Category Archives: Producing

The Hollywood War Machine

Top Gun: Maverick performed some “best of the best” box office maneuvers when it opened Memorial Day weekend and continues to do well. The original film proved to be as much a recruitment commercial as popcorn movie… and this sequel’s premiere aboard an aircraft carrier, Midway (now a museum ship), hints that this newest film will perform similarly.

Over 30 years later, he still feels the need for speed.

As a cinemaniac who’s seen more than a few military-themed movies over the decades, Hollywood’s connection to the U.S. military is not a surprise, nor is the nuance. That’s one of the reasons I appreciated the nuance in this article by Alissa Wilkinson for Vox, exploring the past, present, and future of how the military works with filmmakers.

One of the aspects I appreciate about the article is how it goes through some of the filmmaking choices of working, or not working, with the military and how it’s not a good or bad thing: it’s really about what story you’re trying to tell.

And, as many film historians naturally know, Hollywood has close ties to the American military and has sought to seek to tell both the story of American service men and women, but more broadly, Why We Fight. The book and Netflix series, Five Came Back are well worth checking out.

Casting Based on What Characters Do & How They Do It

Thanks to several area theaters offering ridiculously good deals for students, I started regularly attending theaters in the 1980s. Almost from the get-go, I was exposed to what is generally termed “non-traditional casting,” including a production of Macbeth with a cast that included actors who, at the time, I would not have instantly guessed as “Scottish.” Any preconceived notions I might have had of what the Scottish characters “ought to look like” were retired by the curtain call. The production was full of energy and all the actors brought their ‘A’ game. Franchelle Stewart Dorn, for example, will always be a definitive Lady Macbeth. She was that character based on what she did and how she did it.

Now multiply that by every single show I’ve ever seen with “non-traditional casting.”

Why am I mentioning this? Well, for one thing, from running auditions in the DC-Baltimore area for 15 years, I continually found myself needing to remind filmmakers that very skilled and enormously appropriate actors were available for their production if they focused on what the characters needed to do and how they needed to do it. And so few stories these people were telling demanded the characters be a certain age, ethnicity, or even gender.

In fact, I’ve found an overwhelming amount of great stories that don’t have those restrictions. Just tell the story with the best people you can find.

For a second thing, people in general still need to get this memo, and the author of the Percy Jackson novels evidently needed to give people a version of this memo, because, yes you guessed it: some folks are up in arms that a character is going to be played by an actor who isn’t who they pictured. I appreciate his call to stop the bull and remind people where the buck stops. Hopefully, a few more people will become more open about who could be a Greek demigod.

After all, growing up, I never imagined The Doctor from Doctor Who being Scottish… and we’re about to have our third Scot in the role. I’ll let you guess why I thought of that.

Welcome, Number Fourteen

Why the Spice Flowed the Way it Flowed in Dune

While it seems that not everyone liked the latest screen version of Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi novel Dune, it’s the first film in a long time that I finished watching and wanted to immediately watch again. I’m up to seeing it five times now, so it’s safe to say I’m a fan (I find much to love in the other two screen versions as well, but that’s for another post).

One of the most striking aspect of this version is the now Oscar-winning visual effects, which is something that Jourdan Aldredge goes into over at the site No Film School. Specifically, he talks a lot about that tool filmmakers frequently call upon when they need something fantastical: green screens.

Dune did not use green-colored screens nor even the older school blue screens. It used sand-colored screens.

If you, like me, went, “Whaaaaaaat?” you can check out the article mentioned above and also go directly to this video essay explaining what they did:

Fast. Cheap. Good. Pick Two.

Many of you have seen the sentiment expressed in the title above, but it’s always worth remembering… and remembering we, as a species, will likely figure out how to go faster than the speed of light before we break the above constraints.

If I could add this to certain project submission forms, I would.

A post by writer Mark Evanier reminded me of how these constraints can often come into play in the writing world, which led to a good musing on his part:

How does one judge the quality constraint? (i.e. good/bad)

Producers, project managers, and writers will always try and balance these three constraints, often contending with executives who want to pretend like constraints don’t exist.

(Project managers will think of “time, scope, and cost” as the “triple constraints,” but we’ll leave the discussion of connections between scope and quality for another time).

In judging quality, it’s useful to allow that every project falls into a different “acceptance spectrum.” A good “rough order of magnitude” (ROM) estimate is automatically placing speed at a premium and therefore a “good ROM” is good with less precision than a “good detailed cost estimate.”

Let’s be honest: the same goes for writing projects. You’re likely to scrutinize that update for the internal corporate newsletter a bit less than the next chapter of your planned Great American Novel. You’re going to do your best on both, sure, but you absolutely will take more time with that novel.

Once you realize that “Good” is variable and contextual, it’s just a quick hop to realize that “fast” and “cheap” are also variable and contextual. Mind you, the constraints still apply: if you or your executives want something fast and cheap, there’s going to be a limit to how good it’s going to be (try ordering bespoke anything the fastest you can and see what that does to cost and quality). However, once you realize the balancing act, you can start making choices –and getting stakeholders to get on the record about their choices– about how fast, cheap, and good they want it. And if they want to increase speed or increase quality, guess what happens to the other constraint? The bottom line is you don’t get all three.

Passion Counts: Patton Oswalt Edition

Lest any of you think I’m going to populate the blog with repeatedly grim tales of people being sucky (as I have for a couple Wednesdays and this morning), I just wanted to highlight the Patton Oswalt interview I linked in last week’s post about film distribution.

Patton Oswalt, circa 2018 (the time of the interview)

Really, if you are at all interested in his career or perspective on things (he is a tremendous film geek in addition to his other geekdoms), the hour will fly by. And it’s applicable to any creative industry.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Hollywood Accounting

Last Wednesday’s post about how some film distributors led to some discussion amongst friends on the Interwebs and elsewhere. One colleague who’s been a filmmaker and exhibitor pointed out how there are so many sticky problems with film distribution, it’s a difficult problem to handle — and there are definitely some issues with some of the smaller distributors. However, that made me think of how the major distributors engage in creative accounting that’s about as alluring as a blow to the nether regions. For example, did you know the Harry Potter films, in one way, didn’t make money?

They gaze in horror at the dark magic that is Hollywood accounting.

There’s nothing I can really add to this that will be additionally edifying, but for those of you who didn’t know about these shenanigans, now you know.

Video

The New Paradigm of Film Distributors Really Not Caring About Their Films

If you read last Wednesday’s post about standardization of suck that is the McDonald’s ice cream machine, you hopefully felt a little irritation — assuming you believe in truth, justice, and lovely intangibles.

Well, alas, I have more fuel for the ire fire, which I have a special interest due to my connection to filmmaking and knowing many a fellow indie producer who is either in this position or about to be.

Now, if you’re like me, you find this more than a little annoying. I mean, any indie filmmaker understands they need to wear multiple hats, often at once, to get their film completed and out into the world. But it really shouldn’t be too much to ask that people whose livelihood is based on your movie making money for them to care about, not the movie, but how to make sure that money maximizes money for them.

It reminds me of Patton Oswalt talking about having passion for the industry you’re in whether it’s running a comedy club booking stand-up comics or, say, distributing films. Enjoy the industry you’re in on one or more levels. There are so many other jobs you could do if you don’t care about this one. And I like that the discussion that especially when it comes to artistic and creative pursuits, it’s about being a fan and a ‘connoisseur’ of whatever the pursuit is… and you can be a fan at any budget level (some of that discussion begins at the 16:28 mark, but the whole interview is great).

While Deverett would possibly empathize, it’s clear he’s accepted this is the way things are, even if it’s more than a little irksome. In fact, if you watch his whole 4-hour interview or even some of the other segments, he points out all sorts of irksome aspects of the industry when it comes to film distribution. Film distributors in many cases are ripping filmmakers off. Brazenly. He even documents how he went after some “whoops” missing money from some of the territories a film of his was being distributed in. And he documents why is was so hard to do and holding people accountable is hard, expensive, and therefore unsustainable — this assessment from a lawyer and former film distribution professional!

So I won’t say, “Go forth and storm the barricades!” But I do want to give voice to that ire in the hopes that someone somewhere will figure out a way to beneficially disrupt a part of the film industry that seems to be doing its level best to standardize the suck.

Do You Hear What Netflix Hears?

The podcast hills may soon be alive with the sound of Netflix. That’s what I’m gleaning from this Bloomberg article about the new Netflix executive in charge of podcasts.

N’Jeri Eaton (photo via Netflix)

N’Jeri Eaton comes to Netflix by way of Apple and NPR. An award-winning storyteller, she has roots in documentary filmmaking, something near and dear to many a DC filmmaker.

While that’s all cool, the big surprise from the article for me was that not only that Netflix has a number of podcasts already –many being deeper dives into their TV shows and films– but that they are building up publishing and social media presences. That growth as an overall media company is, I suppose, something one might expect, but I confess to still thinking of Netflix as the streaming enfant terrible vs. “another media conglomerate.”

I’m also, for obvious reasons, wondering if they’re going to start making moves into original audio fiction.

Perfect is the Enemy of Good: YouTuber Edition

Given the traffic some of my project management posts get, I figured I should get back to being wonky on Wednesdays or other days. I’ve recently rediscovered the Vlogbrothers, aka John and Hank Green, and have been cycling through their videos at a fast pace. That’s easy, because most of them are under 5 minutes and they contain some thought nuggets that fire the synapses in the most delightful way.

So then I came across this one from 2017 about productivity:

As some of you project managers and office denizens may have clued into, the “80%” he refers to calls to mind “the 80/20 rule” or the Pareto Principle.

And yes, the Pareto Principle started as something a bit different –and is invoked in a number of rather different arenas– but Hank Green’s reference aligns with how I most frequently encounter it in terms of quality control and optimization. Or put another way: perfect is the enemy of good.

And “done is good,” a fact I learned back when I was building sets and hanging lights and the curtain went up at 8pm whether or not things were perfect.

So embrace your 80%, people! Except for consuming ice cream. Finish that whole cone/bowl/pint/what-have-you. Exceptions make the rule after all.

AIM Calls for Aid!

As one filmmaking colleague I know has mentioned, “Money isn’t an issue, it’s the issue.”

And many creative endeavors rely on crowdfunding these days. Hence my previous post about the audio drama Apollyon (which I should mention I and the other cast & crew really do want to get funded to continue the story).

As many of you may know, the audio theater troupe I run, Jabberwocky Audio Theater, has its shows start on broadcast radio, WERA-LP 96.7 FM in Arlington, Virginia to be precise.

WERA is community radio, as in the program literally comes from the community. And it gives back, with news, coverage of local events, and some of the best value in media training around (which includes TV as well, since WERA is part of Arlington Independent Media).

But it also depends on the community for financial support in the best of times, so this past year has hit them hard, and Arlington Independent Media is looking to keep on going through their 39th year and beyond. They’ve been integral to our getting Jabberwocky Audio Theater off the ground again in 2018 and we’d love to see them continue.

Besides straight-up donating to them, they also have an auction going on as well as a special virtual concert fundraiser this weekend. Spread the word!