RIP Roger Ebert

That is what death means. We exist in the minds of other people, in thousands of memory clusters, and one by one those clusters fade and disappear. Some years from now, at a funeral with a slide show, only one person will be able to say who we were. Then no one will know.

It is with a heavy heart that I learned of Roger Ebert’s death yesterday afternoon.

Thanks to Cheri Lucas for highlighting this blog post titled “I Remember You” Roger wrote about one year ago (which I read for the first time yesterday):

Memory. It makes us human. It creates our ideas of family, history, love, friendship. Within all our minds is a narrative of our own lives and all the people who were important to us. Who were eyewitnesses to the same times and events. Who could describe us to a stranger.

The passage below brought tears to my eyes, because in a hundred years we will remember, Roger.

Early one morning, unable to sleep, I roamed my memories of them. Of an endless series of dinners, and brunches, and poker games, and jokes, and gossip. On and on, year after year. I remember them. They exist in my mind–in countless minds. But in a century the human race will have forgotten them, and me as well. 

If you read one thing today, make it this.

How To Win The New Yorker Caption Contest

Robert Mankoff offers two tips on how to win The New Yorker’s Caption Contest:

  1. Be funnier.
  2. Enter more.

Since there are approximately 5,000 entries per every contest, your probability of winning is modeled by this simple equation:

X = 1-(4,999/5,000)^n

Where X is your chance of winning over time, and n is how many times you enter. If you enter the contest for 1,000 times, probabilistically speaking, your chances of winning the contest at least once go up to 20%.

This was a surprise to me, however:

By the way, contrary to conventional wisdom, your odds will also be better if you’re a woman. While some research, using college students as subjects, showed that men were marginally better at generating funny captions than women, for our contest it goes in the other direction. Yes, guys do enter more frequently; eighty-four per cent of all entrants are men. But only seventy-seven per cent of the winners are. For gals, the figures are sixteen and twenty-three per cent. Sisterhood is powerful in our contest, at least marginally so.

Mankoff clearly is invoking the “Gladwell principle” of 10,000 hours here:

While entering more, man or woman, helps, you’ll need an extra element to realistically have a shot. Which brings us back (and about time, too) to No. 1: being funnier. Interestingly, entering more helps you on that score as well. Why? Because if you have any talent for anything, and that includes captioneering, you get better by doing more of it. That was certainly true for Roger Ebert, who finally won after a hundred and seven tries, and although the evidence is only anecdotal, being pretty much restricted to the anecdote you’re reading, I see the more entries/higher level of funniness trend throughout the contest.

So, do more work, both by entering more contests and by spending more time generating captions for each contest. Interviews with winners show that they often do just that, by devising lots of captions for each contest, then tweaking, editing, and finally culling to submit the best one.

Now, shouldn’t you be thinking of more captions?

Why is Movie Revenue Dropping?

I read an article that sites how movie revenue is dropping in the United States:

US box office takings fell to a 16-year low in 2011 despite the success of blockbusters such as the latest in the Transformers, Twilight and Harry Potter series. Ticket revenue in the world’s largest movie market fell 3.5% to $10.2bn, while the estimated number of tickets sold dropped 4.4% to $1.28 billion, the lowest figure since 1995’s $1.26 billion.

Roger Ebert posits some theories on why he thinks movie revenue is dropping:

Ticket prices are too high. People have always made that complaint, but historically the movies have been cheap compared to concerts, major league sports and restaurants. Not so much any longer. No matter what your opinion is about 3D, the charm of paying a hefty surcharge has worn off for the hypothetical family of four.

The theater experience. Moviegoers above 30 are weary of noisy fanboys and girls. The annoyance of talkers has been joined by the plague of cell-phone users, whose bright screens are a distraction. Worse, some texting addicts get mad when told they can’t use their cell phones. A theater is reportedly opening which will allow and even bless cell phone usage, although that may be an apocryphal story.

Refreshment prices. It’s an open secret that the actual cost of soft drinks and popcorn is very low. To justify their inflated prices, theaters serve portions that are grotesquely oversized, and no longer offer what used to be a “small popcorn.” Today’s bucket of popcorn would feed a thoroughbred.

Competition from other forms of delivery. Movies streaming over the internet are no longer a sci-fi fantasy. TV screens are growing larger and cheaper. Consumers are finding devices that easily play internet movies through TV sets. Netflix alone accounts for 30% of all internet traffic in the evening. That represents millions of moviegoers. They’re simply not in a theater. This could be seen as an argument about why newspapers and their readers need movie critics more than ever; the number of choices can be baffling.

My reason for going to the theater less than I’ve ever gone before? Relatively expensive movie tickets and the ability to watch many of the movies I want via Netflix, albeit if I don’t mind their release to DVD/Blu-ray a few months after their opening in theaters.

Finally, I really like Ebert’s final reason:

Lack of choice. Box-office tracking shows that the bright spot in 2011 was the performance of indie, foreign or documentary films. On many weekends, one or more of those titles captures first-place in per-screen average receipts. Yet most moviegoers outside large urban centers can’t find those titles in their local gigantiplex. Instead, all the shopping center compounds seem to be showing the same few overhyped disappointments. Those films open with big ad campaigns, play a couple of weeks, and disappear.

Have you been going to the movies less this year than in years prior? What’s your primary reason?