Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Kicking Ass? (Part 2)

This past weekend, Kick-Ass barely won the box office crown in a photo finish with How to Train Your Dragon. Since then, people have been throwing a lot of numbers around about how profitable the film will actually end up being. In the past, Millar has been quoted as saying that Vaughn raised around $70 million to make Kick-Ass. In my recent interview with him, the number he used was $40 million. On the flip side, when Lionsgate acquired Kick-Ass last summer, Variety cited speculation that the deal was worth around $45 million. A recent LATimes article stated that Lionsgate “paid $15 million for distribution rights to the independently financed film,” and “spent a little less than $30 million on advertising and prints.” Lionsgate will end up keeping half the gross, while the rest stays with movie exhibitors.

According to MTV, Millar thinks the film is doing just fine. The film costs “$28 million after the U.K. tax breaks, and our U.K. and U.S. gross alone is already at $38 million as of last night.” Millar noted, “We were top Friday, Saturday and Sunday — which is amazing, considering we’re in the middle of a holiday season and up against 3-D competition with an R-rated superhero movie.”

He continued:

Monday, April 19, 2010

Kicking Ass?

Earlier today asked if Kick Ass was a success or failure. Before we actually answer that question (with a question), let's look at what Cinematical posted:
As you've already seen, Kick-Ass didn't exactly set fire to the box office the way many of its superhero predecessors have. It barely opened at #1 with $19.8 million, which isn't too shabby, but it's hardly the epic, groundbreaking blockbuster some may have expected.

But was it truly a failure? Kick-Ass was financed out of Matthew Vaughn's own pockets (studios refused to touch it due to content), and was made for a budget of approximately $30 million. It's now made $37 million worldwide. It will make its marketing budget back, and then some. For an indie film based on a creator-owned comic (and one without a major fanbase or instant character recognition), that may be considered a major success.

Yet Kick-Ass didn't take the world by storm, as expected by the online buzz and hype. (Remember, Kick-Ass was supposed to kill superhero movies as of a couple of weeks ago.) It scored a 77% on Rotten Tomatoes, it's been at the center of controversy, and it's been the subject of countless articles, but it couldn't scare up a more enthusiastic response at the box office. Remember, audiences will supposedly eat up anything to do with superheroes and comic books, yet Kick-Ass can't make it past the $20 million mark. It's not unlike the lukewarm response to Watchmen, which suggests audiences will only eat up the superheroes they recognize and love.
So what can we take away from this? Lets ask one question first: Was this a truly independent film? Vaughn financed it himself, not a studio, so I would say that yes, it was; albeit a high budget one with Nicolas Cage. However, it wasn't self distributed, so some would argue that its not truly independent in that sense, but you know what? A studio didn't finance it, so the production was independent indeed.

This brings me to my bigger question- THE question: Can you call something a success or failure from just its opening weekend? Isn't something a success if it makes its money back and more over time; especially if the film is actually good? (I have yet to see Kick Ass)

Success and Failure are two ends of a spectrum that changes from person to person; eye of the beholder, etc. In this instance it seems that Hollywood is doing the beholding. To Hollywood, opening weekend is still the be all, end all, of success (how easily they forget DVD still has yet to come until its time for them to put it on DVD, then the debate starts all over again).

What about films that have weak starts and gain more and more success through word of mouth; films like Once, Juno, Bubba Ho-Tep, etc? Ah, because those were considered to be "more independent" by the mainstream media (though Juno is again debatable in some circles). If a film like Once (made for a "tiny" budget of 175k) made 20 million its opening weekend, it would become a real success story and would be used as a vantage point for indie success like Paranormal Activity or Little Miss Sunshine (which seem to be the only two "independent films" in mainstream America's vernacular).

I'm just going to be honest here and give a piece of advice to my fellow indie filmmakers; frak this system. This is a horrible grading system when it comes to our work. MY idea of successful filmmaking is that of being a successful artist; not millions, but being able to continue working and supporting myself as an artist. If you're really in it for the money- please, just get out. Yes, I know there is the potential for a lot of money to be made in this industry, and maybe you might even get to have some of it (and all the more power to you), but if you successfully make an indie film from start to finish; as in you hired a cast and crew, fed them, PAID them, shot the film, edited the film and its good, consider yourself a success. I know this may be preaching to the choir, but... DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW HARD IT IS TO MAKE A FILM? Even just one with a budget of 5k? If you're able to make your money back and profit from that same film, consider yourself an even greater success.

Listen, I understand that this model is pretty much all that people pay attention to, but please, don't burden yourself with trying to form a project to conform to it; if you do you'll only drive yourself crazy. Admit to yourself that there's a chance your film may only have a niche audience and be OKAY with that. There are so many wonderful and beautiful films out there that you haven't even heard of that are some top quality, amazing things; or even just plain, good fun- a film that doesn't SUCK. I come across films like this all the time, and a lot of the time not only are they made for little money, but they've already made it back or are on their way to. The right media outlets are covering them.

So ask yourself this question: how much money do you really need to be satisfied?

No, seriously, ask yourself THIS question(s); if YOU made Kick-Ass and you made your money back, wouldn't you be happy? Wouldn't you consider that to be a success? Would you care what anyone thought about your box office (as opposed to your ART) if you considered it be successful; if it had fans; a following?

How films are better than your life

So one day chances of chances happen and as you stand sipping your glass of champagne your eyes meet with a beautiful girl. Was she beautiful, or was she beautiful. You talk to her and you hit it off, you're in heaven now. Great. Now years later you find yourself still with her and your love has flourished quite a bit since that first time. You tell the story over and over again, and every time you get the 'Awwwws' and the 'thats so cuuutes'. The most romantic thing that could have happened. Sounds like the plot of quite a few romantic films out there. Life imitates art imitates life. So you being the romantic you are, tell this story always leaving out the few significant details.

First and foremost the first time you met her, while thinking she was beautiful you were actually eyeing her friend for a good part of the night. She doesn't need to know that. And than when you walked up to her, you were nervous and your words slurred. Did she notice that. Probably did. Yet, she was probably nervous as well. So yes everything went haywire in just the right way. You ended up together and her friend that you liked for months afterwards ended up fading away in your memory as she bought out more and more real estate.

Cut to:

A film with the same premise:
Andy a young lad from Philadelphia meets Adriana, the love of his life. He swoops in and tells her that her eyes remind him of the stars and the places beyond. Romance is in the air. They see no one but one another. They fall into each others arms, and it's like they have fallen in love for the first time. They belong together and you know it as soon as you look at them. It's beautiful and perfect. He doesn't like her friend more. He doesn't think of anyone else. By the same token she never thought about her exes or anyone like that. They constantly think about how much they love one another.

In the hustle bustle of the film world we often forget why we watch films to begin with, and what are films for that matter. What are they? Are they mere depictions of reality? Are they more? Are they obscure and unreal? Films lie and make things look magical?

If you think I was going to make the point for escapism, you are wrong. Yes films help you escape into another world. That is a fact of a good film. But a great film is where you don't escape to another world, rather you escape to a version of yourself that you might have not experienced for a little bit or never fully experience at a similar level as the couple in the film. A great film forces you to relive the most treacherous and the most beautiful aspects of your past. So no, its not necessarily escapism that we create with the film scenario being perfect. Not at all. It is a version of your own life story as best you can remember it.

You pop in the film in your high tech blue ray player. You see these two people unite on a beautiful eve. You are not wishing that you were them. No you think you are them. Why is that? Well that could be attributed to this beautiful thing called human memory. After a while you only remember certain aspects of the situation when you recall it. There might have been those moments where you didn't want her and a million other things, but you don't focus on that. You focus on the beauty of your unison and how she was meant to be yours, and you hers.

So the film didn't take you anywhere you hadn't been. It didn't even take you to a better version of your own story. It quoted the story as you most likely remember. And for those outside the picture, people that don't share your story, it showed them how you felt. No art can capture the wide array of human emotions and thoughts in any given moment let alone an extended period of time. So films capture the essence of your emotions at a given time. You look at the couple and you think about your current love or the one you have lost, and you know feel what the character is feeling. Or you see them feel what you have felt. Either way you have formed a bond that is significant and emotional enough to drive the following pathos.

Films are magical and they try to catch those butterflies that were mingling in your stomach when you met her. Or at least thats how you remember it. So the silver screen is not as imaginative as you might think. it captures human imagination and human emotions and at its best tries to find the perfect way to display it so you may feel that moment of pathos. Real life is not perfect but in retrospect everything looks so much different. Quoted with your fading memory for details, everything seems like a film.

In essence a good film captures those moments perfectly, as they should be captured. So if you hear a person say 'it's never like it's in the movies'. Yes, it is never like its in the movies. But after a while it becomes like that. And as a matter of face it might be like that to an outsider regardless. You might be more self conscious and think about the details that were uninteresting or boring, but to an outsider your story might be beautiful and romantic. Yes, you might not connect with every little instance of the film, but if you can somehow relate to what they are feeling on the screen at key moments, than the team of dedicated individuals behind the camera have done their job. So the magic of film is the magic of your life.

The age old saying: LIfe imitates art, imitates life.

Cinematical asks "Can Kickstarter Save the Indie Film Industry?"

Over at, contributor Eric Snider explores the magic of Kickstarter.

The other day, Erik Childress spotlighted an effort to gather enough small contributions to produce a special DVD edition of the documentary The Way We Get By. The project is being coordinated through Kickstarter, a year-old Brooklyn-based organization whose name has been popping up on the Internet a lot lately. Call me crazy -- go ahead, I'll wait -- but I think this could be the way of the future for independent filmmakers and other artists to get their projects funded.

It works like this. Let's say I need $5,000 to make my documentary about the life of Charles Nelson Reilly. I launch a Kickstarter campaign, ask for pledges, and set a deadline by which the $5,000 needs to be accumulated. People can donate as little or as much money as they want, using a credit card and Amazon's secure payment system. (Amazon and Kickstarter are buddies.) But here's the twist: The donors' credit cards aren't actually charged until the deadline arrives -- and even then only if we've reached $5,000 in pledges. If we haven't, nobody pays anything, and that's the end of it, except for my sadness over not being able to bring Mr. Nelson Reilly's life to the big screen.

You can see the advantages here. As a donor, you don't have to pay anything right now, and maybe not ever. That's appealing. If they don't get enough pledges to fund the project, you're off the hook, but you still get the good karma points for offering.

As a filmmaker, I'm able to gauge interest in my project without wasting anyone's money. Since it's an all-or-nothing system, I can find out if it's even possible to raise $5,000 without any risk. It's better than a regular "pledge" system, where people say, "Sure, I'll give you $50 on June 1!," and then change their minds when you come around to collect it. With Kickstarter, you provide your payment info when you pledge, and if the minimum is reached by the deadline, your credit card gets charged. (Kickstarter does give donors a way to cancel their pledges before the day of reckoning, in case you have a financial emergency, or you realize you got wasted one night and pledged money to a hundred different projects in a fit of drunken philanthropy.)

There are several hundred projects on Kickstarter right now, about 300 of them in the Film/Video category. Lots of documentaries. The minimum pledge is usually about $5. There are usually perks for donating, like the tote bag you get when you pledge to PBS. If you have $20 to throw around -- or, more to the point, if you'll have $20 to throw around when the deadline arrives! -- you could donate to a few different projects. You can search projects by keyword to look for topics that are particularly meaningful for you, or search for the name of your city to see if someone local needs help. If you really want to feel good about yourself, use the "Ending Soon" filter and find something whose deadline is fast approaching and only needs a little more money to make it. You could be the hero who puts it over the top! They'll sing folk songs about you!

A casual stroll through the projects shows that many of the films have already been shot and now need money for post-production. That's the case with Melvin, a feature by Austin-based Chris Ohlson, who has co-produced SXSW films like The Overbrook Brothers and Lovers of Hate. Or there's How Do You Write a Joe Schermann Song?, a movie musical that Gary King hopes to shoot this summer. The minimum pledge is a buck. A buck! Surely you have a dollar for Gary. Or The Guarani Project, a documentary that will bring attention to an aquifer in South America that could solve the world's water-shortage problems. (Full disclosure: One of the Kickstarter projects is The Adults in the Room, a narrative/documentary hybrid in which I appear, briefly, in one of the documentary scenes. I think the water movie might be a more worthy cause, though.)

Kickstarter is only for creative projects like movies, not "important" things like raising money for orphans or helping disaster victims. So, yeah, if you have to choose between helping somebody make a movie and donating to a humanitarian organization, I'd go with the latter. But many of us can afford to do both, especially when we're talking about $5 at a time. For a lot of these ambitious guys and gals, making a movie is their lifelong dream. Wouldn't it be kind of awesome to help them do it?

By the way, if anyone has a film-related Kickstarter success story to share, let us know! Kickstarter been around for a year, so I suspect we'll start seeing movies soon that were partially funded this way.- Eric Snider (link:

On a personal note. I have had great success with Kickstarter, using it to fund a short film that I'll be shooting the first weekend of May. Its a great resource!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Red Band Trailers

The best part of going to the movies are watching the trailers for some of the upcoming films that we want to throw down our money for in order to just escape from our mundane lives for a bit with a little action, romance, comedy or all of the above. But what happens when trailers are given the opportunity to be able to entice the viewer with some of the more "adult" scenes from the movie?

Red band trailers have seemed to be the staple for marketing in the past years in order to sell a movie, I remember first seeing this when "Superbad" came out years ago and recently a red band trailer emerged for "Get Him To The Greek". With these new trailers we are made privy to how much swearing, nudity and sexual perverseness there is to expect if we decide to check this movie on on the set due date.

For me I think this is the worst possible way to market a movie. Why? Well simple, I remember seeing the red ban trailer for "Superbad" and thinking "Wow if stuff that funny is in the movie, think of what else could be in it!" And I went to go and see the movie and to my surprise all of the scenes and scenarios that we presented in the red band trailer were alot of the memorable lines from the movie. Which to me is kinda cheating, I think that red band trailers use this gimmic to be able to show the best parts of the movie in about two and half minutes and then kinda coerce you into buying a ticket to the movie. When I saw "Superbad" I just thought, "I just pretty much all of the best stuff from that movie for free on my laptop at home, why in the hell did I pay twelve bucks to see it?"

A great example of a movie that didn't go this route and was majorly successful was "The Hangover" I don't think there was a single red band released for that movie mainly because alot of the comedy in the movie was appropriate to show in the a typical green band trailer damned if it wasn't funny! Another good example is "Role Models".

Hopefully marketers will get the idea to not spoil the movie for free for people who are already excited for a certain movie. I personally want to be surprised when I go to the movies and want the unexpectedness to be one of the reasons why I am going to the movie.

How do Movie Theaters decide which Trailers to show? (By stereotyping their audiences)

Before seeing Clash of the Titans in 3-D, filmgoers at AMC theaters must sit through previews for the Nightmare on Elm Street remake, Salt, and Step Up 3-D, among others. These films have little in common and seem intended for vastly different audiences. How do movie theaters decide which trailers to show?

The "quadrant" system. As many as six trailers play before features at major chains, like AMC and Regal. The studio releasing a given film typically has automatic rights to two of these slots, and theater executives (in consultation with higher-ups from various studios) select the remaining four. Though theoretically studios and theaters could attach any trailer to any movie, they usually decide which releases to promote by using the "quadrant" system, which divides potential audiences into four different categories: men under 25, women under 25, men over 25, and women over 25. Before chick flicks, theaters play previews for romantic dramas as well as romantic comedies, because they figure that's what young women will eventually want to see. Regal Cinemas also began matching red band trailers, which include profanity and sexually explicit scenes, with R, NC-17, and unrated movies in 2008. And sometimes theaters disregard quadrants altogether if something else ties the movies together—say, if they're all in 3-D. (It's impossible to show a 3-D trailer before a 2-D movie, since those audiences aren't wearing special glasses.)

Of course, since there are often more than four possible previews available in a given quadrant, negotiating which trailers make the cut can be tricky. The young men going to see Clash of the Titans might enjoy learning about any number of upcoming movies—Kick-Ass, The Losers, Iron Man 2—in addition to the films already being advertised before the feature. Theaters further narrow the field by trying to treat all major studios more or less equally. They might play Warner Bros. trailers on 20 percent of all screens and Disney trailers on 30 percent, for example. The same trailers don't always play before the same movie at every branch of a large chain, so it's possible to spread the wealth around.

Sometimes distributors don't want to settle for equal treatment. Every studio wants its own films to piggyback on surefire hits, regardless of quadrants. As TiVo, the cable renaissance, and the Internet have eaten away at television audiences, theatrical trailers have become more and more important as marketing tools. Moviegoers are a captive audience, after all—and studios will do whatever they can to take advantage. Though such behavior is frowned upon, executives have on occasion paid exorbitant amounts to ensure that their trailers will be well-placed, as when Sony's Jeff Blake gave a theater chain $100,000 to ensure that the trailer for The Animal, a Rob Schneider vehicle, would be shown before Universal's The Mummy Returns in 2002.

The trailer placement system at independent theaters is much simpler: They only show trailers for movies that will soon be playing on one of their screens. For these exhibitors, the calendar is the only factor at play—and sometimes, their coming attractions don't even have trailers, which simplifies things even further.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Maureen McHugh: The Illusion of Authenticity

It’s funny, but stories on the internet often evoke stronger emotions than stories on television and movies. That’s not to say movies and TV don’t make people feel. Field of Dreams probably made more men cry than all the funerals the year it was released. It’s my sense that people feel that interacting with a character—by email or phone, for example—makes it all feel more real. I never thought much about it, just accepted it as fact. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. I think that it’s true that interaction plays a big part. But I also think that in twenty years, the effect will have worn off.

No Mimes was at a joint conference between USC and UCLA at University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts in March. The conference, called Transmedia Hollywood, was a long and interesting day. Many smart people. The thing that we do, tell distributed stories on multiple platforms using interactivity, has a bunch of names, transmedia being one of them. There are lots of long discussions about what we do, what the essential components of the artform are, and whether or not it is an artform, all of which are pretty interesting.

But I’m not going to talk about that because I think it’s an impossible question.

During the day of panel discussions, one of the words that kept coming up was ‘authentic.’ Comments like, ‘It works if it’s an authentic story.’ After awhile it was a little like listening to Stephen Colbert talk about ‘truthiness.’ Susan Cowan and I talked a little about it later at dinner. She has a lot of historical training and for her the word ‘authentic’ often refers to historical accuracy. And indeed, one of the panelists used the word that way. But most of the others seemed to be using ‘authentic’ to mean ‘makes an impression’ or ‘feels real’. An authentic story is almost by definition an oxymoron. Sure, there are true stories. But we were talking about fiction. About The Matrix, and the Batman movies. About Blair Witch.

As a novelist, I know techniques to create emotion in a reader. They don’t work one hundred percent of the time, but they’re pretty tried and true. Shakespeare and Homer used a lot of them. Listening to all of these people say ‘authentic’ made me think about technique and in particular about an actress, Eleanora Duse.  She was the Meryl Streep of her era (she was born in 1858 and died in 1924). She was ‘natural.’ She was ‘moral.’ She didn’t wear make-up and she didn’t use the conventional gestures of her day. She is remembered for her work in Ibsen’s plays. But of course, most of her acting jobs were in contemporary plays, most of which we would now consider melodramas.

The anecdote I read and which I now can’t find, I’m sorry to say, described Duse acting in a melodrama. She played the wife of a man who was about to abandon her and their small son. The account describes how the convention worked, that the woman, on being told by her cad of a husband that he was leaving her, would fold her arms theatrically across her chest, her head back as if she might faint. Duse was standing, the child actor against her, his back in her skirts as if leaning against her in apprehension. The ‘husband’ delivered his news, and Duse leaned down and gently folded the boys arms across his chest, instead of doing it herself. The audience gasped, many sobbed.

Obviously they were moved to strong emotion. Obviously this was ‘authentic’ as many of the Transmedia Hollywood panelists were using the word. And why was this authentic? Well, it isn’t, of course. It is possibly true that many people used the gestures of melodrama in real life, just as it is true today that we sometimes learn behaviors from sitcoms. But what made the audience react was that they knew the convention, and like most conventions (which are really clichés) they didn’t feel much when the convention is acted out. What Duse did startled them. It was close enough to the convention to be recognizable, but it was novel. It was unexpected.

Transmedia has that advantage today. Almost every project I’ve worked on has drawn on a completely new and therefore naïve audience. While there are conventions to ARGs—the countdown, for example—the stories seem most effective when the plot of them is rather conventional. Too unconventional and the novelty of form and story feels overwhelming for the audience. But if the audience has a sense of where they are in a story—oh this is the part of the story where something criminal happens, oh this is the part of the story where the hero rescues the scientist, etc—then they can follow along, just as everyone knew that crossed arms and hands flat against breast meant that the heroine had been dealt a harrowing emotional blow. But just as Duse’s doing it with the boy’s arms felt fresh, learning that the girl has been kidnapped in an email feels intimate, startling, novel.

So achieving ‘authenticity’ requires novelty in an established convention. The audience needs some level of comfort and some elements of surprise. For now, Transmedia is pretty much always surprising for the audience. I suspect that in ten or twenty years, we may have to work harder at it.

I, for one, intend to milk this moment for all it’s worth. - Maureen McHugh

TV Directors: Doing everything Movie Directors do, only faster (sometimes).

The next time you watch Lost, try setting aside the theories of good and evil, the intricacies of electromagnetic fields, the crush you have on Josh Holloway. Focus, instead, on the camera angles.

Consider, for instance, the airplane sequence in this season's premiere, "LA X." It re-created scenes from the 2004 pilot, but with differences small and large: a guy gets one bottle of vodka instead of two; someone's on the plane who wasn't there before; and oh, yes, there's no crash. It was the viewers' first glimpse of an alternate reality, and it was intended to be unsettling and surreal. That's why, for certain shots, director Jack Bender put his camera on a rocker plate, allowing it to tilt and swoop eerily around a character's head. "I just wanted something to be a little off," he told me.

Casual viewers might not have even been conscious of that movement, but Bender knew it would affect the mood in the way he wanted. It's the kind of technical choice that a good director makes, and it's the reason why, in the movie world at least, directors get power, glory, and ample credit for their creativity.

In television, however, directors work in relative obscurity. They're listed at the end of the opening credits but rarely become household names. TV is known as a writer's medium, driven by the people who devise plotlines and character arcs. The auteurs are the show creators and the show runners, who oversee all aspects of production. The Sopranos was considered David Chase's show; Boston Legal was David E. Kelley's; Grey's Anatomy belongs to Shonda Rhimes.

But on ambitious TV shows—an ever growing category—directors are far more than just baby sitters who tell the actors where to stand. Directors help to establish a visual language for individual episodes and for series as a whole. They're responsible for choosing camera positions and drawing out performances from actors. Bender describes his role as cooking a meal from a recipe the writers have provided.

Rod Holcomb is among the career directors who have worked on a broad range of shows, shifting continuously between genres and styles. After starting his career in the ABC mailroom—really!—he worked his way up to a producing position on The Six Million Dollar Man, then started directing episodes of Battlestar Galactica, B.J. and the Bear, and Hill Street Blues. He later became one of a subset of TV directors who specialize in pilots; his include the first episodes of The Greatest American Hero, China Beach, and ER. For the ER pilot in 1994, Holcomb devised the show's trademark verite style. Action scenes were designed to convey a feeling of organized chaos—the camera was constantly moving, and the actors had to work to stay in its view. It was an idea he drew from visits to real emergency rooms, where long stretches of boredom were punctuated by sudden bursts of manic activity.

Pilots establish the look and feel of a series, but early episodes continue that work, and there, too, directors can have a major influence. Bender didn't direct the Lost pilot—that was J.J. Abrams—but he helmed the second episode, "Walkabout," and set some ground rules that have largely endured. Handheld cameras shouldn't be used unless they serve a real dramatic purpose. ("I said, 'OK, let's not become the handheld show,'" Bender says.) Blues and greens, the main colors on the island, should largely be kept out of the flashback scenes. During the filming of "Walkabout," Bender also made subtle changes to the script in order to heighten the drama. One scene, set on the beach amid the ruins of a crashed airplane, called for a knife to fly through the air and land in the trunk of a tree. Bender decided to send the knife into a seat cushion lodged in the sand, while a character sat in the adjacent seat.

Bender is also an executive producer of Lost, overseeing the filming operation in Hawaii (which includes managing the series' other directors) while the writers and show runners toil in Burbank. Show runners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse leave many of the day-to-day decisions about props and sets to Bender and count on him to maintain a consistent vision and tone. "The ultimate goal—and this is more Jack's responsibility than it is ours—is that when you're watching an episode of Lost, you're immersed in the experience of watching it,'' Lindelof says.

But even directors who swoop in to helm a single episode often have power to block scenes and modify scripts. They just have to learn to navigate different show runners' styles. Aaron Sorkin, creator and writer of The West Wing, barely writes stage directions at all, says Lesli Linka Glatter, another longtime TV director. He'll produce pages of dense dialogue and leave directors to sort out the motion. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, by contrast, writes scripts filled with physical descriptions, specifying when Don Draper picks up a glass of Scotch and when he takes a sip.

But Glatter says she's learned that Weiner is open to suggestions, too. She can tell him, "Matt, I understand that Don Draper is taking an emotional beat there. Can he look out the window versus taking a sip of Scotch?" The answer tends to be yes. "He just needs to know you know what the subtext is," Glatter says. "And once you do, he gives you a lot of freedom."

On a series like Mad Men, that freedom translates into the ability to direct what is essentially a small independent film, choosing shots that set a tone and send a message. In the Season 3 episode "Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency"— for which she won a Directors Guild of America award—Glatter made the decision to film a charged scene between Don and Joan Holloway as a "two-shot," without cutaways or close-ups. She also storyboarded the grotesque-yet-hilarious sequence when a runaway lawnmower crosses the Sterling Cooper offices and runs over the foot of a British executive. For the pivotal moment when blood spatters onto three Sterling Cooper employees, Glatter pulled a trick to ensure that the actors would look genuinely shocked. She told them fake blood would be thrown on them on the count of three. Then, when the camera was running, she had it thrown on "two."

It was jolting, but also just right—as Glatter notes, the entire episode "was about expectation and uncertainty." A director's job, she says, is to establish that kind of overarching theme and to do so at the breakneck pace of television production. Compared with film directors, TV directors work through a lot more material, a lot more quickly. On many shows, directors have a scant eight days to prepare for an hour-long episode and eight more to shoot it; two-hour feature films are often produced over the course of months.

"You need to know what the $5 scene is and what the $1 scene is," Glatter says. "You have to know … the scene that turns your story and what you want to spend your time on."

Sometimes it's the small scenes that benefit most from a director's touch. Holcomb has directed his share of boffo action sequences, but he also talks with pride about a segment in a recent episode of The Good Wife, the CBS legal procedural starring Julianna Margulies as a politician's wife who returns to the work force after her husband gets caught in a scandal. The scene features Margulies and Josh Charles, who plays a law school friend—and possibly an old flame—who is now her boss. They're discussing her role at the firm, but there's ample subtext: jealousy, mistrust, and unrequited love.
"I want to be here," she says.
"I want you to be here," he replies.
"Then … then I'm here," she says.
"OK," he says.
The dialogue is spare but the scene takes up a lot of time. Holcomb says his chief contribution was to insist that the actors not rush it: "I just simply said, 'Too fast. Too fast. Slower.' " When the camera lingers on their faces—the slight smile on Margulies' lips, the wistful look in Charles' eyes—it's clear that the director knew what he was doing. - Joanna Weiss

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Alan Sepinwall tells us why Conan's move to TBS was the "right choice"

From Alan Sepinwall: In announcing his stunning decision to abandon negotiations with Fox in favor of doing a talk show on TBS starting in November, Conan O'Brien joked, "“In three months I’ve gone from network television to Twitter to performing live in theaters, and now I’m headed to basic cable. My plan is working perfectly.”

But the best jokes all come from truth, and the truth is that the TBS move, while a shocker, is probably the smartest one Conan could have made once NBC squeezed him out of "The Tonight Show" chair.

Going to Fox would have been Conan repeating the same mistake he made in wanting "The Tonight Show" so badly, and in going through with that plan even after NBC poisoned the well for him by putting Jay Leno on at 10.

Conan wanted "Tonight" because of what it once was - the Johnny Carson version he grew up watching in an era when the broadcast networks ruled all - rather than what it had become by the time he was due to inherit it. Conan's audience was not the "Tonight" audience, and at 11:30 viewers who might otherwise be on Team Coco were used to watching Stephen Colbert or Adult Swim, while viewers accustomed to 17 years of Leno-fied "Tonight" soundly rejected the new guy. (Since Leno reclaimed the show, the overall audience has gone up, but so has the median age of that audience.)

Everyone assumed Conan would go to Fox, but that was only because Fox was the last of the Big Four networks without some kind of presence in late night from Monday to Friday. But that kind of thinking is what led to Conan trying and failing to be accepted by the Leno crowd.

Sure, the broadcast networks are still the biggest game in town, but they're not as big as they used to be, and success in television these days comes as often from finding and satisfying a niche - which Conan did splendidly for so many years on "Late Night" - as from trying to bring in a bigger, more diverse, less engaged crowd.

TBS doesn't have the audience Fox has, but it has more money to spend. It's one of the biggest outfits in cable, and cable has an unfair financial advantage over the networks: where broadcasters like NBC and Fox only make money from advertising, a TBS makes money from both ads and cable subscriber fees. So they can afford to spend more on Conan (all reports on Monday suggested the TBS deal was much bigger than anything Fox was offering) while also living with lower ratings, where NBC had to pull the plug on Conan's "Tonight" (which was getting viewership numbers much higher than he'll likely get on TBS for a while, if ever) after only a few months.

Fox, on the other hand, not only had to limit its financial risk, but had to battle with local affiliate stations to air a Conan show at 11 or even 11:30, when many of those affiliates would rather air lucrative repeats of "Seinfeld," "The Simpsons," et al. TBS has no affiliates to please; when Conan's show launches in November, it'll be on at the same time everywhere you get TBS, which is virtually every cable supplier in the country.

(And in the process, Conan will push incumbent TBS latenight host George Lopez to midnight. But where Conan balked at NBC's attempt to push him back to midnight by a Leno return to 11:35, TBS' official party line is that Lopez asked Conan to come on board. If true, he no doubt figured that a show at midnight with a Conan lead-in was a better long-term bet than a show at 11 with sitcom reruns as a lead-in.)

If Conan went to Fox, he'd be fighting for a slice of the same aging (and less lucrative) pie that still turns to the networks for late night comedy, and he'd be starting out with a show that, at best, would have aired at 11 o'clock in 70% of the country. Every tenth of a percentage point up or down would have been analyzed to death by the media, and chances are it still wouldn't have worked.

At TBS, he's suddenly the channel's biggest star, and yet overall expectations will be much lower than they'd be at Fox. He'll also hopefully have more freedom to experiment with the form, and to focus more on the things he does best (absurdist comedy) and less on the traditional areas where he's not that interesting (the promotional interviews).

Conan can joke about going from broadcast to basic cable, but the fact is we're on at least our second generation of Americans to grow up with cable in the home, and for whom TBS and CBS are two equal channels in the same DVR programming guide.

In his final, moving moments as host of "The Tonight Show," Conan asked of his viewers, "Please don't be cynical. I hate cynicism - it's my least favorite quality and it doesn't lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen."

A cynic might suggest that Conan was settling with this decision. But in the long run, I suspect he's going to be much happier - and in a much better position from which to attempt amazing things - than if he'd gone to Fox just because he felt he had to stay in the broadcast network game.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Making A (Science Fiction) Movie On A Shoestring: Where Can You Cut Corners?

You're maxing out your credit cards, or you've found an investor. However it's happened, you've got money to make your film. Now the question becomes: how to make that money last? Where do you spend, and where do you save?

I've had lots of occasion to grapple with these questions during my time in film school, and I've learned the hard way that the less money you have to spend, the harder you have to work to make it effective. The mantra you should be thinking about is, "You get what you pay for."

Where to spend:

Director of Photography:

If you're a beginning filmmaker, chances are you don't have as firm a grasp on cinematography as you would want. I'm not saying that to be dismissive or rude, I'm saying that as a compliment to talented cinematographers, because it's a very specific skill set. A good DP will come to your project with a willingness to help you execute your vision, but also a viewpoint of their own, so they'll be able to make suggestions you might not have thought of to bring out the story better.

Yes, you can use a student DP and I know three amazingly talented student DPs that I would hire in a heartbeat for any project, no questions asked. But this is a place where using someone with great experience and knowledge will elevate your film and educate you as a filmmaker. Total win-win situation.


You want to use the best camera you can afford. Yes, your story is the most important thing. Yes, the crew and the talent you bring together to bring that story to life are extremely important.
But don't cheap out on the camera in favor of any item on the "save" list. Because the better camera you have, the better the picture will look with the poor lighting you're probably going to be working with, and the less the audience will have to strain to suspend its disbelief.

It's not a perfect world. Audiences only have so much tolerance for grainy, ill-defined images, even if there's a great script. Film is a visual medium. Make sure your visuals are as top notch as they can be.
And some people disagree with me here, but if you have the cash to spend, there's still nothing that quite beats the look of real film, except perhaps the Red . Digital is good, and it has its own look to it. So really think about that choice and what look is best for your story.


You might have some issues with George Lucas these days, but his insistence that sound is a fundamental part of the filmmaking experience is absolutely right. So please take this from somebody who has learned the hard way time and time again: get good sound equipment and somebody who knows how to use it. Or, get a good sound mixer/recordist and ask them what they'll need to supplement their own equipment.

Your script can be amazing, but if nobody can hear it, it doesn't matter. Sound is not as easy as you think. A good sound person is like a good DP — they'll elevate your project and help you learn how to make your own vision even better.

Script Supervisor:

Somebody on Twitter asked me the other day how important a script supervisor was to a low-budget indie project. Now, as a script supervisor, I'm obviously biased, but as I told them, it's MORE important the lower your budget and the more your constraints. The less budget you have, the more prone you are to cut corners and the likelier you are to have mistakes creep in. The more disorganized you get, the more hurried you become. Your script supervisor's job is more than just maintaining continuity (thought that's a large part of it) but also to help you make sure you've shot everything you want to get, that there are plenty of accurate script notes for the editor, that everything will cut together properly in the end... the list goes on and on.

To learn more about what a script/continuity supervisor does, "That Continuity Guy" has a wonderful section called Continuity 101.

Even if you find somebody willing to work for free or a very low rate, you should be willing to pay a "kit rental" fee to help them offset the cost of their consumables (binders, paper, pencils, etc) and the tools they provide to do their job (digital cameras, printers, laptops, scanners, etc.)


In one of my first film classes, a working professional came in to give a talk to the class. He told us that there was one golden rule of filmmaking, never to be broken:

Always feed your crew.

I'm going to say it one more time so you realize how important this is:

ALWAYS feed your crew.

Film sets are strenuous places, and the people who are working for you are working hard and doing it all for the glory of the director's vision, maybe it's because they believe in the project, or maybe they just need the work. But no matter what, they deserve to eat.

If you're shooting in the morning, have coffee (and maybe juice for people like me who don't drink coffee). Have lots of water available, because it gets really hot under the lights and because you don't want people dehydrated and sick. Have snacks for people to munch on.

But the big thing: if you're shooting for more than a couple hours, have a meal. If you're shooting for more than twelve hours, have two meals. Ordering up enough pizzas to feed everyone is perfectly acceptable, that's pretty much the standard on student shoots. But feed your crew. If you don't, it is a one way ticket to grumpy workers, sluggish movement, and bad performances. The simple act of making sure people have food will work wonders, and let you get away with low, low budgets on everything else including their paychecks.

On the bubble:


If you're shooting mostly outdoors, you can probably get by with very minimal lighting equipment just to diffuse or bounce the sunlight the way you want it.

If you're shooting inside, you might be able to get by with lamps and the lights in the space. But you probably will need at least one lighting kit. Lighting is so key that it's hard for me to say you don't need much of it, but a good DP will be able to help you find ways to light your scene without costing you a fortune. This is a case where the amount you'll need to spend on lights is directly related to how good your DP and your camera are.


Having a professional take care of your color correction and sound mix are just good ideas. You can learn it and do it yourself in a pinch — most people I know do. But in the end, there's just no substitute for somebody who has real talent and skill making sure your final visual and sound are downright perfect. Sometimes, you can enter contests and festivals with your almost-finished film where you can win money specifically for these finishing tasks.

Where to save:

I should probably duck and hide on this one. But there are just so many wonderful, talented actors out there that are looking for experience and as long as you feed them (see above) they'll come out and give you a damn good performance. Put out a casting call and you'll be surprised at what you get. I'm talking professionals, too — not just casting your friends in the part because they'll do it for free.

I'm putting this at the top of the list though because if you can afford to pay your actors, you really should. They're bringing your vision to life, and they're the public face of your story. But there are a lot of actors just looking for good stories to perform, and if you treat them well they'll give you something amazing.


You can find a lot of locations that are happy to let you film just so they can get their logo in the film, or see their name in the credits. Think about how to dress spaces to make them look different from what they are if you need to. (Try to avoid having your starship's engineering room look like a beer brewery, for example.) But feel free to make your friend's apartment look like three different houses with careful camera angles and decoration.

Your local film office might have a directory on their webpage of locations that are willing to let film crews in, though some of them might have a rental fee. But if you explain your project and they like it, they might be willing to work that out as well. Think about what you can offer the place in exchange. But make absolutely sure that no matter where you go or how much you paid them that you treat the place with respect and restore it to 100% when you're done. If you damage it, offer to fix it or pay for the repair. If you spill something, clean it up.

Production Assistants:

You can practically throw a rock and hit somebody that will be a production assistant. Don't get me wrong, a good PA is worth their weight in gold, but at the same time, a lot of people are just looking to get credits to their name and get some experience. If you just need somebody to fetch coffee and empty trash cans, get one of your friends to help. If you want somebody that is working with the camera crew, see if your local university has a film program and ask them how to post a listing to their students. My school has a listserv where volunteer jobs are posted all the time.

Other crew:

If you hire a good DP and sound mixer, then they might be able to help you fill out your crew with students from local film programs, or other locals that aren't as expensive because they're just getting started. I hate to say it, but media jobs are scarce right now so posting on Craigslist should get you plenty of responses from people who want the work to keep their skills sharp. Just be aware that the more inexperienced your crew, the longer your shoot is going to take, and the more of an ordeal it is going to be. Your camera crew especially shouldn't be all newbies, because the DP doesn't have time to explain what a c-stand is (if you can afford c-stands).


Like other jobs on the list, you can probably find somebody who is looking to start in the business and is willing to work for cheap on Craigslist or the like. But it's in your best interest to make sure you have at least somebody on the set to help the actors not just look their best, but look like normal human beings. Cameras have a way of making normal, healthy skin look weird in one way or another. Like script supervisors, it's polite to pay for their consumables and kits.

Special effects makeup is trickier. You can do a surprising amount of stuff yourself if you study up, or get somebody vaguely knowledgeable. But the materials are more expensive, and unless you intentionally want it to look bad (which is a valid style) it might be best to get somebody with experience.


When you're hiring your actors, ask if they would mind wearing their own clothes for your shoot. Depending on the style of the project or the style of the character, that might not be possible, but for most things it's pretty easy. But always ask politely, and if they don't want to, respect their wishes.
BUT, if you do use their stuff, make sure that you take care of their clothing and reimburse them for any and all damage that happens during the course of the shoot .

If you're doing something that requires a particular style of costume or period, there are a lot of ways to borrow things. Maybe a local shop or clothing designer is looking for some advertisement (seriously, offering ads and exposure is always good). Ask local theatres and university performing arts departments if they might be willing to loan costumes.

Set dressing/props:

You'd be amazed the weird and fun things your friends might have in their basements and garages. For a one-act play I directed, it called for all kinds of weird props like a steering wheel, a huge empty picture frame, a nightstick, and a head of lettuce. The only thing I didn't find in my parent's basement was the head of lettuce.

While you might want to avoid a situation where you use a razor as a communicator, at the same time props can be almost anything if you paint them or change them properly. I know you've probably sat and watched sci-fi series and movies and tried to figure out what some of their props actually were, so apply that kind of thinking. If you need help coming up with ways to create props cheaply and well, make friends with some cosplayers. They also could help on the costuming end of things.


Editing software is another case of "you get what you pay for." If you really want to edit like the pros and do the absolute best post-production job that you can do, you want Avid Media Composer. Only slightly behind is Final Cut Pro. As much as people love to praise it for being such a cheap option, it still has a very hefty price tag (especially if you don't own a Mac and have to buy one of those). But in the end, if you're editing this piece yourself, you might not even know how to use the best features on those programs anyway, so why pay for them if you aren't going to use them?

There are several cheaper options, like Pinnacle Studio, which I haven't used myself, but I've used a similar product by the same company and liked it. Lifehacker has a rundown of some of the options that are out there.

But I'll tell you right now, that you shouldn't use Windows Movie Maker. When it comes to real editing, it's junk. You can string together your home movies using it, sure. But film editing? Never. Most people with any experience editing feel similarly about iMovie, but it does the job, just not in a very pleasing way once you're used to real programs like FCP and Avid.


There are a lot of local bands and musicians online that will work for free just for the exposure. It's a marketing tool for them, and you just have to dig and find them. There's also some surprisingly good music for low prices on sites like iStock. But don't use copyrighted music if you can help it, because its way more trouble than its worth and it means that you'll be in trouble if you want to submit your film to festivals or charge at screenings. Even YouTube could take it down if you use music without permission. It's dumb to risk it if you don't have to.

And last word of advice: please be prepared for your budget to disappear when you're not looking. Even the most well intentioned people end up spending money in places they never expected. So maybe you should only max out one credit card, so you have another to buy last minute props and set dressing.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

"Instructions" by Neil Gaiman

Touch the wooden gate in the wall you never
saw before.
Say "please" before you open the latch,
go through,
walk down the path.
A red metal imp hangs from the green-painted
front door,
as a knocker,
do not touch it; it will bite your fingers.
Walk through the house. Take nothing. Eat
However, if any creature tells you that it hungers,
feed it.
If it tells you that it is dirty,
clean it.
If it cries to you that it hurts,
if you can,
ease its pain.

From the back garden you will be able to see the
wild wood.
The deep well you walk past leads to Winter's
there is another land at the bottom of it.
If you turn around here,
you can walk back, safely;
you will lose no face. I will think no less of you.

Once through the garden you will be in the
The trees are old. Eyes peer from the under-
Beneath a twisted oak sits an old woman. She
may ask for something;
give it to her. She
will point the way to the castle.
Inside it are three princesses.
Do not trust the youngest. Walk on.
In the clearing beyond the castle the twelve
months sit about a fire,
warming their feet, exchanging tales.
They may do favors for you, if you are polite.
You may pick strawberries in December's frost.
Trust the wolves, but do not tell them where
you are going.
The river can be crossed by the ferry. The ferry-
man will take you.
(The answer to his question is this:
If he hands the oar to his passenger, he will be free to
leave the boat.
Only tell him this from a safe distance.)

If an eagle gives you a feather, keep it safe.
Remember: that giants sleep too soundly; that
witches are often betrayed by their appetites;
dragons have one soft spot, somewhere, always;
hearts can be well-hidden,
and you betray them with your tongue.

Do not be jealous of your sister.
Know that diamonds and roses
are as uncomfortable when they tumble from
one's lips as toads and frogs:
colder, too, and sharper, and they cut.

Remember your name.
Do not lose hope — what you seek will be found.
Trust ghosts. Trust those that you have helped
to help you in their turn.
Trust dreams.
Trust your heart, and trust your story.
When you come back, return the way you came.
Favors will be returned, debts will be repaid.
Do not forget your manners.
Do not look back.
Ride the wise eagle (you shall not fall).
Ride the silver fish (you will not drown).
Ride the grey wolf (hold tightly to his fur).

There is a worm at the heart of the tower; that is
why it will not stand.

When you reach the little house, the place your
journey started,
you will recognize it, although it will seem
much smaller than you remember.
Walk up the path, and through the garden gate
you never saw before but once.
And then go home. Or make a home.
And rest.

Katzenberg On The 3D Sophomore Slump?

Jeffrey Katzenberg is repeating history, almost 20 years later.
His "sophomore slump" memorandum. which was one of the first pieces of internal Hollywood industry correspondence published by a media outlet without authorization - in Variety, though there is no trace of it from searching their website and we are still working on finding a full copy of the memo from 1991 - was all about how the high concept studio that he and Eisner perfected in resurrecting Disney was about to become bastardized, overused, overspent, and devalued.

 He was dead on.

And now, in Variety - yes, they can still get a studio head to do an interview between blog leaks - he is at it again. And I am quite sure that he is right again.

" We are asking the moviegoers to pay a 50 percent premium to come see these films. So I think (there will be a) backlash. It will be a whiplash. They will walk away from this so fast."

Yeah. 50% isn't true, but close enough.

Now, I have to call bullshit on JK a little. He seems to be suggesting that since he built this thing - and only Jim Cameron's fingerprints are as firmly connected to Nouveau-3D - that he should be allowed to decide who gets to milk the cash cow.

He beneficently gives Alice in Wonderland a pass... buying into the spin that Tim Burton designed a second of it for 3D... but Clash of the Titans is just too much for him!

"the revenue (today) from a successful 3D release net to the studios is greater than the erosion in the DVD market over the last two years."

Yes... for that ONE film. But not for the industry overall. He runs a company now that is 3D Animation Only. His one or two films a year are clearly benefited. So studios that release 15 films a year need to back off so he can be safe generating his increased profitability?

The bottom line is that most big studio films are shit, have been shit, and will be shit. Alice wasn't any better because of 3D, whether it was shot for the projection system or not. There may be another movie which feels as good in 3D as Avatar again... though I would still argue that Avatar was no better in 3D than in 2D. But those movie experiences are few and far between.

"For the last four or five years, the raging debate here has been the inability of Hollywood to convince exhibition, because there's really nothing in it for exhibition. It doesn't change the economics of their business. They can't charge more for a digital experience. The thing that finally got everybody off the dime was when there was something in it for exhibition, which was 3D.

So now take that 3D out of the equation and you derail that (digital) train. And who's the biggest beneficiary of digital, of a full digital platform? Hollywood. So when you want to talk about the effect of actually blowing this, it's unbelievable."

Again... a bit of hyperbole. What got the theaters off the dime is that the studios finally agreed to pay most of the bill for the new projectors. Indeed, there are hundreds of millions and as much a $2 billion per year to be saved by studios by having digital exhibition. That train has left the station and is not coming back. It would make no sense for the studios to get in their own way.

For the first time in almost a decade admissions are way up. Almost all of it can be attributed to 3D. There's a reason to get out of the home and go back to the movies.

More spin. Almost all of it can be attributed to Twilight 2, The Hangover, The Blind Side, and Avatar.

That said, every $100 million domestic animated film other than The Princess & The Frog happens to have been in 3D. But if you look at 2008's $100m animated grossers, only one of which was 3D, they were less than 20% behind the average domestic gross of 2009's six animated $100m films.

Can anyone legitimately say that 3D was the difference? No. And has been pointed out, as discussed many times here, admissions is a blurry, blurry stat. Did admissions really go up a lot? I don't really know. What I do know is that there were 6 films that grossed over $200m domestic in 2008 and 10 in 2010. Is that 3D's fault?

I am convinced that there (is) a high road to take, and that it would produce the best opportunity to come along for our business in a decade. I'm even more convinced that if we take the low road, we'll be out of the 3D business in 12 months.

The "low road" is everyone jumping on the bandwagon. The "high road" is 10 films a year... without quality police. Keep the novelty. Keep the bonus pricing.

JK is dead right. This will blow up. It will sink. And not because this movie sucked or it was 2D conversion that was never meant to be 3D or whatever. 3D was the new fad in town this year. And as I have written before, the opportunity is being raped more quickly than I have seen any other phenom get raped. But when 3D matures... like IMAX... it is a niche' thing, not a new standard. And if the industry keeps acting as though it is some new standard, it will die like the dodo. And as Katzenberg says... it will happen faster than you can say, "DVD."

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Naked Honesty: Why mumblecore nudity will never go mainstream.

Greta Gerwig is usually nude at some point in the movies she appears in. This fact was addressed by New York Times film critic A.O. Scott last weekend in an article about Gerwig's breakthrough performance in the Noah Baumbach movie Greenberg: "When she takes off her clothes—which is not infrequently—it does not seem teasing or exhibitionistic but disarmingly matter-of-fact." Scott argues that Gerwig's unaffected nude scenes in Greenberg share the aesthetic of her earlier work in so-called mumblecore films—ultra-low budget, often-improvised movies about lost twentysomethings. He sees Gerwig as carrying the "loose, no-big-deal" mumblecore aesthetic into Baumbach's film and believes she has the potential to take it even further into the mainstream "Ms. Gerwig, most likely without intending to be anything of the kind, may well be the definitive screen actress of her generation," Scott writes.

Greenberg does occasionally achieve the loose feel of a mumblecore film, thanks, in no small part, to Gerwig's performance. Yet it is a mistake to equate Gerwig's nudity in Greenberg with the nudity in mumblecore movies like Hannah Takes the Stairs, Humpday, Nights and Weekends, Tiny Furniture, and Alexander the Last. Gerwig could become the definitive screen actress of her generation, but there are limits to how much of her aesthetic she'll be able to bring to more mainstream pictures—and it's especially hard to imagine Hollywood ever really adopting the approach to nudity that's been a hallmark of her mumblecore work.

When Gerwig is naked or semi-naked in Greenberg, it is always in a sexual context. Much has been made of the supremely awkward sex scenes between Gerwig and Ben Stiller, particularly their first encounter. As Slate's Dana Stevens describes it, "Baumbach throws the two together on a cringingly bad sort-of date that segues in a matter of minutes from a shared Corona to a truncated act of cunnilingus." Gerwig's nudity in that scene is anything but matter-of-fact: Baumbach seems to be going out of his way to make her appear ungainly, outfitting her in an unflattering bandeau bra that Stiller's character has trouble removing. Furthermore, there is a visual imbalance between the pair. Gerwig's character is half-clothed, while Stiller remains completely dressed. That Gerwig is a relative unknown while Stiller is one of the most famous, recognizable men in the country further exacerbates this imbalance.

Actors in mumblecore movies get naked to have sex too, and they have a lot of it. But the nakedness really is matter-of-fact—there's a sense of intimacy that feels authentic and nonjudgmental, though it's not always pretty. In Nights and Weekends, the opening scene shows Gerwig and her co-star Joe Swanberg, bursting into a dingy, post-grad apartment and having sex on the floor. They are a couple in a long-distance relationship who have not seen each other for months, and without any dialogue the two convey their excitement. Both are equally naked in this scene and Swanberg is obviously aroused. For the viewer, there is again a sense of recognition: This is probably what I look like having sex. In a mumblecore film, there are no manicured Hollywood caresses, and the bodies portrayed are not Hollywood bodies—one Variety reviewer described Lena Dunham's figure in Tiny Furniture as "Neither model-thin nor obese"—but they're not made out to be freakish, nor are they especially sexualized. They just are.

What's more, actors in mumblecore movies are often nude in nonsexual contexts: They're taking a shower (Nights and Weekends) or walking around their apartment in their underwear (Tiny Furniture). The nakedness doesn't titillate; it's mundane—the viewer thinks, This is probably what I look like while I'm brushing my teeth in the morning.

This is not to say that the nudity in Greenberg has no mumblecore DNA at all. Gerwig didn't do several months of yogarobics to be naked on-camera—in a very un-Hollywood turn, she gained 15 pounds for Greenberg—not because Baumbach requested it but because she felt her character, Florence, was someone whose "thighs rubbed together when she walked." Usually when an A-list actress agrees to be nude in a movie, it is only after being assured that she will be shot in the most flattering way possible. In the recently released Atom Egoyan movie Chloe, for example, Amanda Seyfried and Julianne Moore are both fully nude, but they both have "ideal" bodies and are made to look as glorious and erotic as possible.

In those rare instances when nudity is shown in a nonsexual context in a Hollywood movie, it is rarely casual. Sometimes it's a very big deal, like Julianne Moore's famous pantless scene in the Robert Altman film Short Cuts [link very NSFW]. She's having a major argument with Matthew Modine's character, and when he registers that she's half-naked, he screams, "You don't have any panties on!" In other instances, nudity is played for laughs—this is often the case with male nudity. In a DoubleX article from last summer, Willa Paskin noticed the trend of flaccid penises showing up in comedies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall. In that film, Jason Segel's character surprises his girlfriend naked when she walks in the door after a long trip. When he realizes that she is dumping him, he demands that she break up with him while he's still unclothed. 

Even if a mainstream movie wanted to employ the casual nudity of a mumblecore film, it would be difficult to pull off. Mumblecore movies are highly collaborative affairs, often made by close friends. Typically, the actors also have writing credits and do some work behind the camera. Director Joe Swanberg, for example, is naked on-screen in Nights and Weekends and in his Web series Young American Bodies. Lena Dunham, the writer, director, and star of Tiny Furniture, a recent festival darling, told me over the phone, "I've never gotten naked for another director, which for me is defining." She appears in varying degrees of undress in her first feature, Creative Nonfiction, and in Tiny Furniture. Her co-stars in Tiny Furniture are her real-life mother and sister, so when she is walking around with no pants on it's that much more of a safe space. This intimacy would be tough to manufacture in a big-budget movie, not just because it's rare for A-list actors to know one another so well, but also because there are so many more crew members involved in a bigger productions.

 Perhaps the most significant reason true mumblecore-style nudity is unlikely to ever really make it into the mainstream comes down to money. Mumblecore movies are so small that they do not get rated by the Motion Picture Association of America. If they were rated, most of them would likely get the dreaded NC-17. A quick perusal of the top-grossing NC-17 films shows that the rating means comparative box-office death.

The earthy feel to the films that Greta Gerwig and her cohort have developed may "blossom and cross-pollinate with other, older strains in American cinema," as Scott tentatively predicts in his essay. And while true mumblecore-style nudity might never show up in a box-office blowout—as Dunham says, "It's not like you're going to see a James Cameron movie with chubby girls naked"—it could show up in smaller, lower key mainstream productions. If directors are looking for an example of how this might work, though, they should skip the painful sex scenes in Greenberg in favor of one that really does capture the spirit of the Gerwig aesthetic. Toward the end of the movie, on the eve of an emotionally fraught event, Gerwig dances drunkenly around her apartment in tights and a shirt. She's not naked but looks like she's taken off an uncomfortable skirt in order to relax after a trying day. Who among us has not performed this sort of half-clothed ritual alone in our rooms? It's as vulnerable and true as that Corona-sipping sex scene is brutish and contrived. - Jessica Grose

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Why this whole 3D business is starting to offend us (and others)

The new Clash of the Titans hits theaters this weekend in 3D — not because the filmmakers wanted it that way, but because Warner Bros. could charge more for it. Which is just plain wrong.

Listen, Hollywood, I know that we're in a recession and theatrical attendance is down, and you're all gaga over Avatar's titanic bottom line — which was undeniably goosed by the fact that moviegoers had to pay extra to see it in 3D. But, you know, this is starting to get silly.

lash of the Titans boasts some of the worst 3D of the modern age. Remember that 3D episode of Chuck? Better than this. Why? Because it's a movie that was shot in 2D, force-converted into 3D. Again, we ask why? Greed. Not because the film would play better or look better or achieve a sensory experience unattainable on a "flat" screen. Simply so that it would make more money.

And, of course, Hollywood's in it for the greenbacks. I get that. And I don't have a philosophical problem with 3D, either. When done well — in the aformentioned Avatar, How to Train Your Dragon, Coraline, Up, even Beowulf — 3D can be a wonderfully transporting, enveloping tool. But when it's done with all the deftness of a fingerless mercenary...I call bullshit.

Have a little more respect for me, the audience. Earn my cash with glory; if you deliver unto me true spectacle, I'll gladly deliver unto you my money. But don't reach in my pocket just because you can. Or I'll...I'll...I just won't leave the house. So there.

Off Topic: Decades-Long Physics Mystery Sparked by Ice Cream

So every now and then, we here at Weatherlight like to take some time away from Film and Culture to point out interesting stories. Our friends over at Science/Sci-Fi Blog io9 have posted a very interesting piece on the mystery behind the science of ice cream (and freezing boiling water).

How did a love of frozen treats lead to one of the greatest mysteries in physics? Find out in our tale of the Mpemba Effect, a still-unexplained phenomenon where boiling liquids freeze faster than cool ones.

In the 1960s in Tanzania, a high school kid wanted ice cream enough to do something unscrupulous. Who among us can blame him? Most of io9's readers are adults, and it's a safe bet that a number of them are willing to do something unscrupulous right now to get ice cream, just because they're reading about it. Young Erasto Mpemba's ethical lapse was far more minor. His entire class was making ice cream from scratch. They had to boil the milk, let it cool, and then store it in the freezer so it could freeze. Mpemba watched his classmates filling the freezer with their cooled milk, while his was just-boiled and still steaming. He didn't want to risk missing out, so he put his milk in the freezer even though it was hot.

To his surprise, his teacher's disbelief, and the no-doubt smoldering resentment of the kids had who let their milk cool and missed out on ice cream as a result, Mpemba's milk froze fastest.

Mpemba remembered this phenomenon well into adulthood, studied past instances in which people observed that warm liquids froze faster than cold ones, and worked with other scientists to verify this. They found that under certain circumstances, the Mpemba Effect does work. Hot liquid, especially water, freezes faster than cold liquid when it is placed in a freezer.

Why should this be possible?

Because the problem is so complex, there hasn't been a definite explanation. There are many posited theories, however. Cool water, when placed in a freezer, insulates itself. A layer of ice forms at the top, preventing more heat from escaping. Hot water does not form the layer of ice as quickly, and so it cools faster. Hot water in a frosty freezer melts the ice underneath it. Soon, however, the ice reforms around the dish that the water is put in, and wicks away the extra heat. Since cool water doesn't melt the ice underneath it, it sits on craggy frost, instead of a fitted sleeve of ice. The surface area between it and the ice is reduced, and heat won't escape as quickly
Only two theories, though, have passionately valiant defenders. These two theories are currently battling it out Rocky I, II, III, or V style.

The first theory features Io9's old friend, nucleation. Disgusting, yet unseen, pieces of dirt in water form sites on which ice crystals can accumulate. Different kinds of filth form crystals at different temperatures. The high-bidder piece of refuse, the one that forms crystals at the highest temperature, will determine what temperature water freezes at. James Brownridge, an independent researcher, believes that the nucleation temperature of water determines whether or not the Mpemba Effect will occur. If the impurities in one container of water are such that, it freezes at least five degrees higher than another container of water, then when the first container of water will freeze faster than the second if it is heated.

In other words, if you have two glasses of water, and you put them both in the freezer at room temperature, and the Wolverine Origins glass of water freezes at five degrees higher than the Thundercats glass of water; thaw them out, warm up the Wolverine glass to eighty degrees, and bet someone twenty bucks that it will freeze first.

But there's another contender for the title.

Apollo Creed to Brownridge's Rocky, or Mickey to Brownridges' Paulie, or perhaps the Robot Butler to Brownridge's Adrian – it's tough to make Rocky metaphors – is Jonathan Katz.

His theory rests on another property of water. Water doesn't just have invisible specks of grime floating in it. It also has little specs of grunge dissolved in it. Whether they are salt, or carbon dioxide, or magnesium, they merge with the water to form a briny muck that freezes lower and boils higher than water should. Heating water will shake free some of these substances, claims Katz, and will cause the Mpemba Effect to occur. Whether it occurs or not will depend on the composition of the water, the container, and how much the substance was heated.

The debate rages on. Perhaps someone reading this will finally put the question to rest.

More likely, though, they will go out for ice cream.

Friday, April 2, 2010

How to win or lose on movies' box office prospects

Two companies are proposing exchanges for betting on movie box office receipts. It's similar to how investors now trade on futures for corn and other commodities.

Trend Exchange from Veriana Ventures would require higher minimum investments than the Cantor Exchange from Cantor Fitzgerald. That means movie fans and other amateurs would more likely be able to participate in Cantor's system, which would be accessible through a Web site.

In Cantor's case, a so-called hedger — such as an investor in the movie or just a fan — would sell futures contracts to a speculator valued at $1 for every $1 million in expected U.S. and Canadian ticket sales during the first month.

So if the market believes the next "Harry Potter" movie would make $175 million, a futures contract would initially go for $175. That opening price would be determined in an auction about six months before a movie's release.

That contract would trade higher and lower as expectations rise and fall. If box office estimates rise to $200 million because of good reviews closer to the movie's opening, holders of existing contracts could resell them for $200, making $25 in profit. Or a hedger could sell a new contract for $200 to a speculator.
If "Harry Potter" ends up making $250 million when the month is up, the speculator would gain $50 for every contract bought at $200. That $50 would be paid by the hedger. However, if the movie makes only $150 million, the hedger would pocket the $50 difference — paid by the speculator.

Multiple those figures by hundreds or thousands of contracts, and Hollywood investors could cover a good part of their risks.

Theory of the day: How Apple's iPad Will Save Comics and Crush Dreams

Apple's iPad — known to some as the Savior of Everything — drops in a few days. As every industry figures out how to deploy its shininess, here's how comics oughta roll.

With Apple's Slab of Wisdom and Justice about to drop on our unworthy society on April 3rd, those who both work in comics and read them voraciously have seized upon it as a focal point around which to finally figure out how comics will evolve into the digital world. There are scores of comic-reader apps floating around, including offerings like LongBox, Panelfly,, comic.x, and others. Which are all well and good — and some, like LongBox, have a lot going for them — even if they're kinda missing the point.

What's needed is not a program that'll replicate the experience of reading a comic book — heck, the copious torrenting of books shows that people don't care how they ingest the content, just that they do — but rather will offer them the one-stop ease of experience that, say, the iTunes store provides. It's as much about the content as it is the delivery of that content. What's needed is what noted digivore John Rogers calls a podcast-style management tool. Let's say you wanna read The Walking Dead. You buy a year's subscription in one fell swoop and it just shows up on your iPad, just like the latest Fresh Ink podcast shows up on your iPhone. Sure, you'll still be able to buy singles and collections ("graphic albums"), but you'll want to have your pull list automated — fire-and-forget comics intake.

And to think that Apple's gonna let anyone mind this particular shop but Apple is to betray a fundamental ignorance of the way Apple's done business for the last thousand years. If the iPad is going to be the salvation of comics in the Digital Age, then I'm real sorry, lads, but I don't think there any room left at the inn. - Marc Bernardin

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Why is Frankenstein so hard to do right?

There have been movies based on Mary Shelley's classic for almost as long as there have been movies themselves. But why are so few of them any good?

With the news that Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov is set to adapt The Casebook of Victor FrankensteinPeter Ackroyd's novel which posits that Percy Shelley and Victor F. were classmates at Oxford University and one goads the other into breaking nature's laws — we got to thinking about the legacy of the Modern Prometheus.

There have been at least 60 filmed adaptations of Shelley's 1818 book — perhaps the first true science-fiction novel— from the sublime (James Whale's 1935 The Bride of Frankenstein) to the silly (1973's Blackenstein). It's drawn the eye of filmmakers like Kenneth Branagh, Mel Brooks, Tim Burton, and Andy Warhol and captured the imagination of actors like Boris Karloff, Robert De Niro, Christopher Lee, and the great Clancy Brown, who've all played Frankenstein's Monster.

I think, however, you'd be hard-pressed to need two hands to count the number of truly excellent Frankenstein films. Heck, even just thoroughly entertaining ones. But why? What is it about the Frankenstein mythos that is so attractive and yet so frustrating? Is Victor so sterile as a protagonist — devoid of passions or obstacles that aren't directly related to his scientific pursuits — that he's just boring to watch? (Not for nothing has the creature become known as Frankenstein; the true bearer of the name is a bit of a pill.) Is it that the most interesting character — the Monster itself — doesn't show up until too late in the story? Is it that there are so few surprises, to a modern audience, that the tale just feels rote?
Why is Frankenstein So Hard to Do Right?
I don't know the answer. I wish I did, as then I'd be rich beyond the ken of mortal man. But the proof is in the undead pudding. I hope that Bekmambetov cracks the Frankenstein code: It's a shame that one of pop culture's most enduring characters doesn't have a film made in the last 70 years equal to his stature. - Marc Bernardin