Tag Archives: hollywood

The End of the World as We Want It

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There seems to be something profoundly off about what we all consider entertainment these days. Don’t get me wrong, we are living in exciting times when comes to cinema, television, and content in general, but the popular themes of the day are cause for a bit of concern when one takes the time to look under the surface. If you don’t believe me just take a moment and consider the kind of programs that are currently dominating our imaginations:

Game of Thrones: A riveting, character-driven swords & sorcery epic drowned in death, intrigue and sex as various clans brutally compete for supremacy while they await a great cataclysm.

Dexter: A charming serial killer that conveniently directs his murderous impulses at “bad people” while the audience cheers on his profoundly problematic system of justice and morality (or lack thereof).

Mad Men: The depressing life and times of a handsome womanizing sociopathic charlatan and the spiritually bankrupt society that’s collapsing around him.

Breaking Bad: The rise and fall of a mundanely detestable everyday man whose dishonesty and desperation take him to the top of the criminal world, cruelly destroying everything and everyone in his path.

House of Cards: The story of reprehensibly charming manipulator and his machiavellian ascent to the highest seat of power in the free world as he routinely breaks the 4th wall to make us his unwitting conspirators.

The Walking Dead: Post-apocalyptic zombie survival porn designed to celebrate the inherent greatness but also the abject horror festering inside every human being’s psyche.

These are all brilliantly written, directed, and acted shows with lavish production values that showcase the very best storytelling in the business today, but what also binds these hit shows together is a kind of stark portrait of our modern-day preoccupations as a society. Vigilantes, antiheroes, and lovable criminals are obviously not a recent invention, but it’s hard to deny that they are more popular than ever and that their current supremacy speaks volumes about our collective state of mind.

Are we making these shows and watching them religiously because we are subconsciously praying for the world to end? Maybe we just want an end to the way things are at the present with mass corruption, war, staggering economic disparity, disease, hunger, apathy, environmental catastrophe everywhere. Storytelling has always been a kind of social therapy where we could, as a people, debate and dissect our hopes and fears. Maybe all this dark subject matter is healthy in the end, maybe we just are exorcising our social demons.

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The Empty Can

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In some ways the internet has made instant scholars and industry “insiders” of us all. Rare is the public conversation nowadays where the smartphones don’t come out for fact-checking or the eventual “have you seen this youtube video/meme”. It has had a staggering impact on show business coverage with a mess of editorials, blogs, vlogs, tweets, etc., popping up on a seemingly daily basis to cover every inch and every angle of the industry. Film studios have in no way ignored the marketing potential of this living connection with their demographics and continue to run successful viral campaigns and social media schemes that build tremendous anticipation for upcoming projects, but as anyone in the business would testify, this exposure has a darker side for film production, even a potentially damaging one.

It used to be that rumors would surface here-and-there of a book being optioned or popular classic being adapted to the silver screen with such-and-such famous actor slated to star. The trailer would arrive some time after that, maybe a few months before the release of the motion picture and then another couple of months before we could watch it at home. Rumors and announcements were still largely the domain of speciality magazines and studio websites that would work in tandem with the artist to progressively wet viewer appetites. There existed a brief period of “silence” where the imagination and anticipation of the public could organically grow into excitment.

Today film industry news has become a rampaging monster, and insatiable beast, part-investigative journalism, part-obscenely-speculative TMZ fodder. The rumor mill has become a 24/7 media guargantuan with CNN muscles, beating every shred of film news into a messy pulp before any of the actual involved parties can even draw breath. The recent debacles at Marvel are a great example of the feeding frenzy that can issue from a single internal business decision. What used to be natural fluctuations in the studio system, be it staff changes, casting changes, release date re-scheduling, or logistical alterations, have now become critical updates and “breaking” stories that are reported with the emergency of a 3rd World catastrophe.

The tabloid/paparazzi fever that is usually reserved for drunk-driving starlets and philandering rock stars has turned its Sauron-like eye on the film production industry with a zeal that borders on the ludicrous. Audience participation has further amplified these stories by another factor of ten leading into completely innocuous debates over who was wronged in Hollywood contract disputes (that no one has any actual direct link to), or generated entire news cycles of highly speculative hearsay that lack even the most basic foothold in factual data.

Blurry leaked production pics are investigated like UFO sightings, bloggers write entire opinion columns denouncing studios, slagging off actors/directors, or defending them against injustices without having the slightest clue. Meanwhile filmmakers who want to stay connected to the audience and incorporate social media realities into their craft are forced into ridiculous Twitter standoffs with the various purveyors of these rumors or they might get cornered trying to justify some random artistic decision that has been inflated into full-blown online controversy (see Ben Affleck casting as Batman). This noise cannot be positive for the filmmakers.

Maybe all this senseless reporting is a good thing, creating a kind of biosphere for cinema that somehow renders it more democratic and opens avenues for the audience to make its voice heard regarding what is produced and how it is produced. It gets people thinking and breathing cinema and that should be a plus, right? One can’t help but wonder however if the patients are taking over the proverbial ward.

Filmmaking is a delicate and time-consuming endeavor that is hard enough to carry out without the deafening drone of the media breathing down your neck the entire time. There must be a way of preserving some shred of calm to let the artists build their projects before we dissect them at an atomic level. This new obsession of spoiling scripts and exposing sets/costumes ten months before the fact is deflating films before they can even come into existence and will not contribute to better films. Studios should also strongly reconsider over-exposing their projects with never-ending trailers and tv spots.

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How to Make a Fan Film (and not get shut down)

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Fan films are quickly becoming a phenomenon on the internet with a host of amateurs and professionals producing some of the most interesting independent cinema out there right now. Whereas fans films were once the sole domain of diehard fans, today they have also become a kind of a training ground for young filmmakers and a fun place to experiment for the more experienced ones. With every year it seems that fan films are getting bigger and better and some are even launching the careers of newcomers, propelling them into the big leagues. Clearly the fans want to see more fan films judging by the massive views and attention from giant media outlets like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, and there seems to be no shortage of enthusiastic artists to produce them.

There has been one nagging problem in the making of these films that has yet to be properly addressed; the very controversial broad topic of violation of intellectually property rights. It would be fair to estimate that for every successful fan film out there, perhaps 3 or 4 per year brutally collide with the legal realities of borrowing licenses/trademarks/copyrights from giant entertainment conglomerates.

While companies like Lucasarts have shown a surprising (and business-wise brilliant) tolerance to fan films, even going so far as to publicly embracing them online, others like DC and Marvel have had the odd nasty reaction to certain fan-made projects. Some would say that to make a fan film (with any kind of solid production quality) is to reach into the lion’s cage and to tempt fate, but is it really that simple? Are these companies arbitrarily shutting down these fan productions as they come across them or is there a recipe for these disasters?

I believe there is.

Here are some of the items I have identified as “project killers” in my fan film-making experience :

1. Thou shall not under any circumstances make money: This is perhaps the ultimate commandment of making a fan film that will see the light of day. Even with the benefits and loopholes of fair use laws, selling or profiting from your fan film is just the most basic way to scuttle your ship and even run the risk of heavier litigation later on. Crossing this line can be done with all the best intentions. Maybe you figured you could get a little compensation for yourself and your hardworking crew for all those long hours of blood, sweat, and tears. Maybe you wanted to cover the cost of the dvds/posters you printed for your fans. It’s a bad idea from any angle for the simple reason that you are generating revenue directly or indirectly with of a license that you do not own.

Accept right now that making a fan film will mean a personal or private investment, time and money, and remember that even fully sanctioned films don’t make their money back in the big leagues. As far as raising funds for a fan film through crowd-funding, that’s a bit of a trickier subject that I will cover some other time, but I will say that this is also a pretty bad idea unless it is done with utmost care and respect for the property holders.

2. Thou shall not make it look “too close” to the real thing: Mike Pecci can probably relate the most to this issue as it was the main focus of the cease & desist letter that his team was served by Marvel just days away from releasing their high-profile Punisher fan film, The Dead Can’t Be Distracted. There is such a thing as having your fan film look too much like the real thing, and holders of the copyrights have an understandable concern that their properties might be confused with the artistry of a heavy-hitter like Pecci. This case was a particularly unfortunate one as, if you read Pecci’s insightful journal about the rise and fall of the project, the filmmakers even managed to receive the blessings of the original writers and artists on whose works the film was based. Pecci recounts the numerous endorsements and approvals he’s secured from the authors, but ultimately hitting a solid concrete wall of Disney’s legal department.

The lesson: Make sure your fan film does not cross the line in terms of look/aesthetic by looking too much like the real thing. It may sound like a strange rule to respect but it’s called a “fan” film for a reason. This doesn’t mean necessarily that your work has to be sub-par or purposefully brought down in quality, only that it should try to avoid that red zone. Typical fan film micro-budgets and limited resources can be your friend in this regard.

3. Thou shall not attempt turn a successful fan film into a series: Look at it from the license owner’s point-of-view; even if you were lenient toward a first fan film by a young enthusiastic group of filmmakers and did not take legal action, now these same people are planning on putting these out a regular interval, every time risking to damage your intellectual property. Can you really blame a company for erring on the side of caution and shutting you down? This is not the same thing as making more than one fan film in a row, but rather committing publicly to borrowing a license and using it for your purposes indefinitely. Not the best approach.

4. Thou shall not make any claims about continuing or expanding on officially licensed content: A group of fan film producers recently ran into this problem with their project. While it is likely that the true nature of WB’s shutdown of this endeavour was focussed on the 100k the group was trying to raise to create a series (point 1 and 3), the studio also very likely became concerned by the fan film’s claim to “continuing and expanding” upon the already officially established Nolan Batman Trilogy. While this would have been a fun project to see, there were just too many aspects to Legacy for Warner Bros to take issue with legally.

The lesson: A fan film must remain squarely in the realm of fan fiction and should avoid overly-direct links with officially produced works by the license holders. With video game-adaptations there is a little more wiggle-room seeing as how you are riffing on a set story/game world, but caution is still advised. You have to walk that fine line between homage and originality and always keep in mind that you are playing with someone else’s property.

There are probably other things to consider when making fan films in order to protect them from the chopping-block, but avoid these major areas and you should be in the clear. I’d love to hear any other ideas and suggestions as well on this subject, particularly from anyone that has dabbled in fan films or is thinking about taking the plunge.

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Once Upon a Maverick

Technology has always been a the heart of cinema, and it has for long time enjoyed a game of see-saw with the art form, periodically overshadowing the content with innovations in imaging science (CGI), mechanical engineering (IMAX), and leaps in sound (Surround Sound). Between those periods of great discovery filmmaking was allowed to rest upon a set of conventions and practices that would be challenged and experimented with by the likes of Stan Brakhage, Jordan Belson, and Jean-Luc Godard. Ironically, these pioneers and tinkerers also inspired people like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron at the outset of their careers, who went on to create and help standardize the big studio production formulas that have become the measuring sticks of filmmaking. The irony rests in the particular fact that these guys embraced technology much in the same way new independent filmmakers are doing with prosumer products and home studio installations, but their brand of filmmaking has seemingly distanced them from the craft rather than given them greater access and control to develop their ideas. They appear trapped by their success despite their rise to legendary status.

The lesson that we can draw from this, especially as independents is as follows; while we should celebrate the dawning of a new age in cinema where almost anyone with a minimum of investment can become a content creator, and age where technology can help close financial gaps and leap over heyday big studio hurdles that used to keep us out, we must never forget that technology is only one component of art. No matter how many filmmaking gadgets or production software you amass in your arsenal, these things will not replace the one absolute constant element in quality films; a smart, well-conceived, honest, and straightforward kick-ass story.

GL

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The Hollywood Formula

Many books have been written on the various psychological and social forces that lead millions of people into the theaters month-after-month, to sit through overblown, repetitive, recycled extravaganzas that contain that familiar sugary-punch solution we call entertainment. What is not talked about so much is why we enjoy such a love/hate relationship with these conventions.Like children who beckon their parents for the same three bedtime stories through much of their childhood, some part of humanity delights in the comfort of knowing just where everything is, where it came from, and where it’s going. But even kids often seek out something new, something unconventional, while it seems that adults have largely surrendered the pursuit of discovery, or have relegated films to serving as mind-relief devices to escape the agonies of their routine lives.

It is possible that the part of us that resents the Formula is the part that wants to reclaim the spirit of discovery that once took us into so many new directions. The rapidly growing demand for film-punditry, parodies, comedic-criticism and even just the general groaning that has become commonplace during trailer previews seems to point to a rising sense of dissatisfaction with the old Hollywood 1-2-3 punch.Now more than ever, independent filmmakers have an opportunity to raise the volume of that groan, and not only send Hollywood a clear message about the kind of content we want to see, but to show them that if they are unwilling to budge from their comfort zones, we’ll gladly do it for them, and for a fraction of the headaches.

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