Sunday, January 25, 2009

Studio Crashing

[ This is the second installation in my series of reposted items from my now-defunct former website, yourdailyjoe.com. This post was originally published on January 25, 2007. ]

Studio Crashing

My plane landed in LAX. I was tired and bewildered. I had no idea where I was in relation to anything else, save for being west of Pennsylvania. It takes me a long time to get familiar with the geography of a new place. There are still parts of my hometown -- a rather small city in the afore-mentioned PA -- that confuse me geographically. Leave it to me to move to one of the most sprawled out cities on the planet.


I was picked up by my friend and soon-to-be roommate, Rob, who immediately sprung a surprise on me: his passenger seat was already occupied by a complete stranger, Tom the Austrian. I was completely out of it, completely disoriented, and now I was meeting new people. New people from Austria. It was an overwhelming afternoon.

As we drove towards Rob's apartment, I became aware that we were driving alongside a tall, long, plain-looking wall. Soon, the monotony of the wall was broken up by the movie posters hung on it. I lifted my head from the car seat. "What is this?" I asked. It was Sony Pictures Entertainment.


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So, L.A. really IS like that, is it? Growing up on the east coast, you hear grand mythology about L.A. You know it's where movies and TV come from, but you wonder... is it really so littered with production that you're as likely to run into a studio as you are a McDonald's? Apparently so.

Then came a further surprise. Rob's apartment was right in the same neighborhood as Sony. So there it was: I had just arrived in L.A., and I already found my very own friendly neighborhood major multinational multibillion-dollar studio.

Without a job, things moved pretty slowly those first few weeks. I had moved to L.A. with nothing more than the assumption of opportunities, and the assurance from Rob that his couch was at my disposal. And there I was, on that couch. Morning, noon, and night. This was the perfect way to slowly but surely get used to my new surroundings. I'd venture out occasionally, going to Donut King in the mornings with Tom the Austrian, or the nearby Subway with one of Rob's roommates. And whenever I'd go outside, there it would be, looming just a bit taller than all the other buildings. Sony.

When you have a big huge studio in your backyard, you start to pay attention to what may or may not be going on in there. I'd never heard of Culver City before; but now I was noticing constant references to it. I soon realized that, if I wanted to, I could WALK to "Jeopardy!" "Oh, yeah, 'Jeopardy'? That's right up the street. Want to go?"

It was during this same period that the movie "Antwone Fisher" was gearing up for its big release, which everyone expected to be followed by awards dominance. Articles about the Real Antwone Fisher were everywhere. Local magazines and newspapers covered a part of Fisher's biography that didn't make it into the movie: at one point, he was a security guard at a movie studio. Which studio? None other than Sony, of course.

I was riding out the remaining months of 2002 on a strained bank account, some credit cards, and the generosity of Rob and his roommates. But I was starting to feel the pinch. If I was going to stay in L.A. into 2003, I was going to have to get a job. It was time to figure out how to make my Hollywood dream come true. And what better place to start nosing around than my very own neighborhood studio? Hey, it had worked for 'Twony. Not that I was trying to be a security guard or anything like that.

So, one spare afternoon -- and, really, all of them were spare -- I decided to see how far I could get at Sony. I showered, shaved. I don't recall putting any effort into dressing particularly nice, which probably means I ended up in jeans and a t-shirt. And then I took to the streets. This was the first time I went anywhere in L.A. unaccompanied. And it was the first time I would set foot in a movie studio.


While most of the goings-on at Sony take place on the other side of that big, off-white wall, there's an office building situated across the street from the main lot, slightly removed and easily accessible from the sidewalk. It's not open to the public by any means, but it's also not dammed up behind a great big protective wall. So I slipped myself into the stream of people flowing toward the entrance and washed right inside with them.

Which is the exact moment when the full realization of the situation bubbled up to the top of my brain. I had not the faintest clue of where to begin. What, exactly, did I think I was going to do? Ok, I was inside. Now what? I froze up immediately.

The lobby was huge and free of furnishings and decorations. Very unwelcoming. There were dozens of people moving briskly in all directions. The first option that came to mind was to keep walking with the group surrounding me as I entered. If I could pass myself off as just another member of a crowd -- a crowd that belonged where it was -- then perhaps I would find myself on an elevator or a staircase. Perhaps I'd end up at the doorway to some suite where, say, "Spider-Man 2" was being planned out.

But I had hesitated, and it was too late to pretend otherwise. The security desk off to the right had already picked me out. Wow, that security desk was way the hell over there. There's a lot you could get away with before security would catch up with you. Of course, you'd have to have a plan. And I didn't. I was frozen. Good thing, too. While there's not much harm walking into an open lobby, I'd imagine only a few paces past the security desk would qualify as trespassing. "Catch Me If You Can" was soon to be released. But, no, I wasn't that guy.

This was all a big mistake. That was apparent, now. But I didn't regret it. Whether I belonged there or not, I could finally say I'd been on a major motion picture studio lot. And what I learned in that instant was, this was not a big deal at all. Hollywood is so mythologized in the world culture, but here I was in a completely down-to-Earth, brick and mortar place. I love movies as much as, or quite a bit more than, the next guy. But I knew right away that going to a studio was meaningless if you didn't have anything to do there. I wasn't "getting in touch with greatness," or anything like that. I was just inside some building that I now knew I had to get out of. Right away.

I walked toward the security desk, figuring this was the best way to stop them from walking over to me. There were three guards working there. I went for the one that looked most like a stereotypical movie guard. Appropriately chubby, middle-aged, squeezed into a cartoonishly authoritative uniform... the type of guy that always gets cast as a security guard.

"Don't know where you're going?" he asked.

"Umm..." was all I could muster. I was still formulating my plan.

"Who's that going to?" he continued.

I looked at my hands. I was holding something. A folder. Oh, thank God! I had brought a resume with me, on the off chance that I might find someone who would be willing to take it. And since you'd obviously never carry a resume around without putting it in something, I had stuck it into a generic manila file folder. This generously presumptive guard had just donated me some legitimacy. I understood right away. He thought I was a messenger, a runner. Unfortunately, I couldn't think quickly enough.

"I... don't know," I said. Damn it!

"Do you know the extension of the office you're trying to reach?" he said. This guy was affording me every possible benefit of the doubt. I don't know why he didn't just tackle me to the floor on the spot. He must really hate his job.

"Yes," I said. "I have that."

I pulled a pad of paper out of my pocket. Because, yes, I'm the type of guy who carries paper and a pen with him at all times. Because you never know when you'll need to jot something important down. Seriously. So anyway, I flipped open the pad, which was completely blank, and pretended I was staring at an extension.

"Phone," said the security guard, gesturing to a beige courtesy phone that had been drilled gracelessly into the redbrick wall. I walked over to it confidently. This would all be over soon. Just make a quick fake call, then turn around and leave.

I began punching digits, acting purposeful in the numbers I chose, lest I seem to be making it up. I expected to press four digits, but it started ringing on three. Just as well.

Wait a minute... SOMEONE'S GOING TO ANSWER THIS!!!

Slam! I hung up the phone. Hiding my panic, I turned to the security guard.

"You know what," I told him. "I better call my office and find out who I'm supposed to see."

I'm sure I didn't sound quite so eloquent in reality; but I had gotten the idea across. I took my cell phone out of the little hip holster I kept it in. Trusty cell phone. My OWN cell phone. What better way to fake a call?

I pressed a few buttons, pretending to pull up the number of my non-existent office. I fake-pressed the send button. I held the phone to my ear. Then, in a stroke of true genius, I devised a way to get myself out of that lobby even faster. Fake cellular static! I wouldn't even have to fake-talk to a fake-person. I pulled the phone away from my ear and held it in front of my fake-angry face. Fake-no bars. I hate it when I'm getting fake-no reception. Hate it! I scoffed with loud and exaggerated disgust in order to ensure that the security guard understood what was going on. Then, with the attitude of someone who simply didn't have time for such inconveniences, I stormed through the exit, where I would surely get better fake-reception.

I ran -- RAN! -- back to Rob's apartment.

As 2003 rolled in, I ended up with a part-time job at a Blockbuster in Santa Monica, where I would use my free employee rentals to see movies such as "Antwone Fisher" and "Catch Me If You Can." It wouldn't be long before I'd land jobs as a runner for various production companies and TV shows, giving me legitimate reasons to roam around major motion picture studios. But I'll always remember the first time I dared to set foot across that threshold, to make my dreams come true.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Video Project

Pittsburgh Filmmakers had, for many years, been a very small institution. But during my time in attendance, it was going through a period of tremendous growth. In my first year of enrollment, only three graduating seniors had films to present at the senior film showcase. The year I graduated, my film was one of nine projects screened.

When there are only three film projects in a graduating class, it makes sense to present them back-to-back-to-back. When there are nine, it makes less sense. Pittsburgh Filmmakers hadn't yet adapted to its growth and prosperity, and had not yet adjusted its presentation strategy for the senior film showcase. What that meant in practical terms was that some 220 people were squeezing into a 200-creaky-seat auditorium to watch an uninterrupted 3 1/2 hour presentation of student films. That's nobody's idea of a good time. The body heat alone was enough to kill; but the rain outside made everyone's clothes sticky and rendered the air in the screening room thick with humidity. Anyone would have fled that situation except for the people this event was designed for: supportive families and friends.

The films began to play, one after another. Some were good, some were less good. Mine was ok; I aimed for the middle, and that's exactly what I hit. Most were around ten minutes. There was a truly fantastic experimental film right in the middle of the program about 25 brilliant minutes long. But even if every single film had been intelligent, challenging and entertaining, this would still have been a monotonous and draining presentation. By the time "S" [see previous post] showed up in a third movie, people were ready to be done.

Finally, the eight film finished and the projector shut down. But the lights didn't come up. The crowd began to murmur and rustle. After about 90 seconds, there was a flash of light. Blue. A video projector had been turned on, all weak and blurry, magnified and thin, tinny audio.

The video began with a young couple on a blanket in a field. They were having the cliched lovey-dovey, gooey conversation. Then the girl said, in a cutesy way, something like, "What would you like me to do?" Suddenly, the boy responds "Die!" His voice was artificially deepened, and red flames were digitally inserted into his eyes. Let me say that again: flames were digitally inserted into his eyes! Then a freeze frame. Hard metal music blasts through the speakers. Oh God, we were in for it.

What followed was a brainless sci-fi story of industrial metal revenge. Needless to say, it made no sense at all. There was some tossed off backstory meant to explain why this guy had freaky eye-flaming superpowers, but who cared about the whys? The point of the whole thing was that the maker wanted to play with consumer-priced digital effects. Clearly inspired by "The Matrix" (still in its period of high popularity, before the sequels drained the goodwill from the fan base), the movie was a series of action set pieces, one right after the other, with no explanation of why this guy was going around killing people. Everything was shot in front of a green screen, which by itself isn't a problem; the problem is that the crappy, consumer-grade computer technology of 2002 was not sufficient to, you know, make things look good. Not to imply that the craftsmanship would have been better if professional-grade equipment had been used. Amateurism is amateurism.

Amateurism such as, for example, when the hero bent backwards to do the "Neo dodging the bullets" maneuver. You could clearly see that he was falling onto a green table that they weren't able to completely remove from the final effect. Comically, they didn't even bother cutting in clean audio. So not only could you see traces of the table in the shot, but you could also hear him thudding against the table top and skidding the legs against the floor.



So there were maybe 15 minutes of fighting and killing people. There was a fight with a computer generated robot with absolutely no texturing or shading. I completely forget how it ends, thank the lord, but I can almost guarantee you that our protagonist has a heroic death.

Now the audience was just pissed. After the long, arduous journey through three hours of somewhat decent films, we'd been subjected to this random, loud, unheralded (there was no reference to it in the program) mess of a video project. Worst of all, there were no credits at the end. In other words, there were no names on which to focus our rage. Who was responsible for this travesty? To this day, I have no idea who made it, where it came from, and why it was tacked onto the end of our otherwise respectable presentation.

As upsetting as that finale had been, I immediately put it behind me. There was a reception after the screening, and I was looking forward to basking in it with the other graduates.

Various family and friends offered their congratulations. There was mingling and snacking. Eventually, I ran into S. I smiled. He was already shaking his head. The disbelief hadn't worn off for him yet. He was looking for me to share it with him.

"Hey, good job," I said. "Your film came out great."

"...Ruined the whole night," he muttered.

"What?" I asked.

"That video at the end," he said. "It ruined the whole show. It brought everything down a level."

I couldn't disagree.

"Yeah," I said. "Who even made that?"

"I don't know," he said. "I don't know."

He shuffled off, still shaking his head in disgust, looking for more people to share his indignation. And that was the last time I ever saw S.

*****

Film school is often considered a bastion of snobbery. This is a prejudice it earns. In 2002, it was still appropriate to be snobby about film's superiority to video. All throughout my film school education, teachers would toss random anti-video remarks into their lectures. And their conversations. And, no doubt, on dinner dates.

Projects such as the video described here were exactly why. Whoever made that video wouldn't have wasted his (and our) time with it if he'd had to pay the costs of purchasing film, getting it processed, getting it scanned into a computer system, and printing the computer generated imagery back onto film.

But that was 2002. These days, video quality has improved tremendously, and continues to improve every day. An increasing number of major motion pictures are being shot on high quality video formats; before long, the majority will be. I embrace these facts.

The problem with the video project was not that it was video instead of film. The problem was the lack of discipline, the lack of care. Basically, the maker of that project just wanted to be cool. Some of the films during that evening's presentation weren't all that good; but in every case, the filmmakers were trying for more. Maybe they missed the mark, but the will was there and that makes a difference. What disappointed us all that day was the posturing, and the lack of inspiration.

You know, snob stuff.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Film Poster

[ NOTE: I began using this Blogspot site after abandoning a my previous website, yourdailyjoe.com, due to the terrible service and design interface provided by the web host service I'd subscribed to. Now that yourdailyjoe.com has officially been removed from the internet, I'm going to begin a series of reposts so that the items I wrote for that site remain available online. This first one was originally posted on January 16, 2007. ]

The Film Poster

Film school was drawing to a close. I had all the credits I needed. I had earned some of the best grades of my academic career, even winning a spot on the Dean's List. (I'm told that's a good thing, even though it sounded like the dude put a hit on me.) I and five other graduating seniors were putting the final touches on our senior thesis films. (There was also a video project due to screen that year, the nature of which deserves its own separate story.)

The Senior Film course was separated into two semesters. The first semester was pre-production and principle photography. The second semester was post-production and additional photography. Those were the "rules." And although rules are made to be broken, one of my fellow seniors took things a little too far. I'll call him "S." There are two reasons for this. One, I actually kinda liked the guy, and don't want to tarnish his name all across the Internet. And two, I'm a coward. But mostly for the first reason.

I met S shortly after beginning film school. In one of our first classes together, he stopped me and asked about the shirt I was wearing. It was a sort-of-maroon t-shirt with pale beige lettering and some weird dragon-esque design. I had received the shirt complimentarily when I attended the International Thespian Society's Pennsylvania state competition during my senior year of high school. S had been there too. In fact, he had performed the lead role in the opening night's play. I needed little reminding. It was a funny and touching show, tightly directed and performed. The moment he reminded me of that play, I could visualize him in it. It was nice to meet him.

We didn't really become friends after that. Nor did we become enemies. We simply became aware of each other. Sometimes we would talk before or after class. Sometimes we would work together on in-class assignments. But we made no effort to hang out outside of classes, and were both perfectly fine with that. He had his own social circle, and I had mine (mostly journalism and mass communications students). Besides, he lived off campus, which was an inconvenience.

The prerequisites for Senior Film were Film Production courses I though IV. Needless to say, you start out easy in Film I, and continuously build through Film IV. During each semester, you do ordinary book learning, and you experiment with some shooting. The final project for each class is a rough film, maybe five minutes long, demonstrating all the knowledge you've acquired thus far. Ideally, by Senior Film, you know everything necessary to go out and create your biggest and best project to date. I mean, obviously you're still learning. (As last night's Best Foreign Language Film Golden Globe recipient Clint Eastwood said, he's 76 and still considers himself a student.) But you should know enough about how to put a small film together, and you need to prove it during Senior Film.

S and I were in the same Film IV section. From day one, S already had his master plan. As soon as classes got underway, he made a request of the teacher. Instead of making a completed project for his Film IV final, he wanted to use his resources from Film IV to begin shooting his Senior Film project. Instead of showing a complete short as his final, he would show rough footage for his senior film.

The teacher was hesitant. That just wasn't the way it worked. Part of the learning process in Senior Film is to have your project analyzed every step of the way, scrutinized the way studio executives might one day scrutinize the work you do for them. Since S didn't have approval for his intended senior film script, the whole thing could theoretically be rejected, leaving S, well, s-out-of-luck.

But of course, that's not the way it went. I'll never know what strings were pulled outside of class. All I know is, S was given permission to begin shooting his Senior Film project while he was still in Film IV.

Clearly, that's not fair. But then again, who said things are fair? Part of me admired S's ambition, his ability to plan so far ahead, his dedication to seeing the film through and doing it his way. But the other part of me was pissed. The rest of us only had two semesters to work on our senior films. By starting his film in the spring semester of our junior year, S was giving himself three semesters, plus the summer break in between. That's almost a year and a half! Would he be graded on some sort of downward curve for this? Doubtful. By the time the rest of us were entering pre-production in our Senior Film classes -- still in the scripting phase -- S would already be in his ninth month of shooting. Again, very unfair.

The other issue was money. He had quite a bit more of it than the rest of us. And it showed. Although I certainly never saw his budget or receipts, it was easy to estimate how much S was blowing on film stock/speed/lens tests. He was shooting 15 takes of every camera set-up. He was ordering professional dailies, telecine transfer and all. These were luxuries the rest of us couldn't afford. I could barely afford to shoot and process three takes of each set-up.

I know, I know. Cry me a river, right? Some of this may sound petty. But you have to understanding that, when it comes to filmmaking, the budget, sadly, is everything. Obviously, a certain amount of talent and skill can be helpful. But assuming that most people who go through film school have a marginal amount of each, the two most important remaining ingredients are money and time. The more you have of each, the better film you'll be able to make. And, of course, the more you have of the former, the more you can spare of the latter. We've all heard the expression "time is money." That's the literal truth in filmmaking. Every second that passes is money being spent. Even on ultra-no-budget films.

S seemed to have an unlimited amount of money to pour into his film. That money bought him as much time and as many takes as he wanted. And although I doubt that S went so far as to bribe anybody, there's no question that his impressive financial standing was an influential factor in allowing him to bend the rules so easily.

Stories began filtering in from S's shoot. He had a trained dog that could act vicious and pretend to bite people. He closed down a bar at night to shoot a scene. He had a section of downtown Pittsburgh streets shut down to shoot a scene. Can you imagine? Shutting down a street to shoot a film involves paying off-duty police to monitor the traffic. Paying for the massive batteries and lights it takes to shoot an outdoor scene at night. Paying for permits. These things may be routine for a Hollywood production -- or even a low-budget indie -- but they are not things you do on a student budget.

I guess the thing that got to me the most about this whole thing was why he was bothering with film school at all. He apparently had the resources to do whatever he wanted to do. While film school is theoretically for learning, the truth is that there's nothing they'll teach you in school that you can't read in the books available at any library. The best part of film school is the access you're given to equipment that would otherwise be too expensive for most people to lease from any sort of equipment house. S obviously had the budget to lease whatever he damn well pleased. He wasn't shooting a student film; he was shooting an indie film. So why was he going through the motions of being in school?

One night, I went up the street to grab some Subway. When I walked back into the dorm building, I found myself in the middle of S's shoot. He had roped off a whole giant section of the lobby, and had hauled in more massive lights and generators that certainly didn't come from the film school rental locker.

"Hey, Joe," S said when he saw me. "Want to pitch in? We can always use more help."

What, and let the lettuce on my sub get withered and brown?

"You can come to the wrap party!"

Sorry, but I was busy that night.

"No problem. Hey, you can come to the wrap party anyway. It's gonna be a blast. I'll let you know when it's happening."

Ah, the wrap party. I didn't go, but I heard stories. Held at the estate of S's parents, the party was said to have been fully catered, with a complete and unlimited bar. The cast and crew, it turns out, numbered several dozen, and all were able to eat and drink well past their fill.

Meanwhile, the entire cast and crew of my movie had been, uh, I think ten people. And I could barely afford to buy them all pizza. THAT is student filmmaking, my friends.


The date for the senior screening was set. The graduating Senior Film students got busy self-promoting, telling everyone they ran into to come to the Harris Theater for the free show. But S, of course, took his self-promotion to a higher level. He created posters.

Now, these weren't corner store cardboard-and-construction-paper, running-for-class-president posters. S had gone to a professional company, and had glossy, professionally-designed one-sheets made up to promote his film. They started appearing all over campus, hung in every key visible place.

One night, while watching some TV alone in my dorm room (a favorite pastime during college), there was a knock on my door. As quickly as I opened the door, one of my mass communications friends, Jes, breezed into the room. She was bearing a gift. It was one of S's posters.

"I was thinking you could tear it up, or something like that," Jes said brightly. She couldn't contain her smile. She was preparing for me to take out all my rage on this symbol of so much angst.

I held the poster in my hands, and took a long look at it. It was really nice. Some sort of motion-blurred photograph of a man -- undoubtedly S himself -- standing in a motion-blurred field. It was bleak but energetic. Interesting and sad. Superimposed across the bottom were cast and crew credits, like you'd see on any real movie poster. And, of course, "A Film by S" scrolled across the top. If it wasn't quite Hollywood-grade quality, it was at least film-festival-grade; which was undoubtedly the intended destination for this film.

"I don't know if I should do that," I told Jes.

"I just thought it would be funny," she said.

"It seems a little too mean, I think."

"Now I feel bad," she said.

I apologized. We talked a little more about what I should do with the poster. I asked where she got it, in case I wanted to put it back on the wall. Eventually, Jes left. I was alone with my new burden.

I knew right away that I couldn't put it back on the wall. I'm the type of guy who always gets caught. If I step even slightly out of line, I'm busted. So, assuming I tried to do the "right thing" by re-hanging the poster, someone would surely catch me screwing with it, assume the worst, and God only knows what the fallout would be. So I folded up the poster and hid it in my dorm room closet, never to be seen by another soul. Just as well. No doubt S had a large box full of posters, and he could easily replace the missing one.

The day of the screenings, things were hectic. Parents and friends came from out of town to see the movies. Open to the public, the screening also brought in a surprising number of random people off the street. The theater was well past capacity. For my part, my parents, sister, and girlfriend came to town. My best friend, Paul, cleared his work schedule so he could be there. Several of my journalism and mass communications friends came up from the college.

The first movie played. S was in it. But it wasn't his film. One of the other filmmakers had brought S in strictly as an actor for his project. S was, after all, more than just a director. He was a thespian.

Another movie or two played, then came another one with S in it. Someone else had utilized S's acting skills.

My movie played, and received a middling response. Which is fine. By the time my movie played, we were past the two hour mark in the evening's program. The theater was cramped and overheated; people were tired and cranky. As one friend would later say, "Everyone was pretty S-ed out at that point."

S's movie was the last one shown (if you don't count the awful video project tacked on at the end). So, how was it?

Very, very well-crafted. Of course! How could it not be? The guy had all the time and money in the world. From the very first frame, the audience knew it was in a whole different league. His titles were done by an optical effects company. His lighting was the clearest and most professional of the bunch. His film was the longest, had the largest cast, had the most expansive scope. It didn't belong at all.

I guess you could say the movie was so good, it deserved its own separate screening. And, never fear, because that's exactly what it got. After its premiere at the senior film showcase, S rented out a screen at the Loew's Waterfront multiplex. Now, I'm not sure what it would cost to buy out a screening room for a day from a corporate theater chain; but I'm willing to bet it's several times more expensive than the combined budgets of all the other senior films that year.

Things quieted down after the senior showcase. Classes were basically done for me, and all I had left to do was wait out the remainder of the semester. I began tearing down my room, and packing up all my things. That's when I found the poster again.

What was I supposed to do with this thing? I couldn't exactly find S and give it back to him. He probably wouldn't even care to have it at this point (though he might be interested in hearing me explain why I had it).

So I finally did what Jes had wanted me to do all along, but without the rage or vengeance or humor. I took out a pocket knife that Paul had given me a year or so ago, when he and his then-girlfriend were going through a knife collecting phase. Calmly and patiently, I slid the knife down the middle of the poster. Then I put the two pieces together, and took another slice straight down the middle. Jes wasn't there to see it, but I like to imagine that some metaphysical sense of justice and balance reached her at that moment.

The poster in four pieces, I checked the hallway to make sure no one was around. The floor quiet and deserted, I safely rushed to the trash bin and pushed the poster pieces to the bottom.

I would later find out that, since his film had been made using "educational equipment," S was never allowed to make any money from it. He couldn't sell it to one of those short-films-DVD compilations, nor to any other type of distributor. All he could ever do is let people see it for free. I don't consider this any sort of vindication or last laugh. S probably knew this all along, and poured all the money into the film anyway so that he could use it as a calling card for prospective employers, or something like that.

If that was his plan, I have no idea of knowing whether it worked or not. For the life of me, I cannot remember S's last name. And his first name is, as you might guess, far too common to Google or IMDb on its own. Even a web search for past International Thespian Society programs turns up nothing.

Not that I'm a stalker, or even remotely obsessing over him. It's just that I recently remembered the incident with the film poster, and I was curious to know what S might be up to these days. As I mentioned, he was a pretty nice guy. And I can't deny that he did a good job on his senior film. It would be interesting to see if he's carved out a decent career for himself by now. I'd be genuinely happy for him if I found out he had become successful.

After all, he might be able to hook me up with a cool job.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Precarious Post-Production of Reality TV

One day, sitting in the office at work, some coworkers began to comment on a peculiar odor wafting through the air. I described it as chemical-y at the time. Speculation abounded about what, exactly, we were smelling. We ruled out fire. We ruled out strange food. But what was it? Concern grew, and eventually we all decided to vacate the building.

I was working in post production at "The Amazing Race" and, as we all stood in the parking lot for five minutes, then ten, then twenty, my thoughts began to drift to what would happen if, hypothetically, we were never allowed back into the building. What if it was a fire? What if it was some radioactive chemical spill? What if whatever was happening upstairs would cause the complete destruction of all the materials in the building?

If that had been the case, then "The Amazing Race" would not have aired that year. Everything related to the season was in that one building. If the building were lost, the whole season would have been lost with it.

This is not a unique situation. I've worked on many shows at many different companies now, and all of them do the same thing: they put all their eggs in one basket. Or, they put all their tapes in one building.

This surprises me. It always has, and it still does. While property destruction and/or injuries are always a tragedy, you'd think that networks and production companies would want the show to go on regardless of circumstances. But they don't. I'm sure they have some sort of insurance in place to recover the loss if some fire burns up a season before it has a chance to air. Still, recovering your money is one thing; completing and airing the show is another. If you're already promoting the upcoming season of a show, don't you want to make sure you deliver on that promise no matter what?

I'm certain that these thoughts have crossed the minds of those with the power to do something about it. I know this because, once an episode is complete, multiple copies of the master tapes are always made and are usually distributed throughout the country - typically Los Angeles and New York; Atlanta if you're working for Ted Turner; maybe Chicago in other circumstances. This guarantees that if something goes wrong in one place, there's a backup in another place.

Call me crazy, but it seems like they'd want the same protection for the raw materials while the show is being constructed. At the very least, why not take the tapes to a second location after they've been digitized into the computer system. (For beginners: Most shows are edited on the Avid system. The footage recorded on tapes is imported into a huge server - usually a system called Unity. All of the Avids draw their footage from the Unity. So once the footage is in the Unity, why aren't the tapes taken to some fireproof vault or something for protection?)

All it would take is one little fire in one little building, and everything would be lost. If there were a fire at my current job, for example, half of MTV's programming would be up in smoke. They might be forced to -- gasp!! -- air videos.

Just to be clear, let me say that I'm speaking strictly of reality TV here. I can't speak from personal experience with regard to how movies or scripted TV shows are handled in post production. I'm reminded, however, of an incident widely reported about the Tim Allen movie "Jungle 2 Jungle." An entire day's worth of footage was lost and had to be reshot. It is believed that the footage was accidentally left in a taxi by the person transporting it.

Now, this just blows my mind. First of all, they were transporting the day's shoot in an average New York City taxicab. You're telling me they didn't have a special van, or a production assistant with his or her own vehicle set aside for the specific purpose of getting the film to the lab? We're using taxis for this? Second, how many other things were on this person's mind that he or she FORGOT THE FUCKING FILM WHEN LEAVING THE TAXI?! In my mind, if you're sending someone to the lab with the day's footage, the most important thing on this person's mind should be delivering the footage. Your job and the jobs of hundreds of other people depend on one thing: getting a film made. When all is said and done, millions of dollars and thousands of work hours are represented by that pile of film accompanying you in the taxi. I'd place that as a high priority. Just me?

I guess it is just me. Let's face it: the system seems to be working. The airwaves are cluttered with reality shows, and the world was not deprived of the brilliance of "Jungle 2 Jungle." It all just seems very precarious to me. And when so much money is at stake, you'd think the people spending the money would want as many guarantees in place as possible.

But they don't. So what do I know?

Friday, January 9, 2009

2008 In Movies and TV

Okay, I'm going to just come out and say it: 2008 was a pretty bad year for movies and TV.

Except for when it wasn't!  The stuff that was good was actually great.  But, at least in my opinion, there weren't too many of those good things.

Box office sales were down overall; yet in the same year, we had the highest grossing movie since Titanic.  Summer movies, notorious for being loud, flashy and brainless were instead loud, flashy and intelligent.  I'm speaking, of course, about Space Chimps.

Roger Ebert, bless his optimistic heart, was enamored with so many movies this year that he insisted on creating a top 20 list instead of a top ten.  But as he himself notes, "distribution has reached such a dismal state" that most of these movies never played in general theaters and you probably haven't heard of them.  If most of the greatest movies of this year were unavailable to audiences, is it still fair to say that it was a great year for movies?

Meanwhile over on TV, things have taken a downward turn.  I agree with Jeff Jensen's evaluation of 2008: the spectacular run of quality television we've been enjoying for quite some time now has officially come to an end.  Most of the best shows have finished their runs; the remainder are due to end soon.  Once-great shows have turned into the biggest disappointments.  And audiences are disappearing.

Don't forget that when 2008 began, the writer's strike was still ongoing.  The audience left.  When shows resumed, a lot of the audience felt no need to return with them.  Even the almighty American Idol was down an average of 3 million viewers last season.

Without a doubt, the writer's strike of '07-'08 will be remembered as the point where everything changed.  It's still unclear what the entertainment landscape will look, but change is happening nonetheless.  My prediction has long been that broadcast networks will end up running mostly reality shows, game shows, talk shows and news; most scripted shows will end up on cable.  NBC took a dramatic leap toward that conclusion when they donated their nightly 10 o'clock time slot to Jay Leno.

If this sounds bleak, then allow me to be reassuring.  These things are cyclical.  If 2008 was a great exhale, then we're due for an inhale soon enough.  But by then, you probably won't be running to the TV to watch it.  You'll be running to your computer.