Film Fund-amentals: Mainstream Meditations

There is a general notion that part of the difference between major movies and indie films is that independent flicks operate outside of the cultural mainstream. The mainstream represents an overall cultural/institutional structure while the indie world operates in an oppositional state.

Maybe they do. But that forces the question: What is mainstream? Quite seriously, is there such a thing? I really don’t think so. In fact, I don’t think there has really been a strong definable cultural “mainstream” since the early 1960s. That was about the time when the gray twilight of the Eisenhower years faded into a psychedelic midnight.

Any modern attempt to define the mainstream seems doomed to either falling into an ideologically predetermined pit or wandering off into a lalaland of half-baked assumptions. Over the past several years, studies have been done trying to determine TV and movie viewing habits of registered Republicans and Democrats (though based on political bias, this reasonably covers the parameters of modern mainstream American cultural debate). Supposedly the top shows for Republicans are Modern Family and Big Bang Theory. Democrats allegedly stay glued to Dexter and Mad Men.

What does this tell us? Mostly it suggests that Democrats all have cable TV and Republicans don’t. Neither Modern Family nor Big Bang Theory is exactly a conservative show. Actually, a case could be made about latent right wing tendencies in a show like Dexter. Either way, it might just be possible that people watch these shows more for entertainment than social/cultural values. Sometimes, I fear that there are no remaining relationships between entertainment and values.

Similar studies have been done regarding movies. Probably the most interesting thing gleaned from these reports is that Republicans are more likely to skip going to the theater and will wait for the film to come out on DVD. Maybe they’re saving up their money to get cable, I don’t know. Oh, and 60 percent of the Republicans can’t stand Michael Moore. Based on what I’ve heard, this figure is probably low. Ironically, a lot of Democrats are not too crazy about Moore either. Strangely enough, viewers from both political parties all love Amadeus. It seems that Mozart (and not Beethoven) shall unite the world.

To be honest, these studies don’t really clarify anything. Sure, the more conservative a person may be the less thrilled they are with hearing F-bombs throughout a movie. On the other hand, I have the strong impression that a lot of young right-wing types find the movie Scarface oddly inspirational (sort of an Ayn Rand story on steroids). The current cultural scene is such a mixed bag that it often defies description let alone analysis.

The near ludicrous success of The Avengers is potentially a tribute to its own half-cockamamie presentation of “diversity.” Think about it. You’ve got one super-rich, arrogant rep from the 1 percent camp. Add in a 99 percenter from the Depression who has been turned into a superhero role model for the Boy Scouts. Tag them both with a badass black dude with a commanding voice and a really great looking leather coat. Mix in a female Russian super assassin with a swift kick and deep feelings and round it all off with a good-looking immigrant with family problems. Combine it all with the Hulk’s anger management issues and the whole thing starts to sound like Modern Family in costumes (minus the gay characters).

In many respects, the impending success or failure of the movie Dark Shadows will be a stunning mix of these contradictions. After all, it is a major mainstream movie by that major mainstream director, Tim Burton. Yes, Burton is a mainstream director almost in spite of himself. He really hasn’t changed much since his early days (back when he was booted out of Disney), but everything else has changed and he is basically mainstream. It stars Johnny Depp, just about the only truly bankable movie star out there even though his success is partly due to playing the swishiest gay-blade of a pirate in movie history.

The problem the movie will face is its inability to comprehend the emotional force of its own source material. Sure, the old TV series was a half-campy over-the-top production infamous for its whacked-out plot lines and numerous live-and-on-the-air boo-boos. But it also had an emotional intensity that was once best explained to me by a recovering heroin addict (and addicts made up a large chunk of the show’s viewership). As he put it, it was the only show on TV about people fighting against destructive urges that they could barely control. Most likely the movie’s display of warped humor and surreal visuals will not be able to compete against the TV series’ strange power to hook (no pun intended) the attention span of the average addict.

Which suggests several things to me. The term “mainstream” is basically meaningless (except in terms of ownership — for example, mainstream media is something owned by a major corporation). Likewise, there is no mainstream culture in any coherent, traditional sense. Instead, we are now dealing with a system of sub-cultural groupings with points of overlap that can allow for successful combinations. A major production has to find a way of combining many of these groupings in order to achieve a broad audience. In turn, an indie movie is more capable of playing to a smaller niche market and primarily has to find that niche market.

Political content, social statements and hip attitudes in a movie will almost always take a back seat to emotional engagement with the audience. Finding this point of engagement is the tricky point. The upside with the old-school mainstream model was that filmmakers didn’t have to work much at it. They just followed the cultural formula. The sentimental tricks were clichéd, but the nice thing about clichés is that the responses are predictable. Some of these tricks still work, but lots of them don’t, and modern media are having to stumble their way toward the new clichés. By the way, clichés are not always a bad thing except when you do them badly.

Finally, recovering heroin addicts make for a very interesting form of test audience. Once they are past the denial stage, they can be pretty upfront with what they think.

Film Fund-amentals: The Mis-Connections

What is the common link between Think Like a Man, John Carter, The Hunger Games and Jennifer Aniston, a performer whose career is largely based upon being Hollywood’s ideal concept of a major star? Presumably the correct answer would be nada. There is obviously no common link between these four items.

This is why you are not working as a big-shot Hollywood executive. You do not understand the Big Picture. Only senior Hollywood suits truly understand how this all works. The rest of us are simply the victims of too much rational thinking.

Take for example the surprise success of Think Like a Man. Though it is most likely about to get buried by the US opening of The Avengers, this little romantic-comedy turned a $12 million budget into a $64 million box office within a mere two weeks. It has manged to do this despite the fact that the romantic-comedy genre has been running pretty flat over the past year. Then add in the other issue, because the movie has what insiders euphemistically refer to as an “urban” cast (in other words, a predominately African-American cast in a movie based on a best-selling book by an African-American comedian turned writer).

In the real world, the success of Think Like a Man seemingly gives proof to the shifting demographics of the American movie audience. These days, both film and television are very dependent upon an extremely diverse mix of viewers. This is sort of acknowledged on TV by the increasing need to “diversify” a show (usually based on some kind of harebrained statistical breakdown that demands one black character for every six to seven white players). As backhanded as the TV approach may be, mainstream movies haven’t exactly caught up yet to that level of sophistication.

So in the Hollywood mindset, there has to be some confusion about how a black comedy such as Think Like a Man (which is not exactly a black comedy anyway) could be successful. To the suits, this can only mean one thing: the romantic comedy is making a comeback. Obviously if this film (with a predominately black cast) can make this much money, just imagine how it would do with a white cast. Hey, this could be an ideal project for Jennifer Aniston….

The enormous failure of John Carter has resulted in the unusual (for Hollywood) moment when the senior executive in charge had to fall on his sword. Rich Ross’ recent resignation as head of Disney’s film production almost sounds like that rare moment when a senior executive takes responsibly for failure. If this were to happen on a regular basis, every executive suite in Hollywood would be equipped with revolving doors.

But Ross doesn’t count. He moved into that position from Disney’s cable TV operations. By Hollywood standards, he was not a “movie person.” If Ross had been considered an insider, he would never have had to take the blame for a dumb idea that had been green-lighted in 2008, long before he was promoted to the head position (in 2009). Likewise, if Ross had pulled the plug on the film there would have been hell to pay. Ross made the mistake of going along in order to get along. More importantly, he was a TV guy, and the movie folks will tell you that TV is not the same as the movies. After all, if John Carter had been a TV show it would have been quietly canceled well before massive damage was done.

With $200 million blown out the wazoo, you would think that John Carter would put a major dent in the notion of bloated tent pole movies. But then The Hunger Games happened. This sucker will probably end up making around a billion dollars, and every studio honcho alive wants a cut of the action. What is perhaps most interesting about the phenomenal success of The Hunger Games is that: 1) it has the box office of a tent pole movie but was made on a modest budget of $80 million; 2) both the novel and the film tap into a large teenage female audience, not a male audience (though it has a strong overlap into that part of the market); 3) it has certain narrative and thematic qualities that are more closely related to various TV shows that also appeal to the same demographic market (for example, The Vampire Diaries).

In a sense, The Hunger Games is a cable TV series done on a bigger budget. It is an action movie with a female lead. It has a surprising number of black actors playing roles that could have been played by whites rather than the other way around. More ironically, the film was produced by Nina Jacobson, who was fired by Disney back in 2007 (she was fired by phone while in the delivery room).

Once again, back in the real world, this might suggest that conventional Hollywood thinking doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. But you would be wrong. What it really means is that The Hunger Games would have done even better if it had been made for $200 million and starred Johnny Depp (who, I am sure, would have done the part in drag). Better still, how about Jennifer Aniston? It could have been the crucial game-changer role she needs….After all, her romantic comedies have mostly been flops and her high-profile career has been slightly marred by the lackluster audience response to virtually every movie she has actually starred in (the ones in which she had the lead role and wasn’t part of an ensemble cast).

Am I shamelessly pounding away on a point here? You betcha! So far the biggest successes of the year have been movies that were not produced according to the rules of standard Hollywood thinking. It is not a coincidence. But Hollywood hasn’t a clue. They’re still following a master plan that resulted in such films as John Carter. The closest effect that some of these surprise successes have had on Hollywood is that female thing from The Hunger Games.

Which is why they are placing more emphasis in the ads for The Avengers on Scarlett Johansson. Especially her cleavage. That’s sort of the same idea, ain’t it?

And by the way, John Carter was originally suppose to be the first of a trilogy. I suspect that a reboot will be announced very soon.

Film Fund-amentals: The Future Was Yesterday

James Cameron is planning to set up mining operations on near-earth asteroids within the next two years. But before he becomes the first plutocrat on Mars, Cameron also wants to move the standard running speed of film from 24 frames per second to 48 fps. In his spare time, Cameron also enjoys the occasional cruise at the bottom of the ocean, a reminder that he is just an average guy who enjoys a little fishing.

What can one say about asteroid mining except that the technology is still running a little behind on that idea? Besides, Bruce Willis may not be available. However, the issue about film’s running speed is both curious and controversial. A lot of theater owners are protesting the idea because of the cost involved in making the change. But to be honest, I thought that the change to digital sort of makes the whole debate pointless.

The traditional running speed of 24 fps was basically coincidental in the first place. It just happened to have been the speed that most closely matched the audio tape speed of 7-1/2 inches per second. Obviously this became a useful match-up for sound movies. Before that, the running speed was determined by how fast the cameraman could crank the camera.

Over thirty years ago, Douglas Trumbull helped to invent Showscan, which moved the running speed up to 72 fps (and used a 65mm film gauge). This went over like a lead balloon with theater owners. Though the image produced by this faster system was sharper and more “realistic,” most theaters were not interested in the cost of technical adaptation.

Today, with the advent of digital 3D, the running speed issue is an open book. The IMAX 3D system runs nearly twice as fast as anything Cameron is talking about. In fact, the IMAX system is running right around the threshold that Trumbull was hoping to promote years earlier with Showscan. When a film runs at the standard speed (24 fps), the mind is still faintly aware of the flicker effect, and the average viewer retains a basic ability to register a difference between reality and the projected image. But once the projection speed reaches 72 fps, this difference dissolves and the mind can no longer make the distinction between the projected image and reality.

Back in the 1980s, Showscan demonstrated this effect by a presentation stunt. A display of the system would start with a person standing in front of the screen, explaining the concept. At some point during this presentation, the speaker would slip through a slit in the screen while his filmed image replaced him in front of the audience. Virtually no one could tell the difference between the real figure and the image.

If you saw Avatar in IMAX 3D, then you got a hefty taste of what I am talking about. In a conventional 2D screening, the alien characters of the movie were extremely impressive examples of high quality computer graphics. But you also noticed that they looked like computer graphics. In the IMAX 3D presentation, the residents of Pandora appear as life-like as the human cast (heck, they were more life-like than some of the cast). It really was a different experience. Of course at the running speed used by IMAX 3D, even Bugs Bunny is going to look real.

In 2009, a research group with the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers settled on a new range of six different running speeds for movies. The SMPTE recommendations are all very well researched (and 48 fps is one of the slower speeds). However, I’m not sure if it really matters, since the rapid technological change will take this issue in whatever direction is necessary (well, that and the cost of the technology).

This is due, in part, to the fact that the frames per second approach to speed measurement is becoming irrelevant. Likewise, some of the parameters are not actually being mapped out by members of the SMPTE. Part of this “speed” issue is being worked out by gamers (most of whom would find this discussion to be a hoot from an old fuss-budget). By their standards, all of the SMPTE recommended speeds are too dang slow. Gamers represent a different part of the digital universe, but they are part of the greater technological scene and they have a distinct influence on digital development. In fact, they have a bigger influence than the SMPTE.

Which suggests to me that the current projections of future development in the motion picture industry are largely based upon concepts that were primarily valid as of three days ago and became invalid just yesterday. 48 fps is already out of date. Theater owners are going to remain extremely unhappy about everything yet to come (starting last week). Within a few more years, none of this industry is going to much resemble anything we are currently debating. The only prediction concerning future development that I feel confident in making is that movie popcorn will remain grossly over-priced. The rest involves a wild range of variables, half of which practically sound like something from outer space.

Which may be why Cameron is now looking to jump-start the industrial revolution in the Alpha Centauri star system.

Hey, wait a minute. Isn’t this how the bad guys in Avatar started out?

Film Fund-amentals: Dawn of the Dead (Celebrity Edition)

Death is not necessarily an end. Sometimes, it’s a career move. It almost worked for Orson Welles. After he died in 1985, various attempts were made to restore some of his movies to his original cut and even complete several films he had left unfinished. For several years, Welles had a surprisingly busy afterlife.

But the real push toward a postmortem career took place last week when Tupac Shakur appeared at the close of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. The digital resurrection of Tupac has created an enormous stir, partly because the entire audience (and many critics) were starting to sound like the kid in the movie The Sixth Sense.

The technical achievements of the Tupac stunt are open for debate, especially since the production company Digital Domain does not like to reveal details about the man behind the curtain. One of the better online discussions about the technical aspects can be found at Yahoo! News as they talk with Michael Bove of the MIT Media Lab. As Bove points out, the image wasn’t a true hologram but more of a mix of holography, computer generated imagery and the magician’s old friend Pepper’s Ghost.

It may be all smoke and mirrors, but it has worked well enough that there is now a serious debate about putting “Tupac” on some form of a tour. Heck, for all I know this is how The Rolling Stones have done the last couple of their tours. But what is really interesting about the “Tupac” performance is the way in which they have been able to generate a so-called “new” performance. In the past, the digital insertion of dead stars has been limited either to the content of previously filmed material (for example, the Mustang ad with Steve McQueen) or digital painting with a body double (Peter Cushing’s cameo at the end of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith).

Which brings up some questions as to the plus and minus of doing a movie with just dead people. Sort of the ultimate version of Plan 9 From Outer Space as dead movie stars are presented in “new” performances. The Tupac presentation demonstrates that the technology is basically ready. The only thing stopping it is….

Lawyers. Lots and lots of lawyers. Also the heirs to various estates who have hired the lawyers. The issue as to who owns the right to a dead person’s image is murky. Last year, a federal judge struck down parts of a Washington state law that restricted commercial use of a deceased celebrity image. In California, there is the Celebrities Rights Act, which protects a person’s image for 70 years after their death, as well as a Civil Code known as the Astaire Celebrity Image Protection Act (passed in response to the infamous Dirt Devil commercial). A dozen US states have various laws regarding this issue. The list will continue to grow in sync with the technology.

Most of these laws pertain to the rights of the celebrity’s heirs to retain and control images of the deceased (especially in regards to commercial exploitation). Since part of the reason for using a dead celebrity is to get an iconographic image for a modest price, the ownership issue takes a bite out of the process. Likewise, these laws are primarily focused on the commercial use and manipulation of old images and footage.

Now we have entered a new world where completely new performances can be conjured out of the software system. For example, let’s say you have the money, the technology and the presumed lack of brains, and all you want is to do a porn flick starring Cary Grant. No problem. At least no problem until his heirs sue you off the face of the earth (which I have no doubt they will do and I strongly support their right to do so). Not only will they have the right to go after the producer about the use of Grant’s image, but I also suspect they will have various grounds to go after the filmmaker regarding the “new” performance created for the deceased. Grave robbing is bad enough, but libel can get nasty.

So we may be entering a brave new world of litigation. But it gets even better. We already have a new breed of agents, the kind who handle dead clients just for this purpose. Along with the agents, we will (I assume) have a new form of publicist (who will probably be technically able to get an audio arrangement that would allow for the press to do phone “interviews” — and I have done a few phone interviews where I might as well have been talking to the dead). Heck, business managers for the dead ought to be next.

There are definitely some positive aspects to using the dead. They don’t whine as much as living performers and are a lot less likely to do a Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan stunt (and they will certainly be more even-tempered than Mel Gibson). Many directors will finally feel that they are getting exactly the kind of performances they want out of the cast. The personal demands during the shoot will be a lot easier to manage. Likewise, no one will ever again be bugged by that time-honored question: “What’s my motivation?”

The more I think about it, the more it almost sounds desirable. This may be the truly scary part about the process. In a way, it completely denies the possibility of any fresh, new approaches. Quite literally, it’s a dead-end. But since Hollywood is shamelessly mining the past for everything else, it kind of makes sense.

So I guess the lesson we have learned this week is that there is an afterlife. Kind of. OK, it’s more of a reboot. Now excuse me, I want to get back to work on Bogart’s next film.

Film Fund-amentals: JOBS Act and Crowdfunding

I was wrong. I thought the congressional debate on the JOBS (Jumpstart Our Small Businesses Act — and yes, the acronym is screwy) would take a bit longer than it did. Heck, here lately Congress can’t even agree if it’s a nice day without lots of heated accusations and a threatened government shut down.

But the bill is signed, sealed and delivered, which means that crowdfunding is about to get a major overhaul. A key part of this act completely rewrites the structure of crowdfunding, but does so in a manner that leaves an odd range of unanswered questions. It’s a reminder of what Will Rogers once said about a baby with a hammer.

As I explained a few weeks ago, the JOBS Act places crowdfunding under the control of the Securities and Exchange Commission. A lot of people who were involved in the original development of crowdfunding were really hoping to avoid this, since it drastically alters the framework of the process. The intent of this act is to make crowdfunding available for use by entrepreneurs looking to jumpstart funding for a small business. The pressure for this revamp has largely come from the silicon realm, where a virtual generation of Steve Jobs wannabes are anxious to take their digital visions to the marketplace. This sounds all fine and dandy.

However, the short history of crowdfunding has largely been that of folks engaged in much more limited, single-focused projects. This has been the primary concern of crowdfunding during its brief but successful run. Ironically, this is the one issue that the JOBS Act largely ignores, as it leaves open a faint hint that certain exceptions may be made to the new regulations and then orders the SEC to work out the details.

So where does this act leave the young indie filmmaker who is hoping to raise around $10,000 for a small documentary about, let’s say, the environmental issues related to a small stream? Up the creek without a paddle? Maybe. Certainly when the JOBS Act kicks into full gear in 2013, the prospect of simply raising money via crowdfunding for a relatively small project looks dim. It is possible that the SEC will carve out some type of safe zone where the old model of crowdfunding can still operate. Oddly enough, this would be a bit surprising, since this really isn’t how the SEC does business. They regulate things. They don’t normally tell people to run wild and have a good time.

This is one of the reasons why some people are having a negative reaction to these changes. Most people who have been using the crowdfunding approach have not been trying to start a business. They are only trying to complete a single project. Most likely, once the SEC is done figuring out the new rules, people pursuing crowdfunding in this manner will have to deal with greater regulatory demands as well as some form of a more defined business structure and investment model. The reason for this is simple: Congress views crowdfunding exclusively as a form of investment.

The old model avoided this issue altogether. People who gave money to a project through a crowdfunding site were in no way making an investment. They were simply handing out money. The process wasn’t a charity either, since that would have involved the IRS. So it was a one-way street of strangers giving other strangers money for the thrill of it.

But it is now a form of investment, and that is a whole new game. New websites built upon the investment model are already forming (even though it will be later in the year before they can start operating). Other sites such as Kickstarter are sticking with the old model until the government tells them otherwise. Nobody really seems to have a clue how this new process will develop, and the SEC is still sorting out what they are supposed to regulate as well as what they are supposed to deregulate.

Which brings up the other major problem with the JOBS Act. In order to convert crowdfunding into an investment model for business start-ups, a lot of key SEC regulations have been altered and/or dropped. This makes it easier for the average Joe to jump in and invest. It also makes it possible for the average Joe to lose his shirt (and pants and socks and shoes).

The old crowdfunding model was remarkable for its relative lack of “problems.” I suspect that this was due in part to the outrageously simplistic nature of the system. Short of floating a totally bogus project, there wasn’t much room for monkey business. But many people feel that the new investment model will result in massive acts of fraud. To be honest, I do not have either the legal or financial qualifications for assessing this issue. But my gut instincts tell me that it will trigger a fraudsters stampede.

The reason is obvious. Most financial fraud is based upon playing fast and easy with the rules and regulations of any given business. The more regulations you have, the more room to play. The JOBS Act is seemingly designed to create a vast board game for the fraud crowd. I have no doubt that they will rise to the new challenge.

So be careful out there.

Film Fund-amentals: The Summer Forecast

OK, it is now official. Hollywood is in a steep slide down a slippery slope courtesy of its fondness for big-budget tent pole movies. Well, that is one way of reading the recent report by Benjamin Swinburne, Morgan Stanley’s chief analyst for film and broadcasting.

Due to a variety of factors, Swinburne presents clear data showing that the actual revenue for movies made by the major companies has dropped by 40 percent between 2007 and 2011. Declines in box office and video revenue are part of the problem. But he also notes that: “Only through significant realignment of (movie) cost levels, particularly in the area of marketing and distribution but also overall production costs, can values be maximized.” In other words, the major Hollywood companies are making movies that are way too expensive and spending way too much at every level for a “profit” that is increasingly non-existent.

OK, I have been saying the same thing for the last three years, but I don’t work for Morgan Stanley and their word is taken a lot more seriously in the business than mine. Too bad. I’m nicer. However, we both have a point, and the upcoming summer movie season could be the ultimate testing ground for the impending tent-pole movie implosion.

The summer movie season of 2012 (which sort of started in February) is dominated by a collection of some of the most expensive movies ever made. With a base average budget of $100 to $150 million (the low end being $70 million and a high end of $250 million or more), the upcoming months will be dominated by some of the costliest advertising campaigns imaginable. The tone is already picking up a strange smell of desperation combined with a sense of shifty-eyed bluffing more associated with a round of liar’s poker.

Since we have already gone through the pre-summer release slate (movie releases are now divided between the “summer” and the “Holidays” — the rest of the year is simply a few weeks between these two), a clear pattern has developed. At best, only one film a month stands any chance of being a major success (The Lorax in March and more recently The Hunger Games). The rest are dead on arrival (for example, John Carter). We can call this The Highlander theory, since there can be only one.

This really isn’t a surprise due to the shifts in audience viewing habits as well as a growing weariness from the worn-out movie franchise approach. Add in the basic fact that the current economy is forcing many people to cut spending to the bone (and beyond), combined with steep cost increases at the box office, and you have the perfect storm model. At best, nobody can afford to go to all of these movies every weekend, and lots of people are holding back for just the select few major event flicks of the year.

The only sure thing this summer is The Dark Knight Rises. This sucker already has as many fan sites on the web as Lindsay Lohan has traffic tickets. Even if it turns out to be two hours of Christian Bale reading the phone book (which I would like to officially offer as the rumor du jour), the anticipation is enough to push the movie through the roof. Despite its late opening date (July 20th), The Dark Knight Rises will be the 800 pound gorilla in the room that everybody else has to work around.

With the May 4 release of The Avengers, Marvel Studios will have reached the summit of their masterful business plan to make really expensive movies that have no plausible way of breaking even. Since their last two productions (Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger) actually did much better in Europe than in the States, Stan Lee had better hope that the euro stays stable. The same goes for The Amazing Spider-Man. Marvel-based movies have a surprisingly fixed return rate that is OK, but they don’t seem to understand their own limits.

But I suspect that the first major causality of the summer will be Dark Shadows. It rarely works to make a big-budget movie based on an old TV series. Likewise, it doesn’t help to turn it into what appears to be a campy comedy (even if the original series had a wild and crazy melodramatic buzz). So the only real question is which movie in May will do worse, Dark Shadows or Battleship? Most likely, it will be Battleship (though it will have a stronger hold on the highly over-rated young male viewer ship — that is, if the young male audience can get summer jobs and buy their tickets).

The only advantage Men in Black III will have is a release date free of competition. Since the previous sequel (made ten years ago) did badly and is viewed by many as a total embarrassment, the effort to do another sequel isn’t exactly based on rational thinking. Even the recent release of the movie’s theme song has already resulted in lots of critical snipping, so I suspect this baby will have a bumpy ride.

Perhaps the only significant wild card of the summer will be Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s quasi-prequel to Alien. Advance word suggests that the movie is kind of an odd mix of Alien, Blade Runner and whatever else happened to pop into Sir Ridley’s mind. Most of Scott’s films don’t go very far. But every so often, he creates the defining film of the decade (for example, Alien and Blade Runner). His batting average is way below .500, but when he does connect with the ball it becomes a homer.

As for the rest of the summer, what can I say? Read some good books, go to the pool, and hope it doesn’t turn into a global warming scorcher like last year.



Film Fund-amentals: Audience Discretion Advised

Harvey Weinstein having a fight with the Motion Picture Association of America about a movie’s rating is not exactly an uncommon event. Heck, it wasn’t that long ago that he was duking it out with them over their bizarre R rating for The King’s Speech. Sure, there are several scenes in the film where Bertie can only talk without a stutter by getting angry and cursing a blue steak. But hey, many of us have dealt with eight-year-olds who operate in much the same manner. So none of this is particularly shocking.

Likewise, Weinstein is in a good position to take a stand against the MPAA over the R rating for the documentary Bully. A no-holds-barred documentary on bullying among American youths already has a built-in audience, and lots of young people will, presumably, be primed for the movie (which is part of the reason why the AMC theater chain wants to show it). The language issue that invoked an R from the MPAA has no relevancy to the intended audience (most of whom have either said or heard much worse). If anything, the MPAA has simply built a nice little bully pulpit for Harvey, and he has the courtesy to use it. As the ancient master once said, it’s all publicity.

But it does bring us back to the perpetual question: What the heck is the point of these ratings? I mean, aside from making money for the MPAA. Since the MPAA charges film companies anywhere from $2,500 to $25,000 to slap a rating on a movie, this process is a pretty neat cash cow. Likewise, most commercial theaters will not show a movie without an MPAA rating. So the whole process feels a bit like a protection racket.

It’s no wonder that many filmmakers privately resent the process. Some will even mention that there is no constitutional authority for the ratings. Basically, it’s a form of voluntary coercion (though if you want a wide release for the film, you are stuck with it). The MPAA will tell you that it’s designed to inform parents and protect artistic freedom. In my own experience, most parents are still half confused about the ratings. As for artistic freedom, are they serious? It’s more like a passive-aggressive approach to censorship. I don’t know who writes the copy for the MPAA website, but they might want to spin the material in a slightly more convincing manner.

But that’s OK. A bigger hoot can be found on the website for The Classification and Rating Administration, home to the largely mysterious panel of folks who are used to determine the ratings. There you will find a message from Joan Graves, the MPAA Ratings Chief, which explains that they are right, you are wrong, and what they are doing is for your own good so shut your fat trap you little ingrate. OK, she’s more polite than I am, but it pretty much comes off that way.

She even explains the basis for the ratings. Sort of. Actually, she doesn’t really explain much of anything, but then that is the mystery of the system. In truth, it doesn’t have to explain itself. As Weinstein demonstrated when he appealed the R originally imposed on Bully, the MPAA doesn’t need to say anything more than note that the movie has a lot of rough language (as if R stood for rough and not restricted). By the way, whenever a filmmaker appeals a decision to the MPAA, that is another fee for their services. The panel is supposed to be made up of folks from a diverse range of American society, but the billing practice suggests that they are all lawyers.

Several years ago, I outlined some of the thinking behind rating decisions by the MPAA (A Filmmaker’s Guide to the Ratings). I was only being half-satirical in that piece. The rating system has long been notorious for its bean-counter methodology. One F word will get you a PG-13. More than three F words will get you an R. It’s a small wonder that The King’s Speech didn’t get slapped with an NC-17. By the way, Ms. Graves does point out that NC-17 is not the same as saying “adults can’t and shouldn’t see these films.” Maybe it’s just me, but her tone seems to suggest that you might consider going to confession right afterwards.

The long-standing argument for having the MPAA rating system is that an industry-imposed approach must be in place in order to prevent the government (local, state or federal) from legislating some type of system on movies. In reality, it would be difficult (at best) for any such laws to be created that could pass constitutional muster. The MPAA ratings have no actual legal authority (except in some communities where there are laws requiring enforcement — though it is not clear if any of these laws have been tested in court), and most theaters comply with the ratings as a voluntary service (better known as “cover-your-butt” strategy). Likewise, the ratings primarily affect minors, and it is unlikely (though by no means impossible) that a concerned parent will sue on behalf of their little darling’s rights to see an NC-17 flick.

It also doesn’t help that the most consistent amount of noise about the ratings often comes from so-called “family” groups who argue that the MPAA is too lenient. Of course, this takes us back to the MPAA’s argument that we need their system in order to prevent other, possibly more repressive approaches, from being created. The whole thing quickly turns into a political Catch 22.

Which is why the rating system will not go away anytime soon. At best, it is the unbearable used as a buffer against the unthinkable. But the system is long overdue for major reform. For example, the charge for the ratings desperately needs to be revamped in order to make it more accessible to low-budget filmmakers. Likewise, a more objective and rational set of standards needs to be used by the ratings board with some type of variable structure related to the obvious differences between films. After all, The King’s Speech is not the same as The Hangover (which worked a lot harder at earning its R rating). The current system is mostly composed of the panel’s sense of pique and whimsy. Sure, the MPAA insists that it is merely representing current “community standards.” But what “community?” Whose “standards?” There is simply no level of agreement on that issue.

What the rating system really does is to both impose and enforce the MPAA’s own notion of community standards. So maybe they should be more upfront about this process. Better still, they might be advised to move out of their secretive shell and start having more of a dialog with the affected “communities.”

Who knows — it might be an educational experience for all involved.

Film Fund-amentals: Crowdfunding 2.0

Will Rogers once observed, “This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer.”

Thanks to Senate Bill 1933/H.R. 3606 (Reinvigorating the Capital Markets for Emerging Growth Companies), some indie filmmakers are feeling as if it’s hammer time in the halls of Congress. Actually, the reaction among indie filmmakers is pretty mixed because the issue is so utterly confusing (in reality, what is currently going on regarding Congress and crowdfunding involves numerous bills in both the House and the Senate) that most folks are having trouble keeping track of the debate. Not surprising, since the debate is all over the map, and for most low-budget filmmakers, it might as well be coming from another planet. Heck, the only immediate achievement in these debates is the official agreement that “crowdfunding” is to be used as a single word.

I’ve been trying to follow these various bills and debates. I’m also largely confused about various points regarding the full implementation of these “reforms.” The whole thing sounds like a run through of the Who’s on First routine. A well-informed and detailed breakdown can be found at The Wrap website, courtesy of Jeff Steele’s columns. A lively sense of outrage can be located on Twitter via Lucas McNelly. All I can give you is a very general overview. This is already more than Congress can do, so please bear with me.

Several years ago, crowdfunding made its first soft stirring as an alternative funding venue for extremely low-budget movies. The rules were simple: you posted your proposed project, offered some kind of gift at the end of the project (e.g., a DVD of the finished film) and hoped that a network of people would be willing to donate the funds needed for the movie. It all seemed pretty straightforward.

Despite some doubts and misgivings in certain circles about this approach (admittedly, I had some doubts), it took off and by the end of 2011, crowdfunding had become a major success story. Unfortunately, success not only has a thousand fathers but also a million paternity suits. A process that began with the low-key drive of a Girl Scout Bake Sale was suddenly the focus for “investors.” Investors are very different from donors, and the somewhat nebulous nature of crowdfunding had no clear demarcation line between the two. This is the reason that Congress felt the need to jump in. Too bad. A lot of low-budget indie filmmakers were just starting to enjoy the bake sale.

In my earlier blog piece, I expressed some concerns about the peculiar nature of the crowdfunding system. The people who donated money through crowdfunding were not really donors in any legal sense (which is why they were not entitled to any form of tax write-offs for the money given). Likewise, they were not investors. To even treat them as investors would have been illegal under the rules of the Securities and Exchange Commission. So basically they were simply generous givers who handed out their money in lieu of flushing it down the toilet. I’m not saying that to be snarky. I’m just being blunt. They would give money to a project for no other reason than the sheer thrill of it all.

Amazingly enough, it worked. Not always, but more often than many of us thought possible. However, this type of success has attracted attention from many other quarters, especially people involved in web development who are trying to create a start-up company and are looking for various types of investors but are not able to pursue this approach under current financial structures. The one element shared by all of the bills in Congress is the intention to refashion the core concept of crowdfunding into a forum for investment in small start-up companies. From that perspective, the Congressional debate is absolutely essential.

However, the average low-budget indie filmmaker is not looking to develop a start-up company. Most of their projects are one-shot jobs. They are simply trying to get enough money to make a single movie. If and when crowdfunding is reformed, the new rules and structures would undoubtedly leave a lot of these folks feeling screwed. In fact, they will be screwed. Heck, a lot of indie filmmakers would be better off running a bake sale than dealing with all of the legal paperwork needed for the SEC. It is possible that Congress will enact a dividing line between low-budget crowdfunding efforts and those designed toward start-up companies. But that line will undoubtedly be a difficult mark for many filmmakers who will be working with budgets that are either too little or too much.

Unless a new approach is created for filmmakers dealing with the “reformed” version of crowdfunding, in most cases, it would be useless or even impossible for the majority of indie filmmakers to deal with the new SEC requirements. But it is possible that companies and service providers will be created that can do the job. They wouldn’t really be production companies in any traditional sense of the term. As a rule, they will not be particularly involved in either the production, distribution or promotion of the film. They will be the company dealing with the new rules and regulations of what we can now call Crowdfunding 2.0. There really are no such companies at the moment. But as soon as Congress acts (which could be by this summer, though I suspect it will be later simply because we are talking about Congress, for crying out loud), these companies will appear.

No matter what, crowdfunding will undergo a radical change. Some aspects of this change will be a royal pain in the rear. But I will try to keep in mind what a friend once told me: “There are so many ways this could go right.”


Film Fund-amentals: Phase Three

For all practical purposes, Phase One of the digital revolution is complete. Commercial film production is in the process of going all digital. Commercial film exhibition will do the same by the end of 2013. Likewise, streamed and VoD release is surpassing DVD rental and major retailers are shifting toward digital systems as a means of staying competitive. Digital movie distribution is not only rapidly expanding in the non-theatrical business but will eventually become the sole means for first-run theatrical presentation.

Phase Two is well under way. The Finnish movie Iron Sky is slated for worldwide release (including the US) this spring, making it already one of the most successful efforts yet at online feature filmmaking that combined a mix of traditional investors and crowdfunding sources, interactive production development with an international network of volunteers, and lots and lots of social media presentations.

More importantly, the first global hit has been achieved through digital production and distribution. In less than two weeks, the short documentary film KONY 2012 has scored over 78 million viewers on YouTube. This documentary has also scored lots of controversy, oodles of press attention and more viewers than an expensive space saga released in the same time period. Until KONY 2012, the average success rate of a straight-to-YouTube production has fluctuated between a couple of thousands to a bit over a million. Previous to this, one of the more successful online documentaries had been the Ridley Scott interactive creation of Life in a Day, which scored close to 5 million clicks.

Granted, KONY 2012 is less a documentary and more like that Humane Society of the United States TV ad that leaves everyone weeping. It has also garnered plenty of political criticism from both the Left and the Right. But I am not interested in the film from either an aesthetic or political position. I am addressing the phenomenon itself (which is extremely significant). After all, Disney would have sold its corporate soul to the devil for this large of an audience for the opening of John Carter.

The development of digital production and release has largely taken place under the radar. Most of the film industry is still primarily focused on the traditional model of production and distribution. Simultaneously, the industry is working on many individual components that are paving the way for the total digital approach (ironically, the drive toward 3D has been a huge force in this direction). Until recently, many in the industry thought that the unique collective experience of the movie theater would be strong enough to maintain some form of normative existence within the business. It is only now dawning on many people (especially theater owners) that this theory is wrong. Ironically, this mistake has been made by virtually every other commercial media industry imaginable (for example, newspapers and the music industry). This notion is sort of the Energizer Bunny of bad ideas.

Within a year (more or less), any theater that has not adapted to digital presentation will be gone. Oh sure, a few will try to hang in there as “museums” of “film art,” but access to non-digital material will quickly evaporate. Besides, most owners of theaters (including those who view themselves as running art theaters) are not capable of operating and programming for this type of structure under these extraordinary circumstances. At best, they would have to go for some type of non-profit organizational status based upon monies from civic and/or major business donations. No matter what, they will not ultimately have much to work with as the rest of the universe moves in a radically different direction. Quite literally, there will be no films.

Theatrical distribution is overwhelmingly controlled by the major Hollywood companies. They are hoping to do the same with digital distribution, which is a major reason for the development of the UltraViolet system. This is part of Hollywood’s “concern” about internet piracy (especially as they keep using that term as a catch-all for an increasingly wide range of digital activities — some of which are actually legal). Classic Hollywood existed due to a vertical and horizontal monopoly system. Modern Hollywood survives primarily because of this near-monopoly on distribution.

Which is why Phase Three of the digital revolution is of deep concern. Virtually all aspects of the industry are now dominated by the digital process. Likewise, a film can be produced and released with major viewing success via open digital systems, completely bypassing all levels of corporate Hollywood. With Phase Three, all emerging aspects of the digital process reach a state of total synthesis that results in a basically new and totally independent form of creative media. For want of a better term, we can call it the post-cinema future.

At first, it will be indistinguishable from the past. A collection of old forms in a new package. It will be a few years into Phase Three before people begin to notice the change. But we are now entering the most significant stage yet of media transmutation. All that has gone on before has merely been the beginning.

The real show is about to begin.

Film Fund-amentals: If You Can Make It Here…

The traditional relationship between American movies and the foreign market has entered a murky stage. The long standing rule is that American movies (OK, mainly Hollywood flicks) would dominate the foreign market. Movies made by other countries were either “art films” or cheaply made knock-offs of American movies. The “art films” would make the rounds of the “art theaters” (where people took the time to read subtitles), while the knock-offs would get poor dubbing and pop up on TV around 3am.

But that was about it. The business relationship was primarily a one-way street based upon the general notion that everybody loves American movies. Certainly the influence of Hollywood is undeniable. All you have to do is look at the early films of the French New Wave. When the German director Wim Wenders later commented that “the Yanks have colonized our subconscious,” he was merely describing the contemporary reality.

Which may help to explain why the good citizens of Bratislava, Slovakia, want to name a bridge after Chuck Norris. Also Arnold Schwarzenegger’s popularity in China. That’s also why Johnny Depp is doing ads for the Kiddy Land company in Japan. For better or worse, American movies and TV are the lingua franca of mass entertainment.

OK, a lot of foreign filmmakers have spent years complaining about this fact. I don’t even blame them. As a born and bred American, I have never been able to truly fathom why we Yanks are so capable of dominating this field (I mean, aside from the obvious issue of heavy-handed economic domination). Let’s be honest, no one is forcing people in Slovakia to watch Walker, Texas Ranger. Despite some initial hesitation, the Chinese government embraced Avatar with a giddy enthusiasm.

However, the one-way street of Hollywood’s global strategy may be getting a few lane changes. A growing list of other countries want a cut of the American market. The French were sizing up the possibilities several years before The Artist appeared. The Chinese are anxious to create their own version of a tent-pole blockbuster. Various players from Bollywood keep hoping to make moves into Hollywood either by buying a studio or working through Disney. Even the Turks have dreams, especially as the Turkish cinema moves toward their own brand of epic.

Can any of this work? The basic answer is no. There is absolutely no way to overstate the American movie audience resistance to anything, and I mean positively anything that is “fur-in.” Even The Artist has only made about $36 million at the US box office. Not really too bad for a film with a budget of $16 million (until you add in the estimated $30 million spent for the US marketing campaign). But this isn’t major, especially since it has been playing for over three months. The average American horror movie makes this amount in three days.

It isn’t simply the fact that most Americans dislike reading subtitles (though this is part of the problem). Even if the movie was dubbed (though the standard commercial quality of dubbing in the States run way behind the European approach), it would still go nowhere. America is basically a culturally mixed society with no clue, and many people in the States live in deep denial about virtually any and every other culture. The reason has little to do with xenophobia or political hostility. It just doesn’t seem relevant to most people’s lives here in the States. Sure, this attitude is misguided but it is deeply ingrained.

There are many reasons for this phenomenon, but the basic fact is that the average American leads an existence that is singularly removed from the rest of the global field. Oh sure, we are a world power whose current everyday existence is thoroughly intertwined with a global economy (that we were instrumental in creating) in which even a simple potato farmer in Idaho works with money loaned from China in order to import products to Europe. But the day-to-day reality of the average American is largely closed off from any real sense of this global system (despite the fact that virtually every item of clothing they have on is from a list of countries longer than the roster at the UN).

In turn, Hollywood has created an artificial sense of reality that is mostly bogus but ironically reassuring. Most Americans are extremely comfortable with it. They don’t always like it, but they are comfortable . Anything else is different and they do not adjust well to “different.” I don’t actually mean this as a critical dig at my fellow Americans. To be honest, we are all like this (with just a few minor variations). In many respects, American society is in a period of deep cultural entrenchment.

Which is perhaps the biggest reason why the current hopes of various foreign companies to penetrate the American media market are doomed to failure. Oh sure, there will be the usual four to ten screens available in New York (and a few more in Chicago), but that is about as far as it will go. With luck, a few of these movies will be picked up for a Hollywood redo.

Mostly, they will be an item for a festival at the IFC Center. But that potato farmer in Idaho will tell you that New York City is a different country.


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Ann Rutledge on China

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