“Everything is changing”

April 15th, 2015 by

That’s what attorney, producer and founder of Cinetic Media John Sloss said yesterday during the keynote address for the 7th annual TV and Film Finance Forum. And Sloss, whose producing credits include Boys Don’t Cry, Before Sunset, and Boyhood, thinks all that change represents an “incredible, exciting time of opportunity” for storytellers. From Indiewire:

Everything is changing. The form of the content, the way it’s being financed, the way it’s being delivered, the way it’s being consumed.

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We come from a place where the two-hour narrative was king. It was the aspiration of everyone who created narratives…it was a beginning to end story… hen what came along was the 11-hour narrative that used to exist an hour a week at a certain time slot and is now being put up for view all at once occasionally…

From a creator’s standpoint, it creates an irresistible opportunity to tell a more involved dynamic, complex narrative story than the previous state of art of a two to three-hour narrative… And what’s happening is it’s causing the greatest creators to leap-frog the public viewing creation and jump straight to the small screen and it becomes a question of whether 11-hour viewing will make its way to public viewing.

Sloss, who is one of the most knowledgeable and perceptive figures on the front lines of indie filmmaking, had interesting comments about VOD, day-and-date release strategies, and other issues related to film financing. However I thought his observations about crowdfunding were especially noteworthy:

If you look at crowdfunding as not getting money for nothing or putting your hand out to people to support your pet project but as first and foremost community building around these affinity communities of the content you’re trying to produce and you go from there, you basically focus on bringing the core fans in from the inception and make part of the actual production process… Then you create a loyalty and support that is much more than just relying on fans to show up at a sneak preview.

While Sloss was delivering his keynote address, I was simultaneously giving my final lecture of the semester in my History of American Screenwriting class, then discussing the future of storytelling and new media with my 25 university students. It was a wide-ranging conversation touching on movies, TV, web series, video games, virtual reality, and more. When comparing today to the 1890s, where we began the semester, it’s clear that change is a constant throughout the history of filmmaking, whether that change is technologically, culturally, or aesthetically based. However over the decades, one thing remains the same: Content creators always have a central role in the process of producing entertainment. With the explosion of new media platforms such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, the value of content creators may never be greater than it is today.

A final thought which I stressed with my students yesterday: Think of the internet as a distribution network. Create content, put it online, and see what happens. The right set of eyeballs can change your life.

For the rest of the Indiewire feature on John Sloss, go here.

Congratulations, Christian Contreras!

April 8th, 2015 by

Last week, actor turned screenwriter Christian Contreras set up a high profile pitch. From Deadline:

In a competitive situation, Warner Bros has acquired Principia, a pitch that will be scripted by Christian Contreras, with David Goyer producing through his Phantom Four Productions banner with Kevin Turen.

They are keeping the logline under wraps, but it’s based on actual events. A high-concept historical thriller in the vein of The Prestige, this one involves Isaac Newton and the hunt for a notorious criminal. The scribe, an American who lives in London and has acted in Fury, The Fifth Estate and Zero Dark Thirty, just came to Hollywood a couple of weeks ago with an idea he wanted to write. He signed with WME and Grandview Entertainment, and Goyer heard the pitch late last week and set it up with Warner Bros that night.

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Contreras separately scripted Labyrinth, a drama about the murder cases of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G., with producer Miriam Segal developing it.

Christian is a longtime GITS follower and Screenwriting Master Class alumnus having taken the Prep: From Concept to Outline workshop with me. In fact, we were in touch in February when Labyrinth went wide and he ended up signing with WME. Here is an excerpt of what Christian wrote to me:

I also know that you’ve made me a better screenwriter.

I thank you for that.

From countless posts or links or interviews that contained a nugget I didn’t know I needed.  Screenplays.  Core elements.  Seriously, this is how my life’s organised: 1-2-7-14.  I shit you not when I say Deep Focus: Film School on the Cheap has been my Film School.  Full stop.  I have breakfast, take a shower and get dressed like I’m going to school. Then I sit down at my computer – 5 days a week – for each subject area.  The 1 screenplay-a-week I read is from one of the 2-movies-a-week I watch.  Reading the Evolution of Filmmaking and Film Criticism has made me better understand the nuances of the form, a film’s place in the zeitgeist, and innumerable other things I can’t articulate.

Anyway.

It’s a long road ahead, I know.  I just wanted to reach out and tell you how much I appreciate what you’ve done and what you do.  You don’t know but you’re a daily part of my life.

So congratulations, Christian! A talented writer who has exhibited the persistence and passion necessary to make it in Hollywood. Here’s a blast of creative juju for both Principia and Labyrinth. WHOOOSH!!! May those projects find green lights!

“News Companies See Movies as Opportunity for Growth”

March 30th, 2015 by

As much chatter as there is going around about the supposed decline of movies as a viable narrative form in today’s binge-watching-short-attention-span culture, there’s this:

In a surprising turn, some of the most aggressive contemporary purveyors of information, journalistic and otherwise, are seeking future growth from what has not seemed novel since Edison’s day: the feature-length motion picture.

In the last several years, BuzzFeed Media, Vice Media, CNN, Condé Nast and Newsweek have all built units or alliances aimed in part at creating long-form narrative or documentary films that will be seen in theaters. They will use time-tested promotional apparatus — including festivals, awards and brightly lit marquees — to draw viewers, many of whom will ultimately see the movies online or on television.

Distributors of short form news stories are creating divisions focusing on long-form feature films, both scripted and documentary. Why?

While they vary, the operations are all planted in the notion that classic movie formats have immense power to open cultural conversations, and to hold viewers who might otherwise be lost to a competitor with the next bold headline, or two-minute video.

If the goal still exists to create content that draws eyeballs that stick around for longer than it takes to click a mouse, movies can be a sound solution, landing a person’s attention for 90-120 minutes. This from Ze Frank, president of BuzzFeed Motion Pictures:

Why bother?

Because, Mr. Frank said, long-form visual storytelling seems the best way to deal with life’s deeper themes: “sex, love, war, jealousy and betrayal,” for instance.

“The Russian novel was the standard for a while,” he said. “Right now, I really feel it’s the feature.”

Cycles. The entertainment business is always about cycles. Something’s hot. Then it’s not. Then it’s hot again. That’s just one reason why I’m absolutely certain that while we may be in the middle of the so-called Second Golden Age of TV, there will be a renaissance on the movie side of things.

Who knows? Maybe it’s emerging right now.

For the rest of the NYT article, go here.

Great news for a pair of Black List writers!

March 27th, 2015 by

I enjoy interfacing with all types of screenwriters, but I am particularly fond of getting to know talented up-and-comers. Oftentimes uninhibited by conventional wisdom and so-called screenwriting ‘rules’, they bring a fresh perspective to the craft and to the world of storytelling. So I was thrilled this week when two announcements about Black List writers — Elijah Bynum and Jason Mark Hellerman — hit the trades:

THR: Imperative Entertainment Producing Black List Script ‘Hot Summer Nights’:

Imperative Entertainment will finance and produce Black List script Hot Summer Nights, a coming-of-age drama set during a stormy summer in Cape Cod.

Elijah Bynum wrote the script and will make his directorial debut with the project, which is slated to begin production this summer. Bynum was the only writer to have two scripts on the 2013 Black List, the other being Mississippi Mud.

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“Bynum is an exceptional talent and is someone we believe will be a phenomenal director. In our experience, these types of visionaries come along very rarely and we have designed Imperative to have the resources and infrastructure in place to support them and help them realize their vision,” says Thomas.

Deadline: ‘Shovel Buddies’ 2013 Black List Script Heads To May Shoot With AwesomenessTV, Film 360:

Shovel Buddiesa 2013 Black List script by Jason Mark Hellerman, will be produced by AwesomenessTV and Film 360 for day-and-date theatrical and VOD release. The film will be directed by English duo Si & Ad with a likely cast of social-media stars plucked substantially from the stables of AwesomenessTV and its Big Frame talent-management unit.

Casting is underway, and filming is expected to begin by May.

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Thus the deal for Hellerman’s script, which ended up eighth on the 2013 Black List of Hollywood’s best unproduced screenplays. The name is a play on the idea of the “bucket list.” Here, a group of four teens whose friend has just died of leukemia strive to do all the items on the friend’s “shovel list” in a single night.

I got in touch with Elijah and Jason to congratulate them. Both are longtime Go Into The Story followers. In fact, Elijah said in his email response, “Thanks man! You’re part of the reason this was able to happen.”

So congratulations to Elijah and Jason! Hot Summer Nights and Shovel Buddies are wonderful stories. May the Cinema Gods be with each project as they move forward into production.

To read my April 2014 interview with Elijah Bynum in which we discuss Hot Summer Nights, go here.

To read my August 2014 interview with Jason Mark Hellerman in which we discuss Shovel Buddies, go here.

Twitter: @BynumElijah, @JasonHellerman.

John Lasseter and 7 Storytelling Instincts

February 2nd, 2015 by

In my recent Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling class, one of the writers in the group – Bob – posted this link to a recent feature in The Telegraph on Pixar and Disney Animation head honcho John Lasseter. It’s a terrific read on how Lasseter and team have turned around the fortunes of Disney Animation. Spurred some thoughts which I am reprinting here.

Great, Bob, thanks. That is an excellent article and speaks so much to some of the key reasons for Pixar’s success and Disney Animation’s ‘resurrection’. Specifically 7 storytelling instincts present in their work and approach to their business.

1. Passion: Lasster and crew love making movies, telling stories and animation in all forms. It’s not just a job, it’s not just about hitting quarterly earnings requirements. There is a genuine zeal for what they do.

2. Creativity: They value it, they embrace it, they do everything they can engender it. Notice how they completely restructured the way Disney story development operates. I know all too well about Disney and their propensity for giving notes, a top-down approach to the story-crafting process. In the article, you’ll note when Lasseter came onto the scene at Disney animation, the setup of the actual administration building reflected this model. No more. Creatives have a place of authority and respect.

3. Wonder: As opposed to cynicism. This line from Lasseter: “They thought the world had grown too cynical for traditional fairy tales, but I was sitting at Pixar thinking, ‘No! Hollywood’s grown too cynical for them! The rest of the world loves them!'” Whether the lifestyle of a Hollywood studio executive attracts edgy, negative personalities or the job itself relentlessly grinds a person into a cynic, while there is room for dark movies, that’s not what a majority of the world’s population wants. Or perhaps even more importantly… needs. I’m not talking pablum stories. Neither is Lasseter. As we’ve seen in this course, Pixar deals with some really serious themes: death, loss, self-identity. But they tells stories with those serious themes from a place of wonder, that amidst all of the potentially destructive dangers of this life, there is also beauty, courage, friendship and love.

4. Curiosity: Note how the article emphasizes the research Disney (and Pixar) do for each project. Go out into the world! See what’s out there! Immerse yourself in the unique story subculture! Open your eyes! Hollywood denizens are too often informed by their insular experience of the 405-101-10-110 bubble. There’s a reason they refer to the broad stretch of the United States between LA and NYC as “flyover country”. As writers, we benefit by living life and burrowing deep into interesting corners of it.

5. Openness: No longer stories where female characters sit around waiting to be saved. Disney animation now goes where culture goes, reflecting the experience of actual contemporary human beings, rather than slavishly following the dictates of tradition.

6. Respect: And yet, they don’t trample all over what has come before. Disney had decided to dump 2D animation. Lasseter put an end to that. He loves and respects the artistry of ‘old’ Disney movies. I believe some of that has to do with the tactile experience of working with pen or pencil and paper. 3D is great, of course, but it’s not the same as hand scratching images on a sketchboard. There is a kind of direct vitality and inspiration that can emerge from that witness Pixar’s famous lunch where Wall-E and the house from Up emerged. There is much to be learned from the history of movies and storytelling.

7. Fun: Their primary audience is children. And children like to have fun. Adults do, too, even if they get so caught up in work and responsibilities, they sometimes forget that. So with everything else that goes on in the story-crafting process, Lasseter is always innately cued into the potential for fun. I mean, the dude owns over 1,000 Hawaiian shirts! That’s his work apparel!

Look at that list. Know what? That’s a great list of attributes for any screenwriter to have. We should embrace and engender the spirit of those seven qualities in our own lives and writing lifestyles.

Again thanks for the article, Bob. Definitely worth a read!

I don’t care what genre or type of stories you write, these 7 storytelling instincts are good ones to engender. And honestly, if Hollywood development execs and producers would embrace these, I think the film and TV business would be better off.

To read The Telegraph article, go  here.

The Year of a Bunch of Totally Solid Movies

January 22nd, 2015 by

An informative look by the Black List’s Terry Huang at the movies of 2014:

It’s a sentiment that has been expressed enough to seem worthy of note:

2014 perhaps wasn’t the best year for movies.

When thinking about this year in comparison to other years and in particular last year, which had both Gravity and 12 Years a Slave, should we feel shortchanged?

Well, first off, we need to distinguish two things when deciding our definition of a “good” year for film.

1. The actual quality of films released. Were there fewer good films released this year? How do the “best of the best” stack up against previous years (Oscar contention)? Was there an abundance of bad films? Was it a year of more mediocre movies?

2. The perception of the quality of films released. This takes into account the same variables above, except we need to add an element of how well publicized, distributed, and/or patronized the good movies were compared to the bad movies. Collectively, were bad movies more present than good ones? Were people simply unaware of the good films?

The Best of the Best

In our collective memory years from now, we’ll probably only remember the greats. So it’s worth exploring, independently of all the junk, the most highly-rated films of the year. This won’t tell us overall the quality of film, but it will tell us if this year produced films that will filter into our future canon.

For this analysis, I’ll be using Metacritic as a proxy for quality of film.

Why use Metacritic over Rotten Tomatoes? Basically, Metacritic answers more granularly “how good” the movie was, not just what percent of critics liked it. It also favors more established, well-regarded critics. There’s a long explanation you can check out, and you can also reference Metacritic’s own explanation of how they calculate the score. I’m not saying it’s better; it just tells you something slightly different.

Why use Metacritic instead of anything else? Well, mostly because it already exists, it broadly tracks movies, and we’ve all heard of it, so we have a common reference point.

Let’s just look at the Metacritic scores of the top 10 films by year, regardless of how widely distributed they were.

2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
#1 100 99 96 97 94 99 95 95 100 100
#2 93 98 94 94 94 95 94 94 100 95
#3 92 91 92 92 92 94 90 92 97 95
#4 92 91 92 91 89 92 89 92 97 92
#5 90 90 91 89 89 91 89 90 96 91
#6 89 89 90 86 88 90 88 88 94 91
#7 88 89 89 86 88 90 87 87 94 90
#8 88 89 88 85 87 88 87 87 93 90
#9 87 89 88 85 86 88 87 87 93 89
#10 87 88 88 84 86 88 87 87 92 89
Average 90.6 91.3 90.8 88.9 89.3 91.5 89.3 89.9 95.6 92.2

So looking at the “best of the best,” this year was actually the second highest scoring year in the last 10 years, right behind 2013. That sounds like a pretty strong year for film! 2013 was an exceptionally strong year (the average is 3.4 points higher than 2014). Coming off 2013 probably skews our perspective a little about the quality of 2014.

I’ve been telling people the same thing: We’ve had a couple of years with some superior movies. For 2014, Boyhood, Birdman, Selma, Whiplash, Nightcrawler, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Edge of Tomorrow, Interstellar, The LEGO Movie, Gone Girl, The Fault in Our Stars are movies that easily spring to mind. I’m sure I’ve forgotten several others.

For all you numbers people, check out the rest of Terry’s post here as he really gets granular re the movies of 2014.

Twitter: @terrykhuang.

Check out the Black List blog here.

Documentary: “Pixar: 25 Magic Moments”

December 28th, 2014 by

A 2011 BBC documentary: Pixar: 25 Magic Moments:

Through 25 key moments, this programme takes a look at the highs and lows of the multi award-winning animation studio Pixar as it celebrates its 25th birthday, and discovers the secrets of how to make a Pixar movie. With unique access to Pixar HQ and the creative team, it features memorable moments from hits such as Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc, as well as exclusive interviews with Billy Crystal, Tim Allen, Holly Hunter, Kelsey Grammer, Michael Keaton, George Lucas and others.

A nice way for any Pixar fan to spend an hour, especially writers as some of the interviews involve Brad Bird, Ed Catmull, Pete Docter, John Lasseter, Bob Peterson, Andrew Stanton, and Lee Unkrich, members of the company’s Brain Trust, as well as Steve Jobs, who if you didn’t know co-founded the animation company.

If you love Pixar movies or simply want to learn some of the key narrative principles behind their success as storytellers, I encourage you to take my popular 1-week online class Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling. It starts January 19th and I only offer it once a year. Check it out here.

THR (Video): Producer Roundtable

December 22nd, 2014 by

From THR:

If you’d taken a snapshot of the men and women who participated in this year’s Producer Roundtable about 15 years ago, you’d have seen most of them in very different jobs: Peter Chernin (Exodus: Gods and Kings, St. Vincent, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), 63, then was Rupert Murdoch‘s right-hand man at News Corp., running one of the largest media companies in the world; Marc Platt (Into the Woods), 57, was president of production at Universal Pictures, capping a long career as a movie executive; John Lesher (Birdman, Fury), 48, was an agent (and soon to become head of the specialty label Paramount Vantage); Emma Thomas (Interstellar), 43, was just beginning her career as a producer following a stint as an assistant to Eric Fellner (The Theory of Everything), 53; and Cathleen Sutherland, (Boyhood), 48, was manning a series of jobs in production. Their very different experiences colored their perspectives and taught many of them how to see the industry from a bird’s-eye point of view rather than from the narrow window of one film — though, as Platt notes, “What’s liberating about being a producer is: Your first thought can just be, ‘Here’s a project I want to invest my time in.’ “

Here is the entire 43 minute video:

Via THR.

“How Reese Witherspoon and Megan Ellison are changing the movies”

November 24th, 2014 by

A Washington Post feature by Alyssa Rosenberg:

Last week, I wrote about how hard it was going to be to fill the slate of Best Actress nominees at the Academy Awards, given how few movies this year gave women significant screen time and rich, complex parts. But two of the movies that have produced genuine contenders–David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” and Jean-Marc Vallée’s “Wild”–have one thing in common: Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Pacific Standard.

Witherspoon, who was part of the Hollywood Reporter’s annual actress roundtable, told the magazine that her success as both a producer and a potential Best Actress contender (she stars as memoirist Cheryl Strayed in “Wild”) were the result of a recent decision: to stop waiting for other people to start making movies about interesting female characters.

“I can’t speak for other people. I just recognize that about three years ago, I started seeing this complete lack of interesting female leads in film. First I got mad, really mad. And then I was like, “It’s nobody’s fault; if you’re not proactive about things …” I’d had a company before, but it was basically about trying to develop things that I would eventually be in,” Witherspoon explained. “So I just switched the idea: If I can develop anything for any other women, I don’t care who it is; I just want my daughter to grow up seeing complex, interesting, nuanced women in film. So I started it with my own money — you know, the first thing people tell you is, “Don’t put your own money into anything” — so I was like, is this really dumb? But I got a great partner [Bruna Papandrea] and the first two things I sent her were ‘Gone Girl’ and ‘Wild.’ And those were the first books that we optioned.”

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Witherspoon is hardly the first woman to make this hike, of course. Her potential awards-season dominance recalls that of Megan Ellison (daughter of billionaire Larry Ellison), whose Annapurna Pictures production company has also turned out a reliable series of contenders and intelligent provocations. Annapurna Pictures movies tend to be less intrigued by the inner lives of women, and they are more likely than Pacific Standard films to have male main characters. But the women in movies Ellison makes never seem less than formidable and fascinating, even when they have to swipe the movie from a male co-star or lead.

As Darnell Hunt in my recent interview suggested, the issue of gender and racial inequality on all fronts of the Hollywood movie and TV business is systemic. One thing that is needed is for creatives to take the lead in creating and championing stories that embrace diversity as well as compelling, interesting characters.

What Witherspoon is doing is admirable, but we don’t have to be a movie star to take up the call. As writers, we have a choice as to the type of material we write. If we’ve got a great story idea that features a female and/or ethnic lead, don’t let conventional wisdom stop you. Write that script. The more and better material out there, the more likely we’ll scripts that embrace diversity get produced.

For the rest of the WAPO article, go here.

Does a record-setting October box office mean anything?

November 5th, 2014 by

Per Box Office Mojo:

Overall business totaled $755 million, which is up a whopping 20 percent from last October. It’s also a new October record ahead of 2009’s $693 million haul.

While Gone Girl and Annabelle were the top performers, the big year-over-year increase can be chalked up to strong numbers in the middle. Seven titles earned between $30 and $55 million in October; in comparison, only one movie wound up in that range last year (Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa).

I’ll grant you $30-$55M is peanuts compared to the revenues generated by big summer superhero franchise movies. However consider the October numbers with these Box Office Mojo headlines from this last summer:

May Box Office Hits Lowest Level Since 2010

June Box Office Down 16 Percent From Last Year’s Record

July Box Office Falls Short of $1 Billion

August ended the summer on an up note, primarily due to Guardians of the Galaxy, however the fact is movies underperformed domestically this year while October set a record.

Does that mean anything? I’d like to think it does, specifically there are audiences who enjoy Comedy, Drama, Family, Horror, and genres other than Science Fiction and whatever we might choose to call Superhero movies. The more Hollywood can expand their development slates to include those genres, they can stop leaving that money on the table.