Some people are still pondering the business market for DVDs. Guess they haven’t seen the memo. It’s over! Kaput The DVD is not yet dead, but it has been admitted into hospice. Various news agencies are already working on the obituary. It will eventually join the rank of such other great devices as the VHS cassette and the Laserdisc. I don’t think it will be a sudden death. More like a lingering decline (which is already well underway). But the end of the DVD format is in sight and the reasons are all pretty straightforward.
Technically, the format has long been iffy. It wasn’t supposed to be, but that thinking was based upon the presumed archival possibilities of DVDs.
First thing, right up front, there are no secrets. None whatsoever.
Or at least, that was what I thought until I recently got a variety of spam for assorted hot offers that unlock the ancient secrets of the screenplay. Heck, some of these promotions sound as if I will be spending the next twenty years in a Tibetan monastery. Good thing I can substitute my credit card number in lieu of esoteric training.
In reality, some of these folks (and their various web sites) can teach you how to write a screenplay. That doesn’t mean they can teach how to write a good screenplay or even a marketable one. All they can do is give you the basics about how to format and structure something that just might resemble a plausible script in the most elemental sense of the term.
Of course, you could figure that out for yourself if you were so inclined. But it is different strokes for different folks and buyer beware and all of that standard advice. People have a Constitutional right to pay as much as they want for any amount of screenwriting seminars they desire. I have heard reports from folks who claim they come out of these seminars feeling truly inspired, which I assume is why they keep going back every year. Few if any of them have yet to produce a single marketable screenplay, but they have lots of inspiration.
Sometimes you just want to do something that makes you feel better about yourself. Really, nobody can teach you exactly how to write a screenplay. What you can learn, is how to structure a screenplay. That occurred to me while reading an article at The Guardian by the BBC writer/producer John Yorke. In What Makes a Great Screenplay?, Yorke unreels a quick but highly detailed breakdown of key narrative and dramatic components in the screenplay structure.
I’m not sure that I would totally agree with every point Yorke makes in this piece. But it is worth careful scrutiny by anyone interested in learning narrative craft. Yes, I said craft.
There must be mornings when the typical indie filmmaker barely can crawl out of bed. On the receiving end of so much bad news, it’s a miracle he or she can even get in the mood to dress before noon.
Barely a week goes by without some new post of doom and gloom for the indie business. For example, a recent blog piece by Ted Hope could be mistaken for a zombie alert warning. Actually, it is an important read for everyone in the indie business. But man oh man, there are times when ol’ Ted starts to sound like one of those depression ads on TV.
Unfortunately, Hope does have some very good points. Especially in regards to the recent article in The Economist titled Hollywood: Split Screens. In turn, this article does a solid job of outlining many of the reasons why the current Hollywood business model is busted.
Busted? It’s way past that point. Heck, the Hollywood business model is in worse shape than a guy who has just been run over by a truck and the truck driver backs up to see what that “bump” was in the road. Under the current Hollywood model, you spend around $300 million making a film and then hope to score a billion globally in its release. Once in a blue moon, a movie succeeds in pulling off this stunt. This is called dumb luck, and luck is not a business model.
This tent-pole madness has had profoundly negative consequences for indie movies.
The words “boobs” and “Academy Awards” have often appeared together in a sentence. Normally we have meant the non-anatomical meaning of boobs.
But not this year. In a pitch to a younger demographic audience model, the Oscar presentation went on a bumpy joy ride combining its usual institutional blandness with an occasional bitch slap at the audience. I don’t mean the TV audience. I mean the fancy-dressed folks sitting for more than three and a half hours like hostages in the Dolby Theatre.
I am not particularly interested in debating Seth MacFarlane’s handling of the hosting duties at the Oscars. Hosting this show has to be one of the most thankless jobs around. An Oscar host is expected to be a toothless court jester. They are suppose to spoof the business but not the egos as they provide biting commentary but only so long as they lack either bark or bite. No wonder Billy Crystal doesn’t want the lousy job.
To be honest, MacFarlane was better than David Letterman. But then, a colonoscopy was funnier than Letterman. Of course, I also thought that Chris Rock did a swell job back in 2005, so I am not speaking from a mainstream Academy perspective.
However, the fallout from this year’s Oscar presentation has been a singular spectacle. Granted, every Oscar show has its controversies, things like, “How did the movie Crash ever get nominated, less alone win” etc. But this past week most press reports have been so obsessed with women’s breasts and Anne Hathaway’s nipples, I’m beginning to confuse the Oscars with lunch at Hooters.
According to a recent Sky News report, China will soon outstrip Hollywood in film production. In a recent piece from the Agence France Presse, China is now number two to the US market in ticket sales. Though Hollywood movies produce the stronger revenue at the Chinese box office, there are increasingly powerful exceptions. The biggest current hit in the Asian market is the Chinese movie Journey to the West.
Of course, all estimates about who is number one in the international market is always open to debate. It depends upon how you frame the question. The American box office is number one in the amount of money made primarily because of the cost of tickets in the US. In reality, American movie attendance has been in steep decline for years (and will continue dropping). Heck, that attendance decline is one of the reasons why theaters keep upping the ticket cost.
Likewise, American mainstream movie production has dropped. Currently, Hollywood only produces about 15 per cent of the movies made internationally. We are way behind India in the amount of movies made, and almost as far behind as Nigeria. Eventually, Nollywood will surpass Hollywood in sheer terms of output.
But does this matter? After all, we have Johnny Depp and they don’t. More importantly, Hollywood has the kind of money that can buy Johnny Depp, and they don’t. Money – and lots of it – has always been the secret to Hollywood. In theory, the Hollywood cinema took global dominance because of its superior quality. In reality, it had to do with a series of extremely convenient historical factors.
Previously, I outlined some major actual or impending changes taking place in the film industry. Many of these are related to distribution strategy. But there are even more significant changes in the works. These will affect not just the production of films but also how the creative process is conceptualized. Some impending changes may even alter our conception of humanity. But, before we lose our grip altogether, let us go back and look at film’s early beginnings, since the patterns of the future usually can be found within the rubble of the past.
The first film experiments were conducted in the late 1880s, with moving images. These were very simple bits of film, like Roundhay Garden. The link I’ve included is to a reworked version with added title cards. The surviving version of the original is about 3 seconds long. By the mid-1890s, Thomas A. Edison http://www.thomasedison.com/ and his company were experimenting with sound movies. Developed for Edison by William Dickson, these short films attempted to synchronize the moving image to a wax cylinder.
The first step toward the development of color motion pictures took place at the end of the 19th Century. An early form of color film stock was successfully created in 1909. A version of Kodachrome color film was tested and available by 1922. Experiments in color were used in various silent films such as the 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera.
Almost all of these early experiments were half ignored and, in many cases, forgotten. The clips I have provided links to are all relatively recent discoveries. Yet, in many respects, the technical history of the entire first century of movies can be found within these early experiments. It just took a long while before the industry caught up with the implications.
The same process is happening today. Two recent little films on the internet are major examples of the future.
For some, the glass is half empty. For others, it is half full.
But for a few of of us, the real question is: What glass? I see only water.
Which partly sums up my own attitude when assessing the possible future developments involving the film industry and the digital revolution. Three recent blog articles do an excellent job of summarizing several key issues that have formed over the last several years.
In a post titled The Independent’s Guide to Film Exhibition and Delivery 2013, Jeffrey Winter of The Film Collaborative does a superb job of describing the rapidly emerging digital system for commercial movie distribution. He is especially good at outlining how a new distribution system that could (in theory) be a plus for indie filmmakers is actually being designed for increased control (as in near total control) by the major media companies.
The digital distribution system that will be standard by the end of this year is a top-down structure that excludes virtually everybody (including the theaters) from any real and active say into the system. The major companies do not particularly like the digital form. In many respects, they don’t really understand it and they are actually half afraid of it. But by gum, they are going to own it by hook or by crook. The glass is half empty and they want the glass.
Which brings us to the other must-read blog post of the month.
Low budget indie movies are hot.
That is supposedly the message from the recent Sundance Festival, where distribution purchase records were being set. Titles were being grabbed at $2.5 million (Fruitvale), $4 million (both Austenland and Don Jon’s Addiction), and finally hitting the grand jackpot of $10 million for The Way, Way Back.
Are they sure this was Sundance? Sounds more like a sweepstake being worked by Ed McMahon. But hey, it’s a great boom for a few indie filmmakers. The question is: Does this help the indie business?
It certainly suggests a resurgence of interest in medium budget movies. Take for example The Way, Way Back. It’s not really low, low budget. It was directed by the two guys who previously scripted The Descendants, which means that they are not exactly newcomers. (If you count TV, they’ve been around for a while). It’s designed to be a slightly quirky, mildly feel-good, low key crowd pleaser.
In other words, it is the kind of movie that mainstream Hollywood use to make on a more regular basis several decades ago.
Gun violence in movies and media is a hot topic. Just ask Robert Redford, who devoted part of his opening address at the current Sundance Festival to this issue. In his address, Redford frames the question in terms of social responsibility.
Questions concerning sex, specifically sex and public health, are also hot. Just ask the lawyers for a collection of major porn companies in Los Angeles County. They are filing suit based on the legal argument that the mandated use of condoms in adult movies is a violation of the First Amendment. Which means that we are about to witness a fascinating exercise in linguist convergence as the debate on these issues take a wild flip flop from their traditional focus.
Let’s start with sex. During the past decade, the porn industry has taken many major hits. All the free online amateur material has drastically reduced the “professional” profit margin. It use to be easy to make a quick, if dirty buck. Now, the porn industry finds itself trying to upgrade production quality and even resorting to “scripts” and “plot lines” in hope of luring an audience that has way too many options for cheap thrills.
Then there have been some major health problems. Last year, there was a syphilis outbreak in the industry that resulted in a brief production shut down. There has also been recurring HIV concerns. The problem of STDs is taken seriously enough in the porn business that they have their own medical agency (the Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation). Testing for STDs is done on a regular and systematic basis. The industry says that they’ve got the issue covered, so their performers don’t need to be “covered.”
But some studies indicate otherwise, such as a recent report from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. I suspect what these studies are discovering is that the industry approach is reactive, not proactive. They can discover and deal with a performer who has come down with an STD, but they cannot truly prevent it. Which is why the county of Los Angeles has approved a measure forcing porn “actors” to use condoms. It is viewed as a public health issue.
Except that the industry is appealing on the grounds that it is an infringement of their Right to Free Expression as guaranteed in the First Amendment. After all, when the Founding Fathers were dripping their quills and drafting the Constitution, they were referring to both their big and little brains. The real problem is that the legally enforced use of condoms takes away the “money shot,” which is a major commercial staple of the industry. It is about business, not opinions. But the porn industry is working very hard at turning a health issue into a Constitutional fight. Gun violence in the movies is already protected by the First Amendment, more or less. Ironically, the industry largely does not press on this First Amendment protection. Instead, they prefer insisting that violence in media does not influence public behavior and even if it did, it only reflects the violence in the society.
This has always been a slippery argument. Movies do not operate in a vacuum (though some films are empty headed enough to seem like they do). Likewise, since the industry has already admitted that they “reflect” the society, it does not take much to ponder the larger effect of some type of social and behavior exchange between the society and the reflected image. In other words, a pattern of stimulus, response, reward, and reinforcement. Which is why the debate on gun violence in media is moving away from the First Amendment and heading toward the mental health zone. In some recent interviews, Quentin Tarantino has been directly asked this question. So far, his less than brilliant responses have convinced almost everybody (including Fox News for crying out loud) that there may be a point to the mental health argument.
So the question of violence in movies is becoming a public health issue, while the use of condoms in porn is a free speech concern. The first question has been a ticking time bomb in the movie business for a long while; and the industry is finally going to have to seriously deal with it. As for the other, well I guess we now know which brain does the talking in certain businesses.
How dare the citizens of Los Angeles try to gag the gabby little darlings.
Legendary film editor Dede Allen was once asked by a student, “Who is your agent?”
Allen’s reply was quick. “I don’t have an agent. I have a lawyer.”
Not a bad answer, though it works best if you are Dede Allen. Most people could use an agent. Few people will ever get one. The reason is pretty straightforward.
An agent wants clients who are marketable. That means that they are either a high profile talent or, at the very least, a prominent emerging talent. In other words, they want people who already have some sort of name value that can be commercially peddled. They want people who are in a position where they don’t necessarily need an agent.
The people who could really use an agent are those folks who are not well known. They are not very prominent. They are not particularly connected. They could really use the help that can be provided by an agent.
Too bad. They are not marketable. The system is perversely logical (if cruel) in its simplicity. Those who could most use an agent are the least likely to get one. Those who can get an agent…well, you got the drill. It doesn’t hurt to try. Just be ready to be rejected because you will be, over and over again. Most agents receiving a cold contact from an aspiring client will not even respond. On the rare occasion when they do respond, count yourself lucky.
But despite all of this, you may still want to press ahead. Actually, one good place to start is at About.com. They present a basic but significant check list of how a writer, actor, or filmmaker should approach the first stage of the search. For example, a filmmaker needs to have some sort of demo reel for presentation. If you are a screenwriter, your scripts should look professional, with a correct format and careful proofing.
You have to focus on the best way to market yourself. Don’t spend ten pages telling them that you are wonderful. You have to show them that you’re wonderful in under 30 seconds. If the agent actually looks at the demo reel, they will make a decision about you in 10 seconds or less. Most likely, it will be an assistant looking at the reel and their main job is to weed people out, not in. I’m not trying to be a downer, but you need to be realistic about the process.
Of course this also means that you have a good body of work to present. That is a point strongly emphasized by Marc Maurino in a blog report he wrote about a panel discussion on films and agents at the Independent Film Week in 2010.
And, you are going to want a lawyer, preferably an entertainment lawyer but, at the very least, a lawyer who works with contracts. I know: this is one more pain-in-the-rear item on the plate. But anytime you go to sign up with an agent, you are signing legal papers. So you need to have somebody in your corner who actually knows what you are signing.
Obviously signing up with an agent brings up the question of finding an agency. My first response is to skip the whole question and just wish you good luck. There are many pitfalls to this process and no magic fix. You might start by simply using Google, where you can find lists like the one at FindTheBest.com. It’s respectable but also incredibly mainstream list. If your material is really good and your presentation is truly hot, you just might get a very personal and touching rejection letter. When that happens, please keep in mind that “no” is never an absolute.
Take time researching these lists and conduct extensive checks on any and every agency that comes up, especially the lesser-known ones. There are some perfectly fine small agencies that may even be more suitable for an indie filmmaker. There are also a lot of complete flakes and scammers out there. Any one who has read my previous pieces on this issue should know the routine. If not, I’ll just sum it up fast: cross-check and verify everything.
For example, all agencies will post lists of their better known clients. You need to verify that these people really are their clients. There are various ways to do this, though the Pro version of the IMDb.com database is the quickest. If the agency doesn’t have a client list, walk the other way. Real agencies live and die by their client lists and love to show them off. Only bogus agents are shy about naming names. If you need a more detailed list of warning signs, you might refer to Top Ten Ways to Tell if a Talent Agency is a Scam. Though the article is focused on the modeling business, many of the tips apply to all agencies.
Which brings us back to the question at the top of this piece: when do you need an agent? There is no real answer. The best answer anyone can give is, when you feel you are ready. Of course you have to be at a stage where you have material to show. You are working in a professional, career orientated capacity. You can look in the mirror and say that you are good enough and smart enough without falling into a fit of hysterical laughter.
Then you might be ready. Or you can do what one highly successful indie filmmaker did, and get your father to handle a lot of this work for you.
Just remember to always say, “Thanks, Dad.”