The Generals of Genre

The romantic comedy genre is dead. The horror genre has received numerous obituary notices over the past ten years. Film Noir is pretty much an historical concept used for stylistic flourish and the occasional directorial hommage.

Genre film-making – a major backbone to the low budget and indie cinema – is often treated as a dead commodity. Reports on the demise of various forms of genre appears almost as frequent as rumors of Bill Cosby’s death. They are also about as accurate.

Social Media for the Anti-Social Type

Where ever you go, the topic is social media. It is the quick fix for everything from fund raising to film promotion and distribution. It is all things to all people, which is why it is a good thing we have so many self-professed experts online to tell us how to use it. It plays a bit like that scene with Groucho and Chico in A Day at the Races.

So let’s begin by stating that I am not an expert on social media. Never have been, and never will be. To be honest, I have a strong anti-social streak which works against the whole concept. I am even thinking of developing my own social media site based on the principle that people ought to mind their own business. I thought I would call it MySpace/Not Yours.

New Approaches in Film Financing

Ted Hope may or may not have left his heart in San Francisco.  But he has left his job.  After slightly more than a year as director of the San Francisco Film Society, Hope has quit.

Officially, he wants to get back to work as an indie film producer.  Unofficially, there are stray rumors about certain “issues” between Hope and the board at the San Francisco Film Society.  I’m not really interested in the gossip, but it sounds a bit like a clash between old ways and new ideas.

During his brief time as director of the San Francisco Film Society, Hope aggressively explored the new and rapidly emerging terrain of contemporary indie film production, distribution and financing.  Especially financing.  Production and distribution issues are all tied into that question.

Which may be why Hope is ready to get back into the indie business.  In his recent blog post, called Towards A Sustainable Investor Class: Consistent Deal Flow, Hope presents a very detailed and provocative proposal toward a new approach in indie funding.  It is one of several ideas currently being implemented by indie film producers seeking new ways of dealing with the film financing crisis.

In Hope’s blog piece, he outlines his method: to create a package of multiple projects with budgets that are structured through an analyzed range of projected box office highs and lows, so that the total portfolio creates a sustainable range of  ROIs with an acceptable average.  Some of the movies in the portfolio will do OK.  Some not so OK.  But what counts is the overall portfolio.  As long as a reasonable job is done with the calculations on the portfolio, which is where database analysis comes into play, the final outcome of the portfolio should be efficient – in other words, profitable.

This approach does not remove all the risks from the process.  Heck, all of those traffic laws do not remove the risks from driving.  But it does create a manageable and rational process for indie financial management.  At R&R, we have developed a system for securitizing a static pool of small ticket films using statistical forecasting tools that is remarkably similar to what Hope describes in his article.  We have also developed and validated the algorithms to tie out the sustainability quotient.

Of course, the problem with financing a whole portfolio at once is the significant upfront financial investment it requires even before production can begin.  We are talking big bucks here, from corporate or institutional backers here, not so much from private investors.  That is the most difficult part of the portfolio model.  Especially since most major investors, both corporate and individual, have problems getting past the one-shot-at-a-time model.  You know, the method where the investor throws their money into a single movie with the naive belief that it will become the next Blair Witch Project.

In reality, the vast majority of indie films will never see that kind of success (99.99% is a safe failure estimate).  But a lot of investors go seeking that type of quirky, rare phenomena.  To be honest, they could cut to the chase and try a casino instead.  I suspect the odds would be slightly more in their favor (but not by much).  However, a lot of the current indie fiance model is based upon this method.

There are investors out there. Some know what they are doing, some do not.  The problem is finding them.  Especially finding investors who might be seeking the type of project that the filmmaker is working on.  This is where Slated.com enters.  The people at Slated combine some of the crowdfunding approach with social media networking, rounded off by an approach to matching filmmakers and investors that kind of resembles a dating site.

Unlike crowdfunding, at Slated the investors will be engaged as honest-to-god investors.  They will have a certain degree of production involvement.  Even Duncan Cork at Slated admits that the system opens up a lot of new questions in the filmmaker/investor relationship.  The process used by Slated is extremely selective.  In their first year of operation, they took 2,500 submissions which were then narrowed down to 35 titles.  The short list gets narrowed further based upon the ability of the films to find investors through the system within a prescribed time frame.

The concept with Slated is very provocative.  Of course, it is also extremely limited in its usefulness since it operates a bit like an installment of Survivors.  It takes the old model of indie financing and stream-lines the process with its digital adaptation.

But obviously most indie filmmakers will not get accepted into the system.  For a vast majority of indie filmmakers, the crowdfunding  model will be infinitely more useful. It becomes that magic moment when we must paraphrase what Tom Cruise said in Risky Business:

“What the (bleep).  Looks like Kickstarter for me.”

 

 

 

Is American Cinema Racially Biased?

The question of racial bias in American movies is supposed to be over. You know, the product of some long-forgotten age. Way back in Antebellum time when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, and we had just discovered fire.

However, almost every major study on this issue completely and adamantly disagrees. Take for example Andrew J. Weaver’s report, The Role of Actor’s Race in White Audiences’ Selective Exposure to Movies, published in 2011 by the Journal of Communication. Weaver’s study found that white audiences were largely less responsive to the concept of an African-American leading man, especially in a romantic role.

Other studies have not only confirmed Weaver’s results but have gone even further. Racial bias also appears in mainstream movie reviews, as was demonstrated in the report Racial Bias in Expert Quality Assessment: A Study of Newspaper Movie Reviews by Lona Fowdur, Vrinda Kadiyali, and Jeffrey Prince in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization. They found a systematic and measurable review bias against movies with a leading black actor (generally by 6 per cent) that was consistent enough to rule out other critical factors.

Numerous academic reports clearly outlines racial bias with the audience and the press. My own first-hand experience showed racial bias with the average exhibitor. Most theater managers are convinced that any movie with a large black cast will bring in a crowd of gangbangers, and they hit the panic button. Some theater managers actually resent it when a movie is successful with a predominately black audience.

Once, when I was working as the lead reviewer with a weekly newspaper, someone phoned in a “hot” tip. Supposedly, local businesses near a theater showing Menace II Society were complaining of “problems” with the audience to the movie. The caller was suggesting that I should do a story on this in the hopes it would force the theater to withdraw the film. The caller was the guy who owned the theater and thought I would do him a favor. Privately, I wrote him off as a nut.

So, basically, we have an abundance of empirical and anecdotal data that overwhelmingly support the claim of racial bias in American movies. What is not clear is how much this plays out within Hollywood’s creative and decision processes. Actually, it is sort of clear and unclear at the same time: Hollywood is singularly blessed with the unique ability to speak out of both sides of its collective mouth in different languages and still manage to say absolutely nothing.

A quick overview of the history of ethnic presentation in American movie history would suggest that Hollywood has been pretty democratic in insulting all non-white races. Let’s be honest, at times Hollywood was pretty backhanded to the Irish and the Italians as well. Part of this was evidenced in the approach used in casting found in old movies. If the character was suppose to be Chinese, they would cast a Swedish actor (Warner Oland or Nils Asther). If it was a Western with an Indian in a speaking part, it would be played by an Italian-American actor.

But African-Americans were a problem. Especially once show biz had to give up on the blackface bit. For the first forty-some years of American movies, blacks primarily functioned as servants and crude comedy relief. The Production Code of the Motion Picture Industry restricted images that ostensibly might incite racial unrest or present issues of racial inequality. Basically, it pretty much restricted any presentation of blacks, period. Making them go away was seen as an “equitable” solution.

Some changes did take place. In the 1941 production of High Sierra, Willie Best catered to stereotype humor as a lazy, slow witted black guy. When the film was remade in 1955 as I Died a Thousand Times, it was decided that they had to cut out the  racist stuff. So the character was turned into a Mexican and made even dumber and lazier.

In short, the history of Hollywood on this point is not very reassuring. Their only defense is, they give what the audience will accept. Of course they also condition, manipulate and reinforce the audience’s expectations on what they have conditioned the audience to expect, resulting in a great circle of something or other. It’s a complicated relationship. But Hollywood is far from being blameless in this process.

Not that things haven’t changed. They have, big time, though paradoxically the changes are most noticeable in television. Mainstream American movies are still mighty slow to move. As always, Hollywood is fast with the finger pointing. They blame their dependence on the foreign market. Foreign audiences don’t want to see African-Americans in lead roles nor do they want to see inter-racial romances etc. etc. Damn those foreign bastards for holding Hollywood back.

Personally, I find that something just doesn’t smell right about this argument. OK, some of these films would not fare well overseas because they involve uniquely American social or political issues. Others might not fare well because they are very African-American in their cultural viewpoint and gee, guess what, that makes them extremely American in their codes and references. You see, most African-Americans have cultural and personal roots that go much further back in American history than those of us whose great-grandparents arrived around 1900 (all on the same boat, I hear).

But most of all, Hollywood is busy peddling tent-pole productions overseas and most movies headlining an African-American cast are not tent-pole productions. Arguably, the comparison becomes a bad case of apples and oranges. I have no doubt that Lee Daniels’ The Butler is not going to play as well overseas as, say, any movie showing Bruce Willis blowing up half of a city. This is not necessarily anything to do with race. We are talking about radically different kinds of movies.

We are also talking about Hollywood’s longstanding ability to completely sidestep a major issue. And yes, the Hollywood cinema is racially biased. It always has been.

 

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.

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