I recently read in a news story that movie theater box office receipts have been lower this summer than they were last year. The debate over the causes of the box-office decline revolves around whether it is because movies are just not as good this year, or whether people now prefer to watch DVD's at home, or some other reason.
I must admit that I have been to the movies a bit less often this summer than in previous years. There are probably a number of reasons, but the one that I find most credible is that there are just so many more sources of entertainment available. I believe that this is the same reason why network television audiences and sales of hit CD's have been declining for a while now.
The changing landscape in the entertainment industry is the subject of a very good article in Wired by Chris Anderson called The Long Tail, which I referenced in an earlier blog. Anderson's thesis is that we are moving from a hit-driven entertainment economy with a scarcity of distribution channels that focused the industry on getting everyone to watch, read or listen to a few hits, to an abundance-driven entertainment economy in which technology has made possible many more distribution channels for all the content available. As Anderson says: "Forget squeezing millions from a few mega-hits at the top of the charts. The future of entertainment is in the millions of niche markets at the shallow end of the bitstream." And, ". . . most of us want more than just hits. Everyone's taste departs from the mainstream somewhere, and the more we explore alternatives, the more we're drawn to them." From DVDs to digital cable and satellite to Tivo, and perhaps most important, the Internet, we now have access to a huge amount of content that we did not have before, not only the hits but also what Anderson calls the "misses" or "non-hits", of which a huge, huge number are now available to us. "If the 20th- century entertainment industry was about hits, the 21st will be equally about misses."
So, let me describe a few of the things I read and watched this summer, some "hits" and some "misses", focusing particularly on big books and long films that required more of a commitment of time on my part. Let me start by talking about two very different books I recently read, Tom Friedman's "The World is Flat" and J. K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" both of which have definitely been huge hits, among the top 5 books in Amazon's Top Sellers list for a while now, as well as many weeks on the New York Times Best Seller lists.
I enjoyed reading The World is Flat a lot and used it as an inspiration for first one, then a second blog. In his books and OpEd columns, Friedman deals with complex political issues as one interested in finding solutions to these very important problems. He looks at the issues and writes about them from various points of view, sometimes veering to the left, sometimes to the right. But he lives mainly in the center where he presents -- as he did in The World is Flat -- some very complex issues in a very readable style. By carefully organizing the material, he makes you feel as if you are actually taking a social, economic and political course on the forces that are shaping the 21st century.
I wanted to finish reading “The World is Flat” by July 16, so I could start on the latest Harry Potter book as soon as it was available. I missed by about a week, but soon enough I finished “The World is Flat” and settled in to once more immerse myself in the adventures of Harry, Hermione, Ron and the large and exotic cast of characters around them.
"She-Who-Must-Be-Read", as the Sunday New York Times Book Review so aptly referred to J. K. Rowling, is an amazing writer. I had heard a lot about Harry Potter by the time I started reading the first novel in the series late in 2001, around the time the first Harry Potter movie came out. I was immediately captivated by the fantasy world she creates and how very real it feels, and proceeded to read the next three books that were available at the time in short order. By then I was a true fan, and like many millions around the world, could not wait to read number five in 2003 and six this past July, and I now anxiously await the seventh and final Harry Potter sometime in the next 2 -3 years. I believe that the Harry Potter series is considered children's Literature, but to me they are just really good books with wonderful characters and storylines that I keep wanting to know more about.
So much for the hits. Let me now talk about two remarkable "misses" (that is, “niche” rather than mass market entertainment) that I watched in the past few months, “Scenes from a Marriage” and “Fanny and Alexander.” These two films by Swedish director Ingmar Berman first appeared in 1973 and 1982 respectively, each originally as a TV mini-series which was later edited into a shorter movie version. They are very good examples of the entertainment abundance we now enjoy in that last year they both were re-released in DVDs that included both the TV episodes and the movie versions.
Ingmar Bergman made many films from the 1950s to the 1980s and is considered one of the great directors of all time. His movies are very serious, some might say grim, generally dealing with subjects like death, love and religion. They really make you think. “Scenes from a Marriage” is Bergman's exploration of relationships, and follows a couple over the course of their marriage, separation, divorce, and continuing bond after the divorce. The TV version runs over five hours divided into six 50-minute episodes, and was edited down to a movie of close to three hours. This is a very powerful, incredible work, which at times is almost too painful to watch, since Bergman probes deeply into the relationship with no holds barred. The acting by Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson is about as good as it comes. I recommend it very highly, especially the six-episode version because you get to see the original, unedited film and it is easier to watch such a powerful piece one episode at a time.
“Fanny and Alexander” is very different from “Scenes from a Marriage” and most of the Bergman movies I have seen. This is an epic film with a large cast. It is not heavy at all, having more of the feeling of a fairy tale seen through the eyes of two children. It has been selected by leading critics and directors from around the world as among the top movies of all time. Like the Harry Potter books, it creates a fascinating world of its own. I saw it in the original four-episode version, which runs for over five hours. I can imagine that Fanny and Alexander is the kind of magic realism mini-series that the grown up Hermione Granger would write and direct for the BBC and Masterpiece Theater to appeal to graduates of the Harry Potter series.
I realize that the entertainment world of abundance in which we are increasingly living is causing havoc for the business side of things, not unlike what is going on in many other industries, including my own. But for us as consumers, this is really great as we have more entertainment choices than ever before.