Veronica Mars and Big Data

16 03 2013

Last post I talked about how Netflix‘s anytime-anywhere model will inevitably change the way that networks do business in the future — giving viewers a chance to watch as many episodes as they want, when they want to.  Now, if that wasn’t enough, along comes “Veronica Mars” to shake their previously solid ground a bit more.

For those of you who never watched it (and that includes me) “Veronica Mars” was a television series from 2004-2007 starring Kristin Bell and produced by Rob Thomas. According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, Bell plays Veronica,

a student who progresses from high school to college while moonlighting as a private investigator under the tutelage of her detective father. In each episode, Veronica solves a different stand-alone case while working to solve a more complex mystery.

Smithsonian Mag illustration about Big Data

Okay. I’m probably not the target market for this thing.  But it had its fans.  Not a bazillion of them, but a bunch of them (Thomas estimates about three million).  When Thomas decided to write a feature film based around the series, they got excited.  Not excited enough to convince Warner Bros to fund the film (they had produced the series and, I would assume, controlled the copyright) though. So the movie was never made.

Until this year.

In what I can only assume was a brilliant stroke of marketing savvy, Thomas approached Warners with the proposal that, if he could raise $2,000,000 outside, they would finance the film. But the brilliant stroke here was that he wasn’t planning on getting the money from a financier.  He said he would get the money through Kickstarter — from the very fans who would, therefore, presumably pay money to go see the film in the theaters. (Except for some high-priced donors, most pledgers don’t get a movie ticket. At best, they get a DVD or Blu-Ray, not enough for most fans to stay away from the theater, I’d venture.)

If he could raise enough fan interest to finance the film, would they agree that there was enough fan interest for them to support its release? Here is what he says happened:

I met with the Warner Bros. brass, and they agreed to allow us to take this shot. They were extremely cool about it, as a matter of fact. Their reaction was, if you can show there’s enough fan interest to warrant a movie, we’re on board.

Well, duh.  This is kind of a no-brainer, once you agree to think outside of your normal box.

The story that you’ve heard reported is that they raised the money.  Faster than any project had ever raised money on Kickstarter. In fact, as of today, they’ve raised over 3.4 million.

But the real story isn’t that they raised the money, it’s why Warners agreed to let them make the movie at all.  There are two main reasons, both of which should make for an interesting change in the way the studios do business.

First, the production cost.  They agreed to distribute a movie that was made for about $2,000,000.  Let’s assume that they raise twice that and put most of it towards production (a low-budget production, as far as the film union – IATSE – defines it is under five million dollars).  That is still probably the cheapest film Warners will make all year — unless Superman and The Great Gatsby and Hangover – Part III turn out to be a lot cheaper than I think. Understand, this is not a film like a Sundance movie that they pick up for distribution. This is a film that they already own the rights to.

This is their movie. They couldn’t get it any cheaper. Oh, they’ll probably have to give up some big profit participation points — what we in the business call “Monopoly money.”  And, if Thomas and Warners are smart, the company will cede a crap ton of creative control, and let the creative team make the movie their way.

If all of those things really happen, this is a sea change in the movie financing and distribution game. A major studio producing a movie for practically no money and letting the filmmakers make it for the people who they see as the film’s fans.

And they can do that because of the second reason – the research has already told them that they can probably make money on this.  And that research was called Kickstarter. And here’s where this story overlaps with last week’s story about Netflix.

The New York Times did a piece on how Netflix decided to finance the expensive House of Cards. Because the company delivers its programming through computers, rather than over the air, they have access to loads of data about how we watch our media. They knew that a lot of people liked movies with Kevin Spacey. They knew that a lot of people liked movies directed by David Fincher (even though he didn’t direct all of the episodes, he directed the first two and his name was on every episode in the Netflix pages for the series). They knew that a lot of people liked the British version of the show.

This is what’s called Big Data — making sense of enormous amounts of data. And the sense that Netflix made of it was that an American version of this series starring Kevin Spacey and directed by David Fincher would probably have a built in audience. As the Times put it “the ability to see into the future is the killer app.”

In the case of Veronica Mars, Thomas was able to use a smaller version of this Big Data to make his case to Warners that a successful Kickstarter campaign would increase the likelihood that they could “see into the future” and predict the film’s success.  If the film didn’t have enough supporters to finance their small budget then it was unlikely it would have enough viewers to fill a movie theater.  If they raised the money, it was a good indication to Warners that they could fill theater seats and get some ancillary income in their usual way.

As I said before — well, duh.

It’s a great test case for crowd prognostication (as opposed to crowd financing — this was never really a case of crowd financing). And I am positively agog with the possibilities for the future. What would happened if the script ideas and cast for Jack the Giant Slayer were floated on something similar to Kickstarter?  If they could convince (oh, let’s say) 20,000,000 people to kick in a few bucks they would have proved that there was 400,000,000 dollars of potential box office out there. That would not only give them confidence to move forward, but would also suggest a budget somewhere south of what they did pay for it.

What if television ideas were floated this way?  Would we have fewer turkeys like Pan Am?

I don’t know, but I think that’s it’s an interesting way to help filmmakers — large and small — test out concepts. Not every film or show is going to be able to do this. I can’t imagine what BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD would have done in a system like this. On the other hand, it was made for only two million.

But it is an interesting way to look at the future of programming and arts.  Watch out Neilsen!!

Television, Addiction and Netflix

8 03 2013

I am always super suspicious when professional pundits draw sweeping conclusions based on their own personal experiences. I’ve heard tons of podcasts in which the panelists assume that their children’s Internet habits are those of every teenager, or that the way they navigate their web pages is the way that everyone does.

I doubt it. I truly truly doubt it. (Even though, truth be told, my blog posting will often fall into that trap)

The latest “We Know Eveything” topic is “binge viewing.”

House of Cards

Those of you who don’t have an addictive bone in your body might have missed out on the discussion about Netflix’s distribution of “House of Cards” – the 13-part series, based on the English drama about scheming politicians. Aside from the merits of the series (and there are many) the biggest news about the series is that Netflix released all of the episodes at one time, so you could theoretically have watched the entire series in one day.

And that’s what “binge viewing” is all about. (Even the New York Times has leapt into the fray, so you know that it’s official).

But, if I may be so two-faced as to make my own broad generalization, the focus on binge viewing misses the larger point.

As I’ve said before, many of us are in the process of creating our own networks — we don’t know when our television shows air because we watch them when we want to, either through DVRs or online. We aren’t as aware of what network they aired on because of syndication at search menus.

The point with Netflix isn’t so much that they made it possible to watch all of “House of Cards” in one day but that made it possible for us to choose to watch it in one day if we want to. My wife and I watched two episodes a night for a week. Others watched it all in a weekend. Still others watched it one a night over several weeks. It’s our choice. NBC can kiss their “Thursday evening comedy block” goodbye, because large segments of their audience don’t watch it on Thursday. We used to define “appointment tv” as shows that were so good that we made it our business to be in front of the television to watch them. Now it means something different — the shows make it their business to be in front of us when we want to watch them. The entire fallacy of the present network/advertiser model is that it’s based on grabbing eyeballs at defined times (which is why movie distributors used to run their ads on THursday nights, before Friday openings).

Sure, plenty of people still watch television that way, but an increasing number are creating their own personal networks, without regard to original network programming decisions.

So, the value of a Netflix/Hulu/etc. model is that it puts more options in our hands. Distribution models, like those of Roku, YouTube, and Apple TV, are acknowledging the trend lines established by DVRs. We want ubiquitous libraries of materials available when we want to view them, not doled out by intermediaries like the networks.

The true revolution isn’t going to be figuring out how to produce series that we will watch whenever and wherever we want. It’s going to be in figuring out how to pay for them, and at what level. It will be in discovering how to create shows that may be watched out of order, or over enormous spans of time. It will be in shaping stories that cannot count on the viewer spending six months waiting for a new season — with all of the attendant anticipation and fan activity.

In short, it’s about how those of us who produce and distribute entertainment can adapt to those of who watch it. Regardless of how my daughter watches it.

Always Renting

1 02 2013

Just the other day, I got word that my wife and I will have to be moving again from our house. We’re renters (something I’ve stupidly held on to since my days in New York — where it seems everybody rents) and when we moved into our new house two years ago, we settled on a two year lease. We knew our landlord could raise the rent big time (not a good thing for a teacher), or sell the house.

In short, we’ve known every day that we’ve been in our house that we might have to move — sooner rather than later.

As I thought about this it occurred to me that this sense of never getting comfortable in this place was very familiar to me. It’s the world that most of us live in, as freelancers. And, to a larger degree, it is the feeling that all of us should have before we get comfortable with any technology or workflow. We are simply renting here, and the chances are great that our jobs are going to end and the technology will evolve before we are really prepared for it.

In that way, the best thing that we can do in our business is to get used to the idea that things will be constantly changing.

I can say this because I spent my entire life, before coming to USC’s film school, as a freelancer. My average job ran about nine or ten months (HAIR and THE COTTON CLUB went on for 18 months, but those were real rarities). When I took a job, I knew it wouldn’t last. I knew that my life was going to be made up of simultaneously working and looking for work. On top of that, early on I knew that the skills I was learning as an assistant editor would be only slightly helpful when I moved up to being an editor.

You not only have to get used to that, you have to embrace that.

Today, of course, it’s even more prevalent. My wife, who is a career advisor and counselor and has helped many people who are in transition or crisis, told me 15 years ago that the typical worker in the 21st century would not only change jobs frequently, but change careers several times in his or her lifetime.

I thought about this the other day as I was doing an interview regarding the software that we use in our editing curriculum at USC. Who knows if Avid or Final Cut or Premiere is even going to be with us in five years? The only thing I know is that, if they are and if we are still using them, they will be doing different things and look and work differently than they do now. Otherwise, they surely Will Be Gone. A mere two years ago, the concept of a DIT must have seemed weird and alien to most on-set personnel. Now those job are evolving every month and the phrase “The DIT is asking for an umbrella” no longer elicits odd looks on set.

In a webinar that I did for Moviola, I said that one of the jobs of most people in our industry is R&D – research and personal development – and that we’ll have to spend around 1/4 of our weekly time unpaid teaching us new equipment, new workflows, new technology, new thought processes, etc. Those who won’t do that, and those who won’t do it until someone pays us to do it, are going to have the unfortunate job title of “Unemployed.”

Needless to say, this was not a popular statement, but it’s true. Sure, I can hide behind the fact that I can tell stories really well, but on the project I’m working on now, I’m creating an opening that requires that I know a set of plug-ins, and ways to manipulate images in new ways in order to get my storytelling ideas across. Those quick flashes to white are so 1980.

In that way, we are always renting our space on jobs and our currency. There are no editors today who can only know film. There are certainly no assistants who can get by without knowing sophisticated image manipulation techniques, server technology, codecs and compression details, etc. etc. etc. This is not a world where we can buy a plot of land, erect a house and never repair the boiler.

We are always renting, and I mean that in a good way.

Metrics and the Future of Television

24 01 2013

I kind of think of Phil Hodgetts as the “Maestro of Metadata” – that practice of attaching as much data directly to our media as possible so we can more easily use and find those images, audio files, and video later.

Metadata has been getting a lot of play in the last year or two among those of us who create content. It will assist those of us involved in that task in making our lives easier, so we can concentrate on the creative tasks instead of the bookkeeping part of it.

But I want to speak about another kind of data that we don’t talk about enough – metrics – and how it might make the way in which we connect with our audiences easier.  Along the way it will also show just how tone-deaf old media companies are to the new world.

To my mind, metrics collection is the process of collating as much data as possible about the people who watch and listen to our media as possible as well as how they watch it.  This helps us to create programs that attract more people and, therefore, more advertisers — if that is how we want to pay for those programs. On the web those metrics are called “analytics” because why should New Media use Old Terms, right? Companies like comScore (their comScore Data Mine site usually present some interesting high level statistics), Nielsen (some of their reports are fascinating), and Experian’s Hitwise (their weekly online trends page is hilarious sometime; do you know that the number three search term this week is “pawn stars wedding” — more on that later) have developed sophisticated tools to gather those analytics and to sell them. Google Analytics does that as well.

For those of us who work in more traditional broadcast — like television — Nielsen has long been the top company for the gathering of television viewer data. There is all kinds of urban folklore about people who have those infamous “Nielsen boxes” or fill out “Nielsen diaries” which report viewing data to the company.

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Why Hiring From the Bottom is A Real Bonehead Move

6 05 2012

At the risk of seeming like a real obnoxious pinhead, I’m going to start off this posting with a line that I’d hate in someone else’s post (hey, life ain’t fair). But it will be in the service of making a larger point about how people hire film craftsmen.

So, here it goes.

I was trapped in a security line at Heathrow Airport while on the way back from a conference in Cape Town, South Africa when I heard a middle aged man unwittingly put it all in perspective. (There. I’ve said it. I don’t feel better about it, but at least now I can move past it.)

So, we’re stuck on one of those long security lines made even worse by the fact that British Airways has decided to open only one line for hundreds of people.

Now, last time I checked, it had been more than a decade since these security procedures have been instituted at worldwide airports. Yet, still, there are those fliers who seem to have ignored ten years of experience. They forget about the liquids, they don’t take off belts or shoes or any number of other alarm triggering devices. I’ve got this down to a science by now — cel phone, money, and wallets in my jacket pockets, my belt and other loose items inside my shoes, with it all in a box with my laptop.

But I travel a lot. I don’t expect everyone to have gotten this down like I do. But, damn, how many times do you have to listen to those TSA folks drone on about small liquids and laptops before you figure it out.

Anyway, the line is slow moving until it stops moving because one puzzled couple can’t seem to get anything right. Anything. The crowd grows restless and finally one businessman in front of me mutters (and this is the point of the whole story so pay attention now) at them “Noob.”. Pronounced “newb”

And the guy was right. These two newbies were slowing everyone else down.

I thought about this when I got a request the other day from someone looking to hire an editor. No pay involved, but a “chance to work with great talent, and get something for their reel.”

I must get four or five requests like this a month, and I have never seen any of them with any real value. For the intern. There are newbies directing, newbies producinF, newbies acting in it. And this makes the likelihood of this being good for a reel pretty damned slim.

Now, I firmly believe that there are real values in working on volunteer projects. Anyone who has read my THE FILM EDITING ROOM HANDBOOK (and stayed awake) might remember that I talked about this. There are more ways to get paid than money.

But jumping onto a project with noobs all around (I am aware that the definition of this will change as you move forward in your career) doesn’t help you learn and will rarely help you build a larger group of people who know they can trust you (which is really the point of every job and job search you should be doing). More frequently, it will hold up the line as you and others try to figure out if toothpaste should be considered a liquid and put into that plastic Baggie.

By extension, producers should think twice before going to the all-volunteer route. I’ve heard stories of actors bailing in mid shoot because they got involved in something else they were more interested in (or compensated for). I’ve seen plenty of films that lost composers because they delayed locking their picture past the point where the composer could do it for free for them.

Noobs don’t mean to make these errors. They just do, because that’s how we creatives learn. At USC we know that our students will rarely learn from lectures. They have to do and fail at projects. And that’s what a lot of noob projects are. No harm in that, but I resent when that no-pay-necessary attitude extends to bigger projects. Some people would rather spend the money on a great looking VFX package than an editor with enough experience to give them a great working story.

I’ve edited for noobs and I’m sure I will do it again when the people are right. But I’d rather work on a project with a producer who isn’t hiring people who don’t know where their shampoo goes on the TSA line. Makes me feel better about how he/she feels about me.

Is Film Dead? Then Why Do People Keep Wishing For It To Return?

11 04 2012

I am a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is that Academy.  The one that gives out the Oscars every year. Though, actually, that’s only one teeny tiny part of what the Academy does.

One other thing that it does is to recognize great student work from around the world — by giving out Student Oscars. I am one of a whole slew of members who watch shorts (defined as 40 minutes or under — which often doesn’t seem so short) from non-U.S. film schools so we can vote on the ones that we think represent filmmakers who we would love to see be nominated for feature films in the future.  It’s a great committee

But something odd happened the other night, and it dovetailed nicely with an annual survey that Harry Miller conducts for A.C.E. every year.

Here’s the odd thing that happened.  One of the committee members got up and noted that fewer and fewer of the films submitted to us are captured on film. This member wondered if there wasn’t some way that we acknowledge and reward films that were actually shot on film. He wasn’t suggesting that we vote with that in mind, he hastened to add. He just felt that the Academy awarded films. And he wanted to acknowledge those that were shot on film.

With that, my jaw nearly dropped to the floor and one of my row-mates asked if I wanted to stand up and kick some butt.  Well, I did want to do that, though it was not the forum for that. So I kept my seat, and put my jaw back in its proper place.

You see, it seems to me that what we really do in the Academy is honor good stories, well told (THE ARTIST notwithstanding). It doesn’t matter if they’re captured on a Flip Cam (well, not anymore, I guess) or 70mm. Entrancing, captivating stories know no format.

This was borne out by a survey that Harry Miller helps to conduct every year among members of A.C.E. who are editing movies and television. Since 2004 he has asked a number of questions. One of them is what format (“camera original” in his survey) the editors’ projects were captured on. Back in 2004, the breakdown went something like this:

16mm film 7.5%
35mm film 72.6%
70mm 0%
DV-HD 0%
HD (24p) 10%
Digital (Drive/Tape/etc.) 0%

Now, let’s jump ahead a mere seven years to last year – 2011.

16mm film 2.48%
35mm film 15.53%
70mm 0.62%
DV-HD 15.53%
Digital (Drive/Tape/etc.) (includes 24p) 62.11%
Other 4.35%

If my math is correct (and I was pretty damned good at simple math back in high school) that is a six-fold increase in Digital acquisition, while 35mm film fell to one-fourth of its 2004 percentage.

Now Harry would be the first to confess that this survey was completely non-scientific. It includes pretty much whoever wanted to respond and doesn’t include anyone who either forgot or didn’t want to respond. But the trend is completely obvious. Kodak isn’t just in bankruptcy, its film side is dead, dead, dead. Labs may be making some decent money making prints worldwide, but more than 50% of U.S. theaters are digital now and the world is fast catching up. Those cinematographers who are still developing film negative are looking at a future in which it will get increasingly more difficult (and, hence, more expensive) to process film neg. Which means that fewer and fewer productions will shoot film. Which means that lab work will get even more expensive.

Which means that film will pretty much die. No, let me take that back.  It won’t “pretty much die,” it will totally absolutely die.

Since all of our theaters will eventually be digital projection (and nearly 100% of our films will go through a digital finish anyway), I defy anyone’s mother or non-industry friend to tell the difference between a digital capture film like THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO or the upcoming SPIDERMAN 3, and a film capture. Either subconsciously or consciously.

Wishing that film would come back seems about as pointless to me as pining after those really great lemon cookies that Keebler used to make that I loved so much.  That now are dead, dead, dead.

I think it’s time to reward “good stories, well told” and forget how they were shot. Or, let’s bring those Keebler Lemon Cookies back.

Do We Really Want To OWN Our Media?

7 04 2012
I spent some time, this morning, at the TRANSMEDIA:HOLLYWOOD conference, which is a joint conference between USC and UCLA now in its third year.

Transmedia (which you can read about on Henry Jenkins’ blog or on Wikipedia — since Jenkins is the man who came up with the term you might want to start there) is basically the idea that you can create a world with many different stories coming from it — and that those stories can exist in all sorts of media.  Films and television are only two of them, but if you think about having the characters in those works also tweeting as if they were real, or exploring other characters from those worlds in a graphic novel or short story, or any of a dozen other forms of media (think songs, think fan fiction, and then keep thinking).  I have been telling anyone who will listen that transmedia storytelling is the way that we’re going to survive in the future media/content creation world.  Wouldn’t it be cool if we could present ourselves, not as editors of films, but as editors of the XYZ franchise?  Yep, I know the world and the characters in XYZ world so well, that you want to hire me for all of the manifestations of that world.  The same with writers, directors, actors, etc.

So the conference was interesting. But something that one of the participants said really piqued my interest. Jennifer Holt, who was the sole academic on the panel and who runs the Media Industries Project at UC Santa Barbara, said the following fascinating thing. “People don’t want to own media anymore.” People, she said, want to view (and, I assume, rent), not own.

This flies in the face of the prevailing wisdom of only two years ago, which said that people wanted to hold onto their media, that they would rather download music and films than stream them. But that is clearly no longer the case.  I prefer to listen to music on Spotify, rather than download it to my iTunes library. I prefer to watch movies on Netflix rather than buy the DVD or download. So it’s not only physical media that is dying, but bits and bytes on my drives.  Yeah, I like to download things on occasion, or for my classroom use, but I confess that I’m an outlier. The DVD of Matrix that I lent my daughter is still sitting in her internal DVD drive.  Not only does that mean that I don’t need it to watch, but it also means that she doesn’t have the need of her DVD drive. Mix CDs are gone.  Playlists are in.

And, old industry distribution models — buh bye.

Mass Media Goes New Media (and vice versa)

8 03 2012

It only took about five years, but the folks who program and distribute television are finally waking up to the idea that most of us don’t know or care what network our favorite programs are on. As I’ve said many times before, most of us use our PVR/DVRs/TiVo/TiVo-like boxes to select our programming not by network, but by name of program, time of day we want to watch, show cast or some other metadata that has nothing to do with the network that it’s on (I’d say that’s even true of HBO and other major pay cable networks). If it weren’t for that damned network logo usually annoyingly jumping away on the bottom right of the screen I’d hardly even remember what network the program was from.

The issue is further exacerbated by the fact that many of us are watching partial and whole programs online now. And while the networks would love to restrict our viewing to their own websites, that’s simply not the way that it’s happening anymore. More of us are watching whole seasons of shows way after they aired — on iTunes or Netflix, for instance.

(In fact, there’s a whole post that I could write about how the creators of episodic programming need to rethink their storytelling techniques, now that episodes are increasingly watched two or three at a time, rather than one a week.)

In yesterday’s New York Times, there’s an article by Bill Carter and Brian Stelter about how DVRs and streaming are changing how shows are rated. The article, which may be behind a paywall by now, depending on your relationship with the Times, makes the case that when these time shifting factors are taken into account, shows like “American Idol” lose their ratings dominance that they claim in the overnight ratings race.


Update on March 10, 2012

After I wrote this article, I saw an article on Techopinions by Tim Bajarin , called Why the TV Industry is Vulnerable to Apple, in which he talks about the slow movement of the TV barons industry to accept what true video on demand really means. The piece dovetails nicely with this post.  Here is just one excerpt from this must-read piece.

But to be clear, while they are starting to embrace the Internet as a vehicle for distribution, they are doing so reluctantly. If they had their way, they would keep total control of this distribution for themselves and drive their viewers only to their dedicated sites for viewing their shows.


This is no surprise to anyone under the age of 92, of course. Even my Mom timeshifts her daily dose of “Jeopardy” (though she does it with an amazing technology called VHS tape — which she still can buy and reuse, despite its alleged death). Yet, until recently, advertisers believed that viewers who watched shows later skipped through the commercials, making them useless. Over the years this attitude softened to credit viewers who watch shows slightly after their airdate. Advertisers and networks have agreed on a measurement called “C3″ which takes into account viewers who timeshift up to 3 days after a show’s initial airing under the theory that those viewers watch shows the way that live viewers do — top to bottom without skipping commercials. (Paul Lee, the president of ABC Entertainment, said ABC is able to “capture about 93 percent” of the value of the “Modern Family” audience with the C3 ratings, according to the Times article).

Viewers who watch a show a week, a month or years later — well, we didn’t deserve counting.

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3D Finally Catches A Break

21 02 2012

And So Do The Studios

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the United States government (thank you Joe Biden) and the Chinese government (thank you Xi Jinping) have signed an agreement that allows more American/Hollywood made films to enter the Chinese distribution market.

And makers of big, stereoscopic blockbusters are to thrilled that I can hear their cheers all the way up at my house (which isn’t far from the studios, but still….).

So, what do I mean by this.

I’d be hard pressed to name more than three people over the age of 23 who really care enough about 3D to actually pay the extra money to go see a movie in stereoscopic. Hell, I don’t even think most of my students care that much about it.

Sure, it’s really cool to watch Jar Jar Binks coming straight at you but, honestly, do you know anyone who wasn’t a STAR WARS fan who went to see the re-release of Episode 1?  The second weekend boxoffice dropped off almost 65% from the first weekend.  Hell, it couldn’t even beat the Journey sequel in it’s second week. 3D probably didn’t bring in any more people than a 2D release of it would have.

Ultimately, 3D isn’t that big a selling point here in the U.S., especially when you add in the surcharges, and popcorn, and all of the red wine you’ll need to drink to get through it. And you may soon be charged extra for those fantastic 3D glasses!

In fact, I know more people who will avoid a movie in 3D (not just my wife, though she’s pretty vocal on this topic) because they don’t like the whole experience.  The glasses aren’t comfortable.  It hurts when I move my head around. I get tired more quickly.

Etcetera and etcetera.

So, it’s getting harder to justify the additional expense that a 3D movie costs in production and post production (a flawed white paper, from White Creek Productions, claims an increase of 18%, but fails to take into account the almost doubling of costs in the Digital Intermediate and VFX creation processes).  When COWBOYS & ALIENS investigated the additional costs, additional shooting and re-lensing time, and compared those costs to any added benefits in the storytelling they decided to shoot in 2D.

Now, I don’t want to add any noise to the pointless argument about whether 3D is a fad, or whether it is here to stay.  But I think that it’s fair to say that it’s worrying the hell out of the studios, which was just settling into the idea that they had the next new technology box office enticement, and one that was very difficult to pirate.

And then they got hit with the train that is box office reality.

Which gets me back to the news about China.

I’ve been to China several times.  The last time, in Beijing, I hung out for a few hours at one of the new facilities for posting stereoscopic films.  We chatted about all of the same things that I would chat about at a post facility here in Los Angeles.

In other words, they are just as forward tech savvy as we are here.  And they are doing some really cool things with 3D.  But they are expanding their 3D theaters rapidly — for major theatrical distribution as well as government and other uses. In fact, they’ve got more screens than they’ve got content.

Which is where the major studios come in.

We’d love to get deeper into the Chinese market, but they’ve got this pesky rule that they only take 20 non-Chinese films per year.  20 for the whole world.  That doesn’t leave much room for Mission Impossible, Transformers, Star Wars, and all of those pesky European films that most citizens of the world like to see. And China definitely would like to see their own industry expand.  That isn’t going to happen if Mission Impossible, Transformers, Star Wars, and all of those pesky European films that most citizens of the world like to see, are clogging up the cinemas.

So, they’re sticking to the 20 film limit.

Now, American movie companies have started to expand into the Chinese market by creating co-productions with Chinese companies.  Those films become Chinese films, and don’t fall under the 20 film rule. But American companies can only take 13% of the box office receipts out of China.

That’s a problem too.

So, the awesome news for American companies is that this new deal creates a separate category of films that are less prevalent in China right now — Imax and 3D films — and allows 14 more of them per year. Considering that most 3D films are from the major studios right now, this is a huge boon for them.  And, since the deal also raises the amount of money that the studios can take out of the country to 25%, there is now a huge incentive for American companies to create 3D films.

Only 3D films.

Considering that, according to that article in the New York Times, Chinese box office is now $2.1 billion and expected to more than double that by 2015, this is a great deal for the studios. 25% of a potential boxoffice of $300 or $400 million is $100 million dollars.  And they’ve got the territory sewn up. No pesky Weinstein Company films tripping over their release dates.

So the pressure to make a film in 3D just went up five-fold. If you’re looking at an additional $15 million to make a film in 3D, with an upside of $100 million, that’s pretty much a no brainer.  Take THAT Jon Favreau! Take that Chris Nolan!  We’re talking stereoscopic for your next films — at least if the studio that’s releasing them wants to get into the Chinese market. And, who doesn’t nowadays?

The New York Times says this is a boon for the makers of big budget sci-fi spectaculars.  They’re right, of course (can’t wait to see Baz Luhrman’s GREAT GATSBY in 3D, though.  No wait, I’m lying about that.), but the biggest winners in this are the major studios making those big budget spectaculars.  The mid-level and indie filmmakers are going to have to cede the Chinese market for now.

Advice On Boldness From The Best

20 12 2010

Interview with Danny BoyleDeadline Magazine gets mailed to me because the studios take out ridiculous “For Your Consideration” ads and my membership in both the Academy and A.C.E. makes me desirable — at least for eight weeks or so every year. I like reading some of the articles, especially because they do interviews with people who they consider Oscar contenders — every issue focuses on a different category.

The latest issue is about directors and there are two interviews with interesting quotes — one from Danny Boyle, director of the stunningly directed 127 HOURS, and Alejando Gonzalez Inarritu, director of the haunting BIUTIFUL.  Both of them give advice to filmmakers about following their passion. Interestingly, I think this is great advice to anyone who is working on a piece of art — whether as a director, producer, actor, editor, cinematographer, sound designer or whatever.

In Mike Fleming’s interview with Danny Boyle, the director says:

“Beyond persistence, the only advice I ever give to young filmmakers is, ‘Don’t be shy in the way you tell a story. Be bold.’ There is that great quote, ‘Boldness has genius in it.’ People forgive you many things if you remember that.”

Fleming interviews Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and he says:

“We are not machinery. These things are individual expression, themes with original ideas. We may fail sometimes, but we attempt to move things forward.”

There are many types of boldness — in your work and in your work life — and both are rewarded (though to different degrees, depending on circumstances).  The boldness that Boyle talks about is obvious in his own films. And, yet, Inarritu hints at something much more. We are not machines and we often cannot be held back. But to push on our own envelopes require a boldness that is quite scary at times.

I remember when I was a music editor, back in New York City.  I was doing rather well, and had developed a reputation that was getting me offers on some great films – SOPHIE’S CHOICE, FAME, THE COTTON CLUB and more. I was having a great time and working with top notch people, but I had always wanted to edit picture.  I was extremely comfortable as a music editor, but I thought I wanted more.

It took some large degree of boldness, prompted by my wife, to give up the security (and, let’s be honest, the ego) of being a top-notch music editor. It meant starting back at the bottom. It meant admitting that I wasn’t the best at what I did — far from it. It meant giving up some financial security. Ultimately, it meant moving from New York City to Los Angeles.

But those first steps led me to where I am today — and very happy at being here.

That same kind of boldness is what makes directors like Inarritu and Boyle so exciting to watch. It is what clearly inspires the directors who admire the most — Stanley Kubrick, Francis Coppola, Jean-Luc Godard (I just saw BREATHLESS again, on a big screen in New York, and it is a stunning piece of work, even today when that sort of filmmaking has been done to death), Hal Ashby and several more. Because the reality is that there are more than enough people out there who are willing to do “just enough” to be good.  But it takes an ability to move outside your comfort zone to exceed.

Years later, people don’t remember Stanley Donen’s crappy films. They remember SINGING IN THE RAIN, because of its boldness. HIGH NOON is remembered for its stunning characterizations, use of music and montage and its sheer boldness in design. I don’t profess to know what will last from among this year’s crop of films. But my guess it will be more along the lines of INCEPTION than HOW DO YOU KNOW? (sorry for that catty comment, but you know what I mean).

Just a guess.

As an artist, you owe yourself a chance to be both responsible and irresponsible, at times. Boldness for boldness’ sake is not a virtue, but fear isn’t either.