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Tools

Slugline. Simple, elegant screenwriting.

Red Giant Color Suite, with Magic Bullet Looks 2.5 and Colorista II

Needables
  • Sony Alpha a7S Compact Interchangeable Lens Digital Camera
    Sony Alpha a7S Compact Interchangeable Lens Digital Camera
    Sony
  • Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GH4KBODY 16.05MP Digital Single Lens Mirrorless Camera with 4K Cinematic Video (Body Only)
    Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GH4KBODY 16.05MP Digital Single Lens Mirrorless Camera with 4K Cinematic Video (Body Only)
    Panasonic
  • TASCAM DR-100mkII 2-Channel Portable Digital Recorder
    TASCAM DR-100mkII 2-Channel Portable Digital Recorder
    TASCAM
  • The DV Rebel's Guide: An All-Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap (Peachpit)
    The DV Rebel's Guide: An All-Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap (Peachpit)
    by Stu Maschwitz

Entries in biz (11)

Monday
Feb252013

A Night to Remember

Last night was a rough one for the Visual Effects community.

I was about to embark down the road of writing up the evening’s events, as if I was some kind of journalist.

But I’m not. I’m a director, and a visual effects artist. I’m a fan of film who fantasized about making movies ever since seeing Star Wars at age five. I’m also a survivor of a VFX company bankruptcy.

So I know what it’s like to be an artist who feels overworked and under appreciated.

And I know what it feels like to start your dream company, and see it collapse.

I also know what it feels like to be a director who can’t afford all the VFX I’d like in my own work.

And here’s what I have to say:

Congratulations.

Congratulations to the visual effects crew of Life of Pi. I am simply blown away by your work. Your tigers and waves and artistry and technical mastery made me laugh and cry and revel in how wonderful movies can be. I know how hard it is to do what you did, and even though I know exactly how you did it, I have no idea how you pulled it off.

Congratulations to Bill Westenhofer, for your amazing work to be sure, but also for the nonobvious gift of being cut off at the exact right moment to make the experience awful enough for all involved that the world took notice. You did the right thing by starting off with proper acknowledgments, and then the right thing again by jumping right into the controversy. You came off as a class act, and as is so often the case with visual effects and cinema, you’ve captivated the world’s attention with what they didn’t get to see.

Congratulations to Claudio Miranda, who I know in my heart appreciates the hell out of the work that shares the frame with his. Although he failed to mention the VFX crew as their images danced behind him on stage, he later acknowledged it to press backstage.

Congratulations to the 400+ VFX artists who demonstrated in a way that got all the right kinds of attention. That’s not easy. As a nation, we suck at it. As a group of nerdy artists, you nailed it.

Congratulations to Ang Lee, for both your talent behind the lens, and also for the gift that awaits you. You’ve put your foot in your mouth twice now about how you wish visual effects could be less expensive, and in doing so, I dare hope that you’ve made it nearly impossible for yourself to continue to ignore the nuances of the situation. A wonderful education awaits you. Please listen to the thoughts and frustrations of the visual effects artists whose work you presided over so masterfully.

Their stories are true.

Saturday
Feb252012

Robbed at the Oscars

It’s Oscar time again, which means that one of my weird pet peeves is back in circulation. It comes in many variations, all centering around the idea that some film or person should win (or should have won) the coveted award.

A film that should have won didn’t, so that film was robbed. I can’t believe the Academy failed to recognize his performance.

Here’s the thing: The right films always win at the Oscars. Because the Oscars are a popularity contest. You should no more lament “incorrect” Oscar results than you should question who was awarded prom queen.

If you and your friends held a poll to choose your favorite beer, you wouldn’t ever think the results were “wrong”—they are what they are, just an amalgam of your tastes. Same thing if y’all got together voted on your favorite films of the year.

Now expand your circle of friends a bit and add some membership criteria, and you’ve got the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

“Popularity contest” sounds critical, but I don’t mean it that way. As far as I know, Academy members receive no instruction to choose the “correct” film for each award. They are simply invited to vote for their favorite. The Oscars are, essentially, an opportunity for the film industry to express their collective opinion about what they like.

Nominees are selected by individual branches of the Academy, but every member’s vote counts toward selecting a winner. Most of the Academy members are actors. So a handy rule of thumb when predicting Oscar winners is to ask yourself “Which film would a bunch of actors think had the best makeup? Or the best original music?”

Actors know movies well, and so they often make reasonable choices for Best Picture, Best Achievement in Screenwriting, and, of course, the performance categories. But when it comes to the more technical awards, their collective (and yes, this is a horrible generalization, which is why it is true) unfamiliarity means that often you can predict the results by replacing “best” with “most,” e.g. “Most Makeup,” “Most Visual Effects,” or “Most Sound Design.”

You’ll be even more accurate if you add “…in a film with good performances by actors who are well-liked by their peers.”

Often it seems that Oscars are awarded to the same kind of predictably Award-friendly films again and again. That the Academy’s choices aren’t that interesting. Another way of looking at a popular vote is that it represents an average opinion. And averages are never interesting.

Is there any hope for awarding Oscars to “the correct” winner instead of “the most popular?” Yes, but you won’t see much of it on TV. The Scientific and Technical branch of the Academy, chaired by Visual Effects legend Richard Edlund, has a specific charter to award the creators of technological developments that move the film industry forward. Voting committee members are required to validate and back up their opinions about who should win, and each award comes with a detailed write-up on why the technology and its creators deserve to be recognized. The subcommittees, broken out by field, research each potential award carefully, and often bestow them simultaneously to an early pioneer as well as a more recent champion of a particular technique. You can apply for consideration for a “Sci-Tech” award, as they are called. If your competitor applies, you’ll be invited to throw your hat in as well. Even if you fail to apply, the Academy might still inform you that you’re being considered. It’s possible that your competitor’s application could trigger an investigation that results in an award for you, and maybe not for them.

In other words, the Sci-Tech awards are the only Oscars that, by definition, and to the best of a well-intentioned group’s ability, go to the right person. It is an honorable and time consuming process, one to which I am proud to have contributed a few times.

Am I saying that the Sci-Tech awards are paragons of untarnished virtue and the regular Oscars are a sham? Not at all. The Sci-Tech award process isn’t infallible. And the Oscars are fun, meaningful, and respectable. Just don’t watch them with any sense that there’s a right or wrong way for them to pan out. It’s not an evening of what’s right. It’s an evening of what’s most liked.

Wednesday
Oct192011

Buy a Kindle, Be a Part of Something Important, And Maybe Even Write a Book

Kindles are now cheap.1

Many people predicted that there would be a major upset in the publishing world when the Kindle dropped below $99. They were wrong—it happened well before that.

Independent authors have been able to self-publish their work on or through Amazon for quite a while, but in the last year or so there has been an explosion of success stories. Authors like John Locke, Amanda Hocking, Andrew Mayne, and Joe Konrath have appeared on best-seller lists right alongside authors whose names are a part of any trip through an airport concourse.

The Collision

The reason for this, as I see it, is a collision of several factors:

  1. The popularity of the Kindle. Even when it was expensive and clunky, the Kindle was a hit. Now it’s cheap and even pretty. And it’s not just a device—it’s a free app for a device you already own.
  2. Amazon’s Kindle Store. Amazon recognized a seemingly obvious fact: A Kindle owner doesn’t want to shop for books, pick one they like, and then find out if it’s available for Kindle. They want to shop for Kindle books. The consequence is that self-published ebooks appear right alongside electronic versions of traditionally-published books, with no stigmatizing differentiation.
  3. Reviews. Amazon’s reviews are generally pretty good by internet standards. Amazon book reviews seem even better on average. But reviews of indie books are plentiful and passionate. A True Fan of a self-published author is going to write a much more compelling review than a book-of-the-month casual reader—and be much more likely to take the time to do so.
  4. The reason for this is that successful indie authors are engaged with their audiences in a way that few traditional authors are. They have no other choice, since they are their own marketing departments. The result is that readers of indie fiction feel a close kinship to their favorite authors. They recommend them to friends, eagerly write heartfelt reviews, and buy without a second thought.
  5. And of course, price. Many indie novels are as inexpensive as 99¢. As self-published author John Locke said in his book How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months!:

    …when famous authors are forced to sell their books for $9.95, and I can sell mine for 99 cents, I no longer have to prove my books are as good as theirs. [They] have to prove their books are ten times better than mine!2

The 99¢ price point is particularly interesting, and has, of course, been the subject of much hand-wringing. Amazon has a fixed royalties model for ebooks: For titles priced between $2.99 and $9.99, publishers take home 70%. Any other price nets 35%. For every book an indie author sells at 99¢, they receive 35¢. For a $2.99 book, a self-published author sees a royalty of $2.00. Again, Locke has an emphatic point of view as to why he chooses 99¢:

My decision came down to whether I thought I could sell seven times as many books at 99 cents as I could at $2.99.

By my calculations he only has to sell six times as many books to beat the $2.99 model ($0.35 x 7 = $2.10). There’s much more to Locke’s position on this though, so I recommend you read his book if you’re genuinely interested.

Some decry the buck-a-book pricing as devaluing literature and destroying humanity.3 What it’s meant for me in practice is that I’ve discovered some fun new authors, and that the “gateway drug” principal is real. Cheap books got me reading more, and now I buy regular-priced ebooks more frequently than I’d ever bought dead-tree fiction.

I’m not the only one. Amazon’s Kindle best-sellers page has been a mix of indie offerings and traditional titles for as long as I’ve been aware of it. Books there range from New York Times best-sellers to pulpy self-published impulse buys, at prices ranging from $12.99 to free. Indie publishing has arrived.

The Opportunity

I write a lot here about accessibility of storytelling tools. Cameras keep getting better and cheaper. Post tools once reserved for the stratospheric high-end trickle down to our laptops. But there is no more democratized form of expression than the written word. If there’s a story in you, write it down.

That’s been true forever, but now you can take a small additional step and share your story with the world. Maybe you’ll give it away. Maybe you’ll sell a million copies.

I’m writing this now because National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo) is about to begin. If you’ve ever had the itch write a book, you can do so virtually surrounded by a supportive internet community of writers who gather once a year to bang out a draft in 30 days. It’s a wonderful way to practice the best writing advice there is: Don’t get it right, get it written.

NaNoWriMo considers a novel to be 50,000 words or more. To get there in 30 days, you’d need to write 1600 words per day—fewer than in this blog post. It’s not easy, but it can be done. More importantly, failing at something like that is a lot better at succeeding at the dumb crap you were planning on doing in November.

But I’m a Filmmaker

This is the bit I’m still working out. So it’s obviously the most interesting part.

As wonderfully detailed on the excellent Scriptnotes podcast by screenwriter and master blogger John August, when you sell a script, you enter into a somewhat fictitious work-for-hire agreement. Your script and its copyright become the property of the purchaser. Even though it was your idea, you agree to pretend that the studio hired you to write it. There are several very good reasons for this structure that John and his co-host Craig Mazin explain perfectly, but one downside is that you maintain no ancillary rights to your work, You can sell a script and never see another dime beyond the sale price.

This is not true of novels. You’ll hear stories about producers developing projects as graphic novels first before pitching them as movies. Part of the reason is so that a studio can see pretty pictures of what their movie might look like, but another big part is that the copyright holder of the comic will maintain the literary rights to the story. This means royalties on any film that gets made based on that work, including any sequels, TV series, or stage production—royalties that would not likely be a part of a spec script deal.

On top of that, Hollywood is currently beyond reluctant to invest in any idea that doesn’t have built-in familiarity with an audience. It’s potentially easier to get Scott Pilgrim vs. the World made than Inception, even though Scott Pilgrim was a niche comic with tiny circulation, and Inception was the pet project of a can’t-lose filmmaker, with a huge star attached.

As a filmmaker, you might have an easier time pitching a movie based on your “breakout hit” (hundreds sold!) or even “cult classic” (dozens sold!) self-published novel than you would with an original spec screenplay. And if your pitch is successful, the “back end,” as Hollywood folks like to say, could look much better for you, depending on the deal you negotiate.

Nerd Your Way To 50K

If you decide to accept the NaNoWriMo challenge, I have one and only one recommendation for you: Get Scrivener. Last time I pimped Scrivener to you, it was version 1.0, Mac-only, and had only fledgeling screenwriting features, which comprised my primary interest in it. Scrivener 2.0 offers many improvements to the screenwriting features, but helping you write long-form fiction is what this beast was truly created to do, and at that it excels.

There’s so much to say about Scrivener that it deserves a whole post (maybe more), but my most recent love affair is with its Dropbox syncing feature. To get a taste of it, go here and scroll down to Folder Syncing. Combine this feature with one of the many Dropbox-enabled mobile text editing applications such as Elements or WriteUp and you’ll never be more than a few taps away from tweaking your prose.

Scrivener also offers detailed options for exporting .epub and .mobi files, the book formats for Apple’s iBooks and Amazon Kindle, respectively.

Sure, if you’re a great writer, you don’t need anything special (services such as Smashwords will create an ebook for you from a properly formatted Word file). But if you’re a terrible writer like me, you need all the help you can get. Scrivener is a lifesaver. Check it out for Mac and Windows.

Read. Write.

Writers read and readers write. As Merlin Mann wrote recently regarding the lovely new Instapaper 4.0, the mere decision to read more can make your life better. I look at the purchase of a Kindle as an active step into an exciting new world of democratized storytelling that starts with the written word but that ripples out as far as blockbuster movies. Get reading. Maybe even get writing. You’re a part of something important.


  1. I didn’t link to the very cheapest Kindle because I think the user experience of the Kindle touch will be significantly better. ↩

  2. Indie authors get to use exclamation points as often as they like. File that under “pros and cons.” ↩

  3. Citation needed. ↩

Tuesday
Sep202011

Netflix Doesn't Care About Movie People

The bookshelf of Netflix’s highest-paying former customer

Netflix announced Sunday night that they’ll be splitting off their disk rental operation to a separate company, called Qwikster.

There’s been a lot of discussion about this on blogs and on Twitter. The comments on Netflix’s blog post present a good overview of the customer response. Some have praised Netflix for their foresight, while others have derided the move vociferously (and comedically). I found this breakdown of reasons why Netflix might have made this move insightful, but not as much as this one and this one.

I love Netflix, enough to complain about them here from time to time. But this latest announcement reminds me that Netflix doesn’t really love me. And by “me,” I mean the die-hard movie fan. The four-disk plan, Blu-ray option, twenty-disks-a-month user. You know, the ones who spend the most money with Netflix.

When Netflix effectively increased their price by removing the combined disk/streaming plan, I did not complain. Netflix has always been a good deal, and I don’t mind spending money on movies.

I can see how the split into two companies makes sense at a corporate level for Netflix, and might even be bold and daring. Some have even drawn analogies to Apple’s disinclusion of a floppy drive in the original iMac. The idea is that by becoming a streaming-only company, Netflix will have no choice but to make streaming better. This makes sense, and they do need this focus apparently, because Netflix’s selection of streaming titles is currently a “we guess you’ll rate this one star” rough with a few diamonds scattered in—a situation that’s about to get much worse as their deal with Starz ends.

It makes sense that Netflix, which always viewed DVDs by mail as an interim solution, would make this change and strive to be the best at streaming. Streaming is better for most people, and for every big-spender film fan like me, Netflix is betting there are a ton more “most people” And, of course, they’re right.

Sure, I enjoy streaming—for TV shows in particular, but also for the occasional movie. But I’m a film nerd with a 1080p projector, and I appreciate the quality and extra features of Blu-ray. I may be in the minority, but I am willing to spend money to make up for that.

Part of Netflix’s oddly-handled message (a part that many choose to take at something less than face value) is that by being its own company, Qwikster has an opportunity to focus 100% on disk delivery and do it better that Netflix ever could. Assuming that intention is real, here are my suggestions for how to make that happen. Call it an open letter to the recently-christened CEO of Qwikster, Andy Rendich.

There are two kinds of customers for disks, and they are very different. The first chooses not to use streaming due to technical reasons. They have a slow internet connection, or bandwidth caps, or don’t own a device that streams Netflix, or just don’t like new things. Disks work in their minivan, their business laptop, and at home, and they don’t see the need to change. These are likely to be your 1-disk-plan customers. Maybe 2.

The other kind is me, the film buff who appreciates quality, loves special features, and doesn’t mind waiting a day for a movie. These are likely to be 3-disk or more customers who will (if you insist) pay extra for Blu-ray. These customers are also more likely to have multiple accounts per household.

Netflix is currently failing to address the needs of this big-spender film fan customers in two key ways:

  • Netflix has a 28-day delay on many new releases (which, of course, affects all customers).
  • The Blu-rays that Netflix sends out are often stripped-down versions with no special features.

So Andy, while $8 of my monthly budget may well continue to go to Netflix, I’ve got $27 that I’d been spending on disks that you could capture. But since Qwikster offers no synergy with Netflix (such as shared ratings, or notification that a disk in my queue is available for streaming), the competitive field is open for that $27. I’m already trying out Blockbuster’s Total Access service—3 disks per month for only $20, no extra charge for Blu-ray, and I can swap disks at two locations close to my home.

You seem like a smart guy, and I’m pretty sure you know that you need to earn your own customers. If you want me among them, here’s what you could do:

  • Create social features that make sense. Let me choose who my friends are and prioritize their opinions when suggesting movies I might like.

  • Steal a great idea from GameFly (the very cool company whose lunch you’re reaching for) and let me buy the disk if I like it. Mail me the packaging and the next disk in my queue.

  • Use that last point as a negotiating point with the studios. You’ll immediately become a major sales outlet for the Blu-ray disks they love so much, so force them to make the disk experience great, instead of stripped-down and buried in skip-proof ads. Vow to only carry the full, feature-laden versions of movies when available, and market this as a huge content advantage over streaming services.

Obviously the last point is the main one for me. You’re selling disks now. Make them great. Simple as that.

It may be brilliant or it may be crazy, but Netflix has eliminated the advantages of convenience and interoperation that they once uniquely possessed. I love movies and I have money. Who wants it?