May, 2008

Film Partnerships…

…or product placement/licence agreements.
In my review of Iron Man yesterday, I neglected to mention the crass product placement throughout the film. We saw an LG phone used on more than one occasion, with the US network, Verizon, getting an on-screen namecheck too. Then there was Audi. One scene of Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) driving his R8 was shot in such a manner that it actually felt like a car commercial. And in another scene, it was an Audi 4×4 that a family felt threatened in.
But the crassest piece of product placement came when Tony Stark returned to the US from his confinement in Afghanistan and announced that he wanted an “American cheesburger.” Shortly thereafter, one his mandarins hands Stark a prominently labelled Burger King paper bag from which emerges a burger of some nature. Again the Burger King branding is clear for all to see.
This week, there was an attack in the press aimed at Burger King for another movie tie-in with Indiana Jones. Burger King are giving away toys to people who buy meals. These toys are aimed at the under 12s, a market that Burger King had promised not to target. I have some sympathies because although the latest instalment in the Indy franchise is a 12A, the movie undoubtedly targets kids, even if its star is of pensionable age.
But the use of fast food is the least of my real concerns for the new Indy film. Surely the licencing agreement that just goes too far is the National Lottery Indy scratchcard. Featuring Harrison Ford in full Indy regalia on the front, and being advertised by an abysmal national TV and cinema commercial (which notably doesn’t feature Harrison Ford or any clips from the film, this is an appalling piece of advertising on every level.
Yes, many Indy fans probably are of a similar age to myself, having been a teenager or younger when Raiders first came out and well over the minimum age to be allowed to gamble, but given the full array of Indy toy merchandise to be seen, it’s clear that children are still fans of the series. If the screening I went to see the film is anything to go by, they’re still the main target market for the film’s distributors.
The advertising code prohibits the targeting gambling advertising to children. Section 11.10.2 reads:
(a) Advertisements for gambling must not exploit the susceptibilities, aspirations, credulity, inexperience or lack of knowledge of children, young persons or other vulnerable persons.
(b) Advertisements for gambling must not be likely to be of particular appeal to children or young persons, especially by reflecting or being associated with youth culture.
(c) No child or young person may be included in a gambling advertisement. No-one who is, or seems to be, under 25 years old may be featured gambling or playing a significant role. No-one may behave in an adolescent, juvenile or loutish way.

So the National Lottery must consider that Indiana Jones is not “of particular appeal to children or young persons”? At least that’s my reading of the code. Maybe the National Lottery/Camelot has some kind of internal documentation to prove that this is the case, but I find it very disturbing that an action hero that appeals to children is being used to promote gambling.
Of course, lottery outlets don’t allow the sale of lottery tickets or scratchcards to under 16s, but then we all know that kids don’t find ways of getting hold of alcohol or cigarettes either…
Personally I think that both the National Lottery and Paramount are culpable in a licencing deal too far.

Virgin Radio Sold

So finally, after months, and years even of sale process, Virgin Radio, my employer, is being sold. The purchaser is TIML Golden Square Ltd, which is a subsidiary of Times of India Media Group. One era ends, and another begins!
More from The Times here. Also, the BBC (carefully saying that the sale is “reported” The BBC updated their report, satisfied that a sale has been agreed!), the Telegraph, and perhaps most fully, the FT.

Digital TV in the US

In exactly 265 days, analogue TV in the US will be switched off, and everyone will need to switch to digital TV. That is, the whole country is switching over on a single day. All 300m or so of the population. One day.
Does that really seem like a smart idea? I don’t think so, as I’ve said before.
This week, Nielsen Media Research reported that 25m US homes have at least one TV that will currently not be ready for use next February when the switchover’s due to take place. What’s more, ten million of those homes are not ready at all. In other words, as things stand, they’ll simply lose all their TV services completely.
It’s no joke if 15 million people suddenly have reduced access to TV – that’s a lot of people not watching the networks, and advertisers not being able to reach them as easily. The other 10 million are an even scarier story.
Seemingly, this survey “is one of the first in-depth assessments of the nation’s readiness for the digital TV transition.” I find it astonishing that it’s down to a private company like Nielsen and not the US government, to carry out this kind of work. How successful are politicians going to be in the next polls is they’ve managed to deprive millions of Americans of their TV services? I’m guessing that they’re not going to be altogether happy.
And of course it’s the minorities that are going to lose out – African-Americans and Hispanics in this instance. It’s always going to be the poorer people who are going to lose out.
Since January coupons have been made available for US residents to claim to put towards a converter box (think Freeview box in the UK). But there are only a limited number of these being made available. When they run out, they run out. Currently that’s likely to happen in August. And of course most of the information being made available is on the web. But the poorer you are, the less likely you are to have web access.
The coupons have a $40 value, and at the moment, there are no boxes on the market that are priced as low as this. So poor consumers (and we’re in the thrall of a credit crunch of course) have to spend real money. They’re more likely to be putting it towards rising food or gas prices than their TV, assuming of course, that they even understand what’s going to happen.
At the start of the year, Robert X Cringely made his annual predictions, and making a disaster out of this transition was one of them. As the switchover day approaches, I can’t help but agree with him more and more.
I hope everyone at Digital UK is watching the US market very carefully. We can learn from the mistakes of others…
By the way, if anyone can point me to Nielsen’s full report, I’d be interested to see it.

Iron Man

In a turn up for the books, I’ve now seen two of the summer’s blockbusters, and you know what, Iron Man’s not too bad at all (this week’s major title is Sex and the City, and having not seen a single episode of the TV series, I’m certainly not bothered about the film). Iron Man came out a few weeks ago now, but I’ve only just got around to seeing it, and I really was pleasantly surprised.
I suppose the best thing about it is Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark, a brilliant engineer and head of Stark Industries. We see him captured by an outfit in Afghanistan who aren’t the Taliban, and aren’t Al Qaeda. But they’re a bit like both, except they’re armed to the teeth and are going around killing villagers in Afghanistan for no discernible reason. Downey plays the character in a relaxed manner, and he just does what he wants.
Anyway, before you know it, Stark’s modelled himself on MacGyver, and has built a flying rocket man. Back in the US he develops it and is a changed man. Unfortunately for him, his business partner is an evil Jeff Bridges. We’re tipped off pretty early that he’s evil because he’s bald and has a beard. Stark’s aided and abetted by Gwyneth Paltrow who plays his long suffering PA.
The plots implausible, but the action sequences are good, and the big set pieces largely don’t go over the top. There’s no unnecessarily enormous SF spectaculars that just bore the audience (cf. the third X-Men film), and what there is feels pretty visceral, aside from some slightly dubious flying sequences.
As a piece of cinema it’s pretty good. And it’s really worth staying through all the credits right until the very end where there’s a great coda, which sets up the sequel very nicely indeed.
Just one thing to note. This film’s a 12A, which the BBFC defines thus:

Suitable for 12 years and over. No-one younger than 12 may see a ‘12A’ film in a cinema unless accompanied by an adult. No-one younger than 12 may rent or buy a ‘12’ rated video or DVD. Responsibility for allowing under-12s to view lies with the accompanying or supervising adult.

Now that doesn’t stop children younger than 12 going in, but it’s down to parents to determine whether their kids are mature enough for the film. I wouldn’t pretend that this is easy unless you pre-screen the film yourself. But you should be aware. The film is not going to be PG rated. Iron Man has a nasty opening sequence which sees soldiers shot, there’s a torture scene, Robert Downey Jr’s character is shown to be something of a playboy and all told there are more than a few scenes that younger children will find scary.
I know this because the lady in front of me had brought her kids along, the oldest who must have around 12 or 13, and the youngest being 5 or 6. Unsurprisingly the youngest girl was pretty scared on multiple occasions and her mum had to take her out of the cinema several times. This film is simply not suitable for such children and she really shouldn’t have taken her youngest to this title.

Recount

Recount is a star-studded new HBO film that aired in the US on Sunday evening, based around the farcical procedings in Florida during the 2000 Presidential election.
It’s easily the best drama I’ve seen this year.
The cast is phenomenal: Kevin Spacey plays Ron Klein, Al Gore’s former Chief of Staff, and the lead Democrat during the procedings that took in hanging chad(s), complicated and ridiculous issues of Florida State election law, and an unprecedented set of findings from the Supreme Court. Then there’s Denis Leary as Michael Whouley as Gore’s Chief Field Operative, Ed Begley Jr. as David Boies, the lead Democrat lawyer.
Two British actors play the initial key figures with John Hurt giving another fine performance as Warren Christopher, while Tom Wilkinson gives us a wonderfully scary James Baker who runs the Republican camp.
In 2000, in Britain we sat back and watched agog, as the machinations of the world’s only superpower unravelled in a painful, and at times complex manner. This film does a wonderful job of taking us through the steps that history took. This is not always easy stuff to follow, and the script has to be quite expository at times for us to understand what’s going on.
The nature of making a film about recent history is that everyone will find it easy to criticise, with undoubtedly invented dialogue, simplifications and characters being given dramatic impetus for the sake of a drama where perhaps there was none initially. Howard Kurtz at the Washington Post, gives us most of these examples.
But to my mind, they don’t really matter, because while some individuals may object to their portrayal, the overall tone is right, and we really shouldn’t forget what a fiasco the whole situation was. Actually “fiasco” isn’t nearly a strong enough term. There was utter incompetence at play, with thousands of voters denied the right to vote due to Katherine Harris’s uselessness (she had a company
If I did have a criticism, it’s that sometimes the brilliant minds at work here are only portrayed as realising what their next step was after the previous one had played out. That provides the viewer with a dynamic – they’ve lost. But hang on! What if… They back up and running! You feel that perhaps, like a good chess player, the personnel involved were surely thinking several steps in advance.
That said, events did play out in that manner. The film makes great use of archival footage as the world watched on while recounts were stopped, started, stopped and postponed.
What I really liked was the clear and concise manner that Florida’s punchcard voting system was explained, with great photography/graphics.
Finally, I’ve got to say a word about Laura Dern who plays Katherine Harris, Florida’s Secretary of State. Her performance is wonderful, and brings home Harris’ love of herself, and the delight with which she finds herself in the spotlight of both America and the world. If you don’t follow US politics that closely, a glance through her Wikipedia entry is enlightening. Believe it or not, the events of that election did not end her political ambitions! Dern’s performance is undoubtedly award winning.
This is as good a poltiical film as I’ve seen for a long time – easily up there with the best episodes of the West Wing. Director Jay Roach, who’s better known for the Austin Powers films and Meet the Fockers, makes the two hours duration pass very quickly. I don’t know which UK broadcaster if any, has the rights to this, but if you like politics, you need to watch this film.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

I must admit that I had to go away and double check that title. Perhaps, in the fullness of time it’ll come as second nature, but it’s unnecessarily complicated it for you ask me.
Anyway Indy’s back, and it’s been a while. We first meet him having been kidnapped and brought to that secret warehouse we saw at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark all those years ago. Time has moved on to 1957, and the enemy now is Commie rather than Nazi. This particular gang of Soviet citizens are led by the rather wonderful Cate Blanchett playing Irina Spalko in a severe cropped haircut and carrying a sabre. Some might suggest that she has a dominatrix look about her.
Indy soon escapes, and there’s a chilling sequence in which he realises that he’s in the middle of the desert at the scene of an imminent nuclear test. Things have rather moved on from the fear of Nazis.
The reds under the bed theme is nicely played out as the FBI becomes suspicious of him, despite his impeccable record suggesting otherwise.
And so we’re led on a journey around Latin America, as the chase gets underway looking for the secret kingdom of the title. There’s a gaggle of British character actors en route including an entertaining if slightly underwritten Ray Winstone, Jim Broadbent filling in for the late Denholm Elliot (who’s character still gets a knowing nod via a university statue), and a great mad turn from John Hurt. We also get to re-meet Raiders’ Marion (Karen Allen) and are introduced to Shia LaBeouf’s Mutt, who’s obviously been lined up to continue the franchise into the 60s should Lucas and Spielberg decide to continue.
The story’s tosh of course, but then they always have been. This time, perhaps, it’s a little more tosh than usual, but you put that to one side and get on with the action.
There’s been a certain amount of criticism of this film which is as much as anything due to the high standards of those that came before it, the affection that many of us hold the originals – in particular Raiders (although I still love the opening of Temple of Doom – I suspect I’m alone in that) – and the knowledge of what we’ve seen since then.
While I don’t think that any of the films that have tried to carry the mantle of Indy have done so in the intervening years, I think that perhaps this film could have been a little rawer. There is still plentiful CGI, not that there ever wasn’t lots of special effects in Indy films. I could have perhaps done with a swifter denouement that wasn’t quite as “showy-offy”.
But I still really enjoyed the film. The pace was good at the start and the end – perhaps only slipping in the middle. The film still felt true to the spirit of the originals. The John Williams music was all present and correct, and the stunts felt pretty real, although I’d have liked to have seen less CGI employed in the clifftop chase sequence. Yet this film is so superior to many of effects-laden tentpole blockbusters that have filled the cinemas in most of the recent summers.
So in the end, is it as good as Raiders? No. Does it matter that Harrison Ford is at a pensionable age? Not really in fact, and you can completely buy his action sequences. But the film is as good as the other two in the series. It’s had love and affection placed on it. Lucas has not been allowed to sully his own previous reputation as he managed with the Star Wars prequels. It’ll be really interesting to see if anything this coming summer matches or beats it (and from the trailer, that won’t be Hancock).
Right – I’m off to rewatch Raiders on DVD…
…But before I go, I couldn’t help but notice the three minute BBC Radio 1 ad that was shown ahead of Indy. That must have been a cheap use of my licence fee! It was very good, and it was to promote the variety of music Radio 1 plays post 7pm, but I’m not sure that with audiences at a record high, the BBC needs to be spending quite so much advertising the second most popular station in the country. Perhaps Radio 3 could do with the promotion? Probably not in the most expensive cinema ad-reel of the summer though…

Heartbeat Detector

Here’s a bit of an oddity. Heartbeat Detector is a French film focussing on the headquarters of the French division of a German company. We follow Simon, a psychologist employed by the firm. He’s recently overseen the downsizing of the company – it’s into fuel in some way, but we never hear a great deal more about it – and has now been told to investigate the CEO who’s number two thinks is having a breakdown.
What follows is a strange and disturbing journey as we learn more about the CEO’s life, what’s really going on, and learn more about Simon too who’s got some pretty strange behaviours and compulsions of his own. At a certain point, the film takes a different direction, although I suspect that you’re supposed to have read the runes and seen this telegraphed in advance (Top tip: for once, don’t read Philip French in advance).
The film is very leisurely, with long takes often with fixed cameras that barely seem to react even if characters walk “off stage”. At times this can be intensely frustrating as seemingly little is happening. There’s also an extended scene featuring two songs that, quite frankly, I found utterly interminable. Interesting though the story is, it really didn’t need to take two hours and twenty minutes to get to the end.
Simon, is an a very odd character, but then so are both his girlfriends. He seems to be going through some serious difficulties of his own, most strangely in the aftermath of some very strange kind of company retreat which ends in a fairly riotous rave. Is this really what French company away weekends are like?
I could believe the male domination of the company though. I once attended a conference at a hotel in France which was being shared with a Peugeot conference. I didn’t see a single woman amongst the very smartly turned out French managers.
If you’ve read that this film is in some way a French Michael Clayton, then think again. It’s not. It’s also not really very satisfying in the end, and you’re left a little uncertain why you’ve made the journey.

Overnights

If you woke up yesterday morning to learn that the audience for Wednesday night’s Champions’ League Final in Moscow peaked at a very creditable 14.6m, then you’re using overnights. These are the figures that broadcasters and others get the next day to record how many people saw a programme on TV last night.
They’re produced by BARB, they’re the product of approximately 5,100 homes around the UK which have special boxes attached to their TVs. The box records the channels you watch, and a remote control device is used to record when you’re actually in the room, and how many of you are watching a particular programme. So if you invited ten of your closest friends over to watch the game, then you can tell the machine accordingly.
But the problem is that we live in a short-term world, and overnights aren’t the full picture. The Mediaguardian story I linked to above, for example, includes a note that The Apprentice over on BBC1 only attracted 5m viewers, down from the previous week’s 6.7m. That’s not surprising as it was an attractive match (unless, like me, you went out instead). And those topline numbers will now probably be the only ones anybody quotes. But there’s a problem.
Loads of people will have recorded this week’s Apprentice. Overnights don’t include recorded programming, which tends to only get counted in the “consolidated” data which is released a week or so later.
Ordinarily, there’d also be a weekend repeat on BBC2, but since this is likely to be the episode missed by more people than any other, it’s getting a 10pm repeat on Sunday night! These numbers also need to be added in.
Finally, there are all those people who’ll have watched the episode via the iPlayer. As I write, it’s the single most popular programme on the iPlayer, and I think it’s safe to assume many people spent yesterday lunchtime catching up with it.
But since even trade magazine Broadcast only reports overnights these days, that final figure will only be available to those with subscriptions to BARB data, and it won’t be published in all the daily papers.
To be fair, the Champions’ League Final tickets will also massively under-represent the true audience. Pubs will have done great trade on Wednesday night, and this “out of home” viewing will not have been included in the overall figures.

Privatising Radios 1 & 2

At the Radio 3.0 conference today in London, outgoing GCap chairman Richard Eyre called for the BBC to privatise Radios 1 and 2.
Eyre, stressing that he was speaking in a personal capacity, said it was no longer appropriate that the BBC should spend nearly £100m a year on the two mainstream national stations – which he estimated could be sold for £1bn – when the licence fee was under pressure and its public service rivals were calling for a share of its income.
“If GCap is worth £375m then Radio 1 and Radio 2 must be worth a billion,” Eyre said.

Well that’s fine. But as I’ve said before, such a move would be disastrous for the rest of the commercial radio industry. Between them, the two stations currently command a 27.1% market share of all radio listening, compared with all commercial radio having 41.1%.
Now while those two stations would undoubtedly lose some audience with the introduction of adverts, the fact of the matter is that they have by far the best spectrum in the country for popular music radio. No other groups could compete. ILR’s would lose cash.
Look at radio revenues over the last five years – they’re basically static, sitting around the £600m mark.

Source: RAB
Into that mix add two stations that would command overnight 40% of all commercial radio listening and you can see where the money’s going to go.
Of course no commercial operator could afford to fund the stations to the extent that the BBC does, so expect the less popular and more expensive areas to immediately be dumped. These cost a lot but don’t really pull the audiences in as Chris Moyles, Jonathan Ross and Terry Wogan do. They’d keep their jobs.
It’d be great if you’re the company that bid for them, but otherwise, your company would be screwed. It’d be utterly monopolistic.
And any hope for re-booting DAB, launching C4 Radio or similar would be immediately scuppered.
Finally, you’d be disenfranchising the 12 million or so BBC Radio 1 and 2 listeners who don’t listen to any other BBC radio services.

Feist

The FX channel has rather smartly just started showing the very excellent Colbert Report. It’d be great if they showed it at 9.00pm just after More 4 has shown its sister The Daily Show. But anything’s better than nothing. This week, both shows are off, but we get repeats, which are welcome since in this instance I can’t have seen whichever edition of The Colbert Report they play.
Towards the end, Colbert has an interview with Canadian songstress Feist, who ends the show with a song.
Suddenly I remember that she’s due to be playing a concert in London very soon, and I seem to remember that tickets were still available at Stargreen (an old ticket agency in Argyle Street that I walk past daily). I hop over to Feist’s site and note that the concert’s at the Royal Albert Hall. I head straight over to that site, where I find that tickets are available – in the Grand Tier (essentially the boxes).
Ah, but there’s a problem. Tomorrow night is the Champions’ League Final night with Chelsea meeting Man Utd in Moscow. Surely I’m going to watch that?
Well the problem is that I’m still hoping for some kind of UEFA ruling that makes the fixture null and void and awards the cup to Barcelona. Yup – I’m a sore loser.
So I book tickets.
After a decent warm up from New Zealand’s Lawrence Arabia, Feist comes on and appears initially in silhouette.
Feist
She spartan set includes a pair of what I can only describe as puppeteers who hand animate backgrounds to many of the songs.
Feist - with backdrop
Feist plays about 90 minutes in total, and it’s absolutely wonderful. She’s obviously enjoying herself in the palatial surroundings, although at times I feel that perhaps the pretty full audience could show their appreciation a little more – the Royal Albert Hall doesn’t always feel as full as it is.
But the songs are great and they keep coming, with the audience singing along to 1-2-3-4.
Feist
By the end, I’m reminded of the last time I was in this venue to see another Canadian band, the Cowboy Junkies. A great evening.
There are more photos here.