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Internet, Movies, Television

Content Matters Most

September 20, 2015

This thrust of this article is exactly the subject of a series of conversations I had with a couple of Hollywood suits a few weeks ago in Los Angeles. It’s really why we had any conversation in the first place, as it turns out.

My writing portfolio ended up in the hands of a half dozen ‘studio types’ who are involved in the creation of a new entertainment venture. The key to this venture is, plain and simple, content – written content. (A friend passed my portfolio along to a couple of executives, and they in turn handed it to a few others – I had no idea this was happening!) At the end of these conversations I had a ‘first look’ deal for a book with an option on two others in the series.

The whole confab went kind of like this…

Most of the traditional studios – majors and mini-majors – are scared to death of entities such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. They are also very concerned about cable networks like AMC (i.e. The Walking Dead, Mad Men), USA (i.e. Mr. Robot, Graceland), and Starz (i.e. Outlander, Blunt Talk). They are scooping up writing, directing, and acting talent for lower budget fare (film and television), and telling motion picture-style stories in longer arcs. Instead of 92-minute movies, or two-hour films (sometimes even three-hour epics), much of the material is ending up on the outlets mentioned above (and others) as ‘short stack events’. The new “X Files”, for instance, is only six episodes, and they refer to it as an ‘event series’.

The bottom line is the paradigm has shifted once again. Hollywood will always make block-busters with budgets in excess of $100 million dollars (some way in excess of that figure) – the superhero films coming from Marvel would be a good example. But what about everything else – the thrillers, the romcoms, the biographies, the mysteries? And what about all the new distribution outlets, the ‘agnostic screens’ (tablets, smartphones, laptops, computers)?

If it all begins with the written word, then why not have a single, powerful business that starts with the written word (book publishing), and shepherds that book through global distribution and sales (book copies), followed by multimedia exploitation (film, TV), all aided and abetted with purpose-produced social media? Why indeed. The outlets for this ‘word’ can be anything and everything: film chains, TV networks, online streaming, etc. The surprise here (if there is one) is the addition of ‘publishing’ to the overall mix. How that affects and changes the traditional business model of book-to-film is a subject for another time.

This Variety article about the head of AMC Networks is really the first time I’ve seen someone in the business address the subject of ‘content as business model’.

As I was leaving Musso and Frank Grill on Hollywood Blvd. (where better to have an industry meeting?!) the ‘suit’ who offered me the ‘first look’ deal told me that, aside from content, the corporate consolidation we’ve seen in the entertainment industry is far from over. He said that he and his compatriots are convinced that within two to three years (possibly sooner) someone will make a play for Apple. Impossible, I thought. Who has the capital to make such a pitch? Imagine, he says, Google or Amazon… or a consortium of BOTH (with perhaps a wealthy investment firm as top up)…? NOT impossible, he said. Of course, he continued, the opposite is much more likely – that Apple will buy a major (mini-major) Hollywood studio. They DO have the capital.

And that returned us to the subject at hand: content. Apple doesn’t own or control any content – not yet. But the release of a newly-configured AppleTV barely two weeks later, and rumours of Tim Cook sniffing around some back lots would certainly lead one to believe where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Is that crazy? Tim Cook secretly toured a handful of automobile race tracks and testing facilities leading to the rumour that Apple was going into the ‘car’ business. Most tech pundits scoffed. Ridiculous, they said. Apple then proceeded to hire several automotive executives after discussions with Elon Musk (Tesla) appeared to go nowhere. Barely a month ago, a former naval base at Concord, California, frequently used by automotive manufacturers as a test track, signed a NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) with… Apple.

I’m on this train, and I can’t wait to see where it leads!

Books, Movies

The Power of Research

December 19, 2014

“Good writing has a musical quality to it,
a mathematical quality, a balance and a rhythm…”

– Laura Hillenbrand

§ § §

A terrific article here about a terrific writer. Laura’s books, “Seabiscuit”, and “Unbroken”, are, stylistically, the best non-fiction tomes I’ve ever read. However, her method of writing, as evidenced in this New York Times article, reveals a truly unique approach to research – the cornerstone of engaging, believable narrative non-fiction.

Article & Author Photograph Copyright © 2014 The New York Times


October 17, 2013

Recently, I was rummaging around in some old boxes looking for some old photos – real Kodachrome slides, mind you – and I came across an old film critic photo of myself attached to an equally old, yellowed newspaper clipping.

Back in the earliest part of my career – while still in high school, in fact – I was a film critic, a paid film critic. I hosted a weekly gig on our own school TV broadcasting station for fifteen minutes every Wednesday morning with an English teacher named Bill Hartley. A sort of Siskel & Ebert before there was a Siskel & Ebert.

This lead to my own TV show on public access cable, which lead to a recurring byline as a stringer to several Ontario newspapers, which in turn lead to a regular gig as cinema columnist for a weekly independent entertainment magazine; all of this by the time I was twenty-years-old. Not bad, I thought at the time. But my trial-by-fire as the youngest accredited film critic in Ontario had its beginnings during a major cause celébrè that almost ended my career before it started.

Someone had the bright idea that since Stratford, Ontario was home to one of the best theatrical companies in the world – the Stratford Shakespearean Festival – then perhaps an annual film festival would work as well. It didn’t – it crashed and burned after only a handful of seasons, as I recall. But while it was in session it was quite the rage… well, at least amongst us critics.

Organizers, lead by a film fanatic and an all-round Canadian cinema hero, Gerald Pratley, made a valiant attempt to program films that likely would never have seen the light of day in ‘Conservative Blue’ Ontario, and some of the movies were indeed eyebrow raisers.

In 1971, one such film was Melvin Van Peebles’ “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song“.


Almost as soon as it was announced as an entrant at Stratford, the Ontario Film Censor Board demanded cuts – twelve minutes worth. This, after it had already been edited from an “X” certificate in order to be allowed entry into this country in the first place. There were howls of protest from the film community, but none so loud as those from the organizers of the festival and critics (yours truly among them) who believed the festival was trying to exhibit films that were different, perhaps off-the-wall, and reflected the counter-culture so prevalent at the time. In other words, films that were about the world we were living in then; films that showed us who we were; films that exposed audiences to alternate viewpoints, political and social. Apparently the provincial government thought there were no black people in Ontario back then.

X-Plot-Peebles-MasterThe joke, for me at least, was that even though I’d seen the film already (how I’d managed to screen it is a whole other story!), I was only 17-years-old – not legally old enough to be sold a ticket. I had one-up on the other critics because I HAD seen the film – the majority of the others had not. So, I took pen to paper and dashed off a screed to the editorial department of The London Free Press newspaper, and dared them to print it. They did, with the mini headline, “X Marks The Plot“. My “15 minutes” every Wednesday morning on high school TV, became my Andy Warhol “15 minutes” overnight.

Melvin’s son, Mario, took up his father’s mantle some years ago, including directing a terrific documentary on the making of Sweetback. Recently, his work has been showcased in the terrific dramatic series “Boss” starring Kelsey Grammer. His episodes are standouts! Kelsey won a Golden Globe for his efforts.

It’s ironic that, although Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was never shown at the festival (nor anywhere else in Canada since, as far as I know), it is today credited as being the film that started the Blaxploitation era, and Van Peebles hailed as the grandfather of the genre, according to some. If it weren’t for Sweetback it’s doubtful there would have been a “Shaft(released the same year), or a “Superfly“, or perhaps even a ‘Blaxploitation’ movement. Certainly these films wouldn’t have been made as quickly or their popularity, across all demographics, arisen as soon.

Perhaps, in retrospect (for how else can we view the past accurately but with 20/20 hindsight) the decision to ban Sweetback wasn’t surprising. Maybe no one understood Melvin’s approach back then – his meaning, his message. Had any of those censors that voted ‘thumbs down’ on allowing Sweetback into the festival actually taken a meeting with Mr. Van Peebles, they may have been in for a shock. The first thing that would have caught their eye upon entering his office wouldn’t have been the imposing man himself, it would have been a large hand-lettered sign over his desk that acted as a warning, an admonishment, a ‘Best Before’ date, if you will.

In simple black text on a white background it read:

“For your own sake, don’t try to understand me too fucking quickly.”