The saying goes that a good friend is someone who knows all about you, and still likes you anyway. It’s one of those thoughts that initially brings a smile to your face and then you really understand the veracity of it. Perhaps in my espousing of my friendship with Julia Voth I’ve painted a picture that is storybook, a tale of two collaborators and friends, a beauty and a beast. It’s no stretch of the imagination of who is the beauty in this analogy.
There’s truth in all of the above, but I’ve always said this about Julia, that she’s as beautiful a person inside as she is out, a mark of her character and persona that bonds me to her as a true friend. In this past month she and my other friends have witnessed my painful unraveling, the careful wall of poise and confidence that people have known me for has all but crumbled at my feet. In such a difficult time I reached out for support, and Julia wrote me one of the most heartfelt and beautiful letters I’ve ever received, and as we did when we overcame an obstacle on set, we shared a big hug, even if it was just through words, thousands of miles apart.
That’s just Julia being Julia, as kindness comes natural to her, and it’s been amazing watching her grow as a professional and yet retain those core elements that will always make her such a great friend. Last I saw her was when we recorded our commentary tracks for Lilith last year; we recorded it at the Chateau Marmont and took a break for dinner in the gorgeous open-air atrium of the building, a place that is often a sanctuary for the well-heeled and famous. Julia and I managed to get a table without a reservation (likely the advantage of being in the company of one of the most beautiful women in the world) and we had such a memorable meal. Not so much because of the food - which was amazing and we totally wolfed it down like uncouth savages - but just more because of who we are. We were just two happy kids in a sea of adult malaise - a boy from the mountains of Colorado and a girl from the plains of Saskatchewan - and we couldn’t believe we were having dinner at the Chateau, that icon of old Hollywood, surrounded by people who were supposed to be powerful, but who for some reason all looked really unhappy and bored. But it didn’t matter - we were living a dream we’ve both had since childhood, which was to make art with amazing friends, and to make it a part of our daily lives.
After many years of back-breaking hard work, Julia’s on the precipice of reaching that rarefied next-level of her dream journey. She’s the lead in a major prime-time network show, Package Deal, airing on CityTV (that’s like CBS/ABC in Canada, for us American folk), and in June we’ll all get to see the talent, humor and beauty that I’ve had the privilege to have in my daily life for the past three years. Steve Jobs famously said that ‘most overnight successes took a long time’ and there is truth in that - Julia’s big break was years in the making, including her walking down a dank sewer in Cleveland at 3AM three years ago, with an Indian-American director who could barely see in the dark, giving her obscure directions with the mutual goal of trying to make something beautiful.
We did make something beautiful - an everlasting friendship. Happy birthday to my dear Julia, may your year and the years ahead be filled with happiness and joy. And in those moments when it may seem there can be no joy or happiness, know that we’re there for you just as you have been there for us, and together we’ll find that light again until our dying breath. Today is yours, and it shall always be.
It’s been a very rough spring. Just when I thought I was making headway with my own personal grief, last week we suffered another tragic loss. My wife and I lost a dear friend a few days ago, and we’re simply out of tears.
Between personal loss, Roger Ebert, and now the passing of my dear friend, I’m really struggling to find the words and the focus to finish my posts for this blog.
It’s just a matter of finding that new normal, of a life without our loved ones. I will keep trying, but it’s hard. I’m just so incredibly sad.
Thank you for your patience.
For our dear Stephanie, we hope you are no longer in pain and that you have found peace. We miss you, your smile, your warmth, your creativity and your kindness so very much. The hole in our hearts has become a chasm. I chose this song for you, for your family, for all of us who are poorer for your being gone. Rest in peace.
I’ve had some time to think things through and decompress with the events in my life, and I think I’m ready to start writing again. It really is amazing how life can change within a matter of minutes, how our fortunes can shift in the blink if an eye. We’re processing our loss the best we can, creating small rituals and symbols to deal with our grief.
Grieving is something that we’re never really taught how to do. It’s a subject we’d rather not face, and frankly I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to face our mortality in such a way. It’s really painful, there is sadness mixed with anger, an anger that has no outlet and no focal point. I can be angry at God but then I’ve recently realized that’s just wasting my time. I can ask why these things happened and I will never receive an answer. There is a hole in our hearts that will likely never be filled, only built around and buttressed.
The importance in grieving is allowing ourselves to be be sad, to be angry, to just sit in a catatonic stupor. We need an outlet for these emotions, and to keep them bottled inside in a vain attempt to “get over it” or “move on” is just building a pointless powder keg of damage in our souls. We’ve cried until our eyes became sore, we’ve shouted at the sun and moon, we’ve held each other without saying a word. Our beautiful family and friends have allowed us to grieve and have shared our pain with us, the ultimate act of compassion. Because of them we will be fine, and we are on the positive path to healing.
Lastly I want to give my heartfelt thanks to the hundreds of you on this blog who have sent me amazing messages of strength and support. It’s fair to say that we are strangers bound by digital threads, but for someone I don’t even know, who knows nothing of my predicament, for them to pour their heart out to me and support me in my grieving is the mark of exceptional character and humanity. You are incredible, and I don’t know how to repay you other than express my gratitude. Gratitude for not only your support and words, but for also restoring my faith in people and the kindness of strangers. I am blessed.
I’m going to get back on my business plan posts, so read up on the past posts and refresh your mind. My world and this blog may have stopped, but time never does, and life goes on. Let us embrace it and celebrate it.
It’s with a heavy heart that I have to put the blog on hold for some time. My family has been beset with a devastating tragedy and it is going to take me some time to recover and be clear of mind to keep valuable contributions to this blog going.
I know so many of you were looking forward to the next business plan posts, and I am so sorry that I won’t be able to provide those now. I promise I will continue, we just need some time to heal.
In the meantime it’s a great time to go back and read old posts. We’ve been on a long journey, and there’s a ton to rediscover.
Thank you for understanding. I’ll be back in a week or two.
I’ve already written a piece on finding comparables for your business plan in a previous post, you can read it here. In essence what you need to know about comparables is that they are, first and foremost, absolute rubbish. It’s impossible to predict how a film is going to do on the basis of performance of films before it. Different scripts, directors, casts, timeframes, etc., there are so many different interlocking factors that contributes to a specific film’s success that to compare it against something that hasn’t even been made yet is, when you really think about it, quite ludicrous.
So why even bother doing a table of comparables? Why does every business plan have them, knowing that they’re an exercise in empirical futility?
The first and most important reason is to display your passion for the project. In this sense, comparables aren’t even really about the numbers at all. It’s more about putting your film in the same air of other well-made and well-received films, and it’s essentially you saying that you can make a film like that - or better yet you can make a film that’s even more polished and marketable. It’s making a prospective investor excited in the possibility of what may be.
Which leads into the second reason to do comparables, which is to demonstrate your integrity and thoroughness as a businessman. Think of it this way - would you give millions of dollars to someone to say, build a home, and all they told you was “numbers and plans don’t matter, you’ll just have to trust me, I’m good.” I know I wouldn’t. I’d want to know that they did their homework, that they know what they’re doing, that they’re diligent and hard working, and that they fully understand their field. “Comps” should stand for “competence,” and not “comparables.” It shows some integrity. Passion. Wherewithal. I know - I sound like a fucking used car salesman.
On to the research. For each film you select, you will need to find out the following information:
Domestic Box Office Gross. This is how much money the film made in theaters in the United States. This information can easily be found on websites like Box Office Mojo or IMDB Pro. (If you are a serious producer, then pony up the money to upgrade to IMDB Pro, it is an essential tool).
Home Video, VOD, Streaming / Ancillary Revenues. This is monies brought in by DVD/ Blu-Ray sales, Video-On-Demand, airline and cable sales, and any television deals if possible. This information is notoriously difficult to find, as studios like to keep these numbers hush-hush, because studios are shady fuckers when it comes to accounting. You can find a lot of DVD sales figures on The Numbers. I dig as much as a can, but when there’s a film I absolutely need to use as a comp and that I have very little information on, I purchase a report. I use services like Baseline Intelligence, who charge on a report-by-report basis. THESE ARE VERY EXPENSIVE, can can amount to $100 in expenses PER FILM that you select. Plus, there’s no guarantee (especially for films before 1996, when records on DVD sales and other rentals weren’t prevalent) that the information you want will be in the report. So spend cautiously and wisely.
Which leads to my next point, which is how many comparables should you choose? My rule of thumb is five. Going on a statistical model, you choose one high, one low (both of which get thrown out in any kind of number crunching), and three inbetween. Of the three, you’ll want one higher earning, and two healthy successes. Before you order any reports or spend any money to gather information, make sure you know absolutely which films are the best for you to choose. In my much earlier post about choosing comps, you’ll read the criteria that I use. In fact you should mandatory read it, as I think it’s that important. It’s also very important to note that many of the films that you choose are films that you might personally hate. Don’t only choose films that you like - I can’t go putting Tarkovsky and Bergman films as comps just because I think they’re art and those are the kinds of movies I want to make. Instead I’ll be wise and choose something like Malick’s Tree of Life or Cuaron’s Children of Men - both films which did relatively well at the box office and yet were considered nuanced and well-crafted. We have to be sensible!
Foreign Box Office. This number will be found on any of the previous resources, and it’s likely one of the most important because so much revenue is coming from the foreign box office, and in most cases of studio films, the foreign box office is almost double the domestic take. Of course if you’re planning a micro-budget indie relationship drama (that’s not a musical), you probably won’t make much to any dent in the foreign box office, but to have it in your comps analysis means that you are aware of it, would like to tap it, and demonstrates to any investor that you understand how the markets and revenues work today. You’re demonstrating your competence. The more information you have, the better.
Production budget. This is also called negative cost, and is what it cost for the film to be cast, shot, and put in the can. It does not include marketing/ PR expenses. It’s simply the amount of money it took for the film to be made, including pre-production (but not development) expenses.
Prints and Advertising Expenses. This is also called P&A, and is the amount of money that a distributor spends on advertising, marketing, promotion and manufacture/ distribution of the film. It does not include the exhibitors fee, which is the cut of money that goes to the theater owners. In any business plan, the exhibitor’s fee is roughly 45% - that’s a safe number to use. P&A budgets tend to range anywhere from 50% of the negative cost to double the negative cost - the latter is quite common for major studio films. Say a film cost $100 million to make, it’s safe to assume that after its P&A expenses, it will need to make about $220-250 million to just break even. I don’t want to play those kinds of odds, no thank you. Keep those budgets down, folks. It’ll lend you more creative freedom and lateral movement.
So now it’s time to take this data and put it into a chart that lays out how much investors made off these films. Open up an Excel spreadsheet, and you’re going to make a spreadsheet that looks like this one (this is a spreadsheet I made for this post, click on the pic for a larger version):
We’ll go through the categories on the left hand side. Goddamit this has turned into a long post, thanks for bearing with me.
Box Office Gross - as before, this is the total revenue from a US theatrical run. Less Exhibition Fee - my rule of thumb is to calculate this at 45%. If you can get exact numbers then all the better, but you can’t go wrong at 45%. Gross Film Rentals - this is the gross revenue when you minus the 45% from the Box Office Gross.
In the next section you will enter in all other forms of revenue in their respective column. Some business plans go into every detail here, I try to avoid that because a business plan is not there to engage the analytical mind, you’re there to deliver the big picture and engage the animal brain, so keep it simple. Your Gross Ancillary Revenue is the total of these alternative revenues.
Domestic Gross - this is the total/ sum of the Gross Film Rentals and the Gross Ancillary Revenue.
Now you have to subtract the Distributor Fee which is the cut the distributor takes from the Domestic Gross. This fee varies, but a generally accepted percentage is 35-40%. I like to use 35%.
Now we enter the distributor expenses (Prints and Advertising/ P&A and Other Expenses such as DVD manufacture, packaging, etc.), add that to the Distributor Fee and then subtract it all from the Domestic Gross to arrive at the Net Domestic Receipts, which is the total monies taken from US sales.
Now moving on to the Foreign Revenues. Your Foreign Gross is the total revenue (in all media forms) from territories outside of the domestic market. There’s a bit of discrimination here in that ‘domestic’ is almost universally determined to be the United States, which is the biggest film marketplace in the world. If you are making films in Nigeria, the UK or any other country, you can choose to make your local market the domestic and place the United States as a separate category in your Foreign breakdown. It’s up to you.
Agent Fees/ Expenses - these are the fees and expenses incurred by sales agents, whose job is to sell the film to foreign markets. A generally accepted rate for the purposes of a breakdown is 35%. Net Foreign Receipts - this is the Foreign Gross minus the Agent Fees/ Expenses.
Total Producer’s Rep Gross - this is the sum of the Net Domestic Receipts and the Net Foreign Receipts. Producer’s Rep Fee is 10-15% given to a rep who secures all the deals for the producer. To be on the conservative side, go with 15%. The Total Producer’s Gross is the Total Producer’s Rep Gross minus the Producer’s Rep Fee, and is the total money that comes to the producer when all revenues have been collected.
Negative Cost is the aforementioned cost to make the film, from pre-production to final delivery. This is subtracted from the Total Producer’s Rep Gross to arrive at the final number, the Net Profit. This is the final money - before taxes - that is pure profit.
Over on the far right of the spreadsheet you will find that all of these numbers will have to be averaged, and then the averages are calculated to the Average Net Profit in the corner on the bottom right. This is likely the only number that someone will look at when they quickly read your comps table.
So if you haven’t ascertained by now, this is all a shit ton of work. And you’ll likely remember that I said at the beginning of this long post that comps are for the most part bullshit. But you have to do it, and do it right, because you are establishing your integrity and credibility. A financier has to be reassured that you’re committed to making this film, that you’re willing to put in the sweat and tears towards the details. It’s showing that you know the film can be a success, and you’ve done the study to back that feeling up. It’s about the act of doing the work, which in the case of business plans, is as important as the work itself.
Whew. This was a long post, and if you’ve made it this far down, that means you’re committed to being a producer. Congrats!
Through the Weeping Glass: On the Consolations of Life Everlasting (Limbos & Afterbreezes in the Mütter Museum), dir. by The Brothers Quay, USA, 2011.
A couple of weeks ago my wife and I made a quick weekend trip to Philadelphia, for no other reason except that we’d never been, and that ever since we’ve known each other, we’d both wanted to visit the famed Mütter Museum at the The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. After seeing Independence Hall and the giant fucking bell, we walked across town to the Mütter, which houses one of the most comprehensive and exhaustive collections of medical aberrations, abnormalities and deformities ever collected. It’s far from a freak show, and is in fact quite educational. One emerges from the museum appreciating how far medical science has come along, and one appreciates their own good health, fortune and mortality.
I had also heard word that The Brothers Quay, whose short film The Street of Crocodiles is one of the two most important films in my life (the other being Mattieu Kassovitz’ La Haine), had been commissioned by the Mütter Museum to do a film about the collections. Indeed at the museum there was a smaller, separate exhibit dedicated to the work of the Quays, they themselves being Pennsylvania-bred and whose work is fascinated with decay. The commissioned film was called Through the Weeping Glass - I picked up a copy at the museum gift shop, and it was the most exciting purchase I’d made in a long time. I hadn’t seen a new Quay film in years.
The film is, as with any Quay production, a visual marvel, a microscopic look at macro subjects like death and mortality. It documents the collection just as described, moving from exhibit to exhibit with gorgeous detail and macabre fascination. But the film does something very interesting, which is to turn the camera on the people who pay to see the exhibit. It asks us why we are so fascinated with these grotesque mutations and seeing fetuses preserved in jars. The Quays’ camera lingers on faces and eyes, and lets us write our own theories. There is an exquisite morbidity to it all, and I would expect no less of the Quays. It’s a fine addition to their canon, and a wonderful experience for me as a fan and student of two masters of cinema. If you can’t make it to the Mütter Museum, you can also find the film on iTunes.
The Art of the Steal, dir. by Don Argott, USA, 2009.
Keeping on the Philadelphia theme, my wife and I also visited another world-famous museum in Philly, the famed Barnes Collection. The Barnes is the single largest private collection of post-impressionistic art in the world, featuring numerous works of Renoir, Matisse, Cezanne, Picasso and Modigliani among others. Perhaps more interesting is the way this art is displayed- Dr. Barnes, who had made his fortune in pharmaceuticals, displayed his collection as ensembles, putting them together by theme, color, line and feeling as opposed to schools of art or time periods. In any one ensemble you will find a Renoir canvas placed right next to an African tribal mask, or a Picasso flanked by Pennsylvania iron teapots. It’s a entirely new way of looking at art in a structural functional manner, and honestly it was one of the finest and most satisfying art experiences I’ve ever had.
I was interested in the history of the collection, and came cross the film The Art of the Steal on Netflix. The documentary opened my eyes to the politics behind the Barnes. The collection was originally in a private estate that was open to the public - Barnes insisted on fine art being available to the common man, and he strategically built a beautiful, serene compound near the Villanova campus to display his collection. Through a loophole in the agreement between the Barnes Foundation and the city, the government engineered a hostile takeover of the collection and moved - some would say stole - it in its entirety to a new location in the city center, where it would draw more tourism revenue. The move - and the costs associated with the new complex, which is gorgeous, is antithetical to Dr. Barnes’ original vision. The film documents the battle to preserve the Barnes legacy, the failed campaign to keep the Barnes in its original home, and the subsequent financial burden passed on to the Philadelphia public. It’s engrossing and infuriating all at the same time - a true window into the business of art - but highly, highly recommended nonetheless.
Repo Man, dir. by Alex Cox, USA, 1984.
I saw Repo Man when I was twelve, four years after it’d been released. My sister and I picked it up at our local grocery store which had a small video rental section (remember those?). We both got the film for different obsessions - my sister was obsessed with Emilio Estevez and I was obsessed with the soundtrack, which had tracks from bands like Black Flag, Iggy Pop and The Circle Jerks. When we watched the film we didn’t really pay attention to what it was about - it totally went over our heads and we weren’t actively trying to engage with it.
This week Criterion released the film and I was very anxious to give it another try. Alex Cox - who now teaches film at my alma mater, The University of Colorado - also directed one of my favorite films in Sid & Nancy, which my wife and I used to watch every Valentines Day. His films are imbued with an eccentric energy that’s hard to describe, and is really quite unique.
Safe to say that Repo Man is still bizarre and weird, and the soundtrack still kicks ass. Now that I’m a filmmaker I really appreciate the insane risks that this film took, and even more puzzling is that it was bankrolled and released by a major studio. The Criterion release is ace as always, but the real star of the package is the liner notes, which goes into extensive detail as to the financing of the film. It’s as inspiring and entertaining as the film. Don’t miss it.
I promise I’ll get back on track with the business plan entries, I know many of you have been asking about it.
In the meantime providing me some peace of mind and fueling my creative energies is the new album Shaking the Habitual by electronic pioneers The Knife. This record is turning out to be a modern masterpiece in my head, it’s forming all kinds of new imagery and designs that I’d never seen before. This track in particular is something quite special, and I keep coming back to it. I’m completely mesmerized and inspired.
Gate of Hell (Jigokumon), dir. by Teinosuke Kinugasa, Japan, 1953.
Gate of Hell has long been out-of-print and unavailable to the public, so when I heard Criterion was releasing it, I was beyond excited. Way back in film school I’d read about the early Eastman Kodak technicolor process, and studied Jack Cardiff’s use of it on the iconic The Red Shoes. There were two other films mentioned in the readings, which was Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg - a film which, despite being a musical, I adore - and the other was Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell, which won the Palme D’Or at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival. It was widely claimed as one of the most visually stunning films ever made, and yet for more than half a century, no one has been able to see it.
As the adage goes, good things come to those that wait. What a magnificent film, a Shakespearean melodrama of obsession and honor. A noble samurai loses his sanity after becoming obsessed with a woman he saved during a military coup, and his madness tests the decency and nobility of the bushido code. It’s one of those movies that on the surface could have been made simple if the characters just were open and honest with one another, but then in real life how open and honest are we as a whole? Hey, I watched Catfish - we’re all collectively a bunch of liars.
But the real stars in this film are the cinematography, production design and costumes. Kinugasa never relies solely upon the photochemical process to deliver vibrant color and texture, rather he lets the costumes and set design do the heavy lifting, and leaves the technicolor sheen for mood.
From a technical standpoint, this film is the precursor to Zhang Yimou’s Hero and Christopher Doyle’s expressionistic camera. While the film has the traditional Noh-style acting that contemporary viewers might find a bit over-the-top, the film is nonetheless striking and moving.
White Mane (Crin Blanc, Cheval Sauvage), dir. by Albert Lamorisse, France, 1953.
Like Gate of Hell, White Mane won the Palme D’Or at the 1954 edition of Cannes, but for Best Short Film. Clocking in at 47 minutes, the film is breathtaking, the story of a wild horse that refuses to be domesticated, and the young boy who befriends him. Like Lamorisse’s more well-known film The Red Balloon, White Mane was intended as a children’s parable, and yet it has very dark adult themes that boil under the surface, notions of abandonment, cynicism and human bondage. Shot in striking black-and-white on location in the gorgeous marshes of Camargue, France, White Mane is one of the most visually arresting films I’d seen in a long time, part nature documentary and part fable. It reminded me so much of Sweetgrass, my pick for the best film of 2010. A gem for the archives, one that should be shared with both children and children-at-heart.
The Holy Mountain (La Montaña Sagrada), dir. by Alejandro Jodorowsky, Mexico, 1973.
Paul Pope, the author of my next film The One Trick Rip-Off, and I have a mutual love of Westerns, and we’ve often described The Rip Off as a futuristic Western, one of credo and prisoner’s dilemmas. We both honor the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, and for me in particular I’m a huge fan of Jodorowsky’s El Topo.
In a recent script session, Paul referred to the use of animal spirits in Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain, which I’d never seen. I’d been leery of it, as what I’d read of the film described it as an incomprehensible mess, arthouse drivel and cinema that’s a little too personal. I had the box set of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s films sitting on my shelf, and popped The Holy Mountain in at around 2am, sleep deprived and loaded with meds to treat my cold.
Bad idea. Never do this, unless you enjoy having Kafka dreams about turning human shit into gold and watching frogs getting blown to bits. The movie’s like watching an acid trip on acid, but for all it’s ridiculously weird and overtly symbolic metaphors, there’s a strange beauty in the film. It feels like a confluence of performance art and cinema, and I can appreciate it for that.The soundtrack is magnificent, the cinematography striking and the performances are committed, and the sheer earnestness of the film is what keeps it compelling. It’s one of those films that just keeps getting weirder with every setup, laced with a cheeky sense of humor and an obsession to push all of our buttons, all at the same time. A sensory overload and not for the faint of heart. It’s worth noting that the film was financed by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, as The Beatles were huge fans of El Topo and basically gave Alejandro Jodorowsky free reign to create The Holy Mountain. Strange. Beautiful, but strange.
Scenes From a Marriage, dir. by Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1973.
So I’ve been hired to direct a pilot this summer, and I’ve been watching Bergman’s epic 6-hour television serial Scenes From a Marriage for research. I didn’t think much of it initially, but as the films progressed, it began to dawn on me that Scenes From a Marriage might very well be Bergman’s masterpiece, which is saying a lot considering his canon of impeccable films.
I feel this because of an unlikely influence for Bergman when he made this series of films, which was the work of John Cassavettes, particularly the film Faces. Where classic Bergman was about composure and rigid formality, he imbues this newfound energy of Cassavetes into both his camera and performance, and what we get is the perfect balance of European formalism and American rawness. But Scenes From a Marriage is a film that only Bergman could make, just as Faces is uniquely Cassavettes, uniquely American.
What we have is the tale of the dissolving of the formal structure of marriage, a challenge of social and personal mores, and the brutally honest mirror to our choices. It’s deep, riveting and quite often humorous stuff, and it’s all played to perfection by it’s two extremely photogenic leads, Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson, who both reveal their souls to the camera and the audience.
This is filmmaking of the absolute highest order, and is instantly pushing itself into my top films of all-time. A must-see for all.
Homeland (Season 1), dir. by Various, United States, 2011.
I’m always behind on my television watching, and I tend to wait for things to come out on DVD or Netflix so that I just binge watch something for hours on end for an entire weekend. I still haven’s seen Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, House of Cards or the last two seasons of The Walking Dead. And while my resolution was to watch more movies, the quality of writing, acting and production of these shows are like watching theatrical films. It’s hard to call something like The Wire or Scenes From a Marriage just another television show, as it packs in so much more than just episodic entertainment. These seem to be the elevation of movies into something much more expansive, and share the same DNA as cinematic storytelling.
I jumped back into the pool by devouring the first season of Homeland, and I was riveted from the first minute to the very last. This is brilliant writing that hearkens back to Sorkin’s best in The West Wing, and it feels current and important. Over time there are loopholes in the logic, but it works because it reveals the imperfections and human element of governance. There are moral ambiguities everywhere, and how we respond to them, and how the show responds to them, are very telling of our human nature. Homeland asks us that burning question of what is justice versus what is simply right, and it posits this question from both sides of the terror conflict. The show was as riveting as Zero Dark Thirty, and what it lacked in production scale it made up for in character development and plot. Claire Danes (my first crush - Angela Chase from My So-Called Life was my television girlfriend) is simply relentless and razor sharp, and is balanced out with a perfectly played simmer from Mandy Patinkin. But the real star here is Damian Lewis, who plays a turned soldier with an incomprehensible poker face. We’re never allowed to get inside his head, and that’s what makes him so fascinating.
This is top-notch writing, and a pure joy to experience. I’m hooked, and I feel like revisiting The West Wing for good times’ sake. Excellent.
It’s been awhile since my last entry so it’s worth the time to revisit my first entry on business plans, discussing THE BIG IDEA. With our business plans our main objective is to stand out from the crowd. Why are our movies worth attention? Why are they special? What makes them different?
It’s not enough to simply write a screenplay that no one’s ever seen before. That’s the central pillar, the main building block, but it’s insufficient to present to someone and have them invest money into. The environment of the industry and audience must be in prime position for your film to really work from a business standpoint. You have to create a compelling argument that there is a small, moving window of opportunity that your film can capitalize upon.
As an example, I’ll use the remarkable film Upstream Color by Shane Carruth. I met Shane in 2005 at the Sundance Institute, a year after he’d won the grand jury prize for his $7,000 masterpiece Primer. He had a lot of ideas in his head and he was clearly an extremely intelligent man, and I couldn’t help but get excited about what he was proposing. Shane told me that before he made Primer he’d met with an accident and spent a significant amount of time in the hospital, and it was in that solitude where he watched classic films on Turner Classics, and they collided with his background in mathematics. Over lunch he described an idea of separate people building a collective being, a type of Modern Prometheus. Hard core science fiction stuff, but with the spiritual energy of a Malick, Tarkovsky or Bergman. It was the nascent seeds of what would become his project A Topiary, which, eight years after I met Shane, was still struggling to find funding, despite the support of Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher. Word is that the film’s gotten a new life.
Shane is a smart fucking dude.
With A Topiary in flux, Shane instead made Upstream Color, a remarkable meditation on the interconnected spiritual energies of beings. It’s a film that, had I been an investor, I would have casually dismissed as arthouse filler, a “movie” in the loosest sense of the word, and a film from a recluse Sundance-wunderkind whose previous work made a tiny profit and has a cult following.
Upstream Color is a movie that has no precedent, something like it doesn’t exist, and it’s screenplay is so unconventional that it takes little to no effort for it to differentiate itself from the pack. But it’s also too unconventional, to the point where its obtuseness can scare off investors because perplexing, reflexive and highly-artistic work has limited boxoffice appeal. At least that’s what one’s initial reaction to the screenplay would be.
But this is where Shane is also a smart businessman. He’s presented us Upstream Color (which he is self-distributing, out of choice) at a very special time, in a small window of opportunity where it can thrive.
I come from the food industry - my dad worked in fermentations and I worked in genetics - and one constant barometer as to the readiness of a product was the mantra of “time, temperature, and pH.” I find that this also applies to assessing the readiness of a film.
Time. Pretty self-explanatory. There has to be a time for everything. In food terms it’s how long something has to ferment, ripen, age or come to peak condition. One can look at the current environment and see that the timing for a well-made science fiction film is perfect. We’re absolutely on the cusp of a scientific renaissance, and interest in space, physics and astrophysics has reached an all-time high. Be it from Sheldon Cooper joking about condensates on The Big Bang Theory to last week’s discovery of DARK MATTER (no big deal, right?), space and the old notions of science fiction are on the tips of everyone’s tongue. Throw in a dose of nuclear Armageddon via North Korea and we’re in full science fiction prophesying mode.
The trend is there - the trailers for two major releases Joseph Kosinki’s Oblivion and Neil Blomkamps’s Elysium have dawned upon us and it’s a sign that the money people feel science fiction is bankable, if for a brief time as we don’t know how these films will perform. Upstream Color is being released at a time when the anticipation for new science fiction is at a fever pitch, which makes it ideal.
Temperature. Hot or cold? Not so literally. The temperature is the general emotional landscape of an audience, whether or not they are ready to take on heavy material, or if they want something twee and escapist. Two years ago I would have judged the audience not ready for heavy, introspective fare, because only mindless offerings of action and CGI were proving profitable. The game-changer was the release of Tree of Life, which despite its metaphysical bent and Malickian musings, managed to turn a healthy profit and sell tickets. The years saw successful films that questioned morality and ethics (Zero Dark Thirty) and that were meditative in nature (The Life of Pi), so if I were stretch out on a limb, I could, at reasonable expense, think that audiences are indeed in a place for a reflective piece. Even films like Django Unchained and Lincoln, despite the former’s blood-splattered action and the latter’s overwhelming star power, are both mirrors upon society and the choices we collectively make.
I look at the trends in television, where Game of Thrones, Homeland and Boardwalk Empire - three very engaging programs that are all more about inherent nature than spectacle, are telling me that human/ humane stories are the current temperature. In Upstream Color we are tapping this degree, delving into the human heart and its place in the greater fold.
pH. This can be a little more difficult to ascertain. In scientific terms, pH measures the acidity or alkalinity of a given substance, ranging from 0 to 14. Swing to either end of the spectrum and you have an extremely corrosive substance, and at 7 you are at perfect neutrality (i.e. water). In terms of film, the pH of an environment, to me, is the measure of provocativeness - how much can you push an audience before they revolt. On the acidic scale, we have films like Irreversible, movies that are prickly and eat away at everything we know. On the caustic side we have movies like Spring Breakers, gooey and yet still corrosive. In the middle we have movies like The King’s Speech, inoffensive to anyone and smooth like water.
Where are we now? I’d say somewhere right before Spring Breakers, not quite 14 but rather a 10-11. I make this assessment because we’re being inundated with terrible news everyday. Our economy sucks, we’re on the precipice of nuclear war with North Korea, our debt is increasing, our air toxic, our citizens shooting one another and our schools failing. The news is acidic, and our basic desire is to reach a stable place, a neutrality. So to make something acidic into water, you have to add something that is basic in nature. Something that is corrosive to eat away the nastiness but yet still has the potential to reach neutrality.
A film like Upstream Color is that. It’s a film that eats at you, but in a gentle way. It asks provocative questions of existence and compatibility and does so to rid ourselves of acidic anxiety.
In assessing pH, determine if your film is the element that will drive an audience towards neutrality, which is appeasement. If the audience is already neutral, then is it the kick in the ass to knock it out of the comfort zone?
So with the combination of these three elements, you will find the readiness of your work, the window of opportunity that has a limited time to capitalize upon. As of this writing, my business sense tells me that Upstream Color will be a resounding success because it has a great idea, and it addresses all three of the aforementioned elements of readiness. I would invest in it and stand behind it wholeheartedly. It is ready, and was determined to be ready by its maker.
This is super important to determine because you want to present a confluence of elements in the environment that will exist only for a short time. Invest now, or lose this opportunity forever. Time limits and small windows light a fire under the asses of both the filmmakers and investors alike. You’ll want to present your film as something that needs to be be made now, and if an investor sleeps on it, a smarter one will pick it up and make a ton of money because they took advantage of the market forces that the film was so primed to take advantage of.
Note again that we haven’t even written a single word of our business plan yet. This is all prep work for the writing, which is actually the least labor intensive part. Once you have your idea and strategy figured out, the writing will be the easiest part of all. But you have to have a good idea and strategy, or else you’ll be wasting your time. Spend time on these, because they are the crux of your work. A screenplay cannot be financed if it has no purpose (the idea) or place (readiness) in the world. Rationally justify your screenplay’s existence and you’ll find people to be convinced to take a look at it. To simply birth a story and declare it important just because it’s yours will mean years and years of knocking on doors and being met with failure. You have to make people care about your work, and for them to care, they must have a rationalized incentive to get involved.
In our next installment, we’ll start gathering empirical data and a strategy, and then maybe, MAYBE we’ll actually start writing this thing.
Been traveling a bunch and recently came down with a nasty bug, so I haven’t been able to write or work much. Should bounce back in a day or so, and will get back to writing about business plans and such.
True to my resolution I did see three movies last week, and I’ll write about them plus the films I plan to see this week as a single entry. Thanks for your patience.
Sundance Institute trained, journeyman molecular biologist with bonus producing, writing, editing and directing skills. Amateur film historian, unapologetic liberal Tarkovskite with fierce cooking skills and a penchant for unusual stories. I hope you like my writing and find it useful.