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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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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Final Cut Pro – Baby Steps Into The Future

23 07 2009

For the two or three of you who don’t know yet, Apple released its updates to its suite of video applications today.  Final Cut Suite 3, has updates and new enhancements to nearly all of the parts of the suite, including some cool title manipulation tools in Motion, voice level matching in Soundtrack Pro (a boon to quick and easy temp mixing), cooler markers and more flavors of ProRes in Final Cut, and more. Some of the features, like a floating timecode window and global transitions, are attempts to catch up with Avid’s Media Composer which has had that for a very long time. (Apple’s list of new features can be found on this page on their website.)

That, by the way, is a great advantage of competition.

But it is in the aspects of ease-of-use and collaboration that Apple has shown that it is paying attention to what it’s core market really wants. Despite the high-end videos of Francis Coppola and Walter Murch on TETRO, Final Cut’s appeal has always been to people on the lower-priced end of the market — the students, the low-budge indies, the people putting together their own shops. The entire suite concept caters to them — if your market is made up of people who can’t afford to hire separate title designers and sound editors, then the idea of charging people separate amounts for separate applications is a non-starter. For the indie filmmakers and podcasters who are creating their own soundtracks and flushing them out to the web in record time, buying ProTools and Media Composer is just too expensive. Even if Soundtrack Pro is way inferior to ProTools, it just simply doesn’t matter to that market. Having everything in a box (with round-tripping between the apps) is The Way To Go.

I’ll talk about the coolest indicator in a minute, but let me also say that the ease of use factor is also huge for this market. If I’m doing my own lower thirds, and I’m not a visual effects guru like Mark Christiansen, then I want easy-to-use templates that provide me with a great default setting.  I’ll change the look and feel if I want, but the fact that I don’t need to program in a motion effect, with a glow, and time everything out from scratch, means that I can get things done much more efficiently (even at the expense of greater individuality).

So, starting with something much higher than Ground Zero, appeals to many of the filmmakers that Apple is targeting as their market.

But here’s the cooler thing for me.

As many of you know, I’ve been harping on the idea of long distance collaboration for several years. It’s clear that more and more of us are working with people who we don’t see every day. Two years ago, I co-edited a small horror film called JACK IN THE BOX. It’s director and my co-editor were both on the East Coast, while I sat in Los Angeles editing. We exchanged files and projects via the net. It was a successful collaboration, but a bit frustrating because of the lack of face-to-face contact. This month I’m starting a new film where the director will be in Rhode Island, my co-editor in Massachusetts and me — still in California.

My point is that this is becoming more of the norm, rather than a rare instance. Commercials, corporate films, sponsored videos, and more, are fast being done by the People Who You Want To Hire, even if they’re in another city. But the tools just aren’t there yet to help re-create the face-to-face experience. We’ll be experimenting with some newer techniques on this one and I’ll report back, but the struggle is always to help all of us to feel like we’re in the same room.

Now Apple has introduced iChat Theatre, which allows the editor to play back his or her timeline right over iChat. If I read the tutorials properly, you no longer need to create a Quicktime export and then upload/FTP it. In fact, you no longer even need to create a Quicktime at all. This feature of Final Cut allows others on the iChat to look directly into a Viewer (or Canvas) on the editor’s machine. That’s it.

Now, it doesn’t have the real interactivity that I’d love — to have my iChat buddy be able to use his or her mouse to stop and scroll the cursor around on the timeline  (like Syncvue, for instance, does), and I don’t know if you can have more than two people on the iChat, but you can video chat with each other while you’re scrolling around. Mike Curtis says that you can show the timecode window as well, and that will be great for more precise discussion. But you certainly can’t take a mouse or Wacom tablet pen, and circle items on the screen (which would be handy for discussion visual effects) like you can on some services. It would also be cool if you could attach comments/markers to particular places on the timeline — so you could easily accumulate notes. But, using a screen grab tool like Snapz Pro X, you could record a notes session for later playback.

Very cool. Since one of the biggest issues in distance collaboration (as well as in any notes meeting, now that I think about it) is misinterpretation of notes.

My point, however, is that Apple has once again identified a growing need in their core market. Many of us working in lower budget ranges need to work with people across great distances. They haven’t given us any real groundbreaking tools to do that, but it is clear that they are thinking about it, and slowly introducing early versions of the tools that we will all need very very soon. These tools are very basic, and don’t really do much more than take ideas that have been floating around elsewhere for a while, and bring them into the suite. But the real takeaway here, is that they’ve now brought these things into their own tool and made them easy to use and integrate with their other tools. And that is going to be very appealing to this market.

Another aspect to this distance collaboration is their Easy Export feature which, on first glance, looks like an easy way to upload to YouTube, MobileMe and more (including BluRay — cool; direct export to DVDs from the timeline).

Oh, and one final point. They’ve made both the price of the suite and the upgrade price incredibly low. The upgrade for someone who already has a purchased copy is $299. That means that they are essentially telling the community that they’ve be idiotic not to upgrade. No one who has the money to make a video project of any kind, doesn’t have $300. (The full price, for those people who don’t have access to an educational discount or their own copy already, is $999.). Once again, Apple is saying to the indie and low budget community — this is for you.

Now it’s time for Avid and Adobe to decide if this is a market that each of them want, and then go for it.

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By the way, some other bloggers are beginning to post their own thoughts on this. Steve Cohen, over at Splice Here, is one of them. Richard Harrington, at the Pro Video Coalition, and Mike Curtis are two others who you should check out.

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Waiting for the Blu-Ray deluge

15 06 2009

I’ve been down this road before, but a recent announcement by Bruce Nazarian on Larry Jordan’s Digital Production Buzz perked my interest again.

Here’s the set-up:

  1. More than a year ago, Blu-Ray finally (after much payment of money to the various film distributors) triumphed over HD-DVD in the HD Format Wars. However the rush to adopt the format has been conspicuously slow.  We were told at first that this was because people had been holding up on buying players because of the war.
  2. Then the war was over and very few people ran to buy.
  3. Then we were told that it was because of the high price of the players and when they came down, in time for the 2008 Holiday Season, then all would be well.
  4. Then the player prices went down and sales went up — but not ferociously. (As of May 31, Blu-Ray accounts for only 12% of all DVD sales according to the most optimistic figures).  Accoring to the web site Blu-raystats, sales of Blu-Ray disks are up 81% from last year, which seems impressive on the face of it.  But when you consider that the number of Blu-Ray release is up 210%, that figure doesn’t look quite as good.
  5. At the same time, we were told that a huge impediment to adoption of Blu-Ray in the independent market was the high licensing fees for replicatable disks. Once those were licked, that group of content creators would leap onto the bandwagon.

Now the good news is that through Bruce’s (and the International Digital Media Alliance‘s) incredibly hard and diligent work, it appears that the most expensive of the two licensing organization for Blu-Ray — AACS — may finally be relenting. And that is great news for independent producers.  But I’m still not convinced that anyone cares enough to make this the straw that breaks the Standard Def DVD’s back. Even with the growth of large screen TVs.

Ask yourself this question. I’m going to assume that most of you reading this blog are interested in Content Creation in some way — either as filmmakers or film watchers. That puts you in a group of people who are Interested In Content. Now, out of this group, how many of you own a Blu-Ray player and regularaly purchase Blu-Ray disks.

Hell, let’s make the question even broader.  Out of all of you people, how many of you even know of someone who regularly purchases Blu-Ray content?

If that percentage doesn’t approach 50%, then Blu-Ray is dead.  If we can’t even get those of us interested i films to watch them on Blu-Ray, how are we going to convince the rest of the world.

This goes beyond the Current State of the Economy. As I’ve said before, the leap from VHS to DVD made a huge difference in terms of the visual and audio quality.  In fact, it made a big enough difference so that it passed the Mom Test — that is, even My Mom would notice. That, and market factors, eventually drove VHS out the window.

But, even with great big wall televisions, the difference between SD-DVDs and Hi Def Blu-Ray DVDs is just not that huge that my Mom would ever care or notice. Hell, my Mom hasn’t even bothered to use the component video outputs from her DVD player.  (“Nothin’ wrong with those cute red and white plugs, right?”) And it’s a pretty steep curve to get her to upgrade — both the hardware box and all of the movies that she’s accumulated over the years.

In short, the drive to move to Blu-Ray, with my strongest apologies to Bruce, is completely led by the studios — who are looking to give consumers a reason to re-purchase all of their already purchased content. This isn’t coming from the consumers (except for HD sports on television most of us couldn’t give a damn) at all.  It’s not even coming from the producers, directors, and cinematographers of the world. Nope, this is almost completely market driven.

Which means that, for now, those of us who love HD content would rather download it over the Internet then go through the upgrade path. The Future of Blu-Ray may be Broadband.

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Online Television Reaches The Mainstream

2 09 2008

Gemini Division (image courtesy of newteevee.com)

Gemini Division (image courtesy of newteevee.com)

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.]

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Distribution Hints and Depressing Tricks

8 06 2008

On Larry Jordan and Mike Horton’s always valuable and fascinating Digital Production Buzz podcast the other day (June 5 episode) Stacey Parks talked about things that she learned from her recent trip to the Cannes Film Market. Stacey, who wrote the book “Independent Film Distribution,” and who runs an amazing web site about film distribution called Film Specific, found out that the good news is that there are a lot of companies in the international marketplace who are looking for short films — actively looking. She said that she would post it on her website and, though I can’t find it there, you should keep checking back. On a clip on her site she talks about selling to the emerging markets — India, China, Eastern Europe and Latin America.

The bad news, however, is that even features with big buzz and stars aren’t selling because there are fewer channels for distribution in the United States. The films that are selling are those with very specific targeted audiences — such as senior citizens, teenagers, Christians, skateboarders, etc. The days of broad marketing are gone for independent films. Ironically, though, the major distributors are looking for films that appeal to all “four quadrants” (that is males and females, under and over 25) and, as a result are spending $125 million and more in production costs and tens of millions more in marketing.

That means that the only films that they will touch are those with strong marketing elements. And that, often, leads indie films out in the cold. Or, as I’ve talked about before, forces indie filmmakers to look at their films just like studio films, just with lower budgets. Marketable concepts, a few stars, name directors or writers or producers.

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Panel This Saturday

3 06 2008

USC’s film school has an extraordinary group of students attending. One group, the Women In Cinematic Arts, is holding a great conference this Saturday that is open to the public. It’s called the “WCA Industry Forum 2008: Making Your Vision A Reality.” It’s an all-day event and pretty cheap, even if you’re not a member. It will have panels on:

  • Creating and Delivering a Television Series
  • Navigating the Studio System
  • Independent Filmmaking
  • Preparing your Film for Film Festivals
  • Increasing Production Opportunities for Women, and
  • Trends in Alternative Media

I will be moderating the last panel, which is subtitled “From Your Cutting Room to YouTube” at 2:45. It’s going to be really interesting with these great panelists:

Kim Moses – Director: The Ghost Whisperer and principal in Sander/Moses Productions.
Fonda Berosini – Participant Media
Ken Rutkowski – KenRadio
Jesse Albert – Agent: New Media & Branded Entertainment, ICM

We’re going to be rambling over a range of topics from “What the hell is alternative media anyway?” to “How do I break into new media?” to “How can I get online distribution for my shorts?” It should be an interesting hour, and the rest of the day looks fabulous.

You can find more details about the program, and registration, at the Women In Cinematic Arts site.

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Storytellers Talk About Telling Stories

27 05 2008

Current TV logoCurrent TV has a series of videos on their web site which are designed to teach people who are thinking of creating short documentary pieces and uploading them to their site (they call them “pods”) the basics of the short doc form.

And, while their pieces on editing are woefully basic for anyone who has done their own editing (“This is a fade out. This is a fade in.”) there are a number of short interviews with people who make their living telling stories. There are pieces from Ira Glass, Dave Eggers, Sarah Vowell, Catherine Hardwicke, Xeni Jardin, and more.

There is also an interesting piece from Elvis Mitchell, who has to be one of the most intelligent, well-read and relaxes interviewers on the scene today (download podcasts of his always fascinating and educational KCRW radio show — The Treatment — from the KCRW website or from iTunes). He discusses the illusion of objectivity in documentaries. What they are looking for, right now, he asserts is “a point of view.” There is also a discussion about how filmmakers like Michael Bay will definitely be stealing from people in the underground.

Check these out.

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Independence from Independents

9 05 2008

2929 FilmsI’m going to quote two headlines in the Daily Variety today, since they bear out what I’ve been saying about independent films for a few years, even as recently as last week:

Warner slams door on specialty pix” is the first one and, slightly lower down on the page, “‘Speed’ strikes while ‘Iron’ is hot.”

The first article talks about Warner’s decision to close its two main “independent film” releasing arms and leads off with these paragraphs:

Warner Bros. has discovered a way to deal with the specialty film business — it’s staying away from it.

The flagship studio ended months of speculation Thursday by shuttering both Picturehouse and Warner Independent Pictures. The closings — which caught Hollywood and many inside each division off-guard — will eliminate more than 70 positions over the next few months.

The second talks about today’s release of SPEED RACER, and leads with this paragraph:

Warner Bros. tentpole “Speed Racer” gets the green light this weekend but may very well finish behind the second week of “Iron Man.”

[I should add that the film review site Rotten Tomatoes notes that only 36% of critics have liked SPEED RACER. And, in a hilarious side note, the article also notes that Fox is "counterprogramming" with WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS, which is sure to make people like me do wheelies and handsprings.]

In a world in which that Ashton Kutcher film is considered counterprogramming, there is really no room at the major studios for real independent voices. The Wall Street Journal today notes that Warner Independent Pictures had high hopes for their 2007 film IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH, but that it came nowhere near to recovering its $35 million negative cost.

$35 million dollars!! That’s what Hollywood considers an independent film!! It’s no wonder that these films aren’t successful — in order to recoup $35 million you need to have so much marketing and distribution that those cost could push the recoupable amounts to $70 million. At that price, of course, you either have to see financing independent films as an act of charity, or you have to water the film down to a more easily digestible mass of… well… pablum. I actually liked VALLEY OF ELAH, though you’d have to admit that it was certainly a very mainstream movie in almost every respect.

Does that mean that companies like 2929 (the theatrical/DVD/download play from, among others, Mark Cuban) have an opportunity, or are they doomed to play in the same arena as everyone else? (And I should, cattily, mention that 2929 is releasing Barry Levinson’s WHAT JUST HAPPENED?, which tanked at this year’s Sundance).

Years ago, I left New York City for Los Angeles because there were only two types of projects there for me to work on — the super high budget ones, and the really low budget ones. I couldn’t get interviewed for the first group, and I could no longer afford to work on the second. That stratification has now spread all over the industry. It’s not “haves” and “have nots” I’m talking about here, it’s “big” and “tiny.” The mid-range is unproduceable.

Once we get behind that, we can start developing enough of a truly low-budget/alternative base that it becomes really profitable. And, once that happens, you’ll see that mid-range start to come back again.

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Indie Films — The New Way

3 05 2008

Mark GillYesterday’s issue of THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER (one of the two old-guard industry trade papers) had a round table interview with a number of men (and they were all men) involved in the independent film world: Newsweek film critic David Ansen; Kirk D’Amico, president and CEO of Myriad Pictures, a production and sales company; Cassian Elwes, co-head of William Morris Independent; Mark Gill (pictured at the left), CEO of finance and production company the Film Department; and Avi Lerner, co-chairman and CEO of Nu Image/Millennium Films.

There were a lot of interesting things discussed, but the three things that caught my eye, have to do with distribution realities and how they impact production choices. The first was from Lerner, who was commenting on how the international film market is getting more selective in what they will buy from indie filmmakers.

What we have done, like most of the big independents, is we moved our target from the straight-to-DVD movie to more theatrical films. Today, with the exception of “event” movies, we are doing the same movies as the studios, just with less money.

Mark Gill then had two comments about the types of movies that get that distribution.

So one of the things we looked at as we were raising the money is, where is the market demand? And it occurred to us that, internationally, it is between about $10 million and $45 million. Once it gets over $45 million, the studio should do that. Also, the studios will tell you their return on movies that cost between $50 million and $100 million is 1%, and on the ones over $100 million, it’s about 35%. That’s a kill zone, there in the middle.

and, in response to a question about what different kinds of films Gill is now making:

We realized increasingly the bulk of what we do has to be wide-release and has to fit cleanly within a genre — whether that’s drama or romantic comedy, action or thriller. You have to fit in that box nicely — no “tweeners,” thank you very much. And they all have to be high-concept, because it is getting harder and harder to get attention.

I’ve talked before about how theatrical distribution has backed itself into a corner from which there is no clear escape (see “The Dismal Future of the Film Business” and “The Future of Theatrical Indies“). I’ve mentioned that seeing theatrical distribution as the Holy Grail of filmmaking is a trap that will sink most independent producers. Filmmakers like Jesse Cowell, creator of the awesome “Drawn By Pain” have gotten theater play after establishing themselves as vibrant storytellers on the web.

What Gill and Lerner seem to be saying in the Hollywood Reporter roundtable is the following:

  • foreign distribution is key to raising money for an indie film
  • foreign distributors are now requiring domestic distribution as part of their deals
  • domestic distributors can only release a very particular film, at a very particular budget
  • therefore, indie films need to be of a very particular kind and budget in order to be made

Of course, there will always be the films that sneak under the door — Harmony Korine’s MISTER LONELY looks like one of those and I can’t wait to see it, but the “smart money” (at least as far as theatrical is concerned) looks to be sandboxed into genre pictures, with American stars, at a low budget range (see Lerner’s comment above).

I don’t know how much more evidence filmmakers need before they realize that they need to stop chasing the Holy Grail of Sundance-style theatrical pickups, and start to pioneer real distribution, to real people, using really modern techniques. It would be great if Apple wanted to go that way with the iTunes store but, as someone told me last night, they’re really just into shoveling as much content through the store as they can, so that they sell more hardware. Someone is going to have to combine digital distribution and social networking, and add a dollop of indie sensibitlity (Netflix is way too broad-based for that), in order for this to break through.

Perhaps, when enough Drawn By Pain and It’s All In Your Hands (which seems to have moved off iTunes and onto Ning and Hulu) type filmmakers have created enough content and have gotten enough business expertise, they’ll band together and do something together. What’s needed is a super cool destination site for indie film, and a site that has figured out how to make money off of it. When that happens, you’ll see filmmakers going the route that indie musicians are increasingly going (thanks to the collapse of the majors) — ignoring major distribution and making it happen outside of the traditional companies.

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