Do we have a new sci-fi classic movie from Spielberg?
That’s probably going to be hotly debated for quite a while, but Spielberg’s adaptation of the novel by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One, feels like a blend of the more classic tone and adventure vibe of E.T. and the look of Minority Report. Cline’s novel seems to have divided people, with passionate responses on either end of the spectrum. Maybe it’s too nerdy and filled with too many geeky references, and ultimately follows what strikes many people as an unlikeable character. On the flip side, it’s a love letter to video game nerds of my generation, guys like me who grew up playing Atari, Nintendo, and goofy computer games like Zork.
Well, one thing’s for sure. Whatever you may have thought of Cline’s novel, Spielberg’s movie is quite different. Whether that’s a good thing or not may depend on you opinion of the book. I found the movie to be a highly watchable adventure tale though it was populated with some rather pedestrian characters. The forward movement of the plot dominates the story, which is often the case with novels of this type adapted to the screen. After all, feature films (as I discuss more in my book) are structurally closer to short stories than novels. It’s really hard to adapt even a relatively short novel down into a 2-hour movie. Add into that the world-building aspect of a futuristic society addicted to VR and it gets even harder. There’s a lot of information dumbing required and it tends to come out in bursts of explanatory dialogue between characters about things that honestly they should all already know but that they need to tell each other so that we, the audience, can hear it for the first time.
While the movie is quite fun and visually engaging, it lacks some of the darker undertones of the novel (no mention of sex with robotic surrogates while plugged into the Oasis). In part, this is due to the fact that plot takes most of the focus of the storytelling while character development is reduced to more basic and familiar ideas we’ve seen in other movies before. And in this sense, I’m less of a fan of the movie’s handling of the characters than the novel. This may come as a shock to people who find the movie’s version of the main character more likable than the novel’s. Let me explain.
I find it fascinating when people confuse the likability of a character with our ability to empathize with them. I found Michael B. Jordan’s “bad guy” character in Black Panther to be someone I ultimately didn’t like (he was a bay guy, after all) but for whom I felt profound empathy. I understood why he felt the way he did even if I completely disagreed with his violent and vengeful methods. There are plenty of stories in which we might find ourselves empathizing with an unlikable character (Breaking Bad, anyone?).
So, while I am aware that the main character in the Ready Player One novel is not always the most the likable guy around, I still empathized with his situation and his journey. For one thing, the theme of empathy is actually rather crucial to Wade’s development in the book. He begins the story as a rather self-absorbed teen who just wants a way out of his rather shitty existence. Honestly, I get it. I was quite self-absorbed as a teen too, and I wasn’t living in a dystopian world with little prospects for my future. Add to this the fact that Wade is growing up in a world dominated by technology and virtual reality where actual human contact is minimal and it should become rather obvious that Wade is going to struggle with empathy in general.
Neuroscience supports this notion. Children need to have interactions with real, live people in order to learn languages. That’s why those DVDs that claim they’ll teach your baby a foreign language are a load of crap. Don’t believe me? I recommend reading Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina. Along with language development, children also learn to read and understand emotional cues through interacting with real people. As we continue to grow, our patterns of behavior shape our ability to empathize and be present and connected to other people. Technology can have negative effects on our abilities to empathize, as indicated by this 2014 study that suggests that the presence of a smartphone lowers our ability to empathize with conversation partners.
So here’s Wade, growing up on virtual reality. Does he struggle with empathy and thus being a typically likable character? You bet your ass he does! But in this way, the Wade of the novel strikes me as far more believable than the one in the film. Spielberg’s Wade is a wide-eyed kid who just hasn’t grown up enough to realize there are deeper concerns than his future alone. He’s handsome in a nerdy way and easy enough to like.
The novel’s Wade, on the other hand, starts as an overweight hardcore nerd who has numbed his pain at the loss of his parents by escaping to a virtual world. His natural state of existence is isolation. His goals are to ensuring his own comforts and survival. He has no real empathetic adult figures in his life that have been consistent and ever-present. As a result, he has limited empathy for the people around him even as they wind up being killed by IOI. While some people might be turned off by this, I found myself thinking, nah, I get it. What else does this kid know at this point?
What ultimately has me reflecting on the novel (but that feels lacking in the movie) is that its main character really grows by the end. To keep things shorter (and possibly give it more of a boy-saves-girl vibe) in the movie, it is Samantha who gets captured by IOI and enslaved. But in the book, Wade is the one who has developed a rather elaborate and highly risky plan to be captured by IOI and entered into their indentured servant program in order to gain the required access to the IOI systems so he can hack them. I get why the movie skipped all of this as this section of the novel could be a feature film of its own.
Wade’s whole plan is incredibly risky as it could well result in his enslavement for life. It also represents a big shift in Wade’s worldview. It would have been much easier for him to stick to a safer plan in which he could continue trying to be the first to the egg and become the sole victor. Instead, he puts himself in harm’s way to do what he can to ensure that IOI will not become the lords of the Oasis, ruining it for everyone and continuing its enslavement program. This side journey sets Wade up to make more self-sacrificial choices by the end of the book. But this is not something the Wade at the beginning of the novel would have done. His contact with Samantha slowly affects him and he has time to go through a very familiar maturation process for someone in their late teens: the realization that the world is bigger than one’s own preoccupations. As a result, the ending of the novel felt more satisfying for me as Wade traveled a longer distance in his personal growth.
Is the movie worth watching? Sure. But even though I know the detractors of the book might disagree with me, I think the novel’s worth more some very thoughtful reading and reflection.
[Originally published on MikelWisler.com. Republished with permission.]
If you do not it looks squished together of course! I needed a good way for free to desqueeze my footage. I decided to try and use blender to do so. My hope is this helps someone out there that needs an app to do this!
I’ve been doing some research for the second edition of my book, Short Films 2.0: Getting Noticed in the YouTube Age. One area that I’m particularly keen on expanding is the developing reality and complexities in the film festival circuit these days. The past 18 years have been marked by a lot of changes for film festivals and indie filmmakers, particularly filmmakers making short films.
The story of how Withoutabox (WAB) went from a genuinely revolutionizing tool for indie filmmakers to slowly becoming almost unanimously hated by festivals and filmmakers alike is a powerful illustration of how much the internet is rapidly changing independent filmmaking as a whole and the importance of adapting quickly. Before Withoutabox was launched in 2000, filmmakers had to do extensive research on their own to collect a list of prospective festivals they may or may not qualify for and then fill out forms for each festival individually, often having to find someone to fill out such forms in the native language of the festival if submitting overseas. Then everything had to be mailed out with a check and a VHS copy of the film. If the film was accepted, the filmmaker was notified by mail, at which point they had to provide the festival with a 35mm film print for exhibition at the festival.
But when Withoutabox showed up, suddenly filmmakers had a one-stop-shop where they could enter their film’s information a single time and then submit to festivals all over the world. It was a major game-changer. But it didn’t take long for things to start turning sour. Right away, Withoutabox filed for a rather broad-reaching patent for their online festival database and submission service. By 2004, it was granted this patent whose summary read as follows:
Internet-based film festival digital entry and back office services suite model. As new computerized methods using a database system on a global network to administer film festivals. The methods include the filmmakers inputting film information into the database, which information becomes available to selected film festivals. The system preferably handles multiple submissions to different festivals, processes applications, provides simultaneous judging of a competition, and schedules film play times at the festivals.
As quoted in “The Seismic Shift in the World of Film Festivals” by Stephen Follows
This patent made it so that it was virtually impossible for anyone to create anything remotely resembling what WAB was offering so as to compete with it. And for years, no one did. I started submitting my first films to festivals in 2004. It was at this time that I became aware of Withoutabox. I created an account and dipped my toe tentatively into the waters of film festival submissions. My first short film I submitted to festivals was one I’d shot during my senior year of college. At 37-minutes, It was long for those pre-YouTube days. It never made it into any festivals. I continued making films and using WAB, as it was the only method available for most festivals.
In 2008, the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), which itself had been bought out by Amazon a few years before, bought Withoutabox for $3 Million. What followed were years of stagnation and zero improvements on the same system that had been in place from day one as eventually every original member of the company left. There were a couple attempts to compete with Withoutabox by Submissions 2.0 and Indee.tv, but those were ultimately squashed by fear of Amazon’s team of lawyers, which was known for relentless protection of their patents. Click here for more on that.
Festivals were also held hostage by WAB’s insistence that to use their services at all they had to agree to exclusively use Withoutabox as their means of receiving submissions. Festivals that opted to sign up for other submissions services got strongly worded emails from WAB. Withoutabox also charged festivals astronomical fees to be listed at all, even if a festival was accepting free submissions, which resulted in most festivals having to increased their submission fees to remain viable, passing along the expense to filmmakers. In fact, things were so fishy that at one point the Federal Trade Commission opened an investigation into Withoutabox and it’s anti-competitive practices in demanding exclusivity from festivals. For more on this, please click here.
The one advantage to having Internet Movie Database own Withoutabox was that it suddenly became much easier for filmmakers like me to get our short films listed on IMDb simply by submitting to partner festivals. This was a welcome resume building aspect of the service, but already the site was feeling clunky and outdated having changed little in since its inception.
Finally, in 2009, a full five years after Vimeo had been launched and four years after YouTube began, Withouabox added a means by which filmmakers could upload their films to be submitted to festivals, their “Secure Online Screener” system. Prior to this, I was mailing DVDs to festivals just like everyone else. The introduction of the Secure Online Screener option seemed like good news. However, the quality was pitifully low, the system was buggy and often crashed while judges viewed films, and each submission cost filmmakers an additional $2.95 per festival. Barbara Morgen, executive director of the Austin Film Festival, had this to say about the Secure Online Screener service in 2012, “Last year, we had 1,000 online submissions, and I didn’t watch one film through that system that didn’t have a technology issue. It was constantly freezing. And that’s not the way to watch a film. And it’s not the way an emerging filmmaker should have their work shown.” For more on this, click here.
In short, Withoutabox was not keeping up with the digital revolution. They failed to understand what was happening with online video streaming and social networking and seemed more interested in nickel-and-diming filmmakers for their subpar service. Some festivals opted to leverage these systems and work outside of WAB. Matt Marxteyn, director of Red Rock Film Festival in Utah, pointed out in a 2012 interview that, “With so many free social networking sites, there are so many options now for festivals. [WAB is] a great service, but it’s not the only one around.” The internet was changing things quickly, but WAB was slow to adapt. After all, what motivation to innovate is there when you believe yourself to be the only game in town?
While some were happy to use WAB, many festivals and filmmaker grew bitter. A Facebook page called, “Filmmakers and Festivals Against Withoutabox” was launched. In May of 2012, IndieWire wrote that Withoutabox was “facing increasing complaints from festival organizers and filmmakers that Withoutabox’s technology is clunky and out-of-date, their movie viewer is substandard and claims to exclusivity are unfair.”
Meanwhile, in the fall of 2013, the non-profit film production and distribution company I help run, Stories by the River, began accepting submissions for its first film festival, which took place in January of 2014. Knowing that it would cost us at least $1,200 just to get our festival listed on Withoutabox, we opted to circumvent WAB completely. After all, the only options at that time were pay WAB’s hefty fees or go it alone. So we set up an Eventbrite page and accepted submissions through it. We skipped physical media completely. Instead, we asked filmmakers looking to submit their films for consideration that they send us a Vimeo or YouTube link. The links could be public or private. Selected films were then asked to send us an HD file of their film we could download for projection at the festival. We used this system for the first two years of the Stories by the River Film Festival. But the film festival game was about to change dramatically.
In January of 2014, FilmFreeway launched with a completely different outlook on how to do film festival submissions in the digital age. They leveraged high-quality online video streaming as means to streamline the submission process by allowing a filmmaker to use their in-house system or Vimeo at no cost. The entire process was modern, fluid, and intuitive compared to Withoutabox, which was still largely the same website it had been upon launch fourteen years before. Even more crucially, FilmFreeway demanded no exclusivity from festivals and charged much lower administrative fees. This directly resulted in lower submission fees for many festivals, which ultimately benefited festivals and filmmakers. But how did FilmFreeway get around Withoutabox’s rather expansive patent? Simple, they’re in Canada. US patent laws have no jurisdiction in another country.
As a filmmaker submitting to festivals, I had long grown weary and frustrated with WAB. As soon as I learned of FilmFreeway, I jump aboard. While I was still using Withoutabox to some extent at the time, I made my first submission through FilmFreeway in April of 2014. Eventually, as more festivals joined FilmFreeway, my use of WAB dwindled. I made my last submission through Withoutabox on May 20, 2015. It seems I wasn’t alone.
By mid-2015, FilmFreeway matched Withoutabox in web traffic, according to an article on Stephen Follows Film Data and Education, which drew its information from Alexa (a company also owned by Amazon, interestingly enough). By the end of the year, FilmFreeway surpassed Withoutabox in traffic and has never looked back. Reluctantly, Withoutabox was finally forced to make changes. Their Secure Online Screener system was improved, adding support for HD video (years after it was already standard on other video streaming platforms) and made it free to filmmakers. Costs for festivals were lowered and exclusivity demands dropped. The site itself has also seen major improvements.
The story of Withoutabox and FilmFreeway illustrates the profound importance of competition in the market and the need for innovation in response to the rapidly changing digital landscape. What Withoutabox was when it launched in 2000 was truly revolutionizing. But it failed to keep up. It failed to pay attention to what was happening to online video distribution through sites like Vimeo and YouTube. Ultimately, greed got in the way of adaptability and improvement and Withoutabox suffered significantly. FilmFreeway now sits comfortably at the top of the festival submission game.
Meanwhile, savvy filmmakers and film festival organizers kept an eager eye out for something that might disrupt Withoutabox’s stranglehold on the festival market. FilmFreeway has proven to be the perfect disruptor, which has been a welcome thing. But are there side effects to FilmFreeway’s success at toppling Withoutabox?
Well, for one thing, it’s now easier and cheaper than ever to launch a film festival. Virtually anyone can do it (at least once). And the data seems to suggest many people are giving it a go.
FilmFreeway allows users to sort festivals by many criteria, including the number of years a festival has been running. In January of 2018, setting the display options to show only festivals that had run for a single year resulted in a list of 1,374 film festivals. There were 999 festivals that had been running for two years, 730 for three years, 516 for four years, and 384 for five years. Maybe some of these festivals existed in other forms prior to using FilmFreeway, but the reality is that the majority of these numbers likely represent festivals that launched in earnest in recent years. Even if only half of those numbers represent truly brand new festivals, this trend indicates a steady rise in the number of film festivals being launched each year. At some point, this bubble will have to burst, but the trend continues for now and this indicates that more people and organizations are creating their own festivals. In short, there are more film festivals today than ever before.
What this suggests to me is that the purpose film festivals serve is fundamentally changing. Especially when it comes to short films, it is now quite unrealistic to expect that getting into festivals will get Hollywood studio executives or distributors to see your work and come talk to you about making more films. These executives, producers, and distributors simply are not in attendance. On the other hand, if your goals are to get your film in front of indie film enthusiasts, share it with appreciative audiences that will see your work projected on a large screen and not on a smartphone, and do some networking with other indie filmmakers, there are now more opportunities than ever.
For more on the rapidly evolving reality short films face today thanks to the internet, check out my book, Short Films 2.0: Getting Noticed in the YouTube Age, available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.