Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Could Fox's Reincarnation Detective Show Signal The Death Of Scifi?

from io9: A pair of detectives tackle old unsolved crimes by talking to the reincarnated victims. It sounds like a totally off-kilter premise for a TV show, but Fox's Past Life actually made me question the future of genre television. Spoilers ahead.

Past Life, airing spring 2010 on Fox, seems to be trying to piggyback on the success of Medium, a show I haven't actually seen. You have a kind of procedural crime-solving aspect to each episode, but there's also a spooky supernatural aspect. And it's all sprinkled with a dash of personal growth. It's very loosely based on an M.J. Rose novel called The Reincarnationist, but I don't think much beyond the idea of reincarnation got carried over.

Fox kindly sent us a DVD of this pilot, and it's got the same rough edges as a lot of other pilots. It's also saddled with the task of selling you on one of the oddest premises I've seen in quite some time. In a nutshell, Dr. Kate McGinn is a psychologist who works at New York City's Talmadge Center For Behavior Health, which is dedicated to studying "the human soul." McGinn specializes in "regression therapy," helping people to confront the stuff that happened in their previous lives which may be affecting them today. McGinn is almost paranormally sunny and cheery, except when she's comforting someone who's grappling with having been murdered.

And because (I guess) these cases often involve ferreting out the details of exactly what happened the last time around, the Talmadge Center hires a detective, Price Whatley, to help McGinn out. Whatley is the Scully to her Mulder — he doesn't believe in all this past life nonsense, but he needs the money since he lost his job at the NYPD. But Whatley harbors a secret pain having to do with his dead wife — and you won't be too shocked to hear that he's secretly hoping all this reincarnation nonsense will lead to some sort of reunion. (I'm picturing Whatley eventually having a very serious relationship processing conversation with a one-year-old, which is how old his reincarnated wife would be now.)

The Talmadge Center, incidentally, is quite swanky, and seems to be able to afford to keep Kate McGinn in classy therapist outfits. The clients we meet in the pilot, whose 14-year-old son is having weird murder-esque flashbacks, seem extremely well heeled. So I'm guessing we're mostly going to be concerning ourselves with the previous lives of the wealthy and troubled here. Besides Kate and Whatley, the Talmadge Center is also home to Dr. Malachi Talmadge, who stands around looking worried and occasionally butts heads with Whatley. And then there's Rishi Karna, the hard-working research assistant who barely pops up in the pilot.

I'm just going to pause here and wonder whose idea it was to call our tough-guy detective character "Price Whatley."

So I'm guessing that not every episode of this show will involve murder, per se. You could have a character who got mugged during the 1920s, and never got over it, and now is still pissed about it thirty years into a new incarnation. Presumably, there has to be some kind of crime every week, though, or Price Whatley won't have much to do.

Judging from the pilot, there'll be two tracks to every episode: the therapeutic track, in which the reincarnated person works through all of their issues under the sympathetic, tight-lipped smile of Kate McGinn. And then the mystery track, where Price Whatley searches through old case files and says things like, "I know it sounds crazy, but I really think we're on to something here." (That's not a quote from the pilot. That's just the sort of thing I can imagine Price Whatley saying.) Price Whatley, of course, is on the outs with his former superiors, but there are still some cops who owe favors to him and will let him research old unsolved crimes on the sly.

And then, at the end of every episode, the two tracks will converge somehow, as the tormented reincarnatee finally discovers the truth of what happened and gets some closure. And Whatley gets his man, or woman, or whatever. A crime is solved, a soul is healed, and the cycle of suffering turns a bit slower. Or something.

If you're thinking "This doesn't sound like my cup of tea," then it's probably not. I went into the pilot feeling somewhat apprehensive, and nothing about it was quite able to change my mind — although there was nothing wrong with any of it. The main thing that jumped out at me, honestly, was that Price Whatley should be a laughing stock. He's a former cop who now runs around chasing leads that come out of vague past-life visions from people who seem a bit mental. Nobody should be taking Whatley seriously at all, and yet somehow he manages to fulfill the same role as every detective on every procedural show ever. And the show invests a lot of energy in showing how professional and serious Kate McGinn and the rest of the Talmadge team are, with their jargon about regression therapy and their great resources.

So why do I feel as though this is some kind of watershed for genre television? Maybe because it feels like an uneasy fusion of a few different genres, into something that I'm not sure is ever going to be as thought-provoking as other Fox shows like Fringe or Dollhouse (or the late lamented Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.) Rather than boldly venturing into speculative territory, this show reflects the gathering consensus that any speculative themes must be subtle, vague, and swaddled in formula.

So you have the "team of experts" model of detective show, not unlike Bones or CSI. (Except that instead of having a laboratory, these people have a therapist's office.) You have the therapeutic, personal-growth type show, where every week someone is going to get past his/her trauma. And then you have the one strand of actual speculative fiction, the past life regression, which doesn't look like it's ever going to evolve into a mythos or ask deeper questions. It's just going to be the McGuffin — and it's going to allow us to have spooky J-horror-esque blurry flashbacks to something vague and terrifying happening in the 1960s or 1970s, which get slightly more detailed every time we see them throughout the episode.

It's a perfectly solid show, and a nice enough cast, but the genre element feels like weak tea. And I'm really not sure how the reincarnation-of-the-week format will pan out week in, week out. It seems like it could suffer from the same problems as Tru Calling, only worse. Still, I have a feeling this show could be a humongous mega-hit, and further drive genre television in the direction of being somewhat apologetic, and vaguely detective-oriented.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

New and Old, Old and New

An interesting piece from Jeff Anderson over at Cinematical: A few movies out there, specifically Easy Virtue (255 screens), The Brothers Bloom (209 screens) and the new Cheri (opening this week on 80 screens), have taken it upon themselves to try and re-capture something of the style of old movies. Easy Virtue is based on a 1926 Noel Coward play, which was previously filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1928. Cheri comes from a 1920 novel written by the creator of Gigi (1958). And The Brothers Bloom is a new, original screenplay but it comes with some of the sensibilities of old films, namely snappy dialogue and hats.

I'm all for this, since many of today's movie fans who name their "all time favorite" films rarely list anything made before 1999. Aside from that at least half the cinema buffs out there is generally aware of a short list of classic films, which includes things like The Godfather, Dr. Strangelove, maybe some Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, Casablanca, etc. And those are, of course, great places to start for those interested in looking at something beyond the IMAX screen. But there's a danger in labeling all that stuff "old movies." Not all of them come with country estates, or hats, or even dialogue.

Firstly, "old movies" come in an amazing array of styles. Just consider the Italian neo-realist movement (Bicycle Thief), the French New Wave (Breathless), the silent comedies, the German Expressionists (Sunrise), American film noir (Double Indemnity), screwball comedies (Bringing Up Baby), samurai films, weepies, Westerns, etc. Believe it or not, there were even bad movies back then, but thankfully those tend to fade away while the good ones rise to the top. Then consider technical advances like sound, color and 3D, as well as slight adjustments in film stocks that make the 1950s films so boldly colorful and the 1970s films so gritty. Social conditions were also important. Films made up to 1934 were able to cross certain moral boundaries, but from that point up to the mid-1960s, strict censorship was in place (that's why Tarzan and His Mate, from 1934, is sexier than Gone with the Wind, from 1939).

Additionally, independent films were practically non-existent during these times (it was virtually impossible to get them shown at regular theaters). Most film was churned out by the studio system, with everyone working as part of the same staff. You could argue that having all your writers showing up for work at the office was a better system than today's, in which they hire a writer to turn in a draft, then hire a different writer to re-write it, etc. But in today's independent system, it's possible for a really clever script to slip past all the red tape, such as the one for The Brothers Bloom. And today, it's also possible -- thanks to everything we've learned over the past 100 years -- for a new degree of subtlety in movies (as well as new degrees of bombast; yes, I'm thinking of you, Transformers).

As for Easy Virtue and Cheri, neither of them effectively defines exactly what kind of old movie they want to be, and the marriage with modern times seems uncomfortable at best. But at the very least, they do acknowledge that the past actually existed. If your "all time" favorite movie was made in 2007 or 2008, you owe it to yourself to dig a little deeper. A good place to start is the IMDB Top 250 list, which comes entirely from users (i.e. "actual people" instead of critics). It's not infallible -- it contains three movies currently in theaters -- but it does contain many reliable classics. For the more daring, They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? contains a comprehensive, ranked list of the 1000 greatest films ever made, based on many, many different critics' lists. If you really love movies, you'll find that age does not matter.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Kings of the past

If you have not seen the show "Kings" on NBC, chances are you never will. The brilliant series has unfortunately been cancelled. In my opinion it could have been the successor to "Battlestar Galactica" or "Carnivale" in terms of alternate universe dramas. I could (and will at a later date) get into a deep analyzation of the show and the politics behind it, but for the time being I came across a post on IMDb's message board that was written by a bitter fan after learning of the show's cancellation. It is not EXACTLY what my thoughts are on the matter, (as it happens to harp on a few shows that I admire) but it is in the same tone. So until i get a chance to devote time to a full breakdown, here is the post:

"I loved the show Kings, it had me on the edge of my seat throughout the show and most importantly I thought it was new and nice change from the same old cop or hospital drama that's always on.

The fact that this show got canceled so early tells me that we are headed towards another decade of the same old cop and hospital drama trash. CSI? Trash. Fringe? Trash. House? Trash. Law and Order? Trash. They all have the same plot EVERY EPISODE. If I wanted to watch a hospital drama I'd watch General Hospital where at least people can admit it's for old people with to much time during the day to do anything else. I read Sherlock Holmes, it was alright, I don't need the same who-done-it story modernized and told to me every single hour of the day. It's predictable garbage.

Even some new shows that try to stretch from the norm still go back to the same old plot in the end. Dexter showed good potential but in the end only about 50% of the show is about Dexter and the other 50% the same boring cop stories as the rest of television. People told me to check out Grey's Anatomy. In the end that shows just the same as the other hospital dramas with the odd joke followed by an awkward stare to make the audience laugh.

I had hoped NBC actually gave me something different with the show Kings, something rare like The Tudors (just about the only show still being made I can't wait to catch the next episode of), that's different from the same boring norm, but it's clear by this point that they're just going to try to spoon feed me the same crap as the last 10 years with new shows like Lie to Me and Southland WHICH HAVE THE SAME PLOT.

Even shows that once did have strong potential are now falling apart. Supernatural has gone all crazy religious, Psyche can't break out of it's mold since episode 1, The Unit is desperately trying to keep in ratings by adding in plot twists that just make the show impossible to keep up with anymore, The Simpsons and Family guy that use to be groundbreaking with new jokes just recycles their old ones, and American Idol doesn't have the razzle-dazzle is use to have (the knock offs aren't even worth talking about).

I saw Slumdog Millionaire in November when it was limited release and few had heard about it. When it went on to become one of the biggest hits of the year and win best picture I was confident that movies and movie watchers are headed in one of the best directions ever. I feel that TV is headed the exact opposite way. Is anybody else as pissed off about the bad direction TV is taking as I am? Stop watching tv? I love film, I love TV, it's a passion of mine. I'm not about to go pick up knitting as a new hobby.


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Josh Krebs talks "Gabriel Byrne and the Dying Theater"

Weatherlight Contributor Josh Krebs discusses the stage.

When American television and films don’t reflect complex ideas, and the theater scene is dying, where are the new ideas going to come from? I did a play by Eugene O’Neill called A Touch of the Poet on Broadway a few years ago. I remember looking out into the audience at one point, and the theater was packed with wealthy, white-haired people. After the curtain call I turned to one of the other actors and said ‘Theater is dead.’ He laughed and said “That’s a good one.” I said ‘No, seriously, theater as we’re doing it now is dead. There’s not audience. There’s no one under 60 out there. They’re all white. And they can all afford $300 for a night.
-Gabriel Bryne -- Venice magazine on April 5th of 2009.

Once reading this statement and doing an immense amount of cogitating I felt like I had to agree with this hard truth of the future of theater. Based on a good amount of observation of the Broadway community and general interest in the evolution of social commentary and visceral effects that theater tends to have on contemporary society, I feel that this has made a great and thoughtful statement that propelled a lot of questions and theories as far as whether theater is dying or if has been dead for several years, have we been so blind as to not notice it and whether or not there is a possible second life for theater.

Now given the track record of Broadway in recent years it has been known to profit from millions of dollars with productions and as any producer knows, these can be extremely risky. Recouping all of their funds as well as profiting back a little something extra is always the main objective to a lot of producers, whether it be in film, television or in theater, and why the hell shouldn't it be? We have to spend money to make money, most would say and the production values of a lot of shows range from six million to fourteen million to produce. This proposed a problem for me, how can a simple thing as a show need so much money in order to perform? And then of course the producers are always worrying that they will make their money back.

Now why should I be upset about this and how does this correlate into the quote that generally got the ball rolling on this theory? Well first let’s take a look at the shows on Broadway at the moment.

This list is generally made up of the highest grossing Broadway shows at the moment. (Be advised that one of these shows "Guys and Dolls" has since closed since the beginning of this article.)

1. Wicked
2. Jersey Boys
3. Lion King
4. Billy Elliot
5. West Side Story
6. Shrek: The Musical
7. Little Mermaid
8. Phantom of the Opera
9. Mama Mia
10. Guys and Dolls
11. Chicago
12. Hair
13. 9 to 5: The Musical

Now these are only a handful of the shows that are presented on Broadway at the moment, generally performing six days a week with some performing eight or nine shows out of those days. Now with these shows there is a general recognition of these names, mainly Lion King, Billy Elliot and Shrek being the titles that have been adapted from films that people are generally aware of, can recognize and be something that they already know and enjoy.

And some like West Side Story, Phantom of the Opera, Guys and Dolls and Chicago, are all revivals or have been on Broadway for so long that the general public knows of these productions to be "classics" or as sometimes as I like to call "shows straight from the mama birds’ mouth to her kids". The shows generally on Broadway either consist of a familiar name or a theme of regurgitation that producers can find safety behind financially knowing that the people visiting New York will shell out a hundred and ten to three hundred dollar tickets in order to see them. It’s what I have been labeling the "financial safety net".

And who can really blame them? While living in the days where restaurants have meals that are referred to by a number and game shows consist of people pointing at briefcases hoping that there is money in it, it doesn't really surprise me that the spectacle element will always prevail over substance. It’s off putting and places me in a general malaise as far as where we are at the moment with not being viscerally stimulated by theater and instead just being numbed with wanting to see the Michael Bay type of theater, general big bang for our bucks.

Where in the hell did we go wrong in just finding great intellectual theater? If it were up to me, I would blame Cats. Or just Andrew Lloyd Webber in general, but I am not one to point fingers so lets just not force anyone to walk the plank just yet. A few years ago I went to go and see a production of Marquis De Sade in Harlem and I was incredibly blown away with it. It was generally an unforgiving, vile, disgusting piece of theater, but it was so engaging. Once the show was over I was talking to a confidant who accompanied me to the show and they weren't as enthusiastic as I am about how fantastic the show was but we both agreed that a lot of times during the show we felt scared.

And a thought had occurred to me that theater should not be safe.

In order to create a visceral reaction from the audience and begin to allow the discussions of the themes of the show come to life there must be this rule that all of the actors in the show are following, saying to themselves that "in order to understand what is happening in this play, we have to be unrelenting with our emotions, unforgiving with our actions and unapologetic for what we are doing". Of course a lot of this isn't marketable for the general public. No one wants to see Blasted or Marisol, instead they long to see something that gives them a sunny disposition, like Lion King. Its disheartening that we have come to this point.

Can this be changed? Is there some sort of light at the end of the tunnel is there any redemption that is possible in these trying times of seeing a witch "defy gravity" or Ariel learn to be herself? The only thing I can initially suggest is that Broadway itself is in desperate need of rejuvenation. With a few simple modifications, at least simple in my eyes.

First of all, producers of all Broadway shows must join a sort of union that allows them fully to adhere the certain rules laid out in the plan for rejuvenation. Within this union shows that are produced are given a certain budget, this covers all aspects of the production including, lights, sound, wardrobe and makeup, this also includes the salaries for actors and crews for the show, who are paid the same amount throughout the course of the run. This negates all aspect of some sort of favoritism for certain duties of a Broadway show, as actors are often the top billed and receive the most notoriety for shows, especially big names such as Mathew Broderick who is now performing The Philanthropist and James Gandolfini who is currently on Broadway with God of Carnage, there would be no definite sense of general monetary favoritism among the ones who are involved in a show. Within this said budget no shows are allowed to go over said budget and could face possible backlash and fines from the Broadway union.

Secondly ability to get tickets would change incredibly. There would be no longer convenience of web purchases. The only way to possibly do that would be through the box office of a certain show. Within this change there would be a price change for all shows. All seats for every show would be at least twenty to twenty five dollars, on a first come first serve basis patrons are able to choose the seats that are available. Also instated would be a limit of six tickets per person for a purchase. With this it will hopefully eliminate the elitist persona that is a famous with Broadway shows that those with money are able to enjoy a show more than those who come from a blue collar background.

Of course this does stand the argument of scalpers and how they would affect this new deal. If a scalper walks into this new box office environment and buys as many tickets for twenty dollars as they can for let’s say, "Phantom of the Opera" and tries to sell them for less than what they are worth. Is that really a profit they are making?

But of course there is an argument of this implemented deal would actually work. Mainly the main thing that constitutes a valid argument is the rental of the theater space. The spaces are immensely expensive to maintain since the buildings themselves are so old. Of course this argument I am incredibly shrugging my shoulders at. Of course there is no way out of that seeing as I don't know the logistics of a lot of ownerships of Broadway houses and what the basic rental agreement is and how much is it in general. So I for one am not going to touch that topic.

But still it bothers me, of that financial safety net. But again, who can blame anyone who wants to put money into a Broadway show. Perhaps the general populous has such a fascination with seeing John Goodman or Susan Sarandon on stage performing with some of the necessary gusto that makes you satisfied that you shelled out a hundred and twenty dollars to watch them perform.

There is also a rumor that Ashton Kutcher will come to Broadway performing Neil Labute's Fat Pig....frak me

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The World As We Know It Is Over? 10 Insights on Today’s Film Business

“The way we operate is being dissected and reassembled in front of our eyes,” noted Endgame’s James D. Stern in a keynote speech at the Los Angeles Film Festival over the weekend (which was published in its entirety by indieWIRE). Later that day, a panel of key industry players gathered at the fest’s Film Financing Conference to, as moderator and industry blogger Anne Thompson put it, “parse the desperate stage of the indie economy” right now. The panel, titled “The World As We Know It: Is It Over?,” included “Che” producer Laura Bickford, Christian Gaines of Withoutabox, Ted Mundorff from Landmark Theatres, “Notorious” producer Bob Teitel, and Beastie Boy Adam Yauch from Oscilloscope Laboratories.

The discussion touched on how to profit from Internet and VOD distribution plans, the increasingly uncertain fate of traditional media, the financial limitations of producing independent film in the current economic climate, and the recent formation of DF Indie Studios. Though realistic about the challenges facing the industry, all the panel members offered valuable insights on how to make the financing, marketing and distribution of independent films come together during tough times.

1. Christian Gaines on the changing role of film festivals.
Insight: Festivals may be returning to their roots as a showcase for filmmaker’s work and become less of a platform for corporate sponsors and the industry to promote themselves.
“The 80s and 90s came along and there was a proliferation, a globalization and standardization of film festivals. All of a sudden film festivals had to serve other constituents besides simply filmmakers and audiences but also sponsors and the media, the film industry and so on… Every town has a film festival, there are film festivals of every possible genre, every possible niche that you can think of. And so now we’re kind of entering this world where nontraditional distribution platforms are starting to emerge and film festivals are definitely coping with and struggling with that new world. There’s real fear, I think, of obliteration. People think that technology will obliterate anything that came before it and I don’t believe that at all. I do think that film fess have to recalibrate, reboot, what their role is and why they’re important beyond simply promoting a sponsor’s product or beyond being a good junket for a few celebrities prior to the theatrical release of a big film. I do think that there are some fundamental core principals that film festivals are returning to such as presenting a film in the best possible picture and sound and honoring the artist by yielding to the experience, yielding to their work of art from beginning to end. I believe that film festivals are returning to that.”

2. Adam Yauch on starting an independent distribution company, Oscilloscope Laboratories, during a recession.
Insight: Allow your company to grow at a manageable rate and don’t just rely on traditional marketing to get the word out about your film.
“The time we actually launched the company was just before the economy tanked so that was not actually part of the decision making process. But it actually worked out all right because the company’s already so small and we started looking at picking up inexpensive films and distributing them in ways where we weren’t spending too much on ads and finding other ways to do the press for it… And so far it’s been okay because we’ve been able to ramp up the company in a way that feels like it makes sense with where the economy is at, rather than being in a place where there’s already a company that has hundreds of employees and has to refigure how to deal with people buying fewer DVDs.”

3. Laura Bickford on the innovative VOD distribution model for “Che.”
Insight: VOD may be able to maximize a relatively small marketing budget’s impact.
“On ‘Che’ we couldn’t get a US distributor to be interested while we were shooting because it was in Spanish. And it wasn’t politics like a lot of people thought it might have been. It was that the US distributors make a huge chunk of change on pay television. Pay television deals cover their marketing costs on movies. The more your movie makes at the box office, the more pay television has to pay for it. But it’s only for English-language products. It was a financial reason that they didn’t want to spend the marketing dollars on it. We thought if we went to Cannes and won an award—which we did—that there would be a buyer… Fortunately we ended up with IFC films and approximately one million dollars in marketing money—no money to go to the Oscars—and happily at Landmark and VOD which was fantastic for us. We got to maximize all our marketing dollars by having people be able to buy it at home at a good price at the same time they went to the theater.”

4. Bob Teitel on the announcement of the formation of and speculation surrounding DF Indie Studios.
Insight: If DF Indie Studios is, in fact, real, the formation of an independent production company is a risky move but a hopeful sign.
“It’s like opening a car company now… People were so surprised that during these times a company would come out like that. I know everyone’s trying to figure out if it’s real or not, who’s in it and who’s not. It’s a positive thing if it is real. And I hope it is real for everybody’s sake.”

5. Laura Bickford on the state of the major studios.
Insight: The current distribution model of major studios is simply not sustainable and can not successfully be applied to smaller budget films.
“The reason the studios aren’t doing these [smaller budget] movies isn’t because of taste, it’s because the economic model didn’t work for them. And right now they know they’re on their way down, too. The studios are facing what the music industry was facing. They know that they’re dinosaurs, they know that they’re bloated and they know that they’re going to be over. But they don’t know when and they don’t know what’s going to replace it. Nobody knows how to monetize the internet, nobody knows how monetize video on demand and other forms of that, which is the way of the future shared with the theatrical experience… But they just don’t know where their revenues are going to come from… If we can show them how to make money on smaller budget films they’d be doing it.”

6. Ted Mundorff on the changing roles of traditional media and the film critic.
Insight: The impact that a local critic in print can have on a film’s performance at the box office has not been supplanted by the internet.
“We’re scared to death that critics have gone away. Wire services don’t cut it. Those reviews, the aggregators, just don’t do the same job as your local critic does in all the markets in the country. Currently, when a local critic reviews a film positively, there’s a spike in box office. I have never seen a spike in box office because of an online critic.”

7. Christian Gaines on piracy.
Insight: The often long period of time between a film’s premiere at a festival and its eventual theatrical release can harm its success in an increasingly on-demand world by killing buzz and encouraging piracy.
“I think the long lag between the excitement a film generates on the festival circuit and then its eventual theatrical release—the three, four, five, six, ten month lag—can kill a film and open it up for piracy… I think the only thing one can do is have due diligence, have caution [to guard against piracy at festivals]... It’s the answer to a lot of things but it really has to do with education and letting people know that pirating something and receiving something that is pirated is a crime.”

8. Laura Bickford on the state of indie distributors.
Insight: Filmmakers have to be realistic about their chances of getting distribution through an indie studio which is even tougher now than it has been in recent years and budget accordingly.
“The bad news is, there’s a huge constriction. Most of the indie distributors have gone down as we’ve known it so there will be new ones… It’s a great time for new ones. But they take a while to ramp up so right now it’s very constricted for US distribution. As your financing model for film, you can’t really count on that as a ‘money piece,’ you can’t give a value to it, if you can get it. So that’s really, really tough. And at the same time the foreign buyers are not buying [like they were before the recession]. It’s devastated them so they’ve bough nothing this year… [Indie filmmmakers need to be] realistic about what the economic value of your film is so that you can price it accordingly.”

9. Ted Mundorff on how the recession has affected theatrical releasing.
Insight: In many ways, the recession has not affected box office performance and ticket sales are up from last year.
“We’ve had only one week this year that’s actually less than last year… November and December—key months—were record months for Landmark theaters. It never was better. So it’s amusing, amazing to watch the depression, almost, that has set in that ‘independent film is dead.’ I think there’s a concern but there’s also a huge, huge opportunity in the marketplace… People want and will support the theatrical experience and we’re pretty happy right now.”

10. Christian Gaines on making your short film available online while submitting it to festivals.
Insight: Film festivals are becoming increasingly more comfortable with accepting work that is already available online.
“This is happening more and more lately. More and more filmmakers have been calling up the film festival [they’ve submitted to] and said, ‘My film is paying on YouTube right now. Is that a problem?’ And I think you’re going to see more and more and more film festivals make it not be a problem. And it shouldn’t be a problem, actually, because at the end of the day what a film festival should really be doing is providing as many opportunities as possible to the artist, to the rights holder, to the filmmaker… A few festivals still really do have a problem with you showing your film on the internet but more and more don’t. Sundance this year actually showed a few shorts that were on the web.” - Andy Lauer

Whether you agree with the quotes from Andy's article, you must admit, there are certainly A LOT of things to think about.

Watchmen: On the verge of a new kind of visual storytelling.

Since their beginning, superhero flicks have always scavenged special effects magic and visual style from the tables of preceding adventure films rather than their original source material, comic books themselves. Superman could only fly through Metropolis after Skywalker flew through the Death Star Trench; Batman only became a believable crime-fighter in the vein of Jason Bourne’s hyper-realism; and I groaned aloud in the theater when my own best-loved comic hero, Spider-Man, performed a horribly superfluous Matrix-esque slow motion flip-dodge to evade a hail of razor-sharp projectiles.

Superheroes are homeless on the silver screen. The characters that inspired action films on a large scale too often prefer to dress themselves in the precedents other films rather than establishing their own stylistic identities. Good comics do more than depict fantastical stories about characters endowed with great power. They create an environment in which art and symbol converge to create semiotic storytelling that has the potential to transcend the written word. Is it possible then to develop a true “comic book film” genre, and would it have anything to contribute to the medium as a whole?

My answer: yes and yes—if it can avoid being mere extensions of the Tarantino B-movie aesthetic and if it is possible to ban Frank Miller from ever using a camera again.

Comics films have split into two camps that employ two opposing philosophies regarding special effects: The mainline trend attempts to make superheroes relevant by using the latest special effects technology to make unbelievable antics fit into a believable world. The underdogs are films like Sin City, 300, The Spirit, and most recently, Watchmen, which spend their FX dollars trying to create just the opposite: an intentionally unbelievable world in which superpowered tomfoolery entertains no pretensions of being realistic but instead create an environment with the capability to set its own rules, its own mood, and channel its own particular themes in a decidedly visual way.

In these films green-screen and CGI effects are taken in a fresh direction: one that does something artful, creating a stylized environment rather than just making the unreal appear real. This is the best way to realize on-screen the artistic contributions of the comic medium. The only problem is that, with the arguable exception of Sin City, these movies suck. But they don’t have to suck. Comic movies could represent a new kind of visual storytelling by combining digital effects with careful art direction and a stylistic use of special effects.

Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is a good place to start. Just to get this out of the way: I didn’t like Watchmen. I think it’s a hollow film that hides juvenile sensibilities beneath a thin veneer of “cult” cinema. It puts you to sleep with long sequences of dialogue and wakes you up with pornography and glorified violence. But it sure is pretty. If Snyder did anything right by me it was his meticulous recreation of Dave Gibbons” artwork from the original comic book. As it happens, the art of Watchmen has just as much a hand in telling the story as the dialogue and plot. In writing Watchmen, author Alan Moore took influence from William S. Burrough’s comic The Unspeakable Mr. Hart which, as Moore put it, used “repeated symbols that would become laden with meaning.” In Watchmen, Moore used the picture-book format to give the story thematic depth using suggestive symbols. Exhibit A: the bloodstained smiley-face.

This image consistently haunts the backdrop of the story’s illustrations and it’s up to the reader to understand what it means. The blood mars the face’s symmetry, like the ugliness of the human stain disrupting utopia, but look at it long enough and it resembles a clock with the hand set five minutes to midnight. Is it a statement about human nature? A countdown to nuclear apocalypse? Is it both? The image is an illustrated double-entendre that recurs at key moments throughout the book in different forms. A man’s face is scarred in the same pattern, a giant spacecraft crashes over the right “eyeball” of the Galle Crater on Mars, a grinning shark is wounded in the eye, two people embrace forming the shape of the blood droplet before they are both disintegrated when New York is destroyed.

Each event injects the symbol with new meaning and allows the reader to participate in the interpretation of it and by extension, the story as a whole. There are a plethora of similar images that recur in similar ways throughout the book. Watchmen is a deeply symbolic tale that uses imagery as a concise way to tug at the soul in ways that words cannot express. It is, in a sense, a more “Catholic” way to tell as story than a novel, as it is less bound by the abstract authority of pure logos and gives the mind more room to play in a pictorial realm of inference and interpretation.

It is just this attention to detail and understated sense of grandeur that caused the book to be deemed “unfilmable” by fans and most vocally by Moore himself. They obviously hadn’t counted on today’s state-of-the-art post-production technology, which allows for an unprecedented amount of graphic control, right down to the shape of the bloodstain on the comedian’s smiley-face button. Snyder may have failed in making Watchmen a focused and coherent film but he succeeded in translating this “semiotic storytelling” to the screen. Though most people doubtless found these details to be little more than “easter eggs” for the fans, I think it is an admirable exercise in the human propensity to recognize and perceive meaning in symbols and engage in interpretation rather than just passively accepting given entertainment.

Watchmen proved that comics have ability to engage us semiotically and add layers of understated symbolic depth using pictures rather than the written word. Snyder may not be the most mature filmmaker in the biz, but he did understand the importance of visual storytelling in truly bringing a comic book to life. This method of repeated visual cues in building thematic grandeur has been used from time to time in cult cinema (e.g. John Patrick Shanley’s Joe vs. the Volcano; Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain), but the broad appeal of comic book films, particularly those starring iconic superheroes, have the potential to put visual symbolism into mainstream consciousness and re-activate our right-brained sensibilities, dulled nearly to dormancy by ultra-realistic entertainment.

Superheroes were never meant to be realistic: they were meant to be symbols. Men and women in capes and costumes with spiders, bats, and large bold letters emblazoned on their chests do not at their core represent some escapist desire to achieve the impossible. They are iconic incarnations of man’s hopes, fears, dreams, and desires, figures with an endless potential for social and political commentary, and self-reflection but only insofar as they remain symbols. Take them out of their mythological habitat, put them in the “real world” and the only way to keep them from resembling goofy dressed-up action figures is to give them a complete makeover (à la The Dark Knight) or at least by adding in a few moments of self-aware, ironic banter:

Wolverine: [eyeing his tight, black costume] You actually go outside in these things?

Cyclops: Well, what would you prefer? Yellow spandex?

- From Bryan Singer’s X-Men

Bruce Wayne: “[a] guy who dresses up like a bat clearly has issues.”

- From Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins

The power of symbol is more potent than the thrill of seeing people fly or climb walls. Watchmen, for all its faults, puts superheroes back in their original semiotic habiliment, one that privileges symbolism over realism and creates stylized mythology rather than just another super-powered action movie. What would it look like to restore the pantheon of traditional comic book heroes to their original exaggerated environments instead of taking such great pains to realize them in a contemporary setting?[1] Maybe Batman would just make more sense fading into the inky shadows of a dark CGI Gotham City or Spider-Man would be better rendered in his original bright newsprint tones. I say we put those green screens and color-correction to good use and create more permanent “myth-scapes” for our symbolic heroes who are currently lost in the YouTube generation of shaky cameras and stark, warehouse backdrops. I fear that our commitment to the recreation of reality condemns our heroes to an unending cycle of re-incarnation since what is now seen as “contemporary” will someday be considered “dated,” and archetypal characters, stripped of their mythical qualities in favor of the instant gratification of “relevance” will certainly find themselves in need of yet another update in another ten or twenty years. Superheroes deserve better.

Wayne: “. . . as a man I'm flesh and blood I can be ignored I can be destroyed but as a symbol . . . I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting . . .”

- From Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins

[1] Incidentally, it may seem antithetical to my point that the only blatantly stylized feature-film realization of a popular superhero also proved to be his most obviously dated and unrelentingly goofy incarnation, but I happen to think that the method of Adam West’s Batman: The Movie is just the medicine superhero cinema needs. The film and subsequent TV series faithfully captures, through color, camerawork, set design and acting, the spirit and style of the happy go-lucky Silver Age Batman and Robin comics in all their campy glory. Adam West’s Batman policed a theatrically innocent world that, though absurd, effectively contextualized the pre-adolescent ethos of 1960s America in a stylistic rather than realistic way. Using modern special effects technology, we could conceivably do the same thing today and pursue a wider range of themes. - Alexander Wilgus

Friday, June 19, 2009

Is the Star System dead?

Jeff over at Cinematic asks is the Star System dead? "To some, it was a surprise upset: the week-old The Hangover outgrossed the brand-new The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. Or, in other words, the film with no stars beat out the film with two humongous stars. It's easy to look back over the past 12 months and find similar trends. Star Trek is currently the year's biggest smash, with no stars. (I'm using the term "stars" here very loosely; I'm talking, big, big stars, known the world over.) Likewise, Slumdog Millionaire, Up and Watchmen were all big hits with no big stars. We could argue that stars like Hugh Jackman, Tom Hanks, Ben Stiller and Christian Bale have been in hits this summer, but you could also argue that they're all in sequels that have sold because of other factors.

Some stars seem unstoppable. Will Smith, for example, rarely stars in a film that grosses less than $100 million, and when he does, he gets an Oscar nomination for it; the exception, last year's Seven Pounds, even managed to turn a profit despite the fact that nobody liked it and it disappeared before anyone could blink. And you could hardly argue that Gran Torino would have been much of a film without Clint Eastwood. Indeed, most of the big hits of the past year and a half have had big stars in the cast, but relying on a star and a star alone to carry your film seems to be a thing of the past. There needs to be a big concept or a selling point that's as big or bigger than the star. What do you think, dear readers? Is the star system obsolete? Are there stars you adore so much you'll see anything they're in? Or do you go to the movies for other reasons?"

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Trend is Growing: In NYC

If starting a locally brewed film series or event is anyone’s goal, most likely a thing or two (or more) can be learned or even copied from New York’s Rooftop Films In its 13 years, the ongoing series, which typically runs from late Spring to mid September. “I’m a native New Yorker, and I liked hanging out on rooftops and I had friends with films and I thought people would come out if [they screened] in a cool location,” said Rooftop Artistic Director and founder Mark Elijah Rosenberg. Since then, the series has grown, taking on an equal number of feature-length offerings as well as its staple shorts, and catering to its growing audience.

Today, the screenings will average 500 people or more. “We expect 25,000 to attend over the summer,” said Rosenberg. “Our Lower East Side screenings will top 1000.” Still, Rooftop does not confine itself to the generally “hipper” parts of the city, branching out and taking with it films that will appeal to a cross-section of tastes. This year, Rooftop will host screenings in the Bronx, with fare catering to its locale.

“The goal of Rooftop is to have a diverse audience,” Rosenberg said Thursday in a conversation with indieWIRE. “There are industry people [who attend], but also people who never see an independent film and those in the middle ground. Age and gender and race, it’s diverse. We’ll do screenings in the Bronx in August, but also screenings in Williamsburg which has a hipster vibe.”

In its decade-plus run, Rooftop has veered into “film festival” territory, becoming a regional launch platform for films, such as Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein’s doc, “No Impact Man,” which had its New York premiere last Thursday night at Rooftop. Beyond the core screenings, Rooftop tries to engage its audience with the film - in this particular event, inviting eight environmental groups to set up a presence before and after the screening with an “Eco-Carnival,” encouraging audiences to get involved. The doc will be released by Oscilloscope. “We’re working with the environmental groups as well as the film’s distributor for word-of-mouth. This will hopefully help the success of the film in New York, and working with the groups at the Eco Carnival will engage the audience in a more meaningful way,” commented Rosenberg.

Marketing itself through non-conventional methods - basically hitting the pavement - was an early principle for Rooftop in growing its reach and audience. “The core of our outreach is still grassroots. We’re in an era where right now, major companies want to do grassroots marketing. When we first started out, we didn’t have money at all for commercials and subways etc., so we had to use grassroots marketing and partnering with different groups. That’s how we always did it out of necessity before, but now people seem to like this, people don’t always trust [traditional] marketing.”

Of note to this year’s lineup, Rooftop received over 3,000 submissions for consideration. Along with premieres of unknown films, Rooftop has, like “No Impact Man,” a dose of features that have made their way through the film circuit, including Lynn Shelton’s “Humpday” (Magnolia Pictures). The event will also host the U.S. debut of Fabio Wuytack’s doc “Persona Non Grata,” which took prizes at last year’s International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) and the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival earlier this year. The film, which follows the story of the director’s father and his life as a left-wing missionary in Venezuela, received funding from Rooftop.

“We’re reaching out to distributors and programmers who might be interested in Latin cinema… The [series] is one aspect of our organization. Rooftop gives grants, including funds for youth education. For artists and non-profits we make our equipment available.” Rooftop’s longest running grant, called simply enough ‘The Rooftop Filmmakers Grant’ is comprised in part from $1 for each ticket sold to screenings and $1 from filmmaker submissions. Other funding programs include the Chicken and Egg fund, which gives $6 thousand for women filmmakers.

July’s screening of “Persona Non Grata” will be the event’s first in a new partnership the group is forming with the International Film Festival Rotterdam, which will again reinforce Rooftop’s focus on emerging filmmakers. Additionally, the partnership will emphasize international work, with filmmakers traveling with their work to Rooftop.

Other initiatives by Rooftop include an expansion of the model to other cities in the U.S. Rooftop has taken the event for one-off dates in San Francisco and some Midwestern cities, but Rosenberg hopes a grassroot creation of Rooftop can sprout in the Bay Area as well as Austin, TX, L.A., and Philadelphia - economic condition permitting. “Our model is to work with existing people in the arts in those cities,” said Rosenberg. “We want it to be a community supported and community invested program, reflecting local tastes in film and the art scene.”

And coming up next weekend at Rooftop are sneak previews of “Winnebago Man” at Open Road Rooftop on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and “New Muslim Cool” on the roof of El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem. [For more information, visit Rooftop’s website: http://www.rooftopfilms.com/] - from indieWire

And so passes Allan King

The Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) has reported the very sad news that pioneering cinéma vérité filmmaker Allan King has passed away in Toronto after a battle with brain cancer.

"The drunks, the dying, the emotionally disturbed, the couple whose marriage is imploding – Allan King showed them respect and never judged, and in turn, they shared their stories on camera." - Lee Ferguson: CBCNews

Thank you, Allan, for all your art, work and inspiration.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Indie Super Team/Company Formed...

[from indieWire] Ted Hope, Ira Deutchman, Jennifer Fox, Glen Basner, Scott Free and even Tilda Swinton are among the notable film industry names aligned with a major independent film venture being unveiled Monday. The new company, dubbed DF Indie Studios, is uniting veteran producers with sales and distribution experts. DF Indie Studios (DFIS) will fully finance as many as a dozen films per year, each at a budget of up to $10 million. Significantly, the movies will also have guaranteed U.S. theatrical distribution through the company.

“Indie Style, Studio Dependability” is the slogan for DFIS, underscoring an effort by those involved to apply some studio concepts to cost-effective independent film production. DFIS projects, of varying genres, will come from an eclectic core of established film producers including This is That’s Ted Hope and Anne Carey, Scott Free, Jennifer Fox and Redbone Films. Veteran Ira Deutchman is guiding distribution plans. Glen Basner’s FilmNation is handling international sales and output deals for the company’s slate, which an announcement said are valued at $150 million.

CEO Mary Dickinson and COO/President Charlene Fisher are leading the self-described “end to end financing” initiative. Chatting with indieWIRE last week, Dickinson and Fisher called producers “the engines” of the emerging venture, which was more than a year in the making.

Dickinson and Fisher, executives with a background in company restructuring, told indieWIRE that the first five films will go into production this fall and hit the festival circuit next year, they said. Boldly, the company hopes to create some 10,000 to 15,000 film jobs over the next five years, according to DFIS CEO Dickinson. They declined to detail the sources of their funding, some of which is still being raised. Monday’s announcement, included on page two of this article, seems aimed at generating attention from additional investors.

“DFIS’ mandate is to serve as a home for a carefully selected group of producers, providing the tools to give their commercially viable films in this price bracket the best chance for national and international success,” the company said in an announcement being released today. They will celebrate the new venture at a launch event tonight in Midtown Manhattan. More information on DFIS is available on their website.

In addition to fully financing films at up to $10 million each, Dickinson and Fisher told indieWIRE that they would acquire a handful of films each year. Additionally, the founders are touting an “unlevered model” for the new company that will give investors shares in all revenue streams generated by the company over the life of a film.

Included on their core team at DFIS are CFO Rita Chiappetta-Thibault and EVP of Production Amy Slotnick, who recently served as SVP of Production at Miramax. John Hadity, chairman of the Producers Guild of America East and a former EVP of production at Miramax, is on board to work on production finance.

CEO Mary Dickinson’s twenty-year background includes work running Teton Gravity Research, an extreme sports film production company, she also produced two NBC primetime pilots with Ben Silverman’s company, Reveille and she was a consultant on the development and financing of Redbone Films. President and COO Fisher has sixteen years of experience, recently working to restructure a company for GE Asset Management and then working with Redbone.

“There is a growing demand for commercial features, and a lack of quality products at the right price,” Fisher’s prepared statement said, “At DFIS we have worked with our production partners to provide end to end financing, a rigorous green light process and guaranteed U.S. distribution to meet this increasing demand. No one else is supporting films produced for up to $10 million in this way.”

Of the producing partners, leading New York City producer Ted Hope from This is That Productions boasts the strong track record in independent production, while other producers come from a Hollywood background. Hope and Anne Carey’s track record includes Greg Mottola’s recent “Adventureland” and Alejandro Gonzalez-Innaritu’s “21 Grams” to Todd Field’s “In The Bedroom” and Ang Lee “The Ice Storm” from the Good Machine days. Jennifer Fox has a produced acclaimed mid-budget studio films including “Michael Clayton,” “Good Night and Good Luck,” and “Syriana,” while Scott Free is known for work with Ridley and Tony Scott’s company, producing such studio movies as “Gladiator,” “American Gangster” and the recently released remake, “The Taking of Pelham 123.” Finally, Redbone Films is from co-founder Samara Koffler from Harrison Ford’s production company.

Veteran Ira Deutchman, a founder of Fine Line Features and Cinecom, who now runs Emerging Pictures, praised the new initiative as, “an industry-changing studio model for indie film,” in a statement, adding that he has worked with Dickinson and Fisher for more than a year on the company.

Tilda Swinton is among those on the DFIS advisory board, joined by NBC Universal Co-Chair Ben Silverman, GE Asset Management president David Wiederecht, and Duff and Phelps Technology and Entertainment Practices’ David Spieler. In a statement, Swinton called the new company “inspired and inspiring,” proclaiming in the statement that DF Indie, “is set to become an invaluable saving grace of a currently endangered species: the intelligent, ambitious and commercially viable independent film - maybe even of intelligent, ambitious and commercially viable independent filmmakers themselves.”

From the financial side, advisors emphasized the uniqueness of this new initiative. “DFIS offers its equity investors an unprecedented opportunity by providing an unlevered business model with 105% downside risk protection and guaranteed North American distribution for all greenlit films,” said advisory board member and investor David Spieler, in a statement. “And best of all, equity investors will share in all revenue streams of the studio including distribution fees and any exit.”

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Nothing ever really dies as long as there are People to remember it...

Chris Thilk over at MovieMarketingMadness.com has pointed out a wonderful thing:

(from Chris T @ MMM) There’s a cool self-organized movement afoot called MobMov. Using the site – and being sure to get permission from property owners and others – people are able to organize what are being called “guerilla drive-in” experiences. Basically they find a movie, find a place to screen it and then organize people to the screening, which has the feeling of a drive-in/tailgate party mixture. Love this idea. Love it.


With hundreds of chapters across the globe, the Mobile Movie is bringing back the forgotten joy of the great American drive-in. Powered by cars and video projectors, "mobmovs" are easy and affordable to set up. Abandoned warehouse walls spring to life with the sights and sounds of a big screen movie. read more

MobMov.org has been in operation since 2005, and is the earliest "revival drivein" of it's kind. In fact, the term "MobMov", short for Mobile Movie, was originally coined by Bryan Kennedy, the founder of mobmov.org, to describe the unique "drive-in that drives-in" method he developed.

Today, MobMov.org is powered by do-it-yourself'ers like you across the globe, all joined together in the goal to bring drive-ins back, in a new, sustainable way. It's free to join and lots of fun.

People used to think "Drive Ins" would die out; they were wrong. The power of community is a formidable one.


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Memo To Hollywood: Rip-Off, Don't Remake

With news of another CJ7 and Masi Oka's new Defenders coming on the heels of the (relative) failure of Terminator Salvation and (complete) failure of Land Of The Lost, we're left wondering: Are stealth reboots are the way to go?

Maybe we're jumping to conclusions. After all, Star Trek shows that audiences clearly don't have a problem with every franchise makeover that offers itself to them on a CGI-laden, lens-flared platter.

But we couldn't help but notice that Masi Oka's new project about videogamers who end up saving the world after it turns out that the game is more than just a game is oddly reminiscent of 1984 movie The Last Starfighter (in which a video-gamer saves the universe after it turns out that the game is more than just a game) in the same way that Stephen Chow's cute alien movie is "reminiscent" of ET (Oh, wait; he admitted that that was a rip-off). While it's arguably true that there are no new stories anymore, the similarities between these "new" movies and the 1980s originals have gotten us wondering whether ripping off cult favorites is the way forward for Hollywood's nostalgia-struck executives.

Think about it: With all the sequels, remakes and adaptations of much-beloved comics and television shows that make up the summer blockbuster slate these days, it'd be too much to ask for some genuine originality from anyone other than the animators - and, worse, we could end up with something worse than G-Force if they tried - but remaking movies with the serial numbers filed off gives moviemakers the chance to indulge their desire to relive their childhoods without risking the wrath of fans of the same childhood shows, movies and comics they want to revisit. Sure, you lose the brand recognition, but that's a double-edged sword these days: Who's to say that Terminator Salvation wouldn't have been more successful if it hadn't had the weight of the first two movies on its celluloid shoulders?

I'm not suggesting that we wish for a world where everything is Transmorphers instead of Transformers, but I can't help but wonder whether Defenders and CJ7 point to a new middle ground that would allow everyone to keep their sacred cows idealized in memory yet relive them in new forms, unencumbered by expectation, preconception and nostalgia. Put it this way: You don't want to watch a new Buffy The Vampire Slayer movie without Joss Whedon, but would you be that against a new movie about a teenage girl fighting monsters if she had a different name? - Graeme McMillan

Surviving the Economy, NYC’s Newfest Finds New Home, New Outlook

Though Newfest, New York’s LGBT film festival, obviously programs for a niche audience, in some ways the event, which opened Thursday night in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood with Jacqui Morris’ “Mr. Right,” is experiencing the same financial and staffing hurdles that many of its larger and more mainstream counterparts have had to face recently. The festival’s longtime leader, Basil Tsiokos, left the organization after 12 years, and in the wake of a serious financial situation the event scaled back to eight nights from the traditional 11, with many staffers pitching in unpaid to get the job done.

“The schedule is shorter this year because of financial considerations,” explained acting executive director Lesli Klainberg, a member of the board before taking on the role. “I did a panel this year with [other U.S. gay festival organizers] and we agreed to the premise that it isn’t about whether we should have LGBT festivals or not, but how they will be able to exist and in what form given the issues of the economy.”

“Like other non profits in the country, we have challenges with raising money and still being able to create a first rate event,” Klainberg admitted.

While Tsiokos resigned as head of the organization late last year, Klainberg praised her predecessor for guiding her and the board during the transition and even paid tribute to him prior to introducing the opening film at the festival’s new home venue at the SVA Theater on 23rd Street near 8th Avenue in the heart of New York’s heavily gay Chelsea. She also saluted people who she said “stepped up” to the challenge the event faced financially by volunteering their time. She added that a bit of luck played a role in getting this year’s festival off the ground.

“The board asked itself, ‘should there be an LGBT festival in New York City’, and we said ‘yes,’ and decided to bear down and make it the leanest, meanest festival we can…” From the lemons, Klainberg made the proverbial lemonade after she was informed that the festival’s regular venue at the AMC Theaters on 34th Street would not be available for ‘09. “Hollywood has decided the summer season starts May 30, so necessity was the mother of invention here… I read an article about SVA Theaters [in Chelsea] and got in touch with Gene [Stavis, director of SVA Theaters] and he said he had always wanted the theater to be a home for Newfest…”

The change brought Newfest to a part of the city where its base is concentrated, something that has naturally thrilled organizers. Additionally, the festival will host mixers and panels at its Logo Lounge across the street from its two screens at SVA venue. This year’s line up includes more than 100 features and shorts, down somewhat from its usual roster, said Klainberg - mostly a result of the festival’s shortened schedule.

Newfest continues through June 11. For ticket information and a schedule, visit the revamped Newfest website.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Major Shakeup at Denver Fest

From indieWire: A dramatic mass exodus is underway at the Denver Film Society, organizer of the three decade old Denver International Film Festival. Longtime veterans of the organization, including Festival Director Britta Erickson and Artistic Director Brit Withey, as well as esteemed co-founder Ron Henderson, have resigned in Denver. And now they are being followed out the door by some seventeen other people at the Film Society and the festival. The move marks a striking mutiny currently taking place at the leading Colorado film institution.

Word of the mass exodus from the Denver organization and festival, an increasingly popular stop on the fest circuit for filmmakers and industry alike, began to emerge late last week with the departures apparently stemming from a growing rift with Burleigh “Bo” Smith, the new DFS executive director who joined the organization in October. Smith, a twenty-one year veteran who was the head of film, video and concerts at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, was chosen in part by DFS founder Ron Henderson who began his retirement in 2007. Henderson had agreed to stay on as a consultant but also gave final notice earlier this week after attempting to rescue the group in the wake of the impending departures. He is currently negotiating his departure date.

The volatile situation at the Denver Film Society and film festival has taken quite dramatic turns in recent days as more and more resignations were confirmed. indieWIRE reached out to Bo Smith and board chair David Charmatz yesterday, but both have provided only limited comments and responses to our inquiries. David Charmatz, an executive at lead Denver fest sponsor Starz Entertainment, is understood to have led an emergency board meeting about the situation on Tuesday. The body, in an apparently sharply divided decision, ultimately voted to continue to back Smith as the executive director of the organization.

“Let me say that I can’t give any specifics as we do not comment on personnel matters,” Smith told indieWIRE Tuesday by email. “Here’s what I [will] tell you is that due to realities of the current economy, DFS, like many other organizations, will need to downsize its staff. The result of informing the staff of this situation was that some staff members decided to resign from the organization,” he continued. But, Smith was countered by a key organization figure today.

“That’s not true,” said departed artistic director Brit Withey in a telephone call with indieWIRE this afternoon. “The staff began resigning before there were any statements made that there were going to be layoffs,” he explained, “The reason the staff is leaving is because of Bo [Smith’s] handling of the organization and not the economic situation facing the organization.” Withey, however, confirmed that DFS is facing financial challenges just as many other film festivals are.

The mass resignations are deep, according to multiple sources reached by indieWIRE today, ranging from programmers to logistics staff including projectionists and other recurring personnel who have worked for the festival for up to three decades. “Year-round staff are going as well as others, [from] programmers to customer service people, guest arrangements - every aspect of the festival are leaving,” Withey told indieWIRE. A list provided by an insider detailed a total of twenty people who have resigned in recent days. Britta Erickson declined to comment but confirmed her departure. One source indicated that there are just five staff members left at the Starz Film Center, two who work in development, one in membership, and a receptionist. No one will be left on the Film Center staff as of June 12, the source indicated.

“I see the organization not continuing under its present leadership, I’d rather leave now than see it fall apart,” Starz FilmCenter General Manager Oaken Beeson told indieWIRE today. He is among the many people who have resigned in Denver. “We’ve been ignored by the board of directors and I don’t want to be there as the organization destroys itself.”

Details about the apparently intense internal conflict are still sketchy, but Withey indicated staff members were unhappy with Smith’s programming decisions and general leadership style. Pressed further after sending the statement to indieWIRE yesterday, Bo Smith reiterated via email, “We are making no changes to our annual festival. The 32nd Starz Denver Film Festival runs from Nov. 12 to 22.” He indicated that Ron Henderson remains the senior program consultant and touted year-round programming, including upcoming series and events at the Starz Film Center. But, Henderson has said he is leaving.

Ron Henderson founded the Denver film organization over 30 years ago in the Mile High city, with the first festival taking place in 1978. Though he formally retired from the organization nearly two years ago, he has remained close to the organization and an important consultant who worked closely with Britta Erickson and Britt Withey. After putting together a plan to save the organization in recent days in the wake of the resignations, he finally informed Smith of his official resignation on Monday.

“Over the past 31 years, I have watched with great pride this organization grow from a once-a-year single event (the Denver International Film Festival), to a vibrant year-round cultural arts organization (the Denver Film Society), to a highly respected bricks and mortar film arts institution (the Starz FilmCenter) which has become a jewel in Denver’s rich cultural landscape,” Ron Henderson told indieWIRE in a statement this afternoon. “As the Denver Film Society begins a new era, it is clearly time for me (as they did so often in those Hollywood movies I watched as a child) to ride off into the sunset. My fervent hope is that the Denver Film Society, in this volatile transitional period, lives happily ever after.”

Although the Denver Film Festival remains a regional event, it has become an important one, having increased its stature in recent years. Henderson, Erickson and Withey have been active on the North American film festival circuit and the fest has cultivated a loyal fanbase of yearly attendees that stretches well beyond Colorado. indieWIRE has also covered the Denver Film Festival annually for many years.

Last summer, DFS helped organize the Impact Film Festival during the Democratic National Convention in Denver, spotlighting documentaries. Erickson, who joined the festival in 1999, co-produced a documentary about the nomination last August, titled simply, “Convention,” which is directed by a group of documentary filmmakers, spearheaded by AJ Schnack (“Kurt Cobain, About a Son”), which will screen at the upcoming Los Angeles Film Festival and SilverDocs.

A list of resignations from the organization, with information provided or corroborated by multiple sources, follows:

Denver Film Society
Ron Henderson, Co-Founder and programming consultant
Britta Erickson, Associate Director (former Festival Director)
Brit Withey, Director of Programming (former Artistic Director)
Keith Garcia, Programming Manager, Starz FilmCenter
Natasha Hoover, Operations Manager
Emily Reaser, Manager of Major Gifts
Neil Truglio, Marketing Director

Starz Film Center staff
Oaken Beeson, Starz FilmCenter General Manager
Josh Perry, Technical Director, Starz FilmCenter
Sigri Strand, Manager, Starz FilmCenter
William Heydt Minor, Projectionist/Manager
Chris Simpson, Projectionist
Alex Fountain, Projectionist
Matthew Ballantine Patton , Projectionist (festival tech director)
Max Boyd, Box Office/Concessions
Margaret Betzen, Box Office/ Concessions
Julio Briones, Box Office/Concessions

Starz Film Center contract staff
Ryan Smith, Projectionist
Kristin Nolan, Production Manager
Bob Forsyth, Technical Support (IT)

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

10 Questions with Writer Raz Cunningham

Part 2 of our Q & A with the team behind "Our Last Days As Children"

Q: Where did this story come from?

Some of it stems from the power of words and how they sometimes try to define the indefinable, some of it comes from the constrictions of law, but most of it comes the intimate nature of why people make specific choices. A majority of this country’s laws are Tax & Trade related but there are some laws that affect every aspect of someone’s life, that fundamentally shape them whether they know it or not. There are invisible walls all around us; things we can and can’t do, places we can and can’t go; rarely do we ever try to do a little remodeling, and when we make those changes, IF we make those changes, is when we grow up. It’s like an electric fence; the dog knows he can’t cross that invisible line, so he lives his life inside of those unseen borders.

I’ve always felt that part of growing up has a lot to do with doing things on your own, having your own views and values, but most importantly, having not just the knowledge of who you are but why you are the person you are; what made you that way. Just because you’re legally an adult doesn’t mean that you’ve grown up. I also think that how we define things is a big part of who we are. We define them in relation to ourselves. If you think about it, it’s really kind of strange how we let intangible things that aren’t really there shape us.

Q: Why and how did you come to bring it to Two Sisters' Productions, Inc.?

I met Toni Ann Baker and Diane St. Laurent in 2007 while working on another feature. They mentioned they were looking for a feature to produce, so I went through the few stories I had, chose what I thought to be the most viable one at the time and brought it to them. Toni Ann had read it first and called me late at night, woke me up, actually, after she had just read it. “I want to make this script, whatever it takes” was probably the only phrase I remember from the conversation. She handed it off to Diane and she said the same thing. I was so excited that the one script I thought would be the worst received was received so well.

They’ve been nothing but great. They’re sisters; they act like sisters and, as odd as the implications might sound, they show their complete honesty in those moments and it makes me feel safe and comfortable. Diane’s been a great partner to collaborate on the script with and Toni Ann brings incredible insight into the things that Diane and I sometimes miss, which can occasionally be a lot. Together we’ve created a fantastic team of cast and crew, it’s really something special.

Q: What have been the highs and lows during the development stages?

The low was searching for funding. We’ve been searching for a long, long time. The energy and time it takes is a nothing short of a testament to hope. Luckily our efforts have paid off and we’ve raised the majority of our budget, just going back to look for that final chunk. The high has been Revision, plain and simple. I’ve created real people and developed them. I feel responsible for them. It’s a good feeling.

Q: How similar is our world to the world you created.

With the exception of one scientific “fact” it’s exactly the same. In order to make the story work I had to take creative liberty and make the declaration that in this new Universe our biology works a certain way. People always want fiction to conform to their ideals rather than its own internal logic and easily confuse the two.

Q: What audience reactions are you hoping to achieve with this story?

There’s absolutely no question that this film will be seen by two completely different types of people. The most common reaction I’m expecting is for people to discuss the law itself. It’s a controversial issue so naturally there are going to be two diametrically opposed views on it; in favor of and against. That’s what the mainstream will take away from it for sure, which is perfectly fine. I want people to engage in discussions about the nature of identity and humanity as well as civil liberties. People do it every day in very small ways, they just don’t realize it.
I’m really hoping to see how people react to it as a piece of art, beyond the political, and how they connect with these characters. This is a film, and film is art. We’re going to show you things that you’re most likely going to miss the first time around and that’s okay, because you don’t always see art the same way twice. We don’t want to spoon feed the audience and we sure as hell want to make sure they feel that we respect their intelligence. This film is going to be a lot of different things to a lot of different people. There are going to be many, many different interpretations of a lot in this film, and that’s great because that’s kind of the point, to show that reality itself is subjective.

Q: How would you articulate the themes of this story?

I’m happy you asked “themes” and not “theme” because this film isn’t about just one thing, there isn’t just one theme. The days of the Script Girl from “Sunset Boulevard” saying movies “should say a little something” are over. But I’ll be as blunt as possible, our themes are: Truth in Intimacy, Sacrifice, Identity, Responsibility, Growing up, Interpretation, Language, Choices & Control, and most of all, how both being Loved and Loving can affect us. We’re asking some very tough questions, and we’re not really doing it through dialogue, but rather visuals and subtext. My hope is that the audience will see that even though words themselves are carefully constructed to articulate complicated ideas, the basic and most important aspects of humanity are so much simpler and often don’t need to be spoken at all, that words really do just get in the way sometimes.

Q: What’s the connotation behind the title “Our Last Days As Children”?

It’s two-fold. It applies to our culture within the film as well as the individual characters. Children are dependent; they’re not in control of their own lives. Within the film, society now has the ability to control its own nature and the characters spend a great deal of time growing as people. They’re all different ages. The truth of our society is that sometimes younger people are wiser than their elders. Does wisdom constitute adulthood? Does experience? I don’t know, but that question is woven throughout the film. I’m hoping that audience will asks themselves the same questions.

Q: How did you develop these characters?

I wanted to take a very intimate look at people in their most vulnerable moments, juxtapose those same people in their strongest moments and explore how in the hell they get from one moment to the other. The best way to do that is make them as human as possible, as flawed as possible. Some of these characters are broken people and some of them are rebuilding themselves without even knowing it.

Just the other day I read an article about a man in Florida who choked his girlfriend during an argument about how to load a dishwasher. I understand the draw of that headline, but the more interesting thing to me is what the hell happened to this man that he made this choice at this time in his life? Clearly that argument was about more than just the dishwasher’s penetration issues, there was some deep history these two had. The other question you have to ask is “does it matter how to load a dishwasher?” I remember having an argument when I was about 6 or 7 years old with another kid about which foot which sock goes on. To me, it didn’t matter, to her, it did, so it seems like we’ll always have those childish moments no matter our age; kind of makes you wonder adulthood is really just a sliding scale.

I’ll also be the first to admit that some scenes in this film are dialogue heavy, I wrote them that way for a reason, while other scenes are not, but they coincide with which character is or is not doing the speaking. I’m hoping that people pick up on the nuances of the certain choice of words a character makes, their movements, as well as their positioning in location to others and objects around them; body language says so much more than words do. We also have to acknowledge that words themselves speak volumes about people. Certain people speak certain ways. Certain people dress certain ways. You can usually tell who went to Harvard and who didn’t, but you never really get to see WHY. I wanted to explore that, to explore why people do and don’t make choices.

Q: Did you feel any pressure writing this script?

I did feel pressure, but only in terms of production. I knew where I was in my career, the connections and resources I had, what I could and could not do logistically speaking, so I wrote the script economically in that regard. Some might see that as a restriction, but I didn’t. It also played into setting. Luckily our intimate moments usually happen in our intimate places, so the Shooting Locations weren’t uncommon. This story has no need for special effects, explosions or CGI. Outside of that, I could say whatever needed to be said however I wanted to say it. We’re making this film outside of the studio system, so we can be as bold as we wanted to and make a lot of creative choices that studios would see as risky because they’re different from their usual formula, but its those very same differences that will set this film apart. Although it would be pretty cool to have a man flying around in a big high-tech mechanical suit.

Q: Why is it important for this film to be made?

I can’t really answer that question for a number of reasons, one of which includes a non-disclosure agreement. What I can say is that with this diffusion of culture that’s explored and these characters, that NOT telling it would be… well, I just couldn’t sleep at night. Seriously, if don’t write down what’s in my head my brain won’t let me sleep until I do.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Gilula and Utley Take Fox Searchlight Reins

Stephen Gilula and Nancy Utley have been named presidents of Fox Searchlight Pictures, Fox Filmed Entertainment Chairmen Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos announced Tuesday. Gilula and Utley, who both served as Searchlight’s chief operating officers, will report directly to to Gianopulos and Rothman. The former COOs of Searchlight, they fill the formal gap left by the departure of the former company president Peter Rice who recently took a top post at Fox’s broadcasting unit.

During their combined tenure at Searchlight, Utley and Gilula have marketed and distributed 77 movies, earning over $1.3 billion at the domestic box office as well as 46 Academy Award nominations and 15 wins. Both were named COOs of the specialty division in 2006. Searchlight’s “Slumdog Millionaire” earned earned twelve Oscar nominations and eight wins, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay this year in addition to Best Picture nominees and Best Original Screenplay winners “Juno” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” and Best Picture nominee and Best Adapted Screenplay winner “Sideways.”

“I am delighted to continue to have the privilege to work with an extremely talented and enthusiastic staff, supportive management, and supremely gifted filmmakers in one of the best jobs in our business or any other,” commented Utley in a statement. ““I am extremely proud of all that we have accomplished at Searchlight and look forward to continuing the tradition,” added Gilula.

Prior to Fox Searchlight, Utley was Twentieth Century Fox’s executive vice president of marketing, overseeing all aspects of media, research, publicity and promotion for the company’s theatrical releases. She also held posts as vice president of media, senior vice president of media and research, and executive vice president of marketing, media and research. She came to 20th Century Fox from BBDO, where she was senior vice president of new business. Beginning her career at Grey Advertising in New York as an assistant media director, she left eight years later as vice president, associate media director. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University.

Gilula served as president and chief executive officer of Landmark Theatres, which he co-founded in 1974 with the NuArt Theatre in Los Angeles, eventually growing to 140 screens. Gilula spent five years on the board of directors and executive committee of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) and served as chairman of NATO of California/Nevada for six years. Gilula began his career as a film booker/buyer at United Artists Theatre Circuit in San Francisco.

Upcoming releases for Fox Searchlight include the Sundance favorite “500 Days of Summer,” directed by Marc Webb, Sundance Award winner “Adam” directed by Max Mayer and “Amelia” directed by Mira Nair and starring Oscar winner Hilary Swank, Richard Gere and Ewan McGregor. - Brian Brooks(indieWire)

Monday, June 1, 2009

RARE in more ways than one

Its rare that we post something up here that's not totally Film/Media related, but this is a cultural Blog after all, and this topic has some relation to "Our Last Days As Children", but... well... just see for yourself. Hell Hath Frozen Over.

Dick Cheney rarely takes a position that places him at a more progressive tilt than President Obama. But on Monday, the former vice president did just that, saying that he supports gay marriage as long as it is deemed legal by state and not federal government.

Speaking at the National Press Club for the Gerald R. Ford Foundation journalism awards, Cheney was asked about recent rulings and legislative action in Iowa and elsewhere that allowed for gay couples to legally wed.

"I think that freedom means freedom for everyone," replied the former V.P. "As many of you know, one of my daughters is gay and it is something we have lived with for a long time in our family. I think people ought to be free to enter into any kind of union they wish. Any kind of arrangement they wish. The question of whether or not there ought to be a federal statute to protect this, I don't support. I do believe that the historically the way marriage has been regulated is at the state level. It has always been a state issue and I think that is the way it ought to be handled, on a state-by-state basis. ... But I don't have any problem with that. People ought to get a shot at that."

Cheney has made similar arguments in support of gay marriage in the past, including during the run-up to the 2004 election. But his current comments come at a moment when the Republican Party and conservative movement is increasingly split on the issue. Bush recount lawyer Ted Olsen and John McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt have both argued in favor of gay marriage. The religious right, as expected, remains opposed.

Caught up in the debate is the Obama administration. The president has said he supports civil unions for gay couples but that he remains committed to marriage being between and man and woman. His press department has been completely quiet about the recent California Supreme Court case upholding a ban on gay marriage in the state -- something that, it seems, Cheney would object to in spirit if not law.