Advice for a High School Filmmaker

An eighth-grader approached me for advice on making movies and getting started at his age. Here’s what I shared with him:

The first and most important thing to do is get started. Pick up a camera, any camera, and practice. An iPhone is way better than the first camera I started with, so use whatever you can and never be ashamed. It’s about storytelling more than the lights or gear you use, so focus on telling great stories. Pick editing software you are comfortable with and learn (I started with Adobe Premiere and use it to this day). There are many helpful tutorials online. The more movies you edit, the better you will understand the software.

Find friends you like hanging out with, can rely on and who like making movies. Beyond the core group with whom I always made movies, filmmaking helped me become friends with hot girls, nerds who knew how to animate 3D models, shady stoner kids who owned fake realistic looking weapons that looked great on camera, class clowns, incredible artists and everyone in between. It was amazing who I was able to connect with by just asking, “Hey, do you want to be in my movie?” It helped high school be a great experience for me.

Start simple with your first movie, then make it more complicated as you go. My first film ever was 1 minute long in my backyard. By the time I graduated high school, I was making 30 minute films with action and visual effects. You’re capable of this and so much more, especially with the tools available these days. But again, start small. It’s incredibly motivating to see your finished work – and then want to do better the next time.

It also helped a lot to find teachers who supported my interest. I made sure to get into every media, theater or film class I could and made friends with those teachers. Sometimes, I got away with making movies for classes instead of writing papers – it can never hurt to ask! To this day, I still hang out with some of my teachers who supported me ten years ago. It may not be cool in high school to be a “teacher’s pet,” but you’ll be laughing at your peers later when you get farther in the world than they did. For example, I got a job right out of college working for one of my professors who enjoyed having me in class. You never know!

Most importantly, have fun with it. You will make a ton of mistakes and learn a lot. None of your films in high school will go to film festivals (no offense, but it’s true), so don’t stress about any of it. Keep your head on your shoulders, keep an open mind. The more fun you have, the more you will learn and the better your movies will be.

Oh, and needless to say, watch a lot of movies. Television is cool these days, too. I spent an entire summer watching all the best picture academy award winners and many more. I wish I had Netflix back then – take advantage of it! I also took notes on what I liked or didn’t like about each movie, which helped inform choices I made when I made movies.

Long story short, go out today and make a movie! Good luck.

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Broadcast Contracts Will Kill Hollywood

It does not surprise me that Game of Thrones is the most pirated show on television. Without cable, I have no way to watch it. I’d happily pay $20 per month if HBO GO was open to people without cable subscriptions. Unfortunately, that’s not that case. None of HBO’s shows are available on iTunes, Netflix, Hulu or Amazon. I have no way to watch any of HBO’s shows except pay a $75 per month cable subscription for a television I don’t have, wait for them to come out on DVD, or pirate them. I’m a good boy with little expendable time, so I avoid Game of Thrones altogether. But 25 million people have not been angels and found the show through whatever means necessary. Who knows how many more people opt out entirely and forever pass the show by?

I’ve said before that Hollywood should concern themselves less with piracy and more with audience access. Simple supply and demand metrics – audiences demand content and providers are failing to supply to increasingly popular internet channels. It’s the whole industry’s fault for inciting piracy. They are missing out on an expanding margin of customers. In defense of HBO and others, production companies have entangled themselves in lucrative and restricting contracts with cable partners. To offer direct-to-consumer digital distribution would breach their contracts and deprive them of their single strongest revenue source. For most companies like HBO, that may never happen – at least not until everyone has internet televisions or the cable providers themselves die.

Broadcast contracts may be a reasonable excuse for holding content back from web distribution. But if companies plan to stand behind that excuse, they need to stop making such a big deal about piracy. By threatening or incriminating millions of people who cannot access your primary distribution method, you are alienating potential evangelists of your content and failing to understand the trajectory of your market. Web television is not a trend. In five years, most motion picture content will be consumed online – on connected televisions, game consoles, mobile devices or computers. To fight or deny this is foolish and egoistic.

I left Hollywood because no companies were willing to put the engineering muscle behind personal distribution channels. Beyond sheer web design and database builds, online services require customer service and billing infrastructure that can cost a lot of money. Fortunately, these things are getting easier and cheaper. An independent production company with enough content to leverage could easily set up shop on the web with a very controllable investment and small handful of people on the tech side.

If you want a sustainable career in the movie business, start or work for a company with full digital rights. Careful signing onto productions with traditional broadcast contracts and no digital rights – these opportunities, no matter how lucrative, are sinking ships. If they cannot find a way to breach contracts soon, they may not survive the next wave of liberated web-savvy competitors.

End With a Question [Film Friday]

They call it a cliffhanger. End every scene and episode with a question. “What will happen next?” The stronger the question, the more likely you’ll grip your audience and inspire them back for more. “Will she say something?” “Will he find out?” “Will they make it out alive?”

I find it a useful writing exercise to note the question at the end of every scene. With the dramatic tension clearly identified, you can revise your characters and action within the scene to serve the question as dramatically as possible.

On the next Film Friday post, I have big news to announce. What will it be? Tune in next week to find out! How’s that for a cliffhanger?

Running a Studio vs. Production Company [Film Friday]

Most businessmen and women in Hollywood think they have what it takes to build the next big label. Most producers think they know better than the studios and can do one better. But there are fundamental differences between building a studio and building a production company.

Production companies see life picture to picture and rarely lock their future in place. Some production company heads have long-term goals, but most are contingent on the success of the company’s material slate. That’s true for all content creators, but production companies fall short by investing all eggs in the movie basket.

Studios take a bigger piece of the pie. The difference between production companies and studios? Studios have assets and scope. Successful studios operate more like landlords and parents than artists or producers. They own backlots, prop houses, sound stages, post production facilities, restaurants, libraries, other companies, equipment, hardware, software, websites, networks, satellites, and more. A sizable portion of the sustainable revenue comes from operating and renting out these assets. Furthermore, most studio executives speak in slates and four year periods. They work hard to see into the future and see past the big fat movie release in front of them. Strong studios invest in things other artists use to tell stories, and they also invest in long-term strategy.

Are you in it for the movie game alone? Or are you in it for the big picture? The long haul? Decide what you want to build. Do not lie to yourself about what you care about.

The Life of a Voice-Over Artist [Film Friday]

Have a great voice? Want to work from home everyday? Want to have a lot of time on your hands? Then consider being a voice-over artist!

There is a large army of people out there who have recording setups at home and read scripts into a mic for a living. As a voice-over artist, you can make between $5 and $200 per word you read (the pay varies depending on where your voice will be heard – television, web, theater, radio, etc.). Reading just one paragraph a month for average-priced spots can earn you a livable annual salary. Because audio files can be sent back and forth digitally, you can live anywhere you want. Most VO artists have their workflow optimized online so that they never need to speak to another human being again (except through email).

Want to get started? Buy yourself a decent microphone, hide in a closet or sound-proof room to record, and post a demo reel to a site like voices.com. Most projects solicit and cast from web networks like this one. More legitimate voice talents hire an agent to represent them and drive higher-profile, lucrative projects. You can graduate from infomercials and web spots, to theatrical movie trailers and documentaries, to animated feature film characters.

With enough unique character and range in your voice, you can make decent bank for as little as three hours of work per week.

Is New Media For You? [Film Friday]

This is my fifth and final post in my series, “Understanding New Media.”

Last week, I resolved a “New Media” definition that I am happy with: “content financed, produced for, and released exclusively on active viewership platforms that autonomously drive traffic or revenue online.” The key here is the distinction between passive and active viewership.

It is important to contemplate the best way to tell your story. Ask yourself: how long should the story be? How many people should watch it together? How involved should your audience be? As I have said before, we need to knock down the silos of Hollywood. They have no worldly business dictating our storytelling needs anymore. We should choose the format that best suits our characters.

Many people are distracted by the pizzazz of the Internet. Do not get carried away. Before you produce video for the web, ask yourself why. Is your story better told at an audience’s fingertips? Think hard about what role your story can play on the web. Does it belong there? Or does it really belong on a bigger screen?

New Media: Interactivity? [Film Friday]

This is the fourth post in my series, “Understanding New Media.” 

Last week, I introduced commerce into the discussion of “New Media” and expanded our definition to cover “content financed, produced for, and released exclusively on the web that autonomously drives traffic or revenue online.”

But there is still one piece of the puzzle that is slowing me down. More and more motion picture entertainment is shifting to the Internet. Conversely, more and more Internet is slipping into our conventional viewing platforms. Some movie theaters now offer WiFi, and many televisions are being released with broadband connection. Before long, our living room television sets will only stream content from the Internet. All of our networks and shows will launch content on URLs rather than cable channels. Google TV is a first stab at this transition, and many companies are soon to follow. With the ease and frugality of Internet distribution, convergence of the web into all of our current platforms is inevitable.

Therefore, I don’t feel like the words “the web” or “online” in my definition are sufficiently future-proof in separating “New Media” from the other forms of entertainment. Besides, “the web” is a release platform – like a television set or cinema screen. Should our definition of “New Media” be based solely on the platform and delivery mechanism? Or should it be based on the type and structure of content? If everything will eventually be trafficked through the Internet, the only aspects that will separate television, feature films, and other forms of motion picture entertainment will be story length, screen size, and audience involvement.

Length is relevant in defining feature films (between 90-180 minutes), television episodes (half-hour sitcom or hour drama, etc.), and short films (usually less than 45 minutes). Length is a fair determiner for content type. Some stories can be told in 5 minutes, others 2 hours, and some in 100 hours. It makes sense to me to distinguish between a category of motion picture entertainment by duration. However, I think “New Media” has considerable flexibility. There is no proven ideal length for web content, no rules, and no time-slots to fill. The web is free territory for content producers, which is largely part of its appeal. That said, web audiences tend to be distracted easily and hold attention shorter than on other platforms. Therefore, it’s fair to note that “New Media” content tends to air on the shorter side. Nevertheless, there are exceptions to that trend, and I find duration largely irrelevant in defining “New Media.”

That leaves screen size and audience involvement. Screen size and involvement are directly related in that the size of the screen determines how far or near to the video a consumer can be. The bigger the screen, the farther back you need to sit to see everything. The smaller the screen, the closer you need to be. So if the Internet is converging into all viewing platforms, what then is the difference between television-broadcast video and browser-broadcast video? There is a huge difference. Televisions are on the other side of the room, whereas our computers and mobile devices are right in front of us at our fingertips. While this may seem like a small paradigm shift, it carries huge implications for audience interaction.

Herein lies the chief differentiation between all other forms of motion picture content: with consumption devices at our fingertips, “New Media” fosters an environment for active viewership versus other platforms otherwise experienced passively. The web is interactive. The way we engage with content while wielding a mouse, keyboard or touch screen is fundamentally different than the way we engage with content wielding a remote or ticket stub. “New Media” presents opportunities to involve audiences in the story. Integrated blogs, forums, social media, and games build audience community and curate return viewership. Technology like GPS tracking, near field communication, augmented reality, and touch will bring interactivity to a whole new level. With “New Media,” audiences can literally live your story – if you tell it well enough. That is huge.

Without some layer of audience involvement, web-launched motion picture entertainment is nothing more than online video. A feature, episodic series, or any kind of video does not deserve to be called “New Media” until it consciously invites audiences to engage.

Therefore, I leave you today with this updated “New Media” definition: “content financed, produced for, and released exclusively on active viewership platforms that autonomously drives traffic or revenue online.”

Stay tuned next week for some final thoughts on the subject.