Wednesday, December 31, 2008

How does a film like this get made?

It's become something of a tradition during the Holidays to see a movie with my family. The movie we chose this year was the remake of the sci fi classic The Day The Earth Stood Still, staring Keanu Reeves.

After doing our part to help the economy by buying a small fortune's worth of popcorn, drinks and candy, we sat down to enjoy the show. What a disappointment. This wasn't a remake. It was, as my brother pointed out, a chunk of stale Swiss cheese. He meant of course, that the plot was full of holes -- massive black holes.

I’m not going to go into all the shortcomings of this film - this isn’t a review – but I will give one example of the reaction of the audience. In what was supposed to be the turning point of the film where Keanu Reeves’s Klaatu decides mankind is worth saving after all, the young boy in the film weeps over his father’s gravestone. His mother comforts him and they have what was supposed to have been a tender moment of shared loss and connection. What we got instead was ham-fisted melodrama (the set up here strains credulity more than a Keanu Oscar nomination).

The problem is that during this "tender" moment, the mother was supposed to be helping Klaatu stop an immense and growing cloud of alien nano-bugs devouring everything in it’s path and killing untold thousands of people. Yet the hugging continues - interminably – delaying him from taking action. It's at this moment someone in the audience gives in to the frustration and calls out to the screen: “Hello? Humanity being destroyed! Can you hug later?” That was, unfortunately, one of the few entertaining moments of the film.

Discussing the film as we drove home from the theater my mother and sister asked how a film that bad could even get made. The question was meant rhetorically, but is worth looking into, as it speaks to an industry that seems to suffer from the same defect as the financial and auto industries - a total disconnect from (lack of respect for?) their customers.

This disconnect manifests itself in the creation of content in which good storytelling (the reason people actually go to movies), has fallen light-years behind marketing and packaging. This disconnect occurs when producers see audiences as interchangeable, amorphous marketing categories, instead of individuals.

The Hollywood formula seems to be based more than ever on the assumption bigger is better; that event films are the only films that work in the marketplace. My question is when did every weekend's release become an "event?" Like most things it happened gradually. It happened because studio chiefs believe the only way to attract people to theaters is to out scream the other screamers.

The Studios now design each film to appeal to a single audience -- everyone. In this bloated model the Studios try to reduce risk by engineering films that appeal to all four marketing quadrants (men, women, young, old). They try to reduce risk by hiring top actors at top dollar, then bomb the marketplace with every marketing and publicity trick in the book (supported by tens of millions of dollars).

Four Quadrant filmmaking creates a bland product that feels pre-chewed and prepackaged. We get less story, so to compensate the Studios add ingredients to distract us -- more effects, more cuts, more sounds, more colors, more sugar and bigger toys inside the box. Unfortunately, no matter how much sugar you sprinkle on crap, it still tastes like crap.

Many industries and companies have recently discovered the consequences of insular models that place their customer's needs and wants far down the list of priorities. Hollywood seems to have missed that revelation. They churn out mediocre content then blame the economy, foreign market barriers, the internet, piracy, the customers themselves (because we look for meaningful entertainment elsewhere), when their product fails to entertain. It's a far tougher thing to look in the mirror.

How does a movie like this get made? A movie like this gets made because focus groups have replaced creativity. It gets made because marketing has supplanted storytelling. It gets made because the Studios are under the mistaken belief that distracting the audience is the same as entertaining them.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Financing's Holy Trinity

The planet is in financial crisis. And since indie filmmaking occurs on this planet, it must also be in crisis - and not just because a fractious SAG strike looms.

I've read over and over how this crisis augers the death of indie film. That to me is the surest sign indie film is not dead. That to me is the surest sign the weak are simply jumping ship. Great! Jump already and get out of the way.

Clearly we are in an exceedingly difficult climate for indie films, but that is true of almost every industry. Remember $150 a barrel oil? That was less than 5 months ago. Internet bubbles? 6 years ago. The internet is now home to some of the most robust, viable business models on the planet. Oil is in the shithouse.

The point is that fads, booms and busts come and go - that's the cycle. People love jumping on boom and bust bandwagons, but these bandwagons are rarely as wonderful or dire as the experts predict.

Right now some are cleaning up in the housing market, just as others succeeded when the internet bubble collapsed. The common denominator was an ability to stayed focused on strong foundations. That lesson holds as true in filmmaking as for any other industry or profession.

Indie filmmakers are struggling - what's new - and looking for money - what else is new? Right now money is exceedingly tight. But if you have faith then you need only look to the holy trinity and you will be saved. No, not that holy trinity, that's a far more ruthless industry and a topic for a different blog. The trinity I am referring to are the three items needed to take you down the path towards financing.

What is the holy trinity? It's as simple as it is complicated:

- Originality: compelling, story-driven content
- A-list talent: or at least proven moneymakers
- Marketability: does the story have an audience and do you have viable ideas on how to reach them?

Certainly there are many layers to each of the above. A stunning performance by a newcomer can be both talent and marketability, but some things you need to figure out on your own.

Indie filmmaking is in crisis, yet even now there is money because even now audiences are clamoring for decent content. Want some of it for your project? Stay focused on the foundations. Write something phenomenal and marketable. It's that easy... and that difficult.