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Monday, March 23, 2015

You Miss 100% of the Shots You Don't Take

I am proud to say that my niece was recently accepted to the LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts. This school was immortalized in the movie and TV series "Fame," and remains to this day a magnet for young people in New York City interested in a performing arts career. Only 3% of the students who apply are accepted to its drama program -- a lower admissions percentage than Harvard, Yale, and Stanford. Her parents and I were surprised that my niece wanted to apply. We knew she enjoyed going to live shows, and attended a drama camp between 7th and 8th grade, but other than that she never expressed much interest in acting. She wasn't "on," all the time, as many young actors are. Despite living in Manhattan, she never asked to be taken to auditions for young people. She did try out for her Middle School musical, but felt lucky to make the chorus. One month before her audition, she still hadn't settled on her two monologues. She wanted to try, so she worked to memorize her two monologues. She applied the acting knowledge she learned during camp to create characters, and received two one-hour coaching sessions from a professional director that my brother knew. New York being filled with young actors, I'm sure there were many students that spent more time on their monologues than she did. Yet she was accepted, while many of her friends, including everyone with a lead in her Middle School musical, were not. Have you ever thought about not trying to live your dreams because the odds of success were small? When you do, think about my niece. Yes, her chances were small, particularly for someone with limited experience. But she wanted to try, so she did her best and was accepted! Don't be afraid to take a shot at what you want because you think you might fail. If you have a dream to create great content, or do some other job in the entertainment industry, go for it! You just might succeed. One thing I can guarantee -- if you don't try, you will certainly fail. After all, the acceptance rate at La Guardia High School among students who didn't apply is 0. As the great hockey start Wayne Gretzky said, "You miss 100% of the shots you don't take." Go ahead. Take your shot.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Should you Move to Los Angeles?

Young people who want a career in entertainment often ask me if they should move to Los Angeles. Sometimes they want support for a decision they've already made to move, and I give it to them. Sometimes, they don't want to move and say: "I can make movies anywhere. We can upload video to the internet from anywhere. Why move to a city where I don't know anyone and will probably struggle?" I usually answer this way: It's true that you can make movies anywhere. Richard Linklater shot "Boyhood" in and around Austin over 12 years. I know a very successful commercial production company headquartered in Appleton, Wisconsin. However, if you want to become a major player in the film or television industry, moving to Los Angeles can accelerate your career path. Most of our major media companies are headquartered in LA. f you want to work in the industry, you need to go where the major players live, work, and socialize. You can upload internet videos from anywhere, but if you want to pitch ideas to the heads of development for most major companies, you need to do it in person. If you already live there, you can pitch and/or interview with all the major companies. You'll also have opportunities to meet other people in the business that you may work with, or that might want to hire you. There are educational events to help you learn more about the industry. Another reason to move to Los Angeles is to realize you're not alone. There may be some people in your home town who share your dream to make movies, but Los Angeles has thousands of them. That will help you find more skilled people to collaborate on your current content ideas. Of course, if you want to work in development or just about any job for a film studio, you have to move to Los Angeles. You can't be a receptionist for a Hollywood studio in Dubuque. There are other production centers in the U.S. that provide some of the same opportunities as Los Angeles. Most major studios have signifiDecant operations in New York City, too. Atlanta, home of the Turner Networks, and Washington, DC, home of Discovery and the Nat Geo channels, provide production and development opportunities for television networks. However, Los Angeles provides more than any other city. Even if you manage to bring your work to the attention of a major studio, you'll probably have to fly to LA for the meeting. It would be a lot easier if you were already there. If you are out of work, as so many people in the industry are from time to time, it's easier to find work in LA than in any other city. Horace Greeley said it best in the 19th Century when he advised young people to "Go West!" If you want a career in film, or in many other entertainment businesses, Los Angeles is the place to start.

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.