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.

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: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/features/johnny-depp-a-star-crisis-insane-story-his-missing-millions-1001513

 

 

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.

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 KCRW.com

The Heir to the Disney Kingdom

The Hollywood Reporter this week details the account of Bob Iger, the CEO of the Walt Disney Company, and his retirement announcement in two years time; bringing up once again the question of succession for one of the Big Six studios. Unlike the Paramount situation, Disney is a thriving company with several franchises, and thus, is able to survive a transition of power, given the right person takes the job. THR provides the setup:

“ronically, the CEO is trapped in the same vise as his predecessor, Michael Eisner, who named Michael Ovitz his No. 2 in 1995, only to fire him a little more than a year later, with a subsequent settlement of more than $140 million”

On potential candidates:

“But by Wall Street consensus, no internal candidate has emerged as a clear heir apparent since Disney jettisoned Iger’s first pick, Tom Staggs, in 2015. While Ben Sherwood, who serves as co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney/ABC Television, oversees a key profit center, it’s unclear whether Iger favors him. Bob Chapek, who chairs Disney’s parks and resorts, has broad experience and also appears to have Iger’s trust; James Pitaro, the head of consumer products and interactive media, has digital experience, having served as head of Yahoo Media; and CFO Christine McCarthy has been working closely with Iger but lacks operational experience”

On a personal level, Iger needs to pick someone he trusts and understands the needs of the company; which on some level is all of them; from this then Bob Chapek and Christine McCarthy seem to be the best bets for CEO, Chapek because of his park experience and Iger’s trust; and McCarthy because of her close work with Iger. Regardless, the success of a company is not based on the strengths and weaknesses of one individual; it is a collaborative effort one that requires, in the case of Disney, the support of its Board of Directors and the various department heads. It is unlikely that Disney will falter during the transition process, given the company’s history with corporate synergy and their business model, but what happens after 2019 will remain somewhat ambiguous; but it is perhaps an ambiguity that is worth it, for it presents opportunity and new potential directions, including exploring some old avenues worth a second pass.

 

The World’s Most Expensive Episodic TV Show: The Franchise

The Business this week hosted James Mangold, the director and co-screenwriter of Logan, released earlier this month. He discusses one of the many problems that filmmakers face when dealing with studios, specifically, when a filmmaker is called upon to produce a franchise film: a loss of control.

The power of the filmmaker in a studio environment in regards to the franchise is almost nonexistent; and it goes all the way back to the structure of the franchise themselves. This is especially true with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even more so with properties like X-Men, who are not technically under the umbrella of the MCU, being owned by Fox instead of Disney. Mangold makes the point:

“And I don’t think anybody with a human brain and ears and eyes is not starting to think that more is not more. And that adding more heroes, more characters, more effects, more sound…The fact is that the unspoken feeling is that this is a very weird trajectory we’re on. Less is coming back and the movies aren’t as good”

Of course Mangold is generalizing, he says as much. However this generalization makes a point that speaks to franchise structure.

“This is endemic. I think if you’re just going to use Marvel’s grosses and somehow use their movies to make them free of this kind of criticism that’s not fair….Outside of comic books, I’m talking about tent-pole movies in general, they’re not movies generally, they’re bloated exercises in two hour trailers for another movie they’re going to sell you in two years.”

There is of course a bright side to this, for Mangold does not deny that there are some good movies that emerge from the woodwork, referencing Guardians of the Galaxy  (2014) and Iron Man (2008) as being notable exceptions to the rule. The problem lies in what successful films such as these ultimately produce-repetition.

Mangold and host Kim Masters discuss a bit about the specifics of Logan, involving the desire to include a Marvel comic in the film, something that was ultimately denied by the studio resulting in the production of a fake comic book, and then proceeds to get to the treatment of studios when it comes to creative directors.

“The reality is that all you have to do is experience…what it feels like when you don’t have control of your movie”

This brings up an interesting point and speaks to the current studio system, but at the same time also speaks to Mangold and others like him, showcasing, almost entirely in subtext, the narcissism of filmmakers and creative artists. This narcissism is not entirely their fault nor it is necessary a bad thing (see the work of Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, 2002) as long as it has a direction. In the case of franchises that direction often leads to “soullessness” and repetition. If directors and others in the industry are allowed to be creative in the confines of mainstream Hollywood, the repetition will cease and the quality of franchises will ultimately improve. This will require, in the most extreme cases, a new brand of Hollywood, one that is based on mutual trust and respect between all parties. That day is unfortunately far off, but hopefully, as long as there are creators, there will be films worth seeing, some of them part of a franchise.

The Netflix Ratings System

IndieWire posted an article early today detailing the upcoming changes to Netflix, specifically the rating system, that are set to appear sometime in April. While by no means a perfect analysis, neglecting for the most part the business side of the issue (i.e. why Netflix thought it would be a good idea in the first place), it does however, bring up some interesting points concerning the company and other streaming services like it such as Amazon.

Consider if you will, for your approval, the following excerpts:

“Five stars feels very yesterday now,” said Netflix VP of product Todd Yellin in a press briefing. He went on to suggest that star ratings hurt its business investments in catalogs of titles, noting that “bubbling up the stuff people actually want to watch is super important.”

“It{the new system} suggests that there’s no value in divisive material…By depriving viewers of the opportunity to broaden their range, Netflix denies an essential aspect of the maturation process for the critically engaged viewer”

The new rating system, which will be a thumbs up-thumbs down system reduces film selection on Netflix to the quality of a Facebook post or Twitter tweet and frankly, films regardless of overall quality, deserve better critical review than that- even from their audiences. Such an action is insulting to the viewer and belittles their intelligence to a four year old who doesn’t know any better. Netflix should treat their audiences as if they were their business partners (because they are) and let them decide for themselves what is good and bad and to what degree. Furthermore, to beat an already dead point into the ground, this rating system is especially insulting to the filmmakers, whose work has been reduced, for the sake of convenience to 50-50 chance.

“The thumbs up/down system has been a negative force in the critical landscape ever since Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert first applied it from the couch of their television show nearly 40 years ago…Over the years, however, this binary approach has encouraged reductive assessments that depressed the value of nuanced opinion. It’s that same impulse that has led to our current age of Rotten/Fresh polarities determining a movie’s fate with the ease of a flipped coin. By judging any culture through the limited range of binary possibilities, it’s always one step away from outright dismissal.”

This kind of behavior is not surprising from a company such as Netflix, or Amazon, or any of the streaming services. Through no fault of their own. These companies were brought up, as real competitors in the film industry, in an age when films began to mean less and less to the general audience. If it sounds cynical it’s because it is; if it sounds insulting, it is, but only because of its small nugget of truth at the time. It is not to say that film audiences today do not care about films, they most certainly do- but the companies, like Netflix and Amazon, seem to have temporarily forgotten that.

Hopefully, the rating system is just a fad that will eventually fade itself out; and if by some chance it doesn’t then it can only be hoped that audiences in April will be able to tell for themselves what makes a good film.

Scriptwriters and Social Media: Etiquette

Scriptnotes John August and Craig Mazin this week discuss whether or not screenwriters should use social media and how they should use it effectively. Craig makes the point that:

“On Twitter, people have to follow you. They have to choose to follow you.”

Craig goes on to give advice, tailored to writers, about how to use Twitter effectively. Some of his main points are:

  • Be clever
  • Be positively passionate
  • Promote sparingly and avoid “the walking billboard syndrome”. Craig notes that: “it is the worst way to use Twitter”
  • Don’t re-tweet other people’s promotions or praise.

Most of it comes down to online etiquette, basic rules of conduct that are normally used in every day life applied to the digital world; and this is worth mentioning for good reason. People, despite what others may think, do not respond to overt promotion, it is annoying and generally seen as a waste of time. This explains why so many people who talk to the industry  professionals tend to get shut out in given circumstances. The best way to get to know someone professionally, in some cases, is to know them personally. Does this work for everyone? Of course not. People are individuals and respond differently to content that is presented to them, so naturally the results, in theory, will be different each time.

Craig and John continue, talking about how to convey emotions through text.

Craig: “The things that I think tend to work well are honest expressions…If you are honest, and you are authentic, in the long run…you will be viewed positively. The worst of it is the lying. Humble bragging is not bad because it’s bragging, it’s bad because it’s false, because it’s manipulative”

“The counterpart to that is bravery complaining, it goes something like this: Some people clearly want me to believe that I’m not capable of telling this story but I am; I’m a writer. And I won’t be ignored….I don’t know anything other than this, that tweet was designed for people to say: we are behind you, you are amazing, don’t let anyone get you down…it helps no one but yourself.”

The issue that Craig presents is one that is all too common in the attitude of both the film industry and those currently studying film. So what does this ultimately mean for screenwriters who use technology? Be humble. Be clever. Talk to people as if they are people. If you do these things your online presence will improve and eventually start to grow.