Monday, November 30, 2009


Hollywood in Panic Over New Helmer

By: Mike Fleming
Published: Sun, November 29, 2009,

In an exceptional deal for a director to make his feature helming debut, Ghost House Pictures has made a seven-figure deal with a Uruguayan commercials director to direct his pitch for an alien invasion film.

How did Fede Alvarez score such a million dollar deal when most first-time helmers make $250,000? The heat is based on “Ataque de Panico!” (Panic Attack), a four minute 48 second short film about an apocalyptic robot attack that Alvarez directed through his commercial production house at a cost between $300-$500. Watch for yourself:

After the short found its way to the internet and Kanye West featured a link to the film on his blog, a 30-year old who was not on anyone’s radar outside the Uruguayan blurb market suddenly found the biggest agencies in Hollywood in a collective panic attack to sign him. That created a chain reaction of activity over two weeks that led to a trip to Hollywood, where he met with every major agency, management firm and law firm that responded to the short--and a big deal.

After he signed with CAA, Anonymous Content and attorney Karl Austen, Alvarez made a pre-emptive deal with Ghost House that sets the helmer up to make his first film under the guidance of one of his directing heroes, Sam Raimi, who formed the genre label Ghost House within Mandate Pictures with Rob Tapert, Nathan Kahane and Joe Drake.

Raimi sparked to Alvarez’s short film—which offers a stylized vision of apocalyptic destruction that appears to have been made for far more than Alvarez spent. After Alvarez pitched an original idea for an alien invasion idea to the “Spider-Man 4” director, Ghost House closed a deal with Alvarez’s new reps that guarantees him a six-figure holding deal to wait while Ghost House hires a high-end scribe to turn the idea into a feature. The six-figure deal will be applied against a seven-figure fee if Ghost House
makes the film.

Raimi will produce with Ghost House partner Tapert, with Vertigo’s Roy Lee and Doug Davison also be involved in producing capacities. Kahane will be exec producer.

The idea that an unknown could put himself on the map by placing his film on the internet shows how much the Hollywood landscape is changing and how hungry financiers and studios are to find a filmmaker who might deliver the next “Paranormal Activity,” “District 9” or “Twilight.”

While the Thanksgiving weekend showed that stars can still perform—Sandra Bullock has carried the $30 million “The Blind Side” to a $100 million gross in just over one week—Alvarez’s short conjured up a high concept, visually-intriguing film that can be made for a small budget with no gross players by a filmmaker who can plug into a youthful demographic.

The Ghost House deal gives Alvarez the opportunity to make his Hollywood debut that is godfathered by Raimi in a mentoring role similar to the one that Peter Jackson served in Neill Blomkamp’s directing debut on “District 9,” an under $30 million film which has grossed over $180 million worldwide.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Do You Have a Question????????????


What question do you have about the industry and how it works? Why scripts sell, why they don't? Anything you want, Just place it in the comments section of this post.

Best regards,


Thursday, November 26, 2009

Light vs. Dark

'The Road' versus 'Old Dogs'

Serious films like 'The Lovely Bones' are in a fight with lighter fare like 'Alvin and the Chipmunks' this holiday season. Guess who's expected to win?

By John Horn of the L.A. Times >>>

November 26, 2009

As any husband or wife who has picked the wrong kind of spousal Christmas present knows -- a gym membership, for example, instead of a trip to Maui -- there's a big difference between earnest and enjoyable gifts. The same can be said when selecting a film to see this holiday season: Some moviegoers actually welcome challenging stories, but many more prefer untroubled fun.

It's a critical distinction as Hollywood enters the final weeks of the 2009 movie season. Over the next month, audiences will be offered stark choices between disparate filmmaking styles, with perhaps the most telling choice coming this weekend, as “The Road” premieres opposite “Old Dogs.”

There's no question Disney's family comedy will sell many more tickets than the Weinstein Co. and Dimension Films' adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic drama.
The real issue is whether "The Road" is among the last of a dying breed: movies aimed at literate adults -- which literate adults haven't been supporting.
Everywhere you look the movie business is changing, and if you're a serious movie fan, it's been mostly for the worse. The makers and distributors of art house films are failing faster (latest victim: Miramax Films) than toxic banks
, and the makers of "The Road" aren't immune. Financier 2929 Productions, which backed "Good Night, and Good Luck" and "We Own the Night," hasn't made a movie since "The Road" wrapped in early 2008, and
distributors Weinstein and Dimension are now steering their limited resources into genre material like "Piranha 3-D" and "Scream IV."

Audience tracking surveys suggest "The Road" faces an uphill climb: Nothing quite says "Happy Thanksgiving!" like a movie with cannibalism.

Even though McCarthy's book about a father and his son struggling to survive a terrifying, inhospitable world was a Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller, moviegoer awareness of the film is distressingly low -- less than half of the awareness of "Old Dogs." That's not the only worrying sign: among those who are "definitely interested" in seeing the end-of-the-world story, the only discernible bloc of support comes from older men and women -- the same demographic likely to attend "Old Dogs," but in much larger numbers for the John Travolta-Robin Williams comedy.

"The Road" isn't the only movie that audience surveys suggest has some work to do.

Early polling for writer-director James Cameron's $310-million "Avatar" from Fox isn't as favorable as it is for Warner Bros.' "Sherlock Holmes." The latter film comes out a week after "Avatar" yet still has significantly higher "definite interest." At the same time, young girls -- the fanatical ticket-buyers who pushed Cameron's Oscar-winning "Titanic" into the box-office record books -- are so far showing cool curiosity in Dec. 18's "Avatar," preferring by an almost 2-1 margin Dec. 23's "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel," also from Fox.

The new movie from another Oscar winner -- Peter Jackson's "The Lovely Bones" (Dec. 11) -- will obviously come nowhere close to doing the same kind of business as the director's "Lord of the Rings" movies. The adaptation of Alice Sebold's dark novel about a serial killer and his young victim will need four-star reviews to overcome its subject matter.

In the same manner, "The Road" will need to attract consistent critical acclaim and positive word-of-mouth to build box-office momentum. One of its earliest reviews was not kind but later notices, while mixed, have been more favorable.

The initial advertisements for the film made "The Road," which was once scheduled to be released a year ago, look more like a "Mad Max" knock-off than a serious adaptation of a critically acclaimed novel, as the first trailer used news footage of global destruction that isn't even in the film. "I wasn't very involved in that," director John Hillcoat says of the opening trailer. "All I will say is it's a tough sell, and I think it's a good strategy." A subsequent spot focused more closely on the against-all-odds survival tale between the Man (Viggo Mortensen) and the Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee).

Director Hillcoat and star Mortensen say it is that hopeful father-son story that ultimately anchors the tale, and what they both believe audiences will take away from a movie filled with horrors (although an infamously grisly scene of infanticide from the book was shot but cut from the finished film) almost too numerous to count.

"It captures something very difficult -- the spirit of the book," Mortensen says. The world may be dying, he says, "but it's luminous. Even though it's gray and it has a terrible bleakness to it, it's still beautiful."

The movie, the actor says, "did not compromise on the bleakness of the book, emotionally or visually. It allowed everything to be naked, raw and visceral. But it was able to capture something uplifting."

It's the same view that is working perfectly with "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," which has become a breakout hit for Lionsgate. Though "Precious" contains scenes of incest and physical abuse, it, like "The Road," is also a survival story.

Hillcoat says "The Road's" optimism is reflected in the connection between the Man and the Boy: "The movie is really about their relationship, and how one learns from the other." Readers of the book will know that's part of the tale and come see the movie, "but the challenge is to tap into the people who haven't read the book -- the wider audience," the Australian director says.

"My hope is that people see that the film is about human goodness and what makes us special. Just because it's set in a very harrowing world -- that's only to highlight why this relationship is so special."

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

What is a "Disney" movie?

Disney Studios drama might alter the industry

By Claudia Eller and Dawn Chmielewski

If you thought President Obama moved quickly, that's nothing compared with the first 50 days of the Ross administration.

In less than eight weeks, Rich Ross has swiftly stamped his imprimatur on Walt Disney Studios. The novice movie chairman and his boss, Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger, want to create a new business model for Hollywood to address the sweeping changes that are roiling the entertainment industry, including slumping DVD sales and the growing role the Internet plays in movie marketing.

Seeking to recast the studio for the digital era, Ross and Iger have set in motion a plan to dramatically challenge entrenched practices, potentially pitting Disney against theater owners, retailers and other business partners. The gambit, if it works, could be emulated by other studios.

If it backfires, it could undermine what has historically been the creative heart of Disney.

In meetings with producers, filmmakers and agents, Ross attacked the industry custom of spending $40 million on a TV advertising blitz two weeks before a film's opening, rather than enlisting more targeted campaigns that harness social networks and the broader Web. And he's raised again the touchy subject advanced by Iger that consumers are demanding that movies become available for home viewing sooner after release in theaters than has traditionally been the case.

Hollywood might finally be absorbing the message.

"Any of us that are sitting around protecting old business models unfortunately are destined to have a hard time succeeding in the coming years"
said Sam Gores, chairman of talent agency Paradigm. "We have to maximize our existing models and, more importantly, build new ones."

It's too soon to know whether Ross, a seasoned TV executive, can pull off his ambitious plan as well as successfully transition to the movie side of the business -- the track record in Hollywood is mixed. Ross declined to be interviewed.

In September, Iger stunned the industry when he ousted Disney's movie Chairman Dick Cook, a 38-year veteran who began as a Monorail operator at Disneyland. By installing Ross, who built the Disney Channel into a global juggernaut, Iger gains more control over a key division he believed had long operated too independently.

Since Ross took over in early October, he has dismissed several top executives and begun restructuring operations. In the process, some say, the hyperkinetic executive displays flashes of brusqueness and impatience. The upheaval has created anxiety for employees and even at times disrupted business dealings. An important meeting with director Tim Burton and producer Joe Roth, who once ran Disney's studio, to discuss marketing plans for the upcoming release of their film "Alice in Wonderland," for example, was abruptly canceled pending an executive shake-up, leaving the filmmakers flummoxed.

Since then, Disney watchers have needed a score card to track all the comings and goings.

Last month, Ross flew to New York to fire Daniel Battsek, the head of Disney's struggling specialty movie label, who, despite the unit's recent poor track record, was caught off guard. A week later, he pushed out another company veteran, Mark Zoradi, who was president of Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group, in a prelude to an overhaul of the marketing and distribution operations that he oversaw. Ross next let go marketing President Jim Gallagher and elevated former home video chief Bob Chapek to an expanded role that encompasses all aspects of film distribution from movie theaters to home and digital delivery, breaking with the conventional role of solely booking movies into theaters.

In the coming weeks, Ross plans to hire a new marketing chief -- Disney has retained an executive search firm to find candidates outside and inside the movie business -- who will have an equally broad mandate to handle the promotion of films from multiplexes to living rooms.

Beyond organizational changes, Ross' vision for the types of movies that will ultimately define Disney is beginning to emerge. His main focus will be developing family-friendly movies under the Disney label. Iger's overarching strategy is to amass a stable of recognizable entertainment brands -- Pixar Animation Studios and the pending acquisition of Marvel Entertainment Inc. -- and exploit the films across its TV, theme parks, consumer products and game divisions.

"It's brand over everything else,"
said Roth, referring to movies that come with built-in, pre-sold concepts, such as sequels. It's a strategy, he notes, that although designed to reduce risk is not without a downside.
"What may get lost in the shuffle are non-branded original ideas that have no pre-awareness."

One of the challenges Ross faces is how to navigate the release dates for Disney's event movies, including those from high-powered producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Bob Zemeckis. "It's very difficult because there are only X-number of really key release dates and a lot of filmmakers who make big movies," said Bruckheimer, responsible for Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise.

Ross, to a great degree, is doing what every new studio chief does: comb through the list of existing projects to decide those that live and those that die. Last week, he torpedoed director McG's planned $150-million production of "Captain Nemo: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," which had been envisioned as a new franchise.

One of the things he's told agents is that he's looking to make more movies that appeal to women. In meetings, Ross cited the studio's upcoming release "Old Dogs," a comedy starring Robin Williams and John Travolta, as a missed opportunity to further develop the female characters that would widen the movie's appeal.

"He seems to be open to broadening what it means to be a Disney movie," said United Talent Agency partner Jeremy Zimmer, "and to have more diversity and stronger execution of movies."

The new direction shouldn't come as a surprise: The studio has suffered two consecutive quarters of operating losses, and Iger this year took the unusual step of publicly criticizing the movie choices. Trying to cultivate relationships with talent that has close ties to Disney, Ross has been making the rounds in Hollywood.

Shortly after he took over, he went to DreamWorks' headquarters to meet with Steven Spielberg and his partner, Stacey Snider, who were enticed into a distribution deal by Cook and were distraught over his ouster. Snider said that Ross assured them that DreamWorks was an "important partner" and "was not going to let any balls fall." She and Spielberg in turn said to Ross, "We were sad that Dick was no longer there but that we're completely on board with him."

Ross also paid a visit to Bruckheimer at his Santa Monica office to see 40 minutes of his action film "Sorcerer's Apprentice," and attended a preview of his video game-inspired "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" -- both big upcoming summer releases for Disney. "He's off to a fast start," said Bruckheimer, referring to his industry networking and studio realignment. Equally important, he said, is that Ross "keep up the morale, which is important when you've lost a lot of leaders." A few weeks ago, Ross and Iger visited director Burton and Roth, who showed them a 10-minute 3-D clip of "Alice in Wonderland."Ross, who at Disney Channel was known for nurturing talent, apparently hit it off with the eccentric Burton."Rich was very good with Tim, really enthusiastic," Roth said

Now, Ross will have to work his magic on the studio's biggest star, Johnny Depp, who plays the Mad Hatter in "Alice in Wonderland" and Jack Sparrow in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" series. Depp was shaken over the abrupt dismissal of Cook and said at the time that the former studio chief embodied the quality he valued most.

"You generally don't meet people at the studios you trust," Depp said.



Sunday, November 22, 2009

Kavanaugh's hope: A pact overhaul

I love Ryan's model on individual films because of its simplicity and as he puts it at the end of this article it attempts to "align everybody's interest." That's just good business management regardless of the industry. You always want to align your key stakeholders incentives so they are all working in the same direction... the success of the project/division/company etc. or in this case, the film. Also the extremely important point that is never mentioned in this article is the creation of TRUST and the destruction of the "Hollywood Accounting" system. Ryan's model only works if the accounting is honest so the participants get their fare share and feel they can trust the system. That's the whole reason reps preferred gross deals. Gross deals protected them and their clients (notice the order)from B.S. accounting that never paid out.

Noting this, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the slate deals between hedge funds and studios (Sony, Universal, Warner Bros.) such as Gun Hill I & II (Which Kavanaugh brokered), from which returns have so far failed to live up to expectations. Earlier this year when hedge funds were facing record redemptions, they were reportedly selling off chucks of these funds for 30 cents on the dollar. Though without the inside data it's impossible to know for sure, it appears that these failures often happen after a studio has kept its best (most probably profitable) franchises for itself. This puts the whole concept behind these film funds in jeopardy as they are based on assumptions regarding risk and return. If the studio keeps a Harry Potter or Spiderman out of the portfolio, then the assumptions of portfolio risk were too low and the assumptions about cash flow were too high. A recipe for disaster in any investment, and a further representation of the studios continuing inability to deal with their investing partners on an honest basis. That being said, I also have to place some of the blame at the feet of these hedge fund managers for negotiating poor deals and assuming they were taking a "Random Walk Down Hollywood Blvd."

Which brings me back to Ryan and the way he finances individual films. If Ryan's spreadsheets continue to tell the truth, I believe he'll continue to finance a lot of films this way.

Relativity shifts DVD share in its prolific slate

When Ryan Kavanaugh accepted Producer of the Year honors at the Hollywood Film Festival on Oct. 26, attendees at the Beverly Hilton watching the baby-faced 34-year-old could be forgiven for wondering, "Who is this guy and how is he able to make so many films when others are in retreat mode?"

Via slate financing deals, Kavanaugh's Relativity Media is underwriting chunks of Universal and Columbia slates. His company's separate single picture business is also becoming a destination for talent with projects that have no studio deal because they are considered too offbeat, too risky, or too grownup.

Under Kavanaugh's business model, stars waive gross points, and work for severely discounted salaries. Once Relativity Media recoups, talent takes equity percentages in revenue streams that include 100% of DVD.

The concept is hardly new, and Relativity Media isn't the only one using it. Lionsgate, for instance, is aggressively pushing its own program, which has landed deals with Paul Haggis and Stephen Gaghan.

The biggest surprise is how prolific Relativity is with this program. In the past four years, he's used some form of this formula on 30 films.

Discussing the pay arrangement for the first time, Kavanaugh tells Variety that Relativity Media now uses variations of that risk-sharing formula in nearly all its films, and he predicts the concept will filter over to the slate financing.

Kavanaugh still makes some first-dollar gross deals, but nearly every pact now involves some give-back that has created an express lane to recoupment.

Though he had nothing to do with either film, Kavanaugh's sales pitch has been made easier because of the success of "Yes Man" and "The Hangover," both made with Warner Bros. By taking lower salaries (which helped lower their films' budgets), Jim Carrey and Todd Phillips have taken home checks, respectively, for $35 million and $45 million.

The principle, he says, is "treating talent as partners, not third-party hires."

Most of these deals are done under the radar, since reps don't want to advertise their clients are working for as low as $250,000. However, Steven Soderbergh didn't mind admitting that he'd waived his salary and gross for the espionage thriller "Knockout." That gives Kavanaugh a Soderbergh-directed action film for $20 million, and it gives Soderbergh an ownership stake somewhere above 25% but below 50% -- depending on whom you ask -- once Relativity recoups its budget, P&A and interest costs.

The discount system works best when the star or director can't get the picture made at full price. Warner Bros. would not have made "Yes Man" for $75 million and a 25% gross payment to Carrey, but the actor liked the project enough to take a risk. WB would only give Phillips $34 million to make "The Hangover" with an unproven cast, and the director had to kick in his fee to make the film his way.

Soderbergh wanted his "Knockout" star to be Gina Carano, viable in the mixed martial arts ring but not at the box office. Soderbergh's equity play gives him the latitude to entice the name actors he'll need to surround Carano.

Kavanaugh says Paramount balked at the budget for "The Fighter," but he made it for half that price because David O Russell, Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale and Amy Adams are participants. He also claims "Brothers" is in profits before it is even released, because Tobey Maguire, Jim Sheridan, Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman are participants. He similarly brags about the profit potential of other films due to the participant scheme: "Magruber," The Nicholas Sparks adaptation "Dear John," (Channing Tatum, Lasse Hallstrom, Amanda Seyfried and Marty Bowen) "The Spy Next Door" (Jackie Chan, Brian Levant and Bob Simonds) and "Season of the Witch" (Chuck Roven, Nicolas Cage and Dominic Sena).

Observers skeptical of Kavanaugh's approach say only time will tell if his bets work, and they suspect he's more in love with making deals than in the quality of movies. Talent will only get rich if the films make money. And several dealmakers said that if given a choice between a risk-reward deal and a studio pact, they'll take the latter.

And, at a time when the Producers Guild is again repeating its mantra that the "producer" title is being given too freely, some wonder if the self-admitted money man should be recognized as a producer (much less Producer of the Year).

Kavanaugh disputes the notion that his deal is a consolation prize to studio pacts.

He says Relativity is already seeing better projects as the formula catches on.

"This was a difficult sell at the beginning, when reps couldn't grasp the models, but we've proven it works, and we can show talent how they can make more in upside," Kavanaugh says. He seeks out established filmmakers and doesn't tell them how to make movies, as studios do. When he or his lieutenant Tucker Tooley get involved, they are more apt to come armed with spreadsheets than script notes.

"We had one instance where a cut came in at two hours, 30 minutes, and the director told us, I can't cut anything more," Kavanaugh said. "We delivered a spreadsheet and said, 'here's how much less you will make at the box office, compared to what you would make if it was one hour, 50 minutes, which means one more show a day. Without further discussion, that film was delivered at under two hours.

"If you could convince a director that every penny being spent is half his penny, it does make an impact," Kavanaugh said. "Suddenly it's, 'Do I need to have this crane around for the entire shoot? Do I really need those 20 extras?'

Eric Gold, Carrey's co-manager who helped construct the "Yes Man" deal that became a template for "The Hangover" deal, predicts that these risk-sharing pacts are the future, because the old $20 million against 20% gross deals are hard to come by, and because the new deal paradigms give talent access to 100% of DVD revenues, worth a potential fortune even in a flattening DVD market.

"The DVD royalties that studios paid first-dollar gross stars was like Elvis getting a Cadillac from Col. Parker, but now there is real opportunity for those willing to take a little downside risk," Gold says. "Our deal led to 'The Hangover,' and it's now spreading. There is an inflection point in all these deals and into an artists' sweet spot. But God is in the details here. These deals are very complex and while people might be told they are getting the 'Yes Man' deal, quite often, they aren't."

Dealmakers said they have to negotiate to remove as many fees and obstacles as possible that can delay the trigger for talent paydays. Kavanaugh dismisses the skepticism that his and other deals contain fees that get between talent and their monies. He said his formula isn't that complicated. Talent earns after Relativity recoups budget, interest charges, P&A, sometimes a low distribution fee, and out of pocket costs. Kavanaugh said that because distribution goes through Relativity-owned Rogue or Lionsgate, those costs are contained.

These risk sharing deals with talent are constructed differently. Kavanaugh's deals are rather straightforward: The talent gets a percentage of the revenue after the picture breaks even. But in the case of Warner Bros.' deals with Carrey and Phillips, each of whom waived their upfront salaries, they took on something akin to the role of a financier. They were paid percentages

Kavanaugh expects his program to grow because the old system had to change.

Said Kavanaugh: "In what other business would the principal investors and shareholders be willing to lose a fortune on an investment, and then write the equivalent of bonus checks for tens of millions of dollars? Our structure is to align everybody's interest and properly reward them. We want our money back, and then you can own the movie with us.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

DiBonaventura sets up 'Secret'

Company to produce 'Nicholas Flamel' series
Aiming to jump-start another fantasy franchise, Lorenzo di Bonaventura has snapped up rights to produce Michael Scott's six-part fantasy series "The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel."

Deal, announced Wednesday, returns di Bonaventura to familiar turf -- even though he's best known for robust actioners such as the "Transformers" pics -- as a key player in getting the lucrative Harry Potter franchise off the ground as production president at Warner Bros. in 1999 when the studio bought the rights to J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books. He shepherded the first two Potter pics into production before departing three years later for a producing deal at Paramount.

The six Potter pics have gone on to gross a collective $5.38 billion in worldwide box office.

Scott's series follows 15-year-old twins Sophie and Josh as they pursue adventure across several continents with the immortal alchemist of the title. Flamel, an actual French alchemist born in 1330, was included in "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," the first film and book in the series.

The "Flamel" series had been optioned by New Line three years ago and was set up with Mark Burnett to produce what the studio hoped would be a six-picture franchise (Daily Variety, Nov. 21, 2006). But in the wake of New Line's downsizing by Warner Bros. last year, the "Flamel" rights became available again. Scott and Barry Krost will exec produce the films.

"The Alchemyst," "The Magician" and "The Sorceress" are the first three of Scott's books in the series published by Delacorte Press Books, an imprint of Random House, and are available in 37 countries and 20 languages. The fourth book, "The Necromancer," will be published in May.

Di Bonaventura's recent productions include "G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra," the two "Transformers" pics and the upcoming "Salt," starring Angelina Jolie and Liev Schreiber.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Where did all the indie pics go?

Where did all the indie pics go?

Posted using ShareThis
Where did all the indie pics go?
Studios insist that the future belongs to franchises
Whether you're studying the Oscar race or box office results or simply scanning headlines, one question keeps reasserting itself: What ever happened to "indie" cinema?

With the departure of Daniel Battsek, Miramax has now gone the way of Vantage and Warner Independent. Fox Searchlight is having an ominous autumn (Peter Rice knew when to jump ship) and the bloggers keep composing dirges about the Weinstein company (though most of them have not seen "Nine" or "A Single Man").

The major studios, having vandalized the indie sector, now insist that low-budget dramas are toxic and that the future belongs to franchises (remember the era when the only "franchises" were sports teams?).

Virtually the last mainstay of the indie world is Sony Pictures Classics, a company built on the heretical thesis that "great indie films just happen, you can't make them happen."

Those are the words of Tom Bernard, who with partner Michael Barker, have steered their little label through 20 years of cinematic cross-currents. Their excellent Brit picture, "An Education," surely an Oscar candidate, directed by an obscure Danish filmmaker, happened to find several puddles of financing before Sony Classics seized distribution rights for the U.S..

Then, of course, there's the ultimate indie happening -- "Paranormal Activity," which was made on a tab of $11,000 and is headed for $100 million through an astonished Paramount.

Similarly, "Precious," a true long shot, was financed by heirs to the Celestial Tea fortune and is being distributed by Lionsgate, which hopes to make it their "Crash" of 2010.

When compared to the carefully orchestrated government subsidies and lotteries of foreign countries, the American method of nurturing art films seems haphazard, if not downright uncultured. But it's the only way that works.

When the "majors" tried to develop and package indie films, the budgets quickly became too lofty, the casts top-heavy and the marketing spends self-defeating. Too many of the studio-backed art films were star-driven passion projects; the random passions of actors -- even top actors -- are at best erratic.

I discovered this some years ago when I was a studio executive and Paul Newman had a passion to star in a film with the unfortunate title "WUSA." I told Newman that while I admired his movies, "WUSA" was a tedious political polemic that no one would pay to see. He replied that I was an ignorant asshole. Given his vehemence, I told myself, "Newman is a star, he's working for nothing, how bad can it be?"

The answer: really bad.

Today's few and far between indie hits aren't star-driven -- their only common denominator is that they're accidents of history. Take "Slumdog Millionaire" or "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" or look back to the days of "Sex, Lies and Videotape" or "The Gods Must Be Crazy."

In years past, the indie world was bolstered by some shrewd decisions and also some good luck. Sony decided to set up an indie label and not mess with it. Harvey Weinstein decided that Oscars could be important to indie films and that Oscar showmanship represented a sound business investment.

It would be hard to imagine another autonomous Sony Classics being formed today. And though Harvey's hypothesis worked brilliantly for him in its time, the majors don't seem to covet statuettes any more.

To be sure, while orthodox methods of marketing indie films are being disdained, no one has really worked out a new strategy. Viral praise on the web and fierce Facebook advocacy can provide magic boosts for an art movie, but engineering all that is far from a science. Not even the youthful gurus of the web have managed to package Instant Zeitgeist.

And meanwhile the indie world continues to struggle along, its sagging fortunes buttressed now and then by happy accidents. Maybe, as Tom Bernard suggests, art is indeed an accident.

In the brave new world of 10 Oscar nominees (not just five), the accidents better happen with greater regularity.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What Should I Write?

Because of yesterday's article about studios possibly relying less on A-list actors, I'm re-posting this from earlier in the year as it directly applies. As an aside, I happened to bump into a development exec from DreamWorks Animation at Saturday's USC/Stanford game. He echoed many of these same sentiments regarding what they are looking for; original concepts, new worlds, timeless stories.
For those of you wondering why a picture of Magic Johnson accompanies this, it's because he's taking a layup. Not a 3 pointer, not half court. Writing a sellable script is tough enough. Let's not make it harder than it already is.

I hear this question often from young writers and the answer will always be the same.... I don't know. Nor does anybody else, but here are some tips. Sure, we can make a few phone calls and tell you "Disney is looking for a Christmas project" or "Columbia wants a thriller, but no noir, or 90's female in jeopardy, and comedies grounded in reality always help" blah, blah blah.
Sure, you could write a script to fill one of those niches, but by the time you finished it the studios’ needs would have changed and you'd still be asking the same inevitable question...What does the market want now?
So, let's get less specific and start thinking about the person who's buying your material (script, short story, novel, comic book whatever). So now you're the studio executive. What's your job? How do you move your career forward? What motivates you to buy something?
As a studio exec. your job is to develop and produce commercially successful films. What does "commercially successful" mean? Well last I checked, the average cost of a studio film (including prints and advertising, P&A) tips the scales at around $79 million. Now think about that and let it sink in. $79 million! So they are looking for projects that can make back MORE than that amount. And remember approximately half the money at the box office goes to the theater, not the studio, so they're looking to gross over $150 million. Are the studios looking for your movie?
So what is a studio exec. looking for when shopping for stories? Even though many of them may not realize it, they're looking for one word.......
MONOPOLIES, or as close to them as they can come.
Let me tell you why. What’s your competition? As a studio exec. what is your entertainment product competing with?
Let's make a list:
Broadcast TV
Cable TV
Video Rentals
Video Games
.......or hell, the consumer could actually get off their ass and go play basketball, or ride a bike or go check out a sunset – or read a book!
Now we know all these activities (even the sunset) have some form of cost, just as going to the movies does. However, in the mind of the consumer, there is a huge difference between these items and going to the local multiplex. From the consumer's perspective all of these items are relatively FREE and movies are not.
When a consumer comes home and flips on the TV he doesn't feel the cable company slipping its hand in his pocket to fish out a couple of bucks, he thinks, or rather he feels at that moment that it’s free. He won't feel the pinch of the cable company until the bill comes in the mail. The same relationship, to a greater or lesser degree, exists between the consumer and the other entertainment options as well.
This is not the case for movies. Movies are like a heavyweight fight; they're pay per view. When you go to see a movie you are going to feel the financial and non-financial pain/costs immediately.
Costs to the consumer related to seeing a film:
Financial: Ticket price, food & drink, and possibly the cost of parking. Let's call this around $15 per person.
Non-financial: You have to drive there and park, you are forced to accept their schedule, you can't hit pause, the seats are far smaller than your couch, you have to share the room with 500 people you don't know etc.......
Thus, every time consumers are faced with an entertainment decision, in order for them to choose a film over other activities, clearly they must feel that the likelihood exists that the movie they will see, the moviegoing experience they are going to have, is not only superior to all those other free alternatives, but so superior that they are willing to give up an extra $15/person, all the creature comforts of home and put up with the hassles of going to the theater.
This means that as a studio exec you have to produce and market a film that is so compelling that Joe Schmoe will put down his beer or soda, get his ass off the couch, drive the 4.2 miles to the AMC Theater 28, park, walk, and plunk down $15 per person to sit in a dark room with 300 people he doesn’t know, in small seats and you cant hit pause to take a piss. In order to get people to do that you need some really good stuff!
So back to that word MONOPOLY. In order to compel the consumer to see your product you want to create a monopoly. You need a product they can’t get anywhere else. If you ran reruns of old Hogan's Heroes episodes at your local theater would anyone go? Hell no! They can get that at home for free. So how do you create a monopoly? There are essentially three ways to do it.
1) Movie Stars. You want to see Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Vince Vaughn, Tom Cruise etc.? You gotta come see my movie. You can't see these stars in new material anywhere else except by paying to see the flick. But here's the drawback, they're really expensive, fickle, and not always available when you need them. It's not like going to the store and pulling a box of Wheaties off the shelf whenever you want. In this scenario the Wheaties can say "No," or "Only if Ron Howard is directing," or "Sure, but I'm not available until next year."
2) Cutting Edge Visuals. Incredible special effects can help fill seats, but are often expensive. Sometimes they are worth the money and sometimes they are not (the same can be said of stars). If you can deliver cutting edge visuals that no one has seen anywhere else before, once again you've created a monopoly. You want to see what it's like to be inside a Tornado? Well you can't get that on CBS, you have to come to my movie. You want to run with dinosaurs, you want to see the Titanic split in two? You gotta come to my movie!
3) Original Concepts and New Worlds. What's it like to be an angel, a fireman, immortal? That's the basis for three films right there. “The Prophecy”, “Backdraft”, “Highlander” all written by Greg Widen. What's it like to play in underground poker games? "Rounders." What's it like to be in the mob? "Godfather 1,2,3" What's it like to be a Jedi Knight? "Star Wars." What's it like to have been in the Special Forces in Somalia....? "Blackhawk Down." You want to experience these worlds? You gotta come see my movie.
Deliver a world or a setting that we've never seen before, or that we haven't seen in a while (remember approximately 50% of the movie going audience is between 14 & 24. If a concept was used 10+ years ago, odds are they haven't seen it). “War of the Worlds” = “Independence Day”="War of the Worlds". “Kelly's Heroes” = “Three Kings”. "Taming of the Shrew"="10 Things I Hate About You," “Disturbia” = “Rear Window.” Are these exact matches? No! But are they delivering, or repackaging if you will, concepts that the earlier films/plays successfully sold to the consumer. Yes!
Now which of these methods of creating a Monopoly is most efficient to you the writer? Absolutely, positively #3. If you can deliver a fresh exciting concept to the studio, then the studio can choose whether or not to spend money on stars or visuals.
Will Smith's market price before “ID4” was squat. The "big stars" were Jeff Goldblum, and Bill Pullman. Was anybody in “Titanic” expensive? No, Leo DiCaprio hadn’t made a big name for himself yet. The expense went into the cost of the production (the ship) and the visuals.
What about “Oceans 11, 12, 13”? Big visuals? No. Big Stars? Yes!
What about Horror films? Maybe visuals, almost never stars, and for some reason monsters only attack hot chicks in their underwear???????
Romantic Comedies starring women? Visuals... none. Stars? These are female marketed films, often if you can’t get one of the five or six hot girls du jour (Sandra, Cameron, Julia, Nicole, Drew, Charlize) forget it. Your project is going nowhere.
(exception)Romantic Comedies starring men? (40 year old virgin etc.) Visuals... none. Stars? Not really. These are driven by the COMEDY, the romance is absolutely secondary. Sometimes the relationship between our hero and his buddy is more important than the fact that the hero get’s the girl like in Superbad (Bromance). These are about laughing and marketed mostly to men, but women will follow if the story has heart, so make sure it does. It's more Com/rom than Rom/com. This gives the writer an advantage.
Theoretically the studio could make a film that is interesting enough, original enough to sell to the consumer and not have to pay the enormous expense of mega-stars or pricey effects. Examples: “American Pie”, “Fast and the Furious”, “Animal House”
So what's the perfect script? I don't know, but since you don't have any $20 million actors as your best friends, or own Skywalker Ranch forget #1 and #2. A great (let’s define that as salable) script is one that delivers a new/revisited and interesting world, with heroes we like and can empathize with and villains we fear, despise and understand. It's usually set present day, in the U.S. and has interesting set pieces. If it lends itself to cool visuals, great. If it offers the kind of challenging or fun roles actors will enjoy playing, fantastic. This is what your buyer, the studio exec., is often looking for. Something he or she can read and immediately see in their minds who's staring in it and what the poster looks like. Something that makes them sit up and say "Wow this is really interesting, this is cool, I can sell this, my boss will be stoked!"
News flash! It's not the 70's anymore. At most studios the head of production and the head of marketing have to agree to make a picture. Regardless of how great your script may be, if they cant' sell it they won't make it, and if they won't make it, they wont buy it.
Does following this prescription mean a Best Picture or Best Screenplay oscar? Probably not, but we can work on that later. What it does mean is having a much better shot at selling your script, which means, getting your foot in the Hollywood door, getting paid for your work and starting your career.
By the way – this applies, to one degree or another, not just to beginners, but to every writer in Hollywood – and every experienced writer knows it.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Hollywood rethinks use of A-list actors

This is great news for a smart screenwriter. It gives him more control over whether or not his film is made and allows his great idea (if well executed) to more freely compete with screenplays by better known writers.

Films are showing that a good concept trumps star power
By Alex Dobuzinskis, Reuters

Nov 13, 2009
Hollywood studios are now thinking twice about splurging on A-list movie stars and costly productions in reaction to the poor economy, but also because of the surprising success of recent films with unknown actors.

After buddy comedy "The Hangover," a movie with a little-known cast, made $459 million at the global boxooffice this past summer, several films have shown that a great concept or story can trump star appeal when it comes to luring fans.

"District 9," a low-budget movie in which the biggest stars were space aliens treated like refugees and the lead actor was South African Sharlto Copley, made $200 million. Thriller "Paranormal Activity," starring Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, has cash registers ringing to the tune of $100 million.

Next up, on Nov. 20, comes Summit Entertainment's relatively low-budget ($50 million) franchise movie "The Twilight Saga: New Moon," a sequel to 2008 hit vampire romance "Twilight" which made global stars of Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart. Online ticket sellers report "New Moon" is one of their highest presale movies of all time, and boxoffice watchers expect the film to have a smash opening.

"Nobody says that a big wonderful movie needs to be expensive, it's just that that's been the trend, and perhaps the trend is misguided," said USC cinema professor Jason Squire.

Last weekend, "Disney's A Christmas Carol," featuring the voice of comic actor Jim Carrey, became the latest celebrity-driven movie to stumble at boxoffices, opening to a lower-than-expected $30 million.

Aside from Carrey and "Carol," which cost at least $175 million, A-listers who suffered boxoffice flops recently have included Bruce Willis ("Surrogates"), Adam Sandler ("Funny People"), Will Ferrell ("Land of the Lost"), Eddie Murphy ("Imagine That") and Julia Roberts ("Duplicity").

"The (major movie) machine didn't fly last summer, if you look at the movies and the names, they were not star-driven movies, they really weren't," said Peter Guber, chairman of Mandalay Entertainment and former head of Sony Pictures.

Hollywood insiders say A-listers are having trouble with salary demands in the $15 million range or participation approaching 20% of gross profits -- deals that were once somewhat common for top talent. Instead, they are being asked to take less money upfront and greater compensation only if a film breaks even.

In "New Moon," Pattinson and Stewart rekindle their romance between an immortal vampire and a high school girl that they brought to silver screens in last year's adaptation from Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" books.

At the time, Pattinson and Stewart were unknown stars but that did not hurt "Twilight," which made $384 million at global boxoffices and gave Summit a bona fide franchise.

It's not unusual for franchises like the "Harry Potter" movies to begin with unknown actors, but as the films' popularity takes root, production budgets relax and actor, producer and other salaries soar.

But in recent years, Hollywood has been racked by the recession, competition from video games and the Web, declining DVD sales and fewer licensing deals with television networks

This week, Disney chief Bob Iger said in a conference call that the sluggish DVD market is one reason the major studio has altered its moviemaking. "It causes us to really reconsider not only what we're investing in our films, but how we market them and how we distribute them," he said.

For its part, fledgling Summit has positioned "Twilight" as a franchise for the recession era by keeping the pressure on the costs for "New Moon," and Hollywood producers are praising them for it.

"Good for them, they are really keeping the costs down. It is unusual," said Lauren Shuler Donner, a producer on the "X-Men" films and 2008's "The Secret Life of Bees."

Summit, whose executives declined to be interviewed, took a page from the playbook of "The Lord of the Rings" by shooting the second and third films back-to-back this summer.

When director Peter Jackson made his three "Lord of the Rings" films simultaneously 10 years ago, it was a novel idea that reduced costs because actors, sets, costumes, locations and other items only had to be assembled and paid for once.

Similarly, by shooting the next two "Twilight" movies together, Summit kept the cost of the third film, "Eclipse," due June 30, around $60 million, one source said.

"What I like is they didn't have a long window (between films), they went in to make a franchise, they didn't go in to see if they had a franchise," said Warren Zide, producer on the "American Pie" and "Final Destination" movies.

'2012' destroys worldwide box office - Entertainment News, Film News, Media - Variety

'2012' destroys worldwide box office - Entertainment News, Film News, Media - Variety

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Sony’s Roland Emmerich disaster pic "2012" was a global tidal wave at the worldwide box office, flooding screens to the tune of $225 million in its opening weekend. Pic wreaked far more destruction overseas, where it grossed $160 million, compared to $65 million domestically.

Emmerich’s film saw the fifth best international opening of all time, and the best foreign launch ever for a nonsequel, if the estimates hold.

The specialty biz also sprang to life with Lionsgate’s "Precious,"

zooming to No. 4 in its second frame at the domestic B.O. Drama grossed a boffo $6.1 million from only 174 runs for a location average of $35,000 and cume of $8.9 million, seeing a 225% jump as it successfully expanded from 18 runs the weekend before.

Twentieth Century Fox’s prestige/family title "Fantastic Mr. Fox" successfully raided the chicken coop, scoring a per-location average of $65,000 for an estimated $260,000 from four runs in Los Angeles and New York. The Wes Anderson-directed animated film has earned $12.6 million from its run in the U.K., where it opened last month.

"Mr. Fox," with a voice cast led by George Clooney and Meryl Streep, expands nationwide in the U.S. on Nov. 25.

Focus Features’ Brit pic "Pirate Radio," the only new wide release after "2012" at the domestic B.O., encountered rough seas. Directed by Richard Curtis and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, title grossed an estimated $2.9 million from 882 runs for a per-location average of $3,253. Focus distributed on behalf of parent studio Universal, which produced the film with Working Title.

Weekend brought some much-needed solace for the Mouse House as Robert Zemeckis’ "Disney’s A Christmas Carol" fell just 26% in its second frame to an estimated $22.3 million for a cume of $63.3 million. Disney insisted the film would have strong legs, and the weekend bore out that prediction.

Overseas, "Christmas Carol" grossed a solid $16 million from 3,229 screens in 21 territories to come in No. 2. Holdover markets, led by the U.K., dipped only 20%. Pic launched at No. 1 in Japan to $3.1 million from 375. Foreign cume is $33.6 million for a worldwide total of $98.6 million.

Two pics jumped the $100 million mark at the domestic B.O. this frame: Paramount’s micro-budgeted blockbuster "Paranormal Activity" ($103.8 million) and Universal’s "Couples Retreat" ($102.1 million).

Still, domestic ticket sales were down roughly 5% from the same weekend last year, when Sony’s James Bond installment "Quantum of Solace" debuted to $67.5 million and Paramount/DreamWorks Animation’s "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa" grossed $35 million in its second sesh.

"2012" earned Sony’s second B.O. victory in a row after Michael Jackson’s "This Is It," which finished the sesh with a worldwide cume of $222.6 million.

Sony needed a big opening for "2012," considering the film cost at least $200 million to produce, plus hefty marketing costs.

"2012" also was a boost for Emmerich, whose previous film, "10,000 BC," couldn’t crack the $100 million mark at the domestic box office, topping out at $94.8 million. That film did far more business overseas, cuming $175 million. That’s a familiar pattern for Emmerich’s action-disaster pics, which seem to appeal more to international auds than domestic.

In the U.S., "2012" skewed slightly older, with 55% of the audience over age 25. It also skewed slightly female, at 52%.

"The opening number says that Roland Emmerich is an incredible filmmaker whose work resonates everywhere. He has truly set a new bar with this film in regards to the amazing images and special effects, as well as the story," said Sony prexy of worldwide distribution Rory Bruer.

Overseas, "2012" opened No. 1 in all 105 territories where it bowed. France led with $17.2 million, followed by Russia at $15.3 million, Germany at $12.4 million, China with $12.3 million and the U.K. with $10.8 million. In some territories, including Russia and India, it was the second-best Hollywood opening of all time, based on local currency.

In terms of top international launches, "2012" comes in behind Warner Bros.’ "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" ($236 million), Sony’s "Spider-Man 3" ($231 million), Disney’s "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End," ($216 million) and "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" ($193 million). "2012" bumped Sony’s "Da Vinci Code" ($155 million) from the No. 5 slot.

Placing No. 4 on the domestic top 10 chart was a significant achievement for "Precious," acquired by Lionsgate at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. The harrowing urban drama, toplining newcomer Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’Nique, is playing both arthouses and theaters in predominantly African-American neighborhoods.

Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry are exec producers on the film.

"Precious" went into new markets including Philadelphia, San Francisco and Dallas, as well as adding screens in holdover markets Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta and Chicago.

Urban theaters continued to overperform, but Saturday traffic in arthouse theaters was up significantly, a good indication that the film is crossing over.

Pic narrowly lost the No. 3 spot to Overture Films’ George Clooney topliner "The Men Who Stare at Goats," which declined 51% in its second frame to an estimated $6.2 million from 2,453 theaters for a cume of $23.4 million. "Precious" could pull ahead when final figures are tallied for the weekend.

Like "Precious," "Mr. Fox" also is a marketing hybrid, targeting both Anderson’s fans and families. Fox Searchlight is consulting with big Fox on marketing the toon.

Fox senior VP of domestic distribution Chris Aronson said 65% of the matinee crowd on Saturday were families, who also made up 35% of the Saturday nighttime aud.

"The film is satisfying for both audiences," Aronson said. "All manner of hens were flushed out of the coop with this one."

Focus said that while it was disappointed with "Pirate Radio’s" overall performance, the turnout in arthouse theaters in major markets was strong enough to fuel good word of mouth. In the U.K., pic was released under the title "The Boat That Rocked."

Stressful jobs that pay badly; Producer

From CNN.Money

Film/TV producer
Karolyne Sosa's job isn't all glamor and glitz.

Median pay: $47,600
% who say their job is stressful: 78%

Getting started in film and television production often means running scripts, fetching coffee and being a go-between for others, all while staying out of the way. Big personalities and unforgiving deadlines undermine the glory of this behind-the-scenes gig.

Even being a film producer isn't as glamorous as it seems. Independent film producer Karolyne Sosa often does whatever it takes to get her projects done, whether that is cleaning a set before a shoot or forgoing her salary entirely so the money can go toward the production. "If you want to survive, you just have to swallow your pride," Sosa says.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

J.J. Abrams' mystery box

From TED 2007

-Required Viewing
If you have any problem playing it, use the "required viewing" link

MGM headed for sale

MGM headed for sale

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Studio library, logo may be auctioned off soon
MGM may be the best known logo in the entertainment business, but the company seems headed for another possible garage sale.

Several sources say they expect that MGM will essentially be auctioned off within the next few weeks.

This would mean that a major, such as Time Warner, could buy the MGM-UA library while another entity might acquire the logo, and yet another deal could be made for United Artists. Sources speculated that Kirk Kerkorian, who has already bought and sold MGM twice, might buy the logo once again.

Last summer Harry Sloan was bounced as MGM's CEO and Stephen Cooper, a specialist in restructuring companies (Krispy Kreme was one of his projects) started meeting with bankers with the aim of restructuring some $3.7 billion in debt. There was speculation that the combined assets of MGM may now yield as little as $1.5 billion in the present market.

The various equity owners of MGM, including several private equity firms, have already written down their $5 billion acquisition, which closed in 2004.

MGM's library contains 4.000 titles, but some specialists in film libraries consider its list of titles to be geriatric.

Any sort of auction would need approval of a two-thirds majority of the bondholders, and a couple of the bondholders insist they have not been contacted as yet. Some sources believe a pre-packaged bankruptcy is still an option, and there is still an expectation that Time-Warner might make a last eleventh hour bid.

Neither Cooper nor MGM would comment.

MGM's released only a remake of "Fame" this year. For 2010, it's opening two comedies -- "Hot Tub Time Machine" in March and "The Zookeeper" in October -- and a remake of "Red Dawn" in November.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Mark Zoradi steps down at Disney

I was at an intimate awards dinner Saturday night where Mark received the Louis B. Mayer award from UCLA's Entertainment & Media Management Institute. Mark is a very smart, extremely capable and personable guy. Disney is losing a talent.

Mark Zoradi steps down at Disney

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Exec exits post as worldwide marketing topper
Rich Ross is starting to put his stamp on the Mouse House's feature operations.

Mark Zoradi announced on Monday his resignation as president of worldwide marketing and distribution of the Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Group, becoming the first senior executive to depart since Ross took the reins as chairman of Walt Disney Studios early last month (Daily Variety, Oct. 6).

Zoradi, who leaves immediately, had worked for the Mouse House for the past 29 years and was appointed by Dick Cook, who resigned as chairman of the studio in September.

Departure comes as the Mouse's high-profile holiday pic "Disney's A Christmas Carol" opened to a soft $31 million domestic this past weekend. But insiders said Zoradi's exit was tied to Ross' decision to tap his own senior ranks and was not related to the performance of the Jim Carrey starrer.

Zoradi's replacement has yet to be chosen.

Executive shuffles are hardly unusual when a regime change takes place at a studio, and those in marketing and distribution positions are often the first to be replaced, especially when the studio's film slate has been struggling at the box office. Ross, the former chairman of Disney Channels Worldwide, declined comment beyond a statement.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Videogame companies set-up studio pics

Videogame companies set-up studio pics

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Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, Eidos look to the big screen
Where Marvel and Hasbro have led the charge for movies made from comicbooks and toys at the megaplex, Electronic Arts now hopes to do the same for films based on videogames.

A year after the second-largest gamemaker announced plans to use films as a way to grow its top franchises, it has set up six projects at studios around town or with high-profile producers, proving that despite a string of creative and financial blunders in the past, Hollywood still believes that a popular game franchise can turn into a successful series of tentpoles for studios.

One reason is the considerable coin the games biz rakes in: While overall sales are down 13% this year, videogames are still expected to generate approximately $20 billion in 2009.

EA already knows a thing or two about franchises, having produced over the years major moneymakers such as "The Sims," racer "Need for Speed" and the annual "Madden" football game.

Yet when the company realized it was focusing too much on sports games or pumping out sequels and expansion packs for aging franchises, and licensed games based on movies and TV shows, EA ponied up millions in development dollars to launch new titles to excite gamers, and possibly turn into new franchises -- titles including "Spore," "Dead Space," "Army of Two," "Mirror's Age," "Dragon's Age" and the upcoming "Dante's Inferno."

EA hopes those games don't just play on videogame consoles but also perform as lucrative sources of revenue from the sale of comicbooks and novels, toys, apparel and collectibles, as well as TV shows and movies.

For example, for last year's release of its sci-fi horror actioner "Dead Space," EA paired up with Image Comics to produce a comicbook whose plot served as a prequel to the storyline of "Dead Space: Downfall," an animated direct-to-DVD feature that ends where the game begins.

As part of a multipic deal, Starz Media's Film Roman produced the DVD toon, and aired the feature on its own cabler Encore. It's producing another animated feature that will bow around the release of "Dante's Inferno" early next year that has various Japanese and Korean anime artists conceiving their vision of the nine levels of hell.

EA shunned the idea of a multiplatform entertainment strategy in the past, thinking it distracted developers from making quality games.

But after leaving EA for three years, John Riccitiello changed that corporate decree when he returned to the company as CEO in 2007, pushing the idea that if a game can appeal to more than the hardcore gamer, it could sell more copies in the long run.

"Our goal is to get really good movies made that our discerning fan base will want to see, and reflect really well on EA and our titles to the millions of people who don't play our games," says Patrick O'Brien, VP of EA Entertainment, the division tasked with shepherding the game maker's nontraditional entertainment efforts. "We want to hit consumers where they are. They watch movies, spend a lot of time on the Internet, watch TV."

O'Brien has much bigger pictures in mind than DVD movies, however, eager to erase the stigma of bad videogame movies by placing its adaptations into the hands of notable screenwriters, directors and producers, through the help of United Talent Agency, which reps the gamemaker in Hollywood.

* This month, "Ice Age" creator Chris Wedge signed on to direct "Spore" as an animated creature feature for Fox that Greg Erb and Jason Oremland, who penned Disney's "The Princess and the Frog" and the Ben Stiller pic "The Return of King Doug" at Paramount, will script. EA and Fox are especially high on Wedge after "Ice Age" turned into a major franchise for the studio, generating $1.9 billion from three pics since 2002.

* EA and Fox are also developing a live action take on "The Sims" that John Davis is producing, while Film Roman is also developing an animated TV series based on the "MySims" games.

* "Bourne Ultimatum" scribe Scott Z. Burns is penning "Army of Two" at Universal; Peter Berg is attached to direct.

* Strike Entertainment ("Dawn of the Dead," "Children of Men") and U are behind a version of "Dante's Inferno" with Dan Harris ("Superman Returns," "X2: X-Men United") scripting.

* DJ Caruso is aboard to helm "Dead Space," with Marty Bowen and Wyck Godfrey producing through their Temple Hill ("Twilight") shingle. It's not yet at a studio.

* And Avi Arad, who helped Marvel launch "Spider-Man" and its other superhero film franchises, is now behind a number of videogame pics, including EA's alien invasion actioner "Mass Effect." The project, too, has no studio home yet.

EA isn't alone in its Hollywood aspirations.

Other publishers have recently sought out major movie deals, with Universal developing bigscreen versions of Take-Two's "BioShock" and Atari's "Asteroids," while Jerry Bruckheimer produced Ubisoft's potential "Prince of Persia" franchise at Disney. Eidos' "Tomb Raider" which already spawned two pics at Paramount with Angelina Jolie as the treasure-hunting adventurer, is getting a reboot over at Warner Bros. The studio also has a version of Capcom's "Lost Planet" in the works with Arad.

If it gets its way, EA wants to time the release of a film adaptation around the launch of a new game or vice versa.

But while it can take up to two years to produce a game, O'Brien has found it can take longer to deal with the studio development process in Hollywood.

"We've had to go through a huge educational process," he says. "It's a system that we'd like to move a lot faster than it does. We are a company with living, breathing franchises. The reason we are making movies is to support our core business. But things need to move on a snappy timeline for that to make sense."

That's why until those movies can be made, EA is producing its movies direct-to-DVD, which it will also distrib digitally through videogame consoles, or pursue other opportunities. A new deal with IDW Publishing will result in comicbooks for "Army of Two" and "Dragon Age" early next year. A series of novels based on "Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning" already has been launched.

While it may not be able to control how quickly films can get made -- unless it decides to fund those projects, which it has yet to do -- EA hasn't lost all of its control over the creative process.

Rather than simply handing its games over to studios, EA remains hands-on as a producer in order to retain a say over the final film. It has a lot to lose, with a disappointing pic potentially hurting game sales. But it has a lot to gain should the film turn into a blockbuster.

For EA's adaptations, scribes have been given the freedom to run with their own ideas and not stick too strictly to the action or plots that play out in the games, because the thinking is that being too faithful to the games has resulted in lackluster films in the past.

"We explain what the world is about, what the missions are about, and then we leave the guy to do his job," Alain Tascan, VP and general manager of EA's Montreal studio, which produces "Army of Two," has said. "The way you tell a story in eight hours, 12 hours, and develop the characters, is completely different than two hours."

O'Brien believes the various spinoffs can deepen consumers' connection with a game.

"A good movie is seen by a couple hundred million people," O'Brien says. "Movies can introduce our titles to people who are not part of the two to six million people who play them every day," as well as introduce them to auds in other countries who may not be familiar with EA's franchises -- especially in Asia and South America, where EA is still growing.

The company hopes to eventually replicate much of the success Hasbro and Marvel have had in producing successful films that can in turn drive their core businesses.

"Those are companies I very much admire and watch closely in their evolution," O'Brien says.

It was only a matter of time before videogame publishers became more active in film.

"We've all been sleeping giants," O'Brien says. "We've had a great business and huge growth, but people haven't been as focused on ancillary stuff. When you look at what companies like Marvel have done, there's every reason to do it and no reason not to. It's just clear that if you can devote some resources to exploring and then pushing those kinds of productions, the payoff is significant."

WGAW reaches out to its scribes

WGAW reaches out to its scribes

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Guild seeks assessment of climate in Industry
With annual earnings for writers having plunged 18%, the Writers Guild of America West has launched an online member survey seeking a "candid" assessment of the current climate for scribes.

WGA West president John Wells and the WGA West board of directors sent the missive to guild's members Friday, specifying feature and longform TV writers.

"We expect the data to be enlightening and informative for 2028>screenwriters as well as for the leadership and staff of the guild," the message said. "Furthermore, we believe it will help guide our2028>efforts to best represent the membership. Writer-specific information will be kept confidential."

The missive also said that each of the signers had already completed the survey and were all able to complete it in less than 20 minutes.

WGA West spokesman Neal Sacharow told Daily Variety that the survey's part of the guild's ongoing outreach efforts to members and wasn't triggered by its most recent earnings report.

The guild reported to members during the summer that earnings fell nearly 18% to $801.4 million for the fiscal year ended March 31 in the first full year following the 2007-08 writers strike. WGA-covered earning set a record in the previous year at $976.3 million.

The WGA report noted the number of writers reporting income declined 9.7% to 4,163. TV employment declined 11.2% to 2,929 slots while earnings for TV scribes declined 3.1% to $437.5 million. Feature film employment declined 14% to 1,716 slots. Film earnings, which had surged 19.5% in the prior fiscal year, declined a whopping 30.7% to $361 million.

The WGA's current feature-primetime contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers expires in May 2011.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Katzenberg: A Front-Row Seat at the Movies

Katzenberg: A Front-Row Seat at the Movies
"People want to see great stories, and while you have to adapt to changes, I think they are
opportunities, not liabilities"
By Maria Bartiromo
Few people know Hollywood better than Jeffrey Katzenberg, the onetime wunderkind who by the time he was in his
thirties had already been an executive at Paramount Pictures (VIAB) and was running the motion picture studio at Walt
Disney (DIS). After a much publicized falling out with then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner and a subsequent court
settlement that made him a very wealthy man, Katzenberg started DreamWorks SKG (DWA) with Steven Spielberg
and David Geffen. DreamWorks Animation was spun off from its parent in a 2004 IPO, and Katzenberg became CEO.
On Oct. 27, after DreamWorks Animation reported earnings—beating Street estimates for the fourteenth out of the past
15 quarters—I talked with the man who, from The Little Mermaid to Shrek, has been behind some of the most
acclaimed children's movies in history.
You've been a student of the entertainment business for years. Where is Hollywood headed?
I think a real seismic shift is occurring. Anytime you're in the center of these shifts, it's maybe not the wisest thing to
try and be predictive of where it all is going. But in the pastplus or minus—and I'm referring to the last 30 or 40 years
—every time a new platform has come along, the motion picture industry as a whole has usually done a fantastic job of
transitioning to it and ultimately gaining revenue. And many different platforms have come along, whether it was free
TV or pay TV or VHS or DVDs. Clearly, the next major transformation is going to be from hard goods to digital. There's
a lot of uncertainty and caution as to how best to get there. Moving from analog to digital has been disastrous for the
music industry. Hopefully our industry has learned from the music business.
Are movies an endangered species?
No. I think just the opposite. There's nothing like being in a movie theater with a couple of hundred other people,
laughing or being scared or being moved to tears. Those are among the most wonderful social experiences we're all
able to have with one another. All these other things are fine and good, but I don't think they are a replacement for
movies. I was just in India a week ago, and people are watching movies on their cell phones. They have 450 million
people who have cell phones, and [the business is] growing at the rate of 8 million a month. People want to see great
stories, and while you have to adapt to these changes, I think they are opportunities, not liabilities.
Isn't the DVD business weakening?
Yes, the market as a whole has been pretty challenged in the past 12 months. People are moving from purchase to
rental, and there's been a tremendous spurt in the growth of both Netflix (NFLX) and Redbox. But our CG [computergenerated]
animated movies are really different from the rest. We are primarily a mom purchase, more analogous to a
toy than to a movie.
Shrek The Musical is scheduled to close in January after just over a yearlong run. There are reports that it will
not break even. More important, The New York Times suggested that this first effort by DreamWorks Animation to compete with Disney on Broadway is essentially a defeat. Is the closing of Shrek a defeat?
No. I think that is a little harsh. First of all, I have to say we couldn't be more proud of the show itself. We've had a
respectable, albeit disappointing, run on Broadway. But we have tremendous opportunities to get value out of the
asset in the coming years. We have a touring company that will begin in Chicago next summer. We actually filmed the
show about 10 days or so ago. And at some point to be determined, we will release it as a DVD. We think there'll be
some nice profits.
Will DreamWorks go back to Broadway?
With the right creative group and the right property, for sure. [Broadway] has enormous potential.
Speaking of Disney, Bob Iger in a recent interview bemoaned the excesses of Hollywood spending, much as
your famous 1991 memo to the industry did when you were at Disney. Is Hollywood addicted to over-the-top
production and marketing costs?
I would have to say I think we [at DreamWorks] are very strategic and thoughtful about where and how we spend our
resources to market our films. Maybe we are so focused because we have only three movies a year. Bob is
overseeing a $50 billion enterprise that's got so many moving parts, he sort of looks at it from 10,000 feet. I look at it
from 10 inches.
I read a report that DreamWorks has banned the stars of the upcoming Shrek sequel from twittering about the
movie. Is that true?
Not true. Somebody twittered that, and it wasn't true.
So you're allowing the stars to twitter?
They haven't asked. Let me just say, we have a great cast. They've been partners with us for a decade in this
franchise and are free to support the movie in any way they think is good. I have that much trust in them.
You were one of President Obama's most ardent campaign supporters in Hollywood. How would you rate his
performance, and has he disappointed you in any way?
No, he has not. I think he inherited probably one of the most difficult and challenging agendas of any President in
history—certainly in modern history. I think he continues to do a good job of facing unprecedented challenges. I don't
know how he does it.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Bullish on Blu-Ray?

I think this is some wishful thinking, but if true, blu-ray sales = studio profits = better sales environment for screenwriters.

Bullish on Blu-Ray

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Bullish on Blu-Ray
Confab predicts format's bright future
The Blu-ray Disc format will ride to the rescue of the home entertainment industry -- eventually, according to a panel of top retail and studio execs at Tuesday's Blu-Con conference in BevHills.

Retail and studios acknowledge that consumers are still reeling from the recession, which is continuing to negatively impact the entire home entertainment business, and Blu-ray's momentum has not been enough to offset double-digit percentage slides of DVD. But when combining digital and Blu-ray gains, studios forecast the home entertainment business will level out or start to grow again by 2012.

"In 2012, we'll see the growth trend again," predicted Mike Dunn, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment president, during a sesh moderated by Merrill Lynch analyst Jessica Reif-Cohen.

Martin Scorsese gave a ringing endorsement to the Blu-ray format, calling it "a very, very strong change for the better" in home entertainment during his keynote address, delivered via satellite from the DGA office in Gotham.

"Blu-ray is as close as you're going to get to the theatrical experience at home," Scorsese said. When he was working on the Rolling Stones concert docu "Shine a Light" a few years ago, he was enthused because he knew that thanks to Blu-ray "it would be transferred just that way to the home."

Scorsese discussed the new wave of film restoration and preservation being done by studios to bring classic films in the most pristine presentation possible to Blu-ray.

"I'm very excited and optimistic as a filmmaker and a film lover that Blu-ray is going to extend the life of film," he said. He noted that his favorite Blu-ray transfer so far is John Ford's "The Searchers."

Best Buy is aggressively merchandising both Blu-ray players and titles, rallying around the products as a key expanding business. In particular, Blu-ray players are this year's fastest-growing consumer electronics product, surging 112% in year-over-year sales, Mike Vitelli, executive VP of consumer operations group at Best Buy, said in a keynote. That tops the 106% and 85% jumps for popular ebooks and netbooks, respectively.

Best Buy anticipates 18.6 million Blu-ray players (including PlayStation 3 videogame consoles and Blu-ray set-top players) to sell in 2010. That marks a significant hike from the 10 million units of Blu-ray hardware expected to sell this year. Many of these players include Internet video capability, further extending their appeal.

Blu-ray players currently make up 66% of Best Buy's home entertainment hardware category, compared to 35% two years ago. Blu-ray titles comprise 25% of the retailer's video software, up from 13% two years ago.

"This is why we are bullish about Blu-ray," said Vitelli.

Beyond Blu-ray, video-on-demand is another rising area for studios, especially when offered day-and-date with the DVD/Blu-ray release.

"We see huge spikes in VOD activity" with day-and-date delivery, Warner Home Video president Ron Sanders said in a panel.

Dunn said Fox sees VOD revenue climb 20% when titles are offered day-and-date versus the traditional window.

Strong lineup makes for promising AFM


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Affirmation for AFM

The American Film Market may be shaking off its longtime slump.

There are a number of reasons why the mood could be improved when AFM unspools today in its usual beachside Santa Monica venues, the Loews and Le Merigot hotels.

For one, there’s a strong lineup of high-profile projects looking to sell off international rights. Footage for some will be shown for the first time.

Mandate Intl. has Matthew Vaughn’s "Kick-Ass" and Paul Haggis’ "The Next Three Days," starring Russell Crowe.

Focus Features Intl.’s slate includes Robert Redford’s "The Conspirators," with James McAvoy, and George Clooney starrer "The American," helmed by Anton Corbijn ("Control").

IM Global already has made some presales on John Wells’ "The Company Men," starring Ben Affleck, while Summit’s offerings include "Red," with Bruce Willis and Morgan Freeman, and "Twilight" helmer Catherine Hardwicke’s "If I Stay."

Glen Basner’s FilmNation has a slate that includes Darren Aronofsky’s "The Black Swan," while GK Films’ new sales label, Parlay, has Keanu Reeves starrer "Henry’s Crime."

The seismic changes in the film biz over the past year could also favor the international pic market. The rule that a film must have a U.S. release to secure a foreign buyer is being challenged in many ways.

Buyers and sellers were stunned last month when Alejandro Amenabar’s 4th century-set epic "Agora," toplining Rachel Weisz, opened to blockbuster numbers in Spain. "Agora" has placed No. 1 for four weekends in a row, with a cume of $25 million through Sunday.

It was a given that "Agora" would do well at the Spanish B.O. considering Amenabar’s loyal following in his home country, but no one expected the pic to do that kind of business, particularly after the movie failed to find a U.S. buyer following its May preem at the Cannes Film Festival.

Focus Features Intl., which reps the pic’s foreign rights, first showed buyers footage of "Agora" at last year’s AFM. Hardly any buyers bit, with many citing the pic’s high pricetag. Now, there’s renewed interest in "Agora" among both foreign and U.S. suitors.

The past year has seen a number of indie titles do boffo business at the worldwide box office. Chief among them was Oscar winner "Slumdog Millionaire." Pathe Intl. had priced the film well and made pre-sales in a number of territories, while Fox Searchlight and Warner Bros. eventually ended up partnering on the U.S. release.

Sci-fi hit "District 9" was sold around the world by QED Intl. Though Sony picked up many territories on the film, including the U.S., some overseas indies ended up with the title.

IM Global also sold off most international rights to micro-budgeted horror-thriller "Paranormal Activity" after it showed the pic to foreign buyers along with 300 teenagers at AFM last year. IM Global’s Stuart Ford felt he had to allay concerns as to why Paramount was sitting on the film.

This fall, Par finally gave a greenlight to the pic’s domestic release, and it’s been a runaway hit.

"Paranormal" is only now beginning to roll out overseas, much to the delight of those buyers who claimed a stake a year ago.

Overseas rights to Oren Peli’s "Paranormal" follow-up "Area 51" are still up for grabs from IM Global.

If there’s a perennial complaint about AFM, it’s the status of projects. Often, packages are shopped that haven’t quite jelled.

This year, key international sales companies seem to be coming into the market with firmer packages, even if some of those projects have been discussed at earlier markets.

As in other areas of the film biz, there has been a massive consolidation in the international sales arena. That’s resulted in fewer sellers making the trek to AFM. This year, there is a 10% decline in the number of exhibitors, from 412 in 2008 to 369.

However, a record number of new buyers have registered, although many of these companies could acquire rights for TV, cable or homevid.

One plus for foreign buyers is a weakened dollar.

"If a film makes economic sense, it will do well," one international sales exec said. "People trying to find financing and make pre-sales will have a more difficult time."

The mart, which runs through Nov. 11, is set to screen 486 completed films in 28 languages. That includes 75 world premieres and 328 market premieres, according to AFM organizers the Independent Film &Television Alliance (IFTA).

(Dave McNary and Tatiana Siegel contributed to this report.)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Rob Kotecki Places 2nd in Goldwyn Competition

UCLA student Joseph Tremba has won first place for his script "The Shoeshine Girl" in the 54th annual Samuel Goldwyn Writing Awards.

The awards, recognizing excellence in dramatic writing, were announced Monday by Samuel Goldwyn Jr., president of the Samuel Goldwyn Foundation, during a ceremony at the UCLA campus.

Two UCLA students tied for second with Eli Mael recognized for "Oaktown" and Rob Kotecki for "Blowback." First honorable mention went to UC San Diego student Jennifer Barclay for "Prank" and the second hononable mention went to UCLA student Bradford Schmidt for "Landsailor."

Judging the awards were Colin Callender, producer; Hilary Swank, actress/producer; and Catherine Tarr, story editor at CAA. The awards carry prizes of $15,000 for first place, $7,500 for the two second place winners, $2,000 for the first honorable mention and $1,000 for the second honorable mention.

Previous winners include Allison Anders, Francis Ford Coppola, Pamela Gray, Colin Higgins, Jonathan Kellerman and Eric Roth.

Disney Remakes the Movie Studio

I hope this brief article reflects to writers how important product selection and marketing are to the major studios.

How CEO Iger is applying the company's brand marketing savvy to filmmaking
By Ronald Grover at BusinessWeek
October 29, 2009
In early October, Walt Disney (DIS) Chief Executive Robert A. Iger installed a new chairman at the company's movie
studio. Such shakeups are routine in Hollywood, especially now that the entertainment business is struggling. But in
hiring as his studio chief Rich Ross, who helped make companywide franchises out of such Disney Channel hits as
Hannah Montana and High School Musical, Iger seems to be reinventing the modern Hollywood studio. "The primary
responsibility" of any movie executive, Iger said at a public event recently, is to "choose good movies." But he also
expects his studio executive "to be a brand manager."
Iger's philosophy is one that a Procter & Gamble (PG), say, would instantly recognize: build a stable of brands, each
with its own strong identity and core group of customers. Since becoming CEO four years ago, Iger has brought inside
the Disney tent a handful of marquee names—among them director Steven Spielberg and his DreamWorks SKG
(DWA) team, animation giant Pixar, and Marvel Entertainment (MVL). That bolsters a studio that already has
Hollywood's biggest brand, Disney, and superstar producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who created such blockbusters as the
Pirates of the Caribbean series.
Managing these big names and keeping them from undermining one another will be a challenge. But Rick Sands, a
former MGM chief operating officer, calls Iger's strategy "pure genius" at a time when "you need well-known
filmmakers who can create event films" that stand out amid the clutter of entertainment choices.
Studios in the past have tried to line up hitmakers, often signing them to "first look" agreements that give the studio
dibs on new projects. But most films were funneled through a studio's creative executives, who often found the project
and supervised the script. Ross will green-light projects and set in motion many of the 16 films Disney makes each
year. But when a studio brings in famous moviemakers such as Spielberg, it's banking on their ability to continue to
work their magic. That means giving up some control.
Ross essentially operated that way at the Disney Channel. He allowed the creative folks to take the lead for Hannah
Montana and High School Musical. Then he got deeply involved in marketing strategy. Before the first Hannah
Montana episode aired, Ross took its young star, Miley Cyrus, on an internal road show, visiting other Disney units and
enlisting them to sell merchandise that helped make the show a hit.
He is expected to be similarly hands-on at the movie studio. Bruckheimer recently showed Ross a 30-minute segment
of next year's live-action version of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, and says Ross suggested "a dozen ways to market it
before he left the room."
Each brand will require a different management approach. Disney and Pixar executives already sit on a committee that decides which animated projects Pixar should pursue. The committee gives wide latitude to the wishes of Pixar's
creative guru, John Lasseter. Spielberg and his DreamWorks partner, Stacey Snider, arrange financing and make their
own creative decisions. Disney will provide marketing support. How Marvel will fit into the strategy has yet to be
determined, although Iger has said publicly that it will enjoy a lot of autonomy.