Saturday, December 26, 2009

Avatar: A minority opinion

James Cameron's Avatar is many things. Its amazing motion capture combined with its three-dimensional technology and CGI expertise is a truly unprecedented and beautiful accomplishment. While critiques warned us that the story line would not be original and the characters would be shallow they failed to warn us that the story was completely ripped off from the 20th Century Fox story in 1992 called "FernGully: The Last Rainforest."

Plot summary from Netflix: When a sprite named Crysta shrinks a human boy, Zak, down to her size, he vows to help the magical fairy folk stop a greedy logging company from destroying their home, the pristine rainforest known as FernGully. Zak and his new friends fight to defend FernGully from lumberjacks -- and the vengeful spirit they accidentally unleash after chopping down a magic tree. This fun, animated film features the vocal talents of Tim Curry and Robin Williams.

In "Avatar," the boy is enlarged to the girl's size, not shrunk. And there is a good spirit, not an evil spirit in the tree -- the invading mercenaries in "Avatar" chop down the tree regardless.

Only Avatar goes much, much further evolving the role of the "lumberjack" into a group of uniformed men and women who look incredibly similar to U.S. Marines. Despite Cameron's attempt to clarify that these are "mercenaries," the visual cues speak so loudly that they outweigh the original communication. For example: the clothes they are wearing are army fatigues. Clear. As. Day. Then they start throwing around terminology that we've been trained to identify with the U.S. military, terms such as "shock and awe," and "daisy cutters," and "fighting terror with terror."

As much as I wanted to suspend my sense of reality, because I am a big fan of sci-fi and great CGI work, the images of the two warring parties -- as fictionalized as they were -- reminded me too much of my own personal relationships. My maternal grandmother was Native American and paternal grandfather was part Native American. So in Avatar, all the images of the native Na'vi tribe were non-subtle references to people close to my heart. I also have / had some very close friends who donned those very same army fatigues when deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

I don't care what your politics are, when you have a friend who is in the marines and you're watching men and women on screen being killed, your stomach can't help but flinch. Therefore, I did not enjoy seeing the mercenaries being killed just as I did not enjoy seeing the Native Na'vi being killed -- which means I did not enjoy anything in the last half / culmination of the film -- regardless of its graphic splendor.

And if you're going to rip off someone else's story line, you can at least do them the favor of retaining the best parts. Robin Williams as the voice of the bat was hilarious and memorable, that as I watched Avatar, I recalled that bat's lines: "I'm blind! I'm blind! ...wait. It's a miracle! I can see!"

I also recalled scenes from "The Last of the Mohicans." During the part where Jack is introduced to the leader of the Na'vi tribe is a copy of when Daniel Day-Lewis comes in and rescues the girl. They even shot it over his shoulder in the same I remembered "Dances with Wolves" and finally, and most happily I remembered "FernGully."

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

It’s the Advertising, Stupid

I’ve worked in the American magazine industry for more than 12 years. I’m trying to understand why I am not super excited about the hand-held products being developed by the folks at Time Inc., Apple, etc. that will revolutionize the magazine experience. As of this blog posting, no one has launched anything. So what we’re really buzzing about is the concept of digital interactions with magazine brands.

An e-magazine, as Sports Illustrated shows, might look like this:

Industry experts and analysts are making comments about how this technology could throw magazines a “lifeline” – since the print editions have decreased in size, frequency and number during the Great Recession. When money is tight, advertising budgets are the first to be cut. Paper isn’t getting any cheaper. With no concrete way to track the return on investment from a one page advertisement, it’s no wonder a “click through” edition seems tantalizing.

My opinion may represent a small fraction of the magazine consuming public, but I’m hoping my portion is the loudest. Some print magazines just shouldn’t become e-magazines. Mainly because I stare at a computer screen for eight or nine hours a day, at least. The content I read as a professional, I don’t mind reading online or via a hand-held device – I’m already there working anyways.

However, the content I read as a consumer, I prefer to have as a glossy hard copy. Even if frequency is reduced, there are just some magazines I don't want to read on an iPod or tablet. Some of these photo spreads are worth seeing in print. I know how hard art directors work to restrain everything they want to express into one treasured issue. Looking at a print edition of a good magazine is really a look at the best of the best. Someone spent the money and time to learn how to sort through all the images, fonts, content, text, shapes and sizes so that the reader is getting what they paid for. The people who produced it had a passion for the content.

I’m not convinced this has translated online. Digital content curators are being paid to win the search engine game. They only have Google’s best interest at heart. Not mine. So far, I think the results have reflected that.

And like the commercials during the Super Bowl, I look forward to seeing print advertisements. It’s too bad publishers can’t charge me more per issue – knowing, as a writer, what it takes to make a living at this craft. I’m one of the last dinosaurs who thinks good writing should equal good pay. I understand that these prices are based on elasticity and I’m sure the publishers are measuring this…right?

Unfortunately, the money that used to flow into print advertising just isn’t flowing there anymore.

With all the current digital means with which we can reach people, advertisers no longer need to pay magazine publishers thousands of dollars to market to their readers. Products have web sites, Twitter feeds, Facebook friends, text message promotions, and even email campaigns – all of which are free to the advertiser. In addition, they are also traceable. If a recipient opened an email, clicked on it, went to the web site, and bought the product, they know who, how, when and how much. (If e-magazines allow readers to do the same thing on editorial content, publishers must be drooling -- the question is can they monetize it while maintaining some semblance of editorial integrity?)

I’m no math genius, but if a print advertisement costs $90,000 in a monthly glossy magazine (like it did in Gourmet) and email is free….It won't be long before consumer magazines are bringing in maybe $20 in advertising per issue – which is interesting since that’s about the same price as an annual subscription charge to someone who already gets too many emails.

For more background information about this, check out the following article: