NAB: Where Content Comes To Life™ 2011
By Catherine Clinch
The National Association of Broadcasters is the largest and most important advocacy organization for broadcasters across America. Once a year, they set up shop at the Las Vegas Convention Center to present “the world’s largest electronic media show covering filmed entertainment and the development, management and delivery of content across all mediums.” This year, the week-long convention attracted 92,708 registered attendees – with 25,691 coming from 151 countries around the world.
Throughout a three-day schedule of panels, a few themes emerged and persisted to dance across a full spectrum of topics related to media content in all of its forms.
- Inspire and Enable. In the 21st century, all media content is centered on an idea that can become a powerful way for the consumer to interact with your brand. Whether you’re selling a film a song or a hamburger, you have to reach the consumer in a meaningful way – one that will encourage them to share your message within their circle of influence. In order to accomplish this, you have to give them more than a simple brand message. You need to create an emotional connection with the consumer – and the best way to do this is by creating unique media experiences that could stand alone without the involvement of any brand message. If you begin with the brand objective and use it to find the universal insight, your content will be built around that universal theme.
- Multiple Touch Points. It’s not enough to send a message via broadcast or radio or online content alone – you have to reach your target demographic in a variety of ways that they consume media. Rather than the old school method of putting the majority of your marketing budget into broadcast commercials that speak to a mass audience, the new school methodology focuses on targeting a select group of people whose previous media consumption habits suggest they will be responsive to receiving your message. Once your target is acquired, you have to speak to them in the niche pockets of media that support their goals and affinity.
- Brand Community Building. You need to gather your consumers and bring them into the nurturing fold of media content that is generated by your brand. Once you’ve activated a community, they will do “the heavy lifting” and become Brand Ambassadors who spread your message in an ongoing way. Anthropological studies have determined that people form communities from a launching pad of shared beliefs. Whether these beliefs are political, religious or other is irrelevant.
- Product Placement Is A Growth Area. As the focus of media content moves away from the :30 spot, so will the brands. Since the 1950’s, the Sponsorship model of Product Placement has been a reliable method of promoting brand awareness. Expect to see many more products making guest appearances in your favorite media content – especially after the brands find a more direct conduit (than the networks and studios) to share the financial profits with the producer/creator of media content.
- Smart Phones Are Getting Smarter. The proper term should be changed from “cell phone” to “mobile device” because the new generation of smart phones has transcended the experience of a phone call and become a small computer that you carry in your pocket. Too many people in the industry are afraid to consider mobile phones and tablets as entertainment devices because of the implied narration and what that will do to the entertainment medium in its current form. All media content that is created from this moment forward needs to have a significant mobile presence and/or direct access for consumption of that media content.
- Mobile Content Is Getting Longer. After years of substandard quality of short form entertainment, turns out that consumers want to watch full episodes of their favorite shows on their mobile screen. There is also an increasing demand for live content. Testing demonstrates that that while there is an “addictive” element to mobile viewing, it does not distract from other traditional modes of viewing media content. Mobile entrepreneurs are starting to float some extremely interesting business plans. As one might expect, advertisers are exploring the best way to insinuate themselves into increased mobile content. The most interesting prediction is that 3-D content will saturate the mobile space sooner than anything else.
- 3-D Everywhere. When James Cameron talks about motion picture technology, people tend to listen. So when he suggested that he’d only scratched the surface of 3-D technology’s potential with “Avatar” there was a rush of creative adrenaline among those who are involved with media content creation. While many remain skeptical – believing that 3-D is a fad rather than a trend – the conventional wisdom points to the challenge of purchasing a large-screen television that does not come fitted for 3-D. Clearly, gamers are the biggest cheerleaders for 3-D televisions. Still, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the youngest generation was born into a world where 3-D is a commonplace event at the local Cineplex.
- TransMedia. While the primary reason for venturing into TransMedia begins and ends with selling something to an eager audience, TM has emerged as an art form in and of itself. One speaker equated it to “a total engagement experience” that runs on an infinity loop. Content creators appreciate the expansive possibilities of telling a story over multiple platforms, each with its own set of emotional touch points. It extends media content potential by not repeating the initial story but by expanding it into a realm governed by one simple question: What would a fan want to see? Like all fan fiction, it is self-sorting: the good stuff rises to the top and the rest slips into obscurity. Nevertheless, it must be based on what would be “cool” rather than what most likely would drive revenue. TransMedia is trending so strongly that the Producer’s Guild of America is in the process of creating the language that would cover TransMedia producers.
- Independent Films Are Un-Dead. That is to say, Genre films are undergoing a resurgence of interest in the marketplace. After the success of “Paranormal” demonstrated that low budget films can become big box office successes, Hollywood has turned its attention back to the reliable genre of Horror. While a number of filmmakers were profiled, the one to keep your eyes on is Gareth Edwards. His 2010 film “Monsters” – which he wrote, directed, photographed and produced all by himself on a budget of $800,000 – was so impressive that he was immediately hired to direct the $50 million reboot of “Godzilla” for Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. As he puts it, “I made a monster movie and now I’ve been offered a bigger monster movie.” It is interesting to note that Edwards says his only regret is not making another smaller picture after “Monsters.”
WHAT TEENS WANT – Finally Revealed!!!
By Catherine Clinch
Anytime Nielsen puts its name on something, one automatically assumes that the information presented will be accurate and cutting edge. So when they gather together marketing, advertising and brand executives for a bi-annual conference to explain “What Teens Want” – the question that has confounded adults through all recorded history – the expectations are high. As always, Nielsen delivered.
For a number of reasons, the current generation of teens has been classified as “the gaming generation.” They have grown up knowing that personal dissatisfaction with self image can be remedied by a quick redesign of their personal avatar in the virtual world of their choosing. Habbo and Wee World seem to be the current alternative worlds of current vogue – both of which naturally offer multiple placement opportunities for brands that want to advertise their real products in these worlds. The teens that self-appoint as “brand advocates” become invaluable assets. Music also plays an important role in games, so it is only slightly surprising to discover that game company EA (Electronic Arts) has started a music label.
When the topic switched to Teen Trend Talk, Jane Buckingham (infamous for the uncanny ability to keep her finger on the ever fluctuating pulse of teen preferences) explained that some brands have been extremely successful at retaining relevance with this demographic because they are willing and able to consistently reinvent themselves. No surprise, these brands include Coke, MTV, Apple, Nike, Converse and Axe. The one surprise on this list is the high ticket fashion label by Marc Jacobs.
The biggest challenges anyone faces when trying to reach teens include:
- Teens are savvier about what they want to buy.
- No matter what you’re selling (including movies and television series) you’re fighting against so many other brands.
- Teens want to be entertained by every contact they have with a brand.
- Teens have increased expectations for quality levels in that entertainment.
- It’s harder to be a teen today.
- You have to get the balance right between audience need for participation and compelling storytelling the works.
- Brands have to become comfortable with the fact that they no longer own the dialogue with teens.
In the area of social media, everyone agrees that Facebook rules the top of the list. However, there is one upstart in the social networking category that has the potential to take center stage with this demographic: FormSpring.com. In this social network, anyone can post anything about anybody – and do it with the shield of complete anonymity. Unfortunately, this scenario is wrought with the potential for emotional destruction of the most vulnerable teens.
One of the strongest themes that emerged is that teens live a life of dichotomy. They want to aspire to what they want to be while still being true to who they are. It is this exact dichotomy that enabled K-Mart to become this year’s most successful player in the branded entertainment space with teens. In a creative partnership with Alloy Digital on a web series called First Day, the department store chain was able to achieve remarkable audience reach: 8 million views, 54,000 sweepstakes entries and more than 123,000 social media hits – all of which amounted to more than 112 million brand impressions. The key to success began with K-Mart’s candid understanding of the “un-cool” reputation K-Mart has with the teen demographic. They gained credibility by launching 3 clothing lines tied to brand names that are appealing to teens in a different arena – like Dream Out Loud clothing by Selena Gomez.
Other important take-away points from the two day event include:
- Teens will allow you to be anything as long as you are consistent about it.
- It’s harder to regain a teen’s attention once you lose it than it is to keep them happy in the first place.
- Instead of focusing on brand awareness, you have to focus on engaging them with your brand through interactive advertising content (ie: Elf-yourself or Simpson-ize yourself).
- Branded entertainment videos that go viral are this generation’s infomercials.
- And…get ready for this surprising concept: Teens don’t like to be told what to do!
It’s virtually impossible to compress a two day conference that is so packed with usable information to anyone who wants to make or market entertainment product for teens. Suffice to say that twice a year (Spring in NYC/Autumn in LA) Nielsen offers a dim-sum of everything you need to know but were afraid to ask about these noisy, smelly creatures that exist in the netherworld between childhood and adulthood. For the past five years, this has been the must-see event on my calendar because I not only gain insight into the most desirable demographic for every movie studio, I also get to learn about what my kids are doing and what it all means. But like the sign on my own teenage sons bedroom door warns: Hard Hat Area – Enter At Your Own Risk!
DIGITAL HOLLYWOOD 2010
By Catherine Clinch
Just in time for the change of seasons, Digital Hollywood is back in LA for another round of updates, announcements and predictions about where this brave new digital world is taking us. Once again, the conference began with a full day presentation by the VARIETY Entertainment Technology Summit. Given that Variety is the preeminent trade publication of our industry, they are able to attract the crème de la crème of industry leaders. This year’s summit began with a keynote interview with Michael Eisner. Eisner is infamous for his reinventions and new beginnings – most likely because he has been able to put his finger on the pulse of the industry a few strategic moments before everybody else.
If there is one thing that Eisner is adamant about it’s the fact that, “nothing will replace 2000 years of storytelling.” He believes that story is the real reason audiences go to see a movie and suggests that “if you simply focus on character and emotion, you’ll succeed.” As one of the earliest players (of note) in the online space, Eisner believes that “technology opens up a new way to play and be entertained – it offers alternative things to do.” His current venture is a social media game about Hollywood – immersing the player in in all of the aspiration, promise and fantasy of what we do. Fame Town – developed in partnership with Sean Fanning – will be launched on Facebook on November 1st of this year.
During an Advertising Roundtable, the panelists agreed that brands aren’t looking to spend more money on another medium – they are shifting their spending from one area to another. But in brand-funded entertainment, the needs of the content creator and the brand both have to be satisfied in an effectively managed relationship.
When the topic shifted to The State of the TV Business, everyone agreed that there are two particularly difficult challenges facing programmers right now: deciding when a show has been rejected by an audience or is disadvantaged by a bad time slot; and trying to project forward when selecting which series to produce in spite of the fact that there is no data to support your decisions.
In discussing the requirements of Navigating the Social Media for Film and TV, Tyler Perry was held up as one of the most successful filmmakers in the space. With more than 800,000 followers on Facebook, he has managed to both create and maintain a conversation with them. While too many media properties wrongfully assume that having a presence is enough, Perry has demonstrated the potential of social media as a marketing tool.
There were far more panels than usual featuring venture capital and angel investors, however all of them echoed similar sentiments. Once an entrepreneur accepts capital investment, they must be willing to relinquish a significant level of equity and control to that investor. Furthermore, the entrepreneur must be most careful in the earliest stages because many of the clauses in an angel contract might limit their ability to raise venture capital at crucial points in the company’s development. Ultimately, venture capital investors admit that the economics only work for them when they can use that investment to build a really big business. Repeated reference was made to approximately 200 equity companies that were in the market to purchase firms with revenue in excess of $25 million. But entrepreneurs were also cautioned that it is essential for them to perform due diligence on each company that seeks to acquire them. It was recommended that they engage a forensic accountant that they trust who can audit the balance sheets of the acquiring firm.
There is one spot of humor that is highly worth noting because of the underlying importance of what it has accomplished. Many years ago, Neil McGinness left The National Lampoon for a brand that raised more than a few eyebrows: Weekly World News. Billed as “the worlds’ only reliable news” the tabloid was generally acknowledged to be the lowest of the low in tabloid press – repeated reporting stories that no respectable journalist would even consider. Yet, McGinness saw a shining potential in one of the “characters” that had received extensive coverage in the pages of WWN – The Bat Boy. McGinness recently assembled a compilation of The Bat Boy’s news coverage – GOING MUTANT: The Bat Boy Exposed! – published by Scribner, A Division of Simon & Schuster. It is interesting to note that Weekly World News has recently joined forces with DreamWorks Television to develop new entertainment properties. The take away point on this is simple: if a brand like WWN can find a viable home in the new media market, there is no limit on the potential to repurpose and/or modernize anything.
A number of trends emerged throughout the four day event. Syndication of content is becoming more progressive; large deals are consuming budgets so companies will be forced into strategic alliances to drive prices down; online portals and publications will begin forming partnerships; when you build value in a company that serves the market, the investment money will find you. Most important, perhaps, is the general consensus that TV Everywhere is a good concept – as long as the user is paying for it somewhere.
RE-DEFINING REALITY at West Doc 2010
By Catherine Clinch
Last week, The West Coast Documentary and Reality Conference made clear the single most important element of reality and non-fiction programming in the 21st century – whether you are telling the saga of an endangered species struggling to survive the harsh realities of one more winter or the escapades of self-indulgent bickering brides who seem to have lost track of the real reasons they are planning to take vows involving forever – it is essential that filmmakers use every tool available to tell an interesting and compelling story about a character who is larger than life.
In recent years, non-fiction programming has emerged as the driver of the broadcast industry. The business plan has evolved away from a prior dependence on scripted programming – which has become extremely expensive – and, by necessity, created a new element that relies heavily on non-union cast and crew. Working on budgets that are sometimes as low as 1/10th of their scripted counterparts, non-fiction/reality filmmakers have rallied to the cause and learned how to build series around the real lives of real people. These characters are bigger than life and live at the extreme ends of the social spectrum. It is as if society has agreed to participate in a collective social experiment – the observer and the observed – with the results left to be judged by future generations.
Enter Richard Propper and Chuck Braverman, co-founders and managing partners of West Doc. Their goal is as simple as it is noble: to put content creators in the same room as the programming decision makers. In and of itself, this would not make West Doc a unique event. Indeed, on both coasts and around the global market, there are Expos and Pitch Fests and Conferences throughout the year that place content creators in the room with executives and other buyers. The thing that makes this event stand far above all others is that the decision makers were mostly at or above the level of Vice President or Senior Vice President and they displayed an open and earnest respect for the content providers in the room. In fact, the pervasive collegiality and flow of information was so unusual that it took awhile to realize that human interaction is valued as a necessary job skill in this world. In a profession where success is measured by one’s ability to get a subject to open up on camera, communication is a natural form of currency that extends up and down the chain of command.
While Propper and Braverman believe that the panels are “the heart of our event,” the breakout sessions in small rooms were open and candid. Content creators were encouraged to ask questions about what the individual companies and networks were and were not looking for. Yet, the most fascinating part of the transaction was the way in which each of the executives volunteered information about why things did and/or did not work. There was not a single executive that hesitated to give out their business card – or at least their email address – to everyone who asked. It is also to Propper and Braverman’s credit that each company that was represented at the market received an in-depth profile in the program. Furthermore, the bios of every speaker focused less on their employment history and stressed the programs they had been involved with and listed specific credits.
Each of the executives in the breakout sessions was very eager to explain that the most important part of their programs is the character. The second most important thing is the story that surrounds that character. Last, but certainly not least, are the supporting characters that surround the lead character in their story. Each of the executives presented this exact same list as if they actually believed that they were looking for something unique. In an odd way, they are completely unique because the characters and stories the History Channel wants to focus on are completely different from the characters and stories you will find on The Style Network. The modifying details of demographic requirements, target audiences and program needs were also not that different. So, it is all about the execution of the details that change a project and make it appropriate the specifics of each of these buyers.
The panels were constructed to flow together in a cohesive story of their own. Beginning with “How to Qualify for an Academy Award” moderated by Adam Leipzig (former president of National Geographic Films), the tone was set for candid interaction. Leipzig surprised the attendees with a guarantee that somebody in the room would win an Academy Award for best documentary. Immediately thereafter, he led a vibrant discussion of what it takes – in time, money and other resources – to even qualify for the short list. All the rules are on the Academy website and (HINT) should be looked at carefully before a filmmaker even begins the process of raising their funds.
One panel that was unfortunately titled “The Boob Tube: Programming for Women” – the only misstep in an otherwise splendid lineup – examined why these networks are so successful and sought to pinpoint what they are looking for next. Sarah Weidman, Senior Vice President of Development & New Series for The Style Network, summed up the pattern for success as: Relatable characters, bold concepts, out of the box approach – all of which are grounded in the life experience of Middle America. Megan Lawrence, Director of Development at WE TV wants “big, loud, promotable characters. An audience,” she explains, “wants to see results with satisfaction.”
During a panel that invited executives from two networks and one company to speculate on the future of reality programming, Brent Pinvidic, Executive Vice President at 3 Ball Productions was exceptionally candid about his experience developing shows that he believed in – only to see both series tank terribly. Jill Holmes, Senior Vice President at Vh1 is confident that the predominantly young female viewers on her channel long for fun and escape. They want to see the glamorous life that eludes them. In the future, she predicts there will be much more of the same because “each show begets the next.”
Day Three of West Doc focused on a full day of pre-selected pitches by content creators. Twelve projects – mostly documentaries – were pitched to a full room of buyers and other content creators. Unlike all of the other pitch events, these pitches were not like speed dating. These were fully-articulated pitches that resembled what actually transpires in a room when the content creator and the buyer actually have a pitch meeting. All those who arrived at the beginning of the day were given ballots and asked to vote on the most viable projects.
Here’s what you need to know to venture successfully into this world:
- Pitches that come with a “sizzle reel” have a far greater chance of making it on to the next level of the development process than those that are just submitted in written format. Be that as it may, most of the buyers admitted that if a show looked good enough on paper they would probably be likely to take it to the next level.
- Projects that have talent attached – in this case, the aforementioned real people with larger than life personalities – have a better chance of getting picked up. So, if you happen to live next door to “the next Snookie” (God help you) you should immediately lock down their life rights and start shooting a sizzle reel.
- A content creator needs to contractually attach themselves to the talent before pitching the series or documentary to a production company or network.
- None of the buyers expressed interest in “celebrity” hosts. Rather, the focus is on hosts that are authentic experts in their field.
- Now that the docu-soap has established firm footing in the cable schedules, the next trend is the “occu-soap.”
- This world moves slower than one might expect. Often, a project will sit with the buyers for a period of months as it grows and builds momentum in their planning. Patience is essential because, as one executive put it, you can get “a fast no, but if you’re willing to wait it out you might get a slow yes.”
- If you’re looking to get rich quick and easy, this ain’t the place to make that happen. Licensing fees average $300,000/hour and if you’re doing a strip series that fee is divided by 5 shows per week.
The major players in the industry have placed an emphasis on big, expensive entertainment. But when everything is designed to be an event, nothing really seems to be all that special. Yet, in the middle of all of the “big-ness” is a little island of fascinating programming that is designed to make you think and feel about the world around you – beginning right next door. Most content creators would rather be playing in the major leagues of the networks and studios – but there is a vast arena of opportunity for those who are willing to look at the smaller world of reality and non-fiction programming.
The psychological drive that makes us slow down to rubberneck a collision on the highway has also brought us to a point where we will make time to gawk at the collisions of other people in real life scenarios – whether in Orange County or The Jersey Shore – allowing us to walk away with the same sense of comfort: “Thank God that didn’t happen to me.”
…and the Award for Best Original Screenplay goes to…
By Catherine Clinch
When Academy voters cast their ballots in the coming weeks, much of the media focus will explore the increase to ten nominations in the Best Picture category. Certainly, that’s an important step toward expanding the field of influence the awards will have on the financial well-being of our industry. But that’s just this year’s news. Another award category will leave a lasting impact and become part of the theory and criticism of cinematic literature. That is the award for Best Original Screenplay. In a time where adaptations, remakes and sequels have become the gold standard, it is easy to forget the importance and the challenge of starting with nothing more than an original idea.
Twenty-eight years ago, when my husband and I were moving into the shared understanding that our casual dating was laying the groundwork for living happily after until death do us part, I made a curious observation. This charming and delightful fella who otherwise couldn’t take his amazing green eyes off of me was on a mission to see every WWII movie ever made. Mind you, this was in the early 80’s when the opportunities beyond broadcast television were the Z Channel and revival houses like the Beverly Cinema. When I finally found the right words to delicately ask why he was doing this he explained: “It helps me understand my father.”
It should go without saying that all good movies show us worlds we haven’t seen before from perspectives that we might not otherwise consider. But how often do we overlook the power of insight we can gain through the eyes of a well-drawn character that is discovering on screen something that we must all experience in our own lives? In the part of the country many dismissively call “the flyovers” it is hard to find someone who is not personally connected to a soldier that is serving or has served in the military. And so, the question arises – in respect to “the war on terrorism” which movies will help Americans understand the experience of their sons and their husbands and their fathers?
The writers nominated for Best Original Screenplay have all done remarkable work in the name of their art. However, one film rises above the rest for – and in spite of – a combination of reasons. It has earned a mere 1/10th of the domestic box office receipts of INGLOURIUS BASTERDS, the other war movie nominated in this category. It’s not a date-night movie and the theatre chains probably didn’t sell a lot of popcorn to this audience. Even though the characters and their stories are compelling, it is a difficult movie to watch. Nevertheless, it is an essential movie to watch and will likely find most of its audience in the aftermarkets of DVD and cable. Ultimately, I humbly predict that this movie will be compared to WWII films like THE SANDS OF IWO JIMA, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY and THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES.
One very significant reason THE HURT LOCKER should be singled out for excellence is that Mark Boal has accomplished so much while still in the early stages of his screenwriting career. More importantly, he did it without the benefit – or interference – of going through the studio development process. The same thing might be said for some of the other nominees, but it must also be acknowledged that their prior body of work has earned for them the kind of clout and influence that enables them to walk the high wire without a net. Mark Boal’s only other film experience came from sharing a story credit with two-time Academy Award nominee Paul Haggis on IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH. While that movie was based on one of Boal’s articles, we all know that shared story credit on a non-blockbuster film does not a power-player make. So when Boal explains that “no executive, no producer, no financier, and no marketing person gave me notes,” we ought to recognize the measure of innate storytelling skills that are at his command.
This is not to say that Boal has any negative sentiment toward any of these people. Indeed, he says that executives are actually his favorite people in the industry. “I think there is a very outdated notion that the executives are somehow antithetical to the creative process,” he laments. “In THE HURT LOCKER, for example, the financier’s buy in to the creative vision of the film was absolutely critical to it working as well as it did.” Boal is convinced that “if you’re a secure writer and you’re trying to do something interesting, one of your natural allies is the executive.”
But therein lays the catch: in accepted industry development practice that anticipates hiring sequential writers on a project before the initial writer has even delivered a first draft, “secure writers” are an endangered species on the verge of extinction.
Mark Boal writes with the kind of courage it takes to walk onto a battlefield with nothing more than a helmet, a flak jacket and no combat training whatsoever – because that’s exactly what he did as an embedded journalist, covering the Iraq war for Playboy magazine. THE HURT LOCKER was born in a war zone that’s all front, which accounts for its raw authenticity. But while so many other embedded journalists were there to observe and report, Boal took it upon himself to interpret and shed light on the circumstances that our fighting men and women face.
Boal pitched his story to director Kathryn Bigelow before he wrote it, “So she was there at the beginning.” It took him several months to write his first draft. After that, he admits to doing “countless revisions” before knowing the script was ready to go to the next step. Bigelow was aware of the various drafts and the ways the story evolved. But ultimately, the decision of when to stop rewriting was in Boal’s hands. “There’s just a certain point where you read it and it feels more right than wrong,” he explains. “It felt like I got the tension and pressure of my experience in Iraq – that you could feel it on the page.”
It didn’t take Boal long to realize his biggest challenge. “There was a glut of Iraq projects at the time – probably over forty of them in development – so there just wasn’t a lot of interest in another movie about the Middle East.” Unable to get the backing of a studio, Boal assumed the role of creative producer and approached more than two dozen investors before finding The One who would write the check so he and Bigelow could start shooting in Jordan.
Boal acknowledges that he did a significant amount of rewriting on the set – especially after meeting Jeremy Renner and spending time with him. “It was the same character,” he explains, “but I realized his really incredible range as an actor added elements of humor and jocularity to the character.” Prior to Renner’s casting in his award nominated performance, the character of SFC William James was much more “interior.”
Typically, when we are moved by a dramatic film it is because of one or two scenes that create emotional moments that resonate within our hearts and minds. THE HURT LOCKER opens with a sequence of scenes that tells us what is at stake for our character. The entire film is laced with tension and suspense. At one point, I actually felt a sense of fear and sadness when SFC James must dismantle a bomb strapped to a human being who did not volunteer to wear the explosives. But there were three separate scenes that made me gasp and sigh in the moment and they have not left my thoughts in the four months since I saw the film.
At one point, SFC James is approached by a commanding office that seems to be challenging him as a wild man. Half way through a brief – although powerful and imposing monologue – it becomes apparent that the commanding officer views him with awe. In another scene, while James is taking chances with his life in one of the more risky scenarios, his men – Sanborn and Eldridge – discuss how dangerous the situation is; how many risks James is taking; how easy it would be for them to get killed because of his risks; how easy it would be for something to go wrong; how easy it would be for James to die right there in the middle of taking one risk too many. And then it becomes evident that Sanborne is trying to convince Eldridge that they should make something go wrong and kill the risk-taking James before his actions get them killed. Later, James helps Sanborn survive a sniper attack and perform to the best of his abilities in the field of battle.
However, the most poignant and telling moment in the film comes when Eldridge discovers a box beneath James’ bed. This is the hurt locker, filled with mechanical parts and components that James has collected from each of his experiences. James explains that the box is full of things that almost killed him. When Eldridge takes out a chain that has a wedding ring dangling from it, we smile. But before the movie is over we come to understand how this wedding ring is perhaps the most deadly part of James’ life.
This level of writing comes along so rarely that we are mesmerized by the complex emotions and shaded nuance of the characters and scenes Boal creates. It’s the kind of writing that the members of the academy have one opportunity a year to acknowledge and champion. Let’s hope Boal’s work can stand as a testament to what films can once again mean. Perhaps with a focus on the single vision of a writer in partnership with a director and executive producer who share that vision, we can one day expand this category to ten original screenplays worthy of Academy consideration.
JONAS RIVERA MOVES UP!
By Catherine Clinch
It is a phenomenon of the 20th century that we all grew up thinking there was a parallel universe where animals wear clothes, colors are oversaturated and the laws of physics are arbitrary. The only memory I have of being with both of my parents at the same time was when they took me to the theatre to see BAMBI. My first memory of Grandma was sitting on her lap in front of a black and white version of Betty Boop. My first crush was on Jonny Quest. (Really.) But while I can tell you who wrote, directed and starred in hundreds of movies throughout my wonder years, I don’t even have a clue about the writers, directors, artists, voices or producers who created the two-dimensional creatures that shared so many pivotal moments of my life.
Nobody knows better than Jonas Rivera that animation is a faceless medium. Currently the recipient of an Academy Award nomination for producing Pixar’s UP, Rivera’s mother gave him a copy of THE ILLUSION OF LIFE by Frank Thompson and Ollie Johnson when he was ten years old. Thanks to that old Disney book, Rivera discovered who animated Jungle Book and who drew Pinocchio. “From that day on, I’ve been so interested that there are artists that create these things,” he says. But at the same time, he laments the fact that “even in the industry, people don’t know how these things are made or where they come from.”
While Rivera was still in school, he saw LUXO JR., a short that was the beginning of what would become Pixar. “It was the first thing I saw that was computer animated that I even liked,” he admits. Until seeing that, he thought all computer animation “felt like bad screen savers and flying logos.” When he applied for an entry level position right out of college, the Pixar team showed him one of the first scenes from TOY STORY and, “It just blew my mind.” He’s never considered leaving Pixar because “this is a place that rewards passion.” On his way up the corporate ladder, Rivera did it all – from projectionist to production assistant. “Everyone here is treated respectfully and they ask only one thing of you – and that’s to think like a filmmaker instead of what role you’re in. I’ve always loved that,” he explains. “I have felt valued and appreciated and all those things.”
But we all kind of knew that about Pixar. We’ve seen all their films and walked away wishing on some level that we could create something as marvelous as any one of their films. And you’d be hard pressed to find somebody in the entertainment industry who couldn’t identify John Lasseter – the benevolent teddy bear of a man who serves as the driving creative force of Pixar. But positioned between Lasseter and the 2 directors, 3 writers, 31 voices, 201 creative artists and 71technicians whose names appear in the credits, Jonas Rivera has to coordinate this massive team into a cohesive unit that can work effectively on one frame at a time – and there are 139,311 frames in this picture (UP). By focusing on a sense of brotherhood among Lasseter’s designated “Brain Trust” Pixar has developed a consistency of method. They do things the way they do them because that’s the way they know how to make them work.
This is not to suggest that Rivera is a traffic cop. Truth is, in this new world of computer animation technology, Rivera is a hybrid combination of a creative producer and a line producer, blending the most crucial elements of each position into a new generation of production work flow. “I think the reason I’m able to succeed and perform the way I do is because Pete Docter and John Lasseter trust me,” he explains. “They know that I understand the creative comes first. Anything I do or bring to his is nothing unless that’s lined up and working. 100% of my job is supporting that.” That being said, Rivera admits that he’s “the one that has to jump into the front lines and pull the thing when it’s stuck in the mud.”
Rivera’s voice fills with enthusiasm when he discusses the creative challenge of producing a Pixar film. “Like any movie, you’re trying to capture the spirit or an emotion or humor, but you have to do it with no spontaneity. You know, it’s not like we have actors on the set who are going to come in and we’ll get performances out of them or find moments that are little gems of acting,” he reflects. “We have to fake all that. So it’s like the old myth of spontaneity.” While Rivera worries about whether it’s going to come out right, he acknowledges that, “thanks to Pete’s great direction, we got it pretty close.”
River came onto the project nearly 3-1/2 years before it hit the screens. The first course of business – on this or any Pixar film – is team building. “I assemble the technical staff and the production staff and the artistic staff – the story artists, editors and animators – those are the three spokes of the wheel at Pixar.” His favorite part of the process is interacting with the animators. He equates them to being “like our screen actors.” When the production process was at its peak, he was interacting with more than 65 animators at a time. “I’m working with those guys almost every day,” he says proudly, “on how to divide the movie up, which sections or scenes are going to go first, which actors are going forward and why and so forth to make sure the work is divided up appropriately so that we can chew through it and keep moving.”
Sometimes, Rivera feels like he’s the “You Are Here” arrow on the map inside a National Park. He is joined at the hip to the director throughout the entire production process. “My job is to say here’s where we are, here’s where we need to be, now what do you guys need creatively to make that happen? Do you need more time? Do you need more people? Do you need a screening to be put together in front of an audience so you can get an audience reaction? What are those things you need?”
Pixar has the luxury of giving themselves enough time to get things right. But they have something that most other companies don’t get to fall back on – that infamous Brain Trust. “If we find ourselves stuck in a hole,” he reveals, “I’ll call in Brad Bird, or Andrew Stanton or John Lasseter and we’ll watch it in our editorial suite with those guys and we’ll pick their brains in terms of storytelling.” Rivera likens it to the old fashioned studio system.
Yet the question remains – why don’t we know who Jonas Rivera is???
“Good producers are invisible,” he states, humbly. “It’s the blessing and the curse of being a producer.” But his priorities are clearly in the right place as he offers, “I just feel lucky to have this group of people that I get to partner with.” He recalls a moment he shared with Pete Docter when their film was asked to open up the Cannes Film Festival. At an after screening party, the two men stood on a patio above the French Rivera. “We just looked at each other and said this may be as good as it gets. Let’s just kind of hit the pause in our lives for a moment and enjoy this – and we’re still in that mode. I’m going to enjoy this for as long as I live. This was my dream come true. I dreamed of making an animated movie and I was able to do that in a place I love with people I adore and I’m just going to keep doing it again until they tell us to stop.” Lucky for us, nobody in their right mind is ever going to tell Rivera and his team to stop.
BLAKE SNYDER’S LAST LOVE LETTER TO HOLLYWOOD
By Catherine Clinch
As we approach the annual ritual of Valentines and chocolates, champagne and bubble baths, long stemmed roses and naughty little silk thingies, it’s worth noting another offering of love from a Muse who is no longer with us.
In 2005, Blake Snyder burst onto the scene with a book that commanded us to SAVE THE CAT! More boldly, the subtitle boasted that this was “The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need.” Definitely gutsy – bordering on arrogant – except that this claim had two strong legs to stand on. Rare among the world of authors who write books about how to write screenplays, Blake Snyder had two of his screenplays produced. BLANK CHECK and STOP OR MY MOM WILL SHOOT both earned respectable domestic box office receipts, but both of those pale in comparison to his other professional accomplishment. You see, Blake grabbed the golden ring that we all dream about – he sold a screenplay to Steven Spielberg!
But it was long after these accomplishments that Blake did something even more significant. He discovered a pattern that was hidden within every successful film story. Then, because he was a generous sort of fella he figured out a way to explain it to the rest of us. The three books that make up the SAVE THE CAT trilogy are focused on separate stages of the creative process and should be read sequentially. In the first book, Blake explains the pattern, fits it into a “beat sheet” and explores the ways that it can be effectively included in the creative process. In SAVE THE CAT GOES TO THE MOVIES: The Screenwriter’s Guide To Every Story Ever Told, Blake shows how the beat sheet fits into the structure of the ten specific genres of film story. Then he takes it a step further by analyzing three completely different films within each of these ten genres. Finally, he left us with SAVE THE CAT STRIKES BACK: More Trouble for Screenwriters to Get Into…and Out Of.
This last book is a summation of everything Blake learned by working with screenwriters at all levels in the five years since he embarked upon this teaching process. It was published posthumously after his sudden and untimely death last August. To those of us who knew and loved Blake, his passing left a hole in our hearts. To those who never had the privilege of meeting him, there is only one opportunity to experience his gifts. So, this Valentine’s Day, give your loved one (or yourself) three opportunities to increase the quality and productivity of your creative endeavors in Hollywood. They go exceptionally well with chocolate and champagne, can be read while taking a bubble bath or curled up in one of those naughty little silk thingies.
AFM – Days 6 through 8
By Catherine Clinch
There seemed to be a weekend “rush” of traffic at AFM. While an inordinate amount of locals loitered in the lobby and around the pool, a fresh round of filmmakers joined the festivities with discounted 3-day passes around their necks. While both of those groups lend a hopeful and enthusiastic energy to the atmosphere, there wasn’t a deal maker among them.
The panel topics focused on marketing and distribution of completed independent films. Mark Burton, President of independent film finance company Indie Vest assured the attendees that “the market for independent films is as strong as it’s ever been.” At the same time, he acknowledged that “there are limited distribution slots so there need to be alternative plans to get them out there.” Indie Vest raises 1-1/2 to 2 times the production budget for the P & A funds for each film they finance. Indie Vest also distributes their own films so they have first-dollar recoupment in their pictures. Rather than define the parameters of their distribution system, they allow the specifics of the film to dictate the strategy. It’s an effective business model that offers equal benefit to both filmmakers and investors.
By day 7, the talk turned to DIY Marketing techniques. After her film won at Sundance, Director Ondi Timoner was shocked by the lowball offers that came to her from distributors. Her shock was compounded by the fact that these distributors expected her to turn over all rights in all global markets to them. Since her film – WE LIVE IN PUBLIC – is about the consequences of living life entirely on the Internet, she decided to use the Internet as a marketing tool to self-distribute her film. Clearly, the prevalence of social networking sites combined with the seemingly unlimited niche audiences that can be reached through the “long tail” approach offer creative marketing possibilities for all filmmakers.
At the other end of the spectrum, Susan Jackson, co-president of Freestyle Releasing explained that her company offers a middle of the road solution between self distribution and finding a studio deal. Built on the rent-a-distributor model, Freestyle became well known after BOTTLE SHOCK, a low budget independent feature earned $4.4 million at the box office. Jackson advised that “anything you release better be a great movie.” Everyone agreed that filmmakers need to have an amazing trailer and great key art – both of which provide the means of communicating your message to every audience member you can identify and reach. However, there was an underlying warning – never let your director cut the trailer!
Another topic that everyone agreed on is the importance of hiring an effective public relations specialist and insisted that no matter how low the budget of a film is, it is essential to make the publicist a line item. Furthermore, the publicist should start working on the marketing campaign from the earliest days of preproduction. All of the studios understand the power of public relations and augment their P + A costs with the cost-free awareness that comes with effective public relations campaigns. It is interesting to note that nearly everyone on three different panels paid homage to the extreme effectiveness – as well as the extremely high price tag – of PR firm 42 West.
So, what does all this mean?
There is a very strong and profitable film industry in the United States that is devoted entirely to producing and exporting what amounts to an annual slate of foreign films. These films star talented actors whose faces have positive recognition that can help sell the project in the international marketplace. Still, for the most part they are lacking in the combination of creative elements. The story may be derivative or the dialogue too “on the nose” to be entertaining. Worst of all, the production values may be poor – which, in the age of affordable HD cameras and light kits is just inexcusable. The best of these films may turn up on Showtime or a niche cable channel, but it is safe to say that most of them will never make it to a theatre near you. This creates a very frustrating scenario for the producers and the talent that work on these projects.
When I started my quest at AFM 2009, I wanted to identify one or more companies that had the potential to do what Summit did a couple of years ago – make the jump from being an international sales company to becoming a viable producer of commercially successful theatrical feature films. In my humble opinion, there are three likely contenders to become The Next Summit.
Icon burst onto the scene when THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST established without a doubt that the Christian audience is eager to support programming that respects and affirms the beliefs that govern their lives. It is inconceivable to think that the company will ever be able to recreate that kind of momentum. However, by focusing on visually stupendous modern retellings of Shakespeare’s greatest hits they may actually reach an audience segment that was previously considered unreachable by the classics – the youth market. This is the same audience share that has enabled Summit to gain such a commercial foothold. This is the company to watch.
Affinity International is the new foreign sales company that is jointly owned by Bold Films and Odd Lot Entertainment – two mainstay companies at the AFM. This combination of forces heralds their intent to make a jump to the next level – and their projects indicate that they are making a very strategic effort. RABBIT HOLE stars Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart and Dianne Wiest in a drama about a couple who must face the most unthinkable pain and redefine themselves as individuals and as a couple in the aftermath of tragedy. THE HOLE 3D is a family friendly thriller about children who discover a bottomless hole in the basement of their new home. Directed by Joe Dante, this Bender/Spink production has the potential for excellent domestic box office returns. The combination of Bold Films and Odd Lot Entertainment holds great promise.
New Films International is a long shot but there’s something intriguing about this company that catches your attention and makes you look twice – and then again. Having spent two decades establishing the company as a reliable distributor of entertainment content, NFI has finally dipped their toes into the production waters. Although it is disappointing that their initial efforts are low budget genre projects, my conversations with executives Nesim Hason and Straw Weisman lead me to believe that this company is just getting its feet wet with the lowest risk projects. I suspect that if they muster the gumption to roll the dice with a great big commercial project, they will have the professional resources to pull it off with a high probability of success in the domestic theatrical marketplace.
Last – but certainly not least – we come to the final prediction: which film will be THE NEXT PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. When told of my quest to find this project, every sales rep and every filmmaker I met assured me without a doubt that they were holding TNPA. I watched the first 10 minutes of dozens of films – and, in some cases, I am using the term “films” loosely. We need to abolish the idea that micro budget films are a good thing because they were made for pennies on the dollar. Just because you can buy a hand-held HD camera from Costco for $400 doesn’t mean you can tell a story! Conversely, having a $40 million budget doesn’t mean you can tell a story, either. A good film tells a compelling story about likable people who have something interesting happen to them. As we follow them on their journey, we share emotional moments that resonate within us and make us care about the outcome of the character’s lives. In the end, we feel satisfied and/or inspired by the outcome. You can tell that story equally well for $400, $400,000, or $40 million – IF you have a story to tell and the skills to tell it within your budgetary limitations. Unfortunately, at the AFM there is a seemingly endless stream of micro budget…films, she said loosely…that are barely up to the standards of a student assignment at a mid-level film school. It is depressing to watch the broken dreams – not to mention the enormous amount of money that goes into supporting those dreams by paying sales agents and their room costs to bring a bad film to market. Ultimately, a film is only as good as the creative team behind it.
That being said, I think I found THE NEXT PARANORMAL EXPERIENCE.
BEYOND THE MAT is a sports drama about high school wrestling. It’s a cross section of every good high school movie you’ve ever seen with a twist – the kid we’re rooting for is a Vietnamese athlete who was adopted into an Ohio family as an infant. It’s the proverbial fish out of water meets coming of age internal journey – with a lot of sweat. The script was an Official Screenplay Selection at Tribeca in 2007. It is a well crafted story with authentic performances across the board. Truth be known, there’s only one real comparison to PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. BEYOND THE MAT – which is currently in post production – will come in with a total budget that is well under half a million. That being said, it looks as good on screen as every other teen movie in recent memory. It has an excellent potential for domestic theatrical release and I predict it will prove to be a more profitable income generator than anything else that was available at AFM 2009.
See you at AFM 2010!
AFM – Days 2 through 4
By Catherine Clinch
As the sunrise reflects off the rear end of a hot, red Lamborghini, round two of AFM begins at The Lowe’s Santa Monica Hotel. There are more people moving about and the energy level has jumped up a bit, but anybody who has managed to muster a bit of optimism is guarded about predicting where this will ultimately lead.
There’s a steady flow of foot traffic on the seventh floor. Worldwide Film Entertainment was a happening place in the late morning hours. Barbara Mudge has built a well-respected company and everyone who entered the suite was greeted – and treated – like a beloved old friend. Myriad Pictures had a significant number of films for sale, but the traffic was thinner than in previous years. Two years ago, they’d have been a strong contender for The Next Summit, but their product line seems to arouse less enthusiasm. They do have a potential hit on their hands with DINO-MOM, a hip and amusing animated feature that should bring in significant box office numbers if it gets a meaningful domestic release.
Icon is a steady (if surprising) contender for The Next Summit. Julie Taymor has continued to expand on her amazing visual style with THE TEMPEST. No matter how much kids might think they hate Shakespeare, Taymor – who juggled the triple threat of producer/writer/director on this Icon project – has created a visual spectacle that is sure to capture the attention of even the most hard-core gaming teenager. In fact, it’s not farfetched to imagine this film as a video game in future incarnations. Keeping in tune with their quirkier sensibilities, Icon also offers MARY & MAX, a black and white animation by Adam Elliot.
As expected, Summit was the official e-ticket ride. The room was filled as a waiting line patiently watched a stream of trailers for the company’s current offerings. There wasn’t a dud among them. A casual glance at the receptionist’s program schedule showed that every business hour of every day was filled with meeting after meeting. It’s inspiring to watch the way that Patrick Wachsberger and Erik Feig have challenged the stereotypical response to enormous sudden success. Rather than kick back and become smug, their office staff is warm and inviting and they seem to have doubled down on a push for quality product that is targeted to identifiable audience segments.
Starting off Day Three, The Finance Conference has become an annual tradition for both the major players and the up and comers. Given the reasonable ticket pricing, it also manages to attract its share of struggling hopefuls. Overall, it boasts a larger audience than any other single entertainment industry conference event in the Los Angeles area. During the breaks, the networking is so fierce that the sound of business cards being traded is almost deafening.
Panel One focused on The Current State of The Independent Film Business. Ryan Kavanaugh is the theoretical star of this show, having delivered a fresh source of investment capital to the industry at a time when that’s harder to do than it has ever been. Kavanaugh believes that what’s happening in the industry now is a good thing. “Our business grows by turmoil,” he explained. “Less films coming out will force us to be more creative.” But the supporting player that stole the show is Modi Wiczyk, Co-CEO of Media Rights Capital. Wiczyk – a Harvard Business School grad and former partner at Endeavor – was a bit blunter: “Bad times clear out the suckers. The best way to mitigate risk is to have something everybody wants. If you construct your project right, people will be interested.” Morgan Rector, President of the Entertainment Group at Comerica Bank thinks that “our sector got way overheated and we’re going through a correction.”
There was significant discussion about the new digital transition from DVD to Blu-Ray and from the buy/rent model to one of digital download. Roy A. Salter of The Salter Group consultants believes that the biggest difference between now and 1996 is that we’ve had a slow march to get to where we are. “The DVD is doing fine,” he insists. “People just don’t have as much money to buy right now.”
The parties generally agree that there needs to be a change in the way “gap” accounting is managed. “First cycle is the only thing that is valued on a film’s gap financing,” Kavanaugh explained. The problem is, “the long term cycle of a film is very valuable. When you start attributing that there is real value on the 3rd, 4th and 5th cycle of a film, you see this long term value stream.” In the current system, print and advertising costs have to be taken off on the day the film is released theatrically – but that doesn’t take any of the variables into account. “There are a lot of undervalued assets in some film libraries.”
Edward Borgerding, CEO of Abu Dhabi Media Company gave great care to the discussion of the problems we face viewed through the filter of what a real partnership should be built upon. The most important thing is a partnership is that it be a real partnership – between people who like each other and share a common vision. “The irony is,” he laments, “that in the current system the person taking the most financial risk is the one who stands to lose the most. Partnerships need to make sense for everyone who is involved.”
The banker – Morgan Richter – offered the voice of reason when he suggested: “In these times you want to take a step back and take a breath. Money will always come into this business because people like to be involved in the creative process.” This got a big rise from both Kavanaugh and Wiczyk. Kavanaugh asserted that “money must have a strategic vision or it will get lost. When somebody has a lot of money and just wants to make a movie, they’re going to lose it.” But Wiczyk was on the verge of actual outrage as he exclaimed: “You cannot disrespect the process. You should not be in the business just because you love movies! I love Ferraris,” he admitted, “but I’m not going to move to Italy to make them!”
Panel Two Focused on the topic of Foreign Investment: A Growing Source of Film Financing. The panel was led by Benson R. Berro, Managing Director of KPMG LLP and a traditional sponsor of this event. His firm publishes an annual guide to film finance and everyone in attendance received a DVD version of the book. This panel benefited from the wisdom of industry executives with extensive experience in the international space. Ashok Amritraj of Hyde Park Entertainment began with the simple admission that “you need a significant slug of equity to get a film made.” Jason A. Sklar, VP Entertainment Industries Group at JPMorgan explained that “syndicated loans have gone from 35 banks down to 10-12 banks. Now it’s taking twice as long to raise half as much funding for films.” He also admitted that “film is just not a core asset for banks. There are smaller deals and fewer people are doing them.”
Adam Leipzig, President of National Geographic Films believes that “smart money rather than dumb money is pouring into this country, looking for production companies that have a brand and a track record.” CAA agent Emmanuel Nunez believes the reason private equity and hedge funds have dried up is that “they came here in the first place because they were oversaturated in other areas.” Amritraj believes the greed for fees and the classic Hollywood mindset that was so bad for the last round of foreign capital. “It would be nice if Hollywood would figure out how to take better care of the investors.”
It comes as no surprise to anyone that both foreign and out of state tax incentives remain a strong source of funding. Leipzig always wants to get at least 15% of the budget financed by incentives, explaining that National Geographic “will choose to work with talented people who come from the local area in order to get greater benefits.” Amritraj adds that since tax incentives are so strong, he has used them to finance Hyde Park’s next 6 films. “When you compare the California budgets even to other states and countries, there is just no comparison.” Leipzig agrees, “Production will move to the most economically viable place.” Sklar cautions an advisory by suggesting that “you must make sure that the state is on the hook for the financing IN WRITING before you start production.” Amritraj took it one step further and strongly recommended that “if you have to shoot in a foreign country, you must lock down the local currency exchange rate.” In a worst case scenario, a fully funded production could be shut down for lack of money if the exchange rate takes a sudden move downward.
The point is overlooked in most conversations, but the truth of the matter is that the biggest reason other states and countries want to lure Hollywood to their shore is to use them as a training team to help grow the filmmaking infrastructure in their own locale. Nunez took great care to point out the fact that Hollywood accounts for only 5% of all filmed entertainment product in the world. All of the panelists predict that in the next two years there will be extensive consolidation and mergers for economic reasons.
Day Four – Saturday – was a loud and raucous version of what the American Film Market has become famous for. Troma characters in outlandish make up and costumes paraded through the lobby. A couple of stereotypical wannabe producers sat around the pool making lewd and sleazy remarks to women who attempted to discuss business with them. It was all somewhat retro – but there was one surprise that became a talking point among the few of us who were there to witness an odd event. While almost everybody else was at the bar or around the pool at the end of a long, noisy day, AFM’s private security guards escorted out a simple-looking man in a European cut suit and…were those handcuffs??? Apparently, the man flashed a badge and identified himself as a police officer while trying to gain entrance into one of the locked production company suites after close of business. Turns out, he was only a security guard and this little prank cost would cost him his guard card – and, therefore, his professional livelihood. However, as the Santa Monica Police photographed him and told him that if he were ever seen on the premises again he would be arrested and prosecuted for impersonating an officer and trespassing, the thing that upset him most was the fact that he was stripped of his full price pass to AFM and would never be allowed back. “Not even on the last day?” he mumbled pathetically as he disappeared into the sunset.
Next report: a wrap up with more panels and some nominations for The Next Summit and (maybe) The Next Paranormal Activity.
American Film Market – Day 1
By Catherine Clinch
You can always tell when the American Film Market is in town. Men and women in business garb walk briskly along the beach bluffs carrying matching canvas tote bags. A disproportionately high amount of cigarette smoke blends into the onshore breeze. And at least one disgruntled filmmaker will be picketing and/or distributing leaflets warning others about a foreign sales agent who has done them wrong. This year, a new level of creativity emerged when one filmmaker hired a truck to drive back and forth in front of Lowe’s with ad panels on all sides: “WARNING: Epic Pictures offering Stolen Movie.” The allegations include burglary at the filmmaker’s office; a stolen negative; a renamed film; 31 individuals named in 3 separate lawsuits; and the obligatory investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department. Whether or not any of this is true, it certainly peaks curiosity to see this movie-worth-stealing.
The American Film Market absorbs every square foot of Lowe’s Santa Monica Hotel, transforming it into a living, breathing organism whose sole purpose is to enable independently produced motion pictures to find their way to the four corners of the globe. The hotel’s design feels like a cruise ship, right down to the view of the Pacific Ocean through the huge picture windows. At its best, the AFM is like a trip on The Love Boat – a week long journey where people will bond quickly, share many complicated social and professional interactions, then go back to their homeland satisfied that they are much better off than they were when they arrived. But in this economic environment it remains to be seen how many companies will be feeling the love with territories sold and deals signed. Worst case scenario, this round of AFM just might turn out to be a cruise ship to nowhere.
After years of covering this market for another press outlet, I arrived ready to push my way through the crowds of aspiring writers, actors, producers and directors that typically populate the lobby. Unwilling or unable to afford the price of a market pass, they loiter, casually holding DVDs, CDs, headshots, screenplays and dreams – their desperation as obvious as a bulldog’s drool – attempting to be nonchalant while waiting for someone to come down from the upper levels to discover them. Their hopes are not completely unfounded because two years ago, Jenna Edwards was an aspiring young producer who had little more than a project she thought was important. She struck up a conversation with an investor who arrived early and was waiting for his colleague in the lobby. That conversation led to the poignant and moving film APRIL SHOWERS, a portrayal of a school shooting incident that was written and directed by one of the survivors of the Columbine massacre. Much to my surprise, this year everyone in the lobby had a market pass around their neck. Either APRIL SHOWERS is a well kept secret or too many dreamers have already given up.
This year, I’ve set out with three specific missions:
- Find The Next Summit – a company that is ready to burst onto the scene as a major player in the independent production market
- Find the next “Paranormal Activity” – the low budget film that holds big box office potential
- Identify and profile interesting filmmakers and producers who are still at the front end of the bell curve in their career
I began my excursion on the 8th floor – the top of the market in more ways than one. The suites on the upper floors of the market are considered to be the cream of the crop. The fourth floor – lobby level – is the dividing line. Suites below that level are frequently denigrated as the newbie’s, the wanna-bes and the nobodies. However, it is worth noting that a little film called MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING began its life in these lower floors, so nothing on these lower floors should be discounted.
Typically, the first day of the market is bustling with “window shopping” by the international film buyers. Most of them have an idea of what they intend to buy, but they look through the suites to see what else might catch their eye, knowing that they have a full week to make their commitment. According to the Buyer Registration Guide, most of the buyers have already arrived and are planning to stay through the beginning of next week. Even so, the hallways offered clear passage and many of the suites were filled with lonely sales agents who seemed bored and bewildered by the scarcity of first day traffic.
This is not to say that nobody was making first round sales. The Weinstein Company was like rush hour on a Friday evening. Harvey Weinstein walked quickly through the suite, talking on his cell while instructing those around him to keep up with his pace. Clearly, when Disney shuttered Miramax last week it became obvious that it is the brilliant brothers – and not the company – that generate amazing films. There was definitely a light in Harvey’s eyes as he stood amidst the one-sheets of his current slate. I’m going to remove The Weinstein Company from my quest for The Next Summit because even though they’ve had to reinvent themselves after Miramax, they’ve just picked up where they left off. They may be experiencing a glitch in their company finances, but they’re still the top of the heap and the players to emulate.
Around the corner, Showcase Entertainment proved to be a reliable stalwart company. EVP Shauna Shapiro Jackson and Market Coordinator Linda Paolucci continue to bring a steady slate of consistently good films to market year after year. Their business model is built around this market and they know how to be effective providers to their customers. They are clearly an excellent company, but aren’t yet going after the brass ring in domestic box office contenders.
London-based HanWay Films was aggressive with its positioning in five adjacent suites. It is worth noting that each of the first four suites were immersed in sales meetings with buyers and the reception office was juggling phone calls for many more meetings throughout the day. Another company from across the pond, InTandem Films has just announced that they will be replacing Seven Arts as the international sales agent for 13 high profile films that have already had a US domestic release – including the Keanu Reeve starrer JOHNNY MNEMONIC, I’LL SLEEP WHEN I’M DEAD with Clive Owen, and NO GOOD DEED starring Samuel L. Jackson and Milla Jovavich. . While InTandem is best known as a company that provides Executive Producer services, this move will clearly expand their range of influence. They might be a move that makes them a contender in the search for The Next Summit.
Lightning Entertainment Group continues to be interesting in their choice of product and in the way they do business. Their front desk was staffed by AFI grad program interns, but those interns had actually seen the company’s slate of films and could speak eloquently about them. That shows a level of involvement that stands miles above much of their competition.
Last, but certainly not least, the companies to watch must include Maxim Media International. In some ways, MMI speaks to the historic undertones of AFM – focusing only on the horror genre. President Darrin Ramage describes himself as a HARDCORE horror fan for his entire life. He can trace his attraction back to the age of 8 when he sat white-knuckled on the sofa between his father and his stepmother watching PSYCHO on the television. “Fear had consumed my entire body from the tips of the hair on my head to the very ends of my toenails. I have been chasing that fear my entire life,” he explains. “I don’t think I will ever be able to reach that level of fear, but I will never stop chasing the fear.”
More to come…
Digital Hollywood Fall 2009 – Part 2
By Catherine Clinch
By Day Three, the herd has thinned a bit. Those who remain have focused their conversations on the ways that individuals and companies can work together more effectively to help move to the next generation of digital content.
Everyone agrees that there are three basic components to all digital deals: windowing, platform and terms. Attorney Erika Zucker – of counsel to the WGA west – suggests that we all face the same problem in the contract stage because, “New media is defined so widely as to not be defined.” Susan Cleary, Esq., Vice President and General Counsel to the International Film and Television Alliance, demonstrates an amazing frame of reference in regard to the maze of domestic and international contractual agreements through which members of IFTA must maneuver. “License rights are all parceled out individually,” she notes. Grant Michaelson, VP Business Affairs for ABC believes this offers a benefit: “Most deals are short term until they can figure out what’s happening next.” Unfortunately, he adds, “It can take eight months to negotiate a one year deal.”
NBC President Marc Graboff made an encore appearance to discuss the cyclical pattern of network placement. Like every other network, NBC has been in every position from the top of the ratings to the bottom of the market share. Acknowledging that the network is currently in 4th place, Graboff acknowledges that, “the key to growing ratings is the right new shows.” NBC is looking for a quality drama that can also be successful in the aftermarket, but their top priority is finding “a big, giant broad reality show.” Reaffirming the position taken by all of the network and studio heads on Day One, Graboff is resigned to the fact that in order to be financial viable NBC needs to make shows for lower prices.
The topic of advertising was debated on panels throughout the conference. CEO and Founder of 5 to 1, James Heckman advocates for a complete overhaul because “the whole ad agency structure is built around a world that existed fifty years ago.” While agencies persist in placing ads in social media sites, “the click through on social media is so close to zero that you can’t measure it.” Big Fuel’s CEO, Avi Savar agrees that “buying banners on Facebook is not a social media strategy,” but points out that online games have a 10% click through rate. Stephen Baer, Managing Partner of The Game Company, claims that everyone should be focused on selection, sharing and selling. “Women over forty are actually gaming online for an average of nine hours/week.” For brands that are interested in reaching out to this demographic, the engagement level is clearly established.
In the next generation of Branded Entertainment, the relationship between brand and consumer is evolving from an emphasis on “find me and sell to me” to a partnership/reciprocity where the consumer asks the brand to “know me and help me.” It’s no surprise that Simon Kelly, COO of Story Worldwide, believes that “the brands that will win will be the ones that tell the best stories.” Admittedly taking a revolutionary stance, Heckman suggests that “wars and depressions cause great change and technological advancement. This recession is fantastic for people on the cutting edge.”
When the venture capital panel assembled, the news was not optimistic. In the past two years, most VC has gone into second and third round funding for companies that are able to demonstrate an actual income flow. According to Richard de Silva of Highland Capital, “You have to have real credibility in the field you want to raise funding for because the days of speculative money going to companies with no business model are gone.” Eghosa Omoigui of Intel Capital claims “this could herald the rise of the Super Angels – smaller VC funds that are trying to compete with the bigger companies.” All of the VC’s on this panel agree that the “killer app” to find and fund will be a tool that will enable a company to get full demographic information from every user without violating the rules of privacy.
One of the biggest dilemmas of digital content is finding a way to monetize it. Marcien Jenckes, President of Media and Content for Grab Networks thinks companies need to “Reduce the cost of video production; focus on a software solution to extract data to increase your CPM (cost per thousand); get your video in front of as many people as you can through multiple platforms and partnerships. Too often,” he laments, “people only tackle part of the problem.”
Day Four is always short and sweet. This year, three panels discussed the empowerment of “the mom demographic” through online sites. Matt Wasserlauf, Founder and CEO of BBE believes the equation is as simple as, “when the programming gets better, the audience follows and advertisers move in.” He lauded the most successful program on his network – two moms talking about things that moms talk about – and said it demonstrated the fact that the right kind of content targeted to the right demographic was able to be a million dollar earnings driver.
Later in the day, Stephanie Piche described the success of her site: “Moms control $3 trillion each year.” Piche monetizes her site with a sponsorship model rather than littering her site with ads. www.MomTV.com uses a wide variety of web series and hosts to build a sense of community around the topics and questions all moms share. Piche understands the importance of social media but is troubled by the reality of the situation. “Social media is just part of a big engine,” she explains. “The engine got bigger but there’s still no driver.”
The conference closed with a discussion of comedy content on Broadband platforms and the panel included the aforementioned Jennifer Pate and Barbara Machen of www.jenandbarbmomlife.com. Their premise is deceptively simple – “how women’s lives change after having kids” – while at the same time being enormously expansive. In an effort to mix things up, they use moms who are experts on a topic as their guests. They’ve already produced 52 episodes of the web series and are ready to go into the next round. They’ve also closed a deal to make guest appearances on The Rachel Ray Show. Jen and Barb have managed to “work very successfully with the brands to decide on what topics to discuss.” There are no ads, coupons or banners – just introductory pre-roll and seamless product integration. “You have to build a real relationship with your brands and their desired image,” she explains.
Digital Hollywood comes to Los Angeles twice a year. “Since 1990, over 40,000 industry executives have attended Digital Hollywood in Los Angeles, New York, San Jose and Las Vegas, including representatives of every major studio, technology company, cable, satellite and communications company, retailers as well as content developers and programmers for all entertainment industry medias and market segments.” For more information visit: www.digitalhollywood.com
Catherine Clinch is the founder of Nuclear Family Films and is a regular contributor to Film News Briefs.
Two Days Down, Two to Go
When Victor Harwood brings his Digital Hollywood conference to LA, the combination of technology, content, advertising, distribution and venture capital professionals offers a four-day round of high-energy discourse and debate that reverberates through every nook and cranny of the industry.
Day One began with the Variety Summit – a high powered lineup that included top executives of NBC, FX, Sony Pictures, ICM, Mandalay Entertainment, RHI Entertainment, Dick Clark Productions, Reveille and J. Walter Thompson, as well as Producer/Directors Brett Ratner and David Zucker and Producer/Host Carson Daly. The biggest topic on the table was the dilemma of obtaining effective (aka, all-inclusive) metric data for the full stream of usage of entertainment content. Using the current method, the networks can’t charge advertising rates based upon how many people are actually seeing a show because the current rule is LIVE PLUS SEVEN. In other words, when CASTLE aired on Monday night, x-amount of people watched it LIVE while y-amount of people recorded it on their DVRs. If the y-amount watches within 7 days, it will be counted. If they watch it in 9 days, it will not be counted.
This leads to an underlying discussion about whether or not Nielsen has outlived its primacy in the entertainment metrics business. Nielsen seems to have known this moment was coming. When The Blackstone Group and other equity capital investment companies purchased Nielsen from VNU a few years ago, they shifted a signification portion of their corporate focus from Nielsen Media Research to AC Nielsen – thereby moving from media survey into political/socioeconomic survey. As a reflection of the advanced nature of this issue, many of the networks and studios are pushing for their new consortium (CIMM) to take over for Nielsen and provide “more realistic” metrics that reflect the full extent of shifting usage.
The other side of this metrics equation is the need for networks, studios and content producers to unite behind a new business model. They days of paying actors $20 million + a dollar-one share of the gross income are over. Nobody wants to pay any talent players their quote anymore. Instead, they propose that talent should take a risk just like everybody else. If their entertainment product is successful, they will participate in the revenue stream.
The real highlight of the day – appropriately saved for the end of the program – was a conversation between producer/directors Brett Ratner, David Zucker with Bob Osher of Sony Pictures Digital Production. The essential interrelation between craft and technology were apparent when Osher discussed a new pre-vis technology that Sony has developed. It was fascinating to observe Ratner’s creative mind at work, asking questions about how the pre-vis program is being used to facilitate live action production. It was like watching an artist discover a new shade of blue paint.
Day Two was all about the next level of the consumer experience in online and mobile. Since the early days of Digital Hollywood, there has been significant disagreement over whether to aggregate content (aka, throw it all against the wall to see what – if anything – sticks to the consumer) or to curate content (selectively serve the best of the best to a loyal client base). The services that curate content tend to do better with a paid subscription model, but there are still more than enough aggregators in business to support the idea that this is also a viable business model.
While many of the panelists disagreed about how many degrees of separation are required between the consumer and the content product to get to success, there was a clear consensus that the user interface needs to be easy to access – especially on mobile. The secondary question on this point – although clearly a primary consideration to any content creator or provider – is how to monetize content and strike a balance between the advertiser supported and subscriber based business models. The golden equation of success in this arena involves a trinity of quality product, distribution to target market and a brand message that people will recognize and want to participate in.
Danae Ringelmann demonstrated her site www.IndieGoGo.com – an array of tools that enable independent filmmakers to use “crowd funding” methods and begin the process of audience building for their projects. But the most surprising panelist of the day was former child star Justine Bateman. Exhibiting a refreshing brilliance in her approach to the medium, Bateman has developed an operational model that combines the appropriate amount of all necessary ingredients for success – creativity, business savvy and a respect for the end user/audience member. She is building her online company in the same way previous generations of actors build film/television production companies and may very well become to digital content what Ron Howard became to film.
BRAND NEW MEDIA
The anti-product placement movement has just suited up to go another round in the fight against the seamless integration of brands into entertainment programs. We’ve already heard the creative guilds position in support of artistic integrity and their request for full disclosure to the audience. The solution they proposed would insert a crawl of disclosure text at the bottom of the screen that would run whenever a product was “placed” into a program for “promotional consideration” aka payment to the networks. The artistic integrity argument failed to gain traction in Washington, so the disclosure text concept slipped off the radar.
Or so we thought.
Last week, a consortium of otherwise unrelated organizations joined together to urge Washington to take the action that Hollywood has refused to voluntarily adopt. They want government to mandate the crawl of disclosure text at the bottom of the screen. Given the collective clout of The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists, The Salvation Army, Consumer’s Union, Public Citizen, Morality in Media and Commercial Alert, there’s a strong chance that the FCC will feel they’ve been backed into a corner and seriously consider the request.
The consortium wants to protect the easily influenced minds of children, adolescents and those adults prone to addictions fed by subliminal advertising messages that might encourage bad consumption habits – and that’s a much more powerful argument than artistic integrity. More important, this consortium’s combined mailing list reaches tens of millions of voters who will most likely be sympathetic to a “save the children from undue influence” campaign. At best, Hollywood has a couple of hundred thousand ballots in a state with very predictable voting patterns. That’s why these consumer groups might be able to accomplish what the Hollywood creative community could not.
But there is a much less drastic solution. Advertisers need to hide in plain sight. That’s right – lift the veil of subtlety, put the brand in front of the camera and stand proudly beside it as evidence of a business partnership. Certainly, it harkens back to the golden days when sponsors paid for shows and branded them with their name. When Milton Berle was brought into their living rooms by The Texaco Star Theatre, nobody complained. Today, when CHUCK works at a store that is a brand-sanitized version of Best Buy, we’re all in on the joke. Would there really be less artistic integrity – or more uncontrollable urges to purchase an electronic appliance – if everybody owned up to the brand of the store and the appliances? Really?
Ileana Douglas had the right idea when she joined forces with IKEA to create a branded online series called EASY TO ASSEMBLE. The project is funded by IKEA and its shot at an IKEA store, so there is nothing subliminal about it – this is branded entertainment.
Creatives need to embrace the corporate business plans we work under. We also have to respect the consumer’s need to provide a safe viewing environment for our youngsters. At the same time, in a primetime world where graphic violence and negative images are prevalent, and thinly veiled references to blow jobs are just another line of dialogue in 8 o’clock shows, these consumer groups might want to consider whether or not they have put their “clout” eggs in the right basket at the right time.