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Monthly Archives: May 2006

I recently found out that to my boss, I'm nothing more than just headcount. Headcount in a corporate setting refers to the fact that in order to be a manager, you have to have a certain number of people reporting to you. You could be doing the same work but with one less subordinate, and you'd be making less money. Or in my boss's case, with one more employee, she gets a team leader bonus. I get the dubious distinction of being the guy who fills that last spot.

To be fair, my boss doesn't really feel this way about me. She appreciates my work, and makes that known to me. That's one of the few things that make my current position bearable.

There are two parts to the problem.

1)The work mostly sucks. The official title for my job is "Media Development Specialist," the qualifications require a bachelors degree relating to new media. (Design + Scripting/Coding + Animation + 3D). I was hired with the mistaken impression that I'd be building snazzy Flash or Director-based multimedia presentations, as well as poster and pamphlet design.

The poster and pamphlet design happens (which isn't too bad), but the overwhelming majority of my day ends up being busy work: scoring and folding pamphlets, burning and labeling CDs, making some engineer's Power Point slides look 'pretty,' etc.

2) It's mostly politics. Every once in a while, the Video department needs some help creating a 3D animation or doing some motion graphics work, and I relish those chances. Lately they've gotten to the point where they could use an extra hand full-time. They'd like to get me transferred to their department (which would be major improvement) and they've talked to my boss's boss about it. His response?

We can't pull him out of Jane's (name changed) group, she needs x number of reports

See, in the past, Jane's been a bit of a diva. She uses the word 'usurp' a lot. She publicly screamed at one of our team members for not having enough paper in stock, even though she never told the victim about a pending large-run job (that event drove the lady into retirement). So people tend to tiptoe around Jane. Even her boss. He doesn't want to rock the boat, even if it would provide the Video department with a great, fast solution and keep me sane in the process.

So, the solution to the Video department's shorthanded problem and my tedium-induced insanity is this: wait a year and a half 'till Jane retires and we'll get this all settled. In the meantime, headcount number 383,507 will continue folding and burning. I've got 600 pamphlets and 300 CDs left before I go home today.

 I've really got to get this movie flying.

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Over the last decade or so, if you payed attention to the trailers for any Pixar film, you’d hear something similiar to the phrase, “Walt Disney Pictures presents a Pixar Animation Studios film.” Kind of cumbersome, but it was important to both parties that they get credit for the film. They both had a significant branding interest in having their name attached. Pixar, because they’re the ones who did all the work, and Disney because their job was getting the movie out to the public.

And in the meantime, something happened. Pixar built up a reputation for making wildly creative, top-notch, high-quality family entertainment. And Disney, well… they didn’t.

Fast forward to 2007, when the first “Pixar” film will be released branded as Disney production. (For those not in the know, Disney recently finished their acquisition of Pixar.) The question then, is what to do with the Pixar brand name? The last decade’s worth of Pixar films have acquired for Pixar a legendary reputation for providing the best. A film released with Pixar’s name on it carries a guarantee, kind of like the way a Stradivarius does for stringed instruments. For a while during the 90’s a Disney movie had the same kind of promise, but recently, consumers have come to hedge their bets when queueing up for one of Disney’s flicks.

All in all I’ll be interested to see wether Disney will continue to use the Pixar brand or try to bolster their own through the efforts of the newly acquired studio. I know I’m still going to differentiate them for while.

Arguably, today’s movie audiences are looking for something a bit fresher than what Hollywood is serving. Sliding ticket sales are an indication that the movie-going public is sick of leftovers. Recently, Slate ran an article explaining why it is that Hollywood is creating less and less original fare:

In Hollywood, originality is anything but a virtue. Paramount rejected a recent project that had attached stars, an approved script, and a bankable director by telling the producer, “It’s a terrific idea; too bad it has not been made into a movie already or we could have done the remake.”

Why the reluctance to do something new? Making a movie is traditionally a high-cost, high-risk venture, so the suits at the studios have to hedge their bets by tapping into already existing markets. Hence, filling the mega-plexes are the remakes of TV series, comic book adaptations, crossovers from video games, and of course, the sequels. From a business perspective, it’s a great idea. From a creativity standpoint, there are fewer worse.

And therein lies the fundamental dichotomy that overlays everything Hollywood makes. Movies are creative endeavors and business ventures. Success in Hollywood is measured by two different yardsticks: financial return, and critical acclaim (which measures more than just originality, but is good enough for our purposes here.) It seems intuitive that if you wish to make critically-acclaimed original movies, you first have to make money. And in order to really make money, you do a blockbuster sequel, remake, spin-off, etc. According to the Slate article, here’s why:

The key to a movie’s [financial] success is the level of awareness that exists for the project well in advance of the advertising blitz that takes place in the week or so preceding the actual release date.

In this day and age of multiple distractions, people are only willing to cough up the $8+ for a flick when they already have some kind of positive association with it. There are plenty of other things to do with my time and money than to chance them on a movie I’ve never even heard of. And this is why, “I liked the book,” or “DUD3 TAHT WAS DA COLEST VIEDO GME 3VER!1!!” translate into greenlit projects.

The standard studio’s business model has been to create one or two “tent pole” movies, and maybe 10-20 other films a year. Those other films will most likely lose money, or in the best case, will make a meager profit during their theatrical runs. The studios hope that their tent poles can make enough of a profit to cover the losses from the rest, and they give them the bigger budgets. Creating a tent-pole is like putting all your money on number 13 at a Vegas roulette table. If you win, you might be able to pull down a healthy reward, but you’re putting all your eggs into one basket. If you lose, you lose it all. And like in Vegas, the odds are not in your favor. So, if you’re a Hollywood suit, evening the odds involves re-hashing other material.

Allow me the hubris of recommending other methods for shortening the odds.

1) Develop a Reputation as an Original Storyteller
I mentioned earlier that having a reputation for good storytelling will go a long way towards building you an audience for future films. Reputation is why people have lower hesitation about seeing a Spielberg film; he hasn’t let them down too many times in the past. This may seem to be more of a tip for individual filmmakers, but it works in the case of studios as well: eg. Pixar, or Disney in the 90’s.

In business circles, this in known as ‘branding‘ (Wikipedia).

It (branding) also encompasses the set of expectations associated with a product or service which typically arise in the minds of people.

There are no real ‘brands’ in Hollywood simply because other than their logos, there is nothing that differentiates the studios from one another. “In the minds of the people,” the current Hollywood studios are all the same. They all make schlock, and they all produce an occasional blockbuster. Developing a brand in Hollywood as the only game in town that consistently produces great stories will do more for your future films than any other single thing you can do. (Though you can never underestimate the importance of a cool logo.)

2) Learn How to Use New Media for Marketing
Like the Slate article said, positive pre-release buzz is the most important thing to the financial success of a movie. The Internet has the potential to spread word faster than any other medium now in place. When something catches fire on the Internet, it spreads fast. Corporate blogs have become just another fad, but if well done, they can be a valuable resource. If the studio publishes something genuinely interesting, the rest of the blogging community will pick up on it. Make Word-of-Mouse work for you. RSS feeds put your latest news in front of people. Podcasts, or vidcasts of works-in-progress or behind-the-scenes stuff can generate interest. (eg, Peter Jackson’s weekly King Kong video diary). Don’t be patronizing, and don’t go around beating your chest. Consumers using this technology are way to savvy for that; bad vibes spread just as fast on the net as good ones. This ain’t your grandmother’s marketing campaign.

3) Control Your Budget: Go Digital
1.6 Million dollars. That’s how much it cost Steven Soderbergh to tape his last movie, Bubble. I’m fairly certain that there were previously plenty of suits who would have told you that shooting a feature on that kind of budget was impossible. Roger Ebert called it a masterpiece. Soderbergh shot Bubble using the same cameras Lucas used to capture the live-action elements of the last Star Wars episode. While Star Wars may not have been a masterpiece, and Bubble wasn’t even close to a blockbuster, together both films prove the viability and flexibility of digital movie making.

Now let’s look at Sin City. Both critically acclaimed, and financially successful. Here is a movie that proves that you don’t have to spend $150 million on the off chance that you’ll make it back. Rodriguez only required $40 million to bring this comic book to the screen. And this wasn’t just some actor-driven fluff piece. There literally isn’t a single frame in Sin City that didn’t require some sort of special-effects post-prodution work. The small budget is directly attributable to Rodriguez’s facility with digital film making tools. (For the record, Rodriguez has never needed more that $40 million to create a movie.) The box-office gross for Sin City’s first weekend was nearly $30 million. I smell profit here.

And even though this movie crosses my premise that Hollywood should write original material (the exception to make the rule), Sin City was already so fresh and compelling that honestly it’d be hard to screw up. Not that the suits couldn’t have done so. Many great stories have been mangled by bureaucracy, and Frank Miller (the creator of Sin City) would be the first to tell you so. (Miller stated that he would never let Hollywood make adaptations of his comics after constant studio interference during the scriptwriting for the Robocop franchise.) But Rodriguez’s commitment to the original Sin City material was so strong that he wouldn’t proceed without Miller’s blessing. Miller even co-directed the film. So strong was Rodriguez’s commitment to Sin City that he resigned from the Director’s Guild in order to allow Miller a co-directing credit.

Really Long Aside; yet another plug for good storytelling

Rodriguez is recognized as a proven storyteller (see number 1 above), and all the A-list talent he enlisted agreed to work for much less than they could’ve demanded. Bruce Willis alone could have cost the production at least $5 million (the amount he was paid to star in Die Hard in 1988). Willis’s current asking price is reportedly around $25 million. Actors recognize good material, and they’ll sacrifice their astronomical salaries to work with proven storytellers and to bring a great film to life.

4) Start the PR early
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a trailer on TV for some movie opening ‘this weekend’ that I’d never heard of. Even if the trailer is really good, you have virtually no chance of getting me to change my plans. I’ve got a life, and I’m not going to change it just because you flashed hordes scantily clad women and fiery explosions on my little TV screen for 30 seconds. Which leads me to the next point…

5) Enough with crappy trailers
I hate to sound like a Pixar fanboy, but I think they serve as excellent examples of how to run a movie business. Take the Monsters Inc. trailers for example. The teaser, makes me laugh without really giving me any idea what the movie is about, and that one does a great job of quickly explaining the gist of the story without giving away too much. And the teaser for The Incredibles had me rolling in the aisles. “Maybe just a salad!” HA!

Contrast those with the majority of trailers made these days. Just one example will suffice. Women and violence. What about this trailer really makes me want to go out and see this movie? I’ve seen women, and I’ve seen explosions. Tell me an interesting story.

6) Take Advantage of The Long Tail
Economically, what the long tail means, is that you don’t have to appeal to the lowest common denominator anymore. With the advent of recommendation engines, people are finding things they’re interested in that they otherwise would never have even heard of. They spend their money on these things. DVD’s are perfect for this kind of market, digital downloads even more so. Apple’s iTunes music store has proved the viability of downloadable media; people will pay for content if the price is right and delivery is convenient. If it’s available, and it’s good, it will find its audience. Don’t be afraid of niches.

Winding it all up now
To put it succinctly, there is more than just one way hedge your bets. The prevailing method obviously isn’t putting butts in the seats. I would hope that some mogul out there might stick his neck out and try something new. And even though I’m no mogul, that’s my as well. Hopefully you’ll see a really cool Saturdayplace logo in front of a film the near future.

Kindred Articles:
It’s happening in the video game world too. (VFX World, registration required)
The Man Who Shot Sin City(Wired Magazine)

or How to Make Money in Tinseltown

Something’s wrong with Hollywood. Ticket sales are down. DVD salesare down. Many blame high ticket prices. Others, the ever degrading quality of the movie-going experience I’ll posit another theory for the decline: an ever increasing stream of bad sequels and worse remakes. More explosions, more special effects, less clothes, and even less story. It’s getting worse. Dukes of Hazard comes to mind: that one earned a meta-critic rating of 16% at rotten tomatoes Less story.

Where does a good story come from? Hard work. In a 2001 interview with Pete Doctor and John Lasseter Film Monthly asked about the process of making a Pixar movie.

Paul Fischer: What’s the process of making these films?

Doctor: The process is more or less this: The story is all important, so we spend two or three years, before we do anything on computers, just drawing and writing. Just coming up with the characters.

Let’s just make sure we all heard that right. Two or three years. Working on story, character development and design. Pixar, a computer animation company spends two or three years in preproduction before they even touch a computer.

Excessive you say? We don’t have time for that, you say? It’s not worth it, you say?

Let’s play with numbers for a bit. I know you Hollywood types get a kick out of that.

If you were to average the domestic box office receipts for the top 25 grossing films of 2005 you’d land in the neighborhood of $160 million per film. Not too shabby. If a studio could consistently land itself in the top 25, they’d be in good shape. As long as the budgets for their movies weren’t excessive (more on this another time) they’d net a fair amount. Now let’s just assume for a second that Pixar was able to hit this $160 million average with each of its films. For six movies, the total gross comes out to $960 million. Again, not too bad, but over the course off a decade, most studios demand a bit more of a return

Now take a peek at the real numbers.

$1,457,476,297. Lot of commas. Pixar has only made six movies ever and their domestic box office gross comes to nearly 1.5 billion dollars. Domestic. As in, we didn’t include overseas grosses. Or DVD sales. Or merchandise licensing. Or cable TV. Or computer games. Or, or, or… During Pixar’s 3rd quarter 2005 earnings conference call, Pixar CFO Simon Bax stated that Pixar’s bank accounts include an amount of over 1 billion dollars. Cash. As in, they could write you a check with nine zeros. Well, so could I, but theirs would clear the bank. Need more? Disney just bought Pixar in a stock deal worth $7.5 billion dollars. If you figure that Disney spent the majority of that money to acquire Pixar’s movie library (they didn’t; Disney already owns those films), you could say that a single Pixar movie is worth 1.25 billion dollars.

Clearly, Pixar has figured something out. In an industry where misses occur with higher (ear piercing) frequency than hits, the little company from Emeryville seems to have discovered the alchemical secret of turning celluloid into gold. I suggest that it has everything to do with what Pete Doctor said. It bears repeating:

The story is all important, so we spend two or three years, before we do anything on computers, just drawing and writing.

There is money in good storytelling. Good money.

OK. Now I admit that Pixar is an extreme example. G-rated movies tend to make more money than others. Mom and Dad bring the kids along to see Finding Nemo, but not Silence of the Lambs, for obvious reasons. So the per-family take is larger. Then, because Junior won’t let up when the newest kid-flick arrives on DVD, the parents bring it home to pacify him. Same goes for move-related toys, clothes, breakfast cereals, toothpaste, etc. Animated films have better market for these kinds of secondary revenue streams, and Pixar has been able to capitalize on that.

I’m also not saying that a movie will become a money machine just because it’s G-rated or animated. Take Disney’s Home on the Range, for example. Only brought in $50 million domestically (and only $53 more from overseas). Or Valiant with $19 million. And I don’t recall seeing the valiant action figure at my local Wal-Mart. Nor would I suggest that story quality is the only thing that will determine a movie’s profitability. Plenty of great stories have flopped at the box office. The Iron Giant springs to mind. But if you bear with, I will be so bold as to suggest that good storytelling does get you something valuable, something you can convert into money.

Now I’ve gotta make a couple of qualifications.

It sounds as though I’m advocating a long, drawn-out process of story development as a way to get rich. That’s just not the case. It’s not even necessarily a surefire way create a great story. The reason I bring up the Pete Doctor quote so often, is that it illustrates Pixar’s commitment to the story. Their particular brand of commitment means spending years perfecting every nook and cranny of their characters. I don’t think it necessarily takes years to develop a great filmable story. It does take commitment, which plenty of people have.

And it takes talent, which is a bit less plentiful, and brings me to the real reason that Disney bought Pixar.

I mentioned earlier that it wasn’t Pixar’s movie library that Disney was after in the recent acquisition. Disney already owned the rights to those six flicks, including the right to make sequels. So why was the Mouse House willing to put up so much money in exchange for the creator of the CG animated feature?

One reason. Talent. Specifically, storytelling talent. The creative minds at Pixar are committed to one thing: telling a well-told tale. John Lasseter has been compared to Walt Disney himself for his ability to capture an audience’s attention. Descriptions of Ed Catmull stop just short of genius. The rest of the Pixar guys are no slouches. They do their work with astonishing, recognizable ability. Repeatedly. They have a reputation for putting out quality fare. I can walk into a Pixar screening confident that at the very least, the movie won’t suck. It will probably even be enjoyable, and there are really good odds that it will be fantastic. I can’t name many other institutions in Hollywood whose products provide that kind of pre-viewed assurance. Too often, the people making the creative decisions have absolutely no business doing so. The money guys call the shots, assuming that things like ‘P/E’, ‘Market Cap’, and ‘Earnings per Diluted Share,’ are more important. Or that marketing will help put shine on a turd. The results of those ventures are less than stellar.

This is my plea to the Hollywood decision makers: Get out of the way of your creative talent. Disney has managed to do that with Pixar for over a decade now and the results speak for themselves. I guarantee that when Pixar’s Cars comes out in June, I’ll cough the cash to see it opening weekend, despite the price, and near-certainty of an excited six-year-old kicking the back of my seat. I’ll go to the opening of their next film too.

And that’s what good storytelling gets you. A reputation for telling good stories. A reputation that almost ensures you’ll have a future audience. An investment in good storytelling is an investment in the long term.

Which in turn, gets you my money.