An unlikely source offers up a lesson in healing
Plus the streaming world shifts under our feet once more
It’s Friday, November 20, and here’s where we are…
Well, well, well.
HBO Max needed to make some noise, and they just did. The announcement that Wonder Woman 1984 will premiere on the streaming service the same day it appears in whatever theaters are open is significant, even if their plan for how to handle it after 31 days is weird. Just this week, HBO Max finally solved their issues with Amazon so you can now stream the service via any Amazon device, and I hear they’re already testing the Roku version of the app with users. Whether or not this will increase the number of people who subscribe remains to be seen, but at least this clears the way for people to use the service who have otherwise been shut out so far.
It is the year 2020. There is absolutely no reason that anyone who builds a consumer tablet or streaming device should design it to exclude certain widely used apps, and the games these companies play clearly don’t serve the consumer, the person actually using the goddamn devices and apps in the first place. This should be basic business. If you make a device, it should use all the apps. If you make an app, it should be able to be used on all the devices. Period.
And, no, the answer isn’t for you to tell me “Buy another device.” That’s not the point. Every time you say, “Just buy an iPad” or “Just buy an Apple TV,” you’re part of the problem. I am in no hurry to consolidate all hardware and software ownership under two or three corporate overlords, but it seems like plenty of people are. Apple charges too much for their products. That’s my primary issue. I think they are overpriced. I think there is a gross cult-like status thing that goes with that, and people want you to see that they own the Apple product because it is always the most expensive version of the product.
I own a Kindle because I use it primarily to read things, and I have made peace with the idea that the best digital book app is the Kindle app which means using the Amazon ecosystem for my books. That’s why I bought it after much consideration, and I’ve had four or five of them at this point. It does exactly what I want. But there are some weird limitations baked in because it’s Amazon. There is an app called Comixology which is a digital marketplace for comic books, separate from but linked to the Amazon store, and I gave it a try for a while. It stinks. It’s that simple. I hate it. I hate using it. I don’t want to buy anything through it. There are apps that are specific to both DC and Marvel that allow you to read comics, and as of January, neither one of them will work on the Kindle at all. That’s infuriating. I love DC Universe and use it often, and they’re just killing it. I presume it has something to do with Kindle’s deal with Comixology, and all it does is make me more determined to never ever buy a single comic from them. When you limit my choices and try to force me to use something, it will most likely have the opposite effect. If Comixology makes it hard to find the titles I want and doesn’t give me the function I want, making it impossible to use other apps doesn’t make me go, “You’re right, now I actually like your crappy compromise.” Likewise, if DC and Marvel can’t figure out how to get Marvel Unlimited and DC Universe into the Amazon system, that doesn’t make me think “Wow, I guess I need to go get an iPad now,” because I’m not spending that kind of money on a device simply to read comic books.
As a Roku owner, I feel the same way about buying an Apple TV. I already own an Xbox and a PS4 and I have cable as part of my internet bundle, so when I needed a device to use simply for streaming video services, I went with a lower-priced device that had great ratings. I could have purchased an Apple TV at that point, but I specifically did not. Roku has the majority of the services I use, and specifically, it has a great Plex app, and Plex is where I do most of my streaming at this point. When HBO Max launched, it would have made perfect sense for them to launch on Roku, but they did not. Like with Amazon, there are financial arrangements that enable Roku to put an app on their device, and HBO Max decided that they aren’t comfortable with the deal that Roku requires. There was already a perfectly love HBO streaming app on Roku, but this new service changed things, and as a result, there’s a big chunk of the market that is now simply closed out to using HBO Max. They won’t subscribe because there’s no point. Or at least, there wasn’t. I do think this particular deal is in the final stages of getting worked out.
Amazon seems to be the real pain in the ass here, and I can understand why other companies hate dealing with them. The larger they get, the more oxygen they suck out of the room and the more unreasonable they are with their demands about what kind of cut they get from the various services and how you can access services through their platform. The arrogance is that Amazon thinks I want to use their shitty clumsy video interface for anything. I don’t. Ever. I hate Amazon Prime. I hate the layout. I hate the navigation. I hate that they have rentals and titles they are actually streaming both come up in the same search. I would rather go physically rent a VHS copy of something than watch it through Amazon Prime. It’s a terrible service, poorly curated, and it seems almost openly hostile to the idea of you being able to browse easily. I certainly don’t want to watch another streaming service by going to Amazon Prime first and then accessing individual shows through them. All I want from any of these marketplaces is for them to be invisible and get out of the way. Give me what I want. Let me use it how I want. Then I’ll give you my money and we can go our separate ways. Amazon wants to be part of everything. They want you to have to engage with them at every step of the process. Apple wants the same thing, and I plain and simple don’t want to buy music or video from iTunes for my own reasons. It’s infuriating, and it is deeply anti-consumer, and they all need to figure out how to get past this kind of ugly, clumsy, stupid squabble that leaves their customers in the lurch so they can all be even bigger billionaires.
While I will always hold the theatrical experience as the primary way to see and share movies, the truth is that 2020 will be remembered as the moment that the culture shifted, and as Cineplex and Cinemark join AMC in working out new ideas for distribution windows with Universal, the companies that don’t come to the table are being left out of helping to shape things. Warner Bros and Disney better not cry about it later when the Universal deal is seen as the new standard, and anyone who tries to be the last company refusing to collapse the theatrical window is going to pay the price financially.
At this point, “It’s not a real film unless it’s released in the theater” is rapidly becoming the same kind of sentiment as “The action figure has no value once you open the packaging.” The wrapping is part of the product, sure, and you should absolutely have the ability to choose the way you want to experience a film the first time. But the idea that a film gets two shots at being part of the cultural conversation, both of them marketed equally aggressively but four months apart is genuinely antiquated and needlessly expensive. Pop culture is relentless. Most things are already digested and dissected before they are released now, so it makes much more sense to one big ad buy that lasts six weeks that covers the whole thing. Theatrical. Home video. From pre-opening to post-streaming. For things that make more money when they open, it will take a little longer. Duh. That seems self-evident, and all the Cinemark/AMC/Cineplex deal does is codify the idea.
Universal is not only driving the conversation, they’re putting it into practice. With Freaky already set for a December 4 streaming release, they can use the theatrical window right now to simply gather reviews and whatever little social media word of mouth theatrical gets you at the moment and they can use that to really push the film when everyone can see it. Basically, theatrical just turned into an extended marketing campaign, a sneak preview of sorts, and the streaming release is the “real” release. While I do think audiences will happily return to theaters when they can, I also think that this arrangement is one that is long overdue, and I don’t see them rolling it back when theaters re-open. We are seeing real changes being made to the infrastructure of things, and even after things roll back to some semblance of normalcy, there will be changes that simply don’t go away.
I’m sorry we’re going to have to wait for March before we see Coming 2 America, the sequel to Eddie Murphy’s Coming To America, but I’m not surprised they’re making the shift to a streaming debut. It’s a pure win for Eddie because now there’s no box-office pressure. Amazon is going to promote this as a hit, just like they did with the Borat sequel. No one is responsible to anyone else in terms of the way numbers are reported now or even what those numbers mean, so it’s a hit if they say it’s a hit. Amazon says they’re happy with Borat, so they must be happy with Borat. Netflix tells you they have monster hits, so they must have monster hits. People are not wrong when they dig into the problematic infrastructure that these companies are built on financially, and they’re not wrong when they talk about this all as another bubble that will eventually burst. It’s all true. And all of the obfuscation in the world won’t stave off the inevitable forever.
But right now, this is the game. And for the next few years, even after we get vaccines into circulation, if you really want to engage with your audience, you’re going to do it at home. The damnable thing is that the better companies get at doing it, the more likely it is that they’ll never fully switch back to the way things were.
One of the biggest pop culture trends of the pandemic era has been the online reunion. Josh Gad’s been a terrific ringmaster for a lot of them, and it feels like any cast that could be reassembled has been. There have been plenty of hold-outs and notable omissions, of course. That’s inevitable. The making of a film or a television show is, like any business, the result of the efforts of many, many people, and with art, there’s an added emotional component that can deeply complicate relationships.
Time does not always heal all wounds. I just finished the terrific new book Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, and for anyone who loves that movie, the book is essential reading. I have been a fan since the first day it was in theaters, and when it came out on laserdisc, it entered a sort of constant rotation in my apartment. I think I’ve got every beat of that film internalized at this point. I am very much the audience for this book, and I loved every single story about the casting, the production, the battles behind the scenes, the legacy of the film. It’s great reporting by Melissa Maerz, and part of her gift here is the way she obviously read quotes from some people to other people, creating a conversational give-and-take that I found enormously revealing.
I have all sorts of insecurities about how people perceive me and talk about me. There are plenty of people who have said terrible things directly to me, who have written terrible things about me, who have wished me active harm in public, but there is just as many imagined sleights that I’ve allowed to impact me over the years. I’m sure there are people who would say I’ve earned it, but I think that’s madness. Criticism is not about tearing things down. Even when I’ve written overly brutal pans, something every critic does, it’s only been a small part of what I do. Most of my work has been about discovery and joy and sharing things that make me happy. I backed into this career precisely because I couldn’t resist the idea of sharing some things that I thought were cool. I never started down this road thinking, “Boy, I can’t wait to shit on somebody!” It’s left me paranoid, and that’s made it hard for me sometimes to be as open with people as I was in the pre-Moriarty days.
I have encountered people who have clearly been carrying around anger and irritation with me for years by the time we speak, and in almost every case, finally talking to them about it has cleared the air and paved the way for understanding and a release of all of that old festering anger. I am a firm believer that you can heal if you’re willing to communicate with people, and that so many of the things that keep us apart are things that we invent, things that we project onto other people because of our fears, our own weakness, our own insecurity. Sometimes, when I talk to people, they’re upset about things I never even said or did, and that’s when it really becomes clear to me how easy it is for that to happen.
When you see an oral history as well-organized as this, where the interviewing was this sharp, you get a glimpse at just how fragile everyone is and how easy it is for miscommunication to simply linger for decades. People assume something or they hear something and they never talk to someone else and now thirty years have gone by and those hurt feelings are set in stone, ossified, and they were over nothing real in the first place. It’s also interesting to see how different people’s perceptions of events like the tenth-anniversary reunion, something that clearly wasn’t a feel-good event for everyone, or how unified everyone’s perception can be in other cases, like everyone’s belief that Shawn Andrews was a giant asshole.
Reading that book the same week I watched the 30th-anniversary reunion special for The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air on HBO Max, I was struck by just how graceful it is in the way it handles the issues surrounding Janet Hubert’s firing from the show.
It was one of the most public instances of recasting in the middle of a hit show’s run that I can remember, and at the time, all of the weight of it was put on Janet Huber. She was the difficult one. She was the one who wanted more money. She was trying to steal the spotlight from Will Smith. She was the problem, period, and once she was gone, she was gone. The reason this is different than any of the prior gatherings of Fresh Prince alumni is that this time, Will Smith tackled the subject directly. Most of the special is a gathering of the entire cast (minus the late great James Avery, of course) on an exact reproduction of the original set, sharing memories together. For this one segment, Will met with Janet Hubert on a separate stage, recorded a day earlier, and there’s a real tension between them as the conversation begins. She’s angry, and he’s clearly working very hard to show her how he’s not going to be defensive or attack her. They’ve said terrible things about each other in the press over the years, and sometimes, you can’t come back from a feud like that. What we see here seems real, though, honest and raw and by the end of it, Will invites her to join the rest of the cast the next day, something that seems overwhelmingly emotional for all of them.
It is just and fair that Janet Huber be celebrated for the work she did on that show, and she’s right: once a woman is labeled “difficult” in this business, it can be destructive to her career, and exponentially so for a Black woman. As a dark-skinned Black woman, she has even more pressures that she’s wrestled with, and it is clear she suffered difficulties in her personal life that were beyond what anyone on the show understood. Sometimes, when real life hits you like a train, you try to keep your head down and keep functioning at work, but trauma has its way with you at some point. It will catch up and it will poison you and you won’t see it coming. You may think you’re putting on a brave face, and maybe you even do successfully mask everything, but it’s going to broadcast in other ways. Huber’s anger has finally been given voice, and she’s finally heard some words from Will Smith that she has waited to hear for 27 years. The fact that it happened in front of a camera doesn’t devalue it at all. It just makes this that rarest of things in the entertainment landscape, a “special” that actually lives up to the word.
I love that Quentin Tarantino’s print debut is a paperback novelization.
Honestly, if I could get into writing novelizations, I would totally do it. I grew up reading them, and they are a weird beast. Then again, it sounds like it’s a brutal gig. No one respects the people who write novelizations. No one treats them as anything but disposable, even when they sell millions of copies. And now, there’s a very good chance one of the kings of the form is about to lose a lifetime’s worth of accumulated residuals because of corporate greed and insensitivity.
There are plenty of things that are legal that are not right, and it’s easy for a company to do one instead of the other. Clearly, Disney thinks they have a legal argument that allows them to erase their obligations to Alan Dean Foster, who has written novelizations for movies like Star Wars and The Force Awakens and the whole Alien franchise and who was literally the first writer to be allowed to expand the Star Wars universe in his groovy little novel Splinter Of The Mind’s Eye. Those contracts were all with Lucasfilm or 20th Century Fox, and obviously, when Disney bought those companies, they bought all the underlying rights to all of those titles. Disney now claims that they did not buy any of the legal obligations that are tied to those rights and that they don’t owe Foster any ongoing royalties for his work.
While I love Foster and I am incensed on his personal behalf, this issue is larger than this one beloved author. This is about a precedent that could severely alter the way things work in America. If Disney is indeed given the right to simply brush off Foster and every other author whose work was tied to those old Lucasfilm or Fox deals, then anytime a company wants to shake off all of the royalties it’s paying, they just have to get sold. That seems insane. That doesn’t seem like something the courts will allow, but it’s going to have to go to court to get sorted out. You can read an open letter from the SFWA if you’d like. It does a great job of laying out the specifics of what’s happening to Foster and why it can’t be allowed to happen.
By the way… I love Foster’s t-shirt in the video at the bottom of that article. That’s awesome.
As we wrap up this Friday Free-For-All, I’ll leave you with this question: what’s your favorite movie tie-in of all time? As someone who read a ton of novelizations, I’ve always had a soft spot for Buckaroo Banzai and for The Abyss, and I think they were both crafted with more care than is usually given to what many people see as a disposable thing. Have you ever read one that you felt genuinely expanded what you thought about a film, one that made the movie even better?
The Friday Free-For-All is your place to sound off on anything you’ve got on your mind. That question’s just the start. What have you been watching? Do you have any Thanksgiving movie traditions for next week? Just be considerate to one another. Anything else is fair game!
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And finally, here’s the weekly media diary. We’re going to move these to Fridays from now on, which means this one covers almost two weeks since the last one was published. As always, anything in bold was particularly enjoyed.
THIS WEEK’S BOOKS: The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 12 edited by Ellen Datlow; Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th by Peter M. Bracke; Boundless Realm: Deep Explorations Inside the Haunted Mansion by Foxx Nolte; Dangerous Visions edited by Harlan Ellison; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (illustrated by Tony Parker); Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater’s Dazed & Confused by Melissa Maerz
THIS WEEK’S COMICS: Star Trek: Year Five #1 - #16, Valentine’s Day Special; The New Mutants (graphic novel); The New Mutants #1 - #20; We Only Find Them When They’re Dead #3; Darth Vader #7; Savage Avengers #1 - #9, #0, #10, Annual #1
THIS WEEK’S PODCASTS: The Kingcast - “Thinner with Dave Schilling”; The Dollop - “The Frog Man”; Blank Check with Griffin & David - “Contact with Jamie Bell,” “What Lies Beneath with Starlee Kine”; Bonanas For Bonanza - S1 E13; Doughboys - “Boston Market 2,” “Burger King 4” ; MBMBaM #534, #535; The Boogie Monster - “Presidential UFOs”; Screen Drafts - “Drag with Joe Reid & Chris Feil”; Best Movies Never Made - “Stephen King’s IT Part 1”; High and Mighty - “Fantasy Novels,” “Hobbies,” “Quarantined and Married”
THIS WEEK’S TV: Taxi S1 E6; Moonbase 8 S1 E1, E2; Fargo S4 E8, E9; Columbo S8 E3, E4; Primal S1 E10; The Voice S19 E6 - E9; Seduced: Inside The NXIVM Cult S1 E4; The Queen’s Gambit S1 E6, E7; Schitt’s Creek S6 E9 - E14; Arrested Development S3 E9 - E13; This Is Us S5 E3, E4; Long Way Up S1 E9 - E11; How to with John Wilson S1 E3, E4; Ramy S2 E9, E10; Teenage Bounty Hunters S1 E5, E6; The Chef Show S1 E10, E17; Gangs of London S1 E1; The Mandalorian S2 E3; Raised By Wolves S1 E9, E10; Superstore S6 E3; Eli Roth’s History of Horror S2 E6; Last Week Tonight with John Oliver S7 E29, E30; Auntie Donna’s Big Ol’ House of Fun S1 E1; The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special; Garth Merenghi’s Darkplace S1 E1; The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air 30th Anniversary Reunion
THIS WEEK’S GAMING: Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales; Watch Dogs: Legion
THIS WEEK’S MOVIES: Funny Farm; The American President; The Book of Eli; The Flesh & Fury: X-Posing Twins of Evil; The Vampire Lovers; Lust for a Vampire; Twins of Evil; American Murder: The Family Next Door; The Day of the Locust; The New Mutants; The End; The Legend of Tarzan; Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom; Greenland; Scooby-Doo; Passing Strange; Magnolia; Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; Stoker; Frost/Nixon; Tiny Tim: King for a Day; The Craft: Legacy; The Dark and the Wicked; Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist; Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker; Fatman; Aeon Flux