Film Fund-amentals: The Old and the New

Sometimes a single photo says it all. For example, what better way to sum up the sorry state of mainstream Hollywood than in the recent snapshot of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone yakking it up from their hospitable beds in pre-op. They’re action movie stars, can’t you tell? Now, who has the bed pan?

Yes, old Hollywood is pretty lame these days, and they’re all rounded off by runaway budgets. Take for example the current production of The Lone Ranger. First, the movie was going to cost $250 million and the studio balked. In a gesture of fiscal responsibility, the budget was brought down to $220 million. But that’s OK. Now that shooting has begun, the current cost of silver bullets is edging close to $280 million. Good thing the Lone Ranger has his own silver mine because he’s going to need it. This sucker may yet go past the $300 million mark before they are done. You don’t have to be in hard-core Occupy (just fill in the blank) mode to get a bit steamed about the situation. Heck, for this kind of dough, a company could make lots of half-way decent smaller films (at least 30 to 50 or more). A few of them might even make money. From virtually any economic standpoint, the current tent pole movie process is completely irrational. Likewise, the strains are beginning to show. DreamWorks isn’t the only company with major money problems, and its joint animation venture with China may prove to be too much (like building a new studio) arriving too late (like maybe they should have done this a year ago). But DreamWorks is only one of many major companies with “problems,” and I wouldn’t be surprised to see various studio executives at the Academy Awards this year wearing cardboard signs saying “Will Produce For Food.” Heck, the whole show could be set to the tune of It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue. Which is one of the reasons I keep coming back to the notion that the low-budget indie film is the hope of the future. There are many reasons in favor of this idea, but simply put, it is the only financial model that makes any sense. Part of this is rooted in a return to certain old-guard business practices in which outgo and income operate within some form of reasonable relationship to each other. This idea is almost as old hat as an “I Like Ike” button, but it is a reasonable concept. More important, low-budget filmmaking and the rapidly expanding digital revolution were made for each other. The full and extensive effect of these changes is only now in the process of being realized. It is a process that is like a cosmic cloud still in the early stages of creating new stars and worlds. It is a free and open zone that still suggests an endless range of possibilities with few guidelines to follow. For some, the basic reference to this new world can be found in the Abe Schwartz blog article Eight Changes in Indie Film, which was recently reposted at the Raindance web site. It is still a good list, though already in need of some revamping. For example, Item 1 is now strictly academic. Kodak doesn’t make film any more. Of course you’re going to be using a digital camera. This is no longer a question but simply a fact. In turn, Item 7 has now gotten more complex, since the crowdfunding approach has proven successful enough to be subject to a new act of Congress that will make it more amenable to SEC oversight. Items 2 and 4 are arguably intertwined as the question of production budget becomes interconnected with the rapidly emerging new markets provided through online distribution. In theory, a micro-budget movie (made for around $5,000 to $100,000) could have the best of everything — money raised through crowdfunding combined with a digital release via a commercial provider. Of course, this isn’t exactly the way the system is going at the moment, and it remains to be seen if and when a digital site successfully achieves a major release of a micro-production. Personally, I suspect it will happen within the next one to two years. But until then, it is open to debate. Item 3, regarding 3D, actually misses the real point. The modern 3D system is forcing theaters to adapt to digital presentation and, eventually, digital distribution. The tent pole movies are behind this movement, but the technology is especially ideal for low-budget distribution. A total digital distribution system lowers the cost of releasing a movie to the rough equivalent of lunch money. The major companies are not really interested in opening up the distribution system, but the technology dictates otherwise. In some respects, Schwartz’s post should be read in tandem with Elliot Grove’s blog piece Debunking Five Myths of Independent Cinema (also at the Raindance site). Grove plays the important role of Satan to some of the new notions in indie film. I don’t totally agree with his points, but he has some good arguments that need to be kept in mind. OK, to be honest his Item 4 about cult status (bought, not earned) is bullshit. The whole cult thing is a strange universe, and most attempts to manufacture a cult following for a movie have gone the way of Shock Treatment (the failed sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show). A cult movie is created by the audience, not by any PR department. Don’t believe me, then just ask the Dude. But I’m more intrigued by Item 5 in Grove’s piece. I totally agree with the notion of using logic instead of mythology to make crucial determinations in a production. But I’m also guessing that he’s defending the old model (at least that would seem to be the conventional wisdom he’s alluding to). However, the old model is dead. What is happening now (and will continue to happen) is the formation of the new model. This is in no way a rejection of logic. Quite the opposite. But the old conventional wisdom (which was not always that wise to begin with) will be of little use. Or as Hegel once said: “Amid the pressure of great events, a general principle gives no help.”

Film Fund-amentals: The Crowdfunding Year

Osama bin Laden is not yet dead.

OK, he’s dead, but now he’s one of the undead. He and his undead terrorist zombie hoard are sweeping across Afghanistan in the movie Osombie, an odd cross between The Hurt Locker and Night of the Living Dead. The movie sounds half-nutty, and it’s a wonder that Kathryn Bigelow hadn’t thought of it first. Osombie is now in post-production and you, your friends, relatives and neighbors can donate to Kickstarter to help them complete this likely challenger to Citizen Kane. Since the filmmakers only need to raise $15,000 for the post-production and they are already two-thirds of the way near this goal with nearly two months left in the drive, they will most likely make it. Another success story in 2012, the unofficial year for crowdfunding. I’ve been neither hot nor cold on the crowdfunding phenomenon. In many ways, the approach is almost too new and bold to truly judge. Instead, I’ve been attempting to watch the developments as a vast range of projects rose and fell through the ever-expanding universe of crowdfunding sites. Early in 2011, I suggested to several filmmakers that the crowdfunding method was probably most ideal for movies that only needed around $6,000 to $10,000 dollars. Then Jennifer Fox broke the record when she scored over $150,000 for her production of My Reincarnation. I am no longer comfortable with trying to guess the possibilities with crowdfunding. I don’t believe that the sky is the limit (an attitude I have in regards to lots of things). Most current estimates place the success rate through crowdfunding at slightly less than 50 percent (rough overall estimate of a 43 to 46 percent rate). Compared to other means of raising funds, this is about as close to a sure thing as you can get. Even if final estimates should place the success rate closer to 40 percent, this is still phenomenal. Most other fundraising approaches are lucky to have a success rate near 10 percent. Most are way less. Of course, this has convinced some people that crowdfunding is the gateway to easy money. I would strongly recommend reading Jennifer Fox’s own observations and tips on crowdfunding (starting with her first post and continuing on to her later comments and all her links in between). Or if you prefer, just Google “tips for crowdfunding” and you will find out that everybody has advice. Heck, success not only has a thousand fathers, but every papa in the valley is ready to tell you what to do. One of the first things you will learn is that crowdfunding is not an easy way to go. Contrary to what folks may wish, you really can’t just throw together a few sentences about the project, tell people that it’s really going to be fantastic, then kick back and watch the moo-la roll in. Every crowdfunding site is packed with hopeful candidates, and you have to find a way to push your project above the loud roar of the marketplace. Before you even decide to pursue this path, spend some time (like several weeks) going online and reading the many pages of advice and tips on using crowdfunding. It is the kind of zone where there are many ways to go right and you will want to use every one of those ways. There is also one odd feature about crowdfunding that you may want to keep in mind. The core concept is that people are making donations to your project. In return for their donations, you are promising them some form of gift with the completion of the movie. Usually a free DVD copy of the film is offered. OK, let’s say you have received 20,000 donations. That turns into 20,000 free DVDs. It may even be more free DVDs than you can ever hope to sell. Maybe you should do a serious (and very detailed) cost analysis before you promise anybody anything. After all, why get a bunch of strangers to fund your movie if you end up going bankrupt afterwards? Everyone is also going to want to keep an eye on several pieces of legislation currently in Congress concerning crowdfunding. In theory, these bills are to help expand crowdfunding for an increasing number of small businesses (most notably the Entrepreneur Access to Capital Act). This part sounds OK, especially since crowdfunding is rapidly entering a zone where the dividing line between donations and investors is getting thin and all future directions are moving into an area that will bring the process increasingly under the focus of the SEC. But things get funny in Congress, and bills sometimes have a strange way of going all topsy-turvy weird as they roll around the aisles. You can send a bill to the House proclaiming sunny days as good for people and by the time it gets to the Senate it has become a ban on sun screen. Crowdsourcing.org is a good site to regularly check for updates on these bills and many other issues. Likewise, the increased integration of crowdfunding with social networking sites has become critical. This is part of the Entrepreneur Act. Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites have become important elements to the creation of successful crowdfunding campaigns. Again, Goggle is packed with sites offering advice. Some of the advice is even good. Just be sure to have lots of snacks by your side. You will be online for quite a while.

Film Fund-amentals: The Post-Cinema Future

Who goes to the movies anymore? The question has practically become rhetorical as numerous critics, bloggers, entertainment reporters and the usual cranky suspects have loudly proclaimed that they haven’t gone to a theater in the last fifty years. OK, maybe not fifty years but you get the point.

The question has garnered a strong sense of relevance as the film industry is finally confronted with the inescapable fact that movie attendance in 2011 pretty much tanked. Officially, the initial figures being presented float between 3.5 percent and 4 percent. 2011 presents the lowest box office return since 1995. Of course, these are all basic estimates and are lacking adjustments. For example, the BOR in 1995 was $5.29 billion and $9.42 billion in 2011. Looks good until you adjust for the dollar difference between the two years. $5.29 billion in 1995 would today be $7.89 billion, which brings the two totals a lot closer. Even more interesting is the plateau effect that one finds in the figures for actual tickets sold over the past ten years. From 2000 to 2002, there was a steady increase in attendance. From 2002 to 2004, you have a basic period of stability. But from 2005 onwards the figures develop a free fall (with the exception of 2009 — this is known as the Avatar effect). No matter how you shake the figures, movie attendance is going south and everybody has an opinion. Last December, Roger Ebert gave his reasons for why attendance is dropping. At Moviefone.com, they did a side show on their five reasons. Earlier this week my lawyer chewed up some billable hours (fortunately at another client’s expense) giving me his thoughts on the issue. Go on Goggle and you can spend a whole night trolling through online posts on this topic. As you wade through all of these lists (usually a lineup of five top reasons — why five I don’t know), several issues stand out as the major points. First and foremost is the current cost of going to the movies. For the past several years, ticket prices have done a slippery slide upwards (except for the cost of 3D, which has taken off like a rocket). Everything else (for example concessions) has also gone through the roof. A family of four can expect to spend around $40 to $50 just to get into the theater, and if they end up at the concession counter, they can kiss the college fund goodbye. Hollywood insists that this isn’t really an issue because the cost of going to the movies is still cheaper than going to a professional football game. Not really a good comparison. Besides, they forgot to mention that this is one of the reasons why attendance at professional sporting events is also in steep decline. By the way, the actual cost at the stadium concession stand is arguably a little lower. Add this to the other major recurring compliant: Why would anyone want to spend that kind of money on the crappy movies currently presented? This is a very touchy issue, because Hollywood will tell you that they don’t make crappy movies (heck, Chris Dodd will tell you that the crappy movies all come from Sweden). Oh sure, some of the movies may be slightly less than they had hoped, but everything they make is a solid piece of entertainment. In the real world, Hollywood has always made a bushel full of crappy movies. Some of us even love crappy movies (Roger Ebert and I even share in some of the same favorites). Crappy movies are what once made Hollywood a cultural force. But in the old days, these were crappy movies that had the primitive and forceful ability to emotionally engage the viewer. Sometimes it felt a bit like a street mugging, but they were movies that could grab you by the throat, pin you against the wall and hold your attention. Most of today’s crappy movies lack that basic skill. A perfect example was the release several years ago of the film Watchmen. In many respects, it was a surprisingly brilliant and carefully crafted adaptation of the graphic novel series. It had a high degree of artistic intelligence in its visual presentation. It was bold, extremely nuanced, vast and spectacular. But most of all, it was totally non-engaging at any emotional or basic psychological level whatsoever. Once the movie was over, you had a mild headache and no clear recollection of where you parked the car. So you have a lot of non-engaging movies coming at you with an increasingly steep admission cost, and studio heads can’t figure out why lots of people are not going to their movies. Must be the fault of (reason number three) new technology. The lousy ingrates are staying home (if they still have a home) and watching recent movies on their TV (or laptop or iPhone or whatever). Basically, this is true. Why shouldn’t they? It’s a hundred times cheaper, and at least at home you can talk all you want through the stupid flick (and even go online while the movie is playing and Tweet about how bad it is). But the rise of these new technological venues is neither a diversion nor a mere extension of the traditional distribution model for movies. It is a total transformation. The act of going to the movies used to be a primary form of entertainment. With the advent of television, the cinema became more of a secondary venue. It is now even less than that as it becomes an increasingly unnecessary process. At best, it has become a luxury (and one that an increasing number of people can’t afford). Any way you try to stack the deck (and Hollywood has been trying hard to stack it), the digital future is the only one that has any foundation in economic viability. Which may be why my lawyer was slightly surprised by my response to his comment that he doesn’t much go to movies anymore. What could I do but roll my eyes and mutter, “Who does?” We have entered the post-cinema future and everything has changed. Within another ten years (or less), the movie theater will have about the same position as the classical concert stage: a specialized forum serving a limited audience for the presentation of an older art form. The pop venue, whatever it evolves into, will be everywhere but in a theater.

Film Fund-amentals: Last One Out, Please Turn Off the Lights

It’s not exactly a major movement, but it’s starting to look like a winter of discontent in the film industry. It isn’t exactly a loud howl, but a distinct low rumbling noise is roiling through the cinematic valley, and even a tone deaf studio executive might want to cock an ear in the sound’s direction.

First Robert Redford opened the current Sundance Festival with his State of the Union address. OK, Redford’s strong environmental stand is no surprise and he is a person who walks the talk. His line about the Republican debates (“…this mushroom cloud of ego hovering over everybody”) is also a pretty accurate description of Hollywood (wish I had come up with that line first). As for Mitt Romney and the Transformers movies, I don’t know. I haven’t a clue what Mitt Romney watches and I really don’t care. But Redford’s swipe at big-budgeted movies receiving government help via the Pentagon (as is the case with these movies) is as provocative as his suggestion that the US should follow the European model of government assistance to low-budget indies. With the current political climate here in the States, it ain’t gonna happen. Instead, the main political focus is on the rise and fall (and threatened rise again) of the Stop Online Piracy Act. It’s sort of dead (and kind of not) and Chris Dodd of the MPAA is now busy threatening to hold politicians hostage if they keep opposing the act. So Dodd announces that the Hollywood purse strings are closed to selected politicians preparing to run for re-election (like maybe for president or something), which then provokes a movement calling for an investigation of Dodd for bribery. This did get Dodd to slightly tone down the rhetoric if not the ambition by the time he got to Sundance. Now he is simply referring to opponents of SOPA as a cacophony of hysterical white sound. Sort of like that great line from the old movie Beat the Devil: “Your lips move but you do not make a sound.” Admittedly, Dodd is almost enough to drive a person out of the movie business. Maybe that is why George Lucas is retiring. He is fed up with the attitude in Hollywood and is tired of the mindless, out-of-control condition of the financially bloated tent pole movies. OK, to be honest my first reaction was that this sounds just a tad like Satan announcing that he is tired of all of the sleazeballs living in Hell. After all, Lucas is one of the original architects of this contemporary Hollywood system. But that is all the more reason to listen to him (and Satan may really be tired of the low-lifes hanging around him). The negligent Hollywood attitude toward low-budget movie making is all too real, and Lucas’ concern about the ballooning budgets for Hollywood films is dead-on accurate. In fact, it almost sounds as if he has been reading this column (hey George, if you’re reading this, be aware that I can easily be hired). Most likely, he has been talking to his old pal Francis Ford Coppola, who has been saying the same things for the past several years (but I’m cheaper than Francis and I don’t do weird stuff with a horse’s head during business negotiations). Coppola has been looking at a digital, decentralized post-Hollywood future. Some studio executives are hoping that Coppola is just an old crank living in a wine cellar, which may be half true. But he is a crank living in a highly-regarded wine cellar, and he has a spooky habit of being right in these matters. Lucas is not alone. A growing list of Hollywood stars are also becoming more vocal about the crappy big-budget movies that are being made. OK, movie stars are always a little more difficult to take seriously (especially when one of them is Megan Fox, for crying out loud), and I would personally be inclined to take Lucas’s opinion more seriously (hear that George, I’m sucking up big time). But some, like George Clooney, are already doing the indie approach and doing it with some reasonably positive results. The vast majority of Clooney’s career has taken place within the low to medium indie zone. (Note to Clooney: I know I’ve been pretty snarky about you in the past, but you’re a forgiving kind of guy, right? OK, last time somebody used that line on me they found out that I wasn’t, but hey, you’re a bigger guy than I am. Right?). None of this suggests that mainstream Hollywood is about to break its addiction to mammoth productions with runaway budgets. It’s not even clear how well some of these folks will actually stick to their guns. For example, Lucas is very conflicted in his stand and seems to want the freedom to pursue low-budget filmmaking as long as it is underwritten by his deep investment in his own tent pole movies. As for the actors, well, to be honest, only a few of them have so far displayed any decisive focus in this direction. Daniel Craig is willing to mouth off (and gee, is he telling us that Quantum of Solace was a confusing mess? I just thought I was having a stroke or something while watching it), but he appears to be increasingly locked into the $150 million-plus range. So all of this public rabble-rousing may have little immediate effect. But the near unthinkable has now been placed on the table for public discussion. Likewise, the twin effect of dwindling box office and failed political efforts may be giving some folks in Hollywood a cold chill (how cold will be apparent when they fire Chris Dodd). Contrary to what they think, they may not be too big to fail. Instead, they could be in the process of doing a slo-mo crash into a thick brick wall and they haven’t a clue what is really going on. Meanwhile, a strange but impressive lineup of folks is sounding ready to bolt out of the room before the roof caves in. Hopefully, they’ll remember a very important rule: last one out the door must turn off the lights. And George (either one), don’t be hesitant to call me. I’m here for you, guy. OK, I’m really here for your money, but I’ve got some good ideas….

Film Fund-amentals: A Cinema of Exclusion

These days, it seems as if almost everybody feels excluded. This is as true in the film industry as it is in the rest of life. Sometimes the exclusion list looks to be as long as the number of conspiracy theories available at a convention of political paranoids. However, truly paranoid people are sometimes right. Same goes for the excluded camp.

For example, George Lucas has recently blown the whistle on latent racism in Hollywood film production. Sure, this has also provided a neat PR plug for his upcoming release of the movie Red Tails, but Lucas is right in his assessment of mainstream Hollywood. Black directors have become more common, but they are more widely employed in TV than in the movies, and when a studio wants to drop $150 million on a tent pole epic, they  will hire someone like Michel Gondry before they’ll go scouting for a brother. I don’t even mean this as a slap at Gondry, but he was a really weird choice for The Green Hornet movie, and I can think of several black directors who would have made more sense. But the same is true across the board. Back in the 1990s there was the brief appearance of movies by American Indian filmmakers, most notably Chris Eyre with his production of Smoke Signals. Eyre went on to do a pretty fine job for Robert Redford with the TV movie Skinwalkers (the Hillerman adaptation, not the horror movie). Thank God for television, because that is where Eyre is primarily working. Again, when a studio executive has a hot $150 million burning a hole in his pocket, he doesn’t think of signing up a Native American for the director’s chair. Heck, not even when the movie is about Indians. And let’s not even get started about women. Sure, Kathryn Bigelow got the Oscar last year. Would you care to hold your breath until the next time this happens? Didn’t think so. Heck, until the recent release of Bridesmaids there was a moronic debate about why women can’t be funny (a dumb theory presented at great boorish length by Christopher Hitchens before he died and became inexplicably beatified). Women have been successfully doing comedy longer than Betty White has been alive, but it is still treated as a kind of bizarre mutation. Same goes for women directors (most of whom are employed in TV). Even Bigelow is rarely considered in the tent pole range. By now, you may have noticed that TV is much more progressive in these zones than movies. Of course, TV pays less. It also runs through a lot more material. But mostly it is not as locked into the more limited mindset that currently predominates in the upper echelons of the film industry. Women have long been a major force for comedy in television. The black audience is one of the bigger viewer blocks. The Hispanic market has its own growing list of networks. Only the Indians have been largely ignored (with the exception of occasional PBS programs such as We Shall Remain, directed by — you guessed it — Chris Eyre). For some, this suggests that TV is really part of a massive liberal conspiracy to ram political correctness down our throats. Most people who have ever worked in television can tell you that this theory is utter gibberish. TV is just as profit-focused as movies (in some ways, even more so). TV’s main focus is on viewers, not hidden political agendas. The demographic diversity of the viewership is what drives TV. This is in part dictated by television’s need to have various target markets for their advertisers. As annoying as the lousy commercials are, they actually force TV to seek a wide and divergent sense of the marketplace. Mainstream movies basically don’t. In the old days, folks in Hollywood often referred to the rest of the land as fly-over country. There was Los Angeles and then New York. In between was some strange primitive place called “Kansas.” Occasionally, they would hear about Chicago. It seemed to have been located somewhere near “Kansas.” Today, modern studio executives have the ability to access a wide range of thoughts and opinions concerning the tastes, views and attitudes of Americans across the country. Well, not first-hand or anything. They get various studies and reports, most of which are simply tests to see if they could find enough folks in the Los Angeles area who were up for going to a free screening. Otherwise, most people in Hollywood are without a clue regarding the rest of the country. They largely operate in a La-la Land bubble and still can’t find Kansas on a map. TV has increasingly been dealing with an expanding structure (cable, DVDs, the Internet, etc.). This has forced television to plan for smaller audiences and concentrate on various approaches to niche marketing. The Hollywood movie industry is currently in a state of artificially-induced contraction as the major companies focus on fewer films, bigger budgets and an increasingly desperate drive to score huge audiences. Because of this, they are still operating with a homogeneous model of audience development. In this view, the audience is one big blob that will ooze into the theater seats every weekend for whatever over-produced piece of fluff they throw out there. Of course, this isn’t working. Actual attendance is dropping hard (gross ticket income has dropped by at least 6 percent, but actual individual ticket purchases are plummeting by somewhere around 20 to 26 percent). Such a drop in TV would result in numerous shows being canceled and countless executives getting booted. In the film industry, it has convinced Hollywood to make even fewer films with even bigger budgets. This less than sterling example of responsible thinking would suggest that Captain Francesco Schettino may yet have a job at a major studio. Which means that George Lucas is right, but for reasons far more institutionalized than he may even care to think. Things like racism and sexism are all part of the problem. But massive institutional stupidity is also a pretty big part of the picture. Especially when it comes to the audience. Many major players in Hollywood don’t have a clue who their audience is or what this audience might really want. To be honest, some of them don’t even care. And a few still think that Kansas was a mythic place created by L. Frank Baum.        

Film Fund-amentals: The Wheel Goes Round and Round

In the old children’s song, the wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round. Sort of the same thing goes on in the film industry. Lots of wheels moving around but nobody seems to be actually going anywhere.

Take for example this week’s decision by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to change the means by which feature documentaries get qualified for nomination. Technically, this rule change for 2013 is supposed to make the nomination process more equitable (as explained by Michael Moore). OK, I must confess that when I first read Moore’s explanation I thought maybe the poor lad had his ball cap on too tight. But let’s take a look at the current rules used by the Academy in this category. Currently, a documentary film has to have a seven-day screening in both New York and Los Angeles. So that rule stays the same. The ad requirement appears to have been dropped (“The motion picture must be exhibited for paid admission, and must be advertised during each of its runs in major newspapers…”). This rule even specifies the size of the ad. There is also the current requirement for the film to be screened multiple times during the day and evening. If, indeed, these points have been dropped for next year, that’s a good thing (especially the ad part, because daily ads are expensive). Unfortunately, the screening requirements stay basically the same and will still be a problem for many documentaries that are lucky to get two nights in the middle of the week. The major change is that starting next year, the voting will shift to the full membership of the documentary branch of the Academy. Traditionally, the first round of voting was done by small committees overseeing different divisions of documentary movies. This system has long resulted in numerous claims of small groups of people being able to derail a movie from ever making the shortlist. In theory, the new system will prevent this. Well, maybe. Time will tell. Of course, you’ve got this slightly odd extra ringer in the new system. Not only must the documentary be screened commercially for at least a week in both New York and Los Angeles, but it also has to be reviewed by either The New York Times and/or Los Angeles Times. Thirty years ago, this would have almost made sense (maybe). Technically, The New York Times reviews every film that has a commercial run in New York. The New York Times averages about 760 reviews per year. This is a pretty noble achievement in today’s newspaper market. Question: How firm is the Times commitment to film reviewing? After all, with last week’s dismissal of J. Hoberman from The Village Voice we have all been reminded that in modern journalism, film critics are a dime a dozen and the value of the dime has dropped to about three cents. Both The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times may have a strong desire to maintain an active arts section, but no one in their right mind should want to bank on anything in the fluid state of the contemporary print media. Even the new Academy rules leave open the prospect of changing this requirement when future development warrants it. We can call it the Gray Lady Down clause. Either way, these rule changes will neither hurt nor help most documentary movies. Some people have already wondered why the Academy didn’t include the DocuWeeks program as part of the process. This forum is presented in both New York and Los Angeles. It is a major presentation site for documentary movies and is a more consistent and better managed clearinghouse than you will find in any commercial theater. Considering the unique and specialized nature of documentaries (and the fact that most commercial theaters and many critics avoid them), it would be a more comprehensive approach to the process. As it is, these rule changes sound like  just another spin on a wheel that never goes anywhere. But the review requirement still bugs me. Oh sure, a review in The New York Times makes it all sound more official. But really, who cares? Part of the modern crisis in newspaper film reviewing (crisis as in it is vanishing) is rooted in the fact that the whole newspaper business is in massive flux as it stumbles through a radically changing world without a clue as to where it is going. Over the past decade, a variety of newspapers have folded. Many others have undergone major overhauls, normally resulting in massive layoffs and reporter rooms seemingly staffed by underpaid (or even unpaid) college interns. Where I live, we have the biggest daily newspaper in the state, and its weekday edition is often thinner than the weekly Clip N Save coupon rag. So it is not surprising that the field of newspaper film critics has taken a walloping hit. Hell, at many papers even the sports department is getting whacked, and that was viewed as much more sacred than movies. The main reason many newspapers even had film critics was because it helped attract and maintain advertising from the major distributors. But many of the major players in movie PR have moved away from an emphasis on newspaper advertising (the focus is now TV and social networks online). In the past, film critics were expected to cover (either positively or negatively) the major Hollywood movies. There was no drive to cover much of anything outside that zone. The rationale was simple. Most publishers were too crass to care, and many critics were to lazy to bother (and keep in mind that at least some of these “critics” had actually been booted into the job after they had bombed out in the sports section). Hoberman was an important exception to this. That is why many people in the indie film business will miss him. Unfortunately, the days of newspaper film criticism are over. For better or worse, it’s done. So I guess this is one of the reasons why I find the Michael Moore strategy at the Academy to be just a tad bizarre. It is as if they are preparing for tomorrow by grabbing a broken crutch from yesterday and hoping to hobble into the dawn. Which suggests to me that this is another spinning wheel that is about to go flat. I just hope Moore has kept up his AAA membership.      

Film Fund-amentals: The Box Office Report for 2011

The great thing about financial figures in the film industry is the way they give any analyst a healthy exercise in fiction. The production figure to most major movies is really just a set of rough averages, and often the count is rounded off (either up or down depending upon the wind direction) to the nearest imaginary mark. As for box office figures, well, between the routine under-reporting by the theaters and standard over-estimates from the distributor, the final result is largely an experiment in the theory of relativity.

So the box office figures for 2011 were still being sorted out, along with the various excuses, mutual blaming, general rounds of finger-pointing and bogus claims of victory. For example, Paramount Pictures is already claiming to be the number one film company in gross for the year with $5.17 billion in US distribution ($17 billion global). Of course, they spent something in the neighborhood of $1.4 to $2 billion in production and, most likely, several more billions in promotion and distribution, which means that the US box office roughly paid their costs and the rest became profit thanks to the current generosity of the global market. But it is still a profit (though made the hard way). This is something you’ll want to keep in mind while looking at the current report from Box Office Mojo of the top ten major box office hits of 2011. Especially the fact that the vast majority of box office is now being generated overseas, often by a margin of 2 to 1 or even 3 to 1. Likewise, the actual rate of return is pretty thin due to the cost of production (a more detailed critique on this and other issues can be found in Mike Fleming’s excellent piece at Deadline.com). Add to this debate the increasing panic about the box office slump in 2011, and the mix becomes  increasingly volatile. How big is the slump? A good question with lots of different answers. Basically, it is the worse seen in 16 years, though the official estimates are varying anywhere from 3 percent to 6 percent. Unofficially, the sky could be the limit.  Around the middle of 2011, the slump was closer to 12 percent and the overall figures since then don’t support the concept that there has been much improvement. Privately, I have a suspicion that the real slump is more than 12 percent, but I’m still having to sort out a tangled mess of figures. Thanks in part to the ticket price differences between regular screenings, 3D, IMAX, and other variations, distributors have more room to confuse the issue. But the long and the short is that the Hollywood approach to the tent pole production isn’t working (don’t believe me, just check out a solid article by Oliver Lyttelton at IndieWIRE).  Of course, 2011 is the year that the majors started making noise about reining in the budget and gearing themselves toward a higher degree of financial responsibility. Sort of. Well, kind of, depending on how you define responsibility. Like an addict, Hollywood is planning to deal with negative news by banking heavily on the next round of tent pole productions. They’re attempting to pull back from film budgets of $250 million. But trimming down to $230 million isn’t exactly a major feat of responsible budgeting. It’s more like the alcoholic who decides that he will stick to a steady daytime diet of beer and save the whiskey and vodka for his nighttime drinking. In contrast is the list of the biggest indie box office movies of 2011. In the number one slot is Midnight in Paris with a global take of $117.3 million. Made for an estimated $17 million, Woody Allen’s return to glory made roughly ten times its, cost which is much more than most major studio productions for the year. Unfortunately, what IndieWIRE doesn’t exactly mention in their piece is that it was all downhill from there. At number 2 on the list is The Descendants, which was probably made for around $20 million (total guesswork, since I cannot locate a budget figure for the film) and is slowly limping toward $40.3 million gross. Number 3 is The Tree of Life,the Terrence Malick meaning-of-life epic that lots of viewers couldn’t figure out. Made for $32 million, it took in a global return of $32.9 million. This could represent the Great Circle of Life, but it sure ain’t a profit. 2011 was a pretty poor year for indie movies in theatrical release. But it was also the year that new markets began to bloom as the VoD business made significant inroads into distribution. The 6th edition of the Deloitte: State of the Media Democracy study is due out at any moment, and advance reports present a clear movement among American consumers (once known as “the audience”) toward digital platforms. The concept of digital distribution has been lurking for years (Peter Broderick has been providing advice on digital distribution longer than some people knew it existed), but 2011 is the year it became a major commercial item. So 2012 will undoubtedly be the major breaking point between the mainstream media and the indie industry. Hollywood is determined to dig itself in and rigidly stick with the current tent pole model. The indie system has been pressed to the wall and has virtually nowhere to go but online. In many respects, the indie system is better suited for digital distribution than the Hollywood model. Or at least it is better suited for it as long as the Internet remains a level playing field. This is part of the reason why the Stop Online Piracy Act has become such a major battle line. This is also why — regardless of the SOPA outcome — this fight will continue throughout 2012 in one form or another. And it is another reason why the current divisions between the major companies and the indie system are beginning to resemble a war between heavy dinosaurs and fast little mammals. This war was first fought 65 million years ago. The little mammals survived, so you can guess who didn’t. -Dennis Toth Copyright (C) 2012 All Rights Reserved

Film Fund-amentals: The World According to Hollywood

Thank God for Chris Dodd and the Motion Picture Association of America. Without them, I would still be living with the warped illusion that other countries were making movies. But Dodd has set me straight about those durn foreign dumb bunnies. They don’t do squat.

At least that seems to be part of his point. Dodd recently delivered an address at the Center for American Progress in defense of the Stop Online Piracy Act. While explaining the importance of the American film industry, he decided to expound upon the lack of filmmaking elsewhere on the planet. Especially in Sweden, Spain and Egypt. OK, Dodd’s main job is to spin things for the MPAA (which Dodd runs in lieu of a political career that was steering toward major ethics investigations before he bailed out). But his spin is slightly off the mark. All you have to do is go to the nifty interactive chart provided by Chartsbin.com, click on a country and see how many movies they have produced recently. By the way, Egypt is currently listed as producing 45 movies, which isn’t bad for a country in massive turmoil. Add the documentaries currently being made by cell phones for release on Twitter and the count would shoot through the roof. The gist of Dodd’s remarks were wrapped up in the usual MPAA line that Hollywood is the global film industry and gosh, when Hollywood feels threatened by anything then it is a global threat because gee gosh golly, the whole world is completely tied into Hollywood. In some circles, this is better known as the Homer Simpson defense. Fortunately, Dodd also managed to deftly (if inadvertently) demonstrate that it is a defense based primarily upon total ignorance. To be honest, Dodd is beginning to make Jack Valenti look like Albert Einstein, which is a pretty scary thought. Dodd was supposed to be explaining the MPAA’s zealous support for the SOPA bill, one of the most controversial if under-reported pieces of legislation currently facing Congress. Personally, I feel that SOPA goes way too far in attempting to stop online piracy and would have devastating effects on technological development and the internet. But it is interesting to know that Congress has been willing to make sure that the sweeping restrictive measures offered by SOPA will be available to the porn business in its fight against amateurs who are ruining the online adult movie trade. After all, making porn is a dangerous job and requires highly trained professionals. But what really stuck me about Dodd’s recent yammering is the sorry and hopeless state of the Hollywood mindset when it comes to the rest of the planet. Foreign movies only exist for one of two reasons. The first is to provide producers with raw material for Hollywood redos. The other is to gussy up the international appeal of the Academy Award broadcast by an occasional reference to movie titles that the host has trouble pronouncing. Otherwise, the rest of the globe only exists as part of a distribution package. The earth is simply an extension of Hollywood. This mindset is especially evident in the current crusade by Hollywood to engage the rapidly growing Chinese film market. Chinese box office for 2011 is about to go past the $2 billion mark, and an increasing range of successful Chinese businesses are looking to get into the movie industry. The recent announcement of the plans for a co-production deal between Legendary Pictures and the Hong Kong construction firm of Paul Y. Engineering is the ideal model for Hollywood. Especially the part about how the Hong Kong company will leave the complex questions of producing movies to the California experts. Gosh, you can almost hear some one in an office in Burbank right now muttering the word “Suckers” even as I write this piece. However, China is kind of a different place. To be honest, I don’t know much about China (except that it is big). But I have a funny impression that they may have their own unique perspective on things, and becoming a mere extension of Hollywood just might not be part of that perspective. I sometimes get the distinct impression that they might even be viewing Hollywood as eventually becoming an extension of China and not the other way around. I have even (on occasion) gotten the impression that some of the Chinese may view some of the folks in Hollywood as a pack of dopes, and I would suggest that people in the industry might want to find out what the Chinese word is for suckers. Movie making in China plays by its own rules, with a focus that is strongly maintained on China. There are lots of strings attached to things in China, as Christian Bale recently found out when he attempted to use his position as the Western star of a major Chinese epic for a political statement. But the strings in China are not just political. They are also social, cultural and business-related. A recent example can be found in the issues surround GM’s attempt to work with China in developing the Volt electric car. The Chinese have a lot of rules, and when it comes to movies, they are looking to increase the size of the rule book, as demonstrated by a new proposal in Beijing concerning banned content in movies. Heck, the part that bans material that would “…propagate obscenity, gambling, drug abuse, violence or terror” is enough to quash a sizable number of movies from Hollywood. Which I suspect is part of the idea. Hollywood is so used to throwing its weight around in the foreign market that they have even forgotten that it exists. But I suspect that China is going to be a very different experience. I have the impression that the Chinese will even push right back. Based upon my marginal experience with them, they can even push hard. But at least they are polite about it. The same cannot be said about Hollywood.

Film Fund-amentals: Yuletide Before the End of Civilization

I’m not a big fan on prophesies, so I’m not too concerned about this being the final Christmas season before the end of civilization next year. I try not to be particularly superstitious (though I’m knocking on wood as I say that), and most likely the biggest change next year will be the roman numerals at the end of every other movie title.

However, I’m also painfully aware that I’m currently adrift in film history, free floating between what once had been the cinema and what is now something quite different and strangely dim and ill-defined. A cinema of the past that almost makes sense and a movie industry of today that…well, it just doesn’t make much sense of any kind. Take for example the recent and highly dubious survey by Men’s Health magazine that proclaims Jennifer Aniston to be the sexiest woman in history. This could be a sign of the final days (or at the very least proof that Aniston has Satan for a press agent). The announcement is nonsensical enough to cause a person to rethink that Mayan stuff and start packing the bunker with supplies. Yet my real attention has focused on the recent death of Bert Schneider. The news not only invoked a blast from the past but was another sign that an age has ended. Though his career largely crashed by the early 1980s, Schneider was one of the major figures behind the short-lived but explosive New Hollywood movement of the 1970s. He only produced eleven films, but they included such titles as Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Last Picture Show, Hearts and Minds and Days of Heaven. Schneider was also instrumental in boosting the careers of such folks as Jack Nicholson and Terrence Malick. It was a short career and Schneider had a troubled life. He also left a legacy that most producers working three lifetimes could never equal. Of course this was back in the Bronze Age when a movie could be made for a low budget and a film might actually be about characters who had problems and experiences that related to the real world. It was another era, full of bluff and vigor as a long, strange list of filmmakers came and went in a whirlwind of self-destructive experimentation. The death last month of Ken Russell was, for better or worse, another milestone to this lost world. A master of shock effects and the phantasmagoric approach to biographical presentation, Russell had an approach to filmmaking that ran the range from transcendental beauty to brutal trash — often in the same scene (and on purpose). The critic Pauline Kael once attacked Russell by claiming that his movies looked as if they were edited by a blind man wielding a meat cleaver. She didn’t mean to, but she almost paid Russell a high compliment, since he was totally opposed to the “invisible” style of the old Hollywood system. Besides, the guy actually got an X rating from the MPAA for blasphemy, which gets him some sort of footnote in the history books. Good or bad, Russell had an old-fashioned idea of filmmaking as an exercise in artistic expression. He was a jaded romantic in an extremely anti-romantic age. But that was then, this is now. Movies have always been a commercial commodity, and despite Hollywood’s repeated insistence that the film industry isn’t really a business, it is one of the largest businesses around. At their best, the old dream merchants of Southern California used to strike a balance between the dream and the merchandising. At their very best, they could even achieve a potent mix of artistic verve and populist kick in a pop cultural mix that was capable of pleasing an audience and meeting basic box office demands. At their worst, most of the movies at least could fall back on a few established tricks, basic story lines, and if it failed it wasn’t as if they had spent a king’s ransom on the dang thing. Today it’s all commerce. Movies have to be focused this way because of the gigantic price tag attached to their production. So it’s all commerce and packaging. Which brings us back to Jennifer Aniston, because that is what she’s all about — packaging. Her movie career is largely mediocre. Out of 27 feature films, only about five have actually made a clear profit. Of those five, she only had the actual female lead role in two of them (Aniston has primarily fared best in ensemble productions). The most successful of those two movies was Marley and Me. Let’s be honest — that movie was a hit because of the dog (Marley). Heck, she wasn’t even the Me in the title. Technically, Jennifer Aniston wouldn’t qualify as a movie star let alone anything else. But that’s not the point. She’s a marketing concept. A California concept of the girl next door with a come hither (but not too close) look who fits a certain advertisers’ concept of modern acceptable sexuality for mainstream American consumption. She fits that model so well that the odd lack of significant commercial success isn’t (at this moment) a problem. She is more active as a commercial product than as a movie star. That’s why you see her on more magazine covers than movie screens. The same is true of a long of list of other so-called movie stars. Basically, they’re products, not movie stars. Which is sort of OK. Nobody really makes movies anymore. Once in a blue moon, a big-budget behemoth comes along that resembles a movie. I almost hate saying this, but that’s part of the reason for the success of Avatar. In lots of ways, it was a pretty old-fashioned flick. But most modern big-budget movies are closer in type to something like The Green Hornet — two-plus solid hours of a cast and crew in search of a screenplay. There are various reasons for this decline in major mainstream movies. However, it can really be summed up in a nutshell. Modern mainstream movies are all about spending money. Not making money. They’re actually focused on spending money. I don’t mean this as some kind of hip, sly, ironic statement. I seriously mean that they are weirdly, exclusively and overwhelmingly focused on spending money. This may not be the conscious goal of the major media companies, but it is clearly their subconscious drive and desire. No wonder Jennifer Aniston is their poster girl. A lot of her movies have been slightly pricey and she doesn’t work for a dime, either. Which is also why I’m spending this upcoming yuletide season thinking a lot about the past and trying desperately to sidestep the present. A long time ago, the film business almost made sense. These days, oh heck, let’s not even go there. No wonder the ancient Mayans stamped next December with an expiration date. They, too, heard about Jennifer Aniston.

Film Fund-amentals: So Many People Want to Produce Your Movie

There are lots of people out there who want to produce your movie. Almost every social networking site has a growing army of folks who can’t wait to assist you with your movie. They are all very friendly, extremely enthusiastic and exceptionally gung ho about getting your film made.

Oh my, if only this were true — there would be lots of happy filmmakers out there. Instead, there is a strange and wide range of scams, sort-of scams, bait-and-switch operations, and many forms of almost legal but not exactly ethical operators. The results run all over the map from identity fraud to “service” charges to phony loan operations and boiler room “investment” companies. Thanks to the current economic mess, there has been an upsurge in businesses that troll the Internet in search of truly desperate people with major wants and needs. They’re kind of like vampires, except garlic does no good. Dubious producers with sleazy financial tactics are not exactly new to the business (heck, Federico Fellini once swore he had a producer who blew the money for a movie at the race track). Often, producers are expected to perform singular feats of magic as they juggle the figures for investors while simultaneously pulling more money and production time like rabbits out of a hat. It is a peculiar job with only a few clear rules. So there has always been plenty of room for “creative” operators who could make Max Bialystock look legit. But the indie film scam operators who got busted last summer by the Feds were taking this type of fleecing to a new low. The main effect of the scam was on investors more than filmmakers, as they used a boiler room call center and commercial phone list to pitch loony deals to potential chumps (by the way, no one can promise you a 1,000 percent return on a movie investment). Their technique was old-fashioned, but it has rarely been adapted into the indie movie trade. Phony gold mines yes, but not indie pictures. More recently, several types of dubious wheeler-dealers have been plowing their way through various social network sites. One is the bogus Mideast oil billionaire sheik. Much like the boiler room racket, this is one of the oldest scams in the book, but it has been updated to the digital age. Increasingly, scammers are co-opting the identities of real Mideast businessmen, setting up bogus phone numbers and email addresses that look almost valid, and working hard at looking almost legitimate. I know of one indie filmmaker who was almost taken in by such operators. When she was first contacted by this “businessman” (by email), she took time to run a basic check on the contact. It looked as if it could be OK. But as she continued her communication with this person, it became obvious that she was expected to pony up some “fees” to cover the various costs of arranging a financial deal. Fortunately, she proceeded to use the social network site as a means of asking other people about these “fees.” Better still, one of the people on the site was an employee of the real businessman and stepped in to tell her that no such contact had been made. She had a close call but deflected it well. This brings up one of the most basic rules of the business. There are various wealthy business people out there who are looking to get into the movies. For some, it’s a type of investment. For others, it’s a poorly-defined passion that could involve anything from some concept of artistic endeavor to simply meeting starlets. But as a general rule, these folks are not out there looking for filmmakers. They want the filmmakers to come looking for them. Of course, they will also normally not take your calls, answer your letters or anything else — heck, they often behave like the snotty but hot-looking cheerleader back in high school. They like to be sought and they don’t go seeking. I’m sure there are exceptions, but they’re extremely rare. Which brings up another phenomenon that is increasingly popping up on social network sites. There is a growing list of companies announcing that they have funds for making movies and are seeking filmmakers in need of a producer with money. Sounds pretty straightforward. They want to produce movies, so just send them your pitch. There are a couple of oddities about this stuff. First, most companies that have managed to put together any kind of production arrangement have done so through various financial investors. They have been able to do this because they already have a slate of potential projects (in most cases, around four to six titles), and the investment package is focused on producing these movies. So they shouldn’t be in the strange position of roaming the Internet highways in search of movies. At best, these online postings sound a bit like a drunk with 20 dollar bills hanging out of his pocket staggering down a dark ally. But more important, any company seeking additional titles for their investment package will normally already know various people whom they will be contacting. Nobody in their right mind would be posting blind ads. From any real business prospective, it doesn’t make any sense. Unless they have a different motive. In his report a few months ago on the 11th Annual New York International Film and TV Summit, Gary Baddeley heard from some financial people about a new racket in the business: “…apparently there are numerous scams being attempted with supposed financiers telling producers that they can access a $100 million financial instrument and give the producer $5 million for his or her film … if only the producer can come up with $2.5 million now.” OK, it isn’t really a new racket, but it appears to be back with a vengeance. Basically, the company will produce your movie if you come up with the money for it. At best, you will be paying them money to let them let you produce your own movie. At worse, you will raise that money and never see it again. The latter is outright fraud. The former is an odd gray zone that you are strongly advised not to enter. After all, the only producer you need is the kind that can raise money. Otherwise, why bother? Which is another reminder that the job of the producer is to produce the movie, period. If the filmmaker has to pay various “fees” to the producer, then you’re not dealing with a producer. There are no ifs, no ands, no buts. This is the most basic (even primal) rule to keep in mind when dealing with any “producers.”    

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Film Fund-amentals

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R&R on China

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