Saturday, September 27, 2008

Pruden's Law

As I was watching the debates last night, I had to laugh when McCain invoked Ronald Reagan. Mine was neither a scoff nor derisive chuckle, merely an amused reflection. At the Republican debates, I remember how almost every candidate cited Reagan, much in the same way that Democrats cite Kennedy.

Even so, it makes me think of Godwin's Law:

As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.

I'm not comparing anyone to Hitler, so don't even. But it does make me laugh how frequently Republicans invoke Reagan as, supposedly, a tactic to remind the Old Guard of the Jellybean Days. Meaning, "Vote for me... because I'm like Reagan!"

The intent of naming something is not simply to call attention to it, but to take away its power. At the beginning of any historical/political discussion, if someone were to say, "Okay, so we're going to defy Godwin's Law, riiiiiight?", then nobody wants to run the supertanker onto the beach.

If we were to do the same for Reagan, I'd call it Pruden's Law and define it thusly:
As a debate among conservative political candidates grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Ronald Reagan approaches one.

If any of you decide to add this to Wiki, call it Pruden's Law! Because you heard it here first.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

In Dutch in Lake Tahoe

Wednesday was a small milestone for me. In Dutch, a film I directed last year for Meaghan Sinclair, was shown to a group of strangers in Lake Tahoe. I've premiered films I've written myself, but when you work on a film which isn't your own passion project, it's natural to feel a little differently about it. Still, I'd be lying if I said I didn't get a thrill when I saw a In Dutch's onesheet magically appear on the Valhalla At Tahoe web site. (You can read all my posts about In Dutch here.)

Tahoe's gorgeous and I loved the drive in this time. I snapped this pic from my iPhone as soon as Tahoe appeared around the bend:

The Valhalla Boathouse is located right on Lake Tahoe (maybe you caught the bit about it being a boathouse?) and reminiscent of a smaller version of Yosemite's Ahwahnee Hotel:

The inside has a nice cozy feel, too:

Because it was a last minute thing, the Producers really didn't have a chance to do much publicity for it. We had a small gathering, but I was thankful. Had there been 100+ people, I think I might have been in the back vomiting uncontrollably. A small crowd feels less like a festival screening and more like a party. Rob and Meaghan and I had a lot of fun introducing the film and doing a Q&A afterwards.

The reactions were favorable. One can never be absolutely certain how an audience feels about a movie, but any unsolicited praise goes a long way to show at least one person enjoyed themselves. One older gentleman commented how great the sound was, which was extremely gratifying—I had lobbied hard to hire the Emmy award-winning Dave Losko as our Sound Mixer. Another audience member lauded the acting, which I also worked extra hard to achieve. Of course, there's no way I could take credit for the acting itself, but the coaching I gave the actors—in fact, they're the first ones to say this—had a substantial difference on their final performance. For me, acting and sound are usually the two weakest links in the chain for any short film, so I chalked up the evening as Mission: Accomplished.

Regrettably, due to scheduling and geographic constraints during post-production (I had a newborn at home last year, and lived 50 miles away from the editor), this cut of the film was not my edit. So I was delighted the producers offered me a chance to recut In Dutch into a version we'd all be happy with. Though the current cut is already quite good, the sound design still needs a little tweaking and some insert shots weren't done because we ran out of time on the day of the shoot. Realistically, I'd estimate the final cut needs another 20-40 hours of work to really make it shine. Why is it always the last 5% the bit which takes 90% of the effort?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

iTunes' Death Knell

In 1999, around the time Napster had the music industry up in arms for allowing anyone to "sample" an entire song for free—without anyone's permission—I had a heated discussion with my friend Dave. My argument was that Napster's service was, in essence, theft... meaning its users, then, were thieves. "A musician standing on a street corner is asking potential customers to sample their music, for free," I said (I later learned the term for this—'busking'), "but when users listen to music for free without the musician's permission, or the record label's permission, it's theft." Over the years, Dave's retort has never wavered—even if my argument were true, even if you call illicit music sampling theft, record sales have not diminished as a result and, to the contrary, users can now discover music in ways they've never been able to before. For instance, in the 1950s, you could go down to a record store and listen to a record for free to see if you liked it. What was so different about Napster?

Unfortunately, Napster was quite different. People weren't merely sampling—they were looting the entire store and not overtly leaving any tips. There was no established method to make money off of this radically new model. And like all new technologies that threaten the status quo, the Powers That Be freaked out. They acted fast and shut Napster down.

My discussion with Dave continued over the months and our banter eventually concluded with what I thought was the ideal business model to appease both disparate groups: customers wanted to freely sample music and not feel gouged by having to buy an entire album to get only a couple of songs; producers wanted to be paid for providing content. I remember sitting in Dave's computer room and saying, "Someone needs to create a system where anyone can listen to any song for just 30 seconds, for free, and buy only one song if they want—not necessarily the entire album—for only one dollar."

Later that year, Steve Jobs announced iTunes. Customers could listen to 30 seconds of any song and buy individual songs for only 99¢. iTunes has sold over 1 billions songs to date.


Whatever happens in the music industry eventually hits the movie industry. Music execs were worried about pirated MP3s until Apple found out how to make money with iTunes. As bandwidths increased, more data could be streamed and now movie executives faced the same problem the music industry faced in 1999—how do you make money when more people pirating your DVDs or streaming your content online?

I struggled with this question for a long time. I've always felt Napster enabled music piracy, but I could see Dave's point, too—sampling isn't inherently bad if it allows more customers to see your product. If it takes seven touches to a sale, you'd actually want to promote your product as much as you can and piracy is astonishingly efficient at that. Simply from "word of mouth", piracy adds more value to the product. Eventually, Steve Jobs also reached that conclusion, which is why Apple has positioned itself to dominate the market for distributing digital entertainment.

Here's what most people don't get: Apple isn't selling music or movies. It's selling convenience. When it becomes easier and safer and more legal to download music or movies from a legitimate source, 99¢ is a small price to pay to save yourself all the anguish of searching for and downloading a song and relabeling its tags, etc. For many years, there wasn't any alternative like iTunes, but people just wanted to listen to music. So when everyone suddenly broke into the store, there was no believable legal threat to make them stop. Apple offered up a much cleaner solution... and the market responded.

Unfortunately, the iTunes model is still imperfect. Let's say I want to buy a music album, but then my hard drive crashes. Unless I've backed up my data, I've now lost my music forever. Yet the technology exists to let me re-download my album (if I want to go to the trouble to prove I lost my data). And that's where we're at: property-based digital ownership. I can buy a DVD, but if it gets scratched, I'm hosed. I can download an entire season of 24, but if I delete episodes off my hard drive to save hard drive space, those episodes are gone forever. Perhaps the worst problem is all the proprietary restrictions: if I buy a song or movie for my iPod, I can't play that same song or movie on another MP3 player (what if my iPod doesn't work in my car so I want to burn my MP3s onto a CD for my car? Nyet.)

About four years ago, Dave introduced me to Steam. If you play any kind of games on a PC, you're bound to hear about Steam at some point. Steam is an online gaming platform which takes an innovative approach to software ownership. If you buy a game on the Steam platform, you don't own a physical copy, but a license of that game. This means you can download the game, play it, delete it, then download it again whenever you want. Forever. In fact, you can download the game from anyone else's computer and play it there. Because the software will only work when you sign in under your own account, the game is uniquely tied to you. Forever. Unsurprisingly, Valve, the creators of Steam, are branching out into offering music and movies through Steam.

It didn't take long for me to connect the dots: the way of the future is license-based ownership. In the future, we'll buy a license for music, movies, software... even books. Wherever we go, we'll be able to watch or listen to or read whatever we want whenever we want—we won't need to lug around DVDs or CDs or books. Even better, because computers will be everywhere, we'll just sign in with our unique username and password and access everything we own.

From that viewpoint, iTunes' model is still archaic. So imagine my surprise when Josh told me about movie studios joining together to create a new "rights locker" called DECE. Consider these forward-thinking features:
  • Participating devices and services will be interoperable regardless of differing brands or corporate provenance. A TV episode, for instance, could be just as easily accessed on Microsoft's Zune as it would a Philips broadband-enabled TV set.
  • DECE would allow an unlimited number of copies of a video to be created or burned onto a disc.
  • The consumer would even have the option of not storing the copy at all, but rather streaming it from a server-based "rights locker" that can be tapped from any location.
  • DECE would create open standards whereby any company that chose to create contents or services can do so to available specifications.

Apple is not yet included with DECE and that's a big problem for Apple. They're currently the dominant provider of digital content but the market will change if other providers allow better features than iTunes.

I suppose one could still argue piracy is theft. Technically speaking, of course, it is. Nevertheless, piracy has forced the market to (finally!) start offering content the way users have always wanted it—content bought in one format never has to be re-bought in another format. Consumers will get content how they want it and producers will have a way to get paid for it. With results like that, piracy may still be called theft, but is there anyone left who really cares anymore?

Full article follows:
LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Hollywood is challenging the hegemony of Apple in digital distribution. A consortium of major studios -- excluding key Apple ally Walt Disney Co. -- is teaming up with leading retailers and consumer-electronics firms to essentially transform the paid download into an experience akin to buying a DVD. The goal is letting video purchased at any outlet be played on any device worldwide.

Known as the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE), the consortium brings together Warner Bros. Entertainment, Fox Entertainment Group, NBC Universal, Sony, Paramount Pictures and Comcast Corp. with retailer Best Buy along with tech giants Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, Philips, Toshiba and Verisign. Each company has an invested an unspecified sum in the endeavor.

"When we start to bundle these digital rights together, we believe we can actually develop and deliver a product to the consumer that's better than free," said Mitch Singer, chief technology officer at Sony Pictures and the lead architect of DECE.

All together, they are mounting what may be the most radical redefinition yet of digital rights management. In its current form, DRM largely confines content to a limited number of devices depending on the source of that content. For instance, a song purchased on Apple's iTunes can be accessed on no more than five different computers and can't be legally played on a portable device beyond the iPod.

If DECE takes hold, it would institute several precedent-setting principles:

-- Participating devices and services will be interoperable regardless of differing brands or corporate provenance. A TV episode, for instance, could be just as easily accessed on Microsoft's Zune as it would a Philips broadband-enabled TV set.

-- DECE would allow an unlimited number of copies of a video to be created or burned onto a disc.

-- The consumer would even have the option of not storing the copy at all, but rather streaming it from a server-based "rights locker" that can be tapped from any location.

-- DECE would create open standards whereby any company that chose to create contents or services can do so to available specifications.

Freeing up digital content would also offer a marked distinction from the rights offered by market leader Apple under its Fairplay system. Apple's dominance of the digital marketplace also affords it considerable leverage in licensing negotiations over many of the studios involved in DECE.

"While we haven't yet had conversations with them about joining, we'd love to have them," said Singer, who added that DECE has reached out to Disney. "We're going in a slightly different direction than Apple by offering more choice in terms of storefront and device."

Other prominent companies not named to DECE: CBS Corp., Amazon, Walmart and leading telcos such as AT&T and Verizon. While not every company that hasn't joined has even been approached yet, those that have aren't necessarily opposed to DECE, according to Singer.

"If I had to characterize it, it's more of a wait-and-see mode than something they don't want to be involved in," he said.

But DECE is aimed just as much at providing an alternative to piracy as it is competing with Apple. Rampant illegal downloading has long been seen as an outgrowth of today's fragmented digital marketplace, which stymies consumers by requiring content providers to tailor their product for each distributor.

DECE represents yet another ambitious attempt by Hollywood to avoid the fate of the music industry, which has largely dropped DRM altogether. The consortium aims to give digital distribution a shot in the arm. For all the success of iTunes, XBox and Amazon, their collective sales haven't matched the growth curve experienced by DVD.

DECE plans to announce a brand name and logo, as well as a more detailed plan, at the upcoming Consumers Electronics Show in January. It also expects to name more companies to the consortium in the coming months.

Singer said he has began developing DECE inside Sony Pictures six years ago, constantly changing the formulation to meet the latest technologies. Outreach to other companies started in 2006. Link.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Um, no.

I really love it when people leave comments on my blog—it's a form of respect, of engagement, and it pleases me to know someone has taken time out of their day to react to something I've written. Even passionate disagreement is welcome because conflicting points of view are the best way to unearth the deeper truths. Bring it.

However, what I don't love is when people use anonymity as carte blanche to be snide, condescending, judgmental, self-righteous, spiteful, disrespectful, or just plain rude. If you've got strong feelings about something—enough to ignore a basic level of human decency and leave a comment which involves one or more of the above flavors of ill will—you're invited to start your own fucking blog. It's a complete mystery to me why anyone would expect me to publish comments that dis me on my own blog. Besides, not only are ad hominem attacks a typical sign of a weak argument, but they're also generally uncool. Snootiness is like an overpowering body odor—nobody wants to stand next to you.

I might be persuaded to publish rude or bombastic comments if their authors had balls big enough to affix their name and signature to their inciting comment, but unfortunately, all that can be too easily faked. I can save the Flamers out there a lot of time by simply saying:

"Um, no."

Friday, September 12, 2008

A Matter of Spore

From innovative game designer Will Wright, the maker of all the SimCity games, his next new game Spore was heralded as the next great step forward for open-ended gaming. It's cartoony, and not scientifically accurate on many levels, but its goal was to make it fun to grow a creature from a unicellular organism to a space-faring civilization. Lofty ambition!

The game looks great. The problem is, it has a stinkalicious 1 star rating on Amazon. I normally don't pay much attention to reviews if there are only 20 or 30. Even 100 reviews isn't large enough of a sampling. And reviews can often be faked, too, so being a Doubting Thomas is always prudent. Still, though, it got a 1 star rating out of more than 2000 reviews. That put me off from buying Spore.

Then I got curious... 2000 reviews? Seriously? As I skimmed over the 1 star reviews, they all seemed to rant about the DRM, which stands for Digital Rights Management. DRM is intended to prevent software piracy, and it's a hot topic now, especially in the gaming community. [UPDATE: This section has been clarified thanks to Dave's comment below.] For movies on DVD, DRM works seamlessly, unless you try to play a DVD made in Europe on a US Region 1 DVD player. DRM also works seamlessly for music on CD—you can play a CD made anywhere on any other CD player. However, when we move over to computers, things get a little more complicated, e.g. it's impossible to play an iTunes-purchased MP3 on any other MP3 player. Since DRM is almost always proprietary, users run into problems when they buy music or movies from a company that suddenly stops supporting any purchased content, as has already happened with Microsoft. [Interesting bit from the DRM wiki: Apple's Steve Jobs has called on the music industry to eliminate DRM... and in March 2007,, one of Europe's largest online music retailers, announced their position strongly against DRM. In an open letter, Musicload stated that three out of every four calls to their customer support phone service are as a result of consumer frustration with DRM."]

For computer games, DRM manifests itself as the authorization code you have to type in when you install a game for the first time. Different software developers treat DRM in their own way, but Spore has the most aggressive DRM yet: three single install authorizations. This means that if you have a desktop and laptop and you install Spore on them, and your laptop's hard drive dies, you have to call up Maxis and prove to them that you aren't a pirate in order to get back one of your authorizations.

Doesn't sound so bad, right? The problem is that it's a relatively large hassle factor compared to what existed before. For instance, when do you want to play games? After business hours. And when is Maxis EA open to take your call? During business hours. By comparison, games like Galactic Civilizations II have an explicitly relaxed DRM and the gaming community has reacted favorably to it.

Fortunately for me, I happen to have friends in the know—I was tipped off that the wave of 1 star reviews were part of an organized protest by some disgruntled gaming communities. The problem is, many people won't know that... and thus won't buy Spore after glancing at its Amazon page. This virtual protest is certain to affect Spore's bottom line.

But will it force Maxis EA to change their DRM?

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

But you can keep the Google Ads

Today Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling won a lawsuit against Steven Vander Ark for violation of copyright law. This is a very unique case because it involves the attempted book publication of a web site's content—content which the original author had explicitly endorsed. Vander Ark compiled an exhaustive lexicon of the Harry Potter universe, put it online at and—because there's not yet an official lexicon anywhere—Rowling herself had expressed gratitude: "This is such a great site that I have been known to sneak into an internet café while out writing and check a fact rather than go into a bookshop and buy a copy of Harry Potter (which is embarrassing)."

Now watch carefully. Rowling's explicitly acknowledges the usefulness of Vander Ark's site, yet when Vander Ark attempts to publish the contents of his web site, Rowling sues him... and wins. Rowling's intent was to prevent Vander Ark from making money from her work in book form, but Vander Ark already makes money from Rowling's work through the Google Ads on his web site. Why is it okay for Rowling to laud Vander Ark's work on one platform, but sue him when he moves that content to another platform?

The answer is pretty clear—compared to the web, published books are still considered a lucrative business. I don't think anyone knows how much Vander Ark has received from Google Ads, but it's probably not as much as he would have received from a book deal. However, as the web continues to dominate the marketplace, traditional profits are likely to shift away from published books and shift towards the internet. Authors will then face an interesting dilemma: either hire lawyers to sue the gajillion fan sites out there making money off their work, or accept that fan sites are likely to bring more value to their work... and thus, more money.

Would Vander Ark's lexicon have brought added value to Rowling's works? Undoubtedly. Would Rowling's books have made more money because of Vander Ark's published lexicon? Obviously. So if you were Rowling, often touted as more wealthy than the Queen of England and thus not someone hurting from a missed paycheck, is it really in your best interests to sue your greatest fan and run the risk of souring your reputation to your other fans? A better option might have been for Rowling to join forces with Vander Ark... or publish her own lexicon with her own (priceless) commentary. After all, how could Vander Ark's book ever really compete with Rowling's own lexicon?

Had this lawsuit happened a year ago, I'd have squarely sided with Rowling: "It's obviously some dude trying to make a buck off of her years of hard work." Now, after seeing how piracy can actually help content gain a broader viewership, I take a much different tack: "If Vander Ark's derivative work adds more value to Rowling's years of hard work, let him make as many lexicons as he sees fit. But if his lexicons take value away from her work, she should aggressively shut him down."

Either way, Vander Ark had foresight: he told his book publisher he'd only publish his web site on one condition: the publisher would have to cover his legal fees should Rowling ever sue him.

Friday, September 05, 2008

An Open Letter to Shawn Colvin

Dear Shawn,

It feels odd to write a letter to you knowing that there's a good chance you may actually read it. I've thought of writing many times before, but shrugged it off as an improbable long shot, a waste of time. But with your forum, and with your Myspace account, I have faith that the virtual note in the bottle will eventually find its way to you.

Your music has threaded its way in and out of my life many times throughout the years. I keep coming back to it, the allure as perennial as it was the first time I saw you on TV in 1995.

I'm a New Yorker by birth, but I had married a French woman and we had settled in London where her sister lived. I remember as if it were only weeks ago... the BBC had a program called Words and Music, and James Taylor had just finished explaining and playing Sweet Baby James. You came on next and played Polaroids, and I was hooked.

I slowly began collecting your albums, especially Fat City which I bought on cassette and played a lot. In 1996, I bought Sunny Came Home and, again, loved it. The internet was just taking off and I learned from someone's fan site that you were coming to tour in London. I made special plans to attend that concert—no small feat on my modest income. Around the same time, my mother called to say my father had injured himself while mounting some kitchen shelving and had ended up in the hospital. I spoke to him and he seemed fine. I even asked him if I should fly back and said it wasn't that serious. So I continued on with my regular life, including my plans to see you in concert. Within two days of that call, my father died at the hospital.

My life was thrown into turmoil. The only man with whom I had felt a solid bond was gone forever. This wonderful man who taught me gentleness, and love, and joy... gone. Having grown up in the South during the 30s, my father had come from a fairly sexist generation, but he rose above that and taught me it was fine to do "feminine" chores like dishes and cooking in the kitchen. He littered the house with countless clever "jerry-rigs" that always somehow worked. He was a great father, he was my father, and he was gone.

On that night—November 7, 1997—with my wife out of town, and separated by friends and family by an entire ocean, I found myself totally alone. I collapsed on my bed and felt a sear of immeasurable anguish. My cat, perhaps sensing something was awry, let me snug my index finger inside the palm of her paw. This simple cat, the only being to share my limitless grief, gave her single paw to me, and that tiny paw was enough bodily warmth to ease my pain. She purred, I wept.

My father had smoked almost his whole life, so it came as no surprise that there was more to the story than a mere kitchen shelving accident. It was obviously lung cancer. Of course, if anyone had told me it was that serious, I would have been on the next plane, but everyone assured me it wasn't serious. I was young and hadn't fully learned how suspicious the context of the events were: my father's age, he was a smoker, he was in the hospital. Oblivious, I had continued to look happily forward to a musician's concert.

From that point forward, your music was forever bittersweet, married to an utterly random and tragic event. This never diminished my love for your music, but only deepened it, as if I could play one of your songs I'd heard years before and be transported to a world where my father were still alive somewhere, creating some bizarre fix-it around the house. Although you had no say in it, your music and picture have turned into a touchstone for my father's memory.

After my father died, I felt a dam of emotion had been torn open. I found it easier to tap into my melancholy when listening to evocative music... in 1996, I remember being entranced by If These Old Walls Could Speak and sobbing to its haunting refrain. Not long thereafter, the BBC broadcast your live show at Shepherd's Bush and my fondness for your music grew even further.

Your music is special. It touches me.

Not simply because it reminds me of my father now, but because your ethereal voice and steel guitar fuse melody and harmony flawlessly. It was true the first time I saw you sing Polaroids or I wouldn't be writing this now.

I hope, then, to have offered you something greater than the money you would get from a concert ticket or an album, or even the prestige of a Grammy Award. I hope I've offered you a sincere appreciation of your art, a recognition of your accolades in reaching out with your music to affect listeners.

And while you didn't even know my father, I thank you for your music which lets me remember him once more.

Yours Most Sincerely,

Ross Pruden

Photography is your PAL

Today, I checked out InkTip's "produced films" page and found this disheartening snippet:

Juan Frausto of Vendetta Pictures has commenced principle photography on the horror feature ‘RoadKill,’ which was written by InkTip scribe David Zagorski...

Even in the film business, I see everyone confuse "principle" for "principal", almost as often as confusing "it's" for "its", but not often enough that I'm sure which version is the correct usage. Google searches inevitably lead me to Paul Brians' amazing grammar cornucopia, Common Errors in English. Indeed:
Generations of teachers have tried to drill this one into students’ heads by reminding them, “The principal is your pal.” Many don’t seem convinced. “Principal” is a noun and adjective referring to someone or something which is highest in rank or importance. (In a loan, the principal is the more substantial part of the money, the interest is—or should be—the lesser.) “Principle” is only a noun, and has to do with law or doctrine: “The workers fought hard for the principle of collective bargaining.” Link.

However, I did hear someone on NPR yesterday say "heart-rending", so I'm not worried about the decline of Western civilization just yet.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

The True Maverick

As you've no doubt heard, the Republican convention this year is using "maverick" to describe Presidential nominee John McCain.

Oh, no no no.

The term "maverick", is defined by Merriam-Webster's as "an independent individual who does not go along with a group or party". My computer's dictionary also defines it as, "an unorthodox or free-thinking person".

We all know why they're trying to tape this label on McCain—it's to hoodwink independent voters leaning towards voting for Obama.

Although Joe Lieberman is a close second, the only real "maverick" in this year's election—strictly according to the definition—is Ron Paul. I mean, his supporters held their own bloody rally! That's about as Maverick as you get. Just take a look at his voting record... he seems to vote fearlessly for either side of the aisle.

I'm not going to comment on his politics, but I will say this: although it's cool to be a maverick, acting like a maverick usually means you're on the outside looking in, and what good can you really do if you're out in the cold? A real maverick, in spirit, may tow the party line but stages a quiet revolution from the inside. Sure, Ron Paul has a certain allure for being an independent voice, but a little too independent for large swaths of Americans to throw their precious votes at him.

Still, nice try, Ron!

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Back to chastity belts

I hope I'm not being an nobhead about this, but I can't help but wonder:

If Sarah Palin, the Republicans' nominee for Vice President, is a proponent of abstinence-only sex education...

...and her own 17 year old daughter is 5 months pregnant...

...what does that say about the effectiveness of abstinence-only sex education?

And can Palin say, with a straight face, that she isn't quietly questioning her approach to sex ed?

I respect those who stand up for their values, but you cross a line when you apply your values at the expense of real world facts. Sure, you can claim to be "right" by saying abstinence works, or you can prevent teen pregnancies by accepting that teenagers have sex as they've always done... and you can promote condom use.

Do you want to be right, or do you want your 17 year old daughter to accidentally get pregnant? Yes, the choices are really that simple.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Know Thy Headshot

The film business serves up some harsh lessons from time to time. One of the harshest lessons is for actors. As Richard Walter once said, if a script has flaws, the writers can tear up that script and start completely from scratch, while an actor can never change into something they're not. If a director wants a particular look, and you don't got it, hit the skids, kiddo and don't forget to leave your sides with the lady by the door.

A worse lesson than that is the deep self-knowledge which fosters a niggling doubt that you don't have something special. For example, a long time ago, I could see my own career in acting would be fruitless because I had a Come to Jesus moment with myself: I can read sides cold and make the words come alive, and I can carry that intuitive reading into a performance. However, I don't have an especially attractive look, my voice isn't that enthralling, and I could never live with that frustrating emotional roller coaster ride of 1,000 failed auditions to (maybe) get my big break. The odds were simply too small to make it all worth the effort.

Not that I won't act if someone hands me a script. I love to act, but I'm simply unwilling to tread an arbitrary masochistic path to get past the gatekeepers. That's not a judgment -- I have immeasurable respect for actors thick-skinned enough to go that route. For me, though, it was never a good fit.

This hit home for me on two occasions. The first was in 1988 when I went to NYU film school. Our NYU teachers told us to go down to SAG to dig through the SAG headshots for actors who might be willing to act in a short student film, kind of like a $5.99 DVD Wall Mart bin, but for actors. So I'm sitting there with one of the other students and we come across a headshot... a headshot which hit me like a bucket of cold water -- it was my headshot! The photo had been taken years before, when I was only 16, and it was painfully out of date. I could run down a large inventory of feelings I experienced about that headshot but my most lasting thought was, "Wow, that whole acting thing was such a waste of my time." Of course, it wasn't -- all my acting experience has helped me view film from an actor's perspective and that's something you never forget as a director, but still... finding and hiring a photographer, hiring and pestering an agent, running around on auditions hoping you nailed an audition but never really knowing for days thereafter... it got old. At some point, I must have racked it all up to a sunk cost and moved on.

Years later, in 2000, I was looking at resumes for a three minute short I was directing. All the actors who replied to my Craigslist ad were already well vetted; they knew they'd be working for no pay on a short film. And still the headshots came flooding in. Jena, my confidante in crime, really helped me winnow the stack down because, at times, I'm embarrassed to say I was totally log jammed. There were so many actors and it was difficult to say no to any of them, especially when many had spent so much time and money making their headshots, and even had notable experience on their CV. Jena pulled me back down to Earth.

She held up a headshot. It was one of my Undecideds. "I'll make this easy for you," she said. "Would you want to watch this guy for three minutes of screen time?" That was a harsh question to ask, but the right one because the answer was no. The actor in question wasn't terribly attractive and I couldn't see myself honestly wanting to watch this dude for half a minute, much less three minutes. The headshots were easy to narrow down after that.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. There will always be a Steve Buscemi out there, but decisions like mine are made every day by casting directors in the entertainment industry. Sometimes actors got "it", but almost all the time, they don't. The best advice I heard about being a professional actor came from the actress I ended up casting in my short film (unsurprisingly, she later moved to L.A. to pursue acting): "Audition like crazy. Do as many auditions as you can and always do your best in them. When the audition is over, forget all about it. The chances are you didn't get the part, so why worry about it? Instead, use your auditions to perfect your acting. And try to get a flexible day job that pays well. I'm a mobile notary."

When Matt Damon was asked about what he'd tell people getting into acting, he said, "Don't. You get too much rejection." Interesting that his response was a rejection... was he surreptitiously trying to discourage thin-skinned newbie actors to save them years of tuition in the School of Hard Knocks?

Acting's a tough gig. Deal with it. But above all else, be honest with yourself about your headshot, your experience, your shtick. If you're not yielding any results from your auditions, is it really because you haven't knocked on enough doors, or is it because you really don't got it? Finally, if you'll never have what any casting director is looking for, at what point is it time to move on?