‘Karate Kid’ Revisited: This Rivalry Is Not Quite Ready for a Body Bag

Created by Josh Heald (“Hot Tub Time Machine”), Jonathan Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (the “Harold and Kumar” films, “Blockers”), longtime friends and “Karate Kid” obsessives, the half-hour comedy flips the story to focus on Johnny. “Cobra Kai” offers the young tough-turned-old deadbeat a chance at redemption while illuminating the reasons behind his behavior all those years ago. (They involve a stepfather played by Ed Asner.)

When Johnny resurrects the old Cobra Kai dojo, it triggers Daniel, a successful car dealer who misses the stabilizing influence of his late mentor, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita). As the rivalry reignites and finds proxy in young protégés, multigenerational resentments, confrontations and hook-kicks ensue.

“It’s a karate opera,” Mr. Schlossberg said. “There’s a fun sort of Hatfields and McCoys vibe.”

Now in their 50s, Mr. Macchio and Mr. Zabka each have had periods of wanting to keep “The Karate Kid” at arm’s length. (They’ve heard enough “wax on” and “sweep the leg” jokes for many lifetimes.) But they were lured back into their headbands by the update on the story and its themes, some of which, like bullying, are getting more attention now than they were in 1984.

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“Karate Kid,” starring Mr. Zabka and Mr. Macchio, has become a pop culture touchstone, thanks to its mix of underdog story, unforgettable characters and a script that balanced the corniness and catchphrases with great pathos. Credit Columbia Pictures

The Google-owned YouTube, which beat out more established outlets like Netflix and Hulu for the rights to “Cobra Kai,” was enticed by the series’s potential to expand the audience for YouTube Red, said Susanne Daniels, the global head of programming. The service has been making deals lately with established franchises (the “Step Up” movies) and filmmakers (Doug Liman) in an effort to move beyond its homegrown stable of viral stars toward more mainstream appeal.

YouTube also knows from search metrics that “The Karate Kid” remains popular among its users, and it plans to use its multitude of clips from and inspired by the movies to promote “Cobra Kai.” Anyone who wants to relive, say, the original’s cheesily triumphant “You’re the Best” montage, which has more than 15.5 million views, can expect to see in the adjacent “up next” queue the first two episodes of “Cobra Kai,” which will be available free. (The show’s trailer, hyped in similar fashion, has been viewed nearly 13 million times.)

A scene from «The Karate Kid.» YouTube

That plus the fact that Ms. Daniels offered a full series deal in the pitch meeting was enough to get the “Cobra Kai” creators to overlook the relatively paltry subscriber base. YouTube declined to release figures, but it’s safe to say they lag far behind the totals for streaming behemoths like Netflix (125 million) and Amazon (which has more than 100 million people paying for Amazon Prime, which also includes access to its programming).

The upside, the creators say, is that unlike at a place like Netflix, which plans to release hundreds of shows this year, there is little chance “Cobra Kai” will get lost in the marketing shuffle.

“It’s nice to be a big fish in a small pond,” Mr. Hurwitz said, “when the small pond is Google.”

There have been five “Karate Kid” films, including the initial three movies (Mr. Zabka appeared in the first two); a partial reboot with Hilary Swank replacing Mr. Macchio, in 1994; and a totally new one in 2010, starring Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith.

“Cobra Kai” draws almost exclusively from the first movie and actually begins with a flashback to the moment Daniel laid out Johnny in the ’84 All Valley Karate Championship with the infamous crane kick, the legality of which is still debated online.

“That kick to the head sent them on two different trajectories,” Mr. Hurwitz said. “Daniel on the upswing, and Johnny in the downward spiral that’s been going for the last 30 years.”

Johnny is now a Coors-guzzling handyman who is “stuck in 1989,” Mr. Zabka said, cruising around Southern California in an old Firebird, jamming to vintage hair metal and scowling at billboards for LaRusso Auto Group, which gives away bonsai trees with every purchase. They are still on opposite sides of the tracks, but they’ve switched sides: Daniel has a grand compound in affluent Encino, Johnny a dingy apartment in Reseda. (Aside from some exteriors, the series was shot in and around Atlanta.)

A scene from «Cobra Kai.» YouTube

When events conspire to bring the old foes back into both karate and one another’s orbit, history repeats itself in melodramatic fashion. Johnny’s student Miguel (Xolo Maridueña), a bullied new kid in town, squares off with Daniel’s protégé, Robby (Tanner Buchanan), who happens to be Johnny’s estranged son. Each pines for Daniel’s daughter, Samantha (Mary Mouser), shades of the Ali-Daniel-Johnny triangle of the first film.

“The good news is now I’m sitting on the sidelines — I’m not getting my ass kicked,” Mr. Macchio said. “At 56, no matter how much hair and makeup help me, everything hurts more in the morning.”

Even off camera, both he and Mr. Zabka, 52, are remarkably well-preserved. This is key to maintaining the possibility that the story’s old guys might actually fight, too — the will-they-or-won’t-they of this particular sitcom. (“My kicks are still high,” Mr. Zabka warned, grinning. “No mercy.”)

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In “Cobra Kai,” Mr. Zabka’s character, Johnny Lawrence, is now a Coors-guzzling handyman who hasn’t let go of his long-term grudge against Mr. Macchio’s Daniel Larusso. Credit YouTube Photo

In the new series, Mr. Macchio’s Johnny has become a successful car dealership owner who is drawn back into the orbit of his longtime nemesis. Credit YouTube

But neither was interested putting on a karate gi for a broad, nostalgic spoof. In separate interviews, the actors struck similar notes of protectiveness about the “Karate Kid” legacy, about how important it was for “Cobra Kai” to spin the story forward and include some of the film’s heart along with the clever callbacks, fan Easter eggs and “humor that comes from the fact that these two guys have not moved past it,” Mr. Macchio said.

The actors long ago made peace with the fact that as far as the rest of the world is concerned, they’ll never entirely move past “The Karate Kid.”

Mr. Macchio had other indelible roles in movies like “The Outsiders,” “Crossroads” and “My Cousin Vinny,” and he has starred on Broadway. But he knows that any time he attends a sporting event, the arena will put him on the Jumbotron and play “You’re the Best” at some point.

Mr. Zabka moved on to other roles and was nominated for an Oscar for “Most (The Bridge),” a 2003 short he co-wrote and co-produced, about a father forced to make a tragic sacrifice, but he still gets asked to send up Johnny in sitcoms and music videos. “There something alive about it — these characters have become real to people in a way,” he said.

The actors have a hard time articulating precisely why “The Karate Kid” endures, chalking it up to some alchemy of the underdog story, the unforgettable characters (Mr. Miyagi, the aggro Cobra Kai sensei John Kreese) and a script that balanced the corniness and catchphrases with great pathos. (Even the villain got a moment of grace at the end, when Johnny handed Daniel the trophy.) The movie stuck with them, too — Mr. Zabka admitted that it was more than a decade before he was able to watch it with anything like objectivity.

“For so long, I still felt that kick,” he said.

Kept mostly apart during filming, Mr. Macchio and Mr. Zabka never really became friends until later, on the fan convention circuit. But while it’s an odd thing, being randomly but inextricably linked to another person for your entire adult life, there’s something transporting about it, too.

Mr. Macchio, for one, was stunned at how quickly the old fire came back once the actors finally faced off for the first time during filming for “Cobra Kai.”

“It just had all that tension — you look into his eyes, and he’s looking at mine,” he said. “The eyelids had a couple more wrinkles, but it felt like yesterday.”

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Power Up: No. 1 With a Bullet: ‘Nadeshot’ Becomes a Call of Duty Star

And while most pro gamers have to settle for modest sponsorships with companies that make things like game controllers and headphones, Mr. Haag last year also attracted Red Bull, the energy drink, which has traditionally built its marketing around skateboarders, motocross riders and other extreme-sports athletes. Mr. Haag is one of six people on its roster of e-sports players, and it is showering them with the same attention and training it has lavished on athletes who compete in the real world.

For the trip to Los Angeles, Red Bull paid for Mr. Haag and his teammates to live in Venice Beach. During the day, the company shuttled them to its headquarters in Santa Monica for workouts and other training. At night, they lingered in a high-tech studio and played video games into the wee hours.

Mr. Haag is the face of the growing business of video games as a spectator sport. Thanks to live tournaments and online video-streaming sites like Twitch, which Amazon bought for $1 billion in August, video games have become something to watch, not just play.

But fans need someone to root for, and that is where Mr. Haag comes in. He has the requisite marks of a champion, like tournament victories and a compelling back story. And he certainly looks like a gamer: On the recent morning in Venice, his pancake-making attire consisted of a T-shirt, knee-length shorts and a backward baseball cap.

Most important, though, is his compulsion to share his life — on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube. He is, more or less, the producer, director and star of his own reality show.

Mr. Haag’s YouTube channel is in the top 1 percent of the 220,000 channels tracked by the analytics tool OpenSlate. Beyond YouTube, Mr. Haag has become the No. 1 player on MLG.TV, the site where people watch him play live.

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OpTic Training

Matt Haag practicing with members of his team.

By Monica Almeida on Publish Date November 15, 2014. Photo by Monica Almeida/The New York Times.

An Online Video Star

What makes him so watchable? A recent survey performed by Jeetendr Sehdev, a marketer who focuses on celebrity branding, said that teenagers found YouTube stars easier to relate to and more candid than famous people from places like Hollywood.

Mr. Haag’s fans are right in line with this thinking. They seem to regard him as an exceptionally interesting friend.

For example, Kasey Young, 21, of Cleveland has learned through social media and streaming that Mr. Haag drives a BMW, often eats at Chipotle and likes to say “wallbong,” a nonsense term he made up with friends. Mr. Young said he now finds himself saying “wallbong” at work at random times.

“If he knew me in real life, I feel like we would be really good friends,” Mr. Young said.

Mr. Haag’s videos, raw and unproduced, add to this feeling of intimacy. In addition to game video, his YouTube channel has regular updates in which he appears revealing and honest, posting, for example, travel diaries in which he sits on a hotel bed and tells fans about his day. He also put up an old home video in which his awkward younger self makes an alien face for the camera and then pulls up his T-shirt to show off his bony chest.

Fans get to see interpersonal drama, like an episode last year when one of his OpTic comrades quit the team and accused Mr. Haag of blaming him for a tough tournament loss. And although he has a mostly male audience and has made his reputation as a video game killer, he is not afraid to be vulnerable.

Fans know that Mr. Haag’s mother suffered from seizures for most of his life. When she died two years ago, he sat on a couch at home and recorded a YouTube video in which he thanked followers for their heartfelt messages on Twitter. He appeared distraught and shaken but also genuinely thankful.

Both his fans and his detractors agree that this connection with his public is what sets Mr. Haag apart and makes him “a people’s champion,” as Sundance DiGiovanni, chief executive of Major League Gaming, a gaming league, put it.

“If you’re talking about YouTube and fan outreach, he’s the No. 1 player by far,” said Mike Rufail, the owner of Team EnVyUs, OpTic’s chief rival. “But in terms of raw talent, he’s a top 15 player — I wouldn’t put him in that top three or four guys.”

Mr. Haag doesn’t care what his opponents think. He makes several times his father’s salary playing video games, and earlier this year bought a $3,000 watch. The only thing he wants is to hold onto his job.

“I think about my future probably at least 10 times a day,” he said. “I think about what if this all goes away one day? What if for some reason people just aren’t in your live stream tomorrow? What if people aren’t clicking on your YouTube videos tomorrow? What if your team doesn’t work out and you’re not performing that well and you have to quit competitively? What happens when you can’t compete anymore and you want to retire because you’re going insane?”

Alone With the Xbox

As Mr. Haag was growing up in the Chicago area, his parents did not need to worry about where he was on the weekends: He was usually upstairs playing video games. Parties made him anxious. And instead of marijuana or alcohol, the sugary rush of an energy drink was his drug of choice and still is.

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Parlaying Video-Game Prowess Into Stardom

CreditMonica Almeida/The New York Times

“He was more of a loner,” said his father, Jeff Haag, 50, a carpenter. “He gamed a lot.”

Up in his bedroom, clutching an Xbox controller and surrounded by posters of the Chicago Bulls and Muhammad Ali, Mr. Haag had a place where he belonged. To friends and rivals he met through his Xbox, he was not a wallflower but a fierce competitor who could be a domineering teammate.

“Countless times I would put my head in the door and be like, ‘Shut the hell up,’ ” his father said. “He’s like yelling at people when they weren’t doing exactly what they were supposed to be doing.”

Mr. Haag’s competitive career began seven years ago, when he was 15, with online tournaments organized through his Xbox, as well as small local contests held in banquet halls. Five years ago, his uncle took him to a tournament in Anaheim.

The uncle, Greg Haag, remembered that the contest hall was hot and reeked of sweat and warm semiconductors, and that Mr. Haag was disappointed with his fourth-place finish.

But the right people had already taken notice. Around the same time, Hector Rodriguez, a onetime insurance analyst who controlled a pickup team, OpTic Gaming, was trying to build it into a real business. He enticed Mr. Haag to join OpTic by offering to pay for travel and lodging at tournaments.

Two years later, Mr. Haag went back to California for the Call of Duty championships, only this time with Mr. Rodriguez instead of his uncle. The $1 million purse made it one of the world’s most prominent gaming events.

Mr. Haag led OpTic to a first-place finish and the $400,000 top prize. This brought him a wave of publicity and a $100,000 check.

Today, Mr. Rodriguez acts as Mr. Haag’s agent, mentor and chief scheduler. Unlike most agents, he doesn’t take a cut; Mr. Haag keeps all of his money from sponsors and contests. But Mr. Rodriguez owns the OpTic brand and controls the merchandise sales along with OpTic’s live stream and YouTube videos. In essence, this means he makes money from video ads and selling T-shirts.

OpTic Gaming is now a big enough business that Mr. Rodriguez rents a house in Hoffman Estates, outside Chicago, where Mr. Haag and his teammates practice Call of Duty all day. Mr. Rodriguez lives a few miles away so he can make sure everyone is working hard — that they are busy playing video games.

Mr. Haag and his teammates have become famous, which has made the house a target for pranks. Late last year, someone called 911 and claimed that armed intruders were breaking in, apparently hoping that the police would show up with guns drawn.

It worked: Local police appeared with AR-15 rifles. But instead of bad guys, they found Mr. Haag and his roommates playing video games near a stack of pizzas. The pizzas had been ordered earlier in the evening, and were also a prank. Mr. Haag said he and his roommates paid for them because they felt bad for the delivery man.

More on the latest Call of Duty release. Complete Coverage of Video Games »

Sharing Every Detail

The day after the pancake lessons, Mr. Haag was in Red Bull’s game studio wearing a contraption like a swimming cap that was full of wires and attached to a computer. The idea was to see how his brain functioned under the stress of video game combat. This would help Red Bull’s trainers and sports therapists design exercises to help him stay calm and shoot better.

To perform the test, a Red Bull “sports technologist” had Mr. Haag fire up Call of Duty and start shooting. Whether or not this will help his performance, it paid instant dividends for his image. The first thing Mr. Haag did after the test was post a photo of himself in the cap of wires to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Mr. Haag said, “Social media is the most important part of what I do.” Even though Mr. Haag calls himself a professional video game player, he is really an online video star. The money he wins in contests is tiny compared with the money he makes from his live stream and YouTube videos.

His command over his audience is great enough that Major League Gaming recently enticed him to leave Twitch and stream exclusively with its site. He is on track to make around $700,000 from streaming and his YouTube channel this year. Throw in his other sponsorships and contest winnings, and he is well on his way to a million-dollar year.

But Mr. Haag is paid per viewer, so he has to keep producing.

One night at Red Bull’s studios, he played Call of Duty over the Internet for his fans. When Mr. Haag competes, he sits upright in his chair and screams back and forth with his teammates in a way that is reminiscent of a Wall Street trading desk. But this night was more casual: He was jumping from game to game and playing with whoever was online right then.

He had filled the stream with hip-hop so his viewers could hear beats and rhyming lyrics over the din of digital gunfire and grenades. His face was lit up by a pair of screens, one with Call of Duty and another with a rolling list of fan questions like “How was the Brain Testing?” and “Nadeshot can you say ‘What’s up Blake?’ ”

He talked for the entire five or so hours that he played — about the game, about hip-hop, about how his desire for an In-N-Out burger was fighting with his newfound resolve to eat healthily. At times he sang rap lyrics.

It looked like a cross between social media and talk radio, if talk radio had a visual component where a bunch of digital characters shoot one another. And as a form of entertainment, it seemed perfectly suited to a world where people jump around browser windows, watching a video in one, checking Facebook in another.

The Internet, with its infinite space and insatiable demand, has turned Mr. Haag’s pastime into a drudging obligation. But it is better than McDonald’s, which is why he spends so much time worrying that his game career will end and that he will have to figure something else out.

Mr. Haag may be only one year above the legal drinking age, but his fan base is largely teenagers. Just as he and other gamers have upset the media landscape by teaching children to watch video games like TV, they live with the near-constant threat that their audience will abandon them for something or someone else.

On another evening, Mr. Haag, bags under his eyes, wanted to take a night off and go back to the house in Venice. He asked his teammates if they wanted to go with him. They declined.

Instead of letting his teammates siphon off fans who could be watching him, Mr. Haag changed his plan and stayed for yet another marathon session of streaming.

“I would love to go home and hang out, but you gotta do what you gotta do,” he said. “Can’t complain too much, playing video games for a living.”

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