Casting JonBenet, The Ethics of Documentary

Last week, Kim Masters of The Business talked with Kitty Green, discussing her documentary “Casting JonBenet”, in particular how the director coaxed actors into making the film, especially since Green did not intend to make the film in the first place:

“I was very clear to them how I wanted to use the material. The trouble is that it’s difficult to envision what the film would be…They’re auditioning to play out re-enactments and that multiple people will play certain characters”

The ideas behind the film echo that of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (William Greaves 1968), in regards to multiple actors playing roles and the documentary style of being slightly misleading to illicit a specific reaction. The production of the film also brings into question the ethics of documentary film, in regards to the actors, the crew, and in particular the events that occurred. While Masters and Green do not go into much detail regarding this issue, it is still an important one to consider when watching the film, as such details are critical to audience understanding and digestion of material.

There will almost inevitably be people in the world who digest documentaries as pure fact simply because research was conducted. This is not only dangerous but showcases the general misguided and blind acceptance of those individuals who question nothing and accept everything at face value. The ethics of documentary, in this case, have a responsibility to present the case of JonBenet as accurately as possible and it begins by being truthful to your crew and to your actors. To be clear, Green did nothing wrong, for she was clear with her intentions for the film once it began, but it certainly does not paint a particularly good image for the film if it blanketed with even the slightest layer of deception, especially when it comes to sensitiveness and over-analytical critics.

The Treatment: My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea

The Treatment this past week talks with Jason Schwartzman, who discusses his latest project My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea, an experimental traditionally animated film about an earthquake that causes a high school to sink into the sea. Schwartzman’s character, Dash, is the type of person who believes that he is the hero of his own story (which is something that almost every protagonist believes at some point) but with the negative connotation of being completely self-absorbed ultimately pushing his friend further away. It is the type of film that will probably get a healthy independent release given the star power behind it (Lena Dunham, Reggie Watts, Maya Rudolph, and Susan Sarandon rounding out the main cast) but will hard pressed to find a mainstream release given its animation style and handling of the material.

My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is in the same camp of animation as that of Bill Plympton in that is it weird and irreverent, knows it and does not care about people’s opinions, which is the best definition of experimental animation that could ever exist if such a definition were to ever be imposed. More films like this should be made and brought to audiences, if only to break the cycle of animation specificity that has arisen since the Disney Renaissance and the emergence of Pixar, DreamWorks, and 3D animation in general; expanding the animation market in the US to cover topics that are unsuitable for children and the traditional family market. Considering the the United States is the only country in the world that has the animation category of films locked into children’s medium in the mainstream market, this is perhaps one instance in which we can take a page from the rest of the world and give animation the recognition it deserves.

My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea comes out later this year.

A Simple, But Important Note About Scriptwriting

Last week, on May 2nd, John August and Craig Mazin read some scripts as part of the Three Page Challenge. Their critiques give writers a good example of how to write and how to write well, touching on language usage, script format, dialogue, and description.

The first script, which is action based, is worthy of note. Craig comments on the choices that are made:

“There’s a choice that’s made here. There are times when  your action-description wants to be a character of itself and there are times when you want to impart things to your reader quickly and efficiently so they kind of get it”

Craig goes on to analyze the description of the introduction. It is here that he finds a problem: the author threw in statements that boil down to a pitch of the film.

“That’s not what screenplays do. So much of what we want when we read a screenplay is to discover; and I understand at some point you may need to clarify. First just lay it on me, and then let me discover it.”

This is an important point when it comes to writing. So many writers, especially young writers, feel the need to justify and explain themselves in the action and description instead of letting the story play and explain itself. To all the writers who ever bother to read this, please, do yourself a favor: just write the story. Don’t worry about explaining and justification, if you do your job, everything will become clear, or at least, give readers more questions that pull them further into the narrative than push them away. Just write, that’s all you have to do.


The Financial Problems of Johnny Depp: Mismanagement and a Crisis of the Hollywood Lifestyle

The Hollywood Reporter this week highlights the case of Johnny Depp, who has recently sued his agency for mismanagement as the source of his financial troubles. The article, which details Depp’s behavior and lifestyle on set, with testimony from Jerry Bruckheimer, Tracey Jacobs, his agent, and Joel Mandel, owner of The Management Group, the agency, claims that it is Depp’s lifestyle choices that have led him to his current financial situation. The details are many and complicated, but in terms of the lawsuit itself, here is what THR reports:

“The possible catalyst for the lawsuit was a multimillion-dollar bridge loan TMG made to Depp in 2012. The managers say they tossed their client a lifeline as he faced default on a $5 million loan.

In his own lawsuit, Depp says he was kept in the dark about his finances and it was his ex-managers who weren’t handling his money wisely. (Waldman [Depp’s attorney] maintains that it was Depp, not Mandel and Bloom, who called the October 2012 meeting.)

Among other charges, Depp alleges that TMG disbursed almost $10 million in “loans” to his sister and other parties close to the actor without his knowledge and took out loans for Depp…TMG says the loans were needed to keep Depp afloat and that the actor was fully aware of them.

In addition to the loans, two other matters are central to the lawsuits.

First, the Depp suit claims, TMG failed to pay Depp’s taxes on time, resulting in $8.3 million in interest and penalties over the years — a claim TMG also denies, arguing that it had no choice, because the funds to pay the taxes were never available in April.

Second, perhaps most incendiary, Waldman alleges the Mandels were acting as both lawyers and business managers. Because they offered legal assistance, he says, they were bound by a California law forbidding attorneys from taking a percentage of clients’ earnings unless they have a contract expressly allowing them to do so.

Waldman’s case hinges on the question of whether the Mandels did indeed serve as de facto lawyers. Both were trained as attorneys but say they never did anything for Depp that would constitute legal work. (The law does not apply to agents, Waldman notes, even those operating without a contract.)”

While ultimately the case remains unresolved, one thing is clear, something is going to change in Hollywood as a result. Here are some of my predictions of what will happen as a result of the case:

  • Break Johnny Depp’s career or propel him forward
  • Bring in other similar cases that actors have with their agents if Depp wins
  • Change the actor-agent relationship in Hollywood from a personal and legal standpoint
  • Hurt Depp’s franchise ability, the actor being labeled as a liability risk

The full article can be found here:



Welcome to Hollywood

Yesterday (May 9th), Scriptnotes did a live podcast with Rob McElhenney (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and Rian Johnson (The Last Jedi), both writer-directors. Johnson, the director of Brick and Looper, talks about his career, in his 20’s doing commercial work for Disney on  “Bear in the Big Blue House”, the Jim Henson vehicle, before getting his break on Brick.

Craig Mazin, to Johnson- “There’s something about you though, a lot of people start out, they can’t quite get there…You get this big break to make your movie. But there are a couple of things you need to do, that maybe don’t feel right to you and you say: okay. You’ve always struck me as someone who would say: No I’ll just go back to the  Blue House.”

Johnson- “It’s not like I had written something that had huge commercial value…For a first time director it’s not like there are a lot of things that you are talking about”

This goes on for some time, but the basics of the conversation, and the reason why it is highlighted, is that success in Hollywood does not come from happenstance or following your dreams. It comes from skill and knowing the right people. No one cares about your dreams and what you want to do unless you find a way to make them care; and the only way you can make someone care is by being really good at what you do and finding the right promoters. There is a reason why the majority of people who are successful in the film industry are in their 30’s and 40’s because that’s when success starts to happen.

The last part of the podcast, the audience Q&A, is perhaps the most telling. Although McElhenney and Johnson are optimistic, Craig, possessing a certain degree of cynicism, and Dana Fox, a producer, director, and guest host of the live show, offer some realistic and practical advice for writers and creative people in general.

Craig, on dealing with rejection- “Where a lot of young writers go wrong is they cannot handle that emotional dissonance”

Dana- “If you have to have a job, like most people do when they are trying to get in this industry, save your good hours for writing”

Who we listen to in Hollywood in regards to the industry is important and different people, depending on their profession and personal beliefs, will tell different things that are “the keys to success”. The truth is there is no right or wrong way to do things, just as no outlook in regards to dreams and practical realism is bad. It all depends on how you go about doing things and the extremes that you take to get where you want to be.

Copyright Laws and Stupidity: The Kung Fu Panda Dreamworks Fraud

Deadline last week proved that if you’re going to scam someone, make sure that you’re smart about it; especially if that someone is Dreamworks, one of the fastest growing animation companies in the world behind Disney and their affiliates (PIXAR).

The story goes that in 2011 Jamye Gordon had claimed to have had an influence in creating the Kung Fu Panda franchise, producing drawings and various sketches of pandas. In truth, Gordon’s efforts bared little resemble to the Dreamworks vehicle as Deadline points out, citing the US Attorney’s office:

““He made these revisions as part of his scheme so that his work would appear to be more similar to the DreamWorks pandas he had seen in the movie trailer””

It was revealed, rather embarrassingly, that Gordon had taken some of his drawings from a coloring book, which makes the idea, and his asking price, sound even more stupid than it already was. Copyright and copyright infringement does not work that way, just because you have drawings does not mean that you helped create anything, in fact, the only thing that it is grounds for is creative coincidence.

Gordon filed a copyright infringement suit against Dreamworks, ultimately proposing a settlement for $12 million; the proposal was rejected. In December of 2015 Gordon was indicted, in November of that year he was convicted of fraud and perjury. The sentence was carried out last Wednesday May 3rd.

This story, while interesting in itself, does reveal several aspects of the law surrounding copyright and creative control. According to the United States Copyright Office, there are two basic principles of claiming copyright, the first deals with ownership:

“Mere ownership of a book, manuscript, painting, or any other copy or phonorecord does not give the possessor the copyright. The law provides that transfer of ownership of any material object that embodies a protected work does not of itself convey any rights in the copyright.”

On the specifics of transferring copyright rights:

“Any or all of the copyright owner’s exclusive rights or any subdivision of those rights may be transferred, but the transfer of exclusive rights is not valid unless that transfer is in writing and signed by the owner of the rights conveyed or such owner’s duly authorized agent.”

So, it was rather obvious from the get-go that Gordon was going to lose. Had he brushed up on copyright law, he may have found a different way to get his $12 million, like actually making something that would be worth that much, but let’s be honest here, criminals don’t think in terms of law, contracts, and order. They see opportunity and when opportunity knocks, sometimes logic goes out the window.

Box Office “Baahubali 2: The Conclusion”

Earlier today The Hollywood Reporter detailed the box office reports for India; or at least, as close to the box office reports as one can get when concerning India due to their film commission not being responsible for officially reporting box office numbers. Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, the sequel to 2015’s Lord of the Rings style epic, has become the highest grossing Indian film of all time.

“The film reportedly has crossed $131 million (over 8 billion rupees) worldwide, easily beating the estimated $123 million global haul collected by previous record-holder, 2014’s PK…The films are produced by Shobu Yarlagadda’s Arka Mediaworks. The sequel continues the story of warring royal cousins in an ancient mythical kingdom and again features top South Indian stars Prabhas, Rana Daggubati, Tamannaah and Anushka Shetty”

The Indian film market, which has not really been considered, at least to Hollywood, as profitable as China (mostly to due to the historical prevalence of Bollywood) but the market is something to be considered especially in terms of films like Baahubali 2 and its predecessor. From an international business perspective, access to Indian films would open the United States market to the international market (obviously) allowing for a possible exchange (provided that India actually wants Hollywood films that are made, which is unlikely). More importantly however, if the Indian film market were accessible to Americans it would open people up to international film studies, a topic that is worth exploring in order to understand culture. One of the first things that would undoubtedly go away with this scenario would be the idea that Indian films, all Indian films, are Bollywood musicals. Time will tell if Baahubali 2 gets a proper US release, in case, it is something that should be sought out, if only to experience a different side of a well known culture, which may not be so well-known after all.


The Korean Film Council and the Beijing Film Festival

The Hollywood Reporter this week, focuses on the Beijing Film Festival and the political situation involving the Korean Film Council, in which Korean film screenings have been cancelled. The tension allegedly evolved from the issue surrounding South Korean’s deployment of US defense system THAAD. What this ultimately means for the festival and for Korean films in the Chinese market at this time is unclear, however, there is room for speculation.

A senior VP at one of the Korean studios, states the following:

“The Beijing Festival is a very young event, with programmers constantly changing and rapports with international companies still being forged….We will have to see how the Shanghai International Film Festival will deal with Korean films. It will be a better barometer of the political situation, since it is a much more seasoned event with stronger ties with Korean companies.”

Waiting for the Shanghai festival makes sense, considering that the city itself in general, is more a “world city” than Beijing, and as a result, is more likely to have stronger business relations with foreign partners like Korea. Hopefully, the behavior of the Beijing festival is an isolated one. Due to it being China’s capital city it is logical to suspect that any political controversy would stem from government issues and affect large events like film festivals which bring in revenue, publicity, and tourism. If the ban continues with Shanghai, than fears of the situation being steeped in politics have been realized.

Jung Soo-jin, a Showbox representative, remains optimistic about the future of Korean films in Chinese markets despite the tension.

“We are continuing to work hard on developing our projects, which, unrelated to the diplomatic situation between South Korea and China, always take a long time. We are hoping they will bear fruit in the not-too-distant future — though given, of course, that the political situation will become better”

She does however, make an excellent point regarding audiences, which are the lifeblood of films:

“The worst case scenario would be Chinese audiences turning their backs on Korean content. Even if diplomatic ties smoothen, it would be much more difficult to win back audiences’ hearts.”

Even if piracy becomes an option, like Soo-jin suggests, while the films will be seen, it will be still be promoting illegal activity, which depending on perspective, is bad for business. That is a discussion for another time. For the moment, all anyone can do, is hope that the situation resolves itself and that Shanghai allows Korean films to be seen.

The Treatment: “The Lost City of Z”

KCRW’s The Treatment hosted by Elvis Mitchell, talks with James Gray, the director of “The Lost City of Z” a biographical adventure film that tells the story of Percy Fawcett, a British explorer who searches for a lost city in the jungles of Brazil. Most of the talk deals with Gray dealing with the subject matter of “The Lost City of Z”, a book by David Grann, specifically with Fawcett’s personality.

“He describes Fawcett in a wonderful way, enigmatic, not able to navigate, as he puts it, the messy maze of race as he was both progressive but also deeply prejudiced. And I found those contradictions very interesting because it gets to the core of what we might call a person’s identity and their sense of self”

He goes on to say that this kind of conflict is what makes for good movie-watching; and he is right. The question then is, given these circumstances, specifically with the main character being both a “progressive” and a “prejudiced bigot”, how will the film perform in the box office?

First and foremost, The Lost City of Z is an adventure film, a genre that almost invariably does well provided that the acting and story are on par, and the visual effect,s when applicable, are decent; so it should not have a problem with most people. However, there are always going to be certain individuals who turn immediately (and often times unnecessarily) to politics with films of this nature, especially when the main character is a white Englishmen who is a prejudiced in Brazil. Some appropriate context of course, is required, for the people who will be potentially rise eyebrows at this, will not bother to read the book or even listen to James Gray’s intentions. If it sounds like a cynical statement, it is, and for good reason- because it happens all the time.

James Gray goes on, here are some of the highlights of his point.

“A lot of things go into making us who we are as a culture…ours would be the idea that you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps and all that…so if you are expressing the idea that is essentially the opposite of that, that the ability to change who you are and your destiny is very limited, it’s a terrifying idea…It is a very European idea.”

In a way, this is about perspective, for in all honesty, people outside of the United States do not care, at least as much, about such issues, and welcome the idea of predetermined destiny as a concept they are willing to accept, not because it is a form of indentured servitude, as some would believe, but because their ideas about the world and the way it works are different from America.

The Lost City of Z premieres on Friday, April 14th. The full podcast can be found at

Screenwriting and Psychology

On March 28th, last Tuesday, John August and Craig Mazin of Scriptnotes dug through the archives and granted us with one of their most requested podcast episodes: Psychotherapy with Dennis Palumbo. The episode discusses many issues that screenwriters often have- writer’s block, procrastination, dealing with partnerships- in a way that is both personal and telling in regards to what it takes to become from the mental perspective.

Palumbo: “What I find very quickly in working with a patient who is struggling with writer’s block is that the issues are bound up in their personal lives”

“I think writer’s block is very similar to the development steps we go through as people…I think when you’re blocked, you’re about to make a growth spurt in your work.”

This kind of thinking, which is discussed in the first fifteen minutes of the podcast, is important to understand because it looks at the actual process of screenwriting from the standpoint not of a writer, but as a person who coincidentally writes. John, Craig, and Palumbo go on to define the difference between writer’s block and procrastination, signifying writer’s block as related to a full on stop of work brought on by a generalizing fear of failure,  rejection, and the thought of being completely unable to write. Procrastination on the other hand, is related to a specific project, in which the writer is stuck but is able to move on and approach the problem differently, rather than complete paralysis from the craft altogether.

Understanding the human mind is just as important as understanding how to write a screenplay for a scriptwriter, for if writers are unable to take care of themselves than nothing will ever get done, no ideas will ever emerge and everything in film and television will remain the same. The full discussion can be viewed at the Scriptnotes podcast website, it is highly recommended for everyone, regardless of profession.