A blog about screenwriting active from 2008 to 2017, but it is currently used in conjunction with with classes taught at The School of Cinematic Arts at USC.
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Because I am both an alumni and a faculty member at USC's School of Cinematic Arts, I decided to attend this year's TEDxUSC 20011, which is a independent spin off of the wildly influential TED.com. Now, why would a guy who writes Hollywood action movies (Conan The Barbarian, Hercules) and horror movies (The Haunting in New York, Masters of Horror) attend a conference about science, emerging technology, music, and social advocacy? Well, what got me in the door was just raw curiosity, but I was shocked by how every speaker, whether a bio-engineer or a circus performer, had something to stay that was directly and concretely applicable to the practice of filmmaking. In fact, I'd argue that the entire conference was about creativity and storytelling... as well as the director's call to "ACTION."
Here are seven provocative and challenging ideas, or rather ACTIONS (with lots of links!) that could inspire your filmmaking.
Much of the conference trumpeted the power of working in groups rather than in isolation. I was inspired by playingforchange.com, which allows musicians from around the globe to play together in real time, creating ethno-cultural-musical mash ups of delightful beauty. I was intrigued by the work of Jennifer Pahlka, director of Code for America, who has assembled groups of computer-savvy millennials to find new ways for citizens to work together in online communities. Overall, I was struck by how each speaker trumpeted the creative power of groups made up of people from wildly different backgrounds and different areas of expertise.
To me this is a challenge to filmmakers to stop thinking of their "film by" credit and fantasizing about their Oscar acceptance speech, and start looking for new ways to collaborate in groups. What musician, scientist, historian, social worker, or circus performer can you work with create exciting and unexpected projects? What kind of filmmakers OUTSIDE of the Hollywood bubble can you connect with to develop strikingly original stories?
A great place for a filmmaker to start is STROOME.COM, where you can upload, edit, remix both your own footage and other footage, and join mass collaboration projects, all for FREE.
Early in the conference, Dale Dougherty, founder of Make Magazine, reminded us that the fundamental drive of a creative person is just to tinker, play, and make stuff that doesn't necessarily serve any purpose what-so-ever. He showed us how to make conductors out of playdough and breathalysers out of household batteries. Amazingly, as the TEDxUSC participants learned later, this kind of childish tinkering is exactly what young bio-engineers are doing - restructuring DNA and building molecular toys at the nano-scale.
The lesson to filmmakers is to remind themselves to play. Too often we read books, go to seminars and listen to "experts" to figure out which stories to tell, how to tell them, and how to be "successful" at it. This is much like the adults who need a manual to figure out how to use their i-phones. A child just PLAYS with her phone until she figures out what to do with it, often discovering entirely unexpected ways to be creative.
With that in mind check out this short film, shot and edited on an i-phone, an i-phone that was strapped to a model train: Apple of my Eye. The point is to go out with a movie camera and just play. Play with actors. Play with editing. Play with storytelling. Don't do it for any other purpose other than to have FUN.
At the conference, Jose Antonio Rosa showed us the amazing creativity of the poor in Chile, Colombia and the Dominican Republic, who re-purpose trash and discarded objects into bells, hammocks, sculptures, and magical household appliances. Alan Horsager showed us how re-purposing the DNA of photo-sensitive algae could one day cure blindness. Rick Nahmias showed us how harvesting the oranges in your backyard in the San Fernando Valley could feed the poor. This is a generalized kind of "hacking," taking the objects in front of you and reworking and redesigning them for some surprising new purpose.
So, how can you take the common components of filmmaking (the camera, the actor, found footage) and use them in ways they haven't been used before? For example, check out The Mother of All Funk Cords, a short film and musical composition made entirely out of clips from youtube.
Every filmmaker wants to be a star. They want their film to "go viral." But one of the biggest responsibilities you have as a storyteller and an expert on cinema is to help other unknown-but-brilliant films find the light of day. Instead of spending all your time focused on self-promotion, serve your audience by helping them find the kind of films that you yourself value and aspire to make.
For inspiration check out this HILARIOUS talk and clip from Derek Stivers, How to Start a Movement. He suggests that true leadership comes NOT from the "leader," but from the first person who is brave enough to follow.
Remember that you are not just a filmmaker. You are a sophisticated film VIEWER. Instead of complaining that the masses don't understand you, have the courage to curate, and teach others how to follow great films.
Storytelling was a big theme of TEDxUSC, not only telling our own stories, but taking the time to listen to and empathize with experiences that are not our own. By listening to stories at sites such as onevoiceatatime.org you could experience a revolution in consciousness and inspire youself to use your filmmaking skills and tools to empower those whose voices are not usually heard.
In general, Filmmakers and fans like to complain about the lack of creativity in Hollywood, while at the same time ignoring the thousands of wildly original films being made around the world outside the Hollywood bubble. The TEDxUSC conference challenged me to look to the edges and borders of the world, where the truly creative work is being done.
In general, the TEDxUSC experience changed my perspective; it allowed me to step out of my little world and look at things, not as a filmmaker or screenwriter, but as a scientist, a government activist, a poor woman in central america starting a business making soap, and even a circus performer (you MUST check out Troupe Vertigo.) Dr. Jill C. Carter, director of the Center for SETI research, reminded us that we live on a tiny spec in the universe, a universe that is likely to be teaming with extra-terrestrial life. Jose Antonio Rosa reminded us that we live on one side of the "Political Equator," and that on the other side live "the other four billion" people who survive on less than two dollars a day.
The traditional perspective of Hollywood is driven by profit, competition, and top-down thinking. A little shift reminds us that the most original and groundbreaking ideas come from the bottom up. The most successful projects are done in collaboration. And the most rewarding experiences come from work done for no money at all.
Whether working with with young actors at Deb Lemen's Acting Studio, or lecturing to eager young screenwriters at USC, I love to teach. By sharing your knowledge of storytelling and filmmaking you expand your influence beyond the selfish goals of your own career, and empower others to do good work.
Take the example of Andrew McGregor, founder of The Tiziano Project, which provides training, digital video equipment, and affiliations to citizens in conflict and post-conflict areas around the globe, so that they too can tell their stories. By teaching the skills of filmmaking to others, you (yes YOU filmmaker-boy) could change the world.
Filmmaking is a kind of start-up venture, and like any start-up, it needs to be financed. Too often filmmakers go to traditional sources of financing, the studios or to independent financiers who are dubious about the risks of original ideas, or filmmakers attempt radical financing options such as "crowdfunding" that bear disappointing results. These strategies ignore the fact that 80% of the funds for most small start-ups and independent films come from friends and family. These are the same friends and family who show up on the set to do craft service and doggedly promote your film on facebook.
Wouldn't it be great if you could create a community of investors around your film? A community that would be directly involved in the production and share in the hope and excitement of its success? Wouldn't it be great if there were a simple way to structure the legalities of such a tightly knit investment community?
Take a look at PROFOUNDER.COM which offers just such a service. Don't just create a movie. Create a community and a movement around your film. This is especially exciting for anyone who is telling stories about specific ethnic, economic, or underrepresented communities - communities who would be eager to invest in stories that speak directly to them.
The Big Picture
The message of TEDxUSC for filmmakers is ultimately to move beyond the blinders of ego, celebrity, and recycled, worn-out stories. Collaborate, communicate, hack and play. Look beyond yourself for inspiration. Go forth and call "ACTION!"
As a filmmaker you may well understand the complexities of lighting, editing, mise en scene, and the casting couch, but one element that seems to perpetually confuse us all is the proper handling of Music Rights. Songs dropped into your film without the necessary licenses can kill distribution deals, eject you from festivals, and ultimately get you sued.
I had the opportunity to interview Micki Stern, a music industry veteran, expert in music licencing for all media, and all-around red-hot babe. I asked her some of the most common questions posed by baffled filmmakers. (Disclaimer: Micki Stern also happens to be my wife.)
1. My short film just got accepted to Sundance, but it has a Radiohead song in it. Does it matter if I don't have the rights? Will anyone notice or care?
MS: Actually while you may have gotten away with this in the past, most festivals now require that you show you have cleared the music in your film. This is one of those cases in which "nobody cares" until they find out, and they always find out. When this happens the label or publisher and could stop you from showing your film with an injunction. Often "festival rights" can be obtained for a reasonable fee. Ultimately, it's best to clear the music or not use it.
2. I have a bunch of songs in my feature film that I need to get cleared. Why do I need a music supervisor and/or a clearance person? Can't I just get the songs cleared myself? How hard could that be?
MS:Well you don't need a supervisor or clearance person any more than you need any crew member who works on a film. You could do it all - lighting, camera work, editing, props, and craft service - yourself, but with a specialist you know that you will get the job done in the most efficient, most economical and most stress-free way possible. A supervisor/clearance person can help you navigate the very complicated system of finding, researching and licensing music. If you go it on your own you are likely to end up in what is known as "the bottom of the pile," the dark dungeon on a music industry executive's desk where requests go when they are not properly worded or when the request doesn't actually contain all the necessary information to license a piece of music. Also, there are long standing relationships in this rather small, music licencing community, and connections always help.
3. What are publishing rights? What are master rights? Why does each song need to be cleared twice?
MS: Every song has two "sides" - the publishing rights which are the rights to the actual musical composition(the written music) and the master rights which is the actual sound recording that you wish to use. Also, depending on the number of songwriters involved, there could be multiple publishers who each control a percentage of the composition. Even if you plan to record the "master" yourself, you still need to clear the publishing. In fact, you ALWAYS need to clear the publishing unless the composition falls within the Public Domain, and in that case you still must make sure the "arrangement" of that public domain composition does not need to be licensed.
4. My movie has a bunch of songs written and performed by my friend's band. Is that okay?
MS: This is GREAT as long as your friend's band is not signed to a publisher or record label. Also, even if the music is completely owned by your friend, you should still have a licensing document in place stating that you are allowed to use the music in your film. If they are not charging you a fee, this is called a gratis license.
5. Why can't I put Beck's "Loser" or Arcade Fire's "Wake Up" in my film. I LOVE those songs.
MS:Many people love those songs, but some bands simply do NOT license their music. Not for you, not for anyone. As they have created the songs, they get to decide whether or not their songs can be used - just as you get to decide if someone else can use clips of your film in their - let's say music video - just because they like your footage. A pretty good way to gauge whether or not a band commonly licenses their music is whether or not you've seen it used in other films or TV. Have you ever heard Beck's "Loser" in a commercial, promo, movie, or episode? It is very rare that you think of using a popular song that nobody else has ever thought to use before.
6. Can I just tell my music supervisor to find me a song that sounds just like Beck's "Loser"?
MS:There are a couple problems with this. If you are talking about licensing the composition Loser and then re-recording it to sound just like Beck, you could be sued for creating a "soundalike." When you create your own master it has to be different enough from the original that the average person can tell the difference. If you are talking about finding something that is not "Loser" but sounds just like it (a common request) you are asking for the nearly impossible. Nothing sounds like Beck's "Loser." That's why Beck's "Loser" is... Beck's "Loser." Sometimes you are better off to just give up a song and move on to something else.
7. Why is it a bad idea to write specific song titles into my script, or have a character sing a Lady GaGa song in the shower?
MS:When you write a song into the script you need to clear that song (get approval to use it) PRIOR to shooting the scene or make sure that you shoot it two ways - one with the song and one without. You do this because if your character is singing the song and you cannot get approval for that song, you will then have to pull the whole scene.
8. How long does it take to get a song cleared? My final mix is in three days... oh, I mean three hours.
MS:Here's what filmmakers don't like to hear - it could take anywhere from a day to a month depending on the song. Some songs have numerous approval parties and those parties could be all over the world. Or there could be a song which doesn't need any outside approvals and you could hear back right away. As a rough "guestimate" I would advise you to give yourself as long as possible to allow for clearances, but at least four weeks to be safe.
9. How much money does it cost? If I have 5 grand set aside for music, what is the best way to use that money?
MS:Music can cost a lot or a little depending on what songs you are going after, how long the term is, the media you are placing it in, the timing of the song, and whether the song used as a background song, a title or a visual vocal. If you hire a professional clearance person she or he could tell you what all those terms mean, help you set a budget and give you a ballpark fee of what it all will cost.
10. Why do record companies, publishers and/or artists ask to see a script or a clip before agreeing to let me use their song?
MS: Labels, publishers and/or artists ask to see script pages or clips because they want to know exactly what is going on in a scene where their song is being used. They will also ask for a synopsis of the film. Here are a couple of examples of why: Let's say the song plays over a scene in which a person is slowly tortured (remember this SCENE from Reservoir Dogs?) The artist may not want to be associated with this type of violence. Or maybe the song plays on the radio and one of your characters quips, "I hate this song - this band sucks". The songwriters and musicians may not be so eager to be the band that "sucks".
11. Why do we need to get clearance rights from 7 different people on this rap song. How can somebody own 7% of a song?
MS:This actually is quite common. It can happen a couple of different ways -- you can have numerous writers on a song and each one controls a different percentage of the song and gets paid based on their percentage, all of which together equal 100% of the song. Or there are songs which contain samples of other songs in them. So the new writer of the song gets a certain % of the publishing rights, but the writers of the original song that was sampled also get a %. All of which still add up to 100%. In order to use the song you need to obtain approval on 100% of the composition no matter how many writers or samples -- and yes, someone who owns 1% of a song can hang up the deal for everyone.
12. In my documentary, you can sort of hear a rolling stones song playing on a car radio. Does it matter?
MS: I don't really feel comfortable answering this because there is a lot of debate over what can be done and what can't in a documentary. There are actually some court cases going on right now over just this question. In general, when in doubt, its best to obtain the rights to cover yourself.
This Thursday, April 7th at 7 PM, I'll be joining a charity event to support relief efforts in Japan. It is being held at Dark Delicacies. Please stop by and ridicule me for having the gall to pose as a "celebrity." I'll be signing mini Conan posters and urging aspiring screenwriters to read my blog. Dark Delicacies 3512 West Magnolia