Sunday, May 29, 2005

Finally a Blog Criticizes the New York Times

I hate to be another blogger bashing the New York Times -- how trite; how Instapundit -- but it's about a business/arts coverage, not politics, so I hope I can be forgiven.

Specifically, the New York Times, ran one of the worst examples of Hollywood business coverage I've seen in a major paper in a while. Since my primary job is covering the entertainment industry, this kind of stuff bothers me, because it basically shows that reporters aren't held (by the public, by editors) to the same kind of standards when covering entertainment businesses that they are when covering Wall Street or computer companies and what-not. They should be.

Specifically, I'm talking about Laura Holson's May 27 article, "With Popcorn, DVD's and TiVo, Moviegoers Are Staying Home." Someone told me this ran on page 1, although I didn't see the print edition that day, so I can't attest to that.

There are two major problems with this piece:
1. The problem it identifies doesn't really exist (and to the extend that it does, it hardly matters)
2. The evidence is marshalls to prove its point is absurdly non-representative

Let's start with 1. I'll sum it up as the New York Times did: "For 13 weekends in a row, box-office receipts have been down compared with a year ago, despite the blockbuster opening of the final "Star Wars" movie. And movie executives are unsure whether the trend will end over the important Memorial Day weekend that officially begins the summer season. Meanwhile, sales of DVD's and other types of new media continue to surge. With box-office attendance sliding, so far, for the third consecutive year, many in the industry are starting to ask whether the slump is just part of a cyclical swing driven mostly by a crop of weak movies or whether it reflects a much bigger change in the way Americans look to be entertained - a change that will pose serious new challenges to Hollywood."

Is box office down this year? Overall, yes, by a few points. But as my colleague Gabe Snyder pointed out in Variety a few weeks ago (subscription only, so you probably can't read it), there have been fewer wide releases this year, for various reasons. On a per movie basis, which is surely what matters, Hollywood is doing better. And of course last year there was this little aberration early in the year called "Passion of the Christ." Now maybe Hollywood should come out with more movies like that, but given how rare it is to have a mega-hit like that early in the year, it does make comparisons at this point a bit bogus.

It also seems a bit odd to say Hollywood is facing "serious new challenges" because people are spending a lot more time with DVDs. Who seells DVDs? The same studios that distribute movies at the box office. And in fact DVDs are a much higher margin business. So it's not exactly clear what the challenge here is.

But the worst thing about this article, surely, is that most of the evidence for its thesis that people are turning away from movie theaters to spend time on interactive media at home comes from four interviewees presented as if they are representative of a trend. But this is a not a remotely random group of people. Who are they?
-A UCLA senior
-A VP of (an Internet social networking company for college students)
-A VP of IGN (an online media company that primarily covers videogames)
-A "video game entrepreneur"

The first "man on the street" seems like a random enough choice. But the other three? Do these choices strike anyone else as laughably biased? Apparently it didn't bother the editors at the Times.

But to me, it doens't exactly illustrate a point about the public to discover that three people who work in online media and video games spend a lot of time online and playing video games. And thus they have less time for movies. Someone who works at TheFacebook spends his free time online? A VP at IGN says " video games increasingly have taken up time she otherwise might spend watching television or going to the movies?" A "video game entrepreneur" has a kick-ass, very expensive, home theater system and prefers that to the movie theater? How shocking!

I can't remember the last time I saw a better case of searching out the evidence to fit your thesis. Anyone can do it. If I was writing this article, but with the thesis that people are spending more of their free time masturbating than a few years ago, I'm sure I could find a bunch of 14 year old boys who would illustrate the trend.

Can we please put a ban on "man on the street" journalism that consists of finding a bunch of people sure to fit your thesis? If you're going to interview random people, they should be a truly random bunch of people. It's not that hard. Ms. Holson could have just asked a bunch of UCLA students in the cafeteria or gone to a local Blockbuster.

Most important would have been to seriously engage the evidence in box office revenue, overall studio profits, and whether this mini-trend of a decline this year actually matters (my answer: not really).

(Disclaimer: I'm obviously speaking just for myself, not in any official capacity as a reporter at Variety.)

Update 6/2/05: My friend and former Spinsanity colleague Brendan Nyhan kindly linked to this post on his excellent blog and pointed out that the Times recently profiled TheFacebook and that the "video game entepreneur" was quoted in a different story by Holson two weeks ago. So these people aren't just unrepresentative, they were apparently selected via piggyback reporting. Sigh.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Sith sucks, Crash is a travesty

Let's get some perspective. The fact that "Revenge of the Sith" is much better than "Phantom Menace" and "Attack of the Clones" does not mean it's a good film. The dialogue is still atrocious. The acting is mediocre, save for Euan McGregor and Ian McDarmid and the digital Yoda (though I blame that primarily on the directing, since Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman, among others, have shown they're capable of giving very good performances). And major character turning points that the whole trilogy drove up to (you know the one I'm talking about) are entirely undermotivated. So the critics fawning over it are out of their fucking minds.

I actually got a good sense of why these three films have been so retched reading Entertainment Weekly's cover story, which included an interview with Lucas (an opportunity few publications got). In it, Lucas admits that he (in EW's words) "didn't complete the screenplay until the start of production due to his disdain for wordsmithing." "Sith," apparently, was even "looser" (Lucas's word). It wasn't until some F/X artists at ILM told him they didn't think it was clear why Anakin went bad that he reshot that moment. Given that it's still not very clear -- you see why he's tempted, but he all of a sudden goes from being confliced to calling Palpatine "master" -- I can only imagine how bad it must have initially been.

Lucas also admits that he didn't really have enough material to make episodes 1 and 2 into a film. Here's EW" "By Lucas' own calculation, 60 percent of the prequel plot he dreamed up decades earlier takes place in 'Sith.' The remaining 40 percent he split evenly between 'Meance' and 'Clones,' meaning each film contained a lot of... filler." That's why those movies are so forgettable. Nothing happened!

Essentially, George Lucas is making clear that he doesn't respect the art of screenwriting or directing. He had some leftover ideas, he felt like doing them, so he just made it happen. Since he's a billionnaire and financed these movies himself, I guess that's OK, in a technical sense. But morally, there's something really offensive about not going out and getting some collaborators who are experienced and talented and as passionate (if not moreso) about this material. But George Lucas apparently didn't feel like it, so instead of contributing something with lasting value to our culture, he just used his vast resources to get something out of his system in a half-hearted way.

Sadly, "Sith" wasn't even the worst movie I saw this week though. That honor would go to "Crash." Truly one of the most awful movies ever made. That's not hyperbole. It gives other pretentious white Hollywood liberal crap a bad name. From the first line of the film, an absurd and unrealistic phony meaningful nonsequitur from Don Cheadle, to the last shot, I loathed it. Every character is a one dimensional symbol of a type of person in Los Angeles who engages in plot device after plot device to show how very very ISOLATED we all are -- so desperate for connection -- while they spout ridiculous dialogue that nobody would actually say (unless really provoked, which these character aren't) to show how racist and/or lonely we all are.

I guess the question is, Is "Crash" worse than "Episode 3?" My girlfriend was passionately arguing it's not, if only because writer/director Paul Haggis and a mostly talented cast seemed to succeed in accomplishing something. Lucas, in comparison, had low goals that he couldn't even meet due to his lack of talent. But I was entertained during many moments of "Sith." I was apalled throughout "Crash" and desperate for it to end in a way I haven't been in a theater since at least the execrably offensive "Napoleon Dynamite."

Despite the artistic goals of "Crash," I think I ultimately still have to give the award to "Sith." Simply because I was at least moderately to fully engaged throughout the latter film. I honestly found "Crash" so unbelievable and pretentious that I never cared for a moment about what was happening on screen.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

BBC brings the funny

Watch Alan Partridge.

I'm sure neither of my readers know who he is. But he's currently, I'd venture to say, the funniest character on TV. BBC America is re-running episodes of the 11 year old British show "Knowing Me, Knowing You," Saturdays at 11 EST, 8 Pacific. It stars Steve Coogan, who some of you might know from "24 Hour Party People" (which I loved and which spurred me to try this), as the dense and easily offended host of a talk show that's just a bit too ridiculous to be real.

It's fucking hysterical. Now that "Arrested Development" is off the air, it's easily the funniest thing on TV. It's got that awesome combination of simplistic and sophisticated humor with a heavy dose of irony that I love. He's even got a great catchphrase that doesn't read as funny but trust me, watch Coogan say it and you'll laugh.

I see from the BBC American website that "Knowing Me Knowing You" is just part of "The Alan Partridge Experiment," which also includes the cancellation of his show and his attempted comeback.

I guess it's sad that the funniest thing on TV now is an 11 year old British show, but we should take what we can get and be glad for it when it comes to TV comedy.

blogger bites dog bites man

In news that I'm sure is shocking many besides me, Andrew Sullivan is making extremely good sense about Newsweek and torture. The magazine should be ashamed (who prints a major allegation like that with one source repeating hearsay?). But surely legitimate allegations of torture deserve at least as much attention as Newsweek is currently getting (actually, they deserve way more, but let's be generous). And in order to satisfy everyone involved, let's have more investigation of this issue, and more transparency from the Bush administration.

Given that Andrew Sullivan so often unleashed ad hominem attacks on liberals and other opponents of the Iraq war or US Policy in the aftermath of 9/11, this is a welcome shift. (see our Spinsanity archive on Sullivan for a few examples)

Sadly, but not unexpectedly, Instapundit is once again embarassing himself on an issue of the US war against terror (as defined by the US government to include the Iraq war). The media is a bigger threat than a government that deceives us or tortures people, etc.