Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Eight of Fifteen Things

I ran across a lovely post that many filmmakers have seen titled, "Fifteen Things Wrong With Your Short Film."  It's pretty telling and honest and we have all committed these sins at one time or another, I think.

I'll admit, my favorite is #3, "your film has opening credits." They explain that, in addition to adding to the running time for no dramatic reason, no one knows or cares about your actors or crew (unless you have corralled someone well known for the right reasons) (and then, it's not necessary).

I spent a few moments looking at this article and the list of fifteen things and made a judgement of how many of the fifteen things are fundamentally script / story problems. I came up with eight.

Here's the list, with the eight items I attribute to script in red.

1.           Your film is too long.
2.           Your film starts too slow.
3.           Your film has opening credits
4.           Your film has bad sound
5.           Your film has bad acting
6.           Your film lacks originality
7.           Your film is in Black & White for no reason
8.           Your characters are boring
9.           Your film has interesting characters but they don’t do anything.
10.       Your was more satisfying to make than watch.
11.       Your film is good considering...
12.       You made your film in 48 hours
13.       You didn’t watch other short films
14.       You list meaningless laurels
15.       You made a bland profile documentary.

Of course, #1 (too long) is an editing decision as well, though many will claim that editing is the final rewrite of the script. Starting too slow may not be story-related but I think it typically will be. Items 6, 8, and 9 should be obvious.

I thought about #10 for a while. At the end of the day, I think we may enjoy making a film of any kind (good or bad) but the story quality is the determinant for the audience. Number 11 is a special case of #10, I think. Their discussion of #11 amounts to saying that the constraints and problems you faced are (unfortunately) irrelevant to the film. You succeeded in making a film with a wind-up Bolex limiting you to only two takes, each no longer than 75 seconds - no one cares.  It's all about the story.

One could argue that #13 is not a script or story problem, but I think it is the upstream problem. If you haven't seen a really well-crafted, clever story done in eight minutes, you may not realize what is possible. On the other hand, I admire some TV commercials for the amount of story-telling they manage in 15 or 30 seconds.

I think #15 is a bit unfair in the original list, although it makes sense. In the original article, their point was not that such docs are inherently bad, just that they don't generally rise about the clutter of similar projects. But the main knock on them is lack of dramatic arc, i.e. story.

I understand that, for a short film, a good script doesn't always have to be a classically written document. But it needs to be a good script / story no matter how it is conceived.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

A Picture of High Tech LIfe....

I've been looking at this photo I took of my office at NetQos in Austin.

The picture is from 2007, so it's the beginning of my last year in high tech. (Although digital video offers plenty of "high tech" to mess with too.)

It's not a beautifully crafted, elegant kind of thing, although it is sort of lean and simple. It was taken with a cheap still camera (a Canon Powershot of some ilk).

Here's what I'm seeing in this image.

First, there are the two cans of Diet Coke. Anyone who has worked with me on set will recognize those.

Second, there is the vintage laptop. It's an IBM laptop from the era when IBM made laptops. It even has that cute and clever little joystick in the middle of the keyboard. My friend David Fair went from being the product manager for the Digital Equipment Corporation Alpha chip (the most powerful processor at that moment) to being the product manager for the 4-bit controller that ran the joystick. (Or maybe it was the in the other direction; either way a large change.)

Third, the image on the computer screen is iconic for my time with NetQos: an American Airlines boarding pass. I still lived in Durham but I spent approximately one week out of three in this office in Austin.

Fourth, if the computer didn't date the photo, the flip phone on the desk ought to. The iPhone had been announced about three months before this photo was taken and my flip phone would be replaced by the iPhone within the year.

Fifth, the small amount of books in the bookcase suggest that this was, indeed, my "away" office, not my "home" office. I do tend accumulate reading material in my travels.

Sixth, the lovely view out the window, not very well rendered in this photo, suggests a little bit of the terrain of Austin: hills, greenery, bright skies.

Those are some of the elements visible in the photograph. When I taught photography, I often used the expression, "invisible jackrabbit" to talk about the difference between what is actually in a picture (for example, bushes) and  the remembered experience that is not in the picture but which is evoked by the picture ("there was this big jackrabbit behind the bush").

As a "snapshot" -- that is as a personal reminder of things only alluded to by the image -- it's a rich set. I can remember the amazingly sane policy of NetQos that everyone got a real office. Of course, there are my many former coworkers. There is a memory of being in this office at 7AM in the morning when it was quiet and the stillness helped me think.

There is the memory of a small company better run than virtually any other company I ever worked for (large or small). And one of the roots of the script I'm writing about a man who loses his job and has to find the work that really suits him. I had a great time in high tech, but some did not and as NetQos was savvy enough to understand, people are good at different things. My story is fundamentally about a guy who really isn't that good at the job he's been doing and unemployment forces him to figure out what he can be good at.

And there's the memory of my exit row, window seat on the flights from RDU to Austin and back. A good look at a swath of America.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Fixing It in Planning

After helping a bunch of local indie filmmakers as AD on their films, I accumulated a lot of insight I hadn't exactly wanted about production problems. Finally I wrote it all down and I was delighted that Scott Macaulay, the editor of Filmmaker Magazine, was interested in publishing it on their web site.

The original article is here on the Filmmaker Magazine web site. If you would like a more readable PDF version of the advice, I've put the file up on my web site here.

Please share any additional questions, war stories or thoughts about the topic with me. And, of course, if you're doing a production in North Carolina, maybe I can help? Click here to get in touch.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Learning More About Distribution

I've been daydreaming about doing a feature film lately.  Nope, no immediate plans.  But in the spirit of planning ahead, lots of things touching on finance and distribution are catching my eye. In case I suddenly move something into production, you'll want to be getting my four times a year newsletter.

On May 14th, as part of the Longleaf Film Festival at the NC Museum of History, there was a session on the subject of film distribution.  I found it enlightening and fundamental.  I needed to share my learning with a couple of different folks and as I started to write up my notes, it seemed like a blog post was the best way to do that.

The session consisted of Thomas Varnum, an entertainment lawyer with the firm of Brooks Pierce based in Wilmington, NC and Vernon Rudolph, a filmmaker/cinematographer based in Raleigh and operating as Sky Grass Media.  The two presenters alternated with Rudolph presenting his experience, good and bad, and Varnum commenting on some of the issues raised, and pitfalls to be avoided (or to be fallen into).

Rudolph has worked on several features. He produced and shot Phin (2013), directed
by his friend Patrick Chapman. Phin was their first feature film.  Two years later, Rudolph shot ToY, written and directed by Chapman. Rudolph based most of his remarks on this experience with these two films.

Phin was a labor of love feature, shot in six days for a budget of about $30K. After modest festival success, the filmmakers hit the street and contacted every distribution entity they could. They got a lot of rejection! Eventually they signed a deal with a Canadian distributor. The deal, Rudolph lamented, was for twelve years, exclusive and worldwide for all rights. Essentially the film sat on the distributor's shelf and added to the credibility of the distributor's catalog but did nothing else.  In hindsight, even though the deal was a bad deal on the face of it, it still represented a step forward for the filmmakers.

Having gotten the first film out of their system, ToY was calculated to be a moneymaking film. The budget was $110K (but ballooning to nearly $200K to complete all the deliverables in post) and they had two name actors (Briana Evigan and Kerry Norton from Battlestar Galactica) which made a big difference.  Eventually, they were able to pick among several distribution offers, signing with Taylor & Dodge, an international sales agent. This deal was a much better deal than with Phin, with a duration of only five years. So far the film has been sold in South Korea and Germany and appeared on iTunes through Gravitas on May 13th!

Varnum talked about the general issues around the development part of the process. Memorably, he said, "Every film is a startup company, just like high tech. You must have a financing plan, a revenue plan and an exit strategy." First, he emphasized the need to get all agreements for locations, talent, music, use of products, and so on, signed and sealed during production. You will not be able to get the essential E&O insurance without all that paperwork. In effect, the end goal of production is to be able to get E&O insurance. Varnum suggested that the cost typically ranges from $3K to $6K but can be higher. If the film contains a lot of elements claimed as "fair use" for copyright purposes, you will need a written opinion from a lawyer versed in fair use to substantiate the claim for E&O insurance and the cost will go up accordingly.

Varnum also stressed the need for early stage publicity. Rudolph emphatically agreed, citing the moment when they were able to sign known talent to the project. That moment is the only real opportunity to get PR benefit from signing the talent. Luckily, they had a publicist working on that kind of stuff for their second film. Rudolph was pleasantly surprised to see a short mention in The Hollywood Reporter about their signing.

Once a film is complete, there are, of course, several possible ways to try to commercialize the film. You can go the film festival route but they cautioned that this is both unpredictable and potentially expensive. The American Film Market (AFM) and similar film markets are another major avenue.  Emerging in today's Internet environment, both presenters were optimistic about Distribber and Tugg as distribution alternatives.

Varnum made a couple of very valuable specific points about distribution agreements. First, he talked about separate rights. This means separating the various possible distribution modes.  For example, selling worldwide theatrical rights but retaining rights to sell DVDs or retaining domestic theatrical and selling rights for the rest of the world, etc. In today's environment, many different combinations are possible and few sales agents or distributors are good at everything.

Second, he recommended a "reversion" clause, meaning that if the distributor or sales agent does nothing for eighteen months or two years, all the rights revert to the filmmaker. Or, all the rights become non-exclusive, allowing the filmmaker to do whatever might be possible.

Third, he recommended an emerging practice, having a "meaningful consultation" clause in any contract. This essentially means that the distributor or sales agent must consult with the filmmaker, must hear the filmmaker's thoughts (or objections) to any substantive commercial proposal. The decision-making authority remains with the sales agent, but at least the filmmaker must be consulted. Essentially it provides the incentive for a collaborative relationship.

Rudolph stressed the need to conduct due diligence about any organization, especially one making an offer. IMDB Pro is a great resource for networking to folks who have dealt with any sales agent or distributor and most filmmakers are quite willing to share their experience confidentially.

If you like insights in much much smaller pieces, please follow me on twitter:

Monday, January 25, 2016

High Tech & Filmmaking?

About that High Tech Thing!

Turns out that my years toiling in high tech are extremely helpful in my filmmaking journey. Surprise!

Of course, there’s the obvious stuff. Like knowing what an actual “backup” is. Like knowing that it’s kind of critical to actually make a “backup.” And generally being able to navigate the murky waters of personal computing.

At the other end of the spectrum, I can thank high tech for being able to actually understand what a codec is, and some of the possible reasons why one codec is better than another.

But the key stuff is the “soft stuff” in between. Learning from some great leaders about dealing with people.  People who may be really smart about some things and not so smart about other stuff (no particular software engineer in mind here!).  Understanding that you can learn to make decisions without perfect information; this is often called “marketing” and sometimes called “guessing.”  Learning that telling stories about stuff is one of the core experiences of humans.  Much more to say about this some time.

2015: Reflections

Well, the strange thing about 2015 was that I did not actually shoot a film. I finished TWO films.  One [Memory of a Kiss, based on a play by Robert Wallace] is a sweet, sad look at how dementia stresses adult children, sometimes forcing difficult choices. The other [“Scene”] is an off-the-wall glimpse into an actress who – in the course of four recorded auditions – is losing her grip on life.  Each of these films found a bit of a home at two different festivals.  Both were written and shot in 2014.

What I did do, that was fun and filmmaking, was to help some other filmmakers.  I was on set, mostly as AD for one or more days (or nights) helping these filmmakers:

-    Rob Underhill & Aravind Ragupathi (Legerdemain)
-    Michael Howard (feature: Where We’re Meant to Be)
-    Kevin Richmond (additional scenes, DP: One Last Sunset Redux)
-    Todd Tinkham (Right Here, Right Now)
-    Dexter Goad (feature: The Art of Confession)

Which was absolutely great! But not me making a film, alas. However, I did write my first real feature script, a couple of short scripts and generally put most of my energy into writing. Much more to say about that and the chance to read and give me feedback later this year.

Much more to say about that and the chance to read some of these scripts and give me feedback later this year. Let me know if you'd like to read one.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Great Short Films from the Austin Film Festival

There were a lot of cool shorts at the recent Austin Film Festival. I recently blogged about Life On Juniper.  Here’s a brief reflection on three others.

My favorite short in the whole festival was Red Rover by Australian, Brooke Goldfinch.  You can see the trailer here:

Why did I love this film? Not just because it was beautifully crafted, but it touched me emotionally.  It touched me because it has a core of yearning for life, a yearning which isn’t realized within the film but which resonates in the life of the teenage couple the film is centered on.  It’s a film about an apocalypse without a single frame of violence.  It’s the heart of the apocalypse: the great loss of our future.


Several families have gathered for a last supper. We gather that a large meteor is expected to strike the Earth the next day and these families have decided to have a last meal that is poisoned to spare themselves the agony of the disaster. But the daughter of one family and her boyfriend, the son of another family, don’t accept this.  They hide the food and when everyone has fallen silent, they flee in search of shelter.  But as they search a virtually empty world for this shelter, they forget their trouble and begin to image the world that might be theirs, a world of love and springtimes.  But the world shakes and all becomes a blinding white.

Kendall McCrory’s film Ruby Woo was another film I loved at the Festival.   It’s a gritty world where an eleven-year-old sister wants to enter her older sister’s sad world without realizing what she might be getting into.  In fact, the older sister is working as a prostitute, assisted by the boyfriend. The boyfriend and younger sister are waiting outside the town’s primary motel when another call comes in and the younger sister impulsively answers it. With the boyfriend’s encouragement, she goes to the caller’s room. But the older sister emerges from her client, screams at the boyfriend and rescues the younger sister.

The triangle of the sisters and the older sister’s manipulative boyfriend was artfully drawn. This film has real heart in its misery. The film was the filmmaker’s MFA thesis film at Florida State University.

More from:

At every festival I attend, I learn more about myself than anything else. The films that are primarily cute jokes, or clever genre parodies, or fascination resolutions of ridiculous situations do not hold my interest.  I can appreciate them, mostly intellectually, but the films, like these two, that show me a journey of the heart are the ones that matter to me. This, of course, is exactly what I hope to do in my own work.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Seen at the Austin Film Festival: Life on Juniper

One of the best short films I saw at the Austin Film Festival was a Canadian film titled, "Life on Juniper."

Here's one of images they use to promote the film.

As the image suggests, there is a little green man in the film. But I want to tell you why this is an amazing human film, despite the little green man.

But first a warning.  This is going to be a spoiler.  If you're about to see the film somewhere, don't read any further.

The film focuses on an older couple.  They have lived for years on a piece of property (on Juniper Lane) that might be a bit out in the country; big enough to have a large shed with years of junk stashed in it.  One night the husband wakes up and follows a sound, some ligh,t and sees that the back door is open and someone is - maybe - just shutting the door to the shed.

The next day, his wife nags him to clean out the shed and he pretends to do that in order to investigate.  Amid snatches of background TV news referencing various news that might be related to UFOs, etc., he goes into the shed.  And, he discovers the little green man.  Not exactly ET, but apparently friendly.  They have some limited interaction in which the little green man indicates that he comes from a galaxy far, far away.

The husband sees a man in a suit knocking a their door.  He sees the man looking around the property and taking pictures.  He attempts to hide the little green man from prying eyes.

At this point, I am sort of enjoying the ride but I'm about to think, jeez, another lame low-budget sci-fi flick.  Then everything changes.

The husband comes in and the wife is asking once again about cleaning out the shed so they can move.  The husband admits to being confused about the move -- there are boxes stacked here and there in the living room. The wife reminds him that they are selling the house and moving into assisted living since she can't manage it all by herself.

Suddenly the story turns inside out. It's a story about dementia.  It's a story about how dementia looks from inside the husband's experience.  The man with the camera was a real estate agent.  I was amazed.

I've done two films in which dementia was portrayed.  But I found the experience in Life On Juniper to be a brillant way to treat the problem; creative, imaginative, fun before being sad. 

I applaud filmmaker Mark Ratlazz.