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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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How Can Filmmakers Avoid The Music Industry Debacle?

21 10 2010

I had an interesting conversation with a few editors a week or so ago. As is our wont, we were complaining about Things In The Industry — shorter schedules, lower budgets, having to do color, VFX and sound work in the editing room to a much greater degree than ever before. Then I brought up my favorite New Thing.

The film that I’m supposed to start working on soon was shot on the Canon 7DMkII.  No big deal there. It wouldn’t surprise me if more than half of you are working with HDSLRs right now. But what disheartening to these editors is that I was working long distance — the producer and director are in different cities on the East Coast of the US, and I’m sitting here in my lonely little office in the city of Angels (Hollywood in California).

Now, I’ve talked about this before.  I like working this way. It enables me to work with people who I could never work with otherwise. It allows me to work more on my schedule (on weekends and evenings, when I’m not teaching) which, in turn, means that I can charge a bit less for my editing.

You would have thought that i was preparing to kill these editors’ first born children. I was accused of devaluing the concept of face-to-face interaction (I wasn’t. That’s always preferable, but that would never have happened on these types of projects.) and of lowering pay scales for all editors. These editors aren’t Old Fogey Types, by the way. They are very happy to try out the latest technology, leapt into the digital editing world, and continue to stay active. They know one plug-in from another.

But I couldn’t help but think of the music industry’s demise after I thought through this conversation. Not too long ago, digital visionaries like Michael Robertson (at mp3.com) and Sean Fanning and Sean Parker (at Napster) used the digital technology that was becoming available in the music industry to change the distribution model of music. All of a sudden, it was much easier to copy music at high quality than ever before. That made it easier, of course, to copy and give music to your friends, or to download it for free off of the Net.

Music distribution exploded (though much of it was free music, I’d venture a guess that more music was distributed through ICQ and peer-to-peer than had been distributed through the Big Music Companies the year before. That is a distribution explosion.

The record industry’s reaction was slow in coming but when it finally did, it took the tack of lots of lawyers in suits (both the clothing kind and the legal kind). The first round of suits were filed in September of 2003 and reached their peak in 2005, when nearly 6000 suits were filed (according to this article in Wired). Though the RIAA, which is the trade association representing the Big Four music companies and the source of the lawsuits, has since backed off on suing individuals, I can’t say that I’ve noticed any appreciable affect on music downloading. In fact, the biggest effect of the lawsuits has been to alienate RIAA’s users (that is, music listeners and consumers) from the music of the major labels.

Rather than take the opportunity to change the way they did business, the RIAA spent tons of time and money investigating new and pricey DRM strategies. It’s only recently, with the arrival of digital “lockers” and the music industry’s dreaded nemesis — Apple and their iTunes product — that many listeners have started to see the value of legal music. In some ways, it’s easier to listen to Pandora, a semi-curated music service, not unlike a radio station on steroids, and purchase just the songs that you want, than it is to troll on peer-to-peer BirTorrent-y sites.

But even more importantly, the music industry has started to move away from the idea that their sole income needs to be from selling bits and bytes of music (or pieces of plastic, to be old fashioned). It’s in booking concerts, supplying music to other areas like film, television, ringtones, etc. (for awhile, the Universal Music Publishing Group — where I worked about ten years ago in Web Development — was a better earner for Universal than the label business). In short, it’s in the many things outside of what they thought their business was.

Film production and post-production is at the same crossroads, in a smaller way.  The hardest places to be right now, are in high-end post production finishing houses. What used to be a $600/hour business can now be done by a talented person at one-sixth of that price. And while you may not want to finish your 100 million dollar feature in someone’s garage on Color, there are more web, corporate and wedding/event videos out there that never leave their editor’s workstations. Low budget films are shooting HDSLR and editing and finishing using Avid, Apple or Adobe software, right in their editor’s living rooms.

I am not advocating that every editor needs to do all of this.  My wife thinks I’m color blind, so a producer would be a moron asking to do final color correction. But if you’re a talented editor with story and can do color correction, that would be attractive to many people at the edge of their budgets (and who isn’t, truthfully?).

The very things that we editors were complaining about (shorter schedules, lower budgets, having to do color, VFX and sound work in the editing room) are the realities of our world today. And that includes lower salaries. The days of editors making $15,000 a week, and doing very little except story structure are G-O-N-E.  Except for one or two superstars, the highest paid editors will be the ones who bring the most value to the storytelling process, and that includes the ability to work faster, with more tools and at lower budget ranges. Most producers would rather pay an editor $2000 more, if they know that they won’t have to hire a person to do temp VFX and color correction and a music editor and a temp sound editor. I read that some of the simpler VFX shots in THE SOCIAL NETWORK were done by Angus Wall’s and Kirk Baxter’s assistants using Adobe After Effects. Think about that. The amount of money and time saved here must have been substantial. In addition, it means that the editors could see the results of their creative thought processes much faster than if they had to send everything out to a VFX house.

So, what’s my point?

The world of editing is at the brink, like the music business was a decade ago. Technology has changed how we can do things. We can choose to embrace a selected subset of that technology (“I’m going to accept audio filters, but ignore color correction.”) like the music industry did (“We’re going to embrace digital production because it’s cheaper, but not digital distribution.”). And we’ll all end up standing outside the local supermarker begging for people to drop quarters into the spiffy coffee mugs that we got for free when we used to work at that spiffy post production house that went out of business.

The biggest favor we can do for ourselves — and this applies to production as well as to post — is to admit that we don’t know where our world is going to end up. And that we need to be as open as possible to changing our own business model, give up our second homes (well, I don’t have a second home, but never mind that) and our extra cars, and hunker down for the ride. It is going to be very worthwhile in the end if we do.

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Labor Day, Unions and Me

15 09 2010

It was Labor Day in the United States a few Mondays ago and this seems like a natural time for me to talk about what film unions have done in the scope of my career.

I remember, one day when I was working as an assistant editor on a documentary that was struggling to meet a crazy and imminent deadline, its producer pulled me aside and complained that the overtime pay that I was going to make working that weekend was going to make it difficult for his company to turn a profit on the program. Now, let’s leave aside the reality that he was probably making about 25 times what I was making on the film. And let’s also leave aside the reality that I didn’t create his schedule or his lateness with “locking the picture” (this means finishing the editing so you can hand it over to the sound editing team and the composer).

Nope, what galled me about his attitude was that he felt that he had every right to suck away my weekend so that he could finish his film. Without so much as a thank you.

Late nights, weekend work, and crazed deadlines are (unfortunately) a reality in the film business. There never seems to be enough money to do a film right, until there’s not enough time to do it at all. And then all of the stops are pulled out — mixing stages are kept open on Saturday and Sundays, extra visual effects teams are added, and more studio executives tend to show up at all hours to “help solve problems.”

So I’m not complaining about the hours and the overtime. That’s just a part of life.

What I do object to — then and now — is that this producer felt that we should be invested enough in that film to add extra work into the project without any extra compensation whatsoever.  It wasn’t in my original contract discussions with him, and it had never occurred to him to mention it until the day before that weekend.

On that film, however, we had a union contract and I was able to tell him — “If you want to take away my weekend, you can. But that’s why the extra overtime pay is called ‘penalty time.’”  On a film without a contract, I wouldn’t have been so lucky.

I’m not blind.  I know that large unions can become as oppressive as large companies. I also have heard the cliché of on-set regulations so restrictive that tables couldn’t be moved because the crew was waiting for a grip to come back from the bathroom.  I’ve heard about those situations, but I’ve never actually been on a film like that. But I’m sure they exist — on very rare occasions. On most sets, everybody takes pride in pitching in to help — so long as it doesn’t take away from their own job (which is a very crucial distinction to anyone trying to make a deadline).

But I know that the constant struggle between those who get paid and those who pay us is often won by the people with the most clout, and that is rarely the workers. Most of us are normal people who are trying to make enough money to support families and take them out to eat once every few weeks or so. (There’s actually a great blog, written by a woman who writes under the pen name Peggy Archer, called Totally Unauthorized, which documents her life  as a set lighting technician, and it’s a great read for everyone who thinks that filmmaking is all about glamour and lush parties.) If we often feel that we could use some help, every now and then, at getting a tiny bit more leverage in that struggle, who can blame us?

So, I’ve always been a fan of unions, even when they get too excessive. There are people on both coasts who felt a few years ago, for instance, that the Screen Actors Guild has gotten entirely too caught up in its own politics to see the overall industry picture. They feel that SAG would rather bring everyone else in the industry down with them, in order to make their own points. Frankly, I am not one of those people, but that’s not really my point at all. My point is that the excesses of a union are usually a drop in the proverbial bucket compared to the excesses of the studios.

So, on this Labor Day weekend, it’s helpful to remember that film unions are neither pro-film or anti-film. They were formed originally to be pro-people-who-work-in-film.

For all of you who want to be good editors and good filmmakers, we want to ally ourselves with good producers, good studio people and good and healthy business practices. And, sometimes, a little help from our unions is vastly appreciated.

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One side note here and it’s going to be a bit of a rant.  My apologies. If ranting is too much for you today, please skip the rest of this post and return next time.  Please.

On every film that I’ve worked on, I got completely involved and treated the film as if it was my own.  I got invested in more than just the editing of the film, but its very creation.  So, I’m not stepping back from involvement in a film. But the reality is that those films were never my films! There is no way that I could possibly reap the benefits of the great successes in the same emotional ownership way as the producer, director, writer and actors. I was as much a part of the filmmaking process as most of them, but they weren’t my films.

It’s always amused me that the producers or directors on the lowest budgeted films, were often the ones who expected every single person on the film to give as much sweat, blood and overtime as they did. And while I’ve seen them thank their editors, cinematographers, production designers etc. at the premieres, I never saw them hand them an equal amount of credit as they took for themselves (justifiably, by the way — they were usually there for years before a single frame rolled through the film cameras).

I understand why it’s difficult for them to believe that not everyone thinks that their films are the most incredible working and creative opportunity, but it just ain’t so.  We need our directors and producers to be the most passionate members of the team. They lead us. But the other side of the coin for this is that our desire to head home to our families might be a little stronger than theirs at the end of every day.

It doesn’t mean that we don’t give 150%. It just means that we can’t give the 1,000% that they are expected (and want) to give.

And that’s why having a union to protect us from that 1,000% level of commitment is a great thing for the Rest of Us.

Rant over.  We now return you to your lives, which are already in progress.

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Oh, okay, I lied.  One more note.

After I finished the above entry, I was surfing around the Web (Hmmm, “surfing”.  Does anyone say that anymore?) and I reading Peggy Archer’s blog I was talking about above, “Totally Unauthorized.” She has a rather depressing, but realistic and open, discussion about workers in the film craft and how they’ve been affected by the slowdown in Los Angeles film production. I don’t recommend reading it if you are just starting out in the industry because 1) it’s depressing and 2) you will be moving up in a very different world than Peggy and myself did. Your work outlook will be different, and the way in which you get and keep work will also be different.  This is a Very Good Thing, and you should pursue that path. And then you will definitely survive.

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Just What Can Movie Theaters Charge? And how that’s good for indies.

6 08 2010

A recent article on THE WRAP discusses the very obvious downturn in box office for 3D films. This (they say) doesn’t prove that 3D is a fad but that “not every movie should be in 3D.”

While it’s easy to make broad generalizations based on very little evidence (hell, that’s what I do here, right?), it’s actually much more nuanced than that.

We’ll see what happens to STEP UP 3D this weekend, but we are clearly in the early stages of 3D adoption. I’m inherently skeptical that 3D is ever going to take over the film, tv and web content world, but I’m also waiting to see what will happen to movie 3D if television 3D becomes more popular. Once we become used to 3D on TV, will that make it a requirement in theaters, or will it simply cheapen the concept?

But it was a different sentence entirely that woke me up from this ongoing, every-present, 3D/2D discussion.

Speaking of Dreamworks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, the article says:

He also thinks exhibitors will have to move away from its age-old, one-size-fits-all pricing model.

“For the first time in a long time, I think you’re going to see some adjustment on that,” he added.

One of the things that may be damaging 3D admissions right now is the three to five dollar admission price premium that theaters are tacking onto their normal ticket prices. While that’s fine for a cool event film, it’s probably going to mean the difference between a Yea or a Nay for a family of five deciding whether to see a film on a weekend. Think about it — with three kids, you’re already laying out over 50 bucks for tickets and another 30 or 40 for food. That’s about $100 before you even think about 3D. Add another 15 to 20 bucks for that incredible stereoscopic experience in CATS AND DOGS and you’ll probably get as many people saying “Nah, I heard that the film wasn’t so good” as say “It’s worth it just to shut the kids up for two hours.”

But Katzenberg’s point is well-taken. We expect that first class air flight is going to cost more than economy. We know that putting premium gas in our tanks will cost us more than regular. Don’t we? Why should we expect that every seat, in every theater in a multiplex, for every movie, will cost the same amount. It’s long been accepted that people going to see the less popular matinee performances of a film will pay less.  Isn’t that just another way of saying that people going to evening films will pay more? If that’s the case, why shouldn’t people who decide not to put on the 3D glasses pay less than those who do?

The key here would be to create a sliding scale for films that better reflects the demand for that experience. Would you pay 15 bucks to see the next HARRY POTTER film?  Perhaps, if you can guarantee me that I won’t have to pay anything more than 9 or 10 bucks to see the latest Nicole Holofcener film. I’m not saying this because PLEASE GIVE isn’t as good a film as the 58th film about Hogwarts School of Magic, but because fewer people want to see it. Think about it — this could be great for small indie films. Incentivise people to see indie films in a theater. Make it cheap to see them on a Wednesday night in a smaller theater without 3D. Make it a great alternative on Saturday night to the 3D/super Dolby-ized, VFX-heavy/big theater Potter and Snape. Then give me the opportunity to upgrade my indie ticket with comfier seats, reserved seats and better placement in the theater.  I’m there for you baby!

I’m not talking about ghetto-izing these films. The success of the Laemmle or Arclight style experience (with comfortable seats, good food and advanced seat reservations) proves that people will pay for value. But your definition of value is almost certainly different than mine. And the next person’s. If lower ticket prices are more important to you than comfy seats, then you should be given the opportunity to act on that. But once you leave behind the idea of one ticket price for every seat in a theater, then you’ve really freed yourself up for some great opportunities to bring people into the theaters, as opposed to driving them away.

The tricky thing here will be to avoid having theater owners gouge their patrons, and to avoid having film distributors gouging theater owners. One valuable service that the defunct, though not lamented, Hollywood Stock Exchange gave was a number which roughly correlated with people’s desire to see a film. AOL’s Moviefone provides similar data. This doesn’t mean that those numbers are always right, but they do lead the way to a pricing model that studios would have to take into account in order for theaters to price their tickets on a sliding scale.

In a world where theaters are competing with the Net for viewers, taking a cue from the web and letting viewers pay for content that they want might not be such a bad idea.

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Collaboration, The Sequel — And A Contest

23 08 2009

Daisy Whitney, host of New Media Minute

Daisy Whitney, host of New Media Minute

Seems like just yesterday that I finished writing about collaboration (it wasn’t, it was actually two days ago) and I’ve just watched Daisy Whitney’s latest episode of New Media Minute which is all about collaboration.  (Daisy is one of the most informed, entertaining, correspondents on the media area, hosting This Week In Media as well as writing for a slew of magazines and web sites.). She talks about new technology which is enabling people to collaborate across great distances including Wiredrive, web conference software Adobe ConnectNow and sites like video hiring hall Spidvid and online collaborative amateur site Pixorial.

Along the way, Daisy also mentions a project that I was involved in earlier this year — Mass Animation’s “Live Music”.  This was a Facebook application in which animators from across the globe were able to download a trial copy of Maya, and use it to create individual shots in an animated short that is going to be released at the top of Sony’s fall film PLANET 51. There were weekly contests, polls and judged competitions. I was one of a panel of judges that looked at individual sections of the films, gave feedback to the worldwide animators, and awarded badges to the shots we judged the best. It was a fantastic experience and created a much better film than it would have been without that diverse input.

Daisy also announced a contest for web videomakers that I want you all to know about. To dovetail with the publication of a friend’s book (Alison Winscott’s “The Time of My Life”) she has asked animators to create and post a short 10-15 second video based on the idea of “The Time of My Life”. Send her the link and, after judging, the winner will run on her popular show along with a featured interview. Sounds worth it to me. Also, a good chance to learn more about yourself.

The contest (read more details about it on Daisy’s blog for New Media Minute) has no announced final date but, as usual in life, earlier is better. So get those videos shot, edited and in.

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The Future of Television – Finally!

16 07 2009

Last week I ran a panel at the NATPE LATV Festival. NATPE, which is the National Association of Television Program Executives, describes itself as representing companies and people who are “involved in or wanting to become involved with the creation, development and distribution of television programming.” Along the way they promote discussion about television programming. And that’s what I was doing at the conference. Promoting Discussion. Hey, I’m all about talking (as anyone who knows me will sadly attest).

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Hey, unless I’m doing reality television, what the hell is there to talk about? Is there any television industry for me to create programming? And why should I care?”

Well, here’s why those of you who are in any part of the entertainment industry (or who would like to be) should care. The really interesting thing about the conference was just how aware the entire industry has finally becoming aware of the sea change. Of course, you’d have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to see the changes. There are editors who I know who haven’t worked in eight or nine months; some are looking to sell their houses to make ends meet, and nearly every single person I know now says that they are working “below their rate” (which means, working for less money than they used to and waaaay less than they’d like to). And those changes are going to irrevocably affect how we all make and distribute our media.

The overall takeaway I got from the panels I visited and the one that I ran (“Animation: The Web Levels the Playing Field” with Chuck Williams, Producer, Walt Disney Animation Studios;  Allen DeBevoise, CEO, Machinima.com;  Uri Shinar, CEO & Founder, Aniboom;  Lifeng Wang, President, Xing Xing Digital Corp.) was that the television industry is changing mightily and those of us who can’t accept that change are totally hosed. That’s what I twittered after the conference.

I know, I know. But it’s interesting that this was coming from the real players in the industry.

There was much discussion about the collapse of the syndication market and the precipitous drop in ad revenue. The combination of these two things — the foundations of how this content gets paid for — means that content can’t be produced at the same level as before because it can’t be sold for as much money as before. There was plenty of discussion about the change in the broadcast model — 22 episode orders for (essentially) two network runs of a show, running primarily on broadcast with some nod to web streaming models like Hulu.

There was some discussion about how the web is beginning to suck away some of the ad revenue as well as some of the distribution, but the general consensus is that there’s no real money on the web yet — at least not at the levels that the Big Boys are used to. Uri Shinar, who runs Aniboom, said on my panel that he has to look at moving into traditional media to supplement his online, crowd sourcing method of distribution. Chuck Williams, who is directing at Disney Animation, said that they are approaching the dual distribution mode from the other direction — spreading into online to keep their franchises alive during the years in between theatrical releases.

The web is an established tool and it is growing in importance, the players agree. But there are still many people who don’t get it. For those of you who believe that you’ll be able to work below-the-line as you always have been (one show at a time, for a very good wage, guaranteed for 22 episodes a season), well you might as well line up at the state unemployment office now. Shows that once shot for eight days will move to six or fewer, episode orders will shrink to ten or so episodes with the possibility of renewals. That means that our contracts as editors won’t guarantee us more than two or three months of work.

We’re going to working on more things (sometimes simultaneously), for less money, than before. And that’s actually going to be exciting and dynamic. We need to embrace that reality.

Paradoxically, this means that those of you who are now graduating from college, with a decent skill set and some work behind you, are really going to be in a much better place than Old Farts (Disclaimer: I Am An Old Fart of a type), who have kids and mortgages and big car payments. We won’t be agile enough to catch the wave. More likely, we’re going to be buried under it.

Someone responded to my tweet about the conference with another one that “They’re five years behind.” That’s true. There are some people who began establishing a base in online programming years ago. They were greeted with jeers: “There’s no money in that.” Even today, people who are all about following the money will challenge us with the accurate claim that very few people have figured out how to make money on the Web with content or programming.

But those days are fast going away. The cable/phone company’s Four Play strategies (in which they will sell you a phone, your television programming, your wireless and your internet/data all through the same pipe) are moving your computer screen into your living room. The recent court decision to allow Cablevision to keep remotely storing viewers shows on their servers rather than our DVR boxes, will only accelerate that move. Within a few years, it won’t matter where we decide to watch our shows — on a large television screen, on our computer monitors, on our cel phones, or on a screen built into our refrigerators. The future of the Apple TV is finally here.

This means that there will be a million channels out there to fill with programming. No, make that an “unlimited number of channels.” There is always the danger proclaimed by Bruce Springsteen (“57 Channels and Nothin’ On“) but that depends more on who’s watching than who’s programming. As companies like Revision 3 show (check out their very cool Film Riot, a how-to-make cheap VFX show with Ryan Connolly), the real future is going to be creating much much cheaper content for a much smaller niche market.

If you guys want to have a future in the film world of the future — you should figure out how to do that. Then you’ll be way ahead of the professional Television Programming Executives and maybe be able to set your own agenda.

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