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.

Film Fund-amentals: Redoing the Reboot Before the Remake

Some people can’t stand the word “reboot.” For example, my wife has restricted the word’s usage to only its computer application (and even then in limited amounts). I only use it when I really want to annoy people. Then I go reboot crazy.

So obviously I would be happiest working in Hollywood. I could spend lots of time annoying people and all the reboot chatter would pass for profound business insight. It’s win-win.

Especially since the current list of productions slated for 2012/2013 is mostly sequels (many of which are actually redos of the original movie) and reboots of older films (though these days older simply means that they were made before 3D). And yes, these links are taking you to a web site called Movie Moron, a pretty cool name that totally sums it all up.

We already know that this speaks volumes about the current sorry state of Hollywood. They say they want fresh blood and new ideas but what they are really looking for is an updated version of Father Knows Best. The whole town is stuck in a time loop and it will probably take the Mayan Apocalypse to break the cycle.

It’s all a reminder of what Albert Einstein once said: “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This certainly applies to such titles on the current roster of reboots such as Fantastic Four: Reborn. The first film was an extremely modest success (released during a slow period and barely held its own against a noticeable lack of competition). The second one didn’t even make it that far. To be honest, neither of the modern films have the solid but fun “bad cinema” value of the cheap and cheesy 1994 version. The lesson to be learned: If it didn’t work the first couple of times, then there’s no reason to think that it is going to work now.

The other hot idea is to redo old classics. To be honest, this has been a standard Hollywood approach since before there were any old classics (for example, the three different versions of The Maltese Falcon churned out by Warner Brothers back in the 1930s). Sometimes this process works, as was the case with the recent production of True Grit. Mostly, it doesn’t. But some of the proposed redos are simply mind-boggling by any estimate. Take for example the new version of Cleopatra. The 1963 version was best known for its out-of-control budget (that nearly broke its own studio); oodles of cheap gossip as Elisabeth Taylor and Richard Burton carried on like crazy horn dogs; an excessively long running time best described once by a TV movie host as: “You don’t time this baby with a clock — you use a calender.”

So obviously producer Scott Rudin (who often knows what he is doing) has a really swell idea. Oh yeah, we need a new run-through of this turkey. Why, this is almost as good of an idea as the threatened redo of Scarface. Of course the original 1983 movie was a remake to begin with (though the 1932 flick was more of a parody) and it didn’t fare all that well when it first came out. But it has since earned a surprisingly strong place in pop culture. I realized that the first time in the late 1980s when I saw a drug dealer driving through town with a bumper sticker saying: “Tony Montana Lives.” Guess everybody needs a role model.

The 1983 movie worked because of a near perfect combination of performance (Al Pacino at his rabid best), major levels of social ruptures in the 1980s that made the main characters both repulsive and half appealing, and a crazy operatic directorial style that is both gross and perversely fascinating (sort of like disco music rewritten by Verdi). It’s a rare mix and not likely to happen again. Same is true of such other threatened remakes as The Dirty Dozen and The Godfather. Movies are not like cooking. You cannot redo the same recipe twice.

This is even more so when the recipe is older than King Tut’s tomb. The only thing in favor of The Thin Man reboot is the curious box office allure of Johnny Depp. The original MGM mystery series was made so long ago that today’s youthful demographic market won’t have a clue. Also the old films had a special combination thanks to their time period (the Great Depression), the vigorous heyday of a particular genre (in this case, both mystery and screwball comedy), and solid teamwork (both cast — William Powell and Myrna Loy — and screenwriters — Albert Hackett and Francis Goodrich).

So far, The Thin Man remake only has Johnny Depp (and for all I know, he may intend to play both Nick and Nora — actually I could see him doing it but I’m not sure how many folks will pay to watch). TV is the main zone for old-style mysteries and the screwball comedy form vanished ages ago. There is simply no place for this film (with or without Depp). The makers would almost be advised to skip the old movies and instead go for the novel (the book by Dashiell Hammett was a surprisingly dark and very noirish reflection of the relationship between himself and Lillian Hellman).

Besides, I thought that adapting novels was passé in modern Hollywood. Anything is possible, but I suspect that the new production of The Great Gatsby will be the final nail in the coffin of literary adaption. The book by F. Scott Fitzgerald is famous for being less a novel and more of a dream, written in an illusionary manner that invokes poetry more than cinema. Because of this, the book is largely unfilmable. This has never stopped anyone from trying (five previous attempts have been made since the silent era) but the attempts have never worked.

The upside for the new Great Gatsby is Leonardo DiCaprio (who is curiously made up to look like Alan Ladd, who bombed in the role back in 1949). The downside is everything else.

Which brings us back to Albert Einstein. The man did a lot of work with the US government and military. He even taught at Princeton University. So the guy had a first-hand feel for insanity. I think he had a point.

Film Fund-amentals: Journey to a Foreign Country

This is the magical week when everyone is supposed to be writing about the Oscars. But the urge to guess who will win is somewhat muted by the sheer predictably of the process (for example, if The Artist is nominated in a category, it will probably win).

Instead, this year’s Academy Award show will be defined by its desperate quest for a nostalgic recreation of the past. Inspired by such nominees as The Artist, Midnight in Paris, and Hugo, the Oscar show is slated to blast to the past faster than Rod Taylor in The Time Machine. Even Cirque du Soleil will be on hand to provide an acrobatic jump into movie history.

So the Oscars this year will celebrate a French silent movie in a theater named after a bankrupt company (though Kodak may or may not keep the name on the joint for the ceremony) in honor of the Hollywood film industry, which is hoping to score big in the Chinese market. The result promises to play less as Hooray for Hollywood and more as a tribute to irony. Add in the recent Los Angeles Times story in which the demographic breakdown of the average Academy member is a white guy in his mid to upper 60s, and you begin to understand why they think Billy Crystal will attract a young viewer ship. Heck, Billy doesn’t turn 64 till a few weeks after the show. So he’s a young guy in this crowd.

The past may be a foreign country (according to L. P. Hartley), but Hollywood is pretty sure that they have the proper passport. After all, they’re remaking everything imaginable (I can’t even joke about this any more — not after the announcement of the Mr. Ed movie). They have looted the remains of film history with the ghoulish thoroughness of Burke and Hare. OK, the results are not too pretty, and these films are increasingly less than successful, but that has convinced Hollywood that they have to dig deeper (which isn’t quite as horrible as the supply/demand solution Burke and Hare came up with).

But the emphasis on Hollywood’s past is mostly an attempt to promote itself as the world’s single source for movies. This Hollywood űber alles theme has been the predominant belief since the end of the silent era (which was about the last time that Hollywood was aggressively challenged on the international market) and American control of the foreign box office has certainly been a done deal since World War Two (with a few exceptions such as India). Of course, this was partly rooted in a process in which the US box office was incredibly strong and the overseas market was mostly a pick-up zone for found money.

Times have changed. In 2011, the US box office went into a slump and the current forecast for 2012 is even worse. On the other hand, the foreign box office has gone up, way up. For example, last year in France the box office rose by 4.2 percent. Alors, this is good news. Among the ten highest grossing films in France were Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two, Pirates of the Caribbean 3, and The Adventures of Tintin. All solid American titles (well, actually the Harry Potter movies are more Anglo/Yank, and the Tintin flick – along with War Horse – is part of Steven Spielberg’s effort to position himself as a mid-Atlantic filmmaker).

The bad news for Hollywood is that the three biggest films last year in France were — drum roll, please — French movies! Intouchables, and Rien à déclarer. French movies with French actors, all made in French. Mon Dieu! What are the French thinking?

More interesting is the fact that 40 percent of the French box office went toward viewing French films. Sure, this still leaves the American operators in a hefty position, but the Hollywood hold is getting a tad tricky. The foreign market is becoming increasingly vital to Hollywood, and Hollywood’s heavy-handed control of the foreign market is slipping. British director Mike Leigh’s opening speech at the Berlin Film Festival overstates this point, but he also has a point no matter what. To be honest, about the only advantage Hollywood has in this situation is the stubborn refusal of American viewers to watch foreign movies.

The official Hollywood response has been to send Chris Dodd out to make completely stupid, dismissive comments about the end of cinema in Spain (and Sweden and various other foreign places). At the same time, Hollywood has become obsessed with China. Hollywood wants China to open up the mainland market to a wild glut of Hollywood imports. China wants the Chinese cinema to learn and develop a Chinese cinema that can compete against Hollywood. Publicly, I am not sure who will get the better of whom in these deals. Privately, I suspect that the Chinese will hold their own and then some.

The European scene is a tad murkier. The Euro economic crisis is proving to be the world’s biggest monkey wrench. Of course, the same can be said about the American economic crisis. I sometimes suspect that the Europeans are in better shape for dealing with these issues than we are (especially as the political silly season here in the States seems determined to reduce the debate to the lowest level). Regardless of the outcome, it is certain that the old economic relationships between the US and other countries are in the process of a major shift, and the US is not necessarily in an advantageous position.

Which winds us back to the impending weird spectacle of Sunday night’s celebration of old Hollywood. Gee, if they really want the Asian market, they should have gotten the Muppets. At least they have a following over there.

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.

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