Johanna Blakley

Media | Entertainment | Fashion

Archive for film

Mad Max & the Aesthetics of the Hack

I’d never seen an earlier installment in the Mad Max franchise when I went to see Fury Road at Grauman’s Chinese IMAX Theatre. I felt it was a movie I needed to see because so many people were asking me whether it succeeded in its effort to be a feminist action flick. But what really captured my imagination – and inspired me to watch all three of the previous films – was its singular vision and its relentless originality.

I often judge the sci fi I read by its ability to avoid exposition – to simply immerse me a world that is completely unfamiliar. This is a standard feature of cyberpunk style, which Bruce Sterling recently summarized at a terrific conference I attended at USC called Cyberpunk: Past and Future (videos are available).

Turns out that Sterling’s description fits Mad Max to a T. Read the rest of this entry »

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11 Things You Didn’t Know About Documentary Film Lovers

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I was honored to give the Industry Keynote at Hot Docs, a giant documentary film festival in Toronto. I don’t know what they put in that water (which was delicious, by the way) but Torontonians love, love LOVE documentaries. They have a 700 seat theater that, year round, shows docs only, and I was completely charmed by its tagline: ESCAPE TO REALITY.

Of all conventional TV and film genres, you could easily argue that documentary is the one that is most self-conscious about its artful manipulation of reality. Since much of my research focuses on the impact of entertainment and media on individuals, communities and society at large, documentaries have proven an especially exciting object of study. (I have a TEDx talk about some of this research.)

In order to prep myself for the fest – which included a whopping 197 documentaries – I thought I’d revisit some survey research that we conducted at the Lear Center on the relationship between political beliefs and entertainment preferences. We discovered in those studies that predictable patterns emerged suggesting that even our escapes from reality – to ballets, tractor pulls, and blockbuster films – were tethered quite tightly to our deeply held beliefs about the world and how it ought to be.

For a nerd like me, this is absolutely fascinating stuff.

Our archive of data – from two large American representative sample surveys, and from a smaller version we conducted in Tunisia after the Arab Spring – includes detailed demographic, ideological and taste information about documentary film fans. Hot Docs gave me an excellent excuse to mine that data. Read the rest of this entry »

The Politics of Personal Taste

I recently gave my fifth talk for the TED network – this time on one of my favorite projects at the Norman Lear Center, where I’m the director of research. The Lear Center has conducted many studies demonstrating that entertainment plays a key role in people’s lives, igniting curiosity, inciting conversations, and importantly, influencing attitudes and behavior.  One of my favorites was a series of U.S. national surveys that explored whether there is a correlation between entertainment preferences, what we enjoy, and political ideology, what we believe.

One thing you learn in survey research is that it’s not very helpful to ask people to label themselves politically. So we created an instrument that would diagnose the respondent’s ideology based on their responses to dozens of statements about hot-button political issues. Using statistical clustering analysis, we discovered that three groups emerged from our national sample. “Conservatives,” as we decided to call them, “liberals” and “moderates.” These same respondents were asked about their preferred leisure-time activities and their favorite radio and TV shows, Web sites, movies, games and sports and much more.

What we found is that each of these clusters had distinctly different entertainment and leisure preferences. (For a full run-down, check out our white paper.)

Now this kind of research doesn’t allow us to determine causation: I can’t tell you whether your politics determine taste or taste determines politics. But, if I had the chance to ask you enough questions, I would be able to predict your politics based on your taste. And vice versa.

I’ve always wanted to scale up this research to a global sample, where we could see what kinds of clusters emerge on a trans-national scale. Because as you know, in a networked world, culture, media, and politics are not constrained by national boundaries. So, last Fall, I leapt at the opportunity to administer a similar survey in Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab Spring.

Working with Mobile Accord, the company that created the SMS platform for the Haiti relief effort, we administered our survey to over 2,300 Tunisians on their mobile phones. We knew that our sample would skew younger and more Internet-savvy than the general population, which would provide us with a valuable glimpse into the mindset and media habits of a population that will most likely play a leading role in shaping the future of Tunisia, and perhaps the Middle East.

Because it was a mobile phone poll, we had to make the survey much shorter. So, in order to diagnose a respondent’s ideology we decided to focus on cultural politics. We asked questions about how their religious beliefs inform their entertainment choices, and the role that they believe government should play in that negotiation.

We also included specific questions about the controversial TV airing of Persepolis, an animated film which included an image of God, and the violent protests surrounding the anti-Islamic  film, Innocence of the Muslims.

We identified three groups that fell on a spectrum from conservative to moderate to liberal. The group that most fascinated us was the largest group: conservatives. Among these young wired culturally conservative Tunisians, we found entertainment and media preferences that we would expect from liberals in the U.S.

  • “Surfing the Internet” was their favorite way of entertaining themselves (conservatives in the U.S. had chosen “reading” as their favorite.)
  • They were more into video games than reading.
  • When they do read books, they prefer romance novels and sci fi to religious texts.
  • We were amazed to discover that they were the most passionate consumers of American entertainment,
  • They demonstrated a strong preference for Hollywood films and they had less interest in local Tunisian fare than Moderates or Liberals.
  • They were also the most likely to say that U.S. entertainment has had a positive influence on the world.

So much for stereotypes about religious conservatism and anti-Americanism in the Middle East. The picture is far more complicated than you might think. The key is asking the right combination of questions on the right platform.

We know that politics are important but we tend to be dismissive about taste and the pleasures we take from TV so bad that it’s actually good. All too often we assume that entertainment is too trivial for serious critical inquiry. But I believe that entertainment preferences often go unrecognized as powerful indicators of personal and social aspirations.  And, since the Cold War, we have found over and over again that popular culture can bridge deep national and political divides in the most surprising ways. In fact, many have argued that Hollywood films and TV shows have more impact on global public opinion than our foreign policy.

We can get so caught up in looking at people through the lens of demographics and ideology that it often obscures our view of what people really care about, what gives them pleasure. And when you know that, I believe you know the most important thing you can know about anyone.

For more results of the U.S. and Tunisia surveys, check out my TEDxOrangeCounty talk, The Politics of Personal Taste. The Lear Center site offers a lot more background materials on the U.S. entertainment and politics surveys.

Storytelling, Engagement & Activism

Join us for a panel discussion at the Hollywood Film Festival October 19.

Join us for a panel discussion at the Hollywood Film Festival October 19.

This summer, I spent a great day with a bunch of filmmakers at the Topanga Film Festival. Their goal? Making sure that their documentaries would have a real, measurable social impact.

Just making a smart, moving film about a pressing social issue isn’t necessarily going to change the world. It’s crucial for filmmakers to know what they can do to optimize the possibilities for impact.

It’s not just about good marketing. It turns out that there’s a treasure trove of compelling academic research that filmmakers can tap in order to increase the chances that their work will hit its mark.

Beth Karlin, the director of the Transformational Media Lab at UC Irvine, has become an expert on the interdisciplinary art of using storytelling to increase social engagement and trigger social change. Karlin has joined forces with Jon Fitzgerald, a filmmaker who co-founded Slamdance and the author of Filmmaking for Change, in order to create a workshop curriculum that informs filmmakers about how they can maximize their potential to effectively address pressing social issues.

My new Media Impact Project at the Lear Center shares those goals, and so I have joined Beth and Jon in an initiative that we’re calling SEA Change. Here’s what it’s about:

The SEA Change approach to designing and assessing film campaigns leverages Storytelling, Engagement and Activism for Change. It synthesizes academic theory, empirical research and the lived experience of storytellers and activists, with an eye towards exposing what we know, exploring what we don’t, and leveraging our connections to maximize impact. We focus on developing measurable goals and using theory and findings from the social sciences as well as from analysis of successful cases to meet and measure these goals.

The workshop at Topanga included Michael Crooke, a film funder who was the former CEO of Patagonia. and a wide range of filmmakers affiliated with the Creative Visions Foundation, which supports media activists and incubates artistic projects in a ridiculously awesome space on the beach in Malibu. Beth, Jon and I had a chance to test out our ideas about how to inform filmmakers about relevant research and structure a program that would allow them to actively learn from one another. It was an incredibly stimulating experience and one that we will reiterate on November 17, 2013, immediately following the Creative Activist Arts Festival. We’re putting together an 8-week workshop as well: for more information about that, or to join our mailing list, email seachangeinstitute at gmail dot com.

Join us for a panel discussion at the Hollywood Film Fest (where Jon just happens to be the Executive Director) on October 19 at 11am at the ArcLight Hollywood. Beth, Jon and I will be joined by award-winning author, producer, and director  JLove Calderon, and the delightful Allison Cook, a creator of the wildly successful Story of Stuff Project.

Launching the Media Impact Project

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Yesterday, I was very excited to launch the Media Impact Project, which aspires to be a global hub for the best research on measuring the impact of media. Supported by $3.25 million in initial funding from the Gates and Knight Foundations, I’m optimistic that the Norman Lear Center can help make media more accountable to audiences and contribute to a better understanding of the role that media plays in people’s lives.

The New York Times picked up the story and I was thrilled to see reporter Michael Cieply focus on this aspect of the program:

Read the rest of this entry »

Dancing in 3D: Wim Wenders’ “Pina”

One of the best cinematic experiences I’ve ever had was watching Wim Wenders’ new 3D film about dancer/choreographer Pina Bausch. I was moved by his interview on NPR, where he explained that he’d been intending to make a film about Bausch’s work for several years, but he just couldn’t figure out how to do it . . . until he watched a 3D film. He felt that the new technology would allow the audience to “be in the same water” with the dancers, and let me tell you, when he achieves that, the effect is blissfully visceral. Bausch’s work deals quite dramatically (often violently) with power relationships, gender divides, misunderstanding, affection: to be in the physical midst of all that motion and emotion is intoxicating.

So. It’s in theaters now. But not for long! See it while you can in 3D . . .