A Conversation – TV Writer Gene Grillo Part I

Since 1996, Gene Grillo has been a staff writer and series editor for a variety of hit, animated TV series, including Johnny Bravo, Jimmy Neutron, and Back at the Barnyard, and Kung Fu Panda.  Like many comedy writers, Grillo began as an actor working with Second City in Chicago — a sketch comedy/improv group where performers are also writers.  Presently, Grillo is working on the new show Breadwinners for Nickelodeon.

I spoke to Gene via Skype at his home in Pasadena, CA.

Listen to Part II here.

Visit Gene Grillo’s IMDB page here.

Posted in Television | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Lefsetz Says Losing Value is Progress

From time to time, one encounters an editorial that so deftly weaves the offensive with the inaccurate that it leaves the reader stammering.  I suppose this was the goal of the latest OpEd from digital futurist Bob Lefsetz, which appeared in Variety last week under the title “Film Biz Can Learn a Few Things From the Music Industry When It Comes to Piracy.”  I quote:

Thank God we’re in the music business. We’ve already been through the transition; we’ve already been pushed back to zero. We’re in an era of rebirth so strong that if you think the music business is in trouble, you’re not in it. Blockbuster acts make more money than ever before. Piracy has been eviscerated, killed by YouTube and legal streaming services, and from here on, it’s only up.

If we strip away the tone of Lefsetz’s article, which conjures a notion of fiddling while Rome burns, and just mine it for its didactic elements, he appears to be asserting this:  that the music industry, after being forced finally to understand the digital age, is now on the leading edge of a financial renaissance, embracing and learning to coexist with technological reality that has transformed consumer demand.  Despite the underlying, economic reality that the music industry is worth about fifty percent of what it was fifteen years ago, Lefsetz could not be more sanguine about its future, and he challenges the film industry to learn quickly from music’s example in order to spare itself some pain.

Central to Lefsetz’s ebullience is the continued well being of what he calls the superstars.  He offers the following:

Superstar talent may make less money off recordings than in the past, but the live business far exceeds the money it once made. And then there’s sponsorships/endorsements and privates and sync and so many avenues of remuneration that no one who is a superstar is bitching.

Never mind that what Leftsetz is saying here just ain’t true or even mathematically possible, the elitism inherent in his proclamation is a direct contradiction of those democratizing promises made by his kindred techno-utopians in the first place.  Because what he’s saying is, “If you’re good, you’ll make money,” but by “good,” he means a blockbuster performer like, say, Lady Gaga.  But what if you’re good like Tom Waits or Rufus Wainwright?  Are these musical geniuses, who do not have screaming hordes of teenage fans or, heaven forbid, endorsements from Doritos, not good enough to make it in the brave new world Lefsetz foresees?  And I like Lady Gaga; I think she’s fun, funny, and talented, but I certainly think we need to keep fostering a more diverse library than artists like her are going to produce.  Unfortunately, in Lefsetz’s future the Gagas make a living (and we’ll get to what kind of living in a moment), while the fledgling Wainwrights remain hobbyists.  Not only is that unfortunate for culture, it’s unfortunate for the subsidiary jobs that won’t be supported by that next Wainwright not going pro.  And for all the exuberance, the data are clear that the disruptive technologies we’re talking about are not replacing those jobs.

As for cinema, we’ll set aside the apples-to-oranges flaw predicated on what I assume to be a void in Lefsetz’s knowledge about filmmaking and just stick to the macro view of the market he’s projecting.  If we apply his same “superstar” rationale to the film business, what we conclude is that the Marvel Comics franchise will be fine — and I have nothing against it — because those kind of films can always sell Happy Meals, but the next Wes Anderson, John Sayles, or Marjane Satrapi can expect to see the Spotification of their earning potential as summarized in a recent tweet by Bette Midler stating that 4.1 million plays on Spotify earned a whopping $114.  If you’re an indie filmmaker, try selling that kind of model to a prospective investor.  See, the part where Bob is just flat out lying about the future is that, if you’re good (i.e. make something people want), you will be presented with a choice between being pirated and earning nothing or streamed legally and earning next to nothing.

Finally, Lefsetz says something so inscrutable toward the end of the article, that I can only conclude he actually hates successful creators.  He says the superstars will still make good money, but of course not as much as techies or bankers.  It’s one of those short, stupid statements that act like a fragmentary grenade in the mind because it’s just some arbitrary opinion presuming to set a value on something people actually still demand in large volume.  An uber-wealthy banker is practically synonymous with criminal  to many people these days, so why not say, “Superstar musicians will never make as much as drug kingpins?”  It makes as much sense.  And which “techies” is Lefsetz talking about?  Because unless they’re saving lives, who decided their contributions are worth so damn much?  Okay, the market did, but only sorta.  I mean Zuckerberg is a billionaire, but that’s valuation based on speculation by investors, which more or less sums up the economic roulette game that is Silicon Valley.  Is Lefsetz really saying that Zuck’s real-dollar value is greater than, I don’t know, Bono’s in a consumer-based market?  Let Facebook charge for accounts, and we’ll find out.  No, what Bob is saying is that Bono is a big enough star to comfortably survive the devaluation of music caused by technology, and then he’s arrogantly suggesting that what we’re seeing is a rational market.  The part he’s leaving out is the next Bono you’ve never heard of, and quite possibly never will.

I think the film biz can learn one thing from the music industry with regard to piracy:  kill it as soon as possible.

Posted in Digital Culture, Piracy | Tagged , , , | 34 Comments

Why is Singapore a Hub of Online Piracy?

Historically, one thinks of piracy and Singapore in the context of the high seas — both in legend and in reality.  Geography shapes history, and the the Malacca Strait has always been a valuable sea line of communication, thus good hunting ground for centuries of armed robbers right up to the present.  And although the various regimes in Singapore have a long history of dealing with piracy in the traditional sense, the current government appears to have a new problem on its hands with piracy in the online media sense.  The small, relatively affluent city-state of 5.5 million people ranks the worst out of 15 Asia-Pacific countries in per capita infringement according to research by MarkMonitor, a division of Thompson-Reuters.  Additionally, a handful of articles appeared recently citing research done by Asia-Pacific firms Sycamore and InsightAsia indicating that 70% of 16-24 year-olds are chronic users of pirate sites. This is consistent with the study released last September by London-based NetNames, demonstrating that Asia leads Europe and the U.S. for explicit use of pirate sites, with those three regions accounting for over 90% of of pirate traffic worldwide.  In my podcast interview with the author of that study, Dr. David Price did affirm that wider availability of legal, broadband-based services likely accounts for the U.S. being in third place, but his study also shows that pirate traffic continued to increase in all three regions concurrent with the expansion of legal alternatives.

The Sycamore/InsightAsia study also provides some interesting data regarding Singaporean attitudes toward piracy, revealing a willingness among those polled to examine their own behaviors — an awareness we don’t always see in the American market — that reminds one to try to understand each culture and market on its own terms rather than view data through our provincial lenses.  66% of those polled believe that their own use of pirate sites is form of theft, and 85% responded that the reason they access media through pirate sites is “Because it’s free.”  Other responses suggest an interesting contrast to many Americans’ more militant attitudes that media piracy represents some sort of civil right, despite the fact that Americans have affordable access to everything.  Singaporeans, who have have far less ready access to media, seemed to respond to the hypothetical loss of pirate sites with something of a shrug.  Those polled tended to say that if XYZ site were gone or blocked, that they’d probably move to the next, cheapest alternative.  The fact that Singaporeans didn’t raise ideological objections might partly be explained by the fact that civil rights in Singapore are not what they are in the United States, but I think there are more shades of gray here that actually make Singapore an interesting case study to watch.

I did some work-for-hire filming in Singapore in 2007, and I chatted with my friend over there who works in filmed entertainment production about some of these issues.  Granted, it’s one woman’s view from the ground, but I found her comments insightful.  For one thing, it seems we can understand the Singapore market in three broad demographics that each consume media very differently, keeping in mind that nearly 75% of the population is ethnic Chinese, descendant of immigrants who came to work for the colonial British.  The official language of Singapore is English, and school is modeled on a British system, although native English speaking is a post-independence (1963) phenomenon, which is why many people over 60, like my friend’s father, speak only Chinese and generally watch Chinese television programs.

At the other end of the market are those teens to early twenties, who are voracious users of pirate sites and are presently most interested in music and filmed entertainment coming out of Japan and Korea.  This demographic represents the hungriest consumers of media in Singapore for the same reason it does everywhere else — the young have more free time.  While iTunes is available in Singapore, broadband services akin to Netflix for filmed entertainment are not legally available, making DVD purchase the primary legal means to watch films and programs on demand.  Youth being youth, they want to consume high volumes at a high rate and feel they can’t afford enough DVD consumption.

In the middle demographic (late 20s to about 60), we find people with jobs and responsibilities and who have a broad range of media tastes, including US and UK productions.  This group buys CDs and DVDs, but they will also use pirate sites to sample programming before purchase. From this anecdotal evidence, we can predict the technorati to assert that Singapore’s piracy problem is one Neflix-type enterprise away from a solution, and while this would probably have a mitigating effect, it’s not necessarily as simple as that.

For one thing, delivering a rich library of on-demand, digital video into a particular country is complicated by trade arrangements between the producing and consuming nations, licensing agreements written into contracts before films and TV shows are even produced, and the socio-political nature of the consuming nation. With Singapore’s present piracy numbers, investors would likely write off the market as a legitimate importer/exporter of entertainment media.  This is one of the obstacles tech-utopians tend to overlook in every market when they write oversimple editorials about “switching models” to technological solutions, as though installing an app is all that’s required.  In order for their to be actual trade involved, someone has to invest considerable resources to navigate the financial, legal, and cultural seas, as it were; but if the piracy numbers are too high, that’s what will prevent a quality, Netflix-like model from manifesting in a market like Singapore.

Moreover, Singapore’s piracy trend risks cannibalizing their own burgeoning filmed-entertainment industry.  For a small nation, they produce an impressive amount of cinema and television programming out of a couple of fairly big studios and several modest production houses. It has also recently become home to satellite facilities for some major animation and effects studios like Lucasfilm and Double Negative. With the growth of this industry, it is not unreasonable to think that some of today’s teenage K-Pop fans are going to want to be tomorrow’s film and TV producers; and a message that says “Don’t pirate away your own future” may actually resonate with young Singaporeans.

It would be a shame if investors did abandon the region as a legitimate market, particularly because Singapore could become a pivotal location for media production and commerce in Asia-Pacific, just as it is a financial services hub and presides over one of the busiest shipping ports in the world.  Additionally, I think it might be interesting to watch how those 16-24 year-olds emerge as a creative class, considering they’re still part of the first generation of natives born to an independent Singapore.  Thus, they are at the early stages of defining what it means to be Singaporean, which might explain why my friend describes a love/hate relationship with China.  As that culture evolves, it will be reflected in the films and TV Singaporeans will produce, thus opening the proverbial sea lines of communication for fair trade in media will be essential to foster that expression in a manner that’s sustainable.

Posted in Copyright, Culture, Digital Culture, Piracy | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Social Media Shorthand

This is a theme I’ve certainly written about before; it is in fact, the theme that started this blog — the idea that the expansion of stuff through communications technology can lead to a reduction in the very benefits meant to be yielded by the expansion in the first place.  CNN’s insistence upon providing round-the-clock speculation about the missing Malaysian airliner is just the latest absurd example demonstrating how 24hr news can yield less actual reporting than the years when TV news was limited to just a few hours a day.  This, perhaps counterintuitive, more-is-less phenomenon is not only replicated in the realm of social media, it appears to be exacerbated by the tools themselves, which promise deeper immersion into stuff, but wind up fostering exactly the opposite behavior.  And according to this New York Times editorial about online slang by novelist Teddy Wayne, the shorthand we often use online doesn’t necessarily help.  From the article:

“It takes far more time and energy to express a nuanced reaction to a personal essay than simply writing “Heart” or “Oh, please.” Likewise, when a celebrity does something we disagree with, it is easier to condemn him with a one-word takedown than to empathize with his humanity and communicate a more complex reflection. If you physically handed an article to a friend, or even emailed it, it’s doubtful you would sum it up with one reductive word. But when disseminating it to the masses, we often dumb down our own interpretations.”

I don’t think Wayne means to suggest these monosyllabic habits are a purposeful dumbing down the way a TV executive might want to make a script less literate in order to retain marketshare.  Instead, these slangy fragments, even used by highly educated adults, are just an inevitable by-product of the technologies and interfaces themselves.  The volume and rate at which things go by while we’re probably meant to be doing something else combined with the fact that we may be typing with a single thumb on smart phone is all going to produce concision just this side of a grunt.  What interests me, though, is whether or not these fragmentary exchanges are more than a byproduct and are instead something akin to a force, like the dark matter of the universe causing both expansion and acceleration toward a greater “emptiness.”  A friend or colleague’s endorsement (i.e. share) is a powerful validation; so, if a friend shares a story along with  the note “Terrible” or “Amazing!” or some other context-free comment, does this further increase the probability of one taking a headline and a picture at face value and passing it along with one’s own cursory remark?

Just last week, a well-educated, well-meaning friend on Facebook posted an article about a new, admittedly concerning, bill in Tennessee.  The article was hosted on a website that deals with LGBT issues.  It featured a stock photo of two young men grappling and one of them clearly about to get his face pounded.  The headline stated that the new bill would effectively permit bullying of gay students in public schools as a form of religious expression.  Is it outside the scope of some people’s beliefs?  Not at all.  Is it the kind of thing we might expect to come from certain regions of this country?  Sure.  Do the headline and and photo accurately reflect the language in the bill?  Not quite.  The bill itself certainly should be of concern to those of us who believe the separation of church and state is unambiguous, but there’s nothing I can read in its text that can justifiably be called state-sanctioned bullying of anyone in particular.

Not to get bogged down in that bill per se, the point is that I suspect we all propagate shorthand engagement with social issues from time to time, pushing semi-accurate stories along with a verbal pat on the back or slap on the wrist.  What’s interesting, though, about this Tennessee bill example is that the lead is one of those that can immediately send one into a rage about a matter entirely different from the more subtle and insidious concern that the story actually raises.  On first encounter with the keyhole view of this story on Facebook, a whole movie narrative unfolds in the mind with hicks beating up gay kids while school officials quietly thank God in the background. Meanwhile, as we share, vent a moment of outrage, and move on, we risk missing the subtle story in which the Tennessee state legislature is moving the needle between the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause toward favoring more religious influence in public schools. As Wayne writes, “Indeed, fragments are indicative of how quickly we pass judgment while on the Internet without investigating an issue too deeply. We share articles and videos that conform to our prejudices but rarely seek out opposing views, and hardly ever link to them unless it’s to mock them.”

My photographer friend calls all this “gisting.”  My journalist friend calls the internet the greatest tool for “epistemic closure,” describing its efficacy in providing endless support of one’s pre-existing biases.  Whatever we want to call these superficial interactions with information, with news, even with one another, it seems as though the solution is a conscious choice to force behaviors contrary to the instincts fostered by the technologies.   Or…whatevs.

Posted in Digital Culture | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment