Money makes the world go round: A blog about the business and culture of all things entertaining in the world of theater, television, film, music, art, gadgets, gizmos and other life necessities (and probably other things, knowing myself)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Hustler traits needed during economic difficulties

Striving to become an entrepreneur during an economic downturn might not be the easiest thing to accomplish, but Michelle Slonim is determined to be a consistently working entertainer while setting up Jewish singles throughout New York City.

Slonim’s love for Jewish theater and playing Cupid have combined to result in a quirky solution for producing an off-broadway play, despite not having a handful of available

The “Date My Jewish Friend” play, which Slonim is set to act and produce in, will be funded by a party by the same name. For the mixer version, attendants are required to bring a friend of the opposite sex and basically, pimp one another out.

Six actors will take note and act out various improv scenarios from a typical singles party. After four weeks, the rehearsals will be recorded, transcribed and produced into a script for the show at an off-broadway cabaret venue.

To truly understand Slonim’s fascination with not only Jewish theater but also Jewish people, one must watch her video parody of the popular “Shoes” video where instead of searching for the perfect shoes, the character is on a search for Jews, repeatedly stating, “Jews…oh my god Jews…let’s get some Jews.”

“My ideas come naturally or at least natural for my brain sequence,” Slonim said. “I was in an entertainment lecture with some good looking writers and all of a sudden I had the idea I should throw a date my friend not in the industry party."

“Its logical to me, at least.”

Slonim, a native New Yorker, decided to leave the city after high school to pave her own way and headed to the University of Michigan to study Spanish and theater.

“In high school, I loved acting and soccer,” Slonim said. “Figured I wasn’t going to go pro with soccer so that ended and I pursued acting.”

After Michigan, Slonim headed to Latin America to pursue her theater career before landing her debut as a leading female comedic actress in a Florida production of “Jewtopia.”

Since returning to the city, Slonim has worked for comedy web-shows, such as, Comedy and Conde Nash. She calls herself a “hustler” as the former associate producer of 24-hour plays on Broadway and Musicals, a non-profit teaching artist, a real-estate license holder and founding member of the improv troupe Hebrew School Dropouts.

Before Oxygen television network became a part of ABC, Slonim was a semi-finalist to star and produce in a show called “The Michelle Slonim Show: In the Mix” centered around the comedic actress’ ability to play different guys she’s dated in the past.

“The experience was great for me,” she said. “For the first time, I created something
instead of just going to auditions.”

Maggie Blumer, an actress and newcomer in New York City, met Slonim at a restaurant in
lower Manhattan where the comedic actress approached her about being a part of
an upcoming project.

“I respect Michelle’s resilient and self-promoting characteristics inside a business
that shields itself from new comers,” Blumer said. “The paid jobs are scarce and
successful vision is hard to come by.”

For more information, visit: 

An imperfect reporting world

After publicly commenting on a Fox News broadcast that people in “Muslim garb” on a plane made him nervous, NPR terminated its longtime contract with Juan Williams, stating he had “undermined his credibility as a news analyst.” Williams didn’t have much time to mourn as a $2 million opportunity from Fox soon came knocking.

For their decision, NPR explained that Williams’ contributions to programs like “The O’Reilly Factor” violated the public radio organization’s code that journalists “should not express views” in other outlets that “they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist.”

Williams’ ax from his employer ensued some mayhem as conservatives became concerned that the “public” module associated with NPR should deny the station the tendency to sway left. Last week, some Republican congressmen argued in favor of a revocation of NPR's federal funding.

Newt Gringrich, a former House Speaker and paid Fox commentator, said NPR’s decision is “an act of total censorship” and urged the U.S. Congress to “investigate NPR and consider cutting off their money.”

Formerly known as National Public Radio, NPR was created thirty years ago by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the same organization responsible for creating Public Broadcasting Services.  The idea was to have news outlets for the public without underlying obligations to giant corporations, which now, some argue, is the government in this specific case.

Despite sharp criticism, Chief Executive Officer Vivian Schiller sticks by NPR’s decision and denied directly receiving any funding from the federal government. NPR financed much of their $161.8 million operation through contributions from listeners, grants from sources funded by the federal government and Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which receives money from taxpayers.

If anyone has ever had the opportunity to listen to NPR, it is as unbiased as a news outlet can possibly get nowadays with neutral tones and direct reporting. I can turn NPR on in the mornings, afternoons or listen via web to their segments without the run around of "who thinks what" and "what so-so had for breakfast." My life doesn't allow me the luxury to sit around and wait for a news program to actually get to news so NPR has been life-changing; for me, at least.

It's bothersome that some can be so criticizing of a company's decision to let go of an employee who just didn't follow the rules. Say, if a teacher made certain public statements after her work hours, would this action not somehow affect her employment status? Of course it would. I understand the argument - What I do in my free time has nothing to do with my ability to maintain and perform well in my job, right? This may be true, but the fact is, we all understand what's fair and what's not, but we also understand the rules.

And if WE understand the rules, I can assure you Mr. Juan Williams does too. He understood his contract with NPR and the codes he had to follow to be part of the elite journalism team. 

In my opinion, perhaps he wanted an out to his NPR contract to secure a better fit with Fox News. Whatever the hidden reasons are, arguing that NPR has "censored" Williams is outrageous; it was solely his decision to enter into a contract with NPR and solely his decision to leave it.

It is also disheartening that some argue NPR is so skewed left, they should not receive any form of government funding.  The same way it is impossible for a judge to leave all of his political associations when the judicial robe comes on, it is also hard for reporters to leave all of their opinions at the door.

But listen to NPR and one will understand: it is not entertaining or is it controversial. The news programs are announced as if the reporters are reading it directly from an actual news article. Rarely do you even hear pitches in the reporting. Admit it or not, NPR is as perfect as we can get in this imperfect reporting world. In my opinion, at least.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Xin Chao Vietnam

Similar to most developing countries, Vietnam’s economy is a fascinating, not to mention, an unpredictable one to keep an eye on. 

After the Vietnam war, the Southeast Asian country suffered a traumatizing blow to its financial system and the country lived mainly off its agriculture industry, also known as wet rice farming.  Its new communist government set up an undemocratic economic system and kept the country’s standard of living relatively low.

For its shift to communism, the United States and parts of Europe refused to trade with Vietnam until recently. Today, Vietnam has one of the world’s fastest growing economy and GDP growth, but this could be closely related to the vast differences in Vietnam shortly after the war up until the 90s. 

Compared to how little Vietnam had before, the country has improved much, becoming the world's largest producer of cashew nuts and black pepper and third largest oil producer in Southeast Asia. Its tech industry has also been developing at an incredibly rapid rate. 

According to Goldman-Sach’s, Vietnam’s economy is expected to become the 17th largest in the world by 2025 and PricewaterhouseCoopers predicted Vietnam may attain an economy 70 percent the size of the United Kingdom by 2050.

With a new financial system and emerging economy, the fast-changing country makes itself almost irresistible to foreigners who are intrigued by how much the once-impoverished country really has altered herself.

So here’s another reason to visit:

Vietnam plans to allure tourists to its scenic realm with Xin Chao (Hello), a combination of circus-like dance and martial arts performances, opening December 5 in Ho Chi Minh City.

Incorporating a similar model to Singapore’s Voyage de la vie, Thailand’s Siam Niramit, and Canada’s Cirque du soleil, the dance acts will showcase 50 artists performing on District 1’s Pham Ngu Lao Street.

Producer Laura Burke and Augustus Greaves, managing director and producer, hopes audience members will not only take away the country’s dance art through Xin Chao’s performances, but also absorb the history and culture that is so often exuded in passionate and involving arts.

I am always amazed when witnessing art from regions where silence and secrecy are typically encouraged and even expected. Openness and acceptance allows us to share ourselves and express an art form when we don’t even plan to, but I can only imagine how deep and sorrowful an art form can develop when openness and acceptance is not apparent.

For Vietnam’s sake, Xin Chao will not only benefit the country economically, but also share the country’s other export, her inner beauty and charm, with the world.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A predictably rational experiment to prove a predictably irrational concept

Dan’s Ariely’s “Predictably Irrational” book discusses psychological mind-boggling insights on how everyday decisions we make aren’t as rational as we think they are, whether the decisions are socially or economically-related.  

For my very own predictably irrational experiment, I was inspired by events that occurred when it recently rained for 4-5 days consecutively in New York City.  My roommate, typically an early morning riser, struggled under the change in weather. Suddenly, she felt sick during the early morning hours and couldn’t get her body to cooperate with her normal schedule. She had aching headaches and cold chills. Ultimately, after a couple of hours passed and the rain died down, my roommate felt her “sickness” disappear and continued ahead with her daily tasks. Rainy day after another, the outcome remained the same.

I was intrigued by the events and wondered if your body could trick your brain into thinking the immune system was failing.  Or perhaps your brain is the one tricking
your body into thinking something is different. Could our brains believe that we are sick – when we’re not - and could that assumption change our behaviors or reactions during the period?

For example, if you were told by “experts” you’ve been in the premises of a deadly disease; then they kindly list the symptoms that accompany a person carrying the virus, could your brain’s paranoia trick your body into thinking the symptoms are legitimately occurring to you, even is it’s something as specific as an itch on the forearm?

The Experiment:
I gathered six people and placed them in a dimly lit room and they were offered cheese and wine for their participation; the cheese and wine made available was to relax the participants and have them in a familiar, friendly environment so they would forget they are a part of an experiment. 

Sitting in a small, intimate circle, everyone was provided writing materials to answer a series of questions. I then proceeded to turn on a fan for the “chill” effect and rain and thunderstorm noises from a youtube video clip.

The questions required participants to imagine waking up in the early morning hours with dampness in the air and a weather report confirming rain is in the forecast. The questions then ask the participants if the rain would change their daily errands or make them feel sick in any way.  

The Results:
Most of the participants claimed that the weather would not affect their health but then they would contradict their initial statements and say the weather would make them feel groggy and give them headaches – symptoms of catching the “cold weather bug.” All of them admitted that the weather does change their typical daily activities. My conclusion is simple: human brains do react to sight or sound and it does affect the way our body feels, or at least what our brain perceives that it feels.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Saying goodbye to childhood a little does it affect our economy?

As with everything else during this economic downturn, publishers for children’s books are seeing a big dent in their incomes. Scholastic, Simon & Schuster and Penguin Young Reader Group have all noticed a significant decline in the sales of picture books within the past few years. At certain Barnes & Nobles stores, toys and games are paired with some picture books to boost sales. 

Publishers are unsure of what the actual cause behind disappointing sales are but some have suspicions that parents are pushing their kids away…from childhood, that is. Many parents prefer their children read chapter books and get over the picture book stage as quickly as possible – they’re probably afraid their kids won’t be able to get decent jobs with the market looking so bleak. Or that spending too much time on pictures of animals will eventually stop them from becoming president or getting into an ivy league school one day. Or let’s blame it on the school system and conclude that staggering pressures from standardized tests allows no room for picture books: We must get our 4-year-olds to read chapter books immediately!

The interesting factor in all of this is that the young adult fiction genre has been growing, as we have all witnessed the hysterias related to the Twilight and Harry Potter series. Like many of my friends, I am guilty of continuing my fondness for young adult books way past my young adult age. From what I understand, this is a common theme since many fans of young adult series are, well, not young adults. But why are adults still enjoying stories that are meant for those two, three, four times our juniors? Is it because the storylines are so superb or is it because we want to stay in some fantasy land that doesn’t consist of being a grown up?

We've seen this trend developed for quite some time now: parents and society (let’s not blame it all on the parents) are forcing children to grow up fast, hence, the decline in children’s picture books. But are children growing up faster or do they end up staying in their childhood longer than we think? Could saying goodbye to your childhood too fast ultimately lead to staying in a young adult life much longer than intended?

Generation Y, or the Millennial Generation, is growing up slower than any before us. Yes, the economy has made it difficult for us to spread our wings and be the grown up our age requires of us, but can we be expected to fly with this limited job market and retirees putting off retirement because their savings aren’t where it’s suppose to be? I mean, we’ve been told our entire lives that we’re great, we’re the echo boomers, the trophy kids. The majority of us grew up with more belongings than our parents or grandparents ever had. But we were also pushed into growing up too quickly.

What has all the preparation really done for us? We have some snobby sense of entitlement, many of us graduated from college without decent job prospects and a lot of us move back in with our parents. Or even worse, we just don't move out. We are risk averse – we get married much later (but not for the right reasons) and we have no sense of responsibilities. I’m not saying everyone here; I am merely saying if I had to categorize the generation as a whole, this is what would come to mind. 

So what’s the bottom line?

Parents: please allow your children to continue reading picture books! It is an endless cycle - parents pushing their children to grow up too fast, modifying to society’s norms and then comes the decline of certain businesses that have an impact on all of us. It’s not just about children’s picture books, but of all books. Must we all advance so quickly that we forget about the joys certain traditional mediums have to offer?

I saw a group of children sitting on a sidewalk playing with an iPad the other day- no assistance required. I doubt they were reading a book online. Is this the snapshot of the coming generation?  To be honest, I am not sure if allowing your children to read children’s picture books beyond the age of four will help anything, but I am sure it will help publishing houses and that will, in turn, help another sector of our economy…right? Right.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Vietnamese Cai Luong productions in financial distress

Combine long embroidered gowns, exaggerated makeup and a storyline consisting of some forbidden, heart-wrecking love and the results are timeless. Vietnamese reformed theatre, cai luong, is a performance production with an intent to impress.

 -Photo of a scene from “Chiec Ao Thien Nga” via Viet Nam News.

But greatness comes with an expensive price tag so its no surprise that keeping cai luong suspended above financial turmoil is a struggle as popular theatre venues in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City close down for months without financial backings.

Growing up, I remember categorizing cai luong as some lost art form. The people from my age group hardly appreciated it and those who held cai luong in their hearts were aging quickly. It was rare to see a young actor/singer in a cai luong production; typically they were older, as if those same actors had aged alongside the art, and sadly, there was no one waiting to take their place.

Traditionally extravagant with large orchestras and opera-like singing, problems arise when the productions hardly break even with their budgets. In 2007, “Kim Van Kieu” broke records with costs amounting to $95,000 (VND 1.8 billion) consisting of 81 musicians, 400 costumes and nearly 500 in the cast. In 2008, “Chiec Ao Thien Nga” and “Chuyen Tinh Lan va Diep” had budgets of $200,000 (VND 3.8 billion) and $69,000 (VND1.3 billion) respectively. Unfortunately, “Kim Van Kieu” had only two performances and “Chiec Ao Thien Nga” had three.

“We were lucky to get back the costs of both dramas thanks to sponsorships,” said Quoc Hung, Deputy Director of the Tran Huu Trang Cai Luong Theatre, in an interview with Viet Nam News.

Recently, “Sorry, I’m a…,” a love story between a man and a prostitute, received disappointing reviews as audiences accuse the theatre of merely using expensive technology to distract audiences from the talents within the production.

"The work would succeed if it were performed on a smaller stage, allowing audiences to see the actors' faces and gestures," said journalist Van Bay in Viet Nam News.

But others are still opposed to the idea of reforming a traditional way of running business, claiming that the imposing stages are why “audiences want to go to theatre in the first place and not stay at home watching television,” according to HCM City-based Hoang Duan.

Although it is true that people go to the theatre for an experience that cannot be attained from home, perhaps Vietnam’s theatre directors should reconsider the elaborate stages and focus on artistic creativity to prevent an atrocious ending. It is realistically better to have smaller performances keeping the theatre alive than to close down for several months due to budget problems.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Pretty Penny Profit

I've recently encountered QuiBid, a penny online auction web site promoting the latest 42-inch HDTV for $55 or an iPod for $24, a price unheard of since the discount shelf at Apple has not been known to be stacked.

So, how does an obscure web site sell top of the line computers, flat screen televisions and cameras for literally 75 percent of their retail prices?

The Oklahoma-based company incorporates a business model seemingly different than the standard eBay setup. Visitors may bid on whatever one or two cent item they find tempting and if they're familiar with the online auction game, perhaps they'll be lucky enough and score a brand new MacBook Pro for $300.

Ready for the catch?

With every bid, the company collects a $0.60 fee from prospective buyers, which may seem insignificant if you're bidding on a new entertainment system for bargain Canal St. prices. But every auction receives hundreds or thousands of bids and with the small fee that bidders are gambling to pay, QuiBid rakes in more than enough funds to happily let go of their prized products.

When someone bids on an item, the price increases by, typically, 5 cents. So an item that sells for $300, like a MacBook Pro, most likely acquired 6,000 bids before it was "SOLD TO THE LUCKY WINNER." Let's say the buyer bids 200 times before she won her new computer - that's $120 (200 * $0.60); ultimately, she pays a total of $420. Not a bad deal for the new winner, but for the unlucky ones, the company has collected a whopping $3480 (3600-120) from the simple act of repeatedly clicking "bid now."

From what I've gathered, Quibid is not a scam, but it is certainly a gamble to take since there are financial winners and losers - unlike eBay where if you lose an item, you may merely suffer from depression, but it takes no toll on your wallet.

But QuiBids has also developed another concept that sets it apart from the other online auction web sites: the "Buy it Now" feature allows you to buy the item you lost out on AND apply the fee cost that you spent on bidding for the auction item towards your retail-priced purchased item.

I say the business model is very clever - incorporate outrageously cheap prices with top of the line products, mention a minuscule fee of $0.60 per bid and no one even flinches. It seems like a pretty good bet to take on, except we forget how rare it is to be the one who wins versus the one who loses. comes the best part yet...with all the money you did lose, come hither and buy the item for regular price and apply the money you lost towards an item you most likely didn't even need in the first place.

The entire concept makes prospective buyers feel rational and smart, but it's only a deal if you needed the item and if you, yes, win. In the discounted world of Quibid, for one winner there must be many losers.

Unstable Amazon ebook prices

Growing up in an immigrant family, books helped me mesh and, at many times, escape from my new culture and surroundings. To this day, whenever I move to a new location, I pack along my necessities – clothes, shoes, computer and of course, my boxes full of books. I’m not sure what nostalgic ambiance they create, but the sight, feel and smell of them takes me to some safe place I’ve never been able to explain.

So when the Kindle exploded into mainstream culture a couple of years ago, my instant reaction was “cool,” which was soon coupled with “aw man, this sucks.”  The concept was sleek enough – convenient, affordable and all your favorite books loaded into a slim, sexy package. But the allure of the Kindle wasn’t so much that it was convenient for frequent travelers or that it was more sufficient to shove a Kindle in your tote rather than the three books you’re reading. The key appeal of the Kindle is the money everyone believes they've saved.
Ebooks are advertised to be cheaper than their hardcover versions, but recently, this has ceased to be the case. Some hardback books, such as “Don’t Blink” by James Patterson and Howard Roughan, is less expensive to buy compared to their electronic versions.

This may seem to be ludicrous since it is obvious that the manufacturing and storing of digital editions are much less expensive than the hardcopy versions. Amazon has issued statements notifying readers that the price of ebooks is set forth by publishing houses, whereas publishers are blaming Amazon for listing hardcover books way below their standard retail prices.

With rough competition from other similar electronic devices, it will be interesting to see if ebook prices will eventually stabilize. Or will it become unreliable like the recent steep discounts and soars of electronic reading device prices.

Whether it’s paying a little more or less for a book, I have stayed constant on my strong feelings about the release that a physical book can offer to a demanding lifestyle. As hard as it is to stay focused when reading from an LCD screen, I am not sure we actually read but merely scan as we are accustomed with when reading an online news source. And how proud do we actually feel when we finish reading something online? I’m sure it can’t be compared to the same satisfaction as taking an actual book (hardcover preferred) and slamming the back cover shut when the last page has been finished. Now that is satisfaction.