“Life Itself”  —  Roger Ebert and the Everlasting Power of Movie Criticism


Roger Ebert loved words. He loved movies. He also really loved life.

That much I gleaned from watching Life Itself, the acclaimed documentary from director Steve James (Hoop Dreams), which is based on Ebert’s 2011 memoir, and is actually streaming on Netflix now.

Rogert Ebert passed away in 2013, and for this documentary James received an extraordinary level of access. Short of seeing Ebert actually die, there is a lot to work with here. It’s very intimate, very personal, and at times, very humorous.

Ebert himself is alive for most of it, and he talks to the camera through a text-to-speech feature on his Apple laptop. The rest of it is narrated, with words taken right from Ebert’s book, and as a person who hasn’t actually read the book, I found a lot of the prose to be beautiful and wistfully romantic. I mention this because the movie would not be what it is without that narration. It’s like a drizzle of oil and a sprinkle of sea salt, tying everything together rather deliciously.

As for structure, Life Itself tells the story of how Roger Ebert came to be, and uses standard documentary style, mixing old clips with interviews from friends and family, plus new footage of Ebert, as he deals with his myriad health issues. This approach might initially seem formulaic, but it actually works quite well here, moving the film along at a fairly brisk pace, despite its 2-hour run time.

While the movie is fairly sentimental, it’s not a posthumous public relations campaign to present Ebert as an angel. It seems fair in that it shows him to be a prodigious talent, but also paints him ruthlessly competitive, a bit of egotist, and until he’s married at age 50, sort of an overgrown child. He’s also legendarily combative with his longtime television sparring partner Gene Siskel, whom he doesn’t even appear to be friends with. Watching outtakes of them arguing and insulting one another is particularly demonstrative.

There are other uncomfortable moments. In one instance, another legendary critic, Pauline Kael, is discussed. I’m not enough of a scholar on what the real relationship was like between Ebert and Kael, nor do I really care that much, but at one point, Chicago newspaperman Rick Kogan very bluntly says: “Fuck Pauline Kael.”

James’ decision to include that part illustrates a type of animosity that existed  —  and I think still exists  –between critics who thought movies and movie criticism should be a utility, serving the needs of masses with simple gestures like thumbs up or thumbs down; versus high-minded, intellectual and personal, perhaps serving the needs of only a select, artful group of people.

It’s an interesting conversation that happens a third of the way into the film, and I think it’s actually an important one, because nowadays, when there are fewer film critics than ever working at the professional level, and cultural criticism itself is being shed from established media institutions like so many other people’s salaries long forgotten, who can imagine a time when the business was healthy enough to support that kind of debate?

There are other sobering parts of the film, like watching Ebert, this blue collar guy from Chicago, rise up the ranks and become impossibly famous, despite the fact that he was a recovering alcoholic, significantly overweight and spent his life waxing poetic about other people’s art; which is kind of what we do all day on the internet now, except many people do it for free and it is largely terrible. That we’ve let our new technology overlords build businesses around the latter and not the former, that part is even more depressing. But let me not digress too much.

I use the word sobering to describe Ebert’s journey because in this day and age, in this winner take all and then take even more and more and more type of political and economic climate that we’re living in, I just don’t see that level of opportunity out there for people like that. And that’s sad, because in a way, that’s a lot of what America still really is.

While I watched this movie, I couldn’t help but keep thinking: if Roger Ebert was a 20-year-old today, what would he be doing? Maybe he’d have a Medium publication or a Tumblr or a WordPress site where he reviewed movies. But maybe after he wrote 100 of them and watched them get buried by a Facebook algorithm, or observed how people just look at a silly number on Rotten Tomatoes to make their decisions about what movies to see, he’d just as soon as throw in the towel and become a bus driver (not that there’s anything wrong with driving a bus; maybe it’s even more helpful than reviewing movies).

That should take nothing away from the film itself, which paints a portrait of a complicated artist as a young man, but one who eventually grows up to become a wiser, more mature, more loving one, too. There’s a lot of love in this film; from his friends and family, but especially from his wife Chaz.

I think the thing that Life Itself illustrates the most, however, is just how powerful and meaningful the act of writing is, for when Ebert’s health problems rob him of his ability to speak, he’s able to still use the written word to convey what he wants to say. Maybe, as the film quietly suggests, the loss of his voice actually empowered him, made the words count that much more, have more meaning.

A non-writer might find this concept novel in its own right  – ”isn’t that cute?” –  but a writer, or anyone who really endeavors to dig deep inside themselves to find some sort of more everlasting truth, might identify with it on a level that is hard to really put into words. In fact, I’m struggling to write or even think about this movie now without tears welling up in my eyes. It touched me that much.

If you have some time, check it out and you won’t be disappointed.

Ebert himself might have given it two thumbs up.

Vine Star Marcus Johns Keeps His Prom Promise After A Fan Gets 100,000 Retweets

When a fan direct messaged Marcus Johns on Twitter asking if he’d go to prom with her if she got 100,00 retweets, he agreed, figuring it was practically impossible. It turns out he was wrong.

On January 12, Mimi Dickerson messaged the Vine star with her prom proposition. When he wrote back saying he’d go if she kept her end of the deal, she quickly got to work.

Mimi tweeted the next day that she had gotten 60,000 retweets. She got the remaining 40,000 soon after, and on January 14 Marcus got in touch to make plans.

Two months later, Marcus traveled to Alabama to escort Mimi to the dance at Gulf Shores High School on March 21. A video on his YouTube channel documents their prom adventure and shows the two taking pictures with her friends, eating dinner and killin’ it on the dance floor.

While being able to take one of her favorite celebrities to prom was incredible for Mimi, Marcus also had a blast. After the big night, he took to Twitter to share his appreciation for Mimi and her community.

Thanks to a little help from the Internet, prom was certainly a night to remember — for both of them.


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How Cell Phone Companies Are Getting You To Pay More

If you think your cell phone bills are out of control — well, you have no idea.

A study published earlier this year in the American Economic Review suggests smartphone owners might overpay on their monthly bill because of a U.S. industry policy that’s actually supposed to help people save money.

Under the policy, which went into effect in 2013, wireless carriers like Verizon and AT&T send text messages to customers to let them know if they’re burning through their monthly data too quickly. The idea behind this practice is to prevent “bill shock,” that horrible feeling you get when you look at your phone bill and see a much higher charge than you expected because you went over your plan. It’s also supposed to warn customers to curb their data usage so they don’t spill over their monthly limit.

A sample notification indicating that a customer is about to go over her data plan.

But cell phone companies are padding their subscription plans to make up for the fact that they have to warn customers about lucrative overage charges, according to study authors Matthew Osborne and Michael D. Grubb.

“Cell phone companies make a lot of money from overage fees. If you implement these alerts, then they’re going to lose money on that, so they’re going to try to make up that money, in other words, by increasing fixed fees,” Osborne, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Toronto Mississauga, told The Huffington Post in a phone interview. “While [customers] get more information, they’re paying more.”

Additionally, people aren’t good at estimating their data usage ahead of time. So even if they get a warning message, they’re still likely to go over their limit.

It should be noted that the researchers looked at cell phone bill records from 2002 to 2004. While phones today let us access high-speed Internet, watch feature-length films, send high-quality photographs to large groups of people and so on, phones from 2002 to 2004 couldn’t do much beyond place calls, send texts, play “Snake” or maybe store a limited number of MP3s. Billing at that time was based on minutes, rather than gigabytes of data. In other words, they examined a completely different beast than we’re accustomed to.

There’s a good reason the authors used old stats, though: It allowed them to create theoretical models of the “bill shock” warning policy’s impact in the real world and suss out different ways both consumers and companies could be affected.

“While our 2002–2004 data are imperfect to directly resolve the policy question today, we use them to predict what effect the policy would have had,” the study reads.

The researchers found that keeping track of talk minutes was a challenge for people. “Our study implies that people basically underestimate how much they use their phone, and they underestimate by about an hour. If you think you’re going to use 100 minutes, you actually go over by about 60 minutes,” Osborne told HuffPost.

It’s easy to see how there would be a similar problem with modern-day data usage.

When signing up for a new phone plan, the average consumer probably has no idea how much data they’ll need per month. And carriers aren’t exactly great at helping make this decision. Take a look at the plans offered on AT&T’s website:

What does any of this even mean?

Is it safer to pay $65 a month for up to 3GB, or should you bump that up to the next tier? What does 3GB mean in terms of everyday usage, anyway? How much data does it take to download a video a friend sends you?

Make the wrong choice and you’ll pay for it, because overage charges will mount. If you’re on Verizon or AT&T, you can expect to pay $15 for every GB over your plan’s limit. An hour of Netflix video can use up to 3 GB, so if you’re using your phone’s plan to watch a two-hour movie on a bus when you’re at your plan’s limit, you’ve potentially added $90 to your bill right then and there.

And let’s say you receive a warning message from your carrier telling you you’ve used 75 percent of your monthly data. In order for that to be helpful, you first have to remember which data plan you’re on. (3GB, let’s say.) Then, you have to do the math to figure out that you’ve basically used 2.25 GB of the 3 allotted. Finally, you have to adjust your behavior for the rest of the month to avoid an overage charge, or upgrade your existing plan to a costlier one that allows more data consumption.

As the study notes, people probably won’t do all of this, which means they’re probably going to be stuck paying a fee, despite the warning from their carrier.

“Overconfidence causes consumers to choose overly risky plans and underestimate the likelihood of paying overage charges,” the study reads.

So, what’s to be done?

“Some of these plans are tailored to exploit people’s mistakes,” Osborne told HuffPost. “That would be one place potentially for the government to step in, by having the cell phone companies provide people with more detailed statistics monthly.”

Peggy Siegal Oscar Diary 2015

This piece originally appeared in Avenue Magazine and is being republished with its editors permission.

Having worked on Oscar campaigns for 35 years, I found going to the 87th Academy Awards ceremony a serious revelation of the American zeitgeist. On the other hand, celebrating “Oscar Weekend” was just a hell of a lot of fun.

I am always asked, “What exactly do you do, how do you do it, and who will win the Oscar?”

The studios usually start the Oscar race presenting contenders in Cannes, where Foxcatcher‘s Bennett Miller won Best Director. The parade then migrates to Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York by the end of September.

Boyhood, however, stunned audiences in January 2014 at Sundance, where Whiplash won both the Grand Jury and Audience Awards. Both independent films remained the critics’ darling through January 2015, when Entertainment Weekly gave Ellar Coltrane a triptych cover complete with an Oscar declaring “Oscar Front-Runner!”

There was a flurry of films released at Christmas that suffered from getting into the race too late, as outstanding as they were. Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay and starring David Oyelowo, and American Sniper were further burdened by the press with red and blue political shackles.

Every year, the voters are inundated with screenings and conversations about degrees of merit, as they develop a communal wisdom. Only those who speak to voters can figure out what’s going on. Sometimes voters reposition winners, like in a chess game, and can reduce even the experienced soothsayers to “Who’s on first base?”

The end of the 2015 race was a dead heat tie between IFC’s Boyhood, directed by Richard Linklater, and Fox Searchlight’s Birdman, directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, with a possible split of gold between picture and director. An American Sniper/Bradley Cooper upset was Warner Bros.’ wishful thinking because it became the American public’s most popular film.

Few actors have the endurance and charm to campaign, even if they are a “slam-dunk” winner the minute their performance is seen. This year, three of the four winning actors — Julianne Moore, Patricia Arquette and J.K. Simmons — fell into the “slam-dunk” category and still worked their asses off campaigning to win. The Best Actor category was a different horse race between Michael Keaton and Eddie Redmayne to the end.


I went directly to Diane von Furstenberg‘s sprawling glass and stone house for her second annual lunch to honor this year’s female nominees, co-hosted by Hilary Swank and Anne Sweeney. Meryl Streep, Reese Witherspoon, Rosamund Pike, Patricia Arquette, and Laura Dern, along with Cheryl Boone Isaacs, President of the Academy, nibbled on salads while listening to Diane’s inspirational speech quoted from her book The Woman I Wanted to Be.

I then checked into a bright corner suite at Jeff Klein‘s Sunset Tower Hotel and fortified myself with a vitamin B-12 shot from the house doctor. Emma Stone, Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Lena Dunham and Eddie Redmayne were arriving and would be found hanging out at the terrace pool all weekend.

Hildy Gottlieb and Walter Hill hosted a party in their Spanish-style mansion in Beverly Hills for ICM nominees. Google’s Eric Schmidt wasn’t sure why he was there as CBS’ Les Moonves schmoozed him. Michael Keaton, dapper in his signature three-piece gray shadow plaid suit, was the biggest “get.”

Keaton went to the Sunset Tower Hotel for a late dinner, where he bumped into fellow former Batman George Clooney with Amal double-dating with Sacha Baron Cohen and a very pregnant Isla Fisher. I arrived moments after the Clooneys had left and was beside myself with grief for missing a chance to chat up George about his NYC spring shoot, Money Monster.

With 96 hours to go before “the envelope please,” Fox Searchlight had permeated the gossip around town that the technical intricacies and showbiz razzle-dazzle of Birdman were more worthy of gold than the test of time for Boyhood. A Birdman sweep had taken flight.


Larry Gagosian hosted a gallery opening for John Currin.His paintings reflected Oscar Weekend’s bacchanal. Luscious nudes, depicting Old Master portraits, were juxtaposed with pin-ups and B-movies that delighted the artistic sensibilities of Leonardo DiCaprio, Steve Martin, Elton John, Ed Ruscha and Fifty Shades of Grey pop-porn director Sam Taylor-Johnson with young husband Aaron. Also, perusing Gagosian as inspiration for a new script was visionary Wes Anderson, whose The Grand Budapest Hotel later won four Oscars.

Derek Blasberg escorted Dasha Zhukova and current Vogue cover girl Karlie Kloss to tables adjoining Currin’s wife Rachel Feinstein, John McEnroe, Jeff Bezos, Brett Ratner, Jean Pigozzi and collectors Bill Bell and Nicolas Berggruen.

Larry and girlfriend Chrissie Erpf later hosted a caviar-pizza party in his modernist Holmby Hills house. Whiplash writer/director Damien Chazelle had been at CAA agent Maha Dakhil‘s house for a quiet dinner with Lena Dunham and Reese Witherspoon, knowing he was expected at Larry’s. Lost, late, driving like a maniac, the 30-year-old Harvard graduate and boy wonder, finally showed up to be flabbergasted as Robbie Robertson and Mick Jagger cornered him and passionately explained how much his film meant to them. Gossip headlines screamed the next day, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Royalty Endorses Whiplash.”


As Bob and Harvey Weinstein and Netflix’s CCO Ted Sarandos was honored at the Publicists Awards lunch at the Beverly Hilton, I slipped away to documentarian Rory Kennedy‘s lunch celebrating her nominated Last Days in Vietnam. Her cousin Maria Shriver and hotelier André Balazs co-hosted at Chateau Marmont. Since Citzenfour was the sure bet, competitive Kennedy, 11th child of RFK, encouraged Minnie Driver, Laura Bickford, Peter Fonda, Cheryl Hines and Nicky Hilton, to drink up the three vintages of Dom Pérignon.

I moved on from documentaries to dresses, war movies to wardrobes, and Vietnam to velvet to Tom Ford‘s fashion show, with more stars in attendance than the Oscars, Tonys, and Grammys combined.

Why, you might ask, was Tom Ford staging a command performance during Oscar Weekend, instead of participating in London Fashion Week? He drew a lousy slot and was assigned to show his fall collection at 9:00 a.m. in London on the Monday after the Oscars. Media savvy Tom knew every inch of press coverage would be lavished on Hollywood’s red carpet looks.

So, the oh-so-adored Tom cleverly seized this golden moment of unclaimed party time, 7:00 p.m. on Friday, which just happened to be the hour before Kevin Huvane‘s CAA hottest agency party in town — making his show the night’s sizzling starter course.

In the front row sat Anna Wintour, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ford’s husband Richard Buckley, golden girl Julianne Moore and Reese Witherspoon.

Across from Anna was Josh Duhamel and Fergie, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, John Legend, Jennifer Lopez, Rita Ora, Neil Patrick Harris, Armie Hammer, Naomi Campbell, Miley Cyrus and her beau Patrick Schwarzenegger.

Also applauding was Jared Leto, James Corden, Anjelica Huston, and Brad Grey. Sixty movie stars stormed backstage after the show. CAA client Tom Ford could be asked to produce the Oscars next year.

PR mavens Cindi Berger and Marian Koltai hosted a few tables in the back of Craig’s on Melrose for those students of society, like myself, who needed a hot meal with reporters to digest the day and predict the future, before slipping into the CAA party.

If and when invited to the CAA party, the 10 commandments are: #1 Thou shall never tell you got invited (oops), #2 Thou shall never tell where it is, #3 Thou shall never ask for an earlier arrival time, #4 Thou shall never complain about the shuttle if you were not important enough to get a limo pass, #5 Thou shall never overdress, #6 Thou shall never bring an extra person, #7 Thou shall never “work” the room a.k.a. “fawn over the famous,” #8 Thou shall never talk on your phone or take a selfie, #9 Thou shall never be boring but never gossip, and #10 Thou shall never expect to be invited back. If you can deal with the greatest dealmakers in town, you are good to go and will see everyone you just saw at Tom Ford’s fashion show.


Saturday was Oscar Weekend’s busiest day. Here are brief highlights.

10:00 a.m. Foreign Language Film Symposium moderated by professorial Academy Board Member Mark Johnson. Another Oscar winner was Ida, about a Polish nun.

11:30 a.m. Maria Shriver’s annual Gold Meets Golden event hosted by Nicole Kidman at the Equinox Sports Club supporting the 2015 Special Olympics. As I spoke to Katie Holmes about her upcoming film Woman in Gold, a teenage special needs athlete named Lucy Meyer charmingly invited us to her swim competition as she handed us her card. This profoundly moving moment reduced Katie and me to tears.

12:30 p.m. Barry Diller and Diane Von Furstenberg’s power lunch for gold standard king of Oscar Weekend, Graydon Carter, at their Coldwater Canyon house. Diane’s children Tatiana, Alex and Alexandra von Furstenberg and granddaughter Talita welcomed Prince Pavlos and Princess Marie Chantal of Greece, Rupert Murdoch, Paul Allen, Robert Kraft, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Gayle King, Ron Howard, Anna Wintour, Christian Louboutin, Zac Posen, Lynn Wyatt,and 600 other stylish, slim, and successful social swimmers. Whiplash producer Jason Blum and I dashed off to the Spirit Awards in Santa Monica in his sliver vintage Rolls-Royce, inherited from his grandfather.

3:00 p.m. The Film Independent Spirit Awards a.k.a. the “dress rehearsal” to the Oscars was in the midst of celebrating their super-cool 30th anniversary. All nominated films were produced for $20 million or less, which is why the Oscars and the Spirit Awards are now synonymous. Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, with 18 Oscar nominations this year, invited me to sit with them. Birdman‘s Spirit win forecasted its Oscar win. I emailed Birdman producer John Lesher, “You just won the Oscar.” He emailed back, “Are you sure?”

6:00 p.m. Focus Features’ Peter Schlessel hosted a cocktail party in honor of The Theory of Everything at the Chateau for Universal’s Ron Meyer and Donna Langley, producers Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan, director James Marsh, Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne. Eddie had just landed from London, where he is filming Tom Hooper‘s The Danish Girl.

7:30 p.m. Charles Finch and Chanel hosted their seventh pre-Oscar dinner at Madeo, complete with a mariachi band. This gathering of the international chic has evolved into the coveted ticket for a proper sit-down meal. Everyone actually knows and likes each other. This evening is a throwback to Swifty Lazar’s original Oscar viewing party for social swans that Vanity Fair took over years ago.

Here, Julianne Moore joined pregnant Keira Knightley whose The Imitation Game was also an Oscar favorite, Kristen Stewart, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Jessica Chastain and Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo, January Jones, Dree Hemingway, Poppy Delevingne, Stavros Niarchos and Suki Waterhouse (Bradley Cooper’s girlfriend, who was solo as Bradley gave his last Broadway performance of The Elephant Man.)


Breakfast was with Eddie and Hannah Redmayne on the terrace of the Sunset Tower Hotel. Eddie was cool as a cucumber, I was nauseous. As we devoured omelets, my most encouraging line to him was, “Eddie, if they don’t call your name tonight, you will always have The Danish Girl next year. In a week, iconic and heroic Helen Keller will know who The Danish Girl is.” Eddie whispered, “Who is Helen Keller?” Hannah fell off her chair. I then proceeded to reenact the scene from the Broadway play The Miracle Worker, where Anne Bancroft was pumping water onto Patty Duke’s hand as she miraculously uttered, “Water.” Eddie replied, “I’m going upstairs.”

Oscar date Lisa Taback and I arrived at 3:30 p.m. I planted myself next to Lara Spencer‘s GMA stage, securing a clean shot of myself with every A-list nominee. This audacious move is nothing short of brilliant. My chutzpah enables me to read countless emails from friends the minute I sit down in the Dolby Theatre: “OMG, we just saw you on TV.”

Noteworthy was the juxtaposition of two tributes during the broadcast that exemplified the schism in American culture. John Legend and Common sang “Glory,” a cry for racial equality. Then Lady Gaga came out belting “the hills are alive with the sound of music.” The tragedy of Selma and the schmaltz of The Sound of Music both entered our hearts and minds in the same year, 50 years ago.

As I arrived on the Vanity Fair party red carpet, there was virtually no interest for my picture except from a handful of New York paparazzi we hire regularly. I found Graydon and Anna Carter but before I could gush, Anna told me I was a big hit with her friend Lord March after organizing his photo exhibition in New York. Anna and I agreed to visit him at Goodwood, March’s ancestral British estate that makes Downton Abbey look like McDonald’s. Graydon was surrounded by his cronies Mitch Glazer, Richard Plepler, Bob Colacello and Jonathan Becker, and had been playing host since 5 p.m. Loyal Vanity Fair staffers Jane Sarkin, Matt Ullian and Beth Kseniak were never far behind.

Movie stars spilled into the Annenberg tent, wolfing down In-N-Out burgers and taking selfies with every Oscar (gold or Lego yellow) they could get their hands on. People had sat next to each other for the past three hours in the Dolby Theatre were now frantically hugging and kissing each other, whether they won or not.

Earlier in the evening, Graydon had a viewing dinner in the wood-paneled circular dining room with eight 65″ flat screens. Guests chatted through the show finding each other more interesting. High-powered guests included Jane Fonda, Natalie Portman, Don Rickles, Conan O’Brien, Star Trek director J.J. Abrams, designer Francisco Costa, and high society doyennes Betsy Bloomingdale and Denise Hale.

Every single nominee, presenter and A-lister was at this party. Notable New Yorkers included Jason Weinberg, Patricia Clarkson, Chloë Grace Moretz, Emily Mortimer, Edward Norton, Mark Ruffalo, Marisa Tomei, Naomi Watts, Alexander Gilkes, Leonard Lauder, Stephen and son Teddy Schwarzman, Fran Lebowitz, Zoë Kravitz, Matt Lauer, Jimmy Buffett, Idina Menzel, Questlove, IFC’s Jonathan Sehring and Marjorie Gubelmann and Larry Gagosian.

Bryan Lourd and Bruce Bozzi threw a super private after-party at Bruce’s Palm Restaurant Beverly Hills. Meryl Streep and Don Gummer, Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban, Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka, Cate Blanchett, Kelly Ripa and Mark Consuelos, and Scarlett Johansson and Romain Dauriac were all jammed into one cozy leather booth, and sipped stiff drinks as Bozzi instagrammed.

Lastly, Jason Blum and Ethan Hawke had another super private after-after-party at the Warwick on Sunset Blvd. The gang at the Palm Restaurant slipped in for bacon and eggs, as no one wanted the night to end.


I flew to the Dominican Republic to vacation for a week with Graydon’s friends Emilia and Pepe Fanjul at Casa de Campo. Bob Colacello, Jonathan Becker, Deborah Norville and I regaled King Juan Carlos of Spain, Lord and Lady Astor, Lord and Lady Charles Churchill, Dixon Boardman and Paul Wilmot with embellished tales of our showbiz shenanigans. Stocked with an endless supply of DVDs, every guest happily retired to their bungalows late at night to watch this year’s greatest films.

Teen With Cerebral Palsy Asks Ellen DeGeneres (And Her Dance Moves) To Prom

Asking famous singers and big-name celebs to prom isn’t exactly new, though requesting the presence of a talk show host to the big dance might be a first.

Alirio Magana, a student at North Rockland High School in New York, created a promposal video asking Ellen DeGeneres to be his prom date. The 18-year-old, who has cerebral palsy, dressed up for the occasion and rocked a sparkly bow tie on a red carpet as the rest of the school danced around with pictures of Ellen’s face.

According to News12 Westchester, Alirio has had a crush on the comedian for years.

“I watch her every day at 4:00, and I really like her dancing,” he said.

Hopefully they’ll get to hit the dance floor together at his prom in June.

H/T Seventeen

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The ‘Zero Effect': Do New Consumption Charts Penalize Compilation Records and Artists’ Who Window?

The number of plays from some music streaming services are now being included with sales results to rank releases in various music industry “charts” — the standard reference point for success in the commercial music business. What are these new “consumption charts” actually measuring? Do the consumption charts overstate records available on streaming services relative to those that are not?

The Zero Effect

We can’t tell exactly how consumption chart makers weight streams versus sales in the chart ranking until that weighting formula is made available publicly. However, it’s pretty clear that if you are not on streaming services at all — meaning you have zero streams — you will be penalized in the chart compared to records that are on streaming services even if you outsell them. This is what I call the “zero effect.”

Compilation records like Ministry of Sound’s iconic titles, movie soundtracks or the NOW records typically are comprised of pre-existing tracks that are licensed for the compilation. Those licenses exclude streaming rights. Many if not most of the pre-existing licensed tracks are already available on streaming services, so any increased streaming activity due to the compilation accrues to the benefit of the owner of the pre-existing recording and not the compilation producer. So your compilation record gets no credit for these streams, either in royalties or in the consumption charts.

Neither will you get credit for streams if you voluntarily withhold your record from streaming services in a practice called “windowing” (meaning you treat streaming as an exploitation “window” that comes after higher revenue opportunities have flattened out). For newly released records, windowed titles may not be on the streaming service at all.

Yet as we will see, comparing records with sales only and zero streaming to records with both sales and streaming can show some sizable differences in chart position. Those differences usually are to the downside even if the zero effect records outsell the competition.

This would seem to create a chart bias toward records that appear on streaming services “day and date” with their commercial sales release.

So how much can the new “consumption charts” be relied upon as an industry-wide measure of success?

Taylor Swift, NOW and the Zero Effect

In order to test for an answer to that question, I picked the consumption chart for the first chart week of Taylor Swift’s October 27 release of her 1989 juggernaut to try to measure how the consumption chart reacted. The choice was admittedly cherrypicking, but with a purpose: Taylor’s sales were historically significant and her reported streaming should have been somewhat muted given Spotify’s well-publicized decision to reject Taylor’s record on the artist’s terms. This would potentially yield good benchmarks for testing the consumption chart at the margins, as well as the more bread and butter titles below the top 10. (You can look at a spreadsheet for the consumption chart data.)

Based on data for the week ending November 2, 2014, Taylor Swift’s first week sales were so strong it probably doesn’t matter that her streams were somewhat lower. At No. 1, she outsold the No. 2 NOW 52 title by 10:1, and NOW 52 outsold the No. 3 Sam Hunt album by 10:8-but Sam Hunt had 4 million streams that punched up the chart position. NOW 52 had zero streams because it is a compilation record.

No Stream Credit for Compilations and Soundtracks

Remember — compilation records and soundtracks do not get credit for streams because they usually have no streaming rights. This is true even if the music services allow playlists — or possibly create playlists themselves — using the compilation or soundtrack brand in the metadata with the track listing of the underlying tracks. These playlists work because the individual tracks are already available on the service. (This is the kind of free riding that was the heart of Ministry of Sound’s recently settled lawsuit against Spotify.)

The “zero effect” is much greater further down the chart, however. In the same week of November 2, Frozen: The Songs, a compilation record, got credit for zero streams and 10,723 albums sales for a chart position of 49. Blake Shelton sales were lower than Frozen‘s at 8,735 albums but Blake got credit for 930,928 audio streams for a chart position of 44. The same week Iggy Azalea sold 4,947 albums but got credit for 5,060,617 streams for a chart position of 25. In other words, Frozen will never have any streams and got a much lower chart position than Iggy in spite of selling over twice as many albums that week.

If you compared titles based on album sales alone, the Guardians of the Galaxy zero effect soundtrack would have entered the chart at No. 25, not No. 40, Sam Smith would have been No. 15 instead of No. 6, Bob Seger would have been No. 23 instead of No. 34. Another zero effect compilation is Now Disney 3 that would have been No. 40 instead of No. 59, and U2’s Songs of Innocence would have been No. 64 instead of No. 94.

Seasonal records such as Christmas albums are also penalized. The Nov 2 chart showed that based on album sales alone, Home Free’s Full of Cheer would have entered the chart that week at No. 66 instead of No. 104. While the title had 26 streams, that was a sufficient penalty to cost the record 38 chart positions.

Which is More Important, Sales or Streams?

Conclusions? Charts are relative beasts to begin with, and the consumption chart won’t keep a phenom like Taylor Swift from dominating the top position even if she had zero streams. Measuring streams probably isn’t enough to have much of an effect on the top 10 or the top 5. But for records that are compilations, soundtracks, seasonal or other specialty titles that either aren’t allowed a streaming audience based on contract, are windowed, or haven’t found that audience yet for another reason, the consumption chart penalizes high sellers that are not credited with streams by streaming services.

If chart position matters to your record, then this should be of concern to you. Sales versus streaming is a controversial topic, but some would say that the more streaming, the lower the sales. Without getting into cause and effect on that issue, it certainly can be said that the lower the streams, the lower the chart position — unless you are a phenom at the top of the chart. And how often does that happen?

Show Me the Money

From a profitability perspective, artists whose records sell but don’t stream may well be thankful. If that trend continues, then it would also stand to reason to question the benefit of chart position as a selling tool. (Particularly if the consumption chart does not distinguish between very low value ad supported streams and relatively higher value subscription streams.)

But then we hear about services like YouTube routinely deleting billions of fake plays in its video playlists during December. If this same phenomenon is repeated in streaming services used to measure chart position…. not to imply that anyone in the music business would ever try to rig the charts. Perish the thought.

So what is it all about? Sales or streams?

Given the rate at which at least the major labels are rejecting “free” streaming, it looks like the marketplace is answering that question in favor of sales.

If enough records are simply not available on free streaming services for whatever reason, how relevant will the consumption chart actually be?

Film Review: <i>The Riot Club</i>: 10 More Reasons to Detest Rich People


Those of us who lead hapless lives know how frightening getting up in the morning can be. Instead of rising and embracing the daylight with an ardent cuddle and a zealous “Yahoo!” we see grey clouds overhead and wonder aloud, “What now?” Another egg carton with broken shells? A second bedbug infestation within twelve months? Still no replies to our Christian Mingles ad even though we’ve noted we can recite the Book of Revelation by heart in Latin?

Ah, if only we were born into a family of elites. The ultra-rich. Aristocrats with an enviable gene pool.

But instead we’re impoverished and pear-shaped with squinty eyes and in need of Proactiv+.

On top of these misfortunes, we really know the gods are against us if while fingering the remote, we accidentally come across Joshua Jackson in The Skulls (2000), and begin to watch it out of inertia. This incapacitating thriller was inspired by Yale’s secretive society, Skull and Bones, a club that counted both George H.W. Bush and G.W. Bush as members. Here is a society that legend claims grooms its chosen few to become leaders and manipulators of every aspect of American society, with the possible exception of Nickelodeon.

Well, Lone Scherfig’s The Riot Club, which is much better than The Skulls, is an adaptation of Laura Wade’s play Posh, which ran successfully at London’s Royal Court in 2010. This is a British take on the matter. Over there, under Queen Elizabeth’s corgis’ gaze, numerous ruling class members have been part of Oxford University’s Bullingdon Club, a prime example being the current Prime Minister David Cameron, a political leader not especially renowned for his affection for the less unfortunate inhabitants of Britain.


Matthew Beard and Douglas Booth in Lone Scherfig’s THE RIOT CLUB. Courtesy of Nicole Dove. Copyright Pinewood Films No7 Ltd.

In the film, the disdainful group is called the Riot Club, named after a Lord Ryot, a popular satyric student of the late 1700s, who was fatally wounded by a professor for copulating with the said professor’s wife. Apparently, Ryot “lived by the ‘sword’ and died by the ‘sword.'” In his defense, he noted that he didn’t know the maiden he was consorting with was married. “By her conduct, I thought she’d never been satisfied before.” To honor him, a tony, hedonistic society was begun that was restricted to a membership of ten.

Jump to present time, and two new inductees have just been selected to join the Riots. There’s Alistair (Sam Claflin), whose brother was formerly president of the Club. From a wealthy family, he’s resentful that both his kin and his new peers expect him to be wild and brilliant like his brother. He wants to rebel against these expectancies, yet he doesn’t really have the moxie to do so.

Then there’s Miles (Max Irons), an affable, humor-laden lad with a streak of humanity in him. He’s not quite sure why he was chosen to be part of this elite posse. His family is not that well off or upper-crust, and his girlfriend Lauren (Holliday Grainger) is unremittingly lower middleclass.

The rest of the boys are beastly archetypes fleshed out with a few no-frills strokes. There’s the homosexual with a crush on Miles; the impossibly handsome Lothario who carries on with business over the mobile while receiving oral sex; and the Greek lad who’s accepted for his wealth while treated condescendingly because of his lack of pedigree, and so forth. The rest of this heavy-drinking lot is pretty interchangeable. By the end of the film, you might still have trouble telling who’s who, even between Alistair and Miles because Claflin and Irons look so identical.

Well, the first half of the film is a setup. The lads vomit, act insufferably la-di-da and spout neologisms that only they can laugh at.

“You know there are some people who think they’re here to get a degree.”

“Being invited to Oxford is like being invited to 100 parties at once, and I want to go to all of them.”

“Care to join me in a game of Spot the Virgin?”

Witticisms aside, the Riots blindfold Miles for his initiation and have him imbibe a glass of wine in which I believe boogers, spit, jism, and other elements have been added.

The second half takes place in an out-of-town pub with a working-class owner and clientele. The lads reserve a room, arrive en masse, begin their alcoholic shenanigans, and become exceedingly violent, and one yells out, “I’m sick to death of poor people!”

The unlucky owner finally enters the room and avers, “You’re just spoiled, little brats.” Uh, oh, those are fighting words. Let the fisticuffs begin.

While The Riot Club is fairly predictable, its cast is no doubt a showcasing of the stars of British cinema’s future not unlike our own The Outsiders (1983) that supplied us with Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, Diane Lane, Patrick Swayze, and so many more.

Max Irons clearly inherited the thespian genes of his dad Jeremy; the stunning Douglas Booth is sort of a male Keira Knightley; Sam Claflin has three Hunger Games under his belt, and the lovely Holliday Grainger has already starred as Bonnie Parker, Lucrezia Borgia, and is currently filming the lead in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. And, of course, there’s Game of Thrones‘ Natalie Dormer who steals the film as a prostitute with a bit too much class for the boys–and she commits her theft in just five minutes of screen time.


Jack Farthing and Douglas Booth in Lone Scherfig’s THE RIOT CLUB. Courtesy of Nicole Dove. Copyright Pinewood Films No7 Ltd.

So in the end, The Riot Club is less a free-for-all-brawl than a somewhat grating kerfuffle. Sherfig who won us over with Italian for Beginners and An Education lost her way a bit here, no doubt because Wade couldn’t turn transform her own play into a thoroughly enticing screenplay. Her good intentions are unrealized, so instead of a piercing illumination of the modern British class system what is wrought is a masturbatory blueblood frolic, sort of an Animal House for snoots.

Actors’ Equity Should Pull National Tours From Indiana

Mike Pence and the majority of Indiana lawmakers stated a very clear message last week with the passing of this supposed “religious freedoms bill.” They made it clear that in Indiana, it is now OK to discriminate against someone based on anything that may conflict with your religious convictions. The main group being targeted? The gay community.

Pence took to the political morning shows to defend this law, yet whenever asked if people could refuse service to an LGBT person citing it, he could not answer. He didn’t try to defend one side or word it in some clever way, he literally could not give a “yes” or “no” when asked for one directly.

The theatre community has historically been a place where many LGBT people call home, but also a community that does not stand for oppression or discrimination of any kind. We are on the front lines of advocacy, from fighting AIDS when no one else would talk about it, to pushing for marriage equality successfully here in New York state and all over the country. We know the power we have when we band together. We are passionate, we are informed and we have millions of supporters that march alongside us.

The immediate reaction to Pence’s new law was for those who support equality to boycott Indiana. And it’s a smart one. As a country, when a nation starts to make choices that we find unacceptable, we place economic sanctions on them. We are seeing this play out in Russia as a punishment for Putin’s actions and his encroaching on foreign borders. These sanctions are built to put economic pressure on the people of the country, so they will see the true colors of their politicians and that these actions will cost a high price. The hopes are that in turn, the people will call for a change in national law or a recall of their leadership.

And this is exactly what Indiana needs right now.

Broadway National Tours are BIG business… huge in fact. Aside from the actual tickets purchased, local governments stand to gain revenue from theatre rental, parking, hotel stays, restaurants, you name it. On top of that, you have a cast and crew that reside in this state for weeks, if not months at a time, adding to local revenue with everything they purchase.

And it’s time to pull the plug on this now.

I understand that there are contracts already drawn and bookings that we need to uphold, but we need to take a stand now and say that from this day on, touring actors will no longer feed their money into a state that openly discriminates LGBT people. It goes against every grain that our community stands for, as we are always on the progressive sides of an issue well before the rest of the world catches up.

This is our chance to add our voice to all the others that are economically fighting this legislation. This is our chance to band together once again and force people to see beyond their bigotry. This is our chance to help the people of Indiana (a majority of whom oppose this law) to take down a government that is longer working for the peoples good, but against their will.

Discrimination has a price, and we will no longer “act” as if it doesn’t. Join us.