January, 2014

Blockbusters and Sleepless In Hollywood

If it feels to you, as it does to me, that there are an ever greater number of superhero and other franchise films clogging up cinemas, then you’d be right.

And these two books explain pretty well between them what’s happening in Hollywood and beyond. Indeed, it’s the “beyond” that is really driving this.

Blockbusters actually only starts with Hollywood. It also covers music (with Lady Gaga), football (with Real Madrid), the Met Opera, Major League Baseball, and many others. Anita Elberse is from Harvard Business School, and has obviously spent a certain amount of time around a great deal of entertainment industries examining what’s happening.

In summary, she argues that the “blockbuster” strategy is working for many in these fields. It’s easiest to examine in the film business where once upon a time, a studio would invest in variety of films at different scales. But Elberse argues that because the profits are so huge from the blockbuster sized films, that other parts of the business become almost irrelevant.

She acknowledges, in passing, that she’s not making any kind of qualitative judgement – she’s just giving you the facts. Blockbusters has plenty of charts to make the case strongly.

She also dismantles the “long tail” theory, examining several markets to show that investing big in big artists or movies returns that vast majority of profit.

Her case study is Warner Brothers, who she says first jumped on the blockbuster strategy before any other studio. With massively successful franchises like Harry Potter and the Dark Knight trilogy, they undoubtedly profited enormously.

But if there’s a fundamental flaw with the book, I don’t think that Elberse has properly examined what happens when everyone adopts that same approach. It’s one thing if only Warners are doing it, but it’s another completely if every studio is churning out $200m epics. We already see massive clogging up of screens around popular periods, with one massive film opening the week after another. There is saturation marketing around these massive gambles, and it becomes harder and harder to get cut through.

A few blockbusters – yes. But I’m not sure it scales up. At the moment Disney/Marvel can do no wrong. But that lucky streak is bound to come to an end.

And in some respects, the book is already out of date. Lady Gaga’s album releases are held up as great examples of the blockbuster strategy. Not only are enormously complex marketing plans put into action, but there are elaborate partnerships with other brands and retail outlets to ensure that everyone can buy a copy of her new album.

And yet what happens just before Christmas? Beyoncé – arguably even bigger than Gaga right now – releases her new album with no notice at all. No marketing. No partnerships (well new ones anyway – obviously she does have partnerships with Pepsi et al). Fans create the hype. Result: millions of albums are sold.

While the blockbuster strategy clearly still does have a place in the market, it doesn’t obviously explain how you build big stars. Yes there’s an acknowledgement that a certain proportion of superheroes are relative unknowns because you build them alongside the franchise, keeping costs down at the same time – unless your name is Robert Downey Jnr anyway. But how do you create the next Gaga if it’s all about blockbusters?

Lynda Obst is a Hollywood producer who’s largely worked putting together female focused romcoms. Nope – they’re not my favourite films. But they’ve historically found a niche and done well. In a breathless, gossipy way, she takes us through what she colds the “Old Abnormal” and the “New Abnormal” – the old and new rules that Hollywood plays by. “Abnormal” – because everything in Hollywood is.

She deftly explains the financing of these films, and you begin to learn a lot. Once upon a time, a studio might have put a balance sheet together when funding a film, and reckoned on 50% of revenues coming from DVD. That’s just fallen away enormously. Obst reports someone saying that today they’ve no idea what revenues that will get them. Think about it. You’re planning a big epic that will open in 2016 and be in homes when? Christmas 2016? Will we be buying shiny discs? Renting from iTunes? Expecting it to be in our £5.99 a month Netflix subscriptions? What?

So a massive chunk of revenue has dropped out of the market. But they’re still making $200m bets on superheroes and giant robots. That’s because upwards of 70% of revenues is now international. That is, non-US. And the big markets opening up are in places like China and Russia. They’re getting loads of 3D and IMAX screens, and they want to see big robots battling it out on those screens.

Well they may want to see those films in China and Russia, but I don’t. But I understand from both these books why the studios make them. What’s not clear to me is that why it has to be Hollywood that makes them. Obst says a couple of times that only Hollywood has the skills to do that, but I really don’t buy that. Sure – Hollywood has a head start. And most of the world still equates Hollywood with glamour. But the effects are actually created with standard software. FX houses are based all over the world, and it’s not at all unlikely that big Chinese language action films could be made locally and be far more successful. As Obst does say – China is fickle in how many films it lets enter the country, and what the revenue share is anyway. It’s even hard to choose when your film opens (they made Batman and Spiderman open against one other to both studios’ chagrin).

The book does jump around a bit. She names names, but they mostly lovely people. Well, she’s still working there, currently producing Helix for SyFy. And she paints herself as sometimes a little bit more out of the loop than she can possibly be. So we get lots of interviews-cum-guidance from players in the market, often at named LA restaurants.

And I don’t agree with all the conclusions that Obst makes.

She paints the 2007/8 writers’ strike as a critical time and something that fundamentally changed everything. I’m not sure that’s true. I think things were changing anyway.

And the same films get mentioned again and again as great. But sorry – successful does not equal good. The Hangover – I’m looking at you.

But this book is bang up to date, with only a few of the big 2013 summer failures missing. The importance of television is also covered. Partly one suspects, because Obst’s own career has switched from films to television, but also because that’s where the creativity is today.

And the really scary thing is that TV makes way more money for the studios than films do.

And the most soul-destroying thing she says in the book, aside from the rampant growth of dumb-films made to appeal to an unsophisticated Russian and Chinese audience? The fact that Hollywood considers there to be two age demographics: Under 25s, and 25+! No wonder TV is leaving them behind.

[Update] This piece from Forbes suggests that 27 “blockbusters” will be released in 2015. So a lot of films are going to fail then.

Why DAB Radio in the UK Isn’t Broken and Doesn’t Need Fixing

A bold title, I think. But read on for the reason.

There’s a Techradar piece – Why DAB in the the UK is broken, and how to fix it – that recently got a certain amount of traction and lots of retweeting amongst radio types. But it really needs some robust countering. I half expected James Cridland to have a go, but maybe he’s fed up repeatedly doing the same thing over and over.

OK.

I’ll bite.

From Techradar:

Firstly, let’s be clear about one thing – the real challenge isn’t coverage, even if that does need improving. That’s a well understood issue and the solution is obvious enough.

Nope, the main problem is bandwidth.

Unfortunately, that’s just not true.

The main thesis of the piece is that it’s a technological failing that has held back DAB radio. And in particular the low quality bit-rate of stations.

But that’s really not the case, and feels to be something of a naive engineer’s viewpoint of what does and doesn’t work.

The first and most important thing to know about how people listen to the radio is that they don’t care about the underlying technology.

They really don’t.

I’m fairly tech savvy. If you’re reading this blog, then you probably are too. We do care. But you know what? The average listener doesn’t care a jot.

They want to hear something good on the radio, and they want it to work easily and in all the places that they expect to be able to hear radio – which is everywhere. And that’s really all they want.

Digital has brought them more choice, and the likes of 6 Music and Absolute 80s prove that listeners rather like that choice. Analogue is full. There’s no more space. It’s this way or the [internet] highway. And of course we don’t have the bandwidth or the coverage for that. Techradar is right about that.

Are there technological issues with radio? Certainly.

Does it feel backwards that the vast majority of national DAB services are in mono rather than stereo? Definitely.

Is it a shame that at a time when audio is progressing in exciting new directions with multi-channel and object-oriented technologies that we in radio haven’t really adopted them? Indubitably.

But you know what? Most FM broadcasters crucify the life out of their analogue broadcasts by compressing the sound and making their station “louder.” Do we hear constant complaints about that? From those who know about these things perhaps, but average listeners, I’m afraid to say, don’t really care. Or if they do, they’re not voting with their dials.

(I should state at this point, I’d love a world in which all audio was delivered uncompressed in multi-channel goodness for me to listen to in a style of my choosing. But then I’d like people to switch off their mobile phones in cinemas too.)

Most radios? Mono speakers I’m afraid.

I think the main problem that DAB has in some quarters is actually perception. That DAB is somehow failing.

Reach is up to 51% – in other words 27 million people are listening via DAB every week (Source: RAJAR Q3 2013).

Is that a failing technology?

The biggest problems I believe that DAB has is perception.

– Radios have been expensive – especially for those who only want to spend less than a tenner on a radio.
– Coverage has been poor in the past. If you can’t get your preferred station in your location, then DAB doesn’t work for you.
– And then there’s the lack of DAB in the car.

But as I say, I think many of these “failings” are now perceptions rather than actuality.

These things are improving. Devices are getting cheaper. Devices have reached about £20, but £10 is on the horizon. There is increased coverage – not least with the BBC building out vast numbers of transmitters over the next couple of years. Commercial radio is doing a similar job, extending coverage of local multiplexes through a recently agreed funding mechanism. And we’re close to a majority of new cars coming equipped with DAB – although there is certainly a long way to go with cars. Not least educating drivers that despite the appearance of built in radios in their dashboards, they are replaceable or upgradeable (I truly believe that this is the single biggest issue that we face with in-car upgrades).

OK. So I’m painting a rosier picture. But why do national services choose to broadcast in low bit-rate?

Well, it’s essentially financial. They broadcast at the rate they can afford. And there is a single national multiplex with room for about 10 or so services which is owned by a single operator. Economics dictates how that space is filled.

A second national multiplex will be advertised within the next few months. Upon launch that will instantly double the capacity, meaning that the price to broadcast will hopefully be driven down allowing either more choice or allowing some services to improve their broadcast quality.

But what about the technology Adam? Isn’t DAB+ the way forward?

Well in time, it probably will be. But a significant proportion of the many millions of DAB sets currently in use are not upgradeable. Technology writers are always keen to upgrade. The lifecycle of mobile phones or operating systems is in low single digit years. A two-year old phone or OS? Ancient.

TV manufacturers would love us to upgrade our televisions more frequently that the five or so years that we currently do, with 4K and curves are their latest reasons we should rush out to Currys.

But consumers sort of expect their radios to work for a long time. And with no moving parts beyond on/off switches, they do work for many years. You don’t replace your fridge every two or three years because there’s a new “2014” feature packed model on the market. You probably just replace it when the old one packs in. And that’s how consumers have treated radios. Just announcing that they’re all going to have to buy new DAB+ radios tomorrow isn’t going to work.

When we see the “Digital Tick” launched, it’ll only appear on DAB+ equipped devices. In due course, we’ll all hopefully own DAB+ radios. But this will take years not months. However, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the odd DAB+ station launch – perhaps on the new second national commercial multiplex.

I’d look to Freeview and Freeview HD for an analogy.

Because you know what? Freeview also works on the same “old” mp2 technology that DAB works on. When we old went to 100% digital TV a couple of years ago – we all went mp2. It’s not the latest and greatest. But since OnDigital launched their first DTT boxes in 1998 (around the time of the first DAB multiplexes) they’ve been essentially using the same technology.

If you’ve bought a new TV or DTT set-top box in the last couple of years, it may well have come with Freeview HD. That’s works using far more up to date codecs. The TV in my living room picks up these services, while the cheaper older one in my bedroom isn’t Freeview HD compatible. I suspect in the fullness of time, that’s how we’ll upgrade to DAB+ in radio terms.

Like DAB, Freeview/Freeview HD is a space constricted platform with a limited number of multiplexes. Freeview will never be able to offer the range of HD channels that satellite or cable can. But do we consider Freeview a technological failure? I don’t think so.

The average viewer really doesn’t care about the underlying TV technologies that we get our favourite shows in. They just want to watch Eastenders or The X-Factor. As we get faster and better broadband, more and more TV will be IP delivered. But at the moment? How fast can you download an HD film at 8pm in the evening, even on fibre?

And by the way, while a viewer might be getting their picture in glorious 1080p, they’re just as likely to be hearing the sound from their TV in awful tinny speakers that are all the manufacturers are capable of squeezing into their razor thin sets. But that’s another subject.

Right now, what radio needs to do to grow digital listening is get more devices with radio built in. Wander into a high street branch of Currys or Argos and see all those iPhone docks or Bluetooth speakers. How many of them have DAB built-in? Look at the mobile phone in your pocket, or the tablet on your sofa? How many of those have DAB built-in?

The single biggest driver of digital listening is making sets available and affordable, and in 2014, bundled into hardware that consumers want to buy.

While I love the beautiful range of retro-styled radios the average John Lewis has for sale, it’s more about putting radio into rather more contemporary devices that consumers aged under 45 want to buy as far as I’m concerned.

It’s about perception, availability and devices. It’s not about the technical standards.

LBC Going National

LBC Scores First

The news today that LBC is going to be broadcast nationally from next month is really good for lots of reasons. Here are just a few:

– It’s good for LBC. The station must be a reasonably expensive service to run since speech is always more expensive to do well than music. And a greater reach means that the service gets heard by more people and Global are better able to invest in it. Yes – I know that LBC did use to broadcast on regional digital multiplexes previously, but what’s clear now is that this won’t be a re-broadcast of a London-focused service, but a nationally aligned service. A nice way to celebrate their 40th year on air.

– It’s good for digital radio and DAB in particular. Here’s a unique service that is offering something new to listeners up and down the country. There are always discussions about the popularity of DAB, but the new services we’ve seen come onto the platform are offering choice. Yes it was disappointing to many that a specialist music service like Jazz FM came off, but that was obviously a financial decision they had to make. LBC offers listeners a genuinely new service on a broadcast platform.

– It’s good for speech radio. Although we have some very strong speech services in the UK – predominantly Radio 4 and Five Live – we are actually under-served in this country with speech radio. While as a listener, I don’t particularly relish the idea of those right wing speech stations that fill up so much US airspace, having a proper outlet for a wide range of views and broadcasting styles in healthy. The costs of good quality speech services means that local stations have struggled or failed. National is the obvious way forward.

– It’s good for commercial radio. I listen to a lot of BBC Radio Five Live, but that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be healthy competition. Five Live will now have to fight on two fronts – against Talksport for sport and against LBC for news and current affairs. I hope that means everyone raises their games and we end up with better radio as a result. We’re also now in a position where the two biggest commercial groups in the UK – Global and Bauer – own between them eight services (or nine if we include Smooth which may or may not have to be sold). That shows genuine commitment to the platform from the leading commercial players. That’s good for listeners, and it’s great for advertisers who support those services.

It’s also an opportunity for BBC London which you sometimes feel is the unloved part of the BBC Nations and Regions network. They can fill the mantle of being the go-to London station for breaking news in the capital. Not that for one moment I think that LBC won’t continue to work hard in London.

It’s probably not bad for Nick Clegg if Call Clegg continues on a national platform. But then he probably needs all the help he can get.

OK, “Leading Britain’s Conversation” feels a bit of a forced acronym, but I’ll let that pass. And in any case it’d be foolish to attempt a rebrand at this juncture.

Things I Can Live Without in 2014

Life’s too short. So in 2014 I will mostly* be living without the following:

Awards Ceremonies

I exclude any awards that I might be nominated for- unlikely though that is. What I means is Oscars, Brits, Grammys, Comedy Awards, Television Awards etc. The only one I’ll miss is perhaps the BAFTAs although the fact that there are spoilers ahoy online because they don’t broadcast it live makes it pretty pointless. I just don’t care about who wins what. I can make up my own mind whether a film/TV series/album is any good thanks.

Reality shows

I don’t watch a great deal of these anyway. I even gave up on my guilty pleasure – Strictly – last time around. But in the past I’ve watched the more serious-minded The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den. But no more. They’re well past their best, and in the case of The Apprentice, seem to be more about fame-hungry fools looking for any route to other reality TV shows. Hours of my life saved.

HBO/Sky Atlantic’s Girls

I watched the first two series against my better judgement, but it’s not funny, they live comfortable lives whilst claiming otherwise, and I don’t like any of the characters. I’ll stick to TV series I actually enjoy however hip or otherwise they are. See also This Life.

Retweeting Any Link to the Daily Mail

Nothing new there. I won’t be part of your link bait.

New Social Networks

Yes – I installed Jelly the day it came out. But has it helped me so far? Nope. I’ve got enough networks already thanks. I rarely use Instagram. I’m still finding my feet with Pinterest. Facebook still hasn’t updated me to their new (last March) look. And Twitter is busy annoying me with it’s mobile app. Why do I need any more.

Buying a New Device on Release Day

I’ve talked about this before, but the insatiable “must be first” desire means that some poor sod in China is working 7 days a week, 18 hours a day so that I can have the latest and greatest must-have instantly on release.

These aren’t exactly New Year’s Resolutions, which is why I can write them several weeks later.

* If I fail at this, I reserve the right not to tell you. Particularly that social media one if something really good comes along.

Twitter Notifications

[Note: I’m on the Twitter beta programme, so this may be a beta-only problem.]

A recent update to the Twitter app (I’m using the Android version) has resulted in the most pointlessly annoying thing Twitter has done in a long time. Twitter is trying to be smart, and is pro-actively sending notifications to tell me when several people I follow are discussing a common subject.

But the problem is that I know that.

I have a varied set of interests and I tend to follow groups of people who share that interest.

I follow a number of football writers, and it’s not exactly surprising when they’re all talking about football during football matches.

I follow a number of tennis writers and broadcasters, and again it’s not surprising when they’re all talking about the Australian Open.

I follow a number cyclists, cycling writers and broadcasters, and… well you know what’s coming.

Telling me that people are talking about something that is happening right now is no interest. I know when sports fixtures are taking place thanks. I can go on Twitter to see the buzz if I want to.

Similarly, I’m really not interested when people I follow are discussing shoddy “reality” shows on TV. Maybe the fact I’m not using Twitter to talk about such garbage suggests that I’m not interested?

One way or another, the only thing I can do is try to turn off these notifications. It’s not at all clear in the options how to do this. And if I end up turning off other notifications as a by-product then so be it. Of course that makes Twitter less useful rather than more.

[Update] I think I have a solution to this problem which you can read here.

Links Worth Reading

The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating and frankly depressing story about how US radio stations are playing the hits more to battle against the likes of Spotify and iTunes Radio. Because if there’s one thing I can find easily without listening to the radio, it’s the biggest hit songs. The piece ends with this profoundly downbeat quote from a US radio programmer: “Taking risks is not rewarded, so we have to be more careful than ever before.” Good luck with that strategy. [Note: It may be paywalled, but this link is from Google News]

Google has put together a really interesting visualisation of the music Google Play Music users have in their libraries. Really quite fascinating and well worth playing with. There’s a bit of detail about how they put the data together here. [Via Chris Hamilton]

And a good read from Digg on why audio doesn’t go viral. It’s a real shame that it’s so hard to share decent audio online. If I hear a funny “bit” on the radio in the morning, it’s such an effort to wait for it to be made available via podcast/listen again, and then requires audio editing software to chop up the section you wanted to highlight. Even then, the easiest way is to probably make a YouTube “video”. [Via Brainpicker]

And I wonder who the mystery radio sales exec is who’s been posting on Twitter recently?

Possible Sale of Channel 5

In recent days it has been fairly widely reported that Richard Desmond, owner of Channel 5, Express Newspapers and other more “specialist” TV services, is looking to sell Channel 5.

Desmond bought Channel 5 for a knockdown price of £103.5m in 2008, and he’s run it pretty shrewdly, keeping costs down and turning a profit. Now there’s a suggestion that either Sky or BT might want to wade in and buy the service for as much as £700m.

On Radio 4’s Media Show yesterday, Steve Hewlett interviewed David Elstein who was Chief Executive at the channel’s launch. Elstein pooh-poohed the idea that either Sky or BT would buy it, suggesting that it doesn’t really fit into their strategies. Would either company need to pay such a high price? He suggested that an American such as NBCUniversal might be a likelier bet at a price significantly lower than £700m

But I wonder if Channel 5 wouldn’t be such a smart buy for either Sky or BT? In a bullish interview in November last year, BT’s Marc Watson suggested that FIFA might want to come and have a chat with him about free-to-air World Cup rights.

And the fact is that ownership of Channel 5 would enable BT or Sky to bid for those rights, without any changes in the law. As things currently stand, there are a number of blue-riband sports events that must appear on free-to-air television – the “Listed Events.” Assuming that the Government is not in a rush to look at changing the rules surrounding these events any time soon – and pre-election, that feels unlikely – then as things stand neither BT nor Sky could bid for those events without the help of a third party broadcaster.

Because although Sky ran free-to-air Ashes highlights of the recent abysmal series on Pick TV, that service doesn’t have enough coverage to meet the so-called “qualifying conditions” (Annex 2) of being a service approved to be able to carry free-to-air rights for Listed Events.

Currently, the only approved channels are BBC1, BBC2, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. Other services simply don’t reach the whole of the UK, and therefore the criteria to be able to carry a crown jewel event like the World Cup. For example, the majority of channels on Freeview reach about 90% of the population which isn’t good enough to meet those qualifying conditions.

If BT or Sky were to buy Channel 5, then all of sudden they could bid for World Cup, Euro, Wimbledon, Six Nations and other rights. Yes they’d need to monetise them via advertising rather than subscription, therefore reigning in what they could sensibly bid. BT has said it’ll show a number of Champions’ League games free-to-air when it takes over the rights in 2015. Channel 5 would be an obvious outlet. They could show occasional free-to-air taster fixtures to persuade consumers to subscribe. And position 5 on an EPG is not to be sniffed at.

The whole thing could have major repercussions on how sport is broadcast in the UK.

Logo Lolly

“Logo Lolly” is, or was, the practice of paying radio news reporters a bonus if they managed to get their radio microphone muffs (ie. covers) or collars into shot on the TV news. I’ve heard of at least two places where this certainly used to be the case. You’d get more money if you made a national news bulletin than a local one.

While I don’t know if anyone still actually pays a bonus for doing this these days, it’s pretty clear that it’s still common practice to try to get microphones into camera shot.

But I really do have a problem with the whole thing.

A case in point was the tragic helicopter crash on the North Norfolk coast earlier this week. The news broke on Tuesday evening, and sometime around 11pm there was a statement from a senior policeman on the scene saying that there had indeed been four fatalities and that the area had been cordoned off. The deaths had been expected. I was watching this live on one of the TV news channels. But there – poking into view – was the vivid coloured logo of a certain radio station.

No other microphones were in view. They didn’t need to be. Microphones are perfectly sensitive enough that they don’t need to be thrust into someone’s face aside from in the noisiest conditions.

By conducting this practice, you’re essentially saying that a sad or tragic news event is a marketing opportunity for your brand. That’s certainly the message you’re sending to the viewer.

It’s probably worse today than it used to be because the muffs or collars have become more vivid or garish than ever before.

The following morning, and another press statement at the scene of the accident as things became clearer. There again was the station microphone – front and centre in the screen.

Just to be clear, nearly every station is or has been guilty of this practice. But it’s not for nothing that more organised press conferences these days don’t have a forest microphones on the desk, but simply a single shared one, and a mixing desk elsewhere in the room where a reporter can take a feed for their service.

I may have highlighted one incidence, but it happens a lot, and it looks cheap and tawdry. Does it make me think that your station is the home for important breaking news? I don’t believe it does. If a station wants to renowned for its news output then surely its own broadcasts are the place to do it.

I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for getting your branding out there. Indeed some lighter stories might be fine for it. But it feels very wrong when there are serious or tragic circumstances.

And are news TV organisations guilty of this? Well not nearly as much. Yes, they probably have branded microphone muffs or collars, and they have their news vehicles on the scene, but they simply don’t need to be as in your face. I’m afraid that this is largely a radio problem.

Ofcom doesn’t allow the sponsorship of the news. But I suspect that few brands would want to be associated with major tragic events. Do you really want to use those same events as a marketing exercise for your brand?

American Hustle

The new David O Russell film, American Hustle is immensely enjoyable. We’re dropped in at the deep end, with some kind of con or undercover operation going on. And not going well. But we get quickly get into flashback as our narrator and main character Irving Rosenfield (Christian Bale), sets out in a life – a life that began by helping his dad’s glazing business by helpfully increasing demand with the use of stones and bricks. We also meet Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), briefly a stripper and writer on Cosmopolitan, before she meets Irving at a party. The pair of them lead a disreputable life conning people who can’t get loans into giving them fees to get loans themselves. She adopts an English accent and pretends she has contacts back in Britain.

But they get caught by Bradley Cooper’s FBI agent, and he decides that their brand of confidence trickery is exactly what he needs to bring down all the white collar criminals he perceives are ruining America. He’ll give them leniency if they agree to help him.

He sets his sights on Atlantic City where the mayor (Jeremy Renner) is looking for money to build casinos since he managed to relax rules on gambling in the city.

In the meantime, Irving’s own personal life is complicated by him having a wife and stepson with Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).

And so we get an immensely stylish view of the lives of these characters as they all intersect and they try to out-hustle the corrupt politicians and mafia.

The film is gorgeous to look at and the production design is top notch. Lots of effort has been taken over the detail. And for the most part the performances are excellent. But I’m really not sure about Christian Bale. He’s just unnecessarily intense. In effect, this is a comedy thriller, yet Bale just doesn’t really have a light-side. Yes, he’s completely immersed in his character – although I find too many of Bale’s characters as being dark and brooding – but I’m not sure he has the right tone here.

Amy Adams fares better, with her decolletage permanently on display in some remarkable dresses that she wears throughout the film. She has a lighter touch which feels right for the tone of the film. Oddly I didn’t really notice that for the most part she was putting on an English accent. I was aware she was doing it, but not to the extent of a character who notices the second she drops the accent.

And Bradley Cooper certainly has the comic nous to play his larger than life FBI agent to the full extent. He’s climbing the ranks of the FBI, over his boss, beautifully played by Louis CK, if necessary.

But probably best of all is Jennifer Lawrence, who steals every scene she’s in. She’s playing “white trash” and is fantastic, with a fine scene involving a microwave “science oven”, and a beautiful scene in which she sings along with Paul McCartney’s Live and Let Die. She also has a very powerful scene with Amy Adams when things are coming to a head.

This is also a film about hair. The first shot is actually the full hair routine of Irving in his room in the morning as he carefully applies a toupé and then fashions a bizarre comb-over with plenty of hair products to put everything in place. Later there’s a lovely scene in Cooper’s FBI home where he has his hair in tight curlers, at home with his mum and fiancée.

The music too, is noteworthy, with a fine selection of classic seventies songs. You actually barely notice that Danny Elfman has also provided music for the score.

So a very fine film indeed. But it is over long. It needed some serious tightening up. And the problem with the main character’s casting means that it’s not quite as good as it might be (and some are saying that it is).

Finally, a couple of unrelated moans:

1. I was in my seat for the start of the ad reel, and the first ad was for a Sony sponsored playalong app that cinema goers were asked to install on their phones. There are lots of problems with this. First of all, I think it’s wrong to encourage any use of phones in cinemas. It just sends the wrong message. Secondly, the ad stupidly didn’t give anyone enough time to actually download and install the app. So the idea of answering the trivially easy quiz questions on the app in time to the ad was nigh on impossible. Thirdly, it really wasn’t clear what the point of playing it was. There was a vague promise of prizes, but nothing explained. As far as I could tell, it was simply a ploy to collect sales leads.

2. Is Matthew McConnaughey in every film on release at the moment?

3. But mostly I wanted to have another moan about this.

It’s that time of year when film distributors get so wound up about winning awards that they don’t give a damn about the audience, and simply release all the good films in one go. Essentially, Academy Awards are handed out to films released in the US in the previous calendar year. Because most members are elderly, and nobody in Hollywood believes anyone can remember beyond last weekend, all the good films are stacked into the end of that period. In the UK, BAFTA stretches that period a little so that it can hand out awards to essentially the same group of films. Either way, the result is a glut of films at the same time, many of which have been held onto for months to appear in “Oscar season.”

What’s the point?

Barely anyone goes to the cinema that often that they can watch them all. So lots of good films get left unseen because those who like quality films are being bombarded with all the good ones in one go.

But we live in a world where campaigning to win awards is the norm. I understand that winning awards can do wonders for your box office, or your DVD sales. But at the expense of garnering decent box office revenues at the time of release? Spread your decent films across the year, then I might go and see more of them!

And that brings me to another (final – I promise – for this blog) bête noire – film trailers that simply go on and on about the how all their actors have won or have been nominated for an Academy Award. The reason I hate these trailers is that 1) they seem very unfair on any actor in them who hasn’t had an award nomination/win but mostly 2) that they’re just really gauche. I know that’s an American thing, but I just can’t stand it. And it really doesn’t make me want to see your film. At the very least re-edit your trailer for the UK marketplace a bit (the trailer I saw was a UK trailer incidentally).

A great case in point is the trailer for Out of the Furnace – a film that I assume has lots of awards pretensions. I say that because all I really took from the trailer is that everyone is acting an enormous amount. And that Zoe Saldano hasn’t yet been nominated for an Academy Award.

And it stars an intense looking Christian Bale. So it must be up for Oscars right?

Aldwych on Exposure

I’m continuing to play around with the best way of displaying photos online, and a new kid on the block is Exposure. They use high resolution photos that fully utilise screen real estate to make pleasingly simple photo layouts.

Interestingly, although they’re free for your first three sets of photos, you need to pay after that. That’s because, as they explain, they wanted a business proposition from the outset, and didn’t want to get customers and then try to work out how to monetise them. In any case, advertising would really spoil the experience.

I’ve now put a couple of sets onto the service. My latest is a collection of photos taken at the now closed Aldwych tube station on The Strand.

Previously, I put some photos of Suffolk on the service.

I don’t see myself abandoning Flickr any time too soon. And while Google+ is doing a lot with photos, I’m not ready to fully utilise that either. Exposure recently added the ability to use custom domains. If that extended to sub-domains (it may – I’ve not checked) then it might be a solution to my currently underwhelming photography page.

I would like more control how Flickr lets you embed photos externally though. For example, the photo above is an iframe, and while it lets visitors easily see a fullscreen version of the photo (if they’re on adambowie.com itself – they may not get the fullscreen option in a reader like Feedly), there is nothing to stop the viewer disappearing off into my full Flickr photoset. While in and of itself, that mightn’t be a bad thing, I’m generally using a photo to illustrate some writing.

Currently you can still embed the “old” way if you revert to the older style Flickr. I’m not as hung up on Flickr as some are, and while they now seem to have a tendency to launch products before they’re ready, I’m pleased to see Yahoo finally developing the platform.

I do shortly face the dilemma of whether I continue on my grandfathered subscription plan, or whether I stop paying and start to see ads. I tend to think that I use Flickr enough that I don’t want advertising though. I’ll have to wait and see.