Tag Archives: Analysis

Where Pilots Matter?: Amazon’s January 2015 Pilot Cycle

Screen Shot 2015-01-17 at 12.18.10 PMPilots are not made for normal audiences.

When you make a television pilot, your audience is a group of network executives who make final decisions and test audiences who are used as a barometer of how America will respond to said pilots. It’s why pilots tend to be bigger, and broader, and in general more attention-grabbing—for better or for worse—than episodes that come after.

In this way, Amazon’s “democratic” pilot process—in which they make their pilots available online for audience voting before making final pick-up decisions—is not necessarily out of the ordinary. Writers and producers have always known that their work would need to meet dueling expectations of executives and audiences, so we have yet to see a completely new approach to television pilots emerge from the process.

However, the way each of this year’s comedy and drama pilots—I’m excluding the kids’ shows—engages with the specificity of the Amazon experience has been particularly fascinating for me, even in its subtlety. Part of this stems from the overdetermined nature of the audience feedback within rhetoric surrounding the series: in Amazon’s universe, customers are selecting what shows go on the air. Forget for a moment their Golden Globe-winning Transparent drew the least customer votes and scored the lowest customer scores during its pilot process—in Amazon’s mind, this is about the audience, and so it makes sense for producers to angle harder in that direction and play to their assumed test audience.

Yet this is further amplified by the fact that there is even less clarity than usual regarding what precisely Amazon is looking for. Whereas working with a broadcast network or established cable channel gives you a basic sense of brand identity and programming strategy, Amazon has been all over the map, making it up as they go along. While we can start to see trends in their focus on Transparent’s awards success, we still have no clear sense of who their perceived audience is, or what their demographic priorities are. Do they want shows for men or women? Are they privileging comedy or drama? We don’t even know how many shows they’re willing to pick up, given that they have no “schedule” with empty slots, and have theoretically bottomless pockets from which to fund their move into original programming.

It’s plausible that those creating this cycle of Amazon pilots know more than we do about Amazon’s plans, but the fact remains that the audience is the clearer target, and there are a range of strategies that the pilots unfurl to ensure positive responses and high scores in the areas that they believe count most—or at least count a little—with Amazon.

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Review: Not Cool and Hollidaysburg bear the mark of The Chair, for better or for worse

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 11.41.15 AM

This week, after the documentary series The Chair—which I reviewed for The A.V. Club and covered with multiple interviews here at Cultural Learnings—reached the wrap of production on the two films based on the same script, Starz has made both Shane Dawson’s Not Cool and Anna Martemucci’s Hollidaysburg available on its Starz Play streaming site and On Demand. Viewers who watch both films can then register to vote for who wins The Chair’s $250,000 cash prize, with the results announced on November 8th.

While both films had brief runs in theaters in Los Angeles and New York—and Pittsburgh, where both were filmed—and have been available for digital download since late last month, this marks the best chance for those who have been watching the documentary series to see how the decisions made by Dawson and Martemucci actually influenced the final product. As much as one continues to presume that Dawson’s extensive fanbase will tip the scales in his favor in the end, the survey nonetheless raises a more interesting question of how our reception of these films is shaped by both the broad terms of the experiment—two versions of the same script—and by the behind-the-scenes knowledge we have about how these projects came together.

Accordingly, while the following are reviews of the films themselves, they are also inevitably reviews of how the films function as the “climax” of the “filmmaking experiment,” which is a distinct mode of evaluation that frames the films for better or for worse.

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Come and Stream Your Songs?: The Jukebox Soundtrack in the YouTube/Spotify Era

GuardiansAlbum

When this week’s final Billboard Hot 200 album chart is released, either the 51st installment of the Now That’s What I Call Music! series or Awesome Mix Vol. 1, the soundtrack to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, will be the best-selling album in the United States. If Awesome Mix Vol. 1 makes it to the summit, it will be the first soundtrack from a summer film to reach No. 1 since Mamma Mia! in 2008, and the first for a non-musical since Bad Boys II in 2003.

This would be a significant accomplishment with or without No. 1, particularly given the fact that the various songs that make up Awesome Mix Vol. 1 are readily available to stream on services like Spotify, or on YouTube. There is no single to drive sales of the album, as the film’s jukebox-style soundtrack relies entirely on songs from the 1970s. And while some Twitter conversation among colleagues made a connection back to K-tel—and we could think about Time Life as well—in regards to the album’s appeal to a nostalgia for music of this period, there’s also a wide audience of younger audiences who may not be familiar with some of the songs used in the film. But those audiences are often imagined as those who stream music on YouTube or Spotify, and who could simply create their own playlists featuring the songs from the film without needing to pay out for the album.

Given this, the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack offers an interesting case study of how these platforms are being activated by labels like Hollywood Records, and how this jukebox soundtrack is being branded—if not “sold”—in spaces that won’t be counted by Billboard’s album chart.

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At the Knick: A Transmedia Invitation to an Uninviting World

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One of the most striking elements of Cinemax’s The Knick—which debuts tonight at 10/9c—is its electronic score from Cliff Martinez. It’s purposefully anachronistic, and crucial to the series’ disorientation. It never wants you to feel entirely comfortable in this early 20th century world, which sits on the cusp of scientific progress without being able to fully embrace it. The score, working alongside Steven Soderbergh’s cinematography, works to disrupt the viewer’s sense of immersion while simultaneously drawing the viewer in on more complicated terms: it’s a great score, and a beautiful show, but The Knick is not something one luxuriates in.

This creates a somewhat complex set of parameters for the marketing around the series, one that has been translated into a campaign by Campfire Media, whose work for Cinemax, HBO, and A&E I’ve written about on the blog in the past. The “At The Knick” campaign mirrors elements of those previous campaigns, particularly the Game of Thrones Westeros Revealed scent box; ahead of The Knick’s premiere, Cinemax has delivered customized medical kits meant to transport the recipient back to a different era of medicine. Meticulously crafted, it’s a beautiful and compelling piece of transmedia worldbuilding, although one that works best as an introduction to rather than representation of the world in the series.

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Lost – “Walkabout”

losttitle3“Walkabout”

Aired: October 13, 2004

[I’m going to be taking over The A.V. Club’s TV Club Classic reviews of Lost next Wednesday—in preparation, I’m offering some short thoughts on each of the episodes Todd VanDerWerff already covered at the site.]

There is no more iconic flashback than “Walkabout.” It was the flashback that showed what the flashbacks could do, the first sign that something supernatural didn’t need to mean something destructive, and a tour de force performance from Terry O’Quinn.

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Lost – “Tabula Rasa”

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“Tabula Rasa”

Aired: October 6, 2004

[I’m going to be taking over The A.V. Club’s TV Club Classic reviews of Lost next Wednesday—in preparation, I’m offering some short thoughts on each of the episodes Todd VanDerWerff already covered at the site.]

On the one hand, the second-pilot-syndrome in “Tabula Rasa” seems to fly in the face of our conception of Lost as a highly serialized show. In the context of the mythology-heavy show it became, the idea that it would so pander to the idea any viewer tuning into this episode would have no idea what happened in the previous episode is absurd, particular when it’s now watched in a binge-viewing environment where it’s likely someone has just watched the pilot.

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Lost – “Pilot”

losttitle3“Pilot”

Aired: September 22, 2004/September 29, 2004

It seems probable that I revisited parts of the first season of Lost back in 2005, when I received the first season on DVD for Christmas. I have a distinct memory of watching some of the DVD bonus features, at the very least. But as life and the show grew more complicated, time grew shorter, and I’ve never revisited the show in any detail since despite writing about Seasons 3-6 in some detail here at the blog.

This is changing now that I’m stepping in to take on The A.V. Club’s TV Club Classic coverage of Lost’s first season this summer following the exit of esteemed former editor—and a big part of how I got into this episodic television criticism racket—Todd VanDerWerff. He’s completed coverage of the first six episodes of the season, and I’ll be stepping in to handle the rest, but in part for the sake of my own momentum and also to offer some perspective, I wanted to write at least some brief thoughts as I work my way through the episodes leading up to “The Moth” and “Confidence Man” next week.

And while I suggest above that I haven’t rewatched Lost, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t specific episodes—like “The Constant,” which is what Netflix told me was the last episode I’d watched—that I’ve revisited over the years. The “Pilot” is foremost among those, one of those episodes of television that I could recount almost beat-for-beat. It’s strikingly familiar, which is exactly why it’s so interesting to revisit it while knowing you’re about to embark on the journey of writing about the first season of the show while most viewers are still caught up in its sixth.

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