RIP, Ralph McQuarrie
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RIP, Ralph McQuarrie

This morning I read that Ralph McQuarrie has died. Oddly enough, I didn’t even know his name until today, but I certainly knew his work. He was the conceptual designer behind the original Star Wars trilogy, among many other works, and he created the visual world that completely enraptured my childhood mind. It’s strange to think that I didn’t know who deserved credit for that until his passing.

There’s a slide show of his concept art for Star Wars at the official site. It’s amazing how faithful the films are to his renderings.

There’s also an extensive gallery of his work at his official site.

Are movie theaters misdiagnosing their problems?
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Are movie theaters misdiagnosing their problems?

Last week, Roger Ebert wrote a piece about the effect improperly operated projectors have on the movie viewing experience. Most of the time, when you go to the movies, the bulb in the projector is insufficiently bright, usually because movie theaters are too lazy or incompetent to configure their digital 3D projectors to project 2D movies properly. (3D movies are inherently less bright than 2D movies, it’s a drawback.) He also points out that improper projection goes back before digital movies, it’s a long term problem in the movie industry.

The decline of movie theaters is blamed on many things, usually the rise of home entertainment. It’s funny, though, this is an area where the market has a perverse effect. Movie theaters compete on the comfort of the seating, but not on the quality of projection. You never see an ad that says, “Brightest projector bulb in the city.” So people go to the movies and have a subpar experience because the picture is difficult to see and then choose to watch something on Netflix Instant or get a DVD from Red Box. Movie theaters don’t have a feedback loop to tell them that the real problem might be the bad job they’re doing operating the projectors.

His piece reminded me of an essay from Slate last year, on the vanishing of professional projectionists. As is often the case, removing skilled professionals from the equation seems economical, but there are also costs, and those costs are probably being lost in the noise.

Behind the Netflix-Warner Bros deal
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Behind the Netflix-Warner Bros deal

New York Times’ Bits Blog has the details:

He says that Netflix was willing to compromise on the issue because “our number one objective now is expanding the digital catalog.” Netflix’s streaming service won’t receive any newer movies from Warner – “it’s not that much of a breakthrough,” Mr. Hastings said – but it will get a larger piece of the Warner back catalog.

The issue at hand is Netflix agreeing to a waiting period before they start sending out new releases on DVD. Warner Brothers wants a window during which customers have to buy DVDs in order to watch them when they are initially released. In exchange, Netflix gets access to more movies that they can stream instantly, and better prices on DVDs.

I am a big user of the Netflix streaming feature and I almost never watch movies right after they are released, so this deal is a win for me. More than that, I think it’s a win for customers in general in the long term. It would be nice to have every movie available instantly online, but we’re a long way from there. Any deal that gets the studios more accustomed to streaming of their movies on demand moves us closer to that ideal.

This deal is bad for people who want movies from Netflix as soon as they’re released to DVD, but a good deal for pretty much everybody else. Even if you don’t stream movies now, you probably will soon.

Jan Chipchase on redbox DVDs
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Jan Chipchase on redbox DVDs

Jan Chipchase comments on the disruptive effect of redbox DVD vending machines:

American customers can browse titles in any given vending machine and make a reservation online – try it here (non-US readers might want to start with the zipcode 90210). Since one vending machine holds up to 500 DVD units you’re not going to find Delicatessen or Vanishing Point but that misses the point – it’s like complaining that the Flip is too simple to use. All of their movies including new releases are offered at flat cost of $1 + tax for one nights rental. Interaction is minimal – the vending machine has a touch screen, one slot for receiving/returning DVDs and a credit card swiper.

What comes next? My prediction would be a DVD burner built into the machines, so that you can get pretty much anything you want. The only question there is whether instant viewing over the Internet outpaces redbox. Some Blu-Ray players already include the ability to stream movies from Netflix, at some point most homes will have a device connected to their TV that enables them to get pretty much any movie they want, on demand. In fact, I’d say that I already get more value from movies I can watch instantly on Netflix than I do from the aspect of the service that sends me DVDs in the mail.

Aside from the impact on the movie business, though, Chipchase argues that redbox’s business model will have an even bigger impact:

For those of you glancing nervously into the future perfect redbox’s real impact goes far further than merely renting out DVDs: they have introduced new forms of interaction into the American urban landscape making it more acceptable to use touch screens to browse content in high-footfall, outdoor public spaces; it introduces non-beverage/non-snack vending machine use to a new demographic; and most importantly the value proposition provides sufficient pull for customers to take out a credit card and swipe to authenticate (for rental pick-ups) and complete transactions.

The unique economics of entertainment
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The unique economics of entertainment

Nicholas Tabarrok points out that the movie business is unique in that the cost of producing movies does not affect the price customers pay to see a movie:

One interesting thing that I’ve always found about the film business from an economic point of view is that unlike in any other business I can think of, the cost of manufacturing the product has no affect on the purchase cost to the consumer. For example Honda can make a cheaper car with less features and cheaper finishes than BMW without losing all of their customers to the superior car because they sell their product for less. You spend less to make something, you charge less for it. Makes complete and obvious sense. Not so in the film business. I am an independent film producer and I make films that typically cost somewhere between $5M and $10M. But when I make, say, an $8M film it has to compete at the same price level as the studios’ $80M or $100M film. It costs the consumer the same $12 at the multiplex (and whatever it costs to rent a DVD from Blockbuster these days) for either film. There is no price advantage to the consumer for choosing to see a less expensive film. This naturally makes it terribly difficult for smaller films to find an audience. I find this quite fascinating and I can’t readily think of another industry like it.

It’s an interesting observation I’ve never really thought about. The movie business is probably the most extreme example, but as a commenter points out, the music business is similar, and console games aren’t all that different, either. Most cost about the same amount when they are initially released.

Links for September 14
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Links for September 14

Movies are getting dumber
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Movies are getting dumber

As movie studios rely more and more on international markets to bring in revenue, movies are getting simpler and more universal. That explains what has struck me as the diminishing quality of major movie studio releases in recent years. I draw my general impression of what the studios are putting out by keeping track of the new movie HBO shows each Saturday night. Most weeks I’m not interested, and when I do bother to watch, I’m almost universally disappointed. This effort to make movies more broadly popular not just among Americans but across the world can probably be blamed for the sad state of movies today.

Of course, there are still plenty of good movies being released, you just have to look harder to find them. This weekend I went to see Juno at The Rialto, and enjoyed it thoroughly. For about the first two thirds of it, I thought, “This is a really good movie.” By the end, I had decided it was great. A couple of things I really liked:

  1. The cast includes Jason Bateman and Michael Cera from Arrested Development. At one point in the movie, there’s a subtle but unambiguous reference to that show that doesn’t involve either of them.
  2. A paint-spattered “Alice in Chains” t-shirt is subtly used in a highly symbolic way.

I’d hate to spoil the movie so I won’t say any more. See it if you get a chance.