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LESLEY CHILCOTT - COVER STORY

Posted By Chris Green, Thursday, January 28, 2016

No one likes being a documentary producer. You either love the job, or you don’t do it. No middle ground.

To choose to produce a project—in any format—is to invite a world of headaches into one’s life. Budget problems, schedule problems, talent problems, post-production problems… the list will go on as long as you let it. Documentary producers get to enjoy all of those tribulations, but with a fraction of the budget, compensation and public acclaim that their counterparts in scripted film and television enjoy. You have to love the job, maybe even love it too much.

PGA member Lesley Chilcott openly cops to being an addict. "I still do commercials to support my documentary habit,” she admits, mock-sheepishly. "It’s like a virus. I think once you have the privilege of being able to share someone’s truth, you want to do it more and more.” And indeed, she’s been sharing a lot of truths during the past several years. A veteran of countless PSA shoots, Chilcott served as co-producer on An Inconvenient Truth, arguably the definitive doc of the century’s first decade. She subsequently teamed with Truth director Davis Guggenheim to produce acclaimed documentaries like It Might Get Loud and Waiting for ‘Superman,’ winning the 2011 Producers Guild Award for Outstanding Producer of Documentary Theatrical Motion Pictures for the latter. Of late, Chilcott has added directing credits to her filmography, most recently CodeGirl, the feature she produced and directed last year about the Technovation Challenge, an international competition that showcases teams of teenage girls around the world striving to develop and code community-oriented mobile apps.

Chilcott with DP Logan Schneider on location in Moldova
for
CodeGirl
Breaking free of the December holiday rush for an hour, Lesley Chilcott sat down with Produced By editor Chris Green at a roadside juice bar in Woodland Hills. Over the whine of machinery churning out kale-carrot-cucumber beverages, the pair discussed the halcyon days of MTV, the nature of Netflix’s unprecedented commitment to documentaries, and the enduring influence of Mark Lewis’ Australian cult-doc masterpiece, Cane Toads: An Unnatural History.

How did you find your way into the business?

I was studying business at USC, in something called the Entrepreneur Program. I wanted to start a vegetarian fast-food chain. But my friends were in cinema school and I was constantly crashing screenings and sneaking into one of the classes. I had always been a huge movie buff, but never had thought of it as a career. No one in my family had ever done it.

I finished college early and wasn’t super thrilled with the restaurant industry, based on what I’d learned. And maybe I was a little ahead of my time with the vegetarian fast-food chain idea. So I started working at MTV as a PA, right after it turned 10.

So that’s at the point where the network was evolving from pure music videos to producing its own shows.

Yeah. In fact, because I was based in LA, I worked on many of the live multi-camera shows. I was part of the first team that created the MTV Movie Awards. I remember sitting around the room brainstorming with Joel Gallen and others, "What weird categories could we have? How about Best Action Scene. Best On-Screen Duo? We came up with the craziest stuff we could. And even though I was close to entry-level at that time, everyone got to have input.

I think a lot of people start in this industry not sure what they want to do. But because I had this business background, I had more direction, though I must admit I didn’t think of it on my own. It took my college friend to say "Why don’t you think about going to the Peter Stark Program at USC? You’d be a great producer.” That was food for thought. I knew I was on that route, but at MTV, if you stuck around, pretty soon you were handed the reins to do something. So I never made it back to grad school.

I worked on the MTV Movie Awards, the Video Music Awards, ½ Hour Comedy Hour, all those sorts of shows. You start as a production assistant, then you have a little more responsibility, then you’re an associate producer. I think you got the better credit to get you to stay. I was the associate producer on a show called Trashed. That was my first real producorial experience. It was a comedy game show where we blew contestants’ possessions up—we "trashed” them—if they didn’t answer our questions correctly. I had a lot of responsibilities on that show.

There was always something fun going on at MTV, but I followed the VP of Production, Joel Gallen, when he left the network. In fact, the only real job I’ve ever had was helping him start his company, Tenth Planet, and even that was a start-up. I can honestly say that I’ve never had a real job.

I did two- to five-year cash-flow projections for Joel and finally put my degree to use. I worked with him in production for nine months, and then through my friends at MTV I started doing commercials, hundreds of them. Through that, I got to work with some of the very best directors. Some of them were full-time commercial directors like Joe Pytka, and some of them came more from film or television, like Tom Hooper, Bennett Miller and Todd Field. What’s great about commercials is that I had the chance to get to work with so many different directors, and I didn’t have to commit six months or a year of my life to it. It was three weeks. It’s been such a pleasure for me to be able to have these moments with these very big talents and learn what I could from that. Especially now that I’m directing myself. In fact, I’m very thankful for a job I did with Todd Field where he turned to me and said, you should be doing this, directing. He was very encouraging.

As a producer, sometimes you try and adjust your producing style so that you can cater to whatever director you’re working with. This person is a visualist, or this person is a master storyteller, or this person is an amazing production designer or all of those things. I was constantly trying to put myself in their shoes and think where might I need help if I were them. Wearing those different hats and working with so many different directors on commercials really inspired me to direct myself.

It wasn’t that I wanted to be a director my whole life. I was perfectly happy as a producer, but started directing because one day, I was covering for a director I was working with. There were two things happening that we needed to shoot, so I had to shoot some things myself. On a documentary, that happens; you have to split up to cover everything. I kept doing that, and then one day I finally thought, "I think I can do this myself.”

There’s also a lot of overlap between roles on documentaries. It’s the director’s vision but it’s generally a partnership between the director, the producer and the editor, because there’s no script. The editor then especially becomes an important storyteller, because they’re the ones who will first notice. "This person is way more interesting than we thought,” and that changes your entire direction. They’re often fulfilling the role of a writer. It’s just after they’ve already shot, instead of beforehand. They’re the writers after the fact.

That’s a really neat characterization. So how did you go from commercials to documentaries?

Well, as fun as commercials can be, sometimes there’s a lack of substance.

You don’t say?

[Laughs] Yeah. So usually once or twice a year as a commercial producer, I would make it a point to do a public service announcement, whether it was to help a cause, or a director, or a client, or someone else we had a relationship with. There was this amazing camaraderie that would happen because, inevitably, we had no money. We could pay a fraction of what would normally be paid. I always figured, well, if everyone is going to get paid poorly, then everyone may as well just get paid the same thing. I mean, you can’t ask a production assistant, who’s already the least-paid person, to get paid one-eighth. That wouldn’t even be legal. So I said, "Let’s just pay everybody the same thing.” And it created this incredible "we’re all in it together" spirit. I’d be producing spots for this cause or that cause and so I would research the cause and learn more about it, which led to seeking out more and more PSAs, which was not the norm.

So I was working with Arianna Huffington and Scott Burns and Lawrence Bender and Laurie David, part of a group called Americans for Fuel Efficient Cars. We were trying to create these deliberately provocative PSAs that said if you drive an oversized SUV then you’re indirectly supporting terrorism, and here’s why.

We thought it was fantastic. And every time we would complete one of these, right before it was supposed to air, it would mysteriously get pulled, through pressure from Detroit and other sources. So then we would call the news and often they’d do a story, running the commercial full length on the 10 o’clock news. And that gave us way more eyeballs than we would’ve ever have gotten.

It was that kind of activism that pushed me into shooting documentaries. I had also seen a documentary. I admit that I didn’t see it when it first came out; I came to it late. But it was called Cane Toads.

Oh, Cane Toads is a phenomenal movie. For about a year, I screened it for nearly everyone I knew.

So then, you know. When I saw Cane Toads, I realized this was a different genre than I’d been led to believe. Not only is this hilarious, but it’s crazy, pure craziness. Instead of just this dry story about how the cane toad was introduced to Australia to fight the cane beetle, you had images of Kombis driving down long roads trying to run over cane toads and little girls who kept giant poisonous toads as pets. And I thought, "That’s what I want to do.”

I can’t tell you how gratifying it is that there’s a Produced By cover story that has its roots in Cane Toads.

Cane Toads was one of those movies that indirectly put me on the path to working with Laurie and Lawrence. They had recently gone to see Al Gore’s slideshow about global warming, and within 24 hours Lawrence Bender and Scott Burns had both called me to attend a meeting about the slideshow Al Gore was giving. And I showed up and I knew everyone except Davis Guggenheim, and Davis knew everyone except for me.

Within that meeting, we decided that we needed to fly up to San Francisco, talk to Al, and convince him we were the team to turn his slideshow into … something. We weren’t sure what. And of course, it ended up turning into An Inconvenient Truth, which was the first documentary I produced.

A few months went by and Davis called and said, "How about you mostly quit what you’re doing and I mostly quit what I’m doing, and we form a documentary production company?” And it took off from there. I think once you have the privilege of being able to share someone’s truth, so to speak, in a documentary, you want to do it more and more.

For instance, when Davis and I were following around Al Gore, we had these great conversations with him. But we’d bring the camera out and he would unconsciously revert to talking points. He’d been speaking in public for so long he just reverted to them whenever he saw the camera. Finally Davis said, "Let’s just do an audio interview with you.” And so Al talked like Al. We started doing that more and more.

After we had shot the majority of An Inconvenient Truth and Sundance was coming up, we realized that there were a few things that we were missing. So we met with Al to interview him, audio only, one last time. And Al is like, "God, another interview.” Davis interviewed him for so long that the sun set and they forgot I was even in the room. That interview became 75 percent of the voiceover in the film. So even if you have this very well-known personality, sometimes you really have to drill down to get them to be themselves.

What it was like to watch An Inconvenient Truth become not just another documentary but a kind of a cornerstone for contemporary doc storytelling?

Chilcott reviews a cut of An Inconvenient Truth with
VP Al Gore, Kristin Gore, and producer Lawrence Bender
Well, to my knowledge no one had ever made a movie out of a slideshow. So it was a real surprise to all of us. It took what people had thought of as a very complicated issue and articulated why this is an issue and why viewers might have been confused about it. But the fact that a movie starring Al Gore, on the topic of global warming, featuring a slideshow, became any sort of a hit still blows my mind. I’m always telling people, "Analytics are amazing but you have to be careful.” If we had extensively focused-grouped this movie it never would’ve come out in theaters. When I’m trying to advise producers starting out, I tell them, "Use all the analytics available to you, but then you’ve got to stick with your gut and make the larger decision.”

When you think of something that you’re just so sure about and everyone thinks you’re crazy, it doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t crazy but just that it may not be the right time for that project. I interviewed Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter, and he told me he actually thought of Twitter back in 2003. It was before Facebook, and people thought his idea of giving updates on what you were doing in 140 characters was really odd and weird, so he put it on the shelf. Facebook came out in 2004 and in 2006 Jack took the idea off the shelf and suddenly it wasn’t so weird.

Documentaries have never been as inventive as they are now. We’re bringing nontraditional tools to documentary filmmaking and telling them in all sorts of new ways. And I think that that’s really exciting.

So working then with Davis, how did you build a company to try to replicate that?

It sounds very grandiose, right? It’s not like we had a development department and a full-time editorial staff. It was just me and him until we had a project. He was still doing pilot work, I was still doing commercial work, and in the meantime we’d brainstorm on what documentaries we would do, and then some documentaries started coming to us, and some we sought out. After An Inconvenient Truth, there were a lot of projects that we started and didn’t finish or we got busy with something else.

What is it that allows you and Davis to click as an effective filmmaking team?

Here’s an example. When we were developing a documentary, Davis said to me, "You know, a documentary needs time to find itself.” Meanwhile, I’m trying to do the budget, get ready for our pitch meeting … I just needed information. So Davis might say, "A documentary needs time to find itself,” but my response is something like, "Well, can it find itself a little faster? Because we have to go pitch this in a couple of hours.” That kind of became our joke. "Do you know how many people you might need to shoot this or do you need time to find yourself?” We always had a good back and forth.

At the same time, I knew exactly what he meant, and he’s not wrong, but it’s a perfect example of how our partnership worked and kind of how documentaries work. With a narrative feature you have a script, so you know, well, there’s 13 roles and there’s 14 locations. You have a breakdown. Even if you change it later, you can at least plan. But when you’re writing a documentary treatment, you’re like, "I think this would make a wonderful story. And I think it would be great if we can get this particular person. And if we can’t get that person, we’ll go in this direction.” There are all of these conditions. It gets complicated. So you just have to guess. I always ask, what is the minimum possible days I could do this in? And then you throw in a couple extra days for good measure. I’m always "squirreling away my nuts” until suddenly we’ve found our direction—aha, this person is the key; we need three more shoot days. And you hope that you’re covered.

What is it that makes a story take on the critical mass where it’s not just an idea, it’s an actual production?

I wish I had a good answer for you. I think in scripted projects there comes a point where you know you’re making it because you’re casting, right? Somebody had to finance that. Or sometimes you cast without the financing and get people attached as a way of attracting financing.

With a documentary you don’t have a script circling around. But I think that if the subjects that you want to cover in a documentary are interested and you know that you have access to them, you can start there. Documentaries are essentially a point of view, right? So we’re always pursuing this truth as told from your character’s point of view. I think that there comes a point where you’re committed to telling the truth no matter what it is, even if it has nothing to do with what you wrote in your treatment. But you have to have an engaging enough treatment and you have to show that you have access to these people to at least get your first bit of funding. And then you have to decide, do you raise money as you go, or do you wait and raise it all at the beginning, and then go? I’ve done it both ways. With CodeGirl, I didn’t raise my last bit of money until postproduction. For Waiting for ‘Superman’, Jim Berk at Participant Media had been a high school principal. He knew he wanted to do a film about education. He came to Davis and I and asked, "What would you do?” We spent months writing a treatment, gave it back, and Participant greenlit it based on that treatment. We started down that road, threw that away, and made an entirely different movie, which ended up being Waiting for ‘Superman.’ And that happens more often than not with documentaries.

How did CodeGirl evolve?

I heard about this wacky contest where high school-age girls from all over the world had three months to write a mobile app. The only rule was that it has to solve a problem where the contestant lives. I had read all the dismal statistics about the lack of women in tech and how every major tech company was creating programs for girls because the lack of diversity was a real problem, not for just diversity’s sake but in pursuit of well-rounded ideas, creativity, execution … everything really.

So I thought, "Well, the contest starts every year in January. I have to start now. I don’t have time to raise all the money so I’m just going to raise a certain amount of money.” So I raised this miniscule amount of money and started filming. Then I had something to show, a little clip, which I used to raise more money. Then I had a slightly longer story string and raised money as I went. That worked for that project. But if you’re going to do something like An Inconvenient Truth and follow a former Vice President around or any high-profile individual, you are better off raising the money beforehand. There are no rules for how best to do it.

So what is the marketplace like for documentaries
right now?

Amazing and dismal. On the one hand, documentaries are getting more coverage in the press and in blogs and in digital content sites than ever before. The amazing thing about a company like Netflix is that as part of their plan for you—this is going to sound trivial, but really, it isn’t—you get a billboard. So Netflix has done maybe 13 or 14 documentaries total. But they give them feature film treatment. You go to the festivals, you get the PR agent, you get the amazing poster, you get all their marketing genius and you get a billboard in LA. It’s amazing to see documentaries on billboards. We’re so used to flying stand-by, so to speak!

On the other hand, fewer people are going to the theater to see them. Once I finished directing and editing CodeGirl, as a producer I thought, "Well yes, I want traditional distributors to like CodeGirl but really I made the film for teen girls.” That’s not a small market but it is a different market than the film festival market.

Teen girls aren’t going to Sundance. Teen girls aren’t going to see documentaries in the theater. Teen girls watch YouTube. I didn’t know how my investors were going to feel about this, or if I could get a distributor after giving away my film for free but I felt I needed to make my film free for five days so teens could see it. It needed to be free for Sunday through Thursday, and then on Friday it could be available in theaters and VOD. This is what I needed to do to solve the problem of getting to my audience directly.

So I called Julie Ann Crommet and she set up a meeting for me at YouTube with Made w/Code, Google’s initiative to get more girls into coding. I asked, "Has anyone ever given away their film for free before it went to theaters and VOD?” They said, "No, no one has ever done that.” So I said, "Let’s do that.”

I was very insistent that none of the money could come from tech companies, because I didn’t want someone to say "Oh, this was really just for ABC tech company’s PR.” Google had nothing to do with funding or doing the movie. There’s a bit of a disconnect between funding for narratives and documentary. When you produce a narrative feature, you take money for product placement and you produce a movie in the hopes that it will make a profit. But with documentary, you don’t do this generally, you don’t want anyone to have influence over the film. So Made w/Code came on just for the "freemium” window on YouTube and it made perfect sense for us.

Made w/Code was an amazing outreach partner and I felt very lucky. It aligned with their goals of interesting more girls in coding and it aligned with my goals of reaching teens on YouTube. It actually came out on YouTube in four languages.

Wow. Really?

Yeah. Obviously we had English. But we shot in all these different countries. And Made w/Code said, "Why don’t you release it in Spanish, Portuguese and Hindi, because some of the winning teams were from Mexico, Brazil and India?” So we did that. Almost a million people saw it in those 5 days. And I know from our analytics that at least 89,000 of them were teen girls.

Then FilmBuff was brave enough to take on this new model with me and became the film’s distributor for our theatrical, VOD, TV, digital and educational releases. Now, we’re going to be the first film, narrative or otherwise, on Mashable starting January 6th. CodeGirl is the first video rental ever on Steam, the gaming portal. So we’ve been trying for some firsts. The producer side of me kept saying, "The market is changing. How can I reach my market in new ways?” If you have an original way to reach whatever your niche market is, you’ve got to do it. Even though I feel like what I’m doing is small, I know that when you directly reach your audience, the impact can still be big.

I think that as a nonfiction person, you constantly have to think about "How do I make it bigger?” I mean, we could’ve just shown An Inconvenient Truth to all the environmental groups. If we had thought that way, yeah, they all would’ve seen it, but I’m not sure who else would have. But we thought, along with Participant Media, "Let’s put this slideshow in theaters and make the trailer so over-the-top scary that we scare people into the theater.” That’s not the approach that you would traditionally think for a documentary. I think you’ve got to identify your market and then ask, "How do I get beyond that market as well?”

There’s definitely more content available than ever before and you’re fighting to get eyeballs on your project so identifying your market is more important than it has ever been. With platforms like YouTube, on the one hand, the barrier to entry is lower and maybe the production value doesn’t have to be as high to attract online viewers, but on the other hand, the stories have to be even better because there is so much competition.

I feel like documentary filmmakers are always right there on the edge, and you’ve got to be careful because you might run out of money or make a bad decision. You’re constantly, constantly trying to figure out how to make things work, but often you get to the real truth that other people can’t get to. And for me that’s really rewarding.

- Feature photography by Kremer Johnson Photography

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SURVIVING THE GOLDEN AGE: If Content Is King, How Can We Be More Loyal Subjects?

Posted By Andrew Singer, Thursday, January 28, 2016

20 years ago this month, at the precipice of our current digital age, Bill Gates published an article titled "Content is King”. In it, he correctly predicted that content would be where the real money would be made in the digital age, just as it had been in analog broadcasting.

One of the exciting things he proposed about the emerging digital age was the possibility that anyone with access to a computer and a connection could publish whatever content they could create, and distribute it worldwide at basically zero cost. As such, Mr. Gates’ thesis was that the monopoly on content distribution would become sort of digitally democratized, and the relative value going forward would be in the content’s creation, rather than its distribution.

He went on to predict that for the digital age to thrive, quality content creators must be well paid for their work, and noted that while the long-term prospects were good, he expected a lot of disappointment in the short-term as content companies struggled to make money through advertising or subscriptions, observing, "it isn’t working yet, and it may not for some time, but over time someone will figure out how to get revenue.” He even went on to examine the potential pros and cons of advertising (namely scale) versus subscription (namely revenue) models.

An uncanny amount of what Mr. Gates predicted came to pass. Twenty years later, advertising and subscription services do define digital content distribution, and compete for market share for the exact reasons his article examined. The cost of distribution has been eviscerated by digital technology, enabling new platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon to emerge. And Mr. Gates’ central thesis, that quality content would be more important than the pipes it’s delivered over, is no longer a thesis, but simply an accepted fact. Regardless of how a platform generates its revenue or delivers its content, the thing the audience cares about is the quality of the content itself. Or as my boss once told a jargon-prone new network president, "you can only develop so many strategies for not making hits”.

Yet one of Mr. Gates’ predictions has not come true. While content is where the value is created, the comparative revenue received by its creators is often far less than the portion retained by distributors. Produced By proposed this article as a discussion about some of the possible reasons why.

First, the good news. The proliferation of distribution platforms has created an unprecedented opportunity for content creators. Broadway Video has worked to make the most of this golden era of television, producing new shows for cable and streaming platforms in addition to Lorne Michaels’ marquee late night roster for NBC. Shows like Portlandia, Documentary Now, and Man Seeking Woman would not have had appropriate platforms even ten years ago. By keeping production costs low, shows like these thrive with relatively small but passionate audiences, allowing their creators and stars to retain more meaningful rights and equity. Time magazine referred to this phenomenon as "The Rise of Artisanal TV Comedy”.


Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein in "Portlandia", broadcast on IFC
From a producer’s perspective, it works like "Moneyball” for programming. Unlike network television, your development strategy doesn’t strictly have to be about homeruns. If you hit enough doubles, you can win the game. But of course, it’s not that simple. This explosion of opportunity has created some side effects that adversely affect content creators’ leverage in the marketplace. The number of platforms competing for market share has created not only unprecedented opportunity, but also, inadvertently, an inflation of inventory.

As John Landgraf said at the summer TCAs, there is probably too much television. The number of original scripted series on the air has surpassed 410, and will probably continue to grow through 2016 before the market corrects itself and the number ultimately declines. Landgraf foretold that the process will be Darwinian and weighted towards companies with the financial wherewithal to weather a storm of inevitable failure. "We’re playing a game of musical chairs,” he told us. "And they’re starting to take away chairs.”

Anecdotally, we all have observed how it becomes nearly impossible for even voracious audiences to keep up with that many shows. Jonathan Krisel, the co-creator and director of Portlandia, mentioned the sense of relief he feels when he hears a new show isn’t particularly good;there’s one less thing he’ll have to worry about making time for. Overwhelmed by so many choices, marquee brands and dominant platforms like HBO, FX, and Netflix become ever more important to viewers as the curators through which to try out new shows. The importance of that curation tips the leverage in favor of well-branded platforms, rather than content creators.

To be fair, those platforms have earned that leverage. They are taking on more financial risk than ever before, competing to launch more shows than can possibly succeed, which in turn makes the launch of each new show all the more difficult. Landgraf again: "You take a fixed audience and divide it by 400 shows, and most shows are going to see ratings go down.” The enormous library of older shows and movies now conveniently available across the streaming platforms intensifies that fragmentation, as does the web, social media, and the multitude of interactive applications and games competing for our attention. Platforms must spend more marketing dollars than ever before to generate attention for each new series amidst this clutter. Furthermore, the unprecedented risk platforms now endure is compounded by audiences’ diminishing tolerance for commercial breaks, having grown accustomed to ad-free streaming and premium platforms. So it’s understandable that when a hit finally does break through, the companies shouldering all this collective risk try to exploit it in order to keep the lights on for everything else.

But there is another, rarely discussed side effect of all this opportunity, which also diminishes content creators’ leverage. In this golden age of television, everyone has the opportunity to have his or her own show; it’s time that we recognize that not everyone should. Until recently, there has always been more talent than there are "slots”. For the first time in television history, that paradigm has flipped. There are more networks and streaming platforms making more shows than ever, but there remains a relatively fixed number of exceptionally talented creators and stars.

It’s possible some creators and performers with their own shows would be better served by a series they didn’t have to carry on their own. Part of the problem is that the entertainment business is suffering from an industry-wide, bubonic plague-scale narcissism epidemic. Reality television has demonstrated that everyone—even those with no show business experience whatsoever—believes they should have their own show and be famous. This inclination is indulged by a culture of agents and managers who rarely tell clientsthe truth about where they stand or how realistic their ambitions may be. And producers are likewise culpable, taking half-baked ideas to market with writers in need of a script sale but without fully-formed ideas for series. Presented with an inflated marketplace spilling over with seasonal opportunities to develop shows, they grab the opportunity whether a project has legs or not. Bernie Brillstein used to refer to this development clutter as "fake show business”—and the low success rate it perpetuates diminishes content creators’ credibility and leverage.

With the platforms awarding so many creators and performers their first big breaks, and carrying the costs when many of those shows fail, it’s no wonder they both have and exploit the leverage to own everything—often worldwide and in perpetuity. They’re stocking their shelves with discounted merchandise that the industry is all too eager to provide. It has become too fragmented, and consequently, too disposable. The level of competition has created an extraordinary inflation of both opportunity and inventory.

Ironically, this explosion of opportunity even for unexceptional shows is happening as audience expectations for excellence continue to grow. That’s why when a fully-realized show from an exceptional creator and starring real talent is available on a great platform, it can dominate both critically and commercially. (Game of Thrones and The Tonight Show both come to mind.)

At Broadway Video, we’ve been encouraged to take our time putting shows together. This can include licensing underlying book rights, attaching directors and talent, and even shooting low-cost presentations before pitching an idea. I’ve studied good producers and learned how they stack the deck every way they can. In today’s TV landscape, Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, and Tracy Morgan each could easily have had their own shows, but when they combined forces with the help of Lorne Michaels, they made 30 Rock—and won 16 Emmy awards. That’s inspiring. At the inception of Portlandia, Fred Armisen could have secured a large fee to star in a network comedy series, but he took favored-nations scale, and bet on himself, Carrie Brownstein, Jonathan Krisel, and IFC. In doing so, he protected both the show’s creative vision, and secured a more meaningful upside in success. That’s inspiring, too.

How do producers navigate this fast-changing landscape and manifest the theoretical leverage Bill Gates predicted content creators would eventually have. Can we help to change this culture of seasonal development? It’s a question we’re still puzzling over. With a problem this complex, with so many pieces in constant motion, the answer—whatever it is—isn’t going to be a simple one. So what are producers to do?

Here is one timeless, easier-said-than-done recommendation: To have old fashioned upside in shows—the kind our predecessors romanticize about and Bill Gates predicted we would eventually have—our generation needs to do the hard work of the iconic, "old fashioned” producers: putting together creators with stars, delivering them to the right platforms, and unrelentingly protecting those projects at every turn year after year. More than ever, we must have higher standards than the buyers themselves, because the buyers don’t have the focus nor, often, the expertise to do that job. They’re far too engrossed in the zero-sum game of gaining market share to handcraft hits themselves.

But perhaps that’s the good news. Perhaps this excess of programming can have a positive effect for strong producers, by highlighting the importance of the work we do. With so many projects in the hopper, the platforms need producers they can trust: producers with exacting standards, talent relationships, track records, and the time and patience to nurture hit shows.

In the two and a half decades since the repeal of the fin-syn rules, vertically integrated media conglomerates have devalued the role of producers. The networks created studios through which they make deals directly with talent, and many came to rely on a revolving door of in-house executives to oversee their shows—avoiding giving up valuable fees and backend to both producers and outside studios. What gets lost in that shuffle? The difficult and time-consuming work of putting together and maintaining hit shows. With more content than ever before, some platforms may well have bitten off more than they can chew. A dearth of good producers in an unprecedented glut of content can create opportunities for us.

Here is my hope: If we do the hard work of identifying and developing relationships with the stars of tomorrow, and put them together in the right combinations, on the right projects, at the right platforms, content creators will earn the leverage Bill Gates anticipated we’d have all those years ago. It’s a simple enough mission, though just about impossible to execute perfectly. Each show is like its own startup company, with an inherent tendency to fall apart and with everything in a constant state of change. But that’s my admittedly challenging goal for 2016. Take the time and really put a show together. The standard of writing, directing, and performance shouldn’t be based upon what we can sell—because in this market, producers can sell most anything —but in what we would want to watch for years to come. If we’ve done our jobs, we’ll end up with real leverage--and even more importantly, a real show.

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SWIMMING WITH SHARKS: Good Guy Clay Newbill Runs The Show At The Top Of The Reality TV Food Chain

Posted By Michael Ventre , Thursday, January 28, 2016

In the tortoise-hare dynamic, Clay Newbill’s career has been mostly tortoise. His slow and steady trek toward the peak of the alternate-programming hill has come about through hard work, perseverance, patience, skill, smarts, and good old human decency.

But there were a couple quicksilver moments of clarity more attuned to the hare that had a tremendous impact on the Shark Tank showrunner. The first came when he was just a lad living in Florida.

"From an early age, the first school play I ever saw, I knew what I wanted to do,” says the son of an Air Force pilot, who moved around a lot before settling outside Daytona Beach. "I wanted to be in the entertainment business. We had just come to Florida, I was the new kid at school, and a few weeks in, there was an assembly in the cafeteria and the curtain pulled back and it was a play of A Christmas Carol. I turned to a kid next to me and said, ‘How do you get to be one of the kids on the stage?’”

The second came in 2008, at CBS Radford studios, as the pilot for Shark Tank was being shot. "Our control room was upstairs,” Newbill recalls. "So I’d come down between pitches to chat with the "sharks” and I’d have to walk through our crew. And all of our crew, everyone who was there—agents and whatnot—were all gathered around a monitor, and all talking about what just happened.

"They were fascinated,” he continues. "Now these are people who are very critical, because they’ve seen everything. And they were just completely [riveted]. There was something hypnotic about it. Something magical was happening.”

L from B: Robert Herjavec, Clay Newbill,
Mark Cuban,Kevin O'Leary, Daymond John,
LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, Lori Greiner.
That kind of magic doesn’t happen overnight; generally, Newbill leans "tortoise.” That side of the analogy better reflects the painstaking rise through the non-fiction television jungle in which he traveled the world, accumulating a wealth of practical experience, making contacts and friends along the way and seizing opportunities when they presented themselves.

Shark Tank, which has been going now for seven seasons, is the culmination of a slow, steady and determined push forward. "People at his level … a lot of them are insane,” laughs Shark Tank executive producer, Yun Lingner, a colleague of Newbill’s for more than 10 years. "There are huge egos. Big personalities. Super insane crazy yellers. They have this instability.

"What’s amazing about Clay,” she counters, "is that he’s such a reasonable person. You can get successful through the ranks in so many different ways. He’s really been in the trenches. He has such a strong and incredible work ethic. Other producers really respect him because he knows what he’s doing and works so hard. He’s that combination of being calm and measured and rational—which is sadly rare at his level—but also creative and funny.”

Indeed, if you look around his office—unassumingly tucked away on the second floor of a modest structure on the far fringe of the Sony lot—what you don’t see is evidence of a cult of personality. It’s Newbill’s own heroes that get the attention: a prized football signed by Dallas Cowboys legends Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin; framed album covers—the Beatles and Herb Alpert, as well as the soundtracks from Goldfinger and Thunderball, a nod to his dad, a James Bond buff.

Newbill presides over one of the most popular reality shows on television with all of the swagger of a trusted accountant, yet his reality resume is the stuff of Hollywood big shots: co-executive producer on The Bachelor, executive producer on The Mole, Who Wants To Marry My Dad?, Top Designer, and American Inventor, stints on early, format-defining series like the Los Angeles and San Francisco seasons of The Real World, as well as Making the Band. And before that, lots of grunt production work at what was then known as Disney-MGM Studios while he lived in Florida, working with such television luminaries as Don Ohlmeyer, Screech Washington and Kim Moses.

"When you’re running a company as I am and you’re hiring somebody to run a show, you want to find that person you can just have confidence in and who knows when to bring issues to your attention and when to handle it himself,” says Jon Murray of Bunim-Murray Productions, whom Newbill credits with giving him his start. "Clay is a real adult. He gets it. He knows when to raise a concern or to just send an email and say, ‘This came up. I took care of it.’

"There are people like that,” Murray adds. "But they’re a special breed. When you find someone like that, you want to hold on to him. We were lucky to have him for so many years, but we’re proud of the success he has had with Shark Tank and his other projects.”

Shark Tank is based on another Sony property, Dragons’ Den, a popular hit in many parts of the world. The format is simple: entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to potential investors.

"Our show embodies the American Dream,” notes Newbill. "Though Dragons’ Den has been successful in many territories around the world … there’s only one country that has its own national ‘dream.’ That’s worldwide. People all over the world say, ‘The American Dream.’.”

Even as Newbill observes, "The moment the show becomes predictable, we’re dead,” he also knows that the drama built into the format assures that Shark Tank by its very nature remains unpredictable.

"I like to say that Shark Tank is like a courtroom drama,” he explains. "Somebody comes in, the entrepreneur, and they give testimony, and the sharks are cross-examining. When you’re watching a great courtroom drama like The Verdict, when you watch that cross-examination, you as a viewer, you’re swinging back and forth, you’re on the edge of your seat—‘What’s going to be the answer to this question?,’ ‘How’s it going to impact if they’re guilty or not guilty?’


Clay Newbill on the set of Shark Tank with "sharks" Kevin O'Leary, Robert Herjavec, Daymond John,
and fellow executive producer Yun Lingner
 

"The difference in Shark Tank,” he continues, "is that you’re thinking, ‘Are they going to get an offer, or are they not going to get an offer?’ With every question asked, it’s something you can sit at home with your family or whoever you’re watching with, and say, ‘Oh they’re going to get a deal’ or ‘This is perfect for (Mark) Cuban or Lori (Greiner), Barbara (Corcoran) or Daymond (John). This is right up their alley.’ Then as they do their search and discovery and they ask their questions and get their answers, that pendulum is swinging back and forth. That’s the excitement of the show.”

But again, it was a tortoise-like approach by Newbill, executive producer Mark Burnett, Sony and ABC that enabled it to become the hit that it is today.

"We realized—and thank goodness ABC realized—if you look at the model from the U.K. and Canada, it took three seasons for it to reach the tipping point where it became a hit,” Newbill reports. "We knew it would take the same here. In all the territories where it was successful, that was the model.

"When you hear the concept, it’s not a big hook,” he adds. "But when you watch the show, you get it. You’re hooked. That’s what I tell everybody: Watch it once and you’ll get hooked. Thank goodness ABC believed in it enough that they stuck with it for those three seasons. Sure enough, when the third Season came: BAM!”

One prominent shark believes he knows why. Says Cuban: "Without Clay, Shark Tank doesn’t work. He makes the magic happen.”

And the magic probably happens because Newbill knows it’s not the result of magic, but rather elbow grease, creativity and human relations—elements in his portfolio that he’s been honing for years.

"There are so many intangibles Clay brings,” confirms Rob Mills, senior vice president of alternate programming for ABC. "His passion is first and foremost. Clay is one of those unsung heroes of reality, because he’s worked on everything. With Clay, it’s really all about doing great work. He has zero ego. His preparation for everything is intense. And he never gets complacent. He’s always thinking about what we’re doing, not just now but a year from now and five years from now.”

Holly Jacobs, executive vice president of reality and syndication for Sony Pictures Entertainment, fills in the picture: "This is an interesting show. There are a lot of moving parts. All of the many, many entrepreneurs to manage, to navigate, to hear their stories. Then you have a lot of very interesting sharks who have incredibly busy lives, who are unique personalities, who are really smart. That takes a lot of navigation. Clay has a very, very calm and centered way of managing it all. He gives you a lot of confidence and he’s very, very good with detail.”

Murray said he knew that Newbill was special when the two worked on The Real World together, when Pedro, a young Cuban-American cast member who was HIV positive, got sick during production and had to fly home to Miami from San Francisco to be checked out by his doctors.

"Clay and me and a camera person and an audio person all went with Pedro and spent a week with him in Miami,” Murray recalls. "Working with Clay for that week showed me a sensitive side of him as a human being, especially in his care for Pedro and his concern for Pedro’s family and friends and our work to try to document this while being sensitive to everybody. It was amazing.”

When Newbill is away from Shark Tank, he’s usually at home in Manhattan Beach with wife Jaesuk, a flight attendant, and 6-year-old son Wyatt, who recently got on skis for the first time during a trip to Mammoth. Newbill loves to surf, an obsession he picked up when he lived in Florida.

Back in 1991, after graduating from the University of Central Florida (he has since set up a scholarship there and offers paid internships for students to work on Shark Tank) and doing some production work at Disney, he packed everything he owned into his car and drove across the country. He rented a room with two other roommates in Manhattan Beach, a town he fell in love with. Later, after traveling a ton and saving up, he bought a house in the town, where he still lives with his wife and son. He worked diligently over a period of many years, taking whatever opportunities that were available, moving forward, learning and striving to improve.

In other words, he pursued and achieved the American Dream. Now he’s running a show that gives others the chance to do the same.

"Shark Tank has definitely resonated with our society,” he says. "You see someone walk down that hall and hit that rug and start their pitch, you can relate to that person because they’re trying to overcome some great obstacle. They’re trying to get success. They believe in something with their entire spirit, and here they are to convince the sharks this is something worth doing and get the investment that takes them to the next level with their business.

"I think Daymond John said it best: It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, race, color, creed, whatever. You hit that rug and you’ve got your shot.” Clay Newbill can relate. He took his shot. He didn’t miss.

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EVERYTHING CONNECTS: What Can CES Tell Us About The Future Of Content?

Posted By Lori H. Schwartz, Thursday, January 28, 2016

You don’t have to be a self-professed "geek girl” to understand that technology is fundamentally changing the way we live our lives, use our homes, perform our jobs and ultimately how we pursue our life interests. And there’s no tradeshow that better demonstrates where technology is going than CES®, which stands for the Consumer Electronics Show. This past January, more than 170,000 people, with 50,000 coming from outside the U.S., headed to Las Vegas to attend this internationally known week-long event that’s focused on electronics and technology.

This year, the show grew tremendously, with more then 3,800 exhibitors and more than 2.47 million net square feet of exhibit space at both the Las Vegas Convention Center, The Sands Expo and The Aria at City Center. Most people return home from CES® with great insights, an overwhelming hunger to buy and implement a lot of new tech into their lives and very sore feet and backs.

Understanding what happens on the show floor is critical to every business and especially the content business, as show runners, filmmakers and storytellers of all kinds strive to leverage technology for the efficient production of content but also to understand the implications this technology will have on our lives.

No organization understands the impact the technology is having more then the CTATM, (formally CEA®), which runs CES®. In November the association dropped electronics from its 15-year-old name and replaced it with technology.

"Our membership and the consumer technology sector have grown and evolved to engage almost every major industry segment and America’s burgeoning startup economy, touching almost every part of consumers’ lives,” said Gary Shapiro, President and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association. "Our new name—the Consumer Technology Association—more accurately represents this growth and the excitement and innovative spirit of the industry we represent.”

Oh, That Internet of Things

Remember the movie Her? By 2020, the number of Internet-connected devices is expected to reach a staggering 50 billion—with 6.1 billion smartphone users, a quarter of a billion connected cars and 10.2 million units of smart clothing. This marks the shift away from the Internet, and the access of any kind of content being defined by clicking in a browser, using a remote control or even physically handling any type of media to view music or videos. Our world is moving towards a pervasive connectivity to the consumption of media that will that reach throughout our homes, vehicles, offices, malls, hospitals, and practically wherever else we interact.

At CES 2016, the "Internet of Things” (IOT) was at the heart of Eureka Park, the startup destination at the show. There were 500 startup companies in the Eureka Park Marketplace, up from 375 in 2015. Organized by incubators and accelerators like Tech Stars, TechCrunch and Indiegogo, by countries like France and Israel and by technology solutions like 3D printing and wearables, Eureka Park is a wonderland of new ideas: Since its inception in 2012, the companies debuting their presence at CES have raised more than $1 billion in investments.

TO KNOW MEM IS TO LOVE MEM
Microelectromechanical Systems (MEMS) are tiny pieces of tech that integrate both mechanical and electrical components to "report” on the physical world around us. They are comprised of miniature tech that senses their environment. These "sensors” are the backbone of all the devices that are springing out of the IOT world. The first sensors that came to market in consumer devices are those in your phone: cameras, accelerometers and light sensors. As sensors continue to get cheaper and more efficient, more complex devices will come to market.

Throughout the week a number of contests and "battlefields” were held where entrepreneurs went head to head pitching the value proposition of their ideas. These "pitchfests” are fast becoming theatrical experiences (see ABC’s Shark Tank) as our cultural appetite for tech startups as entertainment grows (see HBO’s Silicon Valley). For content producers, innovative solutions for capturing media and better, smaller, more efficient accessories were everywhere, including new types of screens like Corning’s extremely bendable glass which could also display images and respond to touch. Sphericam, a very cool camera startup, won TechStar’s pitch competition for "IOT and Wearables.” In a year where virtual reality has captured the heart of Hollywood, this beautiful round camera delivers, recording spherical video in 4K resolution for playback on VR headsets with the simple push of a button. Little jewels like this camera are found throughout the show, though you have to mine the floor to find them.

Content Discovery Will Be Heard

Amazon’s cloud-based voice assistant Alexa (like Siri , Google Now and Scarlett Johannson’s Samantha), first came to market as the "personal assistant” inside of the company’s Echo speaker and was showing up everywhere on the floor as an operating system that integrated third-party devices. My 6-year-old took to it right away. At its simplest, it’s a voice interface for accessing content throughout your home or any other environment where there’s an Alexa device. You can play music, listen to podcasts, have a Kindle book read to you and of course, order products on Amazon all through vocal commands. My daughter loves to ask for the soundtrack to My Little Pony’s Equestria Girls; she doesn’t have to think about the channel or platform, she just asks for what she wants to hear. Increasingly, consumers will be coming to expect that same seamless interaction with content.

Product Placement Gone Wild

A company called Trakr demonstrated the future of products in a connected home. Trakr has low-energy Bluetooth (BLE) tags, little pieces of plastic often called "beacons,” that attach to different "things” in your life. These beacons can ping your phone and tell you where that "thing” is located. You can literally find anything that has the beacon tag attached … Think "find my iPhone” but for your glasses case, your purse, your husband. (Not kidding.) Trakr is partnering with companies like Hewlett-Packard, Cross Pens and Royce Leather to build the beacon inside the product, so you don’t have to have tags hanging everywhere. At CES, it announced integration with Alexa so you can use vocal commands to activate Trakr. Think of the implications to storytellers, including brands, when the everyday items we use start generating information about how we use them.

Alexa, where are my keys?
"Your keys are located in the living room.”
OMG!!!!

These integrations are all financed by Amazon’s Alexa Fund, which is a program to fuel voice-technology innovation.

Data is the New Co-Star

Wearables were the first example of IOT that came into the public consciousness more than a year ago and are finally to moving away from chunky plastic bracelets that track activity to more sophisticated sensor-equipped clothing, tattoos and even ingestible sensors for monitoring and diagnosis. The data that all these devices are creating is impacting every area of life from healthcare decisions, smart appliances and smart homes, to gaming and entertainment, and even channel surfing.

Vert, a sports technology company, has already taken it to the next level by generating real-time data that becomes content in sports broadcasts. VertCast is Vert’s wearable jump monitoring device. In last fall’s NCAA Division Women’s Volleyball Championship, the athletes wearing VertCast had their jump height data shown in real-time on ESPN2. The data not only became a point of conversation for the sportscasters but also for the other athletes and fans watching at home; ultimately, data becomes a character, a relevant figure in the experience of the game. Soon, with interactive overlays and other "lean in” technologies on connected screens, wearables can create direct audience engagement with their favorite celebrities and sports stars.

When The Screen Is The Thing

In the world of IOT, "things” don’t just do one thing, they do many. Beam at first glance, is an LED light bulb that fits into any light socket, but it’s really a "smart” projector. Screw the Beam device into a light socket and it turns any surface into a screen. Its projector has a small computer that works with an Apple or Android based app and streams content over Wi-Fi, meaning you can throw any video or image content you want from your phone to that Beam projector. And like many IOT device companies, Beam’s vision is to become part of a larger ecosystem, where multiple beams are working to bring "infotainment whenever, wherever.”

Virzoom, a connected bike, actually connects to a virtual-reality head display so that your bike riding seems to take place inside of immersive environments or settings. As you pedal, you could be riding a horse or flying on a dragon or just riding a bike, but in the Tour de France. Is it a game? Is it VR? Is it exercise …? The reality, virtual or not, is that when things get connected, they evolve and become something else. Very quickly we will be living in a world where any surface can hold content, generating countless opportunities for storytellers to connect with their audiences.

Partnerships are the New Black

In a world buoyed by sensors, software, devices and great design, can any one company do it alone? This new world requires partnerships. On the show floor, Fitbit demoed its new Blast watch—its direct competitor to the Apple Watch—but the most crowded area of its booth was the case with Fitbits designed by Tory Birch, which look like works of art.

Under Armour, the clothing manufacturer, has become quite a content brand with a number of partnerships. One such collaboration was with HTC to create Healthbox, a fitness platform which features smart hardware, including a sports band that tracks data on sleep and daily physical activity and a Wi-Fi-equipped scale to measure weight and body fat percentage. It fits into its larger business play to own the complete journey towards fitness, as they’ve strategically bought a number of applications to put inside of the Under Armour Connected Fitness™ platform, a suite of applications in the digital health and fitness space (UA Record, MapMyFitness, Endomondo and MyFitnessPal).Under Armour hosted a plethora of athletes and Olympians at its booth as well, including Tony Romo, Michael Phelps, Buster Posey and Cal Ripken Jr. There’s a race to own fitness and all the other data connected to the measurement of self. This software, hardware and design elements are, taken together, a bridge to a world where data can be used for medical insights, emotional responses to content experiences and even tracking the speed of which you fly on a virtual quidditch broom.

Is That Really a Toy?

Unlocking IP is another benefit to a connected world where fictional characters and settings can now be more deeply integrated into the fans experience.

Disney is a major player in the "tech IP” space and having survived another holiday season with my daughter, I can tell you there were a number of connected toys that were hard to pass up. The Disney Store featured artificial intelligent toys from its Disney Animators Collection (a flounder, an Olaf and a Stitch). These toys respond to specific lines of dialogue from their host movies, based on a series of vocal prompts. Of course, the hottest toy this year, spun off from the biggest box-office success to date, was a replica of 

the BB-8 droid from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Sphero’s BB-8, a tiny copy of the robot from the movie was a version of a Sphero remote control ball. The company is well known for creating gyroscopic balls that connect to an app and receive new commands from the cloud. Sphero’s BB-8 can autonomously move throughout your home or office and showcase a number of pre-programmed movements and respond to voice commands. At $150 dollars, it was selling out everywhere. It brought the movie home in a way that an analog toy could never have done.

All that said, the folks running the show know that clever as technology may be, tech alone will not deliver an audience. "The technology is in service of the story and to kind of create the magic, but it’s not there to be front and forward,” said Michael White, Senior VP and CTO of Disney Consumer Products and Interactive Media, at the CES® Panel, Making Disney Magic: Connecting Digital and Physical Worlds. "If we do our jobs right, you never see the technology.” 

 

- top illustration by Elena Lacey


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ECONOMY OF SCALE: Six Things I Learned From Working On "Anomalisa"

Posted By James A. Fino, Thursday, January 28, 2016

Over the past three years, I’ve had the great fortune to be part of the team that produced Anomalisa, the stop-motion animated film written by Charlie Kaufman, directed by Charlie and Duke Johnson, produced out of our company, Starburns Industries, and distributed by Paramount. Over the course of that time, I’ve had a ringside seat to the design and creation of a truly unique and singular achievement in animated storytelling. Anomalisa’s recent Oscar nomination is only the best and most recent affirmation that sometimes, taking big creative risks can yield even larger rewards.

Every producer knows that you can expect to be challenged with a wide variety of problems with each new project. But with something as unique as Anomalisa, you can expect to learn more than usual.

THERE’S NO SUBSTITUTE FOR INDEPENDENCE

I was part of the group that founded Starburns Industries in 2010 with fellow producer and PGA member Joe Russo II, Dino Stamatopoulos, and Dan Harmon. The idea behind the company was to create an environment that aimed to nurture fresh new voices and talents, giving artists a home and giving them space to take creative risks. There’s a strong independent streak among nearly every animation artist I’ve ever met or worked with, even if it’s not usually on display in the work of the established animation studios. Everyone understands why studio animation is risk averse … highly-animated features can easily cost upwards of $80 million and take four years to make.

Starburns was designed to cut artists loose from that and give them the tools to push their creative visions as far as they could go. Dino and Dan are widely recognized as writers and producers with a history of pushing the envelope themselves. Alone and together, they’ve got credits like Community, Mr. Show, Rick and Morty and Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole. Creative freedom means everything to them, and when they talk about Starburns as a place to support it, they’ve got total credibility.

Something as weird and as beautiful as Anomalisa doesn’t happen often in Hollywood. But in this case, the project got its start because Starburns is truly committed to unique and independent creativity. We’re only glad that we got the chance to live up to that commitment with our first feature.

A GOOD STORY CAN COME FROM ANYWHERE

Starburns had produced popular content from the very beginning like the stop-motion Community Christmas special, as well as Season 2 of Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole, Rick and Morty, and a 2D animated G.I. Jeff special, but we were also searching for something that could serve as a major project for us—not even necessarily a feature film, but a signature piece of animation that could demonstrate the best work our studio could produce.

Dan and Dino remembered attending Carter Burwell’s Theater of the New Ear at Royce Hall at UCLA back in 2005, and seeing—or hearing, rather—a performance of Anomalisa that Charlie Kaufman had created as a "sound play”; the piece was about 60 minutes. They had thought it was really powerful and had remembered it years later. Dino was friends with Charlie from their time on the writing staff of The Dana Carvey Show, and approached him to see if he’d be interested in adapting Anomalisa as an animated film. Charlie was initailly hesitant to embrace a visual adaptation of something he’d originally created as a non-visual experience, but based on his respect and affection for Dino, he agreed to develop it further with us and see where we could take it.

It just goes to show that a great idea doesn’t have to come from a comic book or videogame or bestseller or news article. Sometimes it might come from an avant-garde "sound play” your friend and colleague remembers seeing five or 10 years ago.

KICKSTARTER IS FOR REAL

As soon as we started to explore an animated adaptation of the story, our director Duke Johnson immediately started developing visual treatments for the world of Anomalisa while fellow PGA member Rosa Tran began assembling a potential schedule, crew roster and budget. We needed start-up capital to begin making it a reality. We looked into potential partnerships with studios and streaming platforms, but none of them was ready to commit to Charlie and Duke’s distinctive vision for the story and its production.

It was at that time that I suggested to our group that we consider Kickstarter as a way for Starburns to raise funding that would be free of such creative limitations. This was 2012; the platform had just started to become popular, had never been used for very big projects yet, especially films. I figured that with Dan, Dino, and Charlie’s fan base, we’d have no problem attracting attention for our project and reach our funding goal to get development underway. Kickstarter also seemed like a low-risk test; if we didn’t meet our numbers, we could always go back to the conventional approach and continue looking for individual investors who would support our team’s approach.

Duke and Rosa took the reins and submitted our proposal to Kickstarter and we got an immediate and enthusiastic response. We found out immediately that Charlie, Dan and Dino do have a strong community of fans out there—including a lot of key people at Kickstarter. They were instrumental in showing us the ropes to help make sure our campaign succeeded.

It was nearing the weekend of San Diego Comic-Con, so we planned to print hundreds of postcards we could hand out on the convention floor to give our Kickstarter launch the biggest push we could with the hardcore fans. The morning of July 11, 2012, we all jumped in our cars to drive down to San Diego. Rosa and Duke flipped our campaign LIVE and we immediately started getting hits from fans pledging donations.

It was unbelievable how fast our Kickstarter project started to accelerate. Not even halfway through that first day of Comic-Con, people were spotting our Anomalisa postcards, and rushing to tell us how excited they were about it. Before I could even hand them a postcard, they’d be telling me how they had already pledged to support it. Within nine days we had reached our initial funding goal, and by the time we completed our 60-day window, we had become the most funded Kickstarter film project to date.

Clearly, Kickstarter isn’t a solution for every movie, but for our purposes, and at that stage of production, it worked perfectly. To give us a piece of funding right off the bat, with no creative conditions attached, was invaluable.

IT’S OKAY IF THE LINES SHOW

The puppets we used for Anomalisa are the most advanced that Starburns has worked with to date. For the Community Christmas Special, we created latex bodies on wire-based armature. The heads were cast in resin, just enough to create a stylized likeness of the actors. So as not to deal with the difficulty of hair, separate hairdos for each character were cast in resin as well. For Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole, we also used wire armatures sandwiched between two layers of foam with basic resin heads and hinged jaws, wrapped in paper printouts of the characters’ faces. These puppets had a slight "origami” look and when beautifully lit on the German expressionist-styled sets, the Frankenhole world came to life in a very magical storybook way.

However for Anomalisa, we needed our characters to look and feel very realistic. Duke and Charlie wanted to make sure that the puppets had convincing human proportions and textures and not have the stylized overtones we sometimes see in other animated feature designs. Our fabrication team worked closely with Charlie and Duke and developed the approach of printing the Anomalisa character heads (two face-plates each, an upper brow area and a lower mouth area) with our 3D printer, giving us complete control over expressions when different combinations were replaced and shot frame by frame. (The increased use of digital tools to realize practical effects is one of the ironic developments in stop-motion animation production today.)

While some of our Anomalisa puppets were built on very expensive ball-and-socket armatures, some puppets were later customized with hybrid ball-and-socket and wire armatures based on the specific animation required for certain scenes. The molds for our main characters, Michael and Lisa, were cast from full-body clay figures rendered by a sculptor. The realistic character bodies were then crafted from Dragonskin, a very soft and realistic skin-like material developed for use with prosthetic makeup. And because of the nature of the story, in which we see both characters in partial or complete nudity, the puppets are probably the most anatomically correct cast members in the history of stop-motion animation. Just ask the MPAA.

Anomalisa’s main characters each had thousands of key expressions, each of which was printed with individual top and bottom faceplates from powdered gypsum and simultaneously painted in our 3D printer. This meant that the seams where the faceplates meet would be visible on the characters’ faces. Recent stop-motion animated features typically erase those lines digitally, but that was not our choice for Anomalisa. Rather than a distracting element, the seams serve as subtle and persistent signs of the incredible artistry on display in the film. The first time I saw the footage ona big screen, during an early seventeen-minute sequence of various animated shots, my eyes initially went to the lines for the first few seconds. But as soon as the characters begin speaking and relating to each other, the lines seemed to fade away, leaving only the nuanced performances of the puppets.

The seams, for me, have come to represent the truly unique, lovingly hand-crafted nature of our film, which you can see in every frame. Without those distinctive lines, it just wouldn’t be Anomalisa.

PRECISION IS A FAIR SUBSTITUTE FOR SIZE

The nature of stop-motion animation means that you’re always working on a small scale. But I’ve had people who saw the movie come up to me asking about the "life size” puppets. Honestly, their confusion is a great compliment. But when we see a shot that’s a close-up of "human” skin, with the individual hairs of a puppet’s arm catching the light, it’s not hard to be fooled.

It’s a tribute to Charlie and Duke Johnson, absolute geniuses when it comes to expressing characters’ emotions and energy through animation, and their collaboration with our DP and lighting designer Joe Passarelli. It took all of their ingenuity and skill to realize this story in a set of environments that, on film, are virtually indistinguishable from reality. People will talk about shots like a close-up of Michael’s eye, in which we can see the reflection of Lisa, and assume that we had to have composed it digitally. Not even a little. That shot (and virtually every other shot in Anomalisa) is 100% practical effects.

WATCHING A SEX SCENE WITH YOUR MOM IN THE ROOM IS NO EASIER WHEN IT’S PUPPET SEX.

This past holiday season, my mother flew out to visit and together we watched a few of our PGA screeners. When I asked her the next movie she would like to watch, she looked at me with an eager expression and said, "How about we finally watch your movie?”

Anomalisa is an R-rated movie, and with good reason. Things get intimate. Now my mom has always had trouble getting through "bad language” in movies, but I really wanted her to see what my studio had been working on for the last three years, so I just gulped and said, "Sure, Mom. Anomalisa it is.” We sat there and watched. I turned 50 this year and I’ll tell you, it doesn’t matter how old you get or how good the movie is, watching a sex scene while sitting next to your mom is not an easy thing to do. I’m not sure whose opinion I was more nervous about, Charlie’s initial reaction to the face plates or my mom’s at that moment.

After Michael and Lisa finished their scene, my mother looked over at me with such bright eyes and said with great joy, "Your studio has done an amazing job. It is stunning.”

Thank you, Mama Fino. And thank you, Duke, Charlie and Starburns Industries.

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RISK TAKERS: Don't Look Back. It's Never Been Done Before? Sounds Good.

Posted By Administration, Thursday, January 28, 2016

Every producer has at least one "movie that changed my life.” What are yours?

John Sayles’s City of Hope. It was the first project that involved my transition from "more passive” lawyering to actually committing to assemble financing, and it was my first executive producer credit. It started me on a path.

Likewise, I’m Not There and Boyhood, my first full producer credits. Both involved long-time collaborators (Christine Vachon and Richard Linklater, respectively). I’m Not There took years of daily activity to assemble financing, and Boyhood was simply a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

By all means, there are easier ways to make a living than by financing films. What draws you to film as a business opportunity?

As I fondly say to the 50-some people who work at our companies, each one of you, including myself, could make more money doing something else. In a word, it’s the passion that draws me, a love of storytelling and respect for great storytellers.

What’s it been like to transition from lawyer, to financier, to producer?

Being a lawyer is more of a volume business. You jump from project to project. But as I’ve gotten older, it’s become more rewarding to be deeply immersed in what I’m working on. It’s nice not to feel like I’m spread so thin.

What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken on a project?

I was told I was crazy for committing to put together I’m Not There. Six different actors playing different incarnations of Bob Dylan? And at the budget we were seeking? Let’s just say there were many skeptics. And Boyhood broke every rule about how you were supposed to put together and shoot a film.

What’s the quickest way to make sure you will NEVER back the script I’m pitching you?

For me, the most reliable genre is "the new.” Characterizing a project as reminescient of a certain film or group of films ("It’s like X meets Y!”) is a formula for being derivative.

What are the essential qualities you look for in a producing partner?

Someone who both complements my strengths AND values quality craft service.

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MENTORING MATTERS: The Write Move. Wisdom From A Sitcom Master

Posted By Ayser Salman, Thursday, January 28, 2016

I’m a producer/editor of promos and original content for the Weinstein Co. It’s a great gig, but I’ve found myself wanting to move into the scripted TV realm as a writer/producer. So I was thrilled when the opportunity came through the PGA to be matched with a mentor who was a writing television producer. I was hoping for some validation that I was on the right track, plus maybe a few words of wisdom. What I received from my mentor Matt Williams—creator of Roseanne and co-creator of Home Improvement—was that and so much more.

Matt and I met twice for 90-minute mentoring sessions. During the first meeting, I alternated between furiously taking notes and trying to absorb all of Matt’s wisdom. Of his storytelling advice, what stuck with me most was, "take what’s real, exaggerate it, and do it with heart and humanity.” Much of my work is inspired by my "spirited” Iraqi family, whose escapades don’t require much exaggeration. But this piece of advice has freed me up to really push the boundaries and reach a new level of comedy in my writing.

Our first session flew by. At the end Matt said, "Send me whatever you want me to read.” I looked around conspiratorially and then leaned in and whispered, "They told us not to ask you to read anything.” To which he bluntly replied: "Well, how am I supposed to help you if I’m not familiar with your work?” Point taken. Matt also introduced me to other established writers he knows, particularly women, whom he felt could better speak to my specific experience as a female creative in this town. The man is simply a wonderful advisor and all-around mensch.

My mentorship has ended but I keep in touch with Matt, who graciously continues to look at my work. While I’d like to say this speaks to my amazing talent, I think it’s more accurate to say it speaks to Matt’s character. I’m now at the point in my career where I’m being asked to speak to those younger than me and offer my own advice; for that, I draw on my experience with Matt. If I can be even a quarter of the advisor/mentor/supporter he’s been for me, I think I could stand a chance of being helpful to someone else.

So thank you Matt Williams, for making time and truly caring. And thanks especially to the Mentoring Committee and the PGA for making this program available to members. It’s truly an invaluable experience.

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GOING GREEN: Big Bird Is Going Green

Posted By Claudine Marrotte and Christina Delfico, Thursday, January 28, 2016
  
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Jennifer Capra (left) and Producer Mindy Fila get Big Bird's signoff on Sesame Street's new digital scripts
 
Don’t worry, kids; he’s not dying his feathers green. But Sesame Street, which has been entertaining children and adults alike for 45 years, has begun implementing "green” strategies in its writing and producing departments.

The green initiative was inspired by Sesame Workshop’s new creative director, Brown Johnson. Brown met with Sesame Street producer Mindy Fila to discuss ideas; Fila then teamed up with script supervisor Jennifer Capra and script coordinator Lynda Holder-Settles to uncover the costs of printing each script revision in pre-production. After reviewing the show’s distribution list and calculating the cost of the paper, ink, script fasteners and shipping, the producing team discovered it cost, on average, $250 per person. With that number in mind, Sesame Street began the planning stages of implementing a greener and more cost-effective strategy.

Benjamin Lehmann, a long-time PGA member and senior producer for Sesame Street, encouraged the script department to tap into the PGA Green Committee for guidance. As the newly appointed Co-Chairs of the PGA Green Committee East Coast, we were thrilled to be contacted by Mindy Fila to provide tools to help complement their new initiative. Armed with actual costs, Fila sent the entire producing team an email outlining what she had uncovered along with an action plan to print less. Executive producer Carol-Lynn Parente led by example, enthusiastically adopting the new digital distribution strategy and making a positive impact on the team.

 

Script Supervisor Jennifer Capra reviews a digital script. 

Challenges
As with any change, there was some initial resistance. But before long, most of the staff found that the benefits outweighed the challenges. The writing staff was already submitting scripts electronically, so it was relatively simple for them to embrace the change. Pushback mostly centered around the concern that producers would not have the ability to handwrite notes on scripts.

For the PGA’s part, we shared our successful experiences with apps like XODO and GoodNotes to give the producers the ability to electronically hand write notes. In addition, Claudine showed off her new "electronic pencil,” Pencil by FiftyThree, which writes and feels like a pen on an actual pad and can be paired with multiple apps and tablets. Fila also connected with other departments within the Sesame Street family to find out what tools, if any, they were already using. She found that many of the show directors already enjoyed working with PDF Expert, iAnnotate and Good Reader.

The producing team worked hard to encourage change without alienating any staff members. With that in mind, during the first phase of the transition to digital distribution, some of the staff members have continued to print their own scripts. The new strategy must be resonating, because the producers have reported that the team now playfully teases staff members who bring printed scripts to meetings.

 

Benefits
The overall feedback from the writers and producers has been positive. The fear that these changes would be hard to implement dissipated quickly after the team was armed with knowledge and practical tips. In addition to the cost savings, the staff began taking greater ownership over their own scripts. Producers now spend their time focusing on core functions instead of the time-consuming task of printing and managing scripts that are physically distributed to each person. Desks are less cluttered, and the need to sift through countless physical scripts has been replaced with a quick scan on an internal server.

 

Next Steps
Moving from pre-production to production represents the producers’ next challenge. The puppeteers, many of whom have worked on the show for years, are accustomed to working from printed scripts. For most productions, including Sesame Street, using electronic scripts instead of printed scripts and sides during physical production have been resisted by the talent and AD dept.

The team is now researching unique ways to use tablets, soon to be put to the test by the puppeteers. Solutions need to improve workflow and not hinder it. As they move into production on their new season, the team will communicate their preproduction success with production management and attempt to bring the same level of change to the production process. After all, they have a head start: Oscar the Grouch has been green for years.
 

Tags:  going green 

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BOSPOAT - Best On Set Photo Of All Time

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, January 26, 2016
Updated: Tuesday, February 9, 2016
Just another afternoon at [AGENCY NAME REDACTED], am I right?

All kidding aside, this issue’s rather gruesome Best On-Set Photo of All Time comes from PGA member Louis G. Friedman, who survived the shoot of Piranha 3D (2010) in the waters of Lake Havasu. We’ll let him explain…

"It was 115 degrees when L.A. and local IATSE reps decided to give us a surprise visit on the set that day. Their eyes popped out when they saw 400 screaming, drunken college kids falling off a dance platform into the red, blood-soaked waters of the Colorado River. Rock music blaring, explosions erupting, sparks flying—they thrashed in the scarlet waters, fighting desperately for their lives. The ‘suits’ ordered us to stop production and shut down photography immediately due to unsafe conditions.

Then suddenly it was quiet. We re-set the action, Stunt Safety swam back to first position, the tilting platform motors were leveled, underwater cameramen re-positioned, special effects re-loaded, and we began shooting take 2…precisely as frenzied as take 1. Then they understood: this was ‘controlled chaos,’ and oh what a relief it was.”

Hollywood truly is the dream factory, and sometimes when your dream is to slaughter a few hundred spring breakers, you have to call in the experts. Thanks to Louis for the picture, and let’s all stay safe.

We know what you’re thinking. "Best of all time? No way. I’ve got an on-set photo way better than that.” If that’s the case, we dare you to prove it. Submit it to BOSPOAT@producersguild.org. Before you submit, please review the contest rules at producersguild.org/bospoat. Because no matter how great your photo is, we have no desire to get sued over it.

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ABOVE AND BEYOND - Making The Most Of Membership

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, January 26, 2016
Updated: Tuesday, February 9, 2016

One of the first PGA members to qualify under the Guild’s transmedia producer credit, Caitlin Burns has been an active member ever since. "There are two reasons why I volunteer,” she shares. "One, it’s the best way for me to learn about what’s going on in the industry and it’s always an absolute pleasure to be in the room with so many amazing, creative professionals. The second reason is that since so many members have given their time over the years to meet with me and help me work through my own professional and production questions, I want to be able to provide the same help wherever I can. The new media landscape is broad, and constantly changing. Being able to educate myself and other members through our panels, mixers and other programs means we’re all making better work.” As Vice Chair of the New Media Council, Burns oversees all Council events on the East Coast, while also finding the energy to serve as Co-Chair of the Women’s Impact Network. But regardless of which coast members live on or what council they belong to, Burns encourages members to get involved with the PGA because "there is no better place to put your finger on the pulse of the entertainment industry... The power of the Guild is that everyone is looking to learn more, expand their networks and every member is an exceptional professional”


Wendy Neuss lived and worked in Los Angeles for 10 years on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager as well as running her own production company. When she decided to move back to New York, she thought volunteering would be a great way to know more people professionally and personally. "Although the PGA East has grown exponentially in the last ten years,” she says, "it has maintained a strong sense of family and group loyalty. It’s a chance to meet wonderful people, explore different areas of interest, and interact with many of the Guild’s busiest and most successful members. When I walk into the meetings it feels like coming home, which may be the part I value the most.” Neuss serves as Chair of the Mentoring Committee for PGA East, a time-consuming but gratifying assignment. "When a group mentor session succeeds and people make contacts or get insights that change their careers,” she beams, "it’s very exciting.” A frequent participant in the East Coast meetings, events and seminars, Neuss is also a proud member of the Woman’s Impact Network. "Getting involved,” she testifies, "is the best way to get the most out of your Guild membership.” When not volunteering for the Guild, This Emmy-nominated producer is "developing a project for a new technological format currently unknown to mankind.” Sounds like a mysterious and exciting topic for a future PGA seminar…

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