A Subjective Process Examined in The Chair

Ben Affleck and Matt Damon's Project Greenlight (2001-2005) was a window on what happens when first-time filmmakers are given the budget, support and time to make the movie of their dreams. Starz' new show The Chair, which premieres on September 6, turns it into a competition. The first season features one woman, one man, one screenplay and a roller-coaster of artistic interpretation as each contestant sets out to make two very different movies. 

There's actually a throughline between the two shows in executive producer Chris Moore, who originally worked with Affleck and Damon and this time teamed up with actor Zachary Quinto and his production company, Before the Door Pictures (All Is Lost, Margin Call), to support the two productions featured in the show.

Contestant Shane Dawson is a Los Angeles resident already comfortable in front of the camera after launching a successful YouTube channel with a following in the millions (he's a ringer for Australian comedian Chris Lilley, treading territory similar to Lilley's Ja'mie: Private School Girl). His competitor, Anna Martemucci, is also an actor/writer, the product of an NYU film school education and an East Coast familiarity with the independent film business.

Polished documentary-style interviews and straightforward production video are liberally mixed with zany POV cams in moments of crisis. There's also enough agita and self doubt to keep potential train wrecks looming around the next corner, though (SPOILER ALERT) IMDb-dependents can easily cut to the chase by looking up each contestant's recent production credits online. (Hint: start with screenwriter Dan Schoffer and connect the dots.)

Although the premise is predictable, pitting the YouTube generation against film-school purists, finishing a film of any kind has its own rewards. As Moore says, the real point of the show is to explain the process a filmmaker goes through to make something worthwhile.

The Chair's premiere on September 6 is at 11 pm — late enough for film-watching and filmmaking types to be back in front of their TV sets. Check out the trailer above.

Crowdfunding Film Projects: Is It for You?

Since recommending —  and regretting investing in — a Kickstarter project that hasn't turned out as advertised, I stopped recommending projects. I'll stick to that. But, as filmmakers, we must all be aware that things are changing. More and more films are being created outside the studio system, and some of them are very high quality.

I suppose Veronica Mars is the new iconic example, but there are many others (there are currently more than 1,000 "live projects" seeking funding on Kickstarter alone). You may be interested in helping fund worthy film projects, or you may well find yourself in the position of trying to market your own project to potential investors through Kickstarter or some other crowdfunding site, so here are some tips on what to look for and what to avoid in the world of crowdfunding.

You can never know what will happen when people actually get your money in hand, with virtually no external controls. If you're thinking of investing, here's what I've learned.

Get to know the people you're investing in. Check them out.
How do you get to know the principals? I go on Facebook and try to friend them. I tell them, honestly, that I'm a potential investor. Then I follow them for a while and see how I feel about what kind of people they are. I also use LinkedIn. I see who is vouching for them. You can find nearly anything online these days. Google them and find their work. Evaluate. When I looked, after the fact, at the previous work of the principals in one of my Kickstarter investments, I was amazed at how awful their work was. I was thinking, how in hell do they have any credibility?

Today, there are many online resources to check people out. If you are considering investing a fair amount, I recommend that you pay for a professional background check on the principals, or at least the head honcho. You may be surprised at what you find. But if you're investing more than $100, insist on meeting personally with the principal parties. Trust your gut. Hollywood is full of flim-flam artists who are all show and no go. I've been burned. I know. Often the producer knows way more about raising money and getting publicity than about making movies. He/she may not know a good performance if it bit him/her in the ass. The big studios are famous for having bean-counters make creative decisions to disastrous effect. Fortunately it costs them so much they eventually learn. Mostly. As for the director, there are a lot of out of work “directors” out there. Many of them know how to talk the talk but have no clue about walking the walk. Typically they will have some technical expertise, perhaps credentials as a former DP or AD. But when it comes to extracting credible performances from their usually excellent cast, they just don't get it. Lately I have seen co-directors working together successfully, one handling the technical stuff and the other handling the actors. But that kind of arrangement depends entirely on the talent and expertise of the people involved. So check them out.

Avoid the hype.
Avoid getting sucked in simply because they've got some name actors associated with the project. There are a lot of out-of-work actors out there looking for a project so they can keep working. “Faces” in the cast do not necessarily a great project make, whether they are true celebrities or simply faces that you know and like from some former TV series. Often they are supremely talented actors who are out of work. It happens all too often — they have bills to pay and these crowdfunded projects do attract them. I think everyone is excited about the concept of making movies outside the studio system, actors included. It could eventually mean a lot more work for them. So look out for the talented actors paired with not-so-talented producers and directors.

Read the script.
Sometimes these projects don't even have a script, or it is held as proprietary intellectual property. If you know the screenwriter has talent, you might consider investing under $100 without reading it, but any more and you have a right to know what you're investing in, no matter who wrote it. Often it is a first-time writer, and scripts are not an easy write. A great script is a rare thing. If you can't read the script, have it vetted by someone you trust. Way too many bad scripts are made into bad movies, and you don't want to be an investor in a bad movie.

Question whether they can monetize the project.
Way too many projects seem to be created with the same attitude: ”Make the movie, and the money will come.” That is a false premise. One project that I invested in has produced virtually nothing except clips, marketing material, hype and a Comic-Con panel. My guess is that no movie will ever be made, and if one is somehow produced, it will not be of sufficient quality to attract an audience, or distribution, or money. So if you are in it for more than a free video or your name in the credits as an associate co-executive producer, on a maybe never-to-be-produced film, check out the money plan carefully.

How do you check out the money? Ask. What you ask depends on how much you plan to invest, but if it's under a grand, ask questions, verify the answers you get and, for god's sake, research the questions you need to ask. If it's over a grand, due diligence must ensue. Many people where I live are extremely wealthy but have no business sense, making them perfect pigeons. So learn before you invest.

Get details on how they plan to distribute the film or series.
By the time I thought about distribution I had already invested. But I felt, as an investor, I had a right to be in on the distribution plan. I could not get the principals to answer my questions and eventually I found there was no actual plan. There was a vague thought of distributing on the web, with no plan to monetize it at all. I'm still getting the monthly reports and, as far as I can tell, there is still no real plan for distribution, just plans for raising more money. It is amazing how Hollywood razzamatazz can suck people in.

Know why you're investing.
You can back a movie for a tiny sum, for which you will possibly get a movie poster, DVD or even a signed script. That is all well and good. There are millions of Americans and people abroad who would just like to feel a part of the glamour of Hollywood. Bigger investors get ego trips like dinner with the stars, or a walk-on in the movie. Again. this is fun stuff that can make a someone feel important. Next comes screen credit. This is pure ego stuff and usually comes at a high price — perhaps in the thousands of dollars. As long as you know this is all you are getting for your money, so be it. Just be sure the film actually gets made and you actually get your credit. Get it on paper.

But the point is this: any money you invest in a Kickstarter campaign should be thought of as a donation, with your back-end being a CD or T shirt — unless you go big and get special consideration. If you have the means and interest and are willing to invest tens of thousands of dollars, you need to know what you'll be getting. Back-end participation is a tricky business and Hollywood accountants can see to it that you never see a cent, no matter how much profit the film makes. So if you are investing for a piece of the profit, make sure your lawyers and accountants approve the paper work. Never get caught up in all the razzle-dazzle and sign on impulse.

Do not invest just because friends are doing it! I did that and got totally burned. My friends had invested based on hype and the quality of people attached to the project for the Kickstarter campaign. I didn't research the project well because I figured, if these credible friends invested, it was bound to be a great project. Right? It turns out we all got screwed. So do your own research. I have friends involved with a number of Kickstarter projects, and I'm sure most of them are legitimate. But I do my own research and no longer rely on my friends' advice except to get me interested in the first place. After that, I know I'm on my own.

Time to get serious?
Check out Junction. It is a high-end crowdfunding system. Investors need to be pre-qualified, and the projects are of high quality with solid backing. The movies will be made with or without you, but if you're ready to make a larger investment, you'll have an opportunity to invest along with the big boys. Their team is made up of lawers, film pros, and billionaires. For example, Steve Wynn of Wynn Resorts is on their advisory board, along with Jason Blum, head of Blumhouse Productions (Insidious, Sinister and the Paranormal Activity franchise.) Their films feature stars like Tom Hanks, for example, with Silver Reel providing major money for his film,  A Hologram For The King. It's just a more serious way to go.

Funding your own project? Many of the same rules apply.
Maybe you're interested in crowdfunding your own project? Read the above pointers carefully and perhaps you will think twice about how you present it. Being one of my readers, you are likely a legitimate filmmaker. Please think about the things I've outlined above and make sure you dedicate the proper thought and planning to your project before you start asking for financial backing. Find ways to assure your investors that the money will be used for the project, as advertised, and stick to that. You'll be helping others coming down the road by establishing your own credibility now.
 
Oh, and the latest thing? People will pay a fortune for movie props. They used to be cheap. Not any more. Put your props into your crowdfunding thinking as potential rewards for investors.
 
There are many reasons people might invest in a film project. Be aware that your "funding" is really considered a donation in exchange for whatever goodies are offered. But if it's a good project, you will find funders. 
 
Crowdfunding platforms
Consider the following platforms:
Kickstarter 
IndieGoGo
EquityNet
Fundanything (this is where Penn Jellette funded his horror film, Director's Cut)
Junction

Existing projects
Check out the following projects and vet them as I've suggested. In the comments below, please tell me which ones you think are legitimate and which — if any — seem like a scam. I'll give some opinions, but I'm not making recommendations. Remember, there are over 38,000 film related projects on Kickstarter alone! As I type, more are being added.

1. White Tiger Legend This first one is a fave of mine because I am an animation fan and I know the honcho is talented and insanely dedicated. Let me know what you think.

2. Director's Cut This is being honchod by Penn Jillette with Adam Rifkin directing. Big names…but do they have a viable property?

3. The “G” Show https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/322035442/the-g-show-is-a-show-that-talks-about-real-college?ref=discovery This is an interesting one…I know little about it.

4. Invisible – A film by Christian Jackson  This one is a bit of an inigma…is there enough info to invest in it?

5. Cardinal Matter  What do you think?

Special Case
Nobility, this is an ongoing, active film project that seems to be making headway. They canceled their Kickstarter campaign and went to indiegogo, where they didn't make their goal. Yet, the project has serious stars attached and appears to be moving along. They are being supported by private investors as far as I can tell. Start here to check them out and, if you're interested, you can get more detailed investor info by writing to maryjane@cowboyerrant.com. As I stated above, I uncover but do not recommend film projects. Let me know what you think.

If you're interested in crowdfunding, please take the time to make comments below. Questions and opinions are both welcome. (We are kind of a crowdopinioning forum.) Meanwhile, I am working on the Golden Pixie awards. I'm a bit overwhelmed there, with so much to look at and so little time. I used to award them once a year, but things have gotten so complex, I'm considering making awards throughout the year. I am currently looking for a Zbrush artist who is better than me, to sculpt my concept art into a 3D Golden Pixie statue. The pay? Just a brief profile in my blog, and full credit for the work.

Camera News: More Blackmagic Updates, ARRI Supports SxS Pro+, Red Dragon on The Knick, and More

Once upon a time, you bought a camera and made the most of the investment, putting up with any feature limitations until it made financial sense to invest in a more current model. But in the new camera landscape, you don't always have to buy new hardware to get new features — just download the latest firmware. (Sometimes it's even free!) Here's a look at new camera updates from Blackmagic Design, ARRI, and unofficial Canon EOS firmware provider Magic Lantern, plus a few more news briefs from the world of cinematography.

Blackmagic Firmware v1.9.3 Adds HUD to BMCC, Pocket Cinema Camera
Blackmagic brings a new histogram display, audio meters, and time-remaining indicators to the Blackmagic Cinema Camera and Pocket Cinema Camera with its latest firmware update. (The Blackmagic Production Camera 4K got the same upgrade last month.) The new display is accessed on the BMCC by swiping up from the bottom of the screen, or, if a manual lens is mounted, simply hitting the Iris button. On the Pocket Cinema Camera, the Up and Down buttons show and hide the display. Blackmagic has also added new options for white balance and shutter angle, and fixed a ProRes bug that affected in-camera playback.

ARRI Alexa Update to Support Sony SxS Pro+ Cards, Plus ProRes 4444 XQ
ARRI entered the second public beta phase with its new software update packet (SUP), v10.0. We don't recommend you go out and install beta software on your production camera, but this should mean a stable release is right around the corner. The latest feature to be added is support for Sony SxS Pro+ memory cards, which come in 64 GB and 128 GB versions. As promised, this update will support the new Apple ProRes 4444 XQ codec, but something had to go — ProRes 422 LT and ProRes 422 Proxy are being removed from all Alexa cameras, according to the official release notes [PDF]. Other added features include 180-degree image rotation for use on Steadicam as well as with ARRI's 9.5-18mm ultra-wide zoom lens, support for two independent HD-SDI outputs on a broader range of recording modes, and faster switching between regular and high-speed mode (now down to about 20 seconds).

Magic Lantern Says it Has Pushed Canon 5D Mark III to Shoot 1080p Raw at 40fps
At Planet5D, Barry Andersson noticed that Magic Lantern's custom firmware now claims to support shooting 1080p raw footage at 40fps on the Canon 5D Mark III. That's not exactly a game-changer, but it could come in handy for mild slo-mo effects — and, as Andersson notes, if you plan to fake real slow-motion in post, those extra frames will give your software a lot more information to work with. (If you haven't loaded Magic Lantern's code onto your Canon DSLR yet, be aware that it's unsupported by Canon and will void your warranty.)

Maxell Becomes Latest Maker of Camera Gear
Media storage specialist Maxell, still probably best-known for its run as a high-end audiocassette manufacturer in that formats 1980s heyday, is reinventing itself as a maker of pro camera accessories. It's debuting a line of power shoe adapters, a shoe clamp, power connectors, and a USB charge adapter that allows a smartphone or tablet to be charged using a camera battery. 

Writer Jack Amiel on The Knick, the Red Dragon Camera, and Why the Eyes Have It
Director Steven Soderbergh makes his Cinemax series The Knick look unlike anything else on television, and writer Jack Amiel, one of the show's creators, thinks it has a lot to do with the Red Dragon camera's low-light capabilities, and what that means for the actors on set. From an interview with NPR:

The dim lighting was Steven Soderbergh's brilliant choice and it was real. This was not an era when you had high-wattage light bulbs and everything was lit. It was an era when this was all new and not everything was wired for electricity and we wanted the reality of the darkness and the grit and what life really was like. Technology, ironically, helped with this because Steven uses the camera called the Red Dragon and it has such an incredibly sensitive light sensor that you can be in a room where two characters are only lit by one candle in the center of the table and you can shoot that scene. It can bring more light or less light. It is extraordinary. And so Steven really took advantage of that and allowed us to see what the darkness really was back then. And I think it's wonderful. I think it's something you don't see in anything else. Steven also mentioned something that I thought was really interesting, which is that he kept trying to figure out why there was a different quality to the show than anything he'd done before. And when he was editing it he kept looking at it. And what he noticed was that the actors' eyes were different, and it was because they weren't in bright light. So instead of dialing down their pupils, they were wide open. And it had a whole different effect and a sense of openness that I don't think many other productions have ever been able to capture.

New episodes of the current 10-episode season of The Knick premiere every Friday night on Cinemax.

Film’s Not Dead Yet: Four Reasons Why

The demise of 35mm film has been so widely reported by now that it's easy to believe film has been completely supplanted by digital cameras and projectors. But that's not quite true. News broke last week that 35mm negative stock had a new lease on life, as a coalition of Hollywood studios made a financial commitment to keep it alive for a few more years, and there are even places where you can still see a movie projected in 35mm, if you know where to look. We don't want to overstate the case — film really is on the ropes in a digital era. But here are some reasons filmmakers and film fans alike still have a shot at making the most of the last days of film.
 
Hollywood's finest won't let it go. 
Famous filmmakers have convinced Hollywood studios to keeping Kodak's film factory running. The Wall Street Journal last week revealed "secret negotiations" between Kodak on one side and Warner Bros., Universal, Paramount, Disney, and The Weinstein Company on the other to keep Kodak in the film-manufacturing business. Basically, the studios are committing to purchase set quantities of film stock over the next several years on behalf of directors who may use it. Among the filmmakers lobbying for the deal were Quentin Tarantino, Judd Apatow, J.J. Abrams, and Christopher Nolan, all of whom have continued to work in 35mm. In fact, Tarantino is promising to shoot his next film, The Hateful Eight, in 70mm, and that's Nolan at the top of this page, on location with an IMAX camera for his November release, Interstellar. And Martin Scorsese yesterday released a statement in support of the Kodak deal. "Young people who are driven to make films should have access to the tools and materials that were the building blocks of that art form," he said. "Would anyone dream of telling young artists to throw away their paints and canvases because iPads are so much easier to carry? Of course not."
 
It's not just for Christopher Nolan and Martin Scorsese.
Sure, J.J. Abrams can throw a little weight around and get the greenlight to shoot Star Wars 7 on film. But 35mm remains viable even for indie projects. With the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign and support from Panavision's New Filmmaker Program, which loans 16mm and 35mm camera equipment to low-budget projects, Washington, D.C. filmmaker Zeresenay Berhane Mehari was able to direct Difret on location in Ethopia, shooting 35mm film and sending it to India for processing. The film premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award in the World Cinema Dramatic category, and it is making the rounds of festivals with Angelina Jolie's name attached as executive producer. Not bad for a tiny film.
 

 
Film prints aren't extinct — just an endangered species.
It might seem like every cineplex in the land has transitioned to digital projection, but there are some hold-outs. At the end of 2013, according to research firm IHS, there were still 2,969 35mm-only screens in the U.S. In the New York metro area, Cinemart Cinemas in Forest Hills, Queens, is reportedly one of the last film-based theaters, leading some filmsick movie buffs to make the pilgrimage specifically to see a movie in 35mm. You'll also be able to see film projected in all its glory in November, when IMAX books 15-perf 70mm film prints of Nolan's Interstellar in "somewhere around 50" theaters, film site Collider reported in June. If you love film projection, enjoy it while you can — passion projects won't keep IMAX-format projectors running indefinitely, and distributors have been itching to discontinue 35mm entirely.
 
 
Film archives have a (much) longer life than digital archives.
Movies need to be archived somehow, and filmmakers who rely on digital masters as their "archive" may be courting disaster. As the Academy wrote in its Digital Dilemma 2 report issued in 2012, "Suitable long-term preservation and access mechanisms for digital motion picture materials have not yet been developed." Converting that color digital master to black-and-white separation film is a good way to get it into an archival format, and with that in mind, Kodak recently developed two new archival film stocks. As Kodak film exec Andrew Evenski reminded us late last year, "film offers a standardized, human-readable format that has been in existence for well over a century, and methods for retrieving content from a 35mm frame will exist well into the future." Even the recent digital-transition documentary Side by Side was eventually committed to film stock for the archives.

Blackmagic Expands ProRes Support, DJI Has a New MoVI Competitor, and More

From formats to flight plans, here's a round-up of this week's news for cinematographers.
 
Blackmagic Expands ProRes Support in BMCC, Pocket, and 4K Cameras
Blackmagic's latest firmware upgrade, v1.8.2, extends the company's support for Apple ProRes formats. Previously, users had the choice of recording CinemaDNG raw or compressed ProRes 422 HQ. The new firmware release adds a slate of lower-bandwidth codecs, including ProRes 422, ProRes 422 LT, and ProRes 422 Proxy. Your mileage may vary, but ProRes 422 LT is generally thought of as a pretty respectable codec for undemanding imagery. Many shooters will draw the line at 422 Proxy, which is generally considered an offline editing format and unsuitable for use in a final deliverable — but in a pinch, you can now fit nearly four hours of talking-head footage on a single 64 GB SD card if you're willing to go that low. (Just don't try to push the image in post.) Blackmagic users are discussing the new options at the company's Cinematography Forum. Read more: forum.blackmagicdesign.com
 
In other Blackmagic news, the company is running a half-price sale on its Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, bringing the price down to a ridiculous $495 through August 31. If you've been considering it, now's the time to pull the trigger, especially if you happen to be sitting on a collection of MFT glass.Think how much footage you can accumulate with the new, lower-bandwidth recording options — why leave home without a camera in your pocket?
 
DJI Introduces Competitor for the MoVI M5
Cinematography drone specialist DJI introduced the DJI Ronin, a three-axis stabilized handheld gimbal. The Ronin has a payload of up to 16 pounds, meaning it can hold cameras ranging in size up to the Red Epic. Like the MoVI, the Ronin has a single-operator mode called Smoothtrack that aims to translate the operator's movements into smooth motion, but the rig is likely at its best in dual-operator mode, where a second person remotely controls the precise camera angle via an included transmitter with pan, tilt and roll controls. The rig's settings can be changed on-the-fly via Bluetooth using an iPhone app. Hitting the market at a street price under $3,000, the Ronin is getting an aggressive push as a direct competitor to MoVI M5 from Freefly Systems. Read more: www.dji.com/product/ronin
 
Don't Ditch That Drone
Speaking of DJI and its drones, Eric Reagan at Photography Bay has a good post looking at the potential for DJI Phantom "flyaways" — basically, a sudden loss of control that could lead to loss, damage, or (in the worst case) human injury — and offering a few tips for helping to ensure a successful flight. Read more: How to Prevent Flyaways with DJI Phantom Quadcopters.
 
 
MoVI Gets Ready to Ship Optional MoVI Controller
The latest firmware upgrade for the MoVI family of stabilizers has been upgraded to support the forthcoming MoVI Controller, first shown at NAB 2014. It offers access to pan, tilt, and roll, displays real-time telemetry from the MoVI, and allows adjustments to key MoVI parameters. In the future, it's slated to include focus, iris and zoom control via a dedicated three-channel MoVI FIZ system. Paired with a single IDX battery, it can power an LCD monitor and wireless system. The MoVI Controller is expected to start shipping next week, and AbelCine has more details at its CineTechnica blog. Read more: Freefly Systems' Firmware v3.08 Adds Support for New MoVI Controller.
 
Cinemartin Launches FLEC Universal Base Plate
Cinemartin is bringing its first physical product to market — a 15mm universal baseplate. It's designed for use with small and medium cameras and sports a tool-less design that lets users adjust positions using nuts and screws rather than Allen wrenches. It's available as a €99 one-piece baseplate or in a €229 kit that includes an additional top-cover piece allowing more adjustability. Read more: www.cinemartin.com/universal-baseplate/
 
Bonus Video: Watch This Octopus Start to Dismantle an Underwater Camera Housing
 

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