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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!

The next big thing in home media… and everything else!

It seems that every few months, talk around tech is predicting the next big thing. A while ago, it was 3-D television. Then it was virtual reality. But now I feel confident in my prediction about the coming ubiquity of the home assistant. First manifested in Amazon’s Echo (aka, Alexa), and now including devices from Google and Apple, these units will recognize commands and respond accordingly when activated.

I have been saying this since I first saw the Echo in action – as have many other prognosticators (I’m hardly exceptional in this regard) – but it was reaffirmed recently when I read this article TechCrunch.

Alexa’s latest trick is offering a hands-free TV viewing experience, that will allow consumers to turn on or off their television, change inputs, fast forward, rewind and more, without having to first invoke a specific skill, or even press a button on their remote.

A friend recently asked about the wisdom of investing in this Amazon device, and while I endorsed its utility in the technophile’s household, I also cautioned about being lured into the Amazon ecosystem. In much the same way that Apple has created a successful universe built around its devices and software, Amazon is doing the same, but with a much broader consumer component, as evidenced by its recent acquisition of Whole Foods. It also has a very robust media segment, with the Washington Post Group under its control, and a growing amount of entertainment IP. Perhaps its smartest move is a very intentional efforts at developing a children’s programming slate, which will pay huge dividends as these tiny consumers become free-spending adults.

This points to the biggest fault I’ve detected in Apple’s strategy since Steve Jobs’ passing (although he isn’t absolved of blame completely). While they had (and still have) the cash reserves, I always felt that purchasing a media giant like Sony would have given them the expertise, content, and breadth to deliver a wide spectrum of content, gaming and skills to compete with the other players out there.

It will be interesting to see how the various companies develop and transform their businesses to become their own ecosystems, uniting the devices, software, IP, market strength and ingenuity, to deserve loyalty and capture users. For now, at least, Amazon has the early lead, but it is early and things change.

To that end, I am reminded of the early days of VCRs. Sony had the technological edge and qualitative superiority with its Betamax, but the VHS won the war by being less greedy in the short term and ultimately bringing in the lion’s share of the content, along with a corresponding price drop driven by the number of manufacturers of the VHS players.

All this is to say, watch the home assistant market. I believe that how a company develops the technology, how good its voice recognition is, its ability to play well with others, and its ease of use, will greatly improve the chances of widespread adoption.

 

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!

 

One look at the future of digital media… on the sports page!

Being an almost-native Los Angeleno, I have adopted the Los Angeles Clippers as my hometown NBA team (sorry, Lakers). But in this LA Times article from the sports section of the newspaper, I was genuinely surprised to read about their negotiations and plans for airing/streaming their games in upcoming seasons. Their contract with Fox Sports has come to an end, and the new landscape of mobile viewing, digital streaming, and augmented screens have made it potentially much more complicated than in days past.

You really should read the article closely for mention of these considerations, but here is an excerpt which exemplifies the nature of what is involved:

Another possibility would be video streaming the game and the analytical data individually. A third alternative would be integrating the data onto the screen as part of the game feed.

What is conspicuously absent is any mention of virtual reality, which in light of recent acquisitions and investments, lead me to believe will be coming sooner than most expect. And if Time Warner’s awful experience with exclusive deals for both the Dodgers and the Lakers is any indication, I would expect all parties to be very sensitive about unnecessarily restricting viewership.

Finally, the quote I found particularly intriguing is this:

The content for the streaming feed would be produced independent of Fox through a third party.

It’s been my opinion that it was just a matter of time before the professional sports leagues and their owners realized that their share of the advertising revenue would increase substantially if they could provide it without the aid of a middle man. With companies like Facebook and Twitter providing live streaming, the necessity of a Fox or Time Warner falls to the wayside. Granted, at this late stage before the start of the 2016-17 season, it probably doesn’t make sense, but it is most certainly on the horizon.

In fact, the bigger question is whether the leagues themselves, or the owners individually, will become the producers and distributors of games and data. This explains much of the recent stock woes of Disney, which owns ESPN. Stay tuned.

The changing landscape of television lead-ins

Here’s an interesting article from the CNN Money website about television advertising and the ways it has changed in the last 15 years (more or less). Indeed, the increasing use of DVRs and the rising popularity of streaming services like Roku and Hulu, have upended the very model that I learned when I was a television agent in the 1990s. No longer can networks rely on a show’s viewership to introduce new series and promote upcoming content.

One way it hasn’t changed as much is the desire for late-night programs that may lead into the next day’s offerings. Back in the day, Jay Leno was essential to The Today Show’s leadership in morning talk, and added pressure to ABC to abandon Nightline in favor of Jimmy Kimmel. And also explains why local late news is vital, as well. But this quote misses a larger point:

“Due to audience fragmentation, there aren’t many series that generate the kind of massive lead-in that virtually ensures sampling for new shows that follow them. CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” and NBC’s singing competition “The Voice” are among the few that produce a big enough audience to help incubate newly hatched programs.”

The point being, it emphasizes the increasing value of unique, live event programming that encourage sampling. In particular, sporting championships like the Super Bowl and NCAA Basketball and Football Finals, will continue to generate huge rights’ deals, and explain why the programs following such events are seen as the most important to a network.

So, the next time you are watching the World Series, The Oscars, or any other popular live event, pay attention to what immediately follows – it will be a undeniable indication of that network’s priorities. And should also help explain why the deals for such events will continue to grow in dollar value.

The new programming mantra

In real estate, it’s all about location, location, location. And in retail, it’s all about volume, volume, volume. But it is becoming increasingly clear to television networks, it really is all about sports, sports, sports.

With CBS and Turner closing an $8.8 billion deal to secure rights to the NCAA Championship series through 2032, and now ESPN getting into business with the heretofore little-known drone racing circuit, the most reliable way to snag eyeballs for a channel – internet, broadcast or cable – is to have the live rights to sports. Of course, the popularity of the particular type of sport is critical. I’m not sure lacrosse or water polo would be as enticing, but I think ESPN is making a modest wager to protect against the potential that drone racing is the next X Games.

With the astronomical prices for the NFL, NBA and NCAA games, I assume that ESPN can part with the spare change required to secure drone racing rights. Especially when you read passages like this:

“The network has lost seven million subscribers in two years, along with about $550 million in annual revenue.”

Perhaps the next venture capital destination will be new sports? I hear that hoverboards (flyboard?) – the real kind, not with wheels – are getting a lot of attention.

Fad or fixture – what is the future of live streaming?

There’s a lot more to this topic than I will explore here, but I saw this item in today’s Cynopsis Media Digital newsletter and had to mention it:

Just how much potential does live video have? On Friday, two BuzzFeed employees wrapped rubber bands around a watermelon until it exploded. The whole thing was live-streamed on Facebook, and lasted about 45 minutes. It garnered 800,000 concurrent viewers – the most ever for a Facebook Live video. Let’s repeat that: 40-plus minutes of rubber band placement, followed by a half-second watermelon explosion, got 800,000 viewers. That tells you all you need to know about why publishers and broadcasters are starting to take live video very seriously.

I am inclined to agree. If the technology can be made easy-to-use and easier-to-view, then I can see this becoming not just a corporate or marketing tool, but something that will eventually infiltrate the mass market at the consumer level. Just think of it – birthdays, graduations, maybe even funerals! That’s just scratching the surface. Of course, I tend to think porn will lead the way in widespread adoption… like with everything else.

Words I will never forget…

I will confess to being a bit naive when I came to launch a career in Hollywood back in 1991. I started in the mailroom of UTA (United Talent Agency), with other post-grads looking to make copies and messenger scripts in hopes of landing on an agent’s desk. I also started reading scripts voraciously, and had a blast doing so.

But one of the most important things I learned was in a book by famed screenwriter William Goldman (“The Sting,” “The Princess Bride,” and many, many others) titled Adventures In The Screen Trade. Many old-timers will know this, but it is repeated throughout the book:

“Nobody knows anything.”

Simply put, he means that no single person can say with any certainty what will and won’t succeed. Every time a movie or series is proposed with a seemingly can’t-fail cast, director, premise, whatever, a few go down in flames.

Which brings me to “Batman v Superman.” Iconic comic heroes in a effects-laden extravaganza would appear to be a no-brainer. Yet, after a very impressive opening weekend, it seems that Warner Brothers may be changing its tune. For every one of these, there’s a “Sixth Sense,” “My Big, Fat Greek Wedding,” etc. Thus proving William Goldman’s prophetic phrase.

Words I will never forget… and neither should you.