entertainment

The Disconnect by Chris Weigl

I was talking to an old friend of mine the other day.  We hadn’t really talked since he graduated about a year and a half ago and it was great to catch up and connect even though we’re in two different industries now (he runs the social media platform for a start-up out in San Francisco while I still live in the world of Academia.)  What was strange about this conversation was our shared fascination with the idea of Influencers dinners (influencers dinners were started by Jon Levy as a way for people to bond regardless of their jobs or backgrounds.)  Neither of us are very social.  I abhor the conventional party where I’m forced to listen to stories about people’s jobs and how little things have changed in their lives.  Inevitably, when someone asks about me and what I’m doing I go into business mode and start talking about how excited I am about whatever project we’re doing.  That’s the disconnect.  Most people don’t enjoy their jobs, but what I do is more than a job and I believe more than a business; it’s a purpose.

I work seven days a week.  I used to think that I didn’t need any off time, but then I got realistic.  I take a few hours off during the day to play with my dogs and maybe watch an hour or so of Netflix, but then my mind wanders back to the list of tasks that I’ve created for the week.  I am my own boss, so I set my own goals and arrange my own tasks, which is good because when I work for someone else I’m a terrible employee.  Having an open schedule where I can arrange my day how I see fit allows me to work on all the little things I want to improve without having someone breathing down my neck about everything.  It also forces me to do the things that I don’t want to do, but I get to do them on my terms, which I’ve found makes the process a little easier.  Sometimes I spend an entire day editing a video, other days I get some writing done and when I’m really lucky I can go through my tasks and knock them out in the order of influence they’ll have in my life.  That’s a great feeling right there.

One of the reasons that I reached out to this old friend was because I had a problem that I couldn’t solve.  It wasn’t a little problem.  I had a revelation of sorts, but I didn’t quite know what to do with it.  I laid out my problem.  I don’t like TVs.  I think they’re big, bulky and don’t serve the kind of purpose that something else could if it were introduced into the TV market.  My company is devoted to creating commercial-free TV and finding a path towards new, original and sustainable programming for the future.  I know it sounds a lot like Netflix or Hulu, but this is where I realized we could make our mark; Netflix and Hulu have crappy deals with networks and production companies that allow the producer not the viewer to choose what programming they have access to.  Netflix has close to 150 million subscribers and they haven’t figured out a way to leverage deals so that the consumer can decide what they want to watch.  That’s just absurd and what makes it absurd is the TV.

A quick course in TV history: the TV was developed by Filo T. Farnsworth in the 1930’s and sold by RCA in the 1940’s.  Farnsworth’s system for producing images relied on a scanning system.  He looked out at a cornfield and noticed how everything lined up in rows and thought that doing the same thing on a screen could turn radio into a visual medium and sure enough he was right.  Our problem today is that we operate largely on that same system.  We still get our stations from signals sent out by networks like the National Broadcasting Company (which was started by RCA to supply content to their newly minted TV.)  Granted, some of us still have cable and that’s unfortunate, but the rest of us rely on streaming services.  This made me ask the question: why are we using streaming services on TVs?  Why hasn’t someone come up with a better way?  TVs are big, bulky and don’t serve any other purpose than to deliver subpar content laden with ridiculous commercials to an audience that’s growing older and dying off.  Someone needs to find a mechanism other than a computer or phone that allows people to utilize streaming media, but also serves other functional purposes.

Around 2000, Gateway computers (remember them?) bet big on a new idea that seemed like it could revolutionize the marketplace.  They wanted to take the computer and use it to replace the television.  Gateway invested heavily in new technology for monitors, much of the same technology that led to the development of widescreen HDTVs.  The problem was that people didn’t buy into the concept of a computer replacing their TVs.  There were a number of reasons for this, but the big one was that there was no Netflix or comparable service that could deliver a catalog of programming to this device.  My question for my friend was: how could we create something that allowed you to watch streaming content pretty much on demand while remaining plugged into social media?  Tablets could be the answer if someone comes up with a foldable one that can expand out to around 42.”  The problem that I face as a consumer and ultimately this is the quagmire that I’m trying to make my way through right now is how can I watch my streaming content, my sports, check my Facebook and Twitter feeds and potentially do gaming too eventually.  That’s a big, loaded question that has a lot of obstacles laden in its premise.  Of course, I’m assuming here that such a device could be made, manufactured and sold at a reasonable price.  I’m also operating under the assumption that everyone would be willing to ditch their TVs which is anything but a foregone conclusion.  What I want people to think about though was his response to my question.  He said that we need to change the way we watch and process visual and textual images.

“Remember the opening of the Brady Bunch?”  He asked.  “There are nine boxes and eight of them are filled with the heads of members of the family.  That’s the kind of thing you’ll need to do if you want to do this and you’ll have to maintain everyone’s attention on one thing at the same time essentially making it all one interface.”

“What a fascinating answer,” I wrote back.

“No,” he said.  “What’s going to be interesting is how this thing is developed by companies and sold to consumers because that’s where people always wind up getting screwed.”

Another great response on his part which begs the question for our readers: how do we avoid getting screwed?

What Do You Need To Be Successful? by Chris Weigl

So, I was talking to a friend of mine who owns and operates a production company in Chicago and I was blown away by his staffing needs.  He needed three Assistant Directors for a shoot he had coming up.  This gave me pause because usually there are only two units on a film and he was filming a short film.  I did not understand how he could possibly need three ADs for this shoot.  He informed me of his management philosophy which to this day just blows my mind.  He explained how he usually has around forty people on set and that every member of his staff has an assistant.  Now, keep in mind that we were both guerrilla filmmakers once upon a time, but we wound up going in two very different directions.  I took my talents and developed a decent screenwriting career whereas he wanted nothing to do with Hollywood and bolted out of town as soon as he had the chance.  Ten years later and we’re both doing our own things, but we’re doing them in very different ways.

We both run independent production companies.  We’re both around thirty and are dedicated to our respective businesses.  He’s been doing this for a decade now and he asked me – like it was a serious question – why he wasn’t making money.  I looked around him and started pointing at all of the people, all of the equipment, their huge studio and their B-list actors that were sucking up his budget.

“That’s what you need to do in order to be successful” he said.

“That’s how you go broke,” I said matter of factly.

He just shook his head and told me that I didn’t get it.  You’ve got to spend money to make money I kept hearing, but the problem was that he wasn’t making any money.  He had the spending part down, but his overhead was unsustainable.  I explained that I wasn’t exactly the best person to ask for business advice.  I’ve been in business for about six months, but he insisted that I must have some fresh ideas, so I laid it out for him.  I gave him my philosophy and explained how we go about making movies.  His first thought was to laugh and call me a sell out, which of course is true, but the difference between the two of us is that we have a strategy for making money.  We want to completely change how Hollywood does business.  We want businesses and artists to work together not have one work for the other only to have both sides disappointed in the end.  He was convinced that my thinking was a pipe dream, yet somehow he still wanted my advice.

I remembered an old quote from Churchill because I’m weird like that.  Churchill said: “the farther back you can look the further forward you can see.”  I asked my old friend to think about why he started his business.  What was it that he was going to do differently?  His answer was that he was actually going to make good movies, which is what everyone says.

“That’s not good enough,” I explained emphatically.  “You need to have something that you do that no one else but you can do.  For me it’s the ability to write copy for advertisers, write a story for the project that the advertisers are going to be involved in and manage the project so that we get the product that we want.”

He stared at me for a minute before diagnosing me as too idealistic to succeed in any business.  I explained in one very simple scenario how we can make money and why he will still be in the red.

“Think of a company like Geico,” I said.  “We could easily integrate a company like that into our film.”

He laughed, presumably at the idea of a huge insurance company investing in our relatively low budget film about flyball, but I was quite serious.

“Just think of the thirty second ad: a guy walks his dogs and explains that he just saved a ton of money on child care by getting a dog.”

That was off the top of my head, but we’ve got lots of these ideas that can work with any company because our current slate of projects spans three major genres at the moment.  We offer a ton of opportunity for any company, but especially for companies who want to reach a specific demographic and want to have a mutually beneficial online relationship that can result in great publicity for both companies.  Testimonials are how they sell things on informercials because it’s the best use of their time.  Testimonials serve the same important function for a business like ours.  That mutual testimonial is what makes this strategy work.  We can both help each other because we both endorse the other company and their product.

This is the kind of unfair advantage you need to have in business and this is precisely what my friend didn’t understand.  He has two things working against him.  For starters he has way too many employees.  There’s no way that he needs more than fifteen people to do the project he’s doing now, but he insists that he needs a bloated crew in order to make it happen.  Filmmakers always think that they need more than they have because we’ve all been in the editing room thinking that we didn’t have the right footage.  Our error there in the editing room is thinking that our inability to get the right footage means that we didn’t get enough footage total.  You never get all the shots you want, but you make it work.  That, I explained, was what he needed to do: figure out a way to get the shots he needed and then slim down his production staff when he finishes production.  Not only does he need to figure out a way to shoot more with less he also has the problem of thinking he needs too much to do even the most ordinary shoots because this is how he’s been doing it for ten years.  Do yourself a favor and work with what you have until you have the money to get what you need.  You’d be surprised what resources are available to you if you can just ask for help.  Asking, however, is always the hardest part.

Budgeting by Chris Weigl

I’ve been working on some projects lately that are about as low budget as I can make them.  When you’re running a small business you need to keep all your expenses down to a minimum, but as I’ve moved from project to project I’ve had several people ask me where they should trim their budget if they need to cut expenses.  The easy answer is that any sacrifice you make in one area is going to cost you somewhere else.  I can usually get away with three or four cameras when I’m working on our documentary, but when it comes to our larger commercial endeavors then I need a full crew.  That means that although I’ll only have three cameras, I’m going to have around ten people manning these cameras plus lighting and sound.  That commercial shoot is going to cost at least two or three times what my documentary shoot is going to cost. 

If I have to start trimming back on things the first thing I think about is what I can do myself if I have to.  I can do basic three piece lighting myself, so I’m going to prioritize when my gaffer is on set limiting that expense as best I can.  I can also cut back on crew as well as hair and makeup if I have to.  This means I’m down to a staff of about three or four people manning three cameras and handling boom mics.  This isn’t a good situation to be in, but it’s better than being unable to shoot the footage at all and if I’ve already booked time in a studio I’m not backing out until we lose almost all our financing.  It pays to learn as much as you can about as many different aspects of production as possible because there will come a time when you’ll need to use that knowledge.  It may not seem pertinent at the time, but anything you can learn about sound and lighting is going to help you as will anything about the cameras you’re using.  It can get kind of chaotic on set and directors (myself included) will get mad at you if you’re asking questions every five seconds, but if there’s down time (and there’s always down time) then ask some of those important questions about mic placement, about playback, and about what lights are being used where.

There’s no such thing as a film crew having too much knowledge.  When I was first starting out I gripped a bunch of corporate gigs.  They weren’t exciting, glamorous or even memorable in many instances, but once you get around the gear again it starts to come back to you.  You start to remember where the boom mic is supposed to go, where the key light needs to be with your camera one and how much rigging gear you’re going to need to execute that jib shot.  It’s a strange business sometimes where you forget how to do something when someone asks, but remember immediately once you’re in the situation.  I’ve had this happen far too many times to think otherwise.  A lot of people say cut the writer when in a budget crunch.  I’m a writer at my most basic level, so this is a testy issue with me, but cutting your writer is just about the dumbest thing you can do.  First off, the writer is the only person besides the director who has any idea what your final product is supposed to look like.  If the director is sick or (as usually happens) preoccupied with something else on set the writer is the next best person to talk to.  If it’s between cutting a writer and cutting a camera operator you cut the camera operator.

The last bit of advice I have is on locations.  A lot of people will cut out the exotic locales when they start running low on money and simply put: there is no logical reason to do this other than maybe being too scared to shoot on a shoestring budget.  If you’re too scared to shoot with little to no money then you’re in the wrong business because guess what?  You’re never going to have enough money.  The new James Bond film: Spectre ran out of money.  They were lucky in that they had a highly marketable brand and could easily secure co-financing through cross-marketing ventures, but they still found themselves in this situation nonetheless.  It happens to the best and believe me if it can happen to Sam Mendes, it can happen to you.  Locations are your friend when you’re filming though and they’ll be your friend in post too.  The more exotic you can make your shots look, the better your final product is going to look to the naked eye.  What you’re doing has to, on some level, be aesthetically pleasing and if you’re trying to do that you simply have to keep those nice locations whether you’ve got the money to film there or not.  Oftentimes you can get away with simply filming your aerial and establishing shots on the pricey location and then use somewhere else to sub in for the rest of the shooting.  This is an easy way to make your production look better than it is and appearances are everything when you’re selling your product. 

My final piece of advice would be this: money is just money.  You can replace money, but you can’t replace talent or ideas or time.  If you’ve got a great vision for something then go out and shoot it.  If you’ve got everything you need but the financing to work on your dream project then figure out the money part later.  The key is to ask who you know to help you.  You would not believe how hard this is for most people (including me!) to do, but it’s what pays dividends in the end and I never would have shot my first indie feature without the help of a few out of work actors and a bunch of people with minor production experience who had a lot of time on their hands.  In the end, it boils down to what you’re willing to do for your project.  If you’re willing to work without a salary for a year if it means your dream becomes a reality then wouldn’t you take it?  You’d be a bad artist and a terrible filmmaker if you said no.  Nothing is certain in life and sometimes you’ve got to go out, do the best you can, and hope that the small stuff gets done later.  Just make sure that it eventually gets done!

The Process is as important as the Product by Chris Weigl

People leave various jobs and industries for different reasons.  During the Great Recession we’ve seen one full-time job splinter off into two sometimes three part-time jobs.  Many times the way we hire people is a direct reflection of how the company we’re hiring for does business.  If you’re looking to bring in someone to fill a full-time job you might not start out by hiring one person for a full-time job indeed you may find it more fruitful to hire two or three people for part-time jobs to see how well they fit into your company.  There are things that make sense in this approach.  You want to know that who you are hiring is the best possible fit for who your company is and what they do.  The employee might welcome this approach as an opportunity to see if they really want to work for you.  Hiring two or three people to do the job that one person usually does is a terrible way to handle productivity however.  Rather than having one person who – at least in theory – knows what they’re doing you have three people with different skill sets and in all likelihood different enthusiasm for the job at hand.  Having one person who knows what they’re doing is the best way to streamline productivity.

We like to test what we’re buying though in almost every facet of life.  We test drive a car before we buy it, we inspect a house before we buy it, we visit a school before allowing our kids to commit four years of their lives to going there so it makes sense that we would test out someone in the job market to make sure that they are what we’re looking for.  The issue of productivity aside though this measured approach still isn’t very beneficial if you don’t know what you’re looking for.  Sometimes it’s really hard to describe what you want or what you expect.  Take our current project: This is Flyball for example.  We knew we wanted to make a film about the sport of flyball, but we didn’t know exactly what that film would look like or what the story would be.  It’s tough with documentaries because you don’t know what the story is until it’s happened.  If you go out searching for a story you’re not very likely to find one.  This is why we write outlines and do our best to plan for things, but there are a lot of things (especially in the filmmaking industry) that simply cannot be planned for.  Sometimes you don’t have all your personnel available on the day you want to shoot or conditions aren’t right outside for you to shoot the exterior shots you wanted and we’ve all had some pretty nasty equipment failures over the years.

I can’t tell you how many people have told me that if we would just give them a camera they could make this film.  Its unreal how many people simply don’t understand how the production process works or what goes into producing a film.  To put it simply: if it were easy everyone would do it.  The fact of the matter is that filmmaking is really hard work.  It takes discipline.  You need to know what you want to do and you’ve got to be stubborn sometimes about what you’re doing so that you don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  As a writer, I get carried away at times with ideas.  When I have a new thought or a new approach to something I get really excited and work through different ways of executing my strategy.  What I’ve discovered though is that new ideas usually don’t last very long, but good ideas are eternal.  I had a writing partner on a project I was working on a few years back who always needed a fallback plan.  If this guy was crossing the street he’d need an alternate route on the off chance that someone ran a red light.  It was unbearable and the studio we were working for at the time hated the fact that he always seemed to find a way to make the simple complicated.  I, being a fresh, young upstart, thought I had all the answers and when we were over budget I thought I could easily re-write the project with very little loss in story.  What wound up happening was we had lots of little things done well, but no defined overall purpose in what we were doing.  The production was scrapped.

When we navigate our way through new processes and new ideas we often find the need to reject old ideas because they seem anti-thetical to what we’re doing.  The truth is however that in order to truly succeed at something we have to listen to all sides and pursue all approaches.  The toughest thing for me to admit many times is that I don’t know the answer.  The trick however is to understand that nobody does.  One of the tough parts about being an artist is that you are filled with moments of tremendous self-confidence and moments of incredible self-doubt.  I believe in myself and my ideas to a point.  I don’t like jumping on to a new idea when it hasn’t been tested and as we’ve seen nobody does really.  We all want to test drive that car, we would insist on a home inspection before buying a house and we’re going to visit that school before we let our kids commit to an institution of higher learning.  These ideas are so engrained in our heads that it seems second nature. 

It’s important to realize that not every idea that pops into our head is a good one and that every new way of thinking or approaching something isn’t always the best way to do something.  Sometimes we just need to admit that being prepared has its advantages and sticking to your good ideas is as important as exploring new ones.  As a filmmaker you have to understand that the process of making a film is as important as the product you are going to release to the general public.  I get asked by people at events where they can view our documentary like we’re just kind of cutting and pasting our way to a film.  That’s not how it works.  As consumers there are times when we have an: “I want it now” attitude that makes us toss our common sense out the window.  There are times where I really wish I hadn’t messed up that project that my writing partner had planned out so meticulously.  There are others where I’m glad that I failed though because you don’t learn from success.  Keeping an open mind is important, but so is keeping what journalists call a “morgue file.”  A morgue file is where you stash your good ideas when they prove to be unusable.  I can’t tell you how useful this idea is because as a writer there are many times where I have an interesting idea but I’m not sure how best to flesh it out or what characters would fit into the story.  Sometimes the only remedy for a problem is time and it is during these times that our “I want it now” attitude is the worst enemy of what we’re trying to do.

Flooding the Market by Chris Weigl

I spent a little time on Hulu this weekend trying to find Shipping Wars so I could watch the episodes from seasons two, three and four that Netflix doesn’t have.  I was amazed at how many shows Hulu actually has, but I was absolutely flabbergasted by the quantity of low budget shows they had from networks I had never heard of.  This is a growing trend.  On Wall Street this is known as “flooding the market.”  Before the subprime mortgage crisis became a crisis stockbrokers were building up massive funds filled with bad debt that even bankers knew would never get repaid.  The big money managers, the mutual fund companies, even the ratings agencies had no understanding of what was in these things.  Most people didn’t know what a collateralized debt obligation was and many still don’t.  But these CDOs hit the market and were given a AAA credit rating by the ratings agencies because they didn’t know how much bad debt was loaded into these things.  Once big companies like AIG went under some people started to notice and many realized in 2008 that unless someone stepped in and guaranteed the bad loans that the banks should have never offered in the first place that the entire banking system in the US and around the world would be crippled.

The crisis was pretty bad and the United States underwent the largest peacetime recession since the 1930’s.  Now, I’m not trying to compare services like Hulu with the banks and credit lenders that screwed millions of people out of their homes, but the principle of flooding the market is the same.  Almost every streaming service that I know of does this.  They advertise the wealth and diversity of content that they offer as if a wide selection makes up for not locking up the rights to the shows everyone wants to watch.  Hulu can’t stream Shipping Wars on my TV because they have a web only license for the show.  This is great for Hulu, but bad for everyone who doesn’t watch television on their computer.  It really is brilliant marketing because Hulu can claim they have the show without actually providing the show to the customer.  If you are not a Hulu customer you wouldn’t know that you can only access a variety of shows from the internet and not over TV or mobile devices (which is where most people use Hulu.)  It’s not false advertising because they do have the show they just have certain stipulations as to how and where you can watch it.  This is the case with Shipping Wars as I found out much to my dismay.

The logical question that came across my mind as I was filtering through all of these shows that even on a macro level seemed like terrible programming choices was: why didn’t some of these studios just work together to put together a better product?  If you have something you’re going to do you might as well do it well.  Making a TV show is a lot of work.  It requires a lot of man hours, a lot of technical know how, a lot of people and if it’s good; a lot of publicity.  None of this is the case if you’re making a show that no one knows is even out there and when the production quality is as bad as it is on many of these shows it is a good thing that more people don’t watch this material as they would understand just how bad of condition the state of entertainment is in.  Seriously, if you think what’s on the network is bad go on Hulu, pick a random letter and watch the first show that comes up.  The odds are pretty good that whatever you land on will make you very happy that you make the programming choices that you do.  And maybe that’s part of why they do this as well.  If you think about it it makes sense for a company like Hulu to put so much bad programming in with their A-list stuff because it makes that stuff stick out as really high quality.  You, in turn, probably have a higher opinion of Hulu because of this and don’t mind shuffling through the bad stuff to get at the stuff you want.

The great tragedy in all of this is that production companies are going to continue making bad television and bad movies because they simply don’t want to put one project aside to help another company make their project better.  This is where competition in free market economics results in a far poorer product.  If the incentive system for studios were to turn out high quality entertainment they would churn out high quality entertainment, but the truth is that everyone needs to help flood the airwaves.  If you put out too much quality content people will start having expectations of you that are far too high for anyone to reasonably meet.  This doesn’t mean that quality should be something that we work for on some projects and not on others however.  If anything this should force us to re-evaluate how we allocate our resources. 

Rather than making five bad shows for instance, I’d urge a new studio like Amazon to churn out one good show.  There’s a reason that staff writers make more than $64,000 over the lifetime of their deals ($64,000 is the payment Amazon gives first-time writers IN TOTAL for their creative ideas.)  You can’t pay someone a lousy salary and still expect a superior product.  This is where free market capitalism works.  With the right incentives people can and often do produce the highest quality product possible.  The incentives need to be right though and the product has to have a reasonable chance at success.  It is because no one can guarantee these things that some studios don’t even try and make stuff worth watching.  For these companies just putting out something, anything is good enough to keep them in business.  We should be working together to put these slackers out of business by flooding the market with so much quality content that no one would even bother to look at content that didn’t meet a standard of excellence that customers have set for their entertainment.