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Quantum Mechanics

Pipe Wrench courtesy of Scott Arch

Despite all of the self-help books preaching the contrary, people have a hard time living outside the moment. So, it’s difficult for them, let alone a whole industry to shake the mindset that the current ecology of the business will continue to be bleak forever. But this sour economy is just a part of a normal business cycle which will pass.

Eventually.

If we’re willing to wait. And survive while we’re waiting.

Will the business be the same? I doubt it. It will be continue to evolve as it always has in the film business. A decade ago, insurance-backed financing was all the rage. Then came sale-lease back deals from the UK, investment from German film funds and most recently, private equity and hedge fund financing. Those were good times. Good times.

However, dramatic, paradigm shifting change – the kind of change required to modify an outmoded, global business model created decades ago and move entrenched players with special interests – requires what Nassim Taleb calls a Black Swan event. Like a rare black swan, nothing less than an impropable sequence of events like limited access to credit, labor unrest, rampant piracy, the rise of the Internet and the collapse of distribution windows and the pre-sales market can bring about meaningful change to this business.

Even so, the fundamentals of the film business remain. People like good movies, especially those with good stories and high production values. And there remain untapped distribution channels in emerging markets and emerging technologies. Where there’s a demand for something, there will always be a business.

Bill Mechanic, a key player in the studio world and now, the independent movie business put it best in his keynote at the IFTA’s annual Producer’s Conference back in September:

The independent world, which should be aiming to do things better and different from the studios, doesn’t have that as a mandate at all. If anything, the only thing that independent distributors and financiers look for is the same. Maybe costing a little less than the majors, but they want what the studios want, or in Fight Club-speak, they want copies of a copy.

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In that way, Hollywood in the broadest sense of the word is much like Detroit. It’s a manufacturer’s mentality that reigns, seemingly indifferent to the consumers it serves. Ignore whether the consumer likes our product as long as they buy it.

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The next 2-3 years will be even worse, not because of the flood of new releases, since that is already abating, but rather due to the effect the over saturation has had combined with the economic downturn. New money is going to be hard, if not impossible to find. Ad sales are down, so TV networks around the world, other than cable, aren’t buying. Add in a confused video market, and it’s going to be tough. To my mind, the next few years will be about survival.

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. . . [A]lot of waste is going to be cleared from the marketplace. Excess product will go away, the people who don’t take the business seriously will go away. Hopefully those who make crummy movies will also go away, but that may just be a personal wish.

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[The film business] is a game for winners. And those who win today will win to an even greater extent than at almost any point in the past. . . . Those who will win will be smart about what they make and how they sell their films. They will hopefully make good films but perhaps even more key they will make unique films that stand out, which means they will not have to compete against the bulk of the films for talent. They won’t look like all the other films so they won’t have to spend as much money marketing them.

It’s not that the buyers aren’t there. Consumers, TV outlets, retailers and, yes, even pirates want what works. Don’t believe me? Ask Summit about Twilight. Ask Searchlight about Slumdog Millionaire. Ask Screen Gems about District 9. Ask Focus about Coraline.

The takeaway? To get through this down period, be good, be different and as Tim Gunn says, make it work!

To read the complete transcript of Bill Mechanic’s keynote speech and some really informative reader comments click here to Nikki Finke’s blog.

Interdependence Day

"118/365/year2 marionette" courtesy of "Riot Jane" aka Bethany

There’s been quite a bit of up-selling of independent pictures in Hollywood.

With the box office success of Slumdog Millionaire, indie films are the new darlings of the movie business after decades of being relegated to the wilderness of limited theatrical distribution and even more limited marketing budgets.

Seeking to capture greater market share, the majors absorbed distributors like New Line Cinema and Miramax years ago.

However, the studios never expected that their independent labels might produce pictures that would threaten to cannibalize their tent-pole productions.

Patrick Goldstein recently wrote in The Big Picture blog about Slumdog’s surprise performance and its likely chances of getting an Academy Award here. [Ed. Note: Goldstein's post has since been removed but can now be found here].

After all, the irony of all ironies is that after giving “Slumdog” the bum’s rush, Warner Bros. spent millions running a best picture campaign for “The Dark Knight,” the highest-grossing film of 2008, which still ended up being largely ignored by Oscar voters, who failed to give it a best picture, best director or even a best original screenplay nomination.

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The sad truth is that most studios today don’t have the patience, the artistic desire or the skilled manpower to release a film like “Slumdog.” My guess is that Warners, having unloaded all of its specialty divisions, both Picturehouse and WIP, eyed its little gem (made for a paltry $14 million) and said–even if we put in months of painstaking work, it’s at best a double (industry parlance for a modest hit). Like most studios today, Warners is an assembly line, built to swing for the fences, eager to make mega-hits like “The Dark Knight” or “Harry Potter,” which not only make far more money but feed the studio’s valuable ancillary markets.

Warners is not alone. 20th Century Fox has little in the way of artistic ambitions, preferring to hire no-name directors, leaving the Oscar game to its Searchlight subsidiary. The same goes for Disney, which is happy to let Pixar take home a best animated film statuette and let its tiny Miramax subsidiary, which spends a fraction of the money it did when Harvey Weinstein was at the helm, play in the awards sandbox. Even Sony, which used to avidly pursue awards, has largely given up, preferring to pursue more commercial goals.

It’s a great article and I was with Goldstein until he wrote:

Of this year’s best picture nominees, only two were made at major studios: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” co-financed by Paramount and Warners, with Paramount distributing, and “Frost/Nixon,” which is distributed by Universal Pictures. “Slumdog,” along with “Milk” and “The Reader,” were financed outside the studio system or by specialty companies. More importantly, if you look at the recent best picture winners, they are invariably made by fiercely independent filmmakers who rarely take their cues from the studio system.

The Coen brothers, who directed last year’s winner, “No Country for Old Men,” are so leery of Hollywood that producer Scott Rudin had to cajole them into even coming to town for a few glad-handing events. The same goes for Martin Scorsese, a lifelong New Yorker who directed “The Departed,” the winner in 2007. Paul Haggis, who directed “Crash,” the 2006 winner, lives here, but as a director operates just as far away from the studio system as Scorsese or the Coens. Clint Eastwood, who won in 2005 with “Million Dollar Baby,” is the ultimate outsider, making his movies with the same crew in the same quiet fashion, brooking little interference from any studio suit.

While I am pleased to see that American (and global audiences) are demanding more sophisticated fare, I demurred in the comments section of my client, Jonathan Wakeham’s blog on film @ mastersvo.com. I wrote that:

Although it may be true that these pictures were independently financed, such financing was likely based on the producers having US theatrical distribution in place prior to principal photography. US theatrical distribution essentially drives the value of foreign distribution rights up increasing the likelihood of financing a project.

For all their laudable (and at times, edgy) works, Scorsese, Rudin, Eastwood and even Haggis are part of the Hollywood establishment. Their involvement in a project can easily (relatively speaking) drive financing of a project. Saying that these pictures are truly independently financed . . . is like calling a wolf in sheep’s clothing a ewe.

While Slumdog is not a litmus test of what truly independent projects can accomplish given meaningful theatrical distribution and a real marketing budget, it does prove that audiences have a big appetite for original stories in an industry that insists on being increasingly derivative and increasingly risk-adverse.

And that’s a pretty happy ending in itself.

The Bluffer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the early 90’s, I occasionally played in a monthly poker game. The regulars were all guys; mostly lawyers; mostly working in the entertainment business. One of the regulars was a guy named Joey DeMarco.

Joey was working in business affairs at Fox (and later, Fox Searchlight) and was a rising star at the studio. Although the location varied, I seemed to play most often when he hosted the game. Joey lived in a large house on Stone Canyon near the Bel Air Hotel. Despite the impressive zip code, the decor was decidedly single straight guy with a set of weights and a bench press prominently on display in the living room of the 1940’s ranch house.

The vibe was more “Lord Of The Flies” than a friendly game of poker and on the nights in which I played, Joey dominated if not controlled the game. He clearly knew the odds of each hand and usually did quite well against the rest of us. Joey often had the cards to beat; and when he didn’t, he was quite good at bluffing. Even when you were sure he didn’t have the cards, you dare not call him on the bluff. He was so good at it, that you usually doubted your own judgment.

I negotiated against Joey only once and it was years after I stopped playing in the game. Given past experience, I braced for what I thought was going to be an aggressive negotiation with a formidable alpha-male. He surprised me by being straightforward and fair from the very start. Joey didn’t try to dominate or bluster through the open points and we “got the deal done” in short order. Later, I learned that the tone of his negotiations was more the rule for him than the exception.

Joey died two weeks ago at the age of 48. Although it’s doubtful that I will ever be as skilled a poker player, I will aspire to be just as good a negotiator as he was. Joey epitomized skilled negotiating without the need for hostility or dominance. For him, the best negotiating didn’t need to feel like negotiating at all and it was OK if everybody left feeling like a winner.

Still, every good negotiator needs to be prepared for any contingency. I missed the funeral but was told that his poker buddies placed four playing cards in his grave: an ace-king suited for high hand and a deuce-seven for the bluff. Just in case.