Saturday, December 26, 2009

Avatar: A minority opinion

James Cameron's Avatar is many things. Its amazing motion capture combined with its three-dimensional technology and CGI expertise is a truly unprecedented and beautiful accomplishment. While critiques warned us that the story line would not be original and the characters would be shallow they failed to warn us that the story was completely ripped off from the 20th Century Fox story in 1992 called "FernGully: The Last Rainforest."

Plot summary from Netflix: When a sprite named Crysta shrinks a human boy, Zak, down to her size, he vows to help the magical fairy folk stop a greedy logging company from destroying their home, the pristine rainforest known as FernGully. Zak and his new friends fight to defend FernGully from lumberjacks -- and the vengeful spirit they accidentally unleash after chopping down a magic tree. This fun, animated film features the vocal talents of Tim Curry and Robin Williams.

In "Avatar," the boy is enlarged to the girl's size, not shrunk. And there is a good spirit, not an evil spirit in the tree -- the invading mercenaries in "Avatar" chop down the tree regardless.

Only Avatar goes much, much further evolving the role of the "lumberjack" into a group of uniformed men and women who look incredibly similar to U.S. Marines. Despite Cameron's attempt to clarify that these are "mercenaries," the visual cues speak so loudly that they outweigh the original communication. For example: the clothes they are wearing are army fatigues. Clear. As. Day. Then they start throwing around terminology that we've been trained to identify with the U.S. military, terms such as "shock and awe," and "daisy cutters," and "fighting terror with terror."

As much as I wanted to suspend my sense of reality, because I am a big fan of sci-fi and great CGI work, the images of the two warring parties -- as fictionalized as they were -- reminded me too much of my own personal relationships. My maternal grandmother was Native American and paternal grandfather was part Native American. So in Avatar, all the images of the native Na'vi tribe were non-subtle references to people close to my heart. I also have / had some very close friends who donned those very same army fatigues when deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

I don't care what your politics are, when you have a friend who is in the marines and you're watching men and women on screen being killed, your stomach can't help but flinch. Therefore, I did not enjoy seeing the mercenaries being killed just as I did not enjoy seeing the Native Na'vi being killed -- which means I did not enjoy anything in the last half / culmination of the film -- regardless of its graphic splendor.

And if you're going to rip off someone else's story line, you can at least do them the favor of retaining the best parts. Robin Williams as the voice of the bat was hilarious and memorable, that as I watched Avatar, I recalled that bat's lines: "I'm blind! I'm blind! ...wait. It's a miracle! I can see!"

I also recalled scenes from "The Last of the Mohicans." During the part where Jack is introduced to the leader of the Na'vi tribe is a copy of when Daniel Day-Lewis comes in and rescues the girl. They even shot it over his shoulder in the same I remembered "Dances with Wolves" and finally, and most happily I remembered "FernGully."

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

It’s the Advertising, Stupid

I’ve worked in the American magazine industry for more than 12 years. I’m trying to understand why I am not super excited about the hand-held products being developed by the folks at Time Inc., Apple, etc. that will revolutionize the magazine experience. As of this blog posting, no one has launched anything. So what we’re really buzzing about is the concept of digital interactions with magazine brands.

An e-magazine, as Sports Illustrated shows, might look like this:

Industry experts and analysts are making comments about how this technology could throw magazines a “lifeline” – since the print editions have decreased in size, frequency and number during the Great Recession. When money is tight, advertising budgets are the first to be cut. Paper isn’t getting any cheaper. With no concrete way to track the return on investment from a one page advertisement, it’s no wonder a “click through” edition seems tantalizing.

My opinion may represent a small fraction of the magazine consuming public, but I’m hoping my portion is the loudest. Some print magazines just shouldn’t become e-magazines. Mainly because I stare at a computer screen for eight or nine hours a day, at least. The content I read as a professional, I don’t mind reading online or via a hand-held device – I’m already there working anyways.

However, the content I read as a consumer, I prefer to have as a glossy hard copy. Even if frequency is reduced, there are just some magazines I don't want to read on an iPod or tablet. Some of these photo spreads are worth seeing in print. I know how hard art directors work to restrain everything they want to express into one treasured issue. Looking at a print edition of a good magazine is really a look at the best of the best. Someone spent the money and time to learn how to sort through all the images, fonts, content, text, shapes and sizes so that the reader is getting what they paid for. The people who produced it had a passion for the content.

I’m not convinced this has translated online. Digital content curators are being paid to win the search engine game. They only have Google’s best interest at heart. Not mine. So far, I think the results have reflected that.

And like the commercials during the Super Bowl, I look forward to seeing print advertisements. It’s too bad publishers can’t charge me more per issue – knowing, as a writer, what it takes to make a living at this craft. I’m one of the last dinosaurs who thinks good writing should equal good pay. I understand that these prices are based on elasticity and I’m sure the publishers are measuring this…right?

Unfortunately, the money that used to flow into print advertising just isn’t flowing there anymore.

With all the current digital means with which we can reach people, advertisers no longer need to pay magazine publishers thousands of dollars to market to their readers. Products have web sites, Twitter feeds, Facebook friends, text message promotions, and even email campaigns – all of which are free to the advertiser. In addition, they are also traceable. If a recipient opened an email, clicked on it, went to the web site, and bought the product, they know who, how, when and how much. (If e-magazines allow readers to do the same thing on editorial content, publishers must be drooling -- the question is can they monetize it while maintaining some semblance of editorial integrity?)

I’m no math genius, but if a print advertisement costs $90,000 in a monthly glossy magazine (like it did in Gourmet) and email is free….It won't be long before consumer magazines are bringing in maybe $20 in advertising per issue – which is interesting since that’s about the same price as an annual subscription charge to someone who already gets too many emails.

For more background information about this, check out the following article:

Monday, November 9, 2009

Killing Women Protagonists (How the film studios are failing to see the big picture)

If Sigmund Freud died without knowing what women want, what makes Harvey Weinstein think he can figure it out? The recent debut of “Amelia” sparked a feature article in the Washington Post (10/25/09) about the lack of riotous support of lead female roles in the 21st century. As the article delves into the success and failures of films like "Silence of the Lambs" and "Erin Brockovich," it points out that we’re seeing less and less instead of more and more roles like these for women. The steady decline over the last decade has now officially culminated in an all-out mandate from the studio executives to put the kibosh on any female leads. Women, they are saying, don’t support strong female lead characters in the movies – box office numbers prove it.

If only the Post author read Nancy Gibbs' article in Time magazine, which (10/26/09) covered “The State of the American Woman.” Never before, it says, have women been working so hard for so little while taking on so much responsibility. As more men lose jobs than women in this economy, more families are turning to the females for their main source of income, support and care. When and how would they ever have time to go to a movie, much less one that they would prefer to see? The article shows charts and graphs of the more diverse roles women are playing in their careers. It also lists the number of ailing parents and growing children they are responsible for these days. Yes, men are co-equals in helping out. But women, it says, are making a majority of the financial decisions, of which there are a plethora of highly important items. With such tight purse strings, not many women (and this is my own assumption) see a $10 movie ticket as more important than $10 cough syrup or $10 birth control pills.

Ann Hornaday’s Post article suggests that perhaps women get enough of a strong female lead in their own real lives. A box office analyst for states that when women go to a movie, they want romance – to escape to a story where the men take the lead. Melissa Silverstein, whose industry web site covers this topic, says in the article that “Figuring out how to reach women and young women is the challenge for this business.” Clearly this business has figured out how to reach men though. They’ve had about 70+ years to fine tune the art of pitching to men, who 9 times out of 10 want action or comedy – we’ll call it the Dude factor. Try quoting that law of averages for anything about women. What can 9 out of 10 women agree on? …good luck.

Should moms stay at home or go to work? Should women live with men before they marry them? Should there be a female President? Even that last question is more polarizing than you would think. Writer-director Rod Lurie is quoted in the Post piece about his show Commander-in-Chief saying, “we found that men supported the idea of a woman for president more than women did.” Hey, if Freud couldn’t figure us out, we really don’t expect Hollywood to, so don’t feel bad.

As women grow in profit sharing, though, someone might want to look into it. While films like “Whip It,” and “Jennifer’s Body” may not attract the same demographic as “Amelia” or “Obsessed,” there are women who want to see these movies and are willing to forgo a $14 lipstick one week to see them. Maybe Mel Gibson’s character could put his clairvoyant hat back on and understand that after all the equal achievements women have made in school, work, and home, what we’re really looking for is a well-told story that we can see on our schedule not the studios.

Monday, October 12, 2009

American Beer Industry Documentary Features Underdog Labels

In this 89-minute documentary, writer/director/producer Anat Baron uses her insider knowledge to educate and entertain about us about a $97 billion a year industry. Using engaging real life examples, stylistic presentation and clear explanations of complex historical and government structures, Beer Wars keeps curiosity on tap while encouraging consumer awareness.

As general manager of Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Baron created over 50 television and radio commercials. Her additional background as a Hollywood producer combined with her allergic reaction to alcohol provide for a surprisingly objective review of the industry. She cans mundane business detail into an entertaining box that’s easy to handle. By comparing/contrasting the tale of two small brewers with the giants who have dominated liquor stores and menus for more than 50 years, Baron provides a limited yet insightful look into the American beer industry.

Baron, who narrates the film, asks questions most consumers never think about, like where does your beer come from? As she goes on to explicate, American beer consumers are more limited in their product choices than they realize – though not as limited as 15 years ago (a point she fails to mention). Even as the choices become more diverse, it still remains a challenge to take a new brew to market. The reason is not so simple.

Beer is not like chicken or tomatoes. Beer has its own constitutional amendments*. In an attempt to explain this reality, the film juggles the complications of national product distribution, marketing and sales, and how the government regulates alcohol. And it does it pretty well. Baron guides us through the challenges of getting this product to the consumer using cartoon imagery in a clear, non-pedantic way, along with balanced interviews with entrepreneurs like Sam Calagione.

Sam Calagione has more than a likable on-screen persona; he also has one of the fastest growing local brew houses in the nation. Using his English degree to pull down relevant quotes in an impressive nano second is just one of his better qualities. He is also on the Inc. 500 list. After experimenting with micro brews as a bar tender in New York, Calagione launched his own and is operating successfully as the president of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware – a state that did not allow such activity prior to his push for changing the legislation. Several of the Dogfish Head labels are chilled and tasted in boardrooms of Anheuser-Bush (along with other local brews). Why join them if you can beat them?

The other profile focus is on one struggling beer-industry veteran, who seems to be having a much more difficult time growing her business. Rhonda Kallman, founder and CEO of New Century Brewing Co. is peddling a caffeinated beer called Moonshot. Her unwavering confidence in sales stems from her successes as co-founder of The Boston Beer Company, makers of Samuel Adams. Kallman’s battle is uphill not just because of her limited marketing budget, but also because one of the biggest brands in the industry launched a similar product years ago and it bombed horribly – what’s known as a “category killer.”

The 1,400 micro-brew labels in the U.S. along with imported brews represent 22% of the total domestic beer market. On the other hand, 3 corporations, Anheuser-Bush, Miller Brewing Company, and the Coors Company claim the rest of U.S. sales. The point of the film is that those numbers don’t necessarily mean they offer the best product. “It’s about maximizing shareholder value versus maximizing taste,” explains Calagione. The big three also spend about $800,000,000 on advertising – including oodles toward political event sponsorships.

Today it is illegal for brewers to sell beer online. For now, the beer wars are taking place in “supermarket jungles” where eye-level space is sold at a premium. Consumers are encouraged to “vote with your wallet,” according to Baron. She also advises consumers to use the Internet to find out where your beer is from. There seems to be a massive shift toward the empowerment of the middle class in America. There is a hope than an educated consumer is a dangerous consumer to lazy mega-corporations. “We’ve seen too many examples where corporate America has lost its way or gotten in the way,” Baron states in the film’s promotional materials. “We should remove the roadblocks and allow free enterprise to flourish.”

I’ll drink to that. And I don’t like beer.

*Amendment 18
"the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited."

Amendment 21

"1. The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.
2. The transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What Do You Know About Taiwan?

Last night at the Newseum the Formosa Foundation hosted an invite-only Congressional screening of “Formosa Betrayed,” starring James Van Der Beek as Agent Jake Kelly. This low-budget independent feature takes a highly complicated international murder scenario and removes the superficial glam but keeps the production quality. Some attendees were a part of the true events on which this film is based. For the rest of us, this film brought some truths to light for the first time in history. It also stirred the question, what do you know about Taiwan?

As with “The Last King of Scotland,” “Formosa Betrayed” combines real life characters and real events and twists them into a suspenseful political thriller. The challenge with “Formosa,” however, is that the audience has no historical knowledge of these events, or at least only an awareness of information “sanctioned” by governments as suitable to publish. Having to build in both a history lesson and a current events update gave these filmmakers an extra storytelling challenge. All of the script writers rose to the occasion with excellence. After four years of research, producer Will Tiao, who describes himself as “a creature of D.C.,” has produced a must-see film – not just because it’s entertaining, but because it’s a story that should not be suppressed any longer.

Imagine if Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, etc. had all been locked up in a room and killed just before the American Revolution. This is, in a sense, what happened in Taiwan in 1947. The intellectual leaders of Taiwan were assassinated by the Chinese government. To this day, it has been illegal to speak or write about what happened. So in the film, when a Taiwanese professor of economics in the U.S. starts to write a tell-all book, government insiders have him killed on the campus where he has just made tenure. (The professor's fictional character is based on several real life characters, one of whom was a professor at Carnegie Mellon who was murdered in Pennsylvania.)

His murder launches and investigation by the FBI, which sends Agent Kelly to Taiwan under strict orders to “observe and report.” His senior colleague Agent Tom Braxton, played by John Heard (Sopranos, Pelican Brief), turns down the chance to work on the case landing Kelly in a Lone Ranger role. Without knowing the language or understanding the local culture, he is forced to rely heavily on a U.S. liaison, played by Wendy Crewson, with a hidden agenda. Even though Agent Kelly is an outsider, the local investigator's claim that the professor’s murder is connected with mob ties seems preposterous. Using the same reckless abandon that earns Westerners the label of “cowboy” overseas, he begins to follow his own leads putting his life and those helping him in grave danger.

Historical facts that would normally be alluded to in one or two lines, must now take up several scenes and lines of almost pedantic dialogue just to inform the viewer about the Taiwan's desire for independence from China. The passion behind this plea is pivotal to the plot. If outsiders learn more about what the Republic of China has been keeping secret, the two million Chinese who control the 18 million Taiwanese on that small, humid island, just might lose their position. The threat of this loss is so high that China has, in reality, 1,000 missiles pointed right at Taiwan.

In the film, the U.S. State Department plays a strictly “hands off” role in aiding the investigation, when, in real life (at least according to the representative at the screening), a much more complicated and adversarial role was taken. While some liberties with facts had to be taken, overall the film successfully tells a powerfully moving story. It also keeps the viewer emotionally involved while putting together a Rubik’s cube of background information. The movie reveals the motives of the professor’s murder while keeping the torture and deaths of those trying to unofficially aide the investigation on a personal level.

Without the hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on marketing the film, “Formosa Betrayed” will not be showing in a theater near you. The marketing efforts are viral however, and if enough requests pour in to local theaters, film festivals and even universities, you could probably get your own viewing. Maybe then more of us will ask why 23 countries recognize Taiwan’s independence but the U.S. does not.

Watch the trailer on YouTube:

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Comparitive Analysis of "The Women" (1939 and 2008)

Flipping through countless HD channels one day when I was home, I came across a 2008 movie called “The Women,” with an all-star line up. I vaguely remember hearing about it when it was released in theaters, but it didn’t sound like the kind of movie I would watch. I don’t know what made me think watching it at home for free would change that. After a few minutes, I realized I was watching a slow moving train wreck, but could not force myself to change the channel. I became obsessed with figuring out why someone spent all this money on this A-list cast for a film that, as a woman, offended every fiber of my being.

Since Diane English (who also did Murphy Brown and won three Primetime Emmys) decided to direct this remake, I decided to Netflix the original. After a little research, it became clear that the modern version suffered from what too many films suffer from: Executive Summary Envy. The original black and white version produced by Hunt Stromberg and directed by George Cukor in 1939 was one of the highest grossing films of that year. Based on a successful stage play written by Claire Booth Luce, the show ran for 666 performances and gained an earmark in history for the “novelty of an all-female cast…known for its nasty dialogue and unparalleled wit” (quotes take from the DVD features menu). With such a successful original, combined with a modern cast of beautiful, talented women, the overall summary of the remake sounds like a fantastic idea. People must have been so envious of that executive summary that someone forgot to read the script.

After careful analysis, I think I can put my finger on why this remake failed. In the 1939 version, the central character Mary Haines is aware that the women she is surrounded by are there because of their social status (they all married rich men on Park Ave). So when her “friend” Sylvie Prowler informs her of her husband’s infidelity with a shop girl through no small measure of taunting, Mary keeps a stiff arm in Prowler’s direction and keeps her chin up for her daughter’s sake – a daughter with whom she has a close and healthy relationship. (Prowler's character in the 1939 film reminded me of Lucille Ball). In the remake, Mary seems completely unaware that her social circle has formed around money, even if they didn’t marry a man to get to Park Ave. In fact, the Mary played by Meg Ryan seems to be oblivious to many things, including what it means to be a good mother, which removes any empathy the audience would need to have for the central character of the film.

Yes, the casting was off, but the writing flat lined faster than Ryan’s hairstyle. The original had lines like:

Personal trainer: “Women should enter the room vertical.”

Prowler: “Most women I know leave horizontally.”


Prowler to Edie Cohen (played by Edith Potter): “You should get your hair done where I do mine. I simply despise whoever does yours.”

The 2008 film attempted at strikes like these but wound up with lazy fill-in-the-blank jokes. I won’t even waste time repeating them.

I also think that English missed the depth of Mary’s character evolution. The original took Mary away from her Park Avenue circles where she found herself among other Reno divorcees (laws in New York made divorce harder to prove back then when there were fewer no-fault divorce states. Reno probably had the shortest residence requirements). This new circle of women barely knew Mary and could care less for her social status so they had no qualms talking to her straight, making them, in the end, truer friends than the girls in New York.

It’s called a character arch and even comedies have them. But in the 2008 version, it’s complete missing. Or rather, it has been replaced by a shallow epiphany which dawns on Mary while smoking pot with Bette Midler’s character at a yoga camp. Ryan’s character is told to be selfish and do “what makes you happy.” Apparently this is English’s modern translation of the original “pride is a luxury a woman in love cannot afford.” If that is how far we’ve come in 70 years, we’ve got bigger problems than a poor remake.

Without the real women in Reno to balance the superficial women in New York, without the dubiously delicious mantrap character made famous by Joan Crawford, and without a sympathetic central character, what remains? The most depressing comedy of 2008.

While a bad script may have slipped by the studio, viewers caught every line. What Julie Tareynal, a vacationer from Spain, posted on says it perfectly: “The Botoxed women is a rather depressing affair.” Don’t let the comedy genre fool you. English’s “The Women” captures the worst aspects of our gender and tries to paint over it with a clown face and perfume. The next time a film budget this big goes toward a remake, they might want to think about putting more of it towards a good writer.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Women in Film 2009 International Showcase Filmmakers

When I interviewed these three women filmmakers for the Women in Film & Video e-newsletter, I quickly realized I was writing down more great quotes than would ever fit into the small 250-word allotment I was officially allowed. The article was intended to be a follow up with a few of the filmmakers who had popular entries in the annual International Showcase of women-made films, which usually occurs on International Women's Day. (the article can be found here on page 8: )

Their love of filmmaking and current sacrifices to achieve their goals called for more than just a brief mention in a 16-page PDF. Here are the outtakes, as it were, from those interviews (as well as a few corrections), and even this is edited down.

Jehan Harney:
1. Where did you get the inspiration for your film “Colors of the Veil”?
Everything involving the film was by chance. I knew the imam when I lived in Europe. When I came back to states, I met his family. I was able to chat with his wife, Kimberly King, and learned that she had an interesting story. You don’t hear this story often…a very unusual story. This is an interesting story for people in the Middle East, who think Islam and think of people who are usually dark skinned. You don’t see a former U.S. soldier converting. I found her very fascinating. She eventually gave in and let me film her. This film won the national award for best documentary from One Nation Many Voices…. You feel like people from different worlds can come together and become bigger than just themselves, extend their philosophy and you can see how people should treat each other…then to see it manifest itself in the community. Kimberly King and her husband have a great model.

2. What is your #1 rule in storytelling?
When I do a short film you just try to get point out. What I like is for the story to be in their voices, no narration. I like it to have a conflict, and see how we made it work. That’s why we’re curious about people’s stories anyway. I always look for [conflict] in my stories to make it advance forward, make people wonder what happened next. A longer film I’m working on now “Friends of America” captures the life of Iraqi refugees in the U.S. funded for PBS. It’s ironic that the country that supported liberation of Iraq, the only place the refugees could find safety, is in the U.S. And yet, it is the one country that took in the least number of Iraqis. This film follows two families who fall through the cracks of the U.S. system Their family’s story represents one-third of the refugees here. Their story is under represented because they are afraid to reveal their identities. Luckily I found a couple of families who trusted me wbc we share religion, city, culture. It’s always good when you tell a story in three acts. Their past, present future; its’ good to break up the story. Ask yourself, What’s unique about it? What else has been done on the same subject? Once you find yourself as interesting other people will too. How you lead to [the mystery of the story] can’t be always reveal everything up front; reveal a little, bit but not everything. Give the element of surprise once they think they see the resolution.

3. What else have you been doing?
I got to sit in on class for proposal writing…Paul Taylor is amazing with words. He dissected my proposal. He is The Proposal Doctor! …The whole point is to stretch your imagination; have distance from you material; look at it analytically. It can be a great eye opener to see other people’s work and build a network.

Vanya Rose:
1. Where did you get the inspiration for the Montreal Stories?
It was my master’s degree thesis... I was studying history/fiction and how to combine them, the urban history/fiction… Lon Walter Benjamin philosophy, theoretical stuff. Composition. (Editor’s note: When this story ran in the WIFV e-newsletter I wrote that the little girl’s character in 1944 was French Canadian. She was not. The girl is the daughter of recently emigrated Polish Jews. There is not much in the way of dialogue in the film.)

2. What is your #1 rule in storytelling?
A [film] has to come from the heart, even if you haven’t written it. I don’t think you can make a film if you don’t feel the attachment. It’s not a question of technique. I think you can tell a story around anything, even the most banal plots…Edith Wharton says there’s no originality… it’s about the ways of saying things. It’s having new eyes. I think that’s why women are on the frontier of [film]. There are a massive amount of men’s stories, which are great, but I think there are so many untold women’s stories, so keep a fresh eye on your own way of seeing the word and telling stories…not falling into the trap of all those rules because of story editors, etc. Naturally stories tell themselves a certain way. When you look at Asian cinema you see different ways of telling stories….

3. Can you tell us about "As the Night the Day"?

It’s really different. There is a male central character who is interesting. It’s much more traditional story telling because Mansfield lends itself to that. I felt like I was telling her story, ways I want to depict it. She was such a brilliant short story writer. When she died [Virginia] Wolf said “I have no one else to write for anymore.”….When it comes to directing, being an architect, instances where creative and control go together, women face a huge challenge. It’s the biggest issue for society….Women get less funding. People don’t mind women telling everyone what to do [in the case of running a corporation or a school]. What they mind is someone creative on set telling them what to do, expressing how they see the world. That’s really hard for people. As a straight women, I find it even more controversial.

Kat Candler:

1. How great is Jon Hamm?!?! (sorry, I saw your blog and could not resist):
I've only seen one episode of MAD MEN. Isn't that horrible? I've been making my way through WEEDS, EASTBOUND AND DOWN ... So I'm a little slow in getting to MAD MEN. I don't have cable so I only get an opportunity in a hotel room or parent's house to catch an episode not on DVD. But I've seen Jon Hamm on 30 ROCK and SNL and he's pretty awesome. And I just love his MAD MEN look. It's too perfect. He's what I envision for the lead in a family comedy I'm writing called CAPTAIN DYNAMO AND THE BOY RANGERS. (Editor’s note: In the WIFV article in the e-newsletter “Rangers” was misspelled.)

2. Where did you get the inspiration for “Quarter to Noon”?
I actually made QUARTER TO NOON the same month I quit that day job and went freelance full time as a filmmaker and film teacher. Very cathartic. For me, the short is about doing what you love.

3. What is your #1 rule in storytelling?
Every choice that you make should always be dictated by story. Music, sound design, costume colors, dialogue, it all goes back to the story and the bigger picture. I always tell my students, think long and hard about each choice you make. Don't do a camera move because it's cool, do it because it says something about a character, emotion, the tone or moves the story along…My #1 rule of filmmaking is to be nice. I don't work with mean or egotistical people. It ruins the experience and I think ultimately can ruin the film. I feel like a lot of hearts and hands go on a screen. And there's so much joy in the process of getting there.

Editor’s note: Check back later for a follow up on how these women’s films are progressing.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Dolphin Slaughters: Asking Tough Questions*

Tucked away inside a picturesque Japanese seaside cove, the secret slaughter of hundreds of dolphins takes place each year. Dozens of fisherman herd them in, sell some of them to dolphin trainers, and stab the rest of them to death as they click and scream in panic. Their work is done when the waters are still and blood red.

Even if you don’t care that these dolphins are being killed, you should care that this is going on, because if it’s going on in Taiji, it’s most likely going on in other places too. Maybe not with dolphins, and maybe not with stabbings. The point is, we should all be asking questions about what goes on in secret, tucked away places, especially when it later emerges as “food.”

The gripping documentary “The Cove,” is a masterfully told story about the secret slaughter and selling of dolphins in Japan. What this film brings to light is the reason behind the annual slaughter and evidence that these dolphins are ending up packaged as “fish meat” in local markets. (Honestly I thought we put a stop to this when canned tuna had to have the “dolphin free” seal of approval.)

As states on their web site:

“It is commonly assumed that Japanese fishermen hunt dolphins to supply a small minority of Japanese people with dolphin meat. But unlike the expensive whale meat, dolphin meat is not considered a delicacy in Japan, and the real reason the Japanese government issues permits to kill dolphins by the thousands every year has nothing to do with food culture. It has to do with pest control. As shocking as it sounds, some Japanese government officials view dolphins as pests to be eradicated in huge numbers. During a meeting at Taiji City Hall, the fishermen of Taiji admitted this to us. "We don’t kill the dolphins primarily for their meat. We kill them as a form of pest control," they told us. In other words, killing the competition is their way of preserving the ocean’s fish for themselves.”

The truth is that they are actually hurting a delicate eco-system that actually helps support their food chain. There is little to no chance of re-educating these Japanese fishermen. Their misinformation goes back decades.

Film, however, can be an influential factor in pop culture. Now that these men have been “caught on tape,” it will be interesting to see how much influence it will have on preventing the slaughters this September. Much like the 1978 move “Faces of Death,” which shows seals being clubbed to death and the realities of a slaughterhouse line, “The Cove” leaves nothing to the imagination.

Since cows and seals are not as highly adored around the world as dolphins are, I would imagine the reaction to this film will be just as severe. Perhaps, together with the power of Social Media, we can find another job for these fishermen in Taiji.

In the meantime, hopefully there are others asking the question “hey, what goes on back there?” – and hopefully, they are bringing cameras. The next time you order fish, you might want to ask where it came from.

*Follow up today 9/1/09 from an email from Ric O'Bary:
oday is September 1st, the first day of the dolphin slaughter season in Japan. But when I arrived today by bus from Kansai Airport with media representatives from all over the world, the notorious Cove from the movie was empty. There were no dolphin killers in sight....You have to understand that this is SO IMPORTANT. These TV stations have REFUSED to cover the story in Taiji for years and years. NOW, for the first time, they have shown up, with cameras rolling. The head policeman talking with me even said, for the cameras, that the police are not there to support the dolphin killing fishermen. We shook hands, and they left.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Movie Review: "The September Issue"

When Jim Clark productions gave the green light to make a feature length documentary centered on fashion industry legend Anna Wintour and her pursuit of luxuriousness at Vogue, they could not have predicted its debut during the Great Recession. Thankfully, director R.J. Cutler focused not on fleeting trends but on great storytelling basics. What audiences at the 2009 SilverDocs film festival got to enjoy was a brief glimpse into an expensive fantasia spearheaded by the "Pope" of couture.

"The September Issue" demystified several practical steps of magazine publishing that fictional portrayals, such as "The Devil Wears Prada," only served to distort. ("Running in Heels" should also be considered fiction.) The Market Editor, Virginia Tupker, is shown sitting at the table in a meeting with advertiser Neiman Marcus. The Editor-at-Large, Andre Talley, is exposed for what he really does (almost nothing, but his role seemed to be more about what he is, not what he does). And the infamous Anna sits donning her iconic sunglasses in front of catwalk after catwalk. Though their $300 billion industry is not the largest nor the most life-saving, Wintour sees no reason not to operate as the Gen. Patton of Fashion. The only Vogue staffer, however, who turned out to be a real caricature of himself was Talley. Despite her widespread reputation, Wintour did not come across as a vicious ice queen. Though it's understandable if you've been personally spurned by her that you might think otherwise.

Wintour is a businesswoman. She offers no more emotional feedback than Hilary Clinton and no less creativity than Carly Fiorina. The reality is she doesn't just make the magazine, she makes (or breaks) the designers as well. Yet, for some reason, fashion editor + female + beauty must = empathy/affirmation. In what can only be referred to as "the layout room", Wintour curates the signatures with an appreciation of the artistic right brain, but with a truly left-brained judiciousness. Her blunt comments about the appearance of people, their hair, their clothing, can be tactless, but funny. For someone who constantly searches for something "different", she seems to lack a tolerance for individuality at the cost of grooming.

Juxtaposing the Editor in Chief is Creative Director Grace Coddington, former model and fashion director from British Vogue. Coddington's fiery red mane signifies the passionate soul that lies beneath her polite manner. So inspiring is Coddington's work and life story, that this look inside Vogue would be as dry as its fictional portrayals without her.

The bickering over budgets, photo shoots, and articles of clothing between them is consistent with almost any publisher/editor or editor/art director conflict. Coddington is naturally and emotionally attached to the beautiful spreads she toils to produce and Wintour is not. The final call on what pages stay and which ones go therefore becomes a hated but necessary fact of publishing.

In an interview with the Washington Post's Robin Givhen (who used to work at Vogue), R.J. Cutler gleefully shared moments of the film's conception and creation. The formula for a great film is simple, he explained. "Look for people who care about what they do and they do it under high stakes circumstances." What originally began as a TV series, inspired by Vogue's "Party of the Year," detailing Vogue's annual charity event, developed into an alluring "de-mysticifcation" of one of the most influential fashion magazines. Thankfully, Coddington coalesced to the film crew she first told to "go away." "When they come together, it's electric," Cutler said describing Wintour and Coddington's interactions. He described them as a "freezer of precision" versus an "incubator of creativity." Talley, Culter noted, had to be shown sparingly due to his larger-than-life screen presence. "His outakes on the DVD will be more than entertaining."

Ironically, as the limelight of high-end designers fades and the metaphysical weight of Vogue's climactic September issue wanes, the magazine's secret weapon has seen re-ignited interest in her self-titled book GRACE: Thirty Years of Fashion at Vogue. Now available on Amazon.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Mixing Business with Pleasure

Warnings against making personal information public via social media platforms abound. Recruiters tell college students not to put their spring break photos up online because it may cost them a future job. Employers hand out mandates about not letting their staff use social media platforms at work. The problem is, they are not telling the whole story. It’s actually all about whether you use your powers for good or evil.

A vice president from an advertising agency visited their client, FedEx, at its headquarters in Memphis, TN. Assuming that the agency rep was from New York or Chicago, as most advertising reps are, what would be his first impression upon arriving in the town that is home to Graceland? Imagine the culture shock when going from the chilly hustle and bustle of Manhattan to the sultry, slow, and spread out lands of the swampy south. Thanks to a web site where anyone can read anything that you want to write (, we don’t have to imagine. Mr. VP put his inner most thoughts right up there for the world to see. “Wondering if I would die if I had to live here.”

To those of us who appreciate a cynical sense of humor, this was extremely entertaining. Stereotypes a-plenty fill the scenes of this situation, which was summarized well in 140 characters or less. Fedex was not so pleased, as they were paying this person to improve their image and such a comment would do the opposite. While I can understand why Fedex would be upset, I don’t think they should overreact. Mr. VP, however, should rethink his job description and separate his business from his pleasure.

Some companies, large and small, old and new, are still terrified of social media. They don’t understand it and are more afraid of the damage it can do than the good it can bring. Mr. VP should have known Fedex’s true feelings about this medium. That’s his job. What he should also have known is that people should leave the bad news to the journalists. Major news networks get paid to deliver the negative, sad, and unprecedented downswing headlines.

If everyone used social media to only report good news, comment on positive things, confess how much they “loooove Memphis,” American corporations would warm up to it much faster, like an accelerated glacier instead of a regular paced one. Posting anything about yourself where the general public (and clients and employers) can view it, remains a gamble. It’s so easy to be a communicator for a specific audience in your personal life. Your friends have your sense of humor, or at least appreciate it. Your clients or your boss? …not so much. The next time Mr. VP thinks about Twittering a comment from his handy iPhone, I hope he remembers that posting personal comments online is like the dirty joke the boyfriend told his girlfriend, which was really funny – right up until her dad walked in and didn’t laugh.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Today on the National Mall (despite my fear of cold weather)

I'm from Florida and moved to DC (from LA) about two years ago. I have no involvement in politics, and honestly, until now, very little interest in it. I actually work for a PR company. I'm Caucasian and wasn't even in the country on Nov. 4th to vote (my absentee ballot didn't arrive before I left). But today, in ridiculously cold weather, I walked down Connecticut Ave, got on the metro, and walked up the mall to the Capitol Building.

On the metro I overheard a woman from Houston complaining about what a rough weekend she'd had. After people found out where she was from, they did nothing but give her a hard time about outgoing President Bush.

Exiting up through the Smithsonian metro station onto the mall proved more chaotic than we anticipated. As we reached the top of the escalators, the crowd in front of us was not moving forward. Smashing up against wall of bodies in front of me, I dared not push back for fear of falling back down the stairs. I pulled out my camera as the police officer to my right called down to a metro operator below to halt the traffic. And this wasn't even the day of Inauguration!

As I scurried down the mall, trying to absorb the few remaining minutes of daylight, I heard children asking their parents questions like do other countries have black presidents? And a group of African American girls reciting every American President they could remember -- not necessarily in chronological order.

And, on the way home, somewhere around the Dupont metro stop, a group of men with expensive video and Nikon cameras were interviewing two young women in front of me. They donned formal gowns, bravely sporting cute black heels -- many local articles have warned against such endeavors. The man said he was interviewing them as part of the Emancipation Project. At least, that's what it sounded like from the back of a crowded train. The girls were on their way to a ball, as I will be tomorrow. What I remembered most about them was how they gave a "holla" out to someone else from LA standing next to them and how they commented about the number of people smiling as they entered the trains. I didn't have the heart to tell them those people were from out of town. Locals usually don't smile here weekdays between 9 am and 5 pm.

I've been down to the National Mall many times since I moved here -- visiting museums, running for exercise, and I was proposed to at the very spot where CNN now televises from. But today's memory of being on the mall made me a part of something bigger than myself. Is that why we all were there? Drawn in by curiosity, will we all stick around for optimism? If I base my answer on the short two years of living here and contrast it against what I saw today, the answer seems to be a resounding yes.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Hunkering Down for the Obama-cane

I thought when I moved out of Florida in 2006 I would never have to use the phrase "hunkering down" again. But as more than two million people infuse the nation's capitol and temperatures hit numbers I haven't seen since I poked my head into the refrigerator, I find myself using those words again. As much as I want to be a part of the Inauguration Events, I've never been so happy to stay warm inside and watch the events on TV.

As I crossed over the Key Bridge tonight, trying not to hit the pedestrians walking home from the Inaugural Concert, I noticed a group of demonstrators in the triangular island. Their signs read "close Guantanamo"-- which is interesting since I think Obama said he had planned to do that. There were two men in orange jailsuits kneeling on the ground, hands behind their backs with black sacks over their heads near another sign about how torture was America's shame. I'm "used to" seeing such things in front of the White House, but Arlington? Really? Did the Secret Service relocate them? It just makes my couch look all the more enticing.

After Hurricane Charlie, people driving around Orlando saw things filling up spaces that they were not used to seeing. There were billboards laying in the middle of the freeway and trees wrapped in telephone wires like they were Christmas lights. Today, driving down Connecticut Ave, a main road through downtown DC, charter buses like giant dinosaurs lined the roads and bleachers on the mall sit like mysterious stones on a grassy landscape. Such anomalies are like telltale signs that a storm is coming. Stock up on water and batteries. You won't need duct tape, but this storm is likely to leave a lot of garbage in the streets and change a lot of people's lives.

For those who are wondering what it's like to live in Washington right now, it's similar to preparing for a storm: get all your errands run before Tuesday. Don't plan on driving around. More to come tomorrow...

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Survey Says: America’s Headed Down the Tubes

January 13, 2009

In an article published on Nov. 10, 2008 (I know this is not breaking news, folks), CNN/Opinion Research Corporation found that 16 percent of those surveyed said that “things are going well in the country today.” In case you doubt and require more proof, here: There are about a dozen legitimate polls from independent and network news organizations confirming the majority of people surveyed are either mostly pessimistic about life and just happened to take this survey, or there really is a wide-spread disapproval for what is happening with America right now.

To say that this country is not headed in the right direction conjures up images of a group of hikers lost in the woods – each with their own opinion of which way is the “right” direction. They all agree that they are lost. They may not all agree on how they got lost and they certainly cannot agree on how to become un-lost. Such is the same with the “general direction” of our country.

First of all, money has much to do with the negative emotions. When most Americans had a job, a credit line and possibly more house than they could really afford, then the country was the country headed in the wrong direction? Some of these surveys started back in 2004, before the housing industry and credit lines were shuttered. But it can’t be all about cash flow.

Are the people answering this question based on America’s foreign diplomacy? Europe’s distaste for Bush began around 2002, and these emotions were probably more based on the War in Iraq than our economy. Domestic organizations started calling for a return of our troops in 2006, at least two years prior to the CNN poll.

What are the factors contributing to this 83* percent of people giving “America The Movie” two thumbs down? Did it start with Enron? Iraq? Home mortgages that came out of candy dispensers? None of the polls seem to want to answer this question. If we can’t figure out why we all feel America sucks, how can we come to a common agreement that the country has rounded the corner and is headed in the right direction? Simply put, we can’t.

Saying that our country is not headed in the right direction is a lot like pointing out a bad movie. When a film stinks, it’s easy for lots of people to say so. People who do not share the same values or preferences can all agree when a story should never have been produced. But try getting the masses to agree on what makes a good movie. Good luck. Personal taste, however base or elite, tends to be extremely diverse. The same goes for approval of America’s path. Even when the Academy Award winning path is taken, because people’s priorities are so diverse, you’ll be hard pressed to find a poll reflecting such unanimous approval in a positive direction.


Sunday, January 4, 2009

Unemployment: Not Such A Bad Thing?

January 4, 2009

This article in New York magazine ( put seven faces to America’s unemployment statistic in their Jan. 5, 2009 issue. Two of these stories came from men who are now at home with their children all day, I’m guessing for the first time ever. Their egos and dreams were dashed upon the rocks and yet they were surprised at how their kids didn’t look at them any differently.

Of course they don’t. Kids typically don’t understand/care/remember that time when dad was out of work. They only remember when Dad (or Mom) picks them up from school and has dinner with them at the table. If spending more time together as a family is a by-product of getting laid off, then maybe unemployment isn’t such a bad thing. Little kids can be great reminders of what is important in life.

Unemployment presents us with an opportunity. Over the coming months, we have a chance to reevaluate our priorities and rethink our needs vs. our wants. It’s inevitable, as human beings, that we take things for granted during times of surplus. It also makes us bigger people if, during our times of need, we find ways to give. If the 7.10% of Americans who are out of work switch their mindset from being entitled to a job to being blessed with one, how would the rest of us be affected? (For one thing, we might not be the nation with the highest enrollment in Anger Management classes.)

Soon we’ll be headed back to the metro for our morning shifts. Employment will pick up again, albeit in new realms of unfamiliar industries. But before that happens it would be great if we could be transformed by what we hear. When the news broadcasts repeatedly how many jobs are being lost it’s up to us to interpret that as 4.5 million opportunities