Avid’s “New Thinking”

18 03 2008

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the announcements that Avid came out with yesterday. It’s the first part of their attempt to right the ship that has been listing to the side, as of late. More announcements are coming, particularly some new hardware. But this press release deals mainly with business practices, and less with tech-y stuff.

Which puts it right up my alley.

Chief among the changes is that they are beginning to simplify their product line. They are completely eliminating Xpress Pro, and dropping the price of Media Composer Soft so that no one will pay more than $2495 for the full-on MC. Students can purchase the Educational Version for the much much lower price of $295 which doesn’t have some of the additional software that comes with the full version, but is an absolute complete version of the Media Composer.

Here’s the amazing thing about this. Not too long ago, when you had to buy breakout boxes and other stuff from Avid, a typical Media Composer cost you $60,000 to get in the door. Now you get that for $2500. And it’s a better version of MC than the Adrenaline. Let’s do the math on that — that’s less than 5% of that old price. If you’re a student, you’re getting MC for about 1/2 of 1% of the original price.

Amazing.

The other things that Avid announced yesterday revolved around the user community. Anyone who’s had the patience to listen to me babble over the last few years knows that I’ve felt that the company has not been doing a good enough job of getting tutorials and documentation out there (tips, tricks, techniques, you know.. the kind of stuff that the Final Cut community puts out in droves). Now, it appears that they’re going to try and fix that. They’ve started a new community web site and are encouraging people to upload training videos. In other conversations I’ve had with them, they tell me that they’re looking into ways of seeding this phenomenon and, folks, if you want to help out please speak up to them, because they seem to be way open to listening.

Yeah, some people want to hear about the new hardware. But, for me, that wouldn’t be “new thinking.” The really “new” part of the announcement, seems to be their commitment to interacting with us — the users.

Let’s hope they keep it up.

The press release is here. The new community site is here.



Why Editing Isn’t The Same As Cutting

18 03 2008

I know that I’m being overly sensitive, but it rubs me the wrong way when I hear an editor described as a “cutter”, or the first/editor’s cut of a film described as a “rough cut.” We do so much more than that.

A great example of just what it is that we do can be found on Paul Vitois’ blog, in which he documents the creation of a show called The Odyssey, and adventure-fantasy series from way back in 1991 that he created for the Canadian Broadcasting System. Vitois, who describes himself as “a creative writer who has also worked as a bureaucrat and copywriter,” talks about how he and his co-producers had carefully hired a group of award-winning documentary editors. The first cut was:

composed of excellent editors who had come from documentary-making. And the first cut of the episode was proficient, correct, followed the script, used the excellent footage shot by the director Jorge Montesi–but the story came across as flat and slow-moving. I recall watching an early rough cut of the episode, my excitement at finally getting to see the result of our efforts on a TV screen, and my growing feeling of unease and letdown.

Their script didn’t seem like their script, even though it followed the instructions in the script quite well.

Now, we all know that a film is “never as good as the dailies or as bad as the first cut” (I believe that Francis Coppola said that and, if he didn’t, he should have) but this was something else indeed. In fact, after they hired a dramatic editor, they watched the film again.

I was intrigued to see how Jana had handled the material. She cut frequently, most often to show characters’ reactions to what was happening or being said in the scene. It created a fast-moving feeling in which the characters were involved with the story. Next time you watch a drama, pay attention for awhile to how it is edited: notice when the camera cuts to characters’ reactions. The characters may simply be watching what’s going on, but their involvement in the scene brings the audience’s involvement.

He says that he saw “a whole new show” and it’s no wonder. Our job is not simply putting pieces of film together, it’s putting both a story and a set of characters together.

I remember, years ago, I was asked to recut a film that had been originally edited by a very competent commercials editor whose largest asset was that he came with a free Avid. The producer and director were unhappy with the version of the film that they had personally supervised with this editor, and the lead actor (who was a director himself) recommended that they ask me to take a look at it.

I looked and immediately saw that it was very competently cut — nothing popped in the editing, there were no mismatches. But there was no character, and it WAS a character piece.

When I went into the dailies I was able to figure out what was wrong. Usually, if I ran the film ten or so frames later, I’d find a reaction from an actor or actress that spoke volumes. I’d often find that if I cut out slightly later or earlier than in the cut I was given, you could feel what the character was feeling Sure, a lot of my cuts didn’t match action, but there are lots of ways to disguise those mismatches, if necessary. What the first editor had done was work from the script to give the story an overall shape, but his individual edits didn’t bring out the humanity and emotion in that story.

I had told the producer and director to leave me along for a bit, until I completed re-editing the first twenty minutes or so of the film. If they liked what they saw, we’d go on from there. If not, everything was cool. They could keep looking for help, and I’d move on — with a bit more money in my bank account.

Of course, when they saw my initial recut (though they weren’t convinced that everything worked) they were blown away by the difference. It wasn’t the cutting that had changed, I felt, but the editing.

Remember that, the next time you want to farm your film out to the lowest bidder.



Editing Your Own Films

14 03 2008

Occasionally I like to veer off the path of this blog and head into media reviews. Just because I can. It’s my blog and I’ll cry if I want to.

One of my pet peeves, as an editor, is the director who decides to cut his or her own film. I rarely see that work. Most of my students at USC do it because “only I can really understand what I want for my film.” There’s so much wrong with that statement. On almost every level.

First, that word understand. I’ve worked with directors who can’t understand their own films on levels that differ from their original conceptions. But the key to having the film accessible to many people, as opposed to a masturbatory self-involved work, is to realize that the best films appeal to people on multiple levels — levels beyond their author’s original conceptions. In order to do that, the filmmaker needs to be challenged. He or she needs to be helped to see other points of view. In classical terms, it’s the thesis/antithesis/synthesis flow. An original thesis, when challenged by an antithesis, creates an idea which is better than either one individually — a synthesis of ideas that can bring the film to a higher level.

Peter John Ross, over at sonnyboo.com, wrote a piece in American Movieworks which tackled this issue and started with this introduction:

If you are one of those director that can look at the raw footage, or even edit a scene together, look at it in the context of the movie & make a decision to cut out one of the best moments the actor gave because you realize that the scene is erroneous THEN SKIP THIS ARTICLE. Or if you have what you thought was one of the funniest jokes on paper, and even if it’s not 100% great delivery, but you choose to use it anyway because it “might” be good, then please READ ON.

I could argue that John Sayles’ best movies are those in which he did not edit. I think that James Cameron is a better director of editing than he is an editor (when I worked with Milos Forman I was always impressed with his editing acumen, but equally impressed that he worked with other editors to get the best picture). I certainly feel that Robert Rodriguez has long needed an editor (and a cinematographer, but I’ll let people better versed in that art to take up this arguement).

And, even though I really liked the film NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, I continue to feel that the Coen Brothers would have done better work if they had had someone to work with.

Now, I’ve never felt the strong pull that most people feel towards the Coen brothers’ films. I have enjoyed a few of them — BARTON FINK and THE BIG LEBOWSKI — but I normally found them too clever by half and, even in FARGO, more distanced from their characters than involving. I’ve enjoyed the laser penetration of Peter Stormare in FARGO, but I can’t say that I found any of the characters in their films worth spending much time with, aside from John Turturro’s tortured writer character in FINK, and the fun of The Dude in LEBOWSKI.

Now, NO COUNTRY comes along and I’m almost ready to jump over to their side, thanks to some amazing performances completely in tune with the story and filmmaking of the piece. But there is enough holding the film back that I doubt that I’ll ever jump over to the side of director/editors.

The shape of the lead characters in NO COUNTRY is particularly fine. Javier Bardem, well-deserving of his Academy Award, plays a character who is consistently driven, but seems well-understood by the filmmakers. Josh Brolin, while much more enigmatic and slightly drawn, manages to build a steady, interesting performance, even against Bardem’s juggernaut of a role.

I’m less entranced by Woody Harrelson’s and Tommy Lee Jones’ performance, however. I don’t believe that I need to have everything explained to me in order to like a film. Far from it. But I like to have characters who, in the words of a director I once worked with, “earn their moments.” To put it in another way, I want a character’s behavior in a film to grow out of what we know about him or her, not just because it says so in a script.

But that is one of the hardest things for writer/directors to do. They live inside their characters heads for so long, and have had so much discussion and interaction with the actors playing those characters, that it is extremely to see connections when they don’t really exist. It is way too easy to ascribe more to a look or a body movement then a normal audience would.

Even editors are prone to falling into this trap, though it’s one that we train ourselves to fight. In order to freshen our view of our films we use preview screenings. They help to ground us. When I worked on the movie HAIR, we had a screening in which someone, in the discussion group afterwards (we didn’t call them “focus groups” back then, and we didn’t have NRG Research to run them for us), mentioned that he “really like the part where Claude’s sister watched Treat Williams dance on the table.”

The problem was that Claude didn’t have a sister in the film. This audience member was confused. And while we’d never recut a movie based on one comment, if enough people can’t follow plot or character, then it’s time to look at what we know about our film.

The real problem for writer/director/editors is that there is precious little opportunity to have someone say “Wha??” There is less day-to-day input from the world outside the director’s mind.

And, even with some preview screenings and good producers (Scott Rudin may be the most interesting producer in the world today, along with Christine Vachon, in terms of the variety of projects he brings to the screen), the world of filmmaking just gets too insulated. Where was the person who asked the Coen Brothers to step back and see if Harrelson’s character went for caricature and plot, instead of real contrast to Bardem’s? Where was the person who discussed the shaping of the Brolin death scene, and how it impacted the rest of the film’s energy and emotion?

[As an aside, even though I didn’t like the choice, I’m not going to fault the film for its choice to hand off the film from Brolin to Jones two-thirds of the way through. But I am going to note that, the way in which was done, replaced one character’s more interesting search with another less developed one. It was an imbalance that the film never recovered from.]

In the best of all worlds, who would have been able to ask those and other questions about the choices being made? Who would have advocated for the audience’s side?

It would have had to been an editor. And that is what a good, honest, direct editor can bring to a project, that a director cannot. Not possible, not even close. Even with really really great directors.



Awareness Test

11 03 2008

The Transport For London has an online test that’s part of their campaign to ‘look out out for cyclists.” It’s a video of two teams of four basketball players passing a basketball around. You’re asked to count the number of passes that the team dressed in white makes.

I’ll let you go away and watch the video. Then, come back here for my point (which will be continued by clicking on the “Read The Rest of This Entry’ link below).

Click here for the video.

Read the rest of this entry »



ONCE and Once Again

7 03 2008

For those of you, like myself, who were charmed and emboldened by the success of the Fox Searchlight movie ONCE, you might be interested in Portfolio’s article on the business of ONCE. Though predictably titled “Once In A Liftetime” (a reminder that writers don’t write headlines), it notes that the film has made an ROI of 10,000 times its investment.

The article doesn’t really go very deeply into why the film became a success (the writer, a realistic love story and a soundtrack with indie-rock street cred”) but it does show how a studio can make enough money if they give up the concept of massive release and ad buys. Originally, there was no television advertising for the film. It was only after the film opened really and stayed there, that you started seeing ads on some of cooler shows.

I’ve previously posted an entry about the studios’ inability to think small. One big movie that makes $100,000,000 is worth more than ten movies that make $10,000,000 to them. Sadly, films like ONCE and JUNO (also from Fox Searchlight — something must be working in their heads over there), seem to thought of as the exceptions that prove the rule.



The Dismal Future of the Film Business

7 03 2008

Two unrelated pieces in today’s Hollywood Reporter point to the sad state of film distribution today and, inadvertantly, show us why I (for one) am desperately hoping that the major studios don’t get their hands too firmly on the Internet.

First, Gregg Kilday (in a pretty persuasive piece) talks about the recent MPAA report on the movie industry for 2007. Buried underneath all of the record setting numbers was the statistic that admissions stayed pretty flat. Now, that’s not news. But what was eye-opening is a survey he did of the films playing in the theaters this past weekend, where:

“… there were only 16 titles playing in wide release on more than 1,000 screens. Three of those were the Oscar winners “No COuntry For Old Men,” “There Will Be Blood,” and “Juno,” enjoying their moment in the limelight. Take them out of themix and there was only one wide release, “The Bucket List,” that had been in theaters longer than four weeks.”The reality is that most wide releases come and go after just a month, a practice dictated by the costs of the TV ad buys that support wide openings.”

Now, that is pretty scary. It’s clear that most of the film distributors don’t have the foggiest notion of what to do with films below 1,000 openings. They’re simply not built for it.

The second Reporter piece noted that Nancy Myers’ 1998 film THE PARENT TRAP cost $80 million bucks with no stars, a figure that most people found dangerously horrible back then (I still do, but no one’s listening to me). The piece, in the “Around The World” column, goes on to report that the average cost of negative and marketing for a studio film hit $106.6 million dollars, almost five percent more than a year ago. But that’s the majors, you say. Thank god for the indie distributors. Leaving out the question of what indie distributors, the column goes on to note:

News at the studios’ specialty divisions was no better, with the cost of a specialty unit title jumping 54% to $74.8 million.

Sit back and soak that figure in ladies and germs — the average specialty film cost nearly $75,000,000 film to make and market. It’s no wonder that the indie films at this year’s Sundance could barely be distinguished from the studio films (except for the word “tentpole”). If you want your film to have a chance at theatrical distribution on more than three screens, you have to make a film that can earn back way more than $75 million bucks.

That’s why people like myself are praying that we can come up with an independent model for publicizing Web-based films. It’s why we’re hoping that indies can find distribution and publicity on places like iTunes, Amazon, Facebook, MySpace and the like. Indies are never going to get their films seen by $75 million dollars worth of people unless they are indie in self-proclaimed name only.

None of the major studios (nor their indie arms) can think of spending the time and energy to market a film cheaply. They think in terms of national ad buys which cost gazillions. And, when you combine that with Kilday’s statistic, and you get a marketplace in which there is very little room for a film that needs to sit for a while in the theaters. I don’t see many theater owners willing to do that either.

So, where do we go for the old fashioned sort of release pattern, where a film would sit in a theatre for ten weeks to make its ten million bucks back?

Change that figure to one million bucks and you can intuit my answer to that — the Internet and a distribution system that could project films in small houses via the Web (or a similar system).

It’s really the only way we’re going to see films that don’t fit into the standard mold.



iTunes and Wal-Mart

7 03 2008

No, Apple and Wal-Mart haven’t merged, but I was intrigued by a Billboard piece yesterday (here is the Yahoo News link) that reported on Wal-Mart proposing a five-tiered pricing structure that, according to the piece, “would allow the discounter to sell albums at even lower prices and require the labels to bear more of the costs.”

According to sources, the Wal-Mart proposal would allow for a promotional program that could comprise the top 15 to 20 hottest titles, each at $10. The rest of the pricing structure, according to several music executives who spoke with Billboard, would have hits and current titles retailing for $12, top catalog at $9, midline catalog at $7 and budget product at $5. The move would also shift the store’s pricing from its $9.88 and $13.88 model to rounder sales prices.

Not only is this an acknowledgment of the decline of the sales of physical products (CDs and music DVDs) but it is also a further nail in the coffin of allowing the labels to fix their retail prices in whatever way they’d like.

You may remember that the biggest beef that labels like Universal Music had with Apple’s iTunes was that they couldn’t force Apple to sell with a pricing structure that the labels wanted.

“I don’t think this is a Wal-Mart discussion,” one top executive at a major label said. “I think this is a future-of-the-business discussion. Right now everyone is paralyzed.”

As I’ve already pointed out, Apple seems to finally be moving in the direction of multiple pricing.  It is intriguing that their huge success in music distribution (they seem poised to overtake Wal-Mart as the biggest music retailer in the US by the end of this year) is putting pressure on others to adapt their sales model as well.  If you have to sell pieces of plastic with more than one song on them, you have to offer the customer something more than iTunes does.  In this case, Wal-Mart seems to be offering much lower cost.