Tuesday, September 28, 2010

It's All Over, and Yet It Continues

It was expected for months, and last Thursday, it became official: Blockbuster has filed for bankruptcy, citing assets of $1.02 billion against $1.46 billion in debt.

So what does it all mean?

Undeniably, competition has been bad for Blockbuster. Netflix and Redbox have been swallowing a vast chunk of the rental market, due in great part, I think, to their respective outlets -- Netflix's mail-delivery service and Redbox's in-store kiosks. In addition, Netflix offers instant streaming on an expanding library of titles, which itself has become more solvent in recent months due to the increasing ubiquity of network Blu-Ray players and instant streaming discs for video game consoles like Wii and XBox 360. The companies have swiped business from Blockbuster in spite of facing a 28-day window in which new films for the majority of major studios are contractually committed to only renting from Blockbuster, meaning that renters are willing to wait an extra month for the ease and convenience of mail delivery or picking up a disc on their way out of the grocery store. Additionally, On-Demand service from cable and satellite providers is becoming an increasingly viable option for renters, especially since there is no 28-day window for On-Demand service and most pay-per-view films are now available in HD, meaning one could hypothetically access a new video release in Blu-Ray quality picture with the click of a button, for a small fee...and they don't even have to own a Blu-Ray player, or pay a monthly fee to a rental company (those pay-per-view fees start to accumulate fast, though).

For their part, Blockbuster Online utilizes its own mail-delivery service that is almost identical to Netflix, and is planting its own branded kiosks to counter the Redbox onslaught. The former renting behemoth also offers an instant streaming option, although each viewing costs a small fee, whereas the Netflix streaming is included within the monthly fee for standard membership (yet another caveat, though: Blockbuster streams everything, with an emphasis on all new releases, while Netflix's streaming catalog, while expanding, is still limited and doesn't include many new releases). And yet, while Blockbuster has been solid at utilizing the formats offered by competitors, that very fact is, in many ways, representative of its downfall: the company is great at adding the features of its competitors, but unable to break new ground in order to raise the stakes for those competitors. Netflix raised the stakes. Redbox raised the stakes. Blockbuster won't -- perhaps can't -- re-raise. And it has been borrowing itself into oblivion just to be able to meet the standards set by other companies. Now all that borrowing has caught up to Blockbuster.

So what happens now? Well, more borrowing. According to reports, the company has reached a deal with bondholders, led by billionaire NY investor Carl Icahn, in order to rebuild and reorganize. Apparently $125 million has been committed by investors to repay suppliers and employees for the duration of this rebuilding period. Blockbuster Powers-That-Be promise that they will once again be able to achieve solvency, and that there will be a newer, better Blockbuster.

But the Blockbuster Era, such as it was, is over.

No more market domination, no more rental monopoly, no more Blockbuster-as-usual, much as they will work to make it seem that way.

Several Blockbuster stores have been shut down, and hundreds more will follow in the coming months. The number of Blockbuster stores nationwide that is being frequently quoted in the media is 3,000. That number will probably shrink to well under 2,000 by this time next year. More Redbox-style kiosks will pop up all over the country. The mail delivery and instant streaming enterprises of Blockbuster Online will continue in earnest. And over time, we will see how the the former juggernaut intends to survive in this Era of Home Entertainment Access that, at some undefined point, leap-frogged Blockbuster's old model while they were asleep at the wheel.

Wow, what a difference.

Sally Menke

There will be a continuing stream of posts that were already in progress throughout the day and week, but this is some shocking and sad news that just arrived in my e-mail inbox.

Sally Menke, one of the great modern cinema editors, whose beautiful work helped define the brilliance of Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, and Death Proof, and who was freshly coming off an Oscar nomination for Inglourious Basterds, was found dead early this morning in Los Angeles. She was 53.

According to news reports, Menke went hiking Monday morning with her dog. When friends reported that he never came home Monday night, LAPD conducted a search. Her body was found near Griffith Park early Tuesday. No word yet on a cause of death, nor whether the current extreme heat in Los Angeles was a factor.

There will be more information as it becomes available, but for the moment, there is nothing but shock and sadness over the loss of a great film artist.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Better Than Ever...and Now Back On TV

Roger Ebert Presents: At the Movies is the long-gestating, long-awaited, long-wondered-if-it-would-ever-come-together television project spearheaded by the Man himself. A while back, when the old Disney syndication contract ended and the historic "Thumbs" were packed away firmly within Ebert's palms, Ebert openly discussed vague plans for a new show--one that would feature Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips and Ebert's former Siskel replacement, Richard Roeper, and one that would restore the Thumbs to their showcased role as the foremost public arbiter of filmic quality.

Time passed. Disney continued without Ebert, Roeper, and the Thumbs, first casting a film review program that attempted to resemble the Ebert version with TCM host Ben Mankiewicz and "critic" abomination Ben Lyons. That tanked, for obvious reasons. Of late, the faux "At the Movies" featured Phillips--who, in his role with the Disney show, bailed on the new Ebert concept--and NY Times critic A.O. Scott. The result delivered stronger criticism and not-much-stronger television. And, as of August, it was defunct.

But alas, earlier this month, Ebert and Co. delivered the above video, a 7-minute demo of The Program That Will Be. It will feature Ebert not as a co-host, but in his own weekly segment, "Roger's Office," where he will do what he really cherishes the most: shed glowing light on overlooked gems, smaller pictures that are near and dear to his heart. It is a fitting segment for Ebert, who has long been famous for his thumbs and his arguments with Gene Siskel, but has been most passionate about sharing the joy of film with the world.

Christy Lemire of The Associated Press and Elvis Mitchell, former NYT critic and host of public radio's The Treatment, will serve as co-host, and Kim Morgan (sunsetgun.com) and Omar Moore (popcornreel.com) will be regular contributors. The show will retain the basic format of At the Movies' former incarnations, but with additional content and more feature segments, as indicated in the 7-minute pilot. Ebert has been quoted as saying the new show is "a rebirth of a dream," a sentiment that will surely be echoed by those of us who made the old Siskel & Ebert show a weekly obsession.

Ebert's health battles have been well-chronicled over the past four years, and his eloquent and triumphant return to the throne has been wonderful to behold (for my discussion of that journey, read my article from earlier this year). Roger may no longer be able to speak, but his voice is still loud and clear. He has, almost indisputably, never been better. And his new show will hopefully restore the passion and verve to the enterprise that has long been missing.

Roger Ebert Presents: At the Movies is slated to premiere on PBS in January. If I could set my DVR now, I would. But I will be waiting impatiently. I hope you are, too.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

I Can't Wait For...

Directed by David Fincher. Written by Aaron Sorkin. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, who leads an emsemble of one of the more interesting young casts in recent memory.

The film is receiving more widespread critical buzz than any film this year...can we start calling critics "Social Network Stalkers?" Will reviews for the film be called "Pokes?"

It looks mighty intriguing. And a film like this is very important for a time period such as this. But still I have questions. Is the film merely a (very recent) period piece recounting the controversial birth of a social phenomenon? Or will it dig deeper, recounting the birth of something much bigger, much more insidious?

The birth of socialization in miniature...the birth of iFriends...the birth of e-socialization in the face of flesh-and-blood isolationism. There are a great many implications to this era of social networking, and most of them are ugly.

If the film is brave enough to confront them, then we will have found a new American classic...and alongside last year's Up in the Air, the most prescient and relevant American film in years, and this year's Inception, a seminal masterwork of buried emotion and human consciousness, we may be marking a remarkable period of beautiful, frightening self-awareness in American cinema.

If it's not brave enough, we may still be intrigued and entertained, but the ball will be dropped on a monumental level.

I can't wait for The Social Network, but I still await the end product -- moreso even than with any other film -- to see if my anticipation will be fully rewarded.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

On Blu-Ray and DVD: Letters to Juliet

Amanda Seyfried and Vanessa Redgrave are very huggable, but their movie came on way too strong for me. Letters to Juliet lands on Blu-Ray and DVD today. Check out my review on filmcritic.com.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

On Blu-Ray and DVD: Killers

Precisely the kind of movie one would describe as "wait for video." And as luck would have it, Killers is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD. Check out my review at filmcritic.com.

On DVD: Sparkle

TV-tastic Brit dramedy is now available for your home entertainment. But before you add it to your Netflix queue, check out my review at filmcritic.com.