Saturday, 19 October 2013

Digital TV Series to Supersede Silver Screen? + Movie, Anime & Web Series Reviews

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Not so long ago (when I first tried to write this post) Kevin Spacey had just caused a bit of a media stir with his keynote speech at the Edinburgh Television Festival. He blows his own trumpet, regarding his latest, nine time Emmy nominated tv netflix series "House of Cards" (an Americanised version of the BBC show from 1990, staring Spacey), but more interestingly, he preaches to the TV industry to follow his lead: embrace digital distribution.

He disrespects America's wasteful insistence on pilot episode based commissioning of TV series. He claims that giving viewers the ability to "binge" on reasonably priced series can help save content distributors (and creators) from the level of internet piracy the music industry suffered last decade. He asserts that the boundaries between movies, TV and streaming content are indistinct: just "stories" on a screen. All pretty sensible stuff that most internet users have probably felt for a good 5-10 years, but coming from a big name movie star and being lapped up by the media.

There's very powerful market disruption, with the big companies of legacy media formats finally being forced to acknowledge internet distribution as a legitimate business model. But, just as "Video [didn't] kill the radio star", no old technology is ever going to go totally extinct. I think that cinema is going to suffer further ignominity, increasingly sidelined as web distribution further boosts the influence of serialised content.

For example: I really liked "Continuum", as I laid out in my previous blog post. The level of intrigue a good series like that can cultivate is utterly unattainable for feature film pieces. Also, the conclusion of "Breaking Bad" precipitated a months long media frenzy in my news feed. Great show, but a bandwagon I'm not going to jump on here.

No film can generate that kind of on-going, free publicity, let alone develop such well loved characters or cover so much ground in such detail. I've become pretty resigned to a continuing drought, as far as inspiringly novel (sci-fi) films are concerned. Neil Blomencamp made perfectly clear that his summer blockbuster was necessarily polished (away to blandness) for mass market appeal.
Three of 2013's Summer Sci-fi Film Flops:

The unredeemed, action-bling nonsense of "Star Trek Into Darkness". The second 'reboot' instalment makes it evident that cheap one liners and recycled caricatures are the main reason for the intellectual rights, since the spirit of the Star Trek universe is repeatedly discarded whenever it suits slightly slicker transitions between action sequences.

The fundamentally flawed "World War Z", or 'Brad Pitt Zombie Movie' is ostensibly an adaptation of a popular book by the same name (of which I know nothing). Maybe it never stood a chance as a film; I certainly think that fans, these days, prefer to dream of their most beloved works of fiction being picked up for a mini-series, rather than crumpled up into Cinema format.

I actually sat back and enjoyed the first half of "Oblivion"; the pristine look and feel really meshed well with the atmospheric, synth heavy (Mass Effect style), soundtrack by M83. However, it falls apart under continued scrutiny, culminating in a ridiculously cheesy (inexplicably implausible) resolution. Philosophically, it is partially redeemed by apparently embracing a patternist interpretation of personal identity (rather than some pseudo-Christian, Hollywoodism).
Oh dear, not my idea of blue sky thinking. (Enterprise plummets - Into Darkness.)
Memetically, shorter/smaller spreads faster/better. Hence the massive influence of Twitter's succinct format and the 20/10/5 minute pop-science TED talks. A 40 minute episode is a far less daunting investment of time, fitting comfortably in life's interstices. Ungainly films demand timetabling into one's personal schedule as carefully as a fancy meal out, which is increasingly difficult in our accelerating lives.

Series trump feature films by being bigger too. The greater volume of story allows more permutations, hence more room for novelty, an attractive trait for this here meme machine (me). Each successive episode has higher saliency (to a potential view's brain), thanks to the previous episodes (they've seen). A kind of memeplex with each show reinforcing the other's chances for selection.
"I hate television. I hate it as much as I hate peanuts. But I just can't stop eating peanuts." (Orson Welles, via Kevin Spacey's recent address.)
Movie executives have long rallied against the limits of their medium, pushing out sequels and paying well over the odds for universally known faces. It's not just a lack of imagination, it's mostly that they know people's attention is piqued by things that are only partially unknown, rather that totally alien. Hence they talk excitedly about franchises and "IP", doing their best to serialise a discrete medium.
"As consumers, we are at fault. These are the choices that we're making. More of us want to see Iron Man III than an artsy film." ... "If you're looking for high-concept entertainment, you can find it on TV." - Anita Elberse's "Blockbusters", in The Atlantic.
With computerised special effects, sci-fi's bread and butter, now obtainable on marginal budgets, it seems that cinema's legacy hold on this block-busting genre is becoming ever looser. There's also more scope for niche appeal with the cheaper production values of TV, making modest revenues acceptable (even more so web).

Lower budget, lower performance pressure, seems to be the way to breed greater diversity/novelty. I've previously stated that animé does well for this reason, penetrating further than live action TV could, into the realms of imagination. Bringing such gems as "Full Metal Alchemist" (2003) to life, "Cowboy Bebop" (1998) for an even more classic example (as well as fleshing out the GITS franchise with the SAC series).

Anime Series (this year): 

"Legend of Korra" gets an honourable mention here. The vaguely linked continuation of the brilliant "Avatar: The Last Airbender" animated series. It's natively english (unlike the following two, which are just fan-subtitled), but with ratings dropping off it's being demoted to Nick(elodeon) Toons.

Japanese imagination does tend to gravitate towards giant robot battles, and "Gargantia("on the Verduous Planet", AKA "Suisei no Gargantia", 2013) is no exception. It launches straight into frenetic blasts of neon lilac and cyan against a backdrop of mechas in the dark of space. But we quickly step out of this near satire, into the mysteriously backwards waterworld featured in the opening titles.

The mid section of the run is a pretty philosophical introspective of the meaning of society and the merits/pitfalls of (overly) regimented, authoritarian structure. Which was refreshing, though came at the cost of plot momentum, especially watching at 1 episode per week. The big reveals come through pretty much as expected (for those paying attention) and there's some more awe-summ lazzar battles too.

The epilogue's a little too jammed with saccharine and the change in tact of the last few episodes is pretty palpable. Having finally started to expand out a range of potential plot avenues, it was presumably cancelled. I still recommend this, for it's novel aesthetic and thought provoking contemplations on transhumanism.

"Attack on Titan" delves back into the thought-space of Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995), but not just in superficial terms: being a pre-industrial, steam punk, mirror image where humanity is again cowering in a fortress city, availed by unfathomable behemoths.

It explores at length (somewhat painfully drawn out lengths) the intense psychological strain that war puts on the individual; paralysing fear being just as deadly as having one's head bitten off. I barely stuck with the lurching progress of the first half of it's début season; it just about got going again after a near intolerable 40 minutes (episodes 2 and 3 combined), but then built nicely to some exciting, heart stoppingly surprising twists, mid season.

Having just concluded, I can attest that there's no real surprises thereafter, and the plot pacing is drawn. Seems like they might be shooting for 5 series, if they don't get canceled (although the original manga is still being written). This stands in contrast to the massively over the top introduction music (orchestral ska-apocalypse!), changed mid season to be just as manic, but thankfully less catchy.
Spacey probably just channeled the general hub-bub about 'convergence', regarding this industry (and the various multi-media, consumer hardware). But really, the plethora of subtly different digital viewing platforms are creating more of a divergence. Media is no longer forced to fit either cinema length, or TV scheduling length molds, opening up a greater idea space. A spread into new territories, promising a boost to multimedia speciation, rather than homogeneity.

Netflix is rapidly expanding into funding content creation, since their first series last year (2012), they're now aiming to double their current budget for original material to 20%. That's a paradigm shift away from being the online equivalent of a DVD rental store. But it's more significant than a new big-boy breaking into the domain of award winning dramas, currently monopolised by cable TV companies. TV is traditionally passive viewing, broadcast, but digital viewing is inherently active: "intentional watching". This should provide faster, more direct feedback, influencing content selection.

Even more direct is the crowdfunded approach, with people paying into projects they want to see made. This system is a wonderful way for grass roots to bootstrap worthy little start-ups, a way to bypass the old gatekeepers. IndiegogoAngelList, etcetera, seem to hold enormous promise for the democratisation of finance, but it remains to be seen how effective this kind of system is. Getting funded is all about looking/sounding good and exciting. There's much potential for the kind of market distorting, pre-purchase selection bias that pushed up camera mega-pixel counts, far in advance of the less quantifiable optical quality. And for use of memetic exploits, like (unrepresentative) YouTube thumbnails that conveniently feature a sexy lady.

For example: this year, a big, enthusiastic fan base catapulted the Veronica Mars movie Kickstarter way beyond it's $2M funding goal, into second place (now 3rd) on the most funded list, with $5.7M. While the fans will be sure to get what they asked (and paid) for, will it turn out to be what they truly wanted? Could this kind of bandwagon funding actually demote variety?

I've just noticed that YouTube is now selling video views, on it's Films channel, at a DVD comparable price point, with payment via Google Wallet (a worrying easy couple of clicks away). But aside from these directly monetised web services (including Netflix, Lovefilm, Amazon, iTunes, etc) there is a whole ecosystem of free to view (ad supported) YouTube content. It's possible to earn £100k through YouTube's "Partners Program", if you happen to be the lucky sole who posted the intensely viral clip "Charlie bit my finger – again!" (400M views).

One off, world dominating videos, like "Gangnam Style", might top the charts for clips with most views, like cultural supernova, but it's the 'channels' that dominate on continuous throughput. Rapidity and volume of video creation seem to be key to success here. On the list of most subscribed channelsPewDiePie's irritating flavour of video game talk-overs is currently beating out Smoshes's, just as irritating, low budget parody sketches, 14.6M to 12.9M subscribers. While channels toting videos that garner around 10k can earn an equivalent to a modest real-world salary, PewDie may have earned over $6M, to date. Bigger still are YouTube 'networks' (collections of channels banded together) like Vevo and Machinima (a term describing cinematic production in real time graphics engines/games, i.e. cheap and accessible CGI) are even bigger, raking in billions of views per month. A very interesting, fluid landscape compared to traditional TV channels and cable networks, etc.

Aside from Lady Gaga music videos, Youtube seems far less friendly towards high production value (fiction, drama, etc). There's some done on a shoestring by up-and-comers, presumably hoping to to use it as a launchpad to gainful employment. But serious sci-fi web series seem generally borked for now.
Great Web Series From The Last Year:

"H+", additionally titled "The Digital Series" (presumably augmented when it's initial two character name proved un-Google-able), is an insanely ambitious and involved web series. Concluding in January 2013, it must be the best crack at a full, theatrical story to be released exclusively on YouTube. Certainly the highest production values, with Bryan Singer and Warner Brothers Digital Distribution backing it up.

It's 48 webisodes range from under 2 minutes to almost 8, totalling about 3 and a half hours, and were released two per week. The plot explores a transhumanist near-future via a world spanning, apocalyptic scenario, centered around ubiquitous use of neural interfaces. It's so intensely detailed and subtle that straight after the last episode one needs to go back to the beginning to realise the true meaning of events. An annotated second set of the episodes is provided with this purpose expressly in mind.

Character driven, but alternating episodes between many view-points, makes this project even more like a good sci-fi novel. River of Gods came to mind (largely down to the India link, no doubt), but this was obviously far slicker, with a more satisfying conclusion (once you've fathomed it). I can imagine many other complex novels being well suited to similar style adaptations, without the format requirements for TV schedule length chunks or the strangle hold of a 2 hour, cinematic, upper limit.

"The Vaultis at the opposite end of the funding scale, yet retains a high quality appearance, thanks to the clean minimalism of it's setting and convenient casting of fellow university students. It's a kind of "Big Brother" (reality TV) meets "The Cube" (1997). It starts extremely strongly, spinning out the intriguingly complex puzzle, in which the protagonists find themselves. But the continuing stream of plot twists eventually start becoming a little too reminiscent of "Lost" (2004-2010), with no clear conclusion in sight. As of writing this, additional episodes are months apart, with the creators admitting to working on other projects.

It's still worth a look, though; crazy that the series has had under 100k views (tailing off to a couple ten's of thousands towards the 16th episode). Although, the first installment of H+ has barely cleared 1 million views...

I've only covered a couple, sci-fi offerings, for lists of generally good, recent, web series see here, or here.

[Update 2013-10-20 - Significant rewrite and augmentation.]

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