Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Dark Knight RAWKS! (for 2 hours, then...)

Saw "The Dark Knight" today. It was waaaaay cool... for the first 2 hours. I'd say the movie was 3 great acts, and 2 short, superfluous ones.

Now, Heath Ledger was excellent. Maggie Gyllenhall was really as interesting as she could be with the "damsel in distress but not really" role- much better than her predecessors in this series. Christian Bale was kind of annoying, but not enough to ruin anything. I got tired of the forced-whisper-through-gritted-teeth-thing. Gary Oldman was typically great, if understated. Did I mention that Heath Ledger was excellent?

The only thing missing was a truly hot, half-naked woman. IMHO. Where, I ask, was the gratuitous nudity?!

The actors' voices were low and buried in the sound mix, but that seems common these days, even on the most big-budget movies. And the editing was so fast-paced (particularly in the last two mini-acts) that it was hard to follow all the details.

The Nolan Brothers have done some good work, and this was right up there with the "Memento". It just went on too long. The "x-ray phone" thing was a bit too much of a stretch.

OK, so the "Twoface" origin story and makeup was INCREDIBLE, but that little mini-story could have been a whole other movie, and should have been, in my opinion. But they didn't ask me.

They should have.

Did I mention that Heath Ledger was excellent?

Friday, July 25, 2008

The importance of being earnest

Sometimes acting feels like a vain, superfluous exercise, of no importance in a world troubled with poverty, slavery, genocide, famine, flooding, global warming, noxious pollution, rain forest devastation, corporate greed, and children who can't read.

"Why bother?", I often ask. Do I, a simple storyteller, add any value to the world?

David Mamet, award-winning playwright, director, and screenwriter, answers in his book True and False:

Actors used to be buried at a crossroads with a stake through the heart... [their] performances so troubled the onlookers that they feared their ghosts. An awesome compliment.

Those players moved the audience not such that they were admitted to a graduate school, or received a complimentary review, but such that the audience feared for their soul. Now that seems to me something to aim for.


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Mad, Bad, & Dangerous to Know

The latest feature from my friend Jon Keeyes has just hit the shelves at Blockbuster, and other retail outlets. It's called Mad Bad, a play on the quote about Lord Byron, written by one of his lovers, Lady Caroline Lamb.

Not to be confused with the British pop band, Jon's new movie is the tale of "an ex-con who attempts to rebuild his life, but is drawn into the same circumstances that led to his demise."

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival, this film sports a rocking soundtrack.

Check it out!!!

Monday, July 14, 2008

You're in the Movies! (Sort of)

A new game called You're in the Movies was previewed at the 2008 E3 , which allows players to star in "movies" on the XBox console. The game has been dubbed "cheesy" by some hard-core gamers, but I was fascinated by one key aspect of it's technology: instant green screen.

Now, this is seriously cool stuff.

There are lots of existing software programs that enable even the weekend hobbyist to do their own green screen CGI effects. But, as this video tutorial demonstrates, there is a considerable PITA factor involved. One must set up a green (or blue, or red) backdrop, light the scene, shoot the scene, then transfer it onto a computer, then identify the chroma key color to drop out, acquire and select the static backdrop to replace it with, then render the "new" version. Oh, and you have to repeat some or all of the process every time your backdrop changes. And that's just for a static backdrop. If you want the backdrop to move (to be, say, a video of a street scene), that's a whole separate PITA.

What the game-heads who panned YITM did not take into account was just how quickly and easily green-screen technology is implemented, using the included Web-cam attached to the XBox. Sure, it's not perfect, but it's pretty damn good, all things considered.

Why is this important for filmmakers?

One of the cool things about video games is their interactivity. They allow players (the audience) to take an active part in shaping the story. YITM lets the players be the movie. A cheesy movie, sure. But that's still a big deal. And this is just Version 1. Check back in 3 years, and see how cheesy it looks then.

The game comes with pre-selected genres, scripts, and sequences of scenes. I anticipate that the game will eventually let players author their own movie, perhaps by selecting from hundreds or thousands of scene building-blocks (scriptwriters will be familiar with these plot-building blocks), or perhaps some clever software authoring (scripting) language that more technical users can write themselves, using the game's graphics engine to render the final output. Other sites on the Web do this already.

As major studios move away from character-driven films to focus on blockbusters like Iron Man, indie filmmakers, writers, and even computer coders will look for new ways to make their own low-budget action fare.

The new breed of low-budget filmmaker is here. And it's you!

Friday, July 11, 2008

MIT Professor predicts the future

Hollywood could learn a lot from ex-MIT professor Philip Greenspun.

In 1997, Greenspun wrote a book (actually two), that predicted how important data mobility would be in all facets of business. Here's a lengthy excerpt from one chapter:

The late Ken Phillips, a professor at New York University, figured this out in the late 1970s when he set up a massive computer network for Citibank. He would ask folks what they thought AT&T's most valuable asset was. People would try to estimate the cost of undersea cables versus the fiber links that crisscross the continent. Ken laughed.

"AT&T gives you long distance service so they know which companies you call and how long you spend on the phone with each one. AT&T gives you a credit card so they know what you buy. AT&T owns Cellular One so, if you have a cell phone, they know where you drive and where you walk. By combining these data, AT&T can go to a travel agency and say ‘For $100 each, we can give you the names of people who drive by your office every day, who've called airline 800 numbers more than three times in the last month, who have not called any other travel agencies, and who have spent more than $10,000 on travel in the last year.'"

Ken was ahead of his time.
Indeed he was.

Corporations call this mix-and-matching of data "business intelligence."

Omnifocus just released task management software that uses the iPhone's built-in GPS tracking to show you tasks relevant to where you are. Near the grocery store? Don't forget to pick up these items on your shopping list. Near the bank? Don't forget to make that deposit.

How can filmmakers, both Hollywood studios and indie producers, use such technology? How about by letting people know when they are near the site of a screening? How about letting people know when they are near the location where you filmed a scene? How about observing the geographic traffic patterns of your target audience to determine the best venue for a screening? I don't know. There are probably lots of cool ideas that I can't even imagine. Remember Minority Report's constant retinal scans and personalized advertising? Spooky.

Greenspun would say that this technology is long overdue, and set to take personalization to new levels. What do you think? Post a comment below, and share your ideas!

Monday, July 7, 2008

Hollywood's only competitive advantage

I finally cut my hair, after 13 years. But, despite urging from my wife, agent, acting coaches, and even casting directors, I stuck with my ponytail and "mean" head shot for years, because it gave me a unique competitive position- The Villain. Hollywood needs it's own unique position, now, too. Mid-budget films are dead-ends for major studios, regardless of star power.

Consolidation will change the movie industry, probably similar to how major label consolidation changed the music industry. I think that Hollywood will produce fewer films, and most all of them will be $100 million+ projects. Current estimates from industry sources are that it takes $15-30 million dollars in marketing and advertising expense to properly "open" a film in a wide number of theaters.

The argument is that, less than that, and you'll end up with a mediocre-performing film that does not get opening weekend "buzz", and ends up languishing, probably losing money, or not making enough to justify the risk and expense. Most films these days make 70-90% of their theater revenues in the first week or two, and most of that in the opening weekend, especially for "popcorn films".

But Hollywood makes blockbusters really well, all things considered. In fact, ONLY Hollywood makes blockbusters like "Iron Man" and "Batman: The Dark Knight". But many producers worldwide make low to medium budget, character-driven films. Hollywood really doesn't have much competitive advantage there, except money for stars, which, as we've seen, is no guarantee of success.

So, in long-tail fashion, I think Hollywood will migrate more and more towards blockbusters, while indie producers make ultra-low, low, and medium-budget films. Stars will work for scale, lending their star power to quality scripts and vanity projects.

Hollywood will eventually figure out that even a 72-inch screen home theater doesn't compete with an actual theater experience (especially IMAX). Studios will make films for the BIG screen, because that is their real competitive advantage, possibly their only one. In the absence of such a film, here are ways other films and theaters are enticing people to come to the movies. They need to make it an event that we'll come out for.

That's my prediction, anyway. But as Bill Goldman said, "No one knows anything."

Making money with movies

In a post last week, I discussed the cloudy future of big-budget Hollywood movies. As movies move inevitably towards free, how will filmmakers, and cinemas, make money? Austin's Alamo Drafthouse has one answer: The Team America Sing-Along.

The feature film showing was more than your usual cinema fare. It was a combination movie and comedy club, and drunken frat party. Well, not quite that radical (it was the 7 p.m. showing, after all), but it was value-added interactive entertainment. It was... an event.

My wife Mary and our friends Robert and Sherri Dugan were handed a goodie-bag of American flags, glow sticks, balloons, poppers, and sparklers. After the customized patrio-parody opening trailer collage, a live host laid down the ground rules for the film, which included speaking and singing along to the "Fuck yeah!" choruses, standing and cheering, tossing streamers and balloons, and then following the host down 6th Street after the show, waving our sparklers and singing the Team America theme song acapella, as a group, er, mob.

Did I mention that the Drafthouse serves food and alchohol?

If I wanted to just watch a movie, I can do that quite well in the comfort of my own home, thank you very much. Big screen, hi-def home theater has never been so affordable, and movies were never so cheap and easy to get.

No, what I want is an experience, a reason to get off the couch and go sit in a room with a bunch of like-minded instant friends and have a trascendent experience. In short, I want an event.

And this July 4th weekend at the Alamo's Team America Sing-along, that's what I got.

Fuck, yeah.

P.S. - Thanks to Beth Burroughs for learnin' me 'bout this here event.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Curtain call

The final performance of Shards concluded on Saturday evening, May 29. Several friends came out to the show, and we had a great after-party over the weekend, at the conclusion of Kuka, one of the other plays in The Love Sonatas series of plays by Manuel Zarate.

I had a great time doing the play, and really enjoyed the character of Rololpho. Pictured above are the four actors who played Rodolpho in the various plays. I hope to work with these great folks again sometime.

Many, many hugs and thanks to:
Liz Atherton (for the call), Paula Russell, Beth Burroughs, Jon Boatwright, Christina Childress, Chase Wooldridge, Chris Doubek, Bethany Perkins, Amanda Garfield, Glenda Barnes, and all the other wonderful cast and crew of The Love Sonatas, plus all of my friends who came out to support me, including Vicki, Shirley, Russell Harding, Bob Russell, Cynthia Gonzales, and many others.

Much love, y'all!!! See you on Broadway.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Are big movies extinct?

Do movies matter? Perhaps not, in the long run.

In an earlier post, I summarized some of the difficulties faced by filmmakers in the Long Tail Era. Musicians, the first caste of artists to be blind-sided by the economics of free, actually have it better than actors and filmmakers, in this regard. I know, 'cause I are one. We musos can actually sell not just CDs from the stage and stores, but also live concert tickets, the bread-and-butter of most acts, and of course, the ubiquitous T-shirt. Much harder to do with films.

But what if Hollywood blockbusters and millionaire movie stars were to be replaced with, say, piano-playing cats or skateboarding dogs, filmed on low-res camera phones by high schoolers? What if the next great art form is YouTube?

Paul Oskar Kristeller published an article in the Journal of the History of Ideas in 1952, explaining that other forms of "high art" had come and gone: opera, canvas painting, bas relief, book illustration, instrumental music, epic and sonnet poetry, gardening, tapestry, pottery, sculpture, and many more artistic mediums once considered the epitome of sophistication, and whose masters were wealthy artisans in their day, have all but disappeared, relegated to a small subset of the arts, or even "hobbies". Are movies next?

The money-machines of Hollywood studios are keeping a death-grip on their old business model, built on artificial scarcity, but it's too late- the horse has bolted. Just like the music, movies will be free in the near future, like it or not. The question is not if, but when? After that, the question is, "What is the T-shirt equivalent that filmmakers will sell, when they are not selling plastic discs (DVDs)?"

Or perhaps, like opera and other dinosaur arts, the Hollywood blockbuster's time has come and gone. I wonder what the next visual "high art form" will look like?

Please add your thoughts and comments on this blog!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

U.S. - German rapprochment

About 10 years ago, I did my first 35mm film project for German director David Jazay, who was attending the UK's Northern School for Film and Television (now renamed). The film screened at the prestigious Leeds Film Festival, David graduated, and I went on to pursue a life in music. Several folks who worked on the movie have gone on to do some pretty cool things, including cinematographer Gay Hian Teoh, and composer Jaro Messerschmidt.

I later tried to track down David, without success, although I saw from IMDB and other places that he was still directing film and television. So I posted a comment on one of his movie pages on IMDB two years ago.

Out of the blue, David hit me back this weekend! He's alive and kicking, living in Berlin, and has been making cool films with guys like Shai Levy. He also makes music. One day, maybe David and I will be on the same continent again, and we'll make some movies.

Keep up the good fight, David!