Friday, June 29, 2007

Excellent Film Analysis from Scouser Rob Ager

Something about filmmaking that I find infinitely fascinating is the breaking down of theme and metaphor within a movie. Subtext (what the film is really saying just below the surface) in a feature is really cool and adds much more depth after you discover it. It is never accidental, and can provide new insight to what the message of the film is, as well as the personal stamp of the filmmaker.

For years, this kind of information was only available in books and film classes. With the advent of DVDs and commentary tracks (which began with the now-defunct Laserdisk format), cheap film appreciation became available to the masses. Despite this, most commentary tracks are superficial and boring, or center on production, with thematic elements getting less disc time. There are exceptions (Criterion discs make a real effort here), but if you want to study a film through an educated perspective, the aforementioned books and schools still seem to be your best bet.

Enter Rob Ager. Here's a guy who has begun to breakdown films and offers his wonderful comments on a few select films on his website found here. What separates him from the scads of others who have done the same, is that he voices his words over edited versions of the very movies he is analyzing. It plays like a short PBS special (about 15-20 minutes for each film), and is very well done.

I've watched just about all of these and have been very impressed and educated. I've learned about the heavy sexual context in Alien and the social repression themes in The Matrix. There's the message of Native American persecution in The Shining and a very compelling interpretation of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I even got some new tidbits from the Psycho examination that I never thought of, and I've traveled (and read about) that film heavily.

I highly encourage everyone to check out Rob's site. He is very good at this, and for anyone who loves movies, it's a great, free course on what is really being said in a movie, whether you realize it or not. Thanks to FreshDV who led me to Ticklebooth, who led me to Rob.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

There's a Reason You Yell "Lights!" First

One of the most important things you can do as a filmmaker, is light properly. Good lighting will not only give the best image possible (even on cheaper camcorders), but make the proper impression on your viewer. It gives credibility to your project, and makes you look good. It is also one of the most elusive skills out there, something that can't "just be picked up". I'm always looking for someone who knows how to really light, hoping they can replace my feeble skills.

Recently, a post has been circulating about a do-it-yourself C-stand over at DIY Photo Gear. This cool stand is made out of plumbing parts from your local hardware store, and even sports casters to zip it around your studio! I like this design a lot (especially for $30), even if it's not very portable. It seems like a great solution to that ever-nagging problem of no money to spend, despite the number of problems you have to solve.

I have been wondering if I could build the thing using PVC pipe instead. I couldn't attach a light to the top, but what I really need is a basic post to clamp stuff to. I use the cheap clamp on lights quite a bit, but am always gripping them to table legs, shelves and other non-convenient areas. I also want to build some of the low cost fluorescents mentioned here, which also need a spot to lock onto. The PVC would also be much more portable (and lightweight) and could breakdown much easier. There may be a wobble factor, however, but I won't know how much until I try building the thing.

This is also a good time to mention some "classic articles" about inexpensive light kits. There's a great one mentioned here in an old DV article, as well as this link from cinematographer Scott Spears. I also stumbled across a good tip from FreshDV about some cheap dimmers from Harbor Freight. The great news is that they are now even less expensive then when the post was written--under ten bucks!

Of course, you can nab any and all sorts of gear, and still not know how to light anything. Poking around the aforementioned websites should give you a good start. Then you can be like me and kinda know how to light while you search for someone who can bring your stuff to the next level.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The ARKOFF Formula, Part 6 (The Final Chapter): 'Foreplay is as Important in Dramaturgy as in Bed'

'The ARKOFF Formula' was a model B-movie mogul Samuel Z. Arkoff (1918-2001) designed all his films around. This old post by Bill Cunningham brought this paradigm to my attention, and it has great value for microcinema filmmakers. This is the last part in a series of articles elaborating on this formula. Also see Part 1, 'Action Them 'til They're Dizzy', Part 2, 'Revolutionary Scenes Get Talked of', Part 3, 'Kill Colorfully and Often', Part 4, 'Tell the World about Your Picture!' and Part 5, Fantasy is what Audiences Spend Money for'. 

'F' is for Foreplay (or Fornication)
This is one place where I differ a bit from Mr. Arkoff. His point is as old as the hills--sex sells. Put moderate nudity and/or sex in your film, and you'll get a lot of people to watch it. Since I am not a fan of exploitation, and want to draw the largest audience possible, I'm never putting a topless woman or a sex scene in any movie I make. I don't believe in it from a moral standpoint, and I think it limits the range of viewer I want as a customer. Just witness the popularity of the 'PG-13' (and lower) rating vs. the 'R' rating. Studios will often cut a film to get the rating with the wider appeal, and potentially greater box office and DVD profits. Especially for the microfilmmaker, every dollar counts.

Sex Appeal is Just as Effective
Remember how great all those presents looked under the tree on Christmas Day? Remember the letdown when the wrapping was gone and there was nothing left to open? So it goes with your movie. If you have a sultry female character, or studly male one, the sexy attitude they project can be an intensely powerful tease. The way they dress, the way they move, and the way they speak can be even more powerful than if they just got naked on the floor (pan to the billowing curtains, please). Like with horror, what your mind conjures up in the wake of literally showing the goods carries much more weight than the real deal.

Chemistry can be Explosive
One thing I really enjoyed about the big budget Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005) was the very real fire between stars Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Okay, so they were literally involved at the time, but their passion for each other translated very well to their on-screen personas. It was a tangible feeling, and if you can get something like that in your movie, it will move up a notch on the want-to-watch-o-meter. Our challenge is casting actors that have that chemistry, involved or not. Read different people together (and videotape it), take their picture, and hope you get a good combo. A solid relationship at the core of your film is crucial (also see Rear Window (1954)).

Cast Good Looking Actors
As I've mentioned here before, "easy on the eyes" can only help your cause. Get an attractive woman, and men's interest will be piqued. A handsome man will draw the ladies. It's all part of a heightened reality that movies play directly into. When it comes time to promote your movie, and you want to sell posters, what are people going to buy? Those hot people looking cool and striking cool poses (probably with firearms and explosions, but I digress). It's part of the movie mystique, and if Hollywood does it, why can't we?

Don't Forget Technique
Another way you can generate sex appeal is through actual production methods. Could any hair products ever be sold without slow-motion cascading hair? How about the overcranked stroll of a woman in silk dress crossing the street (I don't care what the product is)? What about a subjective closeup of a dramatically lit pair of velvet brown eyes? You get the idea. The camera can convey any mood you choose, and with the proper tools, sexy is no different. Unfortunately for us, doing slow motion (which can make almost anything more appealing) is difficult. It can be done in post, but it's never like the real thing.

That wraps up this six part series on The ARKOFF Formula, and I hope you were able to get something out of it. While the core of these articles was Mr. Arkoff's words, much of the elaboration is strictly my opinion, and I take full responsibility for it. I'm not an expert, just a humble filmmaker who wants to make good movies. I hope this series has caused you to reflect on how to make your movies a little better. Special thanks to Bill Cunningham who posted exerpts from Julian Meyers' interview with Arkoff, upon which my writing is based. Be sure to check out Bill's blog, DISContent, which covers pulp movies and a lot of other cool stuff.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Podcasting is the Key to Getting the Word Out

"No TV channel has that. No major studio has that. No radio DJ has that. When we make a new video or have a new trailer or post a new short episode or have a video invitation, our subscribers get it. They want to know what we're up to and see whatever we make and put up there. It's the single most powerful thing we've done online."
This quote comes from a Variety article written by our collective friend, Anne Thompson, who seems to like writing about new technology and inventive ways the low budget filmmaker can distribute their work. The article (discovered through CinemaTech, of course) focuses on the power of theatrical distro and good reviews, but I think Crumley's quote says more about what can be done with social networking sites, and the power of fans getting your stuff immediately, without having to search for it.

On YouTube, anyone can become a subscriber to your videos, and will be alerted as soon as you upload something. On iTunes, the same can be done with a podcast. Lance Weiler, embarked on his "embed and spread" campaign for his last film, Head Trauma. This involved releasing code that others could embed in their sites and blogs. Whenever Weiler would update the file (like for HTRadio, a podcast), it would automatically change all over the web where the code was installed.

If I had the time, I would definitely go the podcasting route for Film Flap. It would tap into another audience who has no idea this blog exists, and give me good practice for the video version I'd undertake when I start working on my feature. It's just one more tool in our electronic quiver that we can use to spread the good word about what we are doing to those who may be interested, but don't know where to look.

Monday, June 25, 2007


Room with a Boo

I can’t say I’m a true horror fan, but I do like a good horror movie. This involves the feeling of suspense, and a nagging worry that something bad is going to happen to someone I care about. I don’t want a lot of gore (a little is okay), but gimme all the atmosphere you can muster, and I’ll bite. The new horror flick 1408 seemed to possess all of these qualities and it stars John Cusack, an actor I always like. I’m happy to report the movie did deliver--up to a point. I’m sad to report that after the film peaks, it struggles to maintain the high bar it sets for itself, then descends into big budget silliness.

Mike Enslin (Cusack) is a writer who has settled into writing unfulfilling, but best selling books about “haunted” locations around America. He brings all the requisite gear, and listens to all the legends, but has never once been convinced that ghosts are real. Coupled with the tragic death of his young daughter, he believes even less in any form of the afterlife. When a mysterious postcard warns him about room 1408 in the Dolphin Hotel in New York, he’s quickly on a plane to check it out. Despite strong words by hotel Manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson) to dissuade him, Enslin enters 1408 and his journey into hell begins...

The setup of 1408 (1+4+0+8=13, of course) is very good, especially in the scene between Olin and Enslin. We learn of all the deaths that have taken place there, including natural deaths. Some have flung themselves out the window, while others have gouged out their own eyes. With full contempt, Enslin states that he doesn’t believe in monsters, or a God who protects us from them. He pretty much dares the room to attack him, which of course it does. It reminded me of myself whenever I enter a horror flick, and dare it to scare me.

The film (based on a Stephen King short story), is scary, and builds nicely. At first it is the little things that are freaky (like a clock radio that only plays “We’ve Only Just Begun” by The Carpenters), and then the room starts to really get nasty. There is a great moment when Enslin sees something odd in the neighboring building across the street, followed by a really good fright. I did jump several times, and admit to really being scared about what Enslin was going to find when he went back into a room he had just left.

Unfortunately, the movie gets too big for its own britches. When a poltergeist breaks a lamp, or creates a subtle optical illusion, I bought it. When water gushed out of a painting of a ship at sea, putting the whole room underwater, I scoffed. The movie worked with the simple and real, but as it went on, nothing felt real, and I became disconnected from the story, comfortable that what I was now seeing could never happen.

The actors definitely pull their weight. Cusack (The Ice Harvest), who is on screen for the entire running length, does a good job portraying a jerk who gets his comeuppance after tempting fate. It’s fun to see him in such an intense role, after starring in so many romantic comedies. He starts losing his mind a little too fast, but gives a strong character base while all the effects work erupts around him. Jackson (Snakes on a Plane) is effectively ominous as the manager and since he is Samuel L. Jackson, gets to utter the lone F-bomb allowed by the PG-13 rating. Mary McCormack as Enslin’s wife and Jasmine Jessica Anthony as his daughter effectively round out the supporting cast.

For me, 1408 was a mixed bag. I appreciated the scary setup, but thought it peaked too early, and lost its footing. If you’re just looking for viscera, 1408 is worth a stay. If you want a little more meaning with your horror, you might want to check out early. Either way, this is a decent effort that could have and should have been better--and scarier.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Scene Gems: Hackman Discovers the Truth about 'The Conversation'

Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974) is not a thriller (though it has many thriller elements), but a character study of a freelance wiretapper who breaks his own rule and begins to care about one of his targets. He is Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), a sad-sack of a man who is all business, but obviously has some serious guilt issues. It's another great Hackman performance, as he gets us to care about this lonely man and his problems.

This sequence perfectly illustrates everything about the movie. We see the technical side of Harry as he meticulously puts together a master recording from four isolated sources. We see Harry's staunch religious convictions. The flashbacks of the recorded couple (Cindy Williams and Michael Higgins) are expertly edited together with the whirring tape reels and other cutaways by Richard Chew. Sound is especially important here, due to the subject matter, and it's a great how the puzzle comes together.

I also like the cinematography from veteran lenser Bill Butler. Notice the long shots employed by him as we, the audience, also spy on the couple in question. I really like the angle on Hackman, as he is positioned in the most powerful place he can possibly be--looking directly at us.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Canon HV20: HD and More for $1000

"If you are on a strict budget, you will find solace in the fact that your independent film will still look great shot with an HV20 in 24P mode." review

My little Canon Optura Pi has served me well. I bought a refurbished model over five years ago, mostly due to the progressive scan mode. It's a good one-chip camera that still records a solid image when proper lighting is available. It still has life in it (it's been repaired once) and would still be great for stuff destined for video sharing sites like YouTube. Video quality isn't that big of an issue there, but for stuff I want to release on DVD, it's time for a better image capturer, especially for that low light dramatic stuff.

I would love to purchase a high end Sony or Canon or Panasonic prosumer camera, but the sad fact is that the money just isn't there. The $3000-5000 dollars it would take wouldn't make good sense to me. Working within the $1000 Film ethic, I cant' spend much more than that for a camera. Not to mention that I don't have any more to spend.

Then I started hearing about the Canon HV20. I read a typically super in-depth review from Camcorder Info, which touted the excellent video quality and true 24p mode, which provides for a good low light image. I also like the fact that it apparently uses the same processor from the XH A1, the next-to-best model from Canon. Another review from Videomaker confirms the excellence of this camera, and also see this link to DVXuser, where Barry Green demonstrates how to properly control the exposure of the HV20.

I think I am sold on getting this camera. It can be had for just above $1k at Circuit City, even though availability seems to be scarce. No matter, I'll nab one of these babies and give some Film Flap feedback shortly thereafter. Has anyone else out there already used this camera? What do you think?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The ARKOFF Formula, Part 5: 'Fantasy is what Audiences Spend Money for'

'The ARKOFF Formula' was a model B-movie mogul Samuel Z. Arkoff (1918-2001) designed all his films around. This old post by Bill Cunningham brought this paradigm to my attention, and it has great value for microcinema filmmakers. This is another part in a series of articles elaborating on this formula. Also see Part 1, 'Action Them 'til They're Dizzy', Part 2, 'Revolutionary Scenes Get Talked of', Part 3, 'Kill Colorfully and Often', Part 4, 'Tell the World about Your Picture!' and Part 6, 'Foreplay is as important in Dramaturgy as in Bed'.

'F' is for Fantasy
It's no mystery that one of the biggest reasons people watch movies is to escape from their own lives. Cheaper and much less damaging than drugs or alcohol, movies provide a portal to another world, and where you teleport the viewer is limited only by your creativity. If you look at the top grossing films of the past few years they are all about fantastic adventures in otherworldly locales. Star warriors, pirates, a funny ogre, a kid wizard, and a guy who shoots webs dominated the box office in the past decade. People want the fantastic, the unreal and the amazing. There's no reason we can't give it to them, even on a small scale.

Don't Forget the People
Whatever your story, remember that it's ultimately about characters in danger. Let your audience get to know your people, and you've got them by the short hairs. Hugely scoped movies such as Star Wars and The Matrix focused on a small cast that we got to know and care about. No one cares about effects or plot without a soul to root for. Get your viewer to relate to that person on the screen and they will hang around to see what happens to them.

Use Special Effects Sparingly
Just because you choose fantasy or sci-fi doesn't mean you need to go overboard on visual effects. This will take some restraint when writing your script, but remember your budget (whatever that is) and write accordingly. Can your story be near future on earth instead of far future on another planet? Also remember that special effects work easily looks fake if not done correctly, and can quickly cheapen your production. While I like watching the big budget stuff, little films like Pi and Primer are impressive in that they tell imaginative stories without hardly any eye candy.

Take them Somewhere 'New'
Since fantasy doesn't have to be based in reality, open your mind and go crazy. I admit that there are really no new ideas, but take your favorite films (or books), and be inspired. The current script I'm working on contains influence from movies like Total Recall, Dark City, and The Terminator. I don't have to rip those films off, but take good ideas and rework them into a new story with different characters. If you believe many authors out there, once you get writing the script starts to write itself.

Stick to Your Universe
Once you have set up the world in which your creations inhabit, don't stray. Nothing is more betraying and frustrating to a viewer than to learn what the rules are, then watch them be broken. If bullet-firing weapons exist, don't bring in laser guns. If your story is a quiet tale, don't turn it into an action movie. If you're villain is a really bad guy, don't let him go good. And whatever you do, don't let it all be a dream. People won't be able to throw your DVD out the window fast enough.

Folks don't want to be reminded of their own hum-drum lives. This is why soap operas are still on the air. They want to get away, and you can give that to them for the running time of your movie. Dream big, but focus, and create a story that is both incredible and producible.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Lesson for Filmmakers: Homestar Runner Creators Turn Down TV Offers

Wired just published an interesting article that testifies about the strength of internet-based entertainment and the power of creative freedom. The creators of the animated Homestar universe, Matt and Mike Chapman, have rejected offers from both Cartoon Network and Comedy Central. They didn't like the idea of being plugged into someone else's model, losing control of their work, and being on some kind of schedule. While "the door remains open", its clear that they don't need TV to be successful. Selling Homestar merchandise is what pays the bills and keeps them independent.

These guys are living proof that you don't need to go Hollywood to make a living doing something you love, and enjoy it in the process. The fact is, that once you sign your name away for "fame and fortune" you have no leverage and have lost final say on things you are accustomed to (like final cut). If you stay independent (like the Chapmans), you may make less money (which may also be a myth), but you'll be way more satisfied creatively.

I also like the profit model that the Homestar site sets up. There are no ads of any kind, just a store link that lets you get cool goodies featuring the animated characters. This is a great way to monetize your site without "selling out" to others trying to cash in on the audience you've worked so hard to build. You are the one that should be cashing in. Selling stuff that features shows/movies/characters you've created not only gets you some coin, but free advertising, which perpetuates traffic. I've purchased two Homestar T-shirts (one for me and one for my son), and they both have the website address on the back. Smart.

It's becoming plain to me that you don't need a large entity to be a successful filmmaker/musician/artist or whatever. You do need an audience who cares about your work, and once that is large enough, you can quit your "normal" job and do what you love full-time. The more you do yourself means you keep more of what you earn. That sounds much more appealing to me than losing creative control for some immediate short-term dollars.

Monday, June 18, 2007

CinemaTech Interviews Consultant Peter Broderick--I Respond

The Workbook Project has posted a very informative video interview with consultant and speaker Peter Broderick, who started Next Wave Films (now apparently dormant). The interviewer is Scott Kirsner from CinemaTech, a blog that is always full of useful current events and info for the filmmaker trying to make some money off his or her work using current technology.

The first thing that really jumped out at me was that the basic rules of shooting a multi-camera interview aren't followed here, making for a slightly off-kilter experience. If you watch the video, both Kirsner and Broderick are looking in the same direction (camera left). Kirsner is framed properly, but when we go to Broderick, the camera "crosses the line" and is in the wrong spot. Both parties should appear to be looking at each other, right-to-left (Kirsner) and left-to-right (Broderick). Only Broderick is also looking right-to-left here.

There is an imaginary line that runs from left to right (not pictured her, but imagine it) across the location between the guest/host and camera 1/camera 3. Since the cams are cross-shooting (camera 1 is on the Host, 3 is on the guest), continuity is maintained as long as the line isn't crossed. In the video, camera 3 appears to have passed behind the host and is shooting over the host's right shoulder, which is why Broderick is looking left.

I'd be willing to be money, however, that this is not a three camera shoot, but a single camera shoot. Since the shots are completely static, it's pretty apparent that Kirsner was parking the camera on one shot at a time. This is fine, but if you don't adhere to some basic rules, it looks weird. On rare occasions this is used for an unsettling effect, but more often, it's just a continuity error.

Anyway, I like what is presented here, but think Broderick is way off on a couple of points. First, he says he'd like to see DVDs sold by indies to be priced at about $25 for the disc, plus a "handling charge" that would cover shipping, replication, etc. Is he nuts? How many people are going to pay $30 for any DVD? Would you? Even super-mondo-uber-deluxe editions of Hollywood films don't cost that much. If they do, they are from Criterion, and you get the kitchen sink along with the movie. His theory is that this makes the price of the DVD into pure profit, but if no one buys due to high price, what profit will there be?

Another point he makes is that there should be "several versions" of your DVD (much like the studio model), which starts with a movie-only version, then a feature-packed version that could mean a second sale for you. This is a very bad PR movie in my opinion. Everyone I have ever talked to is infuriated when they buy a movie they like, only to be screwed when a "collectors edition" comes out a month or so later. For an indie, this would be the mark of greed and the kiss of death. Come out with one version of your movie, price it reasonably, and pack it to the gills with stuff. Your customers will love you for it.

The chat isn't a total waste, as there are good things to learn here, so I do recommend a listen. What bothered me was that Broderick sounds very much like someone who gives advice, but has never applied it. He seems to be comfortably "in the box", which low budget indies really have no use for.

I'd be curious to hear your opinions on this matter--please post your comments below.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Not so Fantastic--But Who Cares?

Okay, I’ll admit it. I’ve got kind of a soft spot for the Fantastic Four movies. Everyone else in the world seems to think they are just awful, but I kind of like them. They are not great cinema, but they radiate a vibe of goofy charm and B-movie sensibility that is infectious. Compared to superhero movies that want to be super-serious, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer is silly fun.

An unidentified flying object is streaking across earth’s atmosphere leaving giant holes wherever it stops. Unmasked as a big silver guy on a what appears to be a shiny surfboard, the Fantastic Four are called in by the government to help take him out. Timing couldn’t be worse. Stretchy Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) is trying to marry his transparent sweetie, Invisible Woman Susan Storm (Jessica Alba), after many postponements. The Thing Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) and Human Torch Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) are still a menace to each other, and those around them. Can the team unite to save the world from the T-1000’s twin brother?

I know here is quite a bit to pick on here. The acting is hammy (witness the “death scene” at the end). Jessica Alba has the worst set of brown-to-blue contact lenses this side of Maria Bello in World Trade Center. Villain Doctor Doom (Julian McMahon) returns in what feels like an afterthought. The Fantasti-car that Reed builds has a Dodge logo! The Silver Surfer looks less impressive than Terminator 2’s liquid metal killer from sixteen years ago. The Thing belches on a guy with an afro. Stan Lee makes his token cameo claiming to be Stan Lee, and on the list goes.

What I did like is that the movie doesn’t seem to know that it’s a B-movie and forges ahead anyway. Gruffudd says lines like “I’m one of the fifteen greatest minds on the planet” and doesn’t even smirk. Alba looks amazing yet has the composure to worry about her wedding as an out-of-control helicopter chews up the guest seating like a food processor. All the cast runs down an underground passage looking incredibly weird in their matching underwear, er uniforms (I fully expected them to yell “Let’s go, team!”), looking past the camera with all seriousness. I loved it.

I realize you have to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate a movie such as this. You have to lower expectations, and enter with a dumb grin on your face. You have to like the silly and the absurd. You have to think that what you are seeing is a thinly-veiled comedy and not high drama or art. I know the filmmakers aren’t thinking this, but it doesn’t matter. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer works on that level, and that’s good enough for me.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Serializing Your Feature for Internet Distribution

Scott Kirsner at CinemaTech posted a sort of recap from his presentation at the Apple Store in San Francisco on Tuesday. Actually he's placed his slide presentation on the net (seen above courtesy Slideshare), which has some very good information about internet video and those who have made money distributing it. Some of the facts that jumped out at me were:

No one has made any money from YouTube.
Several have made some cash using Revver and MetaCafe.
People seem to prefer short videos (10 minutes or less).
Indies with grass-roots and inventive marketing do the best.

After digesting this information coupled with the stuff I learned about Podiobooks, this got me thinking. How do I use these parameters to successfully release a feature on the web? How about finishing the entire movie, then serializing the release like Podiobooks does with audiobooks? Instead of chapters, you have 5-10 minute epidsodes that come out once per week. At the same time you are doing this, you offer the DVD for sale, so fans can snag the whole kit and caboodle.

This way, you can stretch your free release out over time, creating buzz over a long period instead of just one date. It's almost exactly what TV networks do with series television--only your DVD will be available before and during your "season" instead of only after it.

This causes a re-think of how you construct your story. Since I want to produce many stand-alone installments of a bigger movie, a cliffhanger format would be in order. I want folks to always return to see what happens next (or to buy the DVD if they don't want to wait), so why not keep them hanging at the end of each episode? As a result, I'll have to write my script in a way that has a cliffhanging event every 5-10 pages, so I can make little shorts that all fit together in the final product.

This seems very viable, and I'm going to do it. It may take awhile (I'm still formulating script ideas), but could really work. I just have to follow some valuable advice and start building my audience right now. Are you with me?

Ocean's Thirteen

The Shallow End

It’s trilogy time again. Ocean’s Thirteen is the latest third film of a franchise in a summer of three film franchises. It’s getting tiresome, and probably more so due to the fact that these third films are just retreads of the originals. O13 is no different. It’s another heist film where a gaggle of cool cats get together for yet another job robbing yet another casino. All the trademarks are here, but nothing is really better than the first film (itself a remake), just more of it.

Reuben Tishkoff (Elliot Gould) has made a mistake everyone warned him against: trusting the conniving Willie Bank (Al Pacino). As a result, Reuben has lost his stake in a casino, his money and his reputation. Pals Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) decide it’s time for some major payback and assemble another team to bring down Bank and his flashy new enterprise.

These films always have been, and always will be star vehicles. George Clooney (doing Frank Sinatra) and Brad Pitt (doing Dean Martin), are at their slickest, and exude oily charisma from frame one. They are fun to watch, as are the rest of the high profile supporting
actors (after Pacino and Gould) which include Matt Damon, Ellen Barkin, Don Cheadle, Carl Reiner, Bernie Mac, Andy Garcia and David Paymer. All are good, and all do their job.

Director Steven Soderberg also returns again, and brings his colorful palette with him. Everything is bathed in bright reds, blues and greens, making Vegas look like the comic strip of exaggerations that it is. The production design is top notch, and everything looks perfect.

The problem is that we’ve all been here before, and nothing has changed other than the scope. The heist is ridiculously elaborate (they even employ the Chunnel drill), and unbelievable, but you expect that for this kind of movie. What you don’t expect is to be bored. With everyone acting just like they always have, Ocean’s Thirteen felt like an episode in a TV series. “Next week, Ocean’s team tackles Fort Knox! Will they escape with hair gel intact?”

I don’t mind movies like this. They are well-produced and kind of fun. What bugs me is that there is really no reason for it. It’s the same film we’ve seen in 2001. At least that movie had a stretch of time from the original that made it appear kind of fresh and different. This movie can’t claim that, and like the latest Shrek installment, feels unnecessary.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Podiobooks: Free Serialized Audiobooks Create an Audience for Authors--Filmmakers Take Note

It seems like I've hit some sort of ceiling as of late. I've gone through my RSS reader (Sage, in Firefox) cleaning out all blogs that don't really help me write for the low budget filmmaker. As much as I've hated to do it, I'm trying to clean house so I spend what little time I have properly focused. There are a ton of blogs about Hollywood and it's films, so those had to go. Film commentary blogs get a dirt nap. Movie review blogs go bye-bye. I still have plenty to look at, but now at least I won't be distracted by stuff that is off-topic.

I'm finally trying to get into listening to podcasts, since I have a twenty minute commute to work, and this is valuable time I could be filling. I feel the best podcast is still Lance Weiler's "This Conference is Being Recorded", which is so progressive and forward-thinking along the tech/filmmaking route, that we all should be listening. It's phone interviews basically, and Lance gets some great guests who all tend to be on the cutting edge of something, and how homegrown flicks can benefit. I have yet to find a superior resource.

While listening to another podcast, Michael Bekemeyer's Scatterpod, I came across his interview with author J.C. Hutchins. Hutchins is the writer and reader of the 7th Son audiobooks, a serialized trilogy available for free on a site called Podiobooks. This site contains many authors who release their books as an mp3 file, one chapter at a time. Once all chapters are out, they remain available on the site. You can have the chapters sent to you, as well as donate to the author via PayPal (75% of which they receive). It's an interesting model of distribution.

So, how does this help filmmakers? My first thought is to turn your screenplay into an audiobook, and put it on Podiobooks. You won't make any money (well, maybe a little), but you'll get some notice, and you can promote the fact that you'll be turning your story into a movie. That should excite fans, creating some buzz for your film. This takes more work, of course, and maybe a ghostwriter, but could be yet another avenue to get the word out and add another leg to support your audience creation goals.

If not, there are a lot of free books to listen to...

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The ARKOFF Formula, Part 4: 'Tell the World about Your Picture!'

'The ARKOFF Formula' was a model B-movie mogul Samuel Z. Arkoff (1918-2001) designed all his films around. This old post by Bill Cunningham brought this paradigm to my attention, and it has great value for microcinema filmmakers. This is another part in a series of articles elaborating on this formula. Also see Part 1, 'Action Them 'til They're Dizzy', Part 2, 'Revolutionary Scenes Get Talked of', Part 3, 'Kill Colorfully and Often, Part 5, Fantasy is what Audiences Spend Money for' and Part 6, 'Foreplay is as important in Dramaturgy as in Bed'.

'O' is for Orate
There is a little confusion about what Arkoff meant by this. A couple of sources on the internet state that 'Orate' referred to filling your script with colorful speeches and dialogue. The interview that Bill Cunningham refers to clearly shows that Arkoff was talking about promoting and marketing your movie. I go with Bill on this one, not only because his source is better, but because I find it hard to believe that Arkoff would care about the quality of the spoken word. He was concerned about the spectacle much more than quality. He presold his films based on concepts, not great writing.

Get a Website
First and foremost, a website will be necessary to profile your movie and its talent, as well as setup a place to eventually purchase your movie. This can be the hub where you can direct anyone interested in what you are doing. Settle on a title first, so you can register a domain name that states the name of your movie. If it's taken, slapping the word 'movie' on the end seems to work well (as in Any and all press you generate should lead to this location, which will link to many other outlets of promotion. If you want to self-distribute, this will be the place to sell your DVD and/or digital download. 

Start a Blog
Before you write one word of your screenplay, start blogging about your movie. This will act as a living record of your film from start to finish. The more consistently you blog, the more readers you will draw in, garnering that much more attention for your project. Post photos, video clips, script excerpts, and anything else you feel helps to archive the process. Blogs can be started for free, and have great potential for promotion. For a ton of information on running a successful blog, check out sites such as Problogger and Copyblogger. Make sure your website links to your blog (and vice versa), which should always have the most current info and can act as a 'news' link.

Put your Movie on Social Networks
Sites such as MySpace and Facebook are hugely trafficked social networks, and can draw lots of eyeballs if you put the effort in. Since they involved gathering "friends" this will take time, but when your friends start telling other friends about your movie, a viral effect is created with only positive effects. This is another fine place to put your trailer, photos or anything else that will spark interest. For a good example, check out the MySpace page for Lance Weiler's film, Head Trauma, which has over 1800 friends.

Create Some Merchandise
Even before your film is done being shot, making some physical merch can help push interest. I suggest designing at least one T-shirt, a hat, and a poster. You can slap a clever line of dialogue on the shirt and hat, but you might want to get an artist for the poster. Whatever you choose, make it good, and make sure your web address is on everything. If you're lucky these items will be popular, instilling a desire for fans to become walking billboards. You can go through an online company to make your stuff, but check local companies first. The more money in your pocket, the better.

All these things should be tied to your website, and they should all link to each other. If you are really brave you could also implement a countdown timer marks the time left to the internet premiere! Get your DVD done before this time expires, and you could be preselling your movie even before it's "available" to the rest of the world. The key is that the world of internet film promotion is still the Wild West, wide open to trying new and exciting techniques. I plan on implementing these myself, and hope to follow others who are blazing the trail as you read this.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Creating an Action Heroine from the Ground Up

Women of action are a very popular commodity. Not only do they present strong role models for the ladies, but are incredibly appealing to men as well. They appear to have it all, and incorporating one into your action/adventure no-budget epic could boost the desire for others to see it. How many video covers have you seen with a hot girl holding a gun? You don't have to go for purely exploitation elements to make this character work for you, and developing a strong, multi-faceted female is always better than a stereotype.

In developing a treatment for my first feature length script (working title: Mad World) in the action/thriller genre, a strong woman has bubbled up to the surface. Catherine "Cat" Reese is her name, and she works for a government agency that our government doesn't know exists (don't worry, it'll sound better as it's developed, I promise). She is strong willed, tenacious, and guarded. She looks very business like, but don't get in her way or you could be staring at the ceiling tile in Intensive Care.

In thinking about Cat, I pondered about action heroines of the past and what makes them special. There have been many, from Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman all the way to Jennifer Garner's Sydney Bristow. They are more alike than different, and I've come up with a list of things that all these characters share, and that we can emulate in the women of action that we conjure up.

They are Smart
Intelligence is strength, and any character written as smart is going to be more formidable if a hero, or more menacing if a villain. While lots of action heroines have book smarts (Lara Croft, Dana Scully), they can be street smart as well (Sarah Connor, Ripley). Wherever they get their brains, they use them to get themselves out of tight situations. It's these problem solving skills that help make them so impressive. They are someone we want around to save our skins, and prevent us from cutting the wrong wire.

They are Tough
The old Timex watch ad declared, "takes a licking and keeps on ticking". Our favorite women are the same way. Despite being "the weaker sex", these movie characters can take just as much of a beating as the guys do (Hilary Swank comes to mind--Million Dollar Baby, not The Next Karate Kid). Realistic or not, it's dang affecting. I think this high threshold of pain has something to do with the ability to give birth. No guy could ever do that, and if he had to, would probably weep like an infant and beg for his mommy.

They are Beautiful
It's sort of a given that action heroines are hotties (Buffy, Trinity), cementing the notion that beauty equates with power. I think casting an attractive woman is always a good move (just make sure she can act), as you will draw male viewers and have an excellent subject for a movie poster. There are exceptions, of course (Amy Madigan in Streets of Fire comes to mind), but the fact is that the sex appeal of a woman only increases her strength on the screen. Why not use it?

They Fight Like Lions
Hand-to-hand combat in a movie is all the rage these days, and it's rare that a woman loses in this venue. Female action stars kick ass in close combat, and they all seem to know a martial art or two. This might be tougher in your low budget production, but find someone who can train them (if just for that sequence), so you don't try to resort to quick cutting. That never looks good. Get them to fight each other (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Kill Bill vol. 2) and you've got one hell of a battle.

They Know Their Weapons
With all of these other things going for them, as soon as Action Girl picks up a gun or sword, you're as good as dead (unless you're a main character, in which case you die later). They all seem to be uber-proficient in killing, finding time to fit the range in between college and the salon (Alias). They are snipers, samurais, and Rambo all rolled up into one. The bad guys need a thousand rounds to make her dance, but all she needs is one to finish the job.

Women of action are fun to watch (and listen to, as they typically get the good dialogue), especially if they are well written. It's the ones that come across as real people that we remember. They just happen to be real people who have a master's degree, a modeling contract, a gold medal in the Biathalon, and a fifth-degree black belt. Gotta problem with that?


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