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To continue along in this series looking at the new kingpins who are running the music biz now (instead of the major labels), let’s take a looksy at Activision. Who’s that? Well, they sold over 20 million copies of a lil game you might have heard of—Guitar Hero, a product that’s been called a competitor to iTunes. In fact, last summer, GH was noted as one of the few bright spots in the music biz.
Unlike Steve Jobs and friends, Guitar Hero looks like they have a good chance of signing a deal to get the Beatles catalog. In fact, after the success of their Aerosmith-themed game, other bands are lining up to have their own versions go to market. Metallica has already inked deals with Guitar Hero and should have their game out soon. And as is only fitting, Guitar Hero is also trying to link up a Hendrix game with his estate, which is appropriate since he’s THE guitar hero after all (and that’ll be a big deal for sure when it goes on sale).
So what is it about the game that’s so damn appealing? The main thing is that it ain’t just a game that you play on a screen with a control pad. You get a ‘guitar’ or rather a controller that’s shaped like a guitar, which you can wear strapped around your neck like the real deal. Using avatars or actual images of the string-benders you worship, you can play along without having to know how to really play the instrument—you just follow the color patterns on the screen and press down on the corresponding ones on your ‘guitar.’ Though you’re not playing, you still get the thrill of mimicking along to rock classics in a much more concrete way than playing air guitar (though the champs of that sport might disagree). Rather than being a passive listening, Guitar Hero gives you something of a sensation of being part of the music and ‘playing’ it and getting rewarded for doing it right- you get applause from the game plus you get to unlock more songs. But uh… isn’t part of what makes rock exciting sometimes NOT playing everything exactly right? That might have to wait for a future version of the game (then again, since Guitar Hero lowers the bar for anyone to play it, maybe it is kinda punk in a way…).
At this point, Guitar Hero has enough clout to get some bands to actually re-record some of their catalog (even the Sex Pistols) when they don’t have access to the masters. And it’s not just established bands lining up for Guitar Hero—indie bands see this as a great way to break into a larger audience and it’s a win for Guitar Hero too as they can license their material for less money. Add in the fact that Guitar Hero also lets you download songs, then you can see why they’re considered competitors to Mr. Jobs—just like Apple, Guitar Hero learned that consumers don’t just want tunes but they also want a cool, sleek way to get at them, whether it’s an iPod or a guitar-shaped controller.
At the moment, Guitar Hero‘s biggest direct competitor is MTV’s Rock Band game, which has sold 4 million copies and is responsible for 30 million song downloads. Rock Band also goes Guitar Hero three or four better by adding a rhythm section and mike for the full ‘band’ experience (though without built-in groupies or substance abuse problems). Nevertheless, their downloads are still a fraction of the numbers that iTunes gets and as of yet, Rock Band haven’t signed up as many bands as Guitar Hero has. As this NY Times article notes, Madden and Wii are also competitors in the video market, with Madden’s games also becoming a hot place for bands to promote and sell songs.
You’d think it’s all peaches and cream for Guitar Hero and the video game market but as this Variety article notes, sales are starting to flatten out for the market, which is no doubt a measure of the sinking economy plus the high price tag for these games. Still, with artists like Aerosmith finding bigger sales and bucks with their Guitar Hero game than with their latest album, big labels have another reason to worry about this kind of competition.
ADDENDUM: As some commentators have indelicately noted, my own experience is limited with GH (played it once) and I should have noted that and not detailed it as I did in the 3rd paragraph. I apologize for that. I hope to at least stimulate some conversation about the popularity of these games and what the future holds for them.
When people hear about my travel gig, their comments range from:
“oh that must be exciting, going this place and that place all the time, on a moment’s notice”
“don’t you just hate traveling? I mean never knowing where you are? And being away from all that’s familiar?”
Along the lines of the latter, I have encountered a few “don’t you get scared?” queries.
The increased complexity of TV shows is sometimes offered as evidence of an increasing sophisticated audience who has come to appreciate greater complexity in their entertainment. Look at shows like Lost and The Sopranos with their ambiguity and their multiple, interweaving plot lines and so on. Presumably, the implication seems to be, people have adapted to the conventions of television and require greater amount of complexity to hold their now-mammoth capacity for attention, for holding complicated details suspended in their minds.
But this argument, as flattering as it is to us and despite how pleasant its justification of our couch-potatodom may be, doesn’t seem quite right. The shows aren’t more complex so much as they eschew unnecessary reiteration of what is going on and what the conflicts and tensions are supposed to be. In reminiscing with a friend about Twin Peaks we recalled how the integrity of the show was compromised by the efforts it had to make to bring in and acclimate new viewers who arrived at the show late—perhaps after the avalanche of hype that greeted its first few episodes. New shows don’t confront that problem. Writers and producers don’t have to worry about incorporating inane exposition (like you see on daily soaps—the convention that most makes them seem sort of dense to non-viewers) or introducing new plot lines to hook new viewers. They know that when people hear hype, they will start from the beginning, not tune in in medias res. The writers can therefore plot accordingly, comfortable in the knowledge that new and potentially confused viewers can (a) see episodes on demand or during one of HBO’s frequent re-runs, (b) catch up online, (c) rent the DVDs, which come out almost immediately after a season first airs, or (d) download episodes from pirate sites. Considering (c), it almost behooves producers to insist on a certain complexity that would require viewers to pony up for the DVDs.
So I would argue that the apparent increase in complexity in TV shows is a consequence of the new technologies in delivering content as opposed to the advancing tastes of the viewing public. Lost, for instance, would be unthinkable without those technologies. The audience would have necessarily dwindled as it went on (because new viewers would be hopelessly confused) or the show would have had to solve many more of its mysteries more expediently, to make space for entry points for latecomers. So lamentably, Twin Peaks was ahead of its time in this sense; if it were being made now, there probably wouldn’t have ever been that awful Miss Twin Peaks side plot.
It’s been interesting to read the reaction to the Academy Award nominations this past Thursday (22 January). Naturally, most of the discussion has centered on the unfathomable snub sustained by Christopher Nolan and his Summer spectacular, The Dark Knight. While industry organizations like the Director’s Guild of America and the Producers Guild acknowledged the revamped Batman sequel, the lords of self-importance, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences decided against giving the box office hit the critical credit it deserves. Some seemed genuinely shocked by this decision, believing the Oscars had turned a kind of corner in the last years. But looking back at its recent history and the under the radar issues involved with the movies actually nominated, one starts to recognize the same old boy bullspit.
Let’s face it - the Academy Awards will never be hip. They aren’t founded on a philosophy of what’s trendy or what’s cool. They tend to stay within very strict standards and must be dragged kicking and screaming - sometimes, unsuccessfully - into the 21st century. In the last decade alone, there has been controversy surrounding the documentary, foreign film, and Best Song categories. Various film writers have taken Oscar to task for ignoring qualified entries, employing arcane and limiting rule requirements, and generally ignoring consensus for their own oblique aims. Many point out that some of the most important films of the last century never received Academy Award consideration, while others love to look at the list of ignored or marginalized talents and shake their heads in shame.
So it’s clear that the Academy plods along to its own often arrhythmic drummer. Type in “Worst Oscar Winners” into Google and you’re bound to stumble on a million messageboard debates, most centering on unworthy winners (Shakespeare in Love, Gladiator, and American Beauty being the most common ones called out). There’s also the reflective invocations of movie that should have been heralded (Pulp Fiction, Little Children), got close, but then no golden cigar. But the one question few can answer is “Why?” After all, if so many people enjoyed a film (The Dark Knight‘s tracking over a billion dollars worldwide), so many critics supported it (a high 90s percentile on most review collective sites), and so many other awards stables sought fit to at least nominate it (DGA, PGA, Golden Globes), how can the Academy ignore it?
Let’s try to answer it, shall we? First off, there’s the ‘age’ factor. Oscar skews older - much older. A perfect example is someone like Ernest Borgnine, winner for his work in 1956’s Marty. At 92 - yep, 92 - he is still a vocal member of the old school Hollywood brigade. He and his demo want significance, not splash. He’s the perfect example of someone who would not have seen The Dark Knight, let alone support its nomination. And sadly, there are a lot of Borgnines out there. Reports suggest surviving Academy voters tend to be in the mid to late ‘50s (or much, much older), unimpressed by commercial carte blanche, and wait until the end of the year (when screeners come pouring into their mail slot) to make their final determinations. They are passionate about the old school Hollywood ideal, and their votes reflect same.
Of course, the minute you look at something like Slumdog Millionaire, that argument appears to hold no weight. After all, Danny Boyle’s unusual mosaic of Mumbai life as seen through the eyes of a desperate game show contestant isn’t the antiquated Tinsel Town type. Something this fresh and vibrant shouldn’t turn an Oscar holders head, and yet clearly it stands as this year’s front runner. The Academy obviously can’t ignore the clamor and consensus of the various sub-groups that make up their membership. No other film this year has received more outside acknowledgement than Slumdog. Not even The Dark Knight (only WALL-E can almost stand toe to toe, and there’s a whole separate category thing to take into consideration).
Without a doubt, Oscar uses the Nov/Dec hype machine, along with the various critic’s lists and the so-called “important” awards to gauge where it goes. Had The Dark Knight racked up dozens of Best Picture recognitions from bellwethers like the Golden Globes (who went with Slumdog), the National Board of Review (Slumdog), the New York Film Critics (Milk) or the Broadcast Film Critics (Slumdog), the momentum might have been there for an Academy acknowledgement. As it stands, we can clearly see that many found the Christopher Nolan to be a fine, even masterful film. But when it came time to make a final determination about the year’s best, few placed it on top.
That doesn’t matter, you say. The Dark Knight still deserved placement above something like The Reader - and you know what, you’d be right. The Reader does not deserve to be in the Top Five films that the AMPAS considers worth congratulating. In 2008 alone, amazing movies like Frozen River, Doubt, The Wrestler, Happy-Go-Lucky, Synecdoche, New York, and Revolutionary Road deserved to take its slot. Even if you put both The Dark Knight and WALL-E in the mix, The Reader still trails down toward the bottom. The shock many felt on 22 January wasn’t the Nolan snub so much as the Stephen Daldry bow. His lax resume, including a similarly startling nod for the overrated The Hours (remember that movie? Exactly) indicated someone who should feel lucky to be mentioned in someone’s acceptance speech, not sitting in the auditorium with the rest of the year’s best.
The DGA thought so. They did not nominate his work as a director. Neither did the PGA, which passed on recognizing The Reader as one of year’s top efforts. So how did it sneak in over other deserving movies? The answer appears to be sympathy. This past year, both Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack passed away. Well loved, universally respected, and highly influential behind the scenes, these men were two of the four producers ‘acknowledged’ for their work on the Holocaust themed drama. Some have even speculated that the response to The Reader from inside the industry was so strong (mostly due to the community’s feelings for Minghella and Pollack) that the groundswell helped push the picture past other deserving entries.
Since the movie can’t stand next to the other Best Picture contenders and claim its celluloid legitimacy, the age factor and the sympathy vote seem like the real reasons The Dark Knight is missing from the final tally (or at the very least, why The Reader is there). It won’t change the fact that more people will know Nolan’s work and anticipate his next move than ever care if Daldry gets another job (he followed up his work on The Hours with…nothing - until now). One could argue over the importance of a film focusing on how human beings deal with something as evil as the Nazi extermination of the Jews, but since The Reader mostly skims over that material, the point becomes moot.
It’s safe to say that, once again, politics, good publicity machines, previous experience pushing subpar product, and the unusual fluke of a critically acclaimed picture being popular as well undermined The Dark Knight‘s chances at Oscar gold. Hollywood apparently likes to champion the underdog. Heroes need not apply.