Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Hollywood Babble On & On #261: Is The CBS Eye on the Ball Anymore?

According to Nikki Finke, the grand poobahs at the CBS Network are planning to cut back on the money they're putting out to make television shows, all the while expanding the money they're putting into making and releasing feature films. And remember that all this is happening as the network's stock takes a tumble despite having half the shows in the Nielsen Top 10.

Now I don't know what Les Moonves is planning, but I'm starting to have some doubts about his management.

Right now CBS is the top TV network, beating ABC, Fox, and flattening NBC. Their crime-show alphabet soup (
CSI, CSI: M, CSI: NY, NCIS) dominate their time slots, and they also have The Mentalist, the most successful new show of the TV season on their roster. Things should be coming up rosy.

Well, they're not completely rosy. Their share in the CW network is just a money pit, their parent company National Amusements and its chief Sumner Redstone is in debt up to their wattles, sister company Paramount has money troubles, and no one seems too keen on going into business with any of them.

And yet Moonves is still pushing his dream of a feature film division.

Now this is a case of someone taking their eye off the ball. CBS is very successful at making television shows that sell, but that doesn't translate so easily into making feature films that sell. Also feature films are a hell of a lot more costly, and riskier than just maintaining a healthy status quo with their network.

Plus, cutting the budgets of hit TV shows usually means cutting back on the writers first, and when your network's success are on selling shows with entertaining, and occassionally crazy plots, that could hurt the network badly in the long run. And if the cuts continue, it could hurt the slick production values that make the shows stand out.

Now I'm wondering why Moonves is insisting on pursuing the idea of a feature film studio instead of just hunkering down, riding out the storm, and doing everything he can to keep his network number 1.

The only answer I can think of is ego.

Moonves must still dwell in that past era when TV network bosses were considered second class citizens, mere dukes, to the grand royalty of movie studio bosses, and I think he believes that he must become a movie studio boss to somehow give his life some meaning.

Gee, as if the millions of dollars he makes every year in salary and bonuses aren't enough.

Anyway, while I think the CBS Movie Studio idea is a bad one, at least for now, at least CBS is still better run than NBC.

Of course, just about any network is better run than NBC.


Monday, 30 March 2009

Hollywood Babble On & On #260: How To Speak CEO

A lot of CEO's are in the news, and a lot of the time nobody has a clue what they're talking about. So I've decided to take segments from a recently released memo by Time-Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes, and tell you what he is really trying to say.
"Now we're focused on Time Warner's future as a global leader in media and entertainment that creates, packages and delivers high-quality content worldwide through multiple distribution platforms."
TRANSLATION: Now we're going to buy up some of the smaller companies so we can get even bigger while pray that our Abu Dhabi investment partners don't realize that investing with Hollywood is less safe than investing with Bernie Madoff. Then we're going to make the same old bland crap, and make download versions available with so much DRM on them they will be unplayable on any machine until a twelve year old hacker in Beijing cracks the code.
"We're committed to investing more money than last year in the top-notch content that defines our brands -- while we run our businesses more efficiently than ever,"
TRANSLATION: We're going to spend millions more on special effects and actors who can't deliver at the box office, while we lay off a whole bunch of people we're going to have to replace in a few months.
"I'm confident that our businesses will come out of the current economic crisis stronger and well positioned for success,"
TRANSLATION: My bonus will be secure.

I hope you found this educational.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Hollywood Babble On & On #259: Monsters vs Aliens vs Watchmen

Dreamworks Animation's movie Monsters vs Aliens is being touted as a "monster hit" for making around $56-$58 million dollars this weekend. Now I want you to think back a couple of weeks, or the lifetime of a Hollywood assistant, to think about the opening weekend of The Watchmen.

Watchmen cost about the same as Monsters vs Aliens, had similar critical response, and post-viewing word of mouth, (some liked it/some hated it/some didn't care) made a very similar amount of money on its opening weekend, and was branded a failure from the word go. This branding caused a wave of bad buzz to overtake the film, and eventually snuff it's potential to make serious money.

So what's the big difference.

The difference is the estimates and how they sold them.

Dreamworks Animation undersold the estimates, while outsiders were expecting around $60 million, Dreamworks declared that they were only expecting $50 million. Remember that this film opened in almost 500 more theatres than Watchmen, and was a G-Rated kid pleaser with a popular cast and a funny-sunny image, as opposed to a grim, nihilistic R-Rated movie that had no broad comedy, a very narrow audience base, and was adapted from a comic-book known for its intellectual density, its bleak outlook, and that its writer disowned any movie version decades before it was even made.

And yet Warner Bros. oversold the estimates, claiming that it would hit over $70 million, and beat director Zack Snyder's last hit, the rabble rousing military adventure 300, at the box-office. Knowing full well that it probably wouldn't do that well, and that failing to meet that estimate will brand it a failure, and most likely hurt its chances at selling tickets after the opening weekend.

Why?

Well, my theory is that sometimes in the convoluted logic of Hollywood studio management, it pays to periodically have a bomb. Especially when you have its costs shared with another studio (Paramount) and owe a percentage to yet another studio (Fox) because your own company couldn't keep track of who actually owned the damn movie rights.

So, you get an estimate of how well it could do, then you slap on another $20 million, knowing full well that it could create enough bad buzz to sink the picture.

Dreamworks on the other hand needs to not only have a hit movie, but to appear to have a hit movie. They need to do everything they can to make MvA a hit, and that includes putting out a low-ball estimate, so when it exceeds that estimate, they can tout it as the second coming of Shrek, and all will be right in their happy little kingdom.

Now you see why I don't trust box-office estimates and the reactions to them, there are just too many agendas hiding behind them.

Famous Movie Speeches...

Here is a new feature for generally slow Sundays. A friend of mine gave me his password to a site called Xtranormal, where you can type in the dialogue for little animated mini-movies. Cut and paste a famous movie speech, and you get my new feature, FAMOUS MOVIE SPEECHES PRESENTED BY A NAKED GUY.

Our first feature is the opening speech from PATTON, performed by, a naked guy.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

SATURDAY SILLINESS CINEMA: SMITH & JONES!

Time for my regular Saturday break from my usual ranting and raving about Hollywood business practices, and for everyone to have a little laugh.

Today, it's Mel Smith and Grif Rhys-Jones, aka Smith & Jones (a really original name) two criminally underrated British comedians who became wildly successful TV producers with their Talkback TV production company. But this is not a business post, it's a comedy post, so sit back, relax, and enjoy two doses of Smith & Jones....




Friday, 27 March 2009

Friday Fiction Feature

As if ranting about business wasn't enough, I've got Part 3 of my ongoing blog serial-story thing up at my writing blog. Here are the links to all the installments so far.

Hollywood Babble On & On #258: Lionsgate Management Fires A Volley!

Nikki Finke has the latest volley in the ongoing SIEGE OF LIONSGATE! The management faction led by Jon Feltheimer and Michael Burns has reportedly inked a "first look" co-financing deal with independent film producer Ryan Kavanaugh's Relativity Media company, but for now they're keeping it all on the down-low.

Why?

Because Lionsgate is planning on laying off 8% of their 550 person workforce.

That's something that makes you go "
hmmmm....?"

I should start explaining by stating that several major studios passed on the co-financing deal with Relativity. Paramount passed, Sony/Columbia passed, and even Universal passed. Now Universal's passing is telling me something, I don't know exactly what, but it doesn't make much sense. You see Universal has a long running relationship with Relativity, and Relativity even purchased Uni's low-budget horror/suspense label Rogue Pictures. (A move some called "bold" but I thought odd considering the value of Rogue's library and it's lack of a truly independent distribution system)

This development requires the sort of insider knowledge a meager outsider like me can possibly have, so I'll go to the other big move: the layoffs.

The Lionsgate management will probably blame the weak economy for the layoffs, and while the company did lose money this year, those losses were not the fault of the secretaries, assistants, and other support staff that will be getting the pink slip. The losses fall squarely on the decisions made by the men who ran the company, one of them having signed a contract in October giving him $1.2 million in base salary, and a further $4.5 million in stock options. Plus their argument blaming the layoffs on the economy are also weakened by the simple economic fact that movie companies always do well when the rest of the economy doesn't.

I suspect that there are two other possible reasons for the lay-offs and both involve fighting off Carl Icahn's takeover bid.

1. STOCK PRICE MANIPULATION: There's nothing like layoffs to cause an up-tick in a company's stock price, no matter what the reasons behind it. They could be trying to either make the stock price too steep for Icahn to keep buying, or to somehow woo the other shareholders into leaving them in charge.

2. IMAGE MANIPULATION: After lobbing a shot at Icahn's son, they are probably now trying a new tack. This tack will probably involve Lionsgate claiming to be the victim of the big bad corporate raider whose lust for power and money are forcing them to lay innocent people off.

So the battle goes on.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Hollywood Babble On & On #257: What The Mob Can Teach Marvel

According to Nikki Finke the burgeoning Marvel Media empire is starting a new program for developing screenwriters. First step is a binding non-disclosure agreement, then a 70 page non-negotiable contract, and if you survive all that, you then work for Marvel for a year, and everything you write during that year becomes the property of Marvel forevermore and a day, and they also get first look/last refusal rights on everything you write for 2 years after that.

Personally, this is what happens when you l
et lawyers make business decisions. There's a hell of a lot of thought put into how to screw over young desperate writers, (which is the only result that can come from a 70 page non-negotiable contract) but no thought at all was put into how to get those young desperate writers to do their best for the company.

Oh people will take up the offer, a chance at a real professional credit is still a chance, but I get the feeling that very few of those who get in will put in the sort passion necessary to produce good work. Because why would they give their all when they know that even if it succeeds, they will probably get next to nothing in return? What's the point?

Now I can understand wanting to retain ownership of screenplays that use characters from their comics properties, that's only good sense. But wholly original work should revert to the writer if they pass on producing it after a certain period of time, and the first look/last refusal clause really acts as more territorial pissing than sensible business, because if they treat this program right, people will go to them first naturally.

And this is where they can learn something from the Mob.

Back when the Mob ran Las Vegas they had a system for dealing with the entertainers that worked their show-rooms, lounges, and nightclubs. Everything was kept simple, and many times deals were made on a handshake over a written contract. The performer got their fees, a room, with meals, and even drinks included (though they couldn't perform drunk, unless that was their act).

Now the key to this system was that they didn't rip people off. The performers got paid, on time, and in full. Acts that stank were paid off, and told to go home.

But the essence of this was that they didn't use 70+ page contracts, dictating every aspect of their lives for one year, and then most of their lives for the next two. They made simple agreements, lived up to them, and didn't screw them over, because even though they were mobsters,
they believed that everyone in a business deal should walk away happy. (Because happy people didn't get the police, FBI, or the dreaded IRS involved)

Marvel's plan only ensures that their lawyers will be the only ones walking away happy from this deal. The writer's will only show up for a paycheck, and won't invest much of themselves in the project, and that's only if they allow themselves to fall into Marvel's pit of last refusal
*, Marvel itself will get bland, passionless material, and wonder why it doesn't win the hearts of audiences.

So Marvel might be better off to learn a thing or two from the Mob.

It's just plain better business.

* Last refusal is essentially a trap to keep writers from negotiating with other companies. It's the opposite of "First Refusal" which gives Marvel the option of matching or bettering the best offer of another company. Last refusal forces the writer to sell to Marvel for the value of any offer made by another company. So if you have a script that two companies wants, Company A will pay $1 million, and Company B will pay $10,000, Marvel can force you to let them buy it for $10,000. Ouch.

WTF?

Okay, what's with these reports about a Three Stooges movie with Benicio Del Toro as Moe, Jim Carrey as Curly, and Sean Penn as Larry.

Personally, I view it as a recipe for disaster, and I hope it's just an internet rumour. While Jim Carrey can be hilarious with the right material, the other two have no background in physical comedy, and Penn's box office appeal is extremely limited.

What do you think? Yay, Nay, or just a lame internet rumour?

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Hollywood Babble On & On #256: Crime Drama, Dramatic Crime...

A critic over at the conservative film/culture site Big Hollywood wrote a little piece about how TV crime shows don't really reflect the real statistics behind real major crimes. Now the subtle point of his thesis was that political correctness keeps TV from delving too deep into the fact that 80% of violent crimes are drug/street gang related and usually involve a member of a minority hurting or killing a fellow member of the same minority.

He may have a point, Hollywood is obsessively politically correct, even the "politically incorrect" shows like
Family Guy pretty much stick to politically correct targets long after all the humor's been milked out of them, but I think there's another, shallower reason for this phenomenon.

Gang-bangers are boring television.

When people turn on a TV cop show, they look for mystery, suspense, and a soupcon of escapism.

To boil it down, crime drama needs dramatic crime.

They need complicated (at least complicated enough for 44 minutes of story) crimes with complicated motives, methods, and suspects. That's why Agatha Christie would have Lord Autumnbottom offed with strychnine at the Vicar's garden party, because this situation is rife with complex methods of execution, colourful suspects, and delightfully melodramatic motives involving buried secrets, sex, and scandal.

Thug-A shooting Thug-B while ripping off a kilo of crystal meth, has no real mystery behind the method (gunshot to the head), the motive (greed), and the suspect (the guy dressed in the colours of the rival gang with the words "Thug-B Killah" tattooed on his forehead).

Such crimes are tragedies, not melodrama.

Now you're probably ready to jump on me about the show Homicide: Life On The Street, which dealt with gang violence quite a lot, and because you remember the show because I posted pics from it in this blog.

True, it was one of the best cop shows ever made, if not the best in my opinion, and yes, it did deal a lot with gang members shooting each other. But there was a difference. Homicide's purpose was to illustrate the tragic banality of such crimes, and the sheer pointlessness of it all.

However, even Homicide bowed to the altar of melodrama by delving occasionally into cases of a more complicated nature, and with their gang related investigations when it involved fictional Baltimore drug lord Luther Mahoney and his clan. Mahoney was a hell of a lot smarter and subtler than most real-life gansters, and he had to be, because he was a fictional character, and fiction required someone with the intelligence and ruthlessness required to give a little excitement to the story of his rise and fall.

Also, you should remember, that Homicide was a cult show at best during its run, having never been considered a highly-rated hit.

Even Dashiell Hammett, who broke away from the "cozy" confines of mystery fiction and put crime in the back alley with the folks who knew how to do it, didn't have it as hard as modern writers to exploit gang-related crime as drama. Gangsters (at least in their scope of operations) were a relatively new phenomenon thanks to Prohibition, so there was an element of novelty to them. Real gangsters themselves were much more colourful, and each one tried to put their own unique stamp on crime as they built powerful empires that went beyond their own neighbourhoods, and even built a city (Las Vegas) almost from scratch. That's a recipe for good melodrama, modern gangbangers, are strictly tragedy, and even their soundtrack of hip-hop has become tedious in both style and content.

So while avoiding the banality of drug/gang related crime in favour of more melodramic crimes isn't a bad thing when it comes to TV, it can be a cheap excuse for bad story-telling. I pretty much gave up on most of the Law & Order franchises when their storylines became more interested in political points than quality story-telling. I have nothing against making political points, it's a free country, do what you like, but I don't care for it being used as an excuse for lazy writing. What I mean was that any time I saw a potential suspect being interviewed and if they had some sign of being patriotic or religious (specifically Christian) I knew they had to be the guilty party, and that their religion or patriotism had deranged them to the point of committing homicide.

At least Law & Order: Criminal Intent keeps that to a bearable minimum, since they're a more traditional mystery show than an "important drama" like the other two.

Anyway, I guess I can sum this whole thing up by saying that the main reason TV crime drama doesn't really reflect real life crime, is that their business is to entertain, not depress.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Hollywood Babble On & On #255: I'll Believe It When I See It...

Well, they've announced a start date (September) for a Green Lantern movie (h/t reader Nate Winchester) but like all DC comics movies, I'll believe it when I see it.

Why am I so pessimistic?

Because the only viable comic book franchise they have is Christopher Nolan's Batman series, and with Nolan going on a bit of a Bat-hiatus, no one knows when the third movie will be coming out. (Don't mention the whiny emo-bitch Superman rehash)

I've written about this topic before, but I feel I had to reiterate some of my points, because it's cheap filler on a slow news day.

Warner Bros. is part of the Time-Warner media conglomopolis and so is DC Comics. Now you'd think it would be easy for Warner Bros. to exploit the comic book properties, but apparently that's not the case, at least for live action.

The chief explanation I can think of is some sort of managerial impotence. The evidence is that Time-Warner CEO, Jeff Bewkes, is keeping studio chiefs Barry Mayer and Allan Horn on the proverbial short leash, via short term contracts. The unwillingness to commit for any long term shows a real lack of confidence in how they are running the studio, and I, like a lot of people are thinking that it probably has something to do with their inability to get these movies made. Meanwhile Marvel, with no full time studio partner, is making movies, and money, hand over fist.

Which is funny, for the late 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s DC comics dominated movies, thanks to Superman and then Batman franchises, while Marvel had some limited success on TV with shows like The Incredible Hulk in the 1970s, couldn't translate it to big screen success. The first version of The Punisher was forgotten before the opening credits finished, Captain America went straight to VHS, and The Fantastic Four, in partnership with Roger Corman, never saw the inside of a theatre, or video discount bin.

This was the age of the Marvel Movie Curse. Which now seems to have been broken, and passed on to DC Comics.

If DC Comics and Warner Bros. Pictures were properly structured adapting their comic characters should be simple. Someone from DC, meets someone from Warners. They would then figure out what characters would translate best, which filmmakers and actors would handle those characters best. Then the filmmakers would look at the wealth of story material and villains to determine which would make a good movie. They'd shoot the movie, shill the movie, and watch the money roll in.

But it doesn't work that way.

And the reason is probably Time Warner's size. You see Warner Bros. is a massive company, it has a lot of highly paid executives, and those executives all feel the need to justify their existence and expense accounts.

So you get notes.

Lots of notes.

These notes have no real purpose, and most of the time the people giving them have no knowledge of the source material, or the subculture that surrounds it. So you get reports, like one a few years ago, of Green Lantern being developed as a comedy with Jack Black as Hal Jordan. Or someone saying that Superman should be a robot, like the Terminator, instead of an alien from Krypton, or a guy who invents a magic suit, or letting a director put nipples on the goddamn Bat-suit.

I can just picture what the development sessions are sounding like:

"Does Green Lantern really have to hit people with a lantern?"

"No, he doesn't hit people with lanterns, he uses a powerful ring made by aliens."

"Oh, so he's into bling. Does it have to be a ring? Can it be a gold chain?"

"We can cast 50 Cent!"

"I was just thinking that. We'll make him all hip-hop."

"Plus he needs a kid sidekick, see if Macaulay Culkin's available?"

"He's a little old isn't he?"

"We'll make him young digitally, he can use the work. Plus we need a dog."

"Yeah, like Beethoven."

"Saint Bernard's are out, I'm thinking that this is the year of the chihuaha."

"And by the way, I don't like the colour green, make his gold chain glow taupe."

Do you get my drift?

Now the animation division doesn't seem to have this problem. Bruce Timm is putting out animated movies starring the DC heroes on DVD, and they not only sell well, they appear to win over fans, and critics who are willing to give superhero animation a chance. Plus, they actually get completed.

Maybe they should put Timm in charge of the live-action movies?

Hollywood Babble On & On #254: A Miscellaneous Morning Musing

Actor Laurence Fishburne is reaping the rewards of his decision to take over for William Petersen in the flagship CSI franchise. According to Nikki Finke, he's looking at about $14 million a year from his starring role, as well as a sweetheart development deal for his production company.

Now some may criticize this salary since CBS, like its sister companies Paramount, Viacom, and all the other myriad divisions of Sumner Redstone's empire, is having money troubles.

But I think this is one of those times when you have to look at the show specifically and how it is doing to see whether the salary is justified.
CSI is still one of the consistently high performers ratings-wise, and I have no doubt that the show itself is profitable.

Besides, I have no problem with Fishburne getting all he can get up front, because you know that the network will do everything to keep him from getting any residuals from the reruns. That's the self-fulfilling idiocy of Hollywood, they're so desperate to rip off people's profit shares, they have to pay the price up front.

On a personal note, I like Fishburne's character on the show, and how he's rapidly learning the job, but I especially like how he's still a scientist first. I was worried that the network would look at Fishburne's commanding screen presence and try to rework the show into something more akin to
CSI: Miami's 80s-style shoot-em-up antics, and completely forgetting that Fishburne can play a believable intellectual. (And with a middle aged actor, it's not only a more believable tack to take, but less physically demanding)

So kudos to Mr. Fishburne and his agent for working out this deal.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Hollywood Babble On & On #253: Giving Up Is Easy

BY
SPECIAL
GUEST

BLOGGER
JEFF ZUCKER

CEO OF
NBC-UNIVERSAL

Okay, this whole blogging thing seems easy enough... I'd like to thank Furious D for letting me post here. I tried to set up my own blog, but blogger want me to put in a name, and fill out some information for something called a "user profile," and that question at the bottom of the form about crows listening to radios just made my head hurt.

So I did what any good CEO would do, I pawned the responsibility onto someone else, namely Furious D who runs this blog.

Now some folks are jumping all over about recent comments I made about NBC never being #1 in prime-time programming again. I know that it's not good for the head of a major media company to suddenly surrender, and to admit that surrender in public would give folks good reason to compare my brain-power to a turnip or lima bean.

Well, you may call me stupid, but I like to think I'm stupid like a fox!

And not the Fox network, because they beat us in the ratings... hell even Univision beats us in the ratings, and they're in Esperanto or something like that.

Anyway, back to NBC. You see, this is all part of my brilliant plan. All the other networks are all clawing and hacking at each trying to be king of the hill, but I have a completely different plan.

It's called self-preservation.

I'll be blunt, I don't know what I'm doing.

Ooh, it felt good to get that out. I guess honesty really is the best policy. I might as well keep it coming.

My only skill is at getting promoted far beyond the range of my competence. Programming, development, hiring, firing, and all that management stuff is a mystery to me and I don't have a clue what to do. What I do have a clue for is to get a job, and then get promoted to a new job around 24 hours before everything associated with my old job turns into a big pile of corporate turds.

I've now gone as far as that scam can take me. I have nowhere to go but out, the catch is that I've developed a taste for being a media mogul. I like the fat salary, the bonuses, the limousines, and getting respect without having to earn it. So now I need a new strategy, and I think I've hit on the perfect one...

LOW EXPECTATIONS!

That's right. While every other media mogul fights like fiends to be #1 and get fired for failing, I can just coast along on doing nothing substantial, because no one expects anything substantial from me.

Sure, the network's falling apart, the only show we have worth watching is Life, and we're so bankrupt for ideas we're going to put Jay Leno on not only every weeknight, but reruns on the weekend, and he's going to host the
Today Show. But look at it from my perspective.

The guy running NBC is Ben Silverman, and you can bet your sweet bippy that there is no way in hell that he will ever replace me, and with him driving smart people out of the company, no one else will be in a position to replace me.

Plus, I've come to realize that striving for #1 requires a lot of hard work, and hard work is hard. I don't like that, I like to coast, so I won't be changing my strategy any time soon.

Wow, this blogging thing is easy, I might do this again.

-Jeff Zucker

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Saturday Silliness Cinema: Two 2 Handers

Here are a couple of little two-hand sketches from the 1960s/1970s.

Up first is from the Dean Martin show, where Dom Deluise and Orson Welles do their take on the classic At Last The 1948 Show sketch: Funny, he never married.



And here's old-school comedy duo Morecambe and Wise making breakfast...

Friday, 20 March 2009

A Special Message For Hollywood Agents...

TEN-HUT!

I said ten-hut you mound of mealy mouthed maggot-droppings!

Drop your imported bottled water and listen up!

You have probably heard that the talent agencies CAA and UTA have ordered you attend special training.

My name is Sergeant Hardass, and it my job to give you that special training. It is my job to take the grab-asstic pieces of amphibian shit that you are, break you down, and then build you up into a lean, mean, talent representing machine!

I will motivate you! I will teach you the skills you need to survive as an agency assistant in today's Hollywood!

By the time you are finished the 16 weeks of hell I will put you through, you will be able to make soy-milk lattes to your boss' personal taste, you will also be able to dodge the mug when he decides that he doesn't like it that way anymore! You will find items of clothing lost by their dry cleaners, groom their pets, keep their e-mail straight, and be able to lie about their activities to their spouses, signifigant others, and life partners, and they will believe you!

Now fall in march formation! First thing, it to learn is the Agent's Marching Chant! Now follow me you plug ugly botox clinic rejects!

I don't know what I've been told!
Sumner Redstone's mighty old!
Sound off!
1...2...
I will be the best agent!
I will earn my ten per-cent!
Sound off!
3...4...
I must get all I can get!
I only want the gross, not net!

Come on! I can't hear you! Sound off like you got an expense account!

Friday Fiction Feature

My latest experiment in fiction-improv, an adventure called Tooth & Claw, is up at my writing site.

PART ONE

PART TWO

Check them out and enjoy.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Natasha Richardson, RIP

You probably already know that the actress Natasha Richardson passed away yesterday. The cause of death was a blow to the head from a skiing accident.

I know that the condolences of a stranger over the internet don't really mean much to her family and friends at a time like this, but I'd like to offer them anyway.

One thing about Richardson, heir to one of the most prominent families in acting, was that she was a real actor, not a celebrity. She was known for her work, and her private life was just that, private, something many "stars" seem to forget these days.

Anyway, she will be missed, and I feel truly badly for her family.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Hollywood Babble On & On #252: Kings With Broken Crowns

NBC's much hyped new drama Kings premiered with less than royal numbers, and it looks like another nail in the coffin of the once dominant network. I have to admit that it's a daring concept to adapt the Bible's story of King David as an alternate world TV drama/soap opera, but I fear that it's flaws may hold it back, and I found myself watching the premiere, but unable to complete it.

Here's a list of what I think are the show's flaws, why I think they're flaws, and what could have been done to prevent them...

THE FLAW:

THE SOURCE MATERIAL: America is a predominantly Christian nation that hold the Bible near dear. And while the story of King David holds a lot of fodder for drama, it also has some pitfalls.

A. The audience is largely familiar with the story. Perhaps a little
too familiar. I mean I had the plot-lines for the whole series worked out within the first five minutes. That's not good when you're trying to create a new television drama. Drama requires surprise, not the certainty that the lowly commoner would become a warrior king by sweeps in season three.

B. When using the Bible you tread a fine line, especially when using Biblical material in an allegorical sense. While there is sex, violence, and treachery in the stories of the Bible, presenting them on TV is a minefield. Go too far, and you might potentially offend your target audience, and be viewed as disrespectful, hold back too much, and your story will be dull.

C. People hear "Biblical" and they automatically assume "preachy." That might be acceptable in regular doses on specialty channels, and children's programming, but not in their soap operas.

WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN DONE INSTEAD:

I like the idea of a show about an alternate universe America that's a monarchy instead of a republic. As a concept it's got a great amount of potential, you can have all kinds of treachery and lechery in the halls of power without the nuisance of being compared to modern politics.

History has loads of examples that the creators could have used. England under the Tudors have been done almost to death, but there's literally loads of other royal lines to use as source material. There's also ancient Rome, a republic turned monarchy, loaded with sex, violence, and betrayal. Or they could have used the Byzantine Empire as a model, a powerful, but corrupted monarchy dominated by assassinations and military coups. None of them have the baggage of adapting Biblical stories.

And while these stories may have a ring of familiarty to them, but very few people know all the details. The familiarity of the symbology draws them in, the mystery keeps them watching.

THE FLAW:

THE WORLD THEY CREATED: Like I said, America as a monarchy is a cool concept, but they just didn't create the sense that there was much history behind this monarchy. Everything looked too new, too slick, the butterfly crest looked more befitting a tube of toothpaste than an ancient royal seal. (Even new monarchies like Silas Benjamin's always try to present themselves as linked to a heroic past, which is why the trappings of royalty always seem to be old-fashioned looking.)

The King, even though the nation's at war, doesn't seem to have many bodyguards, ministers or servants. He even leaps out of a just landed helicopter to attend his wounded son, without a single bodyguard by his side. Now I know that there are budget and story constraints, but even low budget BBC productions of the 1970s at least created the sense of the massive machinery that surrounds any head of state, whether that head is crowned or not. And even though Silas Benjamin gained power through the military, he doesn't wear a uniform, or medals, or any other symbol of his military career. The character, despite Ian McShane's solid performance, looked more like a corporate CEO rather than an absolute monarch. Maybe that's the image the makers were going for, but I just don't see it establishing the show's world as truly different, or exotic from our own.

WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN DONE:

When you're pitching a story set in an alternate world, you have to make it both familiar and exotic. The show had a lot of the familiar, but not enough of the exotic, and could have tried to bump it up a notch. Also they could have done more to make it look more royal and less corporate.

In closing I guess I should say that it was a good concept, with a good cast, but there was something lacking in the execution. Which is a shame, we need something beyond police procedurals on television, something exciting, something that will take you to a new world that will hold your interest for the entire pilot.

At least that's my opinion, what's yours...

A Little Trailer Mash...

This is one of the best trailer mashes I've seen, it's Wall-E meets the Watchmen. Hat tip to the Topless Robot.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Hollywood Babble On & On #251: The Siege of Lionsgate Update

Corporate raider Carl Icahn's siege of Lionsgate Entertainment has entered a new stage. The management has rallied their own troops for the fight.

And it seems that one of their strategies is to use public relations to either somehow win the other shareholders, and their proxy votes, over to their side, or badmouth Icahn into submission. Their public relations strategy looks like it will be taking two tacks...

1. They seem intent on painting the takeover of Lionsgate as some sort of present by Carl Icahn to his son Brett Icahn.

2. The Lionsgate management will try to portray Icahn as intent on liquidating the company, casting its employees into the wilderness, and scattering its assets into the winds.


Here's what I think about those tacks...


1. I don't know much about Brett Icahn, except that he's a Princeton grad, a financial analyst, has some experience in managing investment funds, and a reported interest in entertainment and media related business. Icahn
pere may have every intention of putting the young man on the board, and even in a position of authority in the management. The Lionsgate management seems to be banking on presenting Icahn fils as some sort of rich brat, as spoiled as month old milk, threatening to hold his breath until daddy gets him his own movie studio.

I don't know young Master Icahn, but if Brett Icahn
doesn't fit the image that the Lionsgate Management wants to create, and shows intelligence, and some talent for business in general and show business in particular, this strategy could easily blow up in their face, and make the Management faction look petty, and small.

Remember, a lot of senior people in Hollywood got to where they are by being related to, or having something extortable on, someone in a position of influence. I guess the lesson the Lionsgate management should remember is that
people in glass Malibu beach houses shouldn't throw stones.

2. Icahn does have the option of selling off the pieces, and if he succeeds in taking over the company, that is his right. But it may not be his intention, I wrote a piece about this before, but I will summarize it here.

Lionsgate's assets have some value, but right now, with the market down, and people being leery of getting involved in showbiz deals, he won't be maximizing his value if he sells off those assets.

Icahn can counter these attacks by explaining his desire to make the company a profitable concern, and presenting the management as not only blocking this desire, but accuse them of using the company as their particularly glamorous private playground. Thus recasting the Lionsgate Management as the bad guys.

So as you can see, these tactics may seem smart, but they have the potential of backfiring badly on Lionsgate Management.

Things are getting even more interesting with every development.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Hollywood Babble On & On #250: Miscellaneous Monday Musings

We have a bit of a Sci-Fi theme going today, or perhaps one could say SyFy, but only if they have their head up their own ass which we'll get to in a second, but first...

THE STUDIO ON THE EDGE OF FOREVER

Writer, raconteur, provocateur, and all around scrapper Harlan Ellison is suing Paramount over not getting what he considers his due from the Star Trek Episode "City on the Edge of Forever," and he's also suing the WGA for not protecting his interests and rights adequately enough.


This proves the two solid and absolute truths about Hollywood.

1. Nobody learns anything.

2. When Harlan Ellison thinks he's been done wrong, Harlan Ellison will fight like hell.

Ellison is a great writer, one of science-fiction's true grand masters, capable of doing more with a short story than 50 lesser writers with an entire novel.

He's also the world's most contentious, litigious, and just plain ornery people the world has ever known. In the words of my wise grandpa, he's one of those guys that would "rather fight than eat."

There's nothing he likes more than good battle, and make that battle with a large corporation that treats people badly, and he will positively love it.

Which raises the question:

Why?

Why would Paramount, a company that's having a hard time finding investment capital, want to start a fight with someone who will go after them tooth and nail. He's not the sort of person to just sit back and let lawyers suck him dry in quiet desperation, and then fold when he starts to run out of money. Ellison will take it public, he will hoist it up the flagpole to see who salutes, and he will shout from the rooftops about what a pack of bastards Paramount really is.

If Paramount refused to pay the royalties due Ellison for his work, then that's the equivalent of you sneaking up on a sleeping badger and sticking your thumb up it's butt-hole.

You might survive the mauling, but was the blood loss and mutilation really worth getting your thumb covered in shit, especially when you knew for a fact that doing it will cause you pain, and get you nothing worthwhile in the end?

How will Paramount attract the needed financial partners with yet another case of them screwing someone over making the news?

Anyway, in other news....


IS SYFY THE SANSKRIT WORD FOR IDIOT?

Just when you think the folks at NBC-Universal have hit bottom, they break out the shovels and start digging.

In another example of bizarre corporate logic, the people that brought us Ben Silverman's reign of error at NBC, have decided to take the Sci-Fi Channel and "re-brand" it the SyFy Channel, with a new logo, and the slogan "Imagine Greater."

Think about that for a second, I'll wait.

They, in their infinite wisdom, have decided to take one of their few successful operations, the Sci-Fi Channel, and change the name and logo to something more befitting a lifestyle channel that teaches you how to brew your own patchouli oil. In fact their new nonsense word SyFy sounds like some sort of dish made from couscous, granola, and seasoned liberally with the ire of Sci-Fi fans.

The phrase Sci-Fi (believed to have been first coined by the late Forrest Ackerman) comes from the phrase Science Fiction, which was coined by the legendary editor-publisher Hugo Gernsback, when his first attempt Scientifiction didn't roll smoothly off the tongue.

Which leads me to the reason behind this decision.

You see it has nothing to do with helping the channel connect with its current fans and attract new ones, but it has everything to do with ownership.

You see NBC-Universal can't slap a "registered trademark" symbol onto the word Sci-Fi, SF, Science-Fiction, or any rational variation thereof, because they are commonly used words that belong to the public at large. NBC-Universal can't claim they own them and sue anyone for using those words without their permission.

So they make up a bit of rhyming nonsense that they can claim ownership of, even though no one would want it, with their permission or not, because it is nothing more than stupid rhyming nonsense.

Hey NBC-Universal, in keeping with your spirit of great business decisions, how about letting me have the rights to the web address www.scifi.com for the price of $1 Canadian. With your network going all "syfy" and the term being public domain, it can't be worth that much.

Nudge-nudge-wink-wink.

RIP Ron Silver

The versatile and talented actor Ron Silver passed away at the age of 62 after a battle with esophageal cancer.

He was one of those actors who always delivered exactly what was needed to breath life into his characters with a charm, and when necessary a certain sly humour. He was also one of the few "actor-activists" who could wear that title with any sort of sincerity, and refused to allow his beliefs to succumb to the whims of Hollywood political fashion, even when it cost him the scorn of both sides of the political spectrum.

I think I'll dig up my old copy of Reversal of Fortune this week, just to remind myself how good he was at his job, and how many actors could learn from him.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Saturday Silliness Cinema: Jonathan Winters

Jonathan Winters can be described as the father of improv comedy. The former Marine Corps Drill Instructor went on to become a legendary stand up comedian, and actor known for his cast of characters, and his ability to literally go on for hours, creating fresh material.

One of his most popular characters was Maude Frickert, who looked & talked like a sweet little old lady, but had a razor sharp tongue. Here she is roasting his former student, then Governor of California and future US President Ronald Reagan.



One of Winters' trademarks was his ability to improvise. Just give him a prop, and prop, and he'd come up with a dozen or so little skits with it. In this clip, Tonight Show host Jack Paar gives Winters a stick, and Winters runs away with it.



He was also famous for his "1 Man Movies" where he'd act out a ridiculous movie scene playing all the characters. Here he is in an appearance on The Steve Allen Show, complete with 1950s commercials.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Friday Fiction Feature

I'm starting a new feature where I'm doing one of my improvised web-stories and will be posting a new installment hopefully every Friday. But I'm not posting them here since this is more of a business-pop culture blog. Luckily, I have a writing blog called my Fiction Files.

You can find the first installment of my new improvised story Tooth & Claw here. Hopefully part 2 will be up next Friday.

Enjoy.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Hollywood Babble On & On #249: The Seige of Lionsgate Continues

According to Nikki Finke, billionaire investor Carl Icahn is making an offer to Lionsgate's debt-holders to buy the company's debt for $150 million.

Oooh, this is getting hot.

If you read my last post on the subject I discussed the five considerations of war that all must ponder before going into battle. Now I don't know the exact details of Icahn's offer, like how many cents on the dollar the offer means to the debt-holders, but it does show something. And that something is that Icahn appears to have at least some of his considerations in hand.


1. The Moral Law- Icahn appears confident that he believes in the rightness of his cause, because he's putting a lot of chips on the table. Which shows a serious intent to win.

2. Heaven- Icahn appears to know the environment he's working in, and how he can use this environment (concerns over the debt market) to increase his influence over Lionsgate beyond simple share purchases.

3. Earth- Icahn doesn't strike me as the type of guy who would just drop an offer for an $150 million debt buy up unless he had his logistical house in order.

As for his "commander" and his "method & discipline" well, that's a little too "insider" for a meager blogger like me to know, so it's time for the Lionsgate management to make their counter-move. This could turn out to be very interesting.

UPDATE- Some reports are saying that Icahn's offer is to buy the $150 million principal remaining on a $300+ million debt. Plus, I got this exclusive photo of Icahn outside the Lionsgate headquarters...

I have to say, he looks like he means business.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Hollywood Babble On & On #248: The Lion May Fight

Well, well, according to the always indefatigable and eerily reliable Nikki Finke, the management of Lionsgate has ended talks with billionaire investor Carl Icahn and his allies over them putting delegates of their choice on the board of directors. (Reports say that the Icahn & Allies camp has around 50% of the stock, which makes the denial of board seats a little hard to justify.)

Now, I've talked about Icahn's options with Lionsgate before, and I regret that this deal has come to this, because no doubt lawyers will get involved, and that always turns what should be a business deal into a war. And while I think turning business into war is something that should only be used as a last resort, I will offer my thoughts on the issue, in a general, and historical-philosophical way, with my old buddy Sun Tzu.

So here are some things that both sides should consider:

1. THE MORAL LAW - Do you honestly believe that you and your supporters believe that you are doing the right thing, not only for yourself, but for your shareholders. And can you articulate your argument in a sincere and meaningful way.

2. HEAVEN - What is the condition of the company? Can it survive a fight like this? What sort of economic conditions will you be fighting under?

3. EARTH - This is where you determine exactly how you win your fight. What materials, allies, and resources you will need for the battle, and how will you use them? To be blunt, are you bringing a knife to a gunfight?

4. THE COMMANDER - Who is in charge of your forces in this fight? Does this commander believe in the rightness of the cause, and has the wisdom, cunning, and yes, even ruthlessness to do what needs to be done, all the while inspiring the trust and loyalty of allies?

5. METHOD & DISCIPLINE - How will the commander win the fight? What are the commander's plans, how will this person enact them? And what is the win/loss potential of their strategies?

You know, I hoped that this deal would have a happy ending for both sides, that is possible if both sides were willing, but now it's become another Hollywood war.

Let's hope that no matter who wins, the company and its shareholders are the real winners.

Stuff About Writing and Reading

Personal note...

I'm still plugging away at my little book about show biz. It's now at 74,000+ words, and I'm currently doing a chapter on comic books and comic book related movies. A little history, why they're so popular, and why the companies love making them.

Business note....

In other writing news, Realms of Fantasy, the largest and glossiest fantasy fiction magazine in print was going to be closed very soon by its owner Sovereign Media. But now RofF has a new owner editor/publisher Warren Lapine, and the magazine's expected to be back in full swing by May.

I think this is good news, and not just because I happen to have what I think is a cracking good little adventure resting in their slush pile, but because I think that fiction needs as many viable outlets as possible. I also think that the fiction publishing world needs to market their product aggressively too.

I wish Realms of Fantasy lots of luck, and that they have a great new life, and that's not just because I got something in their slush pile.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Hollywood Babble On & On #247: The Legend of the Golden Coffin

A tip of my viking war helmet to the indefatigable Nikki Finke for this report of Disney CEO Robert Iger's golden coffin.

No, I'm not saying that he's got a coffin made of gold, but he can definitely afford it, since his contract with Disney dictates that he (or to be more exact, his heirs) will get millions in extras if he kicks the bucket while on the job.

First thing I have to say is that I hope Iger's heirs love him, or he should consider hiring a food taster for his business lunches at the Ivy.

Second thing, if he dies on the job, and comes back to life as one of the walking undead, he will still get these extras, only they'll be paid in
braaaaiiiiinnnns....

Sorry, couldn't resist.

But seriously folks, just think about it for a minute. If Iger dies in harness, as the Brits like to say, he will still be sucking millions out of the company like a vampire risen from the grave.

Now I'm not saying that he, and other CEOs shouldn't have some sort of life insurance, they're free to have as much as they can afford, and the companies themselves should insure their CEOs. Because after one kicks it, replacing them is an expensive pain in the ass. My problem is that this is not really insurance, it's just another way for Hollywood's management elite to keep millions of dollars out of the hands of the people who actually own these companies, I'm talking about the shareholders, and in their own pockets, even after they're dead. This is a man who made over $58 million in the past two years, can't he afford his own insurance, or maybe an RRSP that can be tranferred to his heirs if he dies early?

If you think shareholders are mad at CEOs earning above their performance, imagine how they'll feel when the CEO is still earning long after he's worm bait.

Well, you don't really have to imagine it, because it's happening right now, and the phrase "conniption fit" is a good way to describe it. The Disney shareholders are having their annual meeting, and a lot of people are pissed at not only this, but the loss of 47% of their share value, and their apparent lack of any say in how the company they own is run.

My advice, buy some insurance, make sure he doesn't drink Crisco as a soft drink, and tell him to save some money for the family, because their shareholders don't want to keep paying for the dead. They're already supporting Walt Disney's frozen brain, and that's enough for them.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Hollywood Babble On & On #246: Who Analyzes the Analysts?

Zack Snyder's Watchmen had a $56 million opening weekend. The sixth largest opening weekend for an R -Rated movie in history.

And the "experts" are calling it a failure.

True, it didn't do as well as Snyder's last movie
300, which opened the same time two years ago, but 300 promised an action packed tale of heroism and sacrifice in which the audience saw many modern parallels, and it delivered. Watchmen on the other hand is a dark, moody, nihilistic tale, with violence in the place of action, where the only character with any moral clarity is a psychotic, and it's almost 3 hours long.

When you take that into consideration $56 million is a damn good opening weekend.

Now it might not get as much of the geek-repeat business because they changed the ending, then again, the geeks might decide to give it a second chance. Who knows if this film has legs.

So you're probably wondering why folks are claiming that the movie's a failure. Well, you see a bunch of analysts decreed that the film would make between $65-$70 million on its opening weekend, and since it didn't make those expectations, it will be branded with the stench of failure.

Well, Allan Moore asked in the original book:
Who Watches The Watchmen? and my question is Who Analyzes The Analysts?

How do they make these estimates? What's their criteria, are they following confirmed mathematical principles, or are they just pulling numbers out of their ass. And are the numbers that are made public the real estimates, or have they been "modified" by management for reasons having more to do with inter-office politics than scientific rigor.

Analysts are human beings, and they work for human beings, and as human beings, and they all have their own little agendas that can turn what should be routine procedures, into petty political games. If
Watchmen had an opening weekend take of $64.999 million, they'd probably still call it a failure, because someone wants you to think of it as a failure. The film might sit in the top five for weeks, and eventually even make a profit, leaving its eventual DVD releases (there is never just one) as gravy. However, if the studio wants to hide money, there's nothing better than having people think it's a failure on its opening weekend.

And I'd like to end with this little note...

Remember, a lot of the economy's current woes sprouted from analysts telling bankers and politicians that everything's coming up rosy and will keep get rosier, so just keep selling those sub-prime mortgages.

I guess you can realize that a lot of financial analysis bug me.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Hollywood Babble On & On #245: Michael Jackson, Lawsuits, and Hollywood

The other day I asked why the AEG corporation decided to piss away $400 million to pay for Michael Jackson's comeback tour and movie deal, and then I saw some more evidence that doing business with the self-proclaimed King of Pap Pop is just plain bad business.

Michael Jackson is suing the auction house that's handling the sale of items from his Neverland Ranch, claiming that they do not have his permission to auction the items. Apparently Jackson giving them the items and contracting them to handle the sale does not construe permission in the mind of a man who has this painting done, without any of the irony that may imply sanity.

First I must say that there is a point to this little rant, you see, I only discuss idiotic celeb behaviour when there's a point to it. For decades Michael Jackson has presented himself as the child-like innocent trapped in a world that doesn't understand him.

Only his few remaining fans don't understand him, the rest of the world seems to have a pretty good handle on him, even if they can't put it into words.

You see Jackson isn't child-like, he's childish, there's a difference. He wants what he wants when he wants it, and nothing, not even cold reality, will get in his way. Bills mean nothing to him, contracts mean nothing, because he's the "king" and all should just take his shit and call it ice cream.

His image of innocence is also inaccurate, because he's apparently not above using that image to try to get away with his often bizarre, avaricious, and frequently litigious behaviour. There seems to me a great deal of cynicism in all of his business dealings, a lot of "gimme, gimme" with no care to how he gets it, as long as he gets all he can get.

I mean can anyone name any business relationship Jackson's had that hasn't ended in a lawsuit?

Which finally brings me to the point as to why people are still willing to do business with Jacko.

By Hollywood business standards he's normal.

They expect business people to grab money, spend it wildly, and try to use their legal muscle to get out of their responsibilities. Just look at how many studios do the cold calculations of whether or not it would be cheaper to pay someone what they're owed, or to fight it in court, and sometimes, they do it, even when litigation is more expensive, just because they don't want to pay their bills.

Michael Jackson is the self-fulfilling idiocy of Hollywood in the emaciated, surgically butchered flesh. Decades of isolation from normalcy has made him believe that his life is normal, and Hollywood seems to think that way too.

Ironically, unlike Jackson, Hollywood seems to be losing investor confidence, while Jackson's still able to reel them in for reasons beyond the ken of mortal men.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Saturday Silliness Cinema: Watching the Watchmen

It's time for my usual break from ranting and raving about the inequities and idiocies of show biz to have a little silly fun.

Today, we annoy Allan Moore by showing a couple of parodies of his masterwork Watchmen.
Justify Full




Friday, 6 March 2009

Hollywood Babble On & On #244: And the Question is...

Okay, here's the story.

Michael Jackson, the washed up self-proclaimed King of Pop and purveyor of "Jesus Juice," is going on a comeback tour, and is planning to make a 3D movie based on his song "Thriller," and somehow got the AEG Corporation to foot $400 million to pay for all this.

Which brings me to the central question of this whole deal:

Why?

I mean I can understand doing a deal to make money, but I haven't really heard of anyone making any money off of Michael Jackson in a long, long, time.

The fact that he's been sued by everyone from partners to the corner 7/11 for unpaid bills. should tell them that he's a black hole of money. Cash goes in, and is never seen again. Yet this black hole's strange gravitational pull keeps attracting people willing to put big money into strange comeback schemes.

Now I'm not going to say that it's bad business, because of the molestation charges, he was a acquitted, so I won't pass judgment on whether they were true or not. However, what I will pass judgment on is the fact that his lifestyle, a combination of opulent fantasy well salted with delusions of royalty, phony pretensions of child-like innocence, bizarre public behaviour, turning ordinary expenses into expensive litigation, and an addiction to plastic surgery that goes well into the realm of mental illness made not only those charges plausible, but everything about him a waste of time and money.

Which brings me to my theory as to why this whole mess is going forward.

You see, there are two types of people on this planet.

1. The people who look at Michael Jackson and see a hideously surgically deformed middle-aged man, who may have once been a popular entertainer, but all he does now is creep people out.

2. The people who look at Michael Jackson and see the little 12 year old boy who sang for the Jackson 5 back during the Pleistocene Epoch.

I believe that Jackson is coasting on the goodwill, and money of the #2 People, and the only thing that might snap him out of his delusional dreamworld is for them to wake up and see that he doesn't even have a nose, let alone a fan base worth $400 million.

I'm not the type to make stock picks, but I'd be selling short on AEG right now. Yikes.