Critical Role Tag

2019: Beyond Discs & Cinemas

Beyond Discs & Cinemas

2019 was the year in which nothing new happened in the audio/video marketplace, and yet everything changed in the world of home entertainment. We saw no meaningful new AV standards or formats, unless you count the fact that a handful of 8K TVs and projectors hit the market. And we don’t. Not yet. We also saw Dolby expand the capabilities of Atmos in the home, 

upping the number of speakers that could be supported in media rooms or home theater. But that’s more evolution than revolution.

 

So, what changed? In a sense, you could say market forces that have been simmering for a while finally boiled over, and we all had to acknowledge that, whether we like it or not, commercial cinemas are no longer the gold standard by which we judge our movie-watching experiences. 

 

Why Go Out to the Movies?

Granted, blockbuster franchise films still dominate the box office, with billion-dollar worldwide hauls almost being taken for granted. The thing is, though, that’s really the only thing drawing us to the local cineplex en masse anymore. Scour the Top 20 list of highest-grossing films for the year, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anything that isn’t a superhero flick, Star Wars film, Disney movie, or sequel/ remake/reboot of some sort.

 

That doesn’t mean these are the only sorts of films we’re watching anymore. Far from it. It’s simply that these big event films are the only ones that really offer anything we can’t experience (arguably better) at home. They’re meant to be seen in crowds. They’re designed to trigger our popcorn-binging reflex. They are, in short, events.

 

With but a handful of exceptions, anything smaller, more meaningful, or contemplative in the world of cinema is far more likely to find its audiences on sofas or home theater recliners. And the underlying reasons for this are numerous (and a long time coming), but I would argue that the reason this trend hit a tipping point in 2019 is that 4K finally became mainstream. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it’s difficult to buy a new TV now at any price point that doesn’t offer a better image than you’ll find at your local cineplex, and that has a lot more to do with HDR than anything else. Granted, the device on which you do your streaming makes a big difference in terms of the quality of presentation, but who could have imagined just four or five years ago that we would soon be able to stream truly reference-quality imagery and sound into our home cinemas by way of a $99 box and a $15-a-month subscription service? 

 

The display is only half the equation, though. All of those people coming home with new UHD/HDR TVs are also discovering that there’s simply a ton of amazing-looking content no more than a click and a stream away. Sure, you could argue that Netflix has become the equivalent of the $5 DVD bin at Walmart, but the service is also the only place you can watch Martin Scorsese’s new film, not to mention David Attenborough’s latest planet-spanning documentary series

 

Ding Dong, The Disc Is Dead

The rise of new streaming services like Disney+ late this year further nail the coffin closed on commercial cinemas as the pinnacle of popular entertainment. But there’s another mainstay of the movie world that is taking an even worse beating as a result of the rise of streaming. This was the first year since 1993 that I didn’t buy a single movie on a disc of any sort. Discs have defined my entertainment experience since I plunked down $250 for thirteen pounds’ worth of LaserDiscs dubbed The Star Wars Trilogy: The Definitive Edition late that year. When I purchased my current home in 1998, one of its most appealing features was a closet off the main den that would perfectly store and conceal my burgeoning DVD collection. 

 

I’ve probably got one final disc purchase left in me—next year’s 27-disc, nine-film Skywalker Saga collection, which also, poetically enough, carries a $250 price tag and will finally bring my physical home video collection full circle, just as I begin to winnow it down. 

 

Make no mistake, though: I’ll continue to buy films for home consumption. They’ll simply be on Vudu and Kaleidescape going forward. I’m not alone in that, either. Disc sales have been on the decline since 2008 and show no sign of rebounding. We’ll almost certainly never have another disc-based home video format after UHD Blu-ray. And indeed, movie studios are already losing interest in that one (as evidenced by the fact that more and more films are receiving 4K home video releases purely in the digital domain, either streamed or downloaded). 

 

This was also the year in which completely non-traditional forms of media hit the mainstream in a big way, which has to be factored into the decline of cinemas and discs alike. A little show called Critical Role, which started a few years ago as a live-streamed home Dungeons & Dragons game, exploded into the public consciousness thanks to the most successful video Kickstarter crowdfunding project of all time  early in 2019. The eight best friends who started the show have also created a full-fledged “television network” around it, distributed mostly through Twitch and YouTube, which features shows ranging from art tutorials to video game live-playthrough/puppet show mashups to a weekly late-night talk show about painting miniature figurines hosted by that kid from Boy Meets World.

 

And I don’t mean to claim here that rolling dice and roleplaying as elves and half-

orcs is the future of home entertainment or anything, but it’s certainly part of it. The success of Critical Role not just as a show but as a network points to a pent-up desire for something different. Something genuine. And given that virtually anyone these 

some content from the Critical Role “network”

days can get their hands on near-commercial-quality video gear and upload their antics to the internet, it stands to reason that the real innovation in terms of what we view on our TVs and projectors will, in the coming years, increasingly come from the occasional lark of this sort.

 

Meanwhile, Netflix, Amazon, Apple, and other tech companies are sinking hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars into creating new films and TV shows that wouldn’t have looked out of place on cinema screens a few years ago, proving that there’s also still plenty of appetite for mid- to big-budget traditional media in all of the usual genres. It’s simply that the way we view that media has forever changed, and when the entertainment history books are written, I think 2019 will be undeniably viewed as the turning point.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Ep. 6: Home Theaters are Better Than Movie Theaters

The Cineluxe Hour logo

Hosts Michael Gaughn & Dennis Burger open Episode 6 with a brief discussion of how Dennis’s favorite show, Critical Role, recently made headlines by becoming the most successful video-production Kickstarter campaign ever. Dennis & Mike talk about the impact of alternate forms of production on TV & movies.

 

At 11:28, Cineluxe contributor Andrew Robinson joins the podcast for the first time, accompanied by fellow contributor John Sciacca. Everybody discusses how a home theater with the right gear, properly installed, can easily top the performance of a typical movie theater. But it turns out the biggest contributor to a better-than-movie-theater experience at home might not be the tech.

 

The show wraps up at 39:14, with a quick survey of what everybody’s watched during the past week, which runs the gamut from They Shall Now Grow Old to Love, Death, and Robots.

CLICK HERE TO CHECK OUT MORE EPISODES OF THE CINELUXE HOUR

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D&D & the Decline of Traditional Media

D&D & the Decline of Traditional Media

If you heard a clatter coming from the direction of the west coast earlier this week, it was probably the sound of dozens of studio executives kicking themselves for their own myopia. To understand why, though, we need to back up a few years.

 

As I’ve written about before here on Cineluxe, one of my favorite TV shows isn’t a TV show at all. It’s Critical Role, a weekly livestream of a Dungeons & Dragons home game, played by eight best friends (shown above) who also happen to be professional voice actors. You may not know all of their faces, but you definitely know their voices, whether you’ve played Overwatch or the most recent Spider-man game on PS4, or perhaps watched Marvel’s current slate of cartoons, or even NBC’s popular crime drama Blindspot.

Their home game started in 2012, and they began streaming it online in 2015, meaning there were three years’ worth of story that we viewers never got to see. So, the cast decided they’d like to adapt some of those early adventures into an animated special.

 

Honestly, this is the sort of gold mine that any studio exec should have leapt at. It’s hard to pin down exactly how many people watch the show every week, since it streams on 

Twitch, then airs on demand on that platform and YouTube. On the latter alone, though, the first episode of the current campaign has been streamed 3.8 million times to date, and that’s not even its primary channel of distribution. Until recently it was also available on Legendary’s Project Alpha streaming service, but when Critical Role severed ties with that corporate entity a few weeks back, the service closed its doors forever.

 

Collect the numbers from various streaming services, though, and account for the fact that Critical Role’s viewer base is growing every day, and it’s pretty fair to guesstimate that the show’s fan base is at least on par with something like AMC’s The Walking Dead. But for some reason, while TWD is considered as mainstream as mainstream gets, Critical Role is still relegated to geeky niche status, due to the establishment bias that permeates the entertainment industry.

 

As of this week, though, that perception has to change. Unable to strike a deal with a studio, the cast of Critical Role decide to crowdfund their animated special via Kickstarter.

The goal was $750,000, which they zoomed past in minutes. Only two previous Kickstarters have managed to make it to the $1,000,000 mark faster. And as I write this, on the second day of the campaign, the project has already gathered more than $4,500,000 in pledged funding—six times its original goal. What was planned as a 22-minute special is now a multi-part mini-series. And with 44 days left to go in the campaign, the projections for how much it could raise when all is said and done are mind-bogglingly insane (not to mention highly unlikely, given that many potential funders were sitting on the Kickstarter homepage, F5ing it in anticipation of the project launching).

 

If this isn’t a massive indication of just how much the media landscape has forever changed, I don’t know what is. We at Cineluxe applaud companies like Netflix and Amazon for taking risks on shows and movies that old corporate media monoliths never would have greenlit, and we’ll continue to do so. But even those streaming platforms are simply tweaking the old studio playbook. And look, I’m not saying that the corporate suits at the big studios should have predicted that a Critical 

Role cartoon would be this successful. Even the cast of the show has been stupefied by its success. What I’m saying is that literally anyone paying attention should have known that it would, at the very least, be financially lucrative.

 

I do have concerns about all of this. For one thing, the history of Kickstarter is littered with scams and failures—projects that were successfully funded and never delivered. I don’t have that worry with Critical Role, but I think this campaign is going to spawn bushels of imitators who have an idea and circumvent the studio system in attempt to get funding, only to find they’ve bitten off more than they can 

chew. Or that their idea only sounds good on paper. The gatekeepers of old may have kept audiences from seeing any number of potentially amazing movies and TV shows because they simply didn’t fit inside some preconceived box. On the other hand, they also kept a lot of worthless crap from flooding the airwaves, movie shelves, and online platforms.

 

So, in the end, despite my excitement for this particular crowdfunding project, I’m not saying that a more decentralized media landscape is necessarily a good thing, nor necessarily a bad one. I’m simply saying that we’re quickly approaching a time in which this sort of thing is the norm. In which the gatekeepers of old have little to no power. In which movie theaters and linear TV channels are a novelty at best. In which we the people have more direct control of what movies and TV shows get produced in the first place.

 

And the changing nature of entertainment funding is also going to have an impact on how we consume our entertainment. Will this Critical Role cartoon end up UHD Blu-ray? Highly unlikely. Netflix or Amazon Prime? Almost certainly not. Hulu or Vudu? (Shakes Magic 8 Ball.) Outlook not so good. I’m honestly just holding out hope that it’s available in some form via the Roku Ultra streamer in my main media room.

 

I can say this with some certainty, though: The media room as we know it (or the home theater, or family room, or whatever you want to call it) is going to adapt to this new media landscape, not the other way around. Because there’s no way the cork is going back in this bottle.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

VRV Helps Solve the Exclusive Content Blues

VRV Helps Solve the Exclusive Content Blues

Of all the excellent points John Sciacca made in his latest piece, “Exclusive Content Causes FOMO & Piracy,one in particular leapt right off the page at me. Near the end, he recommends an ingenious solution to the problem of Peak Subscription Saturation: A unified “Premier Pass,” where streaming services join forces under a single banner, a single subscription, and divvy up the profits between them.

 

Unfortunately, that seems like an unlikely solution, especially given the corporate politics that have plagued and continue to plague streaming conglomerates like Hulu. But there’s already a precedent for John’s idea. One of the best-kept secrets in all of geekdom, it’s called VRV (pronounced “verve”), and it’s quickly becoming my go-to source for streaming video.

 

A word of warning for you Muggles in the audience: The next few sentences are going to get pretty geeky, so feel free to jump past the next line break. At any rate, I stumbled across VRV in my quest for a way to watch the streaming service Project Alpha in my media room via my Roku. As of late, my wife and I have been watching a lot of Critical Role, in which a group of voice-actor friends stream their weekly Dungeons & Dragons game for the world to watch. It’s honestly one of the

most compelling and entertaining programs I’ve ever seen. And yes, you can watch the show for free on YouTube, but we wanted to financially support its creators as well as gain access to the exclusive character portraits, hit-point counters, and ad-free graphics available only to paid subscribers of Alpha. (You can see those in the clip at right, and contrast them with the graphics for the free Critical Role YouTube broadcasts here).

But Project Alpha isn’t available on Roku, so we kept watching on the YouTube app instead. It wasn’t until some months later that I stumbled across the VRV app on Roku completely by accident, and found it offered Alpha content. That immediately seemed like the solution to my problem. What I didn’t realize is that it would be a solution to problems I didn’t even know I had.

VRV Helps Solve the Exclusive Content Blues

What makes VRV great is that it houses a number of geeky streaming services under one umbrella, from the aforementioned Project Alpha (split there into separate Geek & Sundry and Nerdist channels), to classic cartoon channels like Boomerang, to anime streams from Crunchyroll and the like. And you can either subscribe to them à la carte and pay anywhere from $2.49 to $6.95 per service or spring for the lot of 12 different services for $9.99 a month total.

There’s also a free 30-day trial—during which I noticed that CuriosityStream (a documentary service I already subscribed to separately) was included in the package price. Add up the cost of separate CuriosityStream and Project Alpha subscriptions, and you’re within spitting distance of $9.99 a month anyway, so I just went for the complete package and canceled my standalone CuriosityStream sub. Purchased on their own, the subscriptions to all of these services (via VRV or directly) would add up to nearly 50 bucks a month. So, if nothing else, it’s a value.

 

But more than that, it solves the problem of jumping from app to app, service to service, in search of something to watch. Most nights, my wife and I fire up the VRV app when she gets home from work and don’t leave it until we shut down the media room at bedtime. If we’re not in the mood to start a new episode of Critical Role, there’s a vast collection of old Looney Tunes cartoons just a few clicks away, or that David Attenborough documentary we’ve been meaning to check out, or a compelling collection of curated spooky movies courtesy of Shudder if the mood strikes.

VRV Helps Solve the Exclusive Content Blues

VRV also has something most streaming apps don’t: A really gorgeous and simple-to-navigate user interface that includes the features you might expect—like a “Continue Watching” shortcut and a watchlist management tool that puts Amazon Instant’s to shame—along with some unexpected niceties like a universal search function.

 

I get that not everyone will be into the sorts of programming offered by VRV, like video gaming or roleplaying or LARPing or miniature painting or quantum physics or classic cartoons, much less Japanese animation. But if nothing else, VRV serves as a role model for how independent streaming providers can learn to get along.

 

Sure, Boomerang may not be getting as much coin out of me every month as they would if I subscribed to their service directly. But guess what? I almost certainly wouldn’t drop $4.99 a month on Boomerang by itself, no matter how much I love some old-school Scooby-Doo.

 

Of course, it’s not surprising that a bunch of streaming services targeted at nerds were the ones to figure this out. Despite the fact that geek culture dominates popular culture these days, all of this is still—for whatever reason—viewed as niche content. So, the corporate overlords at Geek & Sundry and Nerdist (both owned by Legendary Entertainment), Crunchyroll (owned by WarnerMedia), Boomerang (Turner Broadcasting), NickSplat (Viacom), and others probably figured their chances were better if they banded together.

 

As with most things, though, the geeks were simply the first to figure out a way to make this new paradigm work to everyone’s benefit. Because if mainstream entertainment providers don’t follow the same template eventually, the streaming landscape is going to turn into The Hunger Games. And the odds won’t necessarily be in anyone’s favor.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.