Ted Hope on Hope in Cinema: 'We can solve this'

Must read piece on the changing state of cinema. One of the strongest voices fighting for change and progression in entertainment is producer Ted Hope (most vocal on twitter @TedHope), who spoke to Indiewire's Alison Willmore about his new "Artist to Entrepreneur direct distribution labs" service. A few of the best quotes from the full interview:

A person who's making the decision on what films to buy or what to push is influenced by their own experience, and that starts to shape the nature of what is released and given to the general public. Once we start to step away from that, once the public decides, that will also change the nature of what films get made. As we separate ourselves away from traditional distribution, we start to see the fact that it isn't all one film industry -- it's actually a series of industries. Out of the 500, 600 films released in America each year, 150 of them are studio movies, 200 more are studio wannabe movies, and the other 150 films are something completely unique between foreign films and true independent films, and yet American movies are still designed for a market, to bring to sale to a market as opposed to designed for an audience.

Exactly. This is what the industry needs, a revamp that actually focuses on the content and connecting it with the right audience, not mass marketing to find the few who connect. He makes such great points about how much this industry needs to progress:

When I started blogging, that whole idea that film industry doesn't meet tech and tech doesn't meet film industry -- five years later it's the exact same thing. What little benefit we get from just putting folks in that room is so evident. Unfortunately, even at different film festivals where they have different startup alleys and so on, it's not organized for the industry to participate in. [...]
We haven't unleashed that power that is purely unique to cinema: the ability to create empathy from people and actions that you know nothing about. To share that feeling with strangers. If we think movies end when the lights go back on, we're fools, because that moment that change occurs we change that equation that prevents action. We've found the escape from change only coming when the pain in the present exceeds the fear of the future. At that moment when the lights go back on and you are feeling hope and confident, anger and desire and kinetic activity, boom, something can happen. And we've instead placed all of our efforts into selling a 15 cent bag of popcorn for six dollars. We [live] in a consumer society where the way we know how to express ourselves best is through what we buy, but that's changing too.

I can only hope. But this is why Ted Hope is one of the smartest in cinema.

A Troubling Statement on the State of Movie Projection

Troubling indeed. I've been complaining about the "state of movie projection" for years. Even when my best friend was a projectionist at an Arclight, he complained about how bad it was, and he was actually there trying to make it better. Great article written by Matt Singer on Indiewire starting with a reference from Warner Bros president of domestic distribution Dan Fellman in the LA Times about midnight movies. He makes some solid statements:

Fellman doesn't explicitly say it, but the implication is that the rise of these "push-button digital projection systems" have rendered old school film projectionists obsolete, which made Thursday late night openings more financially feasible. You don't need to pay a union projectionist period, so you definitely don't need to pay a union projectionist overtime to stay at the theater after hours to run a midnight movie. What was once a skilled job that required training and expertise requires almost none. As one downsized projectionist said on a recent episode of American Public Media's "Marketplace," "My favorite quote is still the studio executive who said 'we have a robust system and we can pay any idiot $5 an hour to run it.'"

Singer goes on to recall a story about a bad Zero Dark Thirty projection experience, ending with this statement. Which should sting, at least if you care about the movie experience:

Nobody noticed how dark "Zero Dark Thirty" was. Nobody spoke up to complain about how crummy that blockbuster looked in 3D. But on a subconscious level, the dissatisfaction registers. It's possible you don't even blame the projection -- projectionists are, famously, invisible when they're doing their job correctly. So you start to blame the movies themselves, for looking kind of drab, and dull, and bad, especially when compared to the gigantic beautiful HD television sitting in your living room. To compete with that, the theatrical experience needs to get better, not worse. Or at some point any idiot will be running that robust system for an audience of zero.

Marketing Lessons from Reddit AMA's Gone Awry

Woke up today to find this excellent article published in the LA Times, discussing the Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) celebrity/Hollywood promos that went wrong recently. Ever since President Obama did an AMA last year (which I believe was an important part of winning the election), marketers have been obsessed with trying to use AMA as a marketing platform, unsuccessfully for the most part. Because, as Zach Braff tells the Times, "I find that Reddit has zero appetite for being marketed to. They smell BS a mile away." Much of Hollywood is still ignorant to that concept of transparency, and they still don't understand marketing on the web.

However, the best nugget of advice comes at the very end of the piece by . This is a quote that should be circulated through the inboxes of every last executive at every studio in Hollywood.

After years of cultivating a publicity machine designed to carefully and selectively restrict the flow of even the most trivial nuggets of information, Hollywood may need to come to terms with the fact that letting go is increasingly emerging as the formula for success in the brave new world of online publicity.

Yep. This is what I've been preaching for years. This is the exact advice I have been trying to give, but too often falls on deaf ears. This is the lesson Hollywood needs to learn from disasters like the Morgan Freeman AMA and Woody Harrelson AMA. Those are just the most embarrassing examples of their misunderstanding of the internet and overbearing control of marketing/publicity in the information age.

Bookmark This: Malone's Movie Minute

Impressive new blog launched by a friend, Alicia Malone, a die-hard movie fan who has a passion for reporting on movies the right way - Malone's Movie Minute. I love the design, I love the layout, it's fresh, it's simple, created out of genuine passion. This is her big solo opportunity to grow and I've got a good feeling she's going to shine. From her opening blog: "That's why I wanted a place of my own. Somewhere to share the things I’m interested in, support movies I’m passionate about, and hopefully, that passion will translate to you."

She needs to build in ads on the site to start making some money, but otherwise, this is still a blog I plan to follow on a daily basis. I love the way she covers movies and the Hollywood scene; Alicia is more than anything a true movie geek at heart.

How Marvel's Movie Risks Paid Off & How The Studio System Could Stand To Pay Attention To Them

Very insightful and worthwhile discussion following Steven Soderbergh's State of Cinema speech regarding how Marvel Studios (run by Kevin Feige) is using his filmmaker-driven concept. Written by Drew Taylor for The Playlist, the editorial discusses how Marvel uses the more risk-averse model of hiring up-and-coming filmmakers and actors for their movies. He explains:

Since then Marvel has followed a similar formula – they zero in on talent they know are capable of handling these franchises, under certain economic and creative limitations, and let them have their way. They buffer these filmmakers, some of whom, like Favreau, have very little experience in this type of thing, with the best pre-visualization artists, concept designers, and animators in the business, who help them finesse their ideas into a cohesive, workable execution. Ego isn't allowed – these movies, while massively budgeted compared to your favorite Sundance darling, aren't extravagant when compared to most studio fare. The deadlines are tight (especially when, starting this year, Marvel will get even more aggressive, releasing two major movies each year) and hubris isn't tolerated. The kind of vast creative over-world established by the cinematic Marvel Universe may seem restrictive but it actually freeing in some bold ways since whatever happens in one movie can ripple out through a half-dozen more. The Marvel Universe is wide open.
The chances Marvel takes are myriad – from allowing Kenneth Branagh, best known for his austere adaptations of William Shakespeare, to helm "Thor" (another marginal Marvel character whose introduction was of chief importance to the studio and the Universe) to assigning Joe and Anthony Russo, two obsessive comic nerds who had been stuck in television after a couple big screen misfires, to a highly anticipated, present-day "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" – the Soderbergh fantasy edict of "gathering the best filmmakers I could find and sort of let them do their thing within certain economic parameters" is followed pretty strictly. (It is also worth noting that Soderbergh, who had a history with Marvel, help facilitate the Russos getting hired for the "Captain America" sequel.)

Drew is right about all of this. Marvel Studios is one of the best risk-takers in Hollywood and it has paid off in a massive way.

Don't Try to Break Into the Movies in Hollywood

Love this classic ad from the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce in the 1920s urging people to stay away from the movie business. Posted by Emma Green on Twitter (who also found the Vertigo card) via Movies.com. It paints a very bleak picture: "out of 100,000 persons who started at the bottom... only five reached the top!" Such a pessimistic outlook on artistic expression. "It may save disappointments."

David Denby & A.O. Scott Debate Small vs Big Screen

An odd and all too brief discussion about "The Silver Screen vs. The Small Screen" found via Hollywood Elsewhere from Tribeca's Future of Film series. Worth watching just to hear what NY Times critic A.O. Scott has to say about how modern technology (small screen devices like cell phones, iPads, etc.) allows more audiences to consume more content and is thus good. But I still believe that great cinema in its purest form should be enjoyed in a movie theater, projected perfectly in the proper environment.

Steven Soderbergh's State Of Cinema (2013)

One of my favorite filmmakers, Steven Soderbergh, delivered one hell of a monumental speech at the San Francisco International Film Festival this past weekend. The topic was the State of Cinema (full transcript/video here), which Soderbergh rips apart in a huge tear down of Hollywood and how the movie business is harming "cinema" in its purest sense. It's perfect, I love every last part of this speech, ramblings about JetBlue and all. First, he explains the difference between movies and cinema:

First of all, is there a difference between cinema and movies? Yeah. If I were on Team America, I’d say “Fuck yeah!” [laughter] The simplest way that I can describe it is that a movie is something you see, and cinema is something that’s made. It has nothing to do with the captured medium, it doesn’t have anything to do with the where the screen is, if it’s in your bedroom, your iPad—it doesn’t even really have to be a movie: it could be a commercial, it could be something on YouTube. Cinema is a specificity of vision, it’s an approach in which everything matters. It’s the polar opposite of generic or arbitrary and the result is as unique as a signature or a fingerprint. It isn’t made by a committee, and it isn’t made by a company, and it isn’t made by the audience. It means that if this filmmaker didn’t do it, it either wouldn’t exist at all, or it wouldn’t exist in anything like this form.

That, in and of itself, is a very interesting thought about the meaning of "cinema" which is more commonly known as auteur filmmaking, or more broadly independent (or foreign) film. Here's the full 30-minute Soderbergh speech if you prefer to watch:

He continues on about how the Hollywood studios are harming cinema (which could also be described as auteur filmmaking):

The idea of cinema as I’m defining it is not on the radar in the studios. This is not a conversation anybody’s having; it’s not a word you would ever want to use in a meeting. Speaking of meetings, the meetings have gotten pretty weird. There are fewer and fewer executives who are in the business because they love movies. There are fewer and fewer executives that know movies. So it can become a very strange situation. I mean, I know how to drive a car, but I wouldn’t presume to sit in a meeting with an engineer and tell him how to build one, and that’s kind of what you feel like when you’re in these meetings. You’ve got people who don’t know movies and don’t watch movies for pleasure deciding what movie you’re going to be allowed to make. That’s one reason studio movies aren’t better than they are, and that’s one reason that cinema, as I’m defining it, is shrinking.

This is all true. It's a thought that always runs through my mind - do any of these executives really care for movies (other than the money they make), or really love them, and understand what they mean to people? Soderbergh touches on this regarding the power of great art: "the experience is transformative and in the minute you’re experiencing that piece of art, you’re not alone. You’re connected to the arts."

Soderbergh goes on complain about test screenings ("we had a test screening of Contagion once and a guy in the focus group stood up and said, 'I really hate the Jude Law character. I don't know if he’s a hero or an asshole'") and also references the success of his film Magic Mike and the failure of Side Effects from earlier this year (released in February earning $32M). He makes a very poignant statement when referring to what the studios are learning through failures. Alas, it's nothing:

[Side Effects] is a movie that didn’t perform as well as any of us wanted it to. So, why? What happened? It can’t be the campaign because all the materials that we had, the trailers, the posters, the TV spots, all that stuff tested well above average. February 8th, maybe it was the date, was that a bad day? As it turns out that was the Friday after the Oscar nominations are announced, and this year there was an atypically large bump to all the films that got nominated, so that was a factor. Then there was a storm in the Northeast, which is sort of our core audience. Nemo came in, so God, obviously, is getting me back for my comments about monotheism. Was it the concept? There was a very active decision early on to sell the movie as kind of a pure thriller and kind of disconnect it from this larger social issue of everybody taking pills. Did that make the movie seem more commercial, or did it make it seem more generic? We don’t know. What about the cast? Four attractive white people… this is usually not an obstacle. The exit polls were very good, the reviews were good. How do we figure out what went wrong? The answer is: We don’t. Because everybody’s already moved on to the next movie they have to release.

Where his speech gets really good is when he begins to almost pitch his version of a modern studio if he could run it, which in all honesty sounds perfect, and is something I've wished would happen as well. I see so many great filmmakers emerge from the indie / film festival world that could excel and take this idea to great heights if only someone would believe in it.

If I were going to run a studio I’d just be gathering the best filmmakers I could find and sort of let them do their thing within certain economic parameters. So I would call Shane Carruth, or Barry Jenkins or Amy Seimetz and I’d bring them in and go, ok, what do you want to do? What are the things you’re interested in doing? What do we have here that you might be interested in doing? If there was some sort of point of intersection I’d go: Ok, look, I’m going to let you make three movies over five years, I’m going to give you this much money in production costs, I’m going to dedicate this much money on marketing. You can sort of proportion it how you want, you can spend it all on one and none on the other two, but go make something.
Now, that only works if you are very, very good at identifying talent. Real talent, the kind of talent that sustains. And you can’t be judging strictly on commercial performance, or hype, or hipness, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect someone running a multi-billion dollar business to be able to identify talent. I get it, it’s the studio, you need all kinds of movies. You need comedies, you need horror films, you need action films, you need animated films, I get it. But the point is, can’t some of these be cinema also? This is kind of what we tried to do with Section 8 is we tried to bring interesting filmmakers into the studio system and protect them. But unfortunately the only way a studio is going to allow that kind of freedom to a young filmmaker is if the budgets are low. And unfortunately the most profitable movies for the studios are going to be the big movies, the home runs. They don’t look at the singles or the doubles as being worth the money or the man hours.

It's frustrating listening to him because he's so right and even admitted he's powerless to achieve change. ("I’ve tried to argue that the methodology of this testing doesn’t work. If you take a poster or a trailer and you show it to somebody in isolation, that’s not really an accurate reflection of whether it’s working because we don’t see them in isolation, we see them in groups. We see a trailer in the middle of five other trailers, we see a poster in the middle of eight other posters, and I’ve tried to argue that maybe the thing that’s making it distinctive and score poorly actually would stick out if you presented it to these people the way the real world presents it. And I’ve never won that argument.") This could not be a more accurate and honest, yet depressing look at the "State of Cinema" in 2013. Let's hope it rattles their cages in Hollywood. Worth watching/reading Soderbergh's entire speech in full on Vimeo via Awards Daily.

Chris McQuarrie's Empire Interview Rips Open Hollywood

Whoa. This is a fantastic interview, but that's because the interviewee himself admits: "It's why I do interviews the way I do: I'm trying to send a message in a bottle to whoever was me 20 years ago, to take a different view. Whatever you think the business is, it isn't. And however important you think those early meetings are, they're not". Bring it on, Christopher McQuarrie. This is a good one to get into. McQuarrie is a prominent screenwriter (The Usual Suspects, Valkyrie, The Tourist, The Wolverine) turned director (The Way of the Gun, Jack Reacher). His last film did fairly well at the box office: $216M worldwide. McQuarrie's in-depth interview with Empire:

The first thing I was doing to alienate the business was holding grudges. People are gonna fuck me in this business. There's no two ways about it. And the first thing you have to realise is that they're very rarely doing it because it's personal. The truth is they're not thinking about you enough. What I want to tell those people that get so frustrated and so bitter about the business is: "No one knows who you are to care enough to deliberately screw you out of anything. You're not crossing their mind when they're doing whatever destructive thing that they're doing to you. They're thinking about themselves!" That's the way it is. They probably don't even know that they did anything wrong to you. And the magical thing about this business is it has no memory. People will screw you over and, next day, if they need you, they'll pick up the phone and call you and you're best friends.

This is a powerful statement, and one that will be hard for many to grasp. But he's being honest about what it takes to work in the industry, unfortunately. "Does that make me a happier filmmaker? No. Am I more fulfilled? No. Now I'm working a lot more and a lot more is getting made. But am I getting closer to having the power to make films that I really want to make? No." McQuarrie continues:

Look, you wake up where I am: 44 years old, just directed my second feature. Don't know what the next feature is gonna be. Don't know when the next feature's gonna be. And you look at other directors and how their careers sort of go from one movie to another and you think, 'When is that gonna happen?' And the only rational answer is: 'When you least expect it, motherfucker! Stop looking at those people!'

At least he knows where he's at and how to work the industry. His last nugget of fascinating Hollywood wisdom comes when talking about Bryan Singer's X-Men movies. McQuarrie reveals:

Well, that's the same thing Bryan went through on the first X-Men. They were after him every day. They were handing us pages of notes from Harry Knowles's website [Ain't It Cool News]. Harry had reviewed the script and they were, "This is what the fans think of the early drafts of the screenplay."

I don't know how you don't tell those people to just fuck off...
You can't. That is what I learned. It's the jujitsu of realising: this person is handing me these notes not because they're a tyrant, but because they don't know what to do. They're so overwhelmed at how to present this material that is only getting made because the option is running out. And a million other business things that I don't begin to understand are bearing down on them. And they're forced to make this movie. And the odds of them making a hit movie out of the soup that they've been given is astronomical. And so they're questioning everything - and rightly so. I used to think that it came from a place of total stupidity and I was really frustrated by those people and now I look at them and I think: 'My God, I couldn't do your job'.

All true. Unfortunately. As much as I appreciate his honesty here, I do think he's lost his way a bit. Read the full interview on Empire.

WTF Cinedigm? Hollywood Studios Angry at BitTorrent Deal

Damn they hit a nerve. Very amusing, intriguing, hate-filled article on The Wrap, featuring mostly angry Hollywood movie executives complaining about a deal Cinedigm made with BitTorrent this week to promote a film. Cinedigm is an independent distributor with a film called Arthur Newman, and made a deal to offer the first 10 minutes of the movie for free. Hollywood's response (in full here):

"It's a deal with the devil," one studio executive told TheWrap. "Cinedigm is being used as their pawn."
"It's great for BitTorrent and disingenuous of Cinedigm," said the executive. "The fact of the matter is BitTorrent is in it for themselves, they're not in it for the health of the industry and Cinedigm is being used as their pawn," the executive added.
Other executives including at Warner Brothers and Sony echoed those comments, fretting that Cinedigm had unwittingly opened a Pandora's box in a bid to get attention for its low-budget release.
"We'll be working with all of [the studios] one day," [BitTorrent's XX] Mason said. "It's really up to them how quickly they come to the table and realize we're not the villain, we're the heroes." That day may be a little farther off than Mason would like.
"I really missed them being at the forefront of the piracy issue," the studio executive said. "I don't remember them going, 'Naughty, naughty, don't use our technology for that.' They don't give a shit."

My response? Oh shut up, Hollywood execs. They're so ignorantly afraid of piracy, at least Cinedigm is actually trying something new and different. A step in the right direction.