Saturday, November 25, 2006
First, the words of the prophet...
Bill Hicks was the best stand-up comedian of the 1990's; incendiary, prescient, and enormously intelligent. Tragically, he died at the ridiculously young age of 32, not long after his last appearance on "The David Letterman Show" -- a 7 minute career capping performance so inspired it never made it to air. One of his jokes (although pre-screened by Letterman's producers) was deemed, post-delivery, to "potentially offend" and his entire act was cut. Not the one joke, the whole seven minutes.
Knowing he only had a few weeks to live, Hicks self-recorded those seven minutes for posterity and returned home to Texas to die -- according to legend, never speaking again.
Bill's comedy crime was that he had crossed the one line you can never cross in television -- potentially losing a viewer who someday, somewhere might be a paying customer of -- somebody. Bill was a sacrifice on the altar of marketing.
Art and commerce are eternal combatants in the world of entertainment. Neither camp prospers without the other. For the most part, neither side understands the full purpose of the other and often doesn't even try. Oddly, this is best for everybody.
Unfortunately, lately, the commerce guys have commandeered the ship -- and in some parts of the world may take the artists down with them.
Commerce is all about selling something to somebody. The science of selling is called Marketing, a complicated combination of logic, social analysis and insight that determines who will be most encouraged to buy what through how...
Don't worry if that didn't quite make sense to you. If you're reading this blog you're probably in the art camp and not wired to figure it out. You and I simply call it -- lying.
Marketers are exceptional liars. And as a producer I say that with great professional respect. Learn to think of lying the way David Mamet's producer Walt Price explains it in "State and Main". "It's a gift for fiction."
The fiction Marketing guys create is what sells the fiction we create. This is also where things go off the rails. If what art brings to people's lives was considered as important as what money brings, there wouldn't be a problem. But it's not.
The monetary rewards of marketing have led to a belief that you can turn a profit on just about anything if enough people can be convinced to buy what you're selling. Depending on where you stand, this makes marketing people either complete geniuses or total asshats...
Let's explore my extraordinarily eventful life for a case study...
One summer sunday, left to my own devices and discovering I don't have any, I decide to finally see one of the tentpole blockbusters. Having just moved, I mis-time how long it takes to get to the theatre and turn up an hour early. No big deal. There's a pizza place next door where I can buy a slice and a brew.
Told the waitress I wanted to be out in time for the next show and she asked, "Do you want our dinner and a movie special?" Meaning, order a beer and a pizza for $15 and we'll throw in a free movie pass. Deal! My exciting evening out was suddenly half price!
The deal got a couple bucks better when I was told I could keep my trademarked NFL beer mug if I ordered what the house had on tap. No problem. I'm a go along to get along guy. The mug came with a Raiders logo (Yes!!) and a voucher for 4 free issues of Sports Illustrated.
Got to the theatre, used my pass and dropped $10 for snacks -- because it just isn't a tentpole blockbuster without popcorn. With my snacks, came a gratis ginormous chocolate bar, a free Blockbuster rental coupon and $10 off my next purchase at Roots. I'm thinking if I use all this stuff, I'm almost ahead of the game here.
The theatre crowd was small -- me and two couples, both of whom had been at the pizza joint, likely meaning all of us were here on passes.
Five people on a Sunday night. Come weekend three, tentpole blockbusters just don't seem to be what they once were.
Anyway, we happy few, we band of brothers, watched about 20 minutes of ads, 10 minutes of trailers and the movie.
Leaving the theatre, one usher handed me a single serving box of Shreddies and another presented me with a trial long distance phone card.
Okay -- so a lot of marketing here -- and a fistful of deals that grand totaled $17 more than I'd actually spent. So, who's making any money?
If you're in the "They're asshats!" camp -- nobody -- They're desperate, crass commercializers stooping at nothing...
If you're in the "Genius" camp -- a lot of people -- through the building of good will, customer appreciation, brand recognition, whatever.
Next question. What gave all those people the opportunity to offer me these bribes, incentives, free samples and tokens of appreciation?
Answer: The movie. What you and I do.
Hey, marketing guy! You're welcome! Have you noticed how well I'm driving the economy here?
Last question. A really dumb one. If this symbiotic relationship is working so well for everybody, why're you trying to put me out of business?
This week in Canada, the people who own free to air television networks told the government that they need to be paid as much as a buck a channel a month to survive.
The proverbial hit the fan. Talk radio screamed. Columnists ranted. Bloggers blogged.
Rest Easy. This will never happen.
No one, governmental or corporate, is willing to endure the public wrath that would result. This is what is known as a marketing ploy, painting the worst case picture to get what they really want, a bigger cut of cable's time-shifting pie, so viewers won't PVR and skip the commercials altogether; the chance to squeeze another commercial minute into each hour and less pressure to buy homegrown programming.
If they're lucky, they might also get further reductions in Canadian content and more credit for endlessly repeating their no budget programming.
As too many people in network marketing told us this week...
Ad revenue is down. (according to the Canadian Association of Broadcasters own figures, it's actually growing faster than the country's Gross Domestic Product).
Audiences are migrating to specialty channels (which they mostly own, meaning they're losing viewers to -- themselves).
Myspace and Youtube are stealing the young viewer away. (Okay give 'em this one -- but only because girls going wild and Jackass stunts will always be more interesting than Ben Mulroney).
The mantra is simple -- "Please give us more money so we don't have to think up ways to stay relevent and gawd, whatever you do, don't make us have to earn our audience!
These guys are so busy saving the Status Quo, they haven't had time to notice it's already gone! The page turned while they were working on their marketing campaign.
This summer the NFL decided to punt a deal with Turner Broadcasting worth $300 Million and put Turner's 8 games on their own NFL network. They're also experimenting with an online pay system to stream games, something Major League Baseball tried this summer and the NHL is testing later this season.
If this works, the sports cash cow may no longer be on free TV and given the rapidly improving technology more Kings of Content who control their product may be quick to follow. Disney taking back all their kid stuff from free to air stations sure hasn't hurt them, has it? And since the new iPod can wireless broadcast to your TV in HD, anything downloadable is now competition on the same box you flop in front of to watch your favorite shows. Forget Global and CTV becoming extinct, Expressvu and Rogers may not be far behind.
Last year in Las Vegas, I ran into Mark Cuban carrying a little black box around in the pocket of his jeans. It was a Kajillion Terrabyte USB hard drive the size of a PDA which he said could hold the entire film library of MGM. Remember that old Vegas motto "Everything, all the time"? It's apparently caught on with the public.
As of today, you can rebroadcast somebody else's programs just like CTV and Global do. How far do you think we are from a world where the people who make that programming might earn more money selling their shows, or having advertisers pay to provide it, directly to you instead of even licensing a Canadian broadcaster?
Oh wait, we're already there.
Direct Marketing just gained a whole new meaning.
Right now in Hollywood, Marketing geniuses are figuring out how much you'll pay to download the shot but never seen episodes of "Smith". They're calculating how badly you might want a "Dancing With The Stars" compilation and how many new revenue streams they can add to "24" and "American Idol".
Up in the Great White North, where they haven't bothered to make any shows since 1999, where their shopworn library was mostly shot in Super-16 and features actors in bell bottoms and a society before mobile phones; there's nothing to market. But instead of realizing the guys in the art camp can provide content nobody else owns, our commerce guys blindly believe selling what they've got harder and faster and at a higher price will save them.
Bill Hicks was right. They'll kill us all.
And I was right on both counts about those marketing guys. Hollywood got the geniuses. We got the asshats.
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
To be sure there is usually one overriding creative vision at work, a vision that is served by the others. Whether that vision is embodied in the script or born of a producer's take on the material, executing the vision ultimately falls on the shoulders of the director.
For the most part, I like directors. I can count on one hand the ones I've worked with and would never want to work with again. The good ones bring things to a script or a performance that you never imagined were there. The mediocre ones still break your heart with the effort they make to get one last shot before the sun comes up and ends their night shoot. Even the ones who think actors are cattle remain employable by realizing they still have to feed them well, milk them regularly and yodel when the sun goes down so they won't stampede.
The producer who taught me most of what I know about television used to say, "I always get worried when I walk onto a set and I know which one's the director." And he was right.
Directors should know better than anyone else that we're all in this together. So it constantly amazes me that so many directors still support such charades as the possessory credit, the auteur theory and the "Directed by Alan Smithee" pseudonym.
Flatly, there's no such thing as the possessory "A Film By ----" unless one guy did everything including being all he pointed the camera at. Any director taking a possessory credit is letting everyone else know how little he actually values their contribution. If you need the money, go ahead and work with somebody like that. If you value who you are and what you do -- don't. Filmmaking is leaving egos at the door, not exhalting one of us above all others.
Likewise the "auteur theory" -- that quaint Cahiers Du Cinema/Andrew Sarris invention that insists that a film reflects the unique personal vision of the director and no one else.
I used to carry around a script I wrote called "The Auteur Theory". It was 120 blank pages. "There you go, Sparky -- shoot that!"
And finally, there's the institutionalized nom de guerre that all directors must take if they don't want their name on a film, "Alan Smithee"; a name that concludes the credits with the silent promise that what you are about to see is going to be complete crap, because Alan only puts his name on films that were mangled beyond all Director tolerance.
Writers often take pseudonyms when they're unhappy with their work. I've done it a couple of times myself. Writers have far less control over the finished product, so when your race of intelligent aliens suddenly morphs into bikini wearing bimbos dispatching their enemies with lead pipes, you want people to know exactly how "Tobias House" spent the script fee.
Most often you end up with a nom de plume that won't make the few people actually reading the credits think they should ask for a refund. But there are books on "Alan Smithee" full of tales of the idiots or the system that wounded some poor director and his perfect vision so deeply that his only recourse was to encourage all us in-the-know film folk to silently cheer our Hollywood rebel for stickin' it to the man...
I used to pump my fist along with them. Now I'm one of the Alan Smithee bad guys. Only thing is -- I know what really happened...
My Alan Smithee film was a US network MOW with two fairly famous and quite talented leading actors, a very good script and a tight shooting schedule and budget. We needed a director who understood the material and could shoot fast. And we found him. I liked the guy from the start. He didn't want any script changes, was excited by his stars and understood that a half dozen of the shoot days would be production nightmares. But he went right to work story boarding those days and sharing his enthusiasm for the job at hand.
As those of you who have been watching "Studio 60" may suspect, as I do, that Aaron Sorkin patterned the Danny Tripp character after me, right down to my "How much do I need to know about this..." catch phrase -- my producing theory is simple, "Hire good people and leave them alone." And since we were shooting two films back to back, I was more than happy to give this guy his head...
For about a day.
His first order of business had been to cast the villain of the piece and a number of day players. Having been an actor, I find casting sessions difficult. I always want to help the actors out. That undercuts the Casting Director and the Director, so I usually look at tapes of the first sessions, add people to the callbacks if I think they might improve and try to be on my best behavior for the second round.
I got back from the shooting set as the Casting Director walked in with the tape. My incredibly efficient director had burned through the session in record time, already made his selections and left for dinner. The Casting Director felt I needed to see the tape. It was interesting all right.
Most of the actors auditioning for single scene parts never completed the short sides they were given before being thanked politely and escorted out -- and every single selected performer was visibly on the heavy side. When I got hold of the director, 4 hours later, highly recommending his cafe of choice and their exceptional wine list; he acknowledged that he wanted "fat actors". He believed audiences wanted to see people like themselves onscreen. I pointed out that slim people watched TV too. He insisted his vision would work.
His choice for the villain was an actor who had not been asked to audition. He was a guy notoriously difficult to work with and whose talent didn't always justify the trouble. On a difficult shoot, he could be an added headache.
Having been through some network casting wars on the film already shooting, I knew his approach could be problematic. I suggested we look at the tape together in the morning and find a list of performers we both could live with.
He arrived next day happy to have whatever cast I wanted as long as he got his villain. When his actor of choice turned us down, he washed his hands of casting altogether, insisting he would be happy to work with whatever talent graced his set.
My biggest flaw is that I take people at their word. If you tell me you're happy, I assume you are. Tell me you're not, I'll see if we can find a solution. Through the rest of prep, the man was affable and charming. He loved the set designs, adored the costumes, thought the cinematographer was the best he'd ever worked with. I was growing confused. I knew I hired good people -- I'd just never hired anybody who was perfect, let alone a whole crew of them.
His storyboards convinced me we were in trouble. They were all over the place. He blamed the artist. The kid didn't understand what he'd been describing. It would be fine on the day. He knew what he wanted.
But I didn't, and neither did the AD's. When I asked him to break down the script with them so everybody understood what was expected, I was off his Christmas card list.
But the first days of shooting went well. We weren't going into overtime and the footage looked good. Some of it felt a little by the numbers but it was by the numbers stuff and any time and energy we banked now would help when we got into the tougher days ahead.
But script timings began coming in short, meaning the 90 minute film we were making was going to end up at 88, then 86. I added back a scene I hadn't wanted to cut in the first place. Then added another to 2nd unit and told the stunt team to enhance the car chase.
But as we passed the midpoint of shooting, we were still by the numbers and I knew he was just phoning it in. I made an appointment to talk privately. He blamed the cast, had problems with the crew too. Everybody was letting him down.
He was full of shit and I called him on it. I was expecting an argument but all I got was a smile. He was sorry I wasn't happy. He would try to do better.
But he didn't and there wasn't the time or money to replace him. We wrapped and he delivered his cut -- 8 minutes short. Included were angles and takes so inappropriate they had me doubting the editor's sanity. Her rough cuts had improved on the dailies and avoided all the problems I was now seeing. But it was his cut. She had no choice but to deliver the unwatchable mess that was his vision.
I phoned to ask if he could explain some of the choices. He didn't see the need. Even though he didn't have final cut, he believed his version was terrific and 8 minutes short was just something the network would live with.
We couldn't shoot anything additional, so the editor and I spent a week rebuilding what we had into a 90 minute final cut the network loved. This version would go on to garner better ratings than had been expected and receive unanimously positive reviews. But he dubbed it an Alan Smithee film.
My editor cried. The actors were insulted and the network incensed. I tried reasoning with the guy, assuming his problem was with me. He was shocked I would suggest such a thing. He'd had a wonderful time, hoped we could work together again. We just didn't "get" what he was trying to do and he couldn't put his name on the version we were happy with.
I tried to understand how he felt, but I couldn't shake how he'd said it with such glee.
The Director's Guild mandates Alan Smithee as the replacement credit for any director wanting to take his or her name off a film. I'm sure there's a fair and logical reason for doing that. But I'm also sure there's a hint of vindictiveness behind it, a quiet reminder to the rest of us of where the true vision behind a film is supposed to belong.
Interestly, Hollywood's best known Director rebel, Sam Peckinpah, a man pole-axed repeatedly by the studio system, kept his own name on such brutalized works as "Major Dundee" and "Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia". A number of times, friends suggested he let "Alan Smithee" take the credit. Sam always refused. If he lost, so be it. But he wouldn't let anybody forget who'd fought the battle.
Saturday, November 18, 2006
We were both 21 and had been cast as high school football players in a Colgate toothpaste commercial. John was a lineman, I was a running back and a really good looking guy was the quarterback. We each had a couple of lines, but doing most of the talking was Art Linkletter, who had apparently come into our locker room to explain that Colgate protected your teeth the way our helmets protected our heads.
The Quarterback had done several commercials, but this was the first time for John and me so we did the rookie actor thing of sticking close together, covering for each other and sharing whatever we seperately gleaned of this new world.
My parents had been thrilled that I was working with Linkletter. He was one of their favorites and they constantly regaled my brothers and I with quotes from "Kids Say The Darndest Things"; quietly insinuating (from our perspective) that we had to go some to be half as darn funny. I believe we regularly rose to the challenge.
But the Art Linkletter I met that day would have had most kids screaming, "Get me the F*** out of here!"
I'm sure he was normally a very sweet and charming man. Maybe he felt he was slumming it by flying to Canada to do a commercial. Maybe he was jet lagged or having a bad day. Maybe he was just used to working with actors who weren't goofs. Whatever the reason, he had a problem with everyone and everything that day and made our lives a living hell.
John and I had never worked with a BIG star before and tried to stay out of his way. But we still became the occasional focus of his dissatisfaction. As the day wore on and we sweated under the hot lights in our equipment, it felt like it would never end.
To keep our sanity, we talked about football. John had been a high school star and dreamed of playing for his beloved Toronto Argonauts. I was a die-hard Saskatchewan Roughrider fan and he did all he could to sway my allegiances.
Late in the afternoon, after a particularly nasty blow-up, Linkletter had once more retreated to his dressing room. As the crew labored over the lights or the set or whatever it was this time, John and I lounged against our lockers. He wondered what really was making the man so damned unhappy. I remembered hearing that his daughter had died a couple of years earlier after dropping acid and trying to fly out her apartment window.
John took this aboard and said, "A couple more hours and we'll all be looking for windows."
I cracked up. So did the crew. Even the Quarterback got it.
So did Art back in his dressing room.
John and I were so green we didn't know that the mics we wore were on all the time.
Linkletter stormed back into the studio, demanding that we be fired. But before he could take us out, one of the Colgate guys stepped in and told him that if we didn't finish in the next hour, he'd miss his plane. We banged off the rest of the commercial in 15 minutes.
John and I made plans to catch an Argo game the next week. But instead we both ended up working on a film we were mostly cut out of, "The Class of '44", sequel to the far more successful "Summer of '42".
That's when John discovered I'd gotten into Frank Sinatra's pants.
We were hanging up what the Wardrobe lady insisted were "terribly expensive period costumes" the studio had shipped all the way from LA, when John noticed a label stitched in my waistband marked "Francis Sinatra". We searched the pockets for further identification and found two beverage tickets for the Catalina Island Yacht Club. Figuring they were out of date, but still very cool, we each took one.
John and I never worked together after that and never got to a football game. When our paths crossed again, 22 years later, he was a huge star and I was producing a cop show for CBS.
By then John had bought the Argonauts, in a partnership with Wayne Gretzky and LA Kings owner Bruce McNall. Their first year, the team won the Grey Cup (Canada's much better version of the Superbowl). Unfortunately, a season later, McNall was imprisoned for fraud after trading in counterfeit Roman coins. John couldn't afford the team on his own and had to sell. I think it broke his heart.
In 1993, he was back in Toronto to film "Canadian Bacon" and the production re-dressed one of our police station sets for their shoot. I ran into John one morning and it was like the intervening decades had never happened. We were still those two goofs from the locker room.
A few days later, the Argos were playing out of town, trying to win a trip back to another Grey Cup and John asked if he could use my office TV at lunch to watch the game. When he arrived with his tray, I grabbed some files to work elsewhere and give him his privacy. He insisted I stay. But the game was an early blow out, so we turned it off and giggled about Linkletter and Sinatra's pants. I still had my ticket somewhere. John claimed he'd used his -- for a smoothie.
A few short months later, Frank Sinatra was sick and they were already writing the eulogies. But he pulled through and the paper that landed on my desk the next morning said John had died in Mexico on the set of "Wagon's East". I didn't have anything against Frank, but it wasn't a fair trade.
The Grey Cup game is today and that always gets me thinking of John. For a while it looked like his Argos and my Roughriders were finally going to vie for the trophy. But they both lost in the semis, so it'll have to wait for another time. Maybe that'll be the game we finally catch together.
Friday, November 10, 2006
Through a combination of luck and design, I'm the first male child in 500 years of my family's history who did not go to war. It's not that I come from some military lineage. On the contrary, most of my warrior ancestors were ordinary men who simply answered the call and thereafter seldom spoke of what they had experienced in their wars. It was only after my Grandfather's death that I learned he had been decorated at Vimy Ridge and gone "over the top" into hand to hand combat 13 times. My father never spoke about his service in WWII until he came back from visiting Normandy on the 60th anniverary of D-Day.
All the same, November 11th was reverently observed during my childhood. The vets all marched wearing their medals. The service at the cenotaph was crowded and solemn. You saw grown men fighting tears as the trumpeter played "The Last Post". Later, while my mother and my aunts reset the recently used Thanksgiving table, my dad and my uncles would pass around a quart of rye and talk about the guys who didn't come back. The one on the oil tanker that was torpedoed. The brothers who died on the same beach. The kid whose Spitfire disappeared without a trace. They spoke of which of the departed had been a great pitcher in high school, which one had a child born after his passing, how somebody's parents had kept the farm going without him; never the details of their deaths, never how the loss of boyhood friends, cousins or brothers had impacted their own lives.
TV in the 50's and 60's usually featured war movies on Remembrance Day. Some might have been historically based. Most often they were the jingoistic American fare starring John Wayne or Audie Murphy that all the vets hated. They'd wink at each other as Wayne charged across the sands of Iwo Jima blasting away. "Yeah, that's pretty much what it was like...."
Nobody ever asked why there weren't any Canadian war movies. Back then there weren't Canadian movies period. And by the time we had an industry that could have made them, we'd witnessed Vietnam and graduated our military to peacekeeping. The stories we'd never heard weren't what people wanted to see anymore.
From time to time, I run across writers or producers wanting to tell the story of Vimy Ridge or Dieppe or Ortona. But I can't envision any of those films ever being made. War stories are out of fashion now. They don't reflect the image we'd like to portray to the world.
And that's a shame, because it denies who we were and still are on many levels. And it eliminates the opportunity of dramatizing Canadian experiences in ways that might make everyone look at John Wayne the way those vets in my family did.
This is the one combat story my father has told me.
He was awakened the morning of June 6, 1944 by the silence. For days he and his RCAF squadron had been socked in by the weather. But the steady rain that had hammered the tin roof of their barracks had stopped. The weather was clearing and the D-Day invasion canceled twice in the last week was on. While their planes were fueled and loaded with ammunition, he sat on the tailgate of a truck with some of the "other fellas" having tea and biscuits, both frightened and excited that this day had finally arrived.
Their job was to attack armored columns and troop trains that would be rushing German reinforcements to the stormed beaches. For the rest of the day, he flew mission after mission following those orders. By late afternoon, he knew the ground forces were pushing inland and was flying deeper into France in search of targets. At twilight the squadron spotted a large column of infantry that had stopped to eat their evening meal.
What my father remembers of that attack was not the CGI carnage of a Speilberg movie but men sitting on the tailgate of a truck, looking up from their meal as his guns tore them apart.
For my father this has always exemplified the enduring lessons of war. The first -- No matter what terrible things were done, if they were not done the men on that truck would have done the same to his friends. And second -- no matter how much they were demonized, the men you were killing were no different from you. As he put it, "We could never be proud of what we'd done, just thankful we had survived the doing."
Somehow it feels like those are truths worth remembering and helping others to remember.
Thursday, November 09, 2006
Studio guys often resented the perks stars requested, seeing them as somehow more outlandish than the "poached not broiled white meat only oriental chicken salad, dressing on the side, none of those noodle things and a '85 Chablis very, very chilled" orders they would specify in the commissary. And they could not comprehend how a line they had studiously inserted into a script could be morphed into something else as it made its way through the actor. Didn't matter that the line made the same point or improved on it. Why couldn't these people just do what was expected of them?
Realizing I could never make them understand Abraham Maslow's "Heirarchy of Human Needs", I copped out by tossing off one of his quotes, "There's no such thing as a well adjusted slave."
Most producers could understand that at some level. They knew how little most television actors actually earned, how far apart their work opportunities were and that they endured the harshest rejections and the constant victimization of ever shifting tastes. Yeah, they conceded, that could make anybody a little nuts.
Traditionally, the November Sweeps are the time when new shows are either made or broken. Even those that are doing well don't learn which side of the bubble they're truly on until the first Christmas Carol hits the radio.
Industry pundits and bloggers have spent the last six or eight weeks dissecting the candidates and the audience response, trying to define the paradigm that explains the season. Although they all ascribe to the adage that "Nobody knows Anything", everybody still has a theory -- make that a well reasoned thesis -- on why "Studio 60" isn't clicking, "Friday Night Lights" hasn't got an audience, "Jericho" has an audience or how any idiot could have seen that "Smith" wouldn't work while "Shark" would.
Over at Ken Levine's wonderful blog that's evolved/degenerated into a comment string where the sitcom is dying because none of the idiot suits know the first thing about funny.
To which I reply, "There's no such thing as a well adjusted slave."
I doubt there has ever been a season where all the good shows succeeded and all the bad ones failed. I'm just as sure the reverse has not been true. Yet somehow we believe that assessing the outcome and laying the blame on one network decision or another explains things.
I've watched countless innovative, creative, can't fail series with a dream time slot and talented stars disappear in a heartbeat, while ones I'll never get are packaging their 7th season on DVD.
There's a free radical at work here that's known as "Life". With the millions of people being programmed to with their millions of personal priorities, daily schedules and varying levels of taste, nothing will appeal to most of them and some things will appeal to none of them.
Yet we continue this rending of the entrails for clues to what is working and what we should therefore be working on next.
Think of the TV season that's currently upon us and put yourself in the place of the network drones who put those shows on the air. Oh, I can trade you "idiot exec" and "stupid note" stories til the cows come home. I can completely relate to any anecdote you've got about the VP who couldn't comprehend either your brilliance or your talent. I fully share your insatiable appetite for external validation.
But so do they.
And in whatever circle of hell I'm destined to land, I pray it does not include having to do their job. I mean, most dogs seem to like me. I can't be that bad.
I've had the pleasure of working with development executives who loved my show even more than I did. And I've survived the misery of working with those who couldn't give a damn. Some of each group earned their way into the executive suite, and several on each side failed their way in that same door. The difference for me is how much they cared about what they were doing. For the least helpful, dealing with my show was just part of their job. But even the ones who don't care would rather have a show succeed than fail.
Hunter Thompson's television hallways where "Good men die like dogs" (a quote we creative types always assume means us) are also littered with the career corpses of executives who tried to get stories about cigarettes on "60 Minutes", didn't back down from Senator McCarthy and championed "EZ Streets". The guys who fought to bring you "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" were unceremoniously fired before those series premiered -- utterly obliterated the competition -- and changed the face of 21st century television; or at least what was ordered the following season.
What these network people achieve depends as much on timing and dumb luck as what we do. They are at the mercy of more current events and influences changing public taste than anyone can measure. Imagine how popular "Lost" would have been had it debuted its plane crash in the weeks after 9/11. Envision "Grey's Anatomy" with a Nick Lachey as Dr. McDreamy. Imagine "CSI: Miami" written with dialogue real people actually say.
All of those situations are completely plausible. Consider how differently you would view the end product of the network choices under those conditions.
The people in network offices don't get a lot of what we do and they mostly don't get us. They make the bizarre decisions we think they make because they have a whole different set of priorities.
They are overwhelmed by the demands of pressure groups, affiliate needs, shareholder earnings and the fact that Dominoe's has suddenly moved their 2 for 1 pizza deal to Friday and now everybody wants something to stay home and watch on that night instead of Thursday. The good ones will try to work out the disconnects. The bad ones just want to make it through the day and go home.
Understanding those pressures won't get your script made. But it'll keep you from feeling that idiots run your lives. Those idiots run the network execs lives too. We're all working on Maggie's farm...
There's no such thing as a well adjusted slave.
Sunday, November 05, 2006
A couple of months ago, Will Dixon and I hooked up after a prolonged separation and he introduced me to the blogosphere. I liked what I saw and read, realizing I'd stumbled on a community searching for answers to the issues creative people confront.
I decided to test the waters by asking Will to post a submission I made to the CRTC (Canada's version of the FCC) in November of 2003. Not sharing my affinity for Don Henley's "The Best Light Comes From A Burning Bridge" philosophy, Will edited the document slightly and posted it September 9th under the heading, "No Bullsh*t Here". You can link to it below...
...or read the version pasted at the end of this introduction.
The original document is more detailed, does not change names to protect the less than innocent (myself included) and has been posted in the CRTC's database for quite some time. If you've got a couple of hours, you can find it here...
Did the original document accomplish anything? Hard to say. There was an initial flurry from Commission aides wondering if I really wanted it made public, cautioning that it could have a "negative impact" on my career. I was honestly flattered. People in Ottawa cared about my well-being.
But I couldn't see any "positive impact" on my career or anybody else's unless the issues were addressed, so I said, "Let's do it!" I've noticed some changes since, small ones and maybe they're just the natural shifts that result from a thousand industry factors.
And if people were negative -- well, I've walked into a few buzz-saws in my life. It's never fun. You always come away with something missing or a new set of stitches. But unfortunately, it's often the only way things change.
It's human nature to follow the path of least resistance and just go along with things as they are. But every well traveled path eventually wears into a rut. Vested interests like ruts. It's easy to see where everybody's going. They can stake out the sides to sell you gas, burgers and a ticket to the reptile farm along the way.
The system is only interested in making sure nobody draws any attention to its flaws. So nothing changes until enough people say, "Uh, this isn't working anymore..." -- or somebody dynamites a new path.
I want to thank all of you who responded to the original post over at Uninflected Images Juxtaposed. You're the reason I'm here. And for those who haven't been exposed. Time to Cowboy Up...
RIDING THE BULL
I was born about the same time that television arrived in this country, growing up in a rural setting that was populated by cowboys and farmers and others whose living came from the land.
Entertainment was the local rodeo, when everybody put on their best boots, shiny buckles and Stetsons and went to watch the Bull riders.
It takes a lot of courage and skill to ride a bucking Brahma bull and staying aboard for the full eight seconds earns the rider not only a handsome purse but a great deal of respect. So, the rodeo ring is full of swaggering young cowpokes, wearing their best chaps and looking for all the world like bull riders. But all of them are aware of a simple rodeo adage – “You can fool everybody but the bull.” In other words, if you don’t know what you’re doing, the bull will figure it out in an instant and you not only won’t stay on his back, you may not survive the experience.
In the entertainment world, the bull we all try to ride, the creature we all try to subdue and conquer has another name. It’s called the audience. And anyone truly connected to this business understands that they are the ones who determine whether you succeed or end up gored and stomped on.
It’s my contention that the problems in the Canadian television industry arise from the fact that the audience is seldom, if ever, given consideration, as are many of those creative professionals who have learned how to ride it.
I began my professional career as an actor, dedicated to a then rare commodity known as the “Canadian play”. I had the good fortune to perform in more than a hundred new plays that told Canadian stories and enjoyed the additional pleasure of touring many of them to Europe and the United States. I moved on to writing films and television and then to producing. To date I can be held responsible for more than 200 hours of prime time drama – the vast majority for American television networks.
Yet, I have chosen to live and work in my own country, sharing the goal of seeing the kind of homegrown dramatic work that is produced all over the world produced here. But while I’ve had some success within the Canadian industry, you need to know some of the reasons why I think the ultimate goals we both seek are not being achieved.
There will be numerous people pointing the finger at the CRTC and its 1999 rulings. But I feel, as I’m sure you do, that there is far more to the problem.
Most of what I write and produce is considered popular entertainment. Cop shows, science fiction, horror and stuff for kids; romance films, movies with rampaging dinosaurs and TV shows with lots of cleavage. In short, I create what most people who turn on a television like to watch. I doubt that anybody would ever consider any of it “important” work.
But I also have a stack of letters from people whose lives have been informed, enhanced and even occasionally changed by what I’ve written and produced. So I know I’m doing something right and perhaps contributing to somebody’s definition of a culture at the same time.
But interestingly enough, Canadian networks barely return my calls. It’s a situation that is not unique to me, but unfortunately all too routine to many Canadian creative professionals with a resume of successful popular programming. We’ve never had anyone from a Canadian network tell us our material isn’t suitable, is too expensive or needs some re-tooling. They’re all simply “not what we’re looking for at this time”.
Requests for information on what they are seeking, illicit vague responses; if we receive any responses at all. We’re simply not on the list of people to whom they are talking.
In other words, they don’t want to be involved with someone whose track record proves they not only know and understand the bull, but also know how to ride it.
All that might encourage a normal person, or at least a well one who hasn’t been bucked on his head a few times, to look for another line of work. It might also indicate I’m hideously out of touch, over-the-hill or no longer relevant – except -- I still manage to sell scripts outside my own country.
Recently, I submitted a script to Telefilm for development. That submission garnered two immediate responses: one that the submitted material was “more than 25 pages long” and a second informing us that another document “was not double spaced”.
Another project was rejected within hours because I “didn’t have enough experience”. Calls to Telefilm for clarification went unreturned, even after we learned that projects had been accepted from producers who had little more than a couple of ten minute films or a single feature that had failed at the box office to their credit
I understand Telefilm is a hill I’ll have to die on at another time, but it got me wondering if either they or the CRTC were really seeking to further the development of popular entertainment or just continuing a process which has succeeded in virtually killing off a once thriving indigenous production industry.
Because we feel our culture is synonymous with being known as the “nice people” from the Americas; that means that those creating our programming are encouraged, either directly or indirectly to make sure our television doesn’t exhibit the same things we and the rest of the world associate with American television. As a result, we counter their big stars, action formats and fascination with sex with something that I’ll call “gratuitous niceness”.
In keeping with this same desire for acceptance, our programming is, for the most part, more concerned with “issues” than with character; more directed toward “reasoned exploration” than conflict, and more focused on “not offending anyone” than plot. All of these are laudable traits outside of the dramatic arena, but an assured recipe for creative disaster when they occur within it.
Look at any ad for a Canadian made television movie and you’ll notice that its selling points are seldom the stars or the story, but the “issues” we are told the film will earnestly address, and which, it is implied, we as Canadians are wrestling with in our daily lives, or have elsewise formed us as who we are.
I ask you to consider that the reason for this is not because the creators of those films passionately believe that such work will find a popular audience, but because they know it will find acceptance among those who want Canada to be associated with earnest values and more “acceptable” programming – and simply get made.
But it has been my experience that most Canadians do not turn on a television to be reminded of their Canadianism, or wrestle with societal issues, but only to be entertained. And in the same way a bull has been trained to buck, their understanding of what constitutes entertainment comes from years of watching the American version.
Therefore, if our programming does not replicate the more familiar technical and contextual traits of that programming, it will not find a popular audience, let alone hold it.
Some people might think such a statement means I want to see more American programming created in this country. I don’t. But I feel our dramatic films and series must be created by people with an understanding of what makes that programming style work and can then imbue it with an artistic vision that reflects this country.
A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity of meeting Peter Bart, the legendary Paramount Studio head of the 1970’s; a period considered by many to be the true Golden Age of American film. Mr. Bart green lighted such iconic films as “The Godfather” and “Chinatown” and is credited with discovering many of the great filmmakers of our time.
He visited our set, and during a discussion with the crew, I asked him what he thought of the Canadian industry. He kind of sighed and shook his head, “Canada,” he said, “I’ve never seen so much talent living in such denial.”
It’s a sentiment most creative professionals in this country completely understand. Those of us, who have ridden American bulls with success, aren’t even asked to climb on the back of the Canadian version. God forbid, we might speak to the Canadian audience in a language they understand or by way of stories that might interest them.
In many ways, we have become part of a process which puts the audience in third place, behind the needs of Government agencies and the networks; both of which appear motivated more and more by a “nine to five” culture.
In other words, decisions are made according to what is necessary to keep the system operating smoothly rather than accomplishing the most positive goals.
The simple answer to why we’re not succeeding in our own country is that the bulk of the programming is being overseen by people less than interested in doing it, let alone in doing it well or finding an audience for it.
A few years ago, economists Arthur De Vany and W. David Walls published a detailed study of 2000 movies and concluded: “Revenue forecasts have zero precision. A large budget and high profile stars may increase a film’s chance of success, but not enough to make the investment worthwhile. The only real determinate of long term success is word of mouth.”
Like I said, “You can fool everybody but the bull.”
The only way Canadian television networks will find an audience and the profits that come with them, is to back those creative professionals who have proven they can ride the bull and understand its next moves.
Please don’t interpret that as meaning you have to hire only me or someone with my experience. There is plenty of fresh talent in this country that suffers under the same restrictive operating procedures. It’s the process which needs to change.
In the American model, a script is written, either before or after a concept is sold to a network, and then a single episode is produced. If that single program finds acceptance with advertisers, who spend their entire lives figuring out what the Audience wants, then a few more (3 or 4) are ordered. If the market research is wrong and the audience does not appear, the project is usually canceled and something else replaces it.
That makes for a fairly cut throat business; with a large turnover in creative and executive staff. It’s a process which demands a high level of dedication and talent. But it inevitably produces programming audiences watch and to which enormous profits flow.
The Canadian model, more often than not, is to write a pilot script, and then write up to 13 more scripts which all undergo network scrutiny and receive some stamp of approval before a pilot is ever considered. More often than not, rather than a pilot, all 13 episodes are filmed, edited and in the can long before the first even debuts to its first audience.
Because script writing alone can take a year or more, these projects are always in danger of being out of date or overtaken by competitors before they ever see the light of day and they make the process more expensive than it has to be.
More importantly, it ignores the basic realities of finding an audience. What if the audience doesn’t like some part of the concept or the arena in which the series takes place? What if they don’t like a character? It’s too late to change those elements, because your series is finished, you just have to keep disappointing them, and they go in search of something else.
Television series are very organic creatures. They’re created by a collaborative team of individual artists who bring their own unique talents to the process. I’ve never worked on a series where scripts were delivered more than a few weeks in advance of their production dates. And while that means longer hours and more stress for all concerned, it also means that the stories can take advantage of growing strengths within a production and eliminate the weaknesses or dislikes we’re picking up from not only our network bosses, but the audience.
Because the audience is the purpose and the most important element of this process.
I’ve worked on series where bit players have evolved into stars because the opportunity existed to discover their talents and give their characters room to grow. I’ve seen stars reveal their true talents by radically altering characters an audience had initially rejected, and I’ve seen series revise their entire creative direction when the audience indicated what they really wanted to see.
Sometimes those changes make you proud of the work you are doing, because you can tell stories that an audience connects with because they are “into” the show. Sometimes they add to the time you spend in a bar on Friday nights. But good or disappointing, you know that the audience will be back the next week for more and whatever artistic agenda you have gets another chance.
The Canadian system of virtually ignoring the audience’s participation leaves you open to their dissatisfaction or disinterest, while serving that “nine to five” mentality. “We’re giving them the Canadian content we need to keep our license.” “It’s a cost of doing business.” “It doesn’t matter if anybody is watching because it isn’t our money and …oh, it’s five o’clock, time to go home.”
The same money that funds 13 episodes of one show could more productively be spent on shooting four episodes of three shows, or three episodes of four, even pilots for a dozen. That money should all come from the networks and producers, who, knowing that they didn’t have grants and government funding to make their jobs “safe”, would actually have to acquire the very real producer skill of figuring out what the audience wants.
If a show appears to be getting ratings, that’s when the funding could kick in. And it should be done at a level that rewards the risks already taken, by making a commitment to a full season of shows, not the anemic orders of 13 that typify a Canadian “season”.
As Les Moonves, president of CBS, has been oft quoted, “You must be available to your audience at least 22 times a season. It’s like dating a pretty girl. If you don’t come around to see her, somebody else will.”
Canadian broadcasters are well aware that they compete directly with the most successful television networks in the world. Yet, with a few exceptions, they insist on beginning seasons of shows 3 or 4 months after viewers, already into their winter viewing patterns, have picked favorites or which nights they are even watching television. By debuting shows in December or January, Canadian series are virtually assured they will never be found. It’s a policy which is “safe” but, once again, gives an edge to failure.
As risky as it may seem to debut Canadian series at the same time as American networks, we have to realize that this is when the audience has been programmed to make its selections. And if they are offered programming which, as I said earlier, replicates what they are used to seeing from American sources, at least contextually, they will have no problem with the Canadian content we all want to see included.
I’m constantly overwhelmed that our execs all know the right buzz phrases, but haven’t figured out what’s really behind them. And while they try to find that “just right” program that will set them apart (as long as it has a US partner to pay for it) they fail to see that the business they’re in is only a couple of inches away from totally disappearing.
While Bravo/Showcase/History/Whoever are trumpeting the debut of the first season of “Deadwood”, the high school kid next door has just burned season 3 for all of his buds on first day back to school. None of them will ever watch the Canadian broadcast. Yesterday he showed me the episode of “Eureka” that aired this week on his Creative Zen player. One of his friends emailed it to him along with the new Okay, Go album.
None of these guys buys anything anymore except hardware – and blank media.
The audience has adopted that old Vegas motto “Everything. All the time.” They want “Entourage” now, not when somebody with a broadcast license decides to feed it to them. Even Tivos are yesterday’s tech. When CBS is making more money on itunes downloads of CSI than they’re getting in rentals from CTV, CTV may suddenly realize they didn’t make (or own) any independent programming they can sell to offset the audience that isn’t watching their American product anymore.
Humor me, as, in closing, I return to my roots and the rodeo. If you don’t have the courage or skill to step inside that corral, you have no business even being there. And the same is true of producers and networks. If they don’t have the trust, in their own skills and talents, to take the risk such a system will ask of them, and the needs of the audience demand, they also shouldn’t be where they are.
A bull rider must pay an entry fee before he draws a bull and rides for the prize money. It’s not unusual to see a cowboy “sell his saddle” to pay that entry fee. If he loses, he’s broke and without any way of earning a living.
That same risk is taken daily by every creative professional in this country. At the moment, it is not a risk shared by the producers and networks who dominate our industry. Safely funded, safely unscrutinized, they continue a process that generally does not find projects that connect with our nation’s audiences.
They continue to fool everybody but the bull and its time they were made to ride him.