Sunday, March 30, 2014

Lazy Sunday # 318: Film Studies 101…0100101101

This week on Karen Walton’s inimitable Facebook Group, InkCanada, a writer hopeful sought advice with regard to which educational stream might best suit her desire to join the tribe of screenwriters.

She was inundated with great ideas from both industry vets and neophyte scribes. Yet another example of how the Internet can nurture a community and culture.

And it got me thinking about how rich a film education these days can be.

When I was starting out, I saw the classics the way they were originally meant to be seen, on a gigantic screen in a cavernous theatre. Because that was the only format in which they existed.

Oh you could see great movies on television, but only if they were fragmented by commercials and often with chunks left out to meet the demands of time or family friendly censors.

I remember sitting slack-jawed before “Citizen Kane”, “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Yojimbo”, literally overwhelmed by the cultural power that reflected from that giant screen, wondering why so few of the films I saw every weekend held such sway over their audiences.

That feeling drove me to shelves of books about film-making and dog-eared copies of magazines like “Films & Filming”, where the glossy illustrations offered a taste of what was imparted onscreen.

But short of getting into one of the few major film schools, that was about the best you could do.

And these days you can learn more online in a single afternoon than you could hope to encounter over a full semester in one of those schools.

Virtually any film and most television from any decade, genre and nation is there for the watching, or at least the ordering to stream or download. The scripts are there. Interviews with all of the creatives. “Making of…” footage. “How to…” workshops.

You can even find forums of filmmakers looking for those who (whatever their experience) want to get hands-on experience in a film going into production.

I find it hard to believe you couldn’t get a fairly top-notch education just by taking the free courses offered by Coursera or iTunes University.

One of the richest mother loads of film education can be found at a great site called “Cinephelia And Beyond” -- always located on the sidebar to your right once this post disappears.

What’s great about this site and others like it is that they offer students of film not only all that most film schools offer of an educational nature, but the ability to focus on where their own passions take them.

If you’re convinced you’re the next Hitchcock or Robert Towne. If you need insight on cinematography, scoring or art direction, it’s all to be found online. Find a place to start and map your own path to suit your own talents or dreams.

What’s missing, to some extent, is the mentorship and one-on-one personal attention of a live teacher. But over the winter I earned a couple of film credits on Coursera where the professors were readily available in chat rooms and forums, open to discussing whatever you needed. 

Ultimately, we all learn differently and we each have our own needs and criteria for feeling we’ve gotten what we wanted. But when you’ve got some of the greatest film-makers in the world available at your fingertips any time you want them, you can’t go too far wrong.

Enjoy Your Sunday…

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Popcorn Time

Every now and then you get an indication of just how far behind Canada’s executive and governing classes are.

A few months ago, the Federal government instructed our broadcast regulators to finally address consumer dissatisfaction with channel bundling by our cable companies.

That dissatisfaction has been building for decades, fuelled by escalating rates for content endlessly repeated over multiple tiers of broadcasting and more recently sold once again to the same consumers over online and mobile platforms.

The CRTC itself announced it would be dealing with the issue in 2011, but didn’t for reasons they’ve never explained but most of us assumed was because the cable/broadcast conglomerates didn’t want them to.

While this foot-dragging was going on, a new player called NETFLIX arrived on the scene, soon followed by similar set-top box services delivering content across multiple platforms for a monthly price far lower than the cost of a single cable bundle of movie channels which often just interchange the same titles between one another.

To date, about 30% of Canadians have subscribed to Netflix, mostly attracted by the simple concept of “what-you-want-when-you-want-it” and a menu of new titles arriving with more regularity than they do in the cable system.

In the US, Netflix now has more subscribers than HBO and (along with Youtube) accounts for 50% of downstream traffic.

And while cableco’s and regulators continue to rail against OTT services, they’re clearly the future. And a future bright for content creators as well as consumers.

Because in much the same way that iTunes turned music pirates into buyers by allowing consumers greater access to the music they wanted instead of purchasing entire CDs, NETFLIX and its ilk have lowered piracy rates to a fraction of what they were a few years ago.

The only people being hurt by this transition are the cultural gatekeepers and the corporate conglomerates who have heretofore controlled distribution and access to content.

They’re not giving up without a fight and it appears the CRTC continues to sympathize with their plight.

In it’s continued slow process of divining consensus, the CRTC rolled out some surveys and talking points that felt couched in the same broadcaster protecting language we’ve come to expect of the regulator.

Many of the questions about cable bundles suggested you wouldn’t save much money from unbundling since some channels would charge premium rates and niche offerings might be lost.

In the Internet section, the possibility of data caps or additional charges for content were floated. This despite that option failing to find acceptance from the population or the Commission a couple of years back.

Unlike most digitally savvy Canadians, the CRTC seems unable to grasp the reality that the same bits and bytes that deliver a myriad of programming to TV sets don’t cost more if they go somewhere else over the same cable.

But that wilful blindness is part of the same unwillingness to give up control of the system exhibited by the studios, networks and cable companies. And now it’s “Popcorn Time”.

Popcorn Time is an App that makes video piracy impossibly easy.  On top of that it doesn’t download any selected movie or TV show to your computer. It just streams it in HD. Leaving no trace of what you watched or when you watched it on your screen device.

In other words, nobody can prove you pirated anything.

So much for the potential Hollywood revenue stream discussed here a couple of weeks ago.

Now the content owner is royally fucked.

And so are you because less content gets produced as a result.

And so are the Gatekeepers, distributors, cable companies and everybody else who decided they also needed to be well paid for what you watch.

All of which could have easily been solved years ago by regulators and smart corporate executives willing to adapt rather than try to hang onto a broken business model.

Is piracy wrong? You bet your ass.

Is continuing to hang onto a system that overcharges and under-delivers because it’s all we know worth fighting for?

Srsly? That’s still under consideration?

According to the CRTC, it is.

But once again, we have yet another example of how technology is continuing to outpace our industry and unless we come to grips with these rapid changes soon, they will completely swamp whatever production methods and structures we had in place.

And then nobody survives.

Here’s a look at Popcorn Time. Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Lazy Sunday # 317: Life After Pi

In what used to be the real world, studios made movies and the television programming that they sold to theatre chains and networks. If enough people bought tickets to see the movies or kept TV advertisers happy by staying tuned, they made money.

And the artists working on those films and TV shows kept working.

In what used to be the real world, artists who wanted to make films and television programs migrated to Los Angeles and New York (or in the case of Canada, to Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver).

Those artists put down roots, raised families, cross-pollinated creatively, essentially creating the critical mass of personal life satisfaction, artistic innovation and economic stability that allowed the system to flourish.

But that world of filmmaking doesn’t exist anymore and the one moving in to replace it threatens to destroy whatever lifestyles and careers artists once thought they could sustain.

Things began to change about 25 years ago when Toronto and Vancouver began attracting “Runaway” production from Hollywood and New York.

Originally, the studios came because production costs were cheaper and the Canadian dollar was weaker. But they still depended on Box Office returns and good TV ratings to make money.

Other parts of the country soon discovered they could attract production by offering various incentives. And then other American states and foreign countries realized they could do the same.

Politicians realized that these incentives increased local employment numbers while bringing some of the glamor of Hollywood to their communities.

And the studios realized their bottom line could be further served by forcing all of these places to come up with better and better deals to garner their production presence.

Meanwhile, other networks and studios realized that they could use those political needs to encourage more money from government and the services government regulated coming their way, even if they didn’t make films that attracted people to the Box Office or to tune in in such numbers that advertisers saw satisfactory ratings.

And that’s when the rest of what used to be the real world went away.

What passes for our industry reality now (especially in Canada) is that without government regulated financial support and various regional tax credits, there would be virtually nothing made here.

Program financing is garnered from the tax-payer and cable companies “taxing” their subscribers to the point that we have some of the highest cable rates in the world.

And in order to survive, Canadian creatives, even those living in a once flourishing production center, have to keep hop-scotching the country to earn a living. And the companies who employ them have to keep moving too, recreating “state of the art” work spaces in diverse locations to keep winning studio contracts.

And it’s killing them.

And that’s killing us.

I can’t count the number of Post studios, effects houses, even casting agencies which were once thriving and have subsequently gone down for a dirt nap.

I can’t count the number of talented people who used to work in those places who now work twice as hard for half the salaries they used to earn, while the studios and networks reap record profits.

As an actor, I remembering crunching the numbers on one out of town job and realizing the costs I would incur would end up costing me more money than I would earn. My agent’s pained response, “You gotta save up for jobs like this”!

These days we all have to help pay to support what work might come our way.

I also can’t count the number of projects I’ve been part of that died because while the tax credits dictated the location, the extra cost of per diems and travel and accommodation to shoot there all but erased whatever benefits were supposedly to be had.

Add networks factoring your tax credits into your initial financing and its no wonder so many production companies have also been rolling over to take the big sleep.

This is of little consequence to governments, studios or networks. There are always people willing to work cheaper either in the belief that they are building a career or a trusted business relationship.

And there are invariably those who believe doing exceptional work or making the most effective use of burgeoning technologies will keep them afloat.

Life of Pi

Tell that to the people who used to work for legendary FX house “Rhythm & Hues”.

In 2013, the company won an Academy Award for its VFX work on “Life of Pi”. Eleven days earlier it had filed for bankruptcy after 25 years of exceptional contribution to the film industry.

What follows is a documentary on what happened to “Rhythm & Hues” and why it happened. Pay attention.

Because the story of these artists could just as easily be your own. And likely will be unless we begin to bring real world economics back to our industry.

There is no free ride. Keeping people busy does not necessarily mean you are building something that can eventually sustain itself.

Politicians need votes, so they will keep trying to outdo other politicians to bring jobs and movie glamor to their jurisdictions. Studios and networks want bigger profits and think nothing of playing artists off against one another to get those profits.

The change, if it is to come, needs to come from us. Maybe by just demanding that some of what used to be the real world be returned to the phoney economy that now typifies our business.

Because if it doesn’t –- well…

Enjoy Your Sunday. 


And if what’s here isn’t concerning enough, here are a couple of links I was just sent claiming Canadian tax credits are being used to sub-contract offshore.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Lazy Sunday #316: Malaria

Over the life of these Sunday posts, I’ve linked to several short films from one of the best shorts aggregators on the web, Short of the Week.

And over the last few weeks, SOTW has been running a contest to determine its best offerings.  Online today are its “2014 Short of the Year” and ten other winners in categories ranging from comedy to sci-fi and live-action documentaries to animation.

Of these “Malaria” (winner in the Performance category) is my favorite. A wonderful parable told in an endlessly creative way.

But check out all the winners. For anyone working in film, it’s a great overview of the current level of creativity in the medium.

Enjoy Your Sunday.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Lazy Sunday # 315: Smack The Pony

Yesterday was International Women’s Day and as such sparked questions about how far women have come –- particularly in the especially visible media of television.

A lot of people in creative circles shared around an item from Indiewire entitled “The Golden Age of Television is Really White and Really Male”, a regurgitation of a piece by Huffington Post critic Maureen Ryan.

And that one’s a pretty damning indictment of the current television scene, revealing that a very small percentage of TV’s iconic shows are created or run by women.

To which, my completely politically incorrect response is –- “If it’s good who cares who created it”.

But such think pieces always lead to those recurring debates on whether men can write truly complex roles for women or why white guy Aaron Sorkin keeps getting hired instead of more talented writers like (your name here).

All of which, at least for me, is mostly about intentionally missing  the point so we can appear to be concerned with weightier matters.

A few years ago, readers of the Toronto Star were stunned one Saturday morning to see mug-shots of the entire roster of their MLB Toronto Blue Jays baseball club filling the front page above a headline suggesting the team might be Racist as most of the faces were White or Hispanic and only a small percentage were Black.

Somewhere in the editorial suites of the newspaper it seemed to have been determined that rather than having a team made up of the most talented players, Toronto needed one that better reflected the diversity of the city in which they played.

I assume because we’d then at least feel better when they couldn’t pitch or couldn’t hit.

I don’t know about anybody else, but I make my viewing commitments based on what sparks my interest, often checking out the name of the writer, director or showrunner AFTER I’ve decided “this is some good shit”.

Think of me (and I’d wager a massive percentage of the audience) as one of the judges on “The Voice”. I believe we blind audition everybody, seldom if ever changing our preferences based on sex or color or lifestyle choices.

I was hooked on “Ray Donovan” 45 minutes before I saw Ann Biderman’s credit, already knowing full well that I was in the hands of a master story-teller.

And I’d honestly never heard of Nic Pizzolatto until I rewound episode 1 of “True Detective” to find out what talented sonovabitch had just laid claim to my Sunday evenings for the duration.

It would further never cross my mind to think that HBO might have hired the director of that series, Cary Fukunaga, less for his abilities behind the camera than the diversity he provided by being half Japanese.

The inconvenient truth of our business is that even the most capable among us don’t catch lightning in a bottle, find ourselves in the right place at the right time or turn a success into a successful career.

Which brings me to “Smack The Pony”…

“Smack The Pony” was easily the funniest thing on television a decade ago. A British female centric sketch comedy show which won an International Emmy and Banff TV Award in the Best Comedy category in 2000 and ran through 2003 largely writer staffed and directed by women.

The success of the series bought its creators a second series entitled “Green Wing” which lasted two seasons.

That was followed by a single season of “Campus” which failed to find an audience. And finally a film called “Gladiatress” described as a “painfully laugh-free vehicle” by one critic.

The point being that male or female, sometimes you’re the windshield and sometimes you’re the bug. So make the most of the opportunities you get and realize that what they like today is not necessarily what they’ll want tomorrow -– or maybe ever.

Enjoy Your Sunday.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

A New Hollywood Business Plan

I will fuck you up gif Tropic Thunder Tom Cruise Les Grossman Imgur

I just finished reading an insightful book by filmmaker Michael Sellers on the way Hollywood operates entitled “John Carter and The Gods of Hollywood”.

It’s a look at how hubris, executive blunders and boardroom betrayals at Disney allowed a pretty good sci-fi movie to be perceived as one of the biggest box office disasters of all time.

I say “perceived” for despite Disney taking a $200 Million write-down on the film within 10 days of its debut “John Carter” has to date earned over $400 Million, far more than it cost to make and market.

Sellers argues that “John Carter” had the misfortune to be green-lit by an outgoing studio head whose vision didn’t align with the goals of his successor. Thus, through a process driven by incompetence and design, it was buried -- coincidentally just as Disney acquired “Star Wars” as a replacement franchise.

The book paints a remarkably vivid portrait of the ways in which we and the media can be fed whatever false or distracting storyline a studio wants us to believe in order to achieve its corporate ends.

Anyone asking why a studio would actively undercut its own profits has no understanding of how the Hollywood system works. Accounting 101 there makes it very clear that NOTHING ever makes any money.


Hollywood Accounting is a practise that the Judge in the infamous Buchwald vs Paramount case called “unconscionable” way back in 1990, yet it continues to operate virtually unchallenged by anyone hoping to continue making movies.

This is a world where a film with a budget of $6 Million like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” can have a worldwide box office of $350 Million and still be $20 Million underwater.

It is an industry where the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy can take in $6 Billion yet be listed in audited financial statements as suffering “horrific losses”.

It’s an alternate reality in which “Return of the Jedi” can earn $475 million at the box-office against a budget of $32.5 million but, according to Lucasfilm "has never gone into profit".

Hollywood producers are simply immune to mathematical logic. Even as Box Office revenues achieve new records year after year, studios successfully sell the belief to governments that not only do they need tax credits to sustain production but that internet piracy will soon drive them out of business.

As a result of the latter argument, Voltage Studios, producer of “The Hurt Locker” and “Dallas Buyers Club” convinced a Canadian judge last month to order an Internet Service Provider to turn over the IP addresses of all those who had downloaded their product from torrent sites.

And no doubt Voltage deserves to be compensated for whatever losses they suffered because someone decided to download a free copy of their movie rather than buying a theatre ticket, VOD viewing or DVD.

Given the way theatrical revenues are divided among theatre owners, distributors, gross profit participants and the like, this means that Voltage was probably dinged for a couple of bucks per download.

But it appears that the company intends to seek further damages from Internet pirates to the tune of $5,000 per infraction.

Now that may be intended to nip this practice in the bud or scare off those considering piracy. But it got me thinking that it could also be a very lucrative new revenue stream for Hollywood.

But even then five grand seems a little high. Recently, the makers of 2009’s “Call of the Wild” went after pirates to the tune of only $2500 per –- and that film was in 3D!

At some point, courts may need to decide just how much a pirated film download is worth. Maybe the number is closer to the $14.99 charged for “The Hurt Locker” on iTunes. Although that could be inaccurate since you can get the movie from Amazon for $7.99.

Normally, courts are also the entities setting the number for damages legitimately incurred by the copyright holder. And what financial reports will be used to establish those losses? The same reviled ones profit participants now receive which insist the studio hasn’t earned a dime?

I’m not for a minute suggesting that Voltage would ever stoop to what follows. I’m only pointing out how easy it would be for any studio should they be inclined.

Before any film is green-lit, a great deal of audience research is conducted and numbers crunched to determine how much will be spent to make and market it. Frequently, if the budget can’t be pared to a certain number or the concept reveals itself as a particularly tough sell the project dies on the vine.

Despite all that, some films just don’t perform as expected. “The Hurt Locker” for example, is the lowest grossing film ever to win the Oscar for Best Picture. And its win did not translate into anywhere near the uptick in income winning a number of Academy Awards traditionally guarantees.

So, with investors perhaps disinclined to support upcoming product and distributors perhaps less willing to take on a film from a studio whose profit predictions haven’t been accurate while DVD sales dwindle to nothing, what could a producer do to ensure a vibrant and reliable revenue stream?

Well, as Hollywood Accounting has already proven, studio types are not averse to pushing the envelope of legally accepted practices. So what’s to stop one of them from using this latest court ruling to shore up their bottom line?

Every Awards season, much is made of the number of nominated films, clearly branded “For Your Consideration” which turn up on Torrent sites. Despite watermarking and threats of prosecution, industry insiders seem less than deterred from serving the pirate community.

And there are many stories of studios releasing their own product to the Pirate community. Or having it placed online by a competitor or a disgruntled employee or a previously ripped off profit participant who just doesn’t give a shit anymore.

Oddly, “The Hurt Locker” is purported to be one of those, since a pristine (not pirate cam) copy of the film appeared on Torrent sites following its very first screening at the Venice Film Festival.

So let’s say our mythical producer parks his own struggling feature on a torrent site, waits for it to go viral and then collects five big ones from everybody who took his baited hook.

Easy money, huh?

And far easier than admitting that maybe there’s something wrong with a distribution system that feeds theatres first (with all that system’s built in skimming tools for studios) or accepting that your income should be based on the interest the market shows as well as what’s left after accurately reporting financials to those artists you claim will be most damaged by pirating.

With this latest court ruling, a brand new and easily manipulated revenue stream is available to an unscrupulous studio exec which, given the history of Hollywood Accounting, appears to be all of them.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Lazy Sunday # 314: And The Oscar Does Not Go To…

At the 78th Annual Academy Awards, after Three 6 Mafia had taken home a statuette for their song, “It’s Hard Out There For A Pimp”, host Jon Stewart quipped, "For those of you keeping score at home, Martin Scorsese, zero; Three 6 Mafia, one."

Director Scorsese would even the score a year later, finally winning for “The Departed” after losing for “Raging Bull”, “The Last Temptation of Christ”, “Goodfellas”, “Gangs of New York” and “The Aviator”.

While cloaked in a conceit that the Academy Awards represent an industry honoring its best and peers recognizing the unique talents of peers as only those in the know can, it’s astonishing how often the Oscars get it wrong. (ie: Image Above)

Tomorrow’s media will list tonight’s “surprises and snubs”. But the reality is the members of the Academy cast their votes on ever-changing gradations of personal taste, career agenda, friendship and social causes, healing old wounds or to exact a modicum of vengeance for indiscretions real or imagined.

The Oscars are neither about acknowledging great art nor exceptional talent and never have been. And you don’t have to look very hard to find evidence of how often true art and the acknowledged masters of cinema are ignored.

Take one category –- directors…

Directors who never won an Oscar include:

Stanley Kubrick

Alfred Hitchcock

Sydney Lumet

Robert Altman

Howard Hawks

Acknowledged International Cinema giants who never won:

Akira Kurosawa

Jean-Luc Goddard

Federico Fellini

Fritz Lang

Sergio Leone

And then we have such unquestioned pioneers of the medium as Charlie Chaplin, John Cassavetes and Orson Welles, whose “Citizen Kane” is repeatedly acknowledged as perhaps the greatest film ever made.

Oh, there have been honorary and special category awards to many of them. Chaplin carried one home from the first Oscar evening for “versatility”.

But for their individual masterpieces –- not a one.

The point is –- don’t take whatever happens tonight too seriously. Fame is fleeting. Popularity ebbs and flows. The ignored social issues today will come around tomorrow.

Little of what happens on Oscar night has anything to do with Art or which movies will still have meaning down the road.

That bunch of losers is in the video below.

Enjoy Your Sunday.