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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.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Enduring Popularity of "Road House."

I love films that challenge,confound expectations, and make you think. I hope you do, too. But every now and then I also enjoy watching a film that does none of those things. I am referring to the Patrick Swayze film "Road House," which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. I don't know about you, but I always watch at least part of the film whenever I catch it on cable. If I was still running a cable network, I would schedule it every chance I got. Even a quarter century after its release, the film remains a potent ratings performer. Entertainment Weekly's Dalton Ross, who shares a name with Patrick Swayze's character in the film, created a chart for Road House fans to track its violence. He counted 55 punches to the face, 24 stomach punches, 26 kicks to the chest, and esoteric violence such as 7 pool cue strikes and 1 man crushed by a stuffed polar bear. You can find the details at: http://popwatch.ew.com/2014/04/29/road-house-patrick-swayze-fight-chart/. Road House is structured like a classic Western. The owner of the local bar in this unnamed small town hires Dalton, America's greatest bouncer, played by Patrick Swayze, to ride into town in his sports car and clean up his bar, the Double Deuce. Dalton is not only a martial arts master but also a zen philosopher who says things like "pain don't hurt," and "be nice, until it's time not to be nice." The movie signals early on that we're not supposed to take any of this very seriously, so we just enjoy watching Swayze, beat up bad guys, woo Kelly Lynch, the world's most glamorous emergency room doctor, and avenge the death of his mentor played by Sam Elliott. We also get to see a lot of Swayze's magnificently sculpted body, since he spends a lot of the film shirtless. The small town is run by an evil, rich man, Brad Wesly, played in scenery-chewing glory by Ben Gazzara. Gazzara was a very promising actor when he was younger, but you wouldn't know that from this film. In fact, very little about the plot makes sense, which is why I think the film spends so much time on various fistfights and destruction of property. Road House is the very definition of a film that's usually called a "guilty pleasure." We know it's not a great film, but we enjoy watching it anyway. But why does it work? How does this combination of fist fights, zen philosophy, and shirtless Swayze continue to draw an audience when so many other films from 1989 have faded away? I believe the key to Road House's success is the performances. Yes, the situation strains credulity, but doesn't break it. All the actors act as if the situation is real, and their total commitment to their performances allows the audience to suspend their disbelief. Dalton is a particularly compelling character. There's also something admirable about a man known for keeping the peace who prefers not to fight; that's a trope that content creators have used successfully throughout history. We all want to root for a man who always does the right thing, no matter what the cost. Finally, there's the rough and tumble of the actual fist fights; what man hasn't at some point, fantasized about being able to enforce order just by beating people up? The lesson I take from Road House is to make the world you create as believable as possible. Once you set up the rules of that world, stick to them and make sure that characters behave according to those rules. It helps if the characters are attractive and the heroes and villians clear. But let's not analyze the film in too much depth. Let's just enjoy it for what it is, the next time we see it on cable. And remember, be nice until it's time not to be nice.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Power of the Public Domain

Having trouble coming up with an idea for your next project? Try the public domain. Stories and content in public domain are available for anyone to use. Sounds like a great resource, doesn't it? Public domain material won the Academy Award for Best Picture this year. 12 Years a Slave was based on a public domain memoir of the same name by Solomon Northrup. Anyone could have used it for movie source material. The Bible is in the public domain. This week a big screen version of Noah is opening, starring Russel Crowe. Son of God, based on the public domain New Testament, is still raking in bucks at the box office. All of Shakespeare's works are in the public domain. Perhaps you didn't like Joss Whedon's version of Much Ado About Nothing and want to film your own. Go right ahead. Walt Whitman's poems are in the public domain. You can take "Song of Myself" and create a web series of two minute videos until you've put the whole poem on line. Want to adapt any of Mark Twain's works for the stage or television? Start typing today. The public domain is full of time tested content that's been popular for centuries and can still work today. In general, any work published before 1923 are in the public domain in the U.S. That's a lot of content. Someworks published after 1923 may be in the public domain if their copyright wasn't renewed. Some works created long after 1923 are in the public domain -- for example the 1968 version of Night of Living Dead is in the public domain. So is His Girl Friday, starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. However, for works published after 1923 in particular be careful before you use it. Check with the U.S. copyright office to be sure. Here's their web address: www.copyright.gov. It's important to make sure that the material using is actually in the public domain before you use it. It is possible to copyright a particular version of public domain material. 12 Years a Slave, the book, is in the public domain, but the screenplay and the film adaptation are copywritten. If you print a version of Shakespeare's Hamlet with your specific notes about the script, that version of the play can have a copyright. If you compile all the poems of Walt Whitman into one book, that book can have a copyright, even if the individual poems don't have one. That being said, if you want to quote from Whitman's poem "Oh Captain My Captain," as Robin Williams did so memorably in Dead Poet's Society, you don't need permission to put those quotes in your screenplay. The works I mentioned only scratch the surface of what's available in the public domain. Other content available includes all of Greek and Roman drama and poetry, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Moliere's plays, Nathaniel Hawthorne's novels and stories, and the songs of Stephen Foster. Think of the public domain as a vast source of free ideas that you can adapt for your own content. If you have questions about what can and can't be used, it's best to consult an entertainment or copyright attorney. There's power in the public domain. It contains content hundreds or even thousands of years old that continues to thrill audiences to this day. It can be a great source for your work if you use it wisely.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Low Budget Films Win Acting Academy Awards

All of the Academy Award acting winners this year acted in films whose production budget was $20 million or less. $20 million might seem like a lot of money, but these are in fact small budgets to most major media companies. In 2013, for example, Disney spent a reported $250 million to make The Lone Ranger, with Johnny Depp. Last week Mathew McConaughey and Jared Leto won Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively, for Dallas Buyer's Club, a film budgeted at $5 million. Best Actress winner Cate Blanchett appeared in Blue Jasmine, budgeted at $18 million, and Lupita Nyongo, the Best Supporting Actress winner for her work in 12 Years a Slave, was in the biggest budget picture of all. Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave cost a reported $20 million. How did a low budget project like Dallas Buyer's Club capture a star like Mathew McConaughey? He supposedly turned down $15 million to star in the screen version of Magnum, PI to take $200,000 (plus backend considerations) for Dallas Buyers Club. Would you turn down $15 million for a $200,000 fee? You might if you were an actor. McConaughey had already made millions from a series of big budget films that didn't provide great acting challenges or do very well at the box office. McConaughey wanted to work on projects that provided both. Years from now, people may not remember that he starred in Sahara, but they will remember Dallas Buyers Club. Actors want to act. Most big budget action films don't require a lot of emotional depth, or offer actors a chance to play characters that can help them win awards. Many actors would find a good script that offers them a chance to show their talent and range very compelling. That's particularly true if the subject matter is compelling history, like the early history of AIDS or the savagery of slavery. Therefore, the key to capturing a great actor for your independent production is to write a great script. Make the lead roles attractive to actors by offering them opportunities to create memorable behavior within a compelling story. Give them a chance to win an Academy Award. However, a great script with great parts isn't always enough. It's important to make sure you have the business side of your project in order. Try to partner with a company that has a record of getting distribution for their projects, such as Fox Searchlight, which distributed 12 Years a Slave. Actors may be attracted by your great script, but if they're going to work at a reduced rate they want to know that their work will be seen. Even a talented newcomer like Lupita Nyongo will be hard to cast in your film if she doesn't think it will be distributed. I'll discuss more about what the success of these films mean for the industry in a future post. For now, I hope those of you creating content understand the lesson from these success stories. Make your script and your story as good as you can every time. Who knows, you just may get an Academy Award winner to star in your project.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Disappointment of 'Inside Llewyn Davis'

The coming week will be full of predictions about who will win the Academy Awards on March 2. One film that won't figure in the Oscar race, despite great reviews from many critics, is "Inside Llewyn Davis." I'm a big fan of the Coen Brothers' films. I loved "Fargo" and "Miller's Crossing," and still quote lines from "The Big Lebowski." I am also a fan of folk music and the early 1960s Greenwich Village scene. So when I heard that the Coen Brothers' next movie was set during the 1960s folk revival, I went to see it as soon as it opened in Orlando. 'Art' films generally open here a couple of weeks after their New York and Los Angeles debuts, so you can imagine how much I anticipated seeing "Inside Llewyn Davis" after so many critics chose the film as one of the top movies of 2013. I can't remember the last time a film disappointed me this much. I wanted so much to like it. It's taken me a few weeks to write about it because I was trying desperately to salvage something from the experience that could provide useful insight to my readers. I think I've finally figured out where it went wrong, which I can pass on so you can avoid the same mistakes. Briefly, the film tells the story of a few days in the life of folk singer Llewyn Davis, a talented, if unfocused, folk singer. The film essentially relates a series of incidents where nice people (friends, family, and even strangers) try to provide opportunities for Llewyn, and he messes up every single one. Over the course of a few days Davis moves from couch to couch throughout the city, deals with the possibility that he may have gotten a friend's wife pregnant, loses a friend's cat, gets a few gigs, gets drunk, and gets beaten up. Unlike other, more successful Coen films, there's not a lot at stake for Llewyn Davis. He doesn't solve a murder, like Marge in "Fargo" or the Dude in "The Big Lebowski." He isn't trying to save his marriage and reunite with his family, like George Clooney's character in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Llewyn Davis runs away from his family and his responsibilities -- he doesn't go see his son in Akron when he has the chance and he insults friends who give him free places to sleep, but he won't compromise his art to make more commercial records. That may make him a hero to the Coen Brothers and the critics who loved the film. The average audience member, myself included, doesn't understand what's wrong with some commercial success. Bob Dylan, who makes a brief appearance at the end of the film, sold a lot of records, but that doesn't make him a sell-out. Llewyn Davis doesn't do anything to try to save himself, despite the huge number of lifelines thrown him throughout the film. It's very difficult to make the audience care, if the protagonist doesn't. When you're working on your content, make the stakes as high as possible. Give your protagonist a clear objective to pursue, and have him or her pursue it strongly. It's all right to give the audience someone they can root for and identify with. We want our audience to be engaged and follow the story. Communication with the audience can only happen if they find the story and lead characters compelling. If you can make the story and lead characters compelling enough, you, too, can achieve success.