Archive: 2008

Ira Glass on Storytelling

These videos are excellent. He’s talking specifically about the broadcast world, but it applies to any creative storyteller (writer, photographer, filmmaker, artist). The first three are particularly relevant, the third video is my favorite. Brilliant stuff.

The Art of the Story

This NY Times article on MIT’s Media Lab examining titled “Saving the Story (the Film Version)” bothered me on a number of dimensions.

The first huge issue is confusing form and function or the story and how it is delivered. Consider this –

The center is envisioned as a “labette,” a little laboratory, that will examine whether the old way of telling stories — particularly those delivered to the millions on screen, with a beginning, a middle and an end — is in serious trouble.

How a story is delivered – via the studio distribution system, YouTube, or Twitter has nothing to do with whether the story has a beginning, middle and end.

The art of storytelling has existed since man learned to communicate. The form has changed. Dramatically.

A good chunk of the rest of the article is about Hollywood griping about Hollywood.

But Mr. Kirkpatrick and company are not alone in their belief that Hollywood’s ability to tell a meaningful story has been nibbled at by text messages, interrupted by cellphone calls and supplanted by everything from Twitter to Guitar Hero.

“I even saw a plasma screen above a urinal,” said Peter Guber, the longtime film producer and former chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment who contends that traditional narrative — the kind with unexpected twists and satisfying conclusions — has been drowned out by noise and visual clutter.

A common gripe is that gamelike, open-ended series like “Pirates of the Caribbean” or “Spider-Man” have eroded filmmakers’ ability to wrap up their movies in the third act. Another is that a preference for proven, outside stories like the Harry Potter books is killing Hollywood’s appetite for original storytelling.

Whatever, people! Hollywood’s ability has not been “nibbled away” by text messages!! It has been nibbled away by the fact that every decision is made by focus groups and marketers – not the the writers and the directors!

Let’s look at Slumdog Millionaire – how has that story been affected by the noise of tweets or smses? If the story has merit, it stands above the trash… er… or above the urinal screen, as the case may be.

Open-ended series’ – who created them? Who produced them and distributed them? Right – you, Hollywood.

The article goes on to talk about Hollywood insiders complaining that small stories can’t compete with Transformers. So? Hasn’t that always been the case? And if the problem is getting worse who’s making it worse? You, Hollywood!

And again, what, pray tell does this have to do with the “story”? Nothing. So far, all I’ve heard is whining about marketing budgets.

And then there’s the classic “blame the audience” strategy.

Ultimately, he blames the audience for the perceived breakdown in narrative quality: in the end, he argued, consumers get what they want. Bobby Farrelly, a prolific writer, and director with his brother Peter of comedies like “There’s Something About Mary” and “Shallow Hal,” concurred.

“If you go off the beaten path, say, give them something bittersweet, they’re going to tell you they’re disappointed,” Mr. Farrelly said. He spoke from his home in Massachusetts, where he is working on the script for a Three Stooges picture, and said he missed complex stories like that of “The Graduate.”

Really? Really?? Let me point you again to Slumdog Millionaire. People are thirsting for great content, but your marketing focus groups will never tell you that. If you miss complex stories, then write them! Is a complex, intriguing and multi-layered story burning inside you Mr. Farrelly? Please, please write it and get it made. You know enough people to do that. I promise you I will spend my twelve bucks to watch it. Why are you writing stuff like Shallow Hal and then complaining that you are being forced to do so?

The only person I agree with in the whole article is Ken Brecher, the Sundance institute’s executive director.

“Storytelling is flourishing in the world at a level I can’t even begin to understand,” said Ken Brecher…


If anything, Mr. Brecher added, technology has simply brought mass storytelling, on film or otherwise, to people who once thought Hollywood had cornered the business.


So what exactly will the Media Lab be doing?

The people at M.I.T., in any case, may figure out whether classic storytellers like Homer, Shakespeare and Spielberg have had their day.

Starting in 2010, a handful of faculty members — “principal investigators,” the university calls them — will join graduate students, undergraduate interns and visitors from the film and book worlds in examining, among other things, how virtual actors and “morphable” projectors (which instantly change the appearance of physical scenes) might affect a storytelling process that has already been considerably democratized by digital delivery.

Rubbish. They are not going to figure out whether classic storytellers are done. They are going to investigate how new technologies will affect the creation and the consumption of content.

And that is… fine. In fact, it is great and wonderful. And it makes for a good, news-worthy article. So why on earth did the Times make it about “the story”? The article opens with

The movie world has been fretting for years about the collapse of stardom. Now there are growing fears that another chunk of film architecture is looking wobbly: the story.

Let’s get it clear – as long as there are writers, no, as long as there are people, “the story” will survive. It is part of us. My grandmother is a fantastic storyteller and there are thousands of people out there who are telling stories every day.

What’s at risk is Hollywood’s business model and the standard methods of distribution. And perhaps the Times’ ability to figure out what the underlying story is all about!

Godfather – restored

What fabulous news – they’ve painstakingly restored the epic!

The final product, which the studio is calling “The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration,” combines bits and pieces of film recovered from innumerable sources, scanned at high resolution and then retouched frame by frame to remove dirt and scratches. The color was brought back to its original values by comparing it with first-generation release prints and by extensive consultation with Gordon Willis, who shot all three films, and Allen Daviau, a cinematographer (“E.T.”) who is also a leading historian of photographic technology.
Critic’s Choice – Pristine Glory of ‘Godfather’ Films in ‘Coppola Restoration’ Set on Blu-ray and DVD – Review –

The rest of the article makes me want to run out, buy it and watch all three films back to back. Here’s a small taste –

Watching the first film, you are struck again by how little screen time Marlon Brando actually occupies. Most of his work is done in the 20-minute opening sequence, as the Godfather sits in his study, receiving supplicants on the day of his daughter’s wedding. This is a piece of superbly efficient expository writing, setting out an exotic milieu, describing its rules and moral configuration, and establishing the larger-than-life figure who presides over and protects it.

And Brando plays it like the master he was, balancing just enough exaggeration (the cotton-stuffed cheeks, the asthmatic voice) with pure behavioral naturalism (the eyes that go blank when he is bored or distracted) to create a figure that both belongs to this world and is too big for it. After that sequence his work is effectively done, and the character can recede into the background of the action (he spends much of the rest of the movie recovering from an assassination attempt) without surrendering his dominant presence.

So, click through and read it.

And at the bottom of the article, a juicy little tidbit. Sex And The City: The Movie DVD also comes out this week. And it has 12 minutes that I didn’t get to see in the theater… Hmm… that screams “no brainer” to me. Count me $35 lighter.


The problem is us…

The NY Times takes a look at the state of the indie world. At a time when so many indies did well at the Oscars last year, why are so many indie studios closing??

But that embarrassment of riches is a direct cause of the present desolation. Those movies were sent out into a brutally competitive marketplace, a Hobbesian battlefield of each against all. Competition may be healthy, but in this case the odds of winning seemed to grow increasingly long as the victories became pyrrhic. In principle, the middle-sized movie is a way to minimize financial risk. With some notable exceptions, like Miramax at the end of the Weinstein era, the specialty divisions have advertised their thrift and moderation, often capping production costs at $10 million or $15 million or $20 million.

Compared with the $100 million that the big studios now routinely spend on their franchise movies, that’s not a lot. But the effort to make good on even a modest investment frequently becomes an exercise in throwing bad money after good. Building an audience for a movie that doesn’t capitalize on the mass appeal of a pre-existing pop cultural brand is an expensive proposition, and a huge gamble.

Ah, market dynamics. Indies are hot, so there are a ton of indie movies. Then, there are too many indie movies and the producers need to spend more and more to get audiences to watch them. The game goes from being a high probability that a small investment will succeed to a low probability that your now high investment will succeed.

Ideally in true market dynamics, winners are weeded out from the losers. The “smart” players will stay around, get smarter and earn more of the small indie market, but do so profitably. IF it is a big enough market. Here’s the kicker –

Will there now be fewer? Would that be a bad thing? Will fewer mean better, or just more of the same? These questions have ultimately less to do with the movie business — which always changes and always stays the same — than with the state of the audience. All of these strategies of marketing, branding, campaigning and publicizing amount to a strenuous, sloppy effort to intuit the desire and influence the behavior of moviegoers. And the problem may be not that there are too many movies, but that there are too few of us.

As an aspiring filmmaker, I believe there will always be filmmakers who want to make indie movies – movies that are not feel-good, big budget movies. And there will always be an audience. The question the NY Times proposes is is the audience big enough.

I wonder. Does this audience only consume indies? No. They also consume big budget. So how many indies can they watch and how can yours be one of them? That’s what everyone is trying to solve.

I think the answer will not be to spend more. It will be to spend differently. The cost of acquisition has to go down, the engagement method has to be different. Will be fun to watch… and perhaps, at some point, participate 🙂


Goldfrapp’s Happiness Video

This is a very, very cool video. Kudos to director Dougal Wilson.

This video seems like it is one single take. But it isn’t.

How many cuts can you find?

And if you like the song, here are the lyrics –

Join our group and you will find
Harmony and peace of mind
Make it better
We’re here to welcome you

We’re all on a journey to
Finding the real inner you
Make it better
We’re here to welcome you

Time stops still when
You’ve lost love

How’d you get to be happiness
How’d you get to find love, real love
Love, love, love

Floating in a magic world
Donate all your money we’ll
Make it better
We’re here to welcome you

We can see a troubled soul
Give us all your money we’ll
Make it better
We’re here to welcome you

Time stops still when
You’ve lost love

How’d you get to be happiness
How’d you get to find love, real love
Love, love, love

We’ll be swimming in the sea
Of wisdom and serenity
Make it better

How’d you get to be happiness
How’d you get to find love, real love
Love, love, love

Pangea Day

In 2006, filmmaker Jehane Noujaim was awarded the TED Prize. Each TED Prize winner is allowed to ask for one wish and TED will leverage the power of the attendees to make the wish come true (pretty cool, huh?)

Jehane’s wish – “I wish to bring the world together for one day a year through the power of film.” Ta da – Pangea Day was born.

This Saturday, May 10, 24 short films selected from thousands of submissions will be broadcast globally. The films range in length from 2 to 15 minutes (most of them around 5). In addition to the films, a dozen powerful three-minute talks from scientists, film-makers, story-tellers and global visionaries will be featured. These talks will cover the latest ideas in anthropology, psychology and technology.

In addition to the main locations of Cairo, Kigali, London, Los Angeles, Mumbai, and Rio de Janeiro, Pangea Day will be available on TV in a ton of countries. In the US, the full four-hour program is being carried live on Current TV. Star TV will carry it in China/India/Asia, MGM Networks in Latin America, Sky in the UK, several partners in the Mid-East, and many more around the world. The timings are  Saturday, May 10th 11am-3pm US West Coast, 2-6pm US East Coast, 7-11pm in UK, 8pm-midnight in Europe and much of Africa, 9pm-1am in the Mideast, 11.30pm-3.30am India, etc.

And of course, it will also be available online!

You won’t just be watching the show though. You’ll be watching it with tens of thousands of people around the world and the audience reactions will be broadcast. As the TED email about Pangea Day said “Watching a film about reconciliation is one thing. Watching it while simultaneously witnessing the reactions of people who are supposed to hate each other will be something else altogether.”

Can film change the way people think? Can it change perceptions about countries and alien cultures? Watch Kenya sing the Indian national anthem.

To me, the answer is yes.

I happened to be at TED when Jehane gave her acceptance speech. I’ve been waiting to see this wish come true and I will be spending four hours this Saturday being part of Pangea Day.

Will you?

Film festivals and the online audience

The Tribeca Film Festival will start in three weeks in NYC and I hope to attend parts of it. However, there are wonderful festivals around the world that I would love to attend but can’t. For example, I’ve wanted, but been unable, to attend Sundance for the past couple of years.

I am sure this is true for many people. Wouldn’t it be incredible if the film festivals showed their programming online?

I know that there are lots of issues around rights for the films and filmmakers may not want to hand over the online rights to any one festival. While it would be very cool to have the films available online for weeks or months, it may not be possible. So let’s make it easier – the festivals would have the rights to show the films online only during the festival itself – they could tie up with iTunes to make the downloads accessible only for a limited time. That means while Sundance is going on in Utah, I can be sitting in NYC and watching the same films at home.

Cannibalization could be a worry, but it is solvable. Festivals could charge the same fee (ticket price) to watch online. That would solve the monetary aspect of cannibalization. They may worry about loss of audience – valid concern. However, the people who make the time attend festivals in their city or those travel to festivals want to see these movies on a large screen. They want to hear the filmmakers talk about their films. They want to meet other movie buffs. Those people would still go because you can’t get that experience online.

So why is no one doing this?

If the goal of festival programmers is to highlight little indie gems to as broad an audience as they can, making the films viewable online is the way to go. I, for one, would love to watch the programming at Berlin, Toronto, Sundance, Tribeca and a whole host of others.