Making the Movie


A Newcomer’s Take on Motion Picture Distribution, Part 2

More thoughts on the present state of movie distribution from USC film student Paul Snow. For Part 1, go here. -JO

Other formats and what they can teach us

You’ve probably heard about the current Golden Age of Television. Yes, much of the success of daring shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones owes to lower budgets and more open-minded executives than the current movie studios, but television has always had a key advantage over movies: addiction. TV sits in your house to use whenever you want, and you can sample as much or as little of any program available without the psychological pain of putting up money for each individual viewing, as in a theatrical setting. Movies are unable to immerse viewers in the same way and for the same stretch of time as TV.

This sampling means that, instead of relying on marketing to determine whether a show is appealing, people can watch a bite-sized piece of content for themselves, and, as the actual content disseminates through the market, word-of-mouth builds and the higher-quality shows often win out. Once a viewer is locked in through these social and economic forces, they are committed to watching hours of content, allowing for revenue from advertising, VOD, and home video sales to reach the producers. Presumably, if everyone were able to sample the quality of a movie like Planes and the true fans of the film then all committed — in advance — to purchasing the entire associated toy line, the movie studios would behave quite differently.

But why do viewers get locked in, especially in episodic drama? (more…)


Your Wednesday Links: The Sex Scene Double-Standard

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

Script Shadow: Confessions of a Failed Screenwriter

Library of Congress: Only 14% of U.S. Silent Films Survive - These are amazing historical documents, if not artistic masterpieces. Kudos to the people working to save them.

Movie Morlocks: Accentuate the Accent... or Don’t - I'm one of these people who is driven crazy by dodgy and illogical accents. I like to think I can put that aside and enjoy films on their other merits. I haven't seen the two films discussed here.

"...while just 13% of producers who produced a low budget film go on to make another one." - Filmmaker Magazine takes a look at the stats of independent filmmaking.

Movie franchise meter - Nice chart of the critical reception of franchises over time.

Gif compilation: Background actors who have no idea what they are doing

Screenwriter Frederic Raphael in the Times Literary Supplement: Nazism was a triumph not so much of the will as of modern sales techniques, especially film...

IndieWire: Evan Rachel Wood Calls Out the MPAA for Sex Scene Double Standards on Deleted 'Charlie Countryman' Scene

FilmDrunk: Spike Lee Was Spectactularly Unhelpful to Oldboy’s Allegedly Plagiarized Poster Artist - It is hard to know if Spike really didn't understand how this would look or is just using one of his brilliant marketing techniques.


A Newcomer’s Take on Motion Picture Distribution, Part 1

The first part of a two-part essay from USC film student Paul Snow. Enjoy. - JO

* * *

Cars toysHollywood isn’t in the movie business anymore

Much has been written over the last year about the questionable stability of the blockbuster, but the fact is that even if event movies run losses on a regular basis the studios will continue to make them because they aren’t just movie studios, but divisions of massive media conglomerates. Regardless of how successful Captain America is as a film, it establishes revenue streams in video games, comics, toys, and other branding deals that will more than pay for the production cost. The Walt Disney Company has famously made more money from Cars merchandise than on all of Pixar’s films combined. After such a success, films like Cars 2 and Planes seem to exist for no other reason than to perpetuate the toy line. The blockbuster is necessary, but rarely an end in itself.

Even when Hollywood tries to sell a movie by itself the old-fashioned way, a close look reveals that it is really only selling tickets. After you buy your ticket at the box office, Hollywood’s responsibility to you ends. Studio marketing clearly demonstrates this.

Marketing and audience satisfaction

Because Hollywood sells tickets and merchandise rather than movies, its marketing focuses on putting butts in seats, rather than planting the seeds for good word-of-mouth by preparing the audience to be satisfied by the film itself. As a result, the trailers today are filled with money shots – to the point where the recent trailer for Ender’s Game shows the climax of the movie (which anyone who knows about the story beforehand will be able to identify).

Instead of having the marketing team work creatively to show the unique merits of each picture, movies today are made to conform to the marketing and to play well in one of the two templates for a studio trailer: exciting or lighthearted. When a film defies easy categorization, the marketing group tends to misrepresent it in some inappropriate genre, setting the public up for disappointment and confusion when they go to see it. Blade Runner, Fight Club, and Where the Wild Things Are – sold as a shoot-em-up, a wrestling movie, and a family-friendly kid’s movie, respectively – were all famous financial disappointments for this key reason.

I see indie filmmakers falling into traps too. The biggest pitfall today in independent cinema is belief in the fantasy that the festival circuit and crowdfunding are reliable paths to success and financial rewards. In reality, these are only different forms of marketing for the film. Still, filmmakers get enchanted about stories of a time gone by when big producers scanned the festivals all day for new talent. Today, most of them prefer to keep a tab open on Twitter or YouTube – if they want to seek out anyone at all. Only 1% of movies submitted to Sundance are accepted, and 4% or 5% of those (about 5 feature films films out of 120 on average in the last 3 years) receive any kind of theatrical distribution deal. To most filmmakers, festivals are at best a publicity opportunity.

Similarly, thousands of filmmakers run crowdfunding campaigns with the hope of six-figure paydays like the biggest success stories publicized online. Most of the crowdfunding “experts” will tell you, however, to prepare to work full-time for at least a month on a campaign and to set a modest goal. (SideKick reports that the average successful campaign for “Narrative Film” on Kickstarter collects less than $40K.) Understand that a significant portion of that goal will be spent just on the rewards given to donors rather than the film itself. At best, crowdfunding can provide long-term audience engagement and perhaps a set of small additional funding for a major independent project.

If studio filmmakers only care about getting the audience into the theater and independents are willing to place the labor of several years of their lives completely on chance and festival tastes, then these methods are fine. There will always be a balance between art and commerce, but nobody needs to shoot themselves in the foot. So where do we go from here?

My thoughts on distribution with continue in Part 2.


Book Review: The Film Scripts Series, Volumes 1-4

I'm someone who firmly believes screenplays should be treated as literature. For a guy like me, I this Film Scripts Series from Applause Books is dead on the money. Great scripts, great writers, published as shooting scripts with formatting correctly preserved -- unlike so many screenplay books out there, with their tiny pages and non-monospace fonts. Ick! Those who have studied screenwriting know the trouble that writers go to have their story flow visually on the page and how essential it is to see the original formatting.

An update of the 1971 series edited by George P. Garrett and O.B. Hardison, Jr., this re-issue, under the editorship of Jane R. Gelfman, offers three classic scripts in each volume. Each volume also contains an identical introduction which covers film history and the screenwriting process, an appendix with pages from a shooting schedule and a glossary of terms, making any of them appropriate as textbooks.

A minor quibble: this series does omit the original page numbers. While they could be back-calculated, other screenplay collections, like the excellent Preston Sturges compilations, do keep the page numbers.

But any quibbles are minor considering the caliber of scripts represented in this series; classic screenplays faithfully published are quite difficult to find. That makes these volumes well-worth adding to the gift list for any aspiring screenwriter or film history buff. I applaud Applause for doing right by some great material.



Your Weekend Viewing: Aningaaq, A Side-quel to Gravity

Co-writer of Gravity, Jonas Cuarón, directed a short in Greenland that shows the other side of Sandra Bullock's character's distress call. If it gets nominated for an Academy Award for Live-Action Short, it could mark the first time both a film and a spinoff short are nominated together, according to the Hollywood Reporter. You may recall that "Hotel Chevalier" and The Darjeeling Limited formed a similar movie/short pair, though neither managed to get nominated.

The reported budget for the shoot was $100,000 and drew upon both Cuarons' love for the desolate landscape of Greenland. Jonas apparently learned of the inhabitants' attachment to their sled dogs and incorporated that into the plot.


Book Review: Fosse by Sam Wasson

"Don't dance for the audience; dance for yourself."

Bob Fosse, legendary Broadway choreographer and stage director, was also one of the great film directors. Even though he only made a few films, after seeing Lenny and All That Jazz (Cabaret not so much), I became convinced he is one of the masters.

Biographer Sam Wasson, likewise, fell into his Fosse obsession through the autobiographical riff on Fellini's 8 1/2 that is All That Jazz. The result is this new book, Fosse, a novelistic tour of the man's life worthy of Updike.

Wasson begins with Fosse's funeral — beautifully depicted with lots of witty tributes from the talents of stage and screen, ending with a heartbreaking dance from the women in his life, his wife Gwen Verdon, his daughter Nicole, his many girlfriends — then flashes back to review his life in chronological order.

Fosse began young, hoofing it in a child's double act in some seedy night clubs. It was here that he was sexually abused by strippers, an event both Fosse (in All That Jazz) and Wasson invest with Freudian supersignificance. An incredible dancer but a shy actor, Fosse finds minor success in New York before a short tour in Hollywood under contract with MGM.

He washed out at MGM, but not before choreographing and performing a 45-second routine in Kiss Me Kate that stands out as something new and exciting even today. It was this little clip that helped convince Broadway impressario George Abbott to give him a shot at choreographing The Pajama Game. Although established choreographer Jerome Robbins also helped on the show, the numbers featuring Fosse's style, like "Steam Heat", made his name and won him his first Tony. He was just 27.

While Wasson is also a film critic, he does not shortchange Fosse's stage career. It makes up the bulk of the book. I was most interested in Fosse's filmmaking methods, and how he became, as critic Pauline Kael said, "a true prodigy." Wasson puts it down to an almost maniacal obsession with technique. On his first film, Sweet Charity, Fosse pestered d.p. Robert Surtees continuously about camera technique, even making flashcards of film terms. Later, working with editor Alan Heim and assistant editor Trudy Ship on the TV special "Liza with a Z", he dove deep into the art of editing, experimenting with form and movement in an obsessive-compulsive manner.

Wasson tells a great story about Fosse, editing one of his famous TV commercials for his stage shows, finishing a cut at two in the morning, then insisting the editor go back through all the outtakes to see if anything had been missed. When he finds a slightly better leg position in a take, he insists it be cut in, throwing off the timing for the rest of the cut, necessitating a recut of the whole piece.

Fosse's attention to detail and epic workdays were facilitated by a methamphetamine addiction, his psychiatrist's prescribed Dexadrine, which he chased with downers — barbiturates and alcohol — and late night sexcapades.



Movie Review: About Time

Appropriate for the week when the U.S. sets clocks back, gaining an extra hour, I saw the latest film from writer/director Richard Curtis, About Time. I am conflicted about this film, and an extra hour won't solve the issue. On one hand, it is a genuinely charming and moving meditation on the joys of everyday life and acceptance of loss. On the other, it suffers from gaping logic flaws, even by the brain-bending expectations for a time travel film.

Most frustratingly, many of these flaws could have been easily fixed in post by recording about thirty seconds of additional voiceover explaining some of the ground rules of the central character's ability to return to an earlier point in his life (over and over, like, say Groundhog Day, a movie that already shows how to do this right).

For fans of Curtis' other films (Love Actually especially), there is much to enjoy here. Domnhall Gleeson is a winning lead and Rachel McAdams is winsome as ever. While the film is full of romance, it is also a father-son story at heart, something the marketing has scrupulously avoided. So men, bring your hankies too.

Now, about those logic flaws... (spoilers ahead). (more…)


The Joy of Casting Local Actors

Article from a talented filmmaker from across the pond: Louis Chan... -JO

* * *

Pastiche posterCasting Local Actors: Finding interesting people who can hold the camera's interest

Having recently graduated and with little experience in the industry, it was always going to be difficult to find professional actors for the roles in my work. Knowing this, I wrote a short called "Pastiche" with certain local characters in mind that I knew from the area in which the story is to take place, Kensal Rise (North West London). The main antagonist, Yardie Mason, could easily come off as a clichéd over-the-top gangster, so it was essential to find the right non-actor who could give the character the depth I imagined.

Prior to beginning the script, I was at a friend’s birthday party having a conversation with a guy called TK, when a bloke called Mark walked into the room demanding to know who had stolen his joint. Mark is in his early fifties, about six-foot-three, with an imposing frame and long dreadlocks. I was immediately reminded of a greying Predator. Straight away, I knew I had someone who had the externals. Everyone looked sheepishly around; especially TK. Mark snatched the joint out of TK’s hand and started berating him for being a ‘slag’ and a ‘teef’ (thief) in yardie. TK responded with equally funny put-downs about Mark’s clothes and the whole scene just began to get increasingly more hilarious. At the time, I was completely unaware that they were good friends and had been acting like this with each other since they were children. I remember thinking: if ever I could get those two in a room together and film them without their knowing, I would have possibly one of the funniest sketch shows going.

About six months later, I managed to get in contact with Mark and have a sit down with him and TK. Although neither had ever acted, they were familiar with the context of the film and even know people whom the characters I had written reminded them of. Naturally, Mark and TK were initially skeptical they would be able to learn the lines and deliver them credibly. What I tried to explain was that these were characters that most probably had an upbringing quite similar to their own -- a different choice here or there could have resulted in their going the other way. One of the biggest themes of "Pastiche" is of hybridity in London and how cultures are increasingly overlapping. This was something that interested Mark and allowed us to create a character that -- whilst having a thick cockney accent -- would often drift into Patois/Yardie dialect without noticing. This is something we built on during rehearsals and when shooting his scene. It was crucial to the delivery that we had a project that the actor not only enjoyed but also believed in.

The performances of my local non-actors totally exceeded my expectations. Now, I can't imagine having done the film any other way. All in all, if you are looking to make a no-budget film, I highly recommend you look for people who are local to the area and can personally relate to what your film is about. "Pastiche" is about social change in a particular area and this is something that locals who have lived there for years, are always going to feel quite passionately about. When you combine that with someone who has the physical presence and a natural ability for comedy, you’ve definitely got something cinematic to work with.

4241_178424795230_1814728_nLouis Chan is a 23-year-old London-born filmmaker who recently completed his first short film "Pastiche". (Watch it on YouTube.) He has just completed work on his second short film "Maestra" and is in the process of setting up his own production company, FreshLook Films. You can find out more about Louis and his films on Twitter and YouTube.


Movie Reviews: 12 Years A Slave and The Fifth Estate

And now, two reviews of movies based on memoirs with Bandersnatch Cumberbund Benedict Cumberbatch in their casts and numbers in their titles.

12 Years A Slave

Based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black musician and farmer in upstate New York, this Steve McQueen-directed (Hunger, Shame film depicts how Northup was forcibly kidnapped and sold into slavery. Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) witnesses and experiences many atrocities before he is finally restored to freedom and his family. This story, along with Uncle Tom's Cabin, is one of the reasons Northerners were willing to fight to end the barbaric institution.

The script, by John Ridley (Red Tails), makes some alterations to Northup's best seller. One of the best comes early on, when instead of seeing Northup get sick on a boat, the film dramatizes why Northup doesn't fight back against his captors. Later, when he has a chance to run away, he runs into a lynching, providing another clear point for modern audiences who may not understand why Northup doesn't risk escape more often over the twelve brutal years.

Ejiofor is one of the most charismatic actors working today and I defy anyone not to feel the palpable relief and confusion in the scene of his reunion with his family. McQueen's unshakeable collaborator Michael Fassbender is also back, as the tyrannical slave owner Edwin Epps. The filmmakers darkly insinuate that the sadism of slavery holds, for Epps, a sexual charge.

Fassbender, apparently terrible as a Texan in The Counsellor, manages okay with the Southern accent (notoriously tricky for Brit thesps). Cumberbatch, however, as Baptist preacher and slave owner William Ford, does not. He is a tremendous talent (see below), but miscast here.

Also miscast are Tarran Killam and Scoot McNairy as the hustlers who lure Northup to Washington. They seem to have walked out of a whimsical Terry Gilliam film. I did not care for the performance of Adepero Oduye, who plays Eliza, a fellow slave who is sold away from her children. Her story is dramatic, but I never believed the emotional truth behind her wordy dialogue. Contrariwise, the other great female role in the film, Patsey, is a revelation as played by Lupita Nyong'o -- utterly convincing, supremely heartbreaking. From the summaries I've read of the book, I believe much of her story has been added by the filmmakers, to great effect. It provides the movie's most harrowing scenes, where Solomon himself is put into the position of a slaveowner. The moral stain of slavery debases both whites and blacks alike.

McQueen's directing is far more conventional than his previous films, and the fractured timeline editing, which is (sort of) abandoned does nothing to enhance an inherently terrifying and horrific tale. Likewise, Hans Zimmer's score full of Hollywood-movie clichés is a disservice to such a profound film.

I know some folks find "horse race" discussions distasteful, but if you care for my opinion, I would not say, as some have said, 12 Years A Slave is a lock to win Best Picture. It is an excellent film, an important film, and would be a deserving winner. I think McQueen has better films yet to come, and I think the "American Holocaust" of slavery is only just beginning to be explored on film. This movie points the way.

The Fifth Estate

The general public may not know that "The Fourth Estate" is a nickname for the journalists that hold the government to account. A title with "Assange" or "Wikileaks" would've given this movie a better shot commercially.

But no matter. The movie fails itself, too often pausing to let Julian Assange spill more of his weird backstory, too often letting the main character -- Wikileaks' #2 man, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, upon whose book the story is based -- off too lightly for his actions.

I kept wishing for the Aaron Sorkin Social Network version of the film: a room full of characters who are smarter than you, trading witty barbs, digging themselves deeper into a moral abyss. Josh Singer's script has the cool idea of visualizing Wikileaks itself as a giant nether-space filled with identical computer terminals. Sadly, as directed by Bill Condon (whose Kinsey remains one of the most under-rated films of the last decade), the metaphor never reaches its full visual potential. The overall art direction, likewise, seems to suggest that all computer people hang out at raves with lots of flashing lights and random images projected on walls. By the third such party, I began to feel monotony in the lives of these characters, who most definitely were not doing monotonous things.

In the film's weakest subplot, Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci phone in their performances as State Department functionaries who must deal with the fallout of the release of the diplomatic cables. The tense scene of a source trying to escape Libya shows there was a better story here to be mined.

Daniel Brühl, as Berg, is an energy-suck. The reason to see the film is Benedict Cumberbatch's performance as Julian Assange, played as a paranoid Asberger's revolutionary. At the end of the film, he is allowed to re-enact an interview of Assange's that criticizes the film we've just watched. Closeup, directly to lens, no camera movement. It's spellbinding.

If you can look past the film's self-important messaging, there really is a good point made about how journalism will never be the same, post-Wikileaks. Some news outlets, like the Washington Post, did not learn the lesson about creating secure channels for sources to make contact. After NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden tried them and found them wanting, he ended up collaborating with... guess who? It is no accident that the hero journalists in The Fifth Estate are the ones who work for The Guardian.


Movie Review: Captain Phillips

One of the most terribly-titled films also begins with one of the most terribly dull scenes. Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is driven to the airport by his wife (Katherine Keener, whom we never see again). Clumsily, screenwriter Billy Ray (Breach) sets up the parallels between Phillips and his eventual captor, Somali pirate leader Muse (Barkhad Abdi). Both have bosses putting pressure on them, yadda yadda. We get it.

On the flip side, the segments of the film set in the world of the pirates are among the best. We get a little bit of the economics of getting a job -- a qat bribe helps! -- and why the Somali pirates do what they do. (Anti-piracy advocates take heart, the movie is still slanted against them and toward the rah-rah Navy SEAL sniper team that comes to put an end to their enterprise.)

Director Paul Greengrass does what he did in United 93, casting non-actors in their real-world roles -- and it shows, sometimes egregiously. Luckily the Somali pirates, apparently found among a refugee community in Minnesota, are tremendous, especially Abdi. He more than holds his own against Tom Hanks, who gives a career performance, especially when the in-command captain finally lets go of all pretense of holding himself together.

Greengrass and editor Christopher Rouse generate real tension, even though I knew the broad outlines of the story. The final act, when the pirates and their hostage are increasingly surrounded by the full might and power of Uncle Sam, is a knockout. Hanks, too, kicks into high gear.

While this film will inevitably be compared to Zero Dark Thirty, not least in that it re-writes President Obama's role entirely out of the story, it doesn't reach that level of verisimilitude. It does, however, provide a thrill-ride from beginning to end with only a few moments that seem Hollywoodized. And because it ends so strong, I recommend it. Those who get queasy with shaky camera footage on the big screen should definitely wait for home video.