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May 30, 2012

Movie Attendance

The audience for movies is dwindling and has declined every year for quite some time now (I'm having trouble finding a definitive number online, but many sites all agree that, at least for 10 years now, the audience (aka, actual ticket sales) have gone down) even while the movie business has managed to stay steady or improve in profitability. For example, recently commented that, while MIB3 made close to the same dollar figure in its opening as MIB2,
"Adjusting for 10 years of ticket price inflation and 3D ticket prices, MIB 3's initial attendance was significantly lower than that of Men in Black II." (link) [Italics mine]
It is no wonder that the movie and theater business has had to consistently raise prices for the same period of time, is it? If you lose, say, 5% of your business every year for a decade, you have to raise prices to compensate, right?

Wrong. The audience is still there. Successes like The Dark Knight, The Avengers, Hunger Games, the Harry Potter franchise, Inception, and others all show that if you make a good movie, with an excellent story first and foremost, with great direction, good acting, and decent special effects, the audiences will come. A movie like TDK or Avengers cannot make $500+ million domestic without bringing in people who are not comic book fans, even when accounting for comic book fans going multiple times and 3D surcharges. Good word of mouth and good press puts butts in the seats, it is as simple as that.

Battleship recently bombed hugely at the box office. It had the same quality of special effects, similar direction and similar acting as The Avengers, so why did it do so poorly? It had a shitty story and pretty much no connection to the game on which it is based.

The problem is that movie people will look at The Avengers and say, "Well, see, we just have to put more heroes into one film; that will draw the audiences." Er, No. Just like the head of the studio saying they needed more "dark" comic book movies because TDK was a success was wrong, this thinking is wrong too. The Avengers is successful because it has a good story and good direction. If Warners had allowed Joss Whedon to make the Wonder Woman he scripted and wanted to direct in 2007, we would have seen this level of success earlier -- because Mr. Whedon respects the material, is a good TV/Movie writer, and is a talented director. In addition, this theory has proven false a number of times already, what with the overall lack of success of Spider-Man 3 (which the studio forced Sam Raimi to add Venom into, rather than waiting and getting the character into his own movie), the two Fantastic Four movies, and others.

The movie business is constantly re-imagining, re-making, and re-creating the same films audiences have already seen. This is because they see it as a win-win; the audience will go see X thing because it is familiar and they will get Y dollars from the audience. But this is a bad argument; usually those products are the ones they put the best talent behind to write a good story and direct it. Inception showed that an original effort can work just as well to draw in an audience, as did The Sixth Sense, Passion of the Christ, Finding Nemo, ET, and others.

The theaters are also to blame for the loss of audience; every time I go to Cheap Tuesday night, pretty much any show is mostly sold out and there are long lines at concessions. Every other night of the week, unless the movie has considerable buzz about it (like The Avengers currently), the theaters are half-full and the lines are easily managed. When I lived elsewhere, every time I went to the dollar theater, the lines were out the door for movies that had been out for 3-6 months, yet I always was able to get into even the biggest films on opening night at almost any theater. What this tells me is that people want the theater experience, but it is just too damned expensive. It used to be that a family of four could go to the movies for under $40, snacks included. Now, you're looking at close to $45 just for the tickets and another $20 for snacks. Dinner and a movie used to be a common date night, with dinner being the expensive part. Now, the movie is often the most expensive part of the night, what with tickets costing at least $10 each on an average day.
If I have a theater with two screening rooms, one that seats 250 people and one that seats 150 people, that's 400 total seats. At $10 a pop, that is a potential for $4000 per show for both theaters. But, at $10 a pop, I'm usually only seeing half-filled theaters, so I'm earning closer to $2000 per show total for both theaters. Let's say 1/3 of those that show up, or about 66 people, buy snacks averaging out to the cost of a popcorn ($4.50) and a drink ($3.00). I have made another $495. So my total income stands around $2500, per show for both theaters.
Now, I lower the prices to $7 per ticket. I get more butts in the seats, averaging closer to 80% per show, or 320 seats sold, and make $2240. The same 1/3 of people buy snacks. That's now 106 people, or $795 in concessions. This gives me a total of $3035 for the same shows, or a difference of $535 per screening.
Simply put, by lowering my prices, I have more people attending and make more money. Even without lowering concessions. Now, if I consider lowering concessions and get it closer to 50% of those attending getting something, then I have increased my profits yet again.
Good movies and lower prices can bring more butts to the theater and, in the long run, get the theaters and movie makers more money. The current gimmicks are already not working, the higher concessions and ticket prices are driving more people away, and there are too many other places for people to spend their entertainment dollar these days. The theater owners and movie makers need to make sure they have a product that people want to see at a price they want to see it at. It is a simple equation that can save their business and ensure they are making money well into the future.

May 26, 2012

NBA Refs

I argue that the NBA has the worst officiating of any professional sport, especially in North America. When it added a third on-court official, the refereeing actually got worse. How about, instead of fining players and coaches for pointing out what every fan knows to be true (i.e., that the NBA officiating is so horrible), the NBA simplifies its rules and cleans up the officiating? I know, I know, what a novel concept.

Here are some suggestions:

Right now, on approximately 8 out of 10 plays, the official who is completely blocked off from actually seeing whether a foul was committed is usually the one that blows the whistle. He assumes a foul must have been committed because he heard a sound or saw some movement by the shooter that suggested a foul. New rule: if you don't actually see an actual foul, you don't call it.

Also, frankly, the rules have gone too far toward allowing "act of shooting" calls to grant the person with the ball a foul shot. Let's make it so that if you aren't actively/currently in the act of shooting (i.e., the ball is in your hands and they are actively moving forward in a shooting action), then it is not an act of shooting foul. No more "two steps without dribbling," no more throwing your arms wildly forward after you hear the whistle and faking the ref into giving you a foul shot. Getting to the free throw line should be a rare and special occurrence, not a contest between the superstars to see who can get there the most in a game.

Oh, and let's actually use a rule that is on the books and make it more prevalent and important: the person who initiates the contact is the one on whom the foul is called. I hate watching a basketball game and Hubie Brown, Marv Albert, Mike Breen, or another announcer talks about the shooter "leaning into" the defender or trying to "draw contact" and getting a whistle. The rules state that the person who initiates the contact is the one who committed the foul. No more charging straight ahead, leaping into the air and into a defender, and it is the defender's fault for being in the way. If this rule was used and applied properly, more charges would get called and NBA players wouldn't feel the need to "flop" in order to get a call in their favor.

Also, let's expand the existing "hand is part of the ball" rule to say "the hand and forearm, up to but not including the elbow" is part of the ball and any incidental contact is considered part of the ball. Also, "the feet and lower legs, up to but not including the knees" is considered neutral territory, like the court, and incidental contact does not constitute a penalty. No more having two players running down the court and their feet get tangled and it is a foul on someone. I think most refs can determine if a player is kicking at another with intent as opposed to just stepping on a foot and taking a tumble.

If two people are on the ground wrestling over the ball, or someone is trapped on the sideline, they cannot call a timeout. If you are wrestling for the ball, there is always some, even minor, doubt as to who has possession of it, so no time out can be called. If you are trapped on the sideline by a defender, possession of the ball is starting to be in doubt (as you may not be able to escape, thus giving the ball to the other team either via the shot clock or by stepping out of bounds) and you should not be allowed to call timeout. Timeouts should only be called when possession is without doubt and only by the team with the ball (TV and referee timeouts are the only exceptions to this).

The NBA wants exciting games to draw the fans in. They want to make money. During the season, the refs call the game one way which allows for a lot of offense and higher scores. But when the game gets to the playoffs, they call it differently and much more defense is played. Yet more people watch the playoffs than watch individual games during the season. This is partly because there are so many games (82 during a regular season) that each individual game means very little but mostly because individual game in the playoffs have so much more meaning and value. It also shows that fans don't mind watching exciting, defensive games. So, let's bring the defense back into the league and allow the contests to be decided on the court, not by arbitrary calls by an official.

These are my suggestions. How would you fix the officiating in the NBA?

May 24, 2012


I fairly recently became aware of a new MMORPG called Rift. It generally uses the tropes and conventions of other online games of the fantasy genre, but it does something that few of the others do: it learns from the mistakes of past games and has put in place new ways of doing things.

Rift provides you with a lot of storage space, than can be expanded by larger sized backpacks. Many games make storage an issue so that you cannot carry around what you want to and have to make decisions (or as a time sink so that you have to constantly return to locations where you can sell items).

The game provides a button at each vendor to sell all "gray" or low-level, trash items that you pick up during your forays into the wilderness. This saves a lot of time at the vendors, and means you can more quickly get to reviewing and selecting which of the new, high-level items you wish to keep and use, and which you want to sell (or if you have stuff that is craft fodder and want to convert it).

While Rift has a craft system that is very robust, you do not need to waste backpack space with the craft tools. In LOTRO, for example, I have some Explorers. Each one has to waste up to three slots just to carry the sewing kit, pickaxe, and hammer needed for the crafts involved. In Rift, you simply take the crafting skill and the game provides you with the appropriate tools when you need to use it-- you do not waste any valuable slots on the tool. Backpack space is still needed for the materials you receive via crafting. In general, you can select up to three crafts that all work together so you are pretty much not reliant on other people for materials.

Each class has special abilities or powers they can use when a power bar level is achieved. For example, some of the Fighter classes build up "Attack Points," with a total of three available, while a Thief can build up their similar power bar up to eight. Each is built up using "Builder" powers and used with "Finishers." This is similar to many classes in other MMORPGs. In this game, however, once built up, those power bar are not lost until YOU use them. In most games (all that I have played, until Rift), whatever you build up slowly ebbs as you play or if you don't use it. In Rift, once you build up your bar, it remains on your character until you select a Finisher that uses some or all of it. In addition, all of your starting abilities/powers build up those bars. The use to build-up ratio may not be 1:1, but your starting powers all have at least a chance to give you one or more of those power build-up/energy/bonuses. (In most cases, it is very nearly 1:1. However, the fighter has to actually hit with its builders, so a strongly defensive or dodging opponent can make it harder for a fighter class to build up his Attack Points.)

One of the important changes in Rift over most of the MMORPGs I have played is that in Rift you select your main archetype from the four classics (Fighter, Thief, Cleric, Mage). But, within that selection, you have up to three "souls," or subclasses, that you can mix and match to tailor a character to your exact play-style and desires. For example, there are 8 subclasses of Fighter you can opt for, mixing and matching up to three of them together for various abilities. The subclasses are labeled as Offensive, Defensive, or Support. So, for example, I initially went with one of the default setups with my Fighter, which happened to have three Offensive subclasses selected. However, with my play-style of "slow and steady wins the race," I was finding I was dying a lot. I investigated the subclasses a bit more, and determined that by mixing in the right Defensive subclass, I was able to vastly increase my survivability with my play-style.

Another change to how Rift works as compared to many MMORPGs is that it uses fewer clickable powers (even though you have, in essence, three "classes" worth of abilities from your subclasses). Instead, each time you level, rather than always getting a new clickable power, you get abilities that modify your existing skills and abilities. On level up, you might select to increase your defenses, or ability to dodge, or the number of opponents the existing abilities attack, or add a new energy type to what your powers can do -- there are many choices, only some of which provide you with new clickable powers. In addition, many of the subclasses have synergies between powers and abilities that allow you to build up very potent offensive, defensive, and support abilities by mixing and matching what each subclasses does. For example, I stumbled on a combo of three subclasses on a mage character that each have powers that apply Damage Over Time (DOT) effects or that have abilities that enhance and improve DOTs. By mixing and matching, I have a mage that can case a few spells on the opponent and then move on to the next opponent, knowing that the DOT effects will take the first one out in no time.

One other aspect of Rift I really like is that there are a lot of aura and self-buffs that you can click and forget or buff for up to an hour on your character. Some of these are group buffs (or can become group buffs) and many are self-only buffs. You can, in general, have all of the buffs from any of your three subclasses working at once; which means if you select your subclasses carefully, you can create a character with many buffs going on and providing synergies at one time.

As a sidebar to the way the classes and souls are set up in Rift, they have made "respeccing" relatively easy and painless. In many MMORPGs, you have classes that can do multiple things in a group (for example, DPS and Tanking), but the player usually is specified (speced/specced) for one or the other. It is often expensive, irritating, and sometimes time consuming to respec your character to fit the other abilities when needed. In Rift, your second Spec slot is pretty cheap and each subsequent one is more expensive (you can have up to six Specs for one character!). Secondly, a respecced character in Rift can COMPLETELY respec from scratch for each one of those Specs -- while you have to stay within the main selection you made (Fighter, Mage, Cleric, Thief), the three souls/subclasses you use for each spec can be completely different. For example, my Cleric has a "Tank" build, that has two Defensive and one Offensive soul, a "Battle Tank" build that has two Offensive and one Defensive soul. This allows me to be do more damage while playing on my own, and to be more of a tank/healer when I am grouped with people. Switching between them is easy and quick. Also, as long as a subclass/soul is at 0, you can change it to something else. If you have spent points on a subclass, you can still change it by going to a class trainer and paying a relatively nominal fee to start over from scratch, and there is no limit (except for money) on this form of respeccing. All in all, respeccing is VERY easy compared to most MMORPGs.

Most MMORPGs have events or times when grouping is somewhat forced or required. Rift has a rather neat and elegant method for events: If you are in the area when the event is taking place, you can join the public group, continue to participate with others but as an individual, or ignore it completely (although you might get attacked if you get too close). Public groups, if enough people are around, can also merge into a super group containing multiple groups. If you decide to join one of the public groups that spontaneously forms when these events occur, your buffs and group abilities immediately populate to your new teammates (and theirs to you). It is quick, painless, and you don't have to spend minutes to hours in a group channel or chat posting "Looking for Team for X" -- you just go where the action is and group up as it happens. You can choose to stay together or go your separate ways afterward.

Another small, but very nice, change that Rift made as compares with most MMORPGs is that you can mail up to six items to other characters, in addition to money and text. Most games I've played either don't allow mailing items or reluctantly allow you to mail one item at a time to a character. Rift designers have realized that this is a needless restricting to paying customers and let you send six things at once. It makes rekitting a new character with your higher level so much faster and easier-- you can get right to the adventuring!