Television impresario and Avengers director Joss Whedon is no stranger to digital distribution. During the 2008 writer’s strike he famously unleashed Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, a web mini-series that was sold directly to fans via iTunes during a period of time when Hollywood was barely getting any new material out the door.
Now the genre superstar is turning his attention back to digital first with the surprise announcement of the release of the latest film he’s penned–a “metaphysical romance” starring Zoe Kazan and Michael Stahl-David called In Your Eyes–directly to digital via Vimeo On Demand. The announcement came after the premiere of the film at the Tribeca Film Festival via a video Whedon recorded (on what looks to be the set of Avengers 2).
The film, directed by Brin Hill, is available as a $5.00 rental world wide “on any internet capable device” as the writer puts it. This is the latest release from Whedon and Kai Cole’s Bellwether Pictures, a micro-studio which previously released Whedon’s take on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
It is fascinating to watch one of the most successful creatives in Hollywood experiment with smaller, more personal work in this fashion. At the same time I have to wonder if those who don’t have multi-million dollar paydays can remotely begin to follow his example. (I would hope so, but I’m not sure if the marketplace will ever mature to that point.)
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The SXSW Film Festival’s feature film line-up has been unleashed. 68 first time filmmakers will be showcased, along with the premires of the Evil Dead remake, Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, a documentary about “zen anarchist” filmmaker John Milius (the writer of Apocalypse Now and Red Dawn, and co-creator of HBO’s Rome).
The full line up can be found here, and the SXSW film team is subjecting itself to the Internet rite known as the Reddit AMA at 1 PM PST. The short film and Midnight film programs are still in the wings, but once again SXSW has put together a slate that blends indie and pop culture sensibilities seamlessly.
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It didn’t take long for the whole Internet to find out that writer-director Joss Whedon will be back for the sequel to this year’s Avengers. That announcement brought with it the wild news that Whedon, who rose to geek icon status as the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, will also be developing a TV show for the studio.
You may have seen a nerd or ten having an episode over that one today.
Here’s the heart of the speculation at present: that this TV show will somehow tie into the Marvel “cinematic universe”. Which means that charcters from the TV show could turn up in the next Avengers, or Thor, or Batroc The Leaper.
Ha. Kidding on that last one. I sure that Sony has the rights to Batroc as part of the Spider-Man deal.
This comes on the heels of Warner Bros taking interest in Stephen King’s Dark Tower project that stalled out at Universal. The plan there was to create a movie trilogy that would have the downtime between features filled in by a TV show. This almost happened with the X-Files back in the 90’s, when the first film bridged the gap between two seasons of the show.
Let’s assume for the moment that this kind of transmedia play is in effect. That Disney/Marvel are willing to dream big enough to take this kind of risk, which honestly could cause as much confusion amongst casual audiences as it builds goodwill amongst the Nerd’i. What could we wind up getting? (more…)
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Warning: As a discussion of the flaws in the film, and the lessons that can be learned from examining them, this essay contains massive spoilers for Prometheus. It will also be nigh incomprehensible to someone who has not seen the film.
Perhaps no major studio picture was more anticipated this summer by film fans than Prometheus. The Avengers might have more hype, and The Dark Knight Rises has a legion of fans who’ve been holding vigil since the end of the last Batman movie, but Prometheus represented possibility on another level entirely. Director Ridley Scott returning to science fiction, in a near prequel to his iconic triumph Alien no less, was destined to be an event in and of itself.
In the aftermath of the release a conventional wisdom has begun to form: the film is gorgeous, includes the best use of 3D since Avatar, and has storytelling flaws so deep that the film is almost unwatchable on a storytelling level.
For this film lovers should be thankful. It’s been a while since we had a deeply flawed film that is so easy on the eyes. One whose philosophical ambition– to tackle big themes in terms in layman’s terms– is crippled by the dictates of Hollywood’s screenplay formula. Prometheus is truly a gift from the film gods, although the operative myth here is actually Pandora’s Box, with screenwriter Damon Lindelof in the gender swapped role of the heroine.
What follows are my modest attempts to diagnose some of the problems running around in the film’s DNA. They are issues that pop up in a lot of contemporary films, especially genre films, and this is an opportunity to confront them head on.
Multiple Character Syndrome
This nasty affliction often affects TV writers who have come off of long, successful runs on genre series. Accustomed to writing for a large cast, the writer allows that instinct to take over. Yet what was an asset in long form storytelling becomes a massive liability in the short time span of a feature.
For all intents and purposes an audience has an empathic carrying capacity. A version of Dunbar’s Number for fiction if you will. My best guess is that on our first encounter with a narrative we can expand out attention to about 5 principle cast members. Everyone else gets regulated to the back burner. Key elements of the plot should center on the 5 main characters.
To take the original Star Wars as an example, the key characters are: Luke, Leia, Han, Obi-Wan and Darth Vader. These are the characters that make the big choices that drive the plot, the ones that the audience cares the most about what they do next. The rest of the cast remains engaging, but the agency of the story rests with these five. [Don’t get me started on Grand Moff Tarkin, fanboys. Save it for another day.]
Prometheus has way too many characters with agency. First there’s Noomi and her twerp of a boyfriend Hammond. Then we get David. Glorious David who the whole movie should be about. After that comes Vickers and Idris Elba. Then psycho-tattoo punk geologist and dumb biologist. Some pilot guys. Guy Pearce in bad make up.
All of these characters have poorly defined motivations of their own. It would be fine if half of them were just window dressing, but they seem to want to be actual characters, only they seem to be really bad at it. It’s like listening to a seven year old try to describe a season two episode of Game of Thrones. Only with all the naughty bits cut out.
Even Joss Whedon suffered from this syndrome. Alongside the scheduling shenanigans that accompanied it’s debut, the thing that doomed the TV series Firefly‘s chances with mainstream audiences was MCS. From the first episode Whedon tried to have a cast almost as large as the final season of his Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Less screen time per character means less time for the audience to learn to love them. The Avengers could have gone the same way too without the existence of the previous Marvel movies. Imagine the poor souls who walk into that film without having seen at least Iron Man.
Lacunas vs. Plot Holes
This is a problem that hits us coming and going with Prometheus. First off, we’ll probably need some definitions here.
Plot holes we all get: they’re gaps in the logic of the story. Unanswered “why’s” and “how’s” that make the action feel forced.
Lacunas are also gaps. Technically they are gaps in memory, but I’ve used the term for years to describe the open questions in the backstory or mythology of a narrative. Most lacunas are meant to be filled in at some point. A question is asked and an answer is given somewhere down the line. In Game of Thrones the question of Jon Snow’s true parentage is a hotly debated topic. That’s an example of an intentional lacuna.
Other lacunas are, for lack of a better term, emergent. They come from the questions that the storytellers have yet to think, or are seemingly unwilling, to ask. The most extreme versions of these questions are what drive the fan fiction community. Which ultimately leads us to a world where Bret Easton Ellis campaigns on Twitter to get the job adapting a bunch of whitewashed Twilight slash ficiton novels for the screen. But I digress.
Emergent lacunas are the strength of Whedon’s Firefly. An exceptionally elaborate universe was hinted at in just nine short episodes of television by having charcters in western garb fly around in spaceships and curse in Mandarin. This sparked the imaginations of genre fans who leapt right into the gaps created by these broad strokes and started filling them in for themselves.
Lacunas can also be a franchise’s downfall. Star Wars was initally blessed with so many of them. Deliberate questions like “What were the Clone Wars?” and accidental ones like “How are Jedi babies made?” launched a million million… well let’s not go completely there. When the time came to start answering them for real in the prequel movies, many fans found they liked their answers better than those that George Lucas came up with.
Prometheus tries to side step that problem by making a bit of a hullabaloo about how it isn’t really a prequel to Alien. It just happpens to be set in the same universe at a point in time earlier than Alien. Prometheus doens’t even take place on the same planteoid as Alien, which opens up all kinds of questions as to what is actually going on.
Which are exactly the kinds of questions that you want to have in a head-scratching Sci-Fi movie. Unfortunately Prometheus also has plot holes. Gaps in character logic and moments of happenstance that are nothing short of hack writing. A to-a-fault devotion to Hollywood’s version of where and when the major beats of a screen story have to fall. At multiple points in the second act you can feel the necessities of plot trying to thrust their way down the character’s throats. In at least one case literally doing so.
Instead of the action rising out of empathically understood character motavations we get wind storms, wrong turns (from the guy with the mapping tech, no less) and really horrible archeological dig protocol from a bunch of people who we are supposed to have doctoral degrees. Maybe Scott and Lindelof are trying to tell us that our education system is screwed. It could be that everyone on board the Prometheus has a PhD from University of Phoenix.
The existence of plot holes cheapens the lacunas. A good lacuna takes a little bit of thought and imagination to deal with. When a story is saddled with plot holes, however, the audience stops wanting to suspend disbelief and begins ridiculing instead.
There’s an “SMS dialogue between Noomi Rapace and an Engineer” post going around on social media. In it the character of Dr. Shaw berates the giant for the seeming gap in story logic that would have us belive that humans evolved from Engineer DNA through evolution and wind up having the same gentic profile as their makers despite an infinite number of possible outcomes.
The author of that post also makes light of the engineers subsequent return visits to earth, questioning why the giants didn’t just wipe humanity out back then if that was the plan all along. What’s sad here isn’t the plot holes, becasue these aren’t plot holes, but the lack of imagination on display by the author of the satire.
Just a drop of imagination allows the return visits to solve the paradox of humanity evolving from engieer DNA. Subsequent visits would allow for that evolutuion to be directed so that humanity winds up turning out the way our makers intended. An ongoing experiement, as opposed to one that was “fire and forget”. [Mr. Lindelof may contact me through Twitter to recieve instructions as to where to send my No-Prize.]
One problem that the current crop of storytelling conventions make for really lazy audiences. If everything isn’t explained all the way through some people just throw up their hands and yell “stooooopid”. Come to think of it, maybe the whole film is a condemnation of our education system and poor parenting skills. Yet fault lies here with the filmmakers as well the presence of plot holes saps the will of the audience to play with the lacunas.
Simply put: you can have some things not make sense and be up for debate so long as the fundamental bases are covered and charcters motivations are clear by the time the union logos roll.
Mythology vs. Character
Every would-be franchise faces this problem. It is one of the leading causes of MCS, one that can be exasperated when toy and game licensing deals as involved. Tie-ins, thankfully, were not the cause of this problem in Prometheus. However the status of Prometheus as being the scion of a major film franchise– the Alien series– is why we find this problem here in the first place.
Genre writers love building worlds, and genre fans love having them to explore. That’s what makes lacuna’s such effective tools. Genre is a giant game of “what if” in it’s purest form. Throw upwards of a hundred million dollars at someone who likes playing “what if” and you can wind up building some pretty fantastic worlds.
The first thirty plus minutes of Prometheus are a testament to the power of world-building in genre films. Honestly I would have been happy with two hours of David just bicycling around the ship, fiddling with all the control interfaces and showing us what late 21st century technology could look like.
Problem is that to rake back in some of the investment in all that production design we apparently need to have a story. Stories need to have characters. I actually wish it could be otherwise. I’ve been lucky enough to see some brilliant theatre recently that didn’t so much have characters as archetypes that spouted wonderfully staccato poetry. The production was quite the experience, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it a story. More of a meditation on certain aspects of life.
It is the would-be mythographers first duty to balance the instict to world build with the need for a story to have characters. In so doing it quickly becomes apparent that you can’t have an effective mythology without strong characters. Star Wars endures not becasue of ideas like the Force, Jedi and Sith but becasue of Luke, Han and Leia. Everyone who has tried to build an elaborate mythology without a strong cast of characters has failed.
Applaud The Ambition, Mourn The Missed Opportunity
Prometheus could have been great. Should have been, really, which is whay there has been so much digital ink spilled over its faults this weekend. Yet as a whole film fans should spend less time ridiculing the failures just for the sake of feeling superior.
There is a hell of a lot of ambition on display in Prometheus, and anyone whose written so much as a short story knows how easy it is to get lost in the weeds. While we shouldn’t let Lindelof and Scott off without some chastisment we should praise the breadth of the vision on display here. That, coupled with a solid understanding of where things went wrong, is our one real hope for getting better stories out of our ailing studio system.
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Deep down inside, all nerds, despite their protestations to the contrary, seek validation from more than their peers. It is one of the reasons why geeks raised such a hue and cry when film reviewer Roger Ebert declared that video games were not art. It flew in the face of everything that gamers, as a cultural unit, had fought for. In a culture that still holds up the Asperger syndrome-afflicted hyper-nerd as the dominant archetype of a geek (hello, Sheldon) this need to be validated is one that reminds us that the geek is still very much human. It is kryptonite and superpower all in one.
Despite the rise of the superhero movie as the dominant form of mass market entertainment in the past decade, geek culture has remained relegated to the fringe, its ways studied in ethnographies but as yet unvalidated by the guardians of high culture.
Documentarian Morgan Spurlock’s Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope seeks to be the validation that geeks so desperately (if secretly) crave. It is an unapologetic mash note to San Diego International Comic-Con, the epicenter of geek culture. Filmed at the 2010 SDCC, the documentary was born out of a conversation with comics legend Stan Lee, and is executive produced by Lee and Joss Whedon (director of the upcoming Avengers movie).
The film follows a cadre of fans, aspiring artists, and comic book vendors through their convention experience. In doing so, Spurlock presents a composite picture of the world of Comic-Con as more than just a celebration of geek culture, but as a crucible for life changing events. Two aspiring artists brave portfolio assessments from comic book publishers that could make their careers, a young man plots to propose marriage to his girlfriend at Kevin Smith’s panel, and an incredibly skilled costumer pulls together her team to impress the judges of the highly competitive masquerade.
Spurlock milks drama from each of his storylines, but in focusing on the human dimension, leaves the evolution of Comic-Con as a cultural institution to be inferred from material at the margins. Most representative of the macro changes in the convention’s identity is the storyline that follows Chuck Rozanski Owner of Mile High Comics.
For the generation of comic book fans who started reading in the 1980s, Mile High Comics was a ubiquitous force of nature. Ads for the store’s back issues and mail order comics service were in every comic book you could lay your hands on. In this era when comic books are themselves relegated to the sidelines of Comic-Con, the film depicts Rozanski as struggling to break even on his sales trip to the con. Convention goers just aren’t as interested in comic books themselves as they are in the TV shows and films that owe their existance to the medium.
In interviews for the film, Spurlock states that he doesn’t buyinto the pessimistic view that Comic-Con has changed to the point where it has lost its comic book soul. The optimism of this film reflects that, but here Spurlock makes a categorical error: conflating the wider realm of geek culture with the narrow niche of comic books themselves. The deep irony is this: as geek culture continues to grow the percentage of that audience that actually buys comics continues to shrink.
[Quick aside: while attending SDCC’s “little sister” convention WonderCon last month I realized that the comic book publishers were missing an opportunity to put physical comics into the hands of all the fans who attend to see TV and new media stars. Perhaps they assume that everyone attending the con is up on comics. They are, of course, wrong.]
As the film stands there is little leavening of the celebratory tone, which passes over the compexities of geek culture in order to provide a kind of “triumph of the nerds”. In the meta-narrative of Comic-Con this makes a bittersweet sense. The men who present us the public face of the con, now fully vested in the utility of comic book characters as brands and not as denizens of universes made of ink and paper, are willing to gloss over the business’ dark shadows.
Perhaps I am too pessimistic. Perhaps the celebratory tone will bring more young people into the Comic-Con tent, and Spurlock’s film will act as the herald of an era where the regional conventions match SDCC for intensity. As the tent grows bigger more young geeks will find their way to comics themselves and the medium that forms the stapled together spine of all of nerdom will have all the new bood (and money) it needs.
For now we have Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, a very entertaining and human look at fan culture. Well worth the time for fanboys and proto-geeks alike. One that may not provide the deep validation that the nerd soul craves, but definitely shows off how much fun it is to never loose touch with one’s sense of childlike wonder.
Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, directed by Morgan Spurlock. In theaters and on VOD today.
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Jonathan Poritsky is covering the 2012 SXSW Film Festival in Austin. Read his Turnstyle News piece “Don’t Judge a Fest by It’s Centerpieces“.
The following are excerpts from his film reviews of the Joss Whedon produced Cabin In the Woods and Avi Zev Weider’s Welcome to the Machine, the full text of which can be found at the candler blog and Heeb Magazine.
Cabin In The Woods:
How does one even begin to review a film like Cabin in the Woods, whose very premise is a spoiler? That’s the question that has been bugging all the film journos (well, most of them) here at SXSW.
When he introduced the film at the premiere last night, producer and co-writer Joss Whedon implored the audience to enjoy the film and not tell anyone… it’s [ending] after the credits rolled. He recommended we just call it “awesome” and tell our family and friends to see it.
So here’s the thing: this movie is awesome.
Welcome To The Machine:
Weider refuses to make up his mind about what kind of a film he is making. The film weaves multiple talking-head narratives with the story of the filmmaker’s family, but none rise to the occasion of actually telling a story. The film serves as a decent taste of the teachings of its characters, but nothing more.
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There’s only one story worth talking about this week for the Game of Buzz and that story starts with Double Fine Adventure — a Kickstarter project from the legendary game designer Tim Schafer (Psychonauts, Brutal Legend).
Wanting to get back to his roots of making point-and-click adventure games, but knowing that it would be a hard sell to game publishers, Schafer decided to take a chance on the crowd funding site, Kickstarter. The goal was to raise $400,000 in a little over 30 days. That was yesterday, at around 5PM.
They reached the goal in 8 hours. 22 hours later and the project has cleared a cool million dollars, becoming only the second Kickstarter project to ever break the million dollar barrier. Which, just for the record, was only broken for the first time yesterday.
A million dollars in 24 hours.
It’s a number that can’t be scoffed at — one that all kinds of creatives and executives who may have dismissed the Kickstarter model so far have to be wondering how to take advantage of. Or maybe even how to curtail. Money and power are inextricably linked, and this kind of development paints a picture of a future where financiers, publishers, and studios are left off the canvas.
Not that this is an actual overnight success we are looking at. Schafer and company have been around for years, making games and building a dedicated fan base. Someone just getting their start, which at the beginning of the Kickstarter era seemed to be the point of crowd funding, isn’t liable to pull off the same kind of number.
What this kind of success does is throw down a challenge to creators in other industries. When Kickstarter first started getting strong buzz in 2010 I figured we were three to five years away from seeing an A-List Hollywood director, or a rising indie superstar, from turning to the site (or one like it) and raising the funds for their vision.
Now it feels like we’re a year away. Tops.
There are some cultural barriers to overcome before a big budget film can be financed the same way. Gamers are used to the concept of pre-ordering games months ahead of time: a fact that plays into the Kickstarter rewards model. Moviegoers have yet to be conditioned to this behavior, but the first stirrings have already begun. You may not realize this, but the IMAX screenings for the opening night of The Dark Knight Rises went on sale (and sold out) for many theaters back in December.
What would happen if Christopher Nolan decided to pitch a film like Inception to the fans directly? Or if Joss Whedon decided he wanted to do another project in the Firefly universe and pre-sell the downloads and Blu-Rays?
I think today is the day we learned that the funding would be there; that the studios wouldn’t be needed; that the advertising for the project would take the form of the fundraising.
The game of capitalism is being turned on its head right now. This is as big of a shift, as fundamental of a revolution as anything else happening in the world. It is the system of finance capitalism that keeps the old power structures in place; undermine that and you undermine the authority of investment bankers, which in turn plays havoc with the established political order.
This kind of wild success is the promise of the internet in full bloom: producers and consumers in direct contact with each other, with no need to court those with deep pockets to make a dream come true. While this development doesn’t solve the problems of independent creators looking to get their start, it makes it clear that there is a business model that nullifies the piracy concerns that the film and software industry are so panicked about.
Because a pirate can’t steal what doesn’t yet exist.
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