Archives For March 2014

Back from NYC

March 29, 2014 — Leave a comment

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I’ve been away for a few days. Here’s why…

When my son, Sam, was 8 years old I told him that I’d take him to any city of his choosing in the United States the year he turned 10.  I also promised to take him to any city in the world the year he turns 20. Without hesitation Sam chose New York for 10. (He’s leaning toward Paris for 20.)

Sam turned 10 this past August and while we had hoped to get him to NYC this past October, my Dad’s sudden illness and passing made that impossible. In fact, Dad died the very week we had originally planned to make the trip.

My Dad had a long held admiration of, and affection for New York City. He went there many times. But the first time, long before I was born, is the one that thrives in my imagination. He was in college in the late 1940’s. During one of his summer breaks he decided — being a lifelong Yankees fan — that he would hitchhike from his home in Arkansas to New York City and take in a game or two at Yankee Stadium. Dad saw a great deal of the United States in those days by walking out to the highway and raising a thumb toward the passing truckers, traveling businessmen and families on vacation who had room for one more. So, it was no big deal for him to take a couple of weeks to thumb his way to the East Coast and back. Except it was a big deal — he ended up being befriended by a Doctor and his family who invited him to stay in their guesthouse for a few weeks. He got to know the City and he saw the Bronx Bombers as much as he could while he was there. The experiences he must have had! If I had a Time Machine, one of the first places I’d visit is New York in the years just after World War II.

The first two times I went to NYC I was with my Dad. So it did my heart good for Sam to choose it for his ten-year-old trip. We’ve only been back for a couple of days but I don’t think our family will ever forget our week there. We stayed at a house owned by some good friends in Brooklyn. We did a lot of touristy stuff but we really enjoyed just living like Brooklynites for a few days — walking to the grocery store, local eateries, a block over to the subway station and three stops into Union Square. The picture at the top of this post was snapped as Sam (followed by Tracy) emerged from the Union Square station onto Manhattan concrete for the first time. He took to it like a duck to water.

Being in the City, seeing it again for the first time through Sam’s eyes I was struck by what a great movie town it is. I’m not just referring to movies set in New York. I’m talking about movies that are quintessential New York movies — where the City is as much a character as anyone else in the story. Over the next week or so, I plan to post two New-York-related-movie posts here. One is an essay about The Wolf of Wall Street — which I’ve been jotting notes for off and on since I saw the film in December. The other will be a general post on some of my favorite New York movies. I hope you’ll check back for those and join the conversation if you’re so inclined.

 

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Greetings to you this Ides of March, Good Reader.

George Clooney’s THE IDES OF MARCH was a well-reviewed offering in the fall of 2011. It’s a smart, political drama with a couple of potboiler turns. Like most of Clooney’s work as a director, the movie is an embarrassment of riches in terms of casting and performances. That’s due in no small part to his long list of very talented friends. That he has so many friends doesn’t diminish the observation that talented people seem to want to work with him. Why? Because George Clooney makes interesting, accessible movies for grown ups with juicy roles for good actors. (See his Directing and Producing credits here.)

My memory may be failing me here but it seemed at the time the movie got a lot of ink, speculating on what the deep cynicism in THE IDES OF MARCH indicated of Clooney’s political leanings at the time. There was an election year coming up in the real world. Making this movie was an intriguing choice for a Hollywood A-lister who was perceived as a positive, tireless champion for politicians he supported.

I do remember walking out of the theater after seeing IDES in October 2011 and thinking, “I would really like to see the other version of this movie they could have made.” I haven’t seen Beau Willimon’s Broadway play, FARRAGUT NORTH. So, I don’t know what was changed, Paul-Giamatti-Philip-Seymour-Hoffman-The-Ides-of-Marchdropped or added for the screen adaptation that became THE IDES OF MARCH. I do know what interested me most in the film — the characters played by Paul Gimatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Gimatti and Hoffman played the grizzled, veteran campaign managers of opposing candidates in a bare knuckle brawl to become the Democrat’s candidate for the U.S. Presidency. The scenes that feature these two actors are hands down the best in the movie and the story lines their characters are moving forward are the most compelling.

Sometimes a movie works for you, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it works just fine but you can see in the finished product a glimmer of a better movie — the path not taken. That’s how I felt about THE IDES OF MARCH. Hoffman and Giamatti  as political operatives going head to head for 90 minutes is the movie I would love to have seen. A few weeks ago it was improbable we’d ever see that movie. Now, it’s impossible. I’m glad we at least have the version of the film that was made — so we can still enjoy the work of those actors and wonder about the movie that might have been.

Doris Roberts as NORMA in PixL's original movie, TOUCHED

Doris Roberts as NORMA in PixL’s original movie, TOUCHED

A few weeks ago we posted a chat I had with Doris Roberts. We invited our friends on Facebook to submit questions they’d like Doris to answer and we chose four of those submissions to pass along to Doris. We’re posting her answers to those here for the first time. Here’s a link to the original interview: Having the Time of Her Life Now, here are Doris’s answers to our friends’ questions:

Toran asked: “How do you manage to get quality roles in your mature years while it eludes so many others? And what is your dearest memory of Peter Boyle?”

Doris answered: “Hello, Toran. Thanks for your questions. I choose scripts I like and say no to those I feel are not right. I love that I keep getting great parts. Peter’s singing. That’s what I remember the most. He loved to sing and had a very sweet voice.”

Tanya asked: “Do you cook great Italian food like your character on Everybody Loves Raymond?”

Doris answered: “I do, but I don’t cook so much since my husband died. Sometimes it’s hard to do. But I do cater very well, though!”

Erin asked: “Do people assume you’re Italian because you were so convincing as Marie, even though your bloodline is Russian?”

Doris answered: “Yes, they do and often they approach me speaking in Italian. My son is Italian and when he was younger, I took him to Italy. I think Hollywood portrays Italians as Mafioso, and I wanted him to see how beautiful Italian culture is. The beautiful art, the vistas, how warm and friendly people there are. I wanted him to be proud of all that.”

Kime asked: “You testified in 2002 before Congress about age discrimination. Do you think age bias is less prevalent or more prevalent now?

Doris answered: “Well, I don’t seem to be affected by it. I have a dear friend who was let go because of his age. He worked at that company all his life and one day they told him they wanted to go younger. That was just terrible.”

Keep up with Rev. Hollywood on Facebook. We post links and updates there while we post more long form articles here on the blog. The Facebook page is also a good place to keep up with Tim Jackson when he’s on the road or in production.

Why Making Commercials is Better Than Making Independent Feature Films

Nine years ago my business partner and I were in the throes of casting an independent feature while we scrambled to raise a little over two million dollars to finance it. This was our first at bat and we were swinging for the fences. We eventually struck out. But for one brief, shining moment we had a hot young actress on board who was coming off her first Oscar nomination. (She’s been nominated four times since, most recently this year.) It also appeared we were going to sign an older British actor at the top of his game who at the time had a pivotal role in one of the biggest studio franchises of that decade.

Working out of another partner’s office in Santa Monica, our small producing team was engaged in the proverbial chicken and egg scenario: which comes first – money or cast? In the independent film world it’s hard to get either without the other. But we were making progress by employing self-made tycoon Earle Jorgensen’s motto: “Hustle, that’s all.”

Our young writer/director, who would be making his feature directorial debut with this project, was making a living directing commercials at the time. As an actor he’d had a supporting role in the biggest breakout movie of the previous year – a monster that had cost $400,000 to make and grossed over 46 million theatrically. He’d also made a splash at Sundance with two shorts he’d written and directed. Neither the big breakout movie nor the shorts were paying his bills. Thus, the commercials. During the volatile year we were developing this film I had a couple of opportunities to visit the sets of commercials he was directing.

I’ll never forget driving onto the Sony lot – the historic former MGM studios in Culver City – to visit the set of one of those commercials. A Fortune 500 cereal company was spending $750,000 in production alone for a two-day shoot. They were shooting on film – glorious 35mm, the envy of every Indie director who ever settled for Super 16. A sixty person crew of consummate professionals filled out the departments. The elaborate exterior set was a stone’s throw from the Irving Thalberg building.

Here we were in the cradle of movie history, cast and crew making magic that would end up being a thirty second broadcast spot. Just as I was doing the math on our film’s 24 day shoot would benefit from having the $325,000 per day these guys were spending, someone from craft service stopped by my seat in Video Village with a tray of fresh fruit smoothies they’d just made on the catering truck. The craft services PA probably thought my tears were those of gratitude. They were not.

One of the great frustrations of our business is the near Sisyphean task of raising $500,000 to make an ultra low-budget feature film when Big Brands will spend that much on production for a single broadcast spot. Frustrating maybe, but there’s no big mystery why it’s so. There are a lot of reasons a national advertiser is willing to write a huge check to an ad agency that in turn will hire a production company to make a spot that rivals the quality of a network show or studio film. Here are four:

1. They know WHAT they’re making. I’m not just referring here to the script. They’re also clear on the genre, the tone and the emotional connection they want the audience to make with the ad. By definition they also know what they’re not making. That kind of clarity breeds confidence — the good kind.

2. They know WHO they’re making it for. Because advertisers are selling from the get go, they know who they are trying to reach. And that’s who they make their ads for. They’ve evaluated the market and are confident there are enough people out there who are likely to be interested in the subject of their ad to warrant spending the time, effort and money to make it.

3. They know exactly HOW MUCH it will cost to make it. They don’t want to spend too much and they’re just as averse to spend too little. They’re willing to commit the funds necessary for production and post. They’re not just hoping to get the ad in the can then figure out how they’re going to get through post. This is not just a function of the advertiser having access to huge piles of money. It’s a function of a decision-making process and a commitment to the plan that emerges from that process.

4. They know HOW they are going to get it to the people for whom they’re making it. Before they start production the agency and the advertiser have some idea of what kind of media buy this spot will get. Sometimes they’re aiming for an event like the Super Bowl, the Final Four, the Oscars, etc. The bottom line is, no one makes a national broadcast spot to prove they can do it or just because they’re jonesing to make something. They start with the end in mind — they start with a realistic expectation of where this thirty second masterpiece is going to be distributed. That’s why they spend the money. They know it’s going to be seen.

Looking through these four filters makes it a little clearer why someone might be willing to spend millions on advertising for her business and still be hesitant to put a few thousand dollars into your independent film. Let’s take it a step further: indie writers, directors and producers who would adapt and apply these filters to their projects would go much further toward winning the confidence and commitment of potential investors than those who don’t.

I read a lot of scripts, hear a lot of pitches and evaluate a lot of projects in the course of a year. I don’t come across many low budget film projects that are clear on what’s being made, who it’s being made for, how much it’s really going to cost and how it’s going to find its audience. Oh, there’s a script. There’s a few storyboards. There’s a list of friends and contacts in the Industry who may or may not be on board. There’s usually a business plan with some cut and paste stats of independent films that hit the jackpot. But I rarely encounter the low budget project that knows what it is, who it’s for, how much it’s really going to cost and how it’s going to get to its audience. And while some of those things are more “knowable” than others (there are always variables) each of these four items deserves serious consideration.

Who is thinking about this on your team?

Los Angeles 1939

March 6, 2014 — Leave a comment
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“Either the work of John Fante is unknown to you or it is unforgettable. He was not the kind of writer to leave room in between.” – New York Times

Three weeks ago I’d never heard of John Fante. Now I can’t stop thinking about him. I stumbled across the title, “Ask The Dust” in some reading I was doing about Hollywood in the 1930s. A few days later I was holding the book and was surprised to discover it was not only set in 1939 Los Angeles, it was actually written in Los Angeles in 1939. That alone gives the text an immediacy and authority that other, more contemporary books set in the period seem to lack.

It’s a short read but by no means a happy one. It is a searing look at broken people who desperately conceal their vulnerability with calculated meanness. There’s not a hero in the bunch. But there is no schadenfreude to be had here. At times I found the book putting a finger on my own ability to say a mean thing when I actually feel quite the opposite.

“Ask the Dust” is not about the movie industry but it is a rich and satisfying behind the scenes look at the city the movie industry called its home in 1939. Beyond the central characters and storyline is a first hand account of L.A., the Valley and the beach towns as they once existed and never will again.

The HarperPerennial Modern Classics edition of “Ask the Dust” is filled with enough “extras” to make you feel like you got a really good DVD edition of the book. Charles Bukowski’s Introduction is worth half the cost of this paperback.

NOTE: The edition referred to here was released in 2006 to coincide with a movie based on the book. I’ve not seen the movie. But writer/director Robert Towne and Colin Farrel and Salma Hayek as the leads feels about right for this.

I’ll be watching tonight. I’ve been watching the Oscars since I was a little kid and it’s something we look forward to and enjoy around here. I’ve held a few Oscars. (They’re as heavy as you’ve heard.) I’ve met a dozen or so Oscar winners and have enjoyed discussing their Oscar night experience. I probably wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to attend but unless I had a dog in the fight, watching from home in a quiet room is always my first choice.

I snapped this pic on the Fox lot last year while attending a premiere in the Zanuck Theater. The bust above the Oscars is of legendary studio chief, Daryl Zanuck.
I snapped this pic on the Fox lot last year while attending a premiere in the Zanuck Theater. The bust above the Oscars is of legendary studio chief, Daryl Zanuck.

I don’t make Oscar predictions. Trying to guess who or what will win, or getting worked up over someone being “robbed” just adds stress to the whole thing that I don’t need. I have enough disappointment as a Dallas Cowboys fan. I don’t care how long the show lasts or if it’s boring or entertaining. I have no opinion about the host. It’s the Industry’s prom and I’m glad just to peek in and see what’s going on.

The Oscars are not indicative of who or what is the “best” in any given year of movies. The Oscars are a snapshot of the taste and temperament of the majority of Academy voters in any given year. Sometimes the Academy gets it right and sometimes they get it wrong but it’s never an objective evaluation of anything.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may or may not have been started primarily as way for the Moguls to deal with unruly labor disputes. In other words, as a way of keeping an eye on the bottom line. Back in 1926, MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, who was for several years the highest paid executive in the United States, proposed the idea of the Academy at a social gathering. No one objected. The Moguls put the organization together and asked for a non-profit charter from the State of California. Someone suggested that, like any professional association that promotes its wares, some kind of annual awards of merit should be presented. Everyone thought that was a capital idea. The Oscars have been and will always be a way of promoting the movie industry – which is fine by me.

I love movies. I love making movies. I love people who make movies. Whatever happens tonight – sincere or insincere, tasteful or over the top, humble or outrageously arrogant – will be in the neighborhood of those three loves. And that’s why I watch.

2014 Spirit Awards are in the books — Oscar indicators?