Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bye bye DVDs, hello Netflix streaming

I've always had a comparatively large collection of videos and DVDs, numbering well into the thousands. Even before I inherited my uncle's movie collection, I had a lot, but then it got ridiculous. However, when I came to the US, I left my entire collection behind apart from about a dozen I couldn't bear to be parted from. I was a little apprehensive about how I'd feel about that, but as it happens, it's worked rather well.

Recently, we've started using the Netflix streaming more and more, ever since we got a disk that allows us to stream video on demand through the PS3 directly onto our TV (as well as being able to watch on our computers). The quality's fine, with just the occasional hiccup, it's very affordable ($15 a month, which also gets us unlimited DVD rental), it's convenient, in that we can watch stuff wherever and whenever we want, and the range is staggering.

Right now, we have about 200 items queued up, including the following:
  • The whole of Xena, Heroes, Jeremiah, Californication, Weeds, Star Trek: TOS and many other American TV series I never got round to watching or which didn't make it to the UK
  • Classics like You Can't Take It With You, The Palm Beach Story
  • A bunch of silent movies, including Fritz Lang's Destiny
  • A huge selection of foreign language films, covering not just European movies, but Moroccan, Israeli, Korean, Japanese (live action & anime), Chinese and lots of Bollywood musicals
  • British film & TV ranging from Merchant Ivory classics and BBC dramas like Pride & Prejudice to Mighty Boosh, Eddie Izzard, All Creatures Great and Small, Coupling, Little Britain, and Dr Who from Troughton to Tennant
  • Weird indie & art-house movies I've never heard of but which look like they could be interesting, or which I loved and want to see again, like The World's Fastest Indian
  • Documentaries galore, from Ken Burns to Walking with Dinosaurs
  • A ton of kids' movies and kids' TV, from Golden Compass to Prince Caspian by way of The Storyteller and High School Musical.
There's more appearing every day, faster than we can possibly watch them, but it's quite manageable, because their recommendation system is quite astoundingly good. It really does seem to have a handle on what we like: it will suggest things like "period romantic movies with a strong female lead", and as often as not, it's pretty well spot on. We never have problems finding something to watch, although making a choice is sometimes hard! We don't have cable, and we don't miss it. Between this and music, we're pretty well covered for evenings in.

Obviously it doesn't have everything on here that I could possibly want to watch - it's noticeably short on recent blockbusters, but I can still get those from Netflix on DVD - but that's not the way to look at it. My DVD collection, extensive as it is, doesn't have everything either. However, Netflix' collection is growing a damn sight faster than mine, it has stuff on I wouldn't mind seeing but don't necessarily want to pay even $5 to own, and it has more than enough to provide me with entertainment whenever I feel like it. And, to be quite honest, I can find things a lot faster electronically than searching through shelves and shelves of boxes. It's also completely legal. No torrenting, and no overnight waits.

Since between all four of us we probably watch about five things a day on average, that works out at 10c per item. (That's 6p in English). Or, to put it another way, we watch about 150 movies for the price of owning one or two. When I look at it in those terms, I'd have to really, really like a movie to make it worthwhile buying it.

I've said for a while that eventually we'll get to a point where we can watch videos by paying a flat rate subscription to watch anything we want on demand. That's nearly there. I don't really see much future for DVDs, Blu-Ray or the like. The only real advantage of a DVD is that it has extras which I may (but usually don't) want to watch. This is cheaper, more convenient, more extensive, doesn't rely on a platform that may become obsolete (like the thousands of VHS videos that ended up in landfill) and doesn't fill up my house.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Matt's Guide to 2012

2012 isn't nearly as unremittingly bad as some people make out, as long as you approach it in the right way. Here's my handy five-step guide.
  1. Make sure you have a few beers beforehand. Three or four should suffice. You don't want to get too drunk at this stage.
  2. Spend the first 30 minutes of the movie in the bar with some more beer.
  3. Spend the next 30 minutes of the movie in the bar with yet more beer. (Don't worry, you're not missing anything. Some dudes figure out the world's about to blow up.)
  4. Go into the movie and watch the world blow up for about an hour. Take beer in if it's that kind of cinema. Watch LA fall into the sea. Watch Hawaii burn. Enjoy!
  5. As soon as you see the flying elephant, LEAVE THE AUDITORIUM. (You'll know what I mean when you see it.) Do not stop to collect personal belongings. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. Return to the bar and drink beer while laughing at the complete absurdity of what you just saw.
A final word of advice. Do not try this at home.

Friday, November 13, 2009

So close...

I had the strange experience today of giving up on a book 20 pages from the end. It was a harmless enough book, The Execution Channel, a thriller about a series of terrorist attacks in Britain - or are they in fact the start of World War Three? It's billed as science fiction, but it's not really what I generally think of as SF. It's in a slightly alternate universe (Gore won), but otherwise it's just technically literate: these people communicate via blogs, understand the net, and so on. Anyway, that's not the point.

I read some of it last night, and then carried on this morning. About an hour before starting work, I got up to make coffee, and by the time I got back to bed, I realised I didn't actually care about what happened in the end, and couldn't be bothered to read the last 20 pages. That's a really odd feeling. I mean, having got that close to the end, why not finish? Or if I really wasn't enjoying it, why didn't I give up earlier and read one of the other dozen library books by the side of the bed?

I'm actually very intrigued by what it is that makes us decide to give up. How long do we persist with a book or a movie before we decide it's not worth going on? What is the trigger point that causes us to make that decision? If you quit too early, you miss out on all those experiences where the start's a bit slow or a bit lame, but once you get into the characters or the story, it's a thoroughly enjoyable experience. And what about those acquired tastes - movies or pieces of music that you don't much like at first, but gradually grow on you - how many times are you prepared to sit through something you don't like in the hope that it'll start to become enjoyable? (Like Shostakovich string quartets or 1950s French movies.)

This is hugely important for what's happening with TV. Many shows take a while to get into. The first few episodes of a new show are often slow, while you're getting into the characters. Firefly and Dollhouse were both good examples. So you watch 4 or 5 eps, it's looking OK but nothing great - do you continue? You've just spent 4 hours on this show, and you're not really enjoying it. That's a big investment of time, and logic says give up. So you give up. Viewing figures drop, and the network immediately respond by canceling the show. Meanwhile, the hardcore continue, and then the word of mouth starts to go out that it's worth persevering, because by ep 7 it gets brilliant, but it's too late, and you kick yourself for not sticking with it, and everyone screams at the dumb network for canning such a superb show. Well, that's scenario 1. Scenario 2 is where it doesn't get any better, and you mentally file it under Shit I've watched on TV when bored out of my skull.

TV networks are desperately chasing ad money, and that means having to respond very fast to audience figures. If people stop watching a show, they'll can it within weeks. With so much available at the click of a mouse these days, you only have to lose your audience for a few moments and they're gone elsewhere. That's a harsh world to be in. So, for a writer, or anyone else creating entertainment, it's critical to understand what it is that makes us decide not to watch the next episode, or not to turn the next page. I don't think anyone's figured that out yet, except perhaps the teams behind X Factor and the like. Part of their secret is that they're working live, so they can judge the audience on a day by day basis, and adjust their show to fit the audience's mood. Mind you, the audience eventually turned on Big Brother, so reality TV doesn't have all the answers. I sure as hell don't.

Oh, and by the way, it wasn't a bad book. I'm sure if I hadn't got up for that coffee, I'd have finished it quite happily. It was more like that feeling of getting up to answer the phone near the end of a meal, and when you get back to the table, you just can't be arsed with the last couple of mouthfuls.

Monday, November 2, 2009

What makes good TV?

Over on Facebook, I've been making a load of comments about various TV shows, usually none too complimentary. It's not that I've been rude, it's more that much of what I've been watching hasn't really lit my fire, even when it comes to really popular shows like House or West Wing. Some readers seem to think that I'm simply not taking to American TV, but it's not that at all: I barely watched TV in the UK either for the last couple of years, so I've been catching up on various series on DVD to see what I've been missing, and mostly finding myself disappointed.

I don't like reality TV, I can't stand makeover shows, and I find most talk shows vapid. I really don't like comedy that's too close to my working life, so shows like The Office and the IT Crowd drive me crazy. I don't enjoy police procedurals, particularly not of the CSI vein, and I don't like medical dramas. I don't like gritty depressing reality, I avoid soaps like the plague, and I get bored by "monster of the week" supernaturals.

It's not that they're bad TV. Some shows of these types are really good, and I'm not for a moment denigrating them as a whole. But I've watched way too much TV, and now I'm bored by most of it, just as I'd finding it increasingly hard to find books I like or films that hold me riveted to the screen.

Anyway, one person eventually asked me the obvious question. What do I like?


That's actually a tricky one.

The only broadcast TV shows I've watched in the last year were Top Gear, Mock the Week and QI, and that surprises even me, as they're not really the sort of thing I normally watch.

I like to watch stories: drama, adventure, action, mystery, and intrigue. I like exotic or historical settings, larger than life flamboyant characters, and plots that stretch the imagination and the credulity. I like either a good long story told as a serial, or I like simple, snappy, self-contained episodes that you can pick up piecemeal, rather than "arc" programming where you sort of need to see the individual episodes in order or you can get mixed up. I like touches of humour in serious drama, and I like to be awed and amazed occasionally by both the breadth of the writer's vision and the visual richness. But most importantly, I like not being able to write the next line of the script or being able to predict the plot twists. I like to be surprised.

My tastes aren't defined by any particular genre. I like science fiction, for example: Firefly was superb, Dollhouse was really good, the first three seasons of Babylon 5 were brilliant, I loved the first two seasons of Battlestar, and the recent Sci-Fi channel Dune mini-series were outstanding. On the other hand, Star Trek doesn't do it for me, Farscape was so-so, and I think I grew out of Doctor Who when I was about 15. I can't just say "I like sci-fi". I'm picky. Very, very picky. (Or "selective", as I'd prefer to call it.)

Similarly, Deadwood was one of the most enjoyable series I can remember, but that doesn't mean I want to watch more Westerns. In historical programming, Rome was utterly compelling, (and so utterly different from I Clavdivs), I've watched every episode of Sharpe repeatedly, North and South was good, if dated, but Charles II was dull, and Blackbeard was utterly dreadful. (He was from Bristol, for crying out loud, what on earth possessed them to make him a Scot?) It doesn't have to be serious, either: Middlemen is wonderful cheesy fun, and Warehouse 13 is good, tongue in cheek adventure.

In a nutshell, I never know what I'm going to like, and I often find the shows I like best weren't the shows I expected to like.

I know as well as anyone that there's no such thing as a truly original story: all stories are reworkings of existing material, and there are certain conventions that we expect story-tellers to follow if they're going to produce a "satisfying" story. However, there is still scope for originality. I love genre-crossing - that's why I enjoyed Firefly so much, with its "cowboys in space" riff. I like genuinely unusual characters, not the usual "tired/rebellious/maverick cop with an incongruous taste for jazz/opera/blues", or the formulaic "buddy duo forced to work together who then become friends" (and if they're opposite sex, several seasons of will they, won't they). I'm really looking forward to No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, I wish I'd seen more of The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne, and I'm thoroughly enjoying watching Young Indiana Jones.

So, in short, my formula for TV success is this:
  • Take me to a setting that takes me away from my everyday life;
  • Show me characters that aren't cliched, even if they're stereotyped;
  • Make me laugh, make me gasp, and surprise me, all in one episode;
  • Give me sharp, tight writing, and;
  • Either stay faithful to the source if that's what you're doing, or bring together elements that haven't been combined before.
Of course, that's no guarantee of commercial success. If it had been up to me, I'd have turned down most of the successful TV shows of the last 15 years. I'm aware that what I like isn't what you'd call mainstream entertainment.

But that's the beauty of the Net, and it's where machinima and other low-budget or zero-budget techniques really win. No TV company, especially in today's economic climate, can afford to take a chance, but amateurs can. I'm finding more and more that my entertainment needs are supplied by Web series and amateur movies such as The Mercury Men, and their production values are getting better and better.