On Saturday night, my wife and I went with some friends to DeVotchka’s Halloween concert in Denver. Amazing. The show opened with a Day of the Dead procession. After some opening music, giant ribbons descended from the ceiling, and three women climbed them to perform acrobatic dance routines. Most people were dressed in stylish costumes. And the music was up to DeVotchKa’s usual standards. The band, filled out by three extra strings and another trumpet player, in addition to the four core members, alternated between the group’s sorrowful tunes and heavier beats. They started playing around 10:00 p.m., and the next thing I knew it was after midnight.

We became fans with the album SuperMelodrama, though I like the next albums, Una Volta and How it Ends, even more. You can sample the band’s music at its web page or through iTunes. One of my personal favorites is “The enemy guns” from How it Ends.

Baseball Brings “External Malicious Attack” and Scalping

Never mind the fact that “all of California is burning.” We have real problems in Colorado: we can’t buy World Series tickets!

(Seriously, I offer my deepest sympathies to Californians who have lost property in the fires.)

Here’s the extraordinary story, as told by 9News:

The Colorado Rockies say tickets for the World Series will again be sold online starting Tuesday at noon after an attack brought down the Web site on Monday.

Rockies Spokesperson Jay Alves said on Monday night that was the victim of an “external malicious attack” that caused a system-wide outage with Paciolan.

Paciolan is Major League Baseball’s ticket vendor. The outage impacted all of its North American customers.

The Rockies suspended the sale of tickets on Monday after noon because of the system outage. …

The Rockies initially said the system went down because of the heavy traffic to the Web site. They said there were 8.5 million hits on the Rockies Web site after the tickets went on sale.

I was one of the people unable to purchase tickets at 10:00 a.m. on Monday.

But talk about some bitter fans! Sheesh! I read some of the stories in the papers and listened to some of the comments on the radio. More than a few people were outraged.

We might draw a couple lessons from this incident.

First, look at the context. The Colorado Rockies — whom a roommate of mine once mocked as the “Rookies” — are in the World Series! Even if you are forced to watch it on a big-screen TV with surround sound while sitting on a couch drinking beer and eating pizza, which, admittedly, is a sorrowful existence, it’s still pretty darn cool.

Second, be a little slower to cast blame. I assume the Rockies have good evidence about an “external malicious attack,” given that they’ve announced it to the media. So it turns out not to be the fault of the Rockies or of Paciolan. Indeed, the story could get even more interesting if legal action is pursued against the attacker.

That said, I do like the idea of an on-line lottery. The problem with physical lines is that they waste time. A lottery would be easy to enter and easy to decide, and it would give everybody a fair shake. Next time the Rockies get to the World Series, I’m sure the organization will consider such alternatives.

But isn’t it strange that a large percentage of the final ticket sales will go to scalpers? The baseball teams have created this value, yet millions of dollars will go into the pockets of ticket redistributers. Moreover, the process of redistributing tickets costs additional time, which could otherwise be spent in other work. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against scalpers, given the current system of ticketing. But why is that system set up to benefit scalpers?

If the Rockies sold tickets for what scalpers will eventually get for many of them, the Rockies would be accused of greed. So, apparently, it’s less greedy to knowingly redistribute millions of dollars to scalpers. (I assume that ticket prices are in some way regulated by Major League Baseball.) But, if the Rockies wanted to price out scalpers without seeming “greedy,” there’s another solution: they could sell tickets at market value and donate the “excess” proceeds to charity.

What about the fans who “deserve” to buy cheap tickets? The Rockies have already made tickets available to season ticket holders, so those fans are taken care of. But the Rockies could also, for example, hold a “spirit contest” to make true fans show their dedication before they’re allowed to buy less-expensive tickets. Or they could donate tickets to hard cases.

Offhand, though, I can think of no reason why baseball clubs should not simply sell tickets at their market value, and keep the proceeds. If they wanted, clubs could literally auction every single ticket, sort of like ebay (with unsold tickets available at gametime for the minimum price). But baseball involves many complex relationships between clubs, players, and fans that I do not pretend to understand.

Harry Potter’s Success

The Harry Potter books have been phenomenally successful. CNN reports, “The last installment of the Harry Potter series sold a record-breaking 11.5 million copies in the U.S. in the first 10 days on sale… To date, more than 350 million copies of the seven books in the Harry Potter series have been sold worldwide.”

And Potter is very much an international phenomenon. The Guardian reports:

Publisher Bloomsbury [of Britain] revealed [on September 18, 2007] that its English-language version of the boy wizard’s final tale has sold as many copies overseas as in the UK. In Germany alone [one million] copies were sold in the last month. Pre-orders in China were more than 200% higher than those of the previous book…. [T]he untranslated Harry Potters have seen huge demand from impatient fans who want the books as soon as they come out.

The books have sold so well in part because they are very well written fantasy stories with richly drawn characters. Even though Harry and his friends can do amazing things, it’s easy to imagine living in their world while reading the books. But part of the reason the books have sold so well is that Rowling presents a strong moral message of courage and strong character that children are obviously hungry for.

Rowling’s sales figures are indeed impressive. By way of comparison, Ayn Rand wrote some of the most influential novels of the 20th Century. Yet, according to a biography from 1995, “Every book by Ayn Rand published in her lifetime is still in print, and hundreds of thousands of copies are sold each year, so far totalling more than twenty million.” Even assuming robust sales since then, Rand’s books have sold less than ten percent the numbers of Rowling’s books. (No doubt sales of Atlas Shrugged will get a boost when and if the movie ever reaches the screen.)

But numbers don’t mean that much. What will be the lasting cultural influence of, for example, The Da Vinci Code? The reason that Rand’s books have had such influence is that they present in dramatic form philosophic ideas of profound personal importance to the reader. The Harry Potter books present some important ideas, but they are not as profound, as original, or as integrated into the story.

The main reason that Rowling has had and will continue to have such profound cultural influence is that she is reaching millions of children when they are first exploring ideas and first thinking about moral choices. Harry and his best friends belong to the school house of Gryffindor, the house of the brave, and Rowling presents an inspiring image of moral courage. (I’ll have more to say about Rowling’s themes at a later time.)

But perhaps the best thing about Rowling’s books is that they have encouraged children to grapple with a complex story and difficult themes. The children who have graduated from those books will be prepared to read — and eager to find — other great and inspiring works of literature, such as Rand’s novels.

Claire Danes Shines

At first I resisted seeing the film Stardust because it looked like a fantasy movie geared to kids. Well, it is a fantasy movie, and it is the most delightful film I’ve seen this year. I’m grateful for my friends’ recommendation. I notice that it’s still playing on a few movie screens. I expect to see it a third time before it disappears, then wait expectantly for the DVD.

A young man, trying to win the heart of the local beauty, sees a falling star and pledges to fetch it in exchange for the girl’s hand. But to retrieve the star, our hero must cross the wall that separates England from the magical world beyond. In that world, a fallen star is not a hunk of metal and ash — it is a lovely young lady, in this case portrayed by Claire Danes. Our hero must learn to become a man, save the star, and figure out whom he loves.

The entire cast of the film is spectacular, but the real, er, star of the film is Danes. Hers is a joyous performance.

By the way, my wife and I also saw Danes in Evening. I do not love the story, and Danes’s character is not consistently drawn (perhaps because a screenwriter worked over the original novel). But the film has its rewarding moments, usually when Danes is on screen.

Celebrating Atlas Shrugged

From the Colorado Freedom Report:

“Today marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s seminal novel about producers who go on strike to oppose their treatment at the hands of political plunderers. The novel celebrates the greatness possible to the freed human mind in pursuit of life-enhancing values. The work unabashedly endorses the moral doctrine of rational self-interest. …

“Atlas Shrugged lays out the vision of heroic people who refuse to compromise their principles — and thereby refuse to compromise their happiness. Such people realize the full value of life on earth, and they therefore apply their reason and efforts to the goal of living. They hold productiveness as a moral virtue, and they seek to protect the political liberty that allows individuals to act, create, and trade according to their own judgment.”

More Serenity 2 Schemes

Late last night (actually early this morning), I posted an entry about the possibility of a sequel to Joss Whedon’s magnificent film Serenity. I offered a few ideas for promoting the sequel.

Today I received the following comment:

Anonymous Universal Executive said…
Duly noted. Thanks for the tips.

October 5, 2007 8:42 AM

Now, I don’t know if the author is actually a “Universal Executive” — hopefully so — but at least somebody managed to find the blog entry. And the comment renewed my excitement. If a sequel is a dream, at least it is a pleasant one. And it has to be a dream before it can become a movie.

I’d like to lay down a possible line of attack for getting the fan base more involved in marketing the second movie. Let us assume that Universal has approved back-to-back filming of Serenity parts two and three. Let us further assume that Universal has selected cool titles, hired outstanding print-ad designers, and planned the promotion of a slick preview. I think the way to go is to release the original movie to television a couple weeks or so before the second movie pops.

So here’s where the fans come in. Universal should schedule major-city screenings of the original film (or maybe even the new film) about two months before the release of the second film. Send out the stars again, just like before. To the extent practical, hand out free tickets to known supporters of Serenity, and sell the rest of the tickets. But here’s the big difference: print out something like a million slick, full-color postcards that feature the new film and its release date. Hand these cards out in stacks and encourage fans to mail or give them away to friends. Heck, I’d gladly spend $50 on stamps to mail out the postcard to my friends. It would be a good way to touch base with people as well as to promote the film. Also have available for sale T-shirts that feature the film and its release date. And make it easy for fans to buy (or download) these items.

So, Universal, as good as you’ve been about Serenity, “I’m asking more of you than I have before.”

Serenity 2?

Paul Hsieh of Geek Press e-mailed me a story from Cinema Blend that discusses the possibility of a Serenity sequel.

For those of you who have never heard of Serenity, it’s the spectacular sci-fi film by Joss Whedon (now on video) that follows the television show Firefly.

Unfortunately, even though the critics and the fans loved the movie, it performed poorly at the box office (despite my early predictions that it would do well).

Cinema Blend reports, “Serenity was a massive flop in theaters, but could big DVD sales for the box office bombed film be enough to resurrect the franchise? Alan Tudyk thinks so and he’s excited about it, even if his character is dead. … With the film’s box office numbers as bad as they were, it might make sense for the studio to push a sequel out the door as a direct-to-DVD sequel.”

I think the studio should consider the possibility that a sequel could do far better at the box office. The sequel will build on the success of the first movie. More people will have heard about it. And, if the studio is smart, it will market the sequel far better than it marketed the first movie. (I discussed some of the marketing problems previously.) Here are my recommendations for the studio:

1. Take advantage of the enthusiastic fan base! Sell Serenity shirts, hats, etc. at or near cost so that fans will advertise the movie’s release for you. I never was able to find a licensed shirt to purchase. I loved the pre-screenings. But there have got to be more ways to make it easy for fans to advertise for you.

2. Run competent newspaper ads this time. The print ads for the first movie failed to take advantage of the critical success and other selling points of the movie.

3. Pick a more exciting title. When you go to see, say, Star Wars, you pretty much know what you’re in for. I think the title Serenity, as cool as it was for existing fans, turned off others because it sounds like a movie in which a bunch of old people take a boat out on the lake.

4. Bring back Wash, because we love him, and because, as the article points out, Tudyk is an increasingly successful actor. I know, Wash is dead. But how about a video that Wash left for Zoe? (Now if I can just figure something out for Ron Glass…)

5. Joss planned a trilogy. So film both sequels back-to-back. The up-front cost will be higher, but the cost per movie will be lower, meaning more yummy profits in the end.

6. Re-release the original a week or two before the sequel? Or on TV?

(And now I I see the problem with blogs; it’s 3:00 a.m. But Serenity is worth it!)