Monday, June 4, 2018

"Solo", Farewell, Auf Viedersehen, Goodbye (or, All Our Yesterdays)

As an aforementioned first-generation fan from the Star Wars O.G. (1977, baby, Bicentennial behind us, Vader was lying, nobody dressed up in line, tickets were a buck-fifty and Han Shot First), it might seem strange to start off a piece about the recent box-office fate of "Solo: a Star Wars Story" with a Star Trek reference, but just go with me on this for a moment:

In one episode from the original 1960's Trek series, Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy beam down onto a planet about to be destroyed, and into what seems to be a giant archive library of electronic disks. 
As the librarian, Mr. Atoz (get it?) explains, each disk is an encyclopedic entry on planetary history, and controls a time portal back to that period--And the reason no one else is there to meet them is that the entire planet has been evacuating the disaster by escaping back into the previous past era of their choice...Or, at least, that's all he has time to explain, before his own "gotta run!" exit leaves them just as confused as before.  It won't stop the planet's sun from going supernova, but at least everyone could now safely go somewhere where they can stall it off for a few hundred or thousand years and let it become somebody else's problem.

It's not as crazy science-fiction as it sounds.  In fact, too many of us seem to be doing it right this very moment.

The current headline that's left the movie industry reeling for the last ten days--in an oddly absent movie summer where every hit seems to be giving each other a wide berth and safely staying out of each other's way--was the rug-pulled no-show box-office opening for "Solo: a Star Wars Story", which opened to an all-time low of $90M on the usually sacred Memorial Day, dropping to an even more embarrassing $29M the second week.
Well, a Star Wars movie tanking at the box-office on launch, that-there's stuff that just shouldn't usually happen--Over the week in between, the industry scrambled for an explanation, with producer Kathleen Kennedy blaming bad weather and the holiday weekend.  (Which was a bit ironic, considering how Fox first tried to use Memorial Day to "bury" the 1977 Star Wars forty years ago, hoping everyone would be at the beach.)   
Some fans went the quick route, saying that while the movie had the screenwriter of "Empire Strikes Back" and a director who'd worked with George Lucas in the past, new actor Alden Ehrenreich was just too uncharismatic a lump to step into Harrison Ford's shoes.
Most core Star Wars fans, still reeling from the unholy self-indulgent train wreck of last December's "Episode VIII: the Last Jedi", were quick to grab writer-director Rian Johnson by the scruff of the neck, hold him up next to Kennedy's need to make the stories more "socially inclusive", and shout "It's THEIR fault for ruining the whole thing!"...Which is not, we should say, far off.

But critics were a little more incisive in their complaints:  Columnist Joshua Rothman for the New Yorker called the Solo movie "Distressingly forgettable...A Star Wars movie about Nothing, like a Seinfeld episode with hyperdrive".  Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal called it "Dramatic neutrality", where "Action of no great consequence grinds on". C
ritic A.O. Scott of the NY Times shrugged off the "Low-stakes blockbuster" fun, but called the story's need to backstory every unexplained reference from Eps. IV and V "A filmed Wikipedia page".
And it's Rothman's New Yorker column that seems to have nailed as many of the reasons as any:  The Star Wars universe felt "empty" with no one hero to follow anymore.  It was a setting of people, creatures, identifiable pop-lore references and occasionally battles, ones we expected from a big famous brand name, but nothing that took us anywhere anymore.  A wandering nobody with "no people" stumbled into scoundrel company, learned to pilot a ship, met two loyal sidekicks who figure in more important later stories, and became at the end of the movie...pretty much who he was at the start.  We know LATER that he'll go on to great things, but that's another movie.  And you wouldn't know that, of course, unless you'd seen them already.

The reason that it doesn't quite feel like an epic Star Wars saga may probably be because of the other big name we'd all heard forty years ago when the first movie opened.  Oh, we all heard about George Lucas...And if we were watching PBS stations on pledge drives for the next twenty years, we also heard about the philosophical author of the books Lucas claimed he had been inspired by:  Joseph Campbell.
In his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell outlined how every mythic-saga hero in cultural history, from myth and fairytale to Beowulf, to King Arthur, to Frodo Baggins, to, well, Luke Skywalker, the hero's adventure is a life-changing journey that is like maturity itself: The hero starts from nothing, and must leave it or see it destroyed before he can search the world for what will make him complete--He will receive advice or even magical help from a fatherlike mentor steeped in ancient traditions, he will have sidekicks who may even be inspired to find their own selves by lending support, and, like Luke's final lightsaber duel, he has to overcome his own personal demons or failings and conquer them before he can be worthy of getting his prize.

In a 70's where cynical Clint Eastwood antiheroes had become the "relevant" norm, the Campbell-worship in Lucas's first Star Wars (it wasn't "Ep. IV" or "A New Hope" back then) was praised for its "Modern mythic" quality, and even accused of being a deliberate old-Hollywood throwback to the 30's-serial Flash Gordon days, when heroes were Heroes.
Without the Hero's Journey, and what he finds at the end of it, you do not have a Story.  I'm not exactly sure what you have--whether it's a diary, a tangential anecdote, or, as the NY critic said, a footnote analysis of somebody else's story--but it's simply not something you can apply the more familiar word to.  Unless you happen to be Atreyu or Falkor, there is no such thing as a Neverending Story.

And that's a problem for studios at the moment:  They were sort of counting the next years' strategies on stories not ending.  
Particularly after most of them did--Warner had the good fortune back at the beginning to luck onto multi-filmed serials of Harry Potter and Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" adaptation, which were already in-production to deliver one film of the open-ended books' chapters per year.  And execs in 2001 now had the one-two punch of knowing exactly what money they would make in 2003 and 2004 before they'd even made it, a strategy they've applied ever since.  
A strategy they later believed in the 10's they were copying from Marvel's success with interconnected and serialized big and little movies all telling the "universe" of one big TV-series like story--Not realizing that Marvel was simply adapting what they'd written for fifty years:  Ongoing magazines meant to get you to buy the next issue, or story-crossover issues of another magazine.  What Marvel did, they did for a living.
Harry and Frodo were characters in the more traditional kinds of books, and as Joe reminded us, books end after the hero finds what he was looking for.  Studios (including Warner's original contract deal to write more Harry Potter stories without JK Rowling, even after there was no more Voldemort to fight) believed they could turn a story into a Brand Name, by telling us everything else that had happened.  And, if living Happily Ever After, or dying, happens to be the major stumbling block, everything else that happened, happened....before.  And to everybody else, whose stories were glossed over the first time around--Hey, ancient mentors and flawed sidekicks are people too, y'know!

Studios needed to promise the public More--Especially when it was looking more and more like they wouldn't be able to deliver it.  And fans, being of the right age when more hamburgers and more cookies sound better than Less of them, thought they wanted More. But in writing, More is not always Better...It's just more, like more paper clips on your desk, or more lint in your closet.  One of the first things your freshman writing teacher drilled into your ambitious high-school head was "Kill your darlings"--Not EVERYTHING you think up belongs in a story, and sometimes the hardest work in telling a story is in knowing what part of the story not to tell, and the narrative will be clearer to the reader for what you remove.  (A screenwriting concept Michael Bay and M. Night Shamalyan have apparently never heard of in their entire lives, but that's another issue.)
Think of any classic story:  Would Cinderella be a better tale if we had a lengthy flashback to when Cindy's parents were still alive, or if we saw what happened to the Stepmother's previous husband?   Would Robin Hood be a more compelling adventure if we saw the origin of how the Sheriff of Nottingham rose to power?  Would Hamlet be a more effective tragedy if we had a flashback of the close relationship he had with his dad when still alive and king, or if we followed the side adventures of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern?...Er, oops, wait, think someone's already written that play.
The narrative is clearer when we know the answers to the question the reader will ask...Who is the main character?  What does he want?  When does he start to go after it and how does he plan to do it?  And what are we to take away from the story in the end into our own experiences, that we'll care whether or not he finds it?

To tell the eight, nine, ten, or however ultimately-many chaptered story of Star Wars, you have to ask the same question the Prequel trilogies brought up:  Just who the heck's saga IS this, anyway?  Is it Luke's?  Is it Anakin's?  Is it both?--Is it about how Luke redeemed Anakin, or how Anakin was redeemed by Luke?  Is it the robots'?  Is it Obi-Wan's?  Is it Boba Fett's?  Or is it Solo's, who isn't even mentioned at all in the first three episodes?
And that question, Campbell already answered:  It is the saga of the hero we follow because he is Us.  He may have friends, he may have a mentor, and he may have help, but if the story was about them, we'd know it from the beginning, wouldn't we?

But instead, we think we want to come back to More Star Wars, whomever it's about, because, like Marvel or Pixar, a reputation-proven brandname is one of the last remaining safe-houses to come back to at the cineplex.  We feel nowadays as if we can't expect good new movies anymore, so keep the OLD good ones alive as long as we can.
Like Mr. Atoz's planetary library-patrons, we audiences have also become like those studios:  All the good old stories had endings, and good new ones seem to be less and less forthcoming every year.  So we evacuate to a Summer '18 with another story of Pixar's Incredibles, more adventures in a newer, bigger Jurassic Park, a new heist for a new Oceans '11 gang, and more thrills that remember how cool it was to go to a theater in 2004, 1993, and 2001.  Those were good years...But they're not 2018, 2019, or 2020, and they sure as heck aren't 2021 or 2022.
With only a brick wall at the end of the tunnel, the train speeding up, and studios seeking only movies the audience already knows by name and can identify--namely favorite old ones--the audience can only loop, re-loop, and re-re-loop itself into the favorite past of its choice, trying to survive in old movies when new movies can't deliver anymore, until it realizes a basic problem:  The past is not a future.  Saying "Here's another part of the story we forgot to tell you twenty years ago" is not going to stop an industry of Today from blowing up around their ears.

And the stories that Yesterday had to tell are just not all that interesting, when you're living in Today and know what the characters don't.  
It's just not that much fun to see a character who knows less about his own story than we already do.  If the hero has no new journey to go on, what will we ever find on ours?

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Twilight of Digital Download, Epilogue: The Future? (or Able Was I, Ere I Saw Disney)

In the 2001 Ian Holm comedy "The Emperor's New Clothes"--look it up if you get the chance, and no, I'm not talking about the Disney movie--we're offered a whimsical what-if premise:  Instead of dying in exile on the island of St. Helene, what if defeated ex-conqueror Napoleon had switched places with a lookalike commoner, in a plan to return and retake Paris?...But when the plan goes wrong, he finds himself stranded in modern 1820's post-Revolutionary Paris as an average citizen, thought to be one more lunatic every time he tries to tell the world the truth.  
As our now anonymous citizen tries to find work and romance--and even organizes the street fruit-sellers with military strategy--he comes to realize the humiliating truth that years later, he's since become a quaint historical relic in his own country.  The free democratic France he helped create has now grown and matured past him into a country of citizens simply struggling to get by in a nation of their own, have no more need of self-satisfying world conquerors, thank you, and are in no mood to hear the cannons of war start again.

Picking up the pieces from the would-be all-or-nothing, last-man-standing Digital vs. Physical war, we customers in the middle have become like those simple Parisians now:  Home-theater has had a rough history over the last thirty-six years, born in war from the beginning.  VHS battled Betamax, DVD battled DiVX before it could overcome VHS, and Blu-ray had to beat HDDVD to the bitter end before it could have a chance to blow away DVD.  When DVD and Blu-ray's scheming Evil Twins hijacked the battle and represented threats to our very freedom, we rallied around the flag, and fought for principles of liberty and unity.  
But we have two generations who've so grown up with movies in their home, they've never known a time when movies weren't--At the right age, our children are now shown Wizard of Oz on the family disk, with no TV station to show it every year, and if a revival shows up, parents take them to the theater to amaze them with what The Lion King or Star Wars looked like in their day, when it used to play on bigger screens.  Home-theater simply was, and is.
Warner, armed with their experience of the past, believed that the next New Format would be forged in the fires of war...And of course, in format-war, there is only room for one, a Winner that becomes a wildfire overnight phenomenon, and a Loser that quickly blows away into the wind like dandelion seed, and is never heard from again.  The latter is what they were chiefly interested in.

It was when that didn't happen that panic-mode set in:  I was hanging around Warner's online customer-survey community at the time, and new-idea and customer-satisfaction surveys from the company were frequent.  You can guess what most of them were about.  
The most recent, only last month, asked customers to approve a new sales pitch--for use in a radio ad, or podcast, or maybe even an in-theater ad?--saying, and I quote, "Have you heard yet that 'Digital' means you can get movies FIRST?  It's true!  When you think 'Digital', think 'Your movies first!'"
The sheer, disillusioned bafflement in their voice was unmistakable:  Ultraviolet's fortunes were sinking, why hadn't we all caught on yet what a wonderful miracle it was (especially for the studio) to now preorder digital movies while they were still in theaters?...Didn't we KNOW??  Or had we just kept forgetting?  Were we all just six years slow on the uptake?  Was it simply that someone had neglected to tell us yet for our own good, and the truth hadn't yet set us free?
Later, I was shown their survey findings that a majority of new voice-activated-device users were using theirs mostly to listen to their music collections, set reminders and seek quick information on the Internet...Wait, does that mean they weren't using it to sit on the couch, say "Entertain me, Alexa!" and call up a recent hit Friday-night movie rental at random, like in all those Amazon ads?

In Warner's surveys of my customer-interest in digital libraries--which also became more and more often, the more that Blu-ray wasn't falling down yet on schedule and going plotz overnight as much as Marketing predicted it would, and they felt they hadn't hit on just the right sales avenue yet (maybe if they sold movie downloads on Gamestop gift cards?)--the question would often come up, "How many Ultraviolet digital movies are in your library collection?"  Followed by itemizing "How many were A) purchased, B) redeemed with free disk codes, C) promotional bonus/gifts?"  
I had to answer truthfully:  In order, I had 43 movies and 1 TV series in my collection.  23 of those were redeemed from free codes--that I'd received from, ahem, BUYING the DISKS!--and 19 were free promotional bonus/gifts.  They should know, most of those promotional gifts were from Warner, trying to get me hooked on the new convenience of Flixster.  I did buy one with real money, yes...An iTunes downloadable file of Eddie Murphy in "The Haunted Mansion", back in 2007 when we all were all playing with our new Apple Video iPods, and it'd somehow stayed on my Apple-account library ever since.
In fan conversations where I tried to explain whether I was fundamentally Fer or Agin' the idea of Digital, I simply explained that I saw it as a tool, for one specific situation I didn't normally encounter:  I might use Vudu or Amazon to Friday-movie-night rent some recent hit I'd missed in theaters rather than go to Redbox, but didn't really do anything with my library, since my living-room TV was already next to my disk shelf.  But, that I could see an online collection conceivably coming in handy for an emergency someday, if--let's be generous for the sake of argument and say IF--I was ever, say, stuck at the airport with a delayed flight for six hours with free WiFi.  Otherwise, since I wasn't a regular Amtrak commuter, or wasn't usually sitting in some public WiFi hot-spot for two hours when I left the house, I didn't really, y'know, see the point of having it in any other situation.

Last February '17, I was coming home from a cruise vacation, had no idea that the entire Northeastern seaboard was being socked with a major storm, that my flight home was delayed, and that I'd be stranded at Orlando Int'l airport with my iPad from 11am to 8pm, with free WiFi.  Well, what can I say?...I did ASK for it.  
Between naps and app-games, I enjoyed a rather nice afternoon in the airport's rechargeable comfy-chair islands and food-courts with headphones on, watching "The Avengers".  (Er, the original '67 Patrick Macnee/Diana Rigg TV series, that is, that I'd gotten from my free Blu-ray code, not the '99 Ralph Fiennes/Uma Thurman movie.)   And if it makes Warner feel any better, it did come in handy.

When it was useful, digital became a tool, nothing more or less.  A tool is what you use to solve a problem:  You can't build a house without a hammer and saw, but you can't simply decide that they're more useful than a house, and sleep on them.
We were asked to buy digital libraries because, well, digital was just better, is all--Yet in trying to hook us on sweet sugar by including "Digital Copy" in every Blu-ray disk, what the studios taught us was the very lesson they believed was impossible under the Darwin rules of their industry, and were strategically trying to eliminate:  Co-existence.  Harmony.  Infinite movies in infinite diversity.  Peace on earth, and goodwill to rival formats.  A movie can exist in two different forms...Three, if you ever actually used the DVD copy.  (I never did.)
The strategy may have in fact, ultimately backfired on the studios--Since we would get the digital with the disk combo anyway, why not simply buy the disk, and get TWO things for your buck instead of one?  The digital copy would probably serve some purpose later, but for now, hey, it was Free Stuff.  If we ever sat down and thought when on earth we'd ever need to use the digital-copy, it only brought up the idea that there would be different situations when we might want to watch something.  And the right job would need the right tool.

Warner knew how to sell their movies, but it had lost any personal, emotional, or sentimental connection for why we bought one in the first place--What was left of the DRM industry was turned over to a new service that didn't want to remake the universe in its image, but just round up a place for confused folks to find them.  When we were asked, "But don't you understand how wonderful it is to let us take care of them for you?", the response, en masse, was "NO.  They're our movies now.  You can't have them back."
That became one of the chief battle cries when disk users were under attack.  But with no more enemy at the door, should it still be a militant fist in the air?  It never hurts to be secure, but to bring peace, we have to learn how to beat that one sword into a plowshare, and see it as our freedom:  Yes, they're our movies now...They always were.  They're a part of our lives, for whatever reason we keep them.  They can be any way we want to see them, in the way we want to see them, as long as that option remains available.  If we want more, there is no reason to deny us more; if some want less, less must not be enforced upon everyone.  We can watch in high definition in our living room recliner with commentary and 2-hour documentary, we can watch it in 4K on an 80" home-theater or on Blu-ray on a 40" set, we can stream it out of curiosity on a Netflix subscription, or we can keep a download on a tablet at the airport waiting for our flight.
And as long as we can, movies will live--That's all that should matter for posterity.  But take away that freedom, and movies will die the same way all stories can die:  We forget them.

And will we forget them?  That depends on us.  It depends on what the idea of being able to find movies, old, new, the first ones we saw as kids, or from before our parents were born, means to us, and how willing we are to do it.  On whether we can define what having a movie, or keeping a movie, or discovering a movie, or infecting a beloved newbie with a favorite movie, or taking one home that you found, even from a weekend rental, means, and what that means to us whether or not someone tries to cut a few red-ink costs by taking that away.  We've got to do that hard work ourselves, because we're now building up again from what's become the scorched-earth of somebody else's battlefield.
Once we figure that out for ourselves and build something on that again, no one will ever again be able to sell us any other idea--Because what we build there will also be ours.

And a defeated conqueror with his one dream to improve the world and accept its thanks, will have to resign itself to a life of simple, anonymous usefulness, as it can only stand and stare at the faraway shores of a world that is no longer theirs to conquer.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Twilight of Digital-Download, Pt. 3: Of Course You Realize, THIS Means War...

So, as we see from the history, the Digital vs. Physical-Disk War between Digital-rights locker and Blu-ray disk--and whether we should now be referring to it in the past tense--was the result of a collection of blunders, wild misreading of trends, executives out of touch with their consumers, and, that old self-destructive enemy of business, wishful thinking.  Some columnists have wondered whether we should have been calling it a Format War at all, when it should have been downgraded to just a catastrophic Class 5 Format Blunder.

But make no mistake--Since 2011, Blu-ray and DVD owners have been at war.  They have been caught in a war they never started, have battled an enemy they had no reason to hate until they came under unprovoked attack, and have fought for the right to stay alive in the marketplace, for the very crime that they still existed...When another corporate party, who controlled a third of the available content, felt it more convenient for their sales model if they did not.  A minority of studio interests believed that wiping out a majority of customer interests would simply be an advertising/public-relations matter of winning Hearts and Minds, and that a trendy year or two later, a grateful public would never even think to ask what happened to all those buried bodies.
Now, who'd ever pull a stunt like that?  Toss some of the means, motive and modus operandi around for the heck of it, and the answer shouldn't really surprise you.

There are a few things that, historically, almost every living-room Format War has had in common since VHS first battled Betamax tape:
The first is that in every single battle in which the competing products were the Home-Theater Collectible--like the DVD disk or the VHS tape--versus the Studio-Owned Pay-Per-View Rental option, at the early stages when the two players are still equal in the running with no winner ahead, the studios have always backed the PPV-rental option that protected their own omnipotent, unquestioned hands-on control over the movie content.  EVERY.  SINGLE.  TIME.

When Betamax first offered customers the new ability to tape Sunday's football game in their home, Disney protested the format and Universal rushed to block the technology in the courts, worried audiences might use it to, gasp, tape movies off of TV for free.  Later, when a VHS player was in every home, studio marketing played up the brand new option for viewers to order recent hit movies On Demand from their cable-TV and satellite providers--"Now you can fast-forward and rewind!"  Er, do tell.
When the fate of DVD was being decided in the mid-late 90's, major studios like Fox, Disney and Universal, and even reportedly major players like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, rushed to back the inferior technology of DiVX--A disk system that would let viewers buy their movie on disk for $5, and, with the player connected to the phone line, continue to unlock their own movie for a small 48-hour pay-per-view charge every play.  Even the promo video showed poor home moviegoers, desperate for entertainment, being bestowed the studio's generosity literally from on high, in a holy heavenly light.  History has since told us how well the reality of the paying audience agreed with that interpretation.

When DVD became the dominant format, studios and hardware companies rushed to back "Netflix-killer" ideas that would bring the one-viewing-only Blockbuster-rental experience to the home:  The preoccupation with creating a rental-based industry briefly introduced Flexplay, a disk you "didn't have to return to the store", since the disk erased itself after 24 hours.  Disney backed the idea as "ez-D", which barely made it out of test-marketing.
Few remember the Flexplay/ez-D--now reduced to an urban-legend at best--but even that has since stuck in the public's mind as the boogeyman symbol of the studios' fears:  Like the medieval monarchs that once feared the printing press, and what would happen to the state's monopoly on information once the peasants learned to read, studios have historically had a terror of the public permanently OWNING the movie in their own home on their own shelf.  The need to make audiences aware of "their" movie, and profit on it a second time after it left theaters, ran up against exactly the reason that DiVX failed and DVD succeeded--People simply don't like buying things twice, let alone a third, fourth or fifth time.  No matter how generous the good people selling it may be.

The second thing most Format Wars have had in common, is that it's not always the hardware company behind the technology that has had the chief interest in the race:
There has usually been a second, bigger, not directly-related studio, tech or retail company lurking behind the throne, that had staked its own fortunes on which product made it to the finish line, and promotes the format with more personally invested bloodlust in the outcome than the developer itself.  As master Yoda once said, always two, there are, in the shadows--The master, and the apprentice. 

The chief general in DiVX's war was not RCA or Panasonic that produced the technology, but electronics retailer Circuit City, which reminded us of their exclusive deal to sell the hardware--The chain never escaped the tech-disgraced image of being the company that "forced" the format on the public, which didn't help its stores drastically slashing its chain into Chapter 11 two years later.
Toshiba was not HDDVD's main villain in the Blu-ray vs. HDDVD war, but Microsoft, who hoped to see their software adopted as the new default standard for hi-def video...Microsoft not only had X-Box game consoles to sell the format, but its ties with Universal, and no HD spokesman became more public and hated than Universal Marketing VP Ken Graffeo's constant cheers.

So, bringing us up to the present war--Who was the shadow behind DRM's throne?  Who would possibly have the chief interest that the studio-controlled digital-rights locker format would not only hope to win public away from Blu-ray disk, but "replace" it?
Who attached itself to Ultraviolet, in full view of the industry, right from the first CES agreement?  Who initially outright-owned the service that offered you your first and "only" door to that free purchase code they were generous enough to include with their own Blu-ray disk, hoping you would be their own private customer for life and never, ever stumble upon another service?  Who believed that Ultraviolet's fortunes were their fortunes, even when what audience they had still clung to non-players like Amazon?
Do any of those answers involve the word "Flixster", that late-lamented service you never used and could never escape?  Now tell us who they worked for.

Like I said, it shouldn't be surprising:  Yes, this is a war.  And it's WARNER'S war.  They didn't want it to be anyone else's. 
It's an old trick of Warner's, who tend to be a bit more neurotic in their business practices than other major studios--For some odd reason, if a product misfires in the marketplace, they never believe in publicly blaming the product, and they never blame the marketing strategies...They immediately toss babies out with bathwater, blame the audience and their new "waning interest in the property", and rush to correct the waste of time they clearly made down that road.  But to simply declare the product dead and pull it off shelves would have their own fingerprints on the deed, and even worse, martyr the product with loyal fans who might start nagging them with annoying petition campaigns to bring it back.  Nothing inconveniently ruins a good funeral like mourners.  
So, Warner believes it must preemptively crush resistance and absolve itself from blame by persuading the consumers to do the dirty hatchet-man work for them:  Like making a leprechaun leave your house, Warner's pet strategy for covering up its one sales alibi believes it must first convince the audience to say, in their own words, "We don't like the product anymore!  It's outdated and silly...Who'd ever miss it?", and then, well, who is the studio to argue with the will of the public?  And in come the Good Generous People to come and sweep the embarrassing old thing away, and replace it with something shinier, newer, and more mainstream-demographically marketable to play with.
And if the public doesn't happen to be saying it yet, don't worry, they will.  A little old-fashioned consumer apathy can always be whipped up in the kitchen on demand.

The "Propaganda strategy", of telling a studio-convenient Big Lie loudly, often and nonstop enough until (hopefully) it's believed by the public, is one cartoon fans have already encountered, from their experience with Warner's own cable Cartoon Network channel:
From '99-'02, the network wanted to move into more profitable original series, but felt they were "held back" by being the parent-company's corporate Hanna-Barbera classic-rerun archive for the Smurfs and Flintstones.  The trick to changing the audience demographics from vintage reruns to new cable series, CN believed, was to spend three years on an all-out orchestrated campaign of blitzing viewers with nonstop tasteless, sophomoric, mean-spirited and witlessly humor-free stoner-rage hipster "satires" of 70's-80's Boomer-culture H-B lore--In the hopes audiences' minds would be indoctrinated into remembering the studio only for the crimes of Scrappy-Doo and the Wonder Twins, and just couldn't wait for those all-new cable-original schedules of Powerpuff Girls and Dexter's Laboratory to sweep in the Great Cultural Purge.  In the tasteful Warner tradition of selling their new product by publicly spitting upon the old one before rallying the audience to bums-rush it out the door for them, the network coined its most infamous slogan:  "Some people want to watch the same cartoons they saw as kids...Scary, huh?"
Translate that to home-theater, and you have exactly the message that Warner Home Entertainment is now trying to send to the retail disk industry.  Not the consumers, the industry.   The people that make and sell the disks.  Yeah...Scary.

WHE's complaints to the retail industry began spreading its own self-fulfilling prophecy--Citing their own numbers of "declining retail", and that they "couldn't sell" any of their catalog on wide retail except for their three brand-label leaders, Harry Potter, DC Comics and Peter Jackson's Tolkien, they reduced their mass-retail vintage catalog to only a handful of cult films and creatively repackaged editions of the Three Brandnames...All bearing gifts in the form of collector cases, large figurines, or other excuses to stand out on the shelf to target customers besides just a stupid old disk case.  That came to an issue in '16 with what became known among disk fans as "the $800 Bookshelf":  A repackaged set of the two Tolkien trilogies that passed over the director's own offer of extensive new bonus material, only to package it as an inexplicably priced uber-edition to appeal to what they believed was now a "small niche" of target collector fans, who could be counted on to pay whatever the market wanted, and if they didn't, see how few and hard to please they were?
The message WHE wanted to send to the other studios with their demonstrated warnings of "declining retail" was implicit:  Sure, you COULD continue to sell wide retail Blu-ray and DVD in the stores, but since "everyone knows" the only people who buy disks are comic-convention fanboys and eccentric niche-collector intellectuals, why WOULD you?
It's one thing to get out of a market, if you think it's not bringing you the profit you imagined.  It's another thing to poison the wells, salt the ground, and persuade the rest of the marketplace to follow your example for you.  Warner had a lot more than a sales urge to stop selling mass-retail disk...They wanted to directly influence the psychology of the industry so that no one else ever would sell them, and then they would just be one more innocent studio among many.  When Warner set out to rid the world of nasty expensive Blu-ray retail, they intended to make very sure that Blu-ray retail NEVER CAME BACK.  
And trying to meddle with an entire industry, let alone its evolution, is an area that's not only out of one company's jurisdiction, but one where they'd be better advised to simply mind their own damn business.


And so, in the end, we must return to our original premise:  Digital Vs. Physical was all format-war fun and games at the start, until somebody had to make it personal.  Well, congratulations, Warner...NOW it's personal.
You took a technological innovation, and turned it into an ideological insult.  You took a tool to bring easier movie access to the public, and used it to wipe movies off the cultural landscape.  You took a wealth of new options for the consumer, and turned it into an autocratic symbol of consumer genocide.  You antagonized your potential allies by bragging to the world about how no one would ever miss them if they were gone.  You embraced your own imaginary "fears of the marketplace", and became that industry's greatest fear.  You gained no ground on the battlefield, you lost public hearts-and-minds, you not only increased public opposition against you but strengthened its moral resolve to a new level it hadn't seen in a decade, and saw your chief secret-weapon factory bombed to rubble in a fair fight.  Is this "your" war, Warner, with your name on it?  Because you appear to have just been officially defeated in it.
Is any product that Warner can't sell still caused by, quote, "Waning consumer interest in the property"?  Not to remind you of the obvious, but Flixster is now out of business, and Ultraviolet is rapidly following.   On behalf of the home-theater public, Warner, "Wane" THAT consumer interest--That's pretty bold talk for a product you spent six years never even being able to give away for free.

Next week:  The future--Making the peace...Can it be done?  It can, but it's going to mean starting from scratch.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Twilight of Digital-Download, Pt. 2: So...What Went Wrong?

The story so far:  Since summer '17, major digital-rights locker service Ultraviolet, the network that was promising to join all studios, devices, and retail chains into one big glorious network that would bring customers their digital movies on the go, has seen all but three of its merchants go out of business, seen its remaining business defect to its new Disney competitor, and has already lost support from two major studios...Will our hero survive?  Don't count on it.  I'm not.

I was looking for a metaphor to try and Monday-morning-quarterback the one reason that the digital-locker industry never quite caught fire as much as studios hoped it would:
Gosh, they thought they had done everything right, in pitching their product to Those New Millennials And Their Cellphones, who hate physical purchases, and it offered such a shiny new promise of recouping theatrical losses sooner in "preorders" without having to wait for physical manufacturing and retail rollout...Why, seven years later when the dust settled, and their one "brand label" became a ghost-town, didn't it just catch on?  Was it the public?  Was it the technology?  Was it their deodorant?  Was it something they SAID??

Some thought it was the technology:  The "Join or die" industry policy to back Ultraviolet made things even more confusing for casual customers who didn't want to commit to a preset selections of app services to access it, and many who didn't go shopping for the right app service found the one they registered to be poor and clunky.  A few tech columnists at the time, who'd raised their hopes about the service, even openly blamed the two-step movie purchase, the lack of big-player iTunes and Amazon, and a need for a third-party app on tech devices, for why it "didn't catch on with the public".
Ah.  That must be it.  Despite massive pushes in publicity, and free gifts from every direction, the public expressed unprecedented apathy and sales-bottoming figures toward the entire format over five to six years, creating the near-collapse of the industry, because the app was confusing...Nice to get simple explanations for these things.

But y'see, I was making the same mistake too:  I was looking all over in industry theories, and audience concerns.  If studios wanted to post-mortem a simple What They Did Wrong, they should have just gone back to their old children's folktales.

The story of Epaminondas--oh, I remembered reading this one--was a funny folktale that's since been cleaned up out of its turn-of-the-20th-century African origins to represent just about any kid's basic mistakes:
Our hero is sent to the market by his mother to buy some cake, and when it comes home squeezed into a tight handful, his mother tells him, "You don't carry cake that way, put it under your hat!"  
Next, he's sent to pick up a pound of butter--It's a hot day, he goes with the one bit of advice he knows, and things don't end well.  "You don't carry butter that way, you dunk it in ice-cold water first!"  
The next day, he's sent to pick up a puppy...Okay, that doesn't end well.  "You don't bring home a puppy like that, you tie a string around it and let it follow along behind you!"  
The next day, he's sent to bring home a loaf of bread...Er, no need to drag this story out any further.

The ultimate fault of digital-download seemed to be in the industry's utter blind faith that they had something they could sell, and that it was just a matter of selling it now that they thought they knew how:  In every debate where uncommitted supporters asked "But why would the public simply throw over all their disks tomorrow, if they've found them reliable up until now?" the only--the only--rebuttal ever offered, apart from the usual Important-Sounding sociological study of the week or news about trendy cable-cutting, was "They're going to!  It's just a matter of time, if you saw what happened to CD's and magazines!...It's FATE!"
Basically, not so much faith in their product, as, like well-meaning Epaminondas, an industry that looked at the painful out-of-nowhere lesson they'd learned from the decline of CD and print media, and believed they were now armed with their one bit of advice to handle the scary new challenge ahead of them.
And when they kept trying--and trying, and trying--to apply the successful MP3 mobile-music formula to the high-definition living-room demands of home theater, they kept dunking that poor puppy in ice-cold water until it howled.  They simply couldn't understand, in their own minds, why we wouldn't want to take our movies "on the go", the way we could with our iTunes playlists.  

Neither theory is 100% wrong, and neither theory is 100% right--There are no innocent parties standing over UV's corpse, and a lot of basic conceptual mistakes made at just about every stage. The top seven reasons, in no particular order:

1. Execs don't really understand that Geeky-Techie Stuff:  

If you don't understand how your car or computer works, how are you going to know when it breaks down?--Let alone how to fix it, or whether or not to get a new one?
And if you don't happen to keep up with current home-theater formats--if you considered yourself smug-Luddite enough to sit out the last couple Format Wars and just download a recent on-demand hit from your satellite provider once in a while when you had the time--how many theories can you make about why Blu-ray beat HDDVD in a long fair fight, why DVD wiped VHS off the face of the marketplace, or why more kids are listening to MP3 on their earbuds than on CDs?  You can spin the standard marketing-voodoo to theorize why the new pushes took hold with the public, but if you're not in said public, it won't help to guess from the outside.  Like jazz, If You Have to Ask why Blu-ray crippled DVD, You'll Never Know.
And most hardware and studio execs simply didn't:  What they knew, from long battles in commerce, was that somebody had stubbornly hung onto VHS or Vinyl LP longer than they should have and paid the price for it...And this time, it wasn't going to be them.  This, at the same time as they were still defining "Physical disk" = "DVD", and reporting "declining" DVD retail-chain numbers in the 2010's, while still in 2008 mode of passing off Blu-ray as "a limited niche market among home-theater techs" and reporting those sales figures as mere footnote statistics.  Gosh, nobody's buying DVD's from retail stores in 2017?...That sounds serious!

2.  Mainstream audiences don't really CARE about that Geeky-Techie Stuff:  

At least not as evangelically as the industry hoped they would, in imagined mass-demonstrations of smashing their Blu-ray disks with big hammers and crying "Die, obsolescence, die!!"  While the industry hoped Ultraviolet would join the public in a new network, most users who did buy or rent digital tended to think only in terms of where and on what most convenient device they could be able to watch it--namely, whatever Internet thing they already owned--and didn't quite pick up on UV merchants' promises to "watch on any device":  Those with Kindles and Fires tended to buy from Amazon, those with AppleTV's and iPhones tended to buy from iTunes, those with Androids frequented Google, etc...Hey, it was there.  
The problem?  None of those services supported Ultraviolet.  Isolation became a big problem for all the services, and some of the services began linking their user libraries together in the mid-10's, to try and take the "network" where the customers actually were.  Up to that point, however, those customers who were curious enough to take Warner and Universal's first-one's-free invitation by redeeming their free Blu-ray disk codes found themselves frustrated that they had to do it by signing up for the extra step of a Flixster service or website registration they didn't want, and then, that the movie wouldn't PLAY on their Fire, iPad or Android tablet without that extra service.  Like streaming, a dozen players were trying to sell to a customer who only wanted one shop.  The need for a poorly designed second app, only reminding them that they could just as easily get a movie from Amazon or iTunes in one playable step, didn't help much either.

3. Problems in communication:

We were told a lot about how "successful" digital was in the marketplace.  An AWFUL lot.  Studios went out to spread the news, heard it reported, and, like presidents on their Twitter accounts, spread the big news that someone else had said it too!  The problem was, no one had a clear idea of what exactly they were saying.
Ultraviolet's success--and by it, digital's--was measured in the industry press by, quote, "Thousands of new subscribers this year!  Over a million movies in customer's libraries!"  Yes, they enrolled, and the headlines sound nice without messy details, but someone had forgotten to itemize the messiest:  How many of those movies had those new subscribers actually bought?...Businesses get by on customers paying them money, you know.  Customers needed to enroll free memberships with Flixster or other merchant-apps just to redeem their first free Blu-ray disk-code out of idle curiosity; what they did with the service after that--if anything at all--was never reported.  And if I happened to be stuck with a free Warner promo-gifted copy of Chevy Chase in "Vegas Vacation" as a free signup bonus, that I didn't know how to remove from my UVVU library, I didn't consider that title to be yet one more of the "Million or more!" library titles that satisfied purchasing customers were now enjoying for life.  
That's rather like giving someone a free kitten, dumping eight more on their doorstep, and then pointing them out to everyone as the "Crazy cat lady".

4.  "You keep using that word...I do not think it means what you think it means."

The other messy detail was, what exactly was the big D-word in "Digital is bigger than ever this year!", and who was enjoying all that success?  In the majority of cases, it wasn't even rights-locker.
To execs and the industry, it was...y'know...that cellphone and binge-stuff, and that little Google plug-in thing!  Netflix-mania was just coming into trendiness, and analysts trying to analyze the big move away from cable and broadcast found they couldn't throw a rock in any direction without hitting Transparent's Emmy or Stranger Things "original series" fan-hype in the press to remind them of where the public was going.  But Digital is not "one" magic neato-10's industry, as those tech-illiterate analysts believed, it's THREE:  Rights-locker purchase, subscription-streaming, and on-demand rental.  Two of those industries did very well over the past seven years, and took hold with the public as the new pop-tech standard.  One of those three did not.  

You did not read a praise of Digital's "success" in the home-theater marketplace without reports of Amazon's latest profits, or how Netflix subscriptions were rocketing to the sky with millions of new binge-cult watchers, put up almost completely as evidence--In the industry's mind, Netflix streaming WAS digital download, and vice versa, end of argument.  If you watched programs on Netflix rather than pay for expensive monthly cable, that meant you liked digital things, QED.  And if Netflix is doing better than ever this year, well, that just proves it, doesn't it?
By logic, that's rather like saying "Lemons are enjoying new popularity, because apple and banana sales pushed fruit to its best year ever!"

5. "It's HIS Fault!"

Usually, when there's some new craze that's going to Change The World As We Know It, the news is usually coming from one of several hundred enthusiasts on the Internet who found each other and got together to declare that we'll all be speaking Esperanto, eating Gluten-Free, and spending Bitcoins in the next generation, whether we like it or not.  
Digital-download, OTOH, was different in that there was plenty of theorizing about "why" it was going to become either such an inevitable convenience or blight on our culture, but not counting the studios, very few of those doing the theorizing were actually in the camp themselves--Analysts shrugged to explain why "somebody" was the reason Digital would ultimately take over someday, a Somebody who was nice and safely distant, and whose motives were already crazy enough to ever explain, so we old duffers might just as well take our medicine and settle in.

Industry analysts blamed those darn Millennials, and their tendency to "Rely on the Internet, and refuse to buy longterm physical goods".  Millennials, who didn't care how mangled a movie looked on YouTube as long as they could track it down there for free, blamed those "Greedy studios", trying to make them buy their movies one more time.  Regular Net users unhappy with the Flixster-signup process blamed those Internet enthusiasts who knew how all that social-media stuff worked; Internet enthusiasts who found their movies intrusively attached to their Facebook account blamed normal users who were gullible enough to fall for any sales pitch.  Diehard movie-night buffs, refusing to give up their good-looking disks, blamed the casual philistine who didn't care how he got his new-hit rentals instead of the restored classics, and the casual user blamed the diehard movie buff who wanted his movies everywhere, since he didn't know why he couldn't watch his own free movie on Amazon.
Digital is more popular than ever with someone this year, we just...don't quite know WHO.

6. Welcoming Our New Overlords:  

If the industry, as the users did, saw cloud-locker as a useful tool for home-theater watching, they would integrate it into their new selection of options for available viewing.  But they didn't, had no clue what they were selling, and knew only that it was the New Thing that comes along at the CES Show and replaces everything within two years...Y'know, like Uber and Alexa did.  
As a result, there was almost no strategy imagined from the very get-go in which users might watch disks at home and digital on the go:  For a great many other reasons, users were helped along by the studios--with free gifts, retail-store services and propaganda--in the difficult inevitable change of converting their entire library for the Great Day of Change, as presumably the whole country would at some future point.  And if customers complained that that wasn't what they wanted, well, they were clearly the ones afraid of Mighty Progress.
Remember when you surrender, you only do so out of fear.  And there's no one old executives fear, misunderstand, puzzle over and try to court more than Those Crazy Millennial Kids Glued to Their Smartphones, Who Live With Their Parents Because They Won't Buy Cars or Houses...Them kids, what're they, nuts?

7. Ask For It By Name:

Studios in the 10's are not in the business of selling movies...They are in the business of selling STUDIOS.  Namely, their house-franchise brand-names, the sticks-and-stones in the war they fight on the schoolyard with the other studios, and the new "franchises" the audience creates out of nowhere with every new hit film.  
And in digital-rights, "Deals", "Packages", "Bundles", and "Bonus movie tickets" became the name of the game:  The purpose of digital was not to sell you the rare high-definition print-restored version of Sunset Boulevard, when they could sell you a house brand that was already being cross-promoted in theaters.  Warner did not give a flying Kryptonite fig if you wanted to buy only the 70's Superman movie with Christopher Reeve that you saw when you were little, or because you preferred Reeve to Henry Cavill; it was there to sell you the DC Universe labels, in the hopes you'd buy the whole conveniently-priced bundle of seven in one conveniently-priced package, in time for the next DC Comics movie, coming to theaters this summer.  Or Harry Potter.  Or Lord of the Rings.  Or Universal's Jurassic Park.  Or what-have-you.  Selling a sequel-promoted title on digital would recoup the theatrical debts from the last movie, and add to the profits needed to make the next in the hit brand label, and the next.
Studio execs didn't understand the experience of how customers watched the classic favorite movies that struck a personal chord with them, because studios didn't believe they were selling experiences--They were selling "franchise outreach" for merchandisable titles that they owned, because that was the studio's product.  And hey, why would it matter to you how you watched the latest Superman movie?...It was a HIT, wasn't it?  "Hit" means it's popular, so you want it, and here's an easier way to get it!  You're going to be picky about it??

8....Yes.  There is one more reason things went wrong.  A big reason.  No one likes to say it, but it may have been at the top of the list.  And which got ugly between the core movie-watchers and the invested studios REAL fast.  
In the end, it may have been the One Reason to Rule Them All why the rights-locker industry made no friends among the discerning film-buffs it first tried to court, and then tried to snub as "unnecessary", mock, trivialize, paint as harmless eccentrics, and then push out of the way when those "inconvenient" customers turned out to be in no mood to play along with what the majority of Joe Strip-mall clearly wanted.  A bit of frustration-enabled wishful impatience that said the wrong thing at the wrong time, continued to double and triple-down on it with resentful stubbornness over a series of years, and turned what started out as a mere trendy-eyed marketing grudge into an all-out genocidal and ideological war, in the minds of both sides...On the level of a good-vs.-evil Armageddon to decide once and for all future generations who would literally still be standing on the face of the earth, who claimed the right that they "deserved" to, and who had learned their lesson about ever trying such a stunt again.

But that's a long story.  It'll have to wait for next week.