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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…



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.

Is this the new normal for content?

I am, unabashedly, a fan of “The Walking Dead” and its offspring, “The Talking Dead” (not to be confused with its spinoff, “Fear The Walking Dead,” which I also watch). And I’ve followed with great interest the success of an inexpensive show that piggybacks on the success of the original, in “The Talking  Dead.”

But when I read this article about “Game Of Thrones” having a new discussion show that will stream instead of air on television, it made me think. Is this the new normal for a successful television series? And will it eventually apply to other forms of content? I can easily envisage a multi-platform universe that entails print (text), video, film, etc., that is the  equivalent of a book club, but based on subject instead of format.

AMC is currently attempting a similar effort with “Better Call Saul,” and I think the jury is still out. I was skeptical when I first heard about it, but perhaps I was wrong. It does beg the question, however, as to what constitutes the conditions necessary to build profit off an existing property. Is “Empire” next? How about “Batman V. Superman”?

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…

What kind of customer are you?

When I first entered the entertainment industry – specifically, the television business – I was introduced to the concept that programming was just the fluff between the commercials. The financial model was relatively simple: Make programs that people want to see, then pay for them with commercials that will hopefully entice those same people to purchase the items being advertised. You had a product, then exposed people to it via commercials, then people bought (or didn’t) buy the product.

But in reading this article from AdAge about the traditional “sales funnel” – and all you marketing folks will know that term – you might be inclined to agree with this:

“The sales funnel isn’t changing — it’s completely and utterly dead.”

But I’m not so sure. It is certainly in a state of flux, but the concept is still grounded in the scientific method. You create a model, test it, repeat it, and decide if the results are reliable. What I think we’re learning is that consumers have individual, but identifiable, traits and behaviors that help categorize their buying process. The author has one that is likely a result of his past experience with purchasing, and the ensuing sense of satisfaction he had with it. But I find that people have a “communication disposition” which reflects many aspects of their personality. If a person is uncomfortable with contemporaneous speaking, he/she may prefer a chat or email exchange. Some may prefer to use a big screen or small screen. Others may need to touch the product, or see it in action.

We are getting increasingly identified by our habits that reflect our comfort zone. This will be an important consideration in how marketers find and influence their target market. Exactly how is a work-in-progress.

Are there gay zombies?

As reported in the Los Angeles Times this morning, a few entertainment companies are getting anxious about a new anti-gay law that is awaiting the governor’s signature. Being a die-hard “The Walking Dead” fan, my first thought was about the existence of gay zombies.

AMC Networks — the New York owner of several cable channels, including AMC, and IFC Films — called on Deal to veto the Free Exercise Protection Act. AMC’s hit show “The Walking Dead” is filmed mainly in Georgia.

But my second thought was a little more serious. This is exhibit A for where policy meets reality in real America. And there are actual consequences for some of the extreme laws that get passed, especially on a local level. And I would hope that there are more shoes to drop. If you’re a foreign car maker with plants in the South, you might be wary about expanding there if your gay employees might face government-sanctioned discrimination.

This is not really anything about digital media, but it does illustrate how American politics can infect other industries, for good or ill.