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Zach Braff’s Kickstarter project challenging the definition of indie crowd sourcing

Zach Braff Kickstarter Movie Wish I Was Here Script

Kickstarter has been a godsend for independent auteurs from all corners of the creative world by facilitating crowd sourced funding for everything from gadgets to hot sauce, and from theatre shows to graphic novels. But some Kickstarter users have drawn fire for not footing their own bills when they seem more than capable of doing so.

Zach Braff, known to TV audiences for his lead role in Scrubs and to film buffs as the man behind Garden State, has turned to Kickstarter to fund his sophomore directing effort, Wish I Was Here. The actor admits he’s had funding offers from other sources, but all of them came with casting or creative provisos.

So instead of pitching his film to a Hollywood exec, Braff asked Kickstarter for $2.1 million to make his movie with no creative strings attached.

And it worked. The writer/actor raised the money in just three days, and he can now proceed with making Wish I was Here the way he wants to make it – outside the traditional Hollywood process.

But is this what Kickstarter should be about?

Read more…

Why January is the refuse bin of the film industry

February 1, 2013 1 comment

Movie 43 Wonder Woman Batman and Robin

Take a look at the movies showing in January and February and you’ll find they divide into two distinct categories that make moviegoing a perilous proposition this time of year.

Category One is filled with the buzz movies that you’re told will win a bunch of Oscars. These are the dramas that have been making their rounds at film festivals for months, and now you’ve got your chance to finally see what the big deal is about.

With the Academy Awards just around the corner, Hollywood puts these films in cineplex to offer the masses a chance to get in on the big films before they get bigger.

Zero Dark Thirty is this year’s best example. Pre-Oscar predictions are handing all kinds of awards to this film, yet your average moviegoer hasn’t had an opportunity to see it yet. As a result, it reigned at or near the top of the slim box office take all month.

Other Oscar darlings Django Unchained, Les Miserables and Silver Linings Playbook help round out this year’s Category One showings.

Jessica Chastain Oscar nominee as Maya in Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain is an Oscar Best Actress favourite for her role as Maya in Zero Dark Thirty.

Category Two is populated by the worst movies you’ll see all year. These are the films with outrageous subjects, washed up stars and unwieldy ensembles casts. They’re romantic comedy/action hybrids, second-rate superhero adaptations and eighties action movies inexplicably made in the 2010s.

Action movies are predictable, but these ones are especially so. An ex-soldier/cop/assassin/secret agent must save his family/daughter/village from young punks, and he’s determined to do it the old-fashioned way. He also won’t pass up any opportunity to remind you he’s doing it the old-fashioned way.

This January’s action crop is a great example. You’ve got Sylvester Stallone playing a geriatric action hero in Bullet to the Head, and Arnold Schwarzenegger is doing the same in The Last Stand.

Sylvester Stallone Bullet to the Head muscles

Tell me that’s a natural bellybutton.

Comedies this time of year tend to rely on buddy partnerships, shock humor and downward-trending stars in an attempt to capture a few box office receipts with an inferior product. Essentially, these films seduce you with successes of the past. They throw disparate ingredients together to catch as much of the demographic as they can.

Just look at the combinations.

Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids) and Jason Bateman (Arrested Development) in Identity Thief.

Singer Barbra Streisand and Judd Apatow mainstay Seth Rogen Guilt Trip.

Bette Midler (Beaches) and Billy Crystal (When Harry Met Sally) in Parental Guidance.

Every actor ever in Movie 43, from the writers of Dumb and Dumber and Shallow Hal.

Ignore the premises. Just look at the casts and it becomes clear: these movies were made by studio execs throwing things against the wall to see what sticks.

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is another example of focus group alchemy. Take a rising star (Jeremy Renner), a hot girl (Gemma Arterton), a trendy subject (fairy tales), and cram in as many guns, pithy one-liners and explosions as you can, and maybe audiences won’t notice the stink behind the base material.

So why do movie studios allow this to happen? They have plenty of great popcorn blockbusters for May to August, and lots of quality award-worthy films from September to December. Why don’t they save some quality for right now? Or, better yet, why make a movie like Marlon Wayans’ A Haunted House when you plan to bury this Halloween-themed movie in January?

The answers are sad but simple.

For the Category One movies, the best writing and acting comes late in the year because Academy voters have a short attention span. If you want an Oscar, you need to be fresh in everyone’s minds, and you need the time to campaign with people to promote yourself. A lot of glad-handing and self-promotion goes into winning an Oscar, and if you can debut a great November movie and then bring all the premiere attendees to your mansion for an unforgettable party, you’re far more likely to get those votes.

As for those Category Two stinkers?

Well, mediocrity breeds mediocrity.

Most people who achieve a moderate degree of success will get another shot in Hollywood because they are a proven commodity. A studio puts millions of dollars into getting a movie made; it wants to see a track record before it invests, and Hollywood isn’t full of Spielbergs and Tarantinos. If a movie exec can drop $25 million on a dumb comedy and earn back $40 million, that’s a job well done.

The problem is, sometimes that $25 million buys you a $10 million stinker.

Let’s go back to A Haunted House.

A Haunted House Marlon Wayans Ghostbusters

“Hey everyone, the Ghostbusters were funny, right? right?”

The Wayans brothers had success decades ago with In Living Color. It was funny enough to spark Jim Carrey’s career and bought the Wayans enough leeway to make the bad Scary Movie films. Those movies did moderately well because they had good trailers, trendy stars and a handful of funny jokes. It made sense, therefore, to let them make A Haunted House.

When the film turned out to be worse than expected, it was too late: the movie was made. It had to come out some time to make back some money, but the studio likely didn’t want to waste a Halloween slot on it. As a result, it gets left out to die a cold death in January.

Hollywood will always need a back alley for its mistakes, and January just happens to be the time of year when most people aren’t watching.

So go to the movies in January, but beware: if it’s not up for an Oscar, it probably falls into that dreadful Category Two.

Bettman, Fehr, players and media all losers as NHL lockout comes to an end

January 6, 2013 1 comment

Gary Bettman Donald Fehr joint announcement end NHL Lockout CBA

With a farcical buddy-buddy joint announcement from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHPLA Executive Director Donald Fehr, the National Hockey League’s third lockout in 18 years has come to an end.

After months of sabre-rattling, media-baiting and gamesmanship, the NHL Players Association and the NHL have come to an agreement that saves the 2012-2013 season, but leaves the reputation of the sport in shambles. They avoided cancelling the season, but millions of dollars in revenue have been lost, and legions of fans have turned their backs on – or completely forgotten – NHL hockey.

Where the 2004-2005 lockout was sold to fans as a necessary push to establish cost certainty and league viability through a salary cap, this lockout had no singular identifiable issue for fans to understand and accept.

No issue except money, that is. The owners wanted to make more, and the players were going to have to surrender more for that to happen.

When billionaires fight with millionaires over money, it becomes extremely tough to explain it to the blue-collar paying customers.

With the NBA and NFL having established 50-50 revenue splits in their respective collective bargaining agreements one year previous, it seemed a fait accompli that the players would be surrendering their 57% share. The NHLPA’s Fehr went in from a concessionary position, so it became a game of delay tactics and dirty negotiating – a game he played very well.

Fehr proved himself to be a pro at playing head games to infuriate his league counterpart Gary Bettman into submission. He routinely showed up late to meetings. He wrote proposals on napkins and delivered them off the cuff. He repeatedly told the media “we’re close” only to have Bettman’s people refute it a few minutes later.

Fehr, a former titan of Major League Baseball union negotiations, was brought in for exactly this purpose. The NHLPA was left reeling after the 2004-2005 lockout, as then-leader Bob Goodenow was axed shortly after being circumvented by his membership to solve that lockout. Replacement Ted Saskin lasted only two years before getting gassed for hacking players’ private emails. Paul Kelly took over in 2007, but was overthrown in 2009 by various player and union advisors pressuring him out.

The players knew they’d need a strong hand for these negotiations, so they got the strongest one they could find. Fehr was their hired gun, and he did exactly what he was expected to: he battled the owners for every inch they took. Now he’ll ride off into the sunset, a one-and-done executive director who may well leave the union in the hands of his younger brother Steve.

Steve Fehr's ugly sweater NHL Lockout CBA


Steve Fehr uses Ugly Sweater negotiation tactics.

Donald Fehr’s tactics were maddening, but he seemed to keep his calm throughout the negotiations.

Not so for NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman was often seen visibly upset and frustrated these past months, as Fehr’s tactics continued to drive him to the edge. Bettman repeatedly put time limits on his offers, threatened to take things off the table, and made grand pronouncements. One of the more famous declarations of this lockout came from his lieutenant, Bill Daly, who declared that 5-year contract limits were “the hill we will die on.”

Well, the new deal allows for 8-year terms.

This 10-year deal may well be the last one negotiated under Gary Bettman. Bettman has never been popular (he gets booed at every Stanley Cup presentation) but whatever scorn the NHL players used to have for him has turned to outright hatred with this lockout.

Bettman poisoned the waters for these negotiations right away when he lowballed the players with an offered cut of just 43% of revenue. The offer only insulted and galvanized the players into a resolute union, making Bettman’s task all the more difficult going forward. The league got its way in the last lockout by letting the players destroy themselves; this time, they foolishly gave the players a reason to band together.

Bettman’s written his legacy through these lockouts, and he’s become a symbol for the labour strife that dogs the league. The league’s owners would do well to turn the page on Bettman and appoint a new face to the position.

Bettman and Fehr weren’t the only parties who looked silly in this lockout.

There’s no doubt it was often painful to watch the league and its players scrapping over money these past hundred-something days, but at times it was worse to pay attention to the media outlets covering them. The Canadian media – itself built around broadcasting hockey above all other sports – turned into a gaggle of devotees chasing the negotiations around, begging for scraps of information.

Nightly television hits said the same things for months. “Talks have broken down.” “Sources suggests there is reason for optimism.” “There are no talks scheduled.” “There were only small group meetings on non-core issues.” “They continue to debate hockey-related revenue.” Etcetera. Etcetera.

The Canadian media machine – primarily TSN and Rogers Sportsnet – had hordes of reporters at the NHL’s New York offices every time a development was possible. Reporters sat outside the various negotiation sites in New York for months on end, waiting for a quote, a tidbit, or a puff of white smoke out the chimney to announce a new deal. They were there on New Years Eve in Times Square, shoulder to shoulder with revelers, their eyes on the office building in front of them, not the 2013 ball high overhead. They fought the cold by huddling in an ATM booth to keep warm, all in anticipation of an announcement – any kind of announcement – from the principal parties.

The league and the PA twice held negotiations in a ‘secret location,’ which meant farcical TV spots of reporters wandering the streets of New York, practically peering through windows in search of Bettman and Fehr.

Sports reporters did their very best to explain matters completely outside their realm of expertise. New terms like “make whole,” “decertification” and “disclaimer of interest” became the talking points for guys used to breaking down a power play and explaining a left wing lock.

The lockout also meant nothing but bad news for players’ reputations. Idle hands, millions of dollars and Twitter don’t mix well. Just ask Ian White, Kris Versteeg or Evander Kane.

Evander Kane Winnipeg Jets Twitter money Holyfield picture

Evander Kane, enduring the NHL lockout as best he can.

This was not an ideological lockout. It was a cock fight. The players had to hang in for a full three rounds without being broken by the league, and the league was determined to ease the burden on its flawed financial model by taking what it could from the PA.

10 years from now, we may well be right back here again. If history has shown anything, it’s that the owners’ greatest enemies are themselves. They were signing players to ridiculous 13-year deals mere weeks before the lockout happened, only to turn around and demand 5-year contract lengths.

The owners will always look for ways to knife each other by going around the rules, and player agents will always find ways to offer that knife. Agents will be examining this deal for loopholes right away. Last time they came up with long-term, back-diving contracts to get around inflated cap hits. That’s been closed this time, but they’ll find something else.

The lockout is over. The damage is done. a $3 billion business will be much less in the coming years, as much of the headway the league has made in the United States is undone.

For a lockout that was all about splitting up money, there will be much less of it to share because of this childishness.

Electronic Arts NHL 13 Gary Bettman Lockout

I was getting used to only seeing hockey on the PS3.

Phoenix Coyotes will still have a snowball’s chance in Arizona after sale

November 24, 2012 Leave a comment
Phoenix Coyotes National Hockey League NHL Shane Doan

Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan.

As the National Hockey League’s season teeters on the brink of cancellation for the second time in less than a decade, there’s one burning issue that will not be solved by these negotiations, and that’s the ownerless financial abyss known as the Phoenix Coyotes.

Every professional sports league has its poor cousin franchises, those teams that just can’t keep up financially with the likes of the New York Yankees, Toronto Maple Leafs or New England Patriots. But the Phoenix Coyotes have become more than just the NHL’s poor cousin. Phoenix is the poor cousin who moves into your basement, eats your food, sleeps all day and swears he’s looking for a job, but he’s holding out for a management position, thank you very much.

The Coyotes have been for sale since 2005 when then-owner Jerry Moyes declared bankruptcy and attempted to sell the team to Canadian BlackBerry billionaire Jim Balsillie, whose stated goal was to move the team to Hamilton. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was enraged by Balsillie trying to enter the league by the back door, and he eventually beat the Research in Motion CEO in court. The win allowed the NHL to buy the team with the goal of flipping it to an approved owner at a later date.

Fast forward to the end of 2012 and the league still owns the Coyotes. The Coyotes remain a horrible draw in Arizona thanks to a poorly-placed arena and, more significantly, an inability to win over a sun-drenched marketplace. Even after two consecutive playoff appearances, the Coyotes have been unable to turn anything close to a profit. In fact, the opposite is true: their hometown of Glendale has been footing $25 million a year for the last two years to cover the team’s losses and keep it as the anchor tenant at Jobing.com Arena. They’ve been throwing good money after bad to keep that arena operational while the NHL has strung the city along with almost-owner after almost-owner.

The Phoenix ownership saga may come to an end this year, but it’s also very likely this latest scheme will fall flat. Former San Jose Sharks president and CEO Greg Jamison declared he would buy the team this summer, but he’s been checking under the couch cushions for cash ever since, and the sale has not been made. It was close to happening in September but was delayed while Jamison sought more funding. Now he has the dough and Glendale will hold a vote on the lease deal on Tuesday.

Gary Bettman and Greg Jamison NHL Phoenix Coyotes ownership Glendale

Prospective Phoenix Coyotes owner Greg Jamison (left) with Commissioner Gary Bettman.

Jamison’s purchase price is expected to be in the $160 million range, but the NHL often inflates their announced sale numbers. Regardless, the finances between Glendale and Jamison are where the numbers get interesting.

Jamison is locked in for a 20-year term. He will pay the city $286 million in rent to use the arena, but will receive $320 million to manage it. Nevermind that his management skills are apparently less valuable than Hulsizer’s ($39.4 million per year offered to Hulsizer, compared to $15 million for Jamison), but the city remains in debt to whoever buys the team. The Arizona Republic ran the numbers on the Jamison deal and concluded that even if the Coyotes reached the Stanley Cup Final every year for the next 20 years – an impossible proposition in itself – the city would still stand to lose about $9 million on the deal.

Jamison’s close, but he’s not the first to almost buy the team. Bettman has, at various times, had investor group Ice Edge Holdings and Chicago investors Jerry Reinsdorf and Matthew Hulsizer ready to buy the team, but each time the deal has fallen through, whether under the threat of lawsuits by the watchdog Goldwater Institute or because the numbers simply did not make sense.

Despite the unattractiveness of the team, Bettman has repeatedly told media outlets that he’s got multiple investors lined up to buy it. Each time all hope seems lost, Bettman does the management equivalent of drunk dialing an old girlfriend: he rings up Ice Edge, Reinsdorf, or another of his buddies to kick the tires and make the team look attractive. Jamison – a Bettman pal from his Sharks days – may be the one to close the deal, but it’s looked like this before. The closest suitor before Jamison has been Matthew Hulsizer, who showed up at some Coyote playoff games with the jersey and foam finger act before turning down a sweetheart deal from Glendale so he could buy the St. Louis Blues instead.

Glendale has been, in many ways, the culprit of its own demise. Mayor Elaine Scruggs and city councilors have been adamant that the arena must hold on to its anchor tenant in order to keep the surrounding strip mall alive and provide jobs in a state economy crippled by recession. To that effect, Glendale has twice covered the NHL’s operating costs of $25 million per year to keep the Coyotes in place. They dipped into emergency funds to finance the 2011-2012 season and were forced to cut city services to pay the NHL. Library, police, road repair and firefighter budgets took a hit to keep the hockey team in the desert.

Every deal for every prospective owner has incorporated some form of loss protection or exorbitant “arena management fee” to be paid by the city to the purchaser. Glendale tried to sell bonds to help Reinsdorf raise $165 million to buy the team, and when that deal fell through, they were ready to pay Hulsizer $197 million over five years to run the arena and parking facilities nearby.

The problem with Jobing.com Arena is that it’s what real estate developers call a green banana. It was built in the path of major real estate development, but that development is still years off. The arena currently serves as the anchor point for a cluster of bars, restaurants and retail stores surrounding it, but it remains a pain for people to get to. It’s a good arena with a good NHL team, but it’s in a bad location in a hot southern state where ice is normally only found in a glass. Add to that this NHL lockout, and whatever progress they’ve made with their recent winning ways will have slipped away during this period of inactivity.

The Glendale vote on Tuesday is expected to come down to a single swing vote, and even if it passes, the Goldwater Institute will likely sue on the grounds that the city is subsidizing a private business venture.

All sense suggests the NHL should pull up stakes and move to a more viable market like Quebec City or southern Ontario.

But this thing stopped making sense years ago.

Star Wars joins Marvel in savvy add to Disney portfolio

November 2, 2012 Leave a comment

Star Wars Disney George Lucas
The stunning news that Disney has bought Lucasfilm Ltd. and announced a new Star Wars movie has set the internet ablaze with fanboy trepidation, but the sale will ultimately be a boon for long-suffering Star Wars fans.

George Lucas’ sale of his lifelong cash cow came out of the blue. Lucas has long been content to lounge around his massive Skywalker Ranch and count his millions, so it was a surprise to many when he surrendered Star Wars for a cool $4 billion.

At first blush, one might expect this purchase will lead to the Disneyfication of Star Wars, but I’d say that’s already happened.

Star Wars Jabba Princess Leia Gold Bikini

The Princess and the Frog

Star Wars has saturated the market as much as it’s ever going to. George Lucas has plastered his brand on everything you can possibly think of; there really is little threat of it becoming more commercialized. He’s also responsible for constantly updating and revising his beloved trilogy in order to shill another DVD box set every few years, much to the anger of diehard fans.

George Lucas’ story is one of two men. The first man turned a handful of art film successes into the cache to make a space opera for 20th Century Fox. His producers, his cast and his crew didn’t believe in him and he had to fight tooth and nail to maintain creative control, but he managed to create a movie that would become an overnight sensation and a massive piece of the pop culture tapestry for decades to come. With the success of Star Wars, he’d brought his vision to life, and he’d done it his own way.

And that’s when the second Lucas started to take over. Following The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, Lucas became more content to rest on his laurels and tinker with his old successes than to push for something grander. This Lucas built a merchandising empire before merchandising was popular. He also revolutionized special effects for his movies, developing technologies like THX. Unfortunately, he became so enamoured of his special effects wizardry that he repeatedly returned to his Star Wars trilogy, adding minor tweaks and majors shifts (Han shot first), much to the chagrin of his fans. It took him years to pen an ultimately god-awful script for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and the fact that he owned Lucasfilm and bankrolled everything himself put him beyond the criticism of those around him. He produced a big toy commercial masked in a thin plot and delivered by cardboard cutout characters, and no one among his inner circle was brave enough to tell him. There was nothing to keep him in check. In a way, his career has mirrored the life of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader: a heroic early start filled with promise, followed by a fall to the dark side of greed and technology.

Star Wars George Lucas Vader

Can this be Episode VII?

Aside from the wildly popular original Star Wars trilogy, the so-so prequels and some hit and miss Indiana Jones flicks, he hasn’t been a very prolific filmmaker. He has spent more time creating and perfecting special effects technologies and building his Star Wars brand than he has actually creating films. The fact that Disney simply stepped in and said “We’re making another one,” should show how much Lucas has actually held back his franchise from delivering what people will really dig: progression.

For a man who once gave a stirring speech to Congress about the importance of protecting films from unnecessary CGI revisions, Lucas has become synonymous with this practice. Of his last eight theatrical releases, seven have been Star Wars (Episodes VI-IV Special Edition, Episodes I-III, Episode I 3D) and one was the brutal Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull. He hasn’t produced a wholly original idea since 1989’s Willow. His eye is always backward, and his best days are long behind him.

Now, picture the writing process for Star Wars VII. Disney’s got it’s new toy. They’ll want to impress with it. They know they don’t need to build the brand out anymore; there are toys, comics, video games, novels and TV shows galore. The world has an appetite for Star Wars already. Disney just needs to get the recipe right. And for the purists who believe George Lucas should be steering this thing, you need look no further than midichlorians. Lucas screwed up the recipe himself, and he wasn’t able to kill the brand with his gaffes.

It can be a shock when a property you know and love gets bought up by a faceless corporate entity. On the surface, it’s a loss of creativity, individuality, personality and heart. Your love is now a product to be bought and sold by a company that cares for nothing but the bottom line. But let’s face it: knowing your audience is the best way to sell a movie. Disney has pandered to children for almost a century. They know how to target a market, and how to avoid alienating that market. They also know to put people with love for the subject in charge.

And this is where it’s important to remember that Disney bought Marvel in 2009. All those superhero properties belong to Mickey Mouse, and Marvel just produced the most successful movie of all time. The Avengers didn’t pull any punches. It wasn’t kiddy. Disney didn’t try to change Marvel; it left the important people in charge and allowed them to continue with their vision. Marvel Studios put Kevin Feige in charge of its movies, and Feige oversaw the entire build up to The Avengers, slowly forming a film world that would produce that movie. Feige, in turn, hired Joss Whedon, a man with directorial chops and writing experience with film, TV and comic books.

The point?

Disney was smart enough to step back and let the right people do their jobs. They didn’t force a new ideology on Marvel.

The result?

An unprecedented superhero team-up movie years in the making.

Marvel Avengers Disney

This ain’t the Mickey Mouse Club.

If that doesn’t convince you, look at it this way.

Kids have been growing up with Star Wars for 35 years. Sure, George Lucas created it, but sit in on a Star Wars panel at a comic convention and you’ll see just how much people know and love and engage with the material on a level Lucas can never understand. With all the contradictions in the movies, it’s tough to say Lucas knows the material best. Surely Hollywood has a couple closet fan screenwriters who could whip up a more than competent script.

Disney will at least remove the sense of awe around the concept of a Star Wars movie. We’re not going to be waiting on an easily distracted and slow-working creator to produce everything. Disney will give us that 2015 movie, and they’ll have more after that. Nothing will stop Star Wars now.

And what if it’s bad?

So what? At worst, we get another Phantom Menace stinker, and Star Wars has survived that before.

George Lucas started great and finished poorly. Disney is a scary prospect at first, but the more you look at it, the more it might be the right place for this franchise.

Disney is our New Hope.