Month: January 2015

Trailers Have Really Changed Over The Years

One of the unfortunate byproducts of nerdery is the increased susceptibility to hype. Like many of you, I caught the first glimpses of the new Fantastic Four teaser this week and began trying to piece together what I had just seen. As far as I could gather, Reed (wide-eyed intern), Sue (the girl who programmed WOPR from WarGames), Ben (high school varsity baseball player who’s been held back two years) and Johnny (the guy who built KITT) all get in a bunch of steel tubes that explode and send them to Hell. From there, they spend the rest of the movie fighting enemies that are always just out of frame.

I suppose the teaser accomplished its goal. Sure, I want to see more, but only because I have no idea what the hell I just saw. This seems to be the new marketing strategy of Hollywood. We see a teaser, talk endlessly about it for three or four days then forget about it. Later, they release the next cryptic trailer that has us doing the whole song and dance all over again.

Was it always like this?

Searching for answers, a friend and I began to look at the trailers of our ancestors. What we found there was a world of movie marketing long since forgotten. Trailers from these ancient times differed in a number of ways.

Here’s how:

The Length

Nowadays it’s common for an official theatrical trailer to be preceded by a teaser. The lengths of these teasers fluctuate. Normally you’re looking at somewhere between a minute and a half. Then again, some teasers look like they just pieced together all the footage they had from the first day of shooting:

As I’m sure you know, that was the teaser for Breaking Dawn Part 2, unless of course you happened to blink and miss it. Taking out the green preview screen, this trailer clocks in at around forty seconds or around the time it takes to melt butter in a microwave.

Of course, eventually they got enough footage to make a full trailer for audiences, which clocks in at a whopping two minutes, which is about the average running time of current trailers.

Compare that with the official trailer for Lawrence of Arabia from 1962:

That trailer is almost a full five minutes long, where they basically take time to list the entire cast of the film. Furthermore, they take time to give you a basic rundown of who T.E. Lawrence was by opening with nice little quote by Winston Churchill. The equivalent to this would be if the Breaking Dawn trailer opened with a quote from Stephenie Meyer and finishing off by listing off each cast member of the Cullen Family.

The Intros

For some of you that may not be familiar with the Fantastic Four, you may have been curious as to whom these fresh-faced lads and lasses were decorating your computer screen. Now maybe this is because Hollywood is banking on the fact that fans of the FF4 are already familiar with these characters. Still, I’ve found that current trailers still make very little attempt to introduce their characters. Take this trailer from the upcoming Jupiter Ascending:

What can we gather from that? Well, we know that Channing Tatum is a badass with a neck tattoo and he wants to get Mila Kunis for whatever reason because doctors are trying to kill her for whatever reason. Kunis even goes as far as to ask, “Who are you?” to which Channing simply says, “I’m here to help you” for whatever reason. From there it seems clear that the story revolves around Kunis, yet we don’t hear her name till the end of the trailer, where everyone says, “Oh, like in the title! That explains why she’s moving up so many beams of light!”

Now let’s look at the trailer for the sci-fi classic Tron from 1982:

In this trailer we get a pretty good idea who we’re dealing with. There’s the villainous computer introduced in, what can only be described as, the most frightening Apple ad ever seen. Then there’s our hero, Kevin Flynn, who’s of course a genius because he’s searching for answers. They even briefly introduce Tron before explaining what it’s like inside the computer itself.

The Plot

Finally, a big unspoken rule seems to be that you don’t give away too much of the plot. This is particularly the case with modern horror movies that all seem to rely on some big twist at the end.

For instance, check out this trailer for Insidious:

If you didn’t have time to watch it, don’t worry. The trailer is simply a montage of all the scary things that happen in the film in rapid succession. There is virtually no dialogue to explain any of this, just a few blurbs about hiring the landlady from Kingpin and that their son is haunted.

Let’s see how they explained the plot of a movie in 1976 with this trailer from Carrie:

Oh sorry everybody, I should have said SPOILERS, but I believe the statute of limitations runs out at exactly thirty-eight years. Plus, now you don’t even have to watch the film, because that’s literally the detailed, step-by-step plot of the entire film. If they had Cliff Notes for feature films, this would be it.

But my absolutely favorite part of this trailer is the introduction of John Travolta in his first ever film debut. They could have picked any clip from the film to lead the viewer to wonder, “Oh, I wonder what kind of character he plays in the film?” But why even try to instill any sense of mystery? No, instead the editors decided that the best way to introduce this new burgeoning superstar was by letting the audience know within five seconds he was absolutely going to die in the most fiery and violent way possible.

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Indie Intros Oscar Edition: Alejandro González-Iñárritu’s Powder Keg

Since my last Indie Intros post chronicled the work of Richard Linklater, a response to Boyhood being nominated for six Academy Awards, I thought I might just cover other nominees till the awards kick off in February. Up until the week of the 22nd I’ll be dedicating the Indie Intros section to filmmakers nominated for the 2015 Academy Awards. We’ll look at some of their humble beginnings before we witness all the bad jokes and musical numbers the Academy is so known for. Then we’ll all go to work the next morning and complain about who should have won.

Before we begin, I’d like to preface something for the sake of controversy. Ideally, I wanted to focus on all of the Best Picture nominees, but the fact is not every filmmaker in this category have short films to view. Short films from James Marsh or Morton Tyldum were nowhere to be found on the Internet. When I searched for a site showing Damien Chazzelle’s “Whiplash”, the short film that is now an Oscar Nominated feature of the same name, I was directed here which just screams to me, “If you dare show this film we’ll sue you back into the Stone Age!” Finally, Clint Eastwood hasn’t had to make a short film to show off has talents, most likely because there has never been a time in his life where he hasn’t been goddamn Clint Eastwood.

With the recent commentary over the amount of nominations given to American Sniper and the lack of nominations given to Selma, I don’t want any additions or omissions to be viewed as political or social commentary (that’s for a different section of my blog).

With that, Birdman director Alejandro González-Iñárritu is no stranger to the Academy. His debut feature film Amores Perros was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 2001 and Babel, starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, was nominated for Best Picture in 2007. “Powder Keg” isn’t exactly his first short, yet it’s still relatively early in his career. Before ever shooting Perros, he had shot “El Timbre”, a Spanish film that I couldn’t seem to find anywhere. Worry not though, as soon as I do I plan to cover it on my future Spanish sister site, El Barrio de Los Cineastas Amistosos.

“Powder Keg” comes right off the heels of Amores Perros and as a result has some significant star power behind it. It stars Clive Owen, the king of gruff deliveries, and Stellan Skarsgård who shouldn’t to be confused with Alexander Skarsgård, or Peter Sarsgaard, that smug bastard who thinks he can just jam as many A’s into his name as he wants. Skarsgård plays a war photographer who captures local terrorists murder a group of innocent civilians. Embedded in Columbia, the UN sends Owen in to extract him, but things go awry. Basically, it’s a faster paced, less elaborate Argo.

That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have the same sense of urgency that makes Argo so good. As Owen drives through the Colombian town of Nuevo Colon, you really get a sense that this is a place going through a giant upheaval. Armed soldiers and terrorists alike litter the streets and pose a constant threat to the two protagonists.

Much like Amores Perros, “Powder Keg” gives us a look at the everyday lives of those who live south of the border of the U.S. Here in “Powder Keg” we witness how U.S. demand for cocaine has affected those living in Cartel controlled Columbia. This ties into the overall message of the film; that as we watch the horrors that the drug war wreaks on South America, there is more we could be doing to stop it. Anyone who has seen Amores Perros or 21 Grams might be seeing a pattern in Alejandro González-Iñárritu’s work, to address that the actions of one person can create a Butterfly Effect that can influence the lives of others. In “Powder Keg” he explores this theme on a much grander scale; pointing out that many of us here in the U.S. are content with condemning the atrocities witnessed abroad, yet fail to address our role in them. This is conveyed through Skarsgård’s Harvey Jacobs, a photographer who regrets his lack of involvement for the sake of getting the perfect picture.

Finally, the cinematography works to further stress Iñárritu’s message. Many of his shots give the impression that they come from the POV of an onlooker lurking in the shadows, watching everything unfold but refusing to get involved in fear of the repercussions. Also, the graininess of his shots will remind you of old 8mm war footage, implying that we are content simply being a horrified viewer, but never an active participant.

Know Your Audience

For anyone who has attended a production meeting for a new film idea, there are always some common questions that come up. Queries about the script, props, lighting, sound and budget are going to be bandied about back and forth ad nauseam till the film is shot and in the can. As a person who’s primarily familiar with working with indie filmmakers in a much smaller market, one question that rarely comes up is “To whom are we making this for?” This is one aspect of filmmaking that I feel early filmmakers and indie directors working in small markets don’t seem to bother with too much. They often work to get the film shot and edited and hope whoever is interested shows up, but this is not how Hollywood or successful indie filmmakers see it.

You’ve probably heard a million stories about how Hollywood will green-light a film before even a single line of dialogue is ever written. To those of us that see film as an art form, these types of stories paint Hollywood as an industry solely interested in making money. To all you idealistic artists out there, you’re 100% correct; Hollywood’s main priority is raking in millions regardless of the quality of their product. This is why every film student talks shit about Michael Bay while driving their parents’ cars to the local art house theater, and he’s speeding to Hugh Hefner’s mansion in a McLaren. Still, just because a company or entity’s mission might be the absolute opposite of your own, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t emulate the things they do right, and one thing they’re damn good at is knowing who to target their films to.

"I spent more money on my hair than you did on your film. Tell me again how much TMNT sucked." Photo by kaje_yomama / CC 2.0

“I spent more money on my hair than you did on your film. Tell me again how much TMNT sucked.”
Photo by kaje_yomama / CC 2.0

Now, I’m not saying you should necessarily read the box office trends this year and just copy whatever’s popular. You be you. Make the film you want to make, but at least ask yourself who you’re making this film for. Many of you have already heard the term “target audience” and probably just assume they’re out there somewhere, but it’s more than that. It’s important that you know the type of film you’re making, and more importantly, find out who likes that type of film. Oh, you’re making a zombie film? Try promoting at a local showing of Dawn of The Dead. This seems obvious, but as I said earlier rarely have I been to a production meeting where someone asked, “Who are we targeting this film to?”

A lot of early filmmakers treat the search for their audience like a game of Battleship. Once they’re done with the film, they begin to haphazardly send it out to whatever festival comes to mind till they get sick of spending their paychecks on countless rejection letters. The film is then shelved, but hey, at least they get to put it on their IMDB page.

"E4? MIss! Here's your rejection letter from Tribeca!" Photo by jking89 / CC 2.0

“E4?
MIss! Here’s your rejection letter from Tribeca!”
Photo by jking89 / CC 2.0

This is the result of not having a plan of attack and not taking the time to select the type of venues that will produce the most exposure in the long run. There are literally hundreds of film festivals in the country. Rather than sending them out to the closest ones or the ones you think will be easy to get into, try sending them to the festivals you know your audience will be at. Is it a comedy? Instead of spending $30 on the submission fee to your in-state film festival, why not try submitting to a festival like the Laugh Out Loud Short Film Fest. Is it a sci-fi? Many comic conventions now have their very own film competitions for their fans. It’s important to show your film to the type of people who will enjoy it and keep talking about it. This works to become a word of mouth marketing strategy, which is more successful now than it’s ever been, what with the popularity of social media.

It doesn’t take too much effort to find your audience. If you enjoy the type of films you make, they’re probably going to be at a lot of the venues you wish you could go to. A quick glance at local film showings or a simple Google search for festivals that specialize in your type of film can introduce you to the type of people who will keep talking about your film. To sum it up, make a plan and do some research. Don’t leave anything up to chance.

Film Rant: You Can’t Not Give Boyhood an Oscar

Let me preface this post by saying I have not seen Boyhood yet. Believe me, I plan to, but much like 12 Years a Slave (another film I have yet to watch despite it showing up on cable weeks ago), it just seems like one of those films that’s importance demands more than a casual watch, but a thorough examination. Less a film and more of an event. Still, I’ve always liked Richard Linklater as he came from the same group of indie filmmakers such as Tarantino, Rodriguez and Smith who dominated the festival circuit and pretty much defined my generation. As an admirer I have always followed his career and was well aware of the scope of Boyhood.

As I saw the nominees for the Golden Globes, I tell my girlfriend that Boyhood is a shoo-in for best dramatic picture. Never missing an opportunity to catch me with my foot in my mouth, she states the obvious, “You haven’t even seen the film!” to which I respond, “I don’t need to see it. It wins on principle alone.”

Last weekend I was proven correct, and despite admittedly not knowing what the hell I’m taking about most of the time, I’m chalking this up as a win.

As many of you already know, Boyhood took 12 years to make. This was not only a commitment for Linklater, but the entire cast as well, including 7-year-old Ellar Coltrane and Linklater’s own daughter, Lorelei. Not only that, but Linklater apparently also had a contingency plan in place in the case of his unforeseeable demise during shooting. Ethan Hawke would take over as director in payment for all the films Linklater has cast him in, including Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight and what I assume will be the finale, After Midnight: The JJ Cale Story.

In my opinion, the sheer scope of this film alone should further garner it an Oscar win. Even if it doesn’t hold a candle to the other nominees (which doesn’t appear to be the case at all), the Academy needs to create a one time only award for Best Use of Elbow Grease In A Motion Picture or Most Creative Use For Adolescence for Ellar Coltrane.

Now this is not to say that Boyhood is the only film that has taken a quarter of a lifetime to make. Films such as The Manson Family and Tiefland took 15 and 21 years respectively to come to theaters. Not to mention the animated film, The Thief and The Cobbler, that ended up taking a whopping 28 years before it reached completion. But as where those films’ long production times were often a result of perfectly understandable reasons such as creative conflicts, lack of financing or getting your ass kicked by the Allies, Boyhood is unique in that Linklater and the cast knew full well what they were getting themselves into. The 12-year production time is not a result of unforeseen obstacles, but the very essence of the film. This is not only a momentous decision on behalf of Linklater, but the cast as well.

I imagine the conversation went something like this:

Linklater: Hey Patricia, what are you doing for the next 12 years?

Arquette: Shooting Medium most likely, people love that show! But I got some extra time on my hands.

Linklater: What about you, Jake Weber?

Weber: Do I have to cut my hair?

Linklater: Probably.

Weber: There’s only one man I’ll cut my mop top for and that’s Sir Anthony Hopkins.

Linklater: We don’t have him.

Weber: Well, looks like someone’s casting Ethan Hawke again.

That’s my two cents and I’m sticking to it, until such time when I finally see all the other Oscar nominees, to which my next post might be entitled “Film Rerant: You Can’t Not Not Not Give Whiplash an Oscar”.

Indie Intros: Richard Linklater’s Woodshock

Well, the Golden Globes are over and one of the big winners was Richard Linklater and his monumental film Boyhood. I use the word “monumental’ because Boyhood took 13 years to shoot, all of which with the same cast. In celebration to his win, I’ve decided we should take a look at one of his first forays into filmmaking with the documentary short “Woodshock”.

“Woodshock” documents the Woodshock music festival held in Dripping Springs, Texas in 1985. The film acts as a celebration of Linklater’s love of rock music, a theme that would also play a big part in films like School of Rock and Dazed and Confused. “Woodshock” is clearly a play on the famously influential Woodstock Music Festival of 1969 and the infamously violent Woodstock Music Festival of 1999. The 1985 Wookshock Music Festival had a long list of performers such as Daniel Johnston as well as huge list of bands I’ve never heard of because I’m not nearly as knowledgeable about music as I’d like to be.

The end credits list “Woodshock” as a “film attempt” by Linklater and collaborator Lee Daniel. This might be a pretty apt description. As cool as it is to see a young Daniel Johnston, a man who would later go on to influence musicians like Kurt Cobain, peddle his album to the camera, the film doesn’t have a lot of direction. Many of the good documentary films have a sort of narrative that accompanies the documentation. “Woodshock”, on the other hand, focuses purely on documenting the feel of the festival, which gives the film a kind of rebellious attitude that works well with it’s source material, but doesn’t really tell a story. What we get is a documentary that operates more like a home video or Trails commercial (a piece of advertising any Arizonan who’s stayed up till 3 am watching episodes of Cheaters is familiar with).

Still, this style of filmmaking is not unlike Linklater’s Slacker, the low budget feature that basically started his career. Just as in Slacker, the camera in “Woodshock” jumps from person to person, begging for interesting material like a dog at a barbeque. In Slacker, it was used with more storytelling application, giving the illusion of a bystander following the everyday lives of a group of young Austinites. I can’t help but think that Linklater’s experience shooting “Woodshock” allowed him to pinpoint exactly how he wanted to shoot Slacker. It acts as another example of how a director’s early films can be built upon to produce a defining piece of work.

Get Good By Reading Bad

Ask any accomplished writer or English professor and they will tell you that the secret to good writing is reading a lot. Needless to say this is good advice. Most of the greats in literature often built upon the works of previous literary giants. The same goes for screenwriting. Although the vast majority of people will only consume the contents of a script in its final iteration (the screen), budding screenwriters can learn much from reading a film in script form rather than going to your local theater. There are great resources online for this such as Script-O-Rama, Simply Scripts and sometimes from the very companies that produce them.

As useful as it can be reading Oscar nominated pieces of work, I’ve found that immersing yourself in the works of geniuses is only half of the journey. What I’m going to suggest will sound counterproductive, but has helped me immensely in my writing.

Read shitty scripts.

I’m being serious here. Get out there and spend some time reading scripts that could not, should not, ever make it to a screen.

If you’re wondering how reading absolute crap could possibly make you a better writer, your skepticism isn’t unwarranted. It’s not like universities assign copies US Weekly to their students along with Catcher In The Rye, but allow me to explain. The truth is it’s easier to find a turd than a truffle, or to be less analogous, bad writing is easier to detect than a rare work of genius.

Actually, a truffle kinda looks like a turd. Photo by dabblelicious / CC 2.0

Actually, a truffle kinda looks like a turd.
Photo by dabblelicious / CC 2.0

So, how can this help you in your own writing?

I’ve found that one of the hardest things for writers to do is catch their own mistakes. That’s why many great writers hand their work to their peers to look over. Like it or not, you’re biased of your own work. Handing it to a pair of fresh, trustworthy eyes can reveal errors that were originally invisible to you. But wouldn’t it also be nice to pick up on those errors before handing it over to a friend? This is where reading bad scripts come in to play.

Once you begin to recognize common issues in bad writing (and believe me you’ll notice them), it’s easier to recognize them in your own scripts. If you notice that a script fails to introduce a character thoroughly or doesn’t effectively solve the protagonist’s core dilemma (I find this to be a common one), you can then actually see the result of not doing so. This is something that you most likely won’t encounter if you spend time only reading good scripts. Just like a seasoned quarterback who can seemingly sense a blitz coming, recognizing bad writing will become second nature, allowing you to sidestep it within your own writing.

That sucks! Photo by Keith Allison / CC 2.0

“That sucks!”
Photo by Keith Allison / CC 2.0

So where do you find bad scripts?

If you’re active in your local film community, they’re probably all around you, at house parties, festivals, etc. Almost everybody has a script or is writing one that they plan to make into a film. All you have to do is ask to read it. Although early filmmakers can be a paranoid bunch, sometimes constantly in fear of having their work stolen, many others will be pleased you’re taking an interest in their screenplay. By taking an interest in reading amateur screenplays, you’ll come across a wide spectrum of good and bad scripts.

Another good way to read a multitude of good and bad scripts is by volunteering to be a judge at a local screenplay competition. Film festivals receive a slew of submissions and are always looking for volunteers to help them separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.

Finally, there are also local meetup groups for amateur screenwriters that you can find online. This is not only a good place to read a wide range of scripts of varying quality, but also a place where you can receive feedback on your own screenplays.

Now comes the word of warning.

As the spirit animal of my blog would say, “With great power comes great responsibility.” In your endeavor to read more bad scripts, one rule you must always follow is DON’T BE A DICK.

Unless it's this Dick. Be like this Dick. Photo by Alan Light / CC 2.0

Unless it’s this Dick. Be like this Dick.
Photo by Alan Light / CC 2.0

The people who share their work with you will most likely want constructive feedback so they can also improve on their writing. Even if the script is absolutely atrocious, this is not an opportunity to ridicule someone or share their work with your friends so you can all laugh at their expense. No matter what your skill level is, there is one thing that always will be true, everyone writes shit. I write shit, you write shit, even Paul Haggis probably has bottles of shit he hides from the world like Howard Hughes. The goal is for everyone to bask in everyone else’s shit so we can all produce less shit for the world. Keep that in mind. This is not an opportunity to be an elitist or to make yourself feel better about your own shit by finding something shittier.

Now that I’ve broken my record for how many times I can plug the word “shit” into one paragraph; reading bad scripts is a wonderful way to see common writing mistakes in action. By building an instinctive recognition for these mistakes you can better bypass them in your own writing.

Indie Intros: Sam Raimi’s Within the Woods

Before The Evil Dead, there was “Within the Woods”. “Within the Woods” isn’t exactly a prequel to The Evil Dead franchise in terms of story, but rather in terms of style. Many of the motifs common in Raimi’s later works are present in this film, including his love of POV shots, his clear hatred for appendages and of course Bruce Campbell. I’ll warn you ahead of time, the only copy I could find on the Internet looks like it was filmed off a VHS that, similar to the Necronomicon, dates back to ancient Sumer. Sorry everyone, but until Raimi decides to release his Blu-Ray remaster of “Within the Woods” we’re stuck with this. On the plus side, the severe tracking problems kind of add to the eeriness.

The plot of “Within the Woods” is almost exactly the same as The Evil Dead. A group of kids decide to stay the night in a creepy cabin for no other reason than cabins can be stayed in. Where it differs from The Evil Dead is that instead of an ancient book causing all the trouble we get an Indian burial ground, because as movies will have us believe, Native Americans love to plague modern day white kids with posthumous curses. As the kids begin to poke around, people die, come back to life and begin killing to add to their ranks.

Upon watching “Within the Woods”, you’ll immediately begin to pick up on common Raimiesque film techniques. For starters, the famous, fast-paced POV “Raimi-cam” chase shot is in full effect here. Not only would Raimi reuse this shot famously in the Evil Dead series, but also its popularity would be further pointed to in other directors’ works. Perhaps this is due to “Within the Woods” low budget, but the audio techniques from Evil Dead 1 and 2 also seem present here. Like the scene in Evil Dead 2 where Ash loses his mind and the cabin becomes a Pee Wee’s Playhouse of Horrors, Raimi’s Foley work in “Within the Woods” is loud and has all the subtlety of a jack hammer, with loud grinding sounds that overpower any ambient noise.

“Within the Woods” was made for a paltry $1,600, which isn’t bad for half-hour short. It was also filmed on 8mm, which Raimi paid to have blown up to 35mm for theater showings, which might also explain the grainy look on YouTube.

Another thing to note is that “Within the Woods” marks the first pairing of Robert Tapert and Sam Raimi. The two would go on to produce a number of successful film and TV projects like The Darkman series, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess. Tapert would also go on to produce many other popular films such as The Grudge, 30 Days of Night, and arguably Jean Claude Van Damme’s best film, Timecop.