Stabs At New Distribution

8 04 2008

Arin Crumley, who has created (with a few others) From Here To Awesome, has a video out which talks about what is wrong with the present distribution models. This video, which is available here from Arin’s site or on YouTube, uses panels from the last Sundance Film Festival to prove the point about why film festivals just don’t work.

Only about 2% of the film’s getting made get into the festivals.

Then he discusses what the distribution deals are like — how they take worldwide rights for 22 years and promise nothing in return.

His solution is From Here To Awesome, an alternative distribution site, in which people can post their own films and raise awareness for them. While many of the film clips on this site are, frankly, not very watchable (translation — not my type of filmmaking), it’s a start in the quest to figure out just what the hell the democratization of media production is doing to the realities of marketing and distribution.

[Thanks to Adam Martin over at The Interactor, for cluing me into Arin’s video.]

The Democratization – and Danger – of Content

23 03 2008

Easter eggs.  Courtesy danzfamily.comTalk about confluence. On Friday night, I had a conversation with a music producer/engineer about lowering the entry price for musicians and filmmakers. It’s what is fashionably called the “democratization of media.” Just Google that phrase. I did and got 875 hits without even looking for alternative spellings or phrasings.

Let’s couple that with another, though less momentous, fact. When I look at the tags for this blog’s postings, aside from the obvious tag of “Editing,” the largest number of entries fit under the tags “Business,” “The Future” and “Distribution.”

This points to the obvious conclusion that, at least in my mind, the future is going to be less about the creation of media but about its selling and distribution. I’ve said for years (including right here on this blog) that the majors are getting increasingly inept at creating media on their own. Big, bloated record albums that used to be shoved down our throats are now attracting 10% of the audience than they did ten years ago. At the same time, it’s possible for your average music fan to record a song for under $100 (the cost of labor being free in these cases). But you try and find something you like on MySpace. You might as well go trolling at the Rose Bowl Flea Market.

In movies and television, that trend is just beginning. Movie studios will still turn out their $150 million dollar tent pole films, and people will still go to see it. But attendance is going to start taking a hit — especially now that it costs more for a family of four to see a film than it does to stay home and order in really good Chinese food and watch something on television or a Netflix film.

But go try and find something on YouTube. Try and sift through that hulking mass of short films to find anything worth viewing for fun (I do enjoy finding tutorials — Avid, Final Cut, other Pro Apps, et al, but I don’t think that those short films are ever going to become mass audience pleasers).

So where does that leave us?

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Editing Your Own Films

14 03 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shaping Scenes — even if by accident

10 02 2008

Cristian Mungiu directed the Cannes sensation 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS. This is a film that had me scratching my head during most of it. The direction is so formalist (virtually every scene is done in a single shot master) that, for me, it undercut the emotion of the characters. Many critics disagreed with me though, oddly, the Foreign Film Branch of the Academy pointedly omitted the film from its list of nominees this year.

Despite the rigidity of the direction, however, a great example of editing did come through and Sean Axmaker, in an interview with Mungiu on his blog, highlights it in a very interesting way.

There’s one scene in particular that stick out stylistically, with the two girls talking to Bebe in the hotel room, which is the only scene where you actually cut in the middle of a scene. You cut from the two-shot of Otilia and Bebe to a close-up of Gabita, where she realizes the gravity of the situation and what’s really at stake for Otilia and she tries, late as it is, to take the responsibility upon herself.

Honestly, you are the first person to identify something which is a mistake in the film. That was not supposed to be like that, I can’t claim that I have an explanation for this. It only happened because I changed the dialogue that Bebe had to say and I needed to have it off-camera, that’s all. I don’t have an explanation for this. It doesn’t make sense, it shouldn’t happen like this.

So, in order to solve a storytelling problem he chose to break his formalistic structure. That happens all the time. I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a film where we could afford to be dogmatic and rigid in our structure (is that where they got the term Dogme for that filmmaking manifesto?) (and that’s a joke, by the way)

However, the next question and answer is particularly revealing.

I feel that, because it’s the only time you cut in the middle of a scene, and it abruptly jumps into a big close-up, it brings the scene to her in a very powerful way.

This is why I hope that this is why I decided that I will change the dialogue and go for this, but this is not what triggered the decision. What I wanted to do was to make sure that I never make a formal decision belonging to me as an author and not divide from what the characters do in the shot. If you watch the film from this perspective, you will see that there is no pan in the film unless there is a line by some other character or there is a movement in the shot triggering the camera into a specific direction. We were very much following what was happening in the scene, except in this scene.

In other words, despite his claim that he would never make a formalistic decision separate from what the characters would do, if it wasn’t for the fact that he had to cut to her in order to change the dialogue, he would have blown off the possibility of emphasizing her emotion in that moment.

I understand that there are many ways of emphasizing character and plot moments beside editing. In fact, my upcoming book, THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT, is all about that. So I don’t think that he needed to make a cut all of the time. But this is a perfect example of form leading function, and it seems wrong in my mind. It also drives home, perhaps, why I didn’t respond to the film — since the decisions seems to be based on form rather than the individual storytelling needs of a moment.

My Panel at Sundance

20 01 2008

On Friday, Michael Phillips and I gave a talk called “Creating a Low-Budget Film with High Production Value.” One of the things that we did was focus on a project that we worked on together — a low budget character-based psychological thriller called JACK IN THE BOX. DigitcalContentProducer blogged about the panel.

Michael, who is the brains of this duo, has a great technical background, which he was able to bring to his dual role as co-editor (with me) and producer of the film. He and I discussed preparing for the shoot, in a way that could help minimize post-production problems. We concentrated on two avenues. The first was the technical preparation that enabled us to finish a DI in a format that could feed multiple distribution formats as well as accentuate storytelling points. The second was the script preparation that is necessary in order to know how to shoot and edit in a way that promotes a great understanding of story.

From my perspective, the panel went very well — with a full house and dozens of people who stayed after the six o’clock finish for nearly an hour, to ask more questions. The attendees at this, and previous, Sundance panels are usually fascinating, committed filmmakers who are looking for ways to improve themselves. That’s why I love doing them.

The next day’s panel, a discussion between Saar Klein and Doug Liman (editor and director of JUMPERS) is profiled in the blog right here.

I’ll Be At Sundance — Call Me, Write Me

11 01 2008

As I may have said before (well, actually, I know that I’ve mentioned it, but we’re trying to set up a smooth introductory sentence here) (and now I’ve screwed it all up).

Oh, hell, let me start again.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ll be at the Sundance Film Festival this year, doing a Friday afternoon (4:30pm) workshop on Storytelling and Low Budget Filmmaking With High-Budget Values. I’ll be at the festival from Thursday night, January 17th through Sunday afternoon, January 20th.

One of the things that I love about the festival is the possibility of meeting lots of new people. Another things that I like is beer. Combine the two of them, and you get a great film festival (there have actually been some Sundances where I didn’t see a single film and still had a great time).

If you are going to be there and want to try and get together, send me an email. I’d love to see you.

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Music Distribution Problems and Filmmakers Solutions

3 01 2008

Reuters reports, in today’s news, that:

Sales of physical and digital albums tumbled to 500.5 million units, as the music industry was pillaged by piracy and competition from other forms of entertainment like videogames, industry experts said.

Record industry hype aside, where does that leave us, as content providers for the future?

Well, for one, I’ve been saying for years that the record industry should get out of the business of selling pieces of plastic with music on them. I’ve been saying, in fact, that they should get out of the production of music altogether. What they’re good at, when they have the product in hand, is the global marketing of the stuff.

Frankly, if I were a music producer, I’d rather give my music to someone who cares and who has global reach, than someone who cares and can distribute music in my home town only. Record companies need to get into concert promotion (or, to use the Madonna model, concert promoters need to get into record distribution), and renting out their marketing and distribution web of contacts to those who don’t have them. There are those who would say that digital downloads make a centralized distributor unnecessary. I disagree. When, in fact, was the last time you stumbled onto more than two bands who you liked well enough to buy some product from? Unless you’re talking about a local band, that you discover in a bar somewhere, my bet is that that hasn’t happened very much to you. The noise is just too much. It’s hard to raise any individual band/singer’s profile above all of the others.

And that’s where a global distributor can make a difference.

So, what does that mean for those of us in the visual content sphere? If we move further and further away from a movie theatre world, and into an Apple-TV, video download, world, will we start to come face-to-face with the same issues? Will movie companies become the atrophied appendix of the film body? (Hmmm, really tortured metaphor there. Sorry about that.)

My feeling is that, yes, they will. Someone will still need to pay exorbitant sums to put Johnny Depp in front of audiences in a pirate outfit (since they seem to want that, as opposed to the amazing DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY which, ironically, Depp was originally going to star in). Even with cheaper CGI and distribution, it will still cost too much money to hire people to do those things. But, once we move out of the top tier of films and start adopting a more Internet friendly distribution mode (see my post on this), it’s going to be harder for good indie filmmakers to rise above the chaff of both bigger movies and lousider indie films.

Enter rent-a-distributor. Last century, we called it “four-walling” when filmmakers rented out a movie theatre to show their movies. In this case, it would be renting a distributor (which, I’ve heard, is what some indie distributors amount to nowadays anyway). But it seems to me that this is, in fact, where the film studios major experience sets them apart from every other person in the film chain. They know that and most filmmakers don’t have a clue.

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iTunes video and the future of distribution

30 12 2007

Ira DeutchmanTwo recent news items and a fascinating podcast interview with Ira Deutchman have combined to get me thinking about how Steve Jobs and Apple can have a role in the future of filmmaking rather than tagging along on the sidelines.

The Financial Times had an article a few days ago about an about-to-be-signed deal between News Corporation and Apple in regards to renting Fox Films through the iTunes store.

In a deal struck between the maker of the iPod gadget and News Corporation, the parent company of The Times and owner of Fox, consumers will be able to rent the latest Fox DVD releases by downloading a digital copy from Apple’s iTunes platform for a fixed period.

It is understood that Apple has been trying for months to persuade Hollywood studios to sign up to a digital rental model, in which subscribers would be able to download and view films for a set period, but until now no studio has agreed to a deal. Studios are understood to have had concerns over issues such as pricing and piracy.

I would assume, by the way, that Disney is soon to follow.

I’m going to omit any discussion on how this reflects a change in Apple’s business model that’s been a-long time comin’. Most people don’t want to own films. The main reason why they buy DVDs and download films for storage is so that they can watch them whenever they want without a trek to a video store. But that ground has been over covered by many bloggers much better than I. Instead, I’d like to combine it with another news story, one from last month. In an interview with George Sirois on 411Mania, among a zillion others, Ed Burns described how he was releasing his new film, PURPLE VIOLETS, directly to iTunes, rather than take any number of half-assed theatrical releases.

We got a couple of half-assed theatrical offers, but the last couple films I’ve done I’ve done that and, you know you do all this publicity and then the movie’s released in New York and LA, and maybe Chicago and San Francisco, and if you’re anywhere outside of those four major cities, your audience can’t find it. So, we’re gambling and we’re gonna be the first film that is released exclusively through iTunes. It’ll be available for four weeks exclusively, and the idea is we’ll promote it the same as you would a theatrical release and we’ll see what the numbers are. If the attendance, if the downloads, which we expect to be a much higher numbers than the attendance, I think it’ll be the way I would go in the future for small movies like this. You know, and then we’ll do more festivals than you might normally, so you can hit kinda smaller markets for the theatrical experience, but for everyone else it’s available, kinda like what people do…

Then, just this morning, I was listening to a fantastic interview with Emerging Pictures CEO Ira Deutchman on the usually interesting TCIBR (This Conference Is Being Recorded) from The Workbook Project, a really interesting website which has, as its slogan, “An Open Source Social Experiment for Content Creators.” Deutchman, who is somewhat of an articulate visionary in regards to distribution, makes a number of really great points about what is broken with theatrical distribution today, much of which has been said before. On the other hand, he talks about the things that Emerging is doing to move in new directions. With digital distribution, his company has set up a series of monthly screenings of films that play simultaneously in all of the 40 theatres that they have deals with, called “Undiscovered Gems” in which unreleased films are run. Deutchman also is interested in creating “events” for distribution, allowing press to get excited about a film that would normally disappear into the vast morass of unreleased or small released projects.

But What If We Put Them All Together?

We know that Apple has now accepted the idea of a rental model for some of its films. We also know that they distribute music and movies for free, when prompted. If you look at podcasts, for instance, most of them are free I would note that they have worked with studios to allow free downloads of episodes of “The Office” and others for TV Academy members and readers of the Hollywood trade newspapers. All we needed was a passcode.

What would happen if they moved just slightly further and started looking towards sliding scale rentals? In fact, what if they decided to become the corporate sponsor of something like Emerging’s “Undiscovered Gems” or took on that task themselves. In a flash, Apple could become a film distributor for films that don’t have other distribution channels. In short, they could become a broadcaster. Singlehandedly, they could become a viable channel for all types of popular and niche films and television. We wouldn’t have to disguise them as video podcasts anymore (and house them on our own servers). In one bold stroke, Apple could become the dominant force in independent (for now) film distribution. Rather than simply being a retailer (the way they are with the record, film and television distributors) they would be a distributor.

And maybe that’s where it’s all going anyway — back to the days when the film distributor and retailer were one and the same (until the Paramount Consent Decree of 1948 outlawed the ownership of movie theaters by the studios).

And that, my friends, is probably studios like NBC/Universal are out to kill iTunes That is a future that they don’t like at all.

The Digital Storm

28 12 2007

Mike Flynn, over at B-Scene Films blog, echoes something I said earlier today about the demise of the traditional distribution model, in a post called “The Digital Storm: An Editorial” (I can’t find the pingback URL, so you’ll have to hunt for it).  Talking about the low cost of entry to production, he asks what a studio might be good for in today’s world.  His argument goes:

So, if we reduce the cost of creating blockbuster entertainment to the point that it no longer requires the financial wherewithal of a major studio to produce it, what then are the studios bringing to the table in order to remain viable in the future?

Production resources (stages, backlots, post, studio facilities etc).
Expertise in production

He quickly dismisses the first three as viable jobs for studios (personally, I think that with the audience still flocking to big VFX and big star vehicles, someone has to finance those exorbitant costs — studios are a handy middleman to the banks in this case). In regards to distribution, he starts to knock it down by, first, talking about digital distribution lowering the costs.  He then talks about home theatre systems — concluding that they pose a real threat to the studios’ stranglehold.

In other words — they’re sunk.  The studios cannot survive.

What I, as a consumer, wants: I would like to have digital delivery of HD content directly to my living room. I want the model to be a subscription model. A flat fee for a specific number of monthly downloads. Much the same way that we have with services like Netflix. I do not want to have to ever buy and store media like DVDs. I just want to be able to watch what I want, when I want.

For those of you who’ve read my earlier comments on Distribution (click on the dropdown to the right to see them) it will come as no surprise that I agree with Mike on most of this.  Where I cynically disagree is in one big thing — I have complete faith in the ability of the big companies to buy out other distribution methods.  THe distribution models of 2010 won’t include television stations as we know them, and may not include large movie theatres in the way we’re used to — but you can bet that no matter what they look like, they all will be owned by some variation of the major companies that we see today.  NBC may have, by then, merged with Google.  Warner Bros may have bought out Netflix.  But you can bet that it will be the same twenty white guys, in their same corporate offices, who will try and determine what we see.

That’s why the Net Neutrality forces need to prevail. Our only hope is to push the bottom of the envelope (hmmm, I don’t know if that image really works).  Niche distribution, not mass distribution, is where indie forces can congregate.  My hope is that it will be cheap and easy enough to find a market that sustains the relatively small number of people who will be making media in this world.

The Future Of Theatrical Indies

25 12 2007 has an interesting article by Andrew O’Hehir on what is happening with indie cinema in today’s mini-major world.

O’Hehir makes some very interesting points. He starts with the obvious”

But over the three years I’ve been conducting a year-end survey of the indie biz, one grand theme has emerged. You could almost call it a gigantic free-floating anxiety, rather than a theme: Nobody has a clue how audiences will be watching adventurous, modestly scaled, sub-Hollywood films in five or eight or 12 years, but everybody’s pretty sure they won’t be watching them the way they are right now.

But, in an interview with Milos Stehlik, director of Facets Multi-Media (a video distributor which occasionally distributes films), he makes perhaps the most cogent point of all:

“When you see exciting and terrific films that come with all this festival imprimatur, with rave reviews from all the critics, and they become barely a blink on the box-office scene, it’s depressing,” says Stehlik. “It’s probably a harbinger of very bad things to come.” (He’s specifically talking about “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” one of the best-reviewed films of 2006, which made less than $80,000 in U.S. release.) But Stehlik’s answer to Lenin’s perennial question for would-be revolutionaries (“What Is to Be Done?”) is pretty much the same as everyone else’s in the business: Like it or not, sooner or later we’ve got to leave the damn movie theaters behind.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. At last year’s Sundance, the people who were the most depressed were the indie producers who felt that they needed theatrical distribution. For them, their game was precisely the same as a major producer’s — find a great script and attach a big name actor or two to it. Directors fit in there somehow, but had very little to do with distribution and marketing, unless they themselves were names (hence the presence of Michel Gondry, Michael Keaton, Alan Ball, Stanley tucci, Isabella Rosselini, and Kirsten Dunst on this year’s Sundance program). The same game, but with less money and shooting time.

The producers who were happiest were those who realized that they didn’t need big names for foreign and domestic sales, because they didn’t care if they got theatrical sales. They were looking for other venues.

Seems to me that Stehlik is making the same point.

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