From development to exhibition, a perspective on films and film making from Beijing.

A Tale of Two Actresses

In the Hutong
In search of a pain reliever
2027 hrs.

Whatever you may think about the relative merits of entertainers leaping from the screen and onto the world stage, we were treated this week to a profound contrast in the styles and approaches of two young actresses.

Exhibit A is Marion Cotillard, the 32-year-old French actress who won the Academy Award for Best Actress a little over a week ago for her apparently inspired performance as Edith Piaf (yes, I too am a philistine and had to Google it) in La Vie en Rose. In an interview from a year ago broadcast on a French website, she proclaimed that the 9/11 attacks were a hoax manufactured by the US government for political ends, and that the twin towers were demolished because they were obsolete.

Without supporting or debating the veracity of Ms. Cotillard’s claims, suffice to say that we here in the Hutong appreciate a good conspiracy theory in the same way we appreciate good science fiction – great stuff with which to tickle the frontal lobes, maybe even ask a few hard questions. But as most bloggers learn fairly quickly, when one takes a public stand that is in direct opposition to popular perception, one had best be very, very sure of one’s facts and be prepared to support one’s stand through effort and action. Sadly, Ms. Cotillard goes no further than voicing an opinion that begs for support.

Exhibit B is Angelina Jolie, also 32, also an Oscar winner (Best Supporting Actress for 1999’s Girl, Interrupted) who in her capacity as goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees decided that rather than snuggle up to the armchair activist crowd, she’d hop on a plane and head for Iraq and see what was going on. From her Thursday op/ed in the Washington Post:

“My visit left me even more deeply convinced that we not only have a moral obligation to help displaced Iraqi families, but also a serious, long-term, national security interest in ending this crisis.”

She continues:

“As for the question of whether the surge is working, I can only state what I witnessed: U.N. staff and those of non-governmental organizations seem to feel they have the right set of circumstances to attempt to scale up their programs. And when I asked the troops if they wanted to go home as soon as possible, they said that they miss home but feel invested in Iraq. They have lost many friends and want to be a part fo the humanitarian progress they now feel is possible.”

Her conclusions are hardly those of an expert, and her focus is exclusively on the issue of the 2.5 million Iraqi refugees for whom she seeks repatriation. More than one pundit has questioned her qualifications to speak on behalf of all of the troops deployed in Iraq. Nonetheless, they are startling because they come from an unexpected source, and because of the inevitable reverberations they will send through celebrity salons on both coasts – not least the circles in which she and husband Brad Pitt circulate.

(For the record, I don’t feel qualified to make a call on Iraq either way, so I won’t.)

Again, leave aside your own opinions on the specific matters at hand. To me what is germane is the difference in approach. Two young women, each given the opportunity because of fame earned on the screen to voice their opinions on larger matters to their audiences, chose to make use of their bully pulpits in incredibly different ways. One chose to make the kind of flippant, uninformed remark more appropriate to a conversation with close friends. The other chose to take the time and risk to journey to someplace she could learn more, then share her thoughts and findings – whatever they’re worth – with others.

Regardless of what you may think about Ms. Jolie, her motivations, the appropriateness of her remarks, or her qualifications to even make them, you must applaud her quest to learn a little something of the subject before volunteering so public an opinion.

A wise old sergeant once told me: “Wolf, opinions are like a**holes: everyone’s got one, and they all stink.”

The only way I would dare to correct that is to say that the more informed your opinion, the less it stinks. That is the lesson I will take from Ms. Cotillard and Ms. Jolie.

eKarma: Have a Little Virus, Pirates

Third Ring Road East
Breathing deep the inversion layer
1022 hrs.

Steven Schwankert of Village Grouch fame wrote an excellent piece for IDG (picked up here in The Washington Post) describing how Chinese fans seeking to download illegal copies of Ang Lee’s excellent film “Lust, Caution” are finding on their hard drives not a copy of the film, but with software that pops a nasty little trojan virus into their systems.

There are several interesting aspects to this story.

Virus? What Virus?

First, it was apparently found and addressed by Kaspersky Lab and Rising Software well before it came up on the collective radar screens of Symantec, McAfee, and TrendMicro. One wonders why this is the case, particularly given that Symantec and McAfee tout the value of their software in part based on their global scanning for viral threats. I am especially concerned about TrendMicro, who have a huge presence in China and who make a great deal about their expertise as an “Asian” security company.

It also suggests that the malware threat in China is growing and diversifying. From dorm rooms filled with budding software engineers, to the challenges facing the country’s law enforcement teams, to the quiet but rapid growth of China’s cyberwar military-industrial complex, the country has become as much a haven and spawning ground for creators and distributors of Malware as the United States or any other country. This would seem to argue for greater investment by the computer security vendors in local labs who can not only find but anticipate new threats.

As an aside, it would also seem that companies like Symantec are destined to become major defense contractors. But we digress.

The Empire Strikes Back

Second, it seems that Hollywood (including the music and TV people as well as the film side of the business) and the software industry may have inadvertently discovered a way to slow online piracy and perhaps even the growth of downloaded content. All the studios – or, better yet, the MPA and the Business Software Alliance – need to do is hire a few good hackers to come up with some particularly nasty viruses and spread them around online disguised as illegitimate digital copies of random applications, movies, and music files.

Sure, the viruses would not deter the most determined or careful downloaders, and the anti-virus companies would inevitably come up with fixes. But imagine, for a moment, the fear, uncertainty, and doubt this would wreak among the less-expert. The mere possibility that these files would include viruses would be enough to drive a lot of marginal downloaders away from illegitimate downloading (and probably a few away from legit downloads as well).

Naturally I would expect clearer heads in the PR and legal departments of these organizations to prevail, ensuring that neither Hollywood nor the software industry would ever actually subsidize – or even publicly condone such practices. But you can easily imagine how such an option must tempt some people in places like Redmond and in the Black Tower.

Indeed, if the matter of digital rights management has proven anything, it has proven that Hollywood and many large software concerns believe that extremism in the defense of intellectual property is no vice, and that goodwill is readily sacrificed in that battle. If anything will keep hackers from high-powered lunches at the Ivy or the Fulton Fish market, it is the fear of court costs.

Nonetheless, it is fascinating, if not a bit disconcerting, to think that there is a commonality of interest between the creators of malware and the creators of movies.

Engineer, Engage the FUD Pump

What I do expect is that the IPR-driven industries will kick into gear a semi-coordinated propaganda effort to ensure that stories like the “Lust, Caution” become as widely known as possible, so that the threat is seen as being far larger and more serious than it really is. This costs them little, supports their goals magnificently, and enables the studios and developers to position themselves as defenders of the public interest.

Which, frankly, is the smarter way to handle it. You steal, you pay. Or, you pay, we protect.

For all the failings implicit in Hollywood’s approaches to the IPR issue and digital entertainment, let’s not lose sight of the most important fact – downloading illegal files is theft, theft is wrong, and anyone who does so willfully probably deserves a hard drive filled with malware.

A Blade Runner Shows His Age

In the Hutong
Digesting Subway
1830 hrs.

Director Ridley Scott has in his career delivered a body of work that includes some of my all-time favorite movies (Alien, Blade Runner, Black Hawk Down) and some movies that I enjoy as occasional guilty pleasures (Black Rain, Gladiator, Matchstick Men). He is the unapologetic master of the high-end Guy Flick. (And let’s be honest – even his Thelma & Louise was just a gender-bent buddy movie.) And, of course, he directed the commercial that introduced the Apple Macintosh to the world.

So it is particularly disturbing to hear the aging auteur getting all medieval on people who watch movies on their mobile devices. In an article in today’s Sydney Morning Herald, Scott is quoted from the Venice Film Festival as saying that the shift to the small screen would kill cinema.

“I’m sure we’re on a losing wicket, but we’re fighting technology,” Scott, the force behind Alien, Thelma & Louise and Gladiator, said.
“While it has been wonderful in many aspects, it also has some big negative downsides.”

I’m Not In the Business. I Am The Business.

Now, filmmakers have been pulling their hair out over technology destroying cinema since the introduction of talkies, but here we are, eight decades after he introduction of sound, sixty years since the introduction of television, and thirty years since the first VCRs began landing in homes, and each one of these “horrible” developments with their big negative downsides has only brought more opportunities to filmmakers and more revenues to Hollywood.

The ugly fact is that the movie business is in grave danger, but to blame mobile phones is the reddest of herrings.

Because, you see, the problem is not technology. It is Scott and people like him, people who really like Things the Way They Are, because Things the Way They Are have made them rich and famous and lets them make expensive movies and take home little trophies. These folks do not particularly like technology (watch Scott’s movies – he hates tech), do not understand people who do, and are deep down in places they do not talk about at Malibu parties they are just plain scared of anything with a microchip.

They see all of this change happening and are smart enough to understand that it means The End of the World As They Know It. And they are terrified. Hence Ridley’s mobile device fixation.

The fact is, technology will save the motion picture industry.

Would you…like to be upgraded?

The movie business is beset with problems that could fill a library. Films have become too expensive to make. The industry is structured – from finance to production to distribution – to quash all but a small number of entrepreneurs carefully screened (pardon the pun) and selected at film festivals. The business is overwhelmingly American in an increasingly global/local culture. The cinema experience is outdated, overpriced, and of little or declining relevance in much of the world.

None of this is to suggest that movies are going away. Something is, however, very wrong when people (especially young people) are spending far more money and time on other forms of entertainment, and those alternatives are growing – and fast. Cinema is losing its share of our wallet, but equally important it is losing our attention. (Hell, I’m an old guy, but I’ve spent more on games for my Sony PSP this year than I have on movie tickets for my entire family.)

Technology, in its different forms, is getting set to bring about a cinematic renaissance. More people can make films, make them cheaper, and get them in front of audiences faster and easier today than anytime since Mayer, Zukor, Laemmle, Cohn, Fox, Warner, and Disney showed up in L.A. and started buying orange groves. Green screens, cheap gear, and powerful software means that you don’t have to spend $200 million to make an epic – you just need a script, a camera, and a Macintosh.

Starting to see what’s bugging Ridley?

I have the choice of watching movies in a theater, on my big-screen TV, on my desktop, my laptop, my PSP, my iPod, or my ROKR E6. I can buy a film from a store, order from Amazon, or download from iTunes, not to mention the illegal channels. In short, I’m in control of how I decide to experience a motion picture, not the National Association of Theater Owners.

The future of Hollywood is lean, streamlined, personal, and technology based, and there are dozens if not hundreds or thousands of filmmakers who are following this road. Today they may be uploading 5 minute clips to YouTube. Tomorrow?

Do you like our owl?

Nowhere does technology offer a greater opportunity to build the film industry than right here in China, if for no other reason than there is less legacy infrastructure to stand in the way. There are other reasons, of course.

Technology substitutes for mass in China the same way it does elsewhere. Despite being the most populated country on the planet, there is a dearth of talented people both in front of the camera and, more critically, behind it. Stars may get all of the attention, but a pool of talented craftspeople – from the director down to the make up girl – is essential to sustain a traditional movie industry, and China’s pool is frustratingly shallow. The good people are expensive, and their lack forms an artificial bottleneck. The technologies that substitute for talented and experienced crew are the only way forward in the near term.

Production finance is another constraint to the growth of China’s film business, and the value of technology as a substitute for cash cannot be overstated. As with Hollywood, big budget flicks might get the attention, but the future will come from people who make films with a small handful of people.

If technology is important for production, it is essential for distribution, because without those small screens, the movie will probably be seen by a tiny number of people – if at all.

China has one cinema screen for every 466,000 people. (By contrast, the U.S. has one screen for every 8,000 people.) There are around 300 movies released each year in China, meaning that these films are all fighting for screen time, not just audiences. Even at the current rate of production, the only way many of these movies is going to be seen is on the small screen.

Real estate prices and personal habits in China further inveigh against the movie theater experience becoming as common as it is in the US. In short, mobile phones aren’t going to kill movies in China: they – in combination with other “small screens” – are going to give them their only possible market.

A tortise lays on its back, belly baking in the sun….

Ridley Scott will celebrate his 70th birthday on November 30 of this year and look back on a 42 year career of achievement that is the envy of many others who have sat – or dreamed of sitting – in the director’s chair. As he celebrates his septuagenarian status with friends and loved ones, perhaps he will pause to consider that Louis B. Mayer, the founder and longtime steward of MGM studios, found himself sidelined by Hollywood days short of his own 69th birthday. Louis B, once the most powerful studio head in a day where the studios ran the show, couldn’t change fast enough when the change started happening.

Ridley won’t be going away soon. He’s got a film in the can and at least four projects in development. But the Hollywood that created him is going away, and if he is not prepared to accept the changes that are driving Hollywood and the world’s film industry, he’d better start planning a career change.

Hong Kong Cinema: Eject! Eject! Eject!

Vision Blurring in the Hutong
Praying for Rain, Snow, or Wind
0115 hrs.

A barely noticed article in the SCMP on Halloween noted that production in Hong Kong’s film industry in 2006 will drop to a mere 40 films, down from 62 in 2004 and 50 this year.

While the article suggests the cause of Hong Kong’s decline is a surge in South Korea’s film industry, given that the reportage came out of a conference in South Korea, I’m inclined to read a bit of self-congratulation in that analysis. The truth is probably a lot simpler and, in many ways, less comfortable for the Hong Kong industry.

The ugly, unspoken truth about Hong Kong cinema is that when it comes to developing new markets for it’s product the industry has spent the last three decades resting on its collective laurels.

Since the mid-1970s, U.S., Korean, Japanese, Mainland, and even Indian film studios have been working to build global markets and develop “crossover” movies that will draw international audiences. Hong Kong, meanwhile, has only been too happy to continue to crank out productions with strong local appeal but an almost conscious disregard of international tastes. Films from the mainland, the U.S., and elsewhere began creeping into Hong Kong’s shrinking number of theaters and the territory was (finally) wired with cable, shrinking the local market. The better directors and stars have at least partially decamped to the U.S. and the mainland, where they find not only better financing regimes, craftspeople, and facilities, but also a global stage for their work.

Hong Kong cinema fell into its navel 20 years ago and hasn’t lifted its head out since. It’s sad, but it stands as a warning to any company that pins its future on Hong Kong somehow remaining more than just another Chinese city, albeit a well-developed one.

A Big Picture in Need of Magnification

In the Hutong
Under Clearing Skies
22:58 hrs.

I just finished Edward Jay Epstein’s new book, The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood. I figured it would be a timely read, immersed as I am scribbling a tome about television in China. And I liked the book, frankly, because I thought it was a good 10,000 foot overview of the industry as it stands today. For that reason, it’s a good primer and so for those needing a primer on Hollywood (i.e., if you’ve never been in, on the periphery of, or spent a lot of time studying the industry), it’s worth the read.

But in critiquing my own writing, part of me was reading the book a little more critically that I would normally, especially for something that for me was a recreational read. In the desperate hope of avoiding such issues myself, there are some things bothering me about The Big Picture.

Epstein never seems to want to get too close to his subject matter. Even though his list of sources cites several interviews conducted over a period of 16 years, the book feels exceedingly detached from Hollywood. In fact, the book had the feel like it was written from his Manhattan apartment surrounded by a stack of books, magazine clips, and videotapes.

The tone of the book leaves a lot to be desired as well. Epstein correctly approaches his topic as an outsider (all the better to explain to outsiders.) The problem is that he approaches it as an outsider having a difficult time managing his latent hostility, as one of those literary New Yorkers who have always been a tad perplexed (and secretly jealous) that the movie industry has managed to wrest dollars and eyeballs away from the printed word. His derision, I will grant, is subtle, but it is no less acidic – and slightly distracting – for it.

I don’t begrudge a writer his biases. Lord knows old Hunter S. Thompson had them, and he stands high in my pantheon. But at least people like Thompson come right out and say “hey, this is who I am, this is where I’m coming from, and it’s going to bias my writing, but it would be both stifling and intellectually dishonest to do anything different.”

Epstein doesn’t, and the problem is his work suffers for it. He clearly spent as little time on the left coast as possible, and as little time delving into the the guts of the business. He never rises above the level of critic, and for that reason his book – which at around 350 pages could have afforded to be a lot longer – suffers.

First, when he uses examples to illustrate different points, he uses the SAME examples over and over again. He refers to the terms of Arnold Schwarznegger’s $29.92 million above-the-line fee for Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines no less than 14 times.
Hello? Is this the kind of deal typical or extraordinary? Are there other examples of 8-figure stars apart from the now-moved-on-to-greener-pastures Governator?

Second, he makes stupid errors that belie his lack of familiarity with the system. In referring to Tim Robbins’ character in the movie The Player, Epstein calls him a “studio chief” and marvels how he is unable to greenlight anything. Anyone who spent more than a couple of weeks around a Hollywood studio knows the difference between a development executive and a studio chief. It’s nitpicking, I know, but it’s indicative. And mistakes like this throughout the book cost him credibility.

Third he fails completely to talk about how Hollywood is dealing with the threat of digital content. To read the book you would think that a) Hollywood invented the idea of digital movie delivery, and b) is leading the charge to adopt it. MGM v. Grokster, anyone? Hello?

Fourth, he talks extensively about US distribution system and the Popcorn and DVD economies, but he has no clue about the challenges and opportunities Hollywood faces offshore. The fact that China merits a single mention is just dumb.

Fifth, he never talks about the implicit opportunities Hollywood faces in not only new distribution models, but new production models as well. There’s no discussion of green-screen technology and what it could do for location costs or the cost of talent. No thinking about the Bollywood or Hong Kong production models. No consideration given to people like Richard Rodriguez who, amazingly, have discovered a mystical formula to deliver films ahead of schedule, under budget, and for moderate fees that actually make money. No. It’s much sexier to talk about how Hollywood lavishes ridiculous production budgets on overpriced films that are created by a bunch of artless marketers and overpaid dummies posing as talent.

There are numerous other smaller faults as well, but suffice to say that if Mr. Epstein labored mightily he brought forth a mouse. He indeed gives us The Big Picture of Hollywood, but there are holes in that portrayal that leave a sightly knowledgeable reader asking for more.