Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Twitter Fail


Those of us who were early adopters of Twitter became well acquainted with the above image. The new 140 character instant communication system seemed to temporarily collapse under the weight of its own success on a daily basis.

But we stuck it out and so did Twitter and I actually can’t remember the last time the “Fail Whale” made an appearance.

But that hasn’t prevented Twitter failing many of its users behind the scenes.

One of the benefits of the system is that once you establish an account and jump in –- you’re in. The entire Twitterverse is open to you. Link or find your way to anybody, any topic, anything. Only private conversations are off-limits.

Problem is – you can only continue to do that if you never change who you are –- digitally speaking.

A couple of years ago, I left my internet provider (Bell Sympatico) for Shaw. It was a smooth transition, one that thousands make, moving one way or another every day.

In the process, I changed my email address, dumping the one I had used when I set up my Twitter account. As far as my daily access to twitter went, I didn’t notice any change. Nothing changed my tweet experience.

Then one day, several months later, Twitter updated itself and asked me to log back into my account. I couldn’t.

And when I contacted Technical support, assuming I was doing something wrong (with Tech I always assume the problem is me) I discovered that this problem wasn’t.

Apparently, when I entered the email address and I used when setting up my account, Twitter “pinged” that old address, discovered it was gone and blocked my entry.

Okay, no problem. Everybody moves. Everybody switches ISPs from time to time. There had to be a way for some human or corporate algorithm at Twitter to update me.

But there wasn’t.

No matter how well I could prove I am who I am.

According to Twitter, the only option was to contact my original ISP and revive the original account long enough to log in and let Twitter “ping” it.

Problem is –- I couldn’t find anybody at Bell who knew how to do that.

And to tell you the truth, they’d really rather spend their time looking after their own customers, not those who use Twitter, let alone some guy who dumped them years ago.

Stumped, I discovered that Tweetdeck, the app I most use to access Twitter was operating perfectly. Cool. So life went on.

And then Twitter bought Tweetdeck.

And updated it.

But I still can’t access my Twitter account unless I find a way to exhume an email address that’s been dead for quite some time.

Luckily, I still have one computer which hasn’t updated Tweetdeck. But who knows how long that will last.

Now, I’m not going to tell Twitter how to run their business, because they seem to be doing quite well without my input.

And I’m sure this “first world problem” was adequately covered somewhere around Page 437 of that User Agreement me and nobody else ever reads when we’re signing up for a new service.

But it’s annoying. As is anything in which solutions can’t be found by reasonable people trying to help one another.

And it made me realize just how fragile all these systems we’ve come to take for granted really are.

How fast would Bell or Rogers or anybody else sell new customers if we customers had to first make a list of all the services we had to update – maybe before even knowing what email address or mobile number was available to us?

Do I need to bring a list of all my apps and online services along the next time I buy a phone or a tablet or an operating service?

Will the pimply faced kid behind the counter know all of them?

Wasn’t the whole point of technology to make our lives simpler, not impossible to navigate?

And while it might be a good thing that no personal information beyond an email address or mobile number is available to any third-world dictator trying to silence me on Twitter; it can’t be a comfortable position for anyone dependant on the service yet unhappy with their ISP.

So be forewarned. If you move or change your service provider, you need to let Twitter know –- even if you don’t know who you’ll be with once you get wherever it is you’re going.


Over the next few days, @decencylegion will go dark on Twitter and you’ll find me and The Legion at @jim_henshaw .

And don’t worry, I’ll be in touch with all those who hang on my every word to let you know personally.

Around here, we try to make life easy for our users. I hope somebody at Twitter realizes it really isn’t that complicated.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Best Exotic Audience Demographic

With the Summer movie box office down 5% from last year, it would appear I haven’t been the only one having difficulty finding something worth paying to see on the big screen.

Every Friday, I’ve opened the paper for what might be available and been greeted by either another guy in tights, another reboot, another two hour commercial for a toy or some 20-something director’s examination of 20-something angst that I couldn’t get interested in when I was 20-something myself.

So, I eschewed the Imax/Dolby/$10 popcorn experience for episodes of “The Newsroom” and “Breaking Bad” or what was on Netflix.

But there’s a neighborhood multiplex down the street and two things struck me each time I drove past over the last months. One was how quickly the over-hyped Superheroes, Sci-Fi extravaganzas and raunchy comedies came and went.

The other was that one title stayed week after week after week.

“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” opened at that theatre on May 25th and is still playing 14 weeks (one entire Summer) later.

To date, this modest comedy, made for a mere (in Hollywood terms) $10 Million, has earned $130 Million in ticket sales. In other words, more than the take home of a month’s worth of Hollywood mega-budget tent-pole franchises combined.

It’s a success that most in the industry have ignored, perhaps because the target audience is a group that Hollywood mostly ignores –- old people.

Now, I still don’t consider myself an old guy, but I’m obviously headed in that direction. And when I arrive, like a lot of baby-boomers, I’ll probably be there a while since 80 is widely considered to be the new 60.

I once had a psychic predict I’d die violently at the hands of a jealous husband in my 87th year. I always used that as proof of my ageless charm. But I’m sure he meant I’ll be on a park bench having an ice cream when some deranged cuckold goes on a shooting spree.

For the first time in my life an innocent bystander…

Anyway – I finally decided to see what the movie was all about last night, arriving as a busload (yes, I said busload) from a nearby Seniors home disembarked fellow patrons, all greeted warmly by the manager.

I got talking to him and discovered this is a nightly occurrence and that some have returned to see the film 3 or 4 times.

Now, you might put part of that return business down to the forgetfulness of old age. But I’m thinking that like Sci-Fi fans when “Star Trek” came along, “Best Exotic Marigold” is one of the few entertainment options these people have.

Chances are more than a few of them were also those self same under-served original “Star Trek” fans…

I don’t know why the entertainment business doesn’t cater to such a wide and growing audience demographic. But we don’t.

Maybe we’re a little afraid of one day becoming a part of that niche ourselves. Maybe they don’t fit our image of being cutting edge and cool.

“I’m the guy who’s ‘edgy’ not the one out edging his lawn.”

A couple of years back, I pitched a series to a Canadian network that targeted people over the age of 50. Mostly because I’d read a bunch of surveys indicating the majority of the North American TV audience is now in that age bracket.

The trendy, young network execs on the opposite couch couldn’t have been less interested. Story content aside, they had been tasked with attracting younger audiences, rescuing both they and the network from the Internet. As one defined the process, “planting them back on the couch”.

When I suggested that might not be possible since more and more people under 25 don’t even own a television set, it was suggested that my premise was based on “American numbers” and therefore not applicable.

As I talked with the theatre manager, I watched a stream of grey heads move from the refreshment stand into the theatre, many by way of the washroom to make sure they could last the running time of the movie.

Meanwhile, barely a trickle of younger patrons entered the auditoriums where “The Dark Knight”, “The Bourne Legacy” and “Expendables 2” were playing. After all, it was a Monday night.

But even on a Monday, the Manager was called away to resupply the candy counter. “I’ve never sold so many wine gums”, he said with a smile.

In a lot of ways, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” wasn’t my cup of Chai. But it wasn’t meant to be.

Instead it was telling all those whose grey heads shimmered with the reflected light from the screen that their lives mattered and a multitude of adventures they’d never imagined awaited them.

And isn’t that why we all go to the movies?

In the lobby afterward, there was a buzz of excitement and satisfaction. Something I don’t remember hearing from the far larger crowd with whom I’d seen “The Dark Knight Rises”.

Performances were praised. Jokes repeated. Names of those who needed to be told to see the film were exchanged. Fourteen weeks in and still the word of mouth growing.

Maybe it’s right that our industry keep pushing the creative envelopes and inspiring the young. But there’s another audience out there too. One that might just keep us in business.

And those wine gums really aren’t that bad either.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Lazy Sunday # 235: They Need A Bigger Wind

I’m a news junkie, a political one too. But days away from the beginning of the height of the political season in the US, I’ve decided not to follow it anymore.

The lying and the nonsense finally got to me. Mostly the lying. But the nonsense too.

All week long, American news organizations ramped up concerns that Hurricane Isaac would arrive in Tampa on Monday, disrupting the opening of the Republic National Convention during which Mitt Romney would receive the mantle of Presidential candidate.

Depending on your political leanings, there were any number of panel discussions on everything from disrupted flight schedules to the need for first responders to concentrate on helping the city’s population rather than protestors or visiting conventioneers.

One network talking head even chortled that this was God’s way of “smiting the GOP”.

Not once did I hear anybody remark that this was a pretty major storm with the power to wreak havoc on millions of people and probably cost several their lives.

Only this morning, when the storm track changed, moving Isaac away from Tampa and threatening to arrive in New Orleans on the 7th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina did anybody seem to realize Nature has no political motives.

I’m sure there have been past political campaigns with the level of rancor, name-calling and ill-will of the 2012 election. I’m certain that all of them have included side-issues dominating the important ones and off-the-cuff remarks derailing somebody’s agenda.

But I don’t recall a time when somebody could be caught in a bald-faced lie and argue that them lying to voters wasn’t an issue.

Thursday night, I was watching Anderson Cooper on CNN reporting on the fallout from the incredibly ignorant remarks about rape made by US Senate candidate Todd Akin.

Cooper turned his attention to a fund raising letter sent out that day by Democratic National Committee Chair, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Shultz which contained two lies, one being a truncated quote from the LA times revised to say exactly the opposite of what it had said in the first place.

Confronted, the Congresswoman deflected, insisting the lies weren’t the issue. The look on Cooper’s face was priceless. On a news show, he was being told that lies don’t matter?

And that was the moment when – for me – the penny dropped. This time around, as far as America is concerned, they probably don’t.

Both sides spin whatever they want to say with the help of enough media supporters that the mere half million who watched and may have been as equally shocked as CNN’s host really don’t matter.

Which maybe explains why a storm with the power to adversely affect at least that many lives has been mostly more important as a disruption to the ongoing political cat-fight.

So – I’m out. I’m gone. I got network executives who lie to me all day long. I don’t need more lying in my off hours, least of all from people who want to shape my opinion.

Although I won’t be wasting my time paying much attention anymore, I hope you guys living just South of me have a good election. I know about half of you won’t be happy with the way it turns out. But that’s the way it goes with elections.

At least, in the ones where people are being honest about each other and the issues, the losers tend to get over it and allow that maybe the best guy won.

When you know you lost because the other guy was lying, I’m not sure that’s the case. And it’ll take a much stronger wind than Isaac is packing to blow those kind of hard feelings away.

No matter how you vote, you guys need to hold your candidates and their political machines to a higher standard. Telling them to stop telling lies might be an easy place to start.

Enjoy your Sunday.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Lazy Sunday # 234: Don’t Turn Away

Take a moment.

Take twenty.

This is important.

Please don’t turn away.

Enjoy your Sunday.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Lazy Sunday # 233: Surviving The Punishment

As this summer racks up a long casualty list of failed big budget movies, some are beginning to wonder if Hollywood’s addiction to expensive, tent pole franchises has begun to undermine the movie business as a whole.

Traditionally, 20% of a studio’s output generates 100% of its profits. And when a film hits big, its studio feels more confident in green-lighting riskier properties; those with the potential to be break out hits, snag awards or attract the crowd less interested in comic book heroes or teen heartthrobs.

And taking more creative chances usually means the traditional hell of development and the career impact of not being part of a film that was supposed to be a blockbuster are less punishing.

Buoyed by fat profit margins and healthy stock options, the film executives riding herd on what comes next are less rigid in forcing square pegs into the round holes that worked last time.

They’re also more forgiving of the talent that didn’t bring home a pocketful of cash.

All the people aboard “Battleship”, “John Carter”, “Rock of Ages”, “Dark Shadows” and “Total Recall” are just as gifted and worked just as hard at making a good film as those on “The Dark Knight Rises” and “The Hunger Games”.

But now their names are almost toxic in the executive suites where memos reminding all “What Worked Before” are not academic ruminations but clear marching orders.

If you thought development has been hell in the past or all the sequels and reboots this year were a sign of the Apocalypse, just you wait. There will be a lot of people both inside the dream machine as well as the multiplex looking for a way out.

Watching the one-two punch of “John Carter” and “Battleship” that was supposed to cement Canadian actor Taylor Kitsch as Hollywood’s new action hero turn into a couple of mean uppercuts from Mike Tyson, reminded me of just how much a big budget flop can punish everybody involved.

Back in 2004, Marvel Studios released a film based on their iconic comic character, “The Punisher”. It was expected to be a Summer blockbuster creating a new franchise to follow  “Spiderman”, “Blade” and “The Hulk”. And it would launch American actor Thomas Jane as an action hero.

I went to see it on its opening weekend, not because I was a fan of the comics, but because I was familiar with Jane’s abilities and had a great respect for his fellow cast member, Will Patton.

But the movie was awful. Horrifically bad, revealing all the faults of studio development that copycat past films and fail to understand the transition of a comic book world to film.

I felt particularly bad for Jane, who was hammered and vilified the way Kitsch is being mistreated now as the Hollywood machine directed the blame at him instead of where it truly belonged.

Somewhere during the intervening years, Thomas Jane either tired of taking the rap for “The Punisher” or decided that if you want something done right, you do it yourself. So, he concocted a ten minute film he calls a “love letter” to the character.

Others might call it “fan fiction”. And then there are guys like me who take it as proof that you don’t need a studio or the prolonged ride through development hell to create something a lot of people want to see.

Indeed, in less than a month, Jane’s film has probably been seen by as many people as saw the 2004 version on its over-hyped opening weekend.

So while those who track the ups and downs of the studios may bemoan the loss of films which may no longer get made, many of us are realizing they will still be made and made better by people who aren’t forced to think inside some corporate spreadsheet or creative box.

The Punishment may be over.

Enjoy Your Sunday.  

Friday, August 10, 2012

Hotel Whiskey Tango

In the Legion’s ongoing effort to support artists crowd-funding their creations, I direct your attention to “Hotel Whiskey Tango”.

“HWT” is the creation of New Orleans comic book artist Ron Domique. It’s the story of a retired Marine sniper who joins a POW rescue mission and becomes entangled in a global heroin operation.

A classic black ops, CIA, post-Vietnam adventure, it is currently available in digital form from the iBookstore for the iPad.

But now Ron wants to take his creation to a wider audience –- that being those of us who don’t own an iPad or prefer our graphic novels in a more tangible form.

What makes this book-in-waiting unique are the ancillary products it has already spun off. A soundtrack. HWT apparel. Quality art prints. Even a limited edition moleskine for those who want to imagine themselves as Michael Herr, slogging through the jungle, making the notes that will one day be published as “Dispatches”.

That’s one element of crowd-funding that few people acknowledge or address. This isn’t just about one artist funding one creation. It’s about supporting cottage industries that spring up because of them and employ talented people in many fields to both market and augment the primary creative product.

Ron is halfway to realizing his goal with about 2 weeks remaining. Consider making a contribution. A lot of people will be grateful.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Lazy Sunday # 232: I Left It In The Cab

People who work in the film industry travel a lot. And we carry the tools of our trade with us. Often our whole lives and certainly everything related to the job we’re doing at the moment resides on some laptop, tablet or smartphone. 

Because we’re highly-trained professionals with a sharp sense of personal responsibility and commitment to those we’re working for, all that information and creative production is constantly copied or backed up and parked in some cloud.

Yeah. Sure it is.

So when we travel, we always live in fear and depend, as Blanche DuBois once said, on the kindness of strangers.

Enjoy your Sunday.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

An Open Letter to Ken Gass

A lot of people who know me are aware that I spent much of my early career working with Ken Gass at the first theatre in Canada to dedicate itself completely to the production of Canadian plays – Toronto’s Factory Theatre.

Working there and with the extremely talented artists who also made it their home taught me most of what I have carried through the rest of my professional life and career. If it wasn’t for the Factory, I wouldn’t have the deep love of country I have. I wouldn’t have developed the skills and understanding to become a writer. I would be very much less than what I am.

Over the last month, the Factory Theatre has been in crisis. Its Board of Directors made a decision to terminate the employment of the theatre’s founder and artistic director, Ken Gass. And that has caused an uproar in the theatre community that has led to some very passionate and sometimes harsh things being said.

Ken Gass’ version of events is here. The board of directors has pled its case here.

Now many of the theatre community have begun to join a boycott of the theatre amid ongoing charges, counter-charges and lawyers letters flying all over the place, while media barely ever interested in the state of Canadian theatre has an op-ed field day.

At one level, the great dream of theatre being taken to the streets has been realized. On another, it’s merely heart-breaking.

Given my long history and experience with the Factory, many people have asked me to take a side and up to now I have not. I’ve got friends on both sides. I sympathize with much of both positions. I fear that no one comes out of this a winner.

But yesterday, I was reading Ken’s response to the board’s explanation of its position and the language and the attitude just made me realize it was time to practice what I always preach that there is nothing more damaging than silence.

For what it is worth, Ken Gass is one of my oldest and most valued friends and I sincerely hope that friendship continues.

An open letter to Ken regarding the Factory boycott:


I think it’s fair to say that without the existence of the Factory theatre and your personal help and guidance, I wouldn’t have had the successful and creatively rewarding career that I enjoy. That’s a debt shared by most artists who have been exposed to the vision and dedication you’ve brought to Canadian theatre. And it’s one none of us can ever fully repay.

I was also fortunate to be an artist you asked to be on the Factory’s board of directors, where I proudly served for six seasons, including a term as board president. That experience broadened my understanding of the many things it takes to make a theatre successful. Thus while your recent conflict with the Factory’s board of directors saddened me, it has been far from a surprise.

I may be a few thousand miles from the Factory these days. But following this dispute has made me feel like I’m right back where I’ve been many, many times before. Sometimes I think the only thing that holds the Factory together is the threat that it is imminently or tragically about to come apart.

But what does surprise me this time and perhaps even saddens me more, is the way you have mischaracterized, insulted and ultimately been completely dismissive of the people you personally invited, at times begged, to bring their skill sets to benefit the Factory.

I don’t know everyone who now sits at your boardroom table. But Ron, Janet and Michael were all there for portions of the time that I was and your depiction of them and what they have provided the theatre has been shameful.

Every single one of those board members has been there more than once to support you personally, professionally and by digging into their own pockets when the help you needed was financial. I’ve seen all of them jump into action where and whenever you needed them. I’ve seen them all fight for you and fiercely defend both you and your vision for the theatre against all comers.

A few years ago, I watched Janet single-handedly prevent another board from tossing you out on your ass. I was in the meetings where Ron figured out ways to keep all of us in a building we came close to losing. And we both know how late into the night we’d get calls or emails from Michael to let us know he’d found some method to get us out of whatever legal fix we were in.

We were all in this thing of yours together.

Many times, I, or one of your board members or one of the Managing directors (who somehow also never seem to stick around you for long) was there to fight the theatre’s battles because, for reasons good or lacking, you were not. And all of us gladly took that responsibility and did the job as well as we could.

But now you belittle them, often apparently because they’re just “not artists” and thus somehow unable to understand what it truly takes to run a theatre, the way we “artists” do.

What’s more, you and many of your supporters have drawn a very clear “us and them” line between the theatre community and “them” who don’t share our particular wisdom or gift. Maybe that’s a sentiment that explains why the Factory has always struggled to hold an audience. Perhaps all those “non-artists” we ask to pay to bask in our talents have never really felt they were all that welcome in our midst.

Indeed, the entire history of the theatre has been one of stumbling from crisis to crisis and never being able to build on our successes. You make much of the current board’s inability to find money. Buddy, there’s never been a Factory board that could find all the money we needed, let alone realize that beautiful theatre that’s been at the blueprint stage for a decade.

When I was there we regularly lost grants because we couldn’t match them. We clawed and scrambled to qualify for the Creative Trust and achieve virtually every improvement made to the place. There were a dozen instances when promises of solidarity and support from the well-heeled, securely in power or always there for us in the past turned out to be nothing more than promises. Why do you depict this board as the undependable ones who have let you down?

Christ, the board I presided over ran a pretty hefty deficit! Perhaps an example of what can happen even when you put an “artist” in charge.

Much is made of how often you personally painted washrooms and mopped the theatre floor as proof of your commitment. And it’s all true. But I recall one frigid night prior to some gala when we were both outside chiselling ice off the sidewalk so nobody would slip and scatter their pearls. You might’ve been cheerfully augmenting your reputation. But I was the cold to the bone guy thinking, “If we could just find some fucking money, we could hire somebody to do this.”

Somebody clearly hasn’t been helping realize the Factory’s dream, Ken. But it’s not those people circled around your boardroom table. Whatever their career paths, corporate connections or Left brain dominance, they have all given selflessly at times to what the Factory represents and we both know there isn’t an evil plotter of a palace coup in the bunch.

As for your present allies, much has been made of the 4000 names you so quickly gathered demanding the heads of those who took your side and fought your battles for years on end. I put that at a few thousand more champions of the arts than we ever convinced to even minimally support the theatre by buying a season ticket to the shows. So, you’ll forgive me if I take their commitment as seriously as anybody familiar with social media gives weight to any online petition.

Instead of seeking a boycott of the theatre, why not ask all of those people to go out and buy a season pass to the Factory to show how much they support you and the dream you built. If money really is the only thing your board understands, wouldn’t that better prove the commitment of Toronto’s theatre community to your particular artistic vision?

Hell, if they’re so ardently behind you, ask them each to go out and raise $3000. That’ll give you the $12 million you need to build the theatre you’ve always felt Canadian playwrights and theatre artists deserved. But don’t be surprised if they too fall by the wayside or short of your expectations.

More than that, I’m sure you yourself would agree that any artist asking any other artist to boycott any artistic work has failed the prime purpose of their calling. And anyone dividing the world between those who are artists and those who are not has clearly forgotten the collaborative and shared experience that theatre is and is supposed to be.

The problem isn’t your board, Ken, it’s that your dream has always been bigger than this country as well as its artists. And many of those who have claimed to be on the side of the angels have never had the courage of your convictions.

For an example of that, look no further than Richard Ouzounian, the theatre critic who’s become your voice of late. There’s a guy whose career in the theatre represented everything you tried to change. His reviews have regularly put a match to the work of the Factory, and I doubt he’d stoop to piss on the place if it ever did catch fire.

This is somebody who insisted Garth Drabinsky didn’t deserve to go to jail right up to the day he was so justifiably locked away. Why are you putting your trust in a man with those values instead of people with the commitment and qualities you sought and we both know you found in Ron Struys, Janet Dey and Michael Wolfish?

A psychiatrist once told me that more marriages are destroyed by renovations than infidelity and if you ask me, that’s what’s happening here. I don’t know if there’s a way for you guys to patch things up. But it breaks my heart to read the belligerent bile you’re putting out there. Do you really want your resume to include cyber-bully along with visionary artistic director, quintessential director and brilliant playwright?

I know what has happened has hurt you deeply, obviously more deeply than I can imagine. But don’t allow that wound, mortal as it may be, to endanger everything you’ve built.

You’re not the only one who was inspired by what the Factory could mean. I’m sure you’d be the first to acknowledge it was a place realized and sustained by talented playwrights, directors, performers, crews, dramaturges, management staff –- and countless thousands without a creative bone in their bodies but a burning desire to see their own country on stage.

None of us deserve the ways we’re ultimately ushered from our work and our dreams, even when its done with the utmost respect and kindness. None of us. But that time comes to us all. If it’s your turn to move on, I’ll mourn that. But please don’t take the Factory with you. Those of us who helped build it did so for more than you or ourselves.

You once wrote a great play called “The Boy Bishop” in which I had the true honor of playing the title character.

That play ends with that character being told that the vision he had for his country had been lost and that his great work had been done in a vacuum. The work you’ve given us all wasn’t done in a vacuum, Ken. But if you urge people to boycott the Factory and diminish the contribution of those who made so much of the work of that place possible, it will be.

The enemy is not within.

Jim Henshaw