Category: creators

Entertainment and the Fickle Finger of Fate

There has been much hand-wringing over the anemic box office this summer, with receipts near record lows.  This article spells out some of the reasons for why this might be happening, but the last line reveals what most in Hollywood already know:

“The New Hollywood of the ’70s begat the blockbuster age begat the indie rebels of the ’90s begat the superhero globalization of this century. This summer in Hollywood—by turns crass and inspiring, confounding and crystal clear—could trigger a new era. But more likely, it’s business as usual.”

In other words, it reflects the quote that I first read in William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade, which says that “nobody knows anything.” And when you see the quote in its entirety, it becomes obvious how it applies to entertainment in general, and filmmaking specifically:

“Nobody knows anything. Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess — and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

I read Goldman’s book before I even moved to Los Angeles, and find myself constantly advising people to read it. I’ve even mentioned it on this blog before. And that’s because it’s a lesson that people need to relearn every few years. The advent of new means of distribution is good news to many in Hollywood, but one bad summer does not a paradigm shift make.

The industry has weathered new technology before. Theater survived the emergence of radio and film, just as they survived television’s rise. Books are still around, and a good storyteller can make a living on podcasts or live events. The core of  entertainment is conveying a narrative that captures the zeitgeist of the moment, and we are in an era of new politics and uncertain times.

What will be the next trend? Well, who knows? If anyone did – with certainty – then they’ll likely get very rich. But we know that’s impossible, so just roll the dice and go with your gut. Just remember this other quote:

“Ambition drives you on, ability certainly helps, but the fickle finger of fate and luck are great things.”

As for that fickle finger, I will never forget when I was going out with a fantastic action thriller set aboard a hijacked airliner… then 9/11 happened. You just never know.

Good luck!

Secrets to success

I read this article a few weeks ago from the LA Times about a writer/director who managed to beat the odds and get a movie produced. Listen, I’m all for success stories, but everytime I read one of these, I find that the true secrets to someone’s success are ignored or misstated, leaving the aspiring artist to wonder what it was that actually made it happen.

In the case of Stella Meghie (as described in the article), the one line that stood-out for me – and obscures the true secret behind her success – was this:

“Shortly after graduating, she sold a number of TV projects.”

Now, this may sound like a throwaway line, and one that the writer penned without really considering its implications, but I see it more as the gateway to getting “Everything, Everything” made. In other words, had she not been able to sell “a number of TV projects,” it is unlikely that she would have had sufficient legitimacy to garner any attention to finance her first film project, and – in turn – an agent from CAA.

Having been through the big agency meat grinder, I have seen artists get ignored and cast aside without so much as a cursory read because they didn’t have a famous last name, or an industry referral, or some other mitigating factor in their background that opened the gates. When I first moved from the mailroom (yes, it’s not just a cliche) of UTA to an agent’s desk as his assistant, I was the sole barrier for anyone getting to him.

Perhaps the second most important lesson is to be nice to the assistant. The first is that tales of success often ignore the true reasons for how someone’s career was launched. And that is the primary failing of articles like this. I am reminded of reading about how “Gran Torino” got made, having been written by a Michigan no-name. The article said he got it to Clint Eastwood, and I immediately groaned, thinking that it takes a very special set of circumstances to get something to the revered actor/director.

Yes, this is a bit of a rant, but one that I think may prove helpful to aspiring writers and directors (even actors) who don’t understand why they can’t catch a break in Hollywood. Often, there is more that isn’t mentioned in articles like this that really tell the whole story.

One quick caveat – I am writing this making my own assumptions, and there may well be other considerations that I just don’t know about. Which is why I always try to make the creative process less of a mystery than it already is.

Good luck!

Thick skins and fragile egos

I read the other day about the passing of Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The first line of his obituary in The Los Angeles Times reads:

In the nearly five years it took Robert Pirsig to sell “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” 121 publishers rejected the rambling novel.

If you are a seasoned writer, this should come as no surprise. The business of creative arts require you to risk – perhaps, invite – criticism and rejection in pursuit of success. And this stems from a universal truism that was best explained in the classic Hollywood tome titled, Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting by William Goldman. The author is probably best known for writing such masterpieces as The Sting and The Princess Bride. And while it’s a rich and humorous journey through the vagaries of making movies, he repeats a phrase that every creative type should commit to memory: “Nobody knows anything.”

This does not mean that people who produce, finance and/or distribute films are stupid (and this goes for publishers, editors, agents, etc.). It is a simple distillation of the fact that there is no certainty about what makes a movie, book, series, etc., hugely successful, or a colossal bomb.

Think for a moment about My Big Fat Greek Wedding. This was an inexpensive film with no A-list stars, yet it was a box office phenomenon in 2002. There is no algorithm, no formula (despite the current superhero craze), no secret sauce in differentiating success from failure.

I have read scripts that were so-so, but became huge hits because of the cast, the director, or maybe just the public sentiment at the time of release. I’ve also read scripts that were brilliant, but these same forces resulted in a dismal failure. One of my favorite examples is Die Hard. Based on a book by Roderick Thorp, titled Nothing Lasts Forever, and was originally optioned as a vehicle for Frank Sinatra. It languished in the vaults of 20th Century Fox for years until producer Joel Silver found it while searching for a starring role for Bruce Willis. Who knew?

Anyway, not to belabor the point, suffice it to say that perseverance is necessary (but not sufficient) to achieving success in entertainment. But remember – it’s also important to keep creating. You never know when lightning will strike!

An authentic tale of success in Hollywood

 

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“Don’t Breathe” from director Fede Alvarez scored big at the box office this past weekend, surpassing all others to debut at #1. And while I haven’t see the film (yet), I thought the trailer was pretty compelling, and its success came as no real surprise.

What I didn’t realize was the lineage of its director and co-writer, Fede Alvarez. I had actually seen his early work years before when this YouTube video was garnering a lot of buzz, for what amounted to five minutes of cool special effects and terrific directing. I’ve seen some promising artists create interesting work online before (most notably, “405 The Movie,”) but Fede actually had a lot of luck to match his talent, leading him to Sam Raimi and his first Hollywood film, the remake of “Evil Dead.”

The story is told best in this interview with John Horn from public radio’s KPCC, and it is fairly detailed in how it all happened. The reason why this stood out for me was it seems that, too often, we hear success stories that omit huge steps in how a project came to prominence. In particular, I reference this article from The Los Angeles Times a few years back about how “Grand Torino” got made. It was this passage that frustrated the hell out of me:

“Schenk managed to get the script to two younger producers, Jenette Kahn and Adam Richman, who optioned the story with their own money. Schenk says everyone they took the script to passed. They finally got the script to Gerber, a veteran producer and one-time Warner Bros. production chief who had worked on a number of Eastwood films. Gerber gave the script to Eastwood, who read it and simply said, “I’m doing it.”

Having been an agent for years, I know that this really gives short shrift to the process, and I felt that this particular series of events warranted much greater attention, for the sake of aspiring screenwriters everywhere, if nothing else.

Anyway, I had to write about Fede’s path to critical and financial success in Hollywood because I still harbor frustration over that LA Times article from 2008. I guess I’m still learning to just let things go. And in the end, as difficult as it is to make it in this business, you can’t succeed if you don’t try, and it helps to have a lot of luck – perhaps more so than talent…

Enjoy!

 

The latest on VR (Virtual Reality) – is it the next media platform?

Depending on how you define a media platform, some experts are calling the impending arrival of mass-scale virtual reality technology as its next incarnation. Having only cursory first-hand experience with it, I can only speculate how it will play out, but the chatter among the technophiles would certainly indicate that it will be very important and a potential game-changer.

With this in mind, I just saw a fantastic discussion about its promise and future on the Charlie Rose PBS show, which you can watch here.

What do you all think?

 

Content is back to being king!

Media’s love affair with content has been in an ebb and flow for years. But as the means of distribution continue down the path of more choices for less cost, the value of owning content has returned to its throne of supremacy in this digital age. Increasingly, content consumers are choosing their online destination by virtue of where it can get the desired programming.

Once upon a time, the major studios would supply content to the highest bidder, even if that was a direct competitor. Indeed, it was common for Warner Brothers Television and others to supply the spectrum of broadcasters, without regard to who was distributing it. But in this age of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc., owning content takes on greater importance.

That is what makes this Ad Age article particularly enlightening. Clearly, Comcast is pursuing a strategy of owning as much of its content as possible, with its move to acquire DreamWorks Animation.

“Content owners have become increasingly valuable as of late and we could argue Comcast sees potential value in the library of franchises, characters that could be integrated,” said Eric Wold, a B. Riley & Co. analyst covering the entertainment industry.

It is likely that the success of Netflix has been largely a result of its being the sole source of programs like “House Of Cards” and “Orange Is The New Black.” And, apropos of the DreamWorks Animation news, Amazon Studios has been an avid producer of children’s programming.

This is good news for creators, but like everything in entertainment, conditions can change on a moment’s notice, so get while the getting is good, because it may not last. One scenario that I think may be a trend is the sourcing of content via app, as opposed to cable, satellite or SVOD (Subscription Video On Demand).

The king is dead! Long live the king! And then there’s Louis CK…

And when I say king, I mean content… as in, content is king. In the halcyon days of multi-million dollars “overall” deals for show creators in network television, the idea was that major TV studios (WBTV, Twentieth Television, Carsey Werner, Castle Rock, etc.) were keeping folks like David Kelley, Stephen Bochco, Dick Wolf, and Angell, Casey & Lee, under their respective corporate umbrellas. The arrangement would go something like this: They would be guaranteed a few million dollars a year over the course of a few years, and anything they created would first be offered to the studio to develop. If they passed, then the creators could take it to other buyers (usually, but not always). If nothing resulted in a series that particular season, then they could either just sit and create for the next season, or might be placed on another of the studio’s shows to help.

After reading this item from Business Insider, I am increasingly convinced that we might be returning to those days. As network loyalty is becoming a quaint notion, the providers of digital media will simply auction their talents to the highest bidder. But this won’t be just a matter of dollars. As Kevin Spacey and David Fincher have demonstrated with “House Of Cards,” artists are willing to exchange some of the upfront money for a piece of the company or greater creative freedom. I recall some rather upset writers who were forced to acquiesce to the “network suits” of yesteryear.

I guess what I’m saying – and seeing – is the creative path will go one of two ways. One is to follow folks like Louis CK and create your own product and distribute it yourself. But as he’s learning, that path has its own challenges. The other is to ply your wares to the highest bidder, and that bid may be in the way of dollars, creative freedom or a piece of the action.

As I was saying…

I just posted this item last week about creators taking control of their own distribution, and then I see this article about actress Elizabeth Banks doing the exact same thing! Not to blow my own horn, but blow I must.

The holy grail for established talent is to pursue their passion without the intrusion or oversight of the proverbial suits. Often, at studios and networks, it is some twenty-something with a friend or family member in the business who landed a job that gives them veto authority. Often, projects are evaluated not by how good they could be, but by providing sufficient “plausible deniability.” In other words, if a movie bombs at the box office or in the ratings, were their sufficient reasons (read “attachments”) that a superior couldn’t blame them. A famous example was the 1990 film “Havana” that was famously packaged by CAA featuring multiple Oscar winners, yet bombed at the box office.

I’m quite sure (although open to being proven wrong) that Kevin Spacey and David Fincher signed on to “House Of Cards” with Netflix because of the artistic freedom they would be given, as opposed to any major television network. Don’t underestimate the frustration that artists encounter with these so-called suits.

No man is an island, but will every creator be a channel?

I recall the time back in 2000 that I reached out to David Kelley (creator of “Ally McBeal” and others) about his interest in writing for an internet site, as opposed to his studio at 20th Century Fox TV. In retrospect, I realize how silly that suggestion must have sounded, but it goes to an idea that I am starting to see in every corner of the digital media universe.

In reading this item from Mashable (Kevin Hart, Lionsgate team up for ‘Laugh Out Loud’ streaming service), I thought that there are now creators who have achieved a certain level of distinction which might warrant venturing out on one’s own. Sure, I had thought David Kelley had reached it back in 2000, but now folks like  Kevin Hart and Will Ferrell have launched web channels that stand alone. And it’s not just comedy – there is FiveThirtyEight from polling wunderkind Nate Silver, Nerdist from Chris Hardwick, and so on.

This begs the question, what is the measure of notoriety that would inspire someone to launch their own channel? One interesting microcosm is YouTube. As certain YouTube stars reach incredible numbers of subscribers, I have to ask when they might decide they can do better on their own – with their own video platform, advertising sales force, production facilities, etc. – than relying on YouTube. Certainly, FunnyOrDie is one example, and perhaps PewDiePie will be next (43 million YouTube subscribers and counting).

It seems that Kevin Hart has decided to let Lionsgate handle some of these duties, but the trend of sports leagues illustrates the perils of becoming too reliant on a creator (or copyright holder) for content, when that person or group may decide going it alone is too profitable to ignore. Just look as ESPN’s effect on Disney’s stock price recently. That seems to be the direction that Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are going. I suppose we’ll see…