Friday, January 30, 2015

Ring & Run

So, here I am, done with my job.  Meaning that I can - sort of - talk about it.  There are things that I can't say - disclosure agreements and all that, so the actual entity I worked for has to remain obscure - but I can talk about the industry, which is fun.

These past five years I've been managing a database and working as a liaison between film companies and pay-per-view.  This means that I've previewed, for free, hundreds upon hundreds of movies, including a helluva lot of porn, since this also gets sold to clients.  I've written about a million synopses, talked to studios, talked to the encoding houses that make it harder to rip the movies from DVDs or - in our case - from our system.  I've had access to some swag from film companies (the posters are junk, all of them, film companies don't part with the good stuff), which has enabled me to expand my library somewhat.  I've marketed and manipulated and run a lot of sales numbers and watched the whole distribution process - the same one a lot of you see from looking at the storefront - from the beginning to the end.

Whew.  Am I sick of it.

I love movies.  Not just recent movies, but all movies, right back into the silent era.  I really hate it when a twenty-something's "all time" list extends back to when they were 14, with a few movies they remember their big brother or sister liking.  To me, the IMDb list of the top 250 is total shit, based on a voting public that learned to punch a keyboard last decade.  Of course there are films like Inception and Interstellar.  And of course virtually every old movie on the list is replete with male toxic wannabeism.  Because that is what most movies since the early 70s came to be about, once the Hays Code was - correctly - burned down.

Not that a lot of people rating movies have any idea what the Hays Code was.

However, I digress.

I wanted to explain about the industry I'm leaving.  From the outside, it looks very lucrative.  People have been talking about the 'changes' brought on by the explosion of streaming video, how it is revivified the industry and people's interest in movies.  Daily we're hearing exciting news like Amazon hiring Woody Allen to write a television series and Sony or Lion's Gate talking about getting into the movie streaming business themselves.  But let me reassure you - it is all public relations.  In reality, the movie studios are running scared.  In reality, the business itself has a very, very narrow profit margin.

Not because the public doesn't want to see movies.  Not because the movies are bad.  But because the industry is bankrupting themselves making it hard for you to steal the movies for free.  A strategy they are failing at 100%.

Before a movie can be put on a streaming system for you to buy, that movie has to be encoded with what's called macrovision, sometime called DRM.  This is a 'vertical blanking signal' or a 'colorstripe' that must be incorporated into the video so that someone who does not know what they're doing cannot simply copy the video.  (Someone who does know what they're doing can bypass this easily).  This is a process that has to be applied to every asset in the system.  It is a very expensive process.

For an HD video - and mostly anything is HD nowadays - it is upwards of $15 or more per minute of film.  This is money that must be spent ahead of time, before the film has an opportunity to make money . . . so the reader can guess that if the film doesn't make more than a certain amount, the company loses money.  Does the studio cover that cost?  No.  They don't pay for the encoding at all.  That's the responsibility of the streamer.

That's why, if you've wondered, you don't see hundreds or thousands of old movies on your preferred streaming system - there aren't enough people who will pay to see the film to make it worthwhile encoding.  Particularly when you consider that everything has to be re-encoded every two or three years because the previous encoding has been hacked.

It's fine for a huge film like Frozen - but Frozen has to pay for every other film in the system, including a lot of films that never pay for themselves.  And believe me, for every film that does really well like Frozen, there are three or four hundred films that utterly tank.

Why is it this way?  Because the studios insist upon it.  They would rather see their own product rot in a warehouse than risk letting it emerge without being coded.

Which brings us to the practical joke in all this.  Being an encoding house - that is, being the company that adds the macrovision - sucks.  It sucks hard.  A lot of the time the re-coding just doesn't work.  It results in stuttering, strange sounds, blocking, pixellation, reduction of sound, weird disruptions in synchronization, etcetera, etcetera.  The list is a long one and all of it has to be compensated for.  Sometimes the master received from the studio is old or poor in quality, or simply the wrong specifications for the encoding company (which is usually limited in what they can handle) - and there are problems that arise from low budget independent films that are 'special.'  This means that occasionally the work has to be done over and over, all within a certain time frame as the studio has conniption fits if the video doesn't stream public on a specific day.  Yes, the studios all get their cut from everything that shows - which undermines the profit margin still further.

How much help can you expect from the studios when these problems arrive?  Oh, pretty much zip.  Studio distribution must be a nightmare all its own, because people don't last in it more than a few years.  Nothing ever happens fast; phone calls are not returned; 'corrected' masters turn out to be the same master that produced the original issue, contacts get petulant, contacts disappear for weeks at a time . . . let me assure the reader, it is all a lot of fun.

Should I be telling you this?  Oh, probably not.  There's a chance that someone might find this, but I doubt it.  I don't think anyone at work knows how to use a search engine.

How do I know this?  Well, it has a lot to do with piracy.

See, piracy does not exist.  Well, okay, it exists, but it has nothing to do with us.  Well, maybe it has something to do with us, but most people would rather pay for things.  Well, maybe not most people, but a lot of people.  At any rate, there's nothing we can do about it, so it's best not to acknowledge that it is exists.  That is why it doesn't.

I have one story that I will tell.  Could get me into trouble, but hey, life is a risk.

We received a copy of Gravity from the encoding house and the various testers and techies noticed there was something terribly, terribly wrong with the sound at the beginning of the movie.  Now, if you actually know the film, you know that the sound at the beginning is purposefully raised from silence to comfort level very slowly.  Naturally, by a large number of people who themselves watch perhaps one movie a week - and never in the theatre, as these are business people who work 14-16 hours a day - the sound at the beginning was presumed to be a GLITCH.

For three days, rather smugly I must admit, I watched a wave of emails crashing on the shore between the studio, the encoding house and the streaming company about what could be done and where a copy could be obtained that wasn't already doctored in order to decide what the dialogue at the beginning should sound like.  Time was getting short as the film had to premiere on the system in a matter of days.  Yet no one could remember from having watched the film.  Except, apparently, me.

Eventually, I took it upon myself to solve the problem.  I found the url where you could see Gravity, for free, without needing to download it or add any special program to your computer.  I used Google to find the url.  Took me about 90 seconds.  Then I sent the url in a reply all email.

I'm quite sure no one looked at it.  Because piracy does not exist.

Anyway, looking to get out of television and into another industry.  Perhaps there is some way I could make it as a writer.

7 comments:

Doug said...

Alexis, if it's not too much trouble, would you share a movie or two that is good (by your standards)? I discovered I agreed with your take on Star Wars, although I couldn't put my finger on it at the time.

Thanks for the insight into that industry.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Doug, I like movies that are consistent throughout, where the dialogue is believable and not fringed with obvious exposition, where the plot seems to develop casually, where excessive effort is not spent to highlight some slice of life I'd rather be actually living and where people change their minds. I like stories where someone learns something.

I like humour when it is not based on sight-gags or breaking cultural norms (since nothing about me is either normal or abnormal, I don't find anything unusual, strange or funny about feces). I particularly like humour based on dialogue. My favorite comedy is the 1973 film, What's Up Doc, which is 90% brilliant dialogue (when I was young I loved the sight gags at the end but now they're so-so).

I hate toxic masculinity in films. I cannot express how much I hate Scorsese or how much I view people who like it as infant males desperately defending their genitalia. I do like it when toxic masculinity gets kicked in the genitals, even when the 'boys' totally miss the point. I equally hate films with endlessly long expressive themes that make something that any moron ought to already be aware of, so I am not a fan of Truffaut, Godard, Fellini or Polanski. I think that the clumsy stylings of both Kubrick and Hitchcock are INCREDIBLY over-rated, but there are films I enjoy by both.

I don't like sappy films, films that trumpet family values, films that preach Americana or any other nationality, films that turn villains into heroes, films that justify genius as a psychological disease, films that inflate unremarkable people into Heroes who were unrecognized in their day, films that choose to follow some nobody vaguely connected to a famous person or films that try to tranform a minor moment in history into something that CHANGED THE WORLD.

I like straight-forward, exciting, mythical stories about heroes, both male and female. I like women heroes and I like women villains. I like it when bad people are allowed to be very, very bad, but I hate it when bad people are portrayed in a film in order to gain my sympathy. I don't want to feel bad for bad people; I just want to enjoy them being bad.

But, as I say, I hate it when all that badness is based on being a brute. Nothing interests me about brutes. I prefer villains based upon indifference and pragmatism.

I think that 96% of all the films every produced are failures. Of these, about 1 in 10 is watchable. 4% of films are worth watching more than once. Less than 1% can be called 'good.'

I give all these qualifiers because the films I like fit into every category. I like some gangster films. I like some westerns. I like some war films. I like some romances. I like some musicals. I like some documentaries. I don't care what KIND of movie it is. I care whether or not it is good.

Alexis Smolensk said...

The thing about films . . . so few people really understand what is going on. As a WRITER, I have certain expectations and standards based on my experience putting together stories and plots, so that when I see a writer using a lazy trick or a character deliberately carrying around an idiot ball for half the film - because the writer can't think of a better motivation than, "The character is too stupid to ask the question, 'what's going on?', then I hate the film.

As well, I am not particularly concerned with the base premise of a film. The "10% of a brain's capacity" argument did not in the least disturb me about LUCY. It continues to amaze me that persons can blithely accept non-real premises that support some films but not others. This is not criticism. This is prejudice.

Recently I saw the EDGE OF TOMORROW, which surprised me. Again, the premise is entirely incidental and does not affect my appreciation of the film. Earlier in 2014, I very much appreciated THE WINTER SOLDIER; it was a good, solid story, expressive, characters I could like and I enjoyed the interaction. It is an excellent example of a non-origin story superhero movie.

GRAVITY was excellent. I've heard Neil deGrasse Tyson's protests, convincing me the man should shut the fuck up and stick with talking to elementary school children. The biggest surprise in the last year for me was THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY - a film I swore not to watch since who could remake the hilarious original with Danny Kaye. I was pressured into it and very pleased to find it was NOT a remake.

Doug said...

I may have to start using the phrase "carrying the idiot ball" now, thank you.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Idiot Ball examples.

Ozymandias said...

I'm continuously amazed at the reluctance to accept progress. My current employer uses a manufacturing program designed in the '80s. They've never upgraded, despite several attempts over the past two decades, and they continue to waste time and resources managing a system that no longer fulfills their needs. Amazingly, everyone knows it, but the company as a whole has made no real effort at addressing the issue. This is 2015 and I work with a program designed using DOS. What the fuck?

I feel the same incredulity at hearing that the film industry has its head in the sand, as it were.

William Jones said...

Your comment about the top imdb films really made me think about something, and I came to the conclusion that trying to rate anything on a linear scale is really stupid and trying to crowd source that score is utterly ludicrous.

Ozymandious, you don't work with me do you at Ordnance Survey? Because that is exactly what our cartographers have to deal with, while simultaneously experimenting with folding screens and automated drone 3d surveyors.