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.

Filmmaking, Critics and Sound

1 08 2010

A recent podcast from the makers of /film called, oddly enough, /filmcast (you can pronounce the “slash”) gets into the varied opinions and passions around the movie INCEPTION (which I recommend you run right out and see even if you hate it — it’s fascinating filmmaking, even with its faults). Critics David ChenDevindra Hardawar, and Adam Quigley are joined by New York Press film critic and professional curmudgeon Armond White, who argues that INCEPTION was a horrible, shallow, inadequate piece of crap by a filmmaker who shows none of the talent that someone like Michael Bay showed in TRANSFORMERS 2.

I’m not here to argue with his point of view, or anyone’s for that matter.  Though White would strongly disagree, I believe that (at its best) film watching is a visceral experience as much as an intellectual one and, as such, can lead to great divergence of opinions.  There is no absolute right and wrong if a film is really working.

White went to Columbia University’s School of the Arts, receiving his MFA there. This gives him the cudgel that he uses to slap around a mesmerized and overly polite Chen. In fact, he tells all three of these Internet film critics, that he feels that Web film criticism is mostly uninformed and shallow, and that everyone who calls him or herself a film critic should be trained in the profession.  “Professional film critics,” such as himself, it seems, cannot be questioned by people who haven’t been to film school and taken courses where they sit with a Moviola (I’ll deal with this comment in a little bit) so they can examine films frame-by-frame. According to Wikipedia, White calls himself a “pedigreed film scholar,” without much definition of what he means by that broad statement (that statement can be found in a short, not particularly interesting, piece on him in Macleans, a more interesting and substantial read is a New York Magazine piece on him).

Now, I’m not here to support or bash White — plenty of much better writers, who are much more familiar with his work, have taken their shots already. But two comments that he made on /filmcast, as he argued against INCEPTION’s value as a film, strike me as immediately calling into question White’s qualifications, MFA and his “pedigree” claims aside (aside from the obvious one I mentioned above — that he still thinks that the Moviola is a viable tool to examine films frame-by-frame.  Where has he been for a decade?).

Read the rest of this entry »

Real Collaboration – Editors and Directors, Editors and Editors

21 08 2009

Over on my other blog I long-windedly answered a question that someone sent me on my Twitter feed a few weeks ago: “How do you deal with directors who ask you to do stupid things?”

The short version of my answer was that, if each of you are doing your job right, then there really aren’t any stupid requests because each one is a window into what the director really wants, even if he or she isn’t capable of communicating it well.

But that led me to start thinking about two times when I’ve seen editorial collaboration help enormously in the editing room.

I was an assistant editor and assistant music editor on the film HAIR, way back in the Editorial Stone Age. We had two great editors on the film – Lynzee Klingman and Stan Warnow – as well as a director (Milos Forman) who really knew editing. But there was once sequence that none of the three could quite figure out how to edit. It was a song called “Black Boys/White Boys” in which a row of Army medical examiners decided whether a line of inductees were healthy enough to march off to Vietnam. Choreographer Twyla Tharp had designed this clever set of homoerotic dance moves for the two trios of examiners to be intercut with two trios of women who sang and made eyes at the boys around them in Central Park. The idea was that the juxtaposition of these very straight military men, the naked inductees in front of them, and the trios of seductive women in the park would make the entire medical exam seem absurd and somewhat surreal.

It was supposed to be clever and funny and it absolutely didn’t work.

So Milos and the producers hired Alan Heim with the specific goal of having him edit that sequence. Alan had been Bob Fosse’s editor for quite awhile and had cut films like ALL THAT JAZZ (still one of the most amazing biographies in Seventies cinema – and way ahead of its time), LIZA WITH A Z and LENNY. He was hired one day and disappeared, with an assistant, into a room at the Trans Audio Building on 54th Street in New York (above the famed Studio 54) and came out a week or so later with a first pass that blew everyone away. It wasn’t perfect and underwent many changes between then and the final cut of the film. But it so clearly pointed Milos and his other editors in the correct direction, that Alan was convinced to stay on and work on the film in its entirety.

It by no means belittles the editing contribution of Lynzee and Stan to say that the scene could not have been shaped as well without the outside viewpoint that broke the logjam of their preconceived ideas.

The second example came the second time I worked with director Michael Lehmann. We had previously worked on the film HEATHERS together and it was a fantastic experience for me. When he asked me to move onto his next film, MEET THE APPLEGATES (a satirical farce starring Ed Begley Jr, Stockard Channing and Dabney Coleman, about large Brazilian bugs who get sick of humans destroying their habitat and turn into humans and move to Ohio to blow up a nuclear power plant terrorist-style) I jumped at the chance.

The film came together relatively easily, considering its low budget nature and high ambitions, but it still didn’t feel like the movie that we wanted to make in places.  There were areas that weren’t funny enough. Other scenes had great moments, but didn’t propel the story forward enough.

So we brought in a mutual friend, editor Barry Malkin, to look at the areas of the film that most concerned us (and any others that he wanted to work at).  We put Barry, who had worked with on THE COTTON CLUB and had been an editor with Francis Coppola for years, in a room with a Moviola, an assistant and a ton of film. In a few days he did two things. The first was, he told us that he understood perfectly why we had edited the individual scenes the way we did. He would have done it the same way. But he had some ideas on rethinking scenes in ways that we hadn’t really thought about. We let him go back into the room and, a few days later, he started showing us a few scenes that had been subtly or greatly revamped.

Like on HAIR, the changes weren’t perfect, and they went through many changes before we locked the film a little while later. But they opened up thought processes and brain synapses that we hadn’t used before. It helped to bring us out of our mindset. (Barry got a credit as “Editorial Consultant”.  He should have been credited as “Logjam Breaker”)

Every project needs a place where its creators can step back and re-evaluate what they’ve been doing. Most of the time, there’s neither the time nor the money to do that. What is most painful is when you could do it, but don’t because you’re locked into a conception of your project that can’t move.

The Greeks, I’m told, talk about it this way. Every idea (a “thesis”) needs to meet up with a second different idea (the “antithesis”). When they are allowed to work off of each other, they create a third, usually better, idea (the “synthesis”). The key to making this work in both HAIR and APPLEGATES was to allow the new editor to actually sit and work the material, as opposed to simply giving notes. Sometimes great ideas can come from a comment, but often those ideas just don’t work when they’re exposed to the light of day. You can’t find a character’s smile, or there is no close-up when you’d need one. But with enough time and freedom, a good editor will work towards that alternative goal.

The goal of good collaboration is to allow good new ideas to bubble to the surface without distracting the leader from the overall spine of the project. It’s not easy sifting through thousands of ideas over the course of the day-to-day work on a film. But that is what distinguishes a good director from a mad or mediocre one.

How to Make a Bad Thing Even Badder — The Oscars and Transformers

24 06 2009

I just had a conversation with someone last night about going to awards shows. Though I AM a member of AMPAS — the Academy of Motion  Picture Arts and Sciences that hands out the Oscars, I can think of nothing that would be so boring as to actually attend the Oscar awards. Frankly, if I can’t be shouting at the screen at how stupid the result is, or how ugly a dress is, or how moronic a dance produciton number is — well, then, what’s the point of watching the show as opposed to simply reading about it on the web?

Not all shows are like that, of course. When I look at the Golden Globes, where people are drinking wine before, during and after the ceremony, that looks like a damned fine awards show. The A.C.E. Eddie Awards isn’t as free-flowing with the vino, but comes equipped with food and desserts.

But the Oscars are you father’s awards show. And they wear that tedium proudly (and I say that as a proud and happy member of AMPAS, who has attended many events there and serves on a committee or two when asked).

Now, with a set of cojones that staggers me, the Academy has announced that the Oscars will expand the best picture race to 10 films. Citing history (apparently that category “usually spanned 10 films” back between 1932 and 1943, according to Daily Variety), President Sid Ganis was quoted:

“After more than six decades, the Academy is returning to some of its earlier roots, when a wider field competed for the top award of the year,” said academy President Sid Ganis. “The final outcome, of course, will be the same – one Best Picture winner – but the race to the finish line will feature 10, not just five, great movies from 2009.”

Wow. Now we get to have our own Top Ten List. And fewer surprises, of course. And a larger pool of people spending money on “For Your Consideration” ads.  And more screenings and screeners.

And, I’m sure, a few more pictures by major studios in the list.  Which is, I’m sure, what is largely driving this change. After all, it is the major studios who most actively support the Academy during the year, and it must sorta kinda suck that they get so few movies nominated for Best Picture. It always seems to be those pesky indies who are stealing the nominations. Wouldn’t it be great, they must have thought, if we could make sure that we get some more of our movies into the nomination list.

But then they took at look at the films that they want to release and realized that the films that they do best are those that are guaranteed NOT to be liked by us (take a look at today’s major opening — TRANSFORMERS — if you’re looking for validation of that claim). “Hmmmm,” they must have said to their collective imaginary selves. “How can we beat that reality?

“I KNOW!!! Let’s have more films in the nomination list!!  And then, even if a few more indies sneak in there — at least we can get our usually horrible Oscar fodder in there as well.”

Voila, today’s announcement was born.

The biggest question that I have, of course, is whether that, with the clips and speeches, means that the Oscar show is going to be six hours long.

Or just feel that way.

METal Media Festival

10 06 2009
Taste of METal Media Festival

I’m part of a group of people who get together about every week or so to talk about events in the Media, Entertainment and Technology spaces (don’t you just love when someone uses the term “space”?). The group, which is called METal — for the Media Entertainment Technology Alliance — is run by Ken Rutkowski, who you have heard me talk about in the past.

This Thursday, June 11th, for those of you who will be in the Los Angeles, Ken and Michael Kaliski, will be hosting a very low-cost Media Festival, which will a cross between a film festival and the TED conferences. Excerpts from a large number of films will be shown, and each one will be followed by a short talk by someone representing the film. Here is how the Taste of METal site describes it.

The Media Entertainment Technology Alliance (METal) presents its inaugural media festival on Thursday, June 11th displaying an eclectic selection of meaningful shorts accompanied by speakers who will give brief, insightful presentations following each film. Moderator Ken Rutkowski will be wielding “the hook” to keep things zipping along. It’s speed dating for the mind!

The event will take place at the state-of-the-art 400 seat screening room at Los Angeles Center Studios. 450 S. Bixel Street LA, CA 90017.

Arrivals and refreshments will begin at 7:00PM with the program kicking off at 8PM.

Details can be found at the TASTE OF METal site and you can RSVP at

I am totally going to be there. It looks like it’s going to be a very interesting and provocative evening.

Imagery and Allegory

27 03 2009

I’m going to talking about a few personal appearances I’m going to be making at the bottom of this post. Stay tuned if you’d like to see me talk about storytelling techniques that I use in my book THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT.

Page from MAUS

A few years ago, there was a great graphic novel series called MAUS: A Survivor’s Tale. It was an allegorical tale, set in Nazi Germany and World War II, which described Art Spiegelman’s father’s struggle to survive in Poland during that war, and Spiegelman’s attempts to connect with his father though that recounting. It was a fantastic novel and one of the many observations made about the piece was that it drew its horrific power from the fact that it was a WWII story told with animals (in this case, mice and rats) playing the parts, rather than humans.

There is much to be said for this analysis. Obviously, these aren’t real mice or real rats — they act and speak just as their human counterparts acted and spoke. And the same goes for films as well.  On its simplest level, Mickey Mouse and say and act in ways that humans never would. And the film FRITZ THE CAT, which put a cat in the 60’s/70’s in the middle of the sexual revolution that many people only wished they could experience, is very different example of that. And the upcoming WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE allows filmmaker Spike Jonze to talk about the fears and desire for adventure that fairy tales are full of, but that we rarely experience in our normal lives. Hell, nearly every Pixar film (and that would be every single one of them).
Now, courtesy of photographer Lou O’Bedlam’s (Luciana Noble) blog, I’ve been fortunate enough to see a trailer for the unfortunately (but humorously) named Japanese film CATSHITONE. It appears to tell the story of some foot soldiers in Iraq (or some nameless Middle Eastern country, I can’t tell from the trailer because I don’t speak Japanese) who are played by rabbits.  That’s right, rabbits.

CatShitOne Army Transport
You can find the trailer to this film on YouTube.

There appear to be two rabbits, trapped in combat alongside a bunch of other alien-looking creatures, as they move through the war-torn Middle Eastern landscape. They watch as a group of alien-looking creatures beat and kill a bunch of other rabbits. So, like MAUS, the two sides of the conflict are clear — there is Them (the rats or the creatures) and there is Us (mice or rabbits).

One of the challenges of any film or project is to get the audience to somehow project themselves into your story and to feel what the characters who you want them to care about are also feeling. On HEATHERS we spend several cuts manipulating the story so that the audience empathized with Veronica, who was doing some pretty heinous things. But the audience was never going to enjoy our film if they couldn’t make that connection.

If only we had made her a rabbit.

My point here is that projects are successful when audiences get involved in them. Normally that is done by having characters in the films/projects that the audience can empathize with. And that means that they have to get them. Often, this is made more difficult by an actor’s persona. If they’re prettier than we are, we’re not going to feel the same way about them. If they look more scholarly than we are, we’re not going to feel the same way about them.

But we all can feel pretty much the same about a rabbit or a mouse. We know we’re not like them, so we can project our own feeling onto them. They are the proverbial “empty vessel” and, though the filmmakers of all of the above-mentioned films work hard to give the characters emotions that we can resonate with (think Marlin in FINDING NEMO, or Bambi in BAMBI) we can more easily do that when the characters start off without any of our preconceived notions.

As for me, I’m looking forward to CATSHITONE. It will probably resonate more with me than WATCHMEN did.

My new book, The Lean Forward Moment

The Lean Forward Moment

I mentioned at the top of this post that I’ve got a few talks coming up. On Saturday, April 4th, at 1pm, I’ll be speaking at the San Francisco Apple Store about “How To Tell Better Stories”, using the shaping story techniques I talk about in my book THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT.  The event will cost you either one zillion dollars or will be free — your choice. If you’re interested, come on by at 1 Stockton Street downtown.  Afterwards, come on up to me and let me know that you read the blog.  I’d love to meet you.

I’m also going to be at the annual NAB conference in Las Vegas.  NAB is a collection of people and companies from all over the entertainment and broadcast industries, who go to panels and visit exhibitions of the latest sound, camera, editing, broadcasting and assorted other gear. It’s where we learn about who’s making what, and get to talk about whose using what. And, aside from the fact that it’s in Las Vegas (a city I’ve never particularly loved), it’s a great experience. I’ll be doing a book signing at 2pm on Monday, April 20, a talk about Storytelling at 11am at the Final Cut Pro Users Group booth on Wednesday, April 22nd, and a few talks at the Avid Booth on Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning (I’m an equal opportunity speaker). Times to be announced later.

For those of you who don’t want to pay to get into the exhibition space, you can usually pick up free tickets from great and generous vendors. One place that’s being especially generous is Tuvel Communications.  If you go to the NAB site and type in the Exhibits Passport Code TP01, you’ll get a free ticket to both the exhibits area and to the opening keynote by Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications.

And, please, if you get down there and find me at one of the events, tell me that you read the blog.  I’ll get a thrill out of it.

Awards Season and Copy Protection

7 01 2009

Macworld just started up in San Francisco and I am heading up there tomorrow to attend the LAFCPUG Supermeet on Wednesday at 5pm and to speak at the Peachpit Booth (#812) at 12noon on Thursday.  Since I’m hopping on a plane first thing in the morning, I needed to fill out my Oscar nominating ballot this evening in order to get it into the mail in time to make it to Price Waterhouse by the Monday deadline.

The confluence of the two events is interesting since both events mark the celebration of questionable giants moving in different directions. I love Apple products (I’ve had Apple computers since the Apple ][+ and, yes, I am that old) but it’s way too easy to carp at every move the company makes (just listen to every Mac podcast except the generally informative Mac OS Ken, which still seems to think that anyone who criticizes the Mac is either prejudiced or a moron).  I’ve loved movies since before I can remember, but it’s easy to pick apart the moronic attitude of the majors, who (helped out by the economy) seem to be in a race to the bottom of the financial heap.

There wasn’t a lot of big news out of the Macworld keynote speech today, but no one really expected any.  New editions of iWork and iLife, and a 17″ MacBook Pro to round out the Unibody laptop line proved Steve Jobs’ point that, sometimes, it doesn’t make sense to bend your development cycles to meet an early January trade show. Of far more interest to me was Apple’s announcement that, finally, they were removing DRM from iTunes purchased music. In exchange, they gave the record companies something that Jobs has been resistant to doing for years — variable pricing.

Now, you have to figure that Apple would have removed copy protection from the music they sell long ago if the record companies would have let them. After all, they believe that open systems work best (except when they’re Apple’s, in which case closed systems work best). But it’s always mystified me why Apple thought that the consumer wouldn’t buy music if some of it was priced differently than others. After all, they have the MacBook and the MacBook Pro — two laptops differentiated slightly by their feature set and largely by their pricing. And Apple was able to allow downloads of material for free when they felt like it (several television studios allowed free downloads to Emmy voters who were provided with special codes). And there’s all ranges of prices on the iPhone app store.

So, Apple has finally realized that we’re Big Boys and Girls and can deal with “value”. And, in exchange, they got to remove DRM from their music.

DRM, for those of you who don’t know, stands for Digital Rights Management, and is basically copy protection — that makes it more difficult to make lots of copies of music to give to friends who are too cheap to pay their own 99¢ (and, as of now, 69¢ and $1.49). Apple’s form of DRM was very generous — users could make up to five copies of a song and I know very few people who had more than five computers, laptops, iPhone and iPods.  So it seemed to work out except for those people who are vociferously against all DRM.

Still, music without DRM is better than music with DRM, right?.  So this is a welcome change. And when you add that to the December decision by the RIAA that they will stop suing kids, grandmas and other people who they say are stealing music, this looks like the industry is beginning to realize that they can make more money selling tee-shirts and movie rights to songs than the individual songs themselves.

Then, there’s the MPAA (the Motion Picture Association of America).  They are the motion picture industry’s watchdog — with a lobbyist in Washington, ratings boards on either coast, and a bevy of expensive lawyers out to make sure that we don’t copy all of their films for use on the Interwebs.

There are several reasons why the film industry wants us all to move to Blu Ray disks and none of them really have anything to do with increased quality.  Though there is a small amount of quality increase, it’s not large enough for most people to want to go out and spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on a new player.  One major reason is so that they can sell new copies of the same old movies and television shows that we’ve been buying on standard definition DVDs for years.  If there’s a Cool Groovy High Def copy of ANIMAL HOUSE out there, that must be worth tossing out our sloppy, horrible standard def version, right? Never mind that Blu Ray isn’t really hi-def quality, and that most people aren’t going to see enough of a difference to make a damned bit of difference in their viewing experience. If Universal can sell us another copy of that Belushi classic, that’s a great thing when the rest of the market is going to hell, isn’t it?

The second big reason why Universal wants us to buy a Blu Ray ANIMAL HOUSE is that the copy protection on Blu Ray disks is way tighter than on standard DVDs and they like that a lot. Combined with television sets that check on that copy protection format, it is much harder for those evil pirates to make illegal copies of John Landis’ epic film. If the studios can make inroads against the gazillions of pirates out there, they guarantee that they can wring a few more dollars out of the market.

By the way, according to most of the majors, I’m one of those pirates. At least potentially.

And this brings us back around to the Oscar nomination ballot I filled out tonight (I thought SLUMDOG MILIONAIRE and CAPTAIN ABU RAED were awesome, by the way).  Everyone knows that Academy voters get inundated with Oscar nomination screeners starting in November, attempting to get us to nominate their films — under the theory that a Best Picture nomination will help the box office of their films enough to offset the cost of making and shipping those screeners.

But the very people that Fox, for instance, wants to nominate their pictures, are also dangerous film pirates, according to them.  Nearly every film’s DVD is preceded with instructions to destroy that DVD after we vote for it — some even give us instructions to break the disk in half (which is actually dangerous, if you’ve ever tried to do it). The disks inform us that they are being loaned to us and “may be recalled at any time.” And, in the absolute height of distrust, Fox Searchlight this year is asking each of us to return a statement to them that we swear that we’ve destroyed their DVDs.  If we don’t agree to tear them apart and report that back to them, we should simply send them back to the Fox lot, unopened, because we clearly have nefarious thoughts of ripping the films off of the DVDs and flushing them out en masse over the Internet (some day remind me to tell you the story of what New Line told me when a copy of LORD OF THE RINGS that they sent out, never got to me).

So, am I suggesting that the studios should give up on DRM and let everyone copy and distribute the films themselves?  Obviously not.  But in a world where one of the daily trade papers, DAILY VARIETY, has been staggering along with far fewer ad pages than is healthy in the most ad-intensive period of the year (Oscar campaign season), it might behoove them to treat the consumers of their product as customers rather than thieves.

Is there really a connection, then, between the trend in computer circles to remove DRM, and the trend in entertainment circles to pile it on?  Is one an example of a rising business and the other an example of a dying beast, gasping its last breath and grasping at whatever food is dropped in its path?  I think there is, at least in the sense that there are two modes of thinking here.  Both of them are strong business models, of course. No one thinks that Apple is in business to lose money. But no one would argue that the executives at Paramount, for instance, have better insights into where things are going than those at Apple. Whether Hulu succeeds or fails is a factor, it seems to me, of who is allowed to attain control of its business plans in the corporate structure — the thinkers who did brilliant work two decades ago, or those who are trying to figure out where we’ll be in two decades (and, usually, those people weren’t even buying music or movies two decades ago).

I love being in the Academy and getting to see my choices lose year after year. But at least I can submit my choices. I wonder if the Academy will even be around in 20 years, so I can worry about what to fill in on my top slots then.

Online Television Reaches The Mainstream

2 09 2008

Gemini Division (image courtesy of

Gemini Division (image courtesy of

When I was growing up, long ago in the dark ages (read the 1970s) there was one thing that we could always rely on. When the mainstream media, usually Time or Newsweek magazines, had an article on a rising trend, it was always dead by about a year. The media was always a year or two behind, and by the time their editors figured out what was “hip” and could safely be reported on, it was time for the rest of us to move on.

I remember reading an article about “youth speak” which purportedly described the “lingo” that we “younger generation” actually talked in.  The article got passed around at school, usually at parties when we could bearly see straight and needed something to laugh at. No one, of course, had ever heard of most of the “hip lingo” and those terms that were vaguely familiar had been dumped years ago.

And this was before the Internet.

So, it is with a major grain of salt that I bring up an article in today’s New York Times by Mike Hale entitled “Television Keeps a Hand in the Online Game With Serialized Shows“. In it, Hale talks about several shows that the mainstream media is producing in an attempt to get viewership on the web. Shows such as “Gemini Division” the Rosario Dawson starring vehicle that seems to have learned none of the real lessons of lonelygirl15, and presents its form without its content.  A few weeks ago, Virginia Heffernan, in the Times’ Sunday Magazine attempted to compare the failure of many web serials to television and radio shows like “The Shadow” and “24”, somewhat missing the point. In one section of the article, entitled “Serial Killers” she says:

Time will tell, but right now Web serials — no matter how revealing, provocative or moving — seem to be a misstep in the evolution of online video. Introduced with fanfare again and again only to miss big viewerships, shows like “Satacracy 88” and “Cataclysmo” have emerged as the slow, conservative, overpriced cousins to the wildly Web-friendly “viral videos” that also arrived around 2005, when bandwidth-happy Web users began to circulate scrap video and comedy clips as if they were chain letters or strep. Top virals — “I Got a Crush . . . on Obama,” “Don’t Tase Me, Bro!” “Chocolate Rain” — never plod. They come off like brush fires, outbursts, accidents, flashes of sudden unmistakable truth.

Now, I’ve written about Internet memes several times already, so I like pontificating on the subject as much as Heffernan does, but she doesn’t seem to get the difference between web serials and memes. To compare a series like “Satacracy 88″ to “Chocolate Rain” is about as misguided as comparing the Ed Sullivan Show to a Beatles concert (to keep the 60s/70s thing going).

Still, both Hale and Heffernan score a few points as they talk about how nobody seems to know what to do with web video. Talking about the web series “Steven King’s N.” (which comes from King’s publisher and is meant to attract interest in King’s new short story collection, coming this fall). Hale says:

What “N.” really demonstrates is that the Internet could use more Stephen King. The story, involving therapy, obsessive-compulsive disorder and an evil presence trapped in a New England field, is C-grade King. (It was adapted for the serial by Marc Guggenheim, a creator of “Eli Stone.”) But it still has enough narrative pull to drag you from snippet to snippet, even when there’s less than a minute of new material.

The emphasis on the word “narrative” is mine, and completely shows my point of view.  I create content and firmly believe that you cannot divorce story from the economic equation of what will work for audiences.

What is interesting about these shows is not the content themselves, but the advertising and business model behind them.  Frankly, I almost gave up on Gemini Division because it seemed so-much watered down network television.  It’s bad cinema — with too much narration and not enough visuals. There has been a lot of discussion in content creation circles about just what the new rules of content should be — are wider shots not viewable on mobile phones?  Is faster cutting too much for the compression and bandwidth? Are three minute episodes too long?  How long should the pre-rolls be? NBC is, obviously, still experimenting.

The results — if Gemini is to be believed — are to take properties destined for wider distribution, create cheap pilots for them (as opposed to the standard dictum, which is to spend loads more time and money on the pilot than they’ll ever be able to put into the actual pattern budgets of the shows) and flush them out on the web.  Looking at lonelygirl15 without understanding the mindset behind it, leads to static “talk to the webcam/phone” shows which might as well be radio. They’re copying form here, not content.

The King series is more interesting — it is a trailer for the book, in some ways.  An expansion of the market outwards, rather than a contraction simply as a pilot.

I’m far more interested in web series like “Drawn By Pain” and “Satacracy88” which focus on a single character in bite-sized bits, but present those bits in interesting, cinematic ways (even if the cinema is on a small screen). I can watch these series on my iPhone without losing anything, largely because they don’t talk down to me. There is a real arc of character in their episodes, other characters that don’t seem paper thin, and plenty of story places for the audience to explore. It’s not handed out in prescribed dosages. It also helps that they work in genres that lend themselves to introspection and, therefore, storytelling closeups.

So, what are the major companies doing in my opinion? When I worked over at Universal Music Group, I remember an exec there saying that since no one knew anything about the web, they would just keep throwing ideas against a wall to see what stuck. That’s not a terrible strategy, I suppose. It’s the sibling of the strategy of buying every company you can find/afford and seeing which ones survive. The basic problem is that the MET space needs a combination of technologists with ideas, entrepreneurs with commitment, and artists with energy and passion and stories that they need to tell.

Simply putting Rosario Dawson in front of a camera, plastering Microsoft and Cisco logos all over the place to spread the financial exposure around, isn’t a real content strategy.  It’s more of a safe business strategy, one in which no one is going to win in the long run. It also violates everything we know about storytelling, especially in bite-sized pieces.  We know that we need to grab them early with your concept, not slowly. We need to suck them in with something interesting, not voice-over dialogue that happens to be spoken on camera.

They’ll keep trying.  They’ve got the money for it and that will certainly help (the Steven King series benefited from money, along with an interesting idea, though I lost interest after a few episodes because of its stilted format).  But, right now, the more interesting work is still being done in the independent, unsupported market.  I can’t wait for the two sides to meet.

Phew, I didn’t mean to go on for that long. Remind me to tell you about what Cisco is doing on our campus here to develop their own content.

[TRUTH IN ADVERTISING DEPARTMENT: My upcoming book, THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT, uses both “Drawn By Pain” and “Satacracy 88″ as examples and I’ve contacted both filmmakers about that usage. So, I guess you can say that I “know” them, in a 21st Century, Webby kind of way. But I’m using both series here for the same reason I used them in the book — I think they’re great examples of the form.]

How To Tell Really Good Stories

22 06 2008

[Title is intentionally cynical]

Fellini with Giuletta MassinaA piece in today’s New York Times “Low Cost Film With Friends in High Places,” talks about the first film from Cecilia Miniucchi. The film, which played at Sundance this year, is called EXPIRED and starts Samantha Morton, Jason Patric, and Teri Garr. It’s not her first film, though it is her fist narrative feature.

The article talks about how she used her connections, in particular with Lina Wertmüller, the Italian director (whose film SEVEN BEAUTIES is, in my opinion a must-see for anyone who wants to see what films are capable of) to help to cast and get her film above the radar in the development world. She had also worked with Fred Roos, whose long-term relationship with Francis Coppola has put him on the map as a producer. He agreed to work with Miniucchi as a producer on her film.

My favorite quote in the article comes from Wertmüller:

For Ms. Wertmüller being a storyteller is what’s important. “Fellini said, ‘When you are trying to direct, they will tell you there are a lot of rules,’ ” she said. “ ‘Of course these rules are important, but in reality the way to tell a story is the way you would tell it to your friends in a cafe. And if you have a talent as a narrator, you will tell this story well. Otherwise all the technique in the world will never help you.’ ”

Of course, many many many people can’t tell an entertaining story to their friends in a cafe.  I cringe whenever someone haltingly starts to tell a joke to me. You know they’re going to crash and burn.  I would rephrase Fellini’s point a bit, because the moral there is, to me “If you can tell a good story to someone in a cafe, then you can figure out how to tell one in a film.”

There is an endless discussion about whether visual effects have killed stories in film. I’m still, for instance, trying to figure out what the hell the story was in the latest Indiana Jones film.  Something about a search for an object, and a ton of chases. But, that’s like the guy in the cafe who keeps telling the same story over and over again. You begin to wonder what the point is. Technique (and that film was very well done) doesn’t outweigh good storytelling.

So, for those of you who don’t quite know yet how to tell a story (even if you think you do), study it at cafes and at school and in the movie theaters (and, plug plug plug, get ready to buy my book THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT when it comes out in December). Then, go back and study it again.  Maybe even from Fellini.

Thoughts on Media

12 04 2008

If you think that title is broad, wait until you hear the panel that I’m running in June at the Women in Cinematic Arts Industry Forum. It’s called “Trends in Alternative Media” and I have to say that I’m thrilled to be moderating it. There will be some very cool people on it, but I can’t say who quite yet — mostly because I’m not sure.

For now, just know that the group is running a conference on June 7th in Los Angeles, and it’s going to be very interesting.

[For an article on last year’s conference, check out this article on USC’s website.]

In the meantime, I’ve been doing some thinking about what “Trends In Alternative Media” means and I’ve come to some initial thoughts.

The primary one is that there are three ways to look at media — as a content creator, as a content distributor, and as a consumer/user of that content. There are people who do more than one of these three — and that may be where the future lies, alternative or not.

Then, we have to define “media” so we can define “alternative media.” What is alternative media anyway? Does print qualify, and if so, what kind of print? Are alternative newspapers alternative media? What if they’re books of poetry?

Is YouTube alternative? It might be an alternative distribution method because it present alternative content creators? But are videos of shocked gophers alternative? What does that word mean?

Years ago, people like Stan Brakhage (see one of his films here) or Ed Emshwiller were considered alternative and I’d venture a guess that a very tiny percentage of people have seen DOG STAR MAN, and almost no one has seen it all the way through (I can’t say that I’ve seen all of its parts). Emshwiller’s Film With Three Dancers or George Dumpson’s Place aren’t part of most people’s film going experience that I know of, despite the fact that they pioneered music videos and personal films.

But they’re old. So are they alternative? What defines alternative? And where is alternative going today?

I’ll be thinking and talking more about this as the weeks go on. I’d love to get your feedback so I can help moderate the panel better.