Sunday, June 12, 2016

ARS GRATIA ARTIS

Some home truths for you.

In 2016, the Government of New South Wales has allocated $1.6 billion for sporting stadium refurbishments.

'That allocation will include $350 million for a new stadium at Parramatta, $450 million for a refurbishment of Allianz Stadium and $700 million to turn ANZ Stadium into a permanent 75,000-seat rectangular stadium.'

Around the same time, the same Government announced that an additional $20 million would be set-aside for screen production in NSW. The idea, as the Government spokesperson puts it, is to ask:

"Why can't we make the next Star Wars episode here?...Why can't we bring Game of Thrones here?"

For reference, 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' cost $306 million to make. 'Game of Thrones: Season 6' cost $100 million to make.

But yes, we'll secure all of that with an extra $20 million in the bank. Right.

There is a broader question at issue here, however.

The announcement of an extra $20 million in funding for the screen arts is cause for celebration, no doubt. But to have the funds instantly committed to the competitive pursuit of attracting productions we don't own the rights to; and therefore won't profit from?

A cigarette to my helium balloon.

"But these international productions will mean jobs for our film and TV industry technicians!"


(SIDE NOTE: it's always funny to hear conservative politicians justify giving public money to Hollywood studios because it will create jobs. Something about the glamour of the film business suddenly turns right-wing public servants into socialists.)

I could rejoinder this broad, economic brush-stroke of 'job creation' with a long analysis of the cost-benefit of these international film/TV production cash subsidies.

I really could.

But such a long-winded analysis is unnecessary. Throwing huge wads of taxpayer money at billionaire entertainment corporations so they (temporarily) hire our film workers, then leave and reap the rewards of owning the IP, doesn't pass a basic common sense test. It would be like China paying Apple to set-up an iPhone sweat-shop for 6 months.

So, I will leave you instead, with the simple notion that the black-box "positivity" accounting involved in these large 'one-off' international film and TV production subsidies, is dubious at best.

You may be wondering then, how does a sports stadium become prioritised in the public consciousness, over the screen arts, to the tune of 17 times more funding in this particular case?

I am too.

Is it because sports are events that generate so much revenue and public benefit?

Well, if that were the case, it would only strengthen the argument that the Arts are not receiving their fair share of the pie. Or, as one writer put it:

'More than 18 million Australians buy tickets to live shows every year. That’s more than attend all sport in this nation. By this statistic, sport is for elitists and the arts are for everyone.'


The funding deficit is not logical, then. It's idealogical. The home truth I promised you, it lives here:

Art has no right to exist.

Of course I want art to exist. We all do.

Art, unequivocally, is the glue that holds our bonds of civilisation together.

But still, be it dance, or film, or writing, or painting - whatever your cultural vice may be - art has no right to exist.

Art needs angels. It must be spoken for. Willed into being.

Either spawned through the harmonised chorus of your desire, and the skill of artist who's work moves your dial...

...or extinguished, by the collective silence, roughly the size of a crowded sports stadium.

I just have to shake my head at the state of affairs sometimes. Despite all that we know and love, what kind of society are we building here?

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Sunday, June 05, 2016

THE SUPER TICKET


Nobody watches the movies anymore.

TV hit cinema over the head with a shovel, and the booming experience economy buried the body in lime.

Do I really believe that film has met its gruesome end? Not really.

My perspective doesn't stop this mythology from propagating though. The once unshakeable identity of the cinephiles has cracked like a Hollywood footpath. Weeds of pernicious doubt grow though.

And yet, it's a fool's errand to argue that viewing habits aren't changing. The "millennials" (oh, how I loathe that aggregation) have voted with their wallets, making the focus all about 'experiences' over possessions. Three calls of the crow over consumer culture.

Could a generational value shift really signal the end of the theatrical movie industry? Has the one-off delight of film fallen so far behind the serialised commitment of episodic television?

To be honest, it's hard to say. Billions are still being made in the film business, but millions are flocking to the boob tube. Piracy warrants a mention here too, in so much as its absence would likely make the playing field level and comparisons less opaque.

Alas, a larceny free digital world is a lost Eutopia.

So, mired in the abundance of doubt and risk, we stand pat. Atrophy with stoicism rather than evolve with conviction. All the while the audience changes in many ways except one...

...the appetite for great stories.

Still, the question lingers. As the delivery of feature-length cinema remains relatively unchanged over 100 years, can we refine the experience?

There are convenient answers. 3D, with its expensive trickery and borderline eye-strain. Event cinema, where a live event/performance is simulcast to a cinema audience. Perhaps even VR, which I would argue is actually an entirely different mode of visual storytelling altogether. Far more a cousin than a sibling.

At this impasse, with the cupboard of solutions seemingly laid bare, none of the above ideas have stemmed the long-term trend of diminishing ticket sales.

But do not abandon hope.

There are pioneers out there still. Experimenting. Tinkering. These renegades have realised that perhaps, if enhancing the 'audience experience' is the key, the innovation is not so much needed on screen as at the once untouchable unicorn of the film release chain: the ticket booth.

Enter the 'Superticket'.

Launched for the release of 'Pacific Rim', the US$25 ticket bought cinemagoers their movie ticket, plus a HD digital download of the film. A simple, yet interesting value add.

'Transformers - Age of Extinction' was the 'Superticket' follow up, this time offering a cinema ticket and a digital download of one of the previous Transformers films. This attempt is even more intriguing for its intention to create 'fandom' via exposure to the previous films in the franchise.

Not to be outdone, Paramount Pictures launched the 'Megaticket' for the Brad Pitt zombie film 'World War Z'. For US$50, audience members receive their cinema ticket, small popcorn, custom 'World War Z' 3D glasses, a limited edition poster, AND a digital download of the film. Without a franchise to rely on, this version of the bundled ticket concept is clearly a 'shock and awe' merchandise assault.

Unfortunately, with a binary approach such as this, there is a natural limit to what a bundled ticket can offer a potential audience member. At a certain point, adding more swag to the transaction, for a higher price, simply becomes a classic consumer endeavour.

Here is where evolution is needed.

What higher plane could we mature the 'superticket' to, with some directed empathy and creativity?

Could you, for instance, segment and activate a legion of "superfans", along genre, actor, director, production company or franchise lines? From there, a 'superfan engagement' (their words) company like ZinePak could create "fan experiences", combining unique fan merchandise with cinema and home entertainment.

I know that sounds like the winning ticket for buzzword bingo, but there are already existing models for how this can work in reality. Apple deliberately stages the iphone boxing so that it excites as you progress. In the art world, indie musician Jonathan Coulton created a "fan experience" for his latest album, where each stage of the unboxing was planned to be mysterious, engaging and fun; i.e. the complete antithesis of the modern music download era.

But what if?

What if we're not thinking big enough, still?

So many of the methods for audience engagement already exist, what if we simply brought them into a beautiful marriage of story, event and memento?

You start with a horror film 'A'.

You've heard about the film and want to see it.

You register for the film and you receive a mystery box. As you open the box each section reveals something interesting about the story world. The items within are unique and personalised from the filmmakers to you.

In the bottom section of the box, there are two tshirts. You have a choice to make. Do you wear the red shirt to the premiere? Or the black shirt? A small envelope contains a message to text your answer to a mysterious number. In response, you receive the address of the screening location.

Your ticket, also in the box, is in the form of a wristband with an RFID chip embedded in it.

You head to the screening, having chosen to wear the black shirt, and find that there is an interactive event at the screening location. Your tshirt, as well as being a souvenir, affects the way you enter the film screening via the interactive experience. The RFID ticket wristband, when scanned, instantly uploads your photo to your social media and lets the community of fans know you are part of the special premiere event.

In this environment of total immersion, the film has heightened emotional tension and transcends to a sensory experience. The filmmakers are there too, to thank you and answer your questions. Amazing.

On the way out of the theatre, you receive a final mystery box, with a commemorative memento of the experience, and another RFID wristband ticket. This one, can be activated online for a friend you bring along at the repeat screening, and you get to come along to the event for free...wearing the red shirt this time.

Best of all, the RFID wristband and the online registration are all part of a broader gamification (I've written about this before), where you earn pins, unlock achievements and earn status in the community of fans for this filmmaker/actor/genre/production company/film festival/cinema chain/etc.

Whew.

Impossible, right? Pure fantasy.

Wrong.

A hotel in Ibiza used the RFID wristbands to create a completely socially connected party event. At the beginning of the tourist season, the club had 4,000 fans on its Facebook page. By the end of season it had close to 70,000.

Vail Resorts went from the also-ran of ski resorts, to the most talked about in the skiing community, after they introduced a gamification achievement system (using a combination of smart phones and RFID). The system allows skiers to record their achievements, earning points, winning badges, and unlocking pins based on their actual skiing adventures.

Oh, and let's not forget the massive 100,000 tickets sold for the 'Star Wars-Empire Strikes Back' immersive event in London.

The tools are there.

We don't need to reinvent the art form of cinema to reinvigorate time-poor audiences' passion for our medium.

The answer is not softer chairs, or more buttery popcorn.

It's quite simple. For the first time in 100 years we have to finally do something we've neglected.

Put the audience experience first.

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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

THE COMFORTABLE OUTRAGE OF STEVEN SPIELBERG


You!

Yes, you!

Wake up!

You're in DANGER!

From Virtual Reality!

It's coming for you...

...and the narratives you hold dear.

That's what Steven Spielberg thinks, in any case.

He actually used that word 'dangerous'. Like VR would sneak into your home at night and kidnap your family.

Mr Spielberg's concern is what you, the audience, will do with the power of choice. That you will ruin the artistry of cinema. Choosing where to look takes control from the filmmakers and places it squarely into the eyeballs of the viewing public.

This is where we have come to in our paranoia over technological disruption?

Is turning away from the story action (then having to rewind) really that new of an idea? Clearly Mr Spielberg's television follows his eyesight wherever he gazes. Must cost a fortune.

There are so many infinitely larger challenges facing filmmakers and artists, that the growth of VR should barely warrant a bemused shrug.

Forget virtual reality problems, the real world has all the difficulties artists can handle.

In Australia, funding for the screen arts keeps facing cut, after cut, after cut. So much so, that thirty-year-old filmmaker resource organisation 'Metro Screen' was forced to shut down at the end of 2015.

Is it any wonder that 'Median earnings for a visual artist are $25,800 from all sources; half earn less than $10,000 a year from their art, according to a 2010 Australia Council study.'


How would you respond to hearing the news that artists in Australia can barely afford a biscuit?

Take the biscuit, of course.

Or perhaps you would decry this new reality for the modern artist. Uprise in an arcing rage, and stand in unison with the vocal critics of the current Federal Government Arts funding armageddon shouting:

'The emasculation of the arts sector...that began under Tony Abbott’s administration has continued seamlessly under Malcolm Turnbull. While arts communities easily cast Abbott as a villainous Philistine and held out hope that his more urbane successor would put his money where his artistic patronage was, Turnbull has just been more of the same with nicer manners.'


Alas, the obstacles are not only limited to Australia.

In Hollywood, noted luminaries like Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Soderbergh, and Spike Lee have all commented on the virtual extinction of the mid-tier budget film. It's either a 'Disney-Marvel-Warner Brothers-DC-Pixar-Universal-superhero-animated-sequel-blockbuster', or the budget has to be less than $2 million. Neither one of those scenarios leads to a golden age for screen culture.

At Cannes 2016, aside from Amazon swinging their gigantic...chequebook...around to make an identity statement, the film market was reportedly very quiet on the sales side.

Which leaves Netflix, the touted saviour of all screen storytellers. Unfortunately, the Netflix rescue fantasy conveniently leaves out that the company operates on extraordinarily small profit margins, in an increasingly competitive global business. Sort of like your knight in armour showing up on a three-legged horse.

I could go on.

But I'll boil it down for you: living the life of an artist is hard.

There's doubt.

There's rejection.

And there's the constant hustle for resources.

Even Orson Welles once said:

"I would have been more successful if I'd left movies immediately, stayed in the theatre, gone into politics, written, anything. I've wasted a greater part of my life looking for money and trying to get along, trying to make my work from this terribly expensive paintbox which is a movie. And I've spent too much energy on things that have nothing to do with making a movie. It's about two percent movie-making and ninety-eight percent hustling. It's no way to spend a life."

The least of our problems is the emergence of a new storytelling technology. Only a very comfortably wealthy artist, part of the billionaire elite in fact, would consider the growth of VR to be anything more than 'uptown problems'. Outrage from a gilded perch.

No, the real "danger" of our present era is for the audience.

You are under siege. Encircled by a pervasive monoculture, run by wealthy corporations that want to homogenise your stories. To starve out the diverse artist ecosystem for their profit. And worse, this blockade is run, in collusion it seems, with the outdated 'trickle-down' economic ideologies of the current political class.

This should make you mad.

No?

Imagine your world without movies, television, music, books, paintings, sculpture, dance, theatre, poetry...

Correction: this should make you furious.

We artists don't want much. We know it's hard. It's meant to be hard. But, as Orson Welles said, in the other half of that quote:

'I think I made essentially a mistake in staying in movies but it’s a mistake I can’t regret because it’s like saying I shouldn't have stayed married to that woman but I did because I love her.'


We're in this for life.

We're fighting to create stories for you that will enrich your existence.

Will you fight for us too?

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Sunday, May 22, 2016

RIP QUICKFLIX


So it is predicted, so it shall be.

Unfortunately, I was right on this one. In my '2016 Year In Review', I divined that Quickflix would be the first major casualty of Netflix's Australian arrival, coupled with the launch of new, local video streaming options. Specifically, I wrote:

'There are too many mouths at the trough, with not enough audience to go around. Unfortunately, after heavy losses throughout 2015, I don't think Quickflix will survive 2016. They were one of the earliest in the streaming space in Australia, but sometimes being first mover can actually work against you, particularly in a small market.'

In the last month, rather quietly, a news story broke that Quickflix is in administration.

Oh well, another company spins the wheel and tastes the bitter wine of failure, you say. And you would be right, of course.

Except...I can't help but pause for a moment, before starting to shovel dirt on this coffin.

In the kinetic, somewhat surreal, universe of global film and TV distribution, it can almost appear like there are no humans involved. The pundits scream the names of brands and oligopolies, while the faceless men and women behind the velvet curtain simply pull the oars and keep the machinery in full, violent roar.

"Warner Brothers. Universal. Stan. Foxtel. Disney. Netflix."

But Quickflix was not an opaque titan. The company started in Perth in 2003, by a group of entrepreneurs including current CEO Stephen Langsford. And, while the startup certainly wasn't a family-run operation, it is publicly known that Langsford invested a sizeable amount of his own money into his movie distribution venture.

In 2012, the gamble looked like genius.

Quickflix was valued at roughly $70 million. The business had strong content deals. DVD postal rentals were doing well, and Langsford was ready to guide the business into online subscription streaming.

Yes, Quickflix would be the first mover on online subscription streaming in the Australian market. The opportunities for success loomed large.

But lo, how colossal the fall from the peaks of prosperity.

By early 2015, Quickflix was worth $2.7 million.

The streaming business was a shambolic mess of technical glitches and bizarre pricing structures.

Even worse, Netflix arrived. Stan and Presto too, like the three horseman of the Quickflix apocalypse.

And now, it's over.

Quickflix was not the first company to fail after being ahead of it's time, mind you. Before the iPod came to dominate the collective eardrums of the world, there was the RIO MP3 player. Commercially successful long before Steve Jobs took over our cochleas, the RIO should have conquered the music world.

Instead, the manufacturer of RIO went bankrupt in 2003.

But how? What did the iPod have that RIO did not?

Answer: the iTunes store.

What does Netflix/Stan have that Quickflix didn't?

Answer: user interfaces that worked, with a 'simple to understand' subscription model.

This is the immortal truth, friends. Ideas are magic. Intention is wonderful. Enthusiasm, essential.

But it's all for nothing if you don't execute flawlessly.

Survival of the fittest reigns in the screen industry, and all players must prove their mettle.

It's a harsh world, no exceptions.

I won't celebrate being proven right on my Quickflix prediction. Instead, I'll reflect on the reminder of how perilous it is for all of us in the arts.

'...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.'


Farewell, Quickflix. I sincerely hope the landing is soft.

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Sunday, May 15, 2016

I WAS WRONG...AND GEORGE LUCAS WAS RIGHT


Well, this is awkward.

It's been barely more than three months since I repeated my argument that George Lucas was ludicrously misguided with his predictions about the film industry:

"You’re going to end up with fewer theaters, bigger theaters with a lot of nice things. Going to the movies will cost 50 bucks or 100 or 150 bucks, like what Broadway costs today, or a football game....There’ll be big movies on a big screen, and it’ll cost them a lot of money. Everything else will be on a small screen" (George Lucas)


Then news breaks of 'The Screening Room.'

A new tech startup lead by Sean Parker, formerly of Napster fame and the guiding hand of a small company (you may have heard of) called Facebook. 'The Screening Room' will provide streaming access to new release films for subscribers.

"...(cough)...Netflix...(cough)" you say.

But this is different. 'The Streaming Room' is not offering the traditional 'new releases' of the local video store, now itunes. This service streams actual NEW RELEASES, as in films that are playing in cinemas. The idea is to allow those audiences who simply refuse to attend a cinema, to see the films they want in the comfort of their own home. Good for audiences. Great for the business.

Another stake in the heart of film piracy.

The cost? $50 per 48 hour movie rental.

A premium movie service for the modern hermit with disposable income.

Yes, I know this is exactly the opposite of what George Lucas predicted. That he suggested the plebeians would pay a high price to visit a scarce movie theatre, for a 'big screen event' film. Viewing from home was never in the equation.

And I know that the service is far from available. That the the traditional film distribution guardians have erupted into white-hot rage, even while numerous top filmmakers support the idea.

Still, a $50 movie. That's essentially a bullseye for ol' George.

But where does that leave the rest of us?

Should we be pleased that someone is finally attempting a new method of release to the stalwarts of the film viewing world?

Excited that the film establishment have leaped so quickly to the defence of the cinema experience?

Proud that George Lucas managed to get at least one element of his prediction correct?

Clearly I'm not qualified to answer that, given I was wrong in the first place.

But I am left with one troubling question about this new proposal. One I won't hazard an answer to. Perhaps you can ponder it for me.

What person, who steals movies for free, would pay $50 for them instead?

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Sunday, May 08, 2016

AND FROM THE DUSTY SILENCE...


...a challenger emerges.

Yes, it has finally happened.

Netflix is facing a legitimate contender for the streaming throne.

Incredibly, this challenge comes from none of the traditional sources.

It's not one of the established studios. It's not even Disney, who have used strategic acquisitions (Marvel and Lucasfilm) to strengthen the stable for their service 'Hulu'.

No, it took an outsider, a billionaire purveyor of consumer goods, to draw swords with Netflix.

Amazon.

The online retailer has seen the future, and the future is SVOD video. Amazon's steps into the marketplace have been gigantic.

It began with their foray into original TV series commissioning. The result was award-winners 'Transparent' and 'Mozart In The Jungle'.

Then, in January 2015 Amazon hired independent film luminary, Ted Hope, to run Amazon Studios.

'Chi-Raq' an Amazon Studios original film by Spike Lee, followed soon after.

Recently, in the lead up to The 2016 Cannes Film Festival, news broke that Amazon Studios would have five films they are attached to, screening in the prestigious festival.

All meaningful milestones, set and crossed in the space of just three years.

Interestingly, even the head of Cannes acknowledged that the Netflix-Amazon rivalry was a subtext he was cognisant of. He even weighed in:

"There is no suspicion about [their] love of cinema. They are good for cinema. Amazon and the people in charge of cinema at Amazon...they are movie buffs."

Netflix is not nearly as well-liked.

The bone of contention, allegedly, is the fact that Netflix does not release their original films (e.g. Beasts of No Nation) in theatres, before making them available online. Amazon, on the other hand, has given a commitment that their original films will first screen in cinemas, before then appearing on their streaming platform; a move that appeases the old guard of the film distribution ecosystem.

With each company pursuing seemingly different models for feature film distribution, and the fact that one of them is primarily a global retailer, you could fairly question whether Netflix and Amazon are actually in direct competition.

But consider this first.

In April 2016, Amazon launched a monthly payment option for their video subscription service. Prior to that, audiences had to pay an annual fee for the Amazon platform.

The new price of the monthly service?

US$8.99 a month, a full dollar less than the Netflix monthly cost.

So, yes, even if they were heading in divergent directions previously, they're on a collision course now.

Make no mistake, these are the heavyweights that have stepped into the ring.

Netflix has annual revenues of US$6 billion and is valued at US$32 billion.

Amazon has annual revenues of US$107 billion, and is valued at US$175 billion.

These titans have deep pockets. They are willing to take risks. And, most importantly, they want to win.

It's already begun. At the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in January, the two behemoths were the top buyers, bidding enormous sums for the rights to indie film titles that normally see far fewer zeroes on their cheques.

Netflix, meanwhile, is poised to spend $5 billion on content for its service in 2016. 'Game of Thrones' peddlers HBO, by comparison, spend around $2 billion on their slate. The disparity is beyond gargantuan.

It's a slugfest.

But what does this sudden influx of cash mean for the rest of us? The ants who watch as imperious gods hurl lightning bolts at each other.

For now, very little.

As is so often the case, the bulk of the new resources are going to the well established. Spike Lee. Woody Allen. Nicolas Winding Refn.

But the tremors will reverberate out to the fringes, mark my words.

Or, as Ted Hope himself puts it:

"We’re going to have an outpouring. It’s going to be a wonderful period, I think, for ambitious cinema...You start to see not just us, but all the competitors that are out there, (enlist) different models where it makes sense to take bigger risks with films of great ambition."

Audiences crave the meaningful exploration of the soul that derives from great storytelling.

Huge companies want to partner with the storytellers to get a cut.

In return the storytellers are freed and supported to explore their creative limits.

And once again, the artists will have their day.

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Monday, May 02, 2016

SNATCHING DEFEAT FROM THE JAWS OF VICTORY


I feel somewhat human again.

The indolent parts of my brain are still reveling in the gear slippage, while more intricate thoughts try and force the machine to fire.

On the grand scale, however, the very existence of the above sentence shows I'm at least partially restored.

And as the whirlwind turns to a breeze, when Kansas is once again in full focus, I can advise that a weary traveler is left with exactly two souvenirs: memories and a burning question.

'What next?'


You can't help but ask. It's the symptom of having had a travelling experience that either evolves or crystalises something within you. Home, meanwhile, is staid. Resolute. Unchanged.

This tension, between personal growth and usual habitat, leads to wanderlust. To chase the short-term thrill. Poke the adrenal glands until they kick.

It's a valid strategy, I suppose. Plenty of people exist vacation to vacation.

But then why this undercurrent of doubt?

'What next?' hisses your lizard brain.

'I just got home from a 500 audience screening at a film festival in New York' you plead, 'Can't I gather my thoughts?'

No. Pile it on. Larger. Faster....

Never satiated. Always hungry for the endorphin burst....

The doubt niggles. Keep busy. Fill the time until the next, next, next...

STOP!

The more you feed the reptile, the hungrier it gets.

Pause.

Breathe.

Career momentum is a real thing, I'll grant you. There is a reason that 'heat creates heat' has become a showbusiness cliche (as well as the most blatantly obvious scientific observation on Earth).

The truth, however, is that most film related events are not reservoirs of forward inertia. A sophisticated way to meet like-minded people and share trench stories, indeed, but certainly not a project boon.

No, the surgical fact is that the real generator of momentum is the time you spend away from parties.

I know, it stimulates you to be at a film festival. A morsel of perceived success. It's like coming home to your own foreign land, where people suddenly understand both you and your passions. An addictive feeling.

But that's the point. The red carpet tornado is a Siren's call, if you allow it to take hold. Like all of life's sweet vices, moderation is the key.

And always remember, a soiree may be sustenance for the soul, but projects live or die on their creative foundations. Bolstered by the work you do behind closed doors: the script polish; the treatment refinement; the finance planning.

'What's next?' the hungry voice howls at you.

Obscurity. Toil.

Until...

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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

TWO LIGHTNING BOLTS


Jetlag is a killer. Simultaneously pernicious and compelling.

My brain is a well spun bundle of fairy floss. Colourful, certainly, but lacking a coherent structure. Getting any cut-through to a brain in this state, requires considerable substance.

To be struck by intellectual lightning twice, is borderline miraculous.

With that in mind, I have two musings to share with you, worthy of your time.

The first is the words of the great Francis Ford Coppola, who I was fortunate enough to hear speak in person at the Tribeca Film Festival last week.

Mr Coppola described a moment of frustration when, in the wake of 'The Godfather' and its enormous success, he STILL was unable to get his next passion project off the ground.

The project?

'Apocalypse Now'.

At this point, Coppola had five Oscars on his shelf. FIVE. Yet he still could not lift 'Apocalypse Now' off the runway.

And now, angry that his success could not open the doors he wanted, Coppola's Oscar statuettes seemed to be staring at him. Mocking.

So he threw them out the window. Literally.

Enraged. Incensed. Frustrated to the point of discarding what most filmmakers dream to own.

Now bent and broken, in his garden bed.

Thankfully, he told us, his mother called the Academy and explained that "a maid had knocked the statues over while dusting." The Oscars were repaired.

Coppola would eventually manage to secure the finance for 'Apocalypse Now', contributing a large portion of the funds himself. The film would go on to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and be nominated for 8 Academy Awards, including best picture and best director.

But that's not the element of the story you should assimilate. What you need to know is that, even with five Oscars, one of the great film artists of our time needed to push to ensure his vision was realised.

If Mr Coppola can push, so can you.

The second lightning bolt is the brilliant podcast interview of Louis CK, by fellow comedian Marc Maron.

In it, Louis talks at great length about his process to create, self-finance, write, direct and self-distribute his new show 'Horace and Pete'.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SpxFjrcMt3U

It penetrated my heavy brain fog with ease, so it's a must listen for you all.

Two lightning bolts, in one plane travel filled week.

Thank goodness they were figurative.

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Sunday, April 17, 2016

DISPATCH FROM THE U.S.A.


I'm writing this over a thoroughly over-fed belly in New York City.

While on this trip to represent our film 'Chip' at the Rochester International Film Festival, I had the pleasure of doing a radio interview with the Rochester NPR radio station (WXXI with Evan Dawson).

http://wxxinews.org/post/connections-rochester-international-film-festival

My segment is the first twenty minutes, but the whole thing is worth a listen and I answer another industry question near the end.

Enjoy.

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Sunday, April 10, 2016

COMING TO AMERICA


And we've wrapped.

'12.12.12' is now wandering in that ethereal world of footage and ideas, waiting to be rescued by the edit.

Time to rest, right?

Wrong.

I'm currently in the midst of packing my assorted knick-knacks, departing midday for New York. 'Chip', my short animated documentary, has been selected for the 58th Rochester International Film Festival.

When it rains it truly pours.

But the truth is the most important plate that I'm currently spinning, is the edit I'm leaving behind.

No matter the accolades. No matter the red carpets. No matter the press.

All that matters, ever, is the work.

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Sunday, April 03, 2016

IN THE MIDST OF IT ALL

I write this at the end of two long and intense days of production on our new film 12.12.12

We're halfway through, with another two very big days to go.

I have little mental capacity in this exact moment, so I thought I would share the below photo instead.

It's what a producer looks like, sitting on set, while he marvels at the incredible beauty in seeing so many people come together to tell a story.

Actors. Writer. Directors. Camera people. Sound people. Script supervisors. Caterers...

Remarkable.



But then again, he may just be exhausted.

Passion projects rarely become reality without sweat, after all.

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Sunday, March 27, 2016

ON THE UNPLEASANT BUSINESS OF REJECTION


Pick your poison.

The brief sting of rejection, or the lifetime of obscurity and regret.

It really is that simple.

I won't lie to you and say that having your work, your creative efforts, spurned is without pain. If you don't take a repudiation somewhat personally, chances are you shouldn't have been working on that project in the first place.

But the cold fact of the universe is that all great endeavors face rejection. The harsh critic who decries you for your misplaced ambition.

The other immutable truth is that, based on pure mathematics, these critics will tend to be correct. Not that their insight necessarily came from some pure wellspring of wisdom but that, on the law of averages, vastly more creative projects will fail than succeed.

Fail to find financing. Fail to find collaborators. Fail to reach completion. Fail to find an audience.

There is no genius in recognizing that there are too many creative projects in the world, and not enough spaces at the audience trough. Starting every conversation with 'no' is a poor man's excuse for business savvy.

But still, case studies abound.

The story of Harry Potter being rejected by every major British publisher, bar one, is now famous. What is not as ubiquitous is the tale of J.K Rowling's novels written under a pseudonym. In order to avoid the long shadow cast by her international profile, Ms Rowling wrote her now best selling crime novels in secret. As far as critics and audiences knew, the debut novel of 'Robert Galbraith'.

And, like most debut novels from seemingly unpublished authors, 'The Cuckoos Calling' was rejected by publishers.

Yes, even the author of a literary brand now worth $15 billion, can have her latest work turned down.

But here's the real rub.

Even when there is no blockage from the outset, when the whole project has the appearance of unmitigated success, obstacles lie in wait.

Take the film adaptation of 'Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix'. Having made $939 million at the box office, and countless more in the ancillary markets like DVD and Blu Ray, you might imagine that all the parties involved are building their houses out of bricks made of cash.

You would be wrong.

Despite this stellar financial result, the clever accounting practices of Hollywood studios mean that 'Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix' has NEVER MADE A PROFIT.

In fact, between it's release in 2007, and the leak of a balance sheet from the film in 2011, 'Harry Potter 5' had somehow managed to turn a $939 million box office haul into $167 million loss.

Even a success can seem like a closed door.

I could go on. I could tell you about a filmmaker I know, who's film was rejected by the 'A-list' film festivals of the world...then went on to be nominated for an Oscar.

Or the year of rejections two filmmakers received in Australia, before taking their concept to the U.S. to become a reality; giving birth to the billion-dollar 'Saw' franchise.

I could do that. Rant at you until the veins pulse and spittle forms.

Or I could simply tell you the truth.

There's always a wall. Always.

It's why creative projects are so hard. Why not everyone chooses this as their life's vocation.

No matter how strong the project. How great the cast. How sure you are that this is your best work.

The wall remains.

You can either climb it or go home.

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Monday, March 21, 2016

WHAT AUDIENCES WANT


We are a media savvy lot, aren't we?

In our living rooms. At the cinema. On our phones.

Tiny enclaves of expertise, forming around the warming campfire of our own personal tastes.

And in this participatory culture, why shouldn't we have a voice? The audience is now regal. Our whims are sacrosanct. Dance for us, monkey, or we'll ruin you with the power of indifference.

The screen industry has responded, of course. Choose your own adventure. Gaming. Interactivity. Immersive storytelling. Virtual Reality headsets. All burgeoning subsectors of the industry, catering to the active audience.

God is clearly dead, in the storytelling world at least. The proletariat are in charge.

And they have no idea what to do about it.

Truly. Like the dog that finally catches the car, the audience have discovered that ideas are often far superior to reality.

Take the example of a filmmaker colleague of mine. She screened her film some months back, and has been engaging with her audience ever since.

Bemusingly, a pattern has formed in the feedback.

The majority enjoyed the film. An experience was had. Feelings were felt. Everyone wins a prize and goes home.

But another large proportion of her audience felt the urge to provide a commentary on the crafting of the film. No filmmakers, mind you, just regular viewers of screen stories from all walks of life.

"There should have been more to it", these audience members proclaimed.

"We should have seen what happened after the main guy made contact."

Playing the role, I of course asked: "Should we have?"

What followed was a thoughtful, intelligent and articulate "NO".

As it turns out, the filmmaker had attempted what this section of her audience was suggesting. There was more footage that had been shot, and in the end her team made the decision to exclude it.

Why?

Because the film didn't work when it was labouring to show every second between the scenes. The elegance of the story was lost, as it meandered to fill every blank in a viewer's imagination.

So, they cut it down.

And it worked, the majority said. But why this vocal counter-reaction?

It's actually quite simple: the audience doesn't know what they need.

I'm sorry, that might sound arrogant, but it's true.

Oh, the audience knows what they WANT. Absolutely. But not what they need.

The work of crafting a story, of filtering moments of truth and beauty about life through the veneer of a journey, must be left to the hands of a craftsperson. It takes science. Wit. Nuance. Anger. Love. Pain. Frustration. Humour...

It is why we exalt artists. What makes their abilities special.

If you are truly engaged with a story, you want to know every detail. What happened after X vanquished Y? How did Q readjust to life after the perilous journey to L?

Who cares?

X probably went home and napped. Q became an undergarment manufacturing spokesperson.

Story ruined.

All because you wanted more. More information. More detail. MORE.

But this is where the great storytellers leave you.

They draw you in. Make you care about these characters, in a world of their creation.

Then, you embark on a journey.

Until finally, if the artist has skill, they cut to black. Leaving you satisfied, but wanting more. Like a perfect meal, where you could have gorged yourself to nausea, but quit at satisfaction instead.

I know this seems counter-intuitive. Just 'GIVE THEM WHAT THEY WANT!'

'They' are wrong.

Don't begrudge this feeling of unrequited desire. The want to follow the protagonist as she completes her quest and returns home for a crumpet and a lie down. It's a natural yearn for someone who has been moved or changed by a story.

It means you're a human being who connected to the zeitgeist, even for the briefest of moments.

Don't spoil it. Use that grey fleshy thing behind your eyes. Appreciate it.

This is art, not a supermarket catalogue.

You're alive.

Savor it.

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Sunday, March 13, 2016

TRUMP


'The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity...

...And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?''

- 'The Second Coming' by WB Yeats


What have we created?

How can a mannequin, modelling all the trappings of our worst intentions, be on the precipice of the most powerful office in the world?

Sadly, because there is an audience for it.

Not the audience of bigots and white supremacists courted by Trump, although they're engaged too, but all of us. The spectacle gazers.

This is what we asked for.

Life-altering policy speeches in sound bytes.

Major decisions boiled down to adversarial tropes.

Blunders and conflict escalated to front-page news, while the real issues languish and fester, in the dark.

It's all on us. We allowed our news to become hijacked by tabloid showmanship, so now the carnival is in town for good.

Am I overstating this?

There was barely a whimper when it was announced that the Australian Federal Government are planning to water down media ownership laws. For years, these laws have protected the Australian public from media barons (like one who's name rhymes with Rupert Murdoch) forming monopolies across media channels. If the Liberal Government get their way, these legal curtails on the influence of powerful, rich men will be gone.

What made headlines instead?

A reality TV star, famous for being famous, posting an intimate photo of herself online.

And now we have another reality TV star, also providing ceaseless sado-masochistic entertainment, only this one is vying to have his finger on the button.

Think about that for a moment. Donald Trump with the authority to launch a nuclear strike.

Chilling.

So terrifying, in fact, that protests have started to form at his rallies with increasing regularity.

Growing, simultaneously, has been the violence.

A journalist slammed into the ground by a Trump staffer in Virginia.

Trump lamenting that 'in the old days" the protesters would be "carried out in a stretcher", in Nevada.

And then, Chicago. A very bleak day for American democracy.

"Arrest the protesters!" Trump bellows from the pulpit. We scratch our heads and wonder how that's possible when the right to free speech is enshrined in the American Constitution. Police in Kansas City, meanwhile, ruthlessly pepper spray innocent protesters outside a Trump rally.

We did this.

Both the content creators and audience. We are responsible for the ubiquity of reality TV and the 24 hour news cycle. We willed it into being.

But can we take our media back?

I believe we can. The artists can lead.

Whether it's John Oliver, systematically explaining that Trump is a racist and a liar.

Or Louis CK, imploring conservatives to realise that Trump is not one of them, saying: “Trump is not your best. He’s the worst of all of us. He’s a symptom to a problem that is very real. But don’t vote for your own cancer. You’re better than that.”
We need a return to substance in our discourse.

We need conversations that go deeper than whether Trump's hair is a living organism or not. We need to upturn the ugly, the bigoted, the misogynistic - shunning labels and platitudes - and encourage a discussion based on reality, evidence and fact.

We need our best to be full of passionate intensity.

The artists can lead.

But the audience must demand it.

Starting with you.

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Sunday, March 06, 2016

DON'T OVER-THINK IT


When you do something for long enough, occasionally people ask your opinion about it.

Excluding two years of film school, I've been making films for six years. Not an overwhelming amount of time, I'll grant you, but in a life of only 33 years, not insignificant either.

Recently, I was asked by a film student to be interviewed for his course work. I was flattered, of course, but another part of me seriously doubted what insights I could provide. Six years is not twenty, after all.

The great thing about wisdom though, is that often you don't need to invent it.

So, after internalising my doubt, bordering on guilt for saying yes, I suddenly had a breakthrough. I remembered one of the first pearls of advice I ever received, from someone far more experienced than me.

I was pestering her about writing, still enamoured of the sorcery that writers perform with regularity; turning the clouds of thought and lightning of inspiration into something real.

She glared at me, weary of my inquisition, and distilled something so complicated into a diamond of simplicity.

"Don''t over-think it" she said.

"Writers write. Producers produce. Directors direct"

Sadly, I wasn't sharp enough to comprehend her subtext. Thankfully, she was generous enough to elaborate.

"So many people call themselves writers, but they don't type a word. And I can't even count the number of producers who never make a thing. Plus the only directors worth their salt are the ones who have a pathological focus on directing. No distractions."

It seems ludicrously simple, but time and time again, in the years that followed, I have found these rudimentary concepts to be true.

I have met and spoken, many times, with a "writer" who rarely sits down to write.

I've interacted with "producers" who spend all their time in meetings, never delivering a thing.

And I've had drinks with at least one "director", who last directed something in their mandatory film school project.

Writers write. Producers produce. Directors direct.

It's so simple, yet the litmus test by which so many alleged creatives fail.

Don't over-think it.

Do the work.


P.S. thanks to Sonny for the inspiration, the 'Daily Word Counts Of 39 Famous Authors'. Worth a read.

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Thursday, March 03, 2016

THE HOLLYWOOD IMPLOSION THAT NEVER WAS


At times, I have trouble understanding the youth of today.

Simultaneously bright and morose. Purposeful and hopelessly lost.

Perhaps I've simply lost my perspective. I've somehow reached the "in my day" phase of my interactions with the youngsters.

Perhaps.

But after chatting with a fresh-faced film school graduate, which I did yesterday, and listening to his already brow-beaten perspective of how hard it is to "make it"...I am not convinced I'm the problem.

The consternation. The anxiety. You would be easily convinced he was a cynical filmmaker, at the end of a long career full of rejection.

He graduated SIX MONTHS ago!

He skipped confusion, elation, terror, joy and adulation; nosediving straight into Woody Allen style despair. Bizarre.

Interestingly, I recognised a few of the talking points from his litany of lament.

I was actually stunned. Once again, 'the glum prognostications of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas' have returned.

To jog your memory, I wrote about the myth of the 'Hollywood Implosion' propogated by Spielberg and Lucas, back in 2013.

At the time, Spielberg said:

“There’s eventually going to be a big meltdown...There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen of these mega-budgeted movies go crashing into the ground and that’s going to change the paradigm again.”

To which Lucas added:

"(After the meltdown) You’re going to end up with fewer theaters, bigger theaters with a lot of nice things. Going to the movies will cost 50 bucks or 100 or 150 bucks, like what Broadway costs today, or a football game. It’ll be an expensive thing. … (The movies) will sit in the theaters for a year, like a Broadway show does. That will be called the ‘movie’ business.”

In response, I respectfully disagreed. My take on their pronouncements of doom was that:

'...instead of evidence of an implosion, their predictions are evidence of a different trend: the wave of technological change turning the existing experts into novices, just like the rest of us...(and) remarkably, no-one is highlighting the fact that film budgets continue to expand, while the technological means to make films actually becomes cheaper and more accessible.'

But still, somehow, three years later, the Spielberg/Lucas 'Hollywood Implosion' myth is alive and well in the heart of a 2015 film school graduate.

How could this be?

Are we destined to be haunted by this fallacy forever?

No.

We're going to kill it today. Kill it with fire.

After Spielberg/Lucas' prediction in early 2013, 'The Lone Ranger' flopped in extreme fashion. For numerous pundits, this signaled the beginning of the decline that Spielberg and Lucas announced.

Again, I disagreed. But how did the rest of the year unfold?

Well, the major film studios, for one, were unabashed by the early box office failures in 2013. They forged ahead.

The studios were right.

In 2014, it was announced that 2013 achieved the highest ever gross, domestic box office in the U.S.

Could just be a fluke, I suppose.

Except that 2015's summer box office (the peak box office period for the U.S. film industry) was the second largest haul ever.

Oh, and Star Wars VII, the latest in the franchise that Lucas created, became the third highest grossing film of all time.

This very public contradiction would probably be awkward for Lucas, except that he sold Lucasfilm to Disney four years ago...

...with a price tag of four billion dollars.

Yet somehow the film business is doing poorly? Talk about disconnection from reality.

So, to those of you who are not billionaire film luminaries, ignore the old guard.

Enjoy their films, of course, but realise that no-one stays an expert forever. The world simply moves too fast

The only constant is that great work finds audiences.

But that's the trick, isn't it?

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Wednesday, March 02, 2016

BLACK SAILS


It's been a very long while since I have written about piracy.

I honestly can't tell you whether that fact is due to complacency, saturation, or de-escalation.

The rhetoric certainly seems calmer from the film industry. The legal announcements more sporadic.

But still, I can't help but wonder. Are the pirates still sailing?

Wild haired and free, scarred from the skirmishes but still traversing the hidden alcoves of the entertainment internet with impunity?

Have the despots been cornered on a tiny island, surrounded by the armed fleet of the copyright holders?

Or did they slip away, covertly, like Keyser Soze?

My, how the sands have shifted.

As far back as 2007, torrenting uber-site 'Pirate Bay' launched a campaign to buy the Principality of Sealand for US$2 billion dollars. The idea was to own their own sovereign nation, free of the copyright laws of the world.

Ingenious, I'll concede that.

When that didn't work, the Pirate Bay operators moved their servers to a former NATO nuclear bunker in the Netherlands.

If the idea was to avoid appearing like Bond villains...

Amidst all of this skulduggery, however, the discourse on piracy shifted.

In 2011, the idea of piracy as a positive 'promotional tool' for films floated into the debate. Faced with the mammoth task of pilfering mindshare from the studio blockbusters (with their gargantuan marketing budgets) indie filmmakers began suggesting piracy can assist small films in finding niche audiences.

The catch?

These pirating audiences don't pay for the viewing pleasure.

No matter, said a representative of one of the most pirated shows, 'Game of Thrones', in 2013. The "cultural buzz" the pirates provide is why the top shows survive and thrive, even if they're not paying for it.

Glad we cleared that up.

And indeed, in 2012, a legal professor from Rutgers University Law School even decried the notion of piracy as "theft". It was more like trespass, apparently, given theft is a 'zero sum' proposition in the eyes of the law. If I could still enjoy the use of something after you 'stole' it, as you can with a digital movie file, then it wasn't theft at all.

Right.

After years of brutal pugilism between the pirates and the industry, there still existed these huge masses of emotional and legal grey area in the debate. Which, I can only assume, is why The Pirate Bay still rode the crest of the torrenting wave in 2013, as the world's number one piracy website.

Faced with little success, the copyright holders tried a different approach. They targeted the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) instead, attempting to make them accountable for the pirating websites their networks enable.

The courts disagreed. ISPs, everywhere, rejoiced.

Tailwinds turned into a headwind. Dealt a severe blow, the entertainment industry's anti-piracy campaign began to lose momentum.

Public interest waned. The press followed. Occasionally an interesting story would bubble to the surface.

Like 'Mega-Upload' being forcibly shut down in 2012. Allegedly, this leads to increased business for paid, legal film downloads. The founder, Kim Dotcom, is arrested and charged.

In 2013, still a free man, Kim relaunches the site as 'Mega' and the legal wrangling continues.

In 2012, one of the founders of 'The Pirate Bay' flees to Thailand to avoid imprisonment. He is caught by Thai authorities in 2014 and sent back to a Swedish jail. He breathes free air again in June 2015.

Meanwhile, 500,000 people illegally download the finale of cult favourite Breaking Bad in 2013.

Then...silence.

Eerie quiet.

The deep breath before the plunge.

Because in 2015, all hell breaks loose.

First, the film industry wins a landmark legal precedent over an ISP in Australia. The 'Dallas Buyers Club' case forces several ISPs to hand over the identities of customers they knew were sharing the film 'Dallas Buyers Club' online.

(Ironically, by this point the film is available on Australian Netflix anyway.)

Then, in late 2015, a Northern Ireland man is sentenced to four years in prison for running a website which facilitated illegal torrenting.

Oh, and HBO's goodwill towards pirates providing "cultural buzz"? By 2015, it had evaporated. Replaced with a steely-eyed rage, worthy of any antagonist in GOT.

Surely this was the surge that would end the war?

Not even close.

True to the form of any great swashbuckling pirate battle, the buccaneers rallied.

By early 2016, the epic victory of the 'Dallas Buyers Club' case had turned into a crushing defeat for the copyright holders. The presiding judge resoundingly rejected both proposals for follow-up action against the ISP customers who had engaged in piracy; including ruling against 'speculative invoicing'. Left with few options, the film industry lawyers dropped their case.

Shortly after, and still reeling from this rebuttal, the industry representatives were dealt another blow. In a move that stunned many observers, the newly developed 'three strikes scheme' for pirating ISP customers was abandoned. Supposedly, the expense of issuing infringement letters was more than it would cost to send the alleged pirates a DVD of the film they were stealing.

A fatal strike to the heart of the empire?

Somehow, beyond belief, no.

Absurdly, despite all common sense, momentum and logic, the film industry have launched YET ANOTHER return salvo.

Their new strategy is to attempt to block access to the websites which enable illegal downloading. In the last week alone, actions have been launched against Pirate Bay (yes, it still exists), Solarmovie, and Torrentz; among several others.

Whew.

Just contemplating the history of this issue is enough to give you a brain aneurysm.

If it sounds like a quagmire of legalities, grudges, politics, greed, theft and crime...then I've only captured the half of it.

This is the non-violent equivalent of the Afghan-Iraq war. Nobody knows who the bad guys are, or how to extricate themselves from the conflict.

And worse, many civilians are caught in the crossfire.

It's a nightmarish siege that won't end. A sword fight between Jack Sparrow and Captain Barbossa, 'two immortals locked in an epic battle until Judgment Day and trumpets sound.'

Is there room to hope for peace?

The answer, surprisingly, may be yes.

Salvation comes in the form of hybrid distribution. Compromise will be required.

On one side, content will need to be made accessible and reasonably priced. On the other, takeup of the new options will have to supplant illegal downloading.

Is it possible?

'(As of May, 2015) Netflix, which already eats up the fattest chunk of downstream bandwidth, is taking an even bigger bite: The No. 1 subscription-video service accounted for 36.5% of all downstream Internet bandwidth during peak periods in North America for March, according to a new report.

Meanwhile, BitTorrent usage continues to decline as a percentage of total fixed-access bandwidth, and now accounts for only 6.3% of total traffic in North America — down from 31% in 2008.'

It doesn't end there. We have to branch out into even greater realms of creative distribution.

But won't disrupting the existing distribution models create larger problems and/or failures?

Let's check the real world example:

'Writer-director Andrew Haigh’s critically lauded drama '45 Years' has set a UK industry landmark by becoming the first film to cross £1m ($1.5m) at the UK box office after being released online the same day as in cinemas.'

Online and cinema coexisting. If this mix of distribution modes is possible, anything can be.

This piracy war has been long. It's been bloody. Both sides are weary of fighting, and no-one is any closer to victory.

It's time to change course.

The tools for change are there. The need for evolution has never been greater. We just need the will, the courage, and the leaders to guide the way.

The black flags are still at sea.

Do we really need to sink them? Or simply change their allegiance?

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Tuesday, March 01, 2016

WHAT WE DON'T KNOW


Is Netflix the saviour or the enemy? Looking to make profit on the backs of tiny payouts to filmmakers, or growing the pie until we all thrive?

Have we figured out piracy by giving cheap, universal access to content? Or is there a new generation of connected youngsters emerging, who don't believe in paying for films?

Can cultivated audiences become partners from idea to completion?

Can 'Peak TV', Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Film, Games, Music, Literature, Theatre, Transmedia, and real life coexist? Or will they crowd each other out, causing a mass extinction of artists?

Will cinemas be around forever? Or do people really want to just watch at home?

Do societies, and therefore governments, even care about supporting the arts anymore?

Are the independent screen artists on a path to annihilation? Or at the beginning of their new cornucopia?

Are attention spans really dwindling?

Can screen artists find a way to use the new technologies to make production cheaper? Or will every film still be a boom versus bankrupt proposition?

Is it still only "who you know" that counts? Or can the talented, savvy outsider really break through?

Will diversity eventually reign in the screen arts? Or will self-interest prevail?

Can the screen arts ever become a value proposition? Or will they always be, in aggregate, a loss business?

Are a few, gigantic media corporations going to dominate the media ecosystem? Or will diverse voices still be heard?

Do audiences really want THIS much choice in entertainment?

Will the business models ever settle? Or has Moore's Law left us in a universe of constant technical disruption for the screen arts sector?

Can screen artists lead?

SO. MANY. UNKNOWNS.

The crevasse between confidence and uncertainty can often feel paralysing. An obvious reason to delay starting your project.

The truth, however, is not one of these questions has even the remotest correlation to your need to express an idea, through the power of story.

It's all just noise.

The real question, therefore, becomes...

...are you going to wait for this mountain of doubt to clear or are you going to forge ahead, discovering your own answers?

Fortune favours the brave.

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Monday, February 29, 2016

WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT


A colleague and I had just been seated at the bustling sushi train. It was a humid evening, so the food aromas lingered.

Thick avocado. Starchy rice. That cold iron of Salmon. The bread and oil of fried chicken.

We both had an accelerated last few months of 2015, so catching up was a rare pleasure. A low hanging branch in the middle of the rushing current.

She looked over at me, her eyes are always alert and sharp, while I bumbled with the soy sauce. Multi-tasking between pouring liquid into a tiny dish, and surveying a conveyor belt of desires, is clearly not my forte.

"So, how have you been?"

It was an innocent enough question, but I grappled with it momentarily. Do I respond with the aloof decorum of the day? Or unpop the cork to my inner well of new year angst, made more acute by the simple fact that soy sauce seemed to hate me.

Why bother with decorum, I thought.

"I'm bewildered" I said. "I just was not ready for 2016 to start. The last three months of the year hurtled past, like when the Millenium Falcon goes into light speed. Now, it's late January."
I paused for significance.

"Know what I mean?"

My fellow filmmaker smiled politely.

"You just have to own it" she said.

Correct advice, of course. So much of the blockages we experience in our psyche are self-inflicted. Resistance to the passage of years being the worst of offences. Every time you gag at a fifty-year old in a hipster tshirt, you understand this truth on an intrinsic level.

Nevertheless, I smiled with clenched teeth. Pragmatic and candid were neither of the traits I was in the market for at that moment. I wanted impractical, self-defeating empathy for my recalcitrance. A chorus of agreement on the disagreeable.

So I doubled down. Well beyond the end of the sushi dinner. Into the hours and days that followed. The creative mind knows no bounds when it comes to excusing bad behaviour.

I blamed the holiday preoccupation with family events.

I indicted the mental energy I had expended on my array of film projects.

I negotiated with, whined at, and cajoled...myself. Shouting down that inner voice asking the questions you refuse to utter aloud.

"What are you waiting for?"

"I'm just not ready" I moaned.

The hands kept ticking. The calendar is relentless.

"Slow down"

February arrived.

"Wait, can we just wait a second?!"

No lightning strike. No muse appeared. The tide surged on, sweeping away reason and logic. No time for fear. No moments for doubt. There was only forward.

And there was me, attempting to be the boulder in the midst of the torrent.

I'd like to tell you I came to my senses. That an epiphany drifted into my perception, clear and pure as a soap bubble.

It didn't.

My blockage eventually uncoiled under the pressure of two random events.

First, I had a health scare. I'll spare you the details, save for the fact that something didn't seem right, and the doctor agreed that a more detailed check was needed. The spectre of the dreaded 'C word' loomed momentarily and then, mercifully, was dismissed.

Alright universe, you have my attention.

The second was, simply, an incredible piece of storytelling.

I was driving through traffic, listening to a podcast called 'Reply All', when an episode called 'The Cathedral' began.

'The Cathedral' tells the true story of a boy named Joel Green. At one, Joel began a five year journey of living with brain tumors. Multiple times he was given months to live by doctors, but each time he both survived and thrived. A true rebel.

As a tribute to his son's incredible spirit, Joel's father Ryan began developing a game. In his words, the game was designed to evoke:

"I want people to love my son the way I love my son, and to love my son you have to meet my son. A video game gives the opportunity to meet my son and meet our family, and kind of walk with us in our shoes, but from a safe place."

https://gimletmedia.com/episode/50-the-cathedral/

The game is called 'That Dragon, Cancer'. By the end of the podcast, I was literally crying in traffic. It's a remarkable, moving and emotional piece of content.

But that's all I'll say.

I don't want to spoil it for you. From my perspective, all you need to know is that this story jolted my system. It forced me out of a malaise and reconnected me with my humanity. To feel the moment.

It's what the great stories can do.

They speak from the heart.

Their existence invokes an emotional experience for the audience.

Most importantly, they have something to say.

And, inadvertently, they can inspire others. To help them shake off the hangover of recent history and look forward. To own what's ahead.

So, to you all, best wishes for the year ahead. Whether you embraced it whole-heartedly, or took some convincing (like me).

May your passions be rewarded, and may your efforts produce the kind of work that resonates into the wider world.
Happy 2016.

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Sunday, February 28, 2016

MERRY XMAS AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR!! (PLUS AN XMAS GIFT)


Merry Xmas and a happy 2016!

I know that by now the effort of peering over your engorged belly, bloated with Xmas indulgence, to a screen containing my newsletter must seem like a Herculean effort. If you can manage it, however, you will find your usual Xmas reward from me at the conclusion of this missive. Just a wafer-thin after dinner mint, of sorts.

You can switch off now, of course. Recline with slovenly abandon into the nearest receptacle softer than you, and click on the telly. That's what I've been doing, when not breaking bread with an assortment of relatives. I formed the last drop of 2015 thought to share with you this way.

It's about being a nuanced recalcitrant.

That may seem like an odd suggestion, in the face of an ever homogenized mass media landscape. Hell, I even donated my hard won pennies to our corporate media overlords at the Disney Corporation, for the pleasure of watching 'Star Wars VII: The Franchise Awakens'.

But it was not until I was slumped into a chair, ruing the mountain of fried foods, meats, and sweets I had recently devoured, that the true Disney story was actually illuminated. I wish I could tell you it was part of some ghost triage 'Scroogian' awakening that I experienced, but the truth is I came across a documentary by channel-surfing, while coming down from saturated fats. Modern life.

What the documentary illuminated, however, was stunning: Walt Disney was mostly a failure, until he wasn't.

In the early 1920's, Disney owned and ran his first animation business, 'Laugh-O-Gram' studios, with collaborator Ubbe Iwerks...into the ground. Within a year, Disney's fledgling studio was bankrupt and saddled with insurmountable debt.

Looking for a fresh start, Walt and his brother Roy relocated to Hollywood, giving birth to The Disney Brother's Studio. With Roy managing the business affairs, this endeavor was more successful, even creating the popular 'Oswald the Lucky Rabbit' cartoons.

But oh, the fickle temper of success.

Riding the crest of the 'Oswald' success, Disney was blinded to the rug that was being swiftly pulled from under him. A key financial partner used legal technicalities to assume control over the 'Oswald' character, and to poach almost the entire stable of Disney animators.

Walt had failed again.

He was 27 years old. The creative head of an animation studio with no animators, that had lost its most successful character. Many would give up.

Walt created Mickey Mouse instead.

Along with his key collaborator Iwerks, who did not abandoned him in the great exodus, Disney crafted two silent shorts for their new character Mickey: 'Plane Crazy' and 'The Galloping Goucho'.

And the rest is history, correct?

Nope. Mickey, like so much of Walt's efforts to this point, was a bust.

No distributor was interested in Disney's new character. According to legend, Walt carried the reels from office to office for a month, visiting thirty possible distribution partners. They all passed.

Things were becoming desperate. The fresh start at Disney Brother's was fast becoming a recurring nightmare.

Now was the time to pull the rip-chord, surely.

Instead, Walt pivoted. Their new cartoon project was the last Hail Mary before destitution. An innovation, actually. A cartoon with sound.

'Steamboat Willie'.

"At last", you say, "Disney found his golden ticket".

Believe it or not, you're wrong again.

Despite this new pairing of sound and image in a cartoon, a pioneering first step for the art form, distributors still did not respond.

Confused? How then, did 'Steamboat Willie' become a phenomenon?

Because of audiences.

Universally rejected by New York distributors, Walt called in a favour with a New York theatre owner to play the film before a feature. This was his final, final, final throw of the dice.

And at last, a breakthrough.

The audience reaction was electric. Some even demanded that the feature be delayed so that 'Steamboat Willie' could be replayed. The feature movie, 'Gang War', is now ironically relegated to the misty island of obscurity.

For Walt, the money rolled in. Disney became a household name. Mickey Mouse, the brand, was born.

Today, the Disney Corporation is worth roughly US$180 billion, owning Disney brands, Pixar, ESPN, Lucasfilm, Marvel and The Muppets; to name only a few.

So, my last mental snowflake for you in 2015 is this: Walt Disney was mostly a failure, until he wasn't.

What Disney exhibited consistently, however, was recalcitrance. Persistence. Even pugilism, for his work. As of today, Walt Disney has 26 individual Academy Awards, still the record for the most amount of Oscars for a single person.

I know, the grind of life can be hard. The days can seem long and the toil pointless. As another Xmas arrives with bluster and then fades into memory, treading water can feel like the norm.

But that's an illusion. If you have set yourself to a path, whatever that may be, and pursue it with relentless passion, the tipping point is only as far as your will can stretch.

It's a journey. One where you can fail repeatedly...until you don't.

I hope 2016 is your tipping point.
To help you along the way, in reward of your persisting this far, we come at last to your Xmas gift.

Building a career or brand is often predicated on the sophistication of the creative materials you put out into the world. A website. A video. And yes, a striking image.

To make the whole 'here is my gorgeous picture, with a dramatic filter, and some beautiful text' process easier, I found a free App for you from Adobe, called 'Adobe Post'.

To demonstrate its awesome power, here is an Xmas card for you that took me, literally, four minutes to make. Imagine what you could make in ten?

You can find the free App at https://post.adobe.com/ Enjoy.

Thank you for continuing to be a part of the tales from Opening Act Films, for sharing this Newsletter with like-minded individuals, and may you have a wonderful 2016.

________________________________________

PS: AS USUAL, 'TALES FROM THE OPENING ACT' WILL BE GOING ON HOLIDAYS FOR ALL OF JANUARY 2016. BUT DON'T WORRY, IT WILL BE BACK, BETTER AND MORE PUNCTUAL THAN EVER, IN FEBRUARY. HAVE A SAFE AND RESTFUL HOLIDAY SEASON!!!!! CHEERIO, PETE

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