Thursday, December 31, 2009

Steven Beer: A Decade of Filmmaker Empowerment Coming

For many independent filmmakers and producers, 2010 - starting with the upcoming Sundance Film Festival - figures to be a watershed year and the beginning of a Decade of Filmmaker Empowerment.  After years of disenchantment with traditional all-rights distribution deals, filmmakers and producers are poised to take matters into their own hands and forge a truly independent path to marketing and distributing their films.

For over 30 years, the Sundance Film Festival has been the jewel of the domestic film festival crown.  Year after year, audiences flock to Park City to screen original films from new voices with fresh perspectives.  Film industry executives attend the festival to discover and possibly work with a new class of promising filmmakers.  For the new generation of filmmakers, Sundance is an unparalleled opportunity to gain recognition and screen films before appreciative audiences.

The economic climate over recent Sundance seasons has been harsh however. For many filmmakers pursuing traditional deals with multi-screen commitments and substantial minimum guarantees, January, 2010 is likely to represent another winter of frozen dreams.  The once hot seller’s market where distributors chased producers with rich deals has cooled down considerably. The surviving mini-majors have concluded that marketing and distributing independent films can be risky business.  The recent demise of Paramount Vantage and Warner Independent and downsizing at The Weinstein Company and Miramax contributes to a chilly forecast for this January.

The road from Park City to the urban art house cinema is icy and treacherous. Here is the good news: there are warmer days ahead offering a more stable course to distribution.  The new terrain promises unprecedented control and maximum flexibility as filmmakers and producers hit the distribution trail. Taking advantage of new opportunities in the marketplace, savvy filmmakers and producers will approach Sundance 2010 and other key festivals with a customized empowerment strategy. This new paradigm contemplates the probability that they will contract with several distribution partners rather than seek traditional, one-stop/all rights distribution arrangements.

Producers and filmmakers will craft and execute a distribution game plan that supports their personal priorities and targets specific audiences and markets.  With a sharper eye towards emerging business opportunities, some producers will prepare empowerment plans and budgets designed to efficiently allocate monies to service theatrical and semi-theatrical engagements and fuel integrated digital marketing campaigns. The new empowerment model favors working with experienced publicists and distribution consultants who will help establish and execute a customized distribution program. 

In contrast to the traditional all-rights distribution model, the empowerment model is both practical and opportunistic. It envisions direct sales and individual licenses to cover separate media and markets. It is also scalable to address emerging digital commerce and traditional media revenue streams.  The empowerment model sidesteps middlemen and long term exclusive distribution relationships with entities that are frequently overburdened and under-staffed. Given today’s dysfunctional marketplace, empowered filmmakers and producers are more determined to drive the distribution car and to take a greater role in managing their business.

As strategic distribution counsel and producer representatives, we are actively working with filmmakers and producers who are embracing the new empowerment model. Here are five priority empowerment elements worth considering prior to going to Sundance or another key festival.

1. Establish Goals for the Film - In the past, the industry and media defined success by high profile distribution deals and end of the year awards. The empowerment model encourages filmmakers to establish their goals on personal basis. The filmmaker’s goals are not always shared by the producer and/or the investors, however.  For example, some filmmakers urgently desire a theatrical release so that audiences can see their film in the best environment. This expensive goal often conflicts with investors seeking recoupment of monies. We recommend that the filmmaker and producer establish a consensus and create a priorities pyramid that will serve as a compass for the team going forward.

2. Identify Assets - Take an inventory of the project and review its selling points.  For example, many documentaries discuss topics that have built-in constituencies such as organizations that may be accessed for marketing purposes. Actors in narrative features frequently have agents and managers, all of whom have a stake in the film’s success. They should be tapped to deploy their relationships and resources to help market your film. Sometimes, a film’s location can be an asset such as when a city or state seeks to promote their production incentives and qualifications.  Film commissions frequently have marketing budgets, so it may be helpful to team up with them to help promote the film. 

3. Create a Business Summary and Budget - Along with finishing the film so that it is “delivery” ready, preparing a business plan and budget is a critical step one should take prior to the festival.  The exercise generates important team discussion and helps map out a strategy required to satisfy the established goals.  Once prepared, the producers can assess the anticipated costs and create a realistic budget to cover festival expenses and the costs to support a service or semi-theatrical release. Without this road map, it is easy to lose direction or run out of gas (money).

4. Assemble Your Team - The empowerment model is strategic by design.  It requires the recruitment of experienced professionals to help create and deploy a customized distribution plan.  The old-style sales agent and festival publicist may not always be the best fit.  This is a marathon and not a sprint.  Look to recruit professional relationships that will stay with the film from the festival campaign through distribution so you can implement the plans they helped to design.

5. Focus On Finance Empowerment entails responsibility. Marketing and distributing films is expensive even when you are efficient. In the traditional model, filmmakers and producers used distribution companies as their bank and paid an expensive price - loss of control for many years. The business of marketing and distributing films, like all businesses, requires capital. To stay independent you must bring your own gas to feed the distribution engine, at least until your film starts to generate income. The good news is there are many entities willing to cash flow your festival and P&A budget. Be careful, however, since these are sophisticated banking agreements that require specialized counsel. Please review these agreements with counsel or risk losing control over your negative.

Let’s celebrate the Empowerment Decade. Finally, the tools are available so that the independent vision can extend beyond film production and into distribution. With less dependence on the traditional distribution model we can look forward to perhaps the more innovative filmmaking this January and in the years to come.

[Steven C. Beer is a shareholder in the international entertainment practice of Greenberg Traurig’s New York office.  Steven has served as counsel to numerous award-winning writers, directors and producers, as well as industry-leading film production, film finance and film distribution companies.]

Sony Accidentally Releases Armored on the Playstation Store for Free, A Sign of Future Digital Options?

Somebody over at Sony is surely going to get spanked today. At some point yesterday afternoon, Nimrod Antal’s Armored — a film which is still in theaters (and distributed by Sony Pictures) — was released on the Playstation Store in both Playstation 3 and PSP formats. Worst of all, they didn’t even make any money from the blunder — the film was free to download for any sharp-eyed PS3 owner. It was pulled after about five hours, but in that time it was downloaded by many.

Sony has yet to comment on the blunder, but I think it could hint at some of their future plans for digital offerings. Specifically, it reminds me of their plan to offer Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs on Sony televisions and Blu-ray players a month before it’s supposed to hit DVD and Blu-ray.

Sony offered Cloudy for $25.99 — a price which likely kept casual buyers away, but would probably be appealing to parents when compared to the cost of taking their entire family to the theater. We don’t have any statistics from Sony on the film’s digital purchases yet, but I’m eager to see how they fared. Speaking to the NYT, Sony CEO Howard Stringer had the following to say on why they’re testing out this early digital release:
The process of moving to the next stage of content delivery is as inevitable as night and day. And we’re the only company that can do this because we own hardware and content.
This quote came to mind when I learned of the Armored debacle; the very same article also mentioned that Sony is looking into bringing future early releases to their other devices, including the PS3. Given their desire to explore this space, I’m thinking that Sony was intending to offer Armored as an exclusive Playstation Store offering before  its DVD/Blu-ray release. Why else would they even bother uploading the film to the PS store so soon after its release?

Stringer is also very right when he says that Sony is one of the few media companies that have the capability to tackle exclusive digital offerings on their own — without the likes of Netflix or Amazon distributing content to their devices.

It’s a step in the right direction, but Sony needs to significantly lower the prices for these offerings if they want consumers to actually take advantage of them. In the world of downloadable media content $15 would be considered “high” — $25.99 is just insane. My understanding is that $25.99 is the purchase price for Cloudy, which means they could possibly offer a cheaper rental price down the line. - Devindra Hardawar

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

You can't stop the future; and Netflix knew it from the very beginning!!!

Things are looking tough for Netflix. The online rental service is trying to convince Hollywood studios to sell them the rights to more video content for their “Watch Instantly” streaming offering, but many studios still seem to be mad about Netflix’s deal with Starz last year. The Starz deal, which in one fell swoop added around 2,500 titles for streaming, allowed Netflix to gain access to newer Disney and Sony movies without asking for permission from the studios.

While great for consumers, the move didn’t win Netflix any friends in Hollywood. Now, according to Bloomberg, Netflix has an uphill battle ahead when it comes to acquiring more streaming content.
Netflix is now relying on their Chief Content Officer, Ted Sarandos, to convince studios to play ball. Sarandos is well aware of the ire caused by the Starz deal, and says that he’s willing to write “big checks” to win over the studios. He goes on:
We have to fight against their fear that we’ll destroy the ecosystem. We’re not destroying anything. We’re creating a new opportunity.
This argument is key to Netflix’s future streaming success, and ultimately their future as a company. As bandwidth becomes cheaper, and more methods for delivering Netflix streaming content to televisions find their way into homes, the company will surely begin to prioritize streaming over snail-mail discs.

We’re already beginning to see that change take place; Netflix recently shifted the Watch Instantly tab on their website’s menu to the first spot, making “Browse DVDs” the second. Who knows how many additional streaming users that change alone could make (currently, 42 percent of subscribers have used streaming in some fashion).

The studios are also worried about abandoning the incredibly popular DVD format. From the article:
DVDs rank as the most profitable part of Hollywood’s film business, with studios keeping about 80 percent of each purchase, according to Tom Adams, president of Monterey, California-based Adams Media Research. Sales will fall about 10 percent to $13 billion this year, according to Adams, who tracks the market. Rentals will total $8 billion, unchanged from 2008. Studios also will get about $2 billion from premium cable in the U.S. and $1 billion from basic cable and broadcast TV.
Streaming is uncharted territory for the industry, which has grown comfortable with the traditional movie life cycle: Release in theaters, sell on home video formats, offer on premium cable channels, and ultimately, collect on broadcast and affiliate licensing. To help ease the transition, Netflix may agree to a purchase exclusivity window which will entail delaying rentals for new releases. It’s bad news for consumers, but Netflix may ultimately have no choice in the matter if they want to remain in business.

Sarandos reiterated that they’re willing to pay big money for licensing deals with studios, which is a wise move in my opinion. At this point, Netflix can really only throw money at the issue to alleviate the fears of studios. There’s no doubt that Hollywood will embrace digital offerings eventually as more than a novelty (consider the industry-ending cries we heard when VHS came about), and it’s becoming all the more clear that Netflix will be a pioneer in the next era of media distribution.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Neil Asher says Science Fiction is "dead" and has been for a long, long time.

Oh, good grief, there it is again. On Facebook I followed links posted by Jetse de Vries, first to yet another essay about the terminal decline of SF – this one posing the question ‘Should SF Die?’ – then Jetse’s reply in the form of a story. This on top of another article a while back by Mark Charan Newton about ‘why SF is dying and fantasy is the future’ (no vested interest then from this fantasy writer) and lots of articles related to that, and now, if you search with the words ‘science fiction is dying’ you get numerous hits.

I do get heartily sick of all this effort to stick head-up-own-backside to examine one’s navel from the inside. I started reading SFF over thirty years ago, but it wasn’t until I got involved with the small presses, started finding out about organisations like the BSFA and the BFS, and started reading various magazines, that I discovered that SF seems to have a parasite literature attached to it. Whole swathes of self-styled academics pontificate about the meaning of it all, they wank off into deep critical analysis of stories and books – my first close encounter with this was discovering a review of Mason’s Rats that was about twice the length of the story itself – have lengthy discussions about ‘issues’ in SF and speak with all seriousness about gender divides in genre, the lack of representation of homosexuals, the implicit racism in something like Starship Troopers. Really, if you can be bothered to read all through these highly ‘intelligent’ waffles, the only response upon finishing the last line is to point and giggle.

And an old favourite in this rarified atmosphere is ‘the death of SF’ (or fantasy, or the short story, whatever). It surfaces with the almost metronic regularity of a dead fish at the tide line (stirred up, no-doubt, by some ‘new wave'). SF isn't dying, it hasn’t been ill, and frequent terminal diagnoses often see the undertaker clutching a handful of nails and a hammer and scratching his head over an empty coffin. However, discussions about this demise have been resurrecting themselves in only slightly altered form since I first read 'about' SF rather than SF itself. I'm betting there was some plonker declaring the death of SF the moment Sputnik beeped or just after Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon. Really, the whole pointless staggering debate needs a nice fat stake driven through its heart. - Neil Asher

Sunday, December 27, 2009

"Legion" Prequel comic teases at movie sequel?

The comic prequel to next month's angel apocalypse Legion is already completed, but according to one of the series' writers, fans of the movie should pick it up to see a hint of what happens after, as well as before.

Tom Waltz told Comic Book Resources that, although it seems that Legion: Prophets may feature background characters and events to the Paul Bettany-starring movie out January 22nd, there's more going on that may seem at first apparent:
Our comic provides an exclusive expansion on some of the ideas and themes presented in the film and, perhaps, a hint at things to come should there be a movie sequel... Each of these people have been chosen as prophets to protect the only hope for humanity in the apocalypse - a special child, who is yet to be born (for more on that, you have to see the movie!). As the apocalypse strikes and angelic possession begins to plague the planet (again, see the movie!), all five of these seemingly ordinary folks quickly find out they have special gifts and powers that set them apart from other humans... as well as a unifying mission they've all been given hints to through strange (and sometimes horrific) visions. These are standalone issues, though the fourth issue does feature all five prophets. And did I mention these are not all of the prophets in 'Legion' lore? Hint, hint.
Does that mean more Legion comics, or just that Legion: Prophets leads directly into the movie? You can find out for yourself; the collection of Legion: Prophets is in stories now.
The Many Faces of "Legion" [Comic Book Resources]

H.G. Wells' "Things to Come"

H. G. Wells disliked Fritz Lang's Metropolis with a fiery passion, tearing it apart in a review for the New York Times. The movie Things To Come' is his brilliant celluloid riposte, and you can watch it online for free.

Reviewing Metropolis, Wells wrote:"Never for a moment does one believe any of this foolish story; for a moment is there anything amusing or convincing in its dreary series of strained events. It is immensely and strangely dull. It is not even to be laughed at. There is not one good-looking nor sympathetic nor funny personality in the cast; there is, indeed, no scope at all for looking well or acting like a rational creature amid these mindless, imitative absurdities."

The visual differences between Metropolis and Wells' Things To Come are staggering. And if it's necessary to pit these two films against each other in cinema bloodsport, it's difficult to determine a winner. The raw creativity and invention of the images in Things To Come still resonate over seventy years later: workers float through a bright industrial landscape of bubbling fluids in huge transparent vats and spiral staircases that go on forever. The images associated with Metropolis are certainly less fantastic, but iconic. It seems that history has already chosen a winner, and it's Metropolis in a cyborg landslide.

Both films serve as cautionary tales to the audience, but Things To Come tells a much more interesting story with a much wider scope. It is simply epic, regardless of its short running time. Metropolis warns us of removing the human element from our visions of the future, but Things To Come does what is required of great science fiction: It holds up a tremendously ornate mirror to our own prejudice and assumptions, and then requires us to make (and live with) our own decisions.

In Things To Come, a world war launches in 1940, and lasts 30 years, until nobody can remember why it started. The world descends into medieval squalor, and Everytown is run by an evil Boss — until a flying machine, piloted by Cabal, a representative of a group of enlightened scientists and thinkers, appears. The Boss and Cabal fight for control, until Cabal drops "Peace Gas" and wins. And we see 70 years of progress pass by in a montage, as humanity rebuilds its shattered world. But then in the year 2036, in an idealized future utopia, we see the battle between luddites and the representatives progress play out again, as the luddites seek to sabotage the futuristic Space Gun. It never stops.
You can watch the whole thing online at the Internet Archive.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Do books really need Hollywood-style trailers?

This month brings the publication of Eating Animals—a vegetarian's memoir and manifesto, a Peter Singer sort of guide to a Michael Pollan world, the third book by novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. In support of it, the author and his publisher have concocted a short Web video. When I watched it over dinner last night, it put me off my lamb shoulder chop (medium rare) only in its unpalatable tone, which is extremely cute and incredibly twee. It's but the latest reflection of the ways that such clips—"book trailers"—can reveal the hopes and fantasies of readers, writers, and publishers alike.

For an establishing shot, Foer offers his audience a Google Map pinpointing the corner of Seventh Avenue and Fifth Street in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., and—with too minor a garnish of sarcasm—defining his neighborhood by way of a photo of a fancy baby stroller. The three minutes that follow comport with the borough's hard-earned reputation as a roost for self-satisfied, quince-eating Bobos.

The author pretends—"Oh, hello"—that the camera has snuck up on him in his capacious study and proceeds to describe the book's inspirations and intentions. In bold graphics appropriate to the opening credits of a Guy Ritchie film, he acquaints us with his son, his dog, and his grandmother, who at one point asks whether he would like a nice piece of fruit. "At the end of the day, it's a family story," Foer says, using a cliché that no one of his intelligence should ever use outside a Hollywood pitch meeting. In conclusion, the clip presents a series of outtakes, the last of which—"the Hebrew one"—finds him saying shalom to the bubbies in the book-buying audience. Personality upstages purpose. What matters here is not the moral seriousness of Eating Animals but that its author has turned us a cheek to be pinched.

A company called Circle of Seven, which produces videos for an impressive array of trash, trademarked the term book trailer in 2002, but the phrase has caught on broadly, and there will be no turning back. A consideration of the form might begin, and even end, by dwelling on the word trailer itself, conventionally used to indicate a montage that, running in a movie theater before a feature, gives away too much of the plot of a film not yet released. No one would think to call an ad for a TV show a trailer; it is a promo or a spot or maybe a teaser. In embracing the term, the publishing industry helps itself to some Hollywood glamour. And in avoiding the most obviously appropriate word for these commercials—that is, commercials—sacrosanct literature keeps grubby commerce at an arm's length. The book trailers that feel most properly trailer-ish promote genre novels with all appropriate lurid color, whooshing noise, and bold strokes. See, for instance, the clip for Stephen King's new Under the Dome—apparently about a Maine town trapped under one of those thingies that goes atop a footed cake plate—or, a YouTube favorite, the tongue-in-cheek, tentacle-around-suitor ad for the Jane Austen-spoofing Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.

Where the King trailer sells mass-market sensation with bold strokes, more "literary" endeavors tend to make a fetish of their independent sensibilities or to appeal to the viewer's admiration of his own intellectual gravity. In the first category, we must place the doggedly whimsical trailer for I Was Told There'd Be Cake, Sloane Crosley's rather charming essay collection, a clip that at least conveys something of the book's tone. Perhaps we can agree that it has a cousin in the promo for No One Belongs Here More Than You, Miranda July's sporadically readable short-story collection, a clip that plays like propaganda against quirkiness.

At least the July promos has something like a sense of fun. You would not get the idea that Aleksandar Hemon's The Lazarus Project is, in fact, a good book after watching the trailer for it, largely because you would not be awake. Black borders; flat, ghostly score; disconnected excerpts presented in a somberly serifed typeface. Rarely does a sentence with a semicolon in it belong in a video clip. But the reader's self-image as a serious person is duly flattered.

I'd much rather that publishers play to my anxieties the old fashioned way, by selling sex. This series of Penguin Classics ads takes an ironic approach in suggesting that a close familiarity with Jane Austen will help you get laid—ironic but not really kidding. Please note how the tattooed shelf-browser featured at the 0:15 mark of the introduction fits into her skirt. And mark the narrator's claim that "social situations [are] excellent opportunities during which you can express the parallels that exist between great works of literature and everyday life." This is not perhaps what Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren had in mind when devising their Great Books list, but Roger Sterling and Bert Cooper would approve.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Have we entered the Biopolitical Age?

We're obsessed with enhancing our bodies and tuning up our brains; already, our pop culture is full of heroic, cyborg megamutants. But what does it all mean? A seminar in Irvine, CA aims to find out, by exploring "biopolitics."

Caveat: I am a speaker at this seminar, so naturally I'm pretty excited about it. If you're in the Orange County, CA area on Friday, consider coming out to see luminaries like David Brin, Natasha Vita-More, Jess Nevins, and Jamais Cascio (and me!) discuss transhumanism and "The Biopolitics of Popular Culture." Organized by transhumanist braniac James Hughes, the conference will address our biotech future as a meme in pop culture as well as scientific development. Here's a description from the program:
"Popular culture is full of tropes and cliches that shape our debates about emerging technologies. Our most transcendent expectations for technology come from pop culture, and the most common objections to emerging technologies come from science fiction and horror, from Frankenstein and Brave New World to Gattaca and the Terminator.
Why is it that almost every person in fiction who wants to live a longer than normal life is evil or pays some terrible price? What does it say about attitudes towards posthuman possibilities when mutants in Heroes or the X-Men, or cyborgs in Battlestar Galactica or Iron Man, or vampires in True Blood or Twilight are depicted as capable of responsible citizenship?
Is Hollywood reflecting a transhuman turn in popular culture, helping us imagine a day when magical and muggle can live together in a peaceful Star Trek federation? Will the merging of pop culture, social networking and virtual reality into a heightened augmented reality encourage us all to make our lives a form of participative fiction?
During this day long seminar we will engage with culture critics, artists, writers, and filmmakers to explore the biopolitics that are implicit in depictions of emerging technology in literature, film and television."
Here's a full list of speakers and a program.

Cost for the day is $150, or $100 for students, and includes lunch. For those who can't make it, the event will also be streaming live here, and a complete video record of the seminar will be posted online later.

Also, the venue for the conference is EON Reality, where engineers are researching 3D projections and other nifty virtual reality/augmented reality tech. There will be a demo!

Rupert Everett's advice to Gay Actors: "Stay In The Closet"

Rupert Everett has been openly gay since he came out 20 years ago, but he doesn't recommend that route for other actors.

"It's not that advisable to be honest. It's not very easy," he told UK's Guardian. "And, honestly, I would not advise any actor necessarily, if he was really thinking of his career, to come out."

At 50, the 'My Best Friend's Wedding' star says that homophobia in Hollywood has kept him from becoming a leading man. He says that heterosexuals are cast as gays (pointing to 'Brokeback Mountain' and 'Transamerica') but gay men are denied the plum straight roles and often reduced to drag.

"The fact is that you could not be, and still cannot be, a 25-year-old homosexual trying to make it in the British film business or the American film business or even the Italian film business," he said. "It just doesn't work and you're going to hit a brick wall at some point. You're going to manage to make it roll for a certain amount of time, but at the first sign of failure they'll cut you right off. And I'm sick of saying, 'Yes, it's probably my own fault.' Because I've always tried to make it work and when it stops working somewhere, I try to make it work somewhere else. But the fact of the matter is, and I don't care who disagrees, it doesn't work if you're gay."

Everett does admit that his openness about his sexuality has afforded him personal happiness if not professional success. He's glad he's not one of the "plenty" of gay Hollywood stars still stuck in the closet.

"I think, all in all, I'm probably much happier than they are," he said. "I may not be as rich or successful, but at least I'm vaguely free to be myself."

The outspoken actor has never been one to shy away from controversy. He previously said that President Obama has "gone black" and talked about Graydon Carter's "monster cock."

You can read the whole Guardian interview here.

Steampunk comes of age with Westerfeld's "Leviathan"

Plenty of young-adult novels feature teens reaching adulthood in a world that adults have royally buggered. And there's no shortage of books about a British Empire with improbably high technology. But Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan makes both of those themes epic.

Leviathan, out in a pretty gorgeous hardcover recently, doesn't feel like merely the latest iteration of the slew of "coming of age in dystopia" young-adult novels, even though that description pretty much fits: The book takes place at the start of an alternate-history World War I that looks to be every bit as bloody and horrifying as the real version. Nor does Leviathan feel like the umpteenth vaguely steampunk (or in this case, diesel-punk) book to come down the pike.

There are a few reasons for this. Most notably, Westerfeld leavens his dark wartime tale with a more-than-generous amount of humor and lightness — one character's catchphrase, "Barking spiders!", has already become a daily utterance among people of my acquaintance. But also, Westerfeld throws in enough odd twists to make his own peculiar alt-history seem quite unmistakable.

This seems like a good place to warn that there'll be spoilers in this review.

So as you might already have heard, Leviathan takes place in a very different version of Europe — the Germans and Austrians have fantastical machines, including Walkers (massive diesel-powered stomping machines that wouldn't be out of place among Star Wars' AT-ATs) and weird running machines. Meanwhile, though, Britain and some of its allies have developed a very different technology — in this timeline, Darwin discovered DNA, and now the British are able to recombine DNA strands to engineer new life-forms, including weaponized bats that eat and shit flechettes, and the Leviathan itself, a kind of floating whale kept aloft by the hydrogen created by the creatures in its belly.

So instead of merely being a conflict between two power blocs in Europe, World War I becomes the conflict between Britain's genetically-engineering Darwinists and Austria/Germany's mechanistic Clankers.

Into this odd (and somewhat implausible) alternate timeline, Westerfeld throws in two different young protagonists who are coming of age on opposite sides. Alek is the son of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination sets off the war in the first place, and because Alek could be next in line for the Archduke's throne (if his mother's commoner blood can be overcome) the Germans and Austrians will stop at nothing to destroy him. So his teachers take to the road in a walking machine, trying to stay one step ahead of the assassins who are trying to finish the job with the last family member.

Meanwhile, our other protagonist, Deryn Sharp, is a girl who pretends to be a boy so she can join the armed forces and fly through the skies on one of those dashing genetically engineered creatures. The plucky Deryn, now renamed Dylan, gets swept off to sea on a "Huxley," (a sort of floating jellyfish, I think), and winds up getting rescued by the Leviathan, becoming the newest member of her crew. Despite the constant risk of exposure, Deryn/Dylan never hesitates to throw herself into the midst of danger, scaling the heights of the Leviathan's rigging in the midst of peril at sea, and braving storms and enemy aircraft to do her duty and prove herself the best midshipman aboard. (She's the one who exclaims "Barking spiders!" at opportune moments.)

So both protagonists are guarding secrets with their lives, and they're both on the cusp of discovering first-hand just how ruinous the war the older generation has engineered will become. It's a good recipe for both protagonists to figure out who they really are, aside from the expectations that people have placed on them. Alek and Deryn figure out how to work the machines and organic creatures that they ride inside of, but at the same time we see them learning (by trial and error) to navigate the weird world of adult society, which is bumpier and more fault-prone than a thousand diesel-powered walking machines.

And the machines-vs-monsters war seems to hint at becoming a framework for a larger debate about which is preferable: to surround ourselves with raw technology, or to adapt nature to serve our purposes. The book (which is just the first volume in a new series) hints that the only real answer is a fusion between the two elements.

Leviathan is worth reading just for the larger-than-life adventures against a fascinatingly rendered backdrop of weird machines and weirder creatures — and Keith Thompson's illustrations, some of which we've featured before, add an extra layer of awesomeness to the mix as well. But as a new spin on the theme of young people discovering their place in an insane world, it's a genuinely memorable story. - Charlie Jane @ io9

"Panic Attack!" filmmaker inks deal with Ghost House

Fede Alvarez, the Uraguayan filmmaker behind the YouTube sensation short "Panic Attack!," has signed a holding deal with Ghost House Pictures to develop and direct an original genre project.
The deal, in the six- against seven-figure range, will see Ghost House hire a writer for the project, which is based on an idea by Alvarez.  

Alvarez made "Attack!," about giant robots attacking Montevideo, for several hundred dollars. The same day he posted, Hollywood, impressed by what he was able to do imaginatively accomplish for such a small budget, came calling. A week later he arrived in town to face a full court press of agents, managers, execs and producers. 

Alvarez ended up signing with CAA, Anonymous Content and attorney Karl Austen the week before Thanksgiving and entered immediate talks with Ghost House after bonding with its principals, which include director Sam Raimi.

The only "Team Edward" Shirt you'll ever need.

Twilight fans can keep their shirts emblazoned with Robert Pattinson's face. The rest of us know that the only Team Edward worth belonging to is Team Edward James Olmos. And know you can wear your affiliation proudly.

Joel Watson drew this strip for HijiNKS Ensue, his thrice weekly webcomic about technology and geek culture:

Naturally, this spurred an immediate demand for an actual Team Edward James Olmos shirt, and Watson has not disappointed. The Team EJO shirt is available for $20 at the HijiNKS Ensue store.

What "Iron Man" script?

Iron Man may have seemed as polished as fresh power-armor, but the movie actually had no screenplay at all, says Jeff Bridges. The chaos freaked him out, until he decided to think of it as a $200 million student film.
In an interview with InContention, Bridges explained that the Marvel superhero movie rushed into production to make its release date, with the director and star making up scenes as they went along:
"They had no script, man. They had an outline. We would show up for big scenes every day and we wouldn't know what we were going to say. We would have to go into our trailer and work on this scene and call up writers on the phone, 'You got any ideas?' Meanwhile the crew is tapping their foot on the stage waiting for us to come on."
Bridges, director Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. would literally act out sequences during primitive rehearsals, Downey taking on Bridges's role and vice versa, to find and essentially improvise their way to full scenes, the actor recounts. Bridges says that the entire production was probably saved by the improv prowess of the film's director and star.
"You've got the suits from Marvel in the trailer with us saying, 'No, you wouldn't say that,'" Bridges continued. "You would think with a $200 million movie you'd have the shit together, but it was just the opposite. And the reason for that is because they get ahead of themselves. They have a release date before the script, ‘Oh, we'll have the script before that time,' and they don't have their shit together.
"Jon dealt with it so well," Bridges continues. "It freaked me out. I was very anxious. I like to be prepared. I like to know my lines, man, that's my school. Very prepared. That was very irritating, and then I just made this adjustment. It happens in movies a lot where something's rubbing against your fur and it's not feeling right, but it's just the way it is. You can spend a lot of energy bitching about that or you can figure out how you're going to do it, how you're going to play this hand you've been dealt. What you can control is how you perceive things and your thinking about it. So I said, ‘Oh, what we're doing here, we're making a $200 million student film. We're all just fuckin' around! We're playin'. Oh, great!' That took all the pressure off. ‘Oh, just jam, man, just play.' And it turned out great!"
First off, that's amazing that he called them "suits." He really is The Dude. And second, this is just hilarious. I can't believe they let Robert Downey Jr. and Jon Favreau just run with this stuff. But, thank goodness they did, because what came out was a pretty great action flick blended with biting humor. Still I can't imagine what it must have been for everyone else on set.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Ballad Of "Black Dynamite" And How A Film Got Lost

In October 2009, a modestly budgeted blaxploitation send-up called "Black Dynamite" launched onto screens and stayed there for about a week. After an opening weekend gross of roughly $131,000, averaging out to about $1000 per screen, the film's distributor quickly pulled it from theaters despite it gaining positive buzz in the press. Thankfully, however, the film's quick stint in theaters will be rectified by an expedited February release on DVD, and its internet buzz is growing stronger despite the studio's complete lack of effort in advertising the film. The story behind the making and release of the hilarious "Black Dynamite" is a harrowing tale of niche appeal falling flat on its face, which, oddly enough, sealed its fate towards becoming a cult classic.

More Dolemite than Shaft, "Black Dynamite" parodies the worst kind of blaxploitation by lovingly recreating it. The movie is presented as if it were a recently discovered gem uncovered out of some dusty studio basement. Kung-fu fighting, hundred-dollar suit wearing, hyper-sexualized former CIA agent Black Dynamite isn't played by modern actor Michael Jai White but by all-star running back Forante Jones. It doesn't simply spoof blaxploitation; it is blaxploitation, down to every last detail. Actors flub their lines, stunts go wrong and boom mics swing into the frame. Everything, from the dialogue to the special effects, is rooted in the 1970s. Unlike, the Tarantino/Rodriguez financial flop "Grindhouse," which used digital manipulation to age its footage, "Black Dynamite" director Scott Sanders actually used 16mm film stock to achieve the look of a film that's been rotting away in the vault of a bankrupted studio for over thirty years.

In an interview with The AV Club, White, who co-wrote the film with Sanders, railed off the scenes the movie needed to stand alongside its blaxploitation brethren: "There's the conspiracy theory. There's white people depicted poolside. There's the chase scene. There's the unusually high death count, with people shooting people in the streets with absolutely no regard for the police."

A long time fan of blaxploitation movies, White came up with the idea for "Black Dynamite" while listening to James Brown's "SuperBad," which was also the original title of the film before a certain other movie snatched the title. White contacted Sanders and the two of them cobbled together the idea of what eventually became "Black Dynamite" in the form of a $500 YouTube trailer that mixed footage of White in character interacting with scenes lifted from various 70s blaxploitation films.

The trailer allowed White and Sanders to have something to show investors, and they eventually raised enough money to write and shoot the full version of the film. The viral trailer spread unexpectedly on the internet, "It started off on a Japanese website and then all of a sudden one day in June it just spread." Sanders told CHUD in an interview, "And we were like "wow we haven't finished the movie yet." Eventually the finished film premiered at Sundance to wild praise, and the movie was sold within twelve hours. And that's when things started to go downhill.

After Sundance, the buzz around "Black Dynamite" started to die off. The film's outrageous trailer never saw distribution in theaters, ads never appeared on television, and aside from a few sub-par efforts for the film to go viral (a Black Dynamite yourself feature on Facebook, it mostly went unheralded and unsung. The film's editor and composer, Adrian Younge, explained their situation to LI News: "It's just one of those films that…the studio's afraid of it. They felt that it was just too much of a niche film. So, I mean, there wasn't much that we could do… Because it's a low-budget film, we don't have that much money for marketing and all that stuff. It was just one of those things where we hoped that the public would just spread the word of mouth, you know?"

Well. It didn't.

But the story isn't over for "Black Dynamite." Most enduring cult features flopped in the cinema, in a weird way it's almost a right of passage. "Office Space" barely took in $10 million during its full theatrical run, and it's a similar story for movies like "Army of Darkness" or "Pootie Tang," another unsung blaxploitation spoof. While it's yet to be seen if "Black Dynamite" will ever reach the cult status of those slow burn success stories, the movie is certainly funny and wild enough to gain a massive following. While "Black Dynamite" is far from perfect (its appeal begins to taper off during its belabored, over-the-top climax), it's the type of imperfect film that strikes that key balance between broad and weird, and cool and dorky that cult audiences salivate over.

Even though the film failed to find an audience at the box office, its buzz lives on. Aside from the future DVD release, White and Sanders have both reported that an animated version of the movie is in the works for Cartoon Network that will be headed up by the creators of "The Boondocks." No official word from the network yet, but White seems to think it come out sometime next year.