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Saturday, January 17, 2015

How to Protect Your Idea

Everyone's got stories. When I was worked in programming for television networks, I never told anyone what I did. Because once people heard what I did, they would start pitching me an idea. My cobbler would pitch me a show idea about cobblers, my taxi driver would say there should be a show about taxi drivers, not realizing that there already was a very successful series called "Taxi," and my son's teachers would pitch me educational sitcoms and dramas. They were convinced that viewers would love to see their stories up on the screen, if only "those idiots" at the networks would agree. Almost everyone who was about to pitch me an idea would ask if I planned to steal it. I would always say not to tell it to me if they thought I would steal it. While there are certainly unscrupulous people in the entertainment industry, idea stealing is not that common. It's not the idea that matters, it's the execution of the idea that matters. How many movies have been made where a parent and their teen child switch identities? Some have been hits and some disappear from the theaters after a week. It all depends on the execution. Therefore, the best way to protect your idea is to turn it into a property. If you have an idea for a movie, don't keep it in your head. Write a treatment, or do a rudimentary story board, or create a detailed outline. Don't just say that you want to create a reality show about a biker bar in Dallas -- go to Dallas, find the perfect biker bar for your show, and sign an exclusive agreement with them. If no one wants to read your screenplay, use it as an outline for a novel. Then write your novel and get it published. You may find it easier to get studios to read your script if it's based on a novel. As I pointed out, everyone has ideas. If an entertainment company doesn't like your idea, they know they can get ideas from any number of other creators. If you own a property that the entertainment company wants, you're in the driver's seat. JK Rowling had an idea for a novel about a boy wizard. That idea itself can't be protected. But once she wrote her first Harry Potter novel, she turned her idea into a property that has become one of the most valuable entertainment properties in the world. It also made her a billionaire. Maybe you have an idea that can be equally as successful. Turn it into a property and find out.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Easiest Place to Find Unique Stories

Happy 2015! I hope you had a Holiday Season full of joy, shared with your family and friends. Of course, for many of us, that family time is a mixed blessing. While I hope most of you enjoyed the time spent with your families, I wouldn't be surprised if your holiday time also included stresses and tensions. Just traveling home for the holidays can be a stress-filled adventure, as depicted memorably in films such as "Planes Trains and Automobiles," and "Home Alone," among many others. Yes, the holiday time and your families can be great sources of material, particularly for independent film makers. If you're creating your own content you probably don't have a multi-million dollar budget for special effects and stars. That means you won't shoot a film like "The Avengers," although you may be able to emulate Joss Whedon's follow-up project, a film of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" shot in his backyard. In addition to sharing meals with family and friends, did you share stories? Just about every family has a unique character whose story would fascinate other people. For example, my father and aunt told me stories about my grandfather I never knew. He didn't come to America through Ellis Island - he had a rich uncle who paid his passage, and put $20 in his pocket. That was enough money so he entered the country as a tourist, through Philadelphia. That uncle brought his whole family to New York, and owned some Nickelodeons and storefront theaters at the turn of the 20th Century. But he thought the film business was a fad, and sold them cheaply - and then lost that money in other investments. I think there's a good story in there, if I can develop it properly. You may have an even more promising story in your family. Start talking to your older relatives at family gatherings about their lives. Record what they say on your cell phone. Listen to their stories of growing up on a farm, or in the big city, or what they did during the war, or the good times that followed. Did they march on Washington in 1963, or hang out at Studio 54 during the seventies? Perhaps they weren't involved in the big political issues of their day, but there's drama and comedy in the every day interaction of people in all situations. The series "The Wonder Years," took place during the 60s and 70s, but followed the story of how a middle class suburban family lived during that time. If you're an independent producer or film maker you most likely don't have a budget to option popular stories, novels, or the true stories you see on television news. You need to find stories that can be made on a budget that will still resonate with an audience. No one but you can own your life story. Start with your life, your friends and your family. You'll be amazed at all the compelling material just waiting for someone to share it with the world.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Why Shows End

All shows end eventually. Cultural icons like The Ed Sullivan show were cancelled. How I Met Your Mother aired its last episode this past year -- the creator knew it was coming, but it still ended. Hollywood made 7 Police Academy films, but they didn't make 8. JK Rowling stopped writing Harry Potter novels. Cats ran on Broadway for years, but it closed. So did Les Miserables, even though it was revived. Phantom of the Opera is still running, but it will close someday too. Why does it happen? The simple answer is: shows close and series are canceled when they ceasroducers will close Phantom of the Opera. The deeper question for content creators is why does the audience go away? How can something that was once so vital that fans structured their day around watching it become so insignificant to them? The fact is, tastes change. My parents loved Big Band music and hated rock. I loved rock in the 60s and 70s but didn't love Nirvana in the 90s. I thought "Gilligan's Island" was very funny when I was a kid in the 60s; I recently watched an episode (it's still on cable somewhere) and can't believe I found it amusing. When we find a new program or movie that we like, the thrill of discovery adds to our pleasure. After the 20th or 30th or 100th episode, we find ourselves losing interest. In television, we say that a show that lost its freshness and is flailing away to try to attract an audience has "jumped the shark." That's from a famous episode of the series "Happy Days," when Fonzie, wearing his trademark leather jacket, water skis over a shark-infested part of the ocean. Many people don't realize that was in season five -- the series lasted six years after that famous incident. Increasingly, creators and networks choose to end shows while they are still popular. Perhaps the first series to do that was "The Fugitive" in the 1960s, which ended with Richard Kimble finding the one-armed man. In the 1970s the Mary Tyler Moore show memorably said goodbye with the cast all huddled together singing "It's a Long Way to Tipperary." Some shows do better than others -- I thought "Seinfeld's" last episode was just odd, and I still am mad about "The Sopranos'" cut to black. But whether you end your show on your own terms or your studio, producer, or network ends it for you, understand that every show ends eventually. Enjoy it while it lasts. Dedicate yourself to making each piece of content you create as good as possible. Keep working on multiple projects so that, when one ends, you can move on to something else. When the show does end, reward yourself. You deserve it for creating something that entertained people and made a difference in their lives.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Don't Make the Beatles' Merchandising Deal

When I was a young boy during the 1960s, I worshipped The Beatles - John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Under the business guidance of their manager, Brian Epstein, the Beatles became the most popular band in the world. They inspired a great deal of what we think of today as "the Sixties." Even at the age of 72, Sir Paul McCartney still fills stadiums. The Beatles all became rich beyond their wildest dreams. I hope that all of our work becomes so widely accepted and influential. But while Brian Epstein's guidance helped make the Beatles household names and fabulously wealthy, Epstein also lost millions because he made some agreements without researching the industry. One of the worst deals they made was with a British businessman named Nicky Byrne. According to Bob Spitz' biography, The Beatles, Byrne approached Epstein's lawyer, David Jacobs, in 1963. Byrne convinced Jacobs that he could make the Beatles a great deal of money if they gave him their merchandising rights in the United States. Byrne had run a variety of entertainment businesses in the U.K., and convinced Jacobs that he would be the best man for the job. Jacobs asked Byrne what he planned to pay the Beatles, and Byrne said, "Ten percent." Jacobs wrote that amount in the contract that Epstein signed, giving Nicky Byrne 90% of the profits of Beatles merchandise sales outside the U.K. The story goes that when Brian and the boys landed in America in 1964 Byrne met Brian at his suite in the Plaza Hotel and handed Epstein a check for $200,000. Brian asked what it was for. Byrne calmly replied, "that's your ten percent." Epstein finally realized that merchandising was worth millions of dollars and that he had given it away to a stranger. They immediately started renegotiating with Byrne, and eventually sued him to recover the rights. However, even after the suits were settled, millions of dollars were lost. That's an important lesson for all content creators: Don't make that deal. Don't give up 90% of your merchandising rights to someone you don't know. You may be laughing right now and saying, "of course I wouldn't do that." But the ranks of creators are full of artists who did exactly that, or worse, gave up all control over their work. Take the time to research the industry standard so you know a good deal when you see one. If you don't have the time or the inclination to do this, at least find an agent and/or manager who does know the business. Have them explain it to you, and represent you in negotiations. Finally, don't sign any contract you don't understand. Either figure it out yourself or hire someone who knows that particular area of the business.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Is Hollywood Losing America?

The 2014 summer box office returns have disappointed Hollywood studios, particularly when compared with 2013. As of the last full week in July, box office grosses in 2014 are down 20% from summer of 2013. But while some of the hoped-for blockbusters didn't perform as expected, there are also many fewer big flops. There hasn't been a flop like "John Carter" or "The Lone Ranger." What is the reason for this, and what can we, as content creators, learn from it? One reason for the box office slump often cited by critics and industry insiders is that the current crop of movies stink. When "Transformers 4" is one of the top performing films, you know that in-depth characters are not a priority this summer. Poor marketing also is mentioned. The dystopian movie "Snowpiercer" received very favorable reviews and did well at the box office, but the film's distributor, the Weinstein company, released it to video on demand before allowing the word of mouth to build. The film is doing very well as a VOD title, but it's not contributing to the box office total. It's very difficult, if not impossible,to predict how an audience will respond to a movie two or three years in the future. Yet, that's when Hollywood makes its movie bets. Executives listen to a pitch, commission a script, and give those lucky few projects green lights. The films don't premiere until a year or two, or sometimes longer, after they are a "go" project. That's why concepts that are popular when a film goes into production may feel old by the time they open. Next summer, when a new Avengers movie and other tent pole films are scheduled to open, major Hollywood studios may have a great summer. They also may not be so quick to send sleeper hits to video on demand after this year. Since you can't predict audience taste in the future, don't worry about it when you're creating your content. Your job as a creator is to make the truest, most unique film you can. Audiences respond to authenticity, and they want to be thrilled by something they didn't expect. One of the challenges I had with last year's "Lone Ranger" movie, was that, after I got over Johnny Depp's odd look and manner, the film delivered everything I expected to see and nothing else. Please tell your unique stories with as much imagination as you can muster. That's how you capture an audience. Is Hollywood losing America? They've lost some of their audience this summer, but all it will take is a couple of blockbusters, or a director and star with a unique vision, to get the audience back. This weekend's "Guardians of the Galaxy" looks to be a big hit. That's good for me -- I still own the 1969 comic book. However, if you define Hollywood as more than just movies, and include television and online offerings, Hollywood is having a pretty good year. While movie box office is down, viewing of online series -- everything from "House of Cards" and "Orange is the New Black" to experimental you tube series, is way up. Many of those series are created by traditional Hollywood talent. I don't think Hollywood is losing America; I think Hollywood is learning to find audiences in places other than movie theaters. Think about that when you're creating your content.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The disappearance of American Idol

Disney announced today that their Hollywood Studios 'American Idol' attraction would close at the end of 2014 -- before the 14th season of American Idol starts airing on Fox. There is no clearer sign of American Idol's eroding audience than Disney deciding that even the show being on the air wouldn't draw enough people to their attraction. Did you watch American Idol this year? A show that used to be Number One in America sometimes finished second in its time slot to situation comedy reruns. Readers of this blog know that I have long been a big fan of the show, and I barely watched it this past spring. When I did tune in, the show certainly resembled its glory days. There were three judges - two men and a woman.Ryan Seacrest hosted, and the various contestants warbled their way through a series of vintage and modern hits. The show had auditions with good and bad singers, Hollywood week, elimination shows, and everything that Americans always used to watch -- only this past season, they didn't. The ratings for the finale were down 28% over the previous year, and some nights sitcom reruns beat it in the ratings. Because the show had a long way to fall from its lofty perch, Fox renewed the show for a 14th season. Even if you remained a regular viewer, you knew it wasn't the same. No one at the office was talking about the performances, or what the judges said. The contestants weren't on every nightly news show. And the various blogs and online chatter were more likely to talk about contestants on 'The Voice' or 'Dancing With the Stars.' Vote for the Worst, the web site that took credit for keeping Sanjaya on the show week after week, didn't even bother to cover season 13. The creators shut the site down because American Idol was no longer relevant. What happened? Media critics suggested several causes for the show's drop in popularity -- competition from other reality singing shows, boring judges, a series of bland winners, etc. All of these have some validity. However, I believe the reason for the huge drop in ratings is more simple: the audience was bored with the format. They knew that there would be some ridiculous performances during the auditions. They knew there would be heartwarming stories and tension during Hollywood Week. And they knew most contestants would struggle to perform week after week. There were no surprises any more, and a large percentage of the audience moved on. That's a normal part of the cycle of programs. All shows lose audience and end. CBS cancelled the Ed Sullivan Show. Gunsmoke, the longest running dramatic series, eventually rode off into the sunset. These days, creators and networks prefer to create finale episodes, like this year's How I Met Your Mother final show. They provide closure to fans and tie up several story lines. Of course, you as a show creator will want to keep your show running as long as possible without "jumping the shark," a phrase referring to a time when the creators of 'Happy Days' ran out of ideas and had Fonzie water ski over a pool of sharks in a bathing suit and trademark leather jacket. If you've done your best to make your show compelling, and its audience is fading, don't take it personally. Understand that's part of the natural cycle of content, accept it, and move on to the next idea. After all, if your content is good enough it will live on in syndication, international markets, and internet streaming. Just make sure, if you want to remain in the content creation business, you are constantly developing new ideas while your previous idea is still on the network.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Lessons from Act One

I was in New York for three days last week and could only see one Broadway show. For me, there was only one choice: James Lapine's stage adaptation of Moss Hart's memoir Act One. Moss Hart wrote Act One at the end of his career, from the perspective of a successful, worldly man of the theatre looking back at his early life. The book is funny, poignant, and infused with a love of theatre that struck a chord with me, a stagestruck young boy in Brooklyn some sixty years after the events described in the book. James Lapine and the producers at Lincoln Center must share my love for Act One, because they adapted the book faithfully and spent a lot of money on a revolving set and large cast of actors Lapine faced many challenges adapting the piece. Act One covers over 20 years in Hart's early life, with many characters and locations. He also faced the tough challenge of recreating some of the stage shows as a play within his play to demonstrate Moss' love of theatre. The second act, which largely tells the story of how Moss worked with the great playwright George S. Kaufman on their first play, "Once in a Lifetime," suffers from this difficulty. It's tough to dramatize the writing process on stage. Lapine and the designers met the challenge of multiple locations by staging scenes on a multi-level revolve that stood in for many locations, and playing other scenes on the thrust stage at the Beaumont theater. Even though they had a large cast, every actor played multiple parts. Tony Shaloub played three parts: older Moss Hart, Hart's father, and George S. Kaufman. Andrea Martin played three parts, too. That device works much better in theatre than on film or television. In this case, too, having actors playing multiple roles fit the material, which was a play about a boy who grew up loving theatre and finally found his place in it. As the young Moss says at the end of the play, in a line taken verbatim from the book, "not a bad curtain for a first act." Everyone involved with Act One did a credible, professional job of bringing the book to life. Since I loved the book I enjoyed the stage production. Even with the elaborate sets and costumes, charismatic performances from the actors, and great source material, it was no more than what we call a gentle, pleasant, evening in the theatre. I hope Tony Shaloub wins a Tony, but suspect that he won't since it was a strong year for actors on Broadway. If you're thinking of adapting a famous work to create your content, make sure you've chosen the right format for it. Does it enhance the piece if it's a play or a television series? Let your imagination soar. I heard of one young composer who created a very successful 15 minute accapella musical based on Sophocles' Oedipus. Before you start writing, think about what the material demands. Act One was made into a movie in the 1960s, in what is still considered one of the worst movies made by a Hollywood Studio. Clearly, it made more sense to tell this story in the theatre. Make sure you have the proper resources to realize your vision. Although Act One is technically a Broadway show and eligible for Tony Awards, only a non-profit like Lincoln Center Theatre Company could afford to mount a play with such a large cast and set. A commercial producer would probably not have done it. If you don't have large resources make your adaptation fit the resources you have. If you love the theatre and/or loved the book Act One I would recommend you go before its current run is over. I can't imagine smaller theater companies around the country staging such an ambitious, expensive adaptation.