Los Angeles Film Festival Seize the Power: Ted Hope

July 13th, 2010 by jaytrautman

Ted Hope was the first speaker at the LA Film Festival’s Seize the Power: A Marketing and (DIY)stribution Symposium, and he set the tone early.  Ted has made many great films that have had to find their niche in the marketplace, and he was unambiguous in saying that life is only getting tougher for independent filmmakers.  Ted rightfully pointed out that anyone referencing a business model prior to the collapse of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008, is not living in the real world.  What little money was around has dried up, and filmmakers cannot rely on investor-backed film funds or foreign presales to get their films off the ground.

Anecdotally, I was working on a fund-backed TV show in September of 2008, and we did indeed shut down in October.  However, I have in the last year worked on features that have been funded through foreign presales and investor-backed funds, so there is always an exception.  It did help that both of these projects were able to attract name talent.

Ted gave us all a reality check when he said that most films will not be able to go theatrical.  It just doesn’t make financial sense.  However, most films will be able to attract an audience to screenings with some groundwork.  Hybrid distribution is no longer the exception: it’s something that every indie filmmaker should plan for.  Independent filmmaking has transformed from a B2B model to a direct sales system, from a business of one-offs to an ongoing conversation with an audience.  We no longer have the luxury of focusing only on development and production, we have to add discovery, promotion, presentation, participation.  We have to think of ourselves as the creators of worlds, not just DVDs.  We have to build ramps to give our audiences access to our film, and then we have to build bridges to bring them along to the next one.  We have to harness the power of community, not only to promote our films, but in order to get all of this extra work done.

I’m always interested in how speakers at these events practice what they preach, and Ted is doing a great job with his Hope for Film series of blogs.  In addition to sharing his expert knowledge, Ted writes guest posts for other people’s blogs and features guest posts from other filmmakers.  It’s a great resource for independent filmmakers and a great way to build and nurture a community of filmmakers.  I know that I am much more likely to watch Adventureland and Super than I was prior to poking around Ted’s sites.  Mission accomplished.  Ted suggests having five thousand total followers across social networks.  He has just over six thousand on his Twitter.  Personally, I think this is a low goal for new filmmakers, as followers of non-celebrities will be less engaged by tweets about our films than followers of Ted Hope will be about his next project.

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Movie Review: Cyrus

July 9th, 2010 by jaytrautman

I was lucky enough to attend the Cyrus premiere during SXSW and absolutely loved it, but I wasn’t really sure if the effect of a sympathetic (and loudly laughing) audience of 1200 was throwing my experience. Still, I recommended it to just about anyone who would listen.

I saw it again at the Arclight in a full but smallish room, sitting between a not-quite snoring guy and a woman who was audibly disgusted by every appearance of Jonah Hill and many by John C. Reilly.  Didn’t matter.  This movie is really, really good.

Now, I’m a big fan of the first film from the Duplass brothers, The Puffy Chair.  I love the naturalism in the performances that they achieve through their method of structured improvisation.  I was less fond of Baghead and wondered if maybe the strength of Puffy Chair came from the real-life relationship of its leads, Mark Duplass and Katie Aselton.  I wondered if it would work with the better-known and potentially higher-maintenance cast of Cyrus, but it absolutely does.  The scenes feel very natural, and the comedy stems from the pained awkwardness of the performances played completely deadpan.  I often feel that comedic actors know they’re being funny even when they’re playing a character straight.  That was not the case here at all.  We’re laughing with John because if we weren’t we’d be crying.  We know that he’s on the edge of debilitating depression and we’re invested in his relationship with Molly.  When Cyrus says, “Seriously, don’t fuck my mom. Just kidding,” we have to laugh.  John’s response kills us not because its a joke but because its not.  We understand his response but want so badly for him to dig himself out of this hole that we laugh in order to lighten the situation.  It’s to Marisa Tomei’s credit that we completely buy that she sees something in this over-eager, yet lovable guy.  After all, she has reason to be eager, too.  At the same time, we buy that she’s blind to Cyrus’ attempts to sabotage the budding romance.  It’s a fine line, but she plays it completely believably and with depth.

In the end, the Duplass’ approach is completely successful, and the talented improvisers were able to work within their method and deliver gems like the aforementioned warning Cyrus delivers at the dinner table.  According to the panel at SXSW, that line was ad-libed by Jonah Hill, and John’s response in opening up came out organically.  It’s brilliant stuff that I think would have been over the top on the page but plays.  They did apparently have trouble with some scenes that ended up cut as montage with voice over in a way that reminded me of The Limey.  Those sequences didn’t bother me at all and gave a nice sense of a relationship developing while getting away from talky scenes shot in closeup.

If I had to criticize anything in the film, it would be the camera work.  The zoom-heavy handheld shooting was endearing when it was a DVX-100 and matched the production value of The Puffy Chair.  It feels a little put-on with this footage shot on the RED.  I also always prefer to see movies that take advantage of the big screen.  So much indie film these days feels like it was shot for online consumption, and that scares me a little.  Let’s make movies that look like movies while we still can.  Still, I can’t say that it doesn’t suit the story, so maybe its an unfair criticism.

If you like subtle yet hilarious comedies and films about people and relationships, go see this movie.  Hollywood needs to know that good movies about real people made inexpensively and in 2D can succeed in entertaining us and be financially viable.

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Movie Review: Toy Story 3

July 8th, 2010 by jaytrautman

I am a fan of Pixar.  There was definitely a time when I wasn’t paying attention to animation, but since The Incredibles I have always looked forward to their next project with curious, hopeful skepticism.  A cleaning robot in space?  An old guy in a floating house?  Didn’t grab me on the concepts, but man, WALL-E and Up were absolutely two of my favorite films in recent years.

I had a similar sense of trepidation going into Toy Story 3.  I didn’t see the second film, and I suspected that this one was going to be more for kids than the last two Pixar films were.  Boy was I wrong.  This is not at all a movie for kids, and it’s not really for parents of young children, either.  This movie is downright scary in places.  There was never a more unsettling henchman than Big Baby, who dives purposefully into the Uncanny Valley and comes out with a limp and a lazy eye.  The incinerator sequence takes every bit of the virtuosity displayed in the sequences of EVE saving WALL-E and the opening sequence of Up and refocuses the loss felt through the death of a loved one into terror and resignation at one’s own impending death.  Unsettling is not a strong enough word.

The real audience for this movie is parents with grown children.  That doesn’t describe me, but I was able to see the movie through my own experience in growing up and going off to college.  The scenes of Andy with his mother and sister and Andy’s last playtime with the toys perfectly captured that sense of present-tense nostalgia.  The awareness of knowing a watershed moment is happening and not knowing how to feel about it.  A simultaneous anticipation and loss.  The act of growing up and moving on.  The performances of Andy, Woody, and Andy’s Mom are so complex and nuanced, it’s amazing that they’re completely created.

Still, these last three Pixar films have suffered from weak second halves.  This one didn’t go as completely off the rails as WALL-E and Up did (don’t get me wrong, I still love those movies in spite of their major tone shifts), or maybe it’s just that I’m more into the prison-break genre flick it becomes for long stretches.  Regardless, these are not perfect films, and the deus ex machina of “the claw” was the biggest offender in this one.  They almost got away with it by making the scene so overwhelming and telegraphing it at the start of the junkyard sequence, but showing your hand does not count as setting up action.  Still, intellectually it works on the level set by the opening sequence of playtime from the toys’ point of view.  When kids are playing, pretty much everything that happens is deus ex machina, with the child as god.  Here, director Lee Unkrich gets to play god and save his toys from a fiery death.  It’s cute and clever, but emotionally it undercuts the scene, which is maybe a good thing in this case.  Still Pixar is good enough that they can take risks, make missteps, and still deliver really, really powerful films.  I can’t wait to see what they do next.

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Paranormal Activity 2: Marketing Trumps Moviemaking

July 2nd, 2010 by jaytrautman

There is a new teaser-trailer for Paranormal Activity 2, and it mostly plays the way you would expect: long, disquieting security camera shots, nite-vision audience scares, and cheap scare cuts that aren’t that scary.

In what I feel to be a major coup, Paramount managed to get this trailer for a film that’s still in pre-production and comes out in October onto the head of the biggest movie of the summer in their demographic.  Well-done.  But the bigger news is that they’ve managed to get the trailer pulled from screenings of Twilight Eclipse in Texas and make a news story out of nothing.  Well-played.

Meanwhile, the likely far-scarier REC 2 comes out next week and likely will draw a fraction of the audience.

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The Power of the Tweet

June 27th, 2010 by jaytrautman

I attended the LA Film Festival’s Power of the Tweet poolside chat with Eli Roth, Adam Shankman, Richard Kelly, and Jon Chu, moderated by Ari Karpel.  While a lot of interesting ideas were batted around, there was a bit of a disconnect between the audience of nascent filmmakers and this panel of celebrities who have tens of thousands of followers each through no effort of their own.

Jon Chu’s case is probably closest to what any of us could hope to use as a blueprint.  As I understand it, he’s built a following through his youtube channel and leveraged that into a directing career on Step Up 2 and this summer’s Step Up 3D.  At the panel, he spoke about tweeting pictures from set and asking fans to make simple choices about production design and wardrobe.  This kind of fan engagement seems really smart, and I’d imagine that it will reward him over time.

Adam Shankman, on the other hand, was a producer on Step Up 2 who originally played the part of old Hollywood, trying to lock down the set and put a lid on the tweets, but he eventually came around to the value of being able to reach fans in such a personal way.  Apparently he got a little too personal with Miley Cyrus on the set of The Last Song and made a minor scandal out of nothing.  You can’t buy publicity like this, so why try to keep it from your set?

Perhaps most relevant was the admission that all of the panelists will and have looked at materials sent to them as mentions on Twitter.  I have a prior relationship with Eli Roth having worked with him on The Last Exorcism, but it was a tweet about Devo that got him to follow me.  Adam Shankman apparently sent his agent a Youtube video that somebody had tweeted to him, and his agent is now representing the guy.  To test the theory, I tweeted Richard Kelly that I didn’t get to ask him if Twitter would have helped the fate of Donnie Darko at the box office.  When I got home, I found this in my mentions from @JRichardKelly:

@jaytrautman Maybe. It took 2-3 years for anyone to refer to the film as a “hit”. But then, people HATED the film at Sundance…

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DIY Distribution

June 23rd, 2010 by jaytrautman

I’ve been thinking a lot about the changing landscape of independent film (and music), and I want to explore what I’ve been thinking more deeply.  SXSW was an intense immersion into the world of people who have really been doing this with varying levels of success, but as soon as I got back from Austin I was dumped into round-the-clock dailies on the new movie and didn’t get a chance to process what I heard as thoroughly as I would have liked.  So, having spent the weekend hearing different perspectives on the same problem, I’m planning a series of posts on the talks I heard.  These will probably take the form of loose ramblings, but I think writing out my notes in a more stream of thought manner might help me figure out what I think about all of this.  Stay tuned…

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It’s about time.

June 22nd, 2010 by jaytrautman

Well, one day after the Los Angeles Film Festival DIY distribution and marketing symposium, three months after SXSW, and years after you’d think I would have done so, I’m finally setting up a blog.  This isn’t the first blog I’ve had.  In another lifetime when learning php/MySQL programming seemed like a good idea, I rolled my own blog and CMS.  But we see how well that’s worked out.  So here I am with WordPress looking to engage with filmmakers, movie lovers, and hopefully really interesting people who don’t necessarily have any interests in those things whatsoever.  I’ll probably be writing about fiction, music, and photography, but I think the fun is in not really knowing what will end up here.  My goal is to do some thinking out loud about the things I’m thinking about quietly and hopefully learn a thing or two in the process.  So speak up if you’re out there, and I’ll try to give you something interesting to talk about.

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