Wednesday, June 29, 2005

I'm H.G. Wells, bitch!

The new War of the Worlds movie opened today. In the spirit of Kung Fu Monkey-- for those who loved the voiceover from the trailer, but who've never read the original novel-- here's the first paragraph from the book, read by yours truly:

this is an audio post - click to play

Did I mention that I've set up an audioblogger account? I wish they'd replace the clunky IVR interface with something like Tellme's voice reco, but it's still more convenient than not.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Filking the night away

Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later... Firefly filk. Someone's taken the theme song from the TV show, used it as a chorus, and written verses around it to produce "Mal's Song." Now, maybe it's just me, but that character really doesn't seem like the folk-singing type--

MINISCULE SPOILER FOR SERENITY BELOW

--I'd rather hear "Jayne's Song," since we actually see him sitting at a campfire and strumming a guitar in one scene from the upcoming movie. And we've already seen him singing in "Jaynestown." Wouldn't that be more entertaining than some loser whining about how The Man is out to get him? Yawn.

Not to diminish the filkers' efforts, but I still prefer the original, without embellishment. Sometimes, less is more.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The Hunters are the Hunted...

Seems like NBC et al. are having some trouble getting their new reality show, "Treasure Hunters," off the ground. They originally announced it and began soliciting applications back in March:
BURBANK, Calif. -- March 17, 2005 -- Imagine Television and Madison Road Entertainment will join NBC Universal Television Studio and Magical Elves Productions on NBC's new "Treasure Hunters," an unscripted "quest" series that will feature teams of treasure-hunting competitors who will use folklore, fantasy and actual history as clues to solve a complex puzzle...

-- Official NBC Press Release

The original deadline was in May. Apparently they didn't get what they wanted:

3. Women Physicists Sought for Reality Show
From: WIPHYS of June 1, 2005

NBC is currently seeking female physics professors and
teachers in teams of three to compete for thrills and
riches in televisions first global treasure hunt.

The treasure hunters will face exciting challenges
requiring brains, stamina, passion, and teamwork.

For more details, go to NBC.com and click on *Treasure
Hunters*. If you have questions and would like more
information please contact:

Ashley Kemp, Casting Associate- Treasure Hunters - NBC
213-630-6530 ext. 101

-- American Astronomical Society newsletter

They also placed a notice in Marine Corps News and held more open casting calls in various cities, including Boston and San Francisco. I was suckered-- er, I mean, invited to join a team as their third (does that make me Ender? would anybody at NBC get that reference?), but I'm still skeptical about the show actually happening-- and pretty sure they'll never call us back.

Hey, I'm a realist. I'm not interesting on camera. Why do you think I wanted to be a voice actor? And even though they claim they want intelligent people who can solve more difficult puzzles than the fluff found on "The Amazing Race," they're not going to want Gamers who can burn through any clue in minutes. That's not good television.

When lay people think the junior-grade riddles in National Treasure "are so difficult that no sane forefather could have conceivably believed that anyone could actually follow them," I have no confidence that a silly reality show will ever be able to challenge real Gamers.

Which is fine. We'll make our own fun, as we always have. Nobody does it better.

Monday, June 20, 2005

This past weekend was strange, busy, and good.

Friday night, we drove up to Walnut Creek to see our own Brian Rosen in Baby. It's a good show, and is running for one more weekend-- go if you can.

Saturday morning, I drove up to SF with a friend to check out the open casting call for NBC's "Treasure Hunters." We didn't apply; we just wanted to see if any other local Gamers would show up. Some did, and we chatted with them for a while.

Saturday night, another Gamer emailed me to ask if I'd like to join his team and apply for the show. I figured, what the hell, and said yes. Then DeeAnn and I went to Mountain Winery for dinner (good, but not great), and to see Margaret Cho (hi-larious).

On Sunday afternoon, I drove back to SF to record an on-camera interview for the "Treasure Hunters" casting agents. I don't expect them to call us back. I'm half expecting the show to die in pre-production, since they were asking for applications way back in April and seem increasingly desperate to find suitable contestants-- and, by their own admission, the producers keep changing their minds about who they want to cast. But what do I know?

Sunday night, I played in BANG 10 as part of Team Blah (we couldn't come up with a name). We tied for second, which was not only respectable, but also got us out of having to plan the next BANG-- that burden, uh, privilege is reserved for the first-place teams (a three-way tie this time).

Finally, when I got home on Sunday, DeeAnn informed me that our TV appeared to have shorted out when she tried to turn it on that night.

So I'm a little tired today.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

It's all about the Lorelais

You are not a viewer, you are a consumer. For proof, see the chart at the bottom of CanWest Media Sales' Gilmore Girls info page.

I guess we all knew that already, but having it powerpointed out like this is a splash of cold water to the face. (If you're ready for more disenchantment, check out the similar but male-oriented data for The Simpsons.)

The saddest part is, I'm sure there is a market for direct sales of TV programming. The success of DVD sets of various TV shows proves that. I agree with many things in Mark Pesce's hyperdistribution lecture, but I don't like the idea of advertising "bugs" cluttering up the onscreen image, and I think their effectiveness is very limited-- unless you're going to shit all over the screen like FOX does with their obnoxious, animated "bottom third" banner ads, you can only present one piece of information in a "bug," probably a logo. If you're Nike or McDonald's, that's great, but if you're Nike or McDonald's, you don't really need any more advertising. It's the smaller advertisers that will suffer, the businesses who can't afford multi-million-dollar national campaigns. Any real solution has to address the long tail.

I don't have the answer, either. Maybe it'll be search advertising: when programming is no longer artificially segmented into "channels," we'll need a better way to find the shows we want to watch. But whatever the answer is, we need to be willing to try many schemes-- and fail at most of them-- before finding it. The only way to test this is on the open market.

Mark my words, the era of using television to sell soap is coming to an end.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Does that seem low to you?

The Sci Fi Channel has bought exclusive cable rights to "Firefly" from Twentieth TV for a total license fee of about $450,000 in a deal that includes three episodes Fox never ran.

-- "'Firefly' spreading wings", Variety

On second thought, I suppose it's all gravy at this point-- FOX has already made a boatload of money from selling advertising for the original airings, plus the sales 0f 200,000+ DVD box sets. It just seemed odd at first, since there was a lot of hubbub about how Firefly cost so much (roughly $1.5 million per episode) to produce, which is why Sci Fi couldn't pick it up as another original series, like they did with Stargate SG-1 after Showtime dumped it.

In other news, Global Frequency don't need no stinkin' TV network-- this thing practically distributes itself!

Monday, June 13, 2005

Serenity for the masses?

I hate the peer-pressure psychology of newspaper movie ads. It seems like every film wants to proclaim itself "number one" at something (usually based on opening weekend box office grosses). I've seen "the #1 Movie in America," "#1 Romance," "#1 Comedy," "#1 Romantic Comedy," and so on. If it doesn't sound patently ridiculous, the marketing department will use it. And pretty soon, I'm sure they'll cross that line, too, and we'll start seeing things like "#1 Lowbrow Comedy Featuring Incontinent Talking Animals!"

Anyway. The clear implication of these ads is: "Everyone else saw this movie. So should you." If this sort of advertising works, then it seems likely that the corollary is also true: that most people will not knowingly choose an unpopular option. That is to say, if you ask your average man on the street to choose Cola A (preferred by 90% of Americans) or Cola B (preferred by only 10%), and with all other factors being equal, he'll pick Cola A, the more popular choice, because he wants to be in the majority, regardless of his actual, personal preference.

It really scares me that the mob mentality could be so strong, and people so willing-- in fact, wanting-- to be sheep, that conformity can be valued as the highest virtue, above individual taste or judgment.

Okay, okay, I'm getting to the point. Continuing with the A/B Cola example: we're given that Mr. Average will always choose the more popular option because he wants to be in the majority. We can restate this as "Mr. Average will never choose the less popular option, because he does not want to be in the minority."

My point is this: Firefly fans are the minority. We may number in the tens of thousands, but that's still less than one percent of all Americans. And we are, to be blunt, weird. We dress up in costumes. We go to conventions. We discuss how to throw conversion parties, for ghod sake. Normal people don't do all this for a canceled TV show. Hell, normal people don't ever do this!

So I'm afraid that the Mr. and Mrs. Averages of these great United States of America will not go out and see Serenity this September-- that they will, in fact, refuse to see it because of its strong association with fandom, which newspapers around the country are playing up due to the preview screenings. I'm concerned that average American moviegoers will hear about all the weirdos carrying on about Serenity, and think, "I certainly don't want to be associated with that bunch of freaks or anything they like. I'd rather go see a nice, normal, safe, mainstream movie, which all my friends and coworkers will approve of. Like Into the Blue!"

My pessimistic view is that Serenity, like most other science fiction movies, will not have overwhelming mass market appeal. It's too quirky to appeal to a complete nonfan. Unlike Terminator 2 or Independence Day or The Matrix (which were really just action movies anyway), Serenity is not set in the present day; it doesn't have many familiar elements to help 20th-century folk get a handle on the story. And that's likely to alienate some people. No pun intended.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Please do not venture a guess. Think of the children.

"Like anyone is the slightest bit appalled anymore by the breathtaking litany of utter BS oozing forth from the White House these days...

"They lie about why a gay male model and former prostitute who ran gay porn Web sites was allowed to pose as a partisan hack reporter in White House press briefings for over two years, allowed to ask softball questions of the president and the press secretary and allowed to sleep overnight in the White House and shall we venture a guess who might've been waiting down in the dungeon all those nights, all sweaty and adipose, waiting for hunky Jeff Gannon to come and spank him but good?"

-- Mark Morford

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Browncoat Blues

Many Firefly fans were not able to purchase tickets for the June 23rd preview screening of Serenity, since they sold out so quickly this morning. A few people bought extra tickets, and a few of those still have unclaimed tickets which they want to share with fellow fans. The SF Browncoats mailing list has been buzzing with various ideas on how to do this fairly, or at least without malice aforethought.

And, of course, I gotta throw in my two cents. Here's my crazy idea, in the vein of letting the community decide, inspired by the TransAtlantic Fan Fund and the Google AdWords ranking system. Be warned, it's a little complicated. Picture this:

- Every person who wants a ticket registers himself or herself-- anonymously, and only once.

- As part of that registration, each entrant says "I am willing to pay X for a ticket" (where X is a dollar amount between, say, 10 and 100). This information is always secret.

- In addition, every entrant explains in 25 words or less why he or she wants to see SERENITY. This information is secret until later. Multiple entries per person are not allowed.

- A limit is set on how many people can enter; e.g., registration closes after 5 days or 50 entries, whichever comes first.

- Once that limit is reached, all the 25-word entries are listed (anonymously: no dollar amounts, no authors' names) on a yahoogroups poll, which is available for a certain amount of time.

- All SF Browncoats get to vote to pick the best entries. (There's an implementation problem here: ideally, you'd pick only your top three choices, but with yahoogroups there's no way to limit that.)

- After the polls close, the number of votes each entry received is multiplied by the entrant's bid price to produce a "score." (For example, an entry which received 5 votes and whose author bid $20 would have a final score of 5*20=100. An entry with 10 votes and a $10 bid would also score 10*10=100.)

- The authors of the highest scoring N entries each win one ticket (where N is the total number of available tickets), and their authors are revealed, to the delight of all. If a winner cannot actually pay the amount he or she bid, the ticket goes to the next highest scoring entrant. If there is a tie, winners are selected randomly.

- All proceeds, minus the actual cost of the tickets, go to charity.

Okay, now that I've written it out, it looks way too complicated. And it punishes those who might not be great writers but who have other qualities to recommend them. (Which is, I suppose, another implementation problem-- it would be better if yahoogroups allowed you to list non-text poll options, like images or audio files, so artistic types could express themselves with other media.)

But this system would, I hope, limit the influence of those with deep pockets, since even someone with only $10 to his name can write a fantastic entry which gets lots of votes and scores higher than a $100 bid with very few votes. It also allows for a more democratic decision, and diffuses any ill will-- if you lose, you can't single out one person to blame for it. Well, maybe yourself.

Gosh darn it, Supply, why can't you and Demand just get along?

gone in 180 seconds

At 9:49 AM today, one of my faithful perl scripts emailed me to say that a movietickets.com page had changed-- specifically, that a new link had appeared for a 10:00 PM show of "Special Advance Preview" (the not-so-secret code name for Serenity) on Thursday, June 23rd.

I bought ten adult tickets immediately (the most that movietickets.com will allow in a single purchase).

I sent email to several friends telling them that tickets were available.

I went back to movietickets.com at 9:52 AM to buy more tickets... and it was already sold out. In less than three minutes. Gone.

I called the automated phone system, too, just in case they'd reserved distinct blocks of tickets for sale through different channels-- no dice.

Crazy. What else can you say about Browncoats?

Oh, yeah:

"Some people might question these fans' devotion to a series that ran a total of 13 episodes (of which only 11 aired). Some people have never been in love."

[ObNitpick: if you count the pilot movie as 2 episodes, there was actually a total of 15, of which 12 aired on FOX. Starting July 22nd, Sci Fi Channel will air the entire series in production order. Or you could just buy the DVDs now.]

It's not a tumor.

Texas Instruments is replacing thousands of calculators issued to students in Virginia after a sixth-grader discovered that pressing a certain two keys converts decimals into fractions.

That would have given students an unfair advantage on Virginia's standardized tests, which require youngsters to know how to make such conversions with pencil and paper.

At the request of the state education department two years ago, Texas Instruments had disabled the decimal-to-fraction key and left it blank on calculators intended for middle school students.

But in January, Dakota Brown, a 12-year-old at Carver Middle School in suburban Richmond's Chesterfield County, figured out that by pressing two other keys on his state-approved TI-30 Xa SE VA, he could change decimals into fractions anyway...

-- CNN.com, "Student discovers calculator flaw"

There are so many things wrong with this... Let's start with the headline. It wasn't a "flaw," it was an undocumented feature. It is not a flaw for a device to be more useful than you expected.

As for the standardized tests, if you really want to evaluate mathematical aptitude, why are you allowing calculators at all? Are you teaching these kids how to do math, or how to operate a device? Because they'll always pick the easier option. Always.

Finally, it's discouraging-- though hardly surprising-- that instead of putting their own house in order, the schools are asking their corporate sponsor to fix the problem. Which they can't, really, but they'll make a half-assed show of it. And the next time a sixth grader finds out how to hack his calculator, he'll keep it on the down-low so The Man don't find out.

This is the same attitude and philosophy which gave us broken technologies like DVD region codes, the broadcast flag, and HDCP, and even more broken legislation (hello, DMCA). It's irrational, it's dangerous, and it does not make me happy.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

How the sausage is made

This morning, a Whedonesque.com news item led me to the blog of Doris Egan, television writer and formerly staff on the now-cancelled Tru Calling. Aside from explaining a never-finished arc for that show-- which might have been interesting, if they'd ever fully committed to dealing with the mythology of the series instead of the more pedestrian movie-of-the-week stuff-- she tells some fascinating stories about being a TV writer.

Along with John Rogers' Kung Fu Monkey, these posts have convinced me that I never want to be a writer in Hollywood. Sure, you may get to collaborate with great people, and learn the ins and outs of story structure (which I need), and occasionally be responsible for a great scene or moment or line of dialogue (the ultimate ego boost), but you have no real control over the final product. You're not an author, you're an employee.

Says Ms. Egan:
I have never been on a show where every angle of logic and consistency was not debated in excruciating detail [by the writing staff]. For as long as it took. I mean, I'm sure there are shows where that doesn't happen. I just haven't been on them.

And yet, I have been on shows where plotholes and cheap'n'easy cliches appear on-screen.

Yes. What leaves the writers' room is often much more logical and consistent than what appears on screen. Why this is would take a full entry of several hours, and I would just be scratching the surface...

Read the rest of "Breaking the story" for some examples of things that can go horribly wrong between script and screen. All things considered, it's a minor miracle that any good TV shows and movies ever actually get made.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Six degrees of name-dropping

I'm mentioned in the same sentence as Patrick Nielsen Hayden and Cory Doctorow, by a blogger doing "a mega-meta-review" of the 2005 Hugo nominees (scroll down to Best Novella #4). In your face, Kevin Bacon!

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Summer of Sci Fi

Though the current state of genre TV is pretty abysmal, a decent number of science fiction and fantasy films are invading your local cineplex in the coming months. Some of them may even be good. I made a list for myself, and now, I'm sharing it with you. Enjoy.

Note: I require "genre" films to have some essential, fantastic element, which is why you won't see many straight horror or action flicks in this list.

Howl's Moving Castle (6/10/2005)
Witches, man!
Interest: Must See

The Adventures of Shark Boy & Lava Girl in 3-D (6/10/2005)
Like Sin City, but, you know, for kids.
Interest: Medium

Batman Begins (6/17/2005)
Some dude running around in a cape.
Interest: Must See

Land of the Dead (6/24/2005)
Dear George A. Romero: Enough with the zombies already!
Interest: Low

Bewitched (6/24/2005)
No.
Interest: None

War of the Worlds (7/1/2005)
Some dude running away from aliens.
Interest: Must See

Undead (7/1/2005)
Some chick running away from zombies.
Interest: Medium

Fantastic Four (7/8/2005)
I only see three.
Interest: High

Dark Water (7/8/2005)
Jennifer Connelly in a wet T-shirt contest. You wish.
Interest: Low

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (7/15/2005)
Johnny Depp, you are so hot, but so freakin' weird.
Interest: High

The Island (7/22/2005)
Obi-Wan is a clone!
Interest: Low

The Brothers Grimm (7/29/2005)
Terry Gilliam finishes a movie.
Interest: Must See

Night Watch (7/29/2005)
In Soviet Russia, VAMPIRES watch YOU!
Interest: High

Sky High (7/29/2005)
Disney rips off Aaron Williams' PS238.
Interest: Medium

Stealth (7/29/2005)
Ray Charles is a fighter pilot?
Interest: Low

2046 (8/5/2005)
See those future trains runnin', watch 'em disappear...
Interest: High

The Skeleton Key (8/12/2005)
Kate Hudson don't practice Santeria, she ain't got no crystal ball...
Interest: None

Valiant (8/19/2005)
Obi-Wan is a pigeon!
Interest: Medium

The Cave (8/26/2005)
My, it's dark in here. "Black," one could say; perhaps even "pitch."
Interest: Low

A Sound of Thunder (9/2/2005)
Ray Bradbury is spinning in his grave. (UPDATE 6/3: BHB points out that Mr. Bradbury is still alive. Oops.)
Interest: None

Corpse Bride (9/23/2005)
Tim Burton directs computer animated puppets.
Interest: High

Serenity (9/30/2005)
Big Damn Movie based on Joss Whedon's FIREFLY.
Interest: Must See

Actually, I know Serenity will be good, having already seen a preview screening. Fans will love it, but who knows how it'll play in Peoria. More on that later.

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Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Headline of the Week

"Bush Anxious to Learn More of Deep Throat"
-- ABC News

Hey kids: Don't understand why this is funny? Go ask Mom or Dad! They'll explain it to you!