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.

Monday, October 12, 2015


Okay, Twitter is just not the forum to really consider the issues.  So I'm compelled to write this (longer than 140 characters) blog post.  I’d love to hear from anyone with interesting counter arguments.

I don't think the real issue is 4K versus Film, or digital versus film, but that is one issue.  So some thoughts on that subject first.


For us lowly indie wannabe filmmakers, digital is cheaper in several ways.

1)    film stock and developing

The most obvious thing -- if we tend to ignore the capital cost of memory cards -- is that it costs a significant amount of money to process an hour’s worth of film and nothing for digital.

2)    time costs

The time cost is equally significant, but a two-edged sword.  First, the fact that digital is easy to shoot (no storage problem, like refrigerators for film) and more obvious, easy to view immediately. These factors make it easier to start and easier to understand how things are going.
    The other “edge” of this sword, which I don’t totally subscribe to, has to do with the idea that shooting on film makes everyone more careful, more ready to do their best because you aren’t going to do a large number of takes. (Except that this rule doesn’t apply to truly big-budget, big name folks anyway, e.g. David Fincher.)  I think the time value of seeing footage as you work is a significant plus for film.  “Video assist” is common for this reason, I realize.  I think the issue of everyone doing their best is a challenge for the director, not for the medium used to record the performance. Then there is the occasional processing lab mistake which is one of the nightmares of shooting on film.

3)    capital

Clearly, it is possible to acquire or rent acceptably decent cameras & lenses far cheaper than the equivalent 35mm or 16mm packages.  The film Tangerine is the fashionable example, of course, and -- for the subject / story / environment -- iPhone was a reasonable choice.  And good for marketing.
    Presumably, cost of gear is one reason that something like half of the features shown at Sundance in recent years (I think the data was from 2013) were shot on some form of DSLR.
    I also find it ironic that many of folks who argue most passionately about the superiority of film do not own (or in some cases, have never even rented) a film camera, though they own at least one great digital camera.

4)    for the big boys: distribution

Finally, for a film that sees wide distribution, the cost of film prints is / was a very significant expense item.  It was certainly one of the incentives for major studios to go digital and even help theaters go digital.  It’s a problem I would like to have.  A good DCP probably costs less than 1 - 3 film prints these days.

4K is too much, unnecessary

One argument against 4K is that the human eye can’t really see it.  Another is that since most video is either seen on televisions or via the Internet, that 4K is vast overkill, to the point of silliness.

On the first point, I am not an authority but I believe that viewing any image that is derived from the highest quality master has the potential to add quality to the image.  My prints made from my 4x5 negatives look better in many ways compared to my prints made from my 35mm negatives.

And, as far as web video goes, I believe we will eventually figure out the public policy / corporate greed equation to permit very high bandwidth to the home, at which point 4K television (not broadcast) becomes feasible. Again, we are at the very beginning of these developments and we should not mistake today’s limitations as fundamental problems.  I can remember accessing the Internet via dial-up from home and it seemed great at the time.  But twenty years later, Internet connectivity is more than an order of magnitude better.  Technically it could be vastly better, but the real problem is not technical, but political, social, economic.

Art, Look, Nature of the Medium

Most of the folks arguing in favor of film are doing so because of their belief and perception that film is fundamentally different and more to their liking in important ways.

There is no question that a projected 35mm film print and a projected 2K theater experience are different.  However, I think a basic fact (or perhaps a sad truth) is that many folks simply don’t see the difference.  Perhaps side-by-side many would see something.  But watching a digital projection today and trying to compare it to the 35mm film projection I saw last year is beyond most of us. Digital is clearly good enough for the mainstream, even in its present form.

Film is an amazing substance. Billions of one micron bits of silver halides, distributed in a nearly transparent emulsion of gelatin form an image that is unique in the history of technology.  The word “pixel” simply has no meaning in discussions of film.

I think the future will resemble the past here. Let’s look at the history of photography.

The Daguerreotype was a miraculous image; the first practical photographic process.  Each daguerreotype is a unique, precious object.  That uniqueness was an artistic asset and a commercial liability.  The daguerreotype appeared in 1839 and was obsolete by 1860.

The tintype was a very cheap, widely popular form of photography in the 1850s.  Many Civil War images were made on this unique process; each image was made on a sheet of thin iron.  It died out in about twenty years, although it enjoyed some afterlife as a novelty.

The platinum print was an exquisite paper print medium. It became commercially available in 1880 and become so popular that even Eastman Kodak brought out a version of this printing paper. Many art photographers, e.g. Edward Weston, produced some of their finest work on this paper. But the cost of platinum rose dramatically (compared to silver) and by the 1930s, commercial platinum papers began to disappear.

So, when was the last daguerreotype or platinum print actually made?  The answer is: last week.

Each of these technologies disappeared from the mass market but eventually were exploited for their unique artistic qualities by artists painstakingly duplicating these technologies.  This is what I think will happen to film.

Quentin Tarantino can pay 100 theaters to show his film from film prints. But digital cinema has already become the mainstream in theaters in developed countries.  I believe that the idea of an “arthouse” cinema will grow to include the idea of projecting from film prints (as well as digital for business reasons).  Film will not die in any total sense, but could become the basis for a limited form of film art, fulfilling the vision Spielberg and Lucas mentioned of film theatrical experiences more like our current stage theatrical experiences; limited runs, expensive tickets, unique art forms.

Of course, the major problem with this vision is that the manufacture of film stock -- unlike a printing paper -- is difficult to duplicate without the commitment of a major industrial process controlled facility.

The future of digital, of course, cannot be judged on the basis of the technology we see today.  Digital cinema is a very new development. As the electronic and computing aspects of digital cinema advance, the possibility of emulation the look of film -- really I mean -- becomes likely.  I’m reminded of the development of a printing process (in the 1970s) called “stonetone” in which the grain of a lithographic film was forced in such a way that it could be used instead of the classical halftone dots, resulting in a printed black and white image that had no visible halftone pattern at all.  In that respect, it strongly resembled an actual gelatin-silver print.


For me, one of the clear benefits of higher resolution today is very simple: A 2K image fits perfectly into the lowest rung of the DCP ladder.  I’m not aware of any digital cinema camera that shoots 2K but not 4K at this point. And we all know that it is occasionally necessary to enlarge a frame to emphasize something that hindsight calls for; a mission that 4K enables nicely.