Sunday, April 8, 2007

A Scholarly Pursuit: The Academic Road to Change

America has entered a time of transition brought upon by the need for change. American Universities, as the breeding ground for future leaders, are part of this change in response to the growth of technology based information, globalization, competition, and calls for accountability. As the world rapidly moves forward, the upcoming years can be the opportunity to restore the faith and image of this country in the world. This task will fall upon recent and upcoming graduates, young people who have the ability to transform and make the difference. Responding to all of this, American universities have started to create new plans and actions that will prepare students for this world they are about to venture into; often times with helpful suggestions from students. Thinking about all of this, in this week’s blog I have decided to look into ways to improve my area of study at the University of Southern California(campus fountain shown above), and how this could serve not only me, but also universities and communities everywhere.

USC is devoted to “the development of human beings and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit” stated in the central mission. In response to the upcoming change and challenges, encouraged by organizations like the Association of American Universities, in 2004 USC came up with a new strategic plan to recognize this environment through research and scholarship on critical issues by creating a global presence and impact for that research, scholarship, art, education, and service. To encourage students to contribute to improving the university the Dean of the College of Letters, Arts & Sciences (Dean Peter Starr pictured here) asked students to propose curriculum plans to enrich the academic experience and to “think seriously about learning, be creative and daring, and inspire us.” While my time at USC has been nothing short of exceptional, there are ways in which my academic experience could be more relevant and interesting. My proposal is for the Annenberg School for Communications to open majors up within the school so more courses in communications, journalism, and public relations can cross count towards any of the majors. This is especially true for the communications major where there needs to be more overlap in classes in marketing, journalism, public relations, and film; because these are all very intricately related professions in the real world.

Currently at Annenberg, an undergraduate student can either pursue a major in communications or one in public relations and journalism. While there are a few classes that a student can take from the other major that will count towards their degree, there needs to be more flexibility so that students can study and take classes in all these subjects. At the Annenberg School for Communication, as stated on the website, “you’ll study everything from the foundations of communication theory to where the latest advances will take us tomorrow. You’ll explore social, cultural, rhetorical and organizational communication processes. The result: an understanding of and ability to manage communication in education, politics, management and marketing, in government and nongovernmental institutions alike.” Communications majors learn how to effectively communicate in their personal and professional life as well as how media and politics use these methods to persuade and convey their messages. This awareness is critical to success in any field, so communications when paired with another major like International Relations or Business, works very well, but the major itself seems to lack a practical focus. Instead, the majority of the courses are based in theories and rhetorical studies, while how this information will serve a purpose later in life is left unclear.

If Annenberg (the school shown here) opened up the majors to allow students to take classes in all areas offered at Annenberg including communications, public relations, broadcast and print journalism, and some film and advertising classes, it would function much better than leaving it up to students to learn these connections during internships and on the job. A large portion of communication graduates work in the entertainment media field, which is a place where the connections between journalism, PR, film, and business are vital to success, and failing to teach this at university puts students at a distinct disadvantage. The problem is not that students are not allowed to take these other classes, because it is very easy for an Annenberg student to take any class within the school, but rather a matter of time. While trying to complete either a communications or journalism degree, USC’s required core classes, and possibly a minor, it is difficult to fit in an investigative journalism or print advertising class. This seems odd to me that as a communications student, these are not classes that can apply to my major and instead I find myself forced to take a plethora of research method and rhetorical studies classes that will have no worth after graduation and only provide background knowledge.

Lying in the center of Los Angeles, the heart and soul of the entertainment world, USC and Annenberg (logo shown to the bottom right) should be at the forefront of communications study, which requires more understanding of how various media interact rather than years of theory training. Emerging in a business world where switching jobs multiple times is protocol, having more experience in several fields can only be beneficial. Communications study is more rhetorically based here at USC, but there should be a track that is more practical that takes advantage of the natural resource and teaching ability available in LA. One way to solve this problem of theories versus real life applications would be for there to be two separate communications majors; one which emphasized rhetorical studies and research and one that is more focused on media. While the communications major now does have four tracts available in the upper level classes that include law, entertainment, culture, or interpersonal communications, the classes in these tracts are still more focused on theoretical study. Several schools have two types of communications majors that cater to both the sides discussed above, such as Syracuse University and University of Pennsylvania, two other leading universities in communications study.

Communications is about synergy, the harmonious merging of various forces coming together, and Annenberg as one of the leading universities in communications studies, needs to be the model of this synergistic future. If this university really wants to be the forefront of technology, communication, and scholarship, then instead of only teaching understanding, it needs to teach ability and real skills. For communications this means there needs to be more activities, case studies, and field trips and less lecturing on vague topics and regurgitated information; there needs to be more opportunity to explore all sides of communications and more freedom for students to pick their own tracts of study. The ability for USC (popular campus spots shown left) to fulfill its strategic plan lies on the four capabilities: span disciplinary and school boundaries to concentrate on problems of societal significance, link fundamental to applied research, build networks and partnerships, and increase responsiveness to learners. These wishes can be accomplished in the communication school by modernizing the courses and dealing with the present instead of only studying the past. The future is all about people connecting, professions coming together, and lives merging; I am proposing that the Annenberg School for Communication really starts emphasizing this so it can help shape the great leaders of tomorrow.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Sherry Lansing: A Proper Commencement by a Proper Lady

With spring in bloom and summer fast approaching, an exciting and anxious time looms ahead for graduates. University commencement (the USC ceremony is pictured below) is right , around the corner and so in this post I have decided to put forth a nomination for someone who has achieved great success in my field of entertainment to receive an honorary degree at the University of Southern California. James Freedman, president emeritus of the University of Iowa and Dartmouth College said “In bestowing an honorary degree [of which there is a long tradition in American higher education], a university makes an explicit statement to its students and the world about the qualities of character and attainment it admires most.” He explains that an honorand who will speak at commencement must “celebrate distinguished and sublime achievement.” Many people are very accomplished in the entertainment field, but one individual stands apart because of her stellar success in motion pictures and charitable work. She was this year’s Academy Awards recipient of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and my definition of an amazing woman: Sherry Lansing.

At USC degrees are awarded “[t]o honor individuals who have distinguished themselves through extraordinary achievements in scholarship, the professions, or other creative activities, whether or not they are widely known by the general public.” Sherry Lansing was born in 1944 in Chicago, graduated from Northwestern, and began her career in Hollywood as a model and actress appearing in Loving and Rio Lobo in 1970. She soon decided that acting was not her forte and took a job as a script reader that paid five dollars an hour. This unlikely decision turned out to change her life. Thanks to her talent and drive she quickly moved up at MGM from head of the story department all the way to VP of creative affairs. Lansing worked at Columbia as senior VP in charge of production, became the first woman to run a studio at 20th Century Fox in 1980, and then formed her own production company with Stanley Jaffe where they had great success with films like Fatal Attraction and The Accused. In 1992 Lansing was named chairman of the Motion Picture Group at Paramount (pictured here speaking as chairman) becoming the first woman ever to oversee all aspects of studio’s picture production. In twenty short years since coming to Hollywood, Lansing had become the top woman in the entire film world; definitely an extraordinary achievement in her profession and creative activities. As chairman she presided over a “roster of culture-defining films, including Forrest Gump, Titanic and Saving Private Ryan... The studio's long string of successful releases is attributed to Lansing's bottom-line approach … taking fewer risks by sharing costs with outside investors on tentpole releases.”

Lansing was passionate and driven; "If you don't wake up with something in your stomach every day that makes you think, ‘I want to make this movie,’ it'll never get made” she said. Passion is the key to success in whatever someone does and this is a message that needs to be driven home to graduates as well as a quality of “character and attainment” that USC admires and would want to align itself with. Lansing stood behind films she believed in even when “every studio turned [Fatal Attraction] down. Twice,” and persevered against rumors that her rise to the top was attributed to her popularity among men, rather than hard work. Lansing was unfaltering in her judgment and remained professional amidst the rumble and tumble of Hollywood. "This is a woman who focuses on what she's doing with great intensity and understanding," says Motion Picture Academy president Sid Ganis. "Part of why she's been so effective in the work she's doing now is because she… deeply believes in the causes she's involved with and people really respond to that.” This is something graduating students can learn from: the power of conviction. She never let herself be molded into what a traditional studio head would be like and held strong to her femininity, which is one of the reasons she was such a success. Sean Smith commented on this trait in an article entitled “The Goodbye Girl” to which Lansing laughed and replied, “I like to hug people. I don’t hug everybody, but I like contact. Part of being in the movie business is wanting to reach out to people, to connect.” These film achievements are reason enough to honor Lansing with a degree, however it is the second part of her life that makes her the kind of woman graduates could benefit from hearing. Retiring from Hollywood and leaving Paramount in 2005, continuing an already impressive list of charity work, Lansing created and dedicated herself to the Sherry Lansing Foundation (her foundations homepage is shown above), which works to raise funds and awareness for cancer.

Today, as Freedman acknowledges, many honorees are chosen not on the basis of merit but because of donations or monetary accomplishments, yet an honorary degree must be reserved for someone who has something more to share with the graduates, a message that they can carry on with them to whatever the future holds. USC has upheld the integrity of these degrees by choosing past recipients based on merit including Mayor of Los Angeles Antonio Villaraigosa, Neil A. Armstrong, Robert Zemeckis, and John McCain to name a few. These men have all had “sublime achievement” professionally but are also respectable and giving people, something that Lansing also shares. I think it is important when honoring someone that they have achieved more than just business success, but have taken the time to give back to the community and contribute something the world can admire. Lansing not only meets this criteria, but is also spreading the message that philanthropy can be effective without an abundance of money, explaining “it’s about time, intelligence and vision. If you can think of a simple idea and be persistent, you can find someone who can give you access to someone who will fund it or do it.”

Another criteria for possible recipients are those “whose accomplishments might serve to highlight areas in which the university has developed exceptional strength.” Since USC is one of the top film schools in the country and is located in LA, the mecca of the media world, someone from the entertainment industry is a very fitting recipient for USC. Lansing extraordinarily rose to the top of a still very male dominated profession and made films with messages and stories (the popular film Fatal Attraction is pictured above) any aspiring film student would admire. However, while Lansing’s business has been the cinematic arts, I think her honorary doctoral degree would be most fitting in humane letters for outstanding citizenship, which will highlight both her contributions in entertainment and philanthropy.

Graduates face a tough world after leaving the university bubble, especially with growing concerns for this country’s image in the world. Young people need to believe that America can get back on solid ground and recover those beliefs and traditions that once made this country so great. Lansing, having broken so many barriers in her life and realizing the importance of giving back, could inspire young people to get out into the world and make it the place they want it to be. I think Lansing would address the world with hope and optimism telling graduates that you need neither great amounts of money or power to make a difference, only determination, compassion, and understanding. Even with the amazing accomplishments of Lansing’s lifetime, (she is shown here at the 2007 Governors Ball after receiving the Oscar) she was never someone who lived for winning and remembers a favorite night when Fatal Attraction was nominated for six Academy Awards; “We lost every single award, and it wasone of the happiest nights I’ve ever had.” Graduates need to recognize that success cannot always be measured by the end result, but in the battle a person fights to get there. Lansing is a great example of how a person can have professional achievement, keep integrity, and help those in need. Sometimes young people believe they will have to make a decision between making money and doing something that they love or that will make a difference, yet Lansing demonstrates that there can be a balance; “I always thought if I was lucky enough to achieve the dreams I had in the movie business ... that I wanted to give back.”

Inscribed upon Tommy Trojan (pictured to the right) are the ideal qualities for any USC student or member of the Trojan family: faithful, scholarly, skillful, courageous, and ambitious. Sherry Lansing is one of few people who could stand proudly next to Tommy as a shining example of the perfect blend of these qualities. She is an inspiration to many people in the entertainment industry and to me personally, and graduating students would be privileged to have such a fitting honorand.

Monday, March 19, 2007

This I Believe: The Importance of Seeing the World

Inspired by the This I Believe series in which people share the “personal philosophies and core values that guide their daily lives,” this week I have decided to post on the core belief that has led me on the path to my future career and explains the topics I have chosen to discuss here in the blog. Many values and morals have led me through my life this far and contribute to why I have journeyed to Los Angeles to pursue a career in entertainment. Among these include the importance of family, laughter, perseverance, and remaining true to yourself, but I have realized that behind all of these things there is one belief that has dominated all else in my life. This belief is in the importance of seeing the world, in experiencing different places, stories, and people. There are no greater lessons than the ones people learn when they are far from home seeing things with a fresh perspective. It is this belief that has led me into the world of entertainment, film, travel, and journalism, most of these being topics on which I have previously posted.

Adventure was always part of my life plan and from an early age I realized that traveling provided a myriad of opportunities and possibilities for it to be realized. I have never felt more alive than when I was staring out on a foreign coast, yet a close second comes when I am watching a great film or reading a compelling story that transports me to that coast. In the past few years I have come to realize a connection between my two passions of travel and storytelling; seeing the world can be experienced first hand and also through creative outlets. Great journalism and film have the same core value; a solid story of journeys and travels that few have experienced, but that millions can appreciate told by great storyteller that will make it memorable. Legendary newscaster Tom Brokaw (pictured above to the left) once said, “It’s all storytelling, you know. That’s what journalism is all about.” This realization and belief is what separates the greats from all the rest, and with these words in mind, I set out as a storyteller, traveling to find the best stories.

The first time I traveled on my own I was sixteen and journeyed the Mediterranean during the summer, meeting people and learning things I could never had imagined. I spent a week in the July heat with a young couple in Malta, a small country (shown below) between Italy and Africa. That summer Malta was experiencing a very serious drought and as temperatures reached to 114 degrees daily, things were very difficult. The girl I was staying with took me to the roof one day and showed me a small reserve tank of water that was all that was left for the whole neighborhood. It was an eye-opener and I wondered how these people could survive such a dry summer with only this tiny tank. Sensing my interest, she brought me with her one morning on her typical route before work, where she would visit some older couples in the neighborhood making sure they had enough water to drink and to do laundry and dishes. Watching all the creative ways the community had invented to do household chores and cook with little water, showed an incredible story of coming together in times of need. I had a hard time picturing the people in America joining like this, and I thought it was a story we could all learn from, for it contained inspiration, hardship, and true human compassion. A year later I read an article in a travel magazine about Malta and it told the same story of these beautiful citizens I had known, and it was then I knew that I wanted to become a storyteller. Just as legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg realized before me, “I’ve discovered I’ve got this preoccupation with ordinary people pursued by larger forces.”

A wonderful part of living in this modern world is how easy it is to traverse the continents and to experience all walks of life. Director Martin Scorsese (pictured below in center) said, “More than ever we need to talk to each other, to listen to each other and understand how we see the world, and cinema is the best medium for doing this.” While I argue that nothing can match the experience of traveling and exploring first hand, I agree with Scorsese that film offers the next best way to experience the world, allowing people far apart to witness each other’s journey and connect with those emotions that are universal. When someone watches a superb movie or reads a story in Condé Nast Traveler of a lost village, they are instantly transplanted to that world, suddenly in Africa running through the jungle or climbing through a blizzard in Alaska. There are so many stories few would ever have known without seeing them in film or reading about them in a magazine. I believe in seeing the world, in witnessing different people’s triumphs and tribulations. Finding these adventures can be as simple as opening the pages of a novel, venturing to a country far away, or heading down the block to the cinema, but regardless of where the story comes from, it is only in stepping outside of our own lives, that we see the real world.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Welcome to Globowood: Cinema Ushers in a New Wave of Possibility

Last week's Academy Awards ushered in a new wave of cinematic promise. The Oscars were complete with fabulous dresses, glamorous parties, and big winners as always, but this year there was a new feeling among the nominees and a strong presence of the international film world. More than ever, international stories and films like Babel, Pan’s Labyrinth, Volver, and Letters from Iwo Jima dominated the ceremony. Box office analyst Jeff Bock remarked, “We’ve never seen so many of these movies at one time….It’s a culmination of people slowly realizing that there really is a global landscape of films.” The film industry has always been a global place, with classic French cinema, Bollywood, and the increasing popularity of Asian cinema; but the difference today is that these are no longer characterized as only great foreign films, but simply great films. These complex movies from other parts of the world are becoming the stories America now cares about. When did this shift happen, what countries are emerging in the film world, and what lies ahead for the future are very interesting questions to consider and reveal a clear transition cinema is undergoing. British Oscar nominee Paul Greengrass, director of United 93 explains that “Whenever the world looks complex and threatening and ambiguous and dangerous, it seems to me that cinema really can flourish…and I think it would be natural at those times that you have a plurality of voices, and it’s one of those things that makes Hollywood [its signature sign shown above] continually vibrant.”

As people continue to realize how much opportunity is available in film right now, communities around the world are getting cinema savvy, particularly South Africa and Ireland which are having tremendous growth in cinema right now. Both offering attractive prices and facilities to shoot pictures, as well as breeding up and comers. In the Variety article “Bringing sexy back to film education” John O’Mahony writes that the Irish government plans to spend $188 million on the film industry in the next seven years and also offer tax breaks to encourage productions. Since the nineties, film education in Ireland has increased in popularity and with demand for filmmakers so high there, the schools have to persuade students not to drop out to work. Also expanding its film outlook is South Africa, and while not focusing on film education is making its own efforts to increase film popularity and attract big Hollywood productions.

Twelve years after the end of apartheid, South Africa is still a country that needs vast change, and film is helping the progression. Africa is looking to expand film possibilities in every direction and after winning the foreign language Oscar last year for Gavin Hood’s Tsotsi, the sentiment is very positive. In an NBC article “South Africa: Catching a fire” Stephen Galloway explains, “Thanks to versatile locales and strong infrastructure, the country has a booming locations business, consistently drawing foreign productions.…It also has a new state-of-the-art shooting facility under construction just outside Capetown.” One of the major reasons that South Africa has been able to establish itself as a shooting location is because the South African government has made it a priority to be very accommodating, “realizing that the film industry not only has the potential to create jobs and bring in much-needed foreign revenue but can lure tourists to a country long recognized as one of the most beautiful in the world.” This year’s high-profile film Blood Diamond (scenes from the film shown above) starring Leonardo DiCaprio demonstrates that the plan is working. South Africa boasts good production value and has also set up a rebate plan where producers can receive fifteen percent of their South African spend back, but this is only for very large productions with big name stars attached. More importantly, the country is encouraging indigenous productions by offering backing: “Local filmmakers are being given the opportunity to sink their teeth into a range of projects, which only stands to increase the country’s experienced talent pool.”

Foreign producers no longer have to make only foreign films, just as American producers can make a foreign film such as Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima. Guillermo del Toro (pictured left), who directed the blockbuster Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and whose Spanish film Pan’s Labyrinth enjoyed great success at the Oscars, verbalizes this sentiment explaining, “We are not pigeonholed to do mariachi or bullfighting movies. A director can come in and direct ‘Harry Potter’ or an action thriller or whatever we want.” A-List actors have helped in bringing about this change by wanting to work with directors from all over the world, and where the big names go, the financing follows. Film has certainly become the focus of many countries looking to make a greater imprint on the world. South Africa acknowledges that film is a valuable resource and opportunity to expand its economy, while expressing the country’s voice. Ireland recognizes the vast opportunities available in film and wants to offer education equivalent to America. However, in America, a country where Hollywood has dominated for seventy years, why just now are people looking to other countries for stories and voices, when Hollywood still makes hundreds of worthy films a year?

The answer to this question is rooted deep within the worlds’ turmoil and grief, the wars and third world conditions, and the hope for a better future. Film is such a powerful form of expression that shares stories in a fashion people can relate to. Every day people are bombarded with news and images of world issues, but when a problem seems so far away, it is hard to understand what is going on, but “films put a human face on the people in the news who are usually, and literally, caught in the crossfire” notes Chale Nafus, director of programming at the Austin Film Society. Blood Diamond is an excellent example of this, because while everyone has heard about De Beers' conflict diamonds and the awful conditions of the diamond industry, until one sees the whole world come alive on screen and really feels the danger and horror, only then does it becomes a reality. It is not the case that Hollywood is no longer making any films worth merit, it is just that audiences are craving something different. Nafus says, “The stories that Hollywood has been dealing with are no longer of interest to many people” and the success of films like Pan’s Labyrinth (poster of film shown to the upper right) “points to the desire for rich, uncharted stories that Hollywood isn’t producing.” Bock adds that “these are such imaginative films, and you can’t hold them back anymore just because they’re not in English.” Foreign films are amazing to watch because they have a new voice, perspective, landscape, and show worlds and stories that few may have known about before.

It is truly an exhilarating time to be involved with cinema and as a young person looking to get into the film business, I could not be more thrilled with the prospects. The Oscar nominated film Babel (poster on left showing the many different faces and places the movie concerns) looks at the many languages that separate the people of the world, but also at how emotions and stories connect everyone, much like cinema. Cinema is a universal language, and a great film can be understood no matter what language the actors are speaking. “In the past, if anything was outside the shores of North America, [the industry] looked at it as a risk,” says foreign nominee Deepa Mehta, but today this is just the type of film that is sought after because of the fantastic potential. With foreign films growing in popularity Hollywood is truly becoming Globowood; some even postulating that “maybe the Oscars’ foreign film category will someday just disappear.” This is a very definite possibility and as one film world unites maybe there is hope for a tomorrow of one unified world. For now, the future is wide open.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Academy Awards Shake Things Up: Oscars Go Green

Tonight is the biggest night of the year for entertainment. Just hours from now at the Kodak Theater, Hollywood will celebrate the culmination of a year of talent, hard work, and great films. The Academy Awards (official poster shown to the left) brings together actors, directors, costume designers, musicians, and the best of the industry for one special night. A highly coveted spot on this red carpet is reserved for the biggest stars only. For months now everyone has had Oscar fever on the mind, and the blogosphere has reflected this. This week I decided to look into the buzz surrounding this year's awards and share my thoughts with other bloggers. While navigating through everyone’s winning predictions, I found two very interesting blogs that reflect a transition the Academy Awards are undergoing. This year, the Oscars are going green promoting economy friendly cars and organic foods. Blogger Xtrmius writes in Oscars go Golden Green, how much of the hype this year is surrounding not what the stars will wear, but what they will arrive in. While the traditional answer would be a limo, this year as stars are becoming more environmentally aware, many are rumored to be arriving in smart cars. Blogger Nicole Weston, in Oscar goes organic at the Governor’s Ball, also picked up on this new trend and describes how this year the Governors Ball, known as the official after party of the awards, is changing the look of the event serving all organic food with a much more relaxed feel. The Academy Awards (preparations for the awards in the Kodak Theater shown on left) are always sure to impress and epitomize Hollywood glamour and this year it seems celebrities are promoting the glamour of a healthy lifestyle.

My comment on Oscars go Golden Green: Well the arrival scene will certainly look very different this year. This is a very interesting trend that you have brought to light of celebrities really being the frontrunners in promoting protection of the environment. Celebrities have great power to promote change because people follow their trends and choices religiously; so when someone sees Leonardo DiCaprio (shown here in his hybrid) or Penelope Cruz in one of these cars, having a smart car suddenly becomes very fashionable. I think Matt Peterson chose the perfect time to really gear up his Global Green campaign because the majority of people are just now familiar enough with the idea of smart cars that they will pick up on their presence during the arrival broadcast. I think up until recently a major hesitancy to invest in a green car has been the look of the car and lack of style variety, but now with the hot Tesla (new model shown below) and ZAP, people will see that these really are the cars of the future. However, while celebrities do have the power to push new trends I think you make a very accurate point when you quote Orlando Bloom as saying “ that it’s up to those in power and governments to create the greatest change.” Saving the environment is a very large battle, and no matter how many people drive smart cars and build green houses, we really need big business and government on board to make a real difference.

My comment on Oscar goes organic at the Governor’s Ball: First of all, the menu looks delicious and Wolfgang Puck has once again done an incredible job. The Governors Ball is really making a push to become more hip and shed its reputation of being a bit stiff and merely a filler between the awards and the real parties. (Pictured here is the Tuscan countryside themed Ball set up more like a lounge than with the traditional tables.) This is a reflection of the Academy Awards in general revamping small details of the ceremony to make this night not only the most prestigious and important, but also young and fun. As you say, “The Ball is not going to be a sit-down affair, but an elegant/casual cocktail-type of party, and the overriding theme this year will be ‘Oscar goes organic.’” Hollywood is famously known for being on the top of every trend, so it makes sense in our country of growing organic lovers that the stars eat in style. All this hype and preparation really demonstrate the time and commitment that goes into the Oscars every year. This is not just a night of awards and great fashion, but also a night where people get a peak into the glamorous life of celebrities. Aside from the grueling hours of hard work, the invasive paparazzi, and all other difficulties that accompany stardom, this a night that reminds everyone what is wonderful about being a star and the magic of film.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Child Star Controversy: No More Make Believe, But It's Still Only Acting

People love controversy; just look at the media hype surrounding Anna Nicole’s sudden death and quest for the father of the baby or Britney spears recent delve into insanity which culminated in shaving her head and checking herself into rehab. One can’t escape from the myriad of coverage both of these events are receiving because in the entertainment field a quick recipe for instant media hype is to add one part controversial subject matter and one part big star and instantly; guaranteed success. Think Boys Don’t Cry, Monster, and Pretty Baby, which were all controversial films that gained each respective actor acclaim. However, when the actor in question is a child and the subject matter is sexually risqué, it leads to a whole other controversy. Two Hollywood tots currently creating quite a stir are Dakota Fanning and Danielle Radcliffe. Fanning’s film Hounddog which recently opened in Sundance (this years logo depicted above) contains a brief rape scene which sent conservatives all over the country into a tizzy and Radcliffe who is set to appear in London’s West End Stage production of “Equus,” opening February 27 has parents everywhere in shock. These provocative performances have created quite a debate, begging the question when it comes to child actors, what is too much?

America’s sweetheart Dakota Fanning charmed audiences in Dreamer and Charlotte’s Web (family friendly film poster shown below to the right)and warmed hearts in I am Sam, making a name and an résumé many actors five times her age would admire. She is cute and likeable, yet it is her intellect and maturity people often remark on, making it difficult to remember that she is still very young; young and acting out a rape scene, which is why there is such animosity surrounding the film. Hounddog tells the story of a young motherless girl living in Alabama in the 1950s (Fanning shown with co-star Robin Wright Penn below to the left). Filmmaker Deborah Kampmeier explains that she did not set out to make a controversial film, there were just “so many stories I needed to tell in Hounddog, about motherlessness, the cycle of abuse, the triumph of this girl’s spirit, and the power of female sexuality,” which by nature can be quite controversial subjects. However, conservatives have been outraged with the film claiming not only is the depiction disturbing and encouraging child-rape, but also that acting in this will have a very strong emotional impact on Fanning. Critic Kevin Jackson of the Christian Post claims that depicting child rape is “taking the worst parts of human behavior and putting them up on the big screen and desensitizing the general population to them.” However as the scene was never shot from start to finish, but in pieces, where Fanning was in a body suit the whole time, it was never an environment that simulated an actual rape, explains Kampmeier. In regards to the second concern that Fanning might suffer mental distress, there is some validity to this claim. “Pretending leads to reality. Intellectually, kids feel it, live it, express it. Children can’t shrug it off,” explains Paul Peterson, former child actor an active advocate in the rape debate. However, regardless of whether it will affect the young starlet or not, it is a decision for Fanning, her parents, and managers alone, not everybody else in this country who has an opinion. It is Dakota’s life and it is not as if she is going out and telling anybody else how to live theirs. People need some perspective as they get all wrapped up in this issue, because Hounddog is just a film, one person’s artistic vision on screen, so if someone does not like it, luckily America is a country where no one is being forced to watch it. Yet the controversy does not end in Park City but continues to the other side of the Atlantic, where another beloved child star is making waves in London.

Harry Potter’s Danielle Radcliffe will appear nude on stage in ‘Equus” and racy promotional photos (one promo shown to the right) have popped up everywhere making it very clear that Harry has grown up. Parents are in outrage that a character their children look up to will appear nude in a sexual encounter on stage and want the risky advertising photos taken down. This just seems completely ludicrous, as Radcliffe is a 17-year-old more than capable and mature of handling a nude scene. The play deals with very deep and dark issues where the “script requires Radcliffe’s character to strip to the buff in one pivotal scene.” It is not as if the director just wanted some extra publicity and decided it would really make people go crazy to see Radcliffe nude; it is an important and crucial part of the role, just as Fanning’s character’s rape was. Critics of Radcliffe’s role are complaining that while movies have ratings, theaters do not, and children who want to see their idol live will be able to even with this questionable material. However, it is not up to the London stages to keep children from inappropriate content, but up to the parents. Furthermore, with all the violence and language children see in the media every day, why are people getting so worked up over a little nudity; the natural human form? The whole situation seems ridiculous and brave young actors like Radcliffe should not have to bear the brunt of culture’s taboo around s-e-x.

Another thing to consider is that these young actors are not choosing roles to create debate, but to further their careers. However controversial the roles may be, they are roles that will push Fanning and Radcliffe’s career to the next level. Many childhood actors have gained great acclaim from risky roles including Brooke Shield’s in Pretty Baby (shown first on the left in the film and below currently with her two children) and Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver. Both seemed to come off the movies with little emotional damage, and had skyrocketing careers after the films. In regards to Fanning, Cindy Osbrink, Fanning’s agent says that Hounddog was, “Something that really challenged her talent. Hounddog was one of the best experiences of her life, a story that needs to be told, and she tells it with her soul as no one else can.” This role will show producers and directors that Fanning is more than just a cute filler, that she wants more challenging material, and can handle it. Radcliffe is also in the midst of a transition. He will soon be done with Harry Potter movies and needs a career after that, one that does not involve brooms or wizards, so showcasing his ability in a radically different way will help people start to see him as more than just Harry. West End Stage is “London’s equivalent to Broadway” and it is incredible that Radcliffe has gotten this part. He must be nervous enough about his much-awaited performance without having to worry about upset parents and alienating his fan base. It is a fantastic move for his career and real fans should support him.

Reflecting on all this mess, one has to ask themselves why people care so much about the decisions these young people are making for their own lives? I think that people see that by banning these very public depictions, it somehow sends a message or makes them believe they have helped to stop the real issue. Stopping Fanning and Hounddog from playing is not going to stop child sexual abuse, and if someone wants to make a movie about it, it is a story that deserves to be told just as much as any. Are parents really against a 17-year-old actor doing a nude scene for a very prestigious play, or is it that they are afraid to realize that their own children are growing up and will soon be having sex too. Getting mad at Radcliffe or at Fanning’s team is much easier than simply dealing with these realizations. People need to remember at the end of the day, it is these actor’s lives and decisions, and they are in fact acting. Instead of worrying about the effects of such performances, maybe people should be more concerned with the issues in real life more than what is being performed on some small stage in London or screen in Park City.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Lite-Brite Advertisements Spark a Fire: Or in this Case a Resignation

This week, instead of sharing some of my own thoughts, I decided to look into the blogosphere and see what people were buzzing about. A big story in the media field that just broke, was the resignation of Jim Samples, head of the Cartoon Network, over the marketing ploy that caused chaos in Boston last week. The story began when Boston authorities mistook the guerilla marketing campaign for a bomb threat on January 31. The Lite-Brite-like advertisements (shown in day time to the left and below at night) were promoting the Adult Swim show Aqua Teen Hunger Force but the blinking electronic devices and circuit boards with wires sparked fear and the city nearly came to a standstill. Turner Broadcasting agreed to pay two million dollars in compensation for the problems they caused in Boston. Bloggers were all over the story, some arguing that Boston’s hysterics were unmerited as the same ads were placed in ten other cities without any problems, while others took the position that in a post 9/11 world, the advertisers had to know the ads could spark controversy and deserve all the bad publicity. However, when Jim Samples stepped down just days ago, the whole controversy exploded again. Wading through all the commentary, I found two very interesting blogs on this subject that offer interesting insight. In Hang Right Politics, blogger Kathy argues that it was Sample’s responsibility for approving such a stupid advertising campaign and he should take the heat of the fall. Other bloggers, like Justin Gardner on Donkelephant, claim that Samples should not have had to resign for this paranoid mistake on the part of Boston and that he is taking the brunt of the fallout when there are others more at fault. What follows are the comments I left in response to these two blogs, offering my insight into the situation.

My comments to Hang Right Politics: Well, I’m not sure that nobody is laughing, but Sample sure isn’t. Any smart advertiser or head of a network should have foreseen that these devices could be mistaken for bombs and spark concern. Black boxes with wires and circuits are not a typical advertising outlet, and in fact do resemble bombs. This coupled with the state of terrorism paranoia in this country is a recipe for disaster and someone should have foreseen what could happen. Samples approved the ads and as head on the network, it is his duty to assume full responsibility. His resignation was a strategic and effective move because Mayor Menino and the people of Boston feel that Turner has now taken full responsibility for their actions and Boston authorities will not continue to make a big deal out of this creating more negative publicity. This case is interesting to consider from a publicity perspective and begs the classic question; is there such a thing as bad publicity? In this case it has yet to be determined. While Turner Broadcasting and Cartoon Network may suffer from some fallout with investors, stockholders, and gain a public image of stupidity and irresponsible advertising, I think a lot of consumers see this as a case of corporate America trying to shut out creativity and will support Cartoon Networks bold choice. In any case, Aqua Teen Hunger Force and the Adult Swim program is sure to get a few more viewers just curious about the show that sparked this all.

My comments to Donkelephant: I think you make a very good point in asserting that Samples stepped down because Turner saw an easy way to make this whole issue fade away. Scapegoating is the quick way to make a “we” mistake into a “he” mistake. However, I have to disagree with your statement that Samples should have stayed to send the message that Boston was in the wrong, even if they did receive millions for compensation. Regardless of the fact that this was just one city of twenty, or that the ads went unnoticed for quite some time, the only fact that matters is that they did create problems in Boston. (Left is a police officer shown removing one of the ads). The question is not whether Boston overreacted or if the concern was even warranted, because it does not matter. The reality is that the lite-brite characters did cause widespread panic and a major city came to a screeching halt because of some stupid advertisements. So the real question becomes what to do to clean up the mess. The company needed to take full responsibility for damage control and image management. Samples resignation showed people that the company was seriously sorry for the trouble it caused. During crisis management, only one head has to go to the chopping block to take the public blame, unfortunately for Sample it was his.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Must See TV: What Lies Behind the Addiction?

Everyone has that one hour, one night a week, where all plans are halted and people find themselves curled up on the couch, eyes glued to the screen. If someone tries to interrupt this focused viewer, a quick reply and a dirty look say, “Shh. My show is on!” It is an interesting phenomenon; people form very strong emotional attachments to the fictional world of television and talk about characters as they talk about close friends. A lot of people explain this phenomenon by diving into the human psyche, while others argue people just get caught up in the hype and routine. When it comes to television, all shows try to create the perfect blend of beautiful people, hot hookups, and exciting plot lines, yet only a select few become a huge success. What is it that makes a show must see TV?

In the midst of awards season, shows like House (logo shown to the upper left), Grey’s Anatomy, and Heroes are proving to be this year’s favorite picks. Not only do critics and actors love the shows, but also so do millions of viewers which increasing ratings prove every week. Popular drama House draws in about 17.5 million, hot new show Heroes (cast shown below) pulls in 15 million, and favorite Grey’s consistently comes in third in the Neilson ratings with 21.5 million every Thursday. These are clearly impressive figures and while there is no one formula to create a smash hit, communication theorists and entertainment experts believe it has something to do with psychological aspects of identification and bonding.

A widely held belief in the communications field is that people watch television because of wishful identification that Cynthia Hoffner and Martha Buchanan define in their article in Media Psychology “as the desire to be like or act like the character.” As people watch loveable and screwed up Meredith on Grey’s Anatomy, or sarcastic and biting Dr. Gregory House from House they recognize these people from their own lives and form attachments. Everyone can probably remember a show or character where they felt this: I can remember growing up watching Saved by the Bell and wanting to be just like Kelly Kapowski, pretty and popular. I had her bangs and wore my overalls one shoulder unclipped to emulate her style. As I got a little older, it was Rachel Green on Friends, and I copied everything from what she wore, to what she said, and of course followed her hair trends (a popular cut style of Aniston's is shown on the left). If any character is living proof that wishful identification exists it is Jennifer Aniston’s character Rachel, just ask any hairdresser. It makes sense that people want to associate themselves with characters that are smart, funny, successful, and attractive, but it goes deeper than that. Hoffner and Buchanan explain, “people have a fundamental need to form connections with other people, and television offers audience members access to a wide range of other human beings.” Clearly, likeable characters are a major component.

Another key ingredient for success seems to be blood, quick-wit, and characters that can make scrubs look good. Medical dramas have and still prove to be the most popular shows on TV. Scrubs, Grey’s Anatomy, House, Nip/Tuck, and long running ER are all network favorites. While the shows are not always accurate depictions, in “Anatomy of a Real Medical Career” a medical student claims House is ‘an excellent show with some really fun diagnoses. The way they go about determining the final diagnosis, in theory, is the way we are taught in school.” Medical shows draw people in not only because of the exciting illnesses and surgeries, but people like to see that other side of medicine and see that these powerful surgeons and doctors are just as scared and screwed up as anybody. Many people like the fact that while watching an episode they can see a whole drama enfold and be resolved by the end of the hour. No matter how much blood or gore each show depicts, in general the audience is left with a hopeful feeling about medicine and life, and people love to hold onto this hope.

As for cult show phenomenons like Lost and Heroes, a key part of their universal success is the appeal to a wide audience. Children as young as seven or eight to people as old as eighty love the mystery and action-filled series. Television watching becomes family time and a tradition that brings busy people together; common ground for a father and his adolescent daughter to bond over. People love the ever deepening, unsolved mysteries, and to form their own theories about the “truth.” As TV critic Scott Pierce writes, “"There seems to be a big segment of the audience, especially younger audiences, that wants a show to be less spelled-out for them." Ask any viewer of either of these shows and they will give a long explanation of what they think the keys are to the big mysteries, and actively engaging in the show like this creates a stronger bond.

While it may be true that some people simply tune into Lost to have something to talk about on Thursdays at work, or fane interest in a medical saga to fill that hour before going out on a Thursday night in college, for the majority of people watching television it is way more than that. Putting aside psychological explanations and logistical reasons, the reason people watch television can be boiled down into simply wanting to believe in something. Heroes preaches that there are people out there with special powers to help save humanity and on Grey’s Anatomy (a scene from last year's season finale shown on right) people are given hope that their loved ones will make it through a difficult surgery and at the end of the day their will be smiles and a fitting song playing in the background. While some criticize these shows for these very reasons, people do not watch television week after week for reality, but for an escape into a world where for that short time, it is not about their worries or problems, but watching someone else’s life unfold. People essentially love TV for one reason; escape, and some shows have created the perfect haven.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Star Seeks Treatment: An Honest Attempt to Get Better or Simply Image Rehabilitation?

Red carpet season, Sundance, the Oscar buzz; as far as celebrity news goes these days there is much to talk about. However, amidst all the glitz and glamour lurk some darker stories that seem to be taking center stage. Whether flipping through channels or immersed in a favorite news source, stories of celebrities entering rehabiliatation for addictions, illnesses, and general misbehaving are unavoidable. This week people are buzzing about Grey’s Anatomy star Isaiah Washington’s (pictured here at the Globes with his castmates) homophobic comments at the Golden Globes and his recent decision to check himself into rehab. The day after the Globes, actress Lindsay Lohan checked herself into Wonderland treatment facility for personal health reasons. While celebrities and rehab are no strangers, as we watch stars bounce in and out of facilities, it is interesting to consider their goals when entering. Is it really to kick an addiction or simply an easy way to recover from some bad publicity?

The answer seems to be the latter. One wonders how effective a treatment plan can be that allows Lohan to come an go as she pleases and if anti-gay and anti-Semitic sentiments are really something that requires rehab or simply a realignment of beliefs. Rehab is the quick fix, yet ironically in most of these cases it fixes nothing at all. A common saying in the industry is that there is no such thing as bad publicity; I think Mel Gibson (pictured below in his vehicle) would disagree with this. The public can sympathize with alcohol problems, drug addictions, and eating disorders, because many people deal with these issues directly or indirectly in their lives. Yet when celebrities have terrible and offensive outbursts, it is hard to forgive and forget. For Mel Gibson, an anti-Semitic tirade combined with a DUI charge pretty much ruined his career. This behavior was unacceptable and as Entertainment News Editor of Softpedia Elena Gorgan writes, “Hollywood took a stand and expressed a clear desire to shut him out for good. And that it did. His mini-series got canceled, he was bad mouthed in all the newspapers and even threats that he would never work again were muttered. But the greatest hit he took was as a man, a respectable actor and human being.” In the recent case with Washington, while his career will take a beating, he missed reveling in the shows' success, and his spot on Grey’s may be jeopardized, the show and the rest of the cast has received nothing but praise and sympathy with Chandra Wilson just picking up a SAG for best female actor in a drama series and the entire cast for winning best ensemble.

This habit of turning to rehab for misbehaving is not something isolated to stars either; recently former Florida Representative Mark Foley checked himself in for an alcohol addiction shortly after a scandal involving e-mail exchanges with teenage boys. Crisis management experts explain that entering rehab in the twenty-four hours following any kind of disaster is critical. “You want to move from being a Frankenstein monster to become more sympathetic, more human…as quickly as possible,” says Richard Levick of Levick Strategic Communications. However, even with these drastic actions, inexcusable behavior by high-profile stars is something that cannot be fixed by rehab or really anything other than sincere apologies and time, although, in other cases rehab can be just the thing to get a star back in good graces.

Lindsay Lohan’s treatment decision, while still very recent, has received little but praise and support, fans just wishing she gets well and applauding her for taking a much-needed step. Lohan, an image professional already, reassured her well wishers by releasing the statement, “I have made a proactive decision to take care of my personal health. I appreciate your well wishes.” Similar cases include Kate Moss, who after being caught using cocaine suffered a loss of several large modeling contracts, but reemerged stronger than ever. In an ABC news report “Running to Rehab” Anne-Marie Dorning claims that Moss’s “career barely skipped a beat” after her treatment. Babyshambles front man Pete Doherty (pictured here with girlfriend Moss) and actor/infamous rehab-junkie Robert Downey Jr. are among many of the stars that have also emerged from rehab with little damage to their careers and often a better image. Although, an improved image does not equal better health and it does not appear these stars are kicking the addiction and getting well.

In most cases once stars leave rehab, they quickly relapse and find themselves right back in another facility. This is a concern for Lohan who exits Wonderland all the time, here shown on a recent errand, and is slated to begin production on a film sooner than may be advised. She has already tried Alcoholics Anonymous and had several hospitalizations, so it may be no surprise if her rehab is unsuccessful. Perhaps Pete Doherty best demonstrates this. Softpedia’s Gorgan writes, “The truth is the man, as talented and gifted a musician as he is, probably needs more than just a simple admission to rehab. Because what he suffers from is more serious and tragic at the same time than a mere pill-popping addiction, especially, considering the great number of times that he’s been a patient of those clinics.”

The critical question lies in why stars enter rehab at all. If it is really to get better and there is that determination, eventually they will. However, if they see it merely as image rehabilitation as many do, the problem will never be solved. Dr. Thomas Irwin, program director at McLean Center at Fernside makes this final point very clear when he says, “Individuals need to ask themselves, what is the motivation for treatment? Is it to work on the problem…or avoid a crisis? Part of…treatment is to come to terms with what you’ve done and take responsibility for it.” These are wise words, but a message that appears unlikely to penetrate Hollywood’s thick skin.