Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Why The Success of Fifty Shades of Grey is Pretty Great for the Movie Industry.

by Levin Menekse
I recently watched Fifty Shades of Grey. What I thought about it doesn't matter, what matters for me, and for you, is that it probably made 50 times more money than your favorite movie.

"But I'm an artist/art lover" you say "I don't care how much money a crappy movie made!"

Ah, but it makes so much difference. We work in an industry that ebbs and flows on trends. If something makes money, all of a sudden other projects become viable. When Twilight made so much money, an entire generation of vampire movies popped up. When Transformers made so much money, Battleship happened. Now that Fifty Shades of Grey made so much money... What's next? What sorts of movies will its success engender?

... this also happened, apparently.
The Mid-Range, Actually Good Studio Movie

You know this if you work in the industry, but the mid-range "good" Studio movie is a rarity these days. Studios either make massive blockbusters based on IP's (Intellectual Property -- remakes, sequels, adaptations) or low budget horror movies. (Blumhouse) There are a few exceptions of course -- The Social Network, Moneyball, Captain Philips -- but, as a movie goer, you should know that there are a myriad of beautiful, intelligent, challenging movies that are just not getting made because the numbers don't add up.

Now, Fifty Shades of Grey is no Social Network or Moneyball. It's definitely not going to be nominated for any awards. It's based on an IP. But it's a small, dark, challenging drama. The majority of the movie takes place in small rooms with two leads just... talking. There are times where it felt like I was watching an experimental theater performance or something.

And this is good. Dark, challenging movies getting made with adult themes is good.

One of the good ol' industry lingo is the "The TV show/Movie I'm pitching you right now is the popular movie X meets popular TV show Y!" Now, Fifty Shades of Grey is one of those anchors. And there are talented people right now trying to get that challenging movie they've been trying to get made for the last ten years by saying the magic words: "It's Fifty Shades of Grey meets ____"

And then there is also this... apparently.

The Talent Involved

So I was a bit sneaky earlier when I mentioned Social Network, Moneyball and Captain Philips because guess who produced Fifty Shades of Grey? The same people -- Michael De Luca, Dana Brunetti -- who made those movies! Between the two of them they also produced: American History X, Magnolia, Pleasantville, Dark City, Boogie Nights, Wag the Dog... and the list goes on.

These are people who have great taste. Sure, they already had clout before Fifty Shades of Grey but the success of this adaptation boosts their profile within the industry. Isn't that a good thing? Aren't these people the "good guys" of the industry?

And then there is the cast. Both Jamie Dornan, who plays Christian Grey, and Dakota Johnson, who plays Anastasia Steele, can now actually get movies made. That's a pretty great thing because they're both extremely talented actors. Dakota Johnson is surprisingly effective in the movie. She's charming, vulnerable, funny and somehow manages to make someone named Anastasia Steele, an English major with the name of a C-list pornstar, feel like a three dimensional person. Jamie Dornan has the tougher job of the two due to the ridiculous lines he has to say with a straight face -- "I don't make love. I fuck... hard", "I'd like to bite that lip" -- and he's rather... constipated through the whole movie but he's phenomenal on The Fall, holding his own across a heavy weight like Gillian Anderson.

Either of these very talented actors might be in your new favorite movie down the road. And you'll be glad they were in Fifty Shades of Grey because that was the reason why your favorite movie got made in the first place.

Don't hate us... please?
A New Demographic

I have made a lot of assumptions through this essay and even if they turn out to be complete horseshit, I hope this particular assumption is true:

"Women love Fifty Shades of Grey because there aren't many other alternatives in the same genre."

It's easy to point at Twilight and Fifty Shades and say that the type of men women seem to want is a jealous, billionaire stalker. But I sincerely hope that's because there aren't many alternatives. If I want to see giant robots fighting, I can see Neon Genesis Evangelion instead of Transformers but if Transformers was my only option? Maybe I'd see Transformers to scratch that Giant Fighting Robot itch. Maybe women who want challenging, erotic dramas are also dealing with a similar sort of drought.

Because we haven't found a good genre for the sexually empowered women yet. Women who use their sexuality to evoke a response are usually either belittled or pitied and the sexual enjoyment is shamed endlessly. So, maybe, the success of Fifty Shades of Grey will start a new trend where we will see actual good movies directed towards this particular demographic. (Shameless plug) I wrote a TV Pilot where the main character is a female pornographer trying to break into the mainstream by making a "better" Fifty Shades of Grey (Shameless Plug ends) and I hope as hell someone actually does that.

I also like how I say "this particular demographic" as if that's not, you know, 50 percent of the entire population!

So, yes, ultimately, I believe the success of Fifty Shades of Grey is pretty great for those who love movies! Or maybe I'm just full of shit. If you have thoughts please feel free to leave them in the comments.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

5 Mistakes Indie Filmmakers Make

And now, as I (Sean) am embroiled in The LA Film Festival, let's get Levin's take of the joys and frustrations of Indie Film....

I consider myself a "small movie" type of guy. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy spectacle as much as the next person but when I want to be challenged, well, I go for the "indie" films. My favorite movies always seem to come from this category, whether it be Dogtooth, Upstream Color or Before Sunset, because indie films are more comfortable with pushing boundaries and reach for something new. And that, something new, is what I love about movies in the first place.

But I've been burned too. There is a reason why you'll see Sean blogging about Los Angeles Film Festival and not me, because I've come to develop an allergy to Film Festivals after a few unfortunate days of sitting through one shitty movie after another. And here are five mistakes that made those movies "shitty" in my humble opinion.

1 - Bland Visuals

In Upstream Color, a thief is robbing a person of her belongings. He somehow has control over what she sees. He's to the edge of the camera. The female protagonist looks up to see the thief's face and the thief says: "I have to apologize. I was born with a disfigurement where my head is made of the same material as the Sun."

All of a sudden, the screen fills with searing brightness as she's unable to look at him anymore.

This moment was awe-inspiring to me when I saw it. It was accomplished with simple, "indie" means that required no SFX, but its effect, this particular visual flourish, was indelible.

I find that many independent movies I see are content with just four-walling the entire thing and presenting the audience with simple visuals. But visuals are why we watch movies. The visual grammar of the movie is a fundamental part of the story.

Also, just because I chose Upstream Color, a mind-bending sci-fi, to make my point shouldn't make you say "Well, I'm writing a drama". Wong Kar Wai writes dramas too and his dramas look like this:

2 - Incomprehensibility + No Emotion = Sad Audience

The audiences go to Indie Movies to be challenged, to be exposed to something new. But we still watch movies to be emotionally moved. This doesn't mean swelling music at the climax to cue us into the emotions of your protagonists, but give us something. The worst movie experiences I had at the movie festivals were movies were I had no idea what the hell was going on AND I didn't care.

Now, that last part is really important. Two of my favorite filmmakers, David Lynch and Shane Carruth, excel at making movies that are famously opaque. Especially in Lynch's movies, there is no narrative through line to logically connect one scene to the next, but there is always a central emotion that keeps the audience engaged. If not for Betty and Naomi Watts' performance, do you think Mulholland Drive would be the classic it is today? Without the palpable grief the town feels after Laura Palmer, do you think people would have responded to Twin Peaks?


Of course it's important to have a theme. If we walked away, especially from an indie movie that didn't say something, we'd all feel robbed. And yet, I feel, especially with the indie movies, there is this weird responsibility to SAY SOMETHING and overcompensating in the process. There is a difference between being thematically weighty and just being didactic. I know the following example is hardly indie as it stars Brad Pitt, but shed it of its cast and the writing itself is small. It definitely has an "indie" feel to it:

A tale about the futility of hope in Obama's America because the inconspicuous TV's in the background tell us that OVER AND OVER AGAIN!
4 - This is not a Studio movie, but it sorta is?

The audience is here to see something different, something challenging. If they wanted conformity and predictability, they would've gone to the Blockbuster-of-the-month or stayed home and watched Hallmark.

Some indie movies feel like auditions for bigger studio tentpoles with their precisely 3 act structure with the clear resolution and the abundance of thematic cliche's like "Love Conquers All!"

You know the big movie this weekend, this little thing called "Jurassic World?" The writer/director of that movie first made the small indie "Safety Not Guaranteed" which, for all its faults, was definitely a surprising as hell movie that did a lot of unconventional things. So embrace that! There is a reason you're writing an indie screenplay and not a blockbuster!

5 - Do too many things because this is the one movie you'll ever make!

A movie about... EVERYTHING!

You will write many, many screenplays throughout your life. There is this tendency for screenwriters to go "This is my one crazy, indie, weird feature! I'm going to CRAM EVERYTHING IN IT!"

As a result, you read this screenplay and it feels like there are three different movies in there. A good question to see if this is the case with your screenplay is to ask: "Is there a consistent tone?" or simply "If I take this subplot out, does anything change?"

Pick one movie and stick to it.

In Conclusion: These are just some commonalities I found among the indie movies that disappointed me. Can you think of any other elements that these movies share? Do you think I'm wrong about anything? Have you seen any movies in the Los Angeles Film Festival so far that disappointed you? Share in the comments!

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Movies for Your Ears

My first treat at the LA film festival was a series of shorts that had no pictures.

At Movies For Your Ears: Making Pictureless Films, Jonathan Mitchell walked the audience through his creative process when creating the critically acclaimed podcast "The Truth."

As the festival program describes it, "The Truth...creates short films without pictures. Its crafted, colorful and diverse fictional stories don’t just compel the audience to listen, but to experience these tales as if you’re right there with the characters." Indeed, while listening to "That's Democracy" I had the uncanny feeling of actually being in a high school classroom when a class lecture takes shocking and violent turn. While listening to Sylvia's Blood, I swear that I saw the most disturbing and vivid imagery that I've seen all year while sitting in a theater with my eyes closed. Simple audio tricks evoked the identity bending and reality warping visuals of Philip K. Dick. There is a massive archive of other shorts to listen to on The Truth Website.

Here is my pitch for why screenwriters should bother to listen.

Good filmmakers pre-visualize their stories - cinema, after all, is supposed to be storytelling with pictures. Writers rarely refer to sound other than as dialogue or in the BOOM of an explosion. In film school, we learned that Eisenstein pioneered the juxtaposition and collision of images to create meaning. We talk about “seeing the movie” in our heads. Screenwriters rarely, if ever, think deeply about the layers, meanings, collisions and storytelling power of the movie sound. 

But we should.

Listening to The Truth, is a great reminder that right sounds (in actual movies, these are often played under dark, ambiguous or strobing imagery) encourages the audience to fill out the visuals in their imaginations, putting them in a deeply engaged dream-state. Well chosen sounds can evoke as much tension, deliver as much emotion, drive as much content as imagery. 

Another great storytelling podcast is Welcome to Night Vale. For those who enjoy Lovecraft and Lynch. 
I’d argue that the person best suited to pre-audio-lize the potential of story-sound is the screenwriter. In the same way that well-wrtiten characters give the actors meat to chew on, well-imagined sounds that are integral to the story give supervising sound editors an opportunity to practice their art at the highest level.

So turn out the lights, close your eyes, pop in your earbuds and give The Truth a listen. Later, ask yourself, "What does the movie or episode I'm writing SOUND like?"

For more on my love affair with cinema sound, read JUST LISTEN.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Los Angeles Film Festival

So I’ve been asking myself, in the age of on-demand video streaming, why am I here, at the Los Angeles Film Festival? I know what I like and digital technology allows me to find exactly what I’m looking for, no matter how obscure, independent, or oddball. Why fight traffic on the 101 when I can sit on my couch? 

Well...Because, I need this. Film festivals allow me to encounter movies and voices outside of my little bubble of viewing habits and storytelling ticks. I never really know what I am in for, but I’m forced to surrender to whatever appears on screen. So, my level of attention and engagement is different. I’ll see films hand-picked by cinema lovers instead of Netflix algorithms; I’ll see them in packed theaters instead of alone with an iPad and an earbud. There will be hours of heated discussion afterwards, about the bad films most of all, and at least one strange little film, one I would never have seen otherwise, will completely blow my mind.

Or not. Regardless of how well I like the films, ideas, aesthetics, inspirations and outrages will penetrate my little bubble and rattle around inside until they find their way into my own work. I need this. Otherwise, I’ll just sit at home watching Rosemary’s Baby for the 30th time and rehash the super-8 shorts I made at USC.

Oh...and also, if I never leave the backyard shed where I have my office, I'll never get to see any of my friends. So, I hope to see you around...