Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Arousal & My Netflix Queue

I recently decided that, if I were going to write a horror film like Arousal, I'd better bloody well do my research on horror films. From where I sit, the best way to meet and exceed audiences' expectations is to first be acutely aware of what those expectations are... and what better way to find out than send yourself back to film school detention for a refresher?

After a browsing session of IMDB's best rated horror films, I decided to 1) see great horror films I've never seen before so I can pick up their tips & tricks, and 2) see specific films similar to Arousal's storyline. I'd rent other classic horror films or favorite horror films I'd seen before, but only after watching my must-see list. Many on the list were reputed to be excellent, and some weren't. Either way, I'd figure I'd learn what worked and what didn't. The final list is really only about 20 films long, which is surprising. I would have thought it would have topped 50. (That's good news—I might actually be able to see Aspen Extreme by late March after all.)

An insight I gained while fleshing out the Arousal's story is that it's essentially a zombie film. This is a very odd (and delightful) discovery, since I had absolutely zero intention of writing a zombie film. I simply wanted a film with some kind of viral infection like Ebola or Marburg (which scare the holy crapper out of me!!!). Yet if you take Ebola as the plotline gimmick, and give it a twist to make the virus affect behavior in an extremely violent way... well, shit, that's basically the plot of 28 Days Later. While technically the infected people in 28 Days aren't zombies, that story has all the hallmarks of a zombie film. Thus the reason why I chose to put so many zombie films on my queue.

Another easter egg I unearthed quite by accident was a film called Cabin Fever. It had a similar storyline to Arousal (hikers trapped in the woods), and it had great IMDB ratings, so I slapped it on the list. Turns out it was directed by Eli Roth, who recently made the splatterpunk Hostel. Oddly enough, Eli Roth apparently knows the director of Threading Over Dark, that horror film I worked on which wrapped this last December. Cool.

My Netflix Queue for Horror Research
Repulsion (When it's crossed off, I've seen it!)
The Vanishing
Wages of Fear
Diaboliques, Les
Come and See
Knife in The Water
Cabin Fever
Wrong Turn
Ju-on: The Grudge
High Tension
Night of the Living Dead
Dawn of the Dead
The Shining
The Haunting
The Innocents
Eyes Without a Face
House of 1,000 Corpses
Shaun of the Dead
Cannibal Holocaust

Films I've already seen
Blood Simple
28 Days Later
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Friday, February 24, 2006

Apsen. Most Extreme.

I have no idea when I'm going to ever going to get around to seeing Aspen Extreme, but this post is for Daisy, who was just cool enough to blog about one of my all-time favorite romantic films (and one of my father's all-time favorite romantic films), The Cutting Edge. (For the record, my other two favorite romantic films are Wind and Strictly Ballroom. Oh, and If Lucy Fell. Shit, that's not two. Ah, why not throw Armageddon on up in there? That scene when Liv Tyler puts her hand on the screen... ach, I get verklempt. Wait, that's not romantic love per se... Okay, if we must, I choose to switch out Armageddon for When Harry Met Sally. There, those are my four favorite romantic films. Oooooo, but then there's Serendipity...)

Why, you must be asking, am I tittering on about cinematic guilty pleasures? Newsflash: while I never can bring myself to put money in paparazzis' pockets to be celebrity stalkers, I'll still discretely peruse US Weekly if there happens to be an old issue laying around at my Dentist's office. I mean, come on, that why I always arrive early! (But, um, exactly how did I miss Elton John's wedding? And what the hell was Posh (Mrs.) Beckham wearing??? Egads. This is a wedding, dear, not a concert.)

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Into The Spider Hole

My mom leaves me funny messages whenever I get into one of my deep writing spells: "Where are you? Are you still alive??? Call me!" I call it being off the radar, but it's more like going into a tunnel or crawling into a spider hole. I mention this now because it's time to take a break from blogging for a stretch. When I have another lull in my schedule (in about a month or so), I'll start up again, but all my spare time now is focused on not one, but three projects:

Ghoti—currently written out as a 45 minute film, but likely to get expanded for a feature length theatrical release. Replete with special effects, high-tech superspy double-crosses and at least one iteration of, "I copy that".

Arousal—feature film erotic horror idea in synopsis format and intended for theatrical release. Much work has been done this last week and I've even started a daily journal to help track of all my notes about plot decisions, character motivation dillemas, etc. Contingent on the synopsis getting a greenlight from my producer, I should be writing a first draft by April.

Fool's Gold—a new project, and not my own story idea. It's a "buried treasure" narrative by Brian Patrick for whom I'm developing a treatment and feature length script to shoot later this year. Very big budget, too. Intended for theatrical release.

As I said, I have a lot to do. Expect to see me blogging again near the end of March.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

6.5 billion? No problem!

In 1997, the earth's population topped at 6 billion. Today, less than a decade later, it's 6.5 billion.

Wired has some interesting things to say about it, and even though Earth's rate of growth is declining, we're still expected to surpass 7 billion by 2012, which is only six years from now.

That's a lot of poopie diapers.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Beauty of Myspace Casting

For me, writing narrative fiction is a struggle when it comes to writing characters. I don't like typecasting a particular ethnicity for each character, because when it comes time to casting roles, I don't want to be married to a character being Hispanic or Asian or blonde or whatever. Fact is, sometimes casting against how that character was initially envisioned can actually compliment the story, instead of buggering it all up.

Nevertheless, at the writing stage, unless I make some kind of decision about who these folks really are, what they look like, and how they dress, whether they have blonde wavy hair or straight jet black hair... until I see the person in front of me, I can't seem to get inside their heads in order to paint a compelling character portrait. A hundred years ago, without the aid of photography, novelists might have chosen someone they knew well to use as a constant source of inspiration. Nowadays, storytellers have Myspace.

The pictures at left are of people I have never met and never intend to. Because I've never met them, I bring no preconceptions about their behavior or judgements about their character. They are completely new people to me—hell, I don't even know their real names—a tabula rasa waiting for someone to turn them into "real" people. Nevermind that they actually are real people.

So now you've seen the Myspace casting for my feature film Arousal, which is currently being developed into a treatment for my producer at Bad Highway Productions.

Casting with Myspace has been a huge help for my writing, and courtesy of our free information age. I should be so lucky to have my own Myspace profile surreptitiously cast in someone else's novel!

Friday, February 17, 2006

Origin of my AROUSAL

Last year, I had a heated conversation with a fellow filmmaker about gratuitous sex scenes in films. Could a film be made where a guy was spying on a naked woman bathing and not have that scene be gratuitous? He maintained it was impossible... and I did not.

Hmm. Let me rewind a bit.

If there's one thing that bugs the shite out of me in Hollywood, and filmmaking in general, it's when a great story has a sex scene in it simply to sell the film—jarring non sequiturs like these rip me right out of the story, popcorn and all.

I'm not against seeing sex, or violence in films. Really. It's that nudity or controversial gore for its own sake is pointless and short-sighted. You want to show someone being murdered? You want to play voyeur on people in their most intimate of moments? That's okay with me—just make sure you integrate it into the story. If you can take out the T&A or the gore without affecting the story in any way, then that scene is unnecessary and nothing more than a snake oil salesman blathering on about how cool his new elixir is. Shut up, already. Stop showing me the form of the thing and let's see the function of the thing.

Here are some highly arousing, but very well-integrated, sex scenes:

Blood Simple
This film's sex scene is just long enough to suggest what they're doing (McDormand doesn't even take her clothes off) and any viewer who asks himself, "Why am I watching them having sex?" is swiftly answered with a shot of M. Emmet Walsh's VW Bug parked outside their house.

For Walsh to get pictures of the couple "dead", they must have sex... he can't do it any other way. Plus, once the audience knows that Walsh is nearby, the scene becomes less about them having sex and more about whether he's going to kill them, which—because they are at their most vulnerable—doubles the tension of the scene. The Cohen brothers could have simply inserted a sex scene to sell the movie better—after all, their passionate sex still (kind of) advances the plot, although barely—but instead they chose to integrate sex into the story, and the film is more memorable because of it.

Body Double
In order to force the neighbor across the street to witness a murder, the killer hires a porn star to routinely perform a masturbation scene disguised as the future murder victim. How else can the neighbor be guaranteed to be watching when the murder eventually takes place? What appears to be a gratuitous masturbation scene is in fact a carefully orchestrated bait and switch... and we got suckered along for the ride, too.

Six Feet Under
This series consistently delivers good drama, mainly because it's about an entire family of people with sex addictions and hang-ups. If you don't show the sex, or at least a glimpse of it, to illustrate the characters' consequent anguish, it would emasculate the point of the story.

Other films with cleverly integrated sex scenes:
Enemy At The Gates—a male and female soldier have sex in terrified silence because their soldier comrades are sleeping right beside them.
Eyes Wide Shut—Sex is a weapon, a dangerous lure, a secret society...
Vanilla Sky—How else can Tom Cruise know he's going mad than when the woman he's making love to switches identities while they're making love? (also a very arousing sex scene without any T&A!)

If anything should be called gratuitous, it should be the selection of a particular story to be told, not only the choice to insert random sex scenes to sell a movie. Boogie Nights, for example, is an excellent film about the porn industry—and you can't really tell that story without showing at least some sex scenes—but it is a film about the porn industry. Or take a film about a serial killer who becomes sexually aroused by the graphic maiming and torturing of his victims... and the filmmaker insists that the audience watch the torture because if they don't, the story won't make any sense... well, what is the driving need to tell this story above all the other stories out there? Other than lining the filmmaker's pockets with the Thomas Jeffersons of pre-pubescent Fangoria subscribers, how is the world aided by the decision to tell this story instead of, say, Se7en?

Sounds like I'm slamming senseless violence in stories, right? I'm not. We watch gory films to desensitize ourselves, to traumatize ourselves in a safe, dark room. Like cave painters envisioning themselves before bison, modern humans use lights on a wall to place themselves in very threatening situations to feel the dread as if it were real. We thrive on it. We need it. why? Because, like those cave painters, it helps us butress our psyche should we ever be faced with a similar, unspeakably horrific real-life situation.

Plus, we will probably never get to see a guy's head ripped off. Ewwwww!

Still, without a story, films with gratuitous sex or violence have a limited shelf-life. We will rewind the DVD to watch a gory scene a few times, and then we'll forget it entirely. But if watch characters we really care about get brutally murdered... it's a whole new ball of wax. Show me an Alien water tube like in The Abyss, or a relentless morphing assassin from The Terminator... these images get burned into our brains not only because they're cool, but because they advance the story at the same time in a dramatic and emotionally visceral way.

As a director, it's not my career choice to ask an actor to share their body with the rest of the world for no reason other than it makes good material for "private use". If actors are going to show us something that private, let's at least make sure it serves the purposes of a damned entertaining story.


Okay, so I'm having this provocative conversation with this filmmaker. He's maintaining that there are some gratuitous sex scenes which you simply could not integrate into a story, and I'm disagreeing.

"Let's say this group of hikers is in the wilderness," he says. "One guy spots a naked woman bathing and watches her. How could you ever integrate that into the story? It's impossible."

This guy wants a T&A scene in the film in order to make the film more marketable. As Daisy says, obvi. He's playing the producer role and it's important to focus on getting all your money back and then some. Sex does sell, right? But aren't there better ways, more creative ways, more... memorable ways?

And that's the origin of Arousal, my feature film concept. I had already wanted to do a horror film that would be easy to shoot (e.g. in the wilderness, meaning no location permits), would have sex in it to help make it sell, but would have every moment of sex and violence be fully integrated into the storyline.

To prove a point, Arousal would have exactly that scene my filmmaker friend was talking about and if it didn't, the film wouldn't make any sense at all. In fact, the story would have to hinge on the guy's desire to look at her... perhaps that would arouse him in some way... which would cause his next action in the story. I sat on this for a few months while writing Ghoti, and sketched out the vague details of a story. Arousal would have sex, it would have a lot of blood, and the sex in it would actually cause the murder and mayhem. Furthermore, I could even make a more profound statement on sexuality as seen from male and female perspectives...

Last weekend, I pitched the idea to my producer and he called me later that evening and said, "If you write that story, I'll produce it." So my producer gets a film with sex in it that will be easily marketable and I get to make a film where sex and violence are fully integrated into the story. And wouldn't you know it—I woke up at 7AM the next day because my brain was spinning with ideas on how many characters I should have, where we would shoot, etc.

My next task for Arousal is getting the treatment written. Then I'll pass it along to my trusty Story Consultants (the amazing David Roy, Susan Detwiler and Peter Jacobsen) for feedback, after which it will go to my producer for his feedback, then get it translated into a first draft (and repeat as needed until I get a Final Draft). Right now, it looks like Ghoti will be shot first, either for an hour long TV pilot, or for several 8 minute Podcasts, probably by April, after which Arousal will get shot.

Boat drinks, baby... one film at a time!

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Dumbest Guys In The Room

I recently watched Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, which is up for an Oscar for Best Documentary this year. It's a compelling documentary and an excellent primer for the complicated Enron scandal—I even learned why my lights in San Francisco were going off in 2000, and how Enron energy traders were making money off of it, hand over fist, without a single lick of remorse.

Here's a nutshell fun fact: Enron's stock started at modest $35/share, swelled to a whopping $90/share, and then imploded to 40¢/share after their bankruptcy. Ouch.

Aside from the head-shaking astonishment about how deep this scandal really was, there is a deeper lesson here about greed: this scandal could never have happened without the complicity of Enron's investors, lawyers, and accountants. Everyone, all these people whose job it was to hold Enron in check, had their own hand in the cookie jar and they all could have chosen differently... but they looked the other way because they were making huge piles of cash. I'm trying not to judge here—hindsight is always 20/20—because it looks like Enron's decline was a slippery slope many years in the making. The seed of one's own demise begins with a tiny, nearly imperceptible compromise, I'll do it this once, and make up for it later. And then the next time—in Enron's case, when they made money even though they incurred a debt—you keep digging a deeper hole: I'll do it a little more. No one found me out this time, so I'll make it right later. And so moral corruption isn't a fire hose that one day gets turned on at full blast, it's more like lazy droplets of water on stone... one day, the rock shatters into pebbles and you have no idea what the hell you did to cause it.

What is so tragic about the Enron story is Jeff Skilling's ability to delude himself about Enron's assured collapse. His financial wiz kid Fastow skillfully hid Enron's debt behind a labyrinth of companies, and when Fastow was called before a Congressional investigation, he wisely pleaded the 5th amendment. Skilling, however, was not so smart. To think he could have defended his way out of 15 years of deceptive methods... well, it's laughable. The only conclusion I was left with was that Skilling had an immeasurable capacity for self-delusion, even at the Congressional investigation. You might be able to pull off one fraudulent transaction and get away with it, but years and years of claiming profits while covering up debts is bound to come back to get you.

There is a similar story about the founder of Crazy Eddie, that chain of tech stores in Manhattan and the tri-state area. This guy spends years defrauding the IRS and stashing money in an Israeli bank account and one day cashes out his stocks and flees to Israel. Hello... everyone knew he had ties to Israel and would likely flee there! It should have been no surprise when a warrant is issued for his arrest there. So now all these millions of dollars he so brilliantly stole from his company are the bricks in his self-made prison; this guy couldn't leave his house to party at nightclubs and buy fancy cars with his secret stash because he knew someone would eventually recognize him. Ultimately, he turned himself in.

Sending Skilling and Lay and Fastow to jail is not really the ultimate punishment for their crimes, because their worst crimes (in my opinion) are nuking the pensions of their hard-working California electricity workers (not to mention Enron's honest employees). The best punishment would be to have Skilling, Lay, Fastow et al. cash out their retirements and maybe even use their business savvy to earn back all the money due these people (under extreme supervision, of course). The tragedy of California's electrical workers is that they had no choice about whether they wanted to work for Enron, but they're still paying for it. What good is it to them if Skilling and Lay just go to jail? It doesn't redress the wake of Enron's collapse. Sure, give Skilling and Lay 50 years, then let them have only 10 years if they put back all the cookies they stole.

At the beginning of the documentary, you might hate Skilling and Lay and Fastow. Yet what emerges throughout the course of the documentary is how pathetic these guys are. By the end, I felt really sorry for them—not that I excuse any of the horrible things they did, because I think I've made it clear they need to make a serious amends for their crimes—but you wonder how these tragic souls were and how they, once considered the smartest guys in the room, could ever have been quite that stupid.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Submitting Scripts to Hollywood

What do the tea leaves say? Is there a face of Gandhi in my cereal? My, what games we play to divine how to get our scripts read by the industry big-wigs...

One Thanksgiving, as a quasi-experiment, I marshalled my (wonderful!) friends into stuffing 92 query letters to Hollywood agents for 62 Blocks to Battery Park. My results were six responses, three of which were positive, and no takers.

After reflecting on those results, I chose a more focused approach. There was a specific actress I had in mind for the lead role... and getting a named talent attached would certainly fast track my chances of getting that script produced. I sent one letter to her agent and got a positive response. Ultimately, she didn't accept the role, but at least the script got read.

92 letters to agents
—> 3 positive responses
—> 3.2% return on time invested

1 letter to a specific agent
—> 1 positive response
—> 100% return on time invested

Based on the numbers alone, it became extremely clear that identifying and targeting my query letters to the agent of an upcoming actor would be a much, much better use of my time. Why? Because people like to think they're special, that you're writing to them only. And because these new actors are looking for a great new role to expand their resume. There was, however, a deeper lesson here: instead of shotgunning 92 agents with a form letter (even if had been mail merged), by focusing my energies to individual agents, I was leveraging my time to its maximum effect. I had found a pressure point.

In David Marcinko's book, Rogue Warrior, he tells the story of how his mission was to attack an enemy base. He sets out to find the base, but gets sidetracked by the difficult terrain—by many, many hours—which has the fortunate result of landing him directly behind the enemy base, where they least expected an attack because it was so difficult to get to. His lesson from this was to do exactly what the enemy least expects, because it's their weakest spot. When Norman Schwarzkopf told his commanders to move their tanks 100 miles to the West to outflank Saddam Hussein's army, his subordinate officers said, "But that's impossible! We can't do that." And Schwarzkopf replied, "That's exactly why we have to do it, because Saddam will be thinking the same thing."

Find the weak link in the chain. And pull.

Hollywood's weakest link is that it's like one big roulette table where everyone wants a winning number and they're desperate to find out what that winning number will be (curiously, this is not unlike screenwriters trying to get their scripts read). If they find out someone else is reading your script and is interested—really interested!—they'll fall over themselves to read it, too. Some producers are now using Inktip to read scripts, which helps excise agents and managers acting as "goalies" by asking for percentages that kill a project before it even gets off the ground.

So it's no surprise that these screenwriters are yielding such amazing results (the boldface is my own):

I live in Spokane Wa, and my writing partner and I have made over a hundred script submissions to every major production company and studio in Hollywood WITHOUT an agent. I'm talking about Universal, Bruckheimer, Dreamworks, etc. All we have is a Hollywood Creative Directory, a cell phone, and balls. The best part is that every submission has been in email format, so it's instant and free. 8 out of 10 times, it doesn't even matter if the company claims to not accept unsolicited material. They will take it anyway because our pitch is air tight. We just speak their language and don't tell them we're the writers until they ask. It's not lying, it's more of a strategic placement of facts. We were able to get 37 submissions in 2 days once. The point of all this, is that the boundaries all of us aspiring writers take for granted aren't real. If you call up a studio, get a VP of production or a Director of Development on the phone, tell them what they want to hear, they'll take it and thank you for it. You call them and say, "Hey, I've got this hot script that came my way, and it's being shotgunned to everybody around town. But it really seems like the type of project you'd be interested in, so I thought I'd let you take a look before any exclusivity is set up with anyone else." Usually at this point, they'll take your script without even knowing what it is about, but always have a logline ready. Face it, Hollywood is a business. Yes, art is important. But if you can't get your scripts read, then what's the point? Anyway, I thought I'd shed some light on the whole "getting read" thing. I'm 24, and I've only been writing for 2 years. Every script I've written has been read and the most recent script (only my second) was very close to purchase. It just didn't quite get off the ground at Universal. But I do have an open door now at every studio/production company you could dream of. All thanks to my shameful telemarketing background.

It's taken time for me to realize it, but I know in my heart I'm not a salesman or telemarketer, at least not enough to make 100 phone calls over and over again, so their approach probably won't work for me... except maybe for a limited time. One day when I have five finished scripts ready to produce, I might go this route to give each script a fair run.

Years of my life were wasted writing and not seeing anything produced because 15 years ago it was too expensive for me to produce anything myself. Since everything is digital now, and podcasting is fast emerging as the new distribution market, the world got a whole hell of a lot flatter.

Do I want to live in Los Angeles to be a small screenwriter swimming in a big pond? No, I'd rather do something which separates me from all the other screenwriters out there, something that exploits the weakest link in the chain. That's why I'm a local writer-director-producer (which is vastly different than all the thousands of screenwriters out there), with the goal of building up my directing portfolio so that one day I can pitch my $100 film ideas with some credibility behind me.

At the end of the day, I can have five scripts that, after 2,000 phone calls and five years, maybe one of them will get produced. And that's still a maybe. Those are horrible odds. Screw that! I would rather be master of my own small little ship by getting financing to shoot my own scripts locally. That way, at least I know that my script is going to get produced. At the end of a year, I could have four scripts, plus a finished film to show a producer. And the year after that, three scripts and two films. And so on.

As far as I'm concerned, screenplays are only a blueprint—films are the stand-alone product. And since it's waaaaaaaay easier to watch a film than read a script, I feel I have a better chance showing big-budget producers one of my stories than telling it to them.

There is no one path to Hollywood. But pulling on those weak links in the chain—that approach will never change.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

I said it before CNN!

It's nice to know I beat CNN to the punch by 12 days. My February 2nd blog, The Year Oscar Changed The Locks, says pretty much the same as this article, although my piece was more about the films' low cost than their high quality. Still, it's good to know that low cost and high quality seem to be associated, at least by proximity.

Hollywood sobers up with gutsy Oscar picks
Tuesday, February 14, 2006; Posted: 2:03 a.m. EST (07:03 GMT)

LOS ANGELES, California (AP) -- The Academy Awards nominations confirm it: 2005 may have been an off year for the blockbuster crowd, but it was a great year for people who love quality cinema.

Oscar voters last week overlooked big, amiable studio fare in favor of inquisitive films that present one of the most challenging best-picture lineups since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences began handing out trophies in 1929.

Read the whole article

Star Wars: A New Valentine

Amazingly—and I know most of you won't believe this one—I have never seen Star Wars used as a Valentine. Did I just eat a Van Winkle sandwich or something? Weird. Anyway. This is courtesy of Cirocco—and she has about 62 more of these in her gallery; some of them are rather clever. They even have some belated Valentine's, in case you're remiss in your amorous pursuits.

Happy Valentine's, everyone!

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Sissy Fight

Yes, this wonderfully stupid game is still around. If you're bored one afternoon, and want to remember what it's like being on the playground with a bunch of mean little girls, then sharpen your nails and have at it:


Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Sith Lord Dissolves Nepalese Senate

At last, the final remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away. Your journey to the Dark Side will soon be complete:

Nepal Maoists 'open' to monarchy

A senior leader of Nepal's Maoists says the rebels will accept the monarchy if the country's people were in favour of retaining it. In an interview with the Nepal's Kantipur newspaper, rebel leader Prachanda also renewed an offer of dialogue with the government.

"We will accept it if the constitution assembly says we want monarchy," the Associated Press quotes him as saying. "We will accept it even if the people say we want an active monarchy," Prachanda said.

The people are also holding a referendum on whether to have 572 cable channels of American Gladiator and legalization of nuclear handguns.

You are free... to do as we tell you. (Not all choice is good.)

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Pretty Penny

The creation of paper and metal objects to use as money... it fascinates me. Did you know the U.S. government rejected putting a hologram on its paper bills because each hologram they tried didn't pass their most stringent test, a contraption which brutally wraps a dollar bill over on itself about a billion times? Did you know that the newer bill designs have larger faces on them because larger faces are statistically easier to detect as a counterfeit?

Thus, it seemed serendipitous when someone sent me this brilliant penny recognition quiz, and I was delighted to have guessed it correctly, even if it took a good five minutes doing a process of elimination and some calm reckoning from my mind's eye.

If you like currency as much as I, amble over to Wheresgeorge.com for some extra fun.

Friday, February 03, 2006


This American Life is an amazing radio program... perhaps the only program I listen to as I arrive home on Sunday night and continue to sit in the car for another 20 minutes just to hear how one of their segments will end.

A while back, I heard a broadcast about Nauru, a tiny island republic in the Pacific of only 12,800 people whose natural resources have been almost entirely depleted within the last 100 years. If you haven't heard this broadcast, just listen to the first few minutes (click on "Full Episode") and judge for yourself; the complete broadcast is 30 minutes long.

Or read NPR's blurb about it:

Prologue. Ira talks with sailor and researcher Captain Charles Moore about a gigantic area in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, as far away from land as you can get, that's filling with plastic trash. There are five spots like this on the world's oceans.

Act One. No Island Is An Island. Nauru is a tiny island, population 12,000, a third of the size of Manhattan, far from anywhere, yet at the center of several of the decade's biggest global events. Jack Hitt tells the untold story of this dot in the middle of the Pacific and its involvement in the bankrupting of the Russian economy, global terrorism, North Korean defectors, the end of the world, and the late 80's theatrical flop of a London musical based on the life of Leonardo da Vinci, called Leonardo, A Portrait of Love.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Year Oscar Changed The Locks

This guy on NPR made a very astute observation about the Best Picture nominations this year (I can never remember the names of people I hear on NPR because I'm driving and doing my ADD station-changing thingy). Take a close look at these films and see if you can spot why one of these things is not like the other:

Brokeback Mountain
Good Night, And Good Luck.

If you haven't guessed it yet, let's sort these films by their budget costs, starting with the least expensive and working on up to the most expensive:

Distributor: Lions Gate
Budget: $6.5 million
Domestic & Worldwide Gross: $80 million

Distributor: Sony Classics
Budget: $7 million
Domestic Gross: $15.3 million (no worldwide gross)

Good Night, And Good Luck.
Distributor: Warner Independent
Budget: $7 million
Domestic & Worldwide Gross: $31.8 million

Brokeback Mountain
Distributor: Focus Features
Budget: $14 million
Domestic & Worldwide Gross: $62.4 million

Distributor: Universal
Budget: $70 million
Domestic Gross $40.7 million (no worldwide gross)

I included the amount each film has grossed to date, although that number means relatively little since some of these films (like Crash) have been released for considerably longer than others (like Munich). Still, it is interesting to see how much a $6.5 million film can gross.

Now that you've looked at the list, it should become glaringly obvious—4 out 5 films from this year's nominations had remarkably small budgets, and thus were distributed by independent studios, not the big studios like Paramount and Universal. This stands in extreme contrast to the 2004 nominations (also sorted from least expensive to most expensive):

Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Budget: $16 million
Domestic & Worldwide Gross: $109.3 million

Finding Neverland
Distributor: Miramax
Budget: $25 million
Domestic & Worldwide Gross: $116.7 million

Million Dollar Baby
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Budget: $30 million
Domestic & Worldwide Gross: $216.8 million

Distributor: Universal
Budget: $40 million
Domestic & Worldwide Gross: $124 million

The Aviator
Distributor: Miramax
Budget: $110 million
Domestic & Worldwide Gross: $213.7 million

Aside from the surprising fact that all five of these films made over $109 million regardless of their budget, the average budget for a Best Picture nomination went from $44.2 million in 2004 to $20.9 million in 2005, which is a drop of 52.7%. If you don't include Munich, the average budget for a 2005 Best Pic nom drops to an astonishing $8.6 million, or a difference of 80.5% from 2004 film budgets.

That guy on NPR credits the proliferation of home theatre systems as the catalyst that pushed cheaper, more introspective films into theatres to lure families out from their cushy Hi-Def light projectors. While I'm sure that's true, perhaps even the main reason, I'm sure it's also easier to convince an Executive Producer to invest in an $8 million film that has depth than an $80 million Spectacular Spectacular. Indeed, that same Producer could create 10 to 15 such films for the price of one Armageddon or Titanic.

That said, why did Crash—arguably the best film of the year—have difficulty getting financing?

Cheadle wasn't surprised when financing entities started to turn them down. Asked who did so, he says, "Everybody! Every studio! We'd think we were getting somewhere with one person, and they would kick it out."

Crash was turned down because it was so controversial. But guess what? The audience wants to see controversial. And that's the supreme irony of this business: the films that audiences most want to see are the ones no one has the guts to make. The only reason why films like Theron's Monster, or Clooney's Good Night, And Good Luck., or Cheadle's Crash get made is because big-name actors feel obliged to become producers... as named talent, they have the clout to inspire other named talent be attached regardless of the "incendiary" subject matter or consequent lack of investor commitment.

Write a brilliant script. Get a named talent (and a name who's talented), or five. Shoot it inexpensively. These are the new keys to getting an Oscar.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Oil at $262/barrel?

People get jittery when gas pump prices go from under $2 to over $3 per gallon. But how about $12 per gallon? Unrealistic? Consider this article from Fortune magazine:

Ready for $262/barrel oil? (Excerpted)
Two of the world's most successful investors say oil will be in short supply in the coming months.
By Nelson Schwartz, FORTUNE senior writer
January 27, 2006: 4:40 PM EST

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

That's the message from two of the world's most successful investors on the topic of high oil prices. One of them, Hermitage Capital's Bill Browder, has outlined six scenarios that could take oil up to a downright terrifying $262 a barrel.

The other, billionaire investor George Soros, wouldn't make any specific predictions about prices. But as a legendary commodities player, it's worth paying heed to the words of the man who once took on the Bank of England -- and won. "I'm very worried about the supply-demand balance, which is very tight," Soros says.

"U.S. power and influence has declined precipitously because of Iraq and the war on terror and that creates an incentive for anyone who wants to make trouble to go ahead and make it." As an example, Soros pointed to the regime in Iran, which is heading towards a confrontation with the West over its nuclear power program and doesn't show any signs of compromising. "Iran is on a collision course and I have a difficulty seeing how such a collision can be avoided," he says.

To come up with some likely scenarios in the event of an international crisis, his team performed what's known as a regression analysis, extrapolating the numbers from past oil shocks and then using them to calculate what might happen when the supply from an oil-producing country was cut off in six different situations. The fall of the House of Saud seems the most far-fetched of the six possibilities, and it's the one that generates that $262 a barrel.

More realistic -- and therefore more chilling -- would be the scenario where Iran declares an oil embargo a la OPEC in 1973, which Browder thinks could cause oil to double to $131 a barrel. Other outcomes include an embargo by Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez ($111 a barrel), civil war in Nigeria ($98 a barrel), unrest and violence in Algeria ($79 a barrel) and major attacks on infrastructure by the insurgency in Iraq ($88 a barrel).