social issues - as it has become routine for animated films to be 'message' driven and it seems that this tactic is proving very popular with moviegoers.  For example, the recent and very successful, 'Mr. Peabody & Sherman' (DreamWorks), about a dog that adopts a child and travels back in time, encountering historic (real-life) people and their problems.  Or for the upcoming, 'Rio 2' (Fox) in which a blue parrot and his pals battle extinction will debut with a PR campaign in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service - to encourage children to spend more time outdoors and connect with nature.  Studio sponsored, public-service announcements are planned with a view to educating young children on appreciating nature and animals and instilling a sense of environmental stewardship. The U.S Forest Service estimates that over 245 million Americans live within 100 miles of a national forest or grassland - and 88% of children say they enjoy being in the outdoors.

Later this year, DreamWorks will be releasing 'Home', which depicts the relocation of people to reservation land in Arizona - the comparison between Native Americans and the arrival of white settlers is central to the film's message of environmentalism and multi-cultural themes.

But this is more than Hollywood's attempt to send youngsters moral messages - it's about great business opportunity as well.  The audience for animated movies is much broader than for action/superhero movies and since the mega box office success of eco-friendly films such as 'Avatar' and 'Wall-E', Hollywood sat up and noticed that addressing social issues was not a bad way to go.  According to Dominic Patten of Deadline Hollywood, "This has been true for animated films for some time. They are not for kids anymore - parents and children only make up 50% of the box office, the rest of the audience is adults 24-68. It's a wide, multinational demographic."  Which is way these movies make so much money. 'Frozen' not only made over $1 billion at the box office globally, but its soundtrack was number 1 for weeks on the top-hits chart.

From Hollywood's perspective, this is all good, really good.  It's not about getting on a soap-box rant but highlighting issues that people know are important and impact the whole world.  And telling these stories through cartoon characters really seems to connect with moviegoers.

"It has to do with recognizing the power of the moving image in the 21st Century", Barbara Boyle, Assoc. Dean of UCLA's School of  Theatre, Film & Television told CMG. "Animators have been including social responsibility in their films for many years, now they are getting to be more important. Animators can do anything.  They're not limited.  It's a true art form. You can have animals speak.  You have no boundaries to reality.  If you are learning about human or social issues it doesn't matter if  it's a rabbit talking to you."

I agree. People want to have their social and environmental concerns confirmed through films - and the animated ones can do it better and much easier to a much broader audience.

Jim Lavorato

Marvel Plans Superhero Movies Thru 2028

In a stunning statement, Kevin Feige, President of Disney/Marvel told Bloomberg Businessweek  that "It's like looking through the Hubble telescope. You go, "What's happening back there? I can sort of see it." Our plans for films reaching well into the next decade, at least to 2028."
Disney/Marvel Plan on Big Future

This is great news for the cinema industry, as Marvel Studios has had great box office success since opening its doors, just six years ago. Its debut movie was 'Iron Man' and its latest blockbuster, 'The Avengers', was the third biggest grosser of all time with a $1.5billion global box office take.  Thus far, Marvel has put out 9 films, including the current 'Captain America:The Winter Soldier' and three more films are ready for release: 'Guardians of the Galaxy', 'The Avengers:Age of Ultron'. and 'Ant Man'. 

In the works is a movie based on the Doctor Strange character, as well as, more installments of Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man.  But Feige isn't satisfied with that, he says, "Marvel has identified more than 8,000 characters in their comic-book back catalog that could be featured in stand-along movies."  To prove it, Feige has a large illustration on his office wall which depicts planned movies going out to 2028.

Many More Superheros Planned
In a recent meeting with Marvel/Disney execs Feige laid out his plans for new characters being introduced in next year's 'Avengers:Age of Ultron' that could feature in their own movies. The front runners are 'Quicksilver' and 'Scarlet Witch' who will both debut in the 'Age of Ultron'.

The high-impact, superhero movies are currently driving the cinema box office so why not keep them coming. The more the better for the industry and cinema owners in particular.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

CinemaCon - Laid-back and Relaxed

Forget the Oscars, Cannes, Sundance, Emmys, and all the other media mega-shows and festivals - the best in 'show' is CinemaCon.  If you really want to get into the Hollywood scene - rub elbows and slap backs with the stars and tinsel-town honchos - then going to CinemaCon should be on your agenda.

The least hyped of the movie industry's annual gatherings, CinemaCon (the Las Vegas Convention and Trade Show) is attended by roughly 3,000 theatre owners, studio execs, and cinema and concession equipment manufacturers and distributors - not to mention lots of movie stars.  However, unlike all the rest of the shows, CinemaCon is laid-back and stress-free, particularly for the H'wood stars who show up to hawk their latest films, chit-chat, and be themselves.

The year's roster included Clint Eastwood, Johnny Depp, Camerion Diaz, Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Costner, Mark Wahlberg, Drew Barrymore, Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum etc. etc., as well as, the heads of all of the major studios. As Hollywood get-togethers go, it's an odd mix of work and play for all attendees.

The purpose of CinemaCon is to give cinema owners and others (who rely upon the cinema industry) a sense of what will be forthcoming in the months ahead and what films will draw in the largest audiences. Additionally, new equipment is exhibited and demo'ed and attendees are not bashful in giving their opinion to the studios or manufacturers.

Highlights of this year's Show for me:

JBL's New Speaker Lineup
New JBL 9320 Surround

Two new surround speakers, the SCS12 and the 9320 can be used both on wall or ceiling to take advantage of the Dolby Atmos Sound System. JBL also intro'd two new stage speaker systems, the 3252N for smaller auditoriums and the 5742 for large cinemas.

Media Motion's 4D and 5D Cinema Experience

Seating for Media Motion 4D Experience
Forget about D-Block or other current motion seats, Media Motion showed-off the ultimate in interactive cinema.  The 5D system has seats that move up/down, tilt lift/right, forward/back, have seat vibration, leg and neck ticklers, air blast, water sprays, scent sprays, and seat and back pokers.

I 'rode' the 4D/5D seats to a clip of a motorcycle (you are the driver) being chased by bad guys. The experience is, well, simulating and very interactive. Whether you would want to be this interactive during a 2-3 hour feature film is unlikely, but for some the extra admission would be worth it.

Media Motion sells the seats in blocks of 24, 48, or 96. All aboard!

NEC's NC1100L Laser Cinema Projector

The NC1100L is a compact D-Cinema Projector with laser lighting vs. xenon.  The demo presentation I witnessed however presented a dim on-screen image. There just wasn't enough light and the image was dark.  The benefits are that the laser light lasts for 20,000 hours and the projector is sold as being "maintenance free".  Which isn't true as software and firmware upgrades will be required. No pricing as yet been announced. For dealers/distributors it's a non-starter.

Jim Lavorato