Thursday, August 27, 2009

Culture Shock 08.27.09: Creepy movie merchandise watches while you shower

Not at all creepy.

As "Star Wars" creator George Lucas proved 30 years ago, the real money from making movies comes from merchandising.

Never mind the toys and video games. That's just the obvious stuff. There's also money to be made from bed sheets, T-shirts, pajamas, underwear, dinnerware, scented candles, unscented candles, Pez dispensers, wallpaper, drapes, velvet paintings, Halloween costumes, Halloween costumes for your dog, Halloween costumes your cat will refuse to wear, lunchboxes, lunch meats, breakfast cereals, cereal bowls, jigsaw puzzles, coloring books, colas, candy, cardboard stand-ups and even glow-in-the-dark light-switch covers.

A movie that fails to turn a profit at the box office can still make money if the licensing deals are right.

Yet with all of the merchandising opportunities movie studios routinely exploit, there are some they miss. And that's when fans have to take matters into their own hands.

Until they sold out, one Internet artisan was offering — by request — shower curtains featuring Edward Cullen, as played by Robert Pattinson in the "Twilight" movies.

Yes, as if Edward were not creepy enough, given all of his stalkerish behavior and the fact he's a 100-year-old vampire obsessed with a teenage girl, his disembodied head can watch you while you shower or sit on the toilet. (Actually, there's probably a scene just like that in the "Twilight" novels.)

Lucas built his Lucasfilm empire, in large part, with the proceeds from merchandising his original "Star Wars" trilogy. Back in 1977, no one knew just how much of a cash bonanza movie merchandising could be. Nobody got rich off of "Planet of the Apes" action figures. So, 20th Century Fox agreed to let Lucas keep 100 percent of the "Star Wars" merchandising rights. Now, Lucas has a net worth of about $3 billion. Sure, he lost $900 million in the recession, but he still has a larger GDP than some countries.

But not even Lucas can think of every merchandising possibility.

Earlier this year, online retailer unveiled its tauntaun sleeping bag, based on the creatures Han Solo and Luke Skywalker are seen riding at the beginning of "The Empire Strikes Back." In the movie, Han slices open a dead tauntaun and stuffs Luke inside the creature's carcass to protect him from the cold.

Needless to say, the prospect of being able to zip open a tauntaun-shaped sleeping bag and stuff oneself inside it appealed to a lot of "Star Wars" fans, who thought this was the greatest piece of "Star Wars" merchandising ever. There was just one problem — the tauntaun sleeping bag was an April Fools' joke.

But demand for the fictitious product was so great that ThinkGeek is now trying to figure out how to make them for real. I'm sure Lucas won't mind, as long as he receives his cut of the profits. Besides, it's not as if a sleeping bag that simulates being inside a dead fantasy creature is the most bizarre licensed product ever made.

And it's not as bad as the new line of "Star Trek"-inspired fragrances, which include Tiberius, Red Shirt and, last but not least, Pon Farr, named after the Vulcan mating ritual.

Still, there is some merchandise that is so risqué that no major movie studio would officially license it. For example, there are no official "Twilight" sex toys. But there are sex toys that just happen to be marketed to people who would love to have an undead stalker/boyfriend.

Use your imagination.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Culture Shock 08.20.09: Copyright laws are Superman's true Kryptonite

According to his public relations handlers, Superman is supposed to fight a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way. But the only battle Superman is fighting nowadays is in court.

The latest skirmish went public last week with the news that Warner Bros., owner of DC Comics, which, in turn, owns Superman, had lost some of its rights to the character. The heirs of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel gained rights to key elements of the Man of Steel's mythos, including Lois Lane, Krypton, his costume design, The Daily Planet and his alter-ego, Clark Kent.

Basically, they got everything that Siegel and his partner, Joe Shuster, came up with before the two sold their Superman copyright to National Publications, the company that would eventually become DC Comics.

Warner Bros. retained elements that came later, including Lex Luthor, the term "Kryptonite" and Superman's ability to fly. Originally, as you'll recall, Superman merely could leap tall buildings in a single bound. Flying takes practice.

Putting the best possible spin on the situation, Warner Bros. issued a statement: "Warner and DC Comics are pleased that the court has affirmed that the vast majority of key elements associated with the Superman character that were developed after Action Comics No. 1 are not part of the copyrights that the plaintiffs have recaptured and therefore remain solely owned by DC Comics."

But all of that may not mean a lot as long as ownership of Superman himself is still an issue.

These legal wranglings have been going on for years — and, in some cases, decades. Siegel and Shuster sold Superman for a string of beads and soon regretted it. They spent years trying to get more money out of DC Comics, eventually having to settle for modest pensions. Unlike Bob Kane, Batman's creator of record, Superman's dads didn't have a lawyer when they sold the rights to their creation. Kane died wealthy. Siegel and Shuster did not.

The latest battle stems from a change in law allowing original copyright holders, or their heirs, to reclaim copyrights transferred before 1978. Siegel's widow and their daughter filed a copyright termination notice 10 years ago, and the fight has been raging, more or less, ever since.

As it currently stands, Warner Bros. and DC will lose their rights to Superman in their entirety in 2013, putting pressure on Warner to get a new Superman movie into development by 2011. Judge Stephen Larson ruled last month that if a new film isn't in the works by then, Siegel's heirs can sue for damages.

Warner's problems are the result of Superman still being under copyright in the first place, which, ironically, is partly Warner's fault. The copyright on Superman, who was created in 1938, should have run out years ago. But media giants like Warner and Disney have successfully lobbied Congress for repeated extensions, without which Superman, Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse and other characters created in the 1930s would already have lapsed into the public domain.

In Disney's case, the hypocrisy is particularly rank. The Disney empire is built on public-domain characters, from Snow White to the Little Mermaid.

In any event, Warner Bros. will eventually pay whatever it takes to make Siegel's heirs go away, leaving Superman in Warner's stable of marketable intellectual property. Then Warner and Disney will lobby for — and probably get — more copyright extensions from Congress.

And the pubic, which should own Superman by now, will remain forgotten in the legal shenanigans.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Culture Shock 08.13.09: The summer's best 'G.I. Joe' movie isn't in theaters

The most entertaining "G.I. Joe" movie I saw last week wasn't the bloated Hollywood blockbuster currently assaulting multiplexes. Instead, it was the affectionate, five-minute video I discovered online.

"The Ballad of G.I. Joe" is a music video written and performed by Kevin Umbricht and Daniel Strange for the Web site

Give a Hollywood director $175 million to play with, and chances are he won't even get the costumes right.

Yes, I'm looking at you, Stephen Sommers. For that kind of money, I could at least have given Cobra Commander a proper chrome helmet.

But give a couple of musically inclined comedians a shoestring budget, and they'll come up with something special — in this case, "The Ballad of G.I. Joe," which, much like a Don McLean song, tells the story of what our beloved 1980s action figures do when they're not busy shooting at one another.

It doesn't hurt that "The Ballad of G.I. Joe" has a better cast than "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra."

"The Rise of Cobra" stars Marlon Wayans and Channing Tatum. Meanwhile, "The Ballad of G.I. Joe" features Julianne Moore, Billy Crudup ("Watchmen") and musician/actor Henry Rollins. Sure, "The Rise of Cobra" does have Sienna Miller, who is a fetching Baroness. But "Ballad" has Olivia Wilde ("House"). They both look great in that tight, vinyl costume, but Wilde doesn't need a wig for the role.

Did I mention that "The Ballad of G.I. Joe" also gets the costumes right? Cobra Commander actually looks like Cobra Commander. Snake-Eyes, the Joe team's resident ninja, actually looks like Snake-Eyes. Zartan looks like Zartan. It's amazing what not having a lot of money to spend — or waste — can do.

If it had been up to me, I would have let the "Ballad of G.I. Joe" guys make "The Rise of Cobra" instead of hiring the director responsible for "Van Helsing."

Sorry, Stephen. I know "The Mummy" was fun, but what have you done for me lately?

And this isn't the first time the Internet has beaten the Hollywood studios at their own game. For example, "Troops," a short film that mashes up "Star Wars" and the television series "Cops," is far and away more entertaining than George Lucas' prequel trilogy.

The Internet has become a kind of Wild West where talented filmmakers and actors can get noticed, hopefully without getting sued in the process. (To his credit, Lucas is supportive of his fans, even when they make better "Star Wars" movies than he does.)

So, it's no surprise that some of Hollywood's brightest talent is using the Internet to escape small-minded studio and network executives. Joss Whedon's latest Fox TV series, "Dollhouse," didn't find its footing until halfway through its first season, mostly because of network interference. But last year, during the Writers Guild of America strike, he created an Internet sensation with "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog," an independent project he and his friends produced. Somehow, "Dr. Horrible" is now nominated for an Emmy award, even though it isn't a TV show.

What these Internet productions sometimes lack in polish, they make up with passion, even if it's in the form of fond memories for toys people played with 25 years ago. A smart studio executive might give these Internet filmmakers some bigger toys to play with — and then get out of the way.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Culture Shock 08.06.09: I, for one, welcome our android overlords

Technology that would just as soon kill you.

Is the day coming when your toaster might try to kill you?

That may depend on how smart the toaster is. One day, it makes your breakfast, and the next it decides it wants to sleep in, or else.

Do toasters dream of electric sheep?

At two conferences held recently in California, researchers in computing and artificial intelligence speculated about a future in which our computers are as smart as we are — or possibly much smarter.

"These are powerful technologies that could be used in good ways or scary ways," said Eric Horvitz, quoted in The Sunday Times of London. Horvitz should know all about scary technologies. He's a principal researcher at Microsoft, which gave us Windows Vista.

We can't say we weren't warned. From HAL 9000 to the replicants of "Blade Runner" to the Cylons to Skynet, science fiction is full of super-intelligent computers, robots and androids who rebel against their human creators.

Then there is the 1970 film "Colossus: The Forbin Project," in which a supercomputer decides to take over the world, for humanity's own good, naturally.

"In time," Colossus says, "you will come to regard me not only with respect and awe, but with love."

With computers becoming faster and more complex, maybe such doomsday fantasies could become real. According to Moore's law, named for Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore, the processing power of computers doubles about every two years. Whether that trend will continue is a subject of debate, but some futurists think it will.

Ray Kurzweil believes we are about 30 years away from creating a human-level artificial intelligence, a computer just as smart as we are.

If both Kurzweil and Moore are correct, things could get interesting, and soon. In his 2008 book "Future Imperfect: Technology and Freedom in an Uncertain World," David D. Friedman writes, "In forty years, that makes them (computers) something like 100 times as smart as we are. We are now chimpanzees — perhaps gerbils — and had better hope that our new masters like pets."

Science-fiction writer Vernor Vinge coined a name for it: the singularity. That's the point at which superhuman intelligences, rather than humans, are driving technological advancement. Each generation of machines creates another that's even smarter.

In a 1993 article, Vinge writes, "Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended."

That's all well and good if the future's super-intelligent robots look like Tricia Helfer, Grace Park and Lucy Lawless — the "Battlestar Galactica" scenario — but there's still the danger they'll decide to nuke us from orbit (because it's the only way to be sure).

Kurzweil is an optimist. He thinks we can beat the robots at their own game. Find a way for human brains to connect to machines, and humanity can take advantage of Moore's law, too.

Yes, mankind's fate may hinge on us becoming cyborgs. But why stop there? We could, as science-fiction author Ken MacLeod has speculated, upload our minds into cyberspace, leaving our flesh to go the way of all flesh, while achieving technological immortality, at least until the universe reaches heat death. Then the lights go out permanently.

Stopping technological advancement isn't an option, but if becoming a cyborg seems too extreme, we could try to build something like Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics into our super-intelligent machines.

The only problem with that, as anyone who has read Asimov's stories knows, is the Three Laws often cause as many problems as they solve.

Maybe it's best just to hope we end up ruled by androids who look like Lucy Lawless. I, for one, welcome our new Cylon overlords.