DIGITAL MEDIA FROM THE INSIDE OUT: My focus is digital content -- production, distribution, collaboration, innovation, creativity. Some posts have appeared across the web (HuffPo, Tribeca's Future of Film, The Wrap, MIPblog, etc.). To receive these posts regularly via email, sign up for my newsletter here.


Books: My 2013 reviews

Yes, I read a lot, averaging about one per week in the past few years. I’m now aided in this process by audiobooks in the car and Kindle downloads on flights, but that’s just circumstance. I finished the entire shelf of Perry Mason novels by third grade. I read the every book on the New York Times best-seller list in 1963, as well as finishing up Dickens and Dostoyevsky. I ran out of shelves in my little library, just in time for eBooks. I have a backlog.

Books have been with me, often instead of friends, since I was five, when I learned to read. An Army brat, I learned that books were more available and reliable than people. Tragic in one way. Liberating in another.

Thus, herein, I share my reviews of books with my highest ratings on Goodreads, where I post regularly. I have made no effort to provide a list of the best books published this year. For that, please go elsewhere. What you get is my take on what I enjoyed the most, a characteristic mix of mysteries, non-fiction, and literary fiction. I guess I just love stories, every possible kind. (Here’s the complete list for 2013.)

The Passage of Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, #4) by Robert Caro

Caro is a great storyteller, and what a story he has to tell in this fourth volume of the massive biography of Lyndon Johnson. From the 1960 Presidential race through LBJ's transition to the Presidency following JFK's assassination, there is a wealth of dramatic incident, all based upon the author's legendary historical research. I've been a fan of Caro's since his debut book on Robert Moses, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and have a minor obsession about LBJ, having lived in Texas during some of the period covered in this book (I was in Junior High, if you must know). The vivid power struggle between Johnson and Bobby Kennedy is but one of the elements of the book which kept me gripped and turning pages. It was also revelatory to make comparisons on the iron grip of the Congress held by conservatives (in both parties) which LBJ faced in passing his domestic agenda -- it's not all that different today with progress impeded by die-hard conservatives, mostly from the South, except of course, most are in the GOP, and have been since Johnson's policies drove them out of the Democratic Party. One more volume to go, and you can bet I'll be reading it, as well.

The One: The Life and Music of James Brown by R. J. Smith

I saw James Brown perform twice, once at a high school prom on a riverboat in Memphis, Tennessee (1965) and once in a club in Aspen, Colorado (1980). In the first instance, like a lot of white kids, I wanted so very much to dig him, a kind of cultural expression of the same impulse that led to our support of the civil rights movement. We could dance too, maybe not as well, but there was solidarity from heel to ass to head. By the time of the latter encounter, his star, somewhat tarnished by an inscrutable association with Richard Nixon and "black capitalism", was in decline. Didn't stop him (and me) from getting on a table and flinging sweat all over the room, ears abustin' and joy abounding. This book brings it back, and much much more, a well-told story, a good biography. Brown clawed his way from poverty to a global iconic status few have matched, with an uncanny sense of how to grab and keep the spotlight, fueled by an innate and revolutionary understanding of music, rhythm and popular sentiment. He spotted and often crossed a transgressive line. Eager for respect, he often played the fool. He was mean to those with whom he worked and the women he loved. He used his fame, sometimes well, frequently poorly. He was an addict who had crusaded against drugs. Utterly fascinating book whose author clearly loves the man, the legend, and especially the music. But as much as I enjoyed reading about that, it ain't nuthin' compared to listening, which is what I'm doing now -- all of the hits and much more, convenient on Spotify. Check that out too!

The Redeemer: A Harry Hole Novel (4) and Phantom (Harry Hole, #9) by Jo Nesbø

Nesbø has earned his way into the top ranks of police procedurals, taking the time-worn conventions of crime, detection and detectives to a new level. Were it not for the foreignness of people and place names (Norwegian, of course), his Harry Hole novels would slide easily into the long and noble history of the best of the genre. I love Harry : damaged, idealistic, relentless, compassionate, brutal.  

‘The Redeemer’, which I think was only recently released in translation, is the fourth in the series, well before Harry has self-immolated and left the force and decamped to Asia (spoiler), but all of the signs are there ... his on-again, off-again sobriety and struggles with drink, his willful disobedience of superiors, his dogged commitment and intelligent improvisation. The coda(s) contain some surprises, putting the whole corruption motif that suffuses this series into bas-relief. Who's the bad guy, anyway? It's never easy to tell in a world of grayness and moral bet-hedging.

Fast-forward to ‘Phantom’ (Episode 9), where we find Harry coming back to Oslo to save the son of his ex-lover Rakel, whose lives were endangered during the denouement of ‘The Snowman’. The kid has gotten lost in the city's drug culture that’s formed around "Violin," a synthetic form of heroin that is being manufactured in. As always, Nesbø delivers an extremely satisfying plot, with peaks and valleys of action tied to the unfolding of the mystery, which is as much about people as events. Modern Norwegian society is also a character, like all good policiers.

The Woods by Harlan Coben

Coben is one of those guys who have managed to fill up a shelf of his own at the library without managing to attract my interest, except when his mystery "Tell No One" was adapted for the screen in France a few years ago to great effect. There must be something there, I thought, and I picked up this audiobook. I find mysteries the perfect auto-companion in traffic-clogged L.A, and this did not disappoint. I've picked up several others, and I can now tell you, there is a fairly predictable set of Coben elements. What is amazing is how unevenly the formula seems to work. In this rather longer version of the Coben plot machine, we have a nice clockwork involving a seemingly dead murder case from the past (check), a mysterious gang of super-effective bad guys from whom escape seems impossible because they know everything (check); an Asian guy with lethal martial arts skills (check); ambiguous police ethics (check), a rich family obsessed with teaching Our Hero a lesson (check); a family foundation and a lot of legal shenanigans (check); and a deep and abiding love (check). On top of that, we also have a protagonist as county prosecutor in northern New Jersey (setting: check) and a pretty good legal thriller with a moral center. Kind of a suspense/potboiler in a way, but I enjoyed. Not so much the second and third time around -- q.v. my other Coben reviews.

Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen

Hiaasen was made for audiobook listening in the car, unless you hate the idea that other drivers might see you as you guffaw out loud. They can't hear you laugh, but they can see you. Around and about Los Angeles in the past few weeks, I was that guy laughing in traffic next to you, and I was crazy with delight. As usual with Hiaasen, we meet a cavalcade of crazies -- his heroes are just as likely to be missing one or two screws as his villains. To wit: former Key West detective Andrew Yancy, defrocked and demoted to restaurant inspector on account of stuffing a portable vacuum cleaner up the arse of the husband of his girlfriend in the middle of Mallory Square. And then wonders why that's a problem. Or the antagonist, a pudgy housewife type who holds a funeral for her late lamented husband's arm, the only bodily remnant available. The arm is a great character, too, but that would require a spoiler, which I won't do here. Suffice it to say, this is another entertaining charmer from the best satirist writing in America, well, at least in Florida.

Strip and Silence by Thomas Perry

I've crossed the threshold into serious obsession over Thomas Perry, especially the Tantor audiobooks featuring a great reader, Michael Kramer (No, I don't believe that he’s THAT Michael Kramer). Thomas Perry is just a killer of a writer: tense, clean prose that delivers a freight-train of a plot, or maybe a formula one race car, complete with twists and turns.  There’s always a large cast of characters positioned along the good-guy/bad-guy axis, a scale that features much more gray than either black or white.

In ‘Strip’, a Bulgarian immigrant semi-crook runs a chain of nocturnal establishments on both sides of the hill in L.A. -- regular dance clubs in Hollywood, strip clubs in the Valley. What starts with the misidentification of a crook who has robbed him during a bank deposit, leads to the unfolding of a classic Perry switchback plot involving cops, major domo's, drug dealers, strippers, thugs, club hoppers, petty thieves, the requisite psycho's, and of course, the mysterious man whose identify was mistaken in the first place and is the closest thing we get to a protagonist. I got added pleasure listening to this in the car as I drove, often uncannily, at or near the various L.A. locations in the story. A new form of interactive fiction: my car was controlling the plot, maybe?

In ‘Silence’ it doesn't hurt that the characters are extremely attractive, amoral, and smart ... so much fun to watch them play. The protagonists (one man, an ex-cop PI; one woman, a former restaurateur on the lam) are liars, though managing a form of morality in love for their families. Really, I've not enjoyed a new suspense author discovery as much as I have these Perry novels since Michael Connelly. I really, really like 'em.

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

Chabon's near his peak as a novelist who can simultaneously deliver a merciless satire (in this case, uber-hipster interracial Berkeley) while making you care about his wonderful cast of sweet and crazy characters who stumble thru life with their hearts in their hands and their community in their hearts. What a great feeling to laugh out loud, repeatedly, while reading in bed. And to turn pages compulsively because you just can't wait to see how it all turns out. Chabon's assured pace lets the story build, incident after incident, woven together by the unforgiving hand of the past reaching into every moment to claim restitution, dare one say to exact pre-death karma, but that's certainly how it feels. I love the detail from a past that includes the Black Panther Party, velour track suits, big hair, vinyl records, jazz and blues, Tarantino groupies, confused teen sexuality, midwifery, analog amplification technology and so much more. This is a movie waiting for an audience of at least one: me.

A Delicate Truth by John LeCarré

Recent LeCarré-- by which I mean of course the lengthening list of novels he has written since the demise of the Cold War, his great narrative engine -- has drawn fire from critics who seem to believe that his idealism is too shrill. They take issue with plots centered around a parade of bad Western players, particularly American institutional villains like drug companies, banks, and corporate thugs of various sorts. They decry the loss of LeCarré’s unique contribution to the canon, namely the ambiguous gray nether-world of moral ambiguity within which spies on both sides of the Cold War found themselves inhabiting. Today's stories are too black-and-white! I for one am grateful to LeCarré for elevating his critique to the level of art, which is what he does here, well, at least the kind of art that kept me up into the wee hours flicking page after page to find out what would happen. The subject is a botched anti-terrorism episode engineered by a non-governmental cabal of right wing money and ambitious corporate security types living at the edge of the British and US governments. Seems ripped from the pages of the news to me, hardly an exaggeration. What makes it all so compelling are the characters, people with whom LeCarré has had decades of experience -- men (mostly) who navigate the halls of Whitehall and Westminster and the towers of Canary Wharf by means of lies, murder, cover-up and money. What makes it exceptional is the sheer skill with which, even at 89, this writer masters the tools of his craft.

Three Seconds by Roslund Anders

Taut - that's the word blurb writers use to describe suspense thrillers. This is so taut, the string nearly breaks. Also appropriate: ingenious, as in, ingenious plotting. Trains running on parallel tracks, at one point three or four, all barreling along to a tunnel that they must get through. Masterful plotting is what gets us there, though by the last 50 pages, the driver is wanting to verify what you already know. Still. I'd pay for ingenious.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

‘Life After Life’ delivers a kind of alternate-reality fictional take on the 20th century life of a British family with issues -- think of the movie 'Memento' and you'll get it half right, the other half being classic British family-drama fiction. Her beautiful writing and fully realized characters, tinged with moral dilemmas all over the place, save this from being a slightly hot mess, to be expected perhaps when a writer of her skill and stature tries to pull off such a high-wire act.

Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem

A sweeping epic of New York left-wing Jewish life in the last half of the 20th century, Lethem creates an amusing, acerbic, knowing story in which a large cast (not all Jewish) navigate the touchstones of political and cultural life through a very specific lens. It's a lens I'm quite fond of, though it kind of ran out of steam 2/3 of the way through, in part because the prolix prose wears upon ones ears when trapped in a car with this stuff. This book didn’t come anywhere nearly as close to my heart as his divine Motherless Brooklyn, or even Chronic City, two great earlier works, but I give him extra points for ambition, which is clearly to pick up where Bellow, and especially Roth, left off.

May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes

I have loved Ms. Home's voice and fearless dive into contemporary psyches ever since I first began reading her short stories. Here again, she delivers the authentic first-person POV of a person of a different gender than herself as she tells the story, Thanksgiving to Thanksgiving, of a man in the throes of a horrendous mid-life crises. Spoiler: the fulcrum of the story is a fatal car accident triggered by his hostile older brother in which people in the other car are killed and the brother is hospitalized, though not for long. He self-discharges and goes home to find our protagonist in bed with the wife, whereupon he bludgeons her with a lamp. Complications, as they say, ensue, as if that wasn't complicated enough. This is a story of family, weird extensions and encounters that redefine family as this uncertain central character, a second-rate academic with an obsession for Richard Nixon, navigates the unfamiliar waters of deep emotional connection. There are the brothers' kids, already troubled, and the offspring of the car accident victim. There are the women he meets online. And parents all over the place. And African chieftains and Julie Nixon Eisenhower. There's a charming, shaggy-dog quality to the unfolding of the story, and a few preposterous plot points, but while in each scene, her language is always precise and taut, the voice clear and usually funny, and the gaze into the matters of the heart unblinking.

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

Chilling, stunning, nearly unbelievable: the story of Scientology told herein leaves one gasping. How could this have happened? The book, so well-written it hurts, tells us how a young L. Ron Hubbard stumbles from one scam and lie to another until he hits finally upon the idea of a "religion," and then proceeds to command a worldwide audience with the original Dianetics craze, and one of the most successful "self-help" books in history. We learn, mainly through the eyes of Paul Haggis, the fiilm and TV writer-director whose 35-year relationship with the "church" ended in a very public way, just how paranoid, powerful, rich and crazy the cult became, especially under Hubbard's successor David Miscavage. My own awareness of Scientology is episodic -- I remember the Ramparts Magazine story in the 70’s, tales of terrorizing critics and locking up those who wanted to leave. I became aware of the relentless recruiting and wealth aggregation by simply living in two of its main centers, DC and LA. And then the crazy Tom Cruise and Hollywood stuff, well, by then it had become very public. What I found most amazing was the early days of the movement. I need to go back and watch THE MASTER again. Very telling.

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwen

Of the mysteries McEwan spins, by far the greatest has to do with matters of the heart (and the body), the espionage aspect being a self-admitted bus-and-truck version of the kind of Cold War tale so well told by LeCarre. Indeed, the novelist has fun gently satirizing such genre conventions as the mechanics of trade craft, betrayals by double- and triple-agents, soulless bureaucratic snafu's and the angst that comes to those who lead a double life. Where he really excels, as always, are the mechanics of falling in and out of love and the atmospherics and tone of the Cold War settings in and around London. Not easy being a spy when the government is falling apart and everyone is smoking dope and screwing like bunnies. McEwen delivers his pleasures seemingly effortlessly, and even with heavy and obvious foreshadowing, the final reveal carries an especially yummy aha moment.

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

I love David Mitchell's sentences, tone, ambition and talent. My bookish infatuation started when I stumbled across The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010), thanks to my friend Alison. It's a historical novel set within the Dutch enclave of Edo-era Japan, but is like no other period piece I'd ever read. Then I devoured Cloud Atlas, and I was a goner. I loved that book so much, I gave copies as Christmas gifts two years ago and attended the movie its first night (liked, not loved the adaptation). I started Black Swan Green months ago, got interrupted, and it took a while to get back into it. This is a tiny gem, not an epic: essentially a coming-of-age story in a small English village. Not unlike Rowling's recent The Casual Vacancy, only better written and more focused on a single family. Not a lot happens of great note, unless you count divorce, infidelity, theft, bullying, teenaged lust, and revenge. Felt like updated Austen, actually.

The Nightmare: A Novel by Lars Kepler

THE NIGHTMARE is, without a doubt, a mystery, a suspenseful mystery triggered by a police investigation, but it is also a social-issue novel, fiercely uncovering the international traffic in illegal arms sales. This is a complicated story with multiple twists and turns, with the authors (yes, there are two writing together under a pen name) diving deeply into the history and psychology of many characters who are caught up in a nightmarish killing spree that is, ironically, centered around the villain's mind game centered on his victims' nightmares. There is a lot of over the top action, which began to wear on me ... how many times can the superhero hired killer track, kill, escape and kill again? And there are certain leaps of faith needed, especially for me, around the villain. But I was willing to cut some slack because the hero, a Finnish-born Swedish detective who was also the hero of THE HYPNOTIST and THE FIRE WITNESS (which I will finish soon) is everything you want in a hero. And because of the frequently lyrical depiction of relationships between the large cast of the broken and the brave.

Lionel Asbo: The State of England by Martin Amis

I can't for the life of me understand how I could have read so many books without diving into Martin Amis, whose reputation I've known for years. I loved Lionel Asbo -- the book, not the character, as he is an unrepentant thug, boor, slob, creep, and evidently, for Amis, a stand-in for everything that's wrong with England these days. A working class hero, indeed: this is what the poor would do if they got rich: basically the same thing as the rich, only without manners. I add a shout-out to the audiobook narrator Alex Jennings, who really performs all roles with intense brio and cheer, not to mention what to this Yank's tin ear, replicate the sounds of class-based English accents, replete with slang and short-hand. I doubt it would have made as big an impact on the page. I confess to be a bit confused by the ending. Who DID let in the dogs? Maybe we're not supposed to know.


Television: What I Loved (and Didn’t) in 2013

Yes, we’re still in television’s Golden Age (or its second, maybe third). And yes, there is now a healthy battle amongst the chattering classes over each medium’s preeminence: TV is better. No, Cinema is better.

This is a mug’s game if there ever was one, to my mind, akin to suggesting that novels are intrinsically better than poems, or short stories, or biographies. What is unarguable (if anything can be these days) is the artistry and sheer craft of the work that comes into our homes via television -- it optimizes the inherent intimacy and complexity of the serial story forms emergent in the last decade and compels us to become attached to a story world, a set of characters, a storytelling style, so much so that we come back, week after week, year after year.

Or we did until the emergence of binge watching, enabled first by TV on DVD, and especially since the advent of streaming. Now binge-watching is a thing of its own, almost a format thanks to Netflix’s release pattern. Made-to-binge series are almost like 13-hour movies, with very little repetitive exposition required, and less reliant upon the predictable beats and conventions of old-school TV formats.

Certainly cable adheres to a type of continuous story-stream formatting which is quite different from conventional network series, even the best of them. Longer story arcs, interesting character digressions, depth in texture and character. This is why TV is to be loved these days. And why picking just ten to be “best” is a mug’s game. And why there’s now a reason for this list – if you find a gem you haven’t seen and you trust me, just Google it. Chances are, it’s waiting for you to binge.

Breaking Bad was so great on so many levels, there’s really very little I can add. I was in the camp that liked it so-so in the beginning, went away in season 2, but came back to stay for the ride. This finale half-season seemed to do the impossible: sustain and intensify audience obsession for a long period of time and with a growing audience. Binge watching let laggards catch up so they could find out what all the fuss was about. What it was about was brilliant writing, acting and storytelling: a modern mythology with a flawed hero.

The Cast of DR's BORGEN.Borgen is the best political drama on television, delivering pleasure in greater measure because of the unfamiliar setting, e.g., contemporary Danish parliamentary politics. Untethered from parties and histories known to me, this great drama of ideas and personalities became vivid and suspenseful on its own merits. Denmark has managed to adapt the HBO-style of serial storytelling into its own world in a unique and superb way. Let’s just hope Netflix or HBO don’t ruin it with a lame adaptation that sucks its cultural frisson out along with the unfamiliar language.

Girls is criticized because its focus is privileged white girls in New York City, as if any milieu should be off limits no matter how great it is. And yes, Girls is great. Fearless, transgressive, confused and fucked-up, just like its ensemble of characters. These are people finding their way into adult life. Think back. It’s a messy time, not very graceful. I feel like Lena Dunham is a reporter from Mars, bringing back reports of the natives. I don’t live there, but I’m very curious.

Louie feels like a more grown-up version of Girls, only the dysfunctional anti-hero has lived decades longer, so it’s sadder still. While being funny. Because the lead character is a stand-up comedian, you could be lulled into thinking this is a form of reality TV. Not. It’s a carefully, courageously crafted deconstruction of comedy, with a lot of heart thrown in.

ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACKOrange is the New Black is the new “it” show for me, dramatically better than “Weeds,” the previous series by Jenji Cohen. Both shows feature strong female leads in edgy situations, but “Orange” feels authentic, where I always felt “Weeds” to be contrived, however much I love Mary Louise Parker. “Orange” introduces an ensemble of largely unknown actresses portraying women like that you never get to meet. Funny, tragic, angry, outrageous, sexy, and full of heart, “Orange” is one for the books.

The Americans is another great FX drama, set in Reagan-era Washington, D.C. in what turned out to be the finale stages of the Cold War. Our protagonists are Russian spies passing for a suburban family, with Margot Martindale as their controller. It’s a believable espionage suspense yarn bolted onto a family drama, and it works.

Justified stayed strong with Season 4’s quest for long-gone cocaine kingpin Drew Thompson, a plot driver which intertwines nicely with Raylan’s own crazy family story (not to mention the Detroit and Dixie Mafia, a tent revival scammer) and features a great ‘hiding-in-plain-sight’ denouement. The characters are fixed in place somewhat predictably, but tonally it’s spot-on.

Behind the Candelabra is something of a ringer on this list – for Soderbergh’s motion picture was delivered by HBO only when every single studio passed on this demented love story between Liberace and much younger lad, Scott Thorsen. Frank, telling and over-the-top, the picture is dominated by its superstar leads, Michael Douglas and especially Matt Damon.

Mad Men – I’m obsessed and cannot imagine a list of my favorite shows without MM, even if Season Six was all over the place. Nowhere on prime time do we get the sheer surrealism of Don Draper’s journey. We need to know where it ends. We must take this ride... along with so many great secondary characters. Roger had a particularly good year.

The Story of Film: An Odyssey – Mark Cousins is a better film historian and writer than he is narrator (for sure) and director, but I got used to his quirks, mainly because the information and THE CLIPS are remarkable. I learned so much, especially about national cinema of foreign countries. Even countries I’ve spent time viewing like France, Japan, and Italy, he uncovers some gems. And his work on the cinema of emerging nations is truly groundbreaking. That said, he’s difficult to binge watch, which I did in several batches. He’s so talky, he has to clutter the visuals with what look like travelogue footage. Everything he describes requires a superlative. And, for somebody who claims that real innovation never comes from Hollywood, he sure spends a lot of time telling us about Hollywood movies. But you will not find a film survey class this good anywhere. 

The Fall is a BBC police procedural set in Northern Ireland starring Gillian Anderson, whose tough-as-nails Scotland Yard investigator picks up where Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennison stops. Mess with her at your peril, men.

The Following is the only network show I really couldn’t get enough of, which may say more about me than the networks, give that the protagonists are a Edgar Allan Poe cult leader and the FBI cop who pursues him. I liked the weird dramatic plot twists caused by the cult leader’s followers, and of course, James Purfoy, who does evil very seductively.

Masters of Sex tells the story of pioneering medical researchers Masters and Johnson, who were the first to study human sexual response back in the 60's. The setting shares some of the appeal of Mad Men, but with a lot more skin. (Why exactly is Showtime still squeamish about full male nudity, I wonder?) What keeps you coming back are the actors – I especially liked Lizzie Caplan – who create characters whose personal and professional lives get very, very messy amidst the space shots and political incidents. 

Dancing on the Edge is a BBC mini-series shown in the US on Starz featuring Oscar contender Chiwetel Ejiofor as the leader of an all-black jazz band in 1930’s London. Told in flashback, the story shows how the band was able to overcome the limits of race through clever alliances with the upper class. As you might guess, it doesn’t end well.

Rectify is the first original series by Sundance, created by Ray McKinnon who played a subsidiary role in FX’s Sons of Anarchy. Aden Young is an ex-con, released from prison into small-town Georgia, after being exonerated for the murder of his girlfriend because of DNA evidence. Young captures the volatile mix of social fragility and bottled-up fury as he navigates the complexities of the life he had stolen from him. Plus, there’s a mystery at the heart of the set-up: if he didn’t do it, who did?

Among the other series I quite enjoyed this year were: Top of the Lake, Sons of Anarchy, Bates Motel, The Newsroom, The Bridge, Veep, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, Treme, Boardwalk Empire, Ray Donovan, Hit & Miss, Silk, The Paradise, Orphan Black, Luther, Broadchurch, Arrested Development and Modern Family.

I watched, but was disappointed in: Homeland (preposterous), Sherlock (pandering), House of Cards (a Democrat from South Carolina in a political drama?), Spies of Warsaw (some things aren’t meant to be adapted), Banshee (great premise, hot cast, gratuitous sex and violence), Defiance (yikes), Low Winter Sun (yawn), Nurse Jackie (faded), Enlightened (annoying), American Horror Story: Coven (craven).

The rest: well, I didn’t watch, did I?


One Year in Now Media

Each year my colleague Simon Staffans from Helsinki provides a great service to the transmedia field with the publication of "One Year in Now Media" -- a compendium of his own great blog posts as well as interviews with people in the field, myself included.

Here are Simon's interview questions:

o   How was 2013 for you? You launched Theatrics – how’s it done? Why did you decide to launch that venture? And what projects – other than Theatrics ones J - have you been the most impressed by?

o   Back in the days, along the times of the first wrap-up I did, you said that there had been no transmedia projects to move you to tears yet. Has that happened yet? If not, why not? And do you see signs that it might come to happen? In what direction do you feel the multiplatform / transmedia world is moving?

o   What are your hopes and fears for 2014? What possibilities and challenges do you see on the horizon?

And my replies:

2013 was a great year for me. My focus has been work with start-ups in the digital media/technology ecosystem. Some examples:

I am Senior Advisor to ideaBOOST, a new accelerator for start-ups in the media/tech field, created and launched by the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto. We completed and launched two cohorts -- more than a dozen companies including game platforms, transmedia properties, mobile apps, story-based e-commerce, and much more. We launched cohort #3 in late November, as well as a unique Production Lab in conjunction with wearable computing pioneer, Mind Pirate, a company that I advise. This Lab will incubate as many as five new products that run on Google Glass, as well as iOS and Android in 1st quarter of 2014. I’ve just gotten my own Google Glass device, and I’m very jazzed about this new form factor for experience delivery.

I'm also mentoring companies in another accelerator called Dogfish, based in New York City, with a focus on content creation startups. This accelerator from within the independent film community, and like ideaBOOST, believes that the principles of the "lean startup movement" can and should be used by content creators in order to develop sustainable business models for the digital era. One of the companies I advised is building a live-action game engine/platform, for example. Very interesting.

I also continued my work with, a collaborative media platform based in Houston. The company grew out of a unique interactive sci-fi soap opera called "Beckinfield" in which users created and performed as characters in the story. I loved that idea and felt that I could help the company introduce this form of deep fan engagement to the television industry. To that end, Theatrics helped power The Social Sector, a digital native story-driven "mystery" that invited fans into the story world of the characters from USA's hit series PSYCH, which ran for 8 weeks in Q1, and is still live.

In April we expanded the idea by offering the beta version of the Theatrics platform aimed at independent transmedia producers who want to offer fan-based content in a story container. Our first example was "Welcome to Sanditon," the sequel to the Emmy-winning "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries," which modernized Jane Austen. In Sanditon, fans could impact the story through their own character engagements uploaded as video, text or images. Other outstanding examples included The Ghost Club and Aurelia: Edge of Darkness. The latter, a steampunk adventure, struck a chord with Live-Action Role-players (LARPers). The beta test continues -- anyone can create their own interactive show by using the wizard on The company is also building other applications in conjunction a range of online publishers and enterprises. 

Theatrics is but one example of the rise of what I'm calling "Fan Powered Media." I gave several talks focusing on the idea of audience as engagement engine with content, including this presentation at the Broadband TV conference that used "The Walking Dead" as an example. Henry Jenkins and others have shown the way in recognizing that deep fan engagement, including content creation by users, is happening in both authorized and unauthorized ways. So a piece of commercial content is no longer just the linear artifact that attracts the fans -- it's really a vast ecosystem of fan engagement as well.

In terms of transmedia work this year, I focus on the independent projects, which are what interest me. I'm sure that companion apps for the latest Hollywood superhero movie were awesome, but this is not my terrain, except when forced to watch by friends or a long and boring plane ride.  

Rather, I applaud the talents and especially the perseverance of my colleagues who have managed to devise and launch ambitious independent projects that hold the greatest chance of moving me like novels, films and great TV.

I was very moved and quite impressed with The Hollow, an interactive documentary about an impoverished county in Appalachia. The creators used the power of documentary storytelling, but layered the navigation of the experience with very beautiful graphics and a killer UI. I don't know any more what is "transmedia" and what isn't. I just know that intensity of feeling is the goal, and this work brought me there more than most. Elaine McMillion and her team found support from Tribeca, Kickstarter and elsewhere to support a long-term media commitment to a specific place where information can make a difference. What makes her effort distinctive is the authenticity of the content and the delight one has in navigating the site.

A similarly beautiful user-experience was achieved in National Geographic Channel's "Killing Kennedy" TV movie's companion website (Kennedy and Oswald)!/premiere-screen. Our web technologies allow such a rich mix of media types in a user-controlled environment. In this case, the emotions were less intense than a dramatic narrative, nostalgic and bittersweet, sort of like reading an old LIFE Magazine.

I saw a screening of the theatrical component of the much-awaited transmedia production “The Cosmonaut” which also included webisodes and other digital elements. At the time I reviewed it, the non-film components were just being released, and so I concentrated on the film itself, much of which I liked, though not entirely. I did very much like the premise of taking a historical milieu, in this case the world of Soviet-era cosmonauts, and creating a fictionalized world that unfurls in different media. There was a delicate, haunting quality to this work that was quite fine. 

 “The Institute,” is a 2013 film by Spencer McCall that documents the story of an alternate reality game held in San Francisco a few years ago in which some 10,000 people participated -- a hoax-based story world revolving around a kind of EST-like cult, the mystery of a missing girl, and a lot of real-world activities on the streets. While McCall can't replicate the experiences of those involved, we get a sense of the experience through interviews with many of those involved, including the creators, the participants (including a few who are mentally ill), and occasionally capturing scenes as they unfold. By the end, some viewers might themselves wonder what is “real” and what was manufactured for either the game or the film. I liked this because it reminded me that we don't really have any way to archive these time-limited experiments. Even those that are entirely digital may suddenly vanish with the fortunes of the companies housing the data.

On a slightly different note, I've been very impressed with the curatorial excellence of Google's Creative Sandbox. While much of the work is from agencies and brands, it's very nice to have a neutral location that enhances discovery with a different spin from the always useful FWA site (Favorite Website Awards). And in the transmedia/ARG area, I find Michael Anderson's ARGNet indispensable. 

Year’s end affords an opportunity to reflect on where we are as a community. We saw the demise of the Story World conference and the launch of the Transvergence Summit, two conferences with some overlap and similar challenges -- an attempt to bring under one big tent a hydra-headed monster of a community which can't even seem to settle on a definition of what it does, and probably with good reason.

The nomenclature flame wars, to wit Brian Clark's recent Facebook post and the comments that followed, are tiresome. The essential issue being raised by many early transmedia practitioners has come and gone -- namely, that stories can unfold in many ways across a number of different platforms. Got it. Now what

We've seen multi-platform story experiments large and small from mainstream television and motion picture producers without much evidence that there is sustained interest there, other than to find inventive ways to promote and market the mother ship. Sometimes this stuff is great fun, especially with properties that already have fans.

A new artform? Not so much. Just take the meteoric rise and fall of so-called "second screen" apps, especially for TV, as an example. Marketers have done a lot of different implementations for many, many shows on a slew of emerging platforms, and I suspect will continue to do so, but the real winners at the end of the day are the all-purpose platforms Facebook and Twitter, which are easy for agencies to understand, and have massive scale. And can be measured, sort of. And therefore monetized.

So, I would expect experiments with the form to remain the province of independents who have different measures of success, though some financial return would be much appreciated, I'm sure. These folks want to invent something new, and perhaps along the way deliver a deeper experience to a smaller, but more intensely committed group of fans. Many of these folks will emerge from the transformed film and journalism programs at major universities, which, if you haven't noticed, are bursting at the seams (go figure!). We have a new generation of transmediologists coming up. I look forward to seeing their work. 


Helping the Dogfish Fly

The ‘classic’ business accelerator model is an investor-backed bootcamp-style program that offers tech entrepreneurs money, training, advice, and access in exchange for a share of the company (think: Y Combinator and TechStars). 

Can the model work for indie film?

That question drove NYC-based producer James Belfer to expand the boundaries of his indie film company Dogfish Pictures by launching the Dogfish Accelerator to help filmmakers think like start-ups. Inspired by a summer at Tech Crunch, Belfer joined with his colleague Michelle Soffen to co-found an indie film accelerator, which held its demo day last Friday.

James Belfer (via #googleglass)

I was there as a minor mentor in the program, having spent an intense day of speed-dating with six of the eight companies in the program and some Skype calls along the way. I'd originally reached out to Dogfish for a panel for accelerators in the media business -- there are still only a handful (Media Camp, Matter Ventures, and ideaBOOST, which I advise).

I wanted to see how far these young companies could come in three months, and to learn how the Dogfish model has progressed its first time out. It’s one thing to generate press buzz, and quite another to execute.

Did it work?

The teams I met in September delivered much better pitches last Friday. Their business goals were more clearly articulated, and somebody made sure they were funny and engaging and warm. Even though they couldn’t explicitly raise money at the event, they all laid out their financial needs and how they’d use the money.

Me w/ Zach Lieberman, shot by Ryan Koo via #googleglass (their company, Exit Strategy is building a live-action game engine).Listening to the pitches, you could see the influence of the tech start-up spirit, even among those companies that were essentially offering single films or a slate of films (which was the majority). All of these companies had deeply absorbed the new paradigm for successful indie content – which is to know, find and connect with audiences long before the release date. All were exceedingly tech and social media savvy, and much more grounded in the entire business ecosystem they hoped to conquer.

But they’re running a marathon, not a sprint – it’s too soon to know whether Dogfish’s companies will succeed at raising funds and building sustainable businesses.  

To help, Belfer announced that Dogfish will work with the eight companies on an ongoing basis as they raise funds and launch their businesses, and that “by next year, I hope to be telling you details about a Dogfish Studio.” The 2014 program will kick off in September. Aspirants can register early on the website prior to the official application process.

I can’t wait to see what happens. 

Allie Esslinger of Section II, the first VOD platform for premium content for lesbians.Jessalyn Abbott gives me and my #googleglass an infectious smile (Aptly, her company is Go Infect Films.)


Impresarios of Interactivity

If you’re near New York City next Wednesday (12/11/13), you should check out the one-day version of the TV of Tomorrow Show. And if you do that, don’t miss my panel at 4:55, charmingly dubbed “The Impresarios of Interactivity” by Tracy Swedlow, herself quite an impresario and the hardest working woman in show business. Seriously.

The session showcases folks who see interactivity as the key to advancing TV and video and proving it by attracting investors, partners, customers and audience for the vision. If you too believe that the future of TV and video should be interactive, social and personalized, please don’t miss this panel, which includes:

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