Wk30: Live Forever – Sequels, Reunions, Franchises and the never ending story.

Superman returns...again...and again

Disturbing numbers coming out of Hollywood. There will be a record for sequels this year – a whopping 28. It’s a figure that has rising steadily in the past few years. More disturbingly, things like Harry Potter 7b (essentially an 8), Fast Five, X-Men First Class (essentially another 5), etc makes the average sequel number 3.7.

How did we get here? Franchises seem to live forever these days. And maybe it has to do with digital technology making everything available. It’s never been easier to catch up one something.

Take reunions. With a band like Pulp in the CD era, people would have put away their CD copies of Different Class, occasionally bringing it out for nostalgia. In the era of iPods, many lapsed Pulp fans can carry around Pulp songs in their pockets every single day.

Every band in history is on equal footing. Every album ever made might as well be a new release. They are all equally easy to find. No wonder there is so much money in reunion shows. I’m not sure if bands can even break up anymore. Looks at artists like Pavement or the Pixies. Despite disappearing, their popularity never waned. They reunited to equal, if not bigger, audiences than ever.

Stock issues are disappearing. The idea that a record can fall out of print is outdated. In the 90s and the 00s, it was kinda hard to get Pixies albums in Australia (compared to say Britney).

There are a bunch of golden albums that used to never go out of print, and would be discovered by every generation. Be it Tapestry for thoughtful young women, or the first Violent Femmes album for nerdy young boys. And even the smallest CD store would stock them. Now there is no such thing. Every album is a golden album ripe for rediscovery.

I used to carry CDs in my school bag. I’d fill it with anything I might want to listen to. But no school bag can fit as much as an iPod. And soon those iPods will be streaming from an infinite harddrive in a cloudy sky.

The same used to apply to old movies. From hoping something would be re-run on TV to searching for a DVD at a shop. There was always limits. But no more. There is an infinite database of films online.

Which is why sequels work better than ever. I have friends who have just caught up on all seven Harry Potter films in just the weeks leading up to the 8th. It is the reason films like Fast Five can exist. Because Fast One to Four are so easy to get.

It goes on. Look at reboots. The first Scream movie never fell into an oldies film. Freddie Krueger never died. Even Wall Street was given a sequel 23 years later. Why invent a new brand to discuss the financial crisis? Just use the one that everyone still talks about.

Then there’s good old “nerdstalgia”. Transformers used to be so 80s. Now it’s the biggest franchise there is today. This year, both the Muppets and the Smurfs are back on the big screen. Nothing ever dies.

TV Shows of course fall into the same category. Although huge gaps exist, so many TV shows live online. Most are at unreasonable prices, but hey, that’s how you give birth to a piracy market.

You can always catch up to the story. Season 4 of Breaking Bad is out and you’ve not seen the first 3? It’s really not a problem anymore. Hell, you could have been waiting to be born when the first Harry Potter film came out and you’re probably the target audience for the new one.

Slightly ironic that the very first physical format – print – is the last to drag itself into the digital world. But you can see it going the same way as it’s louder and brighter cousins. Books will never go out of print. They will be instantly accessible to anyone who wants them. The stories will never get old.

This new world brings with it some new concerns. Making something that’s timeless pays off. Flash in the pan also never dies, but who’s going to be looking for it? You don’t need to go back at watch some shit network sitcom because they still make those. But the Sopranos will remain timeless.

What happens to plot twists. I don’t know how it would feel to try and watch Lost now. I think it’s widely known that the ending was a let down. With a show so structured towards an ending, does it lose something?

Then there is the big fight over copyright issues, and when things fall into the public domain. When the UK write copyright rules that allowed people to own their music for 50 years, no one thought Paul McCartney would be one year away from losing the rights to Love Me Do. Or, indeed that ANYTHING 50 years old would have any value.

Public Domain is a funny thing. And I think, on the whole, if something falls into Public Domain, it is terrible for that thing. Because the old arguments about it being free and easy to access are gone. We have solved the access issue. And it just means anyone can make money off someone’s work. No one is going to give it to you for free.

(One of my favourite movies ever – Charade – is one of the more interesting copyright cases around. Many cheap DVDs are no better than people filming shaky cameras in a theatre. But it’s legal to sell that. Proper prints with decent quality are hard to find because they are hard for anyone to sell any.)

The UK are seeking an extension to be in line with the US – 100 years (or so). There needs to be a worldwide consensus because we are dealing with the worldwide web. There is an argument that those rules need to be more lax (in regards to thing like sampling). But really – do they not imagine another Muppets movie in 50 years time? Maybe 100 is not enough.

Are we ever going to forget anything again?

Reboots have become part of our popular culture now. I think the idea was perfected in the comic book world. Bit reboots are getting sooner and sooner. Including the upcoming Avengers film, there will be three Hulks in ten years. Each one a reboot to some degree.

I find it interesting that people can just decide that OK, we are now starting again. Forget the past. This is a new Star Trek. This is a new Spiderman. Is anything sacred?

Franchises are worth more and more. Bands reform to take advantage of it. What happens when HBO realises that another generation has discovered the Sopranos? Will they remake that too?

It’s all up for grabs. Nothing ever dies. The idea that they could recast Star Trek means that they can recast anything. Imagine Star Wars movies picking up after Return Of the Jedi. Why not? We are getting new Spidermen, Supermen and Hulks. The next Batman movie is not even out and they have already announced a reboot to follow. Anything to keep the brand alive.

Try to imagine a situation where they would cancel the Simpsons. They could replace the voices. Get in a whole team of new young writers and producers. Reinvent the show for a new current audience. Use technology to make it cheaper to make. Really, maybe that show will outlive me. And all of us.

With so much information out there, the problem is not finding entertainment. It’s finding something you like. Filters will be the next big thing.

What do my friends recommend. What lists tell me what the greatest movies are. What the hell should I watch next?

It is the next big question in our cultural lives.

http://www.npr.org/2011/07/01/137502459/hollywoods-got-a-bad-case-of-sequelitis-this-year

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Wk19: Wrapped Up in eBooks – the Australian side.

Apple's iPad with iBooks

This column is all about trying to write about new ideas. So much writing about digital online, and trying to say something that no one else has said is tough. But this week is an easy one. One big gaping hole that I have seen under-reported, and for Australia, unreported.

Why is the Apple iBookstore so utterly devoid of books? And in Australia, it is even worse?

I’ve covered the idea of “paperless” before, but what about the nuts and bolts of the ebook market as it stands today? And in Australia?

iPads are expensive, but the cost can be better justified if you were going to put a couple of hundred towards an ebook reader. And despite a lovely reading experience – the is NOTHING to read.

Well, not nothing. But pretty close.

For the last few months, I have had dozens of books I’ve been looking to read. And absolutely none are available on iBooks. We are not talking obscure ones either.

The new Tina Fey memoir (although it seems to be up now)
Street Gang – the new book about Sesame Street
That last Woody Allen book.
The Sondheim biography.
That Tom Waits bio….
…and so on.

Not particularly obscure books. But the point is this –

I’m WANTING to buy my first ebook, and so far I haven’t been able to. I am waving my credit card at you, begging for you to take it. Why don’t you want my money?

Let’s do a quick compare – iBooks Top 10 vs Dymocks Top 10. Only one – Charlaine Harris’s Dead Reckoning – appears in both lists. The rest of it is filled up by 99c books. Repurposed classics like 1984. Not to mention a huge collection of Free books.

iBooks are developing a different audience than a bookshop. The demographics are vastly different. The e-reader base in Australia is miniscule.

But they don’t come close to replicating a bookshop experience. Where I would say iTunes covers off 90% of what you can find in a regular Sanity store – what would you say for books? 20%? 10%?

But there is a bigger story here – which is some types of books have not become digital. Specifically – anything designed for a coffee table. How is an iPad supposed to replicate that? Of those cute little novelty books at the counter.

Other types are better suited to apps. Cookbooks, travel guides and dictionaries can be bought in the App Store, not iBooks.

So iBookstore is little more than a store for novels. And there is a gap for it to expand. Magazines. Comics. Newspapers. An e-reader can handle any text. Why restrict it to one type – novels?

But even for novels, iBookstore is shockingly lacking. No Harry Potter! No JD Salinger. No “To Kill A Mockingbird”. Genre stuff like Star Wars novels. Not even Da Vinci Code. Surely if any ebook will sell, it would be evergreen sellers like the ones above?

So where the bloody hell are they?

I don’t know – but my guess is they are crippled by the same fears we saw in the music industry a decade ago.

– Cost

Digitising, en masse, costs time and money.

– Red tape

New formats come new rights, royalties and deals. Some bigger authors could be squeezing more money. Some publishers may not be able to report digital sales. There are contracts to consider.

– Fear of supporting a format that makes less money

An odd one, but big at the time for music. Why support digital, when the money is in CDs? (The reason is CDs are dying and to not be left behind, and to make more money out of fewer people)

– Artistic stand offs

Like AC/DC and Metallica, some authors might be making a stand.

– Territory rights

A big one for Australia. A book could be cleared for e-sale in the US, but they haven’t investigated Australian rights (or anyone else outside of the US), so to play it safe they don’t allow AU sales.

All this is very frustrating for the people who pay for the people making these decisions – the readers. We don’t care about that stuff. I want to buy a book for my iPad. LET ME.

Why can’t I see the iBookstore on the web? You can only access it via an iOS device. What is the point of that? Kindle’s store is online and easy.

Why is it not just part of the bigger iTunes store? Why not attract those 50 million customers you have?

And why are ebooks not much cheaper? Most new releases seem to be $20, more than an iTunes album. Looking at Fifth Witness – $23 on Dymocks, $20 at iBookstore. Bossypants – $25/$20. Seems as though it should be cheaper no? At least around the same as an album.

I’m not usually cynical, but this time, I think perhaps Apple doesn’t want people to be able to see just how awful iBookstore is. How expensive it all is. And how bad the range is.

I did finish my first ever eBook the other day. I found a digital, pirated copy of the Tina Fey memoir. I couldn’t buy it anywhere (although it’s out now).

And it was great. I got over the fear of taking out the iPad on the train. I read the end of it in a park. Readability and navigation was all fine.

One thing that did annoy me was I couldn’t do anything else with the iBooks app. Searching for new books, looking at other books, would take me out of Tina’s. Closing the program meant I needed to actually search for the Tina Fey book just to pick up where I left off.

The other problem is, once again, I have nothing to read. I am now carrying a Charlie Brooker hardcover with me everywhere I go. Didn’t I get an iPad to prevent this?

I can be forgiving. The ebook market, especially is Australia, is just terrible for everyone – not just Apple. There are so many challenges ahead.

– Sorting out rights to international books.

– Sorting out a format that can hold all kinds of book content

– Think harder about the pricing

– Building excellent stores with good selections

– Building a reader base that uses e-readers

Because right now it is horrid. To the point where there kind of is no ebook market in Australia.

And it was very, very easy for me to find a pirated copy of Tina Fey’s book. I’m sure I could find more. And once again, industry will be racing against piracy.

And if it’s anything like music, it’s the Australian book industry has to wake up fast and embrace ebooks.

(thanks to Jess for the title)

Wk13: Lost In Translation – The Treachery Of English

Languages is still a challenge online

I consider myself, pretentiously, an international citizen. I speak a couple of languages and I’m learning another. That, coupled with travel has made me aware of what I call the “Treachery of English”. Why is technology so inherently English?

In the futuristic TV show Firefly, everyone speaks the only two languages that are left – English and Chinese. It doesn’t seem so much like science fiction anymore.

It seems an odd by-product of the internationalisation of our culture. That language seems to be moving to a Highlander model – there can be only one.

Digital success favours the English. How many great digital products have come from non-English properties? Perhaps only Spotify. Google, Facebook, Twitter, eBay, YouTube, etc. All from English speaking countries (mainly the US). No wonder some countries see the internet itself as Western Imperialism.

How did we get here?

Sometimes the language itself is the problem. I worked for two years on a project to create a Chinese version of a website and was thrown head first into the problems of double byte. After we spent thousands, we would have had to rebuild the whole thing from scratch.

URLs are in English. HTML uses Roman characters. The whole internet would have to be reinvented to make it otherwise. To work in the digital space you have to learn English. And sadly, this battle may have been fought and lost. Maybe some future iteration of HMTL may change it but I think not.

But there is a bigger threat. That framework of English washes down river, with major consequences.

New technologies start in English or Roman characters. With luck they expand futher, but usually they don’t. Twitter is reliant on English. iTunes only has one store that displays non Roman characters – Japanese. And most computers can’t disply it correctly because it uses a plugin for Windows. Even the Chinese keyboard on an iPhone, a device of infinite possibilities, is clumsy.

But it isn’t just east versus west.

Everything starts with one language – English. How far down the list is Danish? Czech? Or French Canadian? These are the languages that are dying out.

These smaller languages always get screwed. Movies, even big tentpole ones, don’t get translated into many languages. You might get a French, Chinese or German, but Serbian?

But here is the point of all this:

The digital revolution should destroy these market concerns.

We can reach anyone who can speak any language – online.

I am going to use Harry Potter as a barometer for languages. Those books were published in over 65 languages (including language variations like French Canadian, Cantonese and more). This says to me that there is a) a market, no matter how small and b) a translator probably looking for work.

Point a), the small market, should be big enough to support the zero printing cost of digital. And hopefully the profits from that small market can support the wages of Mr b).

And if that market is there, and it’s attended to and supported – it can grow

Then there are the books that already exist. For some reason, my iTunes/iBook account doesn’t let me buy any French books. Why? Why can’t I get the Serbian digital version of Harry Potter. Or at least the French one?

Like most things, it’s a hangover from the old world. Why would you print up French Harry Potters in the UK, when there is a small audience for it? But now it’s clicks of a button, the changing of territory rights in a table. Yet no one is looking at this. Or worse, someone is still thinking it’s not worth their time.

This might horrify right wingers who believe in one language for one country. But I believe otherwise. How great to be able to access books, movies and music in their original language.

Film, books and music companies are bleeding money. And online sales are healthy, but they are still missing out on a massive financial trick. All because we are still used to promoting and selling one language version in one country. Everything else is a niche market.

If we are all looking for money, surely catering to all language speakers everywhere is the first step.

Let’s look at it from another angle. I want to buy Roald Dahl’s works in French.

It exists. It’s been digitised. iTunes has it on their servers. I have a credit card. You want my money. I want to give it to them.

What’s the hold up?

How do we avoid the vision of the future from Firefly? How do we stop culture from sliding into a single language monotone?

We have to make the internet admit that there is more than just English. And the underused, under appreciated non English market could be a critical key in making digital products more profitable.

It’s a world wide web after all. Lets reflect the whole world.