Book Corner

Wednesday, January 20 2016
Book Corner

So what, we’re talking about books now? The Raygun is not necessarily noted for its literary prowess or discussion, but an intense burst of reading activity over the holiday season, catching up with a pile of books on our To Read pile during a few days’ R&R, means we’re well equipped to recommend a few tomes worthy of further investigation.

And no, we’re not going to suggest you bury your head in the latest airport novel (“I couldn’t put it down!” – The Raygun) or even point you in the general direction of soon-come book to film adaptations you should be checking out before their big screen counterparts arrive (given how many people we’ve seen with it on public transport, no-one would need us to tell them whether or not they should take a butcher’s at The Girl On The Train, surely they’ll have at least one close friend or relation who’s raved about it endlessly already). Rather, these are a few publications that are relevant to our industry.

They’re not necessarily scholarly tomes, but things that have a certain relevance to our business.

Take Stewart Lee’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate. It’s been out and about for a few years, but we’ve only just caught up with it after receiving it in our Christmas stocking following a pre-Christmas trip to his latest live show. Well, the book features lengthy autobiographical tracts mixed with what are essentially transcripts of live shows from the former Fist Of Fun frontman. They’re available on DVD already, but where it gets really juicy is in the extensive footnotes to those transcripts, as well as in the passages between them. For with devastating honesty that accompanied his return to the stage after the furore over Jerry Springer: The Opera, Lee, a fine writer as any fan of his Observer columns will know, lays bare the minutiae of being a stand-up comic.

This includes plenty on the logistics and financial aspects of releasing and funding a DVD release. He rails against his former management company, Avalon, without ever naming them, discussing the advances they got for his live DVD releases, and outlines budgets in some detail. He discusses working with 2entertain, now an imprint for BBC Worldwide, as well as his releases through the far more independent As well as being a very, very funny read, there’s a disarming honesty – rarely has the detail of the behind-the-scenes workings of stand-up comedy been so open. I’ve heard management, comics and distributors outlining the system, the way it works, who gets what and much, much more, in pubs, offices, Edinburgh and all over the place for years, but most of it is off the record and not for print. Ross Noble once spent a long tome explaining the finer points of retaining control over a project rather than going through a big name label, making a persuasive case for keeping an eye on every aspect right through to the sleeve and advertising (“you spend ages working on the act and set, why let yourself down when it comes to other elements, you’re so close to it all…” was the gist of it), before, ironically, ending up releasing titles through Universal. But rarely has someone such as Lee fully shone a light on the innermost workings of this sector.

It may not cover that many pages of the book, but as any Lee fan will know, there’s plenty more besides…

Another “How” title comes in the shape of How Music Got Free. Its title doesn’t necessarily infer that it has anything to do with film, but this cracking read, which, as one writer noted, doesn’t appear too riveting when you explain its plot, is as much a whodunit as it is detailed look at the birth of the MP3 and the subsequent piracy explosion. Choosing a clutch of disparate individuals as its starting point – the scientists developing the technology, the record executive described as the most powerful man in the music business and the pressing plant worker chief among them – it proceeds to outline how the capability to shrink music down into files capable of being transferred down phone lines was developed, before charting the boom that followed. It’s in the pressing plant side, and its detailed look at the filesharers and swappers, pirates in any other name, that fuelled the growth, that it really begins to highlight how piracy across music and film is intrinsically linked. For the man who later became known as one of the biggest music pirates in the world was stealing pre-release CDs from his employers to in turn gain access to pirated copies of films he could then illegally download and burn on to DVD to flog at boot fairs and the likes.

This writer had picked up a copy on its release in the summer, then it sat gathering dust on the shelves until its inclusion on numerous year-end best of lists for 2015 served as a reminder to read. Its politics don’t necessarily chime with the interests of our business – Stephen Witt was himself a mammoth illegal downloader of music – and some of the editorialising towards the end of prosecutions and tales of the Pirate Bay may, to some eyes, go a step too far, but it offers up a fascinating insight into the world of release groups, the shadowy, secretive online networks who want to be the first to offer up decent copies of films before or around their release. Almost as if forewarned, over Christmas, while this writer was devouring this book in little more than a day or two, copies of The Hateful 8 and The Revenant appeared as illegal downloads, thrusting the release group behind the leaks, Hive-CM8, into the spotlight. Until now, many of the workings of these groups, their motivations and ideals, have been unclear, but the book shines a light on their beliefs. How Music Got Free can’t be recommended highly enough, it should be required reading for anyone in the business.

Similarly essential is Delivering Dreams, a homegrown affair penned by noted film writer Geoffrey Macnab, timed to coincide with the Film Distributors’ Associations centenary. It’s a history of film distribution and exhibition in the UK, viewed through the eyes of the companies releasing films.

What could have been an at times dry affair is livened up by Macnab’s lively style and near-unprecedented access –  he even got to talk to the notoriously publicity-shy Greens from Entertainment, aka EV, to talk to him. In the past 25 years or more, mere mention of the company name in an unflattering light has earned their opprobrium, or a sudden yanking of advertising, so to include comments from the independent is nothing short of a miracle. What’s more, it offers something of an insight into the company’s success and its remarkable strike rate and track records.

For anyone in our industry the background is hugely useful and informative, but, for this writer at least, and more relevant, perhaps, to our side of the business, are the final chapters of the book, as first video, then DVD and, finally, digital, come to the fore. The home formats’ not entirely peaceful co-existence with their theatrical cousins is charted extensively and offers up some informed opinions in to the relationship between home cinema and cinema.

Sure, there are gripes – the demise of Palace Pictures seems to fall between the cracks, with Tartan’s end earning a more detailed explanation – but you could argue the toss on many of those. Furthermore, film executives’ consistent attempts to rewrite history, playing up their own roles, all claiming children as their own, can cloud some of the facts, although, again, you could argue that this makes it all the more fun.

And let’s not forget, it is, as much as anything, a celebration of distribution in the UK, not a wake. And that’s one of Delivering Dreams’ greatest triumphs. For this writer, reading about the success of the likes of Optimum Releasing, brought back fond memories. I remember sitting in a pub with the pair as they outlined their plans for world domination, with DVD product leading the way initially and, as presented by McNab, their triumph is a genuinely inspirational tale. It also helps that it’s all about the UK – many of the people for the latter part of the book are those still in and around the industry. Familiar names and faces and stories you know from being there al make it a warmer experience too.

The same can’t be said for Blockbusters, the most analytical and theoretical of the bunch, a look at how Hollywood and other entertainment businesses – music, games and even books – have developed a strategy that focuses on bigger and bigger titles, ones that cost far more to produce but can reap far greater rewards. It comes across as much as a thesis as anything else, with author Anita Elberse proving her points in a methodical manner. You can’t fault her meticulous research, or her theories, for that matter. Carefully argued and straddling everything from Real Madrid to Lady Gaga, it does stand up as a coherent argument, with Elberse, a Harvard Business School expert, even looking ahead to how the blockbuster will survive in the digital era. Blockbusters is even illustrated with assorted graphs, although these add to its edducational feel, they are as much confusing as anything else. It is an interesting read nonetheless, particularly when it’s discussing film matters. There is, for example, plenty devoted to Marvel and the comic book giant’s film business, its fully-fledged arrival with the first Spider-Man film and all the subsequent inter-studio activity which ended with the company being acquired by Disney, after a remarkable recovery from near-bankruptcy to billion dollar business. Not quite as essential as the previous two titles, but there’s enough here to make it a worthwhile read.…

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