Friday, 23 February 2018

Fishing for FINANCING

A guy I met at a film seminar asked me what I thought was the most important thing about making a movie. I said, 'MONEY'. He thought that was so un-idealistic. By comparison getting a project commissioned was easy. Our editor at TEEMA, at the time, a division of the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE). Our commissioning had a limited budget. We got 15,000 euros and the series was 100'.  The  Swedish-division of YLE gave us another 15,000. That meant we had to chase down more money. We started with EU Media, the European Union media funding group. But when I checked the application, I thought, 'no way'. And went back to the EU Media Finnish rep. She said to think of it as an elephant that you bite off bit by bit. It was a nightmare that went on and on... We got the grant: 15,000 euros.

We tapped the Swedish Cultural Foundation and got 5,000 - a couple of the architects were Swedish-speaking Finns. The Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave us another 5,000. We got to use the YLE's archive film at no cost, but that meant they had 50% of the rights. I felt like a small-time Hollywood hustler. The upside was we made a lot of useful funding contacts. Almost the number one job of a producer. Especially at a small company.

A random, unrelated chart (for business credibility).

Every time we got a commission it was the same routine. When Esa-Pekka Salonen agreed to let us make a doc about him I knew we would need a bundle. We filled out the 100-page application for EU Media funding and they turned us down. But they liked the subject and suggested we try again, with an entirely new concept. I let out a loud groan. But decided to have a go. The second time we got 15,000. I know, I know this money business is boring. But even big-time stars, for instance, Orson Welles, spend a lot of time trying to nail down financing. Sometimes it takes years to get a project off the ground. Small doc makers, especially, get burnt out after a while. They know the routine. And it ain't so much fun the nth time around. But making movies, videos, etc, can be addictive. And you have a Brilliant Idea... And...well you know the rest.

  1. PORTFOLIO. .Even for the smallest project make a portfolio. It shows you've thought the project from start to finish. It should have a synopsis (one page). A treatment (one page).A budget (one page). A team list with short bios (one page). If you don't have a project commissioned, try to get 'letters of Interest' from people who have expressed a serious interest. 
  2. CONTACTS. Send hand-written 'Thank up' notes to donors you have met in person (this sounds so last century, but it makes an impression).'Thank you' emails t online contacts. Write cheerful upbeat responses to 'rejections'. You might pitch another project to them later. 
  3. ACCOUNTABILITY. Set up a separate bank account for each project. Transparency is essential and often required. 
  4. UNANTICIPATED EXPENSES. Stuff happens. Add 7% to the budget...
  5.  IT'S A WRAP. Wait till the project is completed and delivered to break out the champagne. 

Sources: Personal experience. Film seminars, commissioning editors

Next week: HYPOCHONDRIACS UNITE: WE have nothing to fear but AI and the WEB

Monday, 12 February 2018

The Dreaded HOUR

Hour-long documentaries seem to be about 10 times tougher to make. But many commission editors want them. They fill the schedule and are often cheaper. Erkki and I have watched (separately) the two-hour-long docs we produced. Both of us came to the same conclusion – they should be cut by half. A lot of boring hour (and longer) docs are circulating, especially film festivals. I saw one (forgot the title) at the Woodstock film festival. It was about woman singers from the Middle East. I stayed for only 25 minutes because all the women did was talk. Not one song was sung. But I was impressed that they got the financing.

Chasing Esa-Pekka, 2008
When 'Chasing Esa-Pekka' (Esa-Pekka Salonen, at the time conductor of the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra) was commissioned we knew we had a hard task. Music (especially about a classical music conductor) is the worst. I mean, there's the orchestra (they almost all look the same) and the conductor waving a baton around, even though he is good looking and a celebrity. The Shark (LMP story editor) pointed out some pitfalls:

  1. Several docs had been made about Esa-Pekka and like other stars in their field who have been interviewed a lot, he tended to repeat himself. She told me not to fall in love with my subject. 
  2. Ask tough questions. 
  3. Find stories and make sure they connect. 
  4. Shoot in as many different locations as the budget will allow. 

That part was fun, because we decided to go to Los Angeles to film the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Milan, where Esa-Pekka studied, Stockholm, where he would appear with other famous music people. London, where his new piano concerto would be introduced by the great pianist Yefim Brofman. Along the way, we interviewed a lot of famous music people. In retrospect, too many.

Most hour, or longer, documentaries don't deserve an hour. But I saw an exception: 'The Music of Strangers: Yo Yo Ma'. It packed a happy wallop. First of all the 'strangers' were fantastic musicians and engaging characters. A couple stood out (Yo Yo Ma didn't take center stage. He was just part of the troupe). And gave other cast members more footage. They must have had a healthy budget, because the whole bunch, plus crew, went to all sorts of exotic locations. The documentary was relaxed and casual – like friends getting together for a barbecue and playing music. If you're planning to make an hour doc remember the Shark's three hard and fast rules:

  1. No long car driving scenes to eat up footage.
  2. No long conversations on the phone.
  3. Keep your 'talking heads' to a minimum. Unless they're like the doc that Erkki raves about where two scientists do nothing but talk for an hour and a half. But then he's a science geek.

Sources: personal experience

Next week: Fishing for FINANCING

Note on ROBOTS WAR: Erkki wrote an informative review of some of the new AI gear he's using and and a PS. But AI, and other tech advances, are also part of the problem. Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater, the world's largest hedge fund, and a billionaire, thinks the next financial meltdown will be caused by the rising income-inequality between the top and the bottom 60 to 80%. But kind of work will the bottom 60 to 80% do? Ray Dalio didn't have the answer.

Source: 'Lunch With' – Finacial Times Weekend

In addition to that scientist discussion series Maggy mentioned, i've been glued to the screen by a three hour long grainy VHS that consisted only of a screenshot of the Lightwave 3D animation software, with an occasional cut to the instructor guru's face (whom i later got to know BTW, thanks to the wonders of the Internet). The point here is not to take away from what Maggy wrote above, i definitely do agree with the rules of thumb, but to once again underline that the story is the king. And the despot can be a good one even if naked. The emperor's clothes do not matter much really, even the prettiest wardrobe will not help a tyrant. In other words, if you're truly interested in the subject, and you get the information you crave, all the filmmaking glitz is pretty irrelevant. You will still happily watch the whole thing, even if it's two hours. Or three.

- Eki

Friday, 2 February 2018

ROBOT WARS: San Francisco fights back

Imagine walking down Polk street in San Francisco and getting bumped from behind by a robot delivering pizza. That could have happened before then SF passed a law. Now a human being has to accompany robot deliverers. And only nine are allowed to be on sidewalks at any one time. Other robot incidents have set the city on edge.  A robot-guarding a mall fell into a fountain and drowned himself. It caused an outpouring on the web. But the topper is the robot who guarded a pet shop. He weighed 400 pounds, was 5 feet tall, wired to get lots of information, including photographs and videos He could also summon help if needed. It was offensive to this high crime neighborhood where homeless people camped out. At one point his sensors were cover in sauce and he was kidnapped. When the pet shelter got him back to (we don't know if they paid a ransom) the robot was returned to his tech-creators.

Robot Wars (© BBC)
And that's not all. The city has changed since the tech invasion. More than half the cars that clog the streets are either UBER or LYFT. AirBnB has caused enough problems that they now have to register with the city and have a license to rent out rooms. So do Uber and Lyft. Housing has become so expensive since the tech-boom that a lot of middle-class residents have moved. The center of the town has become more like other major cities:  the ubiquitous haute designer boutiques and expensive, trendy restaurants,.  So much venture-capital money is sloshing around SF that anyone who has a new idea and can sell it, has a chance to cash in. It's the 21st-century gold rush. Techies are swamping the city, home to four of the five giants,

The 19th century Gold Rush and the tech revolution have a lot in common. They both turned the town int the rootin' tootin' place to be. After the1906 earthquake, the city was re-built into one of the most, if not the most, charming, accessible cities in the US. Big enough to have an opera house, lots of museums, a first-rate orchestra and fantastic food. Lots of Europeans came to cook. Including the Basques, who became famous for their cuisine. They loved SF so much they opened a cultural center, which is still there.  The Chinese staked out a part of the town for their own.  Other ethnic groups settled here as well.  Europeans loved this city with its elegant hotels and graceful way of life. And then BAM. Silicon Valley arrived.  And it all changed. Unlike the gold barons who put money into rebuilding the city, many multi-billionaire tech-titans are known for their libertarianism.  And are buying secluded islands in Ne Zealand and preparing for the worst, worst. What do they know that we don't? We need a robot-spy.

Source: an article by Leslie Hooks in the Financial Times weekend.

Next week: The dreaded HOUR

Note: Erkki ate last week's illustration. Nothing goes to waste at Littlemargieproductions.

Robots are coming to our line of work, too. Unnoticed. The cameras have some artificial intelligence (hey, that's a face, let's focus on it!!), and they are often stabilized with active robot-like gimbals that have orientation sensors and motors to keep the camera level at all times. I use both techniques on almost every shoot without even thinking about it. I've been also looking into motion control, which is essentially using a robot to control the camera moves. It adds at least one axis of motion to the capabilities of the gimbal, with precision and repeatability. These systems have existed since the 80's at least, but have been extremely cost-prohibitive. Right now we're at the stage that affordable systems can be built in DIY fashion (yes, i'm making one), but commercial systems still are too expensive for smaller businesses.

- Eki 

PS: The ├╝ber-rich libertarians know that the precariat is aware of their "greed is a virtue" philosophy, and are gathering their pitchforks. Viva la Revolucion, off with the head!