Which Way to the Future?

First, there was Y2K. Then came 2012. Now, the film industry is bracing for 2015 (according to the article 4 Reasons 2015 Could Be the Movie Industry’s Worst Year Ever). OK. Y2K kind of flopped. Likewise, 2012 was a farce produced by an odd collection of New Age gurus who didn’t know the difference between Maya and mayonnaise. But the 2015 theory has a point, even if the provided link is to an article at Cracked.com.

The Audience Divide

Theater owners do not depend upon folks like me for their trade. After all, I prefer to watch movies in theaters that are largely empty. Quiet as the grave, and more deserted than a tomb. I love it this way. Too bad none of these places stay in business for long. So the recent dust-up about rude audiences has sparked my interest. Especially since I have long felt that certain movies demand a loud and rude house in order to be properly appreciated. Heck, a misfire like Maximum Overdrive is only enjoyable with a rowdy audience. Traditionally, the rude house debate has been mostly focused on the difference between a quiet, polite audience versus a boisterous band of total loudmouth jackasses who behave like a pack of Vikings on their way to England. The proper film audience stays reverentially silent while casting a studious glaze at the screen.

The Spike Lee Guide to Crowdfunding

Spike Lee had a hissy fit on Bloomberg TV. Well, not really a full blown hissy fit. More of a “frank and open” exchange of views. To be honest, Trish Regan started the interview with a kind of “When did you stop beating your wife” approach. Reporters like getting Lee stoked up because it makes for good television. Having watched the reporter and Spike Lee routine in person, I’m quite aware that the results are guaranteed. So let’s just clear up a few points. Yes, Spike Lee is running a Kickstarter campaign in order to rise $1,250,000 for his next film. Yes, he is another celebrity using Kickstarter. Yes, it is starting to get crowded with famous names over there. This has made some people mad at Lee. This is what prompted the opening question from Regan. Gee, anger is sometimes like the downside to the great circle of life. However, Kickstarter is open to everyone and anyone. Any Joe Schmo alive can go on it and pitch. I’m not even sure about the “alive” part. Either way, Lee (and many other well-known people) can use it for fund raising. I have my own critical attitudes and concerns about the emerging high profile names barnstorming this system, but even famous people are allowed to go out there and make a pitch. So get used to it. Likewise, Lee has a valid point about the current state of Hollywood financing. Hollywood does not want to make movies that cost less than $150 million and anyone, no matter how famous, who wants to do a movie for a mere couple of million bucks is just out of luck. Currently, most executives won’t even take a phone call if there aren’t seven zeroes attached to the price tag. So it is no surprise that Lee has turned to crowdfunding. It makes more sense than selling tube socks. But what is unique is Lee’s approach to the process. Normally a filmmaker pitching on a crowdfunding site has to work at building a community of supporters. They have to woo the potential donors with fascinating details about the intended project. They build a strong web presence that links together Facebook and Twitter and other web sites in an attempt to create a strong and positive sense of engagement. I don’t want this to sound like criticism or anything, and maybe I’m missing something, but basically Spike Lee’s Kickstarter campaign is something like: “I’m Spike Lee. Give me money. ” OK, it’s a little more complicated than that, but not by much. He is also offering old two-bit promotional stuff from such earlier movies as Mo’ Better Blues and School Daze. I am old enough to remember these films. Most people cruising through Kickstarter are not that old. I see a problem. Actually, I see lots of problems. Usually the filmmaker wants (even needs) to pitch the movie like a crazy person. They have to tell the potential donors what the sucker is about and hope to intrigue folks into that magical state where they helplessly mutter “Tell me more!” Lee doesn’t tell you a damn thing. He vaguely implies that it might be kind of a horror/vampire/romantic something or other. But it ain’t no Blackula. Of course, that has left some of us assuming that it is going to be more like Vampire in Brooklyn (ironically, I’m one of only three people in North America who liked that film). So basically, the pitch that Lee presents is based solely on the idea that it will be a Spike Lee movie. He is pressing extremely hard on his name value. He has successfully met his goal within the last stretch. But he has also presented a fantastic set of negative examples on how a person should not go about the crowdfunding process. Quick note: it is my understanding that I caught up with his Kickstarter page after he revamped it. Good grief!  I’m not sure if I even want to know what the first version was like. But it is an incredible “teaching” moment. Many fine pieces have been written about everything Lee should have done from Aisha Harris’ excellent read at Slate to Bryce J. Renninger’s piece at IndieWire on the revamping of the campaign. It’s kind of like Crowdfunding 101 with Lee presenting a barely illustrated (he’s not much on the image thing) guide to everything you can do wrong. For example, you can’t base a crowdfunding campaign solely on name value. It doesn’t matter if you are Ed Wood or Federico Fellini, your name by itself doesn’t mean squat. You have to build a community that extends beyond yourself. You have to connect and network. It’s all part of letting people feel somehow included into the project. Remember, they are giving the money not to you but to your project. You also have to give them a good sense of what the movie is about. You don’t have to tell them everything. But heck, you can’t expect people to give you money for a pig in a poke. A lot of people are not going to feel thrilled with simply giving you money for. . . er, whatever. But they might be excited at helping to finance a film that sounds like it could be good. Maybe something they will want to see. So you want to share some details with them. Take time to study some of the more successful Kickstarter campaigns, such as the one for Fire City: the Interpreter of Signs. Notice how much effort they are putting into luring and intriguing the potential donors. Also notice how they are offering more in return than just minor publicity gimmicks from movies made over 25 years ago (sorry Spike, but when I saw the so-called goodies you were offering to your donors, all I could think was “Oh for God sakes’!  Get real!”). People do not put money into a crowdfunding project because they have to. They will only put money into your project because they want to. You have to convince them that they want to do it. And you have to do it with a smile. It’s called salesmanship. -Dennis Toth Copyright (C) 2013 All Rights Reserved

How to Make A Movie

In the past few months, I have seen some comments suggesting that I neither appreciate nor understand the wisdom of the Hollywood system. I have to confess, I didn’t know that there was such a thing. But perhaps I have an attitude problem. Must be time for a little thought experiment. I need to take a few seconds to look at this issue from the other side. So I am going to pretend to be a studio executive. Heck, why stop there. I’m a mogul! So first, I need a movie. Not really a script or anything. Just a title. Something that has been done before so I can build from the past model. It has to be something that I can purchase the rights to. So I ask an assistant to see what’s available. As my assistant brings me my third caffè latte of the morning (well, more like late afternoon – moguls do not have to get up early), she also leaves me a list of titles. Great job!  I love these unpaid interns. I go through the list and first thing I see jumps out at me like a tiger. Fibber McGee and Molly. I love it!  It sounds so. . . so fibberish. I think I just coined a new word. I want the PR folks to use it in the campaign. Now I need to get my other unpaid intern to research the material. I use to have an associate producer for that kind of work, but he got kind of funny with me. Suggested that my last hot idea was more dead than a pound of ground round with a two year old expiration date. So I had to let him go. Someday the world will be ready for the big screen version of I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster. We’re still waiting for Russell Crowe to be available. Don’t know why he’s not returning my calls. Research comes back. It’s about five pages long, so I have another unpaid intern write up a single paragraph synopsis. Then I have one of my producers take a look at it. Once his intern reads it to him, he asks a sticky question: What’s a Fibber?  So I get another producer. Just to be sure that this project will fly, I have PR conduct a survey. OK, I have heard that those bogus surveys done on Yahoo (in which the same pack of smart alecks submit answers over and over again) are not particularly scientific. But I don’t know anything about statistical analysis except that it sounds really dull. So we just do it the standard way and get a highly favorable response to the title. Many of the kids who respond thinks that Molly has something to do with a synthetic drug, so we might have to work that into the script. Unfortunately, they also ask the same question: What’s a Fibber? Now we need a script. I want the hottest writer we got, which is the guy that did the tenth and almost final rewrite on the last film we made. I schmooze him with a lot of chatter about his great creative talent. In truth, I don’t care because writers are a dime a dozen and I have already lined up the first five rewrite guys. But I make sure that he understands that the script has to be. . . fibberish. He rolls his eyes and says something about how it rhymes with gibberish. God I hate these guys. While the screenwriter seeks inspiration (a three-day bender), I start to line up the cast. We need stars. Oh sure, a variety of financial studies have overwhelmingly suggested that stars do not really matter in regards to the box office return, but who has time to read these studies. Besides, they are pretty dull. A bunch of number-crunchers who don’t really understand the biz. We need a hot couple. Maybe Brangelina. At least something like Brangelina. But I don’t know. Angelina is getting a bit old at 38. We need some one younger. Maybe some one more like Rooney Mara. Wait a minute. She’s 28. I’ll have the casting director start trolling through the high schools. Might be time for a new “star. ” But Fibber is easy. Let’s see if Robert Downey, Jr. is available. Dang!  He’s booked into everything else and can’t do it for less than $100 million dollars. That’s OK. I can now up the budget to $300 million. And it will be in 3D. Just hope the script will give us a lot of stuff to blow up on the screen. Then the script comes back. I tell the writer what a great job he did. Damn thing stinks. Some crap about a middle-age couple in Illinois. All warm and cozy. It’s like listening to a bunch of old farts chattering on the radio for crying out loud. This writer is never going to work in this town ever again. Immediately I get a new writer and tell him to put some action into the story. I like this guy. Without me even prompting him, he said he would make it fibberish. Now the money people are making worrisome noises. Do I really think this film can work. I calm them down by explaining that it will be a cross between Die Hard and The Dark Knight. Nobody knows what that means but it makes everybody feel happy. Besides, the financial people don’t really understand how movies work, so we don’t have to listen to them. God I love this business. Get an email from the new screenwriter. He wants to relocate the setting from Peoria to either Chicago or New York. Says that a major city makes more sense as the location for a terrorist attack by North Korean nuclear commandos. This guy is a genius or what!  I tell him either city. Doesn’t matter because we are filming in Cleveland. Parts of the south-side can stand in for Pyongyang. Which is why the studio is upping the budget to $400 million. We may have to build a full-scale model of a city if we are planning to blow it up. Though we might be allowed to blow up parts of Cleveland. They are pretty cooperative. Meanwhile, PR tells me that there has been a sharp increase in chatter about the movie on social media. People are asking: What’s a Fibber? So this film will be a major hit. Unless the critics do a Lone Ranger hatchet job on the whole thing. God I hate those guys. -Dennis Toth Copyright (C) 2013 All Rights Reserved

Mid-Summer Diversions

The summer movie season is basically over. Actually, it kind of wrapped up around May 5 with the opening of Iron Man 3. Sure, there were later jolts from Fast and Furious 6 and  Despicable Me 2. But basically this summer has been a massive run of over-produced movies with huge budgets and mediocre box office returns. For example, Star Trek Into Darkness produced a worldwide box office of $448 million. Not bad. Unfortunately, that was just what it needed to break even. Pretty much the same goes for World War Z, Man of Steel, The Great Gatsby and virtually every other movie that has come out this summer. In a certain sense, the massive failure of The Lone Ranger is almost a godsend. It’s at least the one overt failure that Hollywood will freely talk about. The enormous production cost of these movies means they must hit close to a billion at the worldwide box office. Only a few have come close to the mark; most will make about $300 to $500 million. It sounds good only if you do not tally in all the production and advertising costs. The truth is that the commercial system is limping very badly. In fact, it is starting to resemble a person having a mild stroke who is feeling woozy and is about to pitch over. You would think Hollywood would be looking for radically new solutions. New ideas. New ways of creating, marketing, and distributing films. But the reality is that they are not seeking anything more than a revamping of old ideas and the application of a few pseudo-modernized band-aids. For example, look at how Warner handled Man of Steel and The Great Gatsby. Both productions set new records for product placement, thereby using ad dollars to balance out the production cost. A bunch of haute couture fashion companies were banking on The Great Gatsby to jump start a retro 1920s look while Sears was planning a major corporate rebound with Man of Steel. However, nobody is wearing spats and Sears is still doomed. From the viewpoint of the companies placing the products, this process has to be seen as a major bust. It only did all right by the studio, which was able to off-load some of its own exorbitant production cost; the companies would have been better off spending less money elsewhere. Notably, The Great Gatsby retro look was previously attempted with the release of the 1974 version. It didn’t work back then either. Obviously he who does not study history is doomed to product placement. Advertising has returned with a vengeance. OK, advertising has never gone away, but many of the majors have spent the summer unloading movie ads on billboards (yes, they have gone back to the Antediluvian billboard form), TV, radio, YouTube and Yahoo. Heck, there were days when it was difficult to open Yahoo because of the movie ads they were trying to jam down my throat. Did this do anyone any good?  Probably not (though we now know how Superman shaves). This type of movie is mostly sold (or not sold) to the audience before the filming starts. The advertising impact is usually negligible. But the news stories about Hollywood’s attempt to use science are the real hoot this summer. As a general rule, American companies only resort to science when they feel truly desperate. The concept of data analytics is not really all that new or radical. However, I am concerned about the type of data analytics approach that Hollywood is embracing. So, first, a disclaimer. My associates and I are involved with the design and operation of the FilmScore data system designed as a tool for financing low budget indie movies by securitization. It is not meant to be a merely predictive model. Rather, it uses various key components of the movie’s production process to project the film’s financial value and risk under different artistic choices, and to guide the bundling of the individual film into a portfolio package of titles. In short, it is a model for valuing film assets. But mainly what Hollywood is resorting to using is a data analysis of screenplays. In a recent blog, I briefly dealt with one such system by trying to take the high road and attempting to stay focused on the overall general application. Now, thanks to a recent piece on American Public Media Marketplace, I finally feel the need to make some more pointed comments. In the podcast What’s Behind the Future of Hit Movies? An Algorithm, Hollywood presses boldly backwards. Seriously. This approach is nothing but an elaborate screenplay analysis, where the analyst runs through the script and scores it by slapping numerical values onto various elements of the narrative structure. Which is half OK, although the choice of numerical values is open to debate, and the process relies on a never ending stream of audience surveys of untested empirical validity. In short, this is the test screening process revamped and applied to the script (instead of the first-cut of the movie) on mega-budget productions where most of the scripts are so simplistic to begin with, a couple of grad students with lots of coffee and a week to kill could probably get you the same results. I might add that some of these companies uses a ten per cent margin of error per item, which is actually pretty wide (3 to 5 per cent is more standard for the final analysis). And if I really wanted to be rude, I could even point out that most of the movies limping this summer are exactly the type of film to have been run through such a process. So the results don’t appear too exciting. As I recall, science is all about results being predictive.  

Far From the Maddening Crowd(funding)

Before we begin, let me emphasize that crowdfunding is a real word. Just ask the Oxford American Dictionary. They have Oxford in their title, so they ought to know. Historically various forms of crowdfunding can be traced back to the 17th Century, starting with early forms of subscription systems for the publication of works by Martin Luther. This link to the Reformation is not surprising since crowdfunding carries with it a certain inherent rejection of hierarchical authority. Part of the modern appeal for crowdfunding is its libertarian appeal, as it holds out the possibility of a level playing field. All projects are born equal in the eyes of Kickstarter.

The Next Phase of the Digital System

Film distribution is about to undergo the most radical transformation seen since the Lumière Brothers switched from private to public screenings. Heck, it may be the most dramatic change since Thomas A. Edison hooked a coin box to the Kinetoscope and began milking the audience. The entire future of the film industry is changing as we enter the full blown digital universe. Which also means that we haven’t a real clue as to what is about to happen. All the standard rules and models for filmmaking, film distribution, and movie financing are coming to an implosion point. Oh sure, right now it all looks sort of normal (well, as much as the so-called “new normal” has ever looked normal). Some major figures in the film industry have begun a public discussion on these impending changes. Privately the industry is going half-crazy trying to second-guess and prepare for their advent. Bob Dylan once said, “You don’t need a weatherman/To know which way the wind blows.” But these days, even the wind direction is confusing. What Christopher Nolan would like notwithstanding, the change to digital production in Hollywood is a done deal. The reason is simple: the vast physical infrastructure needed for the use of the photochemical film process is gone. These days, trying to find some place that can develop film is like popping over to the hardware store for a vacuum tube. Despite what some small theater owners would prefer, the digital distribution system is well underway. In theory, it will confer many advantages. In reality, many major companies are working awfully hard to make sure that those advantages don’t become too advantageous to anyone. The cost of the digital conversion has resulted in fees to the theaters and the fees are designed to cover the cost of digital conversion and well, gee, gosh golly gee whiz, it just so happens that the fees pretty much are usable as a means of blocking any indie players with major distribution plans. What a surprise! The real source uncertainty is what everyone is looking at: digital online distribution. Which leads to the obvious question: Digital distribution to what? PCs? Laptops? Cell phones? Tin foil hats? No matter what the winning platform turns out to be (most likely all of the above, including the hats), movie distribution will be splintered between ultra-expensive spectaculars shown in the diminishing realm of theaters, and everything else unloaded in a mad stampede through wireless systems. The process of distribution will become a battleground for competing systems. In theory, it should offer new advantages to indie filmmakers. However, the major industry players are already attempting to move into these new venues in the hope of controlling the various emerging digital forms. What they have on their side is money and a culture of corporate aggressiveness. What they do not have, is a clue. They bring a pushy sense of utter incompetence to the game. It could almost be fun to watch if the stakes were not so high. Film financing is collapsing all over the place. The sheer cost of the dominant tent pole movie model is impossible to sustain. But all the major players have placed all their eggs into this one basket and cannot conceive of any way to alter the broken model. The large financial players that furnish the financing for these movies could make a difference. But they are also clueless. They have convinced themselves that movies have to cost gazillion dollars and deeply distrust any film that has a budget of only one integer and six zeroes. A lot of financial guys also still think that the DVD market will save a major movie’s box bottom line. Many of these folks really don’t bother to keep up with the industry’s business reports. Since mainstream financial venues for movie funding has largely vanished into the tent pole vortex, indie filmmakers have increasingly turned to crowdfunding and other alternative approaches. The success rate for crowdfunding is hard to determine, though some reports place it around 35 per cent (give or take – well, no one is sure what that means which is part of the problem). Even if the success rate were only 20 to 25 per cent, this would place crowdfunding way ahead of most other approaches. Crowdfunding is about to undergo an overhaul by the SEC, though the SEC is taking its grand old time on moving forward. The effect of these impending changes are still difficult to factor. Though crowdfunding has been relatively free of fraud, the possibility of fraud risk has been raised. The SEC overhaul of Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act is supposed to deal with this concern. Paradoxically, it may contribute to a problem that didn’t exist before the SEC were told to fix it. Before the overhaul, crowdfunding was a ridiculously simple process; the more it becomes a junior league version of corporate enterprise, the more likely the junior league version of Bernie Madoff will be on the prowl. Nevertheless, crowdfunding has become the alternative Hollywood system for financing. From Zack Braff to James Franco, the Hollywood pack that wants to make a movie budgeted for one number and six to seven zeroes have packed off to Kickstarter. These big names with big needs bring a lot of media attention to the Indie scene. Of course, you would think they could do a better job of tapping into their Hollywood contacts or something as they increasingly steamroll over the small indie filmmaker in pursuit of public dollars. It doesn’t sound equitable, and it isn’t. Which means that the immediate future of indie filmmaking is about to become a free wheeling combat zone. OK, that is not exactly new. But it is going to get worse. Or, at least it will until the mainstream model goes into deep collapse, which is coming soon.

The Hollywood Death Cafe

According to the prophets, the major studios will soon implode into a vast dark pit while meteors will fall and the rain shall turn into fire and brimstone. OK, that isn’t exactly what was said by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, but it would be pretty easy to jack it up that way for the movie version. The recent presentation by the two grand men at the media center of the University of Southern California has stirred up debate through out the film industry. Obviously I am no stranger to preaching about the End of Hollywood. But I didn’t realize that they were already opening the Hollywood Death Cafe. At the core of their chat, Spielberg and Lucas both outlined the imminent demise of the current studio system. It seems ironic that they would bring this up about the same time that the movie Man of Steel would set a domestic release record. But Man of Steel actually proves their point.

How Do We Define Indie Cinema

We all know what an indie film is, right?  It’s a movie that is independently made…and that particular tautology sums up the problem. This use to be a pretty straight forward proposition. If it wasn’t made by a Hollywood studio, it was an indie. Though this was strictly an institutional definition, it was viewed as relatively sufficient. But as Hollywood studios became media companies and the financial conditions of film production became an increasingly complex system of multiple investors, all movies have become largely independent productions in the most basic economic sense. Sure, these flicks are not indie movies in any way, shape or form. But they are not really studio movies either, since no studios really exist any more.

Today’s Audience

Several years ago, I asked if the film industry knew their audience.  It’s a question that can be asked at virtually every level of the business as demonstrated last month during a panel discussion at the International Cinema Technology Association. Of course, the presentation at the International Cinema Technology Association was primarily focused on exhibitor related issues.  Especially issues related to digital conversion, alternative content (for example, sports) and items at the concession stand.  For indie filmmakers, the second item might be the only interesting point.  After all, it’s not impossible (though it might seem to be) that a theater might host something like a Thursday night indie presentation.

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