Sunday, June 12, 2016

ARS GRATIA ARTIS

Some home truths for you.

In 2016, the Government of New South Wales has allocated $1.6 billion for sporting stadium refurbishments.

'That allocation will include $350 million for a new stadium at Parramatta, $450 million for a refurbishment of Allianz Stadium and $700 million to turn ANZ Stadium into a permanent 75,000-seat rectangular stadium.'

Around the same time, the same Government announced that an additional $20 million would be set-aside for screen production in NSW. The idea, as the Government spokesperson puts it, is to ask:

"Why can't we make the next Star Wars episode here?...Why can't we bring Game of Thrones here?"

For reference, 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' cost $306 million to make. 'Game of Thrones: Season 6' cost $100 million to make.

But yes, we'll secure all of that with an extra $20 million in the bank. Right.

There is a broader question at issue here, however.

The announcement of an extra $20 million in funding for the screen arts is cause for celebration, no doubt. But to have the funds instantly committed to the competitive pursuit of attracting productions we don't own the rights to; and therefore won't profit from?

A cigarette to my helium balloon.

"But these international productions will mean jobs for our film and TV industry technicians!"


(SIDE NOTE: it's always funny to hear conservative politicians justify giving public money to Hollywood studios because it will create jobs. Something about the glamour of the film business suddenly turns right-wing public servants into socialists.)

I could rejoinder this broad, economic brush-stroke of 'job creation' with a long analysis of the cost-benefit of these international film/TV production cash subsidies.

I really could.

But such a long-winded analysis is unnecessary. Throwing huge wads of taxpayer money at billionaire entertainment corporations so they (temporarily) hire our film workers, then leave and reap the rewards of owning the IP, doesn't pass a basic common sense test. It would be like China paying Apple to set-up an iPhone sweat-shop for 6 months.

So, I will leave you instead, with the simple notion that the black-box "positivity" accounting involved in these large 'one-off' international film and TV production subsidies, is dubious at best.

You may be wondering then, how does a sports stadium become prioritised in the public consciousness, over the screen arts, to the tune of 17 times more funding in this particular case?

I am too.

Is it because sports are events that generate so much revenue and public benefit?

Well, if that were the case, it would only strengthen the argument that the Arts are not receiving their fair share of the pie. Or, as one writer put it:

'More than 18 million Australians buy tickets to live shows every year. That’s more than attend all sport in this nation. By this statistic, sport is for elitists and the arts are for everyone.'


The funding deficit is not logical, then. It's idealogical. The home truth I promised you, it lives here:

Art has no right to exist.

Of course I want art to exist. We all do.

Art, unequivocally, is the glue that holds our bonds of civilisation together.

But still, be it dance, or film, or writing, or painting - whatever your cultural vice may be - art has no right to exist.

Art needs angels. It must be spoken for. Willed into being.

Either spawned through the harmonised chorus of your desire, and the skill of artist who's work moves your dial...

...or extinguished, by the collective silence, roughly the size of a crowded sports stadium.

I just have to shake my head at the state of affairs sometimes. Despite all that we know and love, what kind of society are we building here?

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Sunday, June 05, 2016

THE SUPER TICKET


Nobody watches the movies anymore.

TV hit cinema over the head with a shovel, and the booming experience economy buried the body in lime.

Do I really believe that film has met its gruesome end? Not really.

My perspective doesn't stop this mythology from propagating though. The once unshakeable identity of the cinephiles has cracked like a Hollywood footpath. Weeds of pernicious doubt grow though.

And yet, it's a fool's errand to argue that viewing habits aren't changing. The "millennials" (oh, how I loathe that aggregation) have voted with their wallets, making the focus all about 'experiences' over possessions. Three calls of the crow over consumer culture.

Could a generational value shift really signal the end of the theatrical movie industry? Has the one-off delight of film fallen so far behind the serialised commitment of episodic television?

To be honest, it's hard to say. Billions are still being made in the film business, but millions are flocking to the boob tube. Piracy warrants a mention here too, in so much as its absence would likely make the playing field level and comparisons less opaque.

Alas, a larceny free digital world is a lost Eutopia.

So, mired in the abundance of doubt and risk, we stand pat. Atrophy with stoicism rather than evolve with conviction. All the while the audience changes in many ways except one...

...the appetite for great stories.

Still, the question lingers. As the delivery of feature-length cinema remains relatively unchanged over 100 years, can we refine the experience?

There are convenient answers. 3D, with its expensive trickery and borderline eye-strain. Event cinema, where a live event/performance is simulcast to a cinema audience. Perhaps even VR, which I would argue is actually an entirely different mode of visual storytelling altogether. Far more a cousin than a sibling.

At this impasse, with the cupboard of solutions seemingly laid bare, none of the above ideas have stemmed the long-term trend of diminishing ticket sales.

But do not abandon hope.

There are pioneers out there still. Experimenting. Tinkering. These renegades have realised that perhaps, if enhancing the 'audience experience' is the key, the innovation is not so much needed on screen as at the once untouchable unicorn of the film release chain: the ticket booth.

Enter the 'Superticket'.

Launched for the release of 'Pacific Rim', the US$25 ticket bought cinemagoers their movie ticket, plus a HD digital download of the film. A simple, yet interesting value add.

'Transformers - Age of Extinction' was the 'Superticket' follow up, this time offering a cinema ticket and a digital download of one of the previous Transformers films. This attempt is even more intriguing for its intention to create 'fandom' via exposure to the previous films in the franchise.

Not to be outdone, Paramount Pictures launched the 'Megaticket' for the Brad Pitt zombie film 'World War Z'. For US$50, audience members receive their cinema ticket, small popcorn, custom 'World War Z' 3D glasses, a limited edition poster, AND a digital download of the film. Without a franchise to rely on, this version of the bundled ticket concept is clearly a 'shock and awe' merchandise assault.

Unfortunately, with a binary approach such as this, there is a natural limit to what a bundled ticket can offer a potential audience member. At a certain point, adding more swag to the transaction, for a higher price, simply becomes a classic consumer endeavour.

Here is where evolution is needed.

What higher plane could we mature the 'superticket' to, with some directed empathy and creativity?

Could you, for instance, segment and activate a legion of "superfans", along genre, actor, director, production company or franchise lines? From there, a 'superfan engagement' (their words) company like ZinePak could create "fan experiences", combining unique fan merchandise with cinema and home entertainment.

I know that sounds like the winning ticket for buzzword bingo, but there are already existing models for how this can work in reality. Apple deliberately stages the iphone boxing so that it excites as you progress. In the art world, indie musician Jonathan Coulton created a "fan experience" for his latest album, where each stage of the unboxing was planned to be mysterious, engaging and fun; i.e. the complete antithesis of the modern music download era.

But what if?

What if we're not thinking big enough, still?

So many of the methods for audience engagement already exist, what if we simply brought them into a beautiful marriage of story, event and memento?

You start with a horror film 'A'.

You've heard about the film and want to see it.

You register for the film and you receive a mystery box. As you open the box each section reveals something interesting about the story world. The items within are unique and personalised from the filmmakers to you.

In the bottom section of the box, there are two tshirts. You have a choice to make. Do you wear the red shirt to the premiere? Or the black shirt? A small envelope contains a message to text your answer to a mysterious number. In response, you receive the address of the screening location.

Your ticket, also in the box, is in the form of a wristband with an RFID chip embedded in it.

You head to the screening, having chosen to wear the black shirt, and find that there is an interactive event at the screening location. Your tshirt, as well as being a souvenir, affects the way you enter the film screening via the interactive experience. The RFID ticket wristband, when scanned, instantly uploads your photo to your social media and lets the community of fans know you are part of the special premiere event.

In this environment of total immersion, the film has heightened emotional tension and transcends to a sensory experience. The filmmakers are there too, to thank you and answer your questions. Amazing.

On the way out of the theatre, you receive a final mystery box, with a commemorative memento of the experience, and another RFID wristband ticket. This one, can be activated online for a friend you bring along at the repeat screening, and you get to come along to the event for free...wearing the red shirt this time.

Best of all, the RFID wristband and the online registration are all part of a broader gamification (I've written about this before), where you earn pins, unlock achievements and earn status in the community of fans for this filmmaker/actor/genre/production company/film festival/cinema chain/etc.

Whew.

Impossible, right? Pure fantasy.

Wrong.

A hotel in Ibiza used the RFID wristbands to create a completely socially connected party event. At the beginning of the tourist season, the club had 4,000 fans on its Facebook page. By the end of season it had close to 70,000.

Vail Resorts went from the also-ran of ski resorts, to the most talked about in the skiing community, after they introduced a gamification achievement system (using a combination of smart phones and RFID). The system allows skiers to record their achievements, earning points, winning badges, and unlocking pins based on their actual skiing adventures.

Oh, and let's not forget the massive 100,000 tickets sold for the 'Star Wars-Empire Strikes Back' immersive event in London.

The tools are there.

We don't need to reinvent the art form of cinema to reinvigorate time-poor audiences' passion for our medium.

The answer is not softer chairs, or more buttery popcorn.

It's quite simple. For the first time in 100 years we have to finally do something we've neglected.

Put the audience experience first.

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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

THE COMFORTABLE OUTRAGE OF STEVEN SPIELBERG


You!

Yes, you!

Wake up!

You're in DANGER!

From Virtual Reality!

It's coming for you...

...and the narratives you hold dear.

That's what Steven Spielberg thinks, in any case.

He actually used that word 'dangerous'. Like VR would sneak into your home at night and kidnap your family.

Mr Spielberg's concern is what you, the audience, will do with the power of choice. That you will ruin the artistry of cinema. Choosing where to look takes control from the filmmakers and places it squarely into the eyeballs of the viewing public.

This is where we have come to in our paranoia over technological disruption?

Is turning away from the story action (then having to rewind) really that new of an idea? Clearly Mr Spielberg's television follows his eyesight wherever he gazes. Must cost a fortune.

There are so many infinitely larger challenges facing filmmakers and artists, that the growth of VR should barely warrant a bemused shrug.

Forget virtual reality problems, the real world has all the difficulties artists can handle.

In Australia, funding for the screen arts keeps facing cut, after cut, after cut. So much so, that thirty-year-old filmmaker resource organisation 'Metro Screen' was forced to shut down at the end of 2015.

Is it any wonder that 'Median earnings for a visual artist are $25,800 from all sources; half earn less than $10,000 a year from their art, according to a 2010 Australia Council study.'


How would you respond to hearing the news that artists in Australia can barely afford a biscuit?

Take the biscuit, of course.

Or perhaps you would decry this new reality for the modern artist. Uprise in an arcing rage, and stand in unison with the vocal critics of the current Federal Government Arts funding armageddon shouting:

'The emasculation of the arts sector...that began under Tony Abbott’s administration has continued seamlessly under Malcolm Turnbull. While arts communities easily cast Abbott as a villainous Philistine and held out hope that his more urbane successor would put his money where his artistic patronage was, Turnbull has just been more of the same with nicer manners.'


Alas, the obstacles are not only limited to Australia.

In Hollywood, noted luminaries like Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Soderbergh, and Spike Lee have all commented on the virtual extinction of the mid-tier budget film. It's either a 'Disney-Marvel-Warner Brothers-DC-Pixar-Universal-superhero-animated-sequel-blockbuster', or the budget has to be less than $2 million. Neither one of those scenarios leads to a golden age for screen culture.

At Cannes 2016, aside from Amazon swinging their gigantic...chequebook...around to make an identity statement, the film market was reportedly very quiet on the sales side.

Which leaves Netflix, the touted saviour of all screen storytellers. Unfortunately, the Netflix rescue fantasy conveniently leaves out that the company operates on extraordinarily small profit margins, in an increasingly competitive global business. Sort of like your knight in armour showing up on a three-legged horse.

I could go on.

But I'll boil it down for you: living the life of an artist is hard.

There's doubt.

There's rejection.

And there's the constant hustle for resources.

Even Orson Welles once said:

"I would have been more successful if I'd left movies immediately, stayed in the theatre, gone into politics, written, anything. I've wasted a greater part of my life looking for money and trying to get along, trying to make my work from this terribly expensive paintbox which is a movie. And I've spent too much energy on things that have nothing to do with making a movie. It's about two percent movie-making and ninety-eight percent hustling. It's no way to spend a life."

The least of our problems is the emergence of a new storytelling technology. Only a very comfortably wealthy artist, part of the billionaire elite in fact, would consider the growth of VR to be anything more than 'uptown problems'. Outrage from a gilded perch.

No, the real "danger" of our present era is for the audience.

You are under siege. Encircled by a pervasive monoculture, run by wealthy corporations that want to homogenise your stories. To starve out the diverse artist ecosystem for their profit. And worse, this blockade is run, in collusion it seems, with the outdated 'trickle-down' economic ideologies of the current political class.

This should make you mad.

No?

Imagine your world without movies, television, music, books, paintings, sculpture, dance, theatre, poetry...

Correction: this should make you furious.

We artists don't want much. We know it's hard. It's meant to be hard. But, as Orson Welles said, in the other half of that quote:

'I think I made essentially a mistake in staying in movies but it’s a mistake I can’t regret because it’s like saying I shouldn't have stayed married to that woman but I did because I love her.'


We're in this for life.

We're fighting to create stories for you that will enrich your existence.

Will you fight for us too?

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Sunday, May 22, 2016

RIP QUICKFLIX


So it is predicted, so it shall be.

Unfortunately, I was right on this one. In my '2016 Year In Review', I divined that Quickflix would be the first major casualty of Netflix's Australian arrival, coupled with the launch of new, local video streaming options. Specifically, I wrote:

'There are too many mouths at the trough, with not enough audience to go around. Unfortunately, after heavy losses throughout 2015, I don't think Quickflix will survive 2016. They were one of the earliest in the streaming space in Australia, but sometimes being first mover can actually work against you, particularly in a small market.'

In the last month, rather quietly, a news story broke that Quickflix is in administration.

Oh well, another company spins the wheel and tastes the bitter wine of failure, you say. And you would be right, of course.

Except...I can't help but pause for a moment, before starting to shovel dirt on this coffin.

In the kinetic, somewhat surreal, universe of global film and TV distribution, it can almost appear like there are no humans involved. The pundits scream the names of brands and oligopolies, while the faceless men and women behind the velvet curtain simply pull the oars and keep the machinery in full, violent roar.

"Warner Brothers. Universal. Stan. Foxtel. Disney. Netflix."

But Quickflix was not an opaque titan. The company started in Perth in 2003, by a group of entrepreneurs including current CEO Stephen Langsford. And, while the startup certainly wasn't a family-run operation, it is publicly known that Langsford invested a sizeable amount of his own money into his movie distribution venture.

In 2012, the gamble looked like genius.

Quickflix was valued at roughly $70 million. The business had strong content deals. DVD postal rentals were doing well, and Langsford was ready to guide the business into online subscription streaming.

Yes, Quickflix would be the first mover on online subscription streaming in the Australian market. The opportunities for success loomed large.

But lo, how colossal the fall from the peaks of prosperity.

By early 2015, Quickflix was worth $2.7 million.

The streaming business was a shambolic mess of technical glitches and bizarre pricing structures.

Even worse, Netflix arrived. Stan and Presto too, like the three horseman of the Quickflix apocalypse.

And now, it's over.

Quickflix was not the first company to fail after being ahead of it's time, mind you. Before the iPod came to dominate the collective eardrums of the world, there was the RIO MP3 player. Commercially successful long before Steve Jobs took over our cochleas, the RIO should have conquered the music world.

Instead, the manufacturer of RIO went bankrupt in 2003.

But how? What did the iPod have that RIO did not?

Answer: the iTunes store.

What does Netflix/Stan have that Quickflix didn't?

Answer: user interfaces that worked, with a 'simple to understand' subscription model.

This is the immortal truth, friends. Ideas are magic. Intention is wonderful. Enthusiasm, essential.

But it's all for nothing if you don't execute flawlessly.

Survival of the fittest reigns in the screen industry, and all players must prove their mettle.

It's a harsh world, no exceptions.

I won't celebrate being proven right on my Quickflix prediction. Instead, I'll reflect on the reminder of how perilous it is for all of us in the arts.

'...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.'


Farewell, Quickflix. I sincerely hope the landing is soft.

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Sunday, May 15, 2016

I WAS WRONG...AND GEORGE LUCAS WAS RIGHT


Well, this is awkward.

It's been barely more than three months since I repeated my argument that George Lucas was ludicrously misguided with his predictions about the film industry:

"You’re going to end up with fewer theaters, bigger theaters with a lot of nice things. Going to the movies will cost 50 bucks or 100 or 150 bucks, like what Broadway costs today, or a football game....There’ll be big movies on a big screen, and it’ll cost them a lot of money. Everything else will be on a small screen" (George Lucas)


Then news breaks of 'The Screening Room.'

A new tech startup lead by Sean Parker, formerly of Napster fame and the guiding hand of a small company (you may have heard of) called Facebook. 'The Screening Room' will provide streaming access to new release films for subscribers.

"...(cough)...Netflix...(cough)" you say.

But this is different. 'The Streaming Room' is not offering the traditional 'new releases' of the local video store, now itunes. This service streams actual NEW RELEASES, as in films that are playing in cinemas. The idea is to allow those audiences who simply refuse to attend a cinema, to see the films they want in the comfort of their own home. Good for audiences. Great for the business.

Another stake in the heart of film piracy.

The cost? $50 per 48 hour movie rental.

A premium movie service for the modern hermit with disposable income.

Yes, I know this is exactly the opposite of what George Lucas predicted. That he suggested the plebeians would pay a high price to visit a scarce movie theatre, for a 'big screen event' film. Viewing from home was never in the equation.

And I know that the service is far from available. That the the traditional film distribution guardians have erupted into white-hot rage, even while numerous top filmmakers support the idea.

Still, a $50 movie. That's essentially a bullseye for ol' George.

But where does that leave the rest of us?

Should we be pleased that someone is finally attempting a new method of release to the stalwarts of the film viewing world?

Excited that the film establishment have leaped so quickly to the defence of the cinema experience?

Proud that George Lucas managed to get at least one element of his prediction correct?

Clearly I'm not qualified to answer that, given I was wrong in the first place.

But I am left with one troubling question about this new proposal. One I won't hazard an answer to. Perhaps you can ponder it for me.

What person, who steals movies for free, would pay $50 for them instead?

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Sunday, May 08, 2016

AND FROM THE DUSTY SILENCE...


...a challenger emerges.

Yes, it has finally happened.

Netflix is facing a legitimate contender for the streaming throne.

Incredibly, this challenge comes from none of the traditional sources.

It's not one of the established studios. It's not even Disney, who have used strategic acquisitions (Marvel and Lucasfilm) to strengthen the stable for their service 'Hulu'.

No, it took an outsider, a billionaire purveyor of consumer goods, to draw swords with Netflix.

Amazon.

The online retailer has seen the future, and the future is SVOD video. Amazon's steps into the marketplace have been gigantic.

It began with their foray into original TV series commissioning. The result was award-winners 'Transparent' and 'Mozart In The Jungle'.

Then, in January 2015 Amazon hired independent film luminary, Ted Hope, to run Amazon Studios.

'Chi-Raq' an Amazon Studios original film by Spike Lee, followed soon after.

Recently, in the lead up to The 2016 Cannes Film Festival, news broke that Amazon Studios would have five films they are attached to, screening in the prestigious festival.

All meaningful milestones, set and crossed in the space of just three years.

Interestingly, even the head of Cannes acknowledged that the Netflix-Amazon rivalry was a subtext he was cognisant of. He even weighed in:

"There is no suspicion about [their] love of cinema. They are good for cinema. Amazon and the people in charge of cinema at Amazon...they are movie buffs."

Netflix is not nearly as well-liked.

The bone of contention, allegedly, is the fact that Netflix does not release their original films (e.g. Beasts of No Nation) in theatres, before making them available online. Amazon, on the other hand, has given a commitment that their original films will first screen in cinemas, before then appearing on their streaming platform; a move that appeases the old guard of the film distribution ecosystem.

With each company pursuing seemingly different models for feature film distribution, and the fact that one of them is primarily a global retailer, you could fairly question whether Netflix and Amazon are actually in direct competition.

But consider this first.

In April 2016, Amazon launched a monthly payment option for their video subscription service. Prior to that, audiences had to pay an annual fee for the Amazon platform.

The new price of the monthly service?

US$8.99 a month, a full dollar less than the Netflix monthly cost.

So, yes, even if they were heading in divergent directions previously, they're on a collision course now.

Make no mistake, these are the heavyweights that have stepped into the ring.

Netflix has annual revenues of US$6 billion and is valued at US$32 billion.

Amazon has annual revenues of US$107 billion, and is valued at US$175 billion.

These titans have deep pockets. They are willing to take risks. And, most importantly, they want to win.

It's already begun. At the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in January, the two behemoths were the top buyers, bidding enormous sums for the rights to indie film titles that normally see far fewer zeroes on their cheques.

Netflix, meanwhile, is poised to spend $5 billion on content for its service in 2016. 'Game of Thrones' peddlers HBO, by comparison, spend around $2 billion on their slate. The disparity is beyond gargantuan.

It's a slugfest.

But what does this sudden influx of cash mean for the rest of us? The ants who watch as imperious gods hurl lightning bolts at each other.

For now, very little.

As is so often the case, the bulk of the new resources are going to the well established. Spike Lee. Woody Allen. Nicolas Winding Refn.

But the tremors will reverberate out to the fringes, mark my words.

Or, as Ted Hope himself puts it:

"We’re going to have an outpouring. It’s going to be a wonderful period, I think, for ambitious cinema...You start to see not just us, but all the competitors that are out there, (enlist) different models where it makes sense to take bigger risks with films of great ambition."

Audiences crave the meaningful exploration of the soul that derives from great storytelling.

Huge companies want to partner with the storytellers to get a cut.

In return the storytellers are freed and supported to explore their creative limits.

And once again, the artists will have their day.

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Monday, May 02, 2016

SNATCHING DEFEAT FROM THE JAWS OF VICTORY


I feel somewhat human again.

The indolent parts of my brain are still reveling in the gear slippage, while more intricate thoughts try and force the machine to fire.

On the grand scale, however, the very existence of the above sentence shows I'm at least partially restored.

And as the whirlwind turns to a breeze, when Kansas is once again in full focus, I can advise that a weary traveler is left with exactly two souvenirs: memories and a burning question.

'What next?'


You can't help but ask. It's the symptom of having had a travelling experience that either evolves or crystalises something within you. Home, meanwhile, is staid. Resolute. Unchanged.

This tension, between personal growth and usual habitat, leads to wanderlust. To chase the short-term thrill. Poke the adrenal glands until they kick.

It's a valid strategy, I suppose. Plenty of people exist vacation to vacation.

But then why this undercurrent of doubt?

'What next?' hisses your lizard brain.

'I just got home from a 500 audience screening at a film festival in New York' you plead, 'Can't I gather my thoughts?'

No. Pile it on. Larger. Faster....

Never satiated. Always hungry for the endorphin burst....

The doubt niggles. Keep busy. Fill the time until the next, next, next...

STOP!

The more you feed the reptile, the hungrier it gets.

Pause.

Breathe.

Career momentum is a real thing, I'll grant you. There is a reason that 'heat creates heat' has become a showbusiness cliche (as well as the most blatantly obvious scientific observation on Earth).

The truth, however, is that most film related events are not reservoirs of forward inertia. A sophisticated way to meet like-minded people and share trench stories, indeed, but certainly not a project boon.

No, the surgical fact is that the real generator of momentum is the time you spend away from parties.

I know, it stimulates you to be at a film festival. A morsel of perceived success. It's like coming home to your own foreign land, where people suddenly understand both you and your passions. An addictive feeling.

But that's the point. The red carpet tornado is a Siren's call, if you allow it to take hold. Like all of life's sweet vices, moderation is the key.

And always remember, a soiree may be sustenance for the soul, but projects live or die on their creative foundations. Bolstered by the work you do behind closed doors: the script polish; the treatment refinement; the finance planning.

'What's next?' the hungry voice howls at you.

Obscurity. Toil.

Until...

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