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 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 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 WGA Negotiations: the Art of Making the Deal

Deadline reports on the current WGA negotiations with the AMPTP, specifically the initial concerns which led to a strike authorization proposal. In an interview with one of the WGA negotiators, Chris Keyser, he explains how the negotiations are generally supposed to work and where things ultimately went wrong:

“The truth is that what needs to happen here is that we each get close to what our bottom lines are – what things we need to make this deal. And in doing that, we take things off the table, back and forth. The first week or so of the negotiations was a good conversation where we identified – and I say we, that means David Young, who’s our chief negotiator, and Carol Lombardini, who’s the companies’ chief negotiator – we identified, through signaling, which things matter to us in the long run – what we’re gonna need to make a deal. And then the sides begin to take things off the table. That’s a necessary part of the process.”

This back and forth negotiating, when due correctly, produces results that are mutually beneficial; which is why is it called negotiating. Words such as “winning” and “losing” do not apply in this scenario, for if one side loses, than both sides loose, if one side wins, both sides win. At least that’s the ideal. But because nothing is ideal, and negotiations with unions always have a way of favoring the bigger player in the onset, problems arise. In this case, the problems came about in terms of what the AMPTP took off the table and what they added on:

“Instead, they made a tactical move, which they’re allowed to do, in which they put stuff back on the table. They put stuff back on the table which they had taken off before. They added a rollback of health care, at the same time as not putting a single penny on the table for writers’ economic demands.”

This is not to say that AMPTP are the bad guys in this situation, for such distinctions are grossly unfair and generalized, especially in the world of business, where such emotion rarely exists in meaningful form. In response to these demands, the WGA has issued a strike authorization form, which no one wants. It is still hopeful that a reasonable deal can be made, but that will require some give and take for both sides in order to benefit. Neither party can afford to be greedy or modest; a healthy middle ground must be found in order for the negotiation to have any affect. This is common sense; something that both parties recognize, but somehow, despite knowing this, are unable to agree on the right path to take.

 

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.

Why the Oscars Mattered

The 89th Academy Awards, the biggest night in Hollywood, will undoubtedly draw a crowd, and that crowd will mostly be people looking to see who won Best Picture. However, the Best Picture nominee is not the only thing that is interesting about the Oscars; if it was, the multi-million dollar production would be over with in five minutes. So, the question is, why, on the most basic of levels, do the Oscars matter? Here’s a hint: it has absolutely nothing to do with film-making and everything to do with people.

On Saturday February 25th, Bill Paxton, after complications with a heart surgery, died. The Hollywood Reporter, taking a break from the Oscar hype, decided to report Ron Howard’s tribute to the late actor:

“Bill was playful — yet dutiful — in his work as an actor, and likewise capable of being a strong and serious leader when directing a challenging scene on a movie set.

He loved adventure, and no one was happier than Bill when we were filming our zero-G scenes for Apollo 13 out over the Gulf of Mexico in NASA’s KC-135, nicknamed The Vomit Comet. For the record, Bill never lost his lunch through all those weightless scenes.”

The tribute, which can be viewed in its entirety on THR’s website, makes an important and often overlooked piece of the Oscars and the movie-making experience in general; one that now is only ever recognized in the In Memoriam section- the people who make films in the first place. Today, it is difficult to find a celebrity who doesn’t voice their political opinions for the entire world to see, and politics, frankly, are exhausting and incredibly divisive, especially when from an ideological standpoint Hollywood alienates half of its viewing audience every single year whenever politics are brought into the Oscars.

The day that the Academy rediscovers the reason behind the Oscars, will be a day that Hollywood will be forced to take a long look at itself and its values.

An Actor’s Perspective: Tom Wilson on Back to the Future

The podcast I Was There Too, hosted by Matt Gourley, recently had Tom Wilson, who played Biff and the various iterations in the Back to the Future trilogyIn the show, Tom talks about  his personal experience post- Future, and how he deals with the constant questions he is asked:

“The first thing that I did was write a song, called Biff’s Question Song…and really, when I meet people now…they’re not meeting a person; they’re meeting a pop culture icon that they have a series of questions for.”

This kind of response is admirable and unique to most actors, most of whom shut down their fans. If it sounds cynical, it’s because it is, because it’s true. Most actors don’t like talking about their work, they like, as Wilson points out, to be asked how their day was, to be treated like a person. Wilson goes on to talk about the things that he finds interesting about the films, in particularly giving praise to Crispin Glover, who played George McFly.

This is important to note because it is very telling about the culture of Hollywood and the dangers of typecasting. It is also telling of popular culture, specifically popular culture fans, and while it may be slightly demonizing, this is far from Wilson’s attitude, who actually enjoys answering questions, as long as “it is in an artistic way”. Wilson’s comments on Glover also reveal a desire for people to look at Back to the Future as a series of moving parts, each one independent of all the others, yet with one piece missing, the whole thing falls apart. A good example of this is Glover himself, who is notably absent from Back to the Future II and III, as Wilson notes:

“His story is really the movie in a sense. But his son,  the star of the movie, is helping his dad to get the guts to stand on his two feet and start his future”.

How to Save Hollywood: The Other Side of the Aisle

The Vanity Fair article discussed earlier: “Why Hollywood As We Know It Is Already Over” has gotten a lot of traffic this week. While I have already discussed the article in general, Scriptnotes’ response (John August and Craig Mazin) is interesting view at the other side of the discussion: Is Hollywood Dead? Their response is largely based on statistics, economics, and the idea that the business people involved with the industry have two motives: to make money and to make culture (in this case films). This distinction is incredibly important and is one of the main topics of this blog. It is the merging of business practices and art that makes Hollywood efficient, it is the idea that profit and entertainment can go hand in hand; and tandem with this is the point that for most business people in the film industry money is a secondary component.

It all comes back to the point I made originally. It is the content that is intriguing, it is the films that matter. What I will acknowledge Bilton’s claim to the newspaper and radio industries, I will disagree when it comes to the fate that Hollywood is dying because of Silicon Valley. Film studios, especially the Big Five, need to understand that companies like Amazon and Netflix are not the enemy, they are allies. As a distribution system, Amazon and Netflix allow more content to be seen by any person anywhere in the world; as a content creator, it is even more compelling. Where do you think they get the equipment to make shows like Stranger Things? Sure, they have their own funding and pools of talent to choose from, but some of it, from a logical and realistic standpoint, has to come from Hollywood itself, or at the very least, the stores and engines that make Hollywood work.