Thursday, December 29, 2005
This time it's Washington, which has come up with a rather direct plan to entice productions to actually shoot there instead of neighboring Vancouver. Just offer money! From IMDb today:
After seeing several films set in Seattle actually being shot in Vancouver, B.C., about 120 miles to the north, the Washington state legislature is considering a measure that would set up a $5-million fund to be used to attract more filmmakers to the state. Filmmakers would be able to receive up to $1 million for virtually any production shot in the state providing that amount does not exceed 20 percent of the actual money spent in the state. "This has the possibility of bringing tens of millions of dollars into the state economy," Don Jensen, president of Alpha Cine Labs, a post-production company in Seattle, told Bloomberg News.
Meanwhile, on Texas' slate of current shoots, lots of not much.
Here's hoping for a better 2006.
Thursday, December 22, 2005
Read a sobering article in Hollywood Reporter about how shorts, particularly those streamable on the web, are no longer the calling card aspiring filmmakers have hoped. And they probably never were.
The gist of the article is this: The proliferation of short film websites has robbed indie shorts of much of their mystique. Now, I have, in many of my previous posts, touted the internet as a fantastic distribution avenue for small films in a world where theatrical and other large-scale distribution is simply closed to them. The downside, it appears, is not only a glut of product, but the fact that most of that product is fanboyish and not the sort of thing studio execs or high-powered producers would flock to in a search for new talent. I learned some good things from this article, I can tell you, that will certainly influence my own filmmaking plans in 2006.
1. Make something original, not a lame fanfilm or spoof. One point the article drives home is that too many of these shorts are fan spoofs of popular movies or TV shows. There must be a zillion Star Wars fanfilms, running the gamut from cheesy spoof to serious attempts at making something respectful to the source material. But in the end, fanfilms are all they are, and they're not likely to land you your Big Break, even if well-made.
2. Make absolutely the best short you can make, don't just gather a bunch of your friends together and shoot them doing inane things with your $299 Best Buy camcorder. If your sincere goal is to make actual theatrical motion pictures for a career, what a producer is going to want to see is real craft. If they can look at your film and immediately conclude that they're looking at the work of a filmmaker with real talent who deserves a development deal, that will literally separate you from 99.9% of the rabble. So write a strong story. Get a DP to actually light the damn shoot. And forget the Lars von Trier aesthetic; use sticks (aka a tripod) instead of doing the whole thing handheld. Do everything you can so that your short looks like the work of a filmmaker, not a fanboy (or -girl). And if spending money is what's worrying you, then think of it in terms of what you're prepared to invest in your future. Is it your burning desire to see a movie you directed playing at the megaplex down the block? Then what's that worth to you?
3. For chrissakes, have your next project ready! This, to me, was the galvanizing lesson of this article, as it's a trap even a skilled aspiring filmmaker can fall into. Many of the filmmakers interviewed for the article sheepishly confess to not having anything ready when a producer popped the question, "So, what else ya got?" They had concentrated so hard on their shorts that they literally hadn't thought ahead to the feature they wanted to make, which, irony of ironies, was entirely the goal that the short was supposed to bring them closer to realizing! A greater Homer Simpson "D'OH!" moment I don't think you could have. So the smart filmmaker's plan ought to be to make your short, then before you shop it around, have at least one and preferably two feature film screenplays finished and in your attache case for the moment that question is popped. What this says about you to a producer: "This person's prepared!"
4. Finally, persevere, persevere, persevere. Say you make your first short. And it's good. But it's not enough to open the desired doors. No big. Not the end of the world. Make a second short. Then a third if you have to. A fourth. A fifth. Persevere. And think of the advantage of having a DVD making the rounds in Hollywood with not one but five of your shorts on it. You now are an aspiring filmmaker with a body of work. Five directing credits instead of one. You're serious. It's obvious. And even if all this isn't enough to sway a studio yet, it may very well impress the hell out of an independent production company eager to finance the first feature of a hot new talent.
So while this article may seem depressing to those of us still clawing our way up, I think the sensible thing to do is roll with the changing times. Know what's feasible for you at this point and what isn't, and work within what is. And at all costs, keep making movies.
Saturday, December 10, 2005
Well, this is a shame. I remember Silver Streak and Bustin' Loose fondly, and I'm always impressed when someone gets the "rubber brick throwin' muthafucka" reference. Thanks for the laughs, Rich. And we should all do our bit to support MS research.
After whining and kvetching a month ago about how little-to-nonexistent work is in Austin for local crews, I got — and lost — three job offers in as many days. One was a reality show who called and asked for a résumé; they never called back, and I assume it was because I wasn't available for all of the days of the fairly long shoot they had scheduled. Then some lady from ABC called for one of their reality shows, needing a driver, only to tell me the following day they were going to go with the "one guy [they] already had" (which made me curious as to the tone of desperate relief she had when she first called — "Oh, thank God I found you!" is something women say rarely enough to me it tends to build up expectations when they do.)
Then — then, I lost a job literally by a matter of five minutes. A coordinator I know fairly well (cool person) left me a voicemail looking for a PA for a one-day commercial shoot today, the 10th. I called back five minutes later to hear she was under serious pressure from the producer and had already hired someone else. "I'd much rather work with you, but I can't just call this person back and tell them I don't need them." No, you can't, of course, which is why you're a cool coordinator and the lady from ABC ought to take a page out of your book. Ah, well. That's life. Still, had I taken that call, I'd be working instead of blogging today.
Anyway, the silver lining is that I just got an e-mail from someone in San Francisco looking for PA's for a week-long thing in January. I probably won't get it either, but I fired off my résumé to them immediately so we'll see what comes of it. In any event, I appreciate that I got this notice, like, a month in advance, instead of its being the usual night-before, last-minute "We need a guy — wait, no we don't!" thing.
And there's the little matter of this being more job offers arriving in the last week than in the several preceding months combined. Let's hope this bodes well for 2006. With two projects of my own in development as well, I hope to be much busier than usual in the first few months of the new year!
Wednesday, December 07, 2005
From the New York Times (registry required to read whole thing):
Mel Gibson, whose "Passion of the Christ" was criticized by some as anti-Semitic — and whose father has said that the Holocaust did not happen — is developing a nonfiction mini-series about the Holocaust.
Tuesday, December 06, 2005
Had my attention called to a campaign underway by a group of feminist filmmakers under the banner of Guerilla Girls who are putting up billboards in Hollywood for Oscar season, complaining that women and minorities are vastly underrepresented in The Biz, and get neither the opportunities nor Oscar acclaim that white males do. Were they to pop up out of their gopher hole for long enough they'd notice this inequality is rife the world over. But what do you hope to accomplish with a billboard? I'm a white guy, and no one's offered me my big time studio development deal yet, let alone given me an Oscar nod. The world is unfair, and all you can do is work your ass off to achieve your goals and dreams. And if the movers and shakers don't give you the recognition you feel you deserve, maybe you've got the wrong priorities. Don't make films to win awards. Make films to make films. If awards come your way, be gracious and grateful. But if you're putting your hunger for acclaim over your passion for your work as a be-all and end-all, then you're just in it for your ego and that will show to everyone you meet and work with.
In any event, it would seem the post-Oscar career trajectories of such ladies as Halle Berry, Mira Sorvino, Marisa Tomei (I had to look her up to remember her name), and (after Aeon Flux) quite possibly Charlize Theron should be depressing enough to steer many smart women away from an Oscar victory as a desirable goal. And besides, Oscars aren't necessarily about who's the best of their year, as anyone who's squirmed through Forrest Gump can attest. It's about who's got the most aggressive and effective campaign to buy all the Oscars they want, a fact proved time and again by Los Bros Weinstein. Remember how ol' Harvey stole Steven Spielberg's Best Picture Oscar right out from under his nose in 1998, to the reverberating whap! of jaws hitting floors nationwide in disbelief? But to this day, people still speak in reverential tones about the brilliant Saving Private Ryan. Does anybody talk about Shakespeare in Love anymore, let alone remember it?
As a good liberal, I'm all for folks banding together to fight the power when it comes to disparity and inequality. But I think the most sensible attitude for any filmmaker to have towards the Oscars would be that of the European director (whose name, ironically, escapes me, though I think it was Godard) who once famously said, "Hollywood? Oh, yes. That's where they give Charlton Heston awards for acting."
Not that I'd reject one if they gave one to me someday. But you know...it's about priorities.
Stop pissing away money on billboards, Guerilla Girls, and spend it on your films instead!
Monday, December 05, 2005
The Sundance Film Festival has, for about 15 years now, been the place for indie filmmakers to get their wares seen, and so many prominent careers have been launched from within its snow-covered auditoriums it's staggering. But are those days over? Looks like it. More and more, Sundance has become the place for major studios to show off their "prestige" releases while at the same time allowing them to claim the sort of art-before-commerce cred usually reserved for the indie crowd. In other words, don't look for too many more precocious Hispanic kids with $7,000 home movies to even get in, let alone secure major development deals.
Robert Redford's brainchild recently announced its 2006 premiere lineup, and what do we have? A bunch of good stuff, I'm sure, but, in the words of IndieWire (emphasis added)...
...Sundance organizers made the announcement today, also unveiling the roster of high-profile, often star-driven, titles that will screen in the event's Premieres section...
Get that? Sundance has, it appears, been assimilated. If you have to have a "high-profile, star-driven" movie to be considered an "indie" film by the festivalistas these days, where does that leave, you know, the real indie filmmakers?
I'll tell you. The internets!
Have you heard about this little Finnish flick called Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning? Go have a look. This is a feature-length Star Trek parody, as you might have guessed by the title, shot by a bunch of Finnish Trekkers (I swear, you couldn't make this shit up!) over a period of seven years, with CGI effects work done on their Macs and PCs. Downloadable for free over their website, it has now become the most viewed Finnish film in history, with an audience of over 3 million so far!
Now one has to make allowances for a few mitigating factors. For one thing, this is the latest in a long lineup of Star Wreck movies, so it comes from a fairly established fandom subculture. (If the filmmakers needed a particularly obscure prop they couldn't afford to buy, it was usually a matter of days before someone mailed it to them.) But there are several other factors to consider, too. While the movie itself is a free stream, a great many folks who watched it were perfectly willing to support these guys with a DVD purchase. Also, there's the sheer size of the viewership. Translated into $8 movie tickets, this viewership would have accounted for $24 million in US box office had the movie been released that way (a full $11 million more than this season's joke Aeon Flux did in its opening weekend). But — here's the kicker — had it been released theatrically, it's a safe bet 3 million people wouldn't have gone to see it! And, by allowing viewers to simply download it, they've eradicated the piracy factor — you can't pirate what anyone can get for free! — while tapping into a fan base of whom a large portion will be happy to fork over the price of a DVD as an altruistic support-the-artists gesture, and because they like the movie. (The IMDb page for Star Wreck shows an average viewer rating of 7.7 out of 10.)
By comparison, I decided to look in on the current status of three of the 2005 Sundance Festival's highest-profile alumni — Hustle & Flow, The Squid and the Whale, and The Dying Gaul — to see how their performance, both financially and critically, compares to that of this web-distributed fanfilm. First, a quick hands up from those of you who have heard of none of these movies. Okay.
Of the three, the $8 million-budgeted hip-hop drama Hustle & Flow is faring the best. Critics like it, and so do audiences (7.3/10 IMDb rating), and since it's been in limited release, it's taken in $22 million. Also, star Terence Howard is being pushed as an awards contender.
The Squid and the Whale is a huge critics' darling, and audiences who've seen it like it too (7.8/10 on IMDb). But that audience has, so far, been very small; it's only made about $3.2 million in its first month. Off a $1.5 million budget, that's fine, as they're already profitable. But in terms of asses-in-seats, it's still far fewer than a million people, and this is a movie with stars, including an Oscar nominee (Lauren Linney) and winner (love of my life Anna Paquin).
Finally, The Dying Gaul is faring least well. Starring Patricia Clarkson — who's been in virtually every low-to-mid budget movie made in this country since she did Being John Malkovich — the movie's only got a 6.1/10 IMDb rating, and, conservatively released on only 20 screens, hasn't even made 200 grand in three weeks. Critics have been far less enthusiastic, too.
Conclusion? If a little labor-of-love web feature can reach a bigger and more supportive audience than many of the movies that not only get selected by Sundance (a jaw-dropping average of 26,000 movies are vetted and rejected by the festival every year), but then go on to secure the brass ring of a theatrical distribution deal while there, then the question for indie filmmakers to ponder is: Wherefore Sundance? Should you even bother? Certainly, you should acknowledge the festival's stature in the industry and make your movie as if you were fully confident of its securing a berth on its sanctified lineup. But is it the end of the world if you can't even come close to getting in? I think not. Because sitting on your desk right in front of you is the world's largest multiplex. If you, as a filmmaker, are confident of your film's quality, and you take the time to learn how to use internet publicity to your advantage, then there's no reason your movie can't reach a vast audience by bypassing the traditional festivals-to-theaters distribution paradigm entirely and going right into people's homes, over their cable modems.
Tuesday, November 29, 2005
Thought this was an interesting little tidbit on IMDb's news page today, given my recent modest proposal on being able to buy a DVD of the movie you just saw in the theater lobby. Emphasis added.
Disney CEO Robert Iger has continued to downplay the importance of a film's box-office receipts and to urge that studios shorten the length of time it takes for a film to move into the home video market, where the largest profits lie. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Iger said that he has proposed that theaters begin selling DVDs of the movies they are screening at their concession stands. "They think we are out of our minds," he conceded.
Heh. I'm sure!
Thursday, November 24, 2005
This is, quite simply, hilarious. The Japanese know how to do a DVD special edition, I can tell you! Feast your eyes on the War of the Worlds Emergency Box. In addition to the two-disc version of the Spielberg/Cruise movie, you get a special kit to help you survive when the Martians invade: a keychain with a whistle on it, a pair of work gloves, and — wait for it — an AM/FM radio with hand-powered LED light! And all for only ¥23,100 (that's about $185). It just makes me want to jump up and down on a couch!
I can't wait to see what kind of special edition they whip up for Showgirls!
It isn't just things like civil rights and gay marriage that separate a state like Massachusetts from one like Texas. This, from IMDb today: Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney on Wednesday signed a new law providing tax incentives intended to lure Hollywood filmmakers to the state. After signing the legislation, the governor remarked, "Grab your popcorn and soda, because Massachusetts is ready for its close-up." The bill calls for income and corporate excise tax credits to producers based on the number of local workers they employ and how much the filmmakers spend in the state during production. Today's (Thursday) Boston Herald quoted Don Stirling, who heads the state's Sports & Entertainment Commission, as saying, "With this film incentive legislation, we have the economic resources to attract more and more movies to Massachusetts."
I certainly like the bit about being "based on the number of local workers they employ". Nice one. Will anyone in our own state legislature step up to the plate? Maybe. When monkeys fly out of my butt.
Wednesday, November 23, 2005
For those of you who celebrate it, have a safe and enjoyable day. I myself will be enjoying staying home, curled up with my animals and a good book or two, or maybe the brand new King Kong DVD, which is ossom! No traffic or airport lines for me! Suckers!
Monday, November 21, 2005
So how did you spend your Sunday? I spent much of mine perched on a chair in a room in the Omni Hotel in downtown Austin, with nothing between me and twelve stories of empty atmosphere but a single pane of glass. Granted, it felt like good, sturdy safety glass. But I could still, you know, see through it.
I'd never art directed before (if that's what you'd call this), so I was looking forward to creating a fake "broken window" effect for this video for my pals in the band 54 Seconds. I love their music, which I generally find tuneful and upbeat, but I'm not sure about their predilection for really depressing videos. Their last video, for the song "Better?", ended blissfully with a girl shooting herself in the head but failing to kill herself, winding up instead institutionalized with brain damage. Now we have vocalist Spencer Gibb hurling himself angstfully from a high hotel window (they restrained themselves by not actually making Spencer do that bit), where his spectre then haunts the Omni lobby, eternally singing his plaintive song to confused passers-by. Goodness!
Anyway, the first step in my FX exercise was to put down a layer of tint, and cut it into the rough shape of broken shards. The idea was that the untinted glass would give a dazzling performance as the broken-out part.
As you can see, putting this into practice involved the lunatic act of standing on a chair directly in front of a twelve-story yawning chasm. I discovered many things this day. One of which was the axiom "Don't look down!", which is something we all think of as just a stupid thing people say in movies, actually does work when it has to. As long as I kept my eyes fixed on my work, there was just no time to dwell on how frickin' high up I was. As the work pressed towards evening and the lobby got a little dimmer, it got easier still. Essentially I just got wrapped up enough in the work that I gave myself no time to scare the hell out of myself. I felt like Kane in Kung Fu. You have mastered mind over matter, Grasshopper!
Okay, I didn't really feel like Kane in Kung Fu, but I enjoyed saying I did.
After laying down the film, I used acrylics, the most loathsome paints known to man (but quick-drying and easy to peel!), to create the jagged edges. Just keep looking straight ahead, Martin....
Almost done...just a few more edges to go....total work time approaching four hours even.
The finished window...and I'm outta here, folks. Enough of this cruel world for me! And don't forget to tip your waitresses.
Since the shoot was scheduled as an all-nighter — a schedule with which my circadian rhythms were, for a change, not in tune — I went home, walked the dog, grabbed some shut eye, and then went back to the hotel around 4:45 a.m. to strike the set. Peeling everything off, which required nearly half a bottle of Goo Gone, was infinitely more of a hassle than putting it up. But I was told by director/DP Jen White it all looked spectacular on video! Which was the goal. I also got to see some terrific examples of filmmakers' homemade resourcefulness in action, including an amazing rig cobbled together by Jen and Bill Orendorff that suspended the camera face down from, I kid you not, about eight or ten helium balloons (and anchored with fishing poles) which floated up at least ten stories! This was used for Spencer's dead-on-the-ground shot, and ought to look amazing. To rent a crane that could've achieved the same effect would have cost thousands.
So by 7:30 a.m. on Monday, it was a picture wrap. Down and dirty overnight indie filmmaking, Austin style! Thanks to Bill for the photos, and everyone else on the crew for a good time. Some of you are racking up some impressive IOU's, which, rest assured, I will call in someday with all the ruthlessness at my disposal. And to you folks at home, I'll let you know when the video is ready for viewing.
Thursday, November 17, 2005
Okay, here's an idea.
A new movie hits theaters. You go to see it. You like it, you really, really like it. You think, when this comes out on DVD, I'll buy it.
Then you go into the lobby, and there's a machine. You slip a ten dollar bill into it, plus maybe your ticket stub as sort of a proof-of-purchase thing...
And the machine burns you a copy-protected DVD of the movie you just saw. With bonus content. Plus it prints out artwork you can slip into a keepcase when you get home.
Cool? Yes? No? Piracy killer? Or enabler? Theater saver? Or wrecker?
Interesting article (the internets are full of them) from IndieWire, one passage of which deals with the concept of different versions of a film being cut for different audiences. A clip:
Prior to the release of Joe Wright's "Pride & Prejudice" in the U.K. two months ago, the film's producers, Working Title, decided to shorten the original romantic ending of the movie, apparently feeling it was a bit too sappy for British audiences. Focus Features on the other hand, which opened the movie over the weekend in the U.S., kept Wright's original ending, releasing a different, slightly longer version of the film in this country. In a statement to indieWIRE Wednesday, a Focus spokesperson explained that in the U.K., "audiences prefer a less overtly romantic wrap-up, so the filmmakers had prepared the movie accordingly." Standing by their decision to release the film with the more romantic coda Stateside, the Focus spokesperson added, "What's most gratifying is that, wherever in the world 'Pride & Prejudice' is being shown, critics and moviegoers are enjoying this classic love story." Such decisions, reiterating how audience reactions are anticipated and accommodated ahead of major film releases, are increasingly commonplace in Indiewood, as a panel of insiders discussed Monday night at a New York Women in Film and Television seminar.
I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, it's a foolish filmmaker who ignores the audience and chains himself to his auteur pretensions. That way lies madness, and movies like this. For my own currently-in-prepro HD short, whenever someone reading the script came upon a bit they found confusing, I'd ask them straight-up, "What do I need to do to make that less confusing?" And that process continued until those criticisms stopped. Filmmaking is like any other art form: you have to communicate ideas meaningfully.
But there's something about the way Hollywood will focus-group a movie to death that smacks of treating them like kitchen appliances. Here's the red one for people who like red, and here's the one without the built-in can opener for folks who don't like all that clutter. When you tailor a movie to perceived audience tastes, are you make the best decision for the quality of the movie? Or are you just trying to pander to boost whatever meager profits you stand to make anyway?
And — most importantly from my point of view — are the filmmakers being consulted about these changes, or are they all marketing and studio driven, without respect for whatever the director's and screenwriter's vision for the story might have been? It wouldn't be anything new to see directors having their films taken out of their hands and chopped to pieces due to some whim of a studio exec or marketing survey. It's a shameful Hollywood tradition going all the way back to Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons. If changes are inevitable, the best thing producers and studios can do is trust their creative talent. In the case of Pride & Prejudice, it sounds like the director was okay with all of this, so that's fine. But if he hadn't been, I can easily see the studio thumbing their nose at him and saying, "Well, we're doing it anyway." And perhaps they would have been right, perhaps not. The danger any artist runs into is that you get so close to the work, you can't often take the detached perspective needed to see what would be best for its ultimate success. But on the other hand, sometimes you're completely confident in what you want, and you have to fight idiots who want to vandalize what you've worked so hard to create.
There's not a smart director alive who doesn't want his film to be embraced by a large audience, even the ones who cop the auteur attitude. A good director appreciates a producer and marketer who wants to work with him on maximizing his film's potential. Because in the end, everyone wants the same thing: a popular movie.
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Instead of fretting over DVD release windows, just stop making insanely expensive crap!
There's an interesting piece over at the New York Times about the ever-shrinking window of opportunity films have in which to succeed or fail. As the Times has one of those websites where they want you to register before you can read anything, I'll sum up.
Studio films, being increasingly expensive to make, are under greater pressure to return their investment faster and faster, due to competition from pirates and even the legitimate DVD market. A movie's theatrical success can now, in most instances, be predicted not by the end of the opening weekend, but by mid-afternoon on opening day. But the shortening of the window between theatrical and DVD release has actually damaged theatrical business; most moviegoers are perfectly happy to hang loose and wait for a new movie on DVD. So it's DVD sales that are now keeping Hollywood afloat. But, strong box office is usually the thing that determines strong DVD sales (especially as most DVD's in America are bought at the Great Satan, Wal-Mart, which I can probably guarantee you isn't carrying titles from labels like Anchor Bay or Blue Underground).
So it's a dilemma, kind of like the old "you can't get hired without experience, and you can't get experience if no one hires you" thing.
The expense of filmmaking (I can understand how a movie like The Return of the King costs $100 million, but how did we get to a situation where the average Hollywood production is costing nearly that?) and the difficulty most of these studios are even having staying in business is what's accounting for the nonstop reliance on franchises and remakes. If you haven't got strong examples of either, you're in a serious state of assfuckery. Just ask Paramount, whose recent attempts at franchise-building (Tomb Raider) have gone over about as well as a best man at a wedding reception who decides to make his entire speech/toast a series of homo and fart jokes. This is one studio desperate for Spielberg and Lucas to get the lead out and produce the fourth Indiana Jones, I can tell you!
I don't think it's possible for Hollywood to go back and widen the DVD window to give movies a little more room to breathe in theaters. Mainly, because the toothpaste is already out of the tube. And also, if a film flops in theaters, it becomes even more important to rush that DVD onto the racks before the corpse of the film starts stinking up the place completely.
As for eliminating the window entirely, which some producers are contemplating, there are certainly risks involved with that. Steven Soderbergh's next film, Bubble, is going to take the unusual route of being simultaneously released theatrically, on TV and on DVD. Already, some theater chains are rebelling, but this little experiment could provide low-budget indie filmmakers with a helpful roadmap to let them know how best to release a specialized-audience picture. What has been left out of 2929 Entertainment's grand plan is internet distribution, but I suspect that will come along soon, what with the success iTunes has been having selling television shows for the iPod. I'm very interested to see how 2929's grand plan works out for them. It won't eliminate theaters, of course, but letting moviegoers know they have multiple options available to them right then might just encourage their interest.
I think there's an easier way for Hollywood to stop worrying about falling revenues and the threat ironically posed by their own thriving aftermarket. It's two steps, basically. 1. Cut costs. 2. Stop making movies that suck. One of the most successful films in release right now is Saw II, of all things. Yes, it's a franchise, and it's horror, which guarantees it a built-in audience to a certain degree. But Lion's Gate's approach to film production in general — no huge budgets, treat each film with care and attention instead of tossing them out indifferently as instant tax losses a la Miramax — is smarter than Hollywood's overall. Saw II cost $4 million to make and has to date taken in $75 million. By contrast, Flop-of-the-Year Stealth cost $135 million and only took in $31 million ($75 million worldwide). Maybe before studios hire executives, they should pay closer attention to prospective candidates' SAT math scores.
Tuesday, November 15, 2005
As long as there aren't any big, "make you a living" jobs for film crews in Austin, there are still friends who pull together their own projects to keep the juices flowing and, most importantly, stay connected.
I'll be working this coming Sunday on a music video for my chum Spencer Gibb's fantastic band 54 Seconds, for their heartbreaking single "Ben's Letter". You should promptly buy everything they've recorded, either at their site or off iTunes. The album mystifyingly titled ep is a good starter.
I've never art directed before, so this should be interesting. I basically get to vandalize a room at the Omni Hotel in downtown Austin. Never fear; I'll fix it when we wrap. I'm sure to have plenty of photos and fun stories to post after it's all done. And the beat goes on.
Saturday, November 12, 2005
Someone not named Quentin Tarantino makes film simply titled Fuck.
In the never-ending quest for edgy documentary material, filmmaker Steven Anderson (doubtless inspired by the recent hit The Aristocrats) seems to have been dealt a royal flush. He's been getting a lot of buzz for his movie examining the etymology of everyone's favorite profanity. The problem as I see it is that there will now be no possible way to further jade the festival crowd ever again. Unless ol' Quentin makes a G-rated movie about bunnies, or something.
I personally can't wait to see it. Any movie that interviews both Ron Jeremy and Pat Boone has got to be worth sitting through at least once.
I'm guessing it will probably be rated R.
Thursday, November 10, 2005
Been noticing the hilarious amount of press this week over a new study by something called the Kaiser Family Foundation, to the effect that the amount of sex on television these days is so prevalent that it's only a matter of time before the #1 rated network will be something like The Fisting Channel and, over on PBS, Bert and Ernie decide to come out. Kind of makes me think I might want to watch a few TV shows myself for a change. But then I know what would happen. I'd channel-surf for about two hours, think, Well, that was a waste of time, and go back to what I was doing beforehand.
Reading the study, you come across passages that make snarky phrases like "Way too much time on your hands, isn't there?" run laps across your mind.
The study found that 70% of all shows include some sexual content, and that these shows average 5.0 sexual scenes per hour, compared to 56% and 3.2 scenes per hour respectively in 1998, and 64% and 4.4 scenes per hour in 2002.
It occurs to me that sitting around meticulously timing sex scenes and working out mathematical percentages and stuff is not exactly what you're meant to be doing when you're watching them. I think the intended effect is meant to be, you know, a bit more visceral. I mean, how dweeby do you have to be to stopwatch this stuff? Good grief.
Anyway, I'm sure to the chagrin of the previously mentioned Parents Television Council (why do all the "ooo, sex is bad" groups have names with words in them like "Parents" and "Family"? — how do they think you're supposed to make a family!?), all this forniculatory copulational stuff cannot exactly be blamed for any increase in actual naughty behaviors. As the Washington Post reports:
In the slightly more than 1,000 shows scrutinized in the study, nearly 4,000 scenes had sexual content, compared with fewer than 2,000 in 1998, when the foundation started studying TV sex. And yet the rate of teen pregnancy in this country has plunged by about one-third during approximately the same time.
So, I guess the "For God's sake, won't someone think of the children?" argument has been intercepted before it could even get off the line of scrimmage. Fact, folks: Television shows don't take normal, sensible, well-adjusted people of any age and reprogram them to do things they wouldn't otherwise do. Your kids are not hard disc drives into which TV shows can install viruses that corrupt their system software and make them stop operating properly. If your kid is going out having wanton irresponsible sex, you should forget about what may or may not be on TV, and take a good hard look at your own parenting skills.
Wednesday, November 09, 2005
From IMDb's news page today:
Blockbuster May Be on the Verge of Bankruptcy
Blockbuster released its most dismal quarterly report ever on Tuesday, so dismal that it even included a warning that it may be forced to seek bankruptcy protection. The company reported a loss of $491 million during the quarter, most of it due to a write-down related to its spin-off from former parent Viacom. In-store business, it said, continued to be down due to the elimination of late fees, and online business remained flat as the company was unable to attract more than a fraction of Netflix's subscriber base. The company said that it plans to reduce marketing costs and sell or shutter its smaller rental chains, Movie Trading, Video King and Mr. Movies.
I quit renting from Blockbuster way the heck back in 1989, before many of you may well have been born, for several reasons. Not the least of these was its self-serving hypocrisy. Here was this video chain that loved to masquerade as "your family video store," boasting about its refusal to carry "controversial" movies like Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, when all along its motives for doing so were all about pandering to the fears and prejudices of what they saw as being the most important customer base/revenue stream, moreso than any honest concern for "morality" or "decency." And anyway, their "family store" self-image never gave them any cause not to carry the most gory, violent, exploitive and misogynist no-budget horror films or Skinemax tease-sleaze "thrillers".
The same dishonesty carried over into their rejection of NC-17 titles. The MPAA, not any filmmaker's best friend by any stretch of the imagination, genuinely tried to create a respectable adult rating for movies with the NC-17. But Blockbuster quickly realized a precept also adopted years later by the likes of Karl Rove and the extreme right: you can't lose money by exploiting ignorance and fear. So immediately, out went the press releases decrying the NC-17 as an evil conspiracy by liberal (read: Jewish) Hollywood moguls to sneak filthy porn into the lilywhite homes of upstanding American Christians. And you won't find any of that filth at your family video store, moms and dads! Pow — the NC-17 was killed before it ever had a chance. Before long, Blockbuster was all but dictating to Hollywood how to make its films. When they were the top dogs in home video, no light ever turned green without a careful consideration of how well the rentals at Blockbuster would do, and how to make the kinds of movies they'd carry, and how to package those movies to please them. A video chain was setting the rules of how filmmakers got to make films!
It's offensive enough to me, as a consumer (much less a filmmaker), for a business to cast itself in the role of My Mommy. It's doubly offensive when their reasons for doing so aren't that they give a damn about films, or even about me, but simply the contents of my wallet.
The very last time I was in a Blockbuster, I was agog that on the in-store monitors, they weren't showing a movie, nor even trailers for movies. They were showing ads for Blockbuster! They already had me in the store, and yet they still felt like they had to bombard me nonstop with their own advertising. Looking for a movie to rent tonight? No, no! You want two or three... Shameless.
Die, Blockbuster, die. I look forward to dancing on your grave.
Back in the 90's, before the DVD revolution, collectors of movies on home video were an elite bunch of proud cinema snobs who collected enormous and cumbersome artifacts called laserdiscs. I was one such, and made it my business to throw "cinema nights" for friends. The goal of this was not to float a keg and laugh ourselves silly over grade-Z crap and limp comedies (which really takes no imagination), but to expose people I liked to movies that were genuinely cool and good. So I showed a lot of Criterion stuff, and when I had a horror night it usually concentrated on giallo classics and obscurities like Bava's Black Sunday. Nowadays anyone and his dog can do this, so the gilt is off the lily, kind of.
But some friends of mine and I came up with an idea a couple of years ago that allowed this whole notion of exposing oneself to new and different works of art to thrive. We took to calling it by the stuffy academic title of Music Appreciation Night, or music night, since the only other name we could come up with (that I liked) led to all sorts of non-PC humor. One of the masterminds of this party meme was my friend Thad Engeling, who owns something like 5,000 CDs and is essentially a one-man music education (though I have never yet managed to inculcate in him an appreciation of jazz).
It goes like this. We get a small group together; I've found the optimum attendance is 4-5 people. Every time we've done it with more than five, it hasn't worked. People do what they do at regular parties: clump off into pairs and socialize, with the music no longer being the focus of the evening and instead serving the function music serves at any other party, that of background noise. We pull our chairs into a row in front of the stereo, dim the lights, and everyone plays a song from the stack of CDs they've brought in turn. Thad keeps a running playlist of the entire evening's tracks, and each attendee also burns a compilation CD of their own playlist for the other attendees. We go home with expanded horizons.
I can honestly say I've been exposed to more variety and more brilliant music this way than by any other means in my life. The sumptuous melodies of Vas (who pick up where Dead Can Dance left off but with even greater authenticity), the rhythms of Midival Punditz, the ambient soundscapes of Ishq, the gentle acoustic/electronic pop of Hungry Lucy; all would have gone unheard for life by me had we not had these little soirées. It goes without saying commercial radio will never do this for you.
I'd love to see if this little party meme makes its way through the blogosphere. Schedule your own music night and discuss the results. Maybe even post your playlists (not the songs itself, that'd be, like, illegal and stuff, Mr. RIAA Man). Then we could all expand our individual horizons even further.
And as soon as I get my living room in shape, I may start throwing cinema nights again, too.
Tuesday, November 08, 2005
Hi folks. No posts in a while, I know, but here's a subject near and not so dear to my heart, apropos to the whole state of filmmaking in Austin, Texas. Such as the fact that there isn't any.
If Austin weren't a wonderful place to live in so many ways, I wouldn't have spent so many years living here. And Austin likes to pat itself on the back for many things. There's our rumored music scene, which has led to the town's adopting the unofficial nickname of "Live Music Capital of the World." I remember seeing a lot of live music, oh, ten years ago, and I look in our local weekly "alternative" paper the Chronicle and see numerous live gigs listed. Do I get excited about much of it these days? Not really. But maybe I'm just getting old.
In recent years, though, Austin has started seeing itself as some sort of filmmaking Mecca. This isn't altogether new, of course. Filmmaking has been something of a vibrant underground activity around here for years, and as much as 20 years ago I recall coming up here for seminars and things, before there was a South by Southwest festival officially sponsoring them.
There is also a wealth of talent here. Simply loads of eager and enthusiastic film professionals in every category who love nothing more than to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in for 14 hours a day on a shoot in 104° heat and make movies. But for all the city's preening and posturing about the film scene here, there's just one thing lacking: an industry to support any of it. Hey, we've got great theaters, we have our adopted trophy celebrities, we have Quentin Tarantino popping up like a jack-in-the-box every now and again, and we even have a fake awards show. But what we don't have is a film industry. Which is why you see so many of Austin's underemployed film talent shooting mini-DV movies no one will ever see in their apartments with crews they can't pay.
You can have all the talent in the world at your disposal if you want to be a real filmmakers' town, and it will mean neither jack nor shit if there is no one investing money in productions. And by money, I don't mean the rinkidink $50,000 (or less) feature film budgets that most hapless indie filmmakers have to grit their teeth and live with. I mean, some serious venture capitalists putting $1 million and $2 million and even, fuck it, $8 million budgets together to help filmmakers make movies they can actually sell to a distributor. But I can tell you, from personal experience, that if you tell people in Austin that you want to produce an independent feature film, and they say, "Awesome, what kind of budget are you talking about?" and you answer, "I think $1 million ought to do it," their eyes go as big as dinner plates and they goggle at you as if you've just undone your fly and taken out your dick and there was a fish on the end of it. Shock! Horror! Disbelief! One muh-muh...did you say million dollars? To make a movie with? Are you mad? Who do you think you are, anyway? James Cameron? Why can't you do it for something reasonable...say, seven thousand? After all, Robert Rodriguez did.
Ah, and there's the rub. The Rodriguez curse. Now, let me clarify one thing right away. I like Robert and am damn proud of him. He and I were fellow cartoonists at The Daily Texan at the end of the 80's; I did Hepcats, which went on to spend the 90's as a money-losing but personally fulfilling alternative comic book, and he did Los Hooligans. He was always a great, easy going guy, even for many years after he hit it big. Though now I understand construction on the ivory tower is complete and the little people can no longer talk to him. But for a while, he was a down-to-earth guy and he did a lot to raise the profile of Austin in Hollywood's eyes. Kudos all around.
But the problem is the effect his D.I.Y. success has had on perceptions in Austin. Austin is still, and probably forever will be, intoxicated by Robert Rodriguez and the Myth of the $7,000 Movie. Again, clarification is called for: yes, Robert did shoot El Mariachi for a mere seven g's. However, the version of that movie anybody has actually seen — the one that Columbia released in 1993, and that's on DVD right now — cost in the neighborhood of $150,000, which is what Columbia had to spend to get that precocious little production into releasable shape.
Do you know how it goes, when someone wins the lottery, and the following week, hundreds of dimwits flock to the specific convenience store where that winner bought his ticket, thinking that perhaps since one winning ticket was bought there, that must be where all the winning tickets are hiding? This sort of foolish, magical thinking seems to permeate the minds of many people in what could loosely be termed Austin's filmmaking community. Hey, this guy Rodriguez just spent a little bit of money, and look where he is today! All I have to do is exactly what he did, and since I'm obviously as smart and talented as he is, I'm bound to have the same success! Easy!
The foolishness of this is partly what has led to the current bleak situation in Austin filmmaking. It's almost Troma-like, when the best our city can boast about are shot-on-video zombie movies. But there are other factors to blame, of course. As far as real productions are concerned, as you can see, not much is happening. Texas as a whole has been hemorrhaging major studio productions into Louisiana, which has offered Hollywood tax incentives from the gods. And of the few studio productions that do still come here, they are usually entirely crewed up by the time they arrive. The fine folks at the Austin Film Society and Texas Film Commission — what help are they to local crews? None at all. They're simply all too happy to pull on the kneepads and service these big productions any way they wish. Do they put forth any effort to liaise between local crews and studio productions? Do they actually have a representative who sits down with these production managers and says to their faces, "Hey, Hollywood, don't sweat it, we have gaffers, and production designers, and storyboard artists, and construction crews, and DP's, and AD's, and PA's, and pretty much anybody and everybody you could want to pull your shoot together!" No. They don't.
Austin has all sorts of potential as a real filmmaking hub. Naturally, I cannot find fault with the actual filmmakers themselves, who pull a shot-on-video zombie movie together simply because, hell, making something is better than making nothing. But until the real movers and shakers in this town start treating Austin film seriously as an industry rather than an exciting sideshow, and backing that up with credible financial commitments, filmmaking in Austin will have the same reputation as that of its "Live Music Capital of the World" boast. All talk. No walk.
Monday, October 31, 2005
Sunday, October 30, 2005
The Parents Television Council is one of those Religious Right "watchdog" groups who patrol the airwaves looking for moral terpitude from which to protect us. Dunno about you, but I certainly sleep better at night knowing that Brent Bozell and his cohorts have, at some point during the preceding day, seen something on television that appalled and offended them to their very souls, and, while I am drifting peacefully to sleep, they are curled in the fetal position with their Bibles, mumbling desperate, tearful prayers.
Every year these
assclowns fine upstanding pillars of the community assemble their "10 best and worst TV shows list". You know they've had a great year when they boast that they couldn't even find ten shows to put in the "best" category.
Now, I should disclose something right here. I don't watch TV. My industry is film, which is related, I know, but the making of films and TV shows is a fairly similar process and I certainly feel a kinship with the poor grunts who work on them. As a PA I've worked on my share of TV shoots; the days are just as long and grueling, if not moreso, than for a feature. You wouldn't believe how much hard work goes into putting the dumbest programs on the air. One of the best shoots I ever worked on was for a brainless MTV prank show called Boiling Points; I wouldn't watch that in a million years, but I loved earning $150 a day hanging out on South Padre during spring break! What other job offers that kind of guilty satisfaction?
Having stated my solidarity with the poor crews, I'll happily confess: I just have no interest in watching 99% of the feeble crap dished out on the airwaves. I got rid of my cable as I couldn't justify the expense for something I was using less and less. Once in a blue moon, when a show comes on that does impress me (Deadwood), I know there will be DVDs soon to help me get caught up.
So...since I admit I don't like television myself, why do I dog on groups like the PTC who, if you were to ask them, would doubtlessly innocently claim that they're only out there rooting for good wholesome entertainment? Well, partly it's due to their affiliation with the Religious Right, a group we all love to hate. But mainly it's because, as card-carrying RR-ers, they use only the most banal and superficial standards for critiquing shows. Sex, violence and profanity are pretty much it. Incidents of these things are checklisted, regardless of their contextual use in the shows. Any themes — even morally defensible ones — are usually lost in the PTC's obsessive cataloguing of content that triggers their "oh no Billy cover your eyes!" reflexes.
Now, note what's on the "worst" list: naturally, some of the most popular shows on the air. What's ironic about this is that the far right constantly castigates evil liberal Hollywood for being "out of touch" with what they call "mainstream" (but really mean "their own") values. But if this is so, why are these horrible, evil, amoral shows among the highest-rated? Could it be, perhaps, that most Americans do not, in fact, allow the television shows they watch to dictate their personal morality, but are simply capable of enjoying them as fluff entertainment, even if they have an off-color joke or three? (My parents, devout Episcopalians, love Two and a Half Men. I guess I'll have to phone them and tell them they aren't good Christians now.) Furthermore, could it be that parents are perfectly capable of deciding for themselves what shows are or aren't appropriate for their kids without instructions from self-appointed morality cops like Bozell? Discuss.
Since I don't watch the idiot box unless I'm playing a DVD or XBox game, I thought I'd read what the PTC had to say about some of the shows on their "best" list. About the reality show (I really really hate that term, mainly as I know from firsthand experience working on the crews of some that most of them are actually scripted and/or staged) Three Wishes, this: "This fall, NBC showed us the heights to which reality TV can aspire with its wonderful new series, Three Wishes. The series follows hosts Amy Grant, Carter Oosterhouse, Diane Mizota, and Eric Stromer. Each week the team visits a different town and grants three wishes to various townspeople or the community itself."
Well, that sounds sweet, though I probably wouldn't be a good contestant on it as my first wish would be "I'd like to bang Amy Grant." But look at what they have to say about that evil #1 rated show C.S.I.: "Kicking off the May sweeps on April 28, 2005 with the episode entitled "Committed," C.S.I. delivered a disgusting and depraved hour of incest, murder and even cannibalism... C.S.I. routinely seeks to dwell in the depths of humanity's most dark and evil elements. In “Committed,” the writers sought to entertain the audience through a dark and twisted scenario. It is hard to argue the artistic value of such filth, and it is certainly never appropriate for innocent children to watch."
Though I cannot vouch for the accuracy of all that's portrayed in the show, and I wouldn't deny the use of lurid content to hook viewers (hey, it works!), part of the artistic value of this "filth" is that it is, in the end, a cop show, showing police officers heroically doing the most dangerous thing anyone can do for a living. As sickening as anything the show might depict, if any of the shrinking violets on the PTC's staff were to thumb through the content of some actual police files, they'd have fucking coronaries. Furthermore, C.S.I. has spurred public interest in forensic science and has even prompted juries to pay greater attention to forensic evidence.
So that's the artistic value of that "filth," Brent.
But hey, maybe you guys are right. We should all be watching Three Wishes instead. Then we could all just wish our world free of bad people and crime, and Amy Grant would fly up on her magic carpet and twinkle it all away with a wave of her glittery wand!
Thursday, October 27, 2005
Martin removes, stores brain carefully in jar; manages to enjoy Doom
You know how certain movies come out, and everyone on Earth says "It sucks," and you go see it, and it's not half bad? I kind of had that feeling about Doom, a movie that quite unpretentiously doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is: a cliché-packed action movie based on a video game in which monsters get shot in dark corridors. Considering that Doom the game is about as reductionist a narrative experience as you could hope for — walk down very dark corridor; boo! monster leaps at you; shoot monster before you become monster chow — the fact that a 100-minute movie could have even been concocted from it is surprising.
I'm a little disappointed that they didn't go with the game's proper concept, that the monsters are actually devils from Hell, as opposed to rehashing some hackneyed drivel about Evil Scientists doing Evil Scientist stuff and learning to regret it. But for the visceral experience of replicating the gameplay — pow! splat! — it got the job done decently well, except for a climactic fight scene that isn't really very Doom-ish at all (more Mortal Kombat). And as threadbare as the story is, I was rather impressed to see the characters faced with a moral dilemma in act three, especially as the whole point of FPS video games is that they give you the cathartic rush of indiscriminate killing without sweating the moral stuff.
No, watching it wasn't nearly as gut-wrenchingly tense as actually playing Doom 3. But for all its predictability, the movie worked for me on the simple level at which it was meant to work, because I could tell these were fans of the game making it, not just cynical studio bean-counters who only saw a hot trademark to cash in on. Oh, I'm sure there was some of that thinking going on at the production end of things. And yet I can easily imagine loads of multiplayer fragfests occuring on banks of XBoxes in the honey wagon between setups. I think the creative team behind the movie really got the appeal of the game as only fans do, and approached the material with the right sense of laid-back fun. For a matinee, it was okay, really.
Now, I loathed the Resident Evil movie, mainly because — well — it played a lot like this movie: a mindless action fest, when it ought to have been a tense and terrifying horror movie. It seems to me that for a video game movie to work, it has to abide by the same guidelines that a literary or comic book adaptation would have to in order to work: understand the source material. Doom: fast-paced action game, gets a fast-paced action movie — check. Resident Evil: moody and creepy horror game with bursts of action, gets...a fast-paced action movie? No no no, not check, big X. Understand what it is you're adapting, filmmakers. Don't just assume that all video games are the same, and since you're making a video game movie, all you have to do is blow shit up. If you're adapting a game whose primary objective is the blow-uppage of shit, then by all means, make that movie. But if it isn't, then stick with the original concept: it's why that game is popular, after all.
As always, the problem is that Hollywood has now made so many bad game-based movies, by people who aren't fans of the source material and don't get what the fans enjoy, that a movie like Doom simply won't catch a break. Bad apples spoiling the batch, and all that. Well, whatever. I didn't feel ripped off seeing Doom. I got what I was expecting. Monsters. Exploding body parts. Gore. Would have liked to have seen Hell, though, rather than that "24th chromosome" nonsense.
Now, if the Silent Hill movie ends up playing like Doom, I'm gonna be pissed!
Okay, so, fresh off my posts about how the internet will end up growing as a distribution outlet for feature films, here comes this news brief from IMDb that packs a pretty high "holy crap!" quotient. A snippet: "A system that would deliver movies and other content to home viewers on demand instantaneously was unveiled today (10/27/05) by Japan's Kansai Electric Power Co., the country's second-largest electric utility firm. The French news agency Agence France Presse reported that the company had developed a technology that can transmit a two-hour movie over fiber-optic cables mounted on power-transmission towers in half a second...."
Brave new world notwithstanding, half a second!? That means that in the time it takes you to read this sentence, you could have downloaded all six Star Wars movies!
I'm gonna go sit down... Oh wait, I am sitting down...
Monday, October 24, 2005
Sunday, October 23, 2005
Right now, in Austin, there are at least two screens that I know of that are projecting digitally. There may be more, which would be all the proof I need that I have to get out of the house more. But I know for sure of two.
One of them is at the venerable, UT-campus-area Dobie Cinema, which has been around forever and which will continue to be around for as long as the word "forever" has any operative meaning. I've seen it go from a tiny venue with broom-closet-sized auditoriums to its current state, now owned by Landmark, with four nice screens, each in auditoriums done up in clever if kitschy decor (one's ancient Egyptian, one's kind of goth-cathedrally looking, one looks like — well — a regular theater, and I can't really remember what the last one looks like except I do recall I saw all 4½ hours of Lars von Trier's The Kingdom in it, which should clue you in on just how kickass this theater is). Their digital screen uses, last I was there, a Windows Media 9-based projector. Looks all right. I've seen Russian Ark and The Eye on it, and while I was not, in common parlance, "blown away" (which I've always thought sounded too painful to be a good euphemism for "excited" or "amazed" or "real, real happy"), it did the job more than adequately.
The other one is state-de-la-arte DLP projection on one screen at a megaplex, Highland 10. They debuted it with the release of Revenge of the Sith. A smart move; you couldn't get tickets the first week for love or money. As it's kind of a drive from my place, I still haven't yet gotten out to see anything on it.
Anyway. One of the reasons bandied about for why theatrical attendance has fallen off while home theater has caught on has to do with the rapid technological advancements made in recent years in the latter, compared to the nearly nonexistent advancements in the former. Really, the last time I can recall a new technological leap appearing in theaters here was way way back in 1993 (pause a moment to indulge in depression over passing of time and accelerating onset of age), when Jurassic Park opened and debuted DTS sound here for the first time. The audience cheered at the crisp DTS trailer before the movie, and the subwoofers probably did bad things to everyone's kidneys.
But since then — well, we've had more theater closings and re-openings-under-new-management than technological sea changes. What used to be Austin's show-palace theater, the Arbor, was shut down and transformed into a Cheesecake Factory. (Which is a chain of overpriced restaurants, not, sadly, a porn studio.) The Alamo Drafthouse introduced the magnificent innovation of a full kitchen, a beer and wine menu, and no kids allowed. But these weren't so much technological innovations as much as "if I ran a movie theater it'd damn well have..."-style improvements upon the basic experience.
The slowness on the part of theater chains everywhere to adopt digital projection has mostly to do with expense. Each auditorium would, it is estimated, require a refit in the 'hood of a hundred grand to accommodate the new tech. But let's pretend money isn't an issue for a moment (a trick independent filmmakers get really good at, trust me), and imagine how widespread adoption of digital projection could improve the lot of independent film.
First, what if theaters were sent movies not as prints, but as enormous digital files downloaded directly from secure servers — granted, this would have to entail the creation of firewalls that would put the Pentagon's network to shame — to each theater's mainframe? (Geeks reading this will, no doubt, correct me ruthlessly if any of my computer terminology is stuck in the 20th century.)
This would be a Good Thing for indie distributors. One 35MM film print can cost a few grand, and while this isn't as big a speedbump for a studio with billions in assets striking 6000 prints of a surefire blockbuster like Shrek, it is an expense that automatically limits how widespread an indie distributor can get any of his low-budget, specialized-audience films. But if you eliminate the need to strike prints, indie distributors can stretch their tiny budgets much, much further. 35MM, while it is still the optimal choice, is just damned expensive. It's the reason so many indie productions don't even think of shooting on film these days.
Now...here's the clever part. (No no, it's clever. Watch.)
Let's say, with digital projection, you no longer need to have pretentiously titled "art houses" (which, in their current state, could best be referred to as "here's the out-of-the-way theater where we dump all the highbrow shit Jack and Jill Sixpack are too stupid to understand and don't want to see") for the purposes of screening smaller, independent films. Let's say you have a huge, huge megaplex, like one of these 18 or 24 or 30-screen monstrosities. Well, naturally, the majority of that is going to be taken up with Hollywood Product. No matter how big those megaplexes get, they still seem to need no fewer than five or six screens to properly abuse the world with this week's Marvel Comics movie.
But if the movies themselves aren't in the form of cumbersome, pricey 35MM reels, but digital files, life becomes a lot more flexible for the theaters themselves. Let's say Putative Blockbuster you've allocated four screens for turns out to be DOA, like Domino or The Island. Presto, you can yank that peesa shit from most of its screens and replace it with something more profitable in a day, without having to deal with the hassle and expense of a 35MM print that you're under obligation by the studio to have for two weeks at least.
What it also means is that one screen can show more than one feature, even within the course of a single day. And this is where life could get very fun for indie films. Imagine, if you will, that somewhere in the world there's a theater chain whose board of directors can actually mentally process the idea that in an 18 or 24-screen megaplex, one to two of those auditoriums could conceivably be devoted to smaller, independent, or non-mainstream films, and let's move on.
What could this mean in terms of improving an indie film's financial fortunes? I think plenty. But remember my disclaimer: this is all too sensible, and will never happen, because it would require both technological and philosophical innovations that this industry simply isn't poised to make. But in my ideal scenario, it's so crazy it just...might...work...
For my example, I'm going to use an indie movie that's currently in what's politely termed "limited release": the highly-acclaimed Capote, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, whom Roger Ebert confidently assures me will walk down the Oscar aisles for this. Using box-office figures for the weekend of October 14-16, 2005, Capote, in its third weekend, came in 22nd place on 30 screens nationwide with receipts of $363,876, for a per-screen average of $12,129.
Now, that doesn't sound like much, but in fact, that's phenomenal box office performance. By comparison, that weekend's #1 movie, The Fucking Fog, had a per-screen average of only $3,954. But ah, you see, being Hollywood Product, it was on 2,972 screens nationwide compared to Capote's mere 30. See, that's the thing about indie movies; they don't get the widespread play, but the people who love them damn sure turn out.
Now (I have to stop beginning my paragraphs with that word, I know), think about this. Let's say instead of Capote's being limited in its run to 30 rinky-dink "art houses", it can, due to the "bye bye prints" magic of digital distribution and projection, play on 1000 screens nationwide, on those auditoriums at the backs of the megaplexes that are reserved for such embarrassingly highbrow fare. And then, let's balance things out a bit and require a tradeoff for poor little Capote. Let's say that instead of owning the screen it's on, and getting five showings a day on it, as it would have in the 35MM print days, here, it has to share that screen with two other indie movies. This allows it and the two other movies a total of two screenings per day, like so:
Capote: 10:00 AM; Movie #2: 12:30 PM; Movie #3: 3:00 PM; Capote: 5:30 PM; Movie #2: 8:00 PM; Movie #3: 10:30 PM
So instead of getting, over the course of a weekend, an average of 15 showings, Capote is getting six at most. Because of this, let's reduce Capote's fortunes even more. Let's knock its per-screen average by a full two-thirds! Ouch. Hey, $4,039 is still a nice performance, and still better than that of The Ass Remake I Refuse to Dignify with the Name of The Fog. Now, let's look at how much money Capote takes in over a weekend, shall we? Drum roll, please — $4,039,000. Nice. Much nicer than $363,876. On 1000 screens, of course, but with fewer than half the showings, mind you.
Yes, I know this all pie in the sky stuff. But dammit all, it seems so...so...so feasible, you know, when you ignore little annoying facts like the necessity to redefine theatrical distribution and exhibition as we know it before it could even be implemented. But crazier ideas have been seen through to fruition before, you know. That we even have movies at all is attributable to just such crazy idea-making. For the world in which we live, I imagine DVD and the internets will have to be the great white hope for indie films, realistically speaking. But I'm just old fashioned: movies, still, are best seen in theaters, and it would be great if more movies had that chance, and if a better structure were in place to make it happen.
Cripes, that was long. Me for some caffeine.
Friday, October 21, 2005
Thursday, October 20, 2005
The brilliantly entertaining science fiction writer John Scalzi has just released his nonfiction work The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies, and, like many books of that type, he's included his own best-of list or "Canon," a list of the 50 SF movies you must see before you die. This list is already circulating around the blogosphere, with everyone taking the predictable hits: "Why is [X] on there and not [Y]?"
Naturally I have my own critiques — 28 Days Later? I thinketh notteth — but overall the list seems fairly sound, and the book looks entertaining and quite thorough in its analysis of the history of SF in film. Can't wait to get my copy.
"Best of All Time" lists are a common critical tradition, and the tradition raises the question of why such lists ought to be prepared in the first place — as art is all a matter of taste, right? Sure, to a certain extent. But art never exists in a vacuum. The fact that not everything appeals to everyone's tastes is kind of beside the main point, which is that in every artistic field, there come certain examples of work that just plain make history. Either they just hit at the right time; or they strike a chord with the public and develop an enduring appeal; or, filmmakers, critics and academics can analyze them for revolutionary use of technique that goes on to influence later generations.
This is why you keep seeing many of the same movies like Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and Gone with the Wind popping up on lists like the AFI Top 100. They are, of course, widely beloved, but not by everyone. The den of your average doublewide is more likely to be inhabited by dudes drinking light beer and chortling to Happy Gilmore than by chaps in tweed furrowing their brows and gnawing their pipe stems over the existential angst of Through a Glass Darkly. But what's more important than these films' popularity is their enduring legacy of shaping the way films were made for years afterward. Influence, innovation, and artistry are more relevant than popularity when establishing a canon. A canon is not a "my favorites" list, it's a "most important to the art form" list. And a wise person will recognize when a work of art is important to history even if it's not their personal cup of tea.
So this is why, for instance, if I were coming up with a horror movie "canon," I'd have to add something like The Blair Witch Project, though I don't think much of it as a movie myself. Its importance in legitimizing indie film (to whatever small degree) and its influence upon microbudget digital filmmakers everywhere is indisputable. (Also, a horror canon would have to include The Exorcist, a movie I personally find silly, boring, and atrociously written, but whose status as a cultural bellwether one would have to be a fool to deny.)
Finally, the relevance of best-of-all-time lists is that, even if it's only to a very abstract degree, they give artists a consensus standard of excellence to aspire towards. I don't think anyone today (except a few pretentious wankers who shalt remain nameless) makes films with the explicit hope of ending up on such a list years hence. But show me a director — outside of, naturally, the obvious schlockosphere trolled by the likes of, say, Troma — who wouldn't smile at the thought that, someday, in fifty or 100 years, their movie is being taught at universities alongside the work of Welles, Scorsese, Fellini, and others, and I'll show you a lying liar.
A huge stumbling block for even a well-made independent movie is that of securing reliable theatrical distribution.
If no one ever sees your movie, it's a huge blow. You might as well have never made it. With distributors demanding a cast that includes at least one recognizable name — and that of a movie star; TV actors cannot cut it — and an easy-to-grasp, high-concept premise that can be easily advertised, it's getting next to impossible for little labor-of-love movies to find an audience. Every once in a while a fluke success like El Mariachi or The Blair Witch Project pops up, fills the fevered brains of eager microbudget filmmakers with unrealistic expectations, and voila, 2500 undistributable pieces of shot-on-mini-DV crap are ejected into the world with a squint and a grunt. I was an A.D. on one such, and it was painfully obvious to me all through the shoot that this little movie was going absolutely nowhere. What's more depressing, an unrealized dream, or a feebly-realized dream that will be greeted with categorical indifference by the world?
But...let's say you've made a good indie movie. Let's say you actually got a decent budget, maybe even a couple million bucks, got a credible name or two. And you shoot the thing, and it looks money. And you hit the festival circuit. And it sells. Someone hands you a check large enough to bring tears to your eyes, and you have a distributor!
I happen to have worked on one like that, too.
I was a PA for a week on a $2 million family film called When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, about a 650-pound boy, shot around the Austin area in September/October of 2002. It was my first professional film crew gig, and the numerous subsequent jobs I've had have helped me to realize just how much — from a production/organizational/having your shit together point of view — of a wholly incompetently run clusterfuck that shoot was. But that's another tale for another day. What's salient to this post is that this was, by industry standards, a respectable kind of indie production. Decent low budget, a cast that included Eric "I'm in Everything But Somehow Still Have Spotless Cred" Stoltz and Jane Krakowski, then still hot off the set of Ally McBeal. The director, a goofball named John Schultz, had just directed something really, really stupid called Like Mike, which, like so many really, really stupid movies, was a studio production that had taken in $50 million. Schultz earned undeserved clout, that he later used to direct an African-American remake of The Honeymooners in 2005, a movie that currently stands at #29 on IMDb's "Bottom 100" list. I don't usually like to rag on directors when my own career is in its nascent stages, but as I haven't made the 29th worst movie of all time, excuse me if I feel justified in the use of such a mild sobriquet as "goofball".
Zachary's saga is then fairly typical of a small indie production. It did the festival circuit for two whole years at least, after which it was picked up by Echo Bridge Entertainment. I've never heard of them either. The IMDb page has a "limited" US theatrical release listed for January 21, 2005. Must have been really limited, as it never played here, the town where it was shot. I cannot confirm the reality of this release at all, as a search of Box Office Mojo, which tracks everything that plays in U.S. theaters even if it only hits one screen, turns up nothing. The movie's site now lists a DVD release date of January 3, 2006. (Addendum 10/22/05: Just found out that it's playing right now on England's Sky Movie cable service.)
So the long and short of it is that, three years and three months after it was shot, little Zachary will be dumped directly onto DVD. Its tweener child stars have by now flown through puberty, and one or two of them might even have their driver's license. And this movie is one of the lucky ones. Really makes all the sunburn (I earned the nickname Pinky for foolishly failing to apply sunscreen on day 1; by day 3 the set medic was ordering me to wear a hat) and those 15-hour days seem worthwhile.
The feeble distribution possibilities open to independent movies got me thinking — as I'm sure it gets everyone in this business thinking who works at this scale — about how these films could get a better chance at finding a receptive audience. Direct-to-DVD isn't such a curse, really, and even a number of studio films that didn't catch fire at the box office suddenly found a horde of enthusiastic fans on DVD (vide Office Space). But we still live in a world where playing in theaters is seen as a sign you've made a real movie; direct-to-video, even direct-to-DVD, still carries the not-exactly-unjustified taint of "Oh, couldn't get it in theaters, eh? Must really be crap!"
I've thought of a way to get indie movies into more cinemas that could work. The problem is, this isn't Utopia, it's Earth. And so it wouldn't work here, simply because it will never be implemented. It will never be implemented for, I think, two crucial reasons. It involves revolutionary new technology that theater chains have so far powerfully resisted, mainly for the entirely reasonable reason of expense. But mainly, my idea would never be implemented because it would require the entire industry to adopt a sea change in its thinking, to stop automatically shunting every movie ever made into two categories — the commercial, pretty much always studio-backed films that everyone really really wants to see (except when they don't, as the weeping producers of Bewitched and Stealth and The Island will attest), and the "art product" (I shit you not, I've heard that term with mine own ears) that no one except college kids and poncy intellectuals wants to see. My idea would require the industry to think of movies just as movies, either good or bad on their own terms. And that will never happen. But hey, dream with me here a little bit. Tomorrow, I'll outline my plan — which I've even worked out with, like, math and stuff — and we can all, for one bright, shining moment, live in the world not as it is, but as we would like it to be. And then, those of us who make movies will get right back to work, laboring over our labors of love with all the passion we can muster, regardless of what distribution opportunities await us — or don't, as the case may be. Because we'll never have the world we want unless we learn to work within the world we have, will we?
Tuesday, October 18, 2005
Apparently the rumors of a Weinstein-excreted Halloween remake have all been a tad premature. Still, the news was, for a while there, nearly as scary as the original movie. Of course, what is in the works (Halloween 9) doesn't exactly make me giddy with joy that life now suddenly has meaning and hope, either. Pointless sequels inspired by greed are only slightly lower on the food chain than pointless remakes inspired by greed.
In a related bit of news from the world of comedy, Sylvester Stallone is prepping Rocky 6.
Back soon with those promised posts about worthwhile remakes, and how new distribution strategies (that will never happen) could boost the presence of indie film.
Monday, October 17, 2005
While I mean for this blog to be largely free of fanboyish twaddle (visit this well-known site for that), allow me quickly to jut my thumb in an upwards fashion over the choice of Daniel Craig as the new Bond. Are you telling me you haven't seen Layer Cake? Hie thee to Netflix, varlet.
Brosnan was actually a terrific Bond. But oy, those scripts. A downward spiral from the get-go. GoldenEye — fine, fine. Tomorrow Never Dies — watchable only for Michelle Yeoh, really; would have been much better had they not chosen to off Teri Hatcher in act one, too. The latter two — urk.
Quentin Tarantino's proposed version of Casino Royale with Brosnan will have to remain one of cinema's great "if onlys." The Bond movies have always been "producer movies." It appeared, for many years, that they were more than that; they were "stupid producer movies," given the series' forward-march into pure comic book territory ever since...well, Moonraker. (Not to mention the fact that anyone who turns up their noses at a pitch from QT is not, to quote Black Adder, "exactly over-furnished in the brain department.") Tarantino wanted to bring the series back to Ian Fleming's original low-tech, character-and-drama oriented vision. Now the rumor is, with the new Craig film (which, amazingly enough, will be Casino Royale), the producers actaully want to do that, too. Hiring the screenwriter of Oscar-winner Million Dollar Baby shows they have their heart in the right place. The only problem I foresee is the return of GoldenEye helmer Martin Campbell, a member of the subspecies Genericus Directorius Hackibus. I try not to dog on directors named Martin, but I haven't seen anything of his (including Zorro) that didn't look like it was directed out of a manual.
I fear that the sheep will give Craig the same brushoff they gave Timothy Dalton, who I thought was a badass Bond who fit the rough-edged template I felt the character needed. (Fleming described Bond as good-looking in a "cold way".) Did anyone actually believe that Roger "You Will Never See a Single Strand of My Expertly Sprayed Hair Out of Place" Moore was a trained killer? But I fear too many folks prefer the image of Bond-James-Bond as the martini-swilling pretty-boy seducer than as anything resembling a tough, take-no-prisoners action hero who'll jack you up soon as look at you. But we'll see. All they have to do is put out a damn good movie for a change, and the audience might just decide that "ugly" Craig guy's all right.
So...please please please don't suck. Okay?
God, I love my iPod. This is one of those culturally-paradigm-shifting inventions, like the automobile and toaster, that gets you thinking that life must have been a bleak and meaningless wasteland before it came along. It's enough for me to take pity upon the forgotten portable CD player nestled, alone and forlorn, in a drawer in my bedroom. Don't be sad, little fella. You done good. But it's a new day. For you to do the job my Pod does, I'd have to hump around my entire CD cabinet everywhere I go on a dolly. So enjoy your rest. You've earned it.
Now along comes the new video-playing model, and I'm like, damn. Will have to add that to the want list now. And its existence seems to be bearing out what I and the rest of the world have been predicting: it's only a matter of time — months, perhaps — before someone figures out a workable model for distributing feature films online. And I bet Steve Jobs will lead the pack.
Now as a cinephile, I must say I'll be sad if the theatrical experience ever goes away entirely. And to be truthful, I don't think it will. There's nothing that can compare to seeing movies the way they were meant to be seen: on a whopping great screen in an auditorium.
But, believing that, why don't I go more often? I read the polls conducted by the panicked industry and I hear many of the same concerns I have. It's too pricey (although it isn't pricey for me, as I never allow myself to be robbed at the concession stand; eating and drinking in a movie invariably has me running to the men's room just as the third act is kicking in). Other patrons are pricks. The movies mostly just suck.
People are getting used to a more personal entertainment/information experience. Big screen home theaters are more affordable, and will get more affordable still. More and more people have laptops, iPods, and PSP's; pretty much everyone has a cell phone now, perhaps even some homeless people. Are we forsaking communal experiences for individual or family-centric ones? And is that really a bad thing?
It's inevitable that the internet will become a huge distribution outlet for feature films. While I don't see much benefit in watching something genuinely epic, like The Return of the King or Kingdom of Heaven on an iPod's 2-inch screen, there is something to be said for film distribution following the iTunes model for music distribution. Imagine paying about what you'd pay, if not less, for a movie ticket these days to legally download a first-run feature film in DVD-burnable, high-definition quality. Hell, with extras, even. I'd be interested, and I bet lots of other folks would, too, though of course there will always be that contingent of cheap bastards who don't want what they can't have for free. (Hey, I've been one myself.) And I think theatrical exhibition could be saved, too, made attractive again in the eyes of filmgoers, if a few technological (as well as attitude) changes were made by the industry. In my next post I'll go into some ideas I've been chewing on for both enriching the theatrical experience as well as enlarging the share of the pie that poor, also-ran indie films usually get. It's utopian stuff, and it'll never be implemented because the industry would never do anything either a) so sensible or b) designed to get anything seen by the public that isn't their homogenized, generic crap.
But hey, this is my perfect world we're talking about here, so here, it would work!
Sunday, October 16, 2005
Hollywood is remake-happy these days. Remakes are hardly a new concept. They've been around since the Golden Age, and some of the biggest movies of all time have been remakes. The Charlon Heston version of Ben-Hur was a remake, and Cecil B. DeMille's cheesy disasterpiece The Ten Commandments was a remake of a version he himself had made in the silent days. Remakes, like shit, happen.
There is nothing innately wrong with remakes simply because they are remakes, either. One of my all-time favorites, and one of the best modern horror films, is John Carpenter's 1982 The Thing. (But then Carpenter went on in 1995 to do a perfectly dreadful remake of his own, Village of the Damned.)
There is an easy and obvious test to be conducted, that can help the hapless viewer determine whether or not a remake is worth seeing. And Carpenter's Thing aces the test. It's simply this: Determine whether or not the remake in question was put together by a filmmaker who passionately loved the original material and felt there was something legitimate to be done artistically in developing a new version, or whether the whole thing is a purely commercial exercise cynically slapped together by a studio desperate for some easy box office green.
Carpenter just happens to be a plum example of the trend, because in 2005 we've had no fewer than two remakes of old movies of his. I've seen neither the new version of Assault on Precinct 13 or The Fog, and don't plan to. In the case of the latter, it's that every reliable source I've heard has confirmed every initial fear I had: that it doesn't simply suck, it creates a cinematic black hole in the theater, a singularity from which not even light can escape. As far as Assault is concerned (the original version of which, interestingly, was Carpenter's own exercise in a modern-day remake of the western Rio Bravo), I do understand the filmmakers attempted a new angle on the story. But if you ask me, replacing the menacing, faceless street gangs outside (inspired by Night of the Living Dead) with the cliché of corrupt cops is a yawn-inducer. Much as I like both Ethan Hawke and especially Laurence Fishburne, I just can't work up any interest in the movie.
And that's because I think both of those movies fit the latter of the two determining factors I outlined above. These were commercial exercises, not creative ones. Yes, I know. Hollywood is all about the money. But when I hear that a remake of Halloween is in development — the original, sacrosanct, impossible-to-improve-upon, often-imitated-but-never-duplicated Halloween — suddenly, suicide bombers seem like reasonable guys. (That was a joke, all you Patriot Act types.)
A remake of Halloween ought to be enough to make any horror fan's blood boil. That it is being thrown together by the Weinsteins, who were responsible for the last handful of appalling sequels and whose shameless prioritizing of their own bank accounts over the success of the movies they were supposed to be distributing is given a full accounting here, is, I suspect, no surprise. But what depresses me is that they're going to make the damn thing, and the sheep will flock to theaters to see it the way they did The Fog this weekend. (Though that was only to the tune of $12 million, it must be said.) Hollywood moguls can treat their audiences with contempt by releasing Product (and that's all it is) like this, and, even though the numbers are dwindling, enough people will go see the Product that in their minds, the entire exercise is justified.
Ah, but there are those dwindling numbers, aren't there? And a lot of that is what I think accounts for the current outbreak of remakes. After all, if it seems like we've been getting more of them in the last few years than is usual, I think the plummeting box office that has had the industry in a panic could very well account for why we're seeing so many studios going the "easy money" route.
But can any of these remakes really generate the massive, $100-million-plus B.O. receipts every studio wants? They can, if the remake in question really makes a stab at reinventing the material for a new audience, and does so in a way both respectful to the source and to creating something sorta fresh at the same time. Not being an Adam Sandler disciple, I avoided The Longest Yard, and critics predictably savaged it, but it did find a receptive audience. The same cannot be said for the aforementioned Assault and Fog, or others we've had this year like The Amityville Horror. Whatever the moguls seem to think about the safety of pursuing remake projects, for the most part audiences seem to want to see new movies, like March of the Penguins and The Wedding Crashers.
In a subsequent post I'll talk about some remakes I've liked and why I thought they worked well. But when it's so obvious that the love of money rather than the love of movies is motivating a remake project, I just vote with my dollar and don't go. And, if the relatively weak #1 of The Fog is any indication (compare this to the $40 million opening of another remake, The Grudge, a year ago), audiences are doing more of that too. There are too many promising writers, and too many good unproduced scripts out there, to waste time on remakes. But what can you do against the machine? Well, fight harder to get your movie made, that's all. Then, if you're really lucky, 20 years some now some sleazy producers will be remaking your low-budget labor of love as a slick piece of assembly line hackery. You'll really know you've made movie history then!