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Classic Front Row, Sofa articles from the days.


Random Acts of Litigation

It started with empty threats, which then led into advertisements in popular magazines like Entertainment Weekly, which has now led into subpoenas and which will eventually lead to litigation?

Ever since losing a major decision that said that the parent companies of services like Kazaa were not responsible for the actions of their subsribers, the music industry has finally decided to fight back against the likes of Kazaa and Morpheus by going after the end users.

That's all fine and dandy for protecting your copyright (or at least scaring a few people into not using the services), but what does it say about the state of your industry when you're suing your own customers?

This all also happens at a time when finally a few legitimate sites are beginning to show success in terms of offering paid music downloads.

Apple's iTunes and's are both off to a pretty good start in their respective marketplaces, and both offer a legitimate way for users to download music to their computers and portable entertainment devices. Is this really a good time to start pissing off the people who like digital music?

Of course what's happening right now in the music industry is just a prelude to what could happen should any of these tactics prove reasonable effective.

Online movie piracy is in it's infancy right now. Currently the files available for download off the Internet are big, bulky and generally of pretty poor quality. But with video compression techniques getting better through technologies like MPEG4 and Divx, and Internet connection speeds getting faster, it's only a matter of time before downloading a movie becomes as commonplace as browsing a studio's website.

The Motion Picture Association of America and the studios that it represents are undoubtedly paying very close attention to what happens with the nearly 900 subpoenas filed so far against end users by the music industry. Should the scare tactics and fear uncertainty and doubt created by a flurry of small lawsuits prove an effective tactic, expect the studios to follow suit. If it proves to be an abysmal failure, expect them to take a more tactful route.

Of course, the real answer lies in looking at what is happening in the music industry thus far. If you offer consumers a reasonably priced alternative to piracy, they will take advantage of it. Given the choice, most consumers prefer to buy rather than steal.

A few small operations offering downloads of movies currently on video, DVD and Pay-Per-View are starting to pop up, and they're showing early signs of some success. Where the studios are going to have a harder time is in allowing films that are closer to first run to be downloaded.

They're also going to have to realize that one of the big advantages of online movie downloads is that the library can grow to an infinite size, and the capital cost invested in each title is minimal when compared to the risks associated with large runs of DVDs, videos or even theatrical prints.

And to add insult to injury, devices like Sony's PSX and probably things like the Playstation 3 and the X-Box 2 are going to be Internet-enabled and offer Tivo-like functionality. Two things that scream out for the ability to watch movies on demand.

Eventually, people are going to want the choice between going to the movie theatre to see Spiderman VII or downloading it and watching it on their Internet-enabled home theatre system. If the studios don't give them that choice, the market will find a way around the studios (legitimate or not).

It's very important that the movie studios take a leading edge role in allowing movies to be downloaded legitimately online, and that the infrastructure be in place when the market is ready for it. It's a classic chicken and egg scenario, and if the studio is smart they'll have lots of full cartons of eggs by the time the chickens show up.

If you walk into a store and are allowed to look at the merchandise, but then there's no checkout counter, the only way consumers can get their hands on the merchandise is to steal it. If the movie studios and MPAA are smart, they'll learn the lessons that are there from the mistakes the music industry has made and start working on a good, efficient cash register that offers fair pricing.

If they're not smart, they'll start hiring more lawyers.


Human Nature


A Victim of the Bumfight ProducersAs human beings we're expected to behave by a certain code of conduct. Unfortunately, one of the downsides of trusting people to treat each other well is that they generally don't. Nowhere is this more readily apparent than in the ultra-succesful Internet release of a video entitled "Bumfights".

Zachary Bubeck, Daniel J. Tanner, and Michael J. Slyman decided it would be a good idea to pay homeless people to beat the crap out of themselves and each other, and to videotape the results.

So far, 300,000 people have paid to watch the results.

As a matter of fact, I spent a long time considering whether I should even write this article, because it acts as even more publicity for these people, and I honestly hate the thought of being responsible for more copies of this thing being sold.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm all for freedom of expression, and honestly, I found Jackass: The Movie to be one of the funniest (and most disgusting) things I've seen at a movie theater in a long time. The difference here is that the Jackass producers torture themselves. The Bumfights guys torture other, innocent, people.

As of September 26th the producers have been charged with criminal offences, and if you've seen the video, you'll know why.

A recently posted message on their website says it all:
"As you probably heard, the producers of Bumfights, AKA the Bumfight Krew, were recently arrested on numerous felony charges for the making of Bumfights Volume 1: Cause for Concern. And yes, it's true, they are also being sued. Despite all this nonsense, we at Bumfights would like you to know that the video is still for sale, and as long as there is a 1st Ammendment in this country it's gonna take a helluva lot more than that to shut us down. The BFK would like to thank all of their loyal fans for your support and are currently hard at work on the sequel. "

Now, I'm really torn here, because these people are using freedom of speech and freedom of expression as a way to justify some absolutely abhorrent behaviour. They've taken people who are either mentally unstable, or in a chemically altered state (or both!) and taken advantage of them.

I completely understand that a part of freedom of speech is taking the bad along with the good, that just because you don't agree with what someone is saying, that doesn't mean they don't have the right to say it.

Still, I'm also a firm believer that "anything goes" as long as everyone involved is a consenting adult, in possession of a sound mind.

But how can you use freedom of speech to justify abusing people?

How is this any different than taking advantage of children or animals?

These people are obviously in no condition to consent to the way they're being used, and thus this video fits into the same category as child pornography. It's sickening, disgusting, and unfortunately, filled with images I will never be able to get out of my head.

Two of the homeless people in the video, Donald Brennan (who suffered a "Bumfight" tattoo on his forehead among other degradations) and Rufus Hannah have also filed civil suits against the producers, both having suffered extreme humiliation and physical injuries as a result of the actions they were enticed to perform in the video.

Interestingly, there was a video produced by the Vancouver police force which has aired a number of times on television here about the dangers of drug abuse and the lives of homeless people.

Part of it followed one man who was hopelessly addicted to Heroin, and who seemed to be riding a one way train to a morgue fridge.

It was a tragic story, and the Vancouver PD made the video to try and scare kids away from drug abuse.

This man's brother saw the show on television, tracked down his homeless brother and helped him to make an astonishing recovery.

He's now clean and sober, and working a good job. If you saw the "before and after" video, you'd have a hard time believing you were looking at the same person.

The people being used in Bumfights are not "bums", "homeless" or "the dregs of society". These are real human beings, brothers, sons and fathers. People that someone, somewhere cares about.

If you're considering purchasing Bumfights out of curiousity, don't. If you absolutely must see it, whether it be because of curiousity, a need to feel like a part of the elite, or even if it's because you just love seeing people hurt themsevles, steal it.

Download it off the Internet, pirate it from a friend. Do whatever you can to avoid paying for this atrocity.

Don't send any more money to these undeserving producers who did nothing more than destroy whatever ounce of dignity the people in this video had left.


Internet Pirates on the Digital Seas

The major studios would have you believe they're about to go broke in the next few years because of Internet piracy. That's not exactly true.

Their concerns are certainly well-founded when you consider the success (and collapse) of Napster and like-minded file sharing services, and when you consider the proliferation of high speed Internet connections around the world.

Still, there are some major reasons that the studios don't have to worry just yet.

First, the studios are increasingly "front-loading" their films. This means that more and more the first weekend tallies are representing a greater percentage of the total box office of any given film.

This has resulted in the phenomenon of film revenues dropping 50% or more in the second and third weeks of release, but when you're opening weekend is in the $50 million plus category (or as in Spider-Man's case, $100 million plus) what does it matter?

Also, the studios get a greater portion of the box office revenue in those vital few first weekends. In exchange for getting the latest and greatest movies on their screens, theatre owners give up as much as 80% of the first dollar gross on big films. That's also the reason why you need a second mortgage to be able to afford that box of Junior Mints.

Because these films are so heavily geared toward opening weekend results, there isn't really time for them to proliferate on the Internet before the major core audience has seen them. Certainly Internet piracy could significantly hurt repeat business, but I'd suggest that the low quality of a lot of these films (see, for example, Hollow Man and The Mummy Returns - or better yet, don't!) has more to do with hurting those kinds of numbers than anything else.

The only risk to the "front loaded" box office revenue at this point seems to be on international returns, but the studios are getting around that by releasing films simultaneously in multiple markets (see, for example, Star Wars: Episode II).

Also, while there is the slight risk of cannibilization of some revenue streams, it seems new ones are popping up just as quickly.

For every person who doesn't go to see a movie at the theatre, there's another one who buys the movie on DVD or watches it on Pay-Per-View. Not to mention all the merchandising tie-ins attached to most big studio films.

Back in the "old days", the studios had to make their money from the box office, and they generally tried to turn a profit on the North American box office, with any ancillary revenues (T.V. rights, etc.) being considered gravy.

Shortly after Jaws came out, the studios figured out that they could market the hell out of their films, and turn a huge profit...even in previously unprofitable times (summer never used to be a time to see movies, in fact a lot of theatres used to close for the summer).

They also figured out that films could be paid for before their release if the rights to television networks and foreign markets were negotiated properly.

Now, of course, the foreign markets and the television stations (along with the video companies, etc.) are all owned by the same corporate conglomerates that own the studios.

What this essentially means is that instead of Disney making a film and selling the rights to ABC who then has to turn a profit on the advertising dollars, Disney can make a film and very cheaply license it to their ABC television unit (after an appropriate video, pay-per-view and premium cable period, of course) which then sells the advertising dollars. The odds of losing money on even the biggest flop of film are pretty much insignificant (Town & Country notwithstanding) because they can just keep rebroadcasting the thing on their various cable networks and speciality channels until it turns a profit.

But what does this have to do with Internet piracy?

Well, first off, things are not as dire as the studios and the MPAA would have us believe. In fact, the movie business has never been more lucrative.

What the studios are scared of is the ability for consumers to circumvent SOME of their revenue streams, and thus damage their bottom line in any way.

After all, the reward for a CEO who has a record year at AOL Time Warner is not only a big bonus, but he or she also has to create a new record the NEXT year.

The studios want some kind of nice, copy-protected way of distributing their films on the Internet. They want to be able to take your credit card information, let you watch a film ONCE, and once you've watched it, charge you to watch it again.

This is why when Sony launches their network adaptor and hard drive for the Playstation 2, eventually one of the features of the device will be the ability to "rent" movies online and download them to the drive. Sony owns Columbia-Tristar, and with tens of millions of PS2s out there this adds yet another revenue stream (not to mention another way to sell some PS2 hardware).

What they fear is a simple, popular (this is their biggest fear) Napster-like service that easily allows the distribution of films. While these services do exist right now, they're not the easiest things to use, and the movies themselves are not the best quality.

The music companies complained that Napster would cannibalize their business, so they did everything they could to make sure Napster wasn't a threat (and succeeded).

As a result, the music companies generated a lot of animosity among music listeners, and if you look at the figures it's only since the demise of Napster that music sales have started to decline.

The music companies felt the same way when radio first appeared. Why would people buy music when they could listen to it for free on the radio? Of course, the result turned out to be that radio play was great marketing for the music companies, and rather than adapting Napster to be used the same way, the decided simply to kill it, and in the process created numerous alternatives which are harder to destroy because of their non-centralized nature.

In other words, instead of adapting to the changing world, the music companies tried to adapt the world to their needs.

The movie studios feel that something like Napster would destroy their business, but in reality the opposite is probably true. While it may hurt their pay-per-view revenue models, if consumers can get a good quality, reasonably priced legitimate version of the same film, they will (which is why DVD has been such a huge success).

If the music companies had realize that the way to defeat Napster was to take advantage of it, they would have been able to come up with some kind of revenue generating scheme utilizing it. They could have insisted on advertising banners or marketing information in exchange for allowing users to trade files. Instead, they killed Napster and sent its millions of users to various competing services where it's quite literally the wild west, and nobody has any control.

Instead of viewing the Internet as a Pay-Per-View device, the studios should view it as a sell-through model. Let people download the movies, pay once, and do whatever they want with them. If they want to burn them to CD or DVD, fine. If they want to watch them a few times, then delete them, fine as well. If they want to use a frame from the film as their desktop background, let them.

Everyone knows HOW to shoplift. It's not rocket science. The reason most people don't shoplift is because the majority of people are honest. The studios have to learn that the solution to Internet "shoplifting" of their movies is NOT locking everyone in the store with the merchandise. It's allowing the honest consumers to get the product they want at a fair price.


Opie Gets an Oscar

Well, the 74th annual Academy Awards ceremony is now done. And it’s definitely been an interesting year, not so for the ceremony.

The ceremony this year definitely dragged on more than any in recent years. The roughly four-hour, fifteen minute broadcast is officially the longest in the history of the Oscars, and it felt every minute of it.

Last year’s broadcast, hosted by Steve Martin, felt fast-paced and entertaining due in great part to Martin’s impeccable comic timing. This year, Whoopi Goldberg brought the ceremony to a crawl with bad joke after bad joke (and I realize that she alone is not responsible, I heartily blame the writers, especially Bruce Vilanch, as well.), and her inability to drop the crap and just get the ceremony moving resulted in the dullest Oscar ceremony I can recall.

The high points, while few and far between, were very high.

The introduction started out with a very scruffy Tom Cruise introducing a clip with various people talking about their favourite films. Mixed in with all the “regular people” were such famous faces as Mikhail Gorbachev and Rev. Al Sharpton.

Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller did a great comic bit involving some costumes from last year’s biggest films.

Nathan Lane seemed to have a good time introducing the award for Best Animated Film, including a great joke about the cryogenic adventures of Walt Disney. When Shrek takes the award, animated clips of Jimmy Neutron and the Monster’s, Inc. crew being none-too-pleased show us all what we’d really like to see at these ceremonies, sore losers.

Cirque de Soleil featured an amazing performance that showed us why Debbie Harry is no longer involved with the Oscar telecast, and actually managed to make us forget how bored we were for a few minutes.

Sidney Poitier defined class and presence while receiving his honorary Oscar. Maybe they should give him an honorary Oscar every year.

Oscar’s Susan Lucci, Randy Newman, finally wins an Oscar, and manages to give a short (other Oscar winners take note) speech that is heartfelt, honest and entertaining.

As for the bad moments, well, there are too many to list, but I’ll point out a few.

Whoopi Goldberg makes her entrance, announces that she’s the original “Sexy Beast” (at least she got the last part right) and gets the show off to a start that makes me wish I had decided to watch Hogan’s Heroes and Gilligan’s Island reruns instead.

Woody Allen shows up and reminds us all of why pedophile parents aren’t usually allowed on the Oscars. He introduces a series of clips from films shot in New York. None of the clips show the World Trade Centre.

The moment of silence for the victims of September 11th lasted mere seconds, truly a “Hollywood Minute”. If you’re going to do something like this, then don’t insult the victims and their families; give them a full minute (I don’t think that’s too much to ask in a four hour program). If you’re not going to give them the time they deserve, then don’t do it at all.

Robert Redford receives an Honorary Oscar and makes us wish they had given another one to Sidney Poitier instead.

Halle Berry wins Best Actress and starts out on a true Oscar classic moment, then quickly degrades into a bumbling crying seven-minute debacle of blubbering idiocy. I’m assuming the mechanism that makes the microphone sink into the floor was broken.

Denzel Washington wins Best Actor, even though Russell Crowe was better, and racism officially overtakes the Oscars. In an effort to not look racist, the Academy manages to recognize a performance that was so over the top it makes Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura look restrained. The award genuinely became about the colour of the actor’s skin instead of the performance in the film. Denzel’s speech was very poignant, though, and he comes across as a nice guy.

Ron Howard wins Best Director for A Beautiful Mind. Everyone marvels at how he really needs a toupee.

A Beautiful Mind takes Best Picture, nobody proclaims himself King of the World, Brian Grazer keeps it short, and the evening ends with Whoopi showing her back to an audience of millions (no tally on how many were sleeping at that point).

Hundreds of millionaires in Hollywood get liquored up and congratulate themselves.

Maybe I’m just jaded this year, but the Oscars really sucked. I don’t have too much of a problem with the actual awards given, but seeing as how this was one of the most unpredictable Oscar years in history, the ceremony was stunningly bad. I hope next year is better, because I was embarrassed that I invited people over to watch this debacle.


Pabulum Tastes Bad

It's been a long time since the last real Front Row, Sofa, and the world has definitely changed in that time.

After September 11th, it took a long time for me to figure out what I could write that seemed relevant and timely, and which could hopefully make some people think, while still being entertaining and informative.

I entertained the notion of writing a piece shortly after 9/11 which would talk about how horrified I was at everything that happened and what types of things I felt should be done, but I realized quickly that I would be regurgitating the same things that everyone else was saying (and thinking), and that there wasn't much point.

Besides, this is a column about movies, and occasionally DVDs, and that type of political content doesn't really serve any purpose here (not that those types of thoughts have ever really stopped me before).

Of course, after a delayed absence it's sometimes hard to get the old neurons kick-started again, especially in any way that's meaningful, so I stuck to writing reviews for the website for a while.

Now, though, enough time has passed since the horrible events of September 11th to give us an idea of how to digest violent cinema in relation to the real violence that is currently destabilizing all of our lives. And with this in mind, I return to Front Row, Sofa, to hopefully maintain a once-again weekly schedule of updates, information, and of course my own personal, distorted views.

Since September 11th, some violent movies have tanked (i.e. Schwarzneggar's Collateral Damage) while others have thrived (Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down), and it seems that audiences are finally more discerning about what kind of violence they're willing to tolerate in cinema.

Real violence, essential to the story being told (as in Black Hawk Down), is sitting well with audiences and moving them in ways the filmmakers intended, while the "popcorn" violence of movies like Collateral Damage and 13 Ghosts is being dutifully ignored.

Whether the same types of results would have been achieved before September 11th is, of course, arguable. Schwarzneggar';s movies have not exactly been burning up the charts as of late (The Sixth Day, a far superior "Ahnuld film" to Collateral Damage, grossed a pathetic $35 million, while End of Days did only $67 million), and people do historically turn out for realistically portrayed war movies (Saving Private Ryan grossed $216 million in 1998 and Platoon grossed $139 million way back in 1986).

That's not to say the "popcorn" movies don't have their place, it just seems that audiences expect more good popcorn movies, and refuse to accept the shovel ware which has been the accepted standard of the studios for the past few years. After all, Behind Enemy Lines was nothing if not a popcorn movie, and it did a respectable $59 million at the box office despite having any real above the title stars. That's a pretty good score in a marketplace that gave Collateral Damage only $39 million (and Collateral Damage had the added advantage of being one of the films pushed back because of September 11th, giving it a lot of free publicity and exposure).

I suspect that Duane "The Rock" Johnson's The Scorpion King movie is going to have a little harder time conquering the box office than The Mummy Returns did last year. Not because it touches on any especially exposed nerves, but because audiences are not in the mood to be treated like morons. They want to escape the realities of life, but in a way that doesn't insult their intelligence.

Movies like Spider Man, Star Wars Episode II and Men In Black 2 will all still carry huge (probably record-setting) opening weekends, but if the studios thought the 50 and 60% second weekend drop-offs of the last year were bad, wait until the first one of these movies which gets bad word of mouth opens.

Audiences will respond favourably to movies which don't insult them, as has been shown with the openings of Ice Age and The Lord of the Rings. And movies which are genuinely good, receive a proper marketing push and can get screen space will grow legs which haven't been seen in years.

Look at recent openings like Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (and I refuse to call it the Sorcerer's Stone, because that's an insult to audiences in itself), A Beautiful Mind and The Lord of the Rings. They've all opened well, and carried their audiences from week to week, ending up grossing huge amounts of money.

Compare those three movies released in a similar time frame from the previous year, like The Grinch, What Women Want and Cast Away, and you'll see a trend toward audiences now seeing the good films multiple times and skipping the pabulum (like The Majestic'there's two hours and forty minutes I wish I had back).

Nobody would argue that The Grinch or What Women Want are great films, but they managed to hold audiences last year in a pre-9/11 world, and became record-setting in terms of their grosses.

Now, of course, this year the pickings are quite a bit better than in years past, so that obviously helps, but don't naively believe that 9/11 has nothing to do with it. Even looking at my own movie going habits, I'm less inclined to see movies which look like the studio is out to "front-load" and make a fast buck than the movies which seem to have some genuine heart to them, and at least an attempt to make something good.

Hell, this past weekend, Ice Age, a wonderfully made animated film from an animation company that virtually nobody has heard of, obtained the highest opening weekend gross for March ever ($46 million).

The "star picture", Showtime, with Eddie Murphy, Robert DeNiro and Rene Russo did only $15 million, and will likely top out somewhere around Ice Age's opening weekend numbers.

The other "big" picture opening this weekend was Resident Evil, which did a respectable $18 million but will (mark my words) suffer at least a 50% drop this coming weekend (will Ice Age will probably drop a more respectable 30%, with a large portion of that being attributed to the re-release of E.T. which is going after the same market).

In a post-9/11 world, where violence is a reality and people expect to be informed and entertained, audiences are sick of being pandered to with crap, and hopefully that trend will continue because it will force the studios to stop spending $200 million on garbage like Pearl Harbour, and encourage them to spend $2 million genuinely good films like Memento.

Of course, it seems like there is still a market for crap out there'how else do you explain the resurgence of Friends on television even though the episodes this season have been complete and utter crap (and if you don’t believe me, go back and honestly compare this season with the episodes of a few years ago). It just seems like audiences aren't willing to leave the house to get their pabulum.

Anyway, I'll be back next week with something that is hopefully a little lighter and a little less depressing.

I would do my Oscar picks for the year, but it seems strangely pointless because I suspect I'd be wrong. This is honestly one of the toughest years I've ever seen in terms of picking clear winners. With all the bad-mouthing and politics going on, it's literally anyone's game. It pretty much comes down to who didn't offend the most people. I'll probably do a post-Oscar piece commenting on what actually happened, what can be read into it and what it all probably doesn't mean.