Why is there no major commercial video streaming service in Australia?

January 27, 2014

So, why is there no major commercial video streaming service in Australia?  Australia is one of the richest countries in the world (by some accounts one of the top two, per capita).  We have a sophisticated and well-developed tech sector.  We have very high rates of literacy.  We love the audio visual media.

In August of 2013, BRW reported that, “Netflix’s subscriber base represents 30 per cent of all US households, while Quickflix has managed only a 1 per cent penetration into Australian living rooms.”  The article gives a number of reasons:  Australia’s “free to air” broadcast culture, and by contrast to Australians, Americans “are used to paying for content”; Australia’s smaller market; punitive download limits on many Australian internet plans (I believe that one); and limited access to content because of output deals.

But, as for paying for content – really?  Has anyone noticed how expensive cinema attendance and DVDs (as well as books, for that matter) are in this country?  Australia is one of the biggest profit centre country for the Hollywood studios.  How many American cinemas charge $21 a ticket, which is normal in Sydney these days?  And somehow Australians don’t pay for content?  Please.

But the last paragraph of the article is the real giveaway, the one that matters:

Then there are the users who change their IP address to get around country restrictions and pay for access to Netflix from Australia – that’s eating into Quickflix’s growth potential, as is the continued base of people willing to delve into the dark craft of piracy to download movies and TV shows.

For years, there have been rumours and half-announcements about Netflix coming to Australia, but the widespread IP shielding that allows Netflix access from this country may be a disincentive.  Look at Amazon – the biggest bookseller in this country, including extensive Kindle distribution, without one bit physical infrastructure – and possibly not even any staff.  With Amazon’s move into video production and digital streaming, who needs an on-the-ground presence?  The Amazon model:  let the internet service providers and Australia Post do the distribution work for them.

Getting bigger?  Yes.  For example, here is a copy of an advertisement for Amazon’s new video series, a full page from a November 2013 issue of The New Yorker:

Alpha House Amazon ad


Hollywood, the Nazis and the Jews – the controversy continues

January 27, 2014

Louise Adler’s Sydney Morning Herald review of two books on Hollywood, Hitler and the Jews (“Silence of the Movie Machine”, Spectrum, 25-26 January 2014, pp. 30-31) contains a number of unfortunate misleading and unsupported statements.  She summarily dismisses widespread criticisms of Ben Urwand’s book The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler as “turf envy” without dealing with their substance.  She strongly supports Urwand’s charge of how the Hollywood moguls, the majority of them Jewish, “collaborated” with the Nazis, arguing that objections to the word “collaboration” are only “niceties”.  Thus, she follows Urwand’s line of equating genuine collaboration with the Nazis (witness the activities of the numerous puppet governments set up by conquering Nazis of deporting Jews and other minorities to their deaths) with ill-advised business measures by American businessmen.

For one whose life revolves around the printed word (Adler is the chief executive of Harvard University Press), to make a political point (presumably that Jewish moguls were self-serving and immoral), Adler appears remarkably willing to ignore the significant political implications of what the term “collaboration” meant in the World War Two context.

But Adler goes even further than Urwand does.  In one convoluted sentence of her review, she appears to accuse “the American Jewish leadership” of “exacerbating the fate of European Jewry”.  The full sentence reads:

To keep the German market open, Hollywood executives yielded to American moral censoriousness, abetted by the timid, small-target strategy of the American Jewish leadership in fear of home-grown anti-Semitism and exacerbating the fate of European Jewry, a government policy of appeasement and vociferous interference by local Nazi representatives.

This statement veers uncomfortably close to “blaming the victim” (or at least, the victim’s cousins) for the Holocaust, ignoring the facts that the cautious American Jewish leaders of the time felt extremely vulnerable and insecure, and thus were virtually powerless in the face of significant world events.  For more information on this topic, don’t rely on Adler, but look instead to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the books The Emergence of American Zionism by Mark A. Raider and Uneasy at Home: Antisemitism and the American-Jewish Experience by Leonard Dinnerstein.

Finally, note that contrary to the Herald review, Thomas Doherty’s book Hitler and Hollywood, 1933-1939 (which is also reviewed in the same article, although in less detail) is published by “Columbia University Press”, not “University of Columbia Press”.

Hollywood and Hitler book cover Doherty


Best films of 2013

January 2, 2014

So here it is, my “best films of 2013”, of the films that have opened here in Australia during the past twelve months.

My very favourites:

These ten are the films that most captivated, entertained and moved me: my three criteria for “best”.  I list them in alphabetical order, because they are so different that I simply cannot rank them.

Blue Jasmine is an unexpected addition to my “best” list.  Not because I don’t like Woody Allen; I love his work.  I just did not expect that he could do something this good.  People rave over his recent Midnight in Paris, and yes I liked that, but it does not carry the power and the frame-by-frame intensity of emotion that Blue Jasmine has.  Cate Blanchett’s performance will be listed as one of the greatest female roles of all time, but everyone on screen is more than special.

Elysium meets almost all of my requirements for a great science fiction film: pathos, drama, a unique world that I had never imagined and believable characters.  It fell apart at the end (oh dear) and has a few “cul de sac” plotlines, but Matt Damon pulls off his character and the two worlds are extraordinarily well drawn.

Elysium

Gravity is a great film and one of a rare breed: it could have actually run longer than its 91 minutes.  I am still marveling at how it was produced.  The feeling of being in space left me breathless and dizzy.

The Great Gatsby may not be a great film, but its exuberance, its flash and its energy won me over (I also liked the Sydney locations, standing in for New York City and Long Island!).  It was also heaps better than the Robert Redford version.  Baz Luhrmann never does anything “by halves” and this film glitters.

Life of Pi started life as an un-filmable book, so the achievement by director Ang Lee  is even more impressive (what cannot Lee do?).  If I had to choose one single best film that opened in Australia in 2013, it’s this one (note that it opened in North America in 2012).

Lincoln was too dark, too dreary and too talky, but Spielberg rarely misses and the performances by Daniel Day Lewis (as Lincoln) and Sally Field (as Mary Todd Lincoln) were fabulous.  I also am a “sucker” for Civil War films and Washington political intrigues; this film has both.  (Opened in North American in 2012.)

The Reluctant Fundamentalist only grossed just over $500,000 in North America, but it’s a superb and under-appreciated film, so much of our post-September 11th time.  I adored the original book by Mohsin Hamid (2007), as one of the truly great novels of the last ten years.

THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST

Silver Linings Playbook also opened in North America in 2012, but the quality of the acting (Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence – come to dinner any time!) kept me riveted.

World War Z surprised me.  I am not into zombies, and it is patently a ridiculous premise.  But the film-makers take their story very seriously, and it has some of the most powerful dramatic scenes of 2013, with a truly cinematic scope.  Brad Pitt carries the lead role well.

Zero Dark Thirty probably ties for my true “best of 2013” – again, one of the true films of this moment.  Muscular, spare, gripping, tight, exciting.  I loved it.

My honourable mentions:

American Hustle has more meaning than first appears, and underplays the real history that it charts.  Over-long and over-wrought, but a great slice of Americana, circa late 1970s. Best “comb-over” on screen.  Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Jeremy Renner and especially Jennifer Lawrence all shine.

Before Midnight is the third of the relationship films that began with Before Sunrise (1995) and continued with Before Sunset (2004).  This Richard Linklater-Julie Delpy-Ethan Hawke collaboration is fabulous.  Aside from the documentary “Seven-Up” series, I know of no film – and certainly no fictional film series – that has had foresight and maturity to use the same characters at nine year intervals in their lives.

The Butler never reaches the heights that it sets for itself, pulled down by its episodic nature and what appears to be sloppy direction, editing and writing.  But the acting and power of the subject – the African-American experience over from the late 1940s through the Obama era, as seen through the perspective of African-American men working in the White House – carry this film above the pedestrian.  Despite the faults, I enjoyed it thoroughly.  (Perhaps it should have been a mini-series?)

Frances Ha had the chance of reaching my “year’s best”, but missed by a whisker – possibly because it is just a bit too “small”.  I like Baumbach’s work and his Greta Gerwig collaborations are now becoming an important part of 21st century independent film-making.

Frances Ha Greta Gerwig

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (part 2 of the series) is predictable (no plot surprises here), but the dystopian settings (how many films this year fall into that category!?) and especially Jennifer Lawrence in the lead place this one near the top of true entertainment.

The Internship is, at its heart, such a warm-hearted film about such important themes – the changing nature of work in the digital age, and the role of middle-aged men – that I cannot pass it up.  It is surprisingly well-realised, despite a number of predictable scenes (face it, the film aims low, but still reaches surprising ly high).

Man of Steel may seem an odd choice for best of the year, and I did not expect that this new take on Superman would be so good.  But it is.  The most touching moments come from Superman’s two fathers:  his birth father (played by Russell Crowe) and his earth adopted father (played by Kevin Costner).  Read my review here.

Oblivion is a true “almost great” film.  The cinematography is breathtaking and the set-up is excellent.  Tom Cruise does a creditable job and Andrea Riseborough, playing his partner, is superb.  Pulled down by some mundane plot points, but a cinema experience unlike few others in the last twelve months.

White House Down was an unexpected and true guilty pleasure.  Oh sure, I thought, yet another film about terrorists in the White House.  Blah blah blah.  But this one transcends its subject and becomes a nail-biting, patriotic thriller with Channing Tatum remarkably effective.  Totally unbelievable from start to finish, but it touches all of the emotional buttons.  I am glad that I viewed it in a cinema for the full-screen experience.

White House Down image

Films that have not yet opened in Australia

Sadly, my “Best of 2013” does not correspond to many American “best lists”, because the following films have not yet opened here in Sydney.  All of them are potential candidates for my best list, but will wait until I see them over the coming few months before I comment.

–                      The Wolf of Wall Street

–                      Saving Mr Banks

–                      Mandela:  Long Walk to Freedom

–                      Inside Llewyn Davis

–                      Nebraska

–                      Her

–                      12 Years a Slave

–                      All is Lost

–                      Dallas Buyers Club


The word is in: my top ten blog posts of 2013

January 2, 2014
Books that changed the world
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas film review
The best public art in Sydney you may have missed
Bruce Springsteen down under – Sydney 20 March 2013
The Internship – A movie parable on work in the digital age
The Great Gatsby down under – part 1
Harvard, Yale and the Making of American Presidents
Female Agents film review
Designed by Apple in California – the new campaign
How Australians View America