Tuesday, March 18, 2014


When we watch a documentary I think we feel that we are getting insight into something happening in the real world, as opposed to fiction. Yet I question the truth and honesty in most documentaries, especially when they bring in some known authority [By the way I hate the same old tired parade of credentialed talking heads on news channels like MSNBC to the point where I can't bear to watch them anymore, even if I do agree with what they say].

How do we know what is actually known. Scientists and even social researchers use hypotheses to test theories.  They never say they know something as fact. As a masters candidate in communications, I learned that it takes many researchers doing years of study and having the same conclusions before you can say that a certain theory has some validity. So how then can we watch a documentary film, made by a handful of people (usually not scientists or scholarly researchers), and expect to come to a conclusion about certain things being a certain way?

And this is not a criticism of audiences. It's a criticism of filmmakers, including me. I recently screened a doc for a small group of activists. They couldn't have had better criticisms, and accolades as well, of my film about healthcare reform. But one criticism that bothered was that the film left one person confused. So what? Am I a school teacher or something? Things are confusing.

Anyway, there is no truth. There is only perception. In True Detective, a recent HBO buddy cop series, the main characters come to a conclusion about the world coming down to just one age old story about the struggle between darkness and light. In a world of cops and robbers, or detectives and serial rapist killers, that may be very true. But few of us live in that world of extreme drama. In reality it's more likely people have shades of gray. The good guys have bad in them. The bad guys have good in them. It becomes absurd to label one or the other. Yet I loved watching True Detective.  It had deep characters and extremely intense dramatic moments. It's entertainment.

We are conditioned to expect documentaries to be entertaining. Even Michael Moore suggests to filmmakers that a successful documentary is entertaining. That may be true for audiences that have come to expect what they are conditioned for. But that is not necessarily honest. Perhaps that's why he is harshly criticized by opponents to his conclusions. Filmmakers like this do your thinking for you. They basically tell you what to think. I like Michael Moore and I like his films. But I think he is pandering to the base audiences that expect resolution and certainty, which may conventionally be the most marketable audiences. Distributors and gatekeepers don't want to promote films for thinking people, where you have to consider what you've seen and maybe even then not be sure what it was about exactly. But isn't that what art is?

When a documentary filmmaker writes a script with themes, resolutions, questions, and expected answers, and then goes out to find people who fit into that written mold, that is dishonest. It is a contrivance. It is as fictional as any work of fiction. An honest documentary should merely capture what it finds through open questions and exploration, such as, "What are you concerns?" "Why are you here?" and not, "Do you agree with single payer?" or "Is healthcare a right?" Those are loaded questions.

Even in doing that, any filmmaker has their own bias which comes through to create a sort of narrative. But at least it is found and not sought after. An honest filmmaker would seek unexpected findings as well, to question the expected. At least such things should be revealed. But I think it is wrong to judge or to comment on what is found as most filmmakers do in narration. Keep that bias to yourself. Let the audience look at your characters and make their own judgements, if any, and create their own interpretations. Respect that your audience can think for themselves.

In fiction, good actors strive for honesty in a performance that's true to the character they play in whatever circumstance they are in. A screenwriter avoids expositionary dialogue, which would too conveniently reveal exactly what a character is thinking or what circumstance prevails. Honest characters don't talk that way. They hid emotions or try to. They lie. But the audience sees through them. So do screenwriters avoid convenient coincidences that explain exactly what is going on in the story. But not so in most documentaries where the filmmaker is conveniently at the right place and time to get the story.

In this way, a narrative fictional film could be more truthful than a documentary. In exploring characters, actors (and cinematics) can reveal what's in the mind, unlike in a typical documentary where characters are on guard to keep their personal lives secret. But an audience may be able to read into documentary characters just as they read into fictional characters, if the filmmaker can capture nuances in their emotions, gestures and expressions, and if the filmmaker allows them to do so; or perhaps catches them in an uncomfortable moment or even a lie. I remember a psychotherapist who suggested a mental diagnosis of George W. Bush, just based on observations of his gestures. But we are used to news analysis and narrators telling us what we've just seen, instead of making these sort of judgements for ourselves.

Screenshot from got healthcare?
Arrest of Drs. Paris and Flowers
footage by William Hughes
You wouldn't expect a narrator to tell you what's going on in a fictional film, nor would you want to. The mystery is part of the entertainment. But it's also part of the honesty. After the film we have pie or wine and argue about what we saw, everyone has a different opinion.  This should happen with documentaries as well. Allow the audience to put their heads together to compare notes and observations, just as researchers do when they observe subjects. To me that is much more entertaining than expositionary narration.

This may leave the documentary audience confused, wanting more, and unsatisfied. It's like an ambiguous ending in a fictional film where we can't figure out what happened for certain, or what will happen in the future. There is no closure. This is true to life. In life we have no closure. We simply accept and move on. But we might come away with a new insight from the filmmaker perspective. We may be lead to think about things and see them in a light we hadn't seen them in before. That should be good enough.

I haven't seen Big Men yet. But it looks promising.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Film Investment Index Futility

Colin Whitlow of the Cinema Research Institute has an interesting article, The Clarity and Color of Film Finance1), on how to devise an investment index for films. Great idea, except the typical business indicators he speaks of amount to only 5% of what might make a film successful. The other 95% is the script and cast, as any filmmaker knows.

Regardless of all these indicators, even if you came up with a useful index, it would indicate that less than 50% of mainstream films ever break even, and less than 1% of indie films ever see any return at all, let alone a profit (Leipzig, Sundance Infographic 2014: Are Indies the “8th Studio”? 2). Such an index would turn investors way and probably make things worse than ever. It is a known fact in the industry that films are highly risky investments and that most investors are there for the glory and glamor, not for profit.
On the other hand, an index that exposes the poor performance in the industry, might incentivize and pressure the business minded MBA ridden industry execs to make films with great scripts and great cast, instead of following the piss poor business market indicators that they use now. Filmmakers know that cast and script are the two main elements that account for 95% of what makes a film successful, and that industry execs have no clue as to what a good film is. So if you did ever want to turn around the poor performance of the industry, you'd have to remove all business minded execs and replace them with well experienced filmmakers (producers and directors). As Steven Soderbergh said at the SF Film Society 3:
....I think there are too many layers of executives, I don’t know why you should be having a lot of phone calls with people that can’t actually make decisions. They’ll violate their own rules, on a whim, while making you adhere to them. They get simple things wrong sometimes, like remakes. I mean, why are you always remaking the famous movies? Why aren’t you looking back into your catalog and finding some sort of programmer that was made 50 years ago that has a really good idea in it, that if you put some fresh talent on it, it could be really great. Of course, in order to do that you need to have someone at the studio that actually knows those movies. Even if you don’t have that person you could hire one. The sort of “executive ecosystem” is distorted, because executives don’t get punished for making bombs the way that filmmakers do, and the result is there’s no turnover of new ideas—there’s no new ideas about how to approach the business or how to deal with talent or material. But, again, economically, it’s a pretty straightforward business; it’s the third-biggest export that we have. It’s one of the few things that we do that the world actually likes...
Case in point, The Grand Budapest Hotel written and directed by Wes Anderson, with Ralph Fiennes, Adrian Brody, Willem Defoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, and Owen Wilson; to name just a few of the stellar cast. But marketing powers opened this film in only four theaters. Yet it grossed over a million dollars on it’s opening night, putting it eighth on the charts beating out many films playing in 1000 theaters4. How is it that industry business marketing geniuses couldn’t figure this one out ahead of time?

In the meantime it makes the most sense for filmmaker business plans and investor due diligence to rely on the right objective script readers and cast experts to evaluate projects based on script and cast. But they would have to base evaluations based upon what is considered artistically great, not what the current industry erroneously considers marketable. Art precedes business. You have to have the art before you can sell it.

1 Colin Whitlow. (March 2014). The Clarity and Color of Film Finance. Cinema Research Institute, Retrieved 3/14.2014, from http://cri.nyu.edu/?p=3597#comment-1448
2. (January 2014).Sundance Infographic 2014: Are Indies the “8th Studio”?. Cultural Weekly, Retrieved 2/14/2014, from http://www.culturalweekly.com/sundance-infographic-2014/
3 Steven Soderbergh. (April 2013).Steven Soderbergh – The State of Cinema Video & Transcript. SF Film Society Blog, Retrieved 3/14/2014, from http://blog.sffs.org/home/2013/4/steven-soderbergh-the-state-of-cinema-video-transcripthtml

4 Peter Knegt. (March 2014). Friday Box Office: ‘Budapest Hotel’ Jumps Into Top 10 In Just 66 Theaters (And Beats ‘Veronica Mars’). IndieWire, Retrieved 3/15/2014, from http://www.indiewire.com/article/friday-box-office-budapest-hotel-jumps-into-top-10-in-just-66-theaters-and-beats-veronica-mars?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed

Your Sickness is Someone's Payday

got healthcare? is the title of my documentary film, which chronicles the media ignored national street debates in 2009 over the creation of what we now know as Obamacare.  I recently screened the film for a healthcare reform activist group and got some valuable feedback. Most notably, some found the film confusing. They couldn't tell for certain if one person interviewed was a progressive reformist or a conservative in favor of the status quo. They wanted me to label the people interviewed as one or the other. My response was that I didn't know for certain who was who. Do people walk around with labels on them that say "conservative" or "liberal"?

There were people on both sides, for example, that did not like the government's handling of healthcare reform. There are gray areas. You cannot draw a clean line with people taking one side or the other. Even if they stand on one side they have ideas that cross the line. And there are more than just two sides. There are as many sides as there are people.

The media would have you think that proponents of Obamacare are liberals or progressives, and that opponents are conservatives or Republicans. In fact most liberals and progressives disfavor Obamacare as much as conservatives, and sometimes for the same reasons. Are people always strictly liberal or conservative? We are conditioned to think in terms of right or wrong,  one team against another, or liberals against conservatives. It is a paradigm of competition. But not everything is in competition. There are gray areas. There are gentile endeavors where there are no winners or losers. There are only humans who live life, or try to.

Health care is the maintenance and sustainability of human life. It is not a game. It is not a competition. It should not be a business where human life is in play for profits. There are gray areas. You may live in pain. You may live with the best care money can buy. You may have the most expensive insurance money can buy, and be denied care. Money cannot buy life. Health insurance is a business. It is a matter of money, except in civilized countries where life takes priority over money and everyone is guaranteed health care by their government. That is what single payers does. This is what America does not have.

There are those who don't understand Obamacare. Who does? In reality, Obamacare was designed to be confusing and to create chaos.  It was effectively written by the insurance industry (primarily Liz Fowler, a former Wellpoint Insurance executive who became an aide to Senator Max Baucus). It guarantees insurance companies more subscribers. It guarantees no one health care. Insurance is not health care. Insurance is premiums and co-pays (as Maureen Cruise, our executive producer and effective narrator says). It continues to evolve with more and more regulations added to it all the time. It is a massive piece of legislation and regulation that can't possibly be fathomed by anyone. The alarming stats in 2009 concerning the pain, suffering, and death in America over lack of healthcare have increased, not decreased. If the state of healthcare insurance in America is chaotic and confusing, how could it be possible to make a film about it that is not confusing? The film defines the confusing elements, such as lack of care, denial of care, pain, suffering and death at rates that rank America 37th in world healthcare performance (and much worse now).  But the film does offer a simple, clear and understandable solution: Single Payer (Medicare for All). That is all you can know for certain about healthcare reform, and the fact that our government will not consider it.

The other thing about my film is that it is unconventional in not taking the audience by the hand and down the garden path to understanding, as most documentaries appear to do. We are used to telling our kids about Santa Claus and other fantasies about how wonderful life is. We expect Hollywood endings in films. We don't want to hear that there are no viable answers under consideration. We don't want to hear that our government is made up of narcissistic greedy individuals that care only about themselves. In the real world, we don't really know all the answers, and there are few Hollywood endings. In the real world we don't live in a democracy. We live in a corporatocracy, a corporate welfare state, where government answers only to Wall Street.

Documentary filmmakers make profound statements concerning how things are, when in fact, their sources may not be as credible as they appear.  Historically, even the greatest minds and scholars have been incredibly wrong. At one time the greatest minds believed the world to be flat. How is it that a documentary filmmaker can choose unreproachable sources? Everyone is reproachable. Everything is questionable. Statistics change with time. So how is it that by the end of a documentary you would have a clear understanding of the subject at hand? More likely you would have clearly defined questions. Great scholars are students, not authorities. There is no final human authority. A documentary is one view and that view may be somewhat abstract.

I am considering adding a disclaimer at the start of the film:
The film you are about to see may leave you confused, because it is about American health care. 
There is nothing more confusing and chaotic than American health care. But there is a clearly defined resolution known as single payer. With single payer the government is the insurance provider for all people in America, just as it protects people from fire with fireman and from crime with policemen. Just as you have a drivers license or a credit card, you would have a healthcare card to pay any and all heath care bills.  Until that happens, expect confusion and chaos in all things health care and sick care related. Your sickness is someone's payday.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Build Your Movie Website

Movie Website
A movie website should typically have just enough information to explain what the movie is about and intrigue people to want to see it.  This is where sales agents and distributors will go to get an idea of how marketable your film is.  It is where you audience and crowd-funders will go to find out who is on the cast, what the roles are, what the story is, and who the people are who are making it.  It's where prospective talent and crew will come to see what the roles are and what is involved with making the film.  There are a few basic elements you should have (basically a pitch deck).
  1. The logline
  2. A trailer, concept trailer, or poster art
  3. A five minutes scenes reel of key scenes if you want to attract sales agents or distributors
  4. An about page with film story summary, a pitch with a comparison to a similar film, and the director and key team bios
  5. A director's statement and writer's statement
  6. Characterizations or bios of the main characters in the film
  7. A contact form so people can get in touch
  8. An email sign up form so people can subscribe to your newsletter, but more importantly, so you can amass a list of emails to send out notices to, for things like your crowdfunding campaign
  9. Links to social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest
  10. If the film is completed, a reviews page with testimonials and reviews
  11. A store to sell the DVDs, Blu-rays or digital downloads if available.
You can look at other film sites to get an idea.  But you have to think about what you need for your film, depending on what stage you're in.  If in development, you need to attract crew or cast.  If you're self distributing you don't need to attract sales agents or distributors. 

No matter if you build the site yourself or hire someone, you need to work out this stuff in advance.  You should decide how many page you want, what goes on each page and which one is first.  It's typical to have the poster or trailer on the front page along with a logline, and maybe a short summary.  You want to intrigue people to look through the rest of your site.  

For posters on a webpage, it may be better to use a horizontal format instead of typical poster vertical, because webpages are horizontal.  However, if the poster is on a page with other material it may make sense to have it vertical with the other material next to it.  You can hire designers or graphic artists to decide this stuff for you and design it.  For early stages of development you can use concept art, which might include obscure images that don't clearly show faces if the cast isn't attached yet.  You could get royalty free images form various web services that provide it.  You can also get royalty free greenscreen and other video clips that you can use to create a concept trailer.  You could use gaming software to do the same thing.

You have to decide if you want to build it yourself or of you want to pay for someone to do it, and how much you can afford.  If you go with online free software, like Blogger or WordPress, you can do those yourself or likely hire someone fairly cheaply to do that, since very little programming, if any is required.  There are also some free flash website builder web services around. 
Blog sites like WordPress and Blogger are useful because you can incorporate a blog as a news page.  They are also very maintainable and you can easily pass them on to a new designer or webmaster as needed. These sites also have built in widgets and plugins for things like social media links, like buttons, RSS feeds, and many more.  These sites also let you post links to your RSS news feed and comment feed.

  You should incorporate social feed links like these with image buttons for Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and RSS.  This can be programmed with simple HTML in a text widget.

Pinterest is great for sharing picture book ideas for your film, especially useful to cast, wardrobe and makeup.

You should have an email blast server like MailChimp, which has a free level.  MailChimp has a widget plugin that places an email signup form on a WordPress site.  They also have one for Facebook pages.  They also provide the HTML for you to place into a text widget.  MailChimp also has an RSS feature that schedules an email blast every time you add a new post to your blog.

Google Translate offers text for you to place into a text widget so that visitors can choose to auto translate your entire website.  They also have a WordPress plugin.  Considering that the foreign film market is huge, this is important.

With blogger sites you don't have to use the blog page as the front page.  You can create additional pages for all the items listed above and put whichever one you like up front, such as a trailer or poster.  You are also able to have a page menu item display a different website, either by jumping to that site or possibly in a frame inside a page on your site.

You can create custom RSS feeds for topics other than your website blog.  Delicious has this feature.  You sign up to Delicious and then you can save other website URLs to your Delicious feed with tags.  Lets say you want to have a feed for 4K.  Every time you come across a website or article that you want in your feed, you save it to Delicious and tag it with 4K.  Then when you want to send that feed to others or display it in a widget, you get that RSS feed URL for that tag from Delicious.
On Delicious you choose the TOOLS link at the bottom and then the RSS link, which explains how to create the RSS feed link.

My 4K link is http://previous.delicious.com/jonraymond/4k.  You simply place this link inside an RSS widget in WordPress, Blogger or your own feed reader.  A feed reader is sort of like email.  You install one on your computer.  You subscribe to a feed like this one.  Then every time a new item is added to the feed it pops up at the bottom of the screen of whoever subscribes to it.

The cost for a website builder is typically around $1500.  But this can vary based on what platform you use, how many pages, and how complex and customized you want to get.  The big studio sites usually use complex flash programming. You can do your own free web builder site or blog site.

Actor Website using ASP.Net and JavaScript
I build my own sites using ASP.Net with frames that display pages and WordPress blogs as news feeds.  I would not suggest ASP.Net.  It is overkill for this purpose.  But I'm used to it and can do some interesting things incorporating frames and JavaScript. Simple blog sites are much easier and faster. Here are some examples of sites I have done with WordPress and Blogger.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Making of a Political Documentary

Directors Statement: got healthcare?


In 2008, thinking people were very tired of George W. Bush, and especially the wars that waged on endlessly. There was a lot of political issues debate between McCain and Obama supporters during the presidential campaigns. I had done some pro-Obama political blogging with the Huffiington Post. I bought his hype and lies. In September with the market crash and subsequent bailouts, McCain as a Republican, became the underdog in the presidential race. This was all a function of what happened on Wall Street. In a way, it was Wall Street that elected Obama, including through direct financial contributions. Earlier, in March of 2008, there were some big anti-war protests marking the anniversary of the war and occupation of Iraq. I decided to do an anti-war documentary. I filmed local protests. I did research and built a website. I read The Three Trillion Dollar War (2008, Nobel Prize winner Joseph E. Stiglitz and Harvard professor Linda J. Bilmes). I found RSS feeds to veterans anti-war groups, like the IVAW (Iraq Veterans Against the War), and the West Point Graduates Against the War. Then this activism was subverted by health care reform.


After Obama's election, activism quelled. Had McCain won, more activists would have been galvanized to greater action. The pressure on Congress would have been overwhelming and we might have seen an end to the wars. Although it would have taken another cycle to get a receptive regime into the White House. As it is, Obama persisted Bush's programs and policies, and escalated war, with little pressure from the public to do otherwise.

The war protests were subverted by Congressional interests in health care reform. Senator Max Baucus (D - Montana) held hearings (excluding 'single payer/medicare for all' advocates), and then hired Liz Fowler (former Wellpoint Insurance PR exec) to write a bill. This launched street protests by activists around the country. These were activists often subverted from war protests. Obama successfully got the attention away from the wars and onto health care reform. But the media had virtually no coverage of the street protests nor the ones inside the Baucus hearings. Since I was on activist email lists, I got wind of these protests and decided to go out to film the coverage the media ignored.


I was surprised and even amazed to find very intelligent activists including doctors and nurses out in the streets at these protests. I asked them what their concerns were, as much for myself as for a potential film. I interviewed over 65 people. I got answers to what it was all about. There were alarming statistics. 45,000 Americans died annually due to lack of health care. 48 million Americans had no health care insurance. Most people with insurance were denied coverage. The insurance industry overhead costs 30% of the money spent on health care compared to 4% in other countries. America ranks 37th among all countries for health care performance and 51st in fairness. 61% of bankruptcies and foreclosures are due to health care debt. Over half of all doctors are in favor of a single payer system. All these statistics remain true or are worse in 2014. The opposition to these protests were conservative organizations or paid protesters known as Astro Turf (fake grass roots). I filmed them as well and got their sides of the story. They said the health care industry needed more competition, and that we had a problem with tort. They said they didn't want the government making health care decisions for us. One woman didn't want "those people" in her hospital. Another said health care would be diluted and that we have to pay for care, that there is no free lunch.

I used this to go back and forth between one side and the other to get responses to the opposition. The activists laughed at the competition argument, saying that what we already have and that's what's caused the problem. They said tort amounts to only one percent of costs compared to the 30% insurance companies spend on administration and advertizing. They said we pay taxes and deserve care and that health care is a right and should be handled by government, just like fire and police protections to life. They said lobbyists spent millions daily to buy Congress. Senator Baucus received hundreds of millions from health care industries. In this way I constructed a stream of conversation film with one side making a point and the other side making a counter point.


Going it Alone

Maureen Cruise RN
I filmed these protests with no screenplay, no written plan, and no crew. It was just me with a camera and mikes. I edited it myself using the material to define the structure. One of the nurses, Maureen Cruise, was extremely knowledgeable and spoke so eloquently that I considered her as a sort of narrator. I used pieces of her 28 minute interview throughout the film. Later on, after I had a cut ready, she offered to distribute DVDs. So I credited her as an executive producer, whether she wanted to be one or not. Another great thing was that activist organizations like MoveOn, and health care reform groups, staged protests, rallies, and sit-in, complete with arrests and other entertainment. this all help ed to make for some dramatic footage along with the very passionate activists. It was all there for me to simply show up and point my camera at. Many of the doctors and nurses were and are members of PNHP (Physicians for a National Health Program), the Mad as Hell Doctors, HCA (Healthcare for All) and what is now the LA Healthcare Coalition. The issues persist along with the activists.

Editing and Distribution

I had a cut ready at the end of 2009. It was two hours. I got some feedback that it had to be cut to at least 90 minutes. I did that about five more times with improvements in each version. Maureen became involved in 2011. She even attended the AFM with me. She found AFM somewhat disgusting with all the posters for blood and gore horrors and thrillers. She later wrote that she thought Hollywood would never give issues like this a forum. But the experience gave her an education and helped me a lot. I got a good handle on what it takes to market and distribute a film. I did connect with sales agents interested in the film. But they were relatively unknown and didn't have any kind of track record I could have any faith in. You have to research these companies. They also wanted all-rights deals for outrageous time ranges (up to 20 years) and percentages (up to 40%). I could have negotiated better deals. But I had no faith in any of them and turned them down.

The latest major cut was in March 2013. I added footage of the Baucus hearings protests and coverage of the ACA (Obamacare) passage and reaction from 2010. I was able to sell a few hundred dollars worth of DVDs on my website and through Amazon. A few activist organizations have had screenings. Lately I've had renewed interest in the film.

More about got healthcare? (a political documentary) here.

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