Saturday, January 30, 2010

Yet Another Side of Cirque

This week's cover story of Las Vegas Weekly is my account of visiting the Cirque du Soleil mothership in Montreal two weeks ago during our vacation. It more than makes up for the two weeks of not columnizing.

The piece is an in-depth look at the most significant entertainment force in Vegas history, including a tour of the facility and some great revelations from the Vegas-related parts of my 70-minute interview with Cirque CEO and president Daniel Lamarre. More will come from that including a Portfolio.Com piece on the company as a whole next week -- along with a sidebar reviewing all the Vegas shows -- and, of course, a podcast.

As always, there's no part of the cow that goes unused in the Friesster Factory, so I wanted to treat you all to my photos from the tour of 8400 E. 2nd St in Montreal, the $40 million, 400,000-square-foot spread from where every Cirque feat begins. Regardless of what you think of Cirque's efforts to take over the world, it is impossible not to be impressed by what they do up here.

As I wrote in my piece, every shoe, wig and costume is handcrafted here, see?

Yes, she is PAINTING the costume fabric. Almost all the fabric used at Cirque is bought white and dyed to the color they want because they always fear manufacturers might discontinue a hue they want. Then they stockpile it and tag it for what character of which show it's for.

One of the odder parts of the Cirque process is that they make busts of all their performers. I call them the Creepy Heads. When I was here in 2003 for a Newsweek piece on Zumanity and other Cirque expansion efforts, they were all in one room at the headquarters. Now there are too many so they're somewhere else, but the purpose is to give artisans something to work on when they need to mend or create headpieces.

There is still some Creepy Head presence at the headquarters:

Creepy, right? And they're heads!

There's a library here, too, where creators and others can research for shows and theaters. Click on these images to see better what they're reading these days:

That first image showed a book on Tim Burton. Would that not be awesome, a Tim Burton-created Cirque show? Seems like a natural.

Each performer is taught up here how to do their own makeup. This is where that occurs:

There's a mailroom...

...and an immigration department...

...and English classes in the "O" conference room:

I'm always fascinated by what's on the walls:

That last one is the only clue I can give about Cirque's newest touring show, which debuts in April in Montreal. Lamarre said it was about evolution.

For orientation's sake, this is the main entrance...

...and the main atrium, where the architecture begins to get a little more interesting and there are always photos of the creators of the latest show which is, at the moment, Viva Elvis:

The lobby has some antique items and a trophy case that could be a zillion times bigger and fancier:

I liked the boomerang awards. Australian, I'm assuming? I was surprised their Grammy for the Love score wasn't in there.

There are three main gymnasiums/training areas/studios/creation spaces. The first had a couple of guys practicing while some set designers sewed and fussed:

Hmm. A giant chandelier. Cirque du Phantom, perhaps?

Those windows to the upper right are offices where some sort of adminstrative work goes on, an effort to remind the paper-pushers what their work is all about:

The floor of these studios have drilled holes that are filled up all over the place. That's so that if they want to put up some prop or set piece, they can unfill the hole and anchor it. Markings like this...

...are there to remind them where each piece would go. Buckets of this...

were everywhere to help acrobats not lose their grips.

The second studio was being used for Cirque 2010 prep and I was allowed to look but not talk about it. The third and tallest was empty:

That's as high as the highest dive at O. I stood underneath to get a perspective:

Scared the crap of me. Better them than me.

Friday, January 29, 2010

More on the CityLife-Sun Drama

The prior post drew a response from CityLife publisher Geoff Schumacher. It actually sparked another line of thought that I had overlooked to begin with. So, first, here's part of Geoff's response, which is in the comments of the other item:

Amy wrote a story about Greenspun Media Group, which recently earned national acclaim when it won a Pulitzer Prize, brought in a nationally recognized web authority, then promptly fell apart, laying off workers, losing other key players and closing various publications. It was not a story about the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which did not win a Pulitzer, did not hire a nationally recognized web authority and did not fall apart. I'm not clear on why you think this story should have been something other than what it was.

I'm sure a fine story could be written about the Review-Journal, and perhaps it will be by CityLife or some other news organization. But the news peg for this particular story was crystal clear and needn't have been something other than what it was.

So here's the thing. Kingsley's piece makes many assumptions about why Greenspun Media Group hit its rocky shoal, all of them focusing on journalism. Schumacher does the same. What Kingsley overlooked and Schumacher forgets is that the Sun has never been a profitable publication, not when Hank Greenspun started it and probably not for the vast majority of its life including recent years. And definitely not when they won their Pulitzer.

The Las Vegas Sun and most of the GMG publications have been propped up for all this time by the Greenspun family fortune. It is only because THAT has faltered that suddenly economic realities have hit them. Sure, was an abject failure and yes, there are disgruntled people, but the Greenspuns are heavily invested in THREE businesses that have fallen apart right when Curley & Co were trying to make their big splash: Real estate (American Pacific), gaming (Station Casinos) and media (Tribune Co as well as GMG publications).

GMG won its Pulitzer because the Greenspuns were willing to ignore the fact that their media operations bled like Roy after a tiger bite. But Kingsley's piece suggests that all of their problems came because of bad journalistic decisions or, at least, doesn't present the whole picture of this company, its fiscal history and other explanations for its problems.

Fact is, it was largely a function of economic forces and all sorts of bad decisions far away from their newsrooms. The proof is found in how many people they retained and hired when they went from being a full-service newspaper to an eight-page insert that really, on its best days, was only 5.5 pages of original copy. That didn't make economic sense, but they kept on keeping on. The balance sheets had to have looked about as bad then as now.

Thus, if you're only going to judge GMG by their layoffs and the parts they've closed down, you need a yardstick. Is Curley the total failure you make him out to be? I'd need to know the web traffic -- AND HOW IT COMPARES TO ITS COMPETITION FOR CONTEXT -- to be able to say. If the Sun is drawing numbers even close to the R-J's, and I've heard they are despite the discredited sources Sherman Frederick uses to claim his traffic in public, then the effort hasn't been a failure in any other way than that it was unable to make money in the worst economy this city has ever seen.

Furthermore, if you're going to have experts talking about how newspapers misunderstand the challenges of doing video work, how do you not at least in passing acknowledge that this is a problem at both major publications?

Bottom line: If the economy hadn't turned so sour, the Greenspuns would've continued to shovel money into the operations. They always have. In that respect, this piece overlooks an enormous part of the story.

CityLife Drills Into Greenspun Media

So here's the problem with having both alternative weeklies owned by one of the two major media conglomerates in Las Vegas: They can't do serious, in-depth coverage of media issues without messy conflicts of interest of their own.

Amy Kingsley of Las Vegas CityLife tries this week with a lengthy piece on Greenspun Media Group, its supposedly unrewarded risks in the New Media space for the Las Vegas Sun and conflict on Corporate Circle between imported, high-priced Web guru Rob Curley and the traditional news staff. It is a good read and adds some intriguing detail to the decisions that led to the decimation of the staff that I chronicled and catalogued in December.

Kingsley is a terrific reporter -- I've personally complimented CityLife Editor Steve Sebelius for that hire in the past -- and she puts in a noble effort. But she fails because she didn't give the whole picture and she probably couldn't because, well, the whole picture could include some unflattering things about the company that pays her wages, Stephens Media. I mean, look at what's advertised directly above her story on the Web:


You can read the piece here and I do recommend it. One thing that accurately comes across is the blinding arrogance of Rob Curley, the Web wunderkind who took credit for revolutionizing the Internet operations of Newsweek, the Washington Post and a paper in Lawrence, Kansas. I was a cheerleader for him when he arrived but after an initial, pretty redesign, such little things like an effective search engine on LasVegasWeekly.Com and other issues made me wonder if he cared about the little things that make a site user-friendly.

Kingsley convincingly makes the case that his past successes may have been short-lived and the result of circumstances of timing and opportunity, not vision. Plus, Curley comes across as churlish with a quote like: "The only thing I love more than journalism is capitalism." From the looks of the expensive embarrassment that was, he's failed in Vegas on both fronts.

[Aside: Curley re-tweeted today the Poynter Institute's pick-up of Kingsley's piece, which is strange given how badly he comes off in it.]

All that said, to really get where GMG is these days, you need to put it in the context of its total media ecosystem. That's an ecosystem that includes one of the most dysfunctional news websites in the nation, ReviewJournal.Com, and a main newspaper, the R-J, that has somehow lost circulation during the era of one of the biggest population growth spurts in U.S. history. If we're ready to call Curley a failure in Vegas, then first we need to know the web traffic of both papers' websites, which Kingsley does not provide. Somehow I bet if it looked good for the R-J, she would've had no trouble getting it and comparing it to the Sun.

She also has a passage in there about the Sun's failed web video efforts but doesn't bother to mention that the R-J hired ex-weatherman Nate Tannenbaum to do a laughable and technologically ridiculous daily newscast. I don't know how many plays it's getting on the LVRJ.Com site, but today's episode has been on YouTube for 21 hours and has enjoyed 4 hits. FOUR. Two of which were me looking for a good moment to shoot this screencap:

If you click on it, you'll see that the episode from two days ago has a whopping 27 plays. And here's the entire history of RJTV on YouTube:

You know what has had more hits than a month's worth of RJTV episodes? This:

One more thing. The illustrations that went with Kingsley's story were very weird. This, for instance, was for Curley:

Beyond the fact that he looks like a prison inmate, what's with the scribble in the lower right part? It looks like he's got duck's wings or something. I'm seriously wondering if artist Brian Taylor thought he was drawing Chris Cooper instead. See?

Anywho, the point is that news organizations cover one another at their credibility's own peril. Without attempting to put GMG's issues in context against the R-J's, they've left out a huge chunk of the story. Which, happily, is why we have blogs.

[DISCLAIMERS: I was a staff writer for the R-J from 1996-99 and have freelanced for the R-J, CityLife and the Weekly, where I have had a column for about two years. Also, I wrote this week's cover story for the Weekly, which means Kingsley and I were head-to-head as cover writers this go-round.]