Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Of course you're going to vote Obama...

...because he inspires hope.
...because he has grace.
...because he doesn't polarize—Conservatives will never vote for Clinton, but they just might vote for Obama.
...because he's the first viable candidate not to have lived through WWII, Viet Nam or Korea.
...because he's eloquent.
...because he's affable.
...because he has integrity.
...because he'll tell you the truth without spinning it.
...because he's the guy you'd want to be sitting across the table with America's most intractable opponents.
...because it's not about experience—it's about good judgement (they said Cheney had experience and look how that turned out.)
...because he has an excellent chance of getting into the White House (i.e. he's not Ralph Nader, Ross Perot, Fred Thompson, etc.)
...because he's popular for a reason. (see above)

...because he's a clean slate, an opportunity to walk away from the past, to forge a fresh, new path.

It's not about skin color, or gender—it's about hope.

You're going to vote for Obama because he stirs something inside you:
...civic duty

...and perhaps even patriotism, too.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Oh My God

Ha! I finally found an embed link to John Bryant's macabre short Oh My God, which I mentioned over a year ago. Some people don't find it funny at all, which has always puzzled me... anyone should be able to pick up from the film's silly credits that it's not meant to be taken seriously.

Remember, this is extremely dark humor. You have been warned!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

CLOVERFIELD: Mini-review

Given my mouthy publicity of Cloverfield, a film I had not yet seen, a lot of people have been after me to review it. While I'd love to write a more comprehensive review, I can't at this moment. What I will say is this:

Go see it.

It's worth all the money I paid to see it... and I'm going to see it again this week. Sure, it has flaws tied mostly to the medium of shooting an entire film from a consumer's video camera. I certainly wouldn't see in the front 10 rows and if I got motion sickness easily... well, I'd think twice about going. But overall, it's a thrill ride not to be missed.

And if you can see it on a Digital Light Projector, even better.

Watch this space for a longer review.

Post Scriptum: Opening weekend gross so far is $41 million—it cost $25 million.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Slusho Pics—You can't drink just six!

For those who missed my last post, CLOVERFIELD: Marketing the American Godzilla, go read it now. If you're in a hurry, skip to the bottom of the post to read the bit about Slusho.

I said pics were coming and I wasn't lying: this week I received my Slusho hat and T-shirt. Because I know no bounds of geekdom, I held my wife at gunpoint to take pictures of me opening the Slusho box. Oh, the joy!

You'll note that some of the stuffing inside the box is Japanese newspaper... there's some speculation that the newspaper is yet one more clue about Cloverfield's storyline, but nobody knows for sure...

Cloverfield opens nationwide in theatres tomorrow. I'll be going to the 9:20 PM showing which is the closest match to New York City's 12:03 AM EST, which is when the story is meant to occur. [Actually, it just hit me that I'm late by a day—12:03AM on 1/18/08 happened about 4 hours ago, but whatever!] Thankfully, they'll be showing Cloverfield on the pristine Digital Light Projector, the best medium possible to show Hi-Def video.

Anyway, if you're still on the fence about seeing it, consider that it's produced by Alias and Lost co-creator, J. J. Abrams. His marketing pitch was something like, "Give me one $1500 camera, a bunch of no name actors, and $25 million—I'll put all my money into the CGI and make a killer monster movie."

Oh, hell yeah.

I may even order a slushy just to get myself in the mood.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Global Photolinking

After watching the amazing animé Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, I think it was Naresh who remarked, "They tout this as cutting edge technology, but the fact is that real cutting edge technology is being used right now... we just won't see it for a couple of years."

Prepare yourself to witness Sea Dragon & Photosynth, one of the most impressive technological developments of the 21st century. Its implications on global communication and networking are staggering... in fact, once bandwidth limitations become moot, I think this kind of user interface will dominate the internet.

Front Yard

Most kids had green grass, a big tree and stickball. I had a skyscraper balcony with a view of the East River.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Best of the Web—22 sites

I don't mean these are the best ever, but they are the sites I use the most. If you visit a site frequently, add it in the comments!

Best search engine: Google
Best way to find free stuff locally: Craigslist
Best all-around news: CNN
Best movie ratings: Rotten Tomatoes
Best way to find a local service or place to eat: Yahoo Yellow Pages
Best movie database: The Internet Movie Data Base
Best movie rental service: Netflix
Best encyclopedia: Wikipedia
Best bookseller: Amazon
Best discount bookseller Half.com
Best video fix: Videosift
Most entertaining blog: Oopsie Daisy
Best screenwriting blog: Johnaugust.com
Best newsreader: Google Reader
Best dictionary: Merriam Webster
Best way to get directions: Yahoo Maps
Best way to remember something: Oh, Don't Forget
Best photo gallery for mac users: Picassa
Best gossip: The Superficial
Best way to send money: Paypal
Best way to read the classics: The Daily Lit
Best Mac utility for getting things done: Taskpaper

Sunday, January 13, 2008

On Self-Publishing

When it comes to judging a novel, I'll be the first to say I'm a harsh critic. As a storyteller myself, I have zero patience for writers who neglect to hook me with intrigue from the first few words. By "intrigue", it doesn't have to be very much, either. Consider the following books' opening sentences or paragraphs:

As I left the Kenya Beanstalk capsule, he was right on my heels. He followed me through the door leading to Customs, Health, and Immigration. As the door contracted behind him, I killed him.—Friday

Call me Ishmael.—Moby Dick

In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages. His story will be told here. His name was Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, and if his name—in contrast to the names of other gifted abominations, de Sade's, for instance, or Saint-Just's Fouché's Bonaparte's, etc.—has been forgotten today, it is certainly not because Grenouille fell short of those more famous blackguards when it came to arrogance, misanthropy, immorality or, more succinctly, to wickedness, but because his gifts and his sole ambition were restricted to a domain that leaves no traces in history: to the fleeting realm of scent.—Perfume

In each case, a setup is established, some unfinished puzzle presented for the reader to engage in. The first sentence and/or paragraph invites the reader into another sentence, and then another, and soon they're buying the book to finish the second chapter.

All of this, however, is contingent on the reader picking up the book to begin with. If you read yesterday's blog about selecting screenplays, you'll know exactly what I mean.

I told that story to illustrate how the selection process works in the professional world, but as a consumer, we also winnow down our choices using a similar set of unfair criteria. When it comes to choosing books to read, the smallest details may seem petty and superficial to outsiders, but those criteria are still used—thus, all such details are crucial. 2 brads instead of 3? Dude... seriously? Yes, seriously. No detail is too small.

When I go to Border's and pick a book off the shelf, it's usually because the title caught my eye. That means it was not merely about a topic of my interest, but also the typeface on the cover was large enough, and perhaps set against a good background. Next I flip through the book to examine the typeface, the overall layout, and the quality of the paper. Maybe I'll look at the back cover. These are all quasi-subconscious acid tests taking place in about 3 seconds and the book must pass them all flawlessly before I even read the opening words. What I'm saying in a very long-winded way is: if you're going to self-publish a book, you've got to mimic the professionals—flawlessly. You must have a real ISBN, a functional bar code, reviews from known publications, etc. And we haven't even talked about the content yet.

But fine, let's say your "script" wasn't discarded: you've passed the "weight" test. Will your work pass the "3 page" test, too? Content is important, but its medium is equally important: there must be no typos, no dangling modifiers, no run-on sentences. Above all, the content must always go for the jugular without mercy. In brief, all writers need editors.

An editor was once visited by a writer asking for feedback about their manuscript. The editor responded diplomatically, "I think it needs to go once more through the typewriter." The writer, being a pro, scooped up his manuscript, said thank you, and rewrote his manuscript not once, but seven more times. The result was a bestseller.

Self-publishing is more affordable now, which means more people will do it than ever before. So when you pick up a self-published book at the bookstore, the question becomes, "if this book couldn't get published with a major publisher, why not? Wasn't it good enough?" And sadly, the answer 95% of the time is no. Why? Because writing, as opposed to filmmaking, is a solitary endeavor where reams of words can be strung together without anyone to sift and hone the material. By contrast, filmmaking must pass a series of gatekeepers before getting produced and distributed. For all the drawbacks of a film having "too many chefs", really bad films don't usually get produced because most people don't want to flush their money down the toilet. Even so, anyone can self-publish, and anyone does.

How, then, can you not be just anyone? In my opinion, self-publishing can work—even start careers—if certain conditions are met:
  1. The content should be marketable to a certain audience. If it's a fairy story for the children of hippie parents, your market might be smallish, so be clear about how many people might want to buy what you're creating.
  2. Do not be your own editor. Unless you know what a dangling modifier is, and when to use the subjunctive mood, let someone else proof your typos and improper language. More importantly, everyone needs someone else to read the words: the trick is finding that right person. (Some will have a great eye for what sells, while others may focus less on what is marketable and more on getting the message exactly so.)
  3. Make the book's design look exceptional. If you have to, get a designer or typesetter to lay out your book. See my other blog post about this.
  4. Make the book look exactly like a major publisher's book. Use a bar code, ISBN number, table of contents, index, etc. Give the reader no reason to doubt that you have a employee roster of thousands.
  5. Test your market and eliminate your overhead by doing a first run with a POD (print on demand) publisher. Lulu.com allows you to upload your book so you only get money when people buy. However, in exchange for you not having any monetary risk, lulu.com also keeps a steep chunk of the profits.
  6. If you're willing to store and ship books, order in bulk from a regular printer: (a) Print 10,000 books for $10,000. (b) Sell them for $15 each. (c) Break even after selling only 667 books—everything else you sell is profit... which could be as much as $140,000.
  7. Publish a 2nd edition with a big publisher. If your book becomes wildly popular and you'd like to establish some legitimacy by landing a contract with a known publisher like Random House, send them a copy of your newly printed book. Rather than approaching them as a struggling newbie, you're already a published author giving them an option to print a second edition. Plus, since you're already published, what more can they offer you that you don't already have? Yep. Mo-nay.
  8. UPDATE: With the quick rise in popularity of eBooks, publishing strategy has a step predating print book publishing—publish an eBook first, or at the same time you publish a hard copy. Read J.A. Konrath's blog about Ebook Pricing, and why/how Konrath makes more money on eBooks than print books.

Here's a final calculation for you: 300 page book * 400 words/page = 120,000 words. Sound like a lot? It's not, really. Remember in college how they'd assign 5,000 word essays every two weeks? If you laid a year's worth of those essays back to back, you'd have about 120,000 words.

Selecting a Screenplay

This is one of my favorite stories from NYU film school.

Our screenwriting teacher, Mary, used to write for a half hour drama TV show in the 60s. One day, her boss pulled her aside. "Janice chooses the scripts we shoot every week, but she's out sick today. Can you fill in for her?"

"Me? I don't really know the first thing about sorting through scripts."

He leaned closer. "Trust me, it's easy. Come on, I'll show you." He led her down the hallway to the Script Room.

The Script Room was a smallish room, probably 10 by 10 feet, but felt much smaller because it was stacked from floor to ceiling with screenplays in US Letter-sized envelopes. Mary reeled back, eyes wide. "My God, there must be 10,000 scripts in here... there's no way I could read all of them!"

He smiled. "Don't worry. Take this script, for example." He grabbed the first envelope in arm's reach, raising his eyebrows at its 2 inch thickness. "Too many pages. If 1 page is 1 minute of screen time, and we only do 30 minute dramas, this is War and Peace." He threw it out.

"You're not even going to open it?"

"What for? They obviously sent it to the wrong producers." He picked up another script. "And this one has a coffee stain on the outside. This tells me, 'breakfast writer'—we don't work with breakfast writers." Trash.

He held up another, gently bouncing it in the air. "Ah, this one is about right."


"The weight. If the envelope is the right thickness and the writer used the correct paper stock for a 30 page script, then the envelope should be a certain weight." He set it aside. "This one is probably a legitimate script. Next you open the envelope. If it's not typed—"

"—I throw it away."

"Right." He picked up another envelope and opened it, smiling. "Blue cover", he said, and slid the script back inside, dropping it in the bin. "If they don't use screenwriting format, throw it away. If they use binder clips instead of brads, throw it away. If they use 3 brads instead of 2, throw it away. If it's a comedy, throw it away. After all that, you should only have about 100 scripts left. Of those 100, read the first 3 pages of each, which is about 10% of the entire script. If you're not immediately taken in by those 3 pages, then you're reading 3 minutes of dead screen time—which means viewers will have changed channels, meaning: throw it away. Finally, you'll end up with 10 scripts you've read from page to page and you'll love only 5 or 6. Of those, recommend your favorite 3 scripts and we'll choose 1 to produce."

Moral to the story: when submitting a screenplay or a manuscript, no problem is too small to fix. Typos on the first page are strictly verboten!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Publish a Book

A man once confided to Truman Capote: "I have a great idea for a novel—all I have to do is become a writer." Capote responded: "And I have a great idea for brain surgery—all I have to do is become a neurosurgeon."

Typesetting—really artistic typesetting—is like driving a car with everyone in the car looking at a GPS, except the driver. The passengers see where the driver is going, but they can't really see what the driver sees. When they finally look up and see the breathtaking view atop a high crest, they suddenly understand why they took an off-road to get there. Almost everyone thinks they'll be happy with $20 headphones until they try $250 headphones... and then they never look back. Typesetting is an art, and finding balance between the letters on a page is not as easy as most might think.

The look and feel of written words are my world. A book set in the right font, with precisely enough leading (space between lines) and tracking (space between letters), with no objectionable hyphenation breaks and no orphans or widows... such a book is like an exquisite melody delivering lyrics. As we all know, the medium can have a dramatic effect on the message.

Now, see if you can connect the dots:

I've been a writer for over 20 years, an editor, a typesetter and graphic designer for over 17 years, with a brief stint as a journalist to throw in the mix. I once hand-made small 20 page books of collected poetry for my friends in New York. I've even solved—on my own—how folio pages should be positioned on a printing press paper sheet so the book's pages will be numbered correctly when folded and cut. I'm the guy who moves a piece of type 1/1000th of an point because I don't like its proximity to another piece of type. And I write. A lot.

With those diverse skillsets, the natural conclusion is apparent: I should be a publisher. I've always had it in the back of my mind to publish a book. Not necessarily my book, mind you, just a book.

But books are serious business. You can't embark on publishing a book willy nilly. To return to our metaphor, you can buy $20 headphones, but if you know how great $250 headphones are, wouldn't you want to buy the $250 headphones?

I decided, then, to publish my own writing as a trial run to iron out the kinks. Perhaps I would continue publishing my own material, perhaps not. The idea was to learn the process. So I chose my two years of blog posts as fodder for my first published book. Here was my final design (this is only a chapter page):

Looks easy, but it wasn't. To create that page, I had to first make the Style Mockup, a road map for all design choices during production. Publishers never show the public how much work goes into creating their own style mockup. I agonized over my style mockup for weeks to fine tune it. But why would I go to all this trouble for my own book? Because you don't write a symphony, even your own, without using sheet music:

With the newer print on demand technology, more cost-effective ways exist now for self-publishing than ever before. And with online vendors like Amazon to level the playing field, anyone can compete now with the big publishers.

So if you have a book idea which you want designed nicely—i.e., not the usual Microsoft Word doc in Times New Roman, but something that actually might be sold at Border's—contact me. If I have time and the book interests me, then we could be publishing your book sometime this year!

(And yes, that means using real bar codes and ISBNs, and dust jackets, etc.)

Video Trace

More amazing stuff from Siggraph:

Friday, January 11, 2008

Celebrity Collage

John Goodman? I can see that. But JOEY FATONE???

Why not do it yourself?

Benicio Del Morpho

Rob put this on his Myspace page, so I indulged myself, too:

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Oil Rig Collapses in the Atlantic

In this news clip is some of the most amazing video I've ever seen. Wait for the cell phone footage about 2 minutes in:


Read this CNN article today. This bit in particular really hit me where I live:

Obama is the first candidate of his generation truly to be an agent of change who inspires, motivates and ignites the passion in a large segment of Americans who had ignored politics because it was unseemly and didn't move people to action.... Obama seeks to serve as a bridge between the divisions in America that exist between young and old, haves and have-nots, liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats.

Yes. That's it exactly. I haven't been involved in politics in, like, forever. Honestly, it's all I can do to drag myself to the polling booth because I feel like I "should only vote for the politician who does the least damage", as my friend Mike Steffen once remarked. After listening to Obama speak, I've started to feel differently about politics... for the first time ever, I feel inspired to donate my time and resources toward politics. Why is that?

In a nation that's thrived for so long on polarizing its citizens simply to get better ratings—think Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Air America, Bill O'Reilly, evangelical Christians—Obama repeatedly focuses on the issues all Americans have in common. Which is a breath of fresh air, and a victory win for common sense.

And that's why Obama is so damned popular.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Friday, January 04, 2008

4 Observations on the Iowa Caucus

1. Clinton's nomination for the primaries is not inevitable.
2. Obama is a contender.
3. Evangelical Christians can still be a swing vote.
4. Guiliani is a non-starter.

For the record, I told Tracie two years ago that I had a very strong feeling Obama could be America's next president; when I first heard him speak on NPR, I felt he was straightforward, genuine, intelligent, affable... and sensible, all character traits that can galvanize disparate groups.

It's starting to look that prediction was spot on...

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Bognosian: 6 points on the AMPTP's motives

This email from Eric Bognosian (care of Nikki Finke's site) offers some excellent insight about the AMPTP's motives:

1) In the spirit of 'residuals', the producers have never played fair. Contractually they short the writers (take a look at the international "buy-out", which isn't even being discussed in this negotiation) and then short the writers again by under-reporting income (again, especially internationally).

2) In the new "Internet" age, for the first time, very exact accounting will be possible. Of course the advertisers will demand such exact accounting. Servers will be able to count the "hits" on any download very exactly. So potential residuals can potentially be calculated to the fraction of a dollar.

3) In the new Internet age, the producers / studios / networks will be able to circumvent the international "middlemen"—national television stations and distributors in foreign territories. With the Internet they will be able to distribute directly to the local consumers. Furthermore, they will no longer need to distribute only to the largest markets (Germany, Italy, etc.) but will be able to distribute to every single person with internet access on the globe (Antarctica, for example).

4) Ergo: Much greater profits (for example, a product like Coca Cola can advertise by being tacked onto an international distribution of say, the tv program Friends, or a download of American Gangster that goes directly to every person with a computer on the planet.) And Coke will be able to count every hit. Potentially, so could the WGA.

5) Much greater profits and much greater exact accounting. Studio / networks want one and not the other. Understandably, since they haven't been sharing in any real way in the first place (except with their insider partners, the star producers).

6) This gives them a good reason to attempt to break the union(s). It's not irrational. It's just business.