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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Newsweek's directors roundtable

Absolutely nothing to do with technology...but a fun conversation with Steven Spielberg, Ang Lee, Paul Haggis ("Crash"), George Clooney, and Bennett Miller ("Capote"). All five were just nominated this morning for "Best Director,", and all five of their films got nominated for "Best Picture," and all five got nominated for a screenplay award, too (either "Original" or "Adapted.")

Here's a snip:

    NEWSWEEK: In fact, the studios don't want you to make these kinds of movies. [Like "Munich," "Brokeback Mountain," "Capote," etc.]

    SPIELBERG: With the exception of my film, none of these other films were part of the conventional studio system. They were all maverick productions that dared to challenge audiences with things that they feel very private about.

    CLOONEY: But in general you still need the studio to distribute the films, so I'm not bashing studios. I think they've actually taken some chances this year. It costs so much to distribute even the little movies. Bennett, how much did your film cost to make?

    BENNETT MILLER: $7 million.

    CLOONEY: And it probably cost $20 million to distribute.

    MILLER: No way. It was more like $10 million.

    CLOONEY: But now, with the [Oscar campaign] ads, I imagine it's more.

    PAUL HAGGIS: I wonder how much influence those ads actually have.

    SPIELBERG: I never look at the ads, because it's just too much to read. And everybody here has gotten so many kudos. Especially Ang's movie.

    CLOONEY: Yeah. I don't read an ad unless it says "Brokeback Mountain" across the top. [Laughter; Lee smiles and hides his face in his hands.]

    SPIELBERG: My family was actually planning to take a trip next summer to Brokeback Mountain. It sounded like a nice place to spend a week. [Laughter]

Remixable movies

The day may not be far off when a new movie has just one director, but a hundred editors.

Wired Magazine writes about Michela Ledwidge's latest project, "Sanctuary," a ten-minute sci-fi movie "about a girl, her computer, and a mysterious murder."

But Michela's version isn't the only one; she's going to offer up all the production footage (nine hours), plus extra sound effects and dialog.

You'll get your chance to make a "Sanctuary" remake here, starting in February.

(Here's a bit more background on Michela's work.)

Your questions for Dan Glickman, John Fithian, and other movie bigwigs

The BBC is offering you the chance to ask questions of MPAA chairman Dan Glickman; Curt Marvis, CEO of CinemaNow; Lavinia Carey, director general of the British Video Association; and John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners. (Thanks to BoingBoing for the link.)

Some great questions are being posted already...Among them:

- It looks like there's a battle brewing over whether HD DVD or Blu Ray will be the most successful format. There have been many competing formats for video disks (laser disks, CD-i, CD-g, VCD and Super VCD among them) and all bar DVDs have failed. Why would someone want to spend money on either of them until the format war is over? Should the user wait until drives that can read and write to both (as happened with DVD- and DVD+) become available?

- What will it take for the industry to move away from franchising and the constant bombardment of sequels and spin offs and instead move back towards original content?

- Is the film industry equipped to adapt to a low-budget market if profits continue to fall? Independent cinema's popularity and profitability continues to rise, proving that expensive effects and cookie cutter plots are not universally appealing. I even witnessed an entire theatre groan and boo during King Kong which, for some reason, critics like.

Monday, January 30, 2006

What makes Pixar special (and the challenges ahead)

Bill Taylor and Polly LaBarre (both friends of mine from the early days at Fast Company) had a great piece in Sunday's New York Times headlined, `How Pixar Adds a New School of Thought to Disney.'

They write:

    Since 1995, with the release of "Toy Story," Pixar's films have reinvented the art of animation, won 19 Academy Awards and grossed more than $3 billion at the box office. But the secret to the success of Pixar Animation Studios is its utterly distinctive approach to the workplace. The company doesn't just make films that perform better than standard fare. It also makes its films differently — and, in the process, defies many familiar, and dysfunctional, industry conventions. Pixar has become the envy of Hollywood because it never went Hollywood.

    More than a few business pundits have drawn parallels between the flat, decentralized "corporation of the future" and the ad-hoc collection of actors, producers and technicians that come together around a film and disband once it is finished. In the Hollywood model, the energy and investment revolves around the big idea — the script — and the fine print of the deal. Highly talented people agree to terms, do their jobs, and move on to the next project. The model allows for maximum flexibility, to be sure, but it inspires minimum loyalty and endless jockeying for advantage.

    Turn that model on its head and you get the Pixar version: a tightknit company of long-term collaborators who stick together, learn from one another and strive to improve with every production.

The piece goes on to focus on Pixar University, the company's extensive in-house training program: it offers more than 110 courses on filmmaking, drawing, sculpture, and writing.

Reading the piece got me thinking about the two challenges facing John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, the duo who'll now be running animation at Disney and Pixar:

  1. Preserving the culture and talent pool at Walt Disney Feature Animation
  2. Providing constructive oversight at both Disney and Pixar without slowing down the development and production process (they'll essentially be supervising twice as many movies, and trying to raise the quality of Disney's films while maintaining the quality of Pixar's)

If you want to read more on the road ahead for Disney and Pixar, I'd point you to two pieces from the LA Times last week:

- Pixar's Creative Chief to Have Special Power at Disney: Greenlighting Movies

- Fabled Film Company May Get a Reanimator

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Two-sentence Sundance reviews

It has been a long time since I've regularly written movie reviews (about 14 or 15 years), but I wanted to offer some quick takes (two sentences or less) on the nine movies I saw at Sundance this month... They're listed in order of how much I enjoyed them.

- `Kinky Boots'

    The context for this by-the-numbers comedy -- the hollowed-out industrial north of England -- will bring up memories of `Billy Elliott' and `The Full Monty,' and the wonderful costumes can't help but evoke `Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.' But as much as the narrative feels predictable, with conservative factory workers clashing with Lola, the drag queen whose shoe designs might save a generations-old business, wonderful performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor as Lola and Joel Edgerton as the shoe factory scion turn it into a real treat.

- `Man Push Cart'

    Director Ramin Bahrani, aided by novice actor Ahmad Razvi, cracks open a door into a world you'd never considered: that of immigrant pushcart vendors in New York City. Their film is moving, acutely observed, and honestly unresolved.

- `All Aboard: Rosie's Family Cruise'

    I was ready to be underwhelmed by this documentary, which seemed like it'd have two points: gay families can be every bit as warm and loving as straight families, and intolerant protesters are bad. Instead, director Shari Cookson's unerring story selection - especially her choice to focus on the ex-NFL player who's now out, and the straight teens of gay parents - make the movie soar (even if Rosie herself seems a bit dour in her post-talk-show incarnation).

- `Steel City'

    Brian Jun is 26; remember that name. His first feature, set in the down-at-the-heels town of Alton, Illinois, offers a non-stop barrage of insights into the male mind.

- `Who Needs Sleep?'

    Haskell Wexler, the legendary cinematographer, plays the role of a less-astringent Michael Moore in this documentary about the problem of sleep deprivation in the motion picture industry, which has caused the deaths of several of his friends. The world needs more cranky old men like Wexler looking into societal ills.

- `Puccini for Beginners'

    There are some charming moments in this romantic comedy, set in Manhattan, but I didn't find myself laughing much. There's great pacing and energy, though, in the farcical climax at an engagement party, where the indecisive main character, Allegra, must confront her boyfriend, her girlfriend (his ex), and her ex-girlfriend (who's engaged to a man).

- `A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints'

    A few scenes between Rosario Dawson and Robert Downey Jr., as grown-ups who once dated as teens, light up the screen. The rest of the movie, about the mean streets of Queens during the 1980s, meanders like a group of aimless adolescents on a summer Saturday.

- `Animation Spotlight'

    Either the Sundance programmers who selected the shorts for this year's animation package are seriously depressed, or there's a fierce Pixar backlash brewing among young animators. The cream: `Gopher Broke,' `The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello,' ` At the Quinte Hotel,' and `Fumi and the Bad Luck Foot.'

- `Madeinusa'

    Incredibly difficult to watch -- though there's some merit, for the anthropoligically-oriented. But among my friends, "at least it was better than a rural Peruvian incest film" is now our favored back-handed compliment.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Sundance panel: `Stay-at-home Movies'

Just a quick link over to the Fast Company blog, where I've posted some notes from this morning's panel discussion on "Stay-at-home Movies: The Home Theater Experience and the Future of Distribution."

Some thoughts on what `Bubble' means for theaters and studios

It isn’t often that owners of movie theaters, who make their money peddling popcorn to Saturday night crowds, root for a new release to fail. But that’s just the position they find themselves in today, with the debut of “Bubble,” by the Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh.

The movie is being released simultaneously in several places: on DVD, on a premium cable channel, and in theaters. (The DVD release will be a bit delayed – until Tuesday.) That aggravates theater owners, who are accustomed to having exclusive rights to show a new film for several months. And they’re right to be on edge: “Bubble” could mark the start of a period of brutal, Darwinian winnowing for cinemas. But Soderbergh’s latest production may also be the curtain-raiser for a new era in Hollywood: an era in which presenting consumers with a smorgasboard of viewing options, at different prices but on the same day, will reduce piracy while creating new efficiencies and growth opportunities for movie studios.

Directors and some studio executives have already voiced their opposition to the idea of simultaneous release. Last year, “Sixth Sense” director M. Night Shyamalan told the Hollywood Reporter, “I just feel this idea of releasing everything at the same time is gonna kill us.”

“Bubble” itself seems an unlikely candidate to generate so much angst. Though Soderbergh is well-known for his work on big budget films like “Ocean’s 12” and “Erin Brockovich,” featuring stars like Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, “Bubble” has a cast of unknowns who’ve never before acted in a movie. It was shot with a high-definition digital camera for a budget of less than $2 million, and though it was shown last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, it hasn’t yet built up much critical buzz. The story centers on the tense relationship between three workers in an Ohio doll factory, one of whom is killed under mysterious circumstances.

The teeth-gnashing in Hollywood started last year, when Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner, technology entrepreneurs turned movie moguls, announced that they’d signed Soderbergh to make a series of six films that would be released in a new way. Cuban and Wagner have built a small entertainment empire, which includes the Landmark Theatres chain of 59 art house cinemas, as well as several production companies and two cable channels that broadcast in high-definition. They felt that simultaneous release would address two problems the movie business faces today.

First, they posited that a big chunk of movie piracy owes to movies not being instantly available for viewing at home or on the run, on devices like laptops or portable media players. Second, they believed that by concentrating marketing dollars on a single release period – rather than splitting the spending between the theatrical release and the DVD release several months later – they could build more awareness for a given film. (On Monday, IFC Entertainment followed their lead, announcing a simultaneous release plan of its own for 24 movies this year, including “American Gun,” starring Donald Sutherland and Marcia Gay Harden.)

Cuban, who also owns the Dallas Mavericks NBA team, has said that professional sports offers a model for the movie industry: fans can experience a game by buying a ticket to attend, watching it on TV, listening to it on the radio, or reading about it the next day in the newspaper. He wanted to give moviegoers a similar array of choices, rather than dictating how and when they could view a new film, as is Hollywood’s custom.

But sports teams pocket lots of money from selling broadcast rights to their games. Theater owners keep only a small slice of the ticket price, and make most of their money selling Milk Duds and other concessions. They’re right to worry about losing their exclusive grip on new films: having to compete with the convenience of watching a just-released movie at home will almost certainly force some of them out of business, especially if other movie studios follow Cuban and Wagner’s lead. (Studios are divided: Disney CEO Bob Iger hinted to Wall Street analysts last year that he believed that movie release models might benefit from some tinkering, but Warner Bros. distribution chief Dan Fellman flatly stated that simultaneously release was “not going to happen” at his company.)

That’s why most theater owners will take a hard line on “Bubble” and other films that 2929 Entertainment, Cuban and Wagner’s company, plans to release in this manner. They’ll simply refuse to show the movies, essentially handing Landmark Theatres an exclusive. (To try to persuade some theaters other than Landmark to show their films, Cuban and Wagner are offering to cut their fellow theater owners in on one percent of the DVD sales.) But if “Bubble” or any of its successors becomes a breakout hit, drawing people to theaters despite its availability in other places, that strategy will backfire on theater owners. Who wants to have boycotted the next “Napoleon Dynamite” or “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” on principle?

If simultaneous release proves viable, the operators of movie theaters will suddenly find themselves in a hyper-competitive marketplace. Some will fail. But others will reinvent the movie-going experience, perhaps by offering cushier seats, more satisfying food, less-sticky floors, alcoholic beverages, and waiter service. (Some may even demand that you check your cell phone in the lobby.) They’ll commit to the latest in high-quality digital projection equipment, and experiment with showing new kinds of content: sneak previews of new TV shows, live concerts, sporting events that don’t appear on television. Some of them may discover that locally-produced indie films can draw an audience in their area, even if they don't warrant national distribution.

But communal movie-going isn’t going away; despite the panoply of home (and mobile) entertainment options available today, it’s still nice to get out of the house once in a while. It’s also likely that Hollywood studios will always give certain big “event” movies a theatrical-only release, to elevate them above the mass of pictures being released in every conceivable format at once. That’ll help movies with Kong-sized budgets turn a profit.

The motion picture industry often views changes to its business first as deadly threats, and only later as opportunities. That was the case when sound, television, home video, and the Internet arrived. While simultaneous release may seem like it endangers the revenues of studios and theater owners, the opposite may be true. Theater owners who figure out how to adapt will continue to be favorite leisure-time hang-outs, and they may discover that they’ve got fewer competitors and larger crowds. Studios that give consumers more choices about how they can view a newly-released film may find that their products play an even larger part in our lives – thanks to viewing in home theaters, on buses, and in doctors’ offices.

Whether or not “Bubble” itself succeeds at the box office, I think its release will be an important attempt at keeping the movie industry in sync with its customers’ demands.

Your thoughts?

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Sundance panel: `Puccini for Beginners'

Effie Brown is moderating a panel this morning on the making of “Puccini for Beginners.” She says she didn’t believe, when she saw the movie, that it wasn’t shot on film. Her panelists are Maria Maggenti, the writer/director; Justin Kirk, one of the stars; Susan Graef, the editor; Aleta Shaffer, the production designer; and the camera operator, Manuel Billeter.

Maggenti says the shoot lasted 18 days, working six days a week. They shot about 7-10 pages of the script each day. “InDigEnt allowed me to make this movie,” she says. “They did `Tadpole’ and `Pieces of April.’ Their model is everyone gets paid $100 a day, but you get profit participation. Budgets are very low. You work in digital. Everything moves very quickly. A filmmaker can come in with her crew, and make her movie. We also edited at InDigEnt’s offices in New York.” Prep for the shoot was 15 days.

They used two cameras, to try to get as much coverage as possible.

It sounds like the cast got together for one dinner, one read-through, and then shooting started. Not much rehearsal.

To keep the shoot streamlined, “it really helped that I had pared the script down,” at Gary Winnick’s suggestion. (Winnick is one of the founders of InDigEnt.)

“It helped that we shot in my apartment” to keep the budget down, Maggenti says. “Some people want $5000 a day for their location.” The production designer says she’d warned against that – Maggenti would need a “sanctuary” during the shoot. But Maggenti did it anyway – she had a two-bedroom, so at least one bedroom wasn’t used for the film.

Maggenti says she looked at a few technical things with the dailies, but didn’t scrutinize them super-carefully. It’s hard to look at dailies when you’ve been working 12 hours, she says, and you’ve got locations falling through.

Graef says she wasn’t previously a fan of shooting digitally, with two cameras, and the almost-infinite footage it creates. (Also the ease of reshooting.) Often, having less footage to work with forces the editor and director to make interesting creative decisions. “The thing about digital that is a little bit unfortunate is that it gives producers and directors the ability to go back and go back. You start to just beat the story to death – you don’t challenge yourself to work with [the footage] you have, which I think is a good challenge.” The movie was edited on Avid.

They had three screenings of “Puccini” before they submitted it to Sundance. The film was falling flat with test audiences. The producer wasn’t sure they should submit it to the festival in 2006.

“The editing was hell – I’ve never been so miserable,” Maggenti says. “I was standing by the window: should I jump, should I jump?”

They eventually decided to put the climax of the movie at the beginning, which makes the audience wonder how the characters will get there. They also edited the film down from 113 minutes to 82.

Billeter says they shot with a new Sony XD Cam (standard definition), which records directly onto a DVD-like optical disc. Sony loaned them one camera for free, and they rented another one. They got free lenses from Canon.

Maggenti explains that InDigEnt stands for – “aside from poverty” – independent digital entertainment. Everything the NYC-based company makes is shot on digital. She just wanted to tell the story, and didn’t care how it was shot. The movie doesn’t yet exist on film. “What everyone has seen here at Sundance has been digitally projected,” Maggenti says.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Sundance panel: `Going, Going Gone? The Culture of Moviegoing'

Finally, a panel discussion at Sundance where they let you know who’s speaking! Robert Rosen is the moderator; he’s dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. Russell Collins is CEO of the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. Mark Fishkin is founder of the California Film Institute, which runs the Mill Valley Film Festival. B. Ruby Rich is a film critic and author. Connie White is a film booker for a number of theaters (including the Coolidge Corner in Boston) through her company Balcony Booking. She also runs Balcony Releasing. Bingham Ray, who co-founded October Films and who used to run United Artists, isn’t listed on the Xeroxed handout – seems like he must be a late addition.

Following are my impressionistic notes. Actual quotes are in quote marks... everything else is close, or paraphrasing...

Ray says his first job in the film business was in exhibition, as the assistant manager of the now-defunct Bleecker Street Cinema in Greenwich Village. “There I got the fever – the bug -- for art house exhibition, and I’ve had it my entire life.”

Rosen begins his official introduction. “I have a real commitment to theatrical screenings…to get people to see movies they wouldn’t ordinarily see,” he says.

The film experience has “been a characteristic icon of life in America, and indeed around the world, for the last 100 years,” he says.

The “omnipresence” of the theatrical experience hides the fact that since World War II, the numbers of people on a regular ongoing basis having that experience has gone down, Rosen says.

The box office slump “has put the issue of why do we go to the movies into the foreground.”

Immigrants used to want to go to the movies because it was cheap, and you didn’t have to know how to speak English, Rosen says.

He has a series of questions for the panelists.

To what extent is the desire and need to go to the movies a function of historical circumstance?

Are there really two types of movies and two audiences – one for younger people who go to the big studio films, and another for other people who’re older? If that’s true, what happens when that younger audience gets older?

Is content what drives people to the movies? [Mel Gibson’s “The Passion” and Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 911” got a lot of people to go to the movies in 2004.] Maybe it’s the theatrical experience – the waiting in line, the overpriced refreshments, the cell phones? How has the movie-going experience as such, changed, and what impact does that have on people going to the movies?

He also asks, is it the economics? You can buy two brand new DVDs for the cost of two people going to a first-run movie, given parking, refreshments, tickets.

Finally, Rosen asks about the impact of technologies, now and in years to come… With digital distribution and digital projection and online purchasing of tickets and marketing activities going on – what does that mean for our kind of movies? Are there some extraordinary new types of possibilities that we might seize?

Collins talks about the popular music industry, and the classical music industry: “they sometimes overlap, but are really quite distinctive. The classical side of the music industry is mission-driven, and it’s run by non-profit organizations. That may be the model that will come to the foreground as we get farther and farther into the 21st century for motion pictures. That magic of going to the theater is irreplaceable.” (My question: how much larger is the pop music business today than classical? And isn’t that a little scary if movies head in that direction?)

Rich says that she has often heard concerns about the demise of the theatrical experience, going back to the 1960s. In the 1960s, the art houses were disappearing – and being converted into X-rated theaters, because a number of landmark anti-censorship cases had been won. Then, there was the advent of home video, and movie attendance dropped off drastically. Video helped create a whole new broader community for the art house.

Rich brings up the issue of individual versus community: what do people get out of seeing movies in their homes, versus in the theater? How can those differences be built on, she asks, to enhance the experience of movie-going in the future? Perhaps film needs to become more like a “live event” – something you need to go to – and ignore all those red Netflix envelopes lying around the house. (Like a film festival.)

I think it’s a period of real invention that we’re entering, Rich says. In some ways, it’s going to be about holding fast to what we have – in other ways, it’ll mean broadening and modifying it.

Ray: “Our need to get out of the home…is absolutely rooted in our souls as human beings. Not just in North America, but all over the world. The need to go out and commune with people like ourselves, and unlike ourselves. You can go back 1000 years, to the shamans. It’s not going to be replaced by a smaller, much more intimate experience, where we will isolate ourselves...” (Later, he tells me he’s not wild about the notion of watching movies on an iPod…no surprise there.)

Tech comes in waves, Ray observes. Why did the studios invent 3-D? Because they were really scared of television.

I guess I’m a Luddite, an old-schooler, he continues. I really believe in the integrity of the experience. [All around the world,] there are theaters that I just can’t wait to get back to. Do people come for the content, or do they come because the place, the building has some magical allure, he asks, and then answers his question: both, probably.

Think about the festival experience, Ray says. How are you going to have a digital festival? Where would you do it? Your house?

Collins: Film admissions have gone from 4 billion to 1 billion in the years from 1948 to 1964. Movies replaced the [live] theaters as primary means of pop entertainment in the second decade of the 1900s. TV replaced movies in the 1950s. The shifts that are taking place now are incremental. When videocassettes came out, and the players hit $100, I lost 50 percent of my business that year. Lately, we’ve experienced the same thing with DVD players. But right after people pay off their investments with their VCR, or their plasma screen TV, they come back to the theater.

I would be fearful if I were a multiplex theater, Collins says, rather than an art house.

Rich says that the Internet is having a bigger impact on newspapers than DVDs are on art houses.

White says that in Boston, distributors are often reluctant to have their art films play during the summer, because the perception is they’ll lose out on the college audience. In reality, she says, it’s faculty and staff who support those movies – and they tend to have more time to see movies in the summer. Younger people are viewing studio films, she implies.

Collins says, “People’s tastes grow up… maybe they only went to the pop culture, Adam Sandler Film Festival at their cine-mall when they were in college.” But eventually, their tastes expand.

Ray mentions the “huge threat” from the videogame industry, when it comes to competition for the time of young adults. It’s unlike a movie, he says. It’s all about interactivity.

Rosen says, when the cost of digital projection declines dramatically, and when the cost of digital distribution drops, he thinks there’s great hope for a vast proliferation of community-based theaters – not just maintenance of the theaters we have today.

Ray: “Film will be a thing of the past, sooner rather than later, and I’ll grieve that. We’ll be able to visit museums with projectors, and you’ll be able to say to your kids, this is a platter system, and this is a carbon-arc projector…”

Someone in the audience from the Ragtag Cinemacafe in Missouri quotes Bertold Brecht: “A theater without beer is just a museum.”

From Sundance: Todd Haynes moderates `Quinceanera' panel

Director Todd Haynes is moderating a panel about the film “Quinceanera” this morning at the Film Center on Main Street. The panelists includes writers, directors, producers, and actors from the film. (Haynes is also the film's executive producer.)

The plot summary from IMDB: “As Magdalena's 15th birthday approaches, her simple, blissful life is complicated by the discovery that she's pregnant. Kicked out of her house, she finds a new family with her great-granduncle and gay cousin.”

It sounds like the two co-writers/co-directors, Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer, put together the financing relatively easily. (They’d previously made “The Fluffer.”) Wash: “It felt like the low-budget version of being Quentin Tarantino, where you say, `I want to make a movie, and the money just appears.’” They say the budget is under a million. Haynes asks if it was under $500K, but they demur. They wrote the film in February 2005, and shot it in April.

The two had moved into a mostly Latino part of LA, Echo Park, and started making friends with their neighbors. They got invited to be the official photographers at a neighbor’s quinceanera (fifteenth birthday) party. That got them thinking about trying to capture the gentrification and culture clashes happening around them – and which they were part of.

Emily Rios, who plays Magdalena, says she is a Jehovah’s Witness, so she didn’t have a quince. She went to a few as part of her research. (Jessie Garcia, who plays the cousin, mentions that he, too, is a Jehovah’s Witness, and hadn’t been to quinces either.)

Haynes: “One thing I remember Julianne Moore telling me about acting is that a lot of younger actors think you’re supposed to have this adrenaline rush. You’re going to use all that tension and energy. [Julianne] says it’s so much about relaxation. You guys [Jesse and Emily] seem to know that already.”

Wash and Richard acknowledged that they didn’t know many of the nuances of Hispanic culture… or the types of things that a fifteen year-old girl might say. Wash says, “all the time, it was just being open [to suggestions from the cast and others]…then we had to make the critical judgment of whether it works emotionally.” Cast members were responsible for translating their own lines into Spanish.

Haynes observes: “You have to be a sponge absorbing all this new information and being open to it, but also making decisions,” because the pace of production was so fast.

The script originally had 44 locations, two quinces, a funeral. They pared back a bit, but not much.

They looked at shooting on HD, 35 mm, and Super 16.

Haynes: Let’s talk about the HD decision. How did that emerge?

Producer Anne Clements: My friend Rafael made a movie. He gave me a DVD. I asked him, how did you shoot on 35? He said, I shot on HD. Eric Steelberg was his director of photography.

Richard: “Initially, we thought, oh no, we’re leaving 35 behind. But it gave us so much freedom, if we had to shoot night scenes with almost no lights, we’d get these very velvet-y blacks. The mobility of it. We shot the film in eighteen days. We couldn’t have come close [with film].”

Wash: “There are also no lab costs. There’s an economic part of it. With the French New Wave, they were looking for the cheapest way you could shoot a film, and they made it look cool. It’s still the wild west [with HD] – kind of open – everyone’s trying to make HD look like film. You can also explore HD’s own aesthetic qualities – the ability to see every grain of dust in a room. Just embrace that, and work out, what is the HD aesthetic? [We wanted to] experiment with that in our film – and create a [new] look here at the beginning of the HD era.”

Haynes says, I don’t know if this is bad to say, but it looks like film. It’s so beautiful.

Wash: “When it’s HD projected, it has a little more sharpness. We went to film, because that is still the way that HD movies are getting out in the world. But the projectors are so varied. [The image quality they produce is random.] And the expense of the projectors is one of the things that’s holding it back.”

Anne says they blew it up to film for Sundance – so that killed most of the cost savings.

Eric Steelberg: “We were trying to use [HD] for speed and to keep costs down. Wasn’t like, make sure it’s perfect out of the camera [they used a Sony F900], and let’s spend a lot of time looking at the monitor tweaking it. It’s just like, we’ve got to move fast. [He used a handheld camera for 95 percent of the film.] Not handheld where it’s really noticeable. Even the stuff that was static -- it gave it a little bit of energy. Wash and Richard wanted it to be authentic – felt like this pseudo-documentary feel would make it feel more like you were there.”

Haynes: “To me, it gives it a sense of human-ness – that slight breathing of the camera.”

Eric: “Our whole thing was just to make it as natural as possible. Don’t over-emphasize anything. Make it transparent.”

Haynes observes that the film was shot in about a five-block radius of where Wash and Richard live.

Richard: We shot in four houses on our block. One was our house (the gay people’s house).

Haynes says the cast included just one SAG actor, who had to temporarily give up his SAG card to be part of the production.

Wash says he is 1000 percent supportive of SAG. But, “there just needs to be a little bit more flexibility for low-budget films. We never would’ve been able to make this movie [if we had to hire all SAG actors].”

They talk about the option of starting to edit the HD footage while the shoot is still going on. They chose not to. Haynes also isn’t a proponent: You wrote the screenplay in a dark room, he says, and then you’ve got all the bright lights and chaos of production. Going back into the dark room is important.

MPAA making (il)legal copies of `This Film is Not Yet Rated'?

From the LA Times (via Cinematical), `MPAA finds itself accused of piracy.' From the piece:

    The MPAA admitted Monday that it had duplicated "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" without the filmmaker's permission after director Kirby Dick submitted his movie in November for an MPAA rating. The Hollywood trade organization said that it did not break copyright law, insisting that the dispute is part of a Dick-orchestrated "publicity stunt" to boost the film's profile.

    Scheduled to debut at the Sundance Film Festival on Wednesday night, "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" examines what Dick believes are the MPAA's stricter standards for rating explicit depictions of sex than for gruesome violence. Dick also explores whether independent films are rated more harshly than studio films, whether scenes of gay sex are restricted more than scenes of straight sex, and why the 10 members of the MPAA's ratings board operate without any public accountability.

John Horn, the Times staff writer, gives the MPAA a chance to respond:

    "We made a copy of Kirby's movie because it had implications for our employees," said Kori Bernards, the MPAA's vice president for corporate communications. She said Dick spied on the members of the MPAA's Classification and Rating Administration, including going through their garbage and following them as they drove their children to school.

    "We were concerned about the raters and their families," Bernards said. She said the MPAA's copy of "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" is "locked away," and is not being copied or distributed.

    The standard the MPAA is using for itself appears to be at odds with what the organization sets out for others: "Manufacturing, selling, distributing or making copies of motion pictures without the consent of the copyright owners is illegal," the MPAA's website says. "Movie pirates are thieves, plain and simple…. ALL forms of piracy are illegal and carry serious legal consequences."

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

It's official: Disney is buying Pixar

Wall Street Journal reports that Disney is buying Pixar for $7.4 billion. Nick Wingfield and Merissa Marr write:

    The proposed acquisition also comes with considerable risks. Disney is acquiring Pixar in the midst of a long-profitable winning streak -- all six of its movies have been blockbusters -- in a business where failure is considered an inevitability. It also comes when revenue from DVD sales, a key movie-industry driver, may have passed its peak. The companies face a delicate cultural challenge in trying to maintain Pixar's esprit de corps as it is integrated into a global media giant.

    The deal gives Pixar Chairman and Chief Executive Steve Jobs a seat on Disney's board and a stake of more than 5%. Mr. Jobs, who also heads Apple Computer Inc., will be Disney's largest individual shareholder and a key adviser at a time when the entertainment industry is scrambling for ways to reinvent itself in a digital era.

Here's a video clip from the Journal featuring Jobs and Iger discussing the deal. (You may need to be a subscriber... I'm not sure.)

The LA Times story talks a bit about who'll be running the show:

    Pixar President Ed Catmull will serve in the same position as head of Pixar and Disney animation studios. Meanwhile, John Lasseter, Pixar's highly regarded creative leader, will be chief creative officer of both animation studios and will advise Walt Disney Imagineering on the design of new attractions for Disney theme parks.

Catmull will report to Dick Cook, head of Disney's film studio, and Iger, says The New York Times. Laura Holson and Andrew Ross Sorkin write:

    Disney's own animation unit lagged behind its peers, and Mr. Iger made it a priority to improve its operation. Animation is essential to Disney's success because it provides the characters that drive the company's theme parks, consumer products and cable television programs. In recent years, Pixar has become a steady supplier of such characters.

Here's a piece from Reuters.

From Sundance: Creative Independence, and How to Keep It

Great panel this afternoon at the Yarrow Hotel on "Creative Independence." The panelists:

    - Todd Haynes (director, "Far from Heaven," "Velvet Goldmine")
    - Christine Vachon (producer, "Boys Don't Cry," "Happiness")
    - Effie Brown (producer, "Real Women Have Curves," "In the Cut")
    - Scott Macaulay (moderator, and editor, Filmmaker Magazine)
    - Ted Hope (producer, "21 Grams," "Friends with Money")
    - Alexander Payne (director, "Sideways," "Election")
    - Michael London (producer, "House of Sand and Fog," "The Family Stone")

Some notes (perhaps a bit disjointed)...

  • Michael London posited that one key to retaining creative control is figuring out " hand over the project as late as possible to the financier." As soon as you take money, he said, you lose a little bit of the vision. "Try to put the whole thing together outside the system." When a financier can read the screenplay, see the actors who've committed, the locations where you plan to shoot it, there's a clearer sense that they want to make the same movie as you -- as opposed to starting from scratch and trying to come up with a unified vision.
  • "The money has a personality," Christine Vachon said. "You have to try to fit the personality of the project to the money. Sometimes we do it successfully." Other times, not.
  • Alexander Payne said that "the stupidest thing to do is to try to get paid to write," presumably by a studio or production company. He's a fan of writing on spec. But after making "Citizen Ruth," Payne and writing partner Jim Taylor "were broke." They liked the book "Election" and wanted to write a screenplay. "The studio was paying us." But, he cautioned, "every word you write, they own. `The.' They own that. They make you cast the biggest possible stars. It's a big fucking waste of time."
  • Haynes said he got paid to write his latest film, about the life of Bob Dylan. ("I'm Not Here.") But he had some leverage with the studio, since he'd already secured the rights from Dylan. The fact that his last film, "Far from Heaven," was a hit didn't hurt.
  • His new film will have some big stars in it: Richard Gere, Cate Blanchett, and Colin Farrell. "That's a big plus [as far as a studio is concerned]," Vachon said. (She's producing.) "But it's got ideas in it," Haynes quipped. "That's a big minus." (They'd originally been working with Paramount, but I think the movie is currently unattached...)
  • Michael London said there are two film economies that exist side-by-side. The retail economy, of studio pictures where everyone gets paid lots of money. And a "shadow economy," where films are made independently...everyone is happy to be doing good work...and movies are made for 1/3 or 1/4 the price, often with the same actors and crew members who also work in the "retail economy."
  • Vachon says that HBO was the only studio that would agree to let Mary Harron shoot "The Notorious Bettie Page" almost entirely in black-and-white. (Again, Vachon is a producer of that movie.)
  • Michael London said that "first look" deals with studios "can become less productive over time" and grow dysfunctional.
  • Todd Haynes asked his fellow panelists a question: given the recent box office slump, are studios more interested in working with independent productions, either through their "classics" division or the mainline studio. Ted Hope said, "I would try to avoid developing within the studio system as much as possible." But Effie Brown stood up for the studios: "It's good to have a place to go to to give you a little money on your option."
  • Vachon got a laugh when she observes that Warner Independent is "an oxymoron."
  • Alexander Payne said lots of people ask him, but he only executive produces films for friends. (And not even all his friends, he implied.) "I don't like talking to money people," he said. Payne thinks he adds the most value to films he produces in the editing room.
  • When studio marketing departments tell Payne they don't know how to sell a film of his, "I tell them, you should fire them and hire other people."
  • Haynes also griped about the marketing of his films. "That's the only way they can think - let's make it look exactly like some other movie that's out there, and blur the differences. It doesn't work."
  • There's lots of talk about how to get final cut on a film. Haynes said that Steven Soderbergh, a producer, had final cut on "Far From Heaven." He joked, "He pretty much directed it. I was tired." Haynes said he hasn't usually had final cut in his career thus far.
  • Payne said, "I have it now, and say don't leave home without it." He got it with "About Schmidt," and that became a precedent. "I compare it to a loaded gun. The safety is off. It's in a locked box. But it's under my bed. Knowing that, I'm so much friendlier to comments [from studio execs and others involved with the film.]"
  • He continued: final cut is "a principle that's taken for granted in Europe -- like George Bush is an asshole -- that here is under discussion." Big laugh.
  • "The reason you have final cut is to protect art over commerce," Payne said. He doesn't consent when studios try to "adjust" the meaning of final cut, saying, for instance, that if they produce a cut of the film that scores better with a test audiences, that's the cut that'll be released.
  • Vachon said, "You never get final cut with HBO. But they will engage in the conversation [about changes with a filmmaker] for as long as it takes."
  • Haynes said that digital technology can be "numbing of the creative spark. It almost creates too many choices."
  • Ted Hope was not optimistic about simultaneous release. "It'll be wonderful for an auteur director who is a brand name -- Sodebergh, Payne, Haynes -- but for an up-and-coming director who's here [at Sundance], the opportunities are going to be vastly reduced." He said it'll be hard for new directors to build a name if their stuff isn't seen in theaters -- and just gets lost in the landfill of content being produced.
  • There was some talk about titles, and whether they matter. Vachon said that "Boys Don't Cry" was originally titled "Take It Like a Man," a title she liked better. But New Line, it turned out, had acquired the rights to a Boy George autobiography with that same title. Michael London said that "Family Stone" had originally been called "Hating Her." Fox exec Tom Rothman told him that the title was a deal-breaker: "I'm not releasing a movie called `Hating Her.'" Hence the new title.

Tips on South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival

Had lunch today in Park City with Jarod Neece, one of the organizers of the South by Southwest Film Fest in Austin.

He offered a few tips on going to the festival - and trying to get your film into it (he screens documentaries). I haven't been before - so I was curious.

  • He says March 11th through 14th are probably the best days to be there
  • Midnight screenings tend to sell out. Jarod says they're the most fun - especially at the Alamo Drafthouse - and that "South by" (that's how those in-the-know refer to it) has added a second midnight screening each night for 2006.
  • Jarod recommends the film badge (it gets you into everything film-related) for $275. You're guaranteed admittance to films, and you get into festival parties, too. Badge holders get seating priority over those who've just got the $70 "Film Pass." You can sometimes buy individual tickets to screenings 15-45 mins before the show starts.
  • The Hilton bar, Jarod says, is the place for the big schmooze
  • Don't rent a car - use the festival bus
  • They've got about 40 world premieres lined up this year
  • Jarod says what makes SXSW different from, say Sundance, is that there are no velvet ropes or private rooms - VIPs mingle with the rabble. Sounds great.
  • From the organizers' perspective, he says SXSW is really concerned about "screener leakage" - what happens if advance DVD screeners of movies that have been sent to the fest get pirated, or wind up for sale on eBay. (Jarod emphasizes that this hasn't happened in the past at SXSW... but has happened to other fests.) They're taking lots of precautions.
  • His advice on getting your film into the fest: make a great movie that surprises viewers, and make sure it's not a minute longer than it needs to be. Don't make 20-minute long shorts, or three-hour documentaries, he said. "We can show five 5 shorts instead of one 20-minute short," he said. The fest will often get three-hour documentaries that should be 60 minutes long - and sometimes (only sometimes), they offer the director a chance to cut it down and still be accepted in the fest. But Jarod advises getting it to a reasonable length before you submit it. He also suggests showing it to plenty of people before you send it in, rather than waiting until the day before the submission deadline to finish the film.
  • I'm gonna be moderating a panel on the impact of blogging on the film world at SXSW this March, with a murderer's row of great speakers: Karina Longworth from Cinematical, David Hudson from Greencine, Cindi Greening from Cinema Minima, David Poland from Movie City News, and Joe Swanberg, director of "Kissing on the Mouth." It'll be on Monday, March 13th at 3 PM - so come!

From Sundance: Panel on 'The Thousand Channel Universe'

Just got in to Park City this morning.. beautiful day here. Ducked in a little late to a panel discussion at the Film Center on “Faces in the Crowd: Finding Your Audience in the Thousand Channel Universe.” The moderator is John Anderson, a journalist… unfortunately, the Sundance program doesn’t include a list of the panelists.

(As best I could identify, they were Josh Gabel of Viva Tu Cine, Jeff Lipsky, Scilla Andrien of Indieflix, John Anderson, Laura Kim of Warner Independent Pictures, Carlos Guttierrez, and Jason Klein of Special Ops Media.)

Jeff Lipsky points out that self-distribution adds a few layers of complexity: you have to spend time not just making the film, but marketing and distributing it, and making sure you collect “every last dime.”

He says that eliminating release windows might “help mitigate the outrageously obscene cost of marketing a film.” The panel didn’t think the studios’ fears around simultaneous distribution were warranted. Someone observed that it might be possible to release a “bare bones” DVD initially, followed six months later by a DVD with all the extras.

Josh Gabel of Viva Tu Cine says his company “brings Latino films to theaters in Latino communities -- mostly multiplexes. Theatrical really is the ultimate – it really is important – but it’s dominated by giant studios and giant releases. If you want to book your film in a Regal Theater in West Covina, CA, you’re going to have to deal with an old-school booker who’s not going to be that nice to you, maybe. [Film is still] a real `good old boys’ business that’s not allowing access for these independent products.”

Jason Klein, whose firm uses new media to help promote movies, laughs when he says that filmmakers all now ask him for a “vlogging strategy.” [That’d be video blogging.]

He says his task is to identify the audiences that a new film will resonate with. He looks for bloggers who are influential, and can get other blogs to pick up on a new movie, versus those who aren’t.

His company marketed `Serenity’ last year, in part by creating a “point system.” Watch the trailer, get friends to sign up for the mailing list, and you acquired points that could be converted into various freebies. Klein says he started the community about a year and a half before the film came out, and it wound up with more than 70,000 members.

Klein says that rather than buying ads, if you can get heavily-trafficked Web sites to offer the first few minutes of a film as a streaming video, that’d be smart.

Scilla Andrien of Indieflix says, “Just shoot your movie – it has to be a good story, and well told,” but don’t shoot it specifically for cell phones, or iPods, or whatever.

Andrien says her site, which sells DVDs of independent films that haven’t gotten any other sort of distribution, has only been open since October. “Every filmmaker has actually made money – there are probably a dozen filmmakers that have probably sold over 400 units,” she says.

Someone from the audience asks about figuring out who the audience is for his film. Laura Kim from Warner Independent suggests putting together a grass-roots focus group around a kitchen table. Jeff Lipsky suggests plucking people out of the line at the movie theater, and showing them the film in an editing suite. “You get much more of a democratic response (as opposed to screening for film schools) when you go up to paying customers,” Lipsky says.

Someone else from the audience asks about digital distribution. What happens to access when the cost of a film print goes away? Jeff Lipsky says the cost of traditional distribution isn’t going to change much – the major cost is advertising and publicity – we have to do something to mitigate those costs. I don’t think digital projection is going to be a significant cost factor.

Klein says that MySpace can be really successful as a marketing tool -- if it’s the actual filmmakers who do it, not their publicists. He says the director of “Saw” is a friend – he has a MySpace page, with about 5000 friends – spends hours communicating with people. A great forum, and cheap, Klein says.

Monday, January 23, 2006

The morning news: Disney, Apple, Pixar, Atom Films, and IFC

- The New York Times focuses on Disney CEO Bob Iger as a "dealmaker in the grip of technological change." Laura Holson and John Markoff write:

    Mr. Iger, who has been chief executive for only four months, angered movie theater owners when he suggested studios needed to accommodate consumer demand by releasing movies simultaneously in theaters and on DVD. He weathered the wrath of network affiliates when ABC announced it would distribute episodes of "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" for the Apple video iPod. And bringing Pixar into Disney would probably entail a wholesale rebuilding of Disney's famed animation department and bring a new level of intrigue to a corporate board that at times was described during Mr. Eisner's tenure as passive and compliant.

    "Steve Jobs has proven that he is a visionary in technology," said Brian Grazer, the Academy Award-winning producer of "A Beautiful Mind" who is a friend of Mr. Iger's. "It is Bob's goal to control storytelling and acquire intellectual property. If you are trying to bet on the future, it seems like a pretty interesting partnership."

- The LA Times runs a profile of Steve Jobs for the Tinseltown types who may not be acquainted with him already. Dawn Chmielewski writes:

    In 1986, Jobs heard that his friend George Lucas was trying to sell his computer graphics operation. When Jobs visited Lucasfilm, he was amazed by the high-resolution images he saw on the computer screens. Sensing money to be made, he bought the company for $10 million.

    It was the savviest investment of Jobs' career, one that would make him a billionaire.

    Jobs adopted an uncharacteristically hands-off approach to Pixar. Former Disney animator John Lasseter served as Pixar's creative force, while Ed Catmull oversaw the day-to-day operations of the company.

- Finally, Atom Films says it will spend hundreds of thousands this year financing short films and series for the Web. The AP says:

    AtomFilms Studio intends to fund projects that are preferably less than five minutes long.

    "We believe in snack-sized content across all our brands," [Atom CEO Mika] Salmi said. "We think this is what consumers want for broadband entertainment across various screens."

    Atom will not have a physical studio like Paramount Pictures Corp. or Warner Bros. in Hollywood because it plans to leave film production up to the creators.

- Finally, IFC plans to announce today at Sundance that they've got six movies they're going to release simultaneously on TV, in theaters, and on DVD. Sharon Waxman writes:

    Beginning in March, the initiative, which the company is calling First Take, will place films in independent theaters while also making them available over a new video-on-demand service that will be carried by all the major cable companies, said Jonathan Sehring, IFC Entertainment's president. The company, which includes a film production and distribution arm, is expected to make the announcement at a news conference on Monday.

    "So much great film has fallen by the wayside," Mr. Sehring said. "The studios are collapsing the window between the theatrical release and the DVD. We're taking that one step further."

    The company named six films it had scheduled for simultaneous release, including "CSA: The Confederate States of America," a dark, faux documentary that envisions the United States if the South had won the Civil War; "I Am a Sex Addict," a semiautobiographical comedy about a young man who becomes addicted to prostitutes; and "American Gun," a series of stories about the proliferation of weapons across the country, starring Donald Sutherland and Forest Whitaker.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Cinematical at Sundance

Karina Longworth over at Cinematical has a great blog post from Sundance covering a panel yesterday on "Entertainment and Social Change" that featured Robert Redford, Jeff Skoll from Participant Productions, and MPAA head Dan Glickman, among others. Two snippets on Glickman:

    - Dan Glickman, meanwhile, went to CES this year. He was not impressed. "None of that [technology] makes any difference if there's not a story to put on that equipment - they're just empty screens."

    - Dan Glickman thinks that even though theatrical atttendance is down, thanks to technology, overall moviewatching is

I think so too, but it'd be nice to see some data to back that up.

Cinematical also has a video roundtable discussion featuring the three bloggers they've got on site.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

`First Look Studios at 25'

Here's a set of stories I wrote for The Hollywood Reporter, about First Look Studios. They've been involved in movies like "The Secret of Roan Inish," "Titus," "Monster," "Antonia's Line," "The Prophecy," with Christopher Walken, and "Mrs. Dalloway."

It begins:

    Henry Winterstern and Ruth Vitale met in a fairly standard Los Angeles way: This past August, Vitale, a co-founder of Paramount Classics, stopped by a table at Ago restaurant in West Hollywood, where friends of hers happened to be having dinner with Winterstern, a relatively new arrival to Hollywood who was in the process of merging Capital Entertainment and First Look Media.

    Four months later, Winterstern recruited Vitale to head the theatrical division of the company of which he is CEO, newly rechristened First Look Studios -- one in a series of moves intended to reinvigorate the firm, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary.

    Winterstern isn't consciously modeling First Look after successful standalone mini-majors such as Miramax or Lionsgate, but he is clear about his intention to build a "360 degree" company, capable of handling in-house production, acquisition, home video distribution, TV and foreign sales and theatrical distribution.

    "We're focused on material and getting close to the filmmaker," Winterstern says. "In the early days of Hollywood, that's how this business was done, and I don't have a problem trying to reinvent the wheel."

(In the pic at right: Ruth Vitale, Andy Gruenberg, Henry Winterstern, William Lischak and Bill Bromiley.)

Friday, January 20, 2006

Ebert at Sundance

Film critic Roger Ebert seems to be blogging again from Sundance, or at least posting the odd dispatch. From today's entry:

    I do not attend Sundance expecting glamor. I will not eat a restaurant meal for the next seven days, will see vegetables only on the screen, will attend four movies on a slow day, will stand in the freezing dark for a shuttle bus to nowhere and will make friends with the folks at the snack counters whose oatmeal cookies, microwave burritos and bottled water sustain life.

    ...For the average moviegoer, the local multiplex is like 7-Eleven. Lots of candy and pop, but no coffee or bread. Sundance supplies the coffee and bread: Movies to wake you up, and others to feed your soul. This is the festival that gives hope for the future, introduces talents, celebrates the offbeat and the experimental, exists on the cutting edge. Sundance in a sense created a market for that kind of film; the big studios certainly weren't interested in them 20 years ago, but now they all have "classics divisions" devoted to marketing indie and foreign films.

    It began with the Sundance story everybody tells, about how Steven Soderbergh's "sex, lies and videotape" created a sensation at Sundance 1989, was picked up by Miramax, essentially put Miramax on the map and created the situation at Sundance 1990 where every distributor in America was prowling the screenings looking for the next Soderbergh.

    There have been a lot of next Soderberghs. There will be more this year. Soderbergh himself has gone on to big commercial hits such sa "Ocean's Eleven," but he still has the Sundance spirit. Next week, he opens "Bubble," a great film shot with first-time actors on a tiny budget. In a distribution strategy that has exhibitors angry, it will play on cable the same day it opens in theaters and will come out four days later on DVD. This experiment with simultaneous release may be the salvation of little indie films, which have trouble making themselves seen behind the walls of $30 million ad campaigns.

Disney's Pixar purchase: Done by next week?

The Orlando Sentinel says that Disney directors will meet on Monday to formally consider buying Pixar; the Wall Street Journal seems to think the board will convene this weekend to start mulling.

Two (non-financial) questions and observations about the deal, should it happen:

    - How incredible will the pressure be on Pixar to continue churning out an uninterrupted string of hits? The company has made six movies so far, all successful. But once it has combined with Disney's feature animation unit, can Pixar's geniuses (Ed Catmull and John Lasseter, primarily) increase the number of movies they're producing while maintaining a firm grasp on quality? In some ways, I see this situation as a trendy, successful corner boutique suddenly being handed the job of running Macy's.

    - How will future Disney animation releases be branded, given that they'll all likely be computer-generated? Will everything be Pixar? It's unthinkable that Disney would cease using the Disney brand on animated films - or is it? Which is more powerful today, in consumers' minds?

The Orlando Sentinel writes:

    By acquiring Pixar, Disney would immediately resume its perch at the top of an industry it pioneered with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 and dominated in the 1990s with such hits as Lion King and Beauty and the Beast.

    Disney faltered in recent years with such duds as Treasure Planet and Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Its latest release, Chicken Little, has been a success, but its box-office performance paled in comparison to Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo and other Pixar hits.

    For Jobs, selling Pixar could allow him to focus more on running Apple Computer Inc., which is enjoying huge popularity of its iPod products. It also would make him even more of a media power player.

In the Journal, Merissa Marr focuses on some of the challenges of the combination:

    ...[M]aintaining the culture that has made Pixar so successful would be a major challenge. Based in the San Francisco Bay area some distance from Hollywood, Pixar has produced six straight hits by combining strong stories and memorable characters with cutting-edge technology. Under a team of Silicon Valley and animation experts, Pixar invented its own software and nurtured a corporate culture where creativity flourished.

    The studio has worked at a leisurely pace, however, releasing one picture every 18 months. As part of Disney, that pace would most likely have to speed up. Rival DreamWorks Animation produces two films a year, a much more ambitious production slate. "The question here is whether Pixar's production process of high-quality, profitable films is scalable. This is uncertain," says Sanford Bernstein's Mr. Nathanson.

    Next up for Pixar is "Cars," the last of the movies that Disney will distribute under their current deal. Pixar hasn't officially announced its next movie but has been working on a project originally titled "Ratatouille," about a rat living in a Parisian restaurant.

The New York Times has a piece, too, by Laura Holson and John Markoff, that speculates on the possibility of layoffs. (Disney animators, I presume.) They write:

    The new animation division would be overseen by John Lasseter, Pixar's chief creative officer and a former Disney animator, who would work with animators at Pixar's headquarters in Emeryville, Calif., and at Disney in Burbank.

    It is not yet clear if there would be layoffs, although they would be likely. While Pixar under Mr. Lasseter has thrived, Disney's animation division has floundered, burdened by its past and its inability to adapt to an environment where pens and paper are being replaced by computers.

    Analysts say a Disney-Pixar combination would be successful only if Pixar took the reins of animation at Disney, because the cultures are vastly different. "John Lasseter's role in any new incarnation of Pixar will be crucial," wrote Katherine Styponias of Prudential Equity.

    Mr. Lasseter's involvement at Disney may end up contributing more to the merger's success than Mr. Jobs's, since it is likely that Mr. Jobs sees more of a future in Silicon Valley than in Hollywood. Mr. Jobs, said friends and associates, deeply believes the counterculture worldview that he articulated in Apple's "Think Different" advertising campaign.

And BusinessWeek asks, `Will Steve Jobs Be Disney's Big Cheese?

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Mark Cuban: What business are theaters in?

Mark Cuban has a great post on his blog today. The focus is why theater owners - or at least their trade association - feel that they can't possibly compete when movies are released simultaneously in several formats (often called "day-and-date" release). Cuban writes:

    How sad is it when the President of the National Assoc. of Theater Owners doesn't think his members can create a better movie-going experience than what we can see in our houses and apartments ?

    Guess what John [Fithian, the president of NATO), I can whip up a mean steak, but I still like to go to restaurants. Because I enjoy it. I enjoy getting out of the house with family, friends, who ever.

He also mentions that Landmark will be showing "Bubble" on 4K Sony projectors in some theaters - the first time that the general public will have had an opportunity to see those projectors in action. Hmmm... wonder which cities they're being installed in.... Cuban writes:

    And starting with [Steven Soderbergh's] Bubble, [Landmark theaters will be] selling the DVD of the movie you just saw. Also starting with Bubble will be the rollout of Digital Cinema. Every single play of Bubble in our theaters will be digitally projected. We are using a mix of Sony 4k and TI based 2k projectors. We want our customers to have the best possible viewing experience with every single showing of this and future movies. No scratches, no pops, no fades, no problems with the presentation whether you see it the first day of release or the last showing 6 months later.

    We have to create an environment that makes going to a movie at a Landmark Theater - fun, entertaining, relaxing, a good value and for a film fan, the best answer to the question, what do you want to do tonight.

Cuban goes on to say that most theater owners don't focus on who their audience is - is it teens or 40-year olds?

The entry is well worth a look.

Morning read: Disney eyeing Pixar, Amazon's new show, Beastie Boys concert doc, MySpace

- The Journal reports this morning that "Walt Disney is in Serious Talks to Acquire Pixar," for slightly more than $6.7 billion. That'd make Steve Jobs the biggest individual shareholder in Disney, and likely give him a seat on the board. Merissa Marr and Nick Wingfield write:

    ...the companies are still haggling over a final price, and any sharp moves in Pixar's share price could easily push the negotiations off course. People familiar with the situation say the two sides could decide on a less-ambitious course, including some form of agreement for Disney to distribute movies that Pixar finances and makes.

    An acquisition would give Pixar and Mr. Jobs a way to cash in on the company's unbroken run of blockbuster, computer-animated films. Mr. Jobs would likely join the Disney board, people familiar with the situation say. And Pixar's John Lasseter, the Disney alumnus who directed "Toy Story" and the upcoming "Cars," would take on an expanded role overseeing Disney animated movies. Pixar is now near a point where it needs to decide who will distribute its post-Disney releases, including a film about a rat living in an upmarket Parisian restaurant.

    While Disney could face questions about Pixar's high valuation, the deal under discussion would secure for Disney the most successful producer of one of its most important products: animated movies. Disney's own feature animation department is in the midst of a still-uncertain transformation as the company moves from the hand-drawn movies on which it made its name to the computer-animation genre that has overtaken it in recent years. Disney's first entry in the computer-animation business, the recent "Chicken Little," was a modest success.

- The LA Times and New York Times both have pieces about a new half-hour Web-based show from The host is Bill Maher, and he'll be interviewing authors who've got new books out, actors with new movies on DVD, and bands with new albums for sale.

The show will be called "Amazon Fishbowl with Bill Maher." Guests for the first episode, to be shot at Sundance on Sunday, include Stephen King, Rob Thomas, Toni Collette, and Armisted Maupin. Saul Hansell of the NY Times writes:

    As guests are talking, Amazon will display buttons that will let viewers instantly buy the book, DVD or CD they are discussing, as well as links to pages with their other works or those by similar artists.

Strangely, Amazon has hired Bill Maher to host and "asked him to steer clear of politics," according to an VP that Hansell quotes. The show will be broadcast live every Thursday night at 11 PM Eastern for at least 12 weeks.

- Lorne Manly of the NY Times writes about the Beastie Boys concert film that's showing at Sundance this weekend. The full title is "Awesome...I Fuckin' Shot That!" (The Times can only refer to it, of course, as "Awesome...") Manly says band member Adam Yauch was perusing the Web when he came across a camera phone pic that had been snapped at a concert. He liked the rawness and energy of the image. So, Manly writes, a few days before a Madison Square Garden concert:

    They decided to lend hand-held video cameras to 50 fans, told them to shoot at will, and then presented the end result in movie theaters in all its primitive, kaleidoscopic glory.

(The cameras were Sony Hi-8s, and the band returned them to various stores for a refund after the show. That made me smile.)

    Then Mr. Yauch, Mr. Doran, assorted editors and others took over. The postproduction phase stretched more than a year as they waded through nearly 60 angles and about 100 hours of material. (The band supplemented the 50 camera-wielding fans with five friends who had digital video cameras and several high-quality cameras fixed on stage.)
The total budget, when music sampling rights were figured in, is about $1.2 million. The movie opens on March 12th.

- Manly's piece also mentions that the powerful social networking site MySpace will be unveiling an online filmmaker's community at Sundance. That's something I've long predicted. Manly writes:

    MySpace, in its two years of existence, has allowed more than 660,000 aspiring bands and solo artists to upload their music to the site, where it can then be discovered by the site's nearly 50 million members and perhaps even by music labels. "We're trying the same thing for filmmakers - a platform for our users to express themselves creatively," said Chris DeWolfe, the company's chief executive.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Link-mania: Blockbuster, Windows, Disney, Sundance

Pointing you, as always, in the right directions:

-, now owned by the Washington Post Company, seems to be making Hollywood a core part of its coverage. Edward J. Epstein has a piece titled Hollywood's New Zombie: The Last Days of Blockbuster. And Daniel Gross asks, Who suffers when the DVD is released before the movie has left the theaters?

- Disney's CFO, Tomm Staggs, says his company won't just distribute video content through Apple's iTunes Music Store, according to The Hollywood Reporter:

    While the iTunes initiative "has not been a giant mover in terms of the bottom line," Staggs said, it is "an important catalyst for where the business is going."

    He said that Disney will remain "platform agnostic," demanding only that potential partners provide a "quality consumer experience and requisite intellectual property protection."

- Wired News and cover tech at Sundance.

HD DVD vs. Blu-ray: How stupid do they think we are?

The Blu-ray versus HD DVD battle has at least one winner: journalists.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month, I went to two separate parties on successive nights (one at the Wynn, one at the Mirage) sponsored by the groups promoting HD-DVD and Blu-ray. If there was just one standard for high-definition discs, that would've meant just half the free cocktails and finger food. Imagine the deprivation!

At each party, there was a parade of speeches: what a crisp picture, great interactive features, so many partners signed on to support our format, etc. HD-DVD had as its host an uncomfortable Nancy O' Dell from Access Hollywood, chattering about how she couldn't wait to buy HD-DVD players as gifts for all her friends and hangers-on. Blu-ray trotted out producer/director/cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld ("Men in Black," "The Addams Family"), who exclaimed that the Blu-ray group had picked "the grooviest name" for its standard. (A few seconds later, he mistakenly referred to it as Bluetooth.)

After the HD-DVD event, I sidled up to Warren Lieberfarb, the ex-Warner Bros. exec who is universally known as the father of the DVD. (He has been a consultant to Microsoft, which is in the HD-DVD camp.) I asked him about the dueling formats. "The studios should've banded together. They made a mistake by allowing two formats to move forward. Now they'll have to support both for some period of time," he said.

Keith Reed of the Boston Globe had this story yesterday, headlined, "Fight over DVD format may trap customers." At the very end, Reed writes:

    Ross Rubin, a consumer electronics analyst with the NPD Group, a research firm in Port Washington, N.Y., predicts that many consumers will wind up confused by the different standards and opt to keep their DVD players. Most may not upgrade until the industry settles on one format, or until one side eventually caves.

    ''The strongest competition for Blu-Ray or HD DVDs is not the rival format, but regular DVDs," he said.

One question I have...Where's the organized consumer boycott of this silliness? And once the format wars are over, given that both HD-DVDs and Blu-ray discs are the same size, would it be possible to make a player that'd play both kinds of discs? Or would that be insanely expensive for technical reasons?

Greencine interview with Doug Trumbull

Greencine has a really wonderful interview with one of the cinema's great innovators, Doug Trumbull. He, of course, was responsible for the special effects in pictures like "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," and "Blade Runner." (He also created "Back to the Future: The Ride" for Universal Studios.)

Trumbull says:

    My whole career as been about immersive media. Not movies per se but immersive media. That's why I've gotten into simulator rides and Showscan, high frame rates, IMAX, 3-D. I've been experimenting with these media experiences that I feel have the potential to be a profound personal experience for the viewer. If you could combine 3-D-like IMAX with the frame rate of Showscan, you would have a medium that is indistinguishable from reality. That's doable today, but unfortunately, it requires brute force, millions of feet of film, a lot of light and a $500,000 projector, so it's not ever going to be a huge medium. There's only a limited number of IMAX theaters in the world. But I really believe that people are profoundly affected by things that really happen to them. Not so much by stories they hear or connect to the stories or characters through an empathetic third person, observation, but by direct personal experience. So the closer you can take the medium to delivering the direct personal experience through 3-D, through high brightness, through high clarity, through wide view, through binaural sound and even physical sensations like we've done with simulator rides, you completely take over someone's nervous system and throw them into the movie, he ain't never gonna forget it.

Netflix takes on a bigger role... the financing, promotion, and distribution of movies, according to this piece in the Hollywood Reporter today. Gregg Goldstein writes:

    Under the joint venture, Roadside will release the film theatrically, co-financing all prints and advertising with Netflix. The companies will split video and TV release costs, with Netflix co-promoting the theatrical release on its Web site. The film will carry Roadside and Netflix logos, and a June theatrical release is tentatively scheduled. ...Netflix will promote the film at its various release stages.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Now, you too can do product placement

Chrysler has cooked up a clever marketing scheme for this year's Sundance Film Festival - and I mean that in a good way...

Make a short film using Activision's game "The Movies," and put a Chrysler vehicle into it, and you could win a car. Chris Marlowe writes:

    The winning film will be announced during May's Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, and the grand prize will be a Chrysler Crossfire.

    Chrysler vp Jeff Bell said the competition is a "great way to support the craft of filmmaking while extending the Chrysler brand to a greater audience."

(The Make blog observes that when you produce a movie using "The Movies," ownership of the end product is nebulous.)

Monday, January 16, 2006

Comparison of iTunes video and Google Video Store

Verne Kopytoff of the SF Chronicle has a nice, straightforward comparison today of the new Google Video Store and the video offerings at Apple's iTunes Music Store.

He says that overall, Apple offers the better experience for consumers who want to buy digital versions of TV shows:

    I applaud Apple for giving users far more latitude with the videos. Unlike Google, Apple users get permanent access to prime-time shows they buy, not just for 24 hours.

    Additionally, Apple's customers are free to download shows to video iPods and burn them onto DVDs. Now that's convenience.

    Overall, I give Apple's paid video service higher marks than Google's. If Apple solved the problem of slow downloads and added a bigger selection of video, then I would be a more frequent customer.

    But my accolades have their limits. Given a choice between paying for online video or watching a show free on television, I'd choose the free television every time.

Universal Pictures' Michael Joe on digital cinema

The LA Times runs a fairly unsurprising Q&A today with Michael Joe, an executive VP at Universal Pictures. The focus is on the roll-out of digital cinema equipment to theaters in the U.S.

But there are a few interesting exchanges between Joe and LA Times reporter Julie Tamaki...

    Q: How long do you predict it will take for a nationwide roll-out of digital cinema?

    A: I think you'll start seeing meaningful installations in 2006. By the end of 2006, there will be somewhere between 500 and 1,000 digital cinema systems in the marketplace. There are 35,000 theater screens in America. We're probably looking at somewhere in the five- to 10-year timeframe before you'll see the vast majority of those screens converting to digital.

Joe also talks a bit about how new types of content (other than movies) might show up on digital screens... the big question is whether this content will come from movie studios or someone else (like the NBA, NFL, Broadway producers, etc). Joe says, "The other real advantage of digital cinema from the consumer perspective is that it allows the studios and filmmakers and exhibitors to potentially offer more, varied content and do things we haven't been able to do historically in a film-print world — things like making different versions of a movie available during the theatrical window. As an example, you could have a film that plays at 7 p.m. in a PG-rated version and then again at 10 p.m. in an R-rated version so you can make that film more accessible to a broader audience. It will be much easier to do things like allow directors to put their directors' cuts of their films in theaters [or] to potentially offer a movie with different endings."

He also admits that the cost savings from digital cinema are still kind of hazy - a point that a lot of stories on the topic gloss over. If studios are still paying "virtual print fees" to companies like Technicolor or Christie/AIX every time they send out a new film to theaters, how, exactly, are they saving money over the existing system of distributing celluloid prints?

    Q: By one estimate, digital distribution promises to save studios as much as $1 billion a year in the cost of making and distributing traditional film print. How much does Universal expect to save?

    A: It's hard to peg a specific number. I think we do believe the cost savings will be meaningful. We think it will be a lot less expensive to deliver movies to theaters digitally than it has been historically with film print. We think long-term, our post-production process and the process of getting a movie finalized and off to theaters will be a much more efficient process. But it's hard to say for sure what the real savings will be. It's really in a lot of respects going to be tied to how the cost of digital cinema systems evolves over time, how much does the pricing come down as more and more systems get ordered and installed and what is the life of the system.

A conversation with Michael Rubin, author of `Droidmaker'

Last week at Macworld, I attended a great talk by Michael Rubin, author of the book `Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution.'The following day, I had a chance to sit down with him for a long chat.

While working at Lucasfilm, Michael was one of the first evangelists for non-linear (digital) editing, and he later wrote the definitive book on the topic, "Non-linear: A Field Guide to Digital Video and Film Editing." Here's a ten-minute audio excerpt from our conversation.

In it, we talk about:

    - Michael's time at Lucasfilm
    - How old-line film editors reacted to the EditDroid, Lucasfilm's pioneering non-linear editing system
    - Movies like "Sin City," "Star Wars," and "The Rain People"
    - The democratization of filmmaking
    - How some of the ideas and pronouncements of George Lucas and Francis Ford Copolla in the 1970s shaped the way film and technology work together today
    - What new technologies Michael sees influencing the movie industry today

If you happen to be in Park City, Utah on January 20th, you can catch the last event on Michael's book tour to promote 'Droidmaker". He has also been maintaining a great blog as he has hop-scotched across the country.

Finally, I'm adding `Droidmaker' to the list of books (in the column at right) related to cinema and technology.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Cinea snafus, Oscar DVD screeners, `Munich,' and piracy

There's been a landslide of stories lately about Cinea, an anti-piracy company owned by Dolby Laboratories, and the whole process of distributing advance DVD "screeners" of movies to Oscar voters.

Cinea makes a special DVD player that members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences receive, so they can watch specially-encoded DVDs of Oscar-nominated films that haven't yet been released on home video yet. The goal is to prevent pirates from getting their hands on these "screener" DVDs and running off millions of copies.

Apparently, the system isn't working flawlessly just yet.

Last year, Cinea had tried to insert itself into the Oscar nomination process (and also Britain's BAFTA awards), spending $5 million to send complimentary players to 12,000 Academy and BAFTA members. (Cinea's S-View player can play specially-encoded Cinea DVDs and also plain-vanilla DVDs.) But according to Variety, "due to manufacturing delays...the machines went out too late for studios to evaluate the technology and use Cinea for screeners."

Academy voter Tom Sherak, a partner at Revolution Studios, mentioned to me last month that the first Cinea player he'd received didn't work (wasn't packed correctly, he surmised), but that he was finally setting up the new one the company had sent.

This year, Disney is the only studio sending all of its awards contenders (including "Chronicles of Narnia" and "Casanova") to voters on the Cinea discs.

So this story, about British awards voters not being able to watch Steven Spielberg's "Munich" because of a DVD screw-up, is confusing. "Munich" was released by Universal and DreamWorks. It's unclear to me from all the reportage whether this snafu had anything to do with the Cinea players - or was simply a result of the "Munich" screeners being encoded to play only in the US. Xan Brooks writes, "Munich screeners were encoded for region one, which allows them to be played in the US and Canada, rather than region two, which incorporates most of Europe."

Finally, Xeni Jardin writes in Slate that many of the movies that have been distributed to Academy members, including "North Country," "Syriana," "Corpse Bride," and "Memoirs of a Geisha," have already shown up on the file-sharing network BitTorrent. Presumably, these are films that weren't distributed on Cinea-encoded discs.

Seems like it might be time for Cinea to issue some sort of statement clarifying what's going on here...

Sunday NY Times: The Oscars Section

The Times runs its annual Oscars section today, a chance for studios to buy some more of those full-page ads reminding voters how deserving of statuettes 'King Kong' and `Cinderalla Man' are.

- Charles Solomon has a piece about how some of the best animated movies this year weren't computer-generated. He writes:

    The computer-generated entries of 2005 were disappointing to the animation experts who will be voting on the nominations this month. Blue Sky's "Robots" lacked the charm of "Ice Age"; many animators found Disney's "Chicken Little" dreary; even DreamWorks' "Madagascar," the biggest box-office success among last year's animations, failed to generate much excitement among artists. But the imagination, warmth and humor of "Corpse Bride," "The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" and "Howl's Moving Castle" proved that death notices for traditional forms of animation - stop-motion and hand-drawing - were a little premature: those arts remain alive and well.

- Columnist Daniel Akst observes that even in the Netflix era, our appetite for live performances endures. People spent more than $2.6 billion going to rock concerts last year, and:

    Broadway theaters report that 2005 was a banner year, with a gross of $825 million and nearly 12 million tickets sold. A record total of more than 116 million baseball fans attended major or minor league games last year, and an estimated 176 million people visited North America's 50 most popular amusement parks. We won't even get into the data on tourism, now the biggest industry in some of the world's leading cities.

    With hundreds of cable channels on television and a seemingly infinite number of choices on the Internet, it's easy to assume that theaters, concert halls and ballparks must be chronically empty. Instead, the opposite is true. Wherever you look, it seems, people want to see something in person.

    More and more, I suspect, what they will want is something they can't find at home. Although traditional moviegoing has proved resilient over the decades in the face of new technologies like television and the Internet, I doubt how well it can withstand the combined new forces of large-screen high-definition TV, accelerated broadband and at-home access - via DVD or download - to new films at the same time the pictures are released to theaters.

- Anne Eisenberg writes about people who love their portable media players.

    Partly because of the popularity of Apple's new video iPod, introduced in October, the sight of people staring at "Lost" or other shows on tiny screens as they ride the bus may become as commonplace as that of people talking on cellphones.

    Already, the iTunes Music Store sells a handful of television shows from ABC, NBC, the SciFi Channel and the USA Network, including "Lost," "Law & Order," "The Office" and "Saturday Night Live." Most of the shows, which have already been broadcast on television, cost $1.99 an episode.

    But rather than just buying the prepackaged versions, many people are transferring shows on their own from a video source, and then enjoying them not only on iPods but also on high-end cellphones, DVD players, personal digital assistants and other outlets. To do this, they digitally record the show by using a TiVo or similar device. Then the show typically travels over a home network to a desktop computer, where software converts the file and sends it to the gadget of choice.