Film Friday: Bring Down the Silos

Hollywood is divided by motion picture form: feature films, television, interactive and new media. These “divisions” can be further split into narrative and non-narrative, scripted or reality, short and long-form, franchise or micro-budget, professional or prosumer, etc. Some companies even divide content departments by genre. All of these worlds are segregated into silos, and it is very difficult for filmmakers and executives alike to migrate between them.

 I find the rigidity amusing; while aesthetic sensibilities may be slightly different, the gear and roleplaying needed to produce each are now essentially the same. Aside from budget, which varies widely from project to project (not necessarily from format to format), there is only one relevant fundamental difference between each of these production types: story structure.

Some stories play better in the short form; others over hundreds of hours. Some can be broken into episodic pieces and spread out; others should be consumed in one sitting. Some play better on the big screen with large audiences; others on small screens alone in your living room. Some should be passively consumed and others interactively. It all depends on the characters, the situation and the journey at hand. Unfortunately, most companies in the industry approach storytelling backasswards: choose the form first and try to build a narrative for it. Squeezing a square peg into a round hole. Unnatural. It should be the other way around – develop characters first and then pick a format that best tells their story.

Major studios have mobility between formats to a degree, but only make the effort with franchises. To make matters worse, studios regularly attempt to spread each franchise thinly across ALL formats and mediums simultaneously to milk the cow dry. Moreover, the golden goose sits in the theatrical box office – most production companies aspire to author 90-page scripts to entertain large audiences through feature-length events in multiplexes worldwide. I can appreciate the spiritual power of consuming content beside large audiences in the theater space; I do not think the industry or exhibitors need to be so myopic as to distribute features exclusively in this space. 

I contend that there is a healthy market for episodic content in the theatrical space. I am one of the few people who think Harry Potter would have played better as an episodic television show (with each season framed by a school year). The films themselves omitted far too much to satisfy audiences thoroughly. By stretching the 2 hour format to 15 or 20 hours, there would have been much more room to explore the characters and lore of the world J.K. Rowling created on page. And with select or all episodes being streamed into theaters weekly for supplemental revenue, the box office could have collected as many as 100 movie tickets per audience member throughout the weekly run of the seven year show. A wild idea, but why not? Expensive? Yes. Risky? Maybe, but less so with a loyal, young and international fanbase. Profitable? Hell yes. Open your mind, Hollywood. There is a lot more money to be made with creative mobility.

Motion picture formats are homogenizing, both on a technical and talent level. The movie industry should experiment with form, untangle from the guild restrictions, break down the silos and be a little more anarchistic about formats. Hollywood needs to be honest with itself and its audiences.

Let your characters tell you how long your story should be and then budget accordingly.

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Film Friday: 555 is Dead / Clearing Phone Numbers for Movies

555In the past, the 555 prefix was widely used for fictitious telephone numbers in film and television. No carriers assigned 555 numbers and therefore most of them were legally permissible to show on screen. Unfortunately for producers and writers, that is not the case anymore. Almost all 555 numbers are being assigned to directory assistance services and phone carriers throughout North America. Only numbers 555-0100 through 555-0199, 800-555-0199 and 888-555-0199 are still available for entertainment clearance. While I cannot assume that most people outside Hollywood really notice or care, these numbers will become quite redundant in movies. Producers and studios should get more creative.

Fortunately, there is a way you can set up and control a unique phone number for free. Google Voice allows you to create one new phone number per Google account, absolutely free of charge. You can pick the number yourself with an area code from whatever city you choose (you can pick a number to match the residence of your characters!). You are free to use this number in your film because you own it. If you already have a Voice number or do not want the number linked to your personal email, simply create a new Google account.

Google Voice also provides tools to have a little fun and promote the film, too. You can set the number to forward straight to voicemail and record your own message. It is the perfect opportunity to orchestrate a real-world tie-in to your film by having a cast member leave a voicemail message in character. Hardcore fans can call the number and leave messages that can be picked up by the producer or studio at leisure in forwarded emailed transcriptions or mp3 files. A small but classy way to help build a small community for your show!

Film Friday: Production Value Can Go To Hell

I talk to a lot of filmmakers, artists and business people who dissuade themselves from a venture or project simply because they lack the resources necessary to create a product with “high production value.” I cannot tell you how many films have not been made because producers and directors could not secure the equipment or style they wanted. “It wouldn’t be professional enough!” “It wouldn’t look like a real movie!”

Well, let me tell you something – who gives a damn? Do you think YouTube has become the entertainment monstrosity it has because of high Hollywood-class production value? Hell no. YouTube has exploded because it highlights genuine, human entertainment. Raw, real, honest. Not polished, impersonal shlock.

Pick up a camera (any camera, your cell phone counts) and go tell a personal human story. If you can’t do that, it doesn’t matter how much money or production value you have because NO ONE WILL CARE. Production value is just a cover-up for fear or undeserved elitism. Sure, quality can be important. But story is more important. Get off your ass and go tell your story.

Do not let production value get in the way of your creative expression.

Film Friday: The Mercenary Model

Like recruiting a band of freedom fighters, a company can commission a handful of different filmmakers to generate original content for a single narrative or non-narrative campaign unified by theme, message, dialogue or genre. By recruiting several auteurs to produce independent work, the company reduces brand risk by investing in multiple creative visions to satisfy one campaign. Odds are much higher that at least one of the dissimilar campaign videos will be successful online.  As an added bonus, mercenary campaigns serve as strong breeding pools for discovering fresh directorial talent.

When pitting filmmakers against each other, it is much easier to negotiate competitive production budgets. Depending on the complexity of the campaign and nature of material, a brand could easily generate five pieces of content for the going price of one 30-second industry commercial. If your filmmakers are chosen through film school or a public competition online, you can offer as little as $1,000 budgets to each. Run productions concurrently and you can collect all of that content very quickly.

Coca-Cola has been doing this for 13 years through their Refreshing Filmmaker Awards. As another legitimate example, Philips commissioned RSA (Ridley Scott Associates filmmaker group) to shoot five short films using the same dialogue to promote their Ambilight Cinema Television. Five different directors produced radically different content and drove strong traffic to the brand.  Carl Erik Rinsch’s film, “The Gift,” even sparked a studio bidding war.

As with crowdsourcing, trusting outsiders to produce video content could potentially compromise your company image. Thankfully, you are in control of your own brand – do not release the videos if they fail to satisfy your needs. Either way, it’s worth the experiment. Young, ambitious filmmakers like 5 Second Films could bring a lot to your campaign if you award them the freedom to do so.

Film Friday: The Key to Becoming a Successful Director

Writing a screenplay, filming shorts, building a reel, exhibiting talent and advertising yourself as a “director” are NOT enough. Film is a collaborative art and it takes a strong core team. The key to becoming a successful film director (or any key-level position) is to surround yourself with talented people who can only see you as a director.

True for any profession – surround yourself with people who believe in your dreams. Family and significant others are a good start, but you need professionals who can support you and your vision. Convince the industry you are best at doing one thing above all else.

I have mentioned this before, but it has to do with portrayal. If people see you as a good assistant, they will only see you as a good assistant. Best camera operator in town? Good luck getting calls for anything else. If your agent values you as a writer, hard chance earning a push toward the big chair. Show everyone you are a good director, and they will only see you as a good director.

Start on your level. It is far easier and more effective to prove it to peers who will recommend you than to a studio executive with your reel or a script. Your network is your net worth. A friend’s “I know this great director” is far more accelerating than “I know this talented guy who is working at an agency.” If your friends don’t title you a director, no one will.

Best to build your team on level, too. You need at bare minimum a producer, director of photography, production designer, sound designer and editor who can vouch for you. Part of your marketability as a director are the talented chaps you have in tow.

If you are not building relationships with collaborators, getting constant practice or stuck working a 60-hour week, I strongly encourage you to quit your mediocre day job and get busy because you are wasting time. Don’t tell people you are a director, be a director. The only person who will believe your lie is you, unless of course your lie comes true.

Share this with peers you believe in and encourage them with your vote of confidence. Success in collaboration is a two-way street.

Film Friday: The Project Triangle

Project TriangleThe Project Triangle concept was first conceived in the engineering world and has helped me navigate countless managerial decisions in Hollywood. For those not familiar, the Project Triangle rules that you can only pick two of the three: Good, Fast or Cheap.

The logic makes sense and can help you rapidly prioritize through difficult, urgent decisions. In film, there are many – especially as a studio executive, producer, or coordinator.

If you want quality work done quickly, you cannot expect things to be cheap. Talented artists who can move fast without missing a beat are extremely rare and therefore extremely expensive. Want a Director of Photography who can make 45 setups a day look like Leibovitz? Start at $3,000 per day. 3D conversion of a feature film in 45 days? $12-15 Million base.

If you want the project resolved promptly and to cut costs, do not expect top-notch work. Running and gunning a show with cheap labor opens the door for creative and technical mistakes. Many independent films do not gain traction because they simply lack the resources and time to reach distributable or marketable quality. Entire companies like The Asylum have embraced mediocre output to sustain business and cut substantial costs.

If you want to win awards and save money, be prepared to wait a very long time. If you are lucky, the material is strong enough to inspire great talent for scale cost – but you have to work around their schedules. Everyone needs to pay the bills – and my pro bono contribution to your breakout short will take the back seat to my full-time job. Sorry.

I think you can accomplish all three triangle points in one project, but most likely as a weekend passion project or a random conceptual twist of genius. Very rarely, great work is created in little time with no money. As an administrator or producer, you cannot bank on that roll of the dice.

Be prepared for only two of the three; hope for the third.

Film Friday: How to Listen to Your Audience Online

In digital filmmaking, you have many tools at your disposal to help better-understand the work you create.  The Internet offers an unparalleled platform for distribution and audience feedback. It is easier than ever for audiences to actively and passively communicate what works and does not work about your film.

A under-utilized and invaluable tool for filmmakers looking to grow through their body of work is YouTube Hot Spots (available in the insight section for “My Videos”). These graphs map audience attention to your videos throughout their duration by tracking drop-out rates, mouse clicks and rewinds. You are able to pinpoint moments in your video that are more or less successful than others.

A year ago, I posted a comedy music video called Cocaine Crazy. While it only has 8,000 hits, those impressions shaped an extremely informative portrait of successful and unsuccessful aspects of the video.

 Cocaine Crazy Hot Spots

  • The opening skit was the least successful attention grabber (a large mistake considering the opening is key to hooking web audiences from frame one).
  • The choruses became redundant as the video went on (except for the second half of the third chorus when cocaine started to fly everywhere).
  • The joke and rhyme-packed verses anchored the video and had high rewind power.

Self analysis is invaluable. No where else have I seen a tool that can tell you when moments are dragging, redundant, funny, not funny or downright failures. More often than not, this data will merely support intuition. But in a few instances in my career, this data has redefined major structural changes to development material.

Pay attention to your audience.