Category Archives: Culture Industry

Canadian Film & TV Needs Affirmative Action

by SHAWN WHITNEY

It’s funny: Just last night I was engaging in that favourite past time of Canadian filmmakers – complaining about the Canadian film industry. Complaining about the lack of government financing and the difficulty of breaking into a distribution market that is locked down by the studios and mini-majors and, here in Canada, where there is now “1.5 distributors” to choose from (as my co-conversationalist described it).

We didn’t even get on to the lack of women and minorities in the Canadian film and TV industry. But it’s true also. For an industry that is widely reputed to be liberal and progressive it is one of the most segregated and exclusionary industries in the country. Just check out this report in Playback Online.

“…out of the 130 Telefilm-funded films made in 2011, only 17% were directed by women, with only two directors being minority women.

Women were only slightly better represented among screenwriters, with 21% of 175 being female, but still only 3 minority women.”

If we were to extend our research into the area of the kind of work that actors get, we would find a similar pattern. I recently attended an online seminar about pre-sales in the film industry and the speaker was upfront: if you want to pre-sell your movie the most important cast to attach are white males of a certain age. (Pre-selling to distributors – ie. before the film is made – is a key way to finance a film and reduce the risk to your investors). As for the rest (you know, the majority of the world population), they get the leftover roles, usually stereotypes whose job is to provide support or target practice to the white, male protagonist. Manuel Rodriguez-Saenz, our lead actor in A Brand New You, is regularly cast as a drug dealer, dishwasher, occasionally a taxi driver. It’s a bit of a joke amongst us – literally every time he gets an audition for a TV series it is as a criminal. Apparently that’s the price of being brown and having an accent. It’s the reason that our mandate at Dangerous Dust is to make films with the kind of cast that don’t get seen in lead roles, even in indie films, by and large.

But, of course, we are a puny company with one film in post-production and just beginning development on our next project. The problem is systemic and massive. But just as one little indie company can’t solve the problem of “under-representation” (the polite way to say racism and sexism when we don’t want to offend sensitive ears), nor can the timid solution of the important study that I quoted above.

“[Women in View executive director, Rina Fraticelli] says it’s vital that we begin rethinking the way we mentor women in the industry, and find ways to sponsor them as well.

“In addition to being well trained, disciplined and having the talent to do something, to really get to the highest levels of work, what you really need is somebody championing you,” she explains.”

To be fair Fraticelli does point towards a tax credit system to promote the advancement of women. But the idea that mentoring is a way to solve under-representation is a non-starter. For one it guarantees that those with the connections to industry players are the ones who will advance. At best that means upper class (usually white) women, at worst it means relying on the people who have benefited from nepotism in the past breaking with the patterns that have helped them advance. Unlikely.

No, it will continue to be difficult for people who aren’t white men until there is an affirmative action program with clear, quantifiable measures. Telefilm financing, instead of being obsessed with market measures that are mostly phoney baloney and reinforce the kind of same-old, same-old that leads to the Hollywood organ-grinder of remakes, retreads and sequels (in both casting and content), ought to be tied to innovation, including in personnel. Films with female and “non-white” directors, producers and/or writers ought to get incentives to foster those projects. It’s only with quantifiable goals that the natural tendency towards nepotism can be broken and the industry opened up to new voices that accurately reflect the character of our changing country and world.

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Indie Film Needs To Be A Guerilla Struggle (Pt. 2)

BY SHAWN WHITNEY

(CONT from Thursday)

Several years ago I went to the Canadian Film Centre (an awesome and very productive experience about which I’ll blog at some future date) and we received passes to a talk by Robert Lantos, one of Canada’s biggest film producers. He started his talk by saying that “if you can do anything else at all, don’t do film” because for most of the time it is heartbreak and misery. And this is from a guy who’s been more successful than most. Writing for the market is no guarantee of happiness, success, fame or any other measure of achievement. Film is hard.

So, the next time someone tells you to write for the market, write only genre, or write with big stars in mind, ignore them. Write what you want to write – that’s the first lesson in being a writer and filmmaker. More than that: write your heart and soul. Write stories that frighten you – not horrors (unless that’s what interests you) but questions that you find difficult to face, that we all find difficult to face. By that I don’t mean they have to be heavy drama. Charlie Chaplin made Modern Times, a great comedy, about the dehumanization and misery of being an industrial worker at a time of great anxiety about industrialism. Mumblecore films engage with the much more mundane fears of a generation that can’t find purpose and looks for it in relationships. The French New Wave threw out most of the rules of what a film should look like or how a film story should be told.

There’s no recipe here. Don’t write avante garde scripts because it’s the right thing to do. Don’t break all the rules of storytelling because that’s edgy. Don’t write romcoms because that’s what sells. The only rule is write what you want and challenge yourself. Of course there are rules to good storytelling. There must be a conflict between the desires of your protagonist(s) and their reality. They must struggle to overcome that conflict and achieve their desires, even if they fail. It also doesn’t mean you should ignore financial realities. You are probably smartest to write with financial limitations in mind. But that can be understood flexibly. Look at Von Trier’s Dogville. That movie was shot using tape on a floor to designate the walls of buildings in a town. There are ways around budgetary constraints and naturalism is less of a necessity when you’re not trying to sell your product to a market of millions of viewers to recoup your $100 million production budget. Be creative. If you want an army of thousands – can you simulate it with little plastic figures (Todd Solondz made a movie about Karen Carpenter using only Barbie & Ken dolls – it made his career)? Realism is over-rated. What you need to do is tell a story that hasn’t been told in the way that you’re telling it.

But it won’t get distribution, you say? Well, if your plan is to write a great commercial script and get someone in LA or elsewhere to produce or direct it, chances are you won’t get your film made at all, never mind distribution. First things first, as Lloyd Kaufman says: make your own damn movie. That’s the only way to ensure your movie gets made. Next, give it away for free, publicize it in any way possible – on social media, by fly posting, by leafleting, etc. There’s a world of possibility that exists now as a result of the internet and advances in camera/filmmaking technology. Hollywood is attempting to end-run that democratization by producing spectacle films of such enormous budget that merely high quality films can’t compete – or producing product that is so recognizable they are as irresistible as a Twinkie to a sweet tooth. Indie filmmaking needs to be less saccharine, more like a prolonged guerilla struggle, whittling away at the edges of Hollywood’s domination with small, effective skirmishes. First we take horror, then the small, personal films, next we engage in lightning quick strikes on the plains of sci-fi-dom, soon we’ll stage an offensive on the historical epic. Forget trying to please Emperor Hollywood. There’s a whole new world to win.

DISCLAIMER:

I’m not trying to say that you shouldn’t try to write scripts that sell. If you can, write several scripts a year, including one or two spec scripts that you want to sell. Getting up to that kind of speed could take time. Your first script will probably take you several years. Your second script may take you a year. Later you’ll be able to write more quickly. Once you get your writing speed up – if you ever do; some people are slow writers, which isn’t a criticism, just a recognition that people have different processes – then you can write one or two commercial scripts to try and sell. But the majority of your scripts should be passion scripts. If you write scripts to sell, know this: you aren’t writing for “the market”. You’re writing for a bunch of middlemen & middlewomen who are trying to game the market. The real “market” are the audience. And the audience are ordinary people who want to see themselves and their experience reflected on the screen. The challenge is to reach them and then win their hearts and minds.

In case you missed PART 1 go here.

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Even Immortality Can Be Ruined By Corporations

 

This appeals to the sci-fi geek and (critical) follower of the Singularity movement in me. It’s a funny poke at the idea that exponential technologies will lead to endless freedom and bounty. Probably it will just as much lead to another revenue source for another corporation (Apple perhaps? iUpload?). It’s also a good demonstration of how it doesn’t need to be expensive to make science fiction.

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Writing A Screenplay? Ignore The “Market” (Part 1)

BY SHAWN WHITNEY

The first – and main – thing that you’re taught as a screenwriter is to write for the market. When you’re told to find a “hook” or write to a genre or “save the cat” or hire A-list actors, that’s precisely what you’re being told. If you want to sell your movie at Cannes or AFM or Berlin or Toronto, you need to have those elements in place. Well, it’s time to pop the myth that the thing filmmakers ought to do is produce product for “the market.”

First of all “the market” isn’t the market. it is the layers of middlemen who control the channels that allow your film to make it to the true market, the film audience. They are the broadcasters and distributors, who are mostly conservative and steeped in a model that is rooted in the last century. Their only measure is making maximum profits, which is made by producing the broadest possible content, with no edges that might offend or challenge the audience. They are the sales agents who want packages (genre films with A-list actors) that they believe will please the broadcasters and distributors. By now you’re already at least two degrees of separation from your audience.

Luckily, it is no longer the case that they only way to reach an audience is through these middlemen (and middle women). Theatres and TV networks are not the only game in town when it comes to viewing.

OK, let’s take a step back. Why are you writing screenplays and making (or trying to make) movies? Is it to be famous and make a million dollars? The first thing you ought to ask is why do you want to be famous and why do you want to make money. If you want to have money just to have money, here’s a little tip: avoid filmmaking and go get an MBA or a corporate law degree. The money is much more certain. Or by a lottery ticket. Your chances of becoming famous and getting rich through filmmaking are much lower than winning the lottery. Just think: 45,000 films are made each year, Hollywood releases about 200, Sundance accepts about 150. Something like ten films at Sundance get decent distribution deals. I’ve heard estimates that there are 250,000 new scripts floating around Hollywood each year looking for a producer or director to get them made. Most of these scripts have been written with an eye to the market, they are genre, they are broad in their pitch.

The odds aren’t great, to say the least.

You have to find a different motivation for being a filmmaker – unless you’re incredibly lucky – or you’ll never last for the long haul. How do I know (besides knowing the stats)? I read scripts for a living. Just recently I read a script by an award-winning and renowned novelist and screenwriter. It was an awesome script – profoundly moving, thought-provoking, one of the best I’d ever read. That script has been floating around for nearly forty years unable to get made even though it had been attached to some of the most powerful directors at one time or another. A year or so earlier I read a script that was terrible. I mean terrible. Or, perhaps more charitably, under-developed and need of significant work. But it had attached some big names and was in a popular genre – and in the right place at the right time and connected with the right people. It’s going into production.

The rules governing what gets made and what doesn’t, what is popular and what isn’t, are more than a little turgid. Hollywood is interested only in retreads, remakes and sequels because it is a megalithic, moneymaking machine. Independent film is a misnomer. Most of indie films aren’t really independent in the true sense of the word. Indies are what A-list stars make between the blockbusters but which are, by and large, the same as the blockbusters – structurally, thematically, etc. – with a lower budget. Recently I read an article by a sales agent that said if you want to pre-sell a script at any of the major markets – Cannes, Berlin, the AFM, you need to attach an A-list, white male and it must be a genre script. Does that sound “independent”? It’s not to say that good and great scripts don’t get made – by both the big studios and by the smaller production companies. They do and I’ve had the fortune of reading some of them. But they are in the minority and your chances of being one of those writers – either in skill or, more importantly, in connections is slim.

You need to find another reason to write.

CONTINUED MONDAY…

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Financing Our Microbudget Lo-Fi Sci-Fi Dream

The price of camera equipment has come down big time in the last decade, with the absolutely disruptive impact of HDSLR video capabilities making professional quality filmmaking possible for next to nothing. Add to that the impact of cheap gear from China and your looking at an exponential collapse in costs. But it still ain’t nothing. Labour is now the biggest cost of filmmaking and even if you decide to pay no one, you still have to feed them if you don’t want a revolt on your hands. Then there’s production vehicles and parking, insurance (you know, in case you burn down one of your locations), etc etc. Trying to shoot a feature for under $1000 is possible but the trade-off is exhaustion and stress – and your costs can quickly rise as you go more legit till you reach tens of thousands of dollars (as an example, our “true” budget is probably about $80,000 but, with deferred fees from the crew and other cost-saving measures, we’ve got it down to around $20,000. That’s not as low as Ghosts With Shit Jobs but we’re using professional actors and that means paying them. We also have set costs (like the lab). So, where do you get the money for all this? Unless you’re loaded (we’re not) $20K is a lot of cash. For us the money came primarily from the producers’ pockets, plus we have one investor who is putting in a few thousand dollars (the rest of the “investment” is, of course, the crew and cast labour, which is being counted as investment and will paid out as such in the event a profit is made. ACTRA builds this into their contract with the producers as a 3.6% royalty of gross earnings after a one year grace period). During the post-production period we will also be going to crowdfunding to raise more cash for marketing and distribution. So, where did the producers get the money? Ahem:

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Filed under About BNY, Culture Industry, Internet 2.0, Micro budget, Pre-production, Uncategorized

Why Make An Indie? Because: “Online TV Is Crap”

BY SHAWN WHITNEY

I’ve started reading a book on distribution by Film Specific website founder Stacey Parks as part of my self-education in film marketing and distribution. This is in addition to my reading of Jon Reiss, an established documentary filmmaker, who runs seminars and has a well received book called Think Outside The Box Office. I highly recommend checking them out but my only real point in mentioning them is what they both elude to: getting your indie film distributed is hard. Really hard. Gone are the halcyon days when an indie filmmaker could pre-sell their film before even a frame had been shot and thus recoup their costs. That was before the great democratization of filmmaking technology – of which I’ve written more than once. When filmmaking got cheaper, more films got made and prices dropped. The big struggle now is to get anyone to watch your film beyond your friends and begrudging but obligated family members (“No, Grandma, really, it gets better after this next gruesome killing.”).

So, if it’s so hard to make (it’s still hard, just not AS hard) and hard to distribute your indie film, why bother? Well, Shane Smith the founder of VICE provided a few good reasons for doing so when he spoke on a recent panel. The short answer is because “online TV could be revolutionary but it’s crap.” The longer answer is because we live in times of crisis, revolution, war and tectonic shifts in the relationship between an “old” empire (the USA) and a new, rising one (China). This should be a period of rich cultural production, it should be a moment in which we grapple with deep themes and unique stories that reflect in some way the turbulence of our times. Hollywood – and the Canadian film industry, by and large – hasn’t demonstrated the ability to do this. The emphasis is on safe, derivative themes, settings and stories. It’s up to indie filmmakers – and indie content producers of web programs, trans media, books, blogs, etc. – to fill that vacuum. That doesn’t meant that every story must be a political drama. It means being bold in our work and not trying to make just another “romcom” or police procedural or slasher film (oh, go ahead, make a slasher film if you want – the slasher fan base can’t get enough of ’em). But enough of me, here’s some of Shane Smith’s thoughts:

“Basically young people all over the world are pissed off. They’re fucking angry. And I don’t know about you but there is nothing that’s scarier than young people who have no future. If you take away someone’s future, they have nothing to lose. Historically, if we look at what young men do, especially, when they have no future, is they go out there and they fuck shit up.”

 …“As I was flying back from Pakistan, and we saw some serious shit there… where’s the media that covers this? We’re just not doing it.”

“The news is gonna be, Two and a Half Men is moving from Tuesday to Thursday fuckin’ night.”

 …

“TV is shit. Everyone has their four favorite shows but it’s shit. The Internet is derivative of that shit. TV is derivative of itself. What’s the No. 1 show? The Voice. What’s The Voice?It’s American Idol 2.0. American Idol was shit and now The Voice is shittier. TV never takes any chances, they never do anything different.”

Go, Shane, go! And go, indie filmmakers, go!

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