Typing Faster

April 5, 2011

Battle: Los Angeles – Lessons from the Front

Filed under: Features — petertypingfaster @ 11:08 pm

Battle: Los Angeles (or World Invasion: Battle Los Angeles) wasn’t my first choice of movie to see, but when you decide to pop by a theater at 10:45pm on a weekday your selection is kind of limited.

I would have liked to see Source Code, but what ya gonna do.

Back to Battle: Los Angeles. It wasn’t a bad flick. About as stupid and cliched as one would expect, but somewhat entertaining. I remember being stoked by the trailer when I saw it…

…especially liked the choice of song juxtaposed with footage at the tail end of it (aside…anyone know what song that is?).

But I think the real reason I enjoyed the movie as much as I did was that I’d had the chance to read an earlier draft of the script a while back and found it interesting to see what kind of changes they’d made in the transition from page to screen.

I figured I’d come on here and share some observations about the changes, what worked, what didn’t and why I think the changes were made.

Obviously there will be SPOILERS ahead, so go ahead and stop reading if you’re the kind of person that cares about that sort of thing…

1. The Opening

Both the script and movie start in medias res, one of my favorite techniques. The aliens are here and things are going into the shitter in a very fast way.

Then we jump back in time.

In the script we only jump back a few hours earlier. The aliens are already crashing into the world’s oceans, but our marines have yet to be deployed. We don’t learn much about them as they’re literally briefed and thrown into the fray by page seven (7!). It’s fast, it’s ballsy, but it kind of works.

Of course the downside to this approach is we literally know nothing about our characters. We don’t know anything about their backstory, anything about their personal lives, hell, we wouldn’t even know their names if there weren’t name tags on their uniforms.

Which brings me to the first big change the movie made.

The movie starts the same way, with our marines already fighting the aliens, but then we jump further back in time. We see our hero, Staff Sergeant Nantz (played by Aaron Eckhart) as he has his discharge paperwork signed. He’s getting out of the military. We see another guy planning his wedding. We spend time with yet another as he says goodbye to his very pregnant wife.

It’s all very touching, and it definitely gives us a better handle on the characters (if only as “That’s the guy with the pregnant wife,” “That’s the guy with the fiancee,” etc), but there’s a one big problem that’s ignored.

Once the shit hits the fan we NEVER hear about their families again.

Not once are they mentioned (other than a cliched dying “give this letter to my wife” scene that could have just as easily played without the revised opening…the scene was so generic that I’m not even sure if it was in the script) throughout the rest of the movie. None of the marines were worried about their significant others. None of them wanted to go off mission to rescue a loved one.

It just felt odd, like the two elements existed in separate universes. Which brings us to our first lesson:

If you’re going to make revisions in a script, make sure you track them.

There was no payoff to the opening character introductions. What’s the point of introducing someone as “The guy with the fiancee” if he’s never going to think about that fiancee ever again?

It’s especially odd when you realize that the marines’ entire mission is to evacuate civilians, yet none of them ever mention / think about their civilian families again despite the fact we know they exist? Struck me as very odd…

2. The Aliens

While I can understand why a misguided soul would make the first big change, this next one left me completely stumped.

In the script the aliens are scary for a number of reasons:

  • It was a surprise attack, so they caught us with our pants down.
  • They have some mean, never before seen technology.
  • They’re hitting us where it hurts: in our own backyard.
  • There are a hell of a lot of them.

The one thing they’re not in the script is invincible.

They are for the first half of the movie.

Literally, for the entire first half of the movie our heroes can’t kill the aliens. They shoot them, and shoot them, and shoot them, but the aliens just shrug it off. It gets to the point where it was distracting.

I was actually wondering how the hell they were going to solve the problem, when they did something the stupidest, most cliched way they could.

They had a “We need to know how to kill it” scene.

Literally, they find an injured alien (wait, but I thought they were invincible…ah well, don’t think too hard about it) and proceed to vivisect it, stabbing it here, stabbing it there, trying to figure out where its weak spot is (right where the heart would be…really guys?! Really?).

It’s an utterly ridiculous, and frankly useless sequence, no doubt put in by an executive / director with the justification of “we need our monsters to be more frightening.”

So what’s the lesson?

Don’t heap complication on top of complication. At a point it just gets silly.

This is a movie about being invaded by an overwhelming force. That’s scary enough. You don’t need to make them invulnerable on top of that. There’s already a bajillion of them.

3) Replacing the Autistic Kid with Michelle Rodriguez

Wait, the what you say?

Here’s the thing. The climax of the movie revolves around the marines taking out an alien command and control center, the thing that controls all the aliens air power. Take it out and the US Air Force would once again control the skies, and they might just have a chance to turn the tide of battle.

In the script the marines do this once they realize that one of the kids they’ve rescued, who’s mildly autistic, can telepathically hear the aliens communications, a power which allows him to home in on where the command and control center.

Yeah, it didn’t make a lot of sense on the page either.

The problem with this turn in the script was that it always seemed a little too far fetched. What was a fairly straight forward (for an alien invasion story at least) battle against long odds all of a sudden took a sharp right turn into whacky sci-fi territory. It never really worked that well on the page.

The movie made what, in my opinion, was a fairly smart change.

Instead of relying on the mystical powers of an autistic child, our heroes now run into another unit, one of whom happens to be an Air Force technician played by Michelle Rodriguez. Turns out her mission was to track the command and control center, find it, and then call in an air strike to take it out.

And that’s eventually just what they do.

The ultimate solution is still pseudo science, something about how the command and control center distorts power around it (they find it when they fly over a patch of the city that’s blacked out), but still much more plausible than relying on a kids ESP.

So what’s the lesson?

Keep it realistic.

And I don’t mean realistic, realistic. I don’t think we’re about to be invaded by aliens. But an alien invasion is realistic given the premise of the movie, whereas ESP is not. It’s just one step too far.

4) You Don’t Need Justification

This one drives me up the wall.

You don’t need to justify an alien invasion.

Why are they invading us? Who cares! They’re invading us! This isn’t a movie about the politics of the invasion. We’re not sitting down to negotiate with them. We can’t even talk to them! The why doesn’t matter, all that matters is the “how the fuck are we going to get out of this mess now that they’re here.”

This is especially true when you use the justification as a heavy handed allegory for modern environmental / geopolitical issues. “Whenever you invade a place for its resources you wipe out the indigenous population.” Bullshit I say.

The script didn’t have any of this, or at least none that I can remember, and I think it was better for it.

Lesson?

Lose unnecessary elements.

You don’t need to explain why the aliens are here, the story is just about the fact that they are. Battle: Los Angeles works best when it’s about a bunch of individual marines thrown into an untenable situation. That’s what the movie’s about. Focus on that, and you don’t have to worry about the rest of it.

Oh, and no movie should ever, ever use a first person “gun sight” look. I don’t care if you directors think it looks cool, all it does is make me think I’m playing a shitty First Person Shooter.

I rest my case.

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February 4, 2011

Joss Whedon’s Top Ten Screenwriting Tips

Filed under: Craft, Features, Joss Whedon, Stuff I Like — petertypingfaster @ 12:12 pm

Amazing post over on Danny Stack’s place listing Joss Whedon’s top ten writing tips. Worth a read for any writer, whether or not you’re a fan of Whedon’s work (and let’s face it, if you’re a screenwriter you probably are).

Of particular note for me were:

1. FINISH IT
Actually finishing it is what I’m gonna put in as step one. You may laugh at this, but it’s true. I have so many friends who have written two-thirds of a screenplay, and then re-written it for about three years. Finishing a screenplay is first of all truly difficult, and secondly really liberating. Even if it’s not perfect, even if you know you’re gonna have to go back into it, type to the end. You have to have a little closure.

If you can’t finish it, then what’s the point? This is so often the case with new writers I meet. I ask them what they’ve written and they tell me about all these great ideas they have. I ask to read something, and they say they’re still trying to finish all those great ideas.

If you want to write, you need to finish stuff. End of story.

2. STRUCTURE
Structure means knowing where you’re going; making sure you don’t meander about. Some great films have been made by meandering people, like Terrence Malick and Robert Altman, but it’s not as well done today and I don’t recommend it. I’m a structure nut. I actually make charts. Where are the jokes? The thrills? The romance? Who knows what, and when? You need these things to happen at the right times, and that’s what you build your structure around: the way you want your audience to feel. Charts, graphs, coloured pens, anything that means you don’t go in blind is useful.

I’m a structure nazi. Nine times out of ten, when I read a script that’s struggling it’s due to structural problems. It might not have a clear through line, it might be trying to juggle too many timelines, either way I’m pretty sure the writer didn’t bother to outline first.

Outline your scripts folks. It makes writing so, so, so much easier.

5. CUT WHAT YOU LOVE
Here’s one trick that I learned early on. If something isn’t working, if you have a story that you’ve built and it’s blocked and you can’t figure it out, take your favourite scene, or your very best idea or set-piece, and cut it. It’s brutal, but sometimes inevitable. That thing may find its way back in, but cutting it is usually an enormously freeing exercise.

Oh yeah. If it’s good enough for Mark Twain, it’s good enough for you.

The rest of Joss’ advice is equally good. You should head over to Danny’s place and check it out.

February 3, 2011

So You Want To Write An Action Movie?

Filed under: Features — petertypingfaster @ 9:58 am

Then you need to head over and read this article on Scriptshadow , which breaks down one of the greatest action movies of all time: Die Hard.

The article’s chock full of good action writing advice. A few specific points I’d like to pull out:

ONE-LINERS
Ahhh, the snappy action one-liner. An 80s film staple. But no film has ever approached Die Hard in this category. In fact, 95% of one-liners you hear in action movies these days are groan-worthy. So how does Die Hard still hold up? Simple. McClane’s one-liners stem from his situation, NOT from a writer wanting to add a funny line. When you watch Die Hard and hear McClane say, “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker,” you genuinely get the sense that he’s trying to add levity to the situation. He’s using humor to deflect the seriousness of his predicament. In other words, he’s not a mouthpiece for a clever line thought up by a writer, which is what every single one of these one-liners has been since Die Hard came out (please see The Expendables for numerous examples).

ONE OF THE BEST SCENES YOU CAN WRITE
One might argue that the most memorable scene in Die Hard is when Hans pretends to be a hostage. Part of the reason we love this scene so much is because it’s such a clever move by our villain. But this is actually a setup for a scene that works almost every time you use it in a screenplay: We the audience know something that our main character doesn’t – that he’s in danger – and there’s nothing we can do to help him. The tension this creates in a scene – the helplessness we feel – works on an audience almost every time, so if you have the opportunity to use it, do so. Just make sure we like your hero. Obviously, if we don’t, we won’t be too worried when he’s seconds away from getting a bullet in the chest.

THINGS GET WORSE FOR OUR HERO AS THE SCRIPT GOES ON
In every action script, you want it to get tougher on your hero the closer he gets to the finish line. McClane’s feet are heavily cut, making it difficult for him to walk. Hans figures out that Lucy is John’s wife and takes her hostage, making it more difficult to save her. In the final confrontation, McClane’s only got two bullets left, making his escape unlikely. Keep stacking the odds against your hero as he gets closer to achieving his goal.

There’s plenty more great advice in the rest of the article that’s well worth checking out if you have an interest in writing action.

Coming up tomorrow is my interview with Vivian Lin, director of Pretty in Geek.

September 16, 2010

The Secret To Indie Movie Success

Filed under: Features — petertypingfaster @ 10:02 am

Just get two girls kissing. At least that’s according to Darren Aronofsky while discussing his latest feature, Black Swan. From all accounts it’s supposed to be a pretty good flick.

But when you’ve got Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis making out in your trailer you know you’re going to get more than a little buzz.

September 8, 2010

Are Crouching Tigers, Hidden Dragons Taking Over Hollywood?

Filed under: Features, Future of TV — petertypingfaster @ 6:00 am

We all know that China’s become a force to be reckoned with when it comes to global economics. And it’s not just in the arena of cheap manufacturing, the world widgets and wig-wams, that China’s making strides. They’ve become a world leader in renewable energy technology. Who saw that coming?

But if there’s one area that China’s had trouble penetrating, at least in the English speaking world, it would be that of culture, and specifically film and television. Sure we’ll import the occasional martial arts or arthouse flick, but you could probably count the number of real blockbusters on one hand. For all intents and purposes China is still the Forbidden Kingdom when it comes to film and television, closed to all outsiders.

But that’s all starting to change. And change in a big way.

When Scarlett Johansson strode across the screen in “Iron Man 2,” she was wearing a form-fitting outfit made by Semir, a Chinese brand and an official sponsor of the blockbuster movie this spring.

That wasn’t the first example of Chinese firms getting in on the Hollywood product-placement game. In last year’s “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” a highway billboard featured another Chinese sportswear company, Metersbonwe.

“More and more Chinese brands would like to get their products placed” in Hollywood films, said Ben Ji, head of Angel Wings Entertainment and the man behind getting Semir clothes into “Iron Man 2.” His goal: to get a Chinese car in a James Bond film.

Product placement is just one example of China’s new love affair with Hollywood. Chinese production companies are looking to partner with Hollywood firms to make films and manage China’s growing number of theaters. Rumors persist that a Chinese company – spurred by the government, which wants to extend the country’s “soft power” into the cultural sphere – is on the prowl to buy a U.S. film studio.

Let us digest that for moment. China wants to buy a U.S. film studio. That would potentially be a huge influx of money into Hollywood, especially if the studio in question was (secretly) backed by the Chinese government.

But that’s still in the future, and in the present China and Hollywood are already doing some serious business together. We’ve already seen several high profile co-productions do well at the box office (The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and The Karate Kid reboot). And there are several other high profile projects on the horizon.

In what would be the biggest – meaning costliest – co-produced movie, the U.S. company Hollywood MovieWorks has teamed with Beijing entrepreneur Sheng Boyu, 30, to make “Double Lives,” a film about a modern-day treasure hunt for two ancient Chinese swords. The film will star Pierce Brosnan and will be directed by Rob Cohen of “The Mummy,” who first became enamored with China when he directed “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.”

“Double Lives” has a $100 million budget, and Sheng said the Chinese side and Hollywood will approach it as equals.

“Our ratio is 50-50,” said Sheng, looking the part of a Hollywood producer in black suit, open-neck black shirt and black Gucci loafers. “My cooperation with Hollywood is an equal cooperation. I think it’s a trend that future filmmakers will cooperate and make more co-produced films, and Chinese audiences will enjoy the best of both Chinese and American filmmaking.”

China’s interest in teaming up with Hollywood is slightly murky (soft power? a bigger stage?), Hollywood’s reasons are simple, simple, simple. It all comes down to money. China offers great production incentives combined with a large cheap, experienced labor pool. Then there are the box office considerations.

China, the fastest-growing film market in the world. According to the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, China’s box office receipts totaled $780 million in the first half of this year – an 80 percent increase over those from the first half of 2009, with much of that attributed to the colossal success of “Avatar” here. The 2009 box office receipts were up more than 40 percent over those of 2008.

Ji said that as more newly affluent Chinese go to movies – instead of watching DVDs at home – the number of movie houses being built is soaring. “Two new screens per day – that’s crazy!” he said. Foreign companies are allowed to build cinemas in China but not manage them directly, Ji said, adding that he is confident the rule will be relaxed next year.

Ji predicted that China might also relax rules that allow just 20 foreign films a year. An increase in the quota could give further incentive for Hollywood producers to make films that appeal to Chinese audiences.

Co-produced movies do not count as “foreign” films under the quota. Filming and hiring local workers is much cheaper in China than in many other countries.

Gerbrandt said that U.S. box office admissions have been stagnant in recent years but that increased ticket prices have helped the industry grow. “Hollywood must open new markets to keep growing, and China and India are obviously the largest,” he wrote in an e-mail.

So what does all this mean for the future? Who knows, but it’s probably a good idea for all of us to start brushing up on our Mandarin…

September 2, 2010

A Perfect Movie: The Hunt for Red October

Filed under: Features, Stuff I Like — petertypingfaster @ 6:46 pm

We all have them. You’re mindlessly channel surfing, lazy, procrastinating, bored. And then you stumble across it. Could be an old movie, TV show, special, whatever. But whatever it is, somehow, someway, it has an inexplicable hold on you. No matter what else you might have to do, no matter how important, you’re going to be glued to your TV until that show finishes.

One of my “I-must-watch-this” movies is The Hunt for Red October. There’s a really simple reason why I can’t walk away from this movie.

It is, quite simply, perfect.

There’s not a wasted moment in this film. Not an iota of fat. It’s entertaining, well acted, and holds up incredibly well considering it’s almost twenty years old. The only complaint I’ve heard leveled against it, and one that I dismiss out of hand, is that some people can’t get past Sean Connery’s *SCOTTISH* accent (really? You’re demanding authentic accents in a thriller?).

It’s also, in my opinion, one of the best written movies. Everything tracks in this movie. Every little thing that happens is set up earlier, and every pay off is great. Ryan’s fear of flying? Paid off with the harrowing helicopter ride into the middle of the Atlantic (also bookended nicely with him sleeping soundly on the flight home). The saboteur? The same seaman who Ramius asks to witness him taking the missile keys from the recently deceased Political Officer.

One of the biggest problems I see in scripts my new writers is a tendency to sprawl. They ramble, explore tangents, and, more often than not, wind up losing the thread of their story. The Hunt for Red October is the opposite of that. It’s relentless in its focus. From the get go the Americans are trying to do one thing, find this missing submarine. While the movie delves into politics and the personal motivations Ramius and his crew have for defecting, it’s all told within the parameter of the search for the sub.

It’s a masterclass on writing a feature length thriller.

Any aspiring writer who hasn’t seen this movie really should drop everything and go watch it. Anyone who appreciates movies and hasn’t seen it, should drop everything and watch it. Even if you’re like me, someone who loves this movie, you would probably benefit from rewatching it from time-to-time.

That’s not something I can say about the other movies I simply have to watch if I stumble across them on television late one night (Roadhouse, I’m looking at you!), but I can definitely say it about The Hunt for Red October.

July 22, 2010

Inception, Christopher Nolan and Leverage

Filed under: Features, the biz — petertypingfaster @ 7:00 am

So judging by the latest from Box Office Mojo a good chunk of you have gone to see Inception by now. Personally I loved it.

But this isn’t going to be a love in for Inception, at least not directly. Nor is it a review. Why spoil it? You should just go see it. No, what I’d like to do in this space is just marvel at the fact that it even got made.

I mean lets face facts. This movie is smart. Sure its got the requisite mind bending special effects (I have one friend who refuses to see it because he thinks it’s just going to be another Transformers Michael Bay special effects bonanza), but it’s incredibly complex at the same time. Multiple layers of reality, dreams within dreams, I mean could you imagine trying to pitch a movie like that to today’s studio execs?

Making this movie took balls, and while the party line at Warner Bros is that they backed Nolan all the way, I can’t help but be a bit skeptical. Making movies is a risky business, and studios in this day and age have become increasingly risk averse. Inception? One big ass risk. No, I strongly doubt that Warner Bros was thrilled about making Inception, in fact I’d be willing to put money that they had to be dragged kicking and screaming into making this movie.

Which brings me to the lesson of all this: Never underestimate the power of leverage when it comes to forcing studios to let you do what you want to do.

You may have heard of the little movie Christopher Nolan shot before Inception. Something about a Batman I remember rightly. I think it did pretty well too.

Warner Bros was desperate to have Nolan start working on the sequel posthaste, but when they realized they couldn’t get the script ready in time, they offered him a whole bunch of sequels, prequels, reboots, adaptations, and movies-based-on-popular-toys to choose from.

Instead Nolan said “Hey, how about we make this little movie I’ve been fiddling with for ten years about thieves that steal from your dreams?”

I can only imagine the silence in the boardroom when he threw that idea out there.

Warner Bros didn’t really have much of a choice though. Christopher Nolan’s become one of their geese that lays billion dollar golden eggs. If “all” it takes is letting him shoot a $160 million dollar art house sci-fi flick, then you whip open your checkbook and start writing.

That’s the power of leverage.

July 15, 2010

When “Original” Equals “Risky”: Warner Gambles on Inception

Filed under: Features — petertypingfaster @ 7:00 am

You get one of the worst summer box offices ever.

Sure there have been a few bright spots. Twilight is still raking in the dough (is there no God?). Despicable Me opened to a pleasant $56.4M. But overall the box office has been down in a big way. Month-to-month tracking has shown erosion of 10% to 25% compared to the same months last year.

So what gives?

A lot of folks, myself included, lay the blame at the foot of “sequelitis.” Sequels are tricky things. Sure audience awareness is higher, which means the marketing folks have a much, much easier job. But while the general public might say they’re interested in seeing the latest Shrek movie, the box office receipts paint a different picture. If I had to take a guess, people are showing up at the theaters, seeing nothing but the “same-old-same-old,” turning around and leaving.

So how do we keep people from leaving the theater? How do we get them to plunk down their hard earned cash and actually watch something? I don’t know, how about we make something original?

Seems like the people at Warner Brothers are thinking the same way. Tomorrow they release Inception. It’s a gamble, a pretty big one actually, and given the current economic climate it’s surprising to see a studio rolling the dice on it.

From the LA Times

The plot is difficult to explain in a 30-second TV spot (something about dreams within dreams). The star has a choppy box-office track record (most do these days). The director is not a household name (yet).

When Warner Bros. on Friday opens Inception, a complex action thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio as an agent who invades people’s dreams, the studio will give filmgoers something that they say they want but rarely support: a movie that is not a sequel, adapted from a comic book or inspired by a toy.

For Warner Bros. and financing partner Legendary Pictures, the $160-million Inception represents a gamble at a time when Hollywood shuns making big summer movies based on novel ideas. But those involved believe the film will succeed and its director, Christopher Nolan, is on the cusp of becoming as familiar as Steven Spielberg, James Cameron or Peter Jackson.

Of course it’s that last fact that really helps to mitigate the risk. Christopher Nolan is a popular up and coming director. He’s got a lot of geek and indie film cred having directed Memento and The Dark Knight. All of which explains the director-centric marketing campaign that Warner Bros. launched.

The studio’s $100-million-plus marketing campaign puts the director front and center. Although DiCaprio has the $1.8 billion-grossing Titanic on his resume, nearly every television ad for Inception announces that the film is “from the director of The Dark Knight before mentioning the actor, if at all. Posters, print and online ads do the same, emphasizing The Dark Knight in typeface that is as large, or larger, than DiCaprio’s name.

Between fans who are familiar with Nolan and those who remember only the unique style of The Dark Knight, studio executives believe Inception has what it takes to compete against more recognizable names in theaters this summer, including Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice that opens against it, or Angelina Jolie’s Salt that debuts a week later.

It’s interesting to watch the studios scramble to come up with new marketing strategies to promote their films. Used to be that having the right actor headlining your film was enough to get butts into seats. Then, for whatever reason, people started to realize that just because an actor they like is in a movie doesn’t mean that the movie’s going to be any good. Without the guarantee of a big star, studios shifted gears and started doing sequels, remakes, reboots and adaptations. Now they’ve reached out and anointed a director. By greenlighting Inception Warner Bros. stays in the Christopher Nolan between Batman films.

So far it’s looking like a good bet.

Inception‘s sitting at 88% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes (yesterday it was at 98%). It’s tracking incredibly well, especially considering it’s not based on an existing property. It’s not going to blow out the box office its opening weekend, but it’ll do a respectable $50 million. As it rolls out to a wider release over the next three weeks expect that number to grow. The question is will they be able to sustain interest and awareness in the film after its opening weekend.

“Sustaining the movie by having a presence on television and online after the opening is going to be important,” Kroll said. “We don’t have the brand equity that usually drives a big summer opening, but we have a great cast and a fresh idea from a filmmaker with a track record of making incredible movies. If you can’t make those elements work, it’s a sad day.”

It’d be a sad day indeed.

Inception hits theaters this weekend.

March 22, 2010

The Future of Indie Distribution

Filed under: Features, Kvetch, Marketing, Movies, Stuff I Like, the biz — petertypingfaster @ 11:12 am

The indie feature world has been nothing but doom and gloom for a number of years. Sure there have been some recent Cinderella stories (The Hurt Locker anyone?), but for the most part the news has been dominated by people getting out of the business, indie studios shutting their doors, and everyone going on about just how little hope there actually is.

Everyone except for Jeff Lipsky, co-founder of one time October Films, whose decided to get back into the distribution business.

And when we say distribution, we’re talking old school, independent feature film, theatrical distribution. None of this New Media crap for him!

On New Media:

N.B. Although I’ve been following, studying, and doing a bit of research about the potential of independent films in the marketplace for over thirty years, I feel I have carte blanche to throw out any facts and figures I want and not have to prove it, since New Media numbers —as well as DVD revenue figures—are as classified and protected from public view as nuclear launch codes…in N. Korea! Yet New Media acolytes and zealots are trying to persuade people that the future is now. Okay, I want to know just how much an independent filmmaker receives from his or her distributor from the amount the distributor receives from Redbox for a $ .99 rental of his or her film. What, you don’t know? Shocking. And that’s just for starters. What is the solution? How can we encourage more transparency about New Media numbers, from operators and filmmakers alike? One way is to continue to embrace theatrical.

One of my biggest beefs with a lot of New Media is just how fuzzy the numbers are. How do you count page views? Online advertising views? Does someone have to watch all the pre-roll to count? What if they minimize banners?

All the numbers I’ve seen for online advertising / distribution reporting have been wildly inconsistent. I have no idea what’s actually going on, and I don’t think a lot of other people do either. Unfortunately traditional distribution reporting fares little better in this country…

Anyways, moving on.

1) My number one job as a distributor-for-hire is to run a collection agency.

My job is to return as much theatrical film rental, gross film rental, that is, to the filmmaker/producer/investor as possible. It’s not to attend film festivals where your film appears, it is not to host premieres (nor should independent films squander limited resources on such vanity cash-sucks), and it is especially not to vacate the premises after your film moves on to DVD and I move onto another film. It is to be a bag man. It’s not glamorous but I pride myself at recognizing the need to return your money with great alacrity, especially when it sometimes takes years to receive your share of the pie from DVD companies, from MSOs, and from VOD and PPV revenues, from legal downloads and streaming scheming. Theatrical money comes first, it comes without third party deductions (at least when you deal with me), and you should be able to bank it as soon as possible. Should there (ever) be any debate about that?

I’ve been amazed at a few distributors who place more importance on the gala premiere than on actually getting returns for the films they’re distributing. Thankfully it hasn’t happened all that often, but even once is too much.

2) All new distribution platforms (with the possible quirky exception of movie downloads to laptops and PDAs) fall under the heading of “home entertainment.”

And, one after another, they all tend to cannibalize each other. Only one unique, specific form of viewing filmed entertainment has proven immune (at least since the introduction of broadcast television)—going out to see a movie in a movie theatre.

Lately we’ve seen the collapse of the output deal as cable channels realize they need less content to hold onto their subscribers. Digital rentals through places like iTunes have helped gut the home video rental market. Pretty hard to argue with the fact that new distribution platforms cannibalize the old ones.

And I think we can all agree that going to the theater is hardly dead, especially given the monster box office of the last year, and the success of features like Avatar.

3) According to an article in Reuters, in 2009 combined theatrical and DVD sales/rentals in the US yielded $26 billion.

It is widely (conservatively) estimated that independent films represent 1.5% of the total (not including the megahits distributed by major studio boutiques). That’s almost $400 million. And I predict the first quarter of 2010 will emerge more successful than first quarter 2009. Tasty. Furthermore, in the year of “Avatar,” in the same year that AMPAS doubled the number of Best Picture nomination slots at the behest of the major studios, the two distributors that tied for the most number of Academy Award nominations were Sony Pictures Classics and the Weinstein Company. Equally tasty.

The important thing to come away with from this bit is the success of Sony Pictures Classics and the Weinstein Company. That’s impressive.

4) We should be talking about how to capture the attention of a film’s potential theatrical audience (which is hungrier than ever) while being able to reduce the marketing spend.

I know, we’ve been talking about how to do that for decades and all we’ve figured out how to do is shift numbers from off-line advertising to on-line advertising. And yet, every now and again, a pure independent film, such as “The Passion of the Christ,” “Paranormal Activity,” “What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?,” even “Sweet Land,” an independent film I distributed on a service basis three years ago, which broke records in the places where its target audience resided, proves it’s possible. If your film’s target audience resides in the Texas panhandle is it really necessary to open it in New York or Los Angeles…ever? Retain revenues, don’t share the wealth. We can also learn occasionally from independently distributed foreign language film successes – Magnolia should publish a case study on their brilliant low-cost theatrical marketing of 2008’s best film, “Let the Right One In.”

This is where Lipsky starts to differentiate himself from the pack. Most distributors follow a typical pattern. Premiere in two or three huge markets (New York and LA in the states, Toronto and Vancouver in Canada), and then open broader if the film does well. Does that really make sense anymore? Why wouldn’t you target your film more specifically and by doing so reduce your costs?

5) Approach domestic film festivals with great caution.

Film festivals often siphon off potential audiences for independent films. Most pay little or nothing to a filmmaker. Playing in multiple regional film festivals can (further) ghetto-ize your so-called independent film. (In the late 60’s and early 70’s independent films – films like Robert Downey, Sr.’s “Putney Swope” and Frank & Eleanor Perry’s “Last Summer” – opened in the very same theatres where “A Clockwork Orange” and “The Exorcist” opened, and that was when almost every theatre contained but a single screen. Why do anything to aid and abet the ghetto-ization of your independent film today, especially at a time when screen counts in most theatres range from six to twenty.) And if your film plays at one of the biggies (Sundance, Toronto) and isn’t snapped up for distribution it’s often considered damaged goods, even if it may well have been one of the best films to play the festival.

(Full disclosure: my own experience having “Flannel Pajamas” play in Official Competition at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival was one of the grandest experiences of my life. But what would it have meant if the film hadn’t gone on to play at the Angelika Film Center in New York for six weeks – and theatrically in forty other cities – and been named to several film critics’ ten best lists?)

What film festivals can do for a complete unknown filmmaker who makes a small, unheralded film is get you an agent. It doesn’t happen often but when it does it’s worth its weight in gold.

Another tid bit of wisdom that diverges hugely from the accepted norm. Most producers are tempted to enter their films willy nilly into every festival above a certain level (TIFF, VIFF, the Atlantic Film Festival, Yorkton, etc). Festivals and independent films share the same audience, there’s a good chance that, if given the opportunity, the people who would pay to see your film in a theater would pay less to see it at a festival. Why give them the opportunity?

6) From the Everything Old is New Again Department:

When I was on the board of the IFP I threw down a gauntlet to my fellow board members: Let the IFP curate a nationwide educational program whereby we might addict the next generation of filmgoers with a heady passion for independent film. To wit – 35mm prints of films are either destroyed or stored at considerable expense by distributors within months of their initial theatrical release. Select fifty-two great independent films, both classics and of fairly recent vintage. Have their distributors donate one print of each to the program. Have exhibitors in fifty-two cities across the country (and they don’t necessarily have to be independent exhibitors) open their doors for free on one screen every Saturday and Sunday morning to junior high school students. The theatres are likely already open for business at that hour and with the additional concession sales they’ll make out like bandits. Sign on Federal Express as a sponsor and each film can be shipped and delivered to a different city and a different theatre each week at no cost to the program. (Fred Smith and his family are already film lovers and investors so how difficult would it be to sign them up.)

A local film professor or scholar would be engaged to introduce each film in each city and answer questions afterwards. Perhaps a corporate sponsor could be induced to come on board to underwrite the cost of producing study guides for each film, a takeaway the teens might enjoy. Addict teens, get them into the habit of going to see independent films, to debate them, to spread word-of-mouth, to love them. I would opine then, and still do now, that by one’s high school years viewing habits, entertainment fixations are already set in stone. We must grow the next generation of audiences for independent filmgoing by inexpensively imbuing them with a sense of history, year-by-year, step-by-step (and each generation thereafter). Their new “habit” is easily fed, even now, for only about ten dollars a hit! We didn’t do it and, as a Board member, I failed to pick up my own gauntlet and run with it so I’m guiltier than anyone. But this is still a program that can and should be activated and, long term, can help reap great financial rewards for independent American filmmakers of the present and the future.

Just a flat out fabulous idea in my opinion.

7) What do I make of the state of film criticism today and how do I assess its role in the distribution of movies right now?

The role and, especially, the influence of film critics on independent films is becoming increasingly difficult to define and to gauge. The Village Voice/LA Weekly has demonstrated great vision in hiring, first, Scott Foundas, and, more recently, Katrina Longworth as critics/editors. It proves that it’s not only the lingering genius of critic/writers, like the New Yorker’s David Denby and New York Press’s Armond White (he’s a great writer who inspires emotional film discussion and robust viewing, the hallmarks of any great critic) who are still capable of motivating moviegoing. It proves there are new, young Pauline Kaels and Andrew Sarrises (sic).

Two thoughts: what is missing, where once they were found, are great regional film voices. It’s all well and good that the New York Times first became a national newspaper, guaranteeing home delivery from coast-to-coast, and that now subscribers can read Scott, Dargis, and Holden on-line…in-flight even(!)…but people in Des Moines, Little Rock and Amarillo want to hear from local sages and, somehow, we must help make that happen. These regional and local voices must be heard again. It’s critical in order to maximize local success, local revenues.

The influence of “foreigners” can’t compare with the immediate response to a rave from a trusted local. I’m not sure how to accomplish it without persuading Superman to reverse the Earth’s spin and go back in time, but there’s got to be a way and I’m going to try to help find it. There are good regional writers on-line everywhere but the very fact that the net is universal makes their local expertise elusive and even forbidding in their own home towns. (Even today, I feel that every “home town” deserves its own identity.) Being an independent filmmaker tales courage. So does being a quality, sagacious film critic.

Another of my problems with the emergence of new social media is it gives every yahoo with a megaphone the chance to shout his (idiotic) opinion to the world. We all know the signal-to-noise ratio is crap on the internet.

Personally I still have a few trusted critics I go to for reviews of film and television, Roger Ebert being at the top of the list. God help me when he stops reviewing movies.

2) All new distribution platforms (with the possible quirky exception of movie downloads to laptops and PDAs) fall under the heading of “home entertainment.”

And, one after another, they all tend to cannibalize each other. Only one unique, specific form of viewing filmed entertainment has proven immune (at least since the introduction of broadcast television)—going out to see a movie in a movie theatre.

3) According to an article in Reuters, in 2009 combined theatrical and DVD sales/rentals in the US yielded $26 billion.

It is widely (conservatively) estimated that independent films represent 1.5% of the total (not including the megahits distributed by major studio boutiques). That’s almost $400 million. And I predict the first quarter of 2010 will emerge more successful than first quarter 2009. Tasty. Furthermore, in the year of “Avatar,” in the same year that AMPAS doubled the number of Best Picture nomination slots at the behest of the major studios, the two distributors that tied for the most number of Academy Award nominations were Sony Pictures Classics and the Weinstein Company. Equally tasty.

4) We should be talking about how to capture the attention of a film’s potential theatrical audience (which is hungrier than ever) while being able to reduce the marketing spend.

I know, we’ve been talking about how to do that for decades and all we’ve figured out how to do is shift numbers from off-line advertising to on-line advertising. And yet, every now and again, a pure independent film, such as “The Passion of the Christ,” “Paranormal Activity,” “What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?,” even “Sweet Land,” an independent film I distributed on a service basis three years ago, which broke records in the places where its target audience resided, proves it’s possible. If your film’s target audience resides in the Texas panhandle is it really necessary to open it in New York or Los Angeles…ever? Retain revenues, don’t share the wealth. We can also learn occasionally from independently distributed foreign language film successes – Magnolia should publish a case study on their brilliant low-cost theatrical marketing of 2008’s best film, “Let the Right One In.”

5) Approach domestic film festivals with great caution.

Film festivals often siphon off potential audiences for independent films. Most pay little or nothing to a filmmaker. Playing in multiple regional film festivals can (further) ghetto-ize your so-called independent film. (In the late 60’s and early 70’s independent films – films like Robert Downey, Sr.’s “Putney Swope” and Frank & Eleanor Perry’s “Last Summer” – opened in the very same theatres where “A Clockwork Orange” and “The Exorcist” opened, and that was when almost every theatre contained but a single screen. Why do anything to aid and abet the ghetto-ization of your independent film today, especially at a time when screen counts in most theatres range from six to twenty.) And if your film plays at one of the biggies (Sundance, Toronto) and isn’t snapped up for distribution it’s often considered damaged goods, even if it may well have been one of the best films to play the festival.

(Full disclosure: my own experience having “Flannel Pajamas” play in Official Competition at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival was one of the grandest experiences of my life. But what would it have meant if the film hadn’t gone on to play at the Angelika Film Center in New York for six weeks – and theatrically in forty other cities – and been named to several film critics’ ten best lists?)

What film festivals can do for a complete unknown filmmaker who makes a small, unheralded film is get you an agent. It doesn’t happen often but when it does it’s worth its weight in gold.

6) From the Everything Old is New Again Department:

When I was on the board of the IFP I threw down a gauntlet to my fellow board members: Let the IFP curate a nationwide educational program whereby we might addict the next generation of filmgoers with a heady passion for independent film. To wit – 35mm prints of films are either destroyed or stored at considerable expense by distributors within months of their initial theatrical release. Select fifty-two great independent films, both classics and of fairly recent vintage. Have their distributors donate one print of each to the program. Have exhibitors in fifty-two cities across the country (and they don’t necessarily have to be independent exhibitors) open their doors for free on one screen every Saturday and Sunday morning to junior high school students. The theatres are likely already open for business at that hour and with the additional concession sales they’ll make out like bandits. Sign on Federal Express as a sponsor and each film can be shipped and delivered to a different city and a different theatre each week at no cost to the program. (Fred Smith and his family are already film lovers and investors so how difficult would it be to sign them up.)

A local film professor or scholar would be engaged to introduce each film in each city and answer questions afterwards. Perhaps a corporate sponsor could be induced to come on board to underwrite the cost of producing study guides for each film, a takeaway the teens might enjoy. Addict teens, get them into the habit of going to see independent films, to debate them, to spread word-of-mouth, to love them. I would opine then, and still do now, that by one’s high school years viewing habits, entertainment fixations are already set in stone. We must grow the next generation of audiences for independent filmgoing by inexpensively imbuing them with a sense of history, year-by-year, step-by-step (and each generation thereafter). Their new “habit” is easily fed, even now, for only about ten dollars a hit! We didn’t do it and, as a Board member, I failed to pick up my own gauntlet and run with it so I’m guiltier than anyone. But this is still a program that can and should be activated and, long term, can help reap great financial rewards for independent American filmmakers of the present and the future.

7) What do I make of the state of film criticism today and how do I assess its role in the distribution of movies right now?

The role and, especially, the influence of film critics on independent films is becoming increasingly difficult to define and to gauge. The Village Voice/LA Weekly has demonstrated great vision in hiring, first, Scott Foundas, and, more recently, Katrina Longworth as critics/editors. It proves that it’s not only the lingering genius of critic/writers, like the New Yorker’s David Denby and New York Press’s Armond White (he’s a great writer who inspires emotional film discussion and robust viewing, the hallmarks of any great critic) who are still capable of motivating moviegoing. It proves there are new, young Pauline Kaels and Andrew Sarrises (sic).

Two thoughts: what is missing, where once they were found, are great regional film voices. It’s all well and good that the New York Times first became a national newspaper, guaranteeing home delivery from coast-to-coast, and that now subscribers can read Scott, Dargis, and Holden on-line…in-flight even(!)…but people in Des Moines, Little Rock and Amarillo want to hear from local sages and, somehow, we must help make that happen. These regional and local voices must be heard again. It’s critical in order to maximize local success, local revenues.

The influence of “foreigners” can’t compare with the immediate response to a rave from a trusted local. I’m not sure how to accomplish it without persuading Superman to reverse the Earth’s spin and go back in time, but there’s got to be a way and I’m going to try to help find it. There are good regional writers on-line everywhere but the very fact that the net is universal makes their local expertise elusive and even forbidding in their own home towns. (Even today, I feel that every “home town” deserves its own identity.) Being an independent filmmaker tales courage. So does being a quality, sagacious film critic.

8) What about the state and role of trade media?

Do we need a trade media at all? I’m certain there are still good reporters toiling away at Variety and the Hollywood Reporter but their best writers work for cyberspace pioneers like Nikki Finke. Anne Thompson works, well, right here. Plus, I’ve felt for some time now that the demystification of the filmmaking process has made the activity of watching movies less personal, less involving, less thrilling. I’ve never understood why someone who doesn’t have to read a screenplay, except for specific professional reasons, would want to ruin an essential part of the great discovery of watching a movie for the first time.

The trades contribute to this, many bloggers are notorious for this, and even “bloopers” at the end of some, generally rancid, comedies are equally to blame. We still go to the movies in grand numbers for a variety (no pun intended) of sometimes singular, equally valid reasons: to be entertained, to escape a humdrum day, to be validated, to make-out and grope, to be left alone, to enjoy a communal experience, to be awed, to laugh, to cry. The best films achieve this for the best people. Frankly (and this personal uncertainly fills me with great sadness), I’m not certain where a trade press fits in anymore. Even less so now that movie theatre grosses appear first thing each Monday morning in the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

When I was 26 years old and heading up theatrical distribution at New Yorker Films I would begin every Wednesday at 6:30 AM by walking to West 46th Street, just east of Broadway, to pick up the new copy of Weekly Variety at their offices so I could check the grosses. I wanted to be there first, at the very moment the trucks dropped off the first copies from the printer. The same copies that would be shortly delivered to executives at ABC, NBC, CBS, Paramount, etc. I would pay the very decent man with a limp, the only employee manning the office at that time of morning, my seventy-five cents, buy myself a cup of coffee, and luxuriate at my desk, soaking in the only place trade news was available – and I was in the business! – and I would do it before anyone else, the first one on my block. That was in 1979. Do we need a trade media at all?

It’s undeniable that the traditional trades like Variety and the Hollywood Reporter have been struggling of late. Couple that with the rise of folks like Nikki Finke and I think their days are numbered, and I’m honestly not sure it’ll be that big a loss.

9) I’m not in denial about technology.

We’ll all soon have the ability and the technical means at home to instantly download almost any film ever made onto our HD monitors without commercial interruption and free of censorship. But, even when that becomes, for most Americans, an affordable reality, will there then be a reasonable, honest, immediate, or suitable answer to the filmmakers/producers/investors demand: Show me the money!? I’m not a technophobe. I simply want to benefit independent filmmakers now, today, through theatrical means, to the best of my ability.

I’d also add that even when the above’s a reality I don’t think that people will stop going to the theaters. There’s just something about the communal experience that touches us in our lizard brains. It’s not going anywhere.

10) I do believe in social networking…

I do believe in online advertising. I do believe in viral marketing. I do believe that we live in a dazzlingly impressive digital world. But I also believe that these tools are still in their infancy and that everyone is jumping on a teetering and expensive bandwagon that just may topple over at any moment. I believe that originality, especially when it comes to low-cost marketing, will always rule the day. And it’s just that sort of originality that we ultimately drive profits.

The important thing to remember about New Media is that you’re only hitting a very select group of people. The vast majority of Americans (and Canadians for that matter) still don’t use Twitter. Or Facebook. Will that change? Who knows. But for now hinging an entire marketing campaign solely on those mediums is bound for disaster.

11) I want to continue to distribute films theatrically because I still love movies.

Seeing a movie in a theatre can still be the most entertaining vacation from reality imaginable, it can profoundly impact one’s life (which, for a filmmaker, is the greatest achievement), and it can inspire young people as completely and utterly as can any other august art form, more so, I believe.

Amen Mr. Lipsky. Amen.

I started out with the intention of only excerpting selections, but decided to just reproduce the whole thing with my comments because I found it ridiculously interesting.

Thank you Mr. Lipsky for providing some food for thought.

And thanks to The Legion of Decency where I stumbled across it first.

March 11, 2010

An Ode to Kevin Costner (and other actors who take risks)

Filed under: Acting, Features, Stuff I Like, Working — petertypingfaster @ 7:00 am

I’m about to admit something that, while it may not have exactly gotten me into trouble in the past, has definitely earned me more than a few eye rolls over the years.

I really like Kevin Costner.

I’m sure at least a few of you are rolling your eyes, but hear me out. Costner’s an interesting actor. He’s made some absolute stinkers (The Postman, Dragonfly), but he’s also made some great, great flicks (Field of Dreams, Dances With Wolves). While his career has certainly had its ups and downs, he’s proven himself to be much more resilient than a lot of his counterparts (just compare him to someone like John Travolta). Perhaps more importantly, Costner is one of few actors who’s always been open to taking on risky projects.

Just take a look at this article from Den of Geek.

Costner [is] a rare case: at the very peak of his box office powers, he rarely took the easy option. Granted, he chose misfires along the way, and some of his films are best forgotten. But at the start of the 90s, he, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis were the big movie stars. Bruce Willis eventually came round to picking more challenging fare by the end of the decade, while Arnie churned out the mix of action and comedy roles that have ultimately defined his career.

But Costner? Are there many other movie stars who, after garnering massive worldwide success with The Bodyguard (a film I’ve little time for, in all honesty), would follow it up with the sublime and hugely underrated A Perfect World? A film that that gave him a character who couldn’t be much further away from The Bodyguard’s Frank Farmer (these’s an argument for Patrick Swayze, but his choice of material, while risky, was lacking in quality too often).

Then, after that, he jumped aboard Wyatt Earp, a big budget Western with no guarantee of success whatsoever (and ultimately, it proved not to enjoy that much at all).

Look back down the Costner resume, and it’s full of films chosen with an eye on the quality of the material first. Say what you like about The Untouchables, Bull Durham, Field Of Dreams, Dances With Wolves, JFK, A Perfect World, Tin Cup, The Postman and Thirteen Days, but you can barely fault the eye for good material, or, at the very least, the propensity for taking a risk. They weren’t even risks because his career demanded he take a gamble to spark it into life. They were risks taken primarily because he wanted to take them.

While we’re here: Tin Cup and Thirteen Days are both hugely underappreciated movies, and The Postman, while a mess, is at least layered with ambition.

Now, take a look at most of the movie stars who have been doing the rounds at some point over the past two decades, and try and find another who’s consistently gambled, and won more than they’ve lost. Michael Douglas, perhaps? Certainly not the likes of Shia LaBoeuf (although he’s still young, to be fair), or Nicolas Cage (since he got his blockbuster breakthrough). Julia Roberts? Harrison Ford? Will Smith? Mel Gibson? Eddie Murphy? Johnny Depp, maybe? Even the two Toms, Hanks and Cruise, have played more safer cards than riskier ones.

Most actors we’ve mentioned have several interesting and riskier projects to their name, to be fair, but not to the same ratio when placed against their more commercial picks. And granted, there are many actors who have just as interesting a filmography as Costner, but how many of them were picking projects such as these when they first burst through as a major movie star? And then kept picking them when they were at the top of their powers? Even Waterworld, love it or loathe it, is about the most difficult action blockbuster anyone in the 90s could have plumped for.

Kevin Costner is far from a perfect actor, and he may be the most wonderful or loathsome human being on the planet. I couldn’t tell you. Nor can I tell you what was going through his head when he was making Dragonfly. He’s certainly made a number of shitty movies.

But we still need more movie stars like him. We still need a greater concentration of actors who have the chops to roll the dice when they’ve got the most to lose.

Long term, Costner’s probably paid a box office price for doing so. But the pay off is that, even though his star has long peaked, we’re still talking about his films, and the choices he made. And there simply aren’t many other actors of the last few decades whom that applies to.

Interesting stuff.

And, in the interest of full disclosure, I gotta admit that I love Waterworld.

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