Saturday, July 28, 2007

Monkey Points

When Frank Capra was asked what made his films so appealing, he described his famous "Capra Touch", highlighting his choice of lighting, his great actors, and all manner of things... everything, in short, except the script. The next day, Capra received a script in the mail from a writer he'd recently worked with. Capra eagerly opened the script to find all 120 pages were totally blank. On the front page, the writer had scrawled: "Put the Capra Touch on this!"—Richard Walter, Screenwriting: The Art, Craft, and Business of Writing for Film and Television

Today I learned a new filmmaking term: "monkey points". This is odd because, having worked in low budget filmmaking for so long, you'd think I'd have heard about it sooner. I read it in the opening speech by John Bowman at the WGA's salary negotiations:
What other business but ours has the accounting term, "monkey points?"

What the hell?, I asked myself.

And here's what Wikipedia said:
In the motion picture industry, the term monkey points refers to the practice of many low budget production companies offering talent, such as actor or writer, a percentage of a film's profits, as opposed to a percentage of the film's gross, or a fixed salary. In this case, 'monkey' is intended to be derogatory. This term was coined by Eddie Murphy, who also stated that only a fool would accept net points in their contracts; always insist on gross points. Since such projects usually never make any money—at least on paper—the talent who accepts a percentage of the project's profits usually never makes any money. This is due to the infamous Hollywood accounting, where a studio manages to list every conceivable expense associated with running a studio as an expense of the film in question—eating up any gross profits. Writers and other lesser persons often get stuck with monkey points. Being a gross player, someone with enough clout to be given gross points, is not common in Hollywood.

I've been offered, and have taken, net points on films, and they rarely pay (although that's mainly because the films didn't make money, not because of the Hollywood accounting system). Usually, net points are used to convince you that the car you're driving is actually a beautiful painting, even though all evidence points to the contrary.

The fact that this term even exists is a sign for how creative financing can often be to get films made... and how foolish people are to accept this kind of lottery ticket salary. Writers are often stiffed in this process, especially when it concerns residuals. For example, of all secondary markets like broadcasting movies on TV, pay-per-view, and home video, the residual formulas dictate that writers are supposed to collect 1.2% of what the companies make, which the companies didn't want to pay, so in 1985, the companies decided to apply that 1.2% formula to only 20% of what they made. After two strikes by the WGA, the policy currently rests at the much-hated 1.5%–1.8% of 20% of what companies make on VHS and DVD.

So let's ask ourselves: if a screenplay is well written and the movie does well, doesn't the writer deserve a fair amount of that movie's residuals? Sure, producers and investors and actors all deserve a slice of the residuals pie as well, but without good writing, what is there to produce? What is there to invest in? What is there to act?

Nowhere was this salary divide clearer than when the new Battlestar Galactica produced webisodes to bridge the story from season 2 to season 3 and build buzz for its season 3 premiere:
The Webisodes themselves have caused a conflict between NBC and those involved in their development, relating to the royalties that the developers should receive. NBC Universal, the major studio behind the reimagined series, refused to pay or credit the webisode writers on the grounds that the webisodes were promotional materials. In response, Ronald D. Moore said he would no longer release any webisodes. NBC Universal then took control of the webisodes and filed an unfair labor practices suit against the Writers Guild of America. The Guild told Moore and other NBC Universal television show producers to halt production of any further webisodes until a deal over residuals had been reached.

Every three years, the Writer's Guild of America (WGA), and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), meet to hammer out how much professional writers get paid, and for what kind of work (treatments, rewrites, polishes, etc.). The finished document is called a Schedule of Minimums, as in minimum payments writers are to receive. With the rising popularity of streaming media, the issue of residuals is again a key negotiating point because nobody knows how the revenue stream for online digital entertainment will play out.

This opening speech by John Bowman on behalf of the WGA's Negotiating Committee perfectly articulates the issues writers face in modern-day Hollywood (my highlights are in boldface):
There is a real disconnect between what the [production] companies are reporting to Wall Street and what they’re saying to the talent community. Investors are hearing about the changing landscape in entertainment and exciting new markets to exploit. In contrast, the AMPTP communicates nothing but problems to the Writers Guild. Problems like—and this was mentioned by AMPTP at a recent press conference—ad skipping, even though NBC Universal had just announced a one billion dollar DVR deal. And while WGA member revenues have not kept pace with industry growth—we are a line item that is definitely under control—the companies balk at giving us a fair and reasonable share of the industry’s success.

I don’t think anyone in this room is arguing about the right of writers, actors, and directors to residuals. As collective authors of a work, we are entitled to a portion of the revenue generated by that work. But you have publicly stated that you no longer want to pay us residuals on shows that are not in profit. Here’s why that is untenable: Writers are a cost of doing business. They have no say in production, marketing, on advertising and publicity, directors, casting, the decision to spend tens of millions of dollars advertising, etc. They can’t be expected to be paid from profits when they have no say in the costs which affect those profits. Profits are under the control of CEOs and their executive staffs.

Intellectual property has rights, just as physical property does. Management has no problem paying the person who made the DVD box before a film turns a profit; they shouldn’t have any problem paying the artists who created the intellectual experience that came in that box either. To claim that intellectual property has lesser rights than physical property is a dangerous argument for anyone in our business to make. You are making the same argument to us that digital pirates make to you.

According to Hollywood accounting, The Simpsons is not in profits. How can we trust that kind of bookkeeping? What other business but ours has the accounting term, “monkey points?”

Residuals from shows not in “profit help” support a writing middle class, and keep writers in the business until they finally create that one great thing. Do away with residuals, and you do away with late-blooming careers like Marc Cherry and David Chase - they couldn’t afford to stay in the business. Your proposal transfers money from developing, promising writers, actors, and directors who need them the most to established pros who need them the least. It’s bad for the business.

This article has been a summary of two excellent pieces from The Artful Writer:
John Bowman - First Shot Fired

The Average Writer's Non-Biased Guide To The Upcoming WGA Negotiations

Thursday, July 26, 2007

How Bizarre... How Bizarre...

If two male twins, Andrew and Zack, married two female twins, Amy and Zoë, Andrew & Amy's children and Zack & Zoë's children wouldn't just be cousins... they'd be genetic siblings.

I wonder what their family photos would look like.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

My Curious Angel

Yesterday I received my first donation towards the costs of publishing a book of Curious Life posts! Thanks, Susan!

I thought I'd take this opportunity to let you all know I'm paying attention to any donations I get and really appreciate anything you can send towards the expensive ISBN number purchase. I'll likely extend the deadline a couple of times to give you all a chance to participate... for bragging rights, if for no other reason. Plus, donor-ship buys you a small real estate "thank you" on my blog's sidebar until the fundraising concludes.

Come on, be honest—how could you pass that up? :)

Monday, July 23, 2007

Behind the Scenes: IN DOUBLE DUTCH

Last night, I saw the first cut of In Double Dutch, the 10 minute short I directed back in May. So far, the edited footage looks, and sounds, amazing—so I'm going to be ecstatic when the whole thing is completely finished. You know you've got a good film when you watch the raw footage without any of the bells and whistles—the black & white filter, the widescreen aspect ratio, the musical score, the beginning and end credits—and you still get drawn into the story. When the core of the story and the acting is strong, all the extras that "frame" it just make the chewy center taste even better. For any cast or crew reading this who worked on the film—a job bloody well done! (Pictured at left is Jim Munch, the best Key Grip/1st A.C./Gaffer/P.A. in the whole world in the history of time.)

Of course, it doesn't hurt to have a smokin' hot actress like Meaghan Sinclair. I mean, just look at her! As Letterman woud say, she's "easy on the eye":

As founder and co-owner of Sweet Embry, Meaghan did a lot to make In Double Dutch come together and I know she's going to be really happy with the results.

That's me with Sweet Embry co-owner and Firearms Supervisor Rob Thomas (at left) and Emmy-winner sound mixer Dave Losko from Audio Oasis.

Dave Losko is the best guy in town for production and post-production sound mixing and I make a point of saying so because not only is he the consummate pro with the best equipment to get the job done, he's also a really nice guy with a good sense of humor. If you're going to spend 50 shooting days with anyone, this is one guy you wouldn't mind spending it with.

We did have some fun on set. I made sure we did. Otherwise, why make a film at all?

Pictured here are Cesar Huitron, Ray Dussault, me, P.A. Krystal Kashuba, and Sean Boncoto. Cesar and Sean are partners in VOH Entertainment and did the DP work (check out those swanky cameras, yo!). Sean's also cutting the film. Ray, the founder/owner of Lai Khe films, was my 1st A.D. and is pictured here showing off his new manicure. I'm the guy in the blue shirt with the beige baseball cap with my name embroidered on it. (It was a gift from my ma. Promise.)

Stay tuned to find out when and where In Double Dutch's premiere will be. We're planning a sneak preview, too, so let me know if you want to come to it... Or you could stay in the know by adding In Double Dutch to your Myspace friends!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Talk to the hand

No, literally—these are watches with walkie talkies. So you can always talk to your loved one.

I heart the people who made these, which, in this case, is Red Envelope:

Move over, 007. These undercover devices allow young sleuths to hold their own covert conversations. Disguised as digital wristwatches that display the time and date, these walkie-talkies have built-in microphones and fitted earpieces for hands-free communication.

range of approximately 400 feet

four interchangeable colored front covers and cell-button batteries included

set of two


Saturday, July 21, 2007

iTunes U

Apple has done it again... they have a new service called iTunes U, which offers hundreds of university-level lectures via streaming audio, for free.

Thought you'd want to know.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

When you look into the abyss...

This last Saturday, I had the privilege of going on a ropes course at Peak Adventures, which I am still reflecting on. Ropes courses are like a kind of mirror, a window into yourself, showing you in a basic environment how you resolve similar obstacles in real life. As in real life, the obstacles remain the same for everyone, but each person has a unique obstacle course inside them.

Should you ever do a ropes course, I don't want to spoil it for you because not knowing about the obstacles is 90% of the challenge, so I'll share only the lessons I learned about myself:

  • I can be given the simplest of tasks and be acutely aware of that task's importance, but still get caught up in the emotion of the moment and lose sight of my main goal. (Also, I'm okay with spilt milk. Happens.)

  • I may start out competitive, but end up seeing others being generous and become collaborative because it's more fun.

  • Accurately or not, others may see me "psyching up" as being overly analytical. Although I am usually very analytical, it still takes some time to psyche myself up for any major risk, from my perspective. I'm still unclear if that's me being overly analytical and I simply need to take the risk if the risk is really that simple.

  • I appear to trust others much more than I realized.

  • I'm okay with letting others take control if I think the job is getting done. However, if I think the job isn't getting done, I'm unafraid about being vocal until the group gets the job done. Finally, if the group is at an absolute deadlock, I'm prepared to taking unilateral action at the risk of taking heat for it later.

  • I'm less afraid of making suggestions than I used to be, especially if I'm around people I know won't immediately discard crazy ideas.

  • I don't feel like I try to lead others, but many think of me as a leader. Based on my actions, I suppose I am.

  • I used to always think I was open-minded... until I found on a previous ropes course that I had actually discarded a crazy "outside the box" suggestion, which turned out to be the solution to the obstacle—on this ropes course, I made a conscious effort to consider all ideas, no matter how crazy.

  • I'm often terrible about listening to directions; I'm a visual person and verbal directions will almost always need to be given to me twice.

  • I know when to speak up.

  • I know when to shut up.

  • I live my life by an honor code; I don't cheat.

  • I know my limits and I'm okay with not pushing past them; I'm not trying to prove anything to myself or others.

If you ever have a chance to do a ropes course, I would highly recommend it. They offer obstacles like climbing walls, walking tightwires, etc., but they also offer mind puzzles intended to be solved as a group. The latter of these are often where you learn the most about yourself and the group you're working with. However, depending on how committed the course instructors are, you are only forced to consider the true implications of your actions for the "real world" if they draw your attention to it.

Special thanks to Ray Dussault of Lai Khe Films for comping the ropes course for all cast and crew on Deer Season.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Mmmm... Oreos. Don't you want one?

When actors spontaneously start talking about Oreos, or when films linger a little too long on a flying jet—long enough to make you wonder why they're showing it at all—that's product placement. Movies have used product placement for years as a financing tool, but now networks have graduated from product placement to product integration.

Product integration is when the product plays a more prominent role in the storyline, perhaps even a crucial one. Advertising has always had a love to hate relationship with entertainment, and Tivo has tipped the scales in the favor of the consumer. Thus, to hopscotch the consumers' trigger-happy DVR skip button, networks are now including prominent product placement in their series. And, in some cases, adding those products into the storyline.

With new developments come new complications. Consider the following ethical minefields:

  • Advertisers pay networks to have writers insert a mini-ad within the story, and actors act out the scenes—so both writers and actors are now getting paid to do two jobs instead of just one: dramatic acting and commercial work. Theoretically, that should mean two separate paychecks, but the networks are divvying out only one. The Writers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild aren't real happy about that.

  • What if a writer or actor disagrees in principle with product integration, or disagrees in practice about a specific instance where integrating the product makes the story suffer and breaks the story's emotional connection with the viewer? For a true entertainer, there can be no greater sin than this.

  • What if a writer or actor simply refuses to do any product integration? Should networks be able to fire them with just cause? If not, do writers and actors have a right to refuse any product integration practices? Or would the networks effectively bully everyone into doing it for fear advertisers might yank their funding?

  • How ethical is it to insinuate these informal ads into programs without informing the viewer about it? If you see an full page newspaper ad, but its layout is similar to a newspaper article, they slap a "PAID ADVERTISEMENT" label on it, so why shouldn't the networks do something similar? (And the answer is obvious: they would alienate their viewers.)

  • Finally, what if I bought the DVD boxed set of the series (perhaps years after the show has aired)? Will the original advertisers of the "commercials" in the storyline—captured for time immemorial on DVD—continue to pay the networks any residuals? And if so, shouldn't the actors and writers get residuals, too?

Entertainment and how it's marketed is changing, but integrating products into storylines is a massively bad idea except if the story needs it, or improves because of it. How different would The Gods Must Be Crazy be if the pilot had thrown something other than a Coke bottle into the African dessert? If it serves the story, use it, but don't force it—viewers are smart and they can sense a con. Which is what this is—a con. Advertisers are conning the public into thinking our primetime heros spontaneously mention a product even though it's a deceptively embedded commercial. For advertisers, this is a new low. For networks, I don't know a better definition of "sell out" than that.

What about the flip side? If I'm a network exec and I have a choice to let my series go off the air, or compromise some of my ivory tower ideals... Star Trek: Voyager fans will recall that—two years on the air and suffering rock bottom ratings—Jeri Ryan's Seven of Nine character single-handedly resuscitated that series for another five years. Is that selling out? Well, maybe. But Ryan's smokin bod got viewers watching the program and she wasn't selling any products (apart from her own "brand"). Nothing wrong with grabbing a customer's attention with something flashy so you can do your spiel.

In fact, entire networks have tried to use product placement as their sole revenue stream: the failed Digital Entertainment Network was an online channel to exclusively fund their shows with product placement, with a clever twist: viewers were invited to shop on the website for any items appearing on the network's shows. Want that sweater the character's wearing? Why, here's a link to buy it! Thus, product placement was part of the appeal for watching entertainment on that site. Nothing wrong with that.

Here's Phil Rosenthal, the co-creator of Everybody Loves Raymond, testifying to a House Subcommittee about the perils of product integration:

Monday, July 09, 2007

CNN vs. Yahoo News

Some of you may remember I run a small blog called The It's Hit List—its sole mission is to identify and publicize the frequent and improper usage of "it's"—a contraction of "it is"—as a possessive, which should only be used like this: "this article will soon explain its meaning."

I found an amusing instance today illustrating how similar news wire services are. Here is today's post from The It's Hit List:

Fielding was responding to a 10 a.m. EDT deadline set by the Democratic chairmen, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Conyers, for the White House to explain it's privilege claim, prove that the president personally invoked it and provide logs of which documents were being withheld.

CNN posted a similar article, probably yanked from the same AP wire. Correct:
Fielding was responding to a 10 a.m. ET deadline set by the Democratic chairmen, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, for the White House to explain its privilege claim, prove that the president personally invoked it and provide logs of which documents were being withheld.

Who knows if the original AP wire article was correct? CNN pays professional journalists and the AP wire is also written by professional journalists, so I'm betting that Yahoo News editors "corrected" the "mistake", i.e., the usage of "its" was correct before they added an apostrophe to it. Regardless, I've worked as a journalist so I know it's hard to make deadlines and be 100% accurate so if the AP wire journalists got it wrong, I can't blame them too much. Still, the final responsibility falls with their respective editors, so...

Cheers for CNN! Jeers for Yahoo News!

Friday, July 06, 2007

It's Time For A Book

My mother is visiting this August 11th and because she doesn't have a computer, she's never read any of my blog posts. Recently, she asked me to put up all my screenplays into one book so she could read them whenever she wanted. But she's never read my blogs? Mom, you're killing me.

And that got me thinking. I probably have enough material from my blog for a book, so why shouldn't I use a Print On Demand self-publishing service like to print my own book? It's not like I don't know how to lay out a book—I have the design knowledge from years of laying out magazine ads. The challenge of publishing a book is that it's a marathon because you're wearing so many hats at a given time.

Nevertheless, I got really excited because I own all the copyright to my own writing... what's stopping me from going all the way and distributing my printed blogs through Amazon*? And the answer is—money. Among other things, Amazon requires an ISBN number and you can only buy ISBNs in lots of 10. At $25 per ISBN, that's $250. And then there are the proofing costs. All told, self-publishing could be as expensive as $350, which is a hefty chunk of change.

Naturally, I could slap all that on a credit card, but I thought it might be a nice gesture to invite my friends, family, readers, and subscribers—the people who still enjoy reading my banter after all this time—onto the wagon and help this train come into the station. Plus, the end result could be something really special for my Mom to see a "real" published book of nothing but blogs her son wrote. Come on, you can't say that's not cool!

Anyway, if you feel like you want to help out, all contributions are very welcome:

My aim is have all $350 by August 3rd. If I start getting contributions as planned, I may detail on my blog each step of getting my book published. That's got to be worth two yanks of a steam train whistle.

* I'm not very concerned with how many people buy the printed copy, because just having a book listed listed on Amazon is worth bragging rights for its own sake!