Making the Movie


Your Wednesday Links: The Real Box Office Figures

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 9.11.27 AMMost of these links come from the @makingthemovie Twitter stream. If you'd like to see them as they come, follow us on Twitter.

Deadline data on how much profit blockbuster films ACTUALLY make - In honor of the NCAA Basketball Tourney, Deadline ran a mock bracket between 2013 blockbusters. The data they used is closer to what studios see, and a rare peek into more realistic profitability numbers than the "dumb" box office numbers that news outlets put out each week. I really wish there was a lot more reporting around these numbers, not just silly brackets.

What these numbers do omit is a discussion of the risk and how it is distributed across a studio's slate. Disney had an unexpectedly big hit with Frozen, but they also had some recent celebrated misses with Lone Ranger and John Carter. (Or were they misses? My guess is those movies made back quite a bit of the upfront losses in ancillary revenue. Can't know without seeing the numbers...)

BuzzFeed: How many bad movies have you seen? - A far-from-comprehensive but still broadly inclusive list of cult crappy cinema.

538 crunches the numbers on female characters in Hollywood films - Far-from-rigorous but still interesting way to point out Hollywood's double-standard. Indies who are passionate about this topic should be making female-centric films and looking to capture the money that is being left on the table.

Cinescopophilia: The Amazingly Tiny one-cam Camera That Shot Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin - Also related to that film, Seth Madej's essay "Scarlett Johansson's Boob Problem" Photos taken on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey

Marlon Brando / Don Corleone before and after photo. - One of the great movie makeups.

Digital Rebellion: CinePlay aims to be alternative to QuickTime Pro

Film Comment Interview: Longtime Scorsese collaborator, editor Thelma Schoonmaker

Don't be afraid to test your films with tough critics. Don't be afraid to make changes that you believe will improve the film, even if other people suggest them.


All About Movie Test Screenings (with Free Questionnaire Download!)

Movie theater by Bonita Sarita, on Flickr

I'm not sure when Hollywood began running test screenings, but I know it goes way back. In 1942, two preview screenings of The Magnificent Ambersons (written and directed by Orson Welles) went over like wet blankets and RKO, the studio, lopped 40 minutes off and re-shot the ending. Likewise, the recent World War Z had a third act that tested poorly and was completely re-written and re-shot. One might conclude not much has changed.

Criticisms aside, there is a scientific method to modern test screenings, which are more often aimed at figuring out how to market the film than how to re-edit it. The two main companies that make a business of running audience-recruitment screenings -- and make no mistake, sample quality is more important than sample size -- are NRG (a division of Nielsen, expensive) and MPG (geared toward indies).

What is the standard format for a test screening?

Rent a theater, show an audience a cut, have them fill out a questionnaire.

Depending on what you want to test, you gather an appropriate audience. If you want to see how the movie plays among suburban soccer moms, you need to get out to the soccer fields and offer free orange wedges.

You can get good and useful opinions from friends and family, but it is hard to know how much bias they bring. You definitely know they bring bias. Sometimes, they over-compensate by hating on your movie much more than the general public. This is a very real phenomenon. The screening companies even try to screen out anyone who works in the film industry. (Although the recruiters they employ don't try too hard, since they are paid based on who shows up to the screenings.)

Any way, I hope you don't need a lot of convincing to imagine that the best test screening audience is one that A) Doesn't know the filmmakers; B) is not a wanna-be filmmaker; C) approximates more or less the type of audience that the actual marketing for the film will pull in.

That last reason is why you'll see screenings advertised as "GENRE starring ACTOR A and ACTOR B about BASIC PLOT DESCRIPTION" -- e.g. A thriller starring Arnold Schwartzenegger and Zach Galifinakis about a father and son trapped in an avalanche.

Free Questionnaire Template

While the screening companies are tight-lipped about their methodology, I've come across a sample questionnaire that looks very similar to ones I've seen at screenings.

- .docx version
- Google Docs

You will have to customize it, obviously, to your film and what you'd like to know. John August's favorite test screening question is, "Given a pair of magical scissors, is there anything you’d snip out?"

What are the top two boxes?

The top two boxes are the two "Yes" answers to "Would you recommend this movie to your friends?" I have heard that the rule of thumb is that movie is ready to release when it scores 80 or more on the top two boxes, meaning 80%+ of the audience would recommend it. Word of mouth is still the holy grail for movie marketing.

If your film doesn't manage to score what you wanted with your target audience, then maybe it's time to rethink the film -- or the target audience. Happy screenings!

'Movie theater' image Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  Bonita Sarita 


Fully-Conscious Filmmaking: An Interview with Ethan Shaftel

Ethan Shaftel is director, writer and editor who has worked with artists like Beyoncé and John Legend. He also makes visually-arresting, mind-bending science fiction films, the latest of which is the short "Flesh Computer". Check out the trailer:

I had a chance to speak with Ethan via email about how he pulled off the complex digital and practical effects you see above. Filmmaker Ethan ShaftelHe also talked about recruiting top talent on a low budget and, oh yeah, the philosophy of consciousness. Lots of great info for fellow filmmakers. Enjoy...

* * *

Making the Movie: Where did the idea for "Flesh Computer" come from?

Ethan Shaftel: I had been mulling over two very different concepts for quite some time before I connected them and realized I had the makings for a really cool short.

There was a time when I had fruit flies living in all my potted plants. Since I work at home, I would kill literally dozens of flies every day just by clapping them with my hands and casually brushing their carcasses into the trash. They are so small it didn't even seem gross, I wasn't even aware of "blood and guts" spilling out onto my hands. I couldn't feel their bodies being destroyed. And at some point I realized that my actions would be horrific if the flies were even just a little bit bigger -- if they were puppies, or even small birds, crushing one in my hands would be absolutely disgusting and upsetting.

And the reaction of the creature itself -- the wriggling, the frightened cries, the accelerated heartbeat and struggle to escape -- would make it very clear that it's own death is not something it regards ambivalently. And this is regardless of the mechanism that controls those reactions -- as consciousness is not a given even if the creature flees pain and is driven to survive. The question of how much awareness the fly might have of it's own destruction leads one to think about the fly’s awareness of it's own existence. Which is the connection with the next idea that lead to the short as a whole...

Ethan Shaftel on the set of Flesh ComputerI have long pondered the relationship we have with our electronic belongings, imagining a future where one would care about the welfare of your computer in a much more visceral way, as someone might view the safety of her pet or even her child. So I imagined a parent figure who cares for a computer that is as helpless and alive as a small child or an animal.

Again, the logical next thought is about the awareness or consciousness of the computer itself. The main connection between both these stories is not so much the quality of the consciousness of the various creatures, but just the vast power differential that exists between different pairs of beings: the fly exists as an unimaginably tiny and insignificant thing to the man who carelessly swats it. To a lesser extent, that differential is also found in the various pairs of Owner/Pet, or Parent/Child. The greater of the pair understands the lesser completely, while simultaneously assuming that the lesser has no sense of the richness of existence. Other relationships with power differences presented as contrasts in "Flesh Computer" include the Bully vs the Victim, the Child vs. the Toy, and even the Conscious (in the sense of being awake) vs. the Unconscious -- the person who is simply asleep, and thus unaware and defenseless.

Ultimately "Flesh Computer" is about the concept that everything has a point of view, and in some way everything is conscious. And since that question is so big and so scary and could lead us in so many directions, I decided that the best way to tie together the story of a computer and its caretaker with the story of a fly's death was to get a sense of the "state of the art" in the philosophy of consciousness by weaving in an interview with a philosopher working on the cutting edge.

How long was pre-production vs. the shoot vs. post-production?

Pre-production -- including writing the script from a set of loose notes -- took three months. Production was four days, not counting a couple pickup shots a little later. Post was spread over nine months. Of course, when there is considerable CG work, the distinction between post and production is less clear. The plates for the fly sequence were shot in less than half a day, but that animation work took several months.

What were the challenges in each of these chapters of the process?



Your Wednesday Links: Wrap on Ramis

Most of these links come from the @makingthemovie Twitter stream. If you'd like to see them as they come, follow us on Twitter.

RIP Harold Ramis - As @NotoriousJLD pointed out: "In an 8-year span beginning at age 34, Harold Ramis created Animal House, Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters and Back to School."

Filmmaker Mag: Making a film is like having a child. - The responsibilities continue after birth...

Tim Berners Lee in WaPo, Josh Gans in Digitopoly - Some different perspectives on the recent Comcast/Netflix blow to net neutrality.

Q. Will this Comcast/Netflix deal harm indie filmmakers? A. Time will tell. Not a very conclusive answer, but accurate.

Q. Why did it happen? A. Looks to me like Netflix read the tea leaves, found net neutrality was going to die a slow death and decided to get a lock in an early sweetheart deal. In return, Comcast has bought out one of the biggest opponents to the merger with Time/Warner Cable. Welcome to the brave new world of pay-for-cable-play.

Movie Morlocks: Jean Renoir’s Less Grand Illusion

Daily Beast: An Oscar Voter Spills Secrets on Woodygate, Wolfgate, and Awards Scandals

Vanity Fair: The Most In-Demand Composer in Hollywood Shares Stories About His Latest Collaborators

John August: Scanning scripts on your iPhone with Weekend Read + Prizmo

Steven Soderbergh on Joseph Von Sternberg

SlashFilm: Watch Extensive ‘A Field in England’ Making-Of Footage

A new goal for myself: make more eye contact with performers and less with screen/paper. #recording
-Audio Craftsman @RandyCoppinger

Only Connect: An Interview with Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza - The trailer for his Kickstarter success, Know How, a musical by and starring foster care youth, is now online.
Everything You Wanted To Know About Reel Breaks - Added more information on reel length standards and rules for where to split reels.


Your Wednesday Links: Guns in Theaters Edition

Most of these links come from the @makingthemovie Twitter stream. If you'd like to see them as they come, follow us on Twitter.

FilmDrunk: Follow-up: The Man Who Killed Another Man For Texting During Previews Before Lone Survivor - This is a sad story. Surprised it is not getting more attention given that other "violence and the media" stories saturate the news.

LATimes: Richard Linklater's 12-year project Boyhood to premiere at Sundance - Super excited about this film. What an epic project!

BuzzFeed: 25 Things You Didn't Know About Fight Club - Well, I knew some of them.

Forbes: Negotiating Dynamic Changes Between Netflix and the Studios - You heard it here first, of course.

No Film School: How to Set a Living Room on Fire with VFX in 4K

The Dissolve: The Simpsons pay an inspired tribute to Hayao Miyazaki

Top Rated Films by Location They Were Shot - Created by a Reddit user using IMDb data

Martin Scorsese's open letter to his daughter about the future of cinema

"Bored by the scene you're writing? Cut away. Maybe cut the whole scene. Get out of there, man." -@jonspaihts

Free Film Leader Download - made some changes to the files, now improved for v2


Avid Error of the Day: AvidBinIndexer works locally but not on external Unity drive

Search Data FolderWhen I encounter an odd software error and its solution, I make a note. This is one of those notes. I want solutions to turn up better in searches for other Avid users (and myself). As with all error posts on the site, the casual reader can just skip ahead to other less-technical content.

Running MediaComposer 7.0.2 with a fiber Unity on MacOS 10.7.5. The project was originally set up locally and Avid Search worked fine, finding lots of sound effects by name across multiple bins. Once we moved the project to a Unity drive, the search no longer worked, even after deleting the SearchData folder to force a rebuild. Even after changing Find > Settings tab > Search Data Folder to "Local Default" from "Default" (the Project Folder).
Avid Find Window
I tried all kinds of things, including re-importing the sound effects manually in various projects. Search would find sequences and audio mixdowns but it just wouldn't find the video or audio media, even if the clips were moved into fresh bins.

The project was at the root level of the Unity workspace. Moving it up another folder level made the search work. Simple and Avid recommended, no hacky-panky. Thanks to my friend JCB for helping figure this out. (more…)


Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Reel Breaks

A holdover from the days where films were shipped as individual reels of film, modern editors still break feature films down into 10-20 minute sequences called "reels".

These reels are a convenient length to send to the sound editing team, the composer, the colorist, etc. This is called in the biz "turning over a reel" or "turnover".


The editor I'm currently working with cuts individual scenes as dailies come in, quickly grouping them together into short sequences. From 87 scenes, he ended up with 21 groups. When those were all done, the groups were stitched into the first assembly.

Traditionally this "editor's cut" would then be shown to the director. This typically will make the director suicidal, as they must confront the movie that was shot, not the perfect vision imagined in their head.

Another way to go is to break the assembly into reels immediately, and go through these one-by-one with the director, which will help keep the director from being overwhelmed. The editor can do quick notes passes on each of the reels. Only then is a longplay assembly made. This way, the first time the director sees a whole cut, there will be no rude surprises.


At whatever point in the process you decide to "break" the film into reels, there are some things to keep in mind...

- Maximum length of reel for 35mm 4-perf will depend on the studio specs. The longest my sources have seen was just under 2100 feet (that's 23 minutes, 20 seconds according to the Panavision footage calculator). UPDATE: According to the book Dialogue Editing for Motion Pictures, 2nd Ed., the limit is 2050 feet.
- To find the break, add 2000 feet to the previous break and work down, looking for a picture cut that is a good break point. (Most reels lose length during the editing process. See "rebalancing" below for what to do if they get too long, or short enough to combine.)
- Having as few reels as possible makes the film less costly to deliver down the road. This thread says the industry average is around 1800 feet per reel.
- Look for a place where there is a clean sound break, preferably between scenes. Sometimes you'll need to break in the middle of a scene. If so, look for where the camera reverses angle completely, which will hide any color shifts between film reels. Always choose to break between shots that can be rolled out a little longer.
- Also, according to Dialogue Editing for Motion Pictures, "Avoid splitting within a musical cue or a place likely to have one later. ... Don't allow any significant sound within the first second of a new reel. This sound will fall within the changeover and could cause trouble."
- The first reel should be shorter to leave room for credits and studio titles. Absent any specific direction, 1500 feet is the rule of thumb -- or so I've been told.
- You will also want to leave 800 - 1000 feet on the last reel for the end crawl and any "main on ends" -- main credits sequences that are increasingly placed at the end of films.
- If questions remain, ask an experienced sound editor.


- Leader is added to head and tail of each reel. The 8 second (12 foot) Academy Leader has been superseded by the longer SMPTE Universal Leader, but in my experience people are using only the last 8 seconds of SMPTE Universal to match the timing of the Academy Leader. SMPTE Universal Tail Leader is 6 seconds, and again my experience is people extend this another 2 seconds to make it 8 seconds. Learn more and grab a free download in this post.
- Each reel starts with the hour of the reel. Reel 1 starts at 01:00:00:00, Reel 2 starts at 02:00:00:00, Reel 3 starts at 03:00:00:00 etc. As of Avid MC5, this setting is accessed by right-clicking on the timeline and selecting "Sequence report..." You will then click "Apply changes" and, unintuitively, "Cancel".
- The edgecode (EC) starts at 0+00 for all reels.


- While cutting, some reels may get too long or too short and the film will need to be "rebalanced."
- The same rules for finding new reel breaks apply.
- Most films end up being 6 or 7 reels long. Shorter films can do it in five.
- Fun fact: Early screenplays were written in sequences meant to correspond to reels. In those days a "feature" was a movie with four or more reels, while "shorts" were anything from a "two-reel comedy" to a single "newsreel".
- To get a change list (from Avid FilmScribe, at least) to play nice after a rebalance, you may have to create versions of the old sequences which match the same cutting point. Sound auto-conforms then hand-conforms using a hand-written change note with what is added or subtracted from the head and the tail of the reel.

Anything to add? Still something you want to know? Leave a comment below.

[Special thanks to AE reader MT for the fact check.]


Your Wednesday Links: Happy 2014!

Most of these links come from the @makingthemovie Twitter stream. If you'd like to see them as they come, follow us on Twitter.

Mentorless: 34 Things Christopher Nolan Shared About Making His First Feature Film and Learning From It

Sam Adams: The 'Wolf of Wall Street' Debate in a Single Tweet

TechCrunch: Netflix Testing New $6.99 Single Screen Plan - Optimal for people who watch movies on smartphones. Cue heads exploding.

Variety: Samsung's $150,000 110-Inch Ultra HD 4K TV: Why Hollywood Should Worry

First Showing: Jeremy Picks the 10 Best Soundtracks/Scores of 2013

EOSHD: Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera Review – Final Part

No Film School: 8 Somewhat Unusual New Year's Screenwriting Resolutions for 2014 What's new in Final Cut Pro 10.1?

SlashFilm: Germain’s Top Ten Films of 2013


My Year-End Top Ten Movies Because Why Not

I know a lot of sites do these lists as gimmicks but I swear this is more for my own purposes. I wanted to collect my thoughts about the films I have seen this year. And yeah, I wanna boost some films I think deserve more attention. So here goes...

10. Pacific Rim

It's a fun popcorn movie. It's a metaphor for global warming. But mostly it's a movie where giant robots fight sea monsters SMASH SMASH SMASH! Read the review.

9. Wolf of Wall Street

A movie with ginormous balls that sends them straight to the wall, Wolf is a super-entertaining satire of the frothy world of finance. And it's made by the unlikely comedic duo of Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio. It's about the thrill of greed and lack of Wall Street oversight. That almost every impossible detail is true only makes this tale more absurd. Read the review.

8. The World's End / This is the End

Two very different end-of-the-world comedies, both with much deeper themes than you'd expect from movies where you laugh so much -- and totally different from each other. In This is the End, we get a story of friendship set amidst a Hollywood apocalypse. In The World's End, we get a story of recovery from addiction masquerading as an alien invasion masquerading as a story of friendship.

7. Frances Ha

I know this one is going to be divisive because, hey, not everyone wants to watch a movie about a mid-twenties blonde white chick who can't get her shit together. Hollywood has made plenty of films about male losers, so it's about time the fairer sex had their shot at the (wo)manchild paradigm. Nevermind the pretentious black-and-white photography and French New Wave touches. To me Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote and stars in the film, is doing something very recognizable and real in this film, while also being funny and sharply observant.

6. 12 Years a Slave

Although there were some uneven performances in this raw, harsh film, the central role played by Chiwetel Ejiofor is hypnotically good. When this movie is firing on all cylinders, it is a powerful work of cinema. You will be hard-pressed to forget the feet struggling in the mud, the hopes and desires invested in a bar of soap or the face of a man seeing his family after twelve years in bondage. Read the review.

5. Gravity

For out and out pure cinema -- creating the joy and terror of floating in space -- this movie wins the year hands down. The sound design and camera moves are incredible. Like a good animated movie, it was years in the making and went through many iterations. Do I wish the story was a bit less mystical? Sure. But I love that such an uncompromising vision has been embraced by general audiences. Read the review.

4. Inside Llewyn Davis

Another year, another Coen Brothers masterwork. I can't stop listening to the soundtrack for this film. In addition to being great music, it reminds me of all the pleasures, small and large, of this shaggy cat story about a down-on-his-luck folk singer. I don't know if this film will ever attain the cult status of The Big Lebowski, but it has the same quotable characters and the same atmospheric world you just want to curl up and sleep in. Read the review.

3. Her

I love this film. In an earlier draft of my list, I had this film ranked number one. Just like the next two films I've ranked higher, Her is funny, knowing, and profound. The only strike against it is my fear that it is too of-the-current-moment to endure. It's an Alphaville, not a Breathless. It's a Fahrenheit 411, not a Jules and Jim. It's a Lolita not a 2001. Read the review.

2. Short Term 12

Hopefully you've seen this film, or at least heard of it. It's a small-budget movie, but it has a billion dollar heart. Writer-director Destin Cretton has crafted a jewel of a story, sparkling with brilliant moments. You could focus on the dazzling central performance by Brie Larson as the head of a short term housing facility for children caught in custody limbo. Or you could spread your attention to the half dozen kids the story also tracks. Those characters broke my heart and lifted my spirit in many and surprising ways. Every once in a while a group of filmmakers comes together and creates something honest and beautiful. This is one of those times. Read the interview with the filmmakers.

1. Before Midnight

This movie, with its long, talky scenes and confined timespan feels much like a play. But that's in keeping with this series (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset) which has gently, methodically probed the nature of love and relationships. As co-writers with director Richard Linklater, stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, allow their characters to be unsympathetic as well as charming. It's real and it's magical too, because of the amazing Greek scenery. I could sit and watch these characters talk for days. Read the review.

HONORABLE MENTION: Blue Jasmine, Fruitvale Station, The Great Gatsby, Captain Philips, Spring Breakers, Saving Mr. Banks, American Hustle, The Place Beyond the Pines, Dallas Buyers Club, All is Lost, Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing

MIGHT'VE MADE THE LIST IF I SAW IT: The Act of Killing, Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug, Mud, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Post Tenebras Lux, To The Wonder, Blue Is the Warmest Color, Computer Chess, The Wind Rises, The Grandmaster, The Great Beauty, Stories We Tell, Nymphomaniac, The Spectacular Now, Enough Said, Rush, The Conjuring, Leviathan, Frozen, In a World, Broken Circle Breakdown

MORE: Movie Reviews Archive


Movie Review: Her

Her is one of the great cinematic sci-fi films. It may seem narrowly confined to a few characters and locations, but it is grand in philosophical scope, interrogating big questions like the nature of human relationships, the nature of consciousness -- really the entire nature of humanity, come to that.

Joaquin Phoenix is Theodore Twombly, a lovelorn writer who activates a new computer interface, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson, dubbing over Samantha Morton, who performed the role live on set). Samantha begins as a servile Siri-like AI but soon becomes very human. For many intents and purposes (love, comfort), the arc of Theodore's relationship with Samantha is indistinguishable from his previous relationship with his estranged wife (Rooney Mara). Meanwhile his neighbor (Amy Adams) is experiencing a deep friendship with another "conscious" OS.

The OSes at first are jealous of the people they interact with, wishing they could inhabit physical space. Eventually, they embrace the otherness of their form, moving to places beyond what Theodore and his fellow humans can understand.

All this is told with beautiful, very digital-looking cinematography (Hoyte van Hoytema with additional scenes by Spike Jonez regular lance Accord). The imagining of a future world and it's design elements is impeccably done, but all nicely tucked away in the background while characters and their emotional lives take the foreground.

The soundtrack choices are as impeccable as impeccable the design elements. I'm sure there are some who will find them, like the film itself, too twee. But not me. Other than a short sequence involving a character played by Olivia Wilde, I can think of nothing about the film that could be profitably altered. It's a remarkably sincere film that is nonetheless often hysterically funny.

As a bonus, it proves that grand, romantic sci-fi need not be a baffling slog. (I'm looking at you, Solaris.) Her should be seen immediately. I'm worried something this fragile and beautiful will evaporate -- or suffer the fate of most sci-fi, falling into retro kitschiness. The idea of falling in love with a talking OS seems so on the cusp of both possibility and absurdity at this very moment. Eventually it will teeter and fall to one side, leaving this film but a fraction of its former self.