Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘The Blair Witch Project’

Until last night, I hadn’t been to Universal Studios Orlando for over a decade. (Dispelling the myth that people who live in the Orlando area spend half their time at the many theme parks.) But I not only went last night, but I got to ride on a Mardi Gras float with a team from Valencia College. I’ve wanted to ride a float since I attended Mardi Gras in New Orleans when I was in college. It was a blast to toss beads out on the eager people below. People now, as they were decades ago, sure like to get those cheap beads thrown their way.

I will say the Orlando version is a much cleaner, safer, less chaotic version of what I saw in New Orleans. (I didn’t see anyone getting arrested at Universal Studios Orlando.)

It was a perfect early evening in Orlando and it was just as much fun as it looks.

I’ll try to track down a photograph from my first trip to New Orleans. But it was a classic college road trip. We left Miami Friday after classes and drove straight through until we arrive at a KOA campground in Slidell, Louisiana I think around 2 AM. We spent the majority of the weekend in New Orleans, before heading back to Miami late Sunday night. I made back in time to make an editing class that night with Ralph Clemente. Ralph couldn’t believe I drove to Mardi Gras in The Big Easy and back over the weekend AND make his class on time. He said he was going to give me an A just for showing up.

Ralph later came up to Orlando to teach some workshops connected to the new studios opening at Universal Studios in what was part of what was marketed as Hollywood East. Ralph helped spin that workshop into the film program at Valencia College where a couple of his students went on to be a part of the Blair Witch Project team. Part of that editing class I had was doing a project with found footage kicking around the film program. Ralph also loved those Bermuda triangle stories popular back in the day—is it true or not? Mix found footage and Bermuda triangle conspiracy theories and it’s not hard to see some of the roots of The Blair Witch Project.

But Ralph’s star student at the University of Miami was David Nutter who’s had an incredible run in Tv directing. Nutter won two Emmys for his work on Game of Thrones. I wrote the post The Perfect Ending after Ralph’s memorial service and Nutter gave him a shoutout when he won his first Emmy on the same night.

P.S. Orlando had a good production run in the ’90s, and “Hollywood East” actually became a realty—in Atlanta.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

Read Full Post »

“When you can have a positive effect on people’s lives and help them reach their dreams, that is the best reward a teacher can have.”
Ralph Clemente

“A teacher who can arouse a feeling for one single good action, for one single good poem, accomplishes more than he who fills our memory with rows and rows of natural objects, classified with name and form.”
Goethe

ralph-in-his-office-pano

Ralph Clemente in his Valencia College office/Photo by Don Burlinson

Earlier this month filmmaker and educator Ralph Clemente died only three weeks after finding out he had  pancreatic cancer. He was a professor of mine at the University of Miami and known for his infectious inspiration—and Arnold Schwarzenegger-like accent.

In the late eighties he helped start the film program at Valencia College in Orlando where he and his students would have a hand in producing 47 feature films. Over the years the program allowed students to work with Oscar-nominated actresses Julie Harris and Ruby Dee, and Oscar-winning director Robert Wise (who also edited Citizen Kane). Steven Spielberg once called the program, “one of the best film schools in the county.”

Clemente actually had the distinction of being part of the inspiration for a couple of the filmmakers who would go on to make The Blair Witch Project, as well as just this past November having a small part playing a woodman in Game of Thrones

That Game of Thrones episode was directed by David Nutter who was also Clemente’s student at Miami. Clemente produced Nutter’s first feature Cease Fire (which starred an up and coming actor named Don Johnson) which helped launch Nutter’s career that’s included directing gigs on The Sopranos, The X-Files, Entourage, and Band of Brothers. Clemente and Nutter remained friends over the decades so I wasn’t surprised that he hired Clemente as an extra on the set of Game of Thrones shot in Ireland.

(Note: For the younger DSLR crowd, and those totally unfamiliar with Nutter or Clemente, as Vincent Lafort continues making the transition from photographer to filmmaker he’s recently been shadowing the Primetime Emmy-winning Nutter on production sets. It’s all one big interconnected tribe.)

Clemente was born in Germany and actually had his first acting role at the age of two. He moved to Florida as a teenager, studied acting, ending up serving in the Army, before going on to work in TV and film and landing at the University of Miami as filmmaker-in-residence for ten years.

What a life, right? But his legacy is the film program at Valencia which just earlier this year had a 20th Anniversary film festival to celebrate some of the films he and the school helped get made including Sealed with a Kiss which he directed from a script written by his wife Emily.

What sets the Valencia program apart is its early vision. In the late 80s, Disney and Universal built film studios in Orlando, and enough features and TV shows were being shot here (Parenthood, From Earth to the Moon, Passenger 57) that it looked like the promises of central Florida becoming Hollywood East were more than hype. But what there wasn’t a lot of was support personnel grounded in the area— grips, gaffers, camera assistance, etc.

Greg Hale, one of the producers of The Blair Witch project, went through the Valencia film program and more recently worked as an assistant director on The Avengers and Django Unchained. Producer/Director Ben Rock was also a student of Clemente’s:

“One of the best lessons 
Ralph teaches is that production should be fun…My best memories of Valencia are of Ralph, working the set, joking around, telling stories, keeping everybody’s morale up.”
Ben Rock
Vitae Magazine

Clemente always encouraged his students to take chances and I remember editing a student project at Miami where I risked using a Willie Nelson song (Nelson wasn’t quite as hip in Miami in the 80s as he would be with hipsters in Miami today) and it turned out Ralph loved Nelson’s music and would later use one of his songs in a feature he produced.

In college I also remember going to Mardi Gras in New Orleans with a couple of friends on one long weekend road trip but made it back in time for his class on Monday. When I told him I was just off a 12-hour drive to make the class he laughed and told me my grade just went up.

I don’t know how many hundreds or thousands of people Clemente touched in his life, but he was one of the good guys. In fact, Ralph also had students work on public awareness projects including Make-a-Wish, Health Care for the Homeless, and His House Children’s Home (for abused and neglected kids) which helped raised awareness, donations, and resulted in some adoptions.

This blog is the overflowing of the good influences in my life and part of that DNA is my time spent with Clemente in Miami. And just to come full-circle, since January of this year I’ve been producing projects at Valencia College and while my tools are not film and Moviola’s anymore, what I learned from Ralph Clemente transferred well to digital cameras and non-linear editing. But beyond the technical aspects and production tips you commonly learn in school, Clemente had an upbeat spirit that was less common.

Related posts:
The Perfect Ending  (The day one of Ralph’s former students won an Emmy for directing Game of Thrones)

Related Links:
Ralph Clemente: Valencia film pro inspired good stories, Orlando Sentinel
Filmmaking is a Team Art  Friend Oliver Peters who edited four of Clemente’s features remembers working with him.
Valencia Mourns Loss of Filmmaking Legend Ralph Clemente 

P.S. “Ralph R. Clemente Scholarship” at Valencia Foundation, 1768 Park Center Drive, Orlando, FL 32835 or complete online donation form by selecting the Designation “Ralph R. Clemente Scholarship” at donate.valencia.org.

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“I’ve had to convince the studio that I know this is not a $20,000 Alexa package, but I’ll challenge you to tell the difference once I’m done grading this footage.”
Daniel Myrick on shooting a film with a camera smaller than an iPhone

BlackMagic

Where’s the camera?

You want to know something really scary this Halloween? Writer/Director Daniel Myrick (Blair Witch Project) shot his latest film Under the Bed with a camera smaller than most video camera monitors. Smaller than even some of the lens used with it. There’s a reason it’s called a pocket camera. The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema is 5 inches long and weighs just 12.5 ounces. What’s also small is the price—$995. Trick or treat?

Sure you have to add a lens and an SD card before you can use it—and a few more professional accesories to use it in the manner that Team Myrick did to shoot Under the Bed—but a sub-thousand dollar camera to shoot a feature film that doesn’t look like—ah, cough, cough, The Blair Which Project—forgetaboutit.

The film won’t be released until next year, but I just read an interview with Myrick about the film over at No Film School.

“We used the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, much to the surprise of a lot of people. I had purchased one when they first came out and was really impressed with the latitude they offer, and their compactness. There was just a lot to like about the basic image sensor. It certainly has its foibles with accessorizing and things like that, but nothing that can’t be overcome. The image sensor itself was producing 12-bit RAW right on the SD cards and simultaneously spitting out 10-bit ProRes from the connector — on a little camera not much bigger than a cigarette pack, which was very exciting. I said this could be a good fit for the kind of movie I’m shooting, which is very low budget in a very contained space — I don’t have sets where I can fly walls away and back the camera off and that sort of thing.”
Daniel Myrick

P.S. I think the Blackmagic Pocket camera would be perfect for the “Little Fat Girl in Ohio” that Francis Ford Coppola predicted was on her way to becoming the new Mozart.

Related posts (on low-budget filmmaking):
The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns
“Don’t try and compete with Hollywood.”—Edward Burns
Making a $5,000 Feature
Filmmaking from a Coffin (Buried)
Edward Burns ‘Newlyweds’ (Part 2)—Think of yourself as an indie band.
Sputnik, Sundance & Kevin Smith
Paranormal Screenwriting Activity

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood…(Part 6) Touches on why I think The Blair Witch Project was really the beginning of a new form of cinema (in part because one of the cameras they used was a consumer Hi8 camera).

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.”
President Obama
State of the Union Address 1/25/11
(Referencing the Soviet’s rocket launch in 1957 which fueled the USA in the space race.)

“The piece of advice that Walter Gretzky gave (his son) Wayne Gretzky was this…’don’t go where the puck’s been, go where it’s gonna to be.’ The philosophy was simple, if you puck chase you’re always going to be behind the game…You want to be the person that’s where the puck’s going to be.”
Filmmaker Kevin Smith
Sundance 2011

Back in the good old days of 1994 filmmaker Kevin Smith sold his $27,000 film Clerks at Sundance. A year later Edward Burns’ $25,000 film The Brothers McMullen was sold. Both Smith and Burns have continued carving out careers since that time and if you want to see which way the wind is blowing take a look at the direction they are heading as independent filmmakers.

A few months ago Burns’ self-produced Nice Guy Johnny (for again $25,000) and released it on iTunes. And earlier this week Kevin Smith announced that for his latest film, The Red State, he will not be selling the film at Sundance, but instead self-distributing the film first taking it on the road to large venues across the county where he will be speaking after showing the film.

His rational is he has a large fan base that follow his podcasts, Twitter feeds, etc. and he (or a studio) doesn’t need to spend $20 million advertising the film. We’ll see how it plays out. But it’s a good indicator of where the puck is heading for one group of filmmakers.

If you wanted to pinpoint indie film’s modern Sputnik moment I think it’s fitting to point to 1999 when The Blair Witch Project showed Hollywood the power of the internet. More than 10 years later we live in a digital world that has altered the music industry and now well into altering the film and Tv industry.

Five years ago we were watching poor quality short videos on You Tube and today you can stream feature films in high quality directly to your computer or TV via Netflix or the like. It’s no surprise that the last Blockbuster video store in my area announced this month that it was going out of business (following Hollywood Video stores that are long gone).

If independent filmmakers can raise their own money, make their own films AND can control the distribution—that is truly independent filmmaking. It’s a new game for filmmakers everywhere—from LA, to Iowa, and even the former Soviet Union. Heck, I can even see hockey great Walter Gretzky making his own films with his actress wife Janet Jones. (Still remember her role in The Flamingo Kid.)

The old Hollywood expression was it takes an army to make a film, these days you just need a camera—and an army of Twitter/Facebook/You Tube followers interested in the stories you tell. (Some of them won’t just be watching your films, but helping you raise funds as well.)

P.S. Speaking of Sundance & the Internet, I received a form email today from Oscar-winning director Kevin MacDonald saying, “Today we are unveiling Life in a Day at Sundance for the film’s World Premiere. I wanted to take this opportunity to thank all of you for participating in this extraordinary experience….” I was part of the You Tube community who on July 21, 2010 submitted one of the 80,000 clips that they were gathering for a 90 minute film. (Edited down from 4,500 hours of footage. So close. I can always say, “I was this close to having a film in Sundance this year”.)  It will be interesting to see the final film.  Here’s a teaser:

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“I learned a lot about the process of filmmaking and that if you’re totally persistent and want to follow through with something, you’ll get it done.”
Oren Peli

For Halloween day I’ll step away from my Once Upon a Time in Hollywood posts to interject an update about the movie Paranormal Activities. The seven day results fro Friday October 23 through Thursday October 29 had Paranormal Activities number one at the box office.   I wouldn’t call it paranormal but that is highly unusual. Especially for a movie that opened five weeks ago and had yet to have a number one week.

That’s the power of word of mouth and a great marketing plan.  On halloween night the film will also pass the $70 million mark. Keep in mind that the budget has been said to be between 10,000-15,000. No typos there. Less than most used cars. I saw the movie this week and they keep the budget down by shooting in just one location (the writer/directors house) and using just four actors (two of which are on the screen for just a couple minutes). And one of the actors doubled most of the time as the cameraman using just  a $3,000 video camera.

So the film made for $15,000 bringing in $70 million in the box office according to several sources is now the new box office record holder as the most profitable movie ever made. Ever. A film made by the  39-year old Oren Peli, a first time filmmaker who was born in Israel and living in San Diego. (Passing the decade old record set by The Blair Witch Project.)

I’d like to say it was in the spirit of what I’ve been writing about for two years hear at Screenwriting from Iowa. Something big happening by an outsider to the Hollywood film industry. The only problem is there wasn’t a screenplay written—at least in the traditional sense.

“There was no dialogue. There was only an outline of the story, the actors never received any script. They didn’t know about anything they were getting into. All they knew is they were going to do something about a haunted house and basically discovered everything as they were shooting. There were no lines for them to follow. Everything was spontaneous.”
Oren Peli
shocktillyoudrop.com

The film was shot in just seven days in 2006, but took 10 months to go through the 70 hours of footage. The first version of the film was made in 2007 and several different versions were completed and tested a various film festivals. The film hit the jackpot when a DVD found its way to Steven Spielberg. DreamWorks picked up the film first with the intention of Spielberg remaking the film but then it was decided that that wasn’t needed. Like The Blair Witch Project hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent to enhance the film that eventually made the theater. But essentially it’s the film Peli made for $15,000.

They did a masterful of using social media, most notably Facebook, Twitter and MySpace. While the success of Paranormal Activities is off the charts and against all odds, I think you will see more of its ilk in the future. Not just horror films, but films in general where lovers of film tap into the resources that are out there and make a film that finds an audience. I’ll talk more about those resources tomorrow in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood… (Part 9).

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood …1999-2009

While Titanic has been the pinnacle of the Hollywood blockbuster there has been a somewhat quiet movement in the film industry which came into prominence in 1999.

The use of video came on the scene in the 1950s its claim about the death of film were greatly exaggerated. Fifty years later those claims are starting to resurface.

In 1995 Sony released the Sony VX1000. The first digital video camera that independent filmmakers got excited about. Lars von Trier jumped on the digital bandwagon in directing and shooting the feature film The Idiots with the Sony VX1000 which he showed at Cannes in 1998.

As digital filmmaking became more popular the debate continued over whether this was really filmmaking since film was no longer being used. I remember being at a film festival in the ’90s when a New York filmmaker stated that he didn’t make videos, he made films.

Then this little hybrid movie came along in 1999 called The Blair Witch Project that was a game changer. Shot with a mixture of 16mm film and a consumer video camcorder (Hi8 I believe) Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez, Robin Cowie, Gregg Hale made the film for $35,000. that went on to make in the ballpark of $250 million worldwide. It still has the record for box office income against production costs. (We’ll see if Paranormal Activity beats it. A film inspired by The Blair Witch Project.)

When film historians look at the shift in the film business I think they will look at The Blair Witch Project and 1999 as the most important year for change. The Blair Witch filmmakers were not only from outside L.A. (they met in Orlando), not only found great success making a film shot in part on video, but they used the Internet to market the film in a whole new way.

Because I was living in Orlando at the time I like to point out they the Blair Witch filmmakers pointed out that Ralph Clemente who heads up the film program at Valencia Community College was a great inspiration to them in making a different kind of film. I studied with Clemente when he was teaching at the University of Miami film school and was happy he got a special nod.

The list of films made digitally grew and grew. In 2000, Spike Lee chose to shoot most of his $10 million dollar film Bamboozled with the Sony VX1000. In that same year Academy-award winning director Michael Figgis released a DV feature Timecode. Also in 2002 Steven Soderbergh shot the DV feature Full Frontal and Jerry Seinfeld was executive producer and featured performer for the DV documentary Comedian (2002).

Another landmark film was released in 2002, Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark— a film that was shot digitally in one take. I saw Russian Ark in one of those grand old theaters in Chicago and I really thought it was a perfect mix of the past and future coming together.

What was different about Russian Ark from the DV features is it was shot on a high-end Sony HD camera. The quality difference between DV and 35mm is great when projected on the big screen. And films up to that point used DV for a variety of reasons usually related to budgets. Russian Ark reached new heights by shooting a type of film that not only couldn’t physically be shot on film (due to the nature of film loads being limited in time) but the quality for the average viewer was matched on the screen.

Also in the year 2002, Gary Winick’s  who directed Tadpole (shot with a Sony PD-150 DV camera) won the Best Director Award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. Sundance used to have a policy that said they only took films made on film. No videos allowed. The world was changing.

“I could have shot Tadpole on 35mm, and would it have been a better film? I don’t know. Would I have gotten that cast? I don’t know. Part of the reasons for the cast wanting to be in the film, besides the material, was that they were all interested in working in DV, which I presented it to them as this hybrid between the theater and film. And also, I only need you for two weeks and not two months.”
Gary Winick

In 2003 Peter Hedges (known for writing What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?) released the DV feature Pieces of April starring Katie Holmes.  It won many awards at film festivals and actress Patricia Clarkson was nominated for an Oscar. I love that film and it shows how a story and talent can overcome some technical deficiencies. Hedges pointed out in interviews out that financing had falling through a couple times before when it was budgeted for film so the $150,000 film would not have been made without shooting on DV.

In 2004 the InDigEnt produced November starring Courteney Cox and shot with a $4,000. Panasonic DVX 100 DV camera by director of photography Nancy Schreiber who won best cinematography for the film at the Sundance Film Festival.

Also in 2004 at Sundance Morgan Spurlock earned the Directing Award for Super Size Me and the documentary Born into Brothels won an audience award, both of which were shot on digital video cameras. Brothels beat Super at the Academy Awards. So in less than a decade digital video made some incredible inroads winning international awards and finding audiences.

Here’s what I wrote in a post last year called New Cinema Screenwriting:

So in less than a decade digital video made some incredible inroads winning international awards and finding audiences. You can sit around and argue all day about how film is superior to digital video, but folks the train has left the station.

And the standard def DV video cameras have now been replaced by digital High Def cameras that in the right hands can give a wonderful look. The crazy thing is these are cameras in the $5,ooo dollar range. And they are not being used on just low budget features. The Panasonic HVX 200 was used on the $30 million film Cloverfield.

But let’s not forget Paranormal Activity that is purposely meant to look like an amateur video and as of this writing has made over $60 million at the box office.

Yes, this is the point where I bring out the visionary trunk monkey Francis Ford Coppola (the grandfather of the digital filmmaking movement) who had this to say back in 1991:

Coppola was right on track. But can you imagine if he would have said that “some day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to make a film with her cell phone camera….”—the response might have been, “Yeah, right when we’re flying around like the Jetsons.” Yet, in 2005 a feature was shot using a cell phone. Today there are several cell phone film festivals around the world.

Coppola recently made and released Youth Without Youth shot digitally with the high-end Sony F900. The Sony camera (along with the Viper camera) are reaching quality levels that match film resolution. But the biggest talk about the digital filmmaking seems to center around the Red Cameras and we’ll address that in Part 7.

The film verses digital debate is coming to an end.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood…(Part 7)

Scott W. Smith



Read Full Post »

The movie Paranormal Activity continues to be that little film that does mysterious things in the dark. The sub-$15,000. budget film averaged $25,000 per theater last weekend. (The number one film in total box office revenue had just under $9,000. per.) Much has been written about the film that was shot in 2006 with some friends over a seven day period, took ten months to edit, and two years to get distributed before earning $30 million in its first three weeks in the box office.

Oren Peli, 39. is the writer/director of the film and was recently interviewed by Peter Hall at Cinematical:

Peli: By trade, I am a software programmer, so I never really had any experience with movies before. I started out with Paranormal Activity.

Hall: So this was your very first stab at filmmaking?

Peli: Yes, pretty much, I never even made shorts or anything like that.

Now while while Peli apparently didn’t have a background in filmmaking, according to the L.A. TImes,  he did start his first software company when he was 16 so I guessing he’s a pretty smart and creative guy. (And in one interview with Rick Fiorino Peli talks about spending a year in pre-production.)  Another way of thinking about it is it’s been about a 25-year creative  journey for Peli. And once Steve Spielberg and Dreamworks got their hands on the film who knows what was the actual budget of the film being shown in theaters these days.

But like The Blair Witch Project it doesn’t matter. What matters is a handful of people got together at the writer/director’s house and took a $3,000. camera and made a film that people are flocking to see and when its worldwide run is completed will probably make over $100 million.

While the movie’s success is not normal—it’s not unheard of, and like I pointed out in my posts last year New Cinema Screenwriting (part 1) and New Cinema Screenwriting (part 2)—this is a growing trend.

Oct 30, 2009 update: According to The Wire Paranormal has now passed The Blair Witch Project as the most profitable move to date.

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

When Ed Burns came on the scene in 1995 with his film The Brothers McMullen he was the independent hero of the year. That film was made in the $25,000. range with a loan from his father who was tired of hearing Burns complain about his screenplays not getting made.

The Brothers McMullen won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in ’95 and went on to make over $10 million, which was very impressive until 1997 when The Blair Witch Project with an original budget around $35,ooo grossed well over $100 million.

But Burns has outlasted The Blair Witch gang in the long run. He’s not only directed nine features but he’s picked up work acting in movies and TV shows including Saving Private Ryan. Because his style of writing is more in the style of Woody Allen he’s a little off the radar because his films tend to be dialogue driven films.

But he continues to build his career brick by brick and find innovative ways to distribute his films. In 2007 he became the first filmmaker maker make a feature straight-to-iTunes release. You can hear an interview with Burns speaking about that film, Purple Violets, on NPR. In that interview he talks about the drop in art house audiences over the years due to TiVo, My Space, You Tube and the other ways that people are finding entertainment these days.

So I thought it would be good to go back and look at a quote from Burns about his life before The Brothers McMullen found its way to Sundance and before he found himself acting in a Steven Spielberg movie.

“I wrote seven screenplays that nobody wanted. I’d turn on the light, and there would be thousands of cockroaches. But that was the least of my concerns, because we also had mice and rats.”

Echoing again the process it often takes finding your voice and for your words to make it to the screen. Finding the audience to watch those words on the screen is a whole different process altogether. The good thing about Burns’ commitment to his style of writing and filmmaking is I think his best work is yet to come and he’ll probably be making films into his 60s & 70s.

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”
Norma Desmond
Sunset Blvd.

“Film will only become art when its materials are as inexpensive as pencil and paper.”
Jean Cocteau

“The future of filmmaking is changing and mobile-generated art is fast becoming the next medium for film. In five years, I believe we will be watching films in movie theaters that have been shot on a mobile phone.”
Spike Lee
(April 2008)

I stopped laughing years ago.

Back in 1995 I had a friend tell me she was getting married to someone she had met on the Internet. That was uncharted territory back then and fodder for many jokes.

Four years later when the creative team behind The Blair Witch Project stunned Hollywood with the use of their unusual marketing on the Internet it got everyone’s attention.

Now almost ten years later it seems as if the whole world has jumped on the Internet bandwagon. Video for the web is exploding and it’s hard to be surprised by the technological breakthrough of the month.

There is a new cinema coming and for the screenwriter that means new opportunities. So in two parts I’ll attempt to give a sweeping overview of this new world.

In May of 2005, I was on a shoot in Cape Town, South Africa when I read an article about a director in the United States who was making a national commercial with a cell phone. That’s when I thought to myself, “Someday, someone’s going to make a feature film with a cell phone.” In December of 2005 in Johannesburg, South African filmmaker Aryan Kaganof, shot the first dramatic feature film, SMS Sugar Man, entirely with a cell phone. A cell phone.

Kaganof, an accomplished filmmaker, told Ryan Fortune of Johannesburg’s Sunday Times’, “We are re-writing the book on cinema here…things will never be the same…from now onwards, all you’ll need (to make a film) is a good idea, a cellphone, a laptop and you’re off. It opens up a whole world of possibilities….” Fortune commented that the film is a perfect example of leap-frogging meaning a technological leap had occurred much like it had ten years previously with the advent of DV cameras and non-linear editing systems.

But also in 2005, the first feature documentary shot entirely with a cell phone was being shot. Italian directors Marcelo Mencarini and Barbara Seghezzi co-directed the 93-minute film, New Love Meetings. “With the widespread availability of cell phones equipped with cameras, anybody could do this,’’ Mencarini said, “If you want to say something nowadays, thanks to the new media, you can.”

Within a year of the cell phone feature breakthroughs, cell phone film festivals began popping up around the world. For the naysayers out there who question the quality of the equipment or films being made need to view the first copyrighted film, Fred Ott’s Sneeze. It was made in 1894 and features, well, Fred Ott sneezing. Yes, I paid a lot of money in film school to learn that, but you can see it free on You Tube.

In fact, you can see quite a lot on You Tube. Not just silly videos of teenagers lip-syncing pop songs, but there’s a mini film school hidden in there. Classic clips from Charlie Chaplin films, the opening tracking shot in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, and the shower scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho are available for you to study.

And you have to admit Judson Laipply’s The Evolution of Dance is original and funny. You have to take notice of a video that gets viewed 10 million times in its first two weeks and a year later as I write this is still the number one all-time viewed video on You Tube with more than 83 million views.

Things have evolved very quickly in digital filmmaking and distribution. I don’t know if there are more people making money in the digital world but there is a heck of lot more content. And that is a start and gives us a taste of what is to come. We know that the Internet is shaking up the industry as more and more people spend time on the Internet and less time watching TV programs and going to movies.

We know that in a few years video stores will probably revert back to the small mom and pop stores that sprang up in the 80’s with the demand for video rental. Stores like Blockbuster will have to diversify what they do to survive. I don’t think the need for people renting movies will ever totally go away, they’ll just become more like those funky retro record stores. (Heck, people still collect 8-track tapes.)

One of the good things that may come out of this is the rebirth of the filmmaker as artist. Because of the high costs of making films, filmmakers have always had an uneasy agreement with commerce. Only certain type of films could be made. Ones that could find a large audience. The goal was a high return on investment.

With the rise of the super blockbuster it was once believed that the studios would then make more smaller, less sensational films. That didn’t happen. Once studios got a taste of 100 million dollar box offices then that became the goal for every film. Bruce the shark in Jaws killed more than people.

Over the years I’ve read article after article where actors, directors, writers, and cinematographers lament over not making the kind of films they really want to make. Part of the problem is they too are caught up in the machine. But every once in a while a flower breaks through the concrete and gets made for the joy of it. Because the writer and or director have a vision beyond simply the box office. The real exciting part is when those films make money.

Not all digital films will turn out as well as Sketches of Frank Gehry, but that is part of the process. Remember, before Francis Ford Coppola made The Godfather he cut his teeth on Roger Corman films. Ditto that for Titanic writer/director James Cameron and many other filmmakers. Let’s look back and how far we’ve come in a short time.

I remember in the late 90’s when a filmmaker from New York told an audience at the Florida Film Festival, “I am a filmmaker, I make films with film—I’m not interested in video.” Many film festivals didn’t even allow films shot on video. Looking back it reminds me of the days when snow boarding was outlawed at ski resorts in Colorado. (Snow boarding now represents more than half the revenue at some resorts.) Things change. And these days they change rapidly.

When I was in film school in the early 80’s there was a line drawn between the film and video world. The film students looked down on the video and TV students,  just as did film actors looked down on TV work.

As the 80’s progressed both the VHS videotape market and cable TV opened new opportunities for filmmakers and the lines between film and video became blurred. The year 1994 was the year that I gave up being a film snob. That was the year that Hoop Dreams was released.

I didn’t care what it was shot on it was simply a great film—even if it was shot on video.

Film critic Rodger Ebert would later call it the best film of the 1990’s.  Up until that point there had been a lot of dabbling with video in Hollywood. Jerry Lewis was the first to use video assist on a film for his directorial debut The Bellboy. The first feature film shot on video was 200 Motels, co-directed by Frank Zappa in 1971. Coppola explored with video on The Outsiders back in 1982 mostly for a reference point while working with young actors.

This is a good place to end part one of New Cinema Screenwriting. My last post touched on David Lynch shooting Island Empire on DV and swearing not to return to shooting film. Whether that is another one of Lynch’s bizarre dreams or in fact reality time will tell.

“I think there’s a slight trend toward embracing new cinema, non-Hollywood blockbuster cinema. It’s not erupting, but because of the Internet, I think people have more of a chance to get buzz going on alternative cinema, so I think it’s hopeful out there.”
David Lynch

Granted this is all in the beginning stages which reminds me of an interview I saw last year with the founder of the Geek Squad who said, “What people don’t realize is the internet has not yet started.” Keep in mind that it wasn’t too long ago when Bill Gates dismissed the power and future of the Internet.

There is nothing wrong with having Big Budget Technicolor Hollywood Dreams but keep in mind that today in little towns and villages all over the world there are people experimenting with little digital cameras (even cell phones) and making movies. Writing words and making movies. And tomorrow we’re going to be watching some of those films.

It’s kind of like the golden age of Hollywood when they cranked out film after film to hungry audiences in a pre-television era. Films were sometimes made start to finish in a couple weeks. That’s how some directors directed over 100 films.   Most of those films are forgotten but the ones that survived shine brightly.

The first John Ford film that most people have heard of and perhaps even seen is Stagecoach which he made in 1939. (Though he did win acclaim for Arrowsmith and The Informer in ’31 & ’35)  Before he directed Stagecoach Ford had made 94 films in 22 years. (Think about the learning that went into the simple process of making that many films.)  There is a reason that Orson Welles’ is reported to have watched Stagecoach 40 times before he directed Citizen Kane.

He was in his 40’s when his career got rolling and making the films that we remember him for making. And he directed into his 80’s. There are some great older directors and screenwriters out there that the Hollywood system has forgotten even though they have some films still in them. Maybe if they pick up a digital camera they can make their best films yet.

Speaking of 1939, has there ever been a single better year for movies than 1939?

Maybe this new cinema is a return back to the future.

“I’m ready for my close-up now, Mr. DeMille.”
Norma Desmond
Sunset Blvd.

New Cinema Screenwriting (part 2)

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

wightbros200.jpg

“One day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart.”
Francis Ford Coppola

It’s hard to mark the beginning of the modern independent film movement. Certainly one could make the cases for the films of John Sayles, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, and Quentin Tarantino, but I mark the year of 1999 as the point when things really changed in the film industry.

That’s when a group of young guys in Orlando, Florida, created The Blair Witch Project. The graduates from the University of Central Florida shot with a mixture of 16mm film and consumer video cameras and made history. It is still the film with the highest ratio of profit to production cost of any film ever made.

One huge reason is that the filmmakers used the Internet to market their concept in a way that Hollywood easily could have afforded to do if they only had the vision. (They weren’t the only ones to miss the early boat. Bill Gates was not a cheerleader of the Internet at the start.) Hollywood caught the vision soon after the success of The Blair Witch Project, but they’ve been playing catch-up ever since.

I moved back to Orlando from L.A. at the end of 1988 just as the marketing campaign for Hollywood East was heating up. Disney and Universal were building production studios and Chapman-Leonard would follow suit.

Britney, Justin and Christina began doing their thing at Disney, and Nickelodeon found a new use for slime at Universal. Ron Howard’s Parenthood, Wesley Snipes in Passenger 57, and the building that blew up in the opening of Lethal Weapon III– were all shot in Orlando.

I wrote and directed a national radio drama at Century III (known as C-III) at Universal and received my first paycheck writing from Rick Eldridge who would go on to produce Bobby Jones Story; Stroke of Genius. I once was editing a video project at one of the suites at C-III while David Nutter (who I went to school with at the University of Miami) was editing a Super Boy episode he directed in the edit bay next to me. (Nutter went on to direct a Band of Brothers episode as well as some X-Files and has had quite a career in TV.)

Matchbox Twenty, Creed, and yes, The Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync were on the Orlando music scene in the 90’s, Shaq was in command for the Orlando Magic, and Tiger Woods moved to town.

It was an exciting time to be in Orlando. But perhaps the biggest underrated event in that era was under most people’s radar. Valencia Community College lured film professor Ralph Clemente away from the University of Miami. (He still runs the film program at VCC that Steven Spielberg said was, “One of the best film schools in the country.”)

I had an editing class with Clemente at Miami and had gotten a good grade in part because I edited a montage of found rodeo footage with a Willie Nelson song. Who knew the German born Clemente whose accent sounds remarkably like Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s would be a Willie Nelson fan? Clemente enjoyed telling student to try new things.

Years later a couple of students would be inspired by Clemente to make a mockumentary that hit the Sundance Jackpot. Most people forget that The Blair Witch Project wasn’t even an official entrant. It was a special midnight showing that created the buzz that hasn’t really gone away.

It was as a giant step toward to prophetic words that Francis Ford Coppola said on the 1991 documentary Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse:

“To me the great hope is that now that these little 8mm video recorder and stuff now, some–just people who normally wouldnt make movies are going to be making them. And, you know, suddenly one day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart, and you know, and make a beautiful film with her father’s little camera-corder and for once this whole professionalism about movies will be destroyed forever and it will become an art form. That’s my opinion.”

S]

I hope you’ve never been exposed to that quote before. It’s legendary in the micro-budget film world. If I was a fat girl in Ohio who wanted to make films I’d have that quote gold-plated and framed above my iMac.

I don’t know why Coppola picked Ohio as his frame of reference. Maybe he chose it for the same reason I titled this blog Screenwriting from Iowa. Ohio, like Iowa, represents the heartland of America and is more known for farms than film. And since I’m throwing around f-words, Ohio is quintessential flyover country.

But Ohio rocks. In part because the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is in Cleveland. LeBron James does his magic in Cleveland. The kings of high-flying dreams, Orville and Wilber Wright worked out of a bicycle shop in Dayton. The list goes on. (Did you know that the Wright Brothers lived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa at one time?)

And Ohio, like Iowa, has some interesting history connected to screenwriting and movie making: Sundance winner American SplendorMajor League, and the classic family film A Christmas Story. At the time of this writing the ever resourceful Internet Movie Date Base (IMDb) lists a tie for the top rated film ever by its voters as Coppola’s The Godfather and Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption.

The later having been shot in Mansfield, Ohio. That site is a character in the film. And you can still take tours there during the summer. (Mansfield State Reformatory in Ohio)

shawshank_sm.jpg

Antioch College in funky Yellow Springs can lay claim to helping to educate Rod Serling before he became an advertising copywriter in Cincinnati before becoming the famous writer & host of The Twilight Zone.

Speaking of Cincinnati, though its influence is probably small, it’s worth nothing that Tom Cruise (who Premiere Mag ranked as the #3 Greatest Movie Star of All Time) attended school briefly in Cincinnati and the highest box office money-making director of all-time (over $3.5 Billion) Steven Spielberg was born in Cincinnati. (And just to pile on George Clooney was raised just over the river in Kentucky.)

The former reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Joe Eszterhas, has returned to his Ohio roots but not before making his mark in Hollywood where he made as much as four million dollars a script. While no one would accuse the writer of Basic Instinct and Showgirls with writing regional Midwestern stories that doesn’t mean he hasn’t written any. In his book Hollywood Animal, Eszterhas mentions a distinctly Midwestern film he wrote that never got made because he was told, “Dirt don’t sell.” Most of the film F.I.S.T. written by Eszterhas (directed by Norman Jewison and staring Sylvester Stallone) was filmed in Dubuque, Iowa.

joe-e-5.jpeg

In his book “The Devils Guide to Hollywood,” Eszterhas offers advice to screenwriters such as “Move to the Midwest.” Talk about counter-culture? (And from a guy who once owed homes in Malibu, the San Francisco Bay area, and Hawaii–at the same time.)

Why would he give such advice? “You won’t be able to write real people if you stay in L.A. too long. L.A. has nothing to do with the rest of America. It is a place whose values are shaped by the movie business. It is my contention that it is not just a separate city, or even a separate state, but a separate country located within America. Real people live in Bainbridge Township, Ohio.”

(Perhaps that’s part of the success of Diablo Cody’s Minnesota-based Juno? Maybe she should write a tell all book and call it, Diablo’s Guide to Hollywood.)

But what does Mr. Eszterhas think about what that does for your odds of selling a screenplay? Glad you asked. These are the words every writer outside L.A. wants to hear:

If you write a script anywhere and send it to an agent in Chicago or Detroit or Cleveland or wherever…and if that agent sends it to an agent in Hollywood who loves it…you can sell your script. You don’t need to have any connections, you don’t need to have an agent, you don’t need to live in L.A. All you have to do is send your finished script to an agent anywhere. That agent will know another agent in Hollywood and you’ll be in business.”

Joe Eszterhas

Keep in mind Eszterhas is talking about the conventional Hollywood agent route, not the additional opportunities wherever you live by various production people who will be attracted to your script.

While not being fat or from Ohio, Zana Briski took a giant step toward Coppola’s vision when the English photographer picked up a handheld DV camera for the first time and made a film in Calcutta’s red light district. Co-directed and shot with Ross Kauman, Born into Brothels, won Best Documentary Feature at the 2005 Academy Awards.

Some people have been asking “Where’s that little fat girl in Ohio?” I think he may have meant Iowa. People get those confused a lot, you know?

But wherever she is she’s on her way. Although she may not make her film using her father’s camera-corder as Coppola suggested, but using her cell phone camera and posting it on the Internet.

Rewind back to 1999 when Steven Spielberg told Katie Couric on the NBC today show, “I think that the Internet is going to effect the most profound change on the entertainment industries combined. And we’re all gonna be tuning into the most popular Internet show in the world, which will be coming from some place in Des Moines.”

As in Des Moines, I-O-W-A. I don’t just make this stuff up, you know? When Couric remarked, “Great, I’m gonna lose my job” (No comment.), ” Spielberg interjected, “We’re all gonna lose our jobs. We’re all gonna be on the Internet trying to find an audience.” (Speaking of the Internet, to see a fun and original five-minute film actually made in Des Moines view Mimes of the Prairie, which won the 2005 National 48 Hour Film Project.

As Morgan Freeman’s famous character Red says, “Hope is a dangerous thing.”

Cheers to the new Mozarts in Ohio and beyond.

Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: