Wednesday, September 8, 2010

From Passion to Indifference to Bitterness

It struck me while I was watching a movie last night called “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.” Starring Simon Pegg from “Shaun of the Dead,” this comedy takes a snarky hack from his amateur rag in England to the high gloss world of American celebrity tabloids. It’s one of those money doesn’t make you happy type of stories, but Pegg’s character Sydney, feels a vocational pull towards serious journalism. There is a scene where he walks up to a newsstand on a New York City street, pulls the magazine from the rack and smiles gleefully at his own byline in black and white.

I used to know that feeling. I remember the rush it brought the first time I saw it in my college student newspaper, then during my first newspaper internship, and finally in the real world when my name as an editor had reached the masthead mountaintop. And then, suddenly, at 34 years old, I felt like one of those high school quarterbacks who used to hang out at Gators bar in Seminole County, Florida. You know the ones, the ones who pretend not to see the gut bursting out over their belts and still think their smile and a pitcher of Miller Light will get them into your pants. Okay, maybe I didn’t feel that bad.

Since magazines are still being published (date: 9/8/2010), I wondered if my nostalgia was brought on simply because my life has moved me past that part of my career. It’s more important to me now to have a stable paycheck than a byline in a glossy magazine, so …eh.

Or, more likely, it’s that I’m not in a position to spend 20 hours a week trying to find a publication that still prints hard copies that would be willing to chance some ink on me. It’s not like I haven’t asked. About a year ago, I sent a strong query to a national women’s magazine using all the right channels and buzzwords. Their reply? It’s not that I didn’t stand a chance, or that my clips were not good. They rejected me because there is already a really long line of people waiting to get that freelance assignment and it’s made up of former employees of the magazine who already know all the remaining editors personally. Ouch. Rough times.

So I take the consolation prize that is my content farm byline – the kind that doesn’t even get you discounted media rates at hotels in exchange for reviews. And why bother reviewing hotels for $2,500 per 1,500 words when thousands of people on TripAdvisor are reviewing them for free? Nevermind that they rarely provide any helpful details or perspective. I guess a content farm byline is better than no byline at all. Just in case, if on one magical day when Travel & Leisure comes calling, I’ll have current clips to show them.

Until then, I’ll simply share among fellow Sydneys that we are the real journalists, no matter what our beat. We are part of a print generation that would never have spelled The Beatles wrong in an article about Lady Gaga. That’s right Sarah McClure from (which recently bought LifeLime), you wrote “from The Beetles 1966 "Yesterday and Today" album cover.” Oy. Not that mistakes don’t happen in print. They still do. I’m just bitter that McClure gets more clicks as a writer than I do because I’m not affiliated with a major outlet.

Rant over.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Documentary Filmmaker Study Brings Ethical Challenges to Light

Documentary filmmaking is a profession of much independence and freedom. But with this freedom comes the need to make decisions that will impact the lives of those being filmed. Those decisions also impact the company airing the film and they impact the viewers. So many parties are being impacted by one person’s (largely on the fly) decision making! And yet, that person is making these decisions in a vacuum – apart from any industry standards or emergency hotline to call for advice.

Assuming the hotline idea is out of the question, do these filmmakers want guidelines? Do they want protection from decisions made by the network that will air their film? If they do, why are they just now bringing this up?

Some of the topics being discussed in this study include:
- Should these filmmakers pay their subjects? If so, how much?
- Should facts be removed from the final cut if they place the subjects lives in mortal danger?
- Should certain “lies” be “ignored” so the filmmaker can gain necessary access to subjects?
- Can historical footage be used to represent a generic event or theme?

These questions are explored in a study by American University scholars in a 26-page report published in September 2009. The official title of the document is Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmaking on Ethical Challenges in Their Work. The study is currently under review by members of Women in Film & Video, a non-profit organization that would like to respond to the needs within its industry. The DC chapter is particularly interested due to the large number of documentary filmmakers in the area, and the number of stations based here which air such films.

If there were an industry-wide standard, would these folks have more protection, or at least firmer ground on which to stand when defending their own work? And, even one would endeavor to write such standards, would getting consensus among documentary filmmakers be little bit like herding cats?

If an industry standard existed, then maybe the networks would have to obey it as well and not pressure documentarians to compromise the integrity of their film in exchange for ratings. The study contains anonymous accounts of pressure from commercial businesses that put these filmmakers in the conundrum of accepting a paycheck while denying their moral code. As funding has dwindled, one of the few steady streams remaining has come from cable, but at what cost to truth?

According to this study, documentary filmmakers would like to know how much they can “fudge” without stepping over the line. The document states: Many filmmakers noted that restaging routine or trivial events such as walking through a door was part and parcel of the filmmaking process and was “not what makes the story honest.” I think fiction, whether in writing or on film, must be full of facts and realism, so that when the crucial fabrication is introduced nobody questions it – you don’t lose your audience. The opposite seems true for documentaries.

The report concludes that boundaries and guidance are needed, as well as a safe environment in which people who work on these documentaries can discuss their challenges. Sounds like a job for the lawyers. My hope is that the result of this report and its ensuing WIFV discussion will lead to a preservation of the art of documentary filmmaking – one that prevents the same downfalls we saw in broadcast news.

The study quotes one filmmaker saying: “I am in their life for a whole year. So there is a more profound relationship, not a journalistic two or three hours.” (p. 9). In the Golden Age of journalism, reporters were given the same autonomy filmmakers have now and the budgets to spend hours on end each day for years investigating one story. But as shareholders gained control of the news industry, those investments disappeared. Today most reporters are just filling in the blanks of Mad Libs written by their publishers. The same will happen, if it hasn’t already, to documentary filmmakers without some sort of preservation.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Putting "The Joneses" In Context

This past week I attended a screening of The Joneses at the AFI theater in Silver Spring, MD. I was curious about the casting of Demi Mooe and David Duchovny as “fake parents.” And I was even more interested in finding out of a “Hollywood” film was really going to bash materialism, or at least give it a good back hand. Director and co-screenplay writer Derrick Borte, kindly stuck around to answer questions after the film.

Borte, who used to work in TV news, said he knew the story would focus on the ripple effect celebrities can have when they sell things just by wearing them, driving them or eating them. He just had to frame the context of the story. So he took a non-celebrity family “unit” and placed them in a McMansion type neighborhood that could have been anywhere in American circa 2006.

Ironically, the script was written about eight years ago and Borte was worried that it had passed its time, and then worried it was too timely – if the movie had been released in the middle of the housing boom, would it have been more like foreshadowing instead of a parody? (…Borte insists he leaves you to draw your own conclusion of whether or not he is making a statement, or which statement he is making).

In 2002, USA Today reported that foreclosures were at a 30 year high. “As homeowner associations are the fastest growing segment of the market, this average is expected to zoom even higher,” it states. Oh, and it did. Monthly foreclosures reached 1.5 million around 2007 according to Realtytrac, then went up to 3.1 million in 2008 and estimated around 3 million again in 2009. Economists peg the 2010 number to be around 2.4 million. The crises left many people asking how and why, “everything seemed to be fine.”

In the vein of “things are not always what they seem to be,” this nuclear family starring Demi Moore as the pretend mom, David Duchovny as the pretend dad, Amber Heard as the pretend high school age daughter, and Ben Hollingsworth as the pretend son. (I had forgotten how well Duchovny could deliver a dry line that made me laugh out loud. In this sense, Moore was out-matched by him in a Cybill Shepherd in Moonlighting kind of way.) These four beautiful people move into a manicured neighborhood posing as a “real” family. They are in fact, not. Each of them is actually a sales person who gets paid/promoted based on how many people they can influence into buying the lipstick they’re wearing, the car they’re driving etc., simply by looking good in it.

Kudos to the scriptwriters for creating a successful plot structure and writing dialogue that let’s the actors do their job. The pivotal scenes are underwritten so well that it actually feels like they’re coming from the characters and not from actors who have memorized lines (see Date Night). The drama unfolds in a believable but not all too predictable way and the conclusion is satisfactory yet still leaves some unknowns.

Shocking, considering that the entire film was shot in 31 days somewhere near Atlanta, GA. Some of the reviews call the film clever but thin, or having a few holes. Considering how quickly this was done, I’m sure it could have been a lot worse. The fact that they got Gary Cole to play Larry, the envious neighbor in a miserable marriage to Summer, played by Glenne Headly was also a stroke of good fortune.

During the post-showing Q&A I was struck by the types of questions Borte was faced with. Some of them made me feel down-right embarrassed to live in Silver Spring, but that’s a matter for another column. He was asked about the Tiger Woods joke that didn’t end up on the cutting room floor (which was good because it was very funny). No, he said, he did not regret leaving that joke in the film. The most surprising reveal of the night was the fact that the producers did NOT receive product placement funding from any of the brands in the film. The explanation was that they didn’t think the companies would want to sponsor a film that could be seen as critical of the lifestyle affiliated with these luxury products.

The Joneses is more about lessons in overspending and, if you have a soul, you will eventually pay a price for pretending to be someone you’re not. It’s a comedy with dark notes that are well-placed. I’m glad the film released when it did. Perhaps it will make a few more people conscious of the material envy that controls the decisions they make. Not that it will stop banks from lending mansions to people who can’t afford it, but it’s a start.

Friday, March 12, 2010

D.C. Museum Rolls Out Red Carpet for HUBBLE 3D World Film Premiere

On March 9, 2010, the National Air and Space Museum held the world premier of “Hubble 3D” in its IMAX theater. This event was significant for me because in the year the first female won the Oscar for best director, I got to meet Toni Myers, the producer, director, and a writer on this film, as well as one of the inventors of IMAX, Graeme Ferguson. I appreciate the release of this film because it reminds me of how much space exploration fuels the imagination.

The 43-minute film tells the story of three astronaut crews’ attempts to make repairs to the ailing Hubble Space Telescope, the only telescope created to be serviced in space. After the telescope’s first deployment in 1990, it required immediate attention because its lens wasn’t working. For a project that cost NASA more than $1 billion, the fuzzy pictures being sent back to Earth just weren’t going to cut it.

Servicing Mission 4 became just as much a PR mission as a scientific one. The crew aboard this shuttle, referred to as STS 125, brought the camera equipment needed to create the large-format film. Not only did they need to repair instruments, but they also needed footage for Youtube – anything to increase the popularity of the space program can be put to use.

There in Florida to provide camera instruction, was award-winning filmmaker Toni Myers, who produced and edited the first large-format 3D film to be shot in space 10 years ago. Too bashful to be called the James Cameron of NASA, Toni has gone where no other female filmmaker has gone before. From the depths of the sea to the limits of the cosmos, she has pioneered the way for big screen educational entertainment. “I wish the film could have been longer,” says Toni, who combined the footage collected over three missions. “I was surrounded by a gang of geniuses, so I didn’t have to do a thing.”

The astronauts she taught to be filmmakers felt the same way about her. “Toni is a wonderful human being,” said Megan McArthur, who walked the red carpet with fellow crew members Scott Altman, Michael Massimino, John Grunsfeld and Gregory Johnson. “Toni tells you the why,” says Gregory. “She really knows how to help you understand something.”

Director of photography James Neihouse and executive producer Graeme Ferguson, also co-founder of IMAX, were in attendance as well. After teaching all those flight crews how to use the camera equipment, I had to ask, “is it easier to teach a filmmaker how to be an astronaut or an astronaut how to be a filmmaker?” Neihouse smiled and said, “I think it was easier for the astronauts.”

Gregory, for one, has no plans to leave the space program and head for Hollywood. “It’s humbling to get to be a part of all this,” he said. “I really enjoyed it but, you are always aware of time when you’re up there. You have to compartmentalize and not spend too much time on any one thing.” That also includes staring out the window at planet Earth 347 miles below. Of all the awe-inspiring images in the film, the shots of earth taken from the shuttle are the most beautiful.

“Hubble 3D” hits wide release IMAX theaters on March 19, 2010.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Dear Budding Filmmakers: Google Thyself

For the last two or three years, I’ve been helping with the local chapter of Women in Film & Video events and showcases. There is one consistent theme among budding film talent that I felt necessitated an entire blog entry because I don’t think just saying it one sentence would help it stick. So, here it is: a whole article about chances you missed out on because we could not find you on Google.

In 2009, the president of Women and Film & Television International, Kimberly Skyrme, pulled together short film entries from around the world for the purpose of picking the best for a showcase event. Many of the submissions came professionally packaged with supporting materials such as stills, a synopsis, headshots, and web site addresses for more information. Some of them did not – which is okay – but when Kimberly tried to track down the missing information online, it was no where to be found. We really cannot stress enough how this puts that film on the teetering edge of disqualification. Think about it. Thousands of people around the world were going to see this showcase. But some poor filmmaker might have been left out simply because he/she was impossible to reach.

Say you don’t enter festivals and showcases. Fine. Is your information on That's great! But those of us who do not pay for access to contact information (and some of us are assistants without our producer’s log ins at the moment), cannot see it. It’s wonderful that you’ve made it onto IMDB but if you cannot be reached, you cannot be hired.

I am completely aware that much of what becomes a fruitful endeavor in film usually begins with a known contact, or a friend of a friend who has a cell phone number. It would be a good problem to have that you spent too much time answering random phone calls or emails from investors and producers. So I ask: what happens when you Google the name of your film(s)? What happens when you search for your name?

It’s a widely known fact in the industry that people who are always creating content for other people spend the least amount of time promoting themselves. Even if all you have is a sample from the 48-hour Film Festival, put-it-online with your name and phone number or email address. LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter. These are all free and do not require daily maintenance. I’m not saying you have to be some kind of Brett Ratner or anything. A little effort here will go a long way. I promise.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Top 10 Movies of Last 10 Years

Several media outlets have been posting their list of the top 10 movies over the last decade. They are sticking to mainstream Hollywood films and they are representing an already widely represented demographic. It inspired me to post my own list. Based on films I've seen (films I've not seen are at the bottom of this posting), here are what I think are the top 10 films from the last 10 years. I think they are tops because something about them stuck with me over the years or made breakthroughs in storytelling or both. In chronological order:

LOTR (2001, 2002, 2003)
Lost in Translation (2003)
Sideways (2004)
Hotel Rwanda (2004)
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
Blood Diamond (2006)
Last King of Scotland (2006)
Atonement (2007)
Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

If this was a top 20 list: Hurt Locker, Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Matchpoint, Snatch, Juno, Bourne Identity, Crash, Resident Evil, The Cell, Children of Men, Count of Monte Cristo, Million Dollar Baby, Gladiator, State of Play...okay that's 21. So I'm not a math major.

Films I did not see that would have probably made the list: Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, Requiem for a Dream, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind...

What are YOUR top films? What did I not mention that you would have?