The long tail of streaming?

December 25th, 2013

I recently tweeted that I had signed up for a (UK) NetFlix trial, but had found little that I wanted to watch, and had been put off by the necessity of installing Silverlight, so was going to return to my trusty ‘Lovefilm by Post’ subscription. This got a lot of responses from friends.

Some expressed surprise that a geek like me should embrace such a backwards technology. Some proposed AppleTV/iTunes or Blinkbox as better alternatives. Others persuaded me to persevere, and recommended the new House of Cards series and Breaking Bad as worthwhile (so I shall certainly give those a go).

Anyway, I went ahead, installed Silverlight on my Mac Mini media server, and we watched Encounter at Farpoint from NetFlix last night, and it generally streamed OK, though the quality was somewhere around VHS-level, I think; certainly not like DVD and a long way from the BluRays we now often get through the post. I’m guessing this is just a poor match of Microsoft software and Apple hardware, because we have 120Mbps broadband, and other streamed content plays very nicely.

So we could probably find an online service that worked – why do we stick to that primitive idea of physical media dropping through the letter box?

Well, streaming services, or at least online purchases, are clearly the future, but still cater largely to the mass-market, and we obviously land somewhere in the ‘long tail’. By way of a simple illustration, here are a dozen films we’ve watched and really enjoyed over the last couple of months. Some of them are slightly obscure, but others have big names and Academy Awards.

I thought I’d do a quick check and see where I could get them, either as a digital purchase or rental. I threw in House of Cards season 1 as well, though I haven’t yet seen it, but now intend to!

Film Lovefilm by post iTunes Blinkbox Lovefilm Instant NetFlix UK
Mud Y Y Y
Lincoln Y buy not rent buy not rent
The Impossible Y Y Y
It Happened One Night Y buy not rent
Hyde Park on Hudson Y buy not rent buy not rent
Untouchable Y buy not rent
The Kings of Summer Y buy not rent Y
Now you see me Y Y Y
A Late Quartet Y Y Y
The House of Eliott Y
Shackleton Y buy not rent Y
Moonrise Kingdom Y buy not rent buy not rent
House of Cards (2013) Y Y Y

Now, this isn’t quite fair, because I knew all of these were available from the postal service – that’s where we saw them. And I’m sure it’s possible to find a good list of things on the other services which are not available through the post.

But I guess my point is that, had we restricted ourselves to other services, most of these dozen excellent films would never have made it to our screen, especially if we didn’t want to cough up the money to purchase them outright.

I didn’t make any special effort to select these, by the way: they are not nearly as obscure as some films we watch: they just happen to be (roughly) the dozen most recent films of the… golly!… ahem!… 821 movies we have watched from LoveFilm over the years since we started subscribing. (We don’t have cable, and don’t really watch any broadcast TV.) We couldn’t, in fact, have rented the majority of those from iTunes, but if we had been able to, it would have cost us about £2900 (assuming we didn’t want HD).

Of course, the elephant in the room here is that with postal delivery you have to know, in advance, a list of things you want to watch, and not be too worried about when you see them. I’m blessed with a wife who enjoys finding good stuff and queuing it up, so we always have 30-40 items in the list. And we have a reasonable amount of control of what arrives when based on how we prioritise those.

Some other notes to explain why this works well for us…

  • We live about 20 yards from the postbox, so after we’ve watched something, I stick the disc in the pre-paid envelope and mail it off before we go to bed.

  • We enjoy watching the extra features and commentaries on DVDs – something you often don’t get with other forms of delivery.

  • If we can’t watch a DVD immediately, we can click a button and have a DRM-free copy of it in about 30 mins, complete with special features and commentaries. But that probably wouldn’t be legal, so of course we wouldn’t know how to do that.

  • We can often choose between BluRay and DVD (depending whether we want a modest gain in resolution in exchange for a big delay in startup time).

  • We don’t have to finish watching things within a given timeframe.

  • We currently have the subscription which give you up to two disks at home at any one time, so with that, and the disks we own, and the stuff that EyeTV has recorded for us, we are never short of choice.

  • On average, we probably watch two or three movies a week, meaning that each one costs us about 89p.

In fact, I think we may start moving to some combination of the pre-planned postal and the on-demand streamed systems, and Blinkbox looks like an attractive service, if the quality’s good – on some of the above, purchasing from Blinkbox costs about the same as renting from iTunes.

But we’ve also seen a lot of very good stuff for 89p that we couldn’t have seen anywhere else. And quite often, it’s in 1080p resolution. On other services, the resolution would be lower and 1080p would be the price…

Pram fans

September 23rd, 2013

I had to take a picture of these steps in Chicago’s Union Station recently.

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If you’ve seen The Untouchables, you’ll know why. The ‘pram scene’ is a brilliant piece of cinema; you can see it here, though this clip is missing the long build-up which is part of what makes the original so effective.

Of course, it is itself an homage to the scene in Battleship Potemkin at the Odessa steps, but I didn’t know until today that it too had inspired a later cinematic tribute.

An amusing use for multi-channel sound?

February 9th, 2013

If you watch old Blackadder, Fawlty Towers or Seinfeld episodes today, one thing that’s likely to stand out is the canned laughter. The fashion a couple of decades ago was to make this much more apparent than they do now. I say ‘canned’ laughter, but sometimes it was actually a live studio audience, but the volume levels are higher than today, and so it can be quite intrusive, or at least make things seem rather dated.

So, in these days of multi-channel sound, or alternative audio streams on DVDs, wouldn’t it be a good idea to allow viewers to choose their own levels for the laugh track? You could opt for the original 1980s experience, or a more subtle mix tuned to today’s tastes.

Now, what I don’t know, because I haven’t watched much recent comedy, is whether the nature of the recorded hilarity has changed, or just the volume — i.e. whether you’d need a complete new track, or just a volume control. But you could also choose where the laughter appeared in the surround space – are you watching the show from a distance, or are you surrounded by a laughing audience? And are you sitting in the front or back row?

All of these things should be easily tuneable now…

Though this does bring to mind the words of the marvellous Flanders and Swann, in the introduction to ‘A Song of Reproduction':

People make an awful lot of fuss, anyway, about the quality of the sound they listen to. Have you noticed; they spend all that time trying to get the exact effect of an orchestra actually playing in their sitting room. Personally, I can’t think of anything I should hate more than an orchestra actually playing in my sitting room. They seem to like it…

That was 1959, by the way…

Red, the Blood of Angry Men

January 30th, 2013

Remember Les Miserables? The show that brought you such moving and beautiful lyrics as:

I am agog!
I am aghast!
Is Marius in love at last?
I’ve never heard him `ooh’ and `aah’.
You talk of battles to be won
And here he comes like Don Ju-an
It’s better than an o-per-a!

I saw it a couple of decades ago, at the gift of a kind friend, and had a pleasant enough evening, though I’ve felt no particular desire to repeat the experience.

Well, now there’s a film, and, while I may get around to seeing it some time in the next couple of decades, I bet the process won’t be half as enjoyable as reading Matt Walsh’s review.

The Business of Bond

August 1st, 2012

John Gruber points out this very nice visualisation comparing the budgets and box-office returns of the different Bond movies.

Make sure you check the ‘adjust for inflation’ switch.

We’ve always rather liked Timothy Dalton, who is a Real Actor, but it’s clear that the public in general didn’t share our enthusiasm, perhaps for him or perhaps for the plots of those movies, which only gave a four- or five-fold return on investment. Still pretty good when compared with your average savings account, but Diamonds are Forever paid back its investors sixteen times over. Ah well, watch his excellent Mr Rochester in the best production of Jane Eyre, instead…

This is also a fine example of the kind of web design that would have been inconceivable without Flash not long ago…

A portrait of The Artist

January 10th, 2012

Well, my faith in cinema is gradually being restored. About three weeks ago we saw Hugo, one of the few 3D movies worth watching, and one of the even fewer that would still be a splendid film in 2D. Then last week we saw Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows; not quite in the same league but still jolly good fun. And tonight it was The Artist, which is quite fabulous.

For those who’ve missed the publicity and the reports of the plentiful standing ovations at Cannes, The Artist is a story set around the time when silent movies are being replaced by talkies. That’s hardly novel: so was Singing in the Rain. But what makes this different is that it is itself a silent movie. It looks at the transition from the ‘before’ side rather than from the ‘after’, as it were. And when was the last time you went to the release of a new silent movie?

So the sheer novelty value is a large part of what gets the bums on the seats. But very few of those bums’ owners will be disappointed once they get there, I think. I was delighted even before the film began: as the adverts drew to a close, the curtains on either side of the screen moved inwards, because this is shot in traditional 4:3 ratio, not widescreen.

The genius of The Actor is partly down to the bravery of those who had the nerve to try such a thing, and partly down to the skill of the execution. But what struck me as we walked home is that it’s unique. Nobody will be able to do this again. So I think it has found a place in the cinematic history books from which it is unlikely ever to be displaced.

And it’s also a great night out.

Proulx, Plutonium and a sense of Proportion

March 17th, 2011

There’s a wonderful scene in the movie version of Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, where Kevin Spacey’s character, Quoyle, is being taught how to be a journalist by Billy, an experienced old hack on the local paper. They are sitting in a car on the Newfoundland coast.

    Billy: Now, have a look. What do you see? Tell me the headline.

    Quoyle: Horizon Fills with Dark Clouds?

    Billy: IMMINENT STORM THREATENS VILLAGE!

    Quoyle: But what if no storm comes?

    Billy: VILLAGE SPARED FROM DEADLY STORM.

I keep wondering whether this is an appropriate analogy for the reporting of the events in Fukushima. As far as we can tell on the best information available, this is not going to be anything like another Chernobyl, but even Chernobyl needs to be kept in proportion.

The worst disaster in the entire nuclear industry resulted in 56 direct deaths; a number comparable to a bad bus crash on a motorway. More serious, of course, were the after-effects of the radiation, and estimates of the effect vary widely, but the most-quoted figure suggests that around 4000 cancer victims can trace their illness back to Chernobyl. This is, of course, a disaster on a major scale, but it is also very close to the number of people who die in coal mines in China each year. The official government statistic in 2004 – a bad year – was 6,027.

I fear that whatever happens in Japan, the impact on the world nuclear industry will be huge, and we will not be seeing many articles contemplating the likely fate of coal miners in the vicinity of a tsunami. Or of what it might mean to oil rigs – we already know what can happen to them even without the help of a massive earthquake.

There’s a simple reason for this not being the line taken by the media: such articles are much less exciting than the headline-grabbing alternatives. I think it was Cory Doctorow who said, “You must never forget the fundamental business model of most newspapers: to deliver large numbers of readers to advertisers”.

We do not know what will happen in Japan – it may prove be a major disaster, or it may – rather literally – just blow over. But if it’s the latter, don’t worry – I bet we’ll still see some good headlines along the lines of Billy’s for quite a while afterwards.

Seeing the future?

December 12th, 2010

One of the first DVDs I owned – indeed, I think, one of the first released in the UK – was ‘Contact’, which stars Jodie Foster in Carl Sagan’s story about the first communications with extra-terrestrial intelligence.

It’s a fun film, and I hadn’t watched it for a while. But I’ve just discovered that amongst the ‘special features’ are several full-length commentaries, something which was quite a novelty back then.

One thing that tickled me while listening to the Director and Producer’s commentary, apart from the nostalgic shots of Netscape in use and the fact that ‘Web’ was always prefixed with ‘World Wide’, was the moment when a flat-screen TV made its appearance.

‘Look at that screen!’, they say, breaking off from their discussions of intergalactic travel. ‘That’s a real TV… We aren’t overlaying those pictures… See how thin is is? You could hang it on your wall!’

Favourite movie quote of the day

June 18th, 2010
    Are you one of these emancipated women we’re having so much trouble with at home?

-Kenneth More’s character to Lauren Bacall’s in North West Frontier

Living in the past

May 2nd, 2010

One of the great things about video rental services like Netflix and Lovefilm is the easy access to TV favourites from the past. Even better, you don’t have to buy a whole series if you find the first disk a disappointment.

Rose and I have always liked Ultraviolet, a modern vampire miniseries from the late 90s, and the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes adaptations from the 80s.

Now we’re going further back: we’re currently half-way through Danger UXB – wonderful stuff – and are looking forward to Wings, of which I have only the vaguest childhood memories beyond the good theme music. Actually, the end of the eighties was about when I stopped watching TV, so I have a lot of catching up to do. Any other recommendations?

Sometimes I wonder about the wisdom of revisiting these. Will Blake’s 7, a favourite of its time, and roughly contemporary with Star Wars, stand up to several evenings’ watching when the cheapness of the BBC’s special effects is viewed through modern eyes?

Ah well… if things prove disappointing in outer space, there’s always All Creatures Great and Small

Lingua Franca

June 26th, 2008

Caught a bit of one of the Naked Gun films last night. Wonderfully silly stuff.

“Do you speak French, Lieutenant?”

“Unfortunately, no. I kiss that way, though.”

The Officers’ Ward

March 16th, 2008

The Officers’ Ward

In general we watch almost no broadcast TV, and a very large number of movies, thanks to LoveFilm (the UK equivalent of NetFlix). When Rose told me last week that the film she had lined up was about “a guy who gets badly injured in WW1 and undergoes early reconstructive surgery”, I can’t say I was immediately enthusiastic. There seemed to be other, more fun, ways to spend a Friday evening after a long and tiring week.

But The Officers’ Ward was, in fact, absolutely superb, with some really beautiful moments. Yes, there are some slightly gruesome bits, as you would imagine, but remarkably few, and it asks some very important questions. It won several awards and nominations in France when it came out in 2001, and rightly so, but I hadn’t heard of it.

I’m glad I have now; highly recommended.