The Other Movie Industry

Originally published in Cultural Weekly on September 28, 2016.

Every morning when I wake up I drag myself over to my laptop and methodically delete 150 emails that have come in overnight, advertisements and spam my junk filter didn’t catch. Then, just as methodically, I study 50 important emails about independent film projects at various stages of their hectic, insecure lives, and respond to every one.

Except when I am traveling. The experience of travel throws me off my body-clock and game. I arrive in a distant city, schedule as compact as the clothes precisely rolled in my travel bag; I am somewhere else! I want to enjoy the people, take advantage of the place! I experience my new surroundings from morning ’til late night when, spent, I fall into the hotel bed. I yell at myself, inside my head, knowing the emails are piling up, until the yelling becomes white noise and I find myself awake the next day.

So it was in Helsinki, Finland, this past week, from where I have just returned, refreshed despite being burdened with 2,000 emails, most of which I will, of course, delete. Because the Finnish film industry has moved to an exciting place in only the past few years, and I wanted to learn as much as I could while I was there.

Why was I in Helsinki? It was the week of Love & Anarchy – The Helsinki International Film Festival, and, embedded within it, the Finnish Film Affair, three days devoted to movie industry professionals. For the Finnish Film Affair, I had put together a dream team of a panel: Mike Goodridge, CEO of Protagonist Pictures, the UK-based production, finance and sales company; Claudia Lewis, who served as President of Production for Fox Searchlight Pictures for 10 years; Laura Munsterhjelm, the talent agent and founder of Actors in Scandinavia agency; and Mike Runagall, Managing Director at Altitude Film Sales. We’d been asked to talk with Finnish film professionals about finding movie stories that travel. How could Finnish films go beyond the borders of Finland and find audiences around the world?

Finnish Film Affair event moderated by Adam Leipzig

Our panel at the Finnish Film Affair. Photo by Petri Anttila.

The question, in fact, does not apply only to Finnish filmmakers. It is hard to get an accurate count of the number of films made each year — I have heard estimates as high as 10,000 and more when Nollywood and Bollywood titles are added to the mix — and few of them capture global audiences. By and large, worldwide audiences are the domain of big studio ventures, movies that come from comics, pre-aware titles, and well-traveled franchises. Only big studios can commit the marketing resources, often topping $200 million, to open a movie everywhere. Other than big studio movies, most film distributors are only interested in locally-produced product: Indian movies in India, Chinese movies in China. Few distributors anywhere showcase “foreign-language films.”

Therefore, our panel concluded, there are two challenges Finnish films need to address: the worldwide disengagement from international cinema, and the fact that, outside of Finland, nobody speaks Finnish.

Could Finnish films travel better if they were made in English? In some cases the answer is yes, but I certainly would not want to see that happen at the expense of quality. During the festival, I had the pleasure of seeing The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, directed by Juho Kuosmanen, which won the Un Certain Regard jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival and is Finland’s entry for the Oscar’s Best Foreign Language prize. Olli Mäki tells the story of the lead-up to the 1962 world featherweight boxing match. No rational sales agent would have wanted the film if it had been pitched before it was made: It is in Finnish, a period piece, shot in black and white, about a person few outside Finland have ever heard of. But the resulting movie is a grand happy surprise, deftly made, funny and charming, authentic and true to itself. Made in English, the film would not have worked.

Which brings me to the process by which Finnish film currently operates. If you want to make a movie, and you can do it for around 1.4 million Euros, and you can get a bit of money from the government’s cultural arm, as well as a commitment from Finland’s film distributor and broadcaster, you are done: You will have your costs covered. For the people who get their movies made, this creates a regular opportunity for work and creative output.

U.S. indie filmmakers would love to have so straightforward a process. Our movies would be less hectic and insecure. I found a rare, unaffected enthusiasm for film and storytelling among the Finnish filmmakers I met. They have a system, which works in its way; theirs is, fundamentally, the Other Movie Industry, one that does not play by the rules to which we Americans have become accustomed. The Other Movie Industry, versions of which exist in many countries, especially in Europe, allows filmmakers to make movies on a regular basis and, therefore, lead more sustainable lives.

Of course, there are limitations on the closed-loop of the Finnish system: budget limits, obviously, and also limits if you are not among the filmmakers blessed by official process. Therefore, the potential of expanding to audiences in other countries, as well as the game-change of a filming financial incentive that will go into effect next year, will allow for a greater diversity of films and filmmaking talent. That will benefit everyone, and up-level even the filmmakers who stay within the existing system.

Finnish filmmaking is quite accomplished, and is poised to expand and flourish in the next few years. Of that I’m certain. I’m also certain of one unintended consequence: Finnish filmmakers will have to deal with a whole lot more emails.

Image from The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, directed by Juho Kuosmanen.

Latino Theater Company’s Narrative of Change

Originally published in Cultural Weekly on September 7, 2016.

Thirty years ago, when we were young and beautiful, we were part of Los Angeles’s theatre revolution. At its heart was the Los Angeles Theatre Center, and the seed within that heart was the nascent Latino Theater Company, founded by José Luis Valenzuela, its artistic director, and the company’s playwright, Evelina Fernandez.

I first met José Luis and Evelina in the offices of Bill Bushnell and Diane White, who were running the Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre, where I was the dramaturg. José Luis, Evelina, and a trio of loyal actors were founding a theatre lab. We went on to build and open the Los Angeles Theatre Center, which housed that lab. After the Theatre Center folded as an organization in 1991, the Lab became an Initiative, and finally a Company; ten years ago the Latino Theatre Company took over the lease and now runs and programs the house we all built together.

Today we are older, and beautiful in a different way.

“We learned it takes a long time,” José Luis said. “It takes forever,” Evelina added. We were having breakfast in Downtown LA’s Arts District under a cloudy sky.

“Thirty years ago it didn’t matter if we were great or not,” José Luis said. “We were Latinos, off to the side.”

Back in that day we all did theatre because we could. We did diversity before it was a common word; we called it “multi-culturalism” and made it our by-word not out of political correctness but because that’s the way we experienced our world. Our theatre was new and fragile, the stuff of sweat, long days and longer nights, new playwrights coming into dress rehearsals with fresh pages, preview performances where offended audiences might not show up for the second act.

“You remember when we were young, you and I?” José Luis sipped his coffee. “It was about the Wonder Boy. So if you were not brilliant at 27, you were a loser. Some of our friends, who were brilliant at that age, are gone now. It got so bad for them after that first year or two of success. It was easier to disappear. But we lived through it.

“That is just the fate of American culture and our theatre. We went through performance art, post-modernism, minimalism. We struggled with the idea of important theatre that matters, theatre with a clear narrative – which for many years was not what the national dialogue was. Somehow, that’s coming back. Once again, the story is important.”

It reminded me of Beckett. I can’t go on. I’ll go on. “I just keep putting one foot in front of the other,” I said.

“It’s necessary,” agreed Evelina, reflecting on why she writes her plays. “These stories are necessary for the country and the world to understand that there’s a whole other narrative that isn’t being told about my people. We’re stubborn, we believe in it. We feel we have to do our part.”

“But here’s the problem, the contradiction, I wrestle with,” I began, heading into the complications of the art. “It’s important to change the narrative—but it is so hard to get butts in seats. Where is the audience for the important work?”

“It’s not the lack of an audience. It’s how do we support that audience and change what success means in the theatre?” said José Luis. “People see income as success. But theatre’s not about profit. We had 12,000 people come to see 19 plays in one month. That’s a lot of people. We sold the tickets for $5, so everybody came. We’re doing the Mexican Trilogy right now, and it’s a huge production. I have to sell 2,000 tickets at the regular price. Then I can sell the student tickets at $15. There are already 1,000 students who want to come for $15… but that’s only $15,000. I wish we could sell all the tickets for $15… then we’d be sold out! There would be no empty seats. But because wealth is not equitably distributed to the arts, we have to be the ones who keep searching for paths to financial stability.”

“It didn’t used to be that way,” I said. “When western theatre started in Athens 2,500 years ago, theatre was considered so important to the fabric of society that the audiences were paid to go to the theatre. They didn’t pay to go. They were paid to show up. One day we should get a gigantic grant and do a play where the audience is paid to come see the play. It would have to be a very political play, because it’s an inherently political act, to pay the audience to show up.”

“That’s what they do in politics” nodded José Luis. “They pay people to show up, because they need them to send the message out.”

“That would be ideal.” Evelina agreed. “Let’s do that.”

Could a theatre do something that revolutionary? José Luis and Evelina had to get to rehearsal, and I had an appointment with a laptop. It was time to end breakfast, but of course the conversation would go on. Theatre is vital because it becomes the canvas on which all social and human issues are splattered, no matter how young or old you are.

Image: José Luis Valenzuela and Evelina Fernandez going over rehearsals for La Virgen de Guadalupe.

If You Want to Run an Entertainment Company, Here is Your New Bible

Originally published in Cultural Weekly on September 5, 2016.

I read just about every book that analyzes the entertainment business, both because it’s the business I’m in and I love to learn new perspectives. Streaming, Sharing, Stealing: Big Data and the Future of Entertainment, by Michael D. Smith and Rahul Telang (MIT Press), is the best book on the subject, bar none. Every entertainment executive who hopes to have a job in coming years should read it and follow its prescriptions.

I met Michael Smith, who’s a professor of information systems and marketing at Carnegie-Mellon University, at Sundance in January, where he gave a riveting presentation on digital piracy at the Sundance Institute. We struck up a conversation and, full disclosure, have become friends.

One of the things I most admire about Smith and Telang’s work is that they do not come from the entertainment business at all, and therefore have no axe to grind, no jobs to protect, and no legacy business models to justify. All they care about is data, and they collect lots of it.

Their data leads to conclusions that may not seem shocking to people who follow digital content enterprises, but will certainly upset traditional entertainment companies.

Some say that it’s inevitable for longstanding film, music, television, and publishing companies to survive as they have for many decades. Smith and Telang counter this viewpoint because, they contend, the fundamentals of the business have changed permanently. Where once it was enough to make and own great content — the province of movie studios, record labels, and publishing houses — now that is no longer sufficient. Today it is possible to own the audience, and massive amounts of audience data represent a near-insurmountable competitive advantage. The big question is whether large companies will take this information to heart and change their business models before it’s too late and data-driven companies, like Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes, leverage their understanding of the audience to topple a century-old hegemony.

As Smith and Telang summarize their thesis:

“In recent years a perfect storm of technological change has hit the entertainment industries. It involves the convergence of user-generated content, long-tail markets, and digital piracy, and it has diminished the profitability of these industries’ traditional business model.

“At first glance, none of these changes seems to pose much of a threat. User-generated content, after all, is amateur fare: videos of cats riding Roombas and kids playing Minecraft. Long-tail markets, for their part, are full of products that can’t compete: old, failed films and television shows, say, that don’t stand a chance against new blockbusters such as Avatar or The Sopranos. And digital piracy, while certainly harmful to sales, impacts all of the studios equally and therefore shouldn’t upset the competitive balance.

“But in fact this perfect storm has changed everything. Content is no longer hard to produce or easy to control because of the technological revolutions in hardware and software that we’re now witnessing. Distribution is also much easier now: long-tail markets make it possible to allow everything to be put up for sale, a big shift from the limited capacity in movie theaters and limited space on television broadcast channels. And thanks to digital piracy, it’s much harder to maintain the profit from the staggered release windows that are fundamental to all of the entertainment industry’s existing business models.”

For the benefit of existing entertainment companies, Smith and Telang provide a series of well-thought-through recommendations in their closing chapters. As someone who has been in the entertainment business for 30 years, it feels clear to me that Smith and Telang’s data are excellent and their conclusions are inevitable. Will movie studios, broadcast networks, music labels, and publishing companies view this book as the new rule of the road or the raving of Cassandra? Time will tell — and for legacy companies, time is running out.

Image: The cast of ‘Arrested Development,’ a series Netflix picked up after it was cancelled on Fox’s broadcast network. Why did Netflix do that? They had the data. Image courtesy 20th Century Fox TV.