Sunday, November 29, 2009
Unless you are a follower of the technology websites and blogs, you may not know that the cable industry has come up with an idea to combat the practice that they call “cutting the cord.” This initiative, which is being pushed by Jeffrey Bewkes of Time Warner, is called “TV Everywhere.” In a nutshell, it allows all of us to access the very desirable content we haven’t been able to get for free online yet—HBO, Showtime, etc.—but only if we have a cable subscription, as in any cable subscription.
To accomplish this, Bewkes needs to get all the cable companies to work with their competitors, as in sharing customer data. While this isn’t going to be easy, it’s already raising a lot of red flags from people with concerns about privacy. And then of course, Bewkes has to get all the content providers to on board, although he himself brings Time Warner’s HBO, CNN, TNT, TBS, etc., to the table.
Comcast’s pared-down version of this concept substitutes “Comcast” for “Everywhere.” All you need is a Comcast subscription to get connected to the Premium video content from their Comcast or Fancast site. They have been testing it for a while and plan to roll it out sometime in December.
All of this is being presented as if Bewkes and Comcast are doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, but it’s pretty obvious what this is about. Hulu-phobia. Netflix-phobia. Redbox-phobia. But most of all, Apple-phobia. You could just as easily sum it up as future-phobia.
Why do we enjoy free-with-ads sites like Hulu and Crackle? THEY HAVE FEWER ADS! And we can watch what we want whenever we want to.
What do we like about Netflix? For a fraction of the cost of cable, it gives you DVDs by mail plus the ability watch a lot of movies instantly, either on your computer or with their many compatible set-top boxes.
What do people like about Redbox. One buck! Pick it up and return it to the supermarket!
What do we like about cable?
Ummm, cable is a monopoly. You only get one store. You may only want a pair of socks and a shirt, but you are forced to buy a Yankee cap (even if you are a Mets or a Sox fan), cufflinks, perfume, towels, ladies underwear, two ties, a bedspread, low-slung hip-hop shorts, and a lamp. The kicker is that the price goes up all the time and the Calvin Klein shirt you actually came to buy costs extra. And of course LOTS AND LOTS OF ADS!
It’s not that we don’t like cable any more—we’ve always hated it! Cable is like the bully who beat you up in the hallway in high school. It’s college time now, baby!
But Comcast isn’t just experimenting with a flavor of “TV Everywhere.” They are also to merge their existing cable channels with NBC. They want to lock up all those amazing NBC Universal shows unless you subscribe.
There’s one tiny hitch though. Every single TV show and movie from NBC and Universal is available for free to anybody who has ten seconds to look for them. So what exactly is Comcast locking up? This isn’t 1995, you know. Either you just shrug your shoulders about file-sharing or you start offering some alternatives that have benefits that people are willing to pay for like Hulu, Netflix, Redbox, and iTunes. Or maybe you work a little and come up with something new? Bill Maher said recently that the Republicans looked into the future and saw… radio. These entertainment giants are looking into the future and they see… cable.
Also, as Martin Peers wrote in The Wall Street Journal: “There is little evidence that owning both content and distribution increases strategic value. Time Warner, in fact, only this year split its cable systems from its vast content operations.”
Wait a second! Mr. “TV Everywhere” Bewkes got rid of his cable system? I thought you sold stuff when you thought they’d be worth less in the future, not more.
Peers also pointed out that Comcast itself had prior history it might consider, including its “unsuccessful bid for Walt Disney in 2004 and the value-destroying $250 million investment in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 2005.”
This is the kind of Masters of the Universe mogul-think that gave us the Time Warner-AOL deal, Detroit and the SUV, and sub-prime loans.
There’s a lot of panic and desperation these days. Everyone says they don’t know how they are going to monetize this content when people are stealing it. Where’s it all going?
They know very well where it’s all going--they just don’t like it. It’s going to Hulu. To Netflix. To Redbox.
It’s going to Steve Jobs. Apple has lately been floating the idea of a $30 a month subscription plan to the networks. That sounds a lot like--
Run for your lives!
Sunday, November 22, 2009
One of the biggest events in the history of the internet happened this week. After six years, The Pirate Bay, the website most responsible for people watching movies without paying for them, has closed down, after numerous unsuccessful attempts to scuttle their ship. For example, in May of 2006, Swedish police raided the Bay, arresting the operators and confiscating their equipment. The Pirate Bay found a new home in 24 hours and was fully functional in three days. In fact, the international publicity generated by the Pirate Bay raids gave a huge boost to the site’s traffic, forcing the company to hire new workers.
Earlier this year, there was a much publicized trial where the four people who ran the site were convicted in April and sentenced to one year in jail and fined three and a half million dollars. But the four remained unrepentant and the site stayed open for business until November 17th, when it permanently shut down.
How big an operation was The Pirate Bay? Last year they approached the Guinness Book of Records to recognize it as the world’s largest illicit trafficker with 22 million users. The year before that they had eight million users.
When the Pirate Bay was in action, the practice of file-sharing increased at a staggering amount. Now that they are gone, I believe that the practice of watching films for free will continue to increase by a staggering amount, using the many other tracking sites that are still open, trackerless technologies like DHT and PEX, streaming video sites, and free file-hosting services like RapidShare.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. People will continue to watch movies without paying for them because people like to do it and they haven’t been given a compelling argument that it is wrong for them to do so. And there are many serious people who believe that there isn’t one, and that file-sharing can even help the industry if they learn how to harness it to their advantage.
Can you persuade young people to stop by telling them they are car thieves? They will laugh at you.
Do you grab a 22-year-old at random and ruin his life? You don’t reach out to people and make them see things your way by showing that you are despotic and cruel.
File-sharing is not going to stop. Deal with it.
People who run media companies have got to learn that their job is not to stop people from stealing from them--their job is to increase profits. No store ever made a penny with anti-theft tags. You make money by providing a great product that people are willing to pay for. You can whine about the thieves who pillaged your store, but down the street somebody else is cleaning up.
You may love your cable TV dollars and be wary of trading them for internet pennies, but let me give you the news: cable is over. People have never liked being strong-armed to pay for a service that is 95% stuff they don’t want and never use. The internet and Netflix has shown them that they can have choice and you will never be able to put that genie back in the bottle. That’s the direction things will inevitably go. People will pay for the things they want, just as they now pay for HBO and ShowTime, and they will watch them whenever they want on any device that they want.
DVD sales are down? How can you say that your world is undone by slowing sales of a format that only nudged ahead of the last one in 2003? DVD players were first offered in 1997, and most studios resisted putting their films in the format for years, just as they had earlier fought against the VHS. Former Motion Picture Society of America head Jack Valenti likened video recorders to the Boston Strangler, but the VCR laid the foundation for the entire DVD business. Valenti went to his deathbed decrying the VCR, despite the tens of billions of dollars that home video has showered on the industry.
Technology comes and goes and the only constant is that media companies will always fight the new.
Do you think Steve Jobs wakes up every day and cries, “Oh my god! The sky is falling!” Does he go on “60 Minutes” and despair that file-sharing is destroying his business? He just keeps adding more international iTunes stores, offering more and more people a convenient, easy-to-use and safe method to pay. He demonstrates that there are advantages to paying.
Innovate. Compete. Have better ideas than the other guys. Take ideas that other people have done and do them better.
Believe it or not, this is a time of great opportunity.
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Recently I was talking to a friend of mine who works as a cop in a suburban town. “How’s business?” I asked. “Business is booming,” she said, sadly. She felt crime had changed in her community after the economic crash. In the past she had dealt mostly with petty crimes that were easily solvable: a bunch kids broke into a house, amateurishly leaving evidence behind. Now she was encountering more sophisticated criminals. One of her colleagues found a house that had a multitude of TV’s in every room. This wasn’t some hole-in-the-wall “fence”-- this was a store. .
In her opinion, people were getting worse, and it was depressing her.
We live and die in America by the stories we are told us and the stories we believe. These stories fuel religion, politics, work and love and war. They are the firmament of who we are.
Once upon a time, we were told, there was a country in the Middle East that had had the bomb, and was intent on using it on us. We had all seen the movies, we all knew what had to be done. We had to shoot Lee Marvin so that our little town on the prairie would survive and prosper.
Recently the mushroom cloud came in the form of certain entities that were TOO BIG TO FAIL. It may have been an economic mushroom cloud this time but it was no less deadly. And the fact that things that were TOO BIG TO FAIL existed, meant that there were other things that were small enough to fail. In fact,calamity fit them as snugly as an alligator in an Everglades python.
So two fearless Sheriff-Presidents rounded up a posse of guys from Metro-Goldwyn-Sachs and set out to save the town. And even though there were some close calls that left us breathless, we never really worried. We knew that they were going to save the things that were TOO BIG TO FAIL, because otherwise they wouldn’t be heroes and we wouldn’t go to their next movie.
And our confidence was well-founded. The things were TOO BIG TO FAIL not only did not fail…they flourished.
But what about the things that were puny enough to fail? Didn’t they deserve movies too? This is America, and there is a lush bounty of stories for all. The New York Times has been a veritable Sundance lately. It seems that when jobs and homes are lost, families break apart. AIG divorce! More kids run away from these stress-filled homes and live on the streets. Goldman Sachs Teen Prostitutes! Sometimes people to succumb to utter despair. Citibank Suicides! There’s enough material there to keep Endeavor busy for a long time.
Reading those tales in the Times, I thought a lot about what my friend the policewoman had told me. There was an independent film in there somewhere. The protagonist could be a regular Midwestern guy. In Act One, he’d never consider buying a stolen TV set—he’d just put down his credit card and pay the price. Sure he’d be taking on debt, but it was debt that he took responsibility for, responsibility built on the foundation of having a job and savings to pay off that card. But then along came Act Two and the arrival of the thing that was TOO BIG TO FAIL--in his case, the thing that failed was his soul. In the meat of the narrative, we learned that there was just so far a face can be ground into the dirt, how many kicks it can take, how much humiliation it can weather. In screenwriter-ese, this was our protagonist’s “story arc.”
So by the time Act Three rolled around it turned out he was that guy who would buy a TV for a $100 that he knew cost $1500. Maybe he had always been that guy. He just didn’t’ know it until hard times revealed it to him.
Admittedly this is a pretty slim premise for a movie. It’s unlikely it would ever get into competition at Sundance, let alone make it to a theatre.
It’s too small.
Sunday, November 08, 2009
Recently I worked on a low-budget film with a script that was so bleak it was kind of scary. We shot in the grimmest locations all night in freezing cold. There was one location that was covered in so much dog poop that you had to hopscotch your way around it. It rained a lot. It was not glamorous.
But it was the happiest and best experience I ever had on a movie set. I’ve never met so many great people who pulled together so well. I’ve never felt so welcome or laughed so hard. Up until then, I never felt that working on a film ever changed me…but this one did. And it is fitting that this very modest film, this total labor of love, is shaping up to become the biggest movie I have ever worked on in my life.
When I told my friends that I was going to be the production publicist on a movie called “Push” (now called “Precious”) written by an author and poet named Sapphire, none of them had ever heard of it. In fact, I couldn’t even find it under “S” in the literature section at Barnes and Noble. I was directed to a special table, where important black-themed books were laid out. Later on, the star of the film, Gabby Sidibe, told me that “Push” was a book that every black girl read. So when Anthony Lane in the New Yorker wonders why the movie is called “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” instead of just “Precious”—there’s your answer. “Precious” is an adaptation of what for many people is a classic.
Lee told me that a lot of people had tried to make the movie in the past, but that Sapphire trusted him. That made sense. The director, Lee Daniels, has a personal history of abuse is well-known and it’s driven the storylines of every single movie he’s made. And he was fearless enough to adapt “Push” without compromising it, and more importantly swing it into LeeDanielsWorld, a very peculiar and wonderful place I had been privileged to spend a bit of time in. Lee likes to dive into the pool without knowing for sure if there’s any water in it. My type of guy.
Lee said I should come by the production office and meet Gabby. With another director, I might have asked “Why? I’ll see her on the set,” but with Lee you just do it. Anyway, I’d been knocked off my feet by Gabby’s audition tape (I was hoping to put it here, but it’s been taken off YouTube.) There’s really no way I can describe the way Gabby’s audition punched me out emotionally. “What the hell?”-- I couldn’t stop watching it over and over, gushing tears--“That poor woman. That poor, poor woman.”
I found Gabby sitting placidly against a wall in the office while the three-ringed tumult of low-budget preproduction swirled around her. What struck me immediately was her sunny calm. She was easily the most relaxed person in the room. She told me the story that she’s repeated over and over in the press recently, how she wasn’t even planning to go to the audition—and only did so at the last minute, after a friend kept bugging her about it. I sat there trying to connect the dots between the woman in the tape and the woman in front me. She just strolled in and did that audition? She just had to have prepared. And if it was true that she didn’t, then didn’t it have to be the obvious thing, that this seemingly happy person with the impish sense of humor, had dredged up some extremely dark things from her own life?
On the first morning of shooting, we were in Harlem doing the scene where Precious steals the bucket of fried chicken. The location happened to be very close to where Gabby lived. So there she was, sitting in a director’s chair with her name on the back, when a guy who lives in her building walks by without noticing. If this was me it would be off -the-charts surreal, but Gabby was acting like she’d been on a movie set her whole life. “Aren’t you at all nervous?” I asked her. “I have something to do,” she said. “I’m here to please Lee.” “Come on,” I said, “don’t tell me this whole deal isn’t a huge surprise for you.” She shook her head. “There were signs,” she said. It seemed that in an early attempt to film Sapphire’s novel, Gabby’s mother was considered for Mary, Precious’s mother. The role was way too much for her to handle, but it led to Gabby reading the book for the first time, and I bet a lot of intense discussions around the dining room table. Gabby had also heard an interview with Lee on Wendy Williams’ show that she never forgot. Most importantly, Lee’s debut film as a director, “Shadowboxer” was her favorite movie—she’d watched it over and over. That didn’t seem all that surprising to me. After all, Lee had cast Mo’Nique to play Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s girlfriend, a role that was written for the typical Hollywood blonde. This was a very Lee Daniels thing to do—casting against type, using black entertainers not previously known for dramatic work—but mainly Lee was just being real: women who look like Mo’Nique have hot boyfriends too. It wasn’t hard to guess why this movie was at the top of Gabby’s playlist. (By the way, Mo’Nique’s character’s name in “Shadowboxer” was....drum roll….Precious.)
Gabby told me that she was a singer—mostly gospel and R&B--and had performed Ella Fitzgerald songs in musical revues at Lehman College. Her mother, Alice Tan Ridley, was also a singer. “Look her up on YouTube,” she said. So I did:
The picture was getting clearer. Gabby was hardly an anonymous person who walked in off the street—she was royalty, the daughter of one of the most amazing singers I had ever heard—a mother, who, not incidentally, had reduced me to tears just as her daughter had done. So what if Gabby’s mother sang at the 42nd Street Subway Station
instead of Carnegie Hall? Later on, Gabby made an offhand remark about how the Lehman people had put her name on an “Uptown Serenades” poster without asking her. She wasn’t too pleased with that. For me that said it all: both her friends need to have their headliner and her ambivalence about her talent. But if I was right and her singing was off the charts, why didn’t she want to pursue that?
Alice Ridley used to have a regular job at the school Gabby attended, but she left it to pursue her dream of being a full-time singer. She made enough singing in the subway so that Gabby always lived in nice apartments and had everything she needed. She went to very good schools. Gabby loved her mother very much, but she worried: you don’t get health insurance or a pension from singing in the subway. What was going to happen when her mother wasn’t able to do that anymore?
Gabby knew quite well she had a gift; she just knew there were a lot of risks in that kind of life, and she wanted no part of it. She wanted a real job, one with health insurance and a 401K.
So on that Monday in September, Gabby was starting her first semester of college and just getting into the rhythm of it. Auditioning for the movie would be a distraction and a waste of time. She wouldn’t get it anyway. But there was a friend of hers from the drama department at Lehman named Henry Ovalles. He knew she wouldn’t be wasting her time; he knew the part was hers if she would only try out for it. So he didn’t let up on her until she did.
After astonishing the casting directors on Monday, Gabby had a callback on Tuesday, and was dispatched to Lee Daniels’ office on Wednesday. She sat on the couch and listened to Lee talk about everything under the sun in his loony-glorious Lee Daniels way—I’ve seen a video of it--and Gabby sat there, more than a little overwhelmed by her first shot of Daniels--“He was ten feet tall,” she told me later—and preparing herself mentally to read for him. And then—abruptly--Lee stopped his shenanigans, turned to her and said in a quiet voice: “I want you to be my Precious.” This caught Gabby off guard, so she said, “but--” and Lee said, no ‘but,’ I want you to be my Precious.” And then it was Gabby’s turn to cry.
I understood everything now. I understood why Gabby almost didn’t show up for the audition. I understood why she was so incredible in it. I understood why she was so relaxed about playing the lead role in a movie, and why she was so comfortable in her own skin. She was a born natural. She had what it takes and she knew it, so she just had to go out and do it. What’s the big deal?
I read an interview with Lee saying that Gabby had to reduce her natural confidence to play Precious. It’s an interesting notion, but in my opinion it was because she thought so highly of herself that she could take the character to those scarily low places. (I’m sure it was that way with Mo’Nique too.) And I think it’s the briskness of the intelligence that Gabby bestows on Precious that makes her such a winning character. Precious may be illiterate, but she’s nobody’s fool.
There’s lots of waiting around on a movie set. One night, to pass the time, Gabby and I, who share the same twisted sense of humor, improvised a story about her supposed addiction to NyQuil for the benefit of a pair of production assistants. She kept pushing this narrative to Dickensian or at least VH1-ian levels, until: “It all bottomed out for me when I had my head in the toilet in this bar in Tijuana.” I studied the faces of the P.A.’s: were they buying this nonsense? Maybe not, but she sure had their attention. “I knew that I had hit bottom,” she said, “and it was time for me to do something to change my life.” Then she added ruefully: “But even today, as I walk through the aisles of Duane Reade—her voice cracked—“it’s so hard for me.” (I know there’s Oscar talk about Gabby now, but the voters should have seen this!)
Lee made Gabby do some of the most intense scenes over and over. People were worried about her but she was very matter-of-fact about it—she just wanted to give Lee what he wanted. Maybe lying on her back in the street for a few hours in the rain and cold wasn’t her favorite thing, but if Lee wanted her to cry a dozen times, that wasn’t a big stretch. “You’re going to have a career,” I told her. “No matter what happens with the movie, once people discover what you can do, and then they find out you’re so funny, so easy to work with, and the world’s greatest auditioner?” Definitely some people listening in to these conversations thought I was filling her with false hopes, but I thought, ‘Okay, maybe there aren’t any roles right now for someone who looks like her, but when they see her coming—they sure as hell are going to write some.”
Watch out world! Lady Gabourey is in the building. She is precious, she’s always been precious and she will always be precious.
Sunday, November 01, 2009
I’ve been typing movie info into SpeedCine six days a week since May.
Believe it or not, it’s not so bad.
For me, it’s like wading through my life in the cinema. I’m amazed by how many of these films have such direct connections to my life. Talk about “Six Degrees of Separation”? That film isn’t in the SpeedCine database, but I was the publicist on it. Typing this stuff is very dramatic for me: here’s a film I took to some festival long ago, it played badly and the director screamed at me; here are several that won the top prizes at Sundance; here’s one that was directed by a legendary director who canceled all the interviews I had spent weeks arranging; here’s one where I gave some comments to the director in the editing room, he took them and now they are in the movie; here’s the one that sold for an insane amount of money, and didn’t make any: here’s the film I smoked very potent weed every night with the star; here’s a film where the star complained about me to the studio and tried to get me fired; here’s the film where I actually did get fired; here’s the one where I met someone who became one of my best friends of my life: here’s the film where I made a super-colossal enemy; here’s the one where the director fired somebody every day, and after he fired me, we went out to dinner that night: here’s the one where I broke my foot; here’s one that features an actress I went out with for a while; here’s the film the studio decided to dump, I conspired with the director and producer to rescue, and which was dumped anyway, as was I; here is the presence of all the glorious people I worked with who are no long here; here’s the film that was the biggest success of my career, and which bankrupted me, broke my heart, and shuttered my company.
After a day of this, I need to take a moment to clear my head, and it’s not because my hands are tired.
When you go on Amazon you see either the trailer or the first two minutes of the film. So I have seen either the trailer the first two minutes of over ten thousand films within a few months. How many people can say that they’ve seen had so many bite-sized samplings of so many movies in such a short time? The films I’ve loved, the ones I hated, the ones that were “eh?” have been parked in my head for ages, and watching all these cinema-bites has opened the garage door wide. With 100,000 films available on Netflix, it’s just too overwhelming to think about which one I might ever revisit, but I found time to watch the first two minutes of “Killer Klowns From Outer Space.” In case you’re wondering, there’s nary a trace of a Killer Klowns in the first two minutes. But I wait out the clock, hoping I will see at least one Klown, even if he’s a red herring, non-deadly Klown. Many directors can be very sly about not showing their hand in the first two minutes. But nothing will deter me from watching the entire two.
Often it’s the exploitation films that grab my interest, not the classics. Some of them have such great titles that I laugh out loud. Having been burned by my 2-minute sampling “Killer Klowns,” I eagerly watched the trailer of “Cannibal Killer Clowns on Dope,” which I found wonderful in a self-consciously-trying-to-be-so-bad-it’s-good kind of way. Of course when I got to “L’avventura,” it was “Next!” I’ve seen that film three times, and I doubt I ever will again, and certainly not on my computer. But I may check out a dangerous clown movie at some point.
What’s much more dangerous are free sites like Hulu and Crackle. I can get hooked on pretty much anything. Recently, Hulu put up an Israeli film without subtitles. I couldn’t believe that they would have the chutzpah to do that—they didn’t mention it anywhere. So I watched it for a while in Hebrew, but nobody said anything I’d heard in temple like “Baruch, Attoh, Adenoi, or sang“Adon Olom,” so I turned it off.
And the comments! Before I started this I didn’t know there were so many ways to say that a film was the worst ever made. Netflix is my go-to place for angry consumers. You will find as many good reviews as bad there, but I love the anonymous ragers. I find the emotion that gets stirred up by bad movies to be exhilarating.
Also the world of online video is dominated by films that are in the public domain and which anyone in the world can download a legal copy of from the Internet Archive. Hulu doesn’t have any more rights to “Night of the Living Dead” than you do. But people sell this stuff! It’s a very high percentage of what’s for sale and rent online. I’m not talking about when a company like Kino does a restoration. Some of the public domain prints are pretty good, but most are scratchy, grainy, faded,and blurry, with barely discernible sound. And I speak with authority, as I have seen the first two minutes of so many of them. I’m just starting to go to where they got them and index the Internet Archive too. Let’s just say that Criterion shouldn’t lose any sleep about them.
By the way, a big Hollywood studio was launched by a public domain movie. In 1971, Keith Stroup from NORML went to the library of Congress and for $297 bought a print of a 1936 film with a lapsed copyright called “Tell Your Children.” A guy named Bob Shea marketed the film, retitled “Reefer Madness,” to every college campus in the country. Convincing people pay oodles of money for something Shea got for free gave birth to the mighty edifice that is New Line Cinema. It is indisputable that pot-smoking paid for “The Lord of the Rings,” just as pot-smoking increased the enjoyment of watching “The Lord of the Rings.”
There are many versions of “Reefer Madness” available online. There is also a company I found that will sell you a DVD for $19.99, along with a full catalog of $19.99 other DVDs that they got from Internet Archive. It’s a very surreal world, public domain. I can kind of understand why Roger Corman wasn’t paying attention to the paperwork (there’s a Corman festival going on now at Anthology Film Archives, but you can program your own here), but not William Castle—he was a master marketer, why would he give away the store? Another public domain film you find everywhere is “Carnival of Souls.” I’m always intrigued by the movies that make it to the archive. There’s a glorious arbitrariness to public domain and it’s always a delight to discover that the rights to some of these wonderful films are free for everyone. There are a zillion things you can use, video mash-uppers! Head to the Internet Archive right now and stop fighting lawyers.
Strangely enough, inputting all this data input has refreshed my enthusiasm for movies and every kind of movies. I’m no longer numbed by the overwhelming glut of movies available on video. I am compiling a list of must-sees, and someday I will watch them all.
If I can ever stop typing.