Reductionism in Story

I have another theory that you all can shoot down, about why movies suck so much anymore.

Way back in Aristotle’s Poetics, we were taught about the three basic story contexts that still remain true today.
1. Man vs. Man
2. Man vs. Nature
3. Man vs. Himself
(“Man” of course, meaning “human” or even as general as “protagonist”)

Now, what’s interesting is that every single story that really gets us, is about what?


Either with the Roman Empire, or within our own heads. Between what I believe and what my parents wish I believed. Every single story in the world is told and presented in a way that it lays bare a character who must decide how to deal with that conflict.

He must chose either bravery, and overcome the conflict, or he chooses cowardice, and the conflict defeats him.

I believe this is at the heart of our lack of good storytellers today. We have become a world of little personal accountability, and even less honor. A world where pleasing as many people as possible breeds the will to overcome conflict right out of us.

We have so few left who understand courage and bravery that as a result, that our accounting of it as a virtue suffers.

How can a storyteller reach within his (or her) characters and give them things which he himself has never understood?

Conflict in storytelling does not exist as simply a means to create a character arc or provide action sequences or make a development executive happy. Conflict exists only so that it may reveal the true hearts of our characters through their actions and either inspire us with their bravery, or grieve us for their lack of it. Along the way, informing of us, the audience, of the kinds of human beings we may or may not want to be.

This is the core of storytelling, and sometimes I feel it to be fading from our memories.

Active Audiences

My partners and I have begun what will likely be a very, very long discussion about engaging our audiences in our stories long before we begin production on a film. Partly as a marketing strategy (i.e. “ploy”), partly because it seems like a novel way to break through some clutter, and partly because we can no longer assume our audience is passive.

We used to assume that because the audience doesn’t interact with the viewing of the movie, that ours was a passive medium. But it seems to us that could not be further from the truth. From moment to moment along the life of creating a motion picture, details about stories become available, actors are announced, directors are chosen, production art is shown, test screenings are held, trailers released, and blogs and bulletin boards are filled with opinions and thoughts from our audiences. Technology has made our audience more active than they have ever been in the history of the movies.

We can fear it, or we can embrace it.

So we’re starting to think about ways to involve our audiences from the moment we secure rights to a script or book or whatnot, and go from there. The details of how we propose to do that are what we hope will prove this could work. The first real test of it is probably at least a year away at this point. But it will be an interesting experience, and it’s going to shake things up for us as a company in some possibly unpredictable ways(as to “how things have always been done”).

But I love disruptive change. 🙂

Commercially Viable

I want to expand for a moment on the “commercially viable” statement of my last post, and clarify this concept a bit.

Storytelling, when done well, is something that has the power to enrich our lives as an audience both through its telling and through our participation in that telling. A good story might show up in a movie screen, a theater stage, a television screen, or your mobile phone. It might show up in the overall theme of a good story, or it might show up in just the smallest performance of a single actor and character in an otherwise flawed presentation.

This illustrates how a great script can go terribly wrong, or a bad script can be turned into something better.

This is also why, when people send me scripts or stories or tell me about a project that has a “good heart” (which sometimes people seem to like to use interchangably with “good script”), it doesn’t mean anything to me. I couldn’t care less if the story is about a some guy with a hockey mask that kills people, or Mother Teresa. What I want, what we as an audience demand, are characters we can identify with in some way that informs us of who we are. Or who we don’t want to be. Or the choices we would or wouldn’t make in a certain situation.

Those elements, and finding ways for your audience to pick up on them, assess them, then use them to gauge their own existences – THAT is good storytelling, and what’s more – THAT is commercially viable.

Commerically viable just means that as an overall project, (writers, producers, directors, actors, release patterns and marketing strategies), will all come together to communicate these virtues to a large enough audience that given a certain budget level, the property will earn a return.

If your film or project cannot find the audience to support making it, it is because one or more of those overall project elements was lacking.

Content Creators, be (more) aware

Had some interesting convo’s and developments (or lack thereof) this week that have brought up a topic I haven’t yet seen discussed much. That is the issue of distributor fraud, and the devaluation of content in a flooded market.

They are two seperate issues, but the first, was actually brought up in a finance discussion with Imperial Capital Bank and their entertainment division for financing of a television series we’re working on.

Evidently, due to high rates of distributors never paying on contracts for content, the discount rate on most distribution contracts against a loan is quite high. Save for a dozen or so major distributors that the bank has relationships and a history with, all these new channels coming out of the woodwork for satellite distribution, and IP distribution, whatever, the contracts are not worth the paper they are printed on. Which of course, makes it a tenuous at best, and straight-up-stupid at worst, idea to finance original content without the upfronts to cover your production costs. (Like THAT ever happens.)

For many years, we’ve heard of theater owners and what not running films extra times and not reporting it, or under-reporting ticket sales so that they can keep more of the cash coming into the theater.

Now, take the 4500 theaters in the US, and multiply that exponentially to get the number of outlets a content creator has to distribute to these days.

Makes a lot of sense to get rid of the middleman/distributor altogether. Like those blokes over at Blowing Smoke. Now, let’s get that on the next iteration of iTunes as a download for $1.99. Whatd’ya say?

Now, on the devaluation of content. In discussions with a number of new media outlets, including the aforementioned satellite network operator, there’s a LOT of the same mantra going around. “Oh, we get a lot of our content from auteurs.”

Which sounds great right? WRONG.

Why? Allow me to present a new definition of “auteur” in the digital age.

Digital Auteur – any person or persons who pick up a moving picture camera, edit something together, and are willing to give it away for free.

“Auteurs,” in my experience, often have a sense of creative superiority that very, very rarely translates into something the audience can connect to, or understand in a way that reaches enough people to be commercially viable. They are typically also those people with utterly no business sense at all, and will happily give away “their” stuff till the end of time (or bankruptcy).

This shit drives me nuts.

Oh, and one last thing. When I say “commercially viable” I’m addressing a story or point of view, communicated and presented in such a way that it holds enough value that it just might not lose money.

The Downside of Digital

Just had a kind of depressing conversation with one of my business parnters, and some of what was said rings very true… and follows some of the thinking I had earlier today.

Beyond the creative fulfillment of the career I chose, I also chose this business because it was one where you could become wealthy. Where you could create your own retirement funds based on residuals and whatnot, and fuck the 401K’s and company pensions (which may or may not be there anyway, as we see these days). This was the a large part of the dream I had.

And then, a funny thing happened. I saw some guy driving an insanely expensive car today, and it occured to me that I used to just be “biding the time” until I too could buy one of those. For I was certain it would come. But today… today the thought that flashed past my brain was the one that said…”you may never have things like that.” And it was ok. Instead, I wondered if I’d ever be able to afford one home (much less the 3 or 4 I thought I’d buy), AND health care and some investments. It’s the first time I’ve ever really felt like…. maybe I will never be wealthy. Maybe I’ll always be struggling and that’s what it is. And it’s… kind of depressing, but kind of… just ok. I hate to disappoint my friends who for years have shaken their heads and asked me how it is that I’m not a multi-millionaire or some studio mogul yet… and truth be told… sometimes I don’t get it either. But perhaps it’s not my destiny.

The point, and it’s relation to the title of this post, is that my partner and I were talking about “THE GAP” in our media business between the have’s and have not’s – and how much that reflects the overall status of our American society. He’s not wrong. On one hand, we have the $150 million dollar Michael Bay budgets, and on the other, the $1,100 “My Date With Drew” budgets. The micro-budget filmmaking days have only been made possible by the advent of digital… and maybe it’s not “the greatest thing ever” that I’ve always thought it was. As it seems to have helped create disparity than already existed in this world of “either you make it yourself for no money at all, or you make it for lots of money upfront and screw everything else” but making it for lots of money upfront means that you MUST have done something before that made lots of money. It means the middle ground vanishes.. . and becomes a harder and harder place to make a living. You either scrabble for nothing, or you make shitloads of money.

It’s a sad, and frustrating world sometimes.

Well, that didn’t take long

Just eleven days ago, in this post, I was thinking about the podcasts and their impact on the film and tv business.

Funny to see this article today from Wired Magazine, as television programming starts to release “audio only” podcasts of their shows.

How much further behind is video? I mean, really? We’ve already got sites like this providing video blogging tools online.

Apple better make sure their transaction management back end is hunky-dory and working smoothly if they want to be the ones to ride the next wave.

Hell, seeing as how their hardware lock-in is about to expire due to both new breakthroughs in the software (courtesy of some very smart hackers) and their shift to Intel chips, they might be better off looking at operating like a transaction management company that happens to make software, than a computer manufacture.

Fascinating times.

Whole Lotta Shaking Goin’ On

In the spirit of the writing mood I am in, I shall offer this tonight:

Temblors Rattle Theater Owners

Much like the Southern California landscape has hundreds of small tremors each day, so too has the theatrical exhibition industry been shaken around lightly by the ever-encroaching home video release windows.

While the pressures of high-quality home displays and home surround sound, minus the obnoxious kids, and sticky floors have continued to mount on the tectonic plates of theaters, the larger movie studios seem to be waking up to the fact that something smells like it’s burning.

And it’s their ass.

Today’s temblor struck about a 6.0 on the open-ended Richter Scale when Disney CEO-designate Bob Iger stated that “it is not inconceivable that the studio would release a DVD even during theatrical runs.”

Theater owners have a rocky road ahead, and if they had any brains at all, would hurry up with digital projection and distribution so that they can book indie films or whatever they want in their theaters, AND SELL THE DVD’s right outside the door when you leave, and earn some of their profits right there.

Smells like roses to me.

Leader as Artist

Business school case study finally gets it right, and reminds me that when I allow myself to do so, I get very carried away and passionate about storytelling, and the audience… and the technologies I can use to convey those.

Sometimes my pragmatist side sucks and isn’t nearly as fun as my bubble-blowing, mystic eight-ball asking, jumping up and down for no apparent reason, split personality.


The Creative Side – for a change

While I mainly post about company things from big picture standpoints, and broad views of my industry, there’s a lot of things that I don’t generally post about. Mainly because they’re some of the things that *everyone* else in this godforsaken town proclaims as loudly as possible, and chat up in every circle (jerk) they can get themselves invited to (or crash).

At any rate, I’m going to drop myself to their level for just a minute, and say that while I’m still trying to find what’s going to pay my bills next, I’m enjoying the challenges of the two properties that I’m working on creatively right now.

The first, a script that I’ve mentioned once or twice before. The full 40-page treatment took about six weeks, and was pretty satisfactorily completed on July 15th. I began writing the actual script the next day, and as of today, 3 weeks later, I’ve written through page 56 and just finished the mid-act II climax – oddly enough, right about where it should be.

For a while, I was concerned there wouldn’t be enough material for a 110-ish page script. Now, I don’t think that’s going to be a problem. Just the rough scene and character descriptions for the rest of the as-yet-unwritten full scenes and dialog for the rest of the screenplay make it a 77 page document. It’s probably gonna need some editing (there’s a reason we call it a “first draft” right?). At any rate, I’m pretty dang pleased with it so far. We’ll see what other folks think in a few more weeks. It could conceivably suck big hairy goat balls. But I’m having fun writing it, so there.

On top of that, the television series I created has gone through a few very productive development meetings with a couple of my partners, and it’s very satisfying to make progress that other people confirm is good. Validation, Yay! Validation!

I must admit, I think it’s a damn good series concept, and could be an outstanding and timely show.

At any rate, now that I’ve stood on my swiss cheese box for a moment, I shall move on.

Thank you. Carry on.

Gatekeepers & Stupidity

Sometimes, an event happens that results in a moment of clarity that just makes you stop and think “my god, it really IS that stupid.” I just had one of those.

One of our board of advisors members hooked us up with the CEO of a nationwide satellite network recently, and I looked over their demographic angle, and came up with a couple of show ideas. One I pitched, and they liked it enough to still be working with us on trying to iron out a N. American distribution deal for it.

But there’s the kicker. They’re a startup network, with no capital for producing programming. Hence, no cash. Which means, we’re supposed to fund it ourselves. And then basically license it to them for what??? Ad time on their grid? Yay. We can’t use ad time to cover our (upfront) production costs or our overhead now can we?

At any rate, in my frustration, because I know it’s got the right ingredients to be a GREAT show, timely and innovative. I start picking up the phone and calling the big guys. And I should have known this, because it works the same way in our feature film world, but they will not take unsolicited pitches – and pitches have to be submitted through an agency, or an entertainment lawyer.

And we wonder why the studios and large companies are having such problems with creating GOOD content? (which by default means that agents and entertainment lawyers must be able to identify good content first, and second, be on the lookout for new shows from new companies… riiiiight).