Archives For January 2014

A table at Kate Mantilini Beverly Hills is a good spot for a power pitch. Happens every day.

A table at Kate Mantilini Beverly Hills is a good spot for a power pitch. Happens every day.

 

Matt is a young, aspiring filmmaker. Actually, he’s more than aspiring – he made a film that did very well in a national competition. Because of that film’s success, Matt was invited to pitch his next project to some legit producers in one of the “pitch fests” routinely held in L.A. He reached out to me on Facebook for some advice. Here’s a pretty close version of what I shared with him:

Matt,

The best advice I can give you is advice you’ll be tempted to ignore once you’re in the room. I’ve sat on the producer’s side of the table and listened to pitches all day at a few of those events. Those rooms are hardwired with competition. Once the adrenaline kicks in, it’s easy to start overdoing it. That’s why it’s important to be smart and stay focused on your goal.

Selling your movie in those five minutes is not the goal. The odds are astronomically against it. So don’t measure the experience by whether or not they buy it the room. The measure of your success on that day will be how much you learn, who you meet, and if any doors are opened to you. Your goal should be to make an impression – a favorable one. Your goal is to make a connection – a meaningful one. I’m not telling you to be passive. I am telling you not to be desperate.

Don’t be theatrical unless you’re naturally theatrical. Don’t be ultra cool unless you are ultra cool. Be confident, not cocky — unless you’re naturally cocky and people tell you it works for you. Oscar Wilde said it best: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

Get your pitch down but don’t be a slave to it. Sometimes a producer will interrupt you in the middle of a pitch just to see how you respond. So know what the movie is about and why it needs to be made more than just knowing all the words you’ve memorized to pitch it. And it would really help if you know why the person you’re pitching to should make your movie. Connect it to something she’s done before and had success with. This only works if you’ve done your homework – which is the easiest but most underused best practice in pitching. With all the instant information that’s available today, there’s no excuse for not knowing who you’re pitching to, what they’ve done and what they’re up to.

The bottom line is it’s unlikely your career will be made or broken by this meeting. But your career could be off to a good start if you make enough of an impression that a relationship is started.

Good luck! Let me know how it goes.

TJ

Pitching is a big part of what I do. I’ve pitched projects to executives on studio lots, to actor/producers on set in their trailers, to A-list producers in chichi restaurants, and directors at their favorite watering holes. What I’ve shared in this post are basic principles for pitching. There’s a lot more that could be said — and I plan to write on this subject again. Thanks for joining me here at the corner of Art & Commerce — I hope these posts are helpful to you.

Missing Rick Dial

January 29, 2014 — 1 Comment

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NOTE: The following was originally written in 2012 and posted on Facebook on the eve of the 2012 Academy Award telecast. It is posted here on Rev. Hollywood for the first time. (pictured: Rick Dial as Bill Cox in SLING BLADE | Miramax)

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It’s a pretty safe bet Rick Dial’s picture will be missing during the annual “In Memoriam” montage at tonight’s Academy Awards. A safe bet, but a sad one nonetheless.

It happens every year. Someone gets left out. Sometimes it happens because of an oversight. Sometimes it’s a judgment call. I’d like to think last year’s omission of Lisa Blount was an oversight. Who in their right mind would call it sound judgment for the Academy not to acknowledge the passing of an Oscar winner, Academy member and veteran film actor of over 30 years?

Rick probably won’t be in this evening’s solemn roll call. But he should be.

He was a member of the Screen Actors Guild with credits going back to 1996. He had recently completed work in two films and was preparing to start another when he died this past May. His first foray into acting wasn’t a prank. It was a specific choice made by the writer and the director – who happened to be the same person. The screenplay for that film earned an Oscar.

Billy Bob Thornton introduced the world to Rick Dial by casting him as BILL COX in SLING BLADE. Thornton wasn’t just being kind to his lifelong friend. He was acting on a hunch that Rick had something true and compelling to bring to that role. In fact, Thornton wrote the part with Rick’s voice in his mind. His hunch proved right. It also started Rick on a journey that enriched his life experience but did not change his character or personality one iota.

Here’s an interesting wrinkle to Rick’s career that desperate and superstitious filmmakers like myself could not help but notice: The ratio of films Rick acted in compared to how many of those films garnered multiple Oscar nominations was impressive. He was the Meryl Streep of Malvern, AR. He was also considered a good luck charm for Awards Season – if you could get him.

There was an experience common enough to some Indie filmmakers that it had a name: The Malvern Pilgrimage. I made this journey myself and counseled others how to do it. You had to travel to a little berg forty minutes, give-or-take, south of Little Rock and just east of I-30.  Deep in the bowels of a furniture store just off Malvern’s main highway you’d find Rick huddled in a small office.

To get to your seat you’d wade through stacks of Gaither Homecoming CDs on one side and personal mementos from Billy Bob Thornton on the other. You’d sit in the chair across from his desk, gripping a smudged script in your sweaty hand. As you settled in you noticed pictures on the walls. Rick with Thornton. Rick with Duvall. Rick with John Travolta. Rick with Jeff Bridges. Rick with Maggie Gyllenhall. Rick with Jack Black. All of these pictures were taken on movie sets where Rick wasn’t visiting – he was working. And that’s when you realized: “These are the kind of people I’m competing with to cast Rick in my film.”

I’m grateful Rick said, “yes” on two occasions I came calling. He was a fine actor and he was a good man. That’s a potent and welcome combination on any set.

It was in a bar in Beverly Hills that I began to get a greater sense of the effect Rick had on people — and he wasn’t even there. My business partner and I had arranged to meet a director to discuss a script our company was developing. He said we should meet Friday night at 8 in the bar at the Four Seasons.

The place was packed but the director was holding a table for us. Actually it was half of a table in a banquette we shared with…wait for it…Robert Duvall, his lovely wife and a couple with whom they were having dessert. I took the only open space — next to Mr. Duvall. We acknowledged one another as polite people do on airplanes never intending to say another word to the other.  But how could I concentrate on the conversation at hand with this unprecedented development?

About an hour later Duvall and his party stood up to leave. It was now or never. “Mr. Duvall!” I blurted out. He turned toward me with that startled but confident look A-listers have when they’re about to be accosted. I froze. Nothing. Then it hit me.

“Rick Dial!” I shouted as if that were a complete sentence. He warmed a bit but was still wary.

“Rick Dial would never forgive me if I sat this close to you and didn’t send his greetings.”

“Ricky Dial!” Duvall lit up. He regaled our party with several of his favorite Dial stories both personal and professional. He shook my hand and told me to “give Ricky my best when you see him.” Then he was gone. I’ve never seen him since and Rick Dial is the only subject we’ve ever discussed.

Several days later when I told Rick that story, he just laughed, shook his head and said something about how wonderful Duvall is. One of the genuinely charming things about Rick was his eagerness to turn the spotlight back to someone he loved.

Rick lived long enough to experience pain and heartache. Let’s be honest, you don’t have to live all that long to experience pain and heartache. Yet, Rick managed to keep a genuine sense of wonder and delight about life right up to the end of his.

I was with Rick and Phyllis – his lovely and beloved wife – the night Rick collapsed. We’d met up for a purely social engagement and were having a pleasant conversation when Rick froze and uttered a single word: “Whoa!” Then he fell to the ground and never regained consciousness.

It wasn’t like “Whoa! Stop that!” It was more like, “Whoa! Wasn’t that great?”

It seemed horrific and absurd at the time but now it just feels right. It was vintage Rick. I don’t know what he saw or felt at that moment. I don’t know if he was trying to tell us something or, more likely, convey something to Phyllis. I do think if Rick had been given a choice of the last word he’d speak on earth, “Whoa!” was as likely to be his pick as any other.

So whether or not Rick is “missing” tonight at the Academy Awards is of little consequence, I guess. More importantly, a lot of us are still missing Rick. We cherish our memories and celebrate the legacy he left us – on film and in person. When we think about how full his life was and the deposit he made in so many lives all we can say is, “Whoa!”

ImagePictured: Phyllis Dial, Tim Jackson, Natalie Canerday and Rick Dial — at a charity roast of Rick less than a month before he died.

DISCLAIMER: If you’re working on your first short film, ignore this list. Enjoy yourself and learn all you can just by doing it. If you’re an aspiring cinematographer with a new camera, then by all means ignore this list and go shoot. Just bought some editing software? Go ahead, shoot and edit until you get the hang of it. Think you might want to direct? Find a couple of actors in a local drama department and ask if they’ll let you direct them in a scene on camera. To all student filmmakers: learn your craft and enjoy the learning process. That involves trying  a lot of different things without any make or break pressure.

But if you’re thinking about making a feature film and you’re going to sweat your family and friends with a Kickstarter campaign — take heed to this list. If you’re hoping your film is going to storm into Park City in January, culminating in a bidding war involving anyone named Weinstein, then you’ll do well to take this list to heart. Before you start planning your behind the scenes features, designing the one sheet, putting together a killer business plan that suggests your film is going to perform like NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, please — for the sake of your investors — read and ponder this list. Whatever  you do, don’t do any of these:

 5 Really Bad Filmmaking Habits:

  1. Thinking about production when you don’t have a script. You can’t budget, schedule or cast an idea.
  2. Thinking a good script is an easy thing to come by. It is not.
  3. Making too many promises and attachments to the project early on. It’s easy to sabotage your movie with a promise made in haste.
  4. Building your script and/or production around a lot of “have to’s” — there should be as few non-negotiables as possible.
  5. Building a whole story around one cool idea for a set piece. Sure, Alfred Hitchcock did it. Here’s a tip: you ain’t Hitchcock.

The thing is, you might be the next Hitchcock. But we’ll never know if you fall into these bad habits. In terms of technology, it’s never been easier to make a movie. The downside is it’s never been easier to make a bad movie. Forget about what kind of camera you’re going to shoot on until you know what you’re going to shoot (and if it’s worth shooting). It’s possible to overwork a script. In the Indie world it’s more likely to find one that’s under-worked.

Making a film takes so much effort, time and money, that it really should be entered into as itelligently as it is passionately. You can write a novel, paint a picture or compose a song without raising money and wearing out a crew. Making a movie that will get seen involves a lot of people — from development through post, from the distribution team and ultimately to the audience. If you’re going to marshall that kind of manpower, shouldn’t it be in service of a good script that’s well produced and finished with an eye toward connecting with people who care about your story?

You don’t have to be a seasoned filmmaker to get one of these done. Andie Redwine is a writer/producer who got her first script, PARADISE RECOVERED, produced and distributed. She collaborated with Storme Wood, a talented, experienced director. They didn’t spend a fortune (SAG Ultra Low Budget) but they spent their money wisely. They brought passion and intelligence to their production and it worked.

The Miller Brothers (my former business parter, Josh and his brother, Miles) roll cameras next week on their first feature, ALL THE BIRDS HAVE FLOWN SOUTH. They’ve patiently worked their script for a couple of years. They’ve put together a great cast (Joey Lauren Adams, Paul Sparks) and a top notch local crew with feature experience. They brought on a producer who knew what to do and how to do it. They’re making the film at a budget that makes sense for the genre. I like their chances and I know I’ll like their film.

I’m working with two smart, talented filmmakers right now on a feature we plan to shoot this year. GUTTERSNIPES was written by writer/producer Joe Aaron. It will be directed by Shuchi Talati. Both are AFI grads who’ve worked hard to preserve and protect what is unique about their film while being flexible on everything else. They are the kind of Above the Line leaders that inspire others to work hard for their vision.

There are a lot of ways to get your film made right but they all involve patience, intelligence, passion and hard work. Talent alone won’t get it done. And bad habits will kill you.

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(Pictured: On the set of my directorial debut film in 2006 – composing the first draft of Bad Habits for Filmmakers in real time.)

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SAVING MR. BANKS is a tale of two artists. Count ‘em: two. Some of the harsher criticism leveled at BANKS might lead you to believe there’s only one artist’s story at the heart of this movie. There are, in fact, at least two.

It’s helpful to keep in mind that SAVING MR. BANKS is a tale about the making of a fairytale. This film about artists is a work of art itself. The quality of art may be in question but the fact that it is art should not be. Calling it Disney propaganda is a not very imaginative criticism. Dismissing it because it’s a “lie” is lazy. All movies lie – even the ones that tell the Truth.

BANKS is a dramatic telling of the long and contentious journey that led to Walt Disney’s film adaptation of P.L. Travers’s classic children’s novel, “Mary Poppins”. But that’s not what the movie is about. It’s about two very different kinds of artists. I’m not saying that every artist falls into one of only two categories. But I am saying Disney and Travers, as portrayed in MR. BANKS, personify two categories of artists we see in popular culture every day. These categories are often at odds with one another professionally and sometimes personally. Think Lennon/McCartney, Letterman/Leno, Scorsese/Spielberg – and add to the list, Travers/Disney.

Some artists create only to please themselves. Some aren’t satisfied until others are pleased. There are artists who use their chosen medium to work through their own pain and to wrestle with questions that haunt them personally. Then there are artists whose work is a tool for circumventing their pain and changing the conversation. There are artists who are suspicious and uncomfortable when the masses embrace their work. Then there are artists who cannot fathom why their work elicits such critical vitriol. There are artists who oppose The Man, and artists who become The Man so they can create with impunity. It’s shortsighted to romanticize or demonize either group. It’s also unfair of me to categorize any artist because once you think you’ve figured them out, they’re likely to surprise you. Humans are like that.

It’s worth mentioning here that a lot of memorable art has resulted from collaborations by artists from each category. Inevitably there is conflict but when there is collaboration the results can be compelling and unforgettable. Often these relationships are built on mutual respect and affection that escape casual observers. It’s the human experience that all artists have in common.

It interests me how often artists with very different outlooks and portfolios share similar life stories. Both Travers and Disney (as portrayed in the film) had challenging, difficult childhoods. When we meet these characters as adults we see how those childhoods informed their work in starkly different expressions. In the tale that BANKS tells it is the shared human experience that ultimately creates the armistice. Whether or not you believe the film, it’s an idea worth hanging onto isn’t it? That knowing someone’s story might change the way you see her?

One of my favorite moments in the film finds Disney coming to the painful conclusion that he’ll never win the rights to make Poppins. He’s found Travers an immoveable force and he thinks he knows why. In this moment he recounts to one of his employees how he was pressed early in his career to sell the rights to Mickey Mouse. As tempting as it was he just couldn’t because, “that mouse is family to me.” In that moment the conflict is not Disney’s enmity with Travers, rather it is his empathy.

There’s an undercurrent in the criticism of MR. BANKS that says we shouldn’t trust the film because Walt Disney Pictures made it. I think it’s a good idea not to trust that any work of art comes to us as an objective whole. Corporate America doesn’t have a monopoly on presenting it’s product the way it wants. All messages/art/entertainment are fashioned by choices and come to us with built in values and a point of view.

There are troubling aspects of both Mr. Disney’s and Ms. Travers’s true stories that are not addressed in the film. I don’t think the filmmakers are obligated to explore or explain those. SAVING MR. BANKS is not a history lesson. My friend, Philip Martin, reminds us “people who get their history from movies, get the history they deserve.” It’s not a documentary (though it was inspired by a documentary about Travers). It is a tale of two artists. And it is a tale well told.

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I’d love to know what you thought of SAVING MR. BANKS and/or your take on the ideas in this post. Comment here or on our Facebook page to contribute to the conversation.

(pictured: Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers in Disney’s “Saving Mr. Banks” Directed by John Lee Hancock)

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At a Paramount sales convention, exhibitors were delighted to hear M-G-M might lend them Clark Gable. A lone voice in the crowd asked, “But will they lend us Thalberg?” — If you’ve ever wondered who that Thalberg character is they named an honorary Oscar for, Mark Vieira’s book is the authoritative answer. And a great read.

READ THIS: IRVING THALBERG | Boy Wonder to Producer Prince

Over time Thalberg distilled his business philosophy into five rules:

  1. Never hold an “unassailable” opinion.
  2. The clearness with which I see my goal determines the speed in reaching it.
  3. Expect help from no one.
  4. Pride goeth before a fall, and the height of the pride determines the severity of the bump.
  5. Never take any one man’s opinion as final.

 

Material for this post was gleaned from Mark Vieira’s outstanding book, IRVING THALBERG. Follow the link above to find out more.

(Pictured: Irving Thalberg & Norma Shearer)

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This is about the time I thought Kevin Dillon was being an ass. Until I realized he was just being Johnny Drama. And that’s ok because everybody’s Johnny Drama at Sundance.

The 30th Sundance Film Festival got underway last night and runs through January 26. Many of my friends will be there and a few of them have films screening at Sundance or Slamdance – the scrappy, counter-programming upstart that’s evolved into it’s own force. This year’s line up looks promising.

For ten days every January Park City brims with chutzpah and hustle – it’s like West Hollywood in a parka. The Festival pulsates with creativity of both the inaccessible and transcendent varieties.  A-listers and wannabes press together in crowded theaters, restaurants and clubs. Love it or despise it, it’s hard to resist being drawn into the meta-narrative of “making it” at Sundance.

I made my first pilgrimage to the Festival in January 2005. About a year prior to that a friend and I founded a movie development/production company called Category One Entertainment. We were in it for the long haul so we took a year to establish a network, get up to speed on the Industry and look for material to produce. I was in Park City in ’05 to meet a few people, catch some films and see what all the fuss is about.

My first full day on the jam-packed sidewalks of Main Street, I got stuck behind four guys walking shoulder to shoulder. One of them, the guy I was directly behind, was gesturing wildly and talking loudly in an unmistakable New York accent.  The accent and overly affected suede cowboy hat and wool lined, lambskin duster made for a comical ensemble. After a moment I realized it was Kevin Dillon. I’d seen and appreciated his work early in his career. At this point I was only vaguely aware of the HBO series ENTOURAGE but completely out of the loop on the nature of his character. So, we’re walking along and I’m thinking, “Who does this guy think he is?” Because in my snap judgement, here was a former teen actor trying to be seen while making the scene at Sundance. I smirked with self-righteous dismissal.

A half hour later I’m sitting in a coffee shop with a producer, a director and an editor. We’re swapping Festival stories and poking around a project or two we might want to do together. In walks Kevin Dillon and Jerry Ferrara with a couple of people instantly recognizable as members of a production crew. Dillon takes off his hat and gloves, and for the next fifteen minutes is as pleasant, charming and normal as can be to everyone he encounters. The front door opens, someone sticks her head in and says, “We’re ready for you guys.” And then it dawns on me. He wasn’t making the scene. He was shooting a scene. Because there are always cameras shooting in every direction on Main Street and because I was so fixated on just wanting to get around those guys, I didn’t even notice they were acting their guts out. Who did he think he was? Better question: who did I think I was?! Schmuck, that’s who.

My respect and affection for actors has grown and multiplied many times over after having worked with so many good ones in the last ten years. We make them wait and then demand they perform when the camera is ready. They have to do their very public jobs while not letting what we think about their performance get in their head. Whether they are working from the inside out or the outside in, they are creating and giving something of themselves to us. Frankly, I don’t know how they do it but I’m grateful they do.

A tip of the hat and my very best to all of you who are Sundancing and Slamdancing in 2014!

(Pictured: the cast of HBO’s ENTOURAGE, on the set of “The Sundance Kids” Season 2, Episode 7)

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THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY may not be 2013’s best film. It is hands down the most lovingly crafted film of the year. And crafted is the best way to describe it. Watching MITTY is like walking through a home built by a master carpenter – a home he built not just for himself but for others to enjoy as well. Every skill he’s mastered, every bit of joy he takes in his work are confidently on display. It may not be your taste but it would be ridiculous to call it anything less than remarkable.

For me it worked. I love this kind of big, heartfelt entertainment. If Hollywood studios are going to keep backing 100 million dollar budgets, I hope they’ll always place some of those bets on filmmakers who want a big canvas to tell a very human story about grown ups. I’ve seen masterfully crafted films that left me cold and exhausted. MITTY resonated with all my senses and emotions – giving energy instead of taking it away.

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is at the other end of the spectrum. It is a film that was not so much crafted as it was wrought. And wrought with great passion and care. I saw BUYERS CLUB several weeks ago and MITTY just last night. While they don’t automatically group together in style, genre, budget or story, they do have something in common. Both films were made by people who knew what they wanted to do, knew how to do it, and did not waste the opportunity to do something special.

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I saw both movies in a theater. It’s still my favorite way to see a movie. Conventional wisdom says one should see THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY on the big screen and that it doesn’t matter on what kind of screen DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is viewed. I disagree. Seeing DALLAS BUYERS CLUB on the big screen made that gut wrenching story an immersive experience. If MITTY is a beautiful home that warms you and makes you feel good, BUYERS CLUB is stark street art that takes your breath away. Hooray for both of these filmmaking teams. May their tribe increase.

Box Office Mojo: THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY

Box Office Mojo: DALLAS BUYERS CLUB