Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The More Things Change…


My first Christmas hiatus on "Friday the 13th: The Series", one of the Executive Producers presented me with an arcane little book containing the collected memos of Jack Warner, compiled during his tenure as head of Warner Brothers Studios.

My Exec said he didn't want me to go without the pleasure of reading studio notes over the holidays.

The book turned out to be a fascinating read. It not only covered a niche never mentioned in the other Hollywood histories I had devoured since childhood, but it made me realize that almost nothing had changed between Jack Warner's era of production and my own.

Oh, sure, the tools were all state of the art in my world, but the people using them and they way they did their jobs were identical to those who lived in his. Somebody will always invent a better android, but the human soul is eternal.

With a simple "Search and Replace" of actor names or show titles, the notes I was getting via Fedex or fax became perfect copies of the ones Warner was dispatching on monogrammed stationery or courtesy of Western Union.

"Take that hat with the feather off (Errol) Flynn! It makes him look like a fag!"

"I love that we cast Bogart, but who's gonna give a shit about a goddamn bird statue? Can't we find something better?"

Or words to that effect. Likewise, the mantras of the gatekeepers and the rainmakers are unchanging.

Warner's memos made me realize that for all that changes in the film business from the coming of sound to Technicolor, from THX to 3D and digital distribution, at its heart the job of creativity hardly changes at all.

And that's worth considering in the face of the technological sea change rolling in on us now.

You can't open your email box these days without finding another invitation to a conference or workshop designed to prepare you for all the new media markets.

And I won't knock any of them because any forum that collects people with a particular goal is going to end up sharing a lot of valuable tips and insight.

But at the same time, I see a culture evolving that appears to believe we need to find or construct an entirely different way of telling stories.


A screenwriting guru I once met claimed we all spend too much time analyzing how each new technical improvement or societal trend might impact the stories we write. He insisted it was just another of the ways we use to avoid the risk of actually making something.

And it's not just screenwriters who get caught in that trap. I once wrote 8 different drafts of the same script for a major studio to fit the physique or perceived range of each new leading man they were certain they could interest in the role. For each of those leading men was predicted, as development dragged on, to be about to embody the popular zeitgeist.

By the time they finally settled on the right guy, somebody else had gone to camera with an almost identical story and the project was shelved.

I got paid, while those who had spent so much time chasing the next wave got themselves played.

The moment of true certainty in any venture never arrives.

Anyway, in my Guru's estimation, the work of the story teller is unchanging. He deals in the human condition and the conflicts and comedies which result.

Ever since the nights we all sat around a roasting Mastodon haunch, that's all anybody else in the tribe has been interested in hearing. In fact, all that has ever changed in our continuously evolving and modernizing society is context not content.

To illustrate that, he'd line up a bunch of different sized or shaped glasses to represent the various eras, pointing out that while a shot glass, brandy snifter or beer stein might appear to require a major alteration of craft to utilize, they were really just different containers.

And the bulk of your audience only cared about what was inside them. The content.

The crafts of the vintner, the distiller or the brewer do not change because there has been a revolution in glass blowing.

I was reminded of all this again Monday night when TCM debuted its magnificent documentary series "Moguls and Movie Stars: A Hollywood History".

The first of what will be a 7 part series focused on the earliest days of the movie business (titled "Peepshow Pioneers") was loaded with remarkable never-before-seen footage and incredible interviews.

But you couldn't escape the realization that everything we're struggling with today from monetizing the internet to cross-platform storytelling also faced these cinematic neophytes and is just a glass whose shape we haven't encountered before.


Just as some network exec in LA is even now trying to figure out the possible season arc of a Twitter feed, "Moguls and Movie Stars" recounts the ways artists and businessmen a century ago searched for the audience hook which might wring value from flickering images and nickelodeon machines.

They asked exactly the same questions every new media mogul asks today.

Could it all be just a passing fad? What if they all go back to Vaudeville -- or watching TV from the couch?

How often do you need to give them something new? Do I roll out a new offering every week -- once a month -- when the hits start to slip?

Will anyone pay attention for more than a 10 minute story? Do I stick with the established "one reel" or "Youtube Standard" or do I push the envelope?

Do you need a story or is the audience simply enthralled with the technology? If they're happy watching two people kiss or somebody falling off a skateboard, do I complicate the experience if I give them anything more?

Could anybody be an artist with these new tools? And if they can, how does the real Artist set himself apart?

According to Jon Wilkman, the filmmaker who spent 2 1/2 years making the TCM series,"In many ways, we are back in 1890. This whole world of the movies is being rethought and rebuilt: How are movies made? Who makes them? How are they distributed? What's the subject matter?"

Watching long forgotten movie pioneers create a business that would go from nothing to the fifth biggest industry in the America in 20 years, it becomes very clear that no matter how much we think we're on the verge of a brave new world, history is simply repeating itself.

So maybe we need to make sure we don't make some of the same mistakes those pioneers made.

Maybe we need to stop concentrating so much on how Storytelling might need to be tweaked and start looking at what is preventing a simple alteration in the manufacturing and delivery system from allowing artists to make the most of these new tools and once again build a vibrant new industry.

One thing that "Moguls" clarifies is that the major support for the new art form didn't come from the established players. Legitimate Theatres and other entertainment venues felt as threatened by the nickelodeon then as film studios and TV nets do by the Internet today.

The only way these current corporations can see Internet entertainment offerings is as either a farm system for their product or an extension of what they are already marketing.

And for the most part, most current web series creators and Youtube stars are, in turn, either hoping their creations get picked up by television, land them a studio deal or that by establishing some form of web celebrity they'll transition to more lucrative work in TV and film.

There's nothing wrong with that. But it leaves those who currently own the industry, and who, through new copyright legislation and DRM locks, want to make sure their control over both storytellers and what reaches mass audiences continues -- well, it leaves them in complete control.

In the same way that Bell and Rogers want control of bandwidth to prevent Netflix and others from staking a claim to their VOD gold field and are locking up content like NFL games for delivery to mobile devices, they see little need to find audiences for storytellers who don't want their creative work owned by someone else.

The entrepreneurs who built the original film industry, on the other hand, all came from outside it. Adolf Zukor, who founded Paramount, began his professional life as a furrier. The original Warner Brothers ran an ice cream stand and a bowling alley. Louis (MGM) Mayer bought and sold scrap metal.

Therefore, they approached the business from the point of view of making their customers and suppliers happy to keep them coming back.

That's a much different philosophy from the corporate mentalities of Shaw, Rogers or Bell, which demand that their content be amortized over as many platforms they can charge new fees to access as possible.

Their goal is not to support the storyteller or enrich the lives of their customers, but to increase their bottom lines and improve shareholder profits.

That's not an environment where new, groundbreaking or risky ventures can survive, let alone lead to the construction of a creative industry that can be more than a hobby and evolve something economically substantial for the country as a whole.

What "Moguls and Movie Stars" illustrates is that unless government money and policy backs those who create and innovate the next Hollywood will be built elsewhere and Canadians will remain consumers of cultures not our own. 


Sugith Varughese said...

Fabulous post, Jim. Should be required reading at CRTC hearings and film school classrooms.

Cunningham said...

"Watching long forgotten movie pioneers create an industry that would go from nothing to the fifth biggest industry in the America in 20 years, it becomes very clear that no matter how much we think we're on the verge of a brave new world, history is simply repeating itself."

Thus my terminology, "Pulp 2.0."

Anonymous said...

Huh? I was with you right up until the last sentence. I thought the Warners, Zukor and Mayer all started their studios without government support. With government funding, you're not satisfying the public, you're satisfying a content jury at the funding agency. Isn't that the antithesis of your conclusion?

jimhenshaw said...


Easy misinterpretation of my intent. Sorry I wasn't clear enough.

Under the current operating rules in Canada, most of the money flowing to web series development is only accessed through their affiliation with broadcasters or content owners.

Just saying that if you want this field to grow, you got to put the money where the creative is not with those with other revenue streams to protect.