Tag Archives: Filmmaking

Scorsese Follows up Regarding Marvel

Last month, I wrote about how accomplished filmmaker Martin Scorsese termed the many, many Marvel films as “not cinema.” His colleague Francis Ford Coppola joined in, going further in calling the films “despicable.”

Superhero fandom has not been kind. (Thankfully, some superhero actors keep on being superheroic, so there’s that).

Martin Scorsese

On Monday, Martin Scorsese wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times about the interview that kicked this all off — and where he was coming from in his comments.

I appreciate him taking the time to explain his viewpoint. He’s eloquent, passionate, and has an absolute love of film. If you’ve seen him in interviews and especially from some of his segments on Turner Classic Movies, this man loves cinema — all types of cinema — and I don’t think it’s at all controversial to opine that he’s contributed greatly to cinema through his films.

But while I agree with many of his observations, I don’t agree with the breadth of his conclusions.

Films are made more by committee these days. They are tested and –more likely than not– drained of anything that might be “controversial” as the studios continue to be risk averse in a way that really doesn’t avoid risk (see the box office disappointment of the latest Terminator film). Filmmakers who want to find a voice, tell a singular story, or otherwise be unexpected do find an uphill battle in the face of the studios near monolithic insistence on their vision. And I don’t doubt that the majority of filmmakers would love to make films for the sizable silver screen versus streaming.

But I feel Scorsese is conflating this studio stubbornness and corporate zeal to eliminate “art as risk” with its current method of promoting this blandness: superhero movies.

And there’s a lot of nuance in here, because he clearly understands and loves all sorts of movies. He identifies Hitchcock films as the thrill rides of his day, but I think he discounts the character, craft, and sheer enjoyment one finds in superhero movies. He’s entirely fine to say, as he does, that superhero movies are not to his taste — I just don’t think it’s fair to say superhero movies are in poor taste.

To give an example using the rough equivalent of the “superhero” film of his time growing up: imagine if Studios not only favored Westerns, but they insisted on franchises of Westerns and any new idea was met with, “But can it be a Western?” I can’t imagine Scorsese would enjoy this state of affairs any more than the state of affairs with superhero films — and he’d probably say some of the same things.

And you know what? He’d be right that the studios are too dismissive of anything done for art’s sake. He’d be right that many a Western is weighed down with hoary tropes and is more of a thrill ride that a film that engages you on all levels, but he would not be right that westerns are second-class films as a genre or type by virtue of being Westerns. Amid the slickly produced, forgettable ones, there’s early classics like “Stagecoach” and more meditative affairs like “High Noon,” character-driven action like “Winchester ’73,” and operatic takes like “Once Upon a Time in the West.”

Likewise, he’s missing all the character and nuance that you find in films like “Captain America: Winter Soldier” and “Black Panther.” Action sequences don’t take away from the tale of a man who dedicated his life to serve finding the institution he served has been betrayed from within. CGI armored rhinos don’t negate the nuance of a son coming to terms with things his father never told him as he tries to find a way to lead his people. I get that superhero films are thrill rides –the comics they’re based on have fight scenes and action sequences more often than not– but just like the Hitchcock films and Westerns of old, they’re not uniformly disposable trifles.

I suspect it’s hard not to conflate studio attitudes with superhero films because Scorsese is such a phenomenal, singular filmmaker. The studios are playing their superhero-franchise-over-everything-else card and that’s an impediment to precisely what Scorsese longs to do, (and what he’s done very well doing). He wants to make art. He understands that it’s show business, but he’s knows there’s art in the show and he’s presented with a bunch of drudges who feel showing art is bad.

And I bet if he was able to make all the films he pleased, he’d still be sad on behalf of the next generation of filmmakers.

For anyone who dreams of making movies or who is just starting out, the situation at this moment is brutal and inhospitable to art. And the act of simply writing those words fills me with terrible sadness.

~Martin Scorsese

Like I said above, this guy loves art. Think of his appearance as Van Gogh in Dreams: he’s a painter who wants you to paint. He implores you to paint for the sheer joy of painting. I think he’s just forgetting there’s other paintings that are artful, even when they’re paintings the studios are trying to mass produce.

“ars gratia artis” indeed.

I’m so looking forward to The Irishman, but I’m also looking forward to several superhero films. There will be art in both I’m sure (and I still find myself coming back to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s piece in response to Scorsese).

Everyone take it down a notch and enjoy some movies already.

Coppola Channels Daffy Duck, Finds MCU “Despicable”

Francis Ford Coppola has joined his colleague Martin Scorsese in dismissing superhero films in general and Marvel in particular, calling them “despicable.”

Rosy Cordero covers it in Entertainment Weekly and David Crow has a nice contextual take over at Den of Geek.

Sigh. Much like Bugs Bunny, superhero films might not be considered “high art,” but they’re not going away anytime soon. Besides which, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar already covered this: he’s not wrong, but he’s not right.

Toxic fans and risk-averse studios seem much better targets for umbrage — and finding ways to fund the types of films Coppola and Scorsese make without relying on the hell-bent-for-content motivation Netflix has? That just might be more worthwhile.

“Comic Book Movies” and “High Art”

Just last month I was musing about how, even in the face of “nerddom’s” ascension in all aspects of pop culture, people still feel the need to belittle or otherwise distance themselves and their work from science fiction as if the genre itself was wildly radioactive.

Now, in the face of a more meditative and gritty look at the origins of Joker –with more than a few homages to Martin Scorsese’s films– Scorsese himself felt the need to denigrate the Marvel film juggernaut as not “cinema.”

Now, on the one hand, that assertion is silly. It’s like saying a hamburger isn’t food because its preparation and presumed nutritional value isn’t on par with the fare from a three-star Michelin restaurant (and yes, you won’t surprise me if you produce examples of people asserting just that).

On the other hand, the aspirations behind films (and food) can vary greatly. “The Remains of the Day” is going for something different than “Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-rama” — and anyone insisting “they’re the same” because “they’re both feature films” can and should be summarily mocked.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a piece in the Hollywood Reporter that tackles just this dichotomy tackling the elephant in the room that is the notion of “high art.” It’s well worth a read.

Master of Suspense Masterclass

Well, technically, it’s a 96-minute press conference moderated by film historian, author, and critic Richard Schickel. However, it really is a bit of a masterclass as Alfred Hitchcock, quite confident in what he does and doesn’t do, gives pronouncements about how he goes about things.

Note that you may want to watch Family Plot, his last film, before watching this as that’s the reason for the press conference. You may also find that he’s rather old school and private in his answers, compared to what you might expect from a modern talk show. That should in no way distract some great nuggets of wisdom as to how he approaches filmmaking as a craft. I especially appreciated his observation on keeping the audience engaged and, above all, not confused.

Also, a pro-tip from the comments. If you play the video at 1.5 times speed (under the settings menu in YouTube), you’ll finish faster and Hitchcock will, frankly, not sound like the spokesman for the Slow Talkers of America (which he clearly isn’t, what with being British and all).

The Music of DOOM! er, the Doomsday Machine

One of my favorite episodes of the original Star Trek and, I would argue, one of their best overall episodes, was the action-packed season two entry, “The Doomsday Machine.”

A significant factor on why I believe it should be ranked so highly is because of the episode-specific music composed by Sol Kaplan. Viewers may recall the original series re-used a lot of music cues as a cost-cutting technique. The fact that they don’t do so here underscores (pun intended) how a composer can really bring a story alive.

Composer Shem von Schroeck has an hour-long video that goes into the music and the episode in depth. The first 10 minutes are discussing and demonstrating some of the themes Kaplan uses. The next 50 are a special annotated version of the episode itself, highlighting which music is used when. It really gives you an appreciation for how much art and craft goes into composing for the screen.

Where Have All the Film Rights Gone?

Continuing on the topic of producing films from Monday’s post on film budgets, what do you do when you –miracle of miracles– finish the film?

Well, you want to get it distributed, of course!

And, just as I want more than theoretical notions and generalizations for distribution, I want to know who likes to acquire what — and as much of their terms and conditions can be shared.

So over at the site Dear Producer, Liz Manashil and Rebecca Green surveyed a host of distributors and compiled their responses.

The resulting list breaks down not only the types of films dozens of distribution companies acquire, but what festivals they typically attend, what their standard term lengths are, and so on.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably heard the sage advice of knowing your distribution plan before you make your film dozens of time. Well, it’s great to be reminded of that, but then there’s the whole problem of knowing –even within a given market– who the best buyers might be.

Yes, I’ll absolutely research the heck out of the individual companies before approach them, but I find this list is a great way to get some companies to keep in mind (or exclude) from the get-go. I hope that’s the case for many of you as well.

By the way, if you’re already in the mode of learning more about distribution for your indie project, Avril Speaks has a great article about lessons she learned about what to look out for when making your distribution deal.

Reminder: If you’re a fellow filmmaker that wants to chat about this or other fun, wonky producer stuff, I’ll be at the VIP Film and TV Summit in April. I’d love to compare notes.

Film Budgets… Through a Film Lifecycle

One wonky thing I’m endlessly fascinated by is film budgets. When you realize that an hour of modern “prestige” TV can top $10 million, yet the average Hollywood blockbuster is over $100 million, you know certain choices are being made and risks accepted.

And yes, I know traditional theatrical distribution and traditional network and cable distribution have business models that can inform and support these widely disparate budgets. However, I lap up little tidbits from behind-the-scenes features and other clues dropped in media interviews for how crafty producers and production staff save money here and there.

Here’s yet another instance where I have to thank my dad for taking us to see no end of foreign and classic movies growing up (TCM before TCM existed, as I like to say). Among all the other lessons I absorbed was the implicit reinforcement that you can have a damn fine movie for less than a blockbuster budget. Don’t get me wrong, things cost money… and there’s always something that costs more than you’d like. But great locations, sumptuous costumes, and even some visual effects work are absolutely within reach of modest or even “low” budgets.

It still might not be enough money.

But I’m not satisfied with the theoretical. I want to know specific tricks to save time and money. I want to know the ratios to use when estimating this versus that. I want to know the types of risks associated with all the different departments making a film.

And while it doesn’t nail down all of that, Stephen Follows’ article about feature film budgets is a veritable treasure trove of exactly that kind of historical data.

Seriously, if you’ve kept reading up until this point, odds are much higher that you have been obsessing about these things too and Follow’s article goes straight to the kind of planning-based-on-historical-data producers (aka project managers) in any industry live for.

Read deep into the article and you will be able to plan risks and contingency budgets based by department. How cool is that?

This is energizing me for attending the VIP Film and TV summit next month.

Where I’ll Be: Swimming with the Sharks this Saturday

I will leave it to you to determine whether I am one of the sharks or am merely swimming with sharks, but I will be at a “Shark Tank for Filmmakers” event this Saturday out in the wilds of Northern Virginia, where the passenger jets roam.

The event is organized by fellow filmmaker Ron Newcomb, who has been tirelessly working on building the narrative film community in the DC region pretty much since I’ve known him. While I have my own personal goals for the weekend, I’m hoping some projects get launched out of the event that benefit the local film community in general.

If I’m not mistaken, there’s still spots left for people who want to attend (and here are the panelists).

If you’re pitching, here’s some tips Ron provided. He also does an example of comps.

If you see me on Saturday, please say hello.

Film Festivals, Rejection, and Letting Films Escape

Ah, film festivals. Getting into one is always gives a good sense of validation to a filmmaker — and the best are a delight to attend as both filmmaker and audience member.

But what if your film doesn’t make it in?

I’ve known Jon Gann for most of this century and I know all the work he’s done in creating, improving, and advising film festivals. So when I saw he wrote a pair of articles about why films don’t get selected for film festivals (part one is here and part two is here), I thought they’d be solid.

Spoiler alert: they are. If you’re a filmmaker wondering about a spate of rejections from festivals, you’d do well to give both a read.

As with so many things in life, some of the factors are completely outside of a filmmaker’s control… and sometimes it’s good to remind oneself about that, so you can focus on the things you can control: like the picture and sound quality. Or, you know, the writing and the casting.

In some cases, I know it’s difficult to impossible to address some of the issues after a certain amount of effort is put into a film… and that films sometimes aren’t released so much as they ‘escape.’ But then I’d suggest every filmmaker set a deadline for themselves of when to let that escaped film go and turn their attention to their next film. I mean, you’re not a studio that can spend oodles of time trying to see if they can get this or that feature to be profitable.

As a film festival judge, I can tell you I’ve seen many submitted films that don’t lack skill, but are essentially “drafts.” Often, the films clearly don’t live up to their filmmakers’ ambitions. There’s no way those films will take the festival slot from a more polished piece. And as a filmmaker, it’s often better to go out and shoot new material than keep on polishing. As Jon explains above, even your best work can be rejected, so might as well keep on working and getting better. You make more films that way (especially if you’re practicing with shorts). And before you know it, you have a body of work. And yeah, that does mean more chances for more of your films to be rejected. But it also means more films that can be accepted.

And that feels good.

The Mind of Méliès

If you didn’t check out the incredibly cool 360-degree video Google Doodle earlier this month, get a smartphone or tablet and check it out.

It’s a wonderful tribute to a storyteller who I think would very much embrace virtual reality, augmented reality, and the various emerging techniques storytellers are trying.