Filmmaker Highlight: John Rhode

John Rhode has seen it all.  He modeled, acted in the theatre, shot the Buckeye’s football film as well as PSA’s for the state of Ohio, had a film critic show in Columbus and received an MFA in Cinema from Ohio State University.  Destined to come to LA, he later studied at USC cinema and got into tons of music videos.

Then he worked as a camera operator and had the opportunity to work with Academy Award winners like John Seale (Harry Potter films), Vilmos Zsigmond (The Deer Hunter), and Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now).  John has won Telly and Eagle Awards for his own cinematography, and has now turned to directing when he’s not shooting, having directed three movies as well as commercials with Southwest Airlines and videos for Google.  His list of credits is impressive.

John Rhode

I got to know John’s work from an excellent short he worked on with Frank Chindamo for one of our branded competitions.  Their short, “Quit Your Day Job”, included YouTube stars in a hilarious comedy about two lazy husbands who try to make millions by filming their own reality shows.  Their wives are not amused, but our viewers were!  I asked John about what he thinks is happening with web video.

“I’m definitely looking to do a lot more, and we’re pitching different companies,” he began.  “Amazon, Yahoo, YouTube, even Craigslist all have their own webisodes. I think the YouTube experiment is over…I heard the subscribers to their webisodes — the ones they spent $100M on one year and another $200M the next — didn’t amount to the subscribers compared to their existing wacky YouTube celebrities.

“But everyone is still trying to find their way.  I’m looking to shoot more narrative material including webisodes or even commercial-tainments.  Some webisodes have been very successful, and some networks are picking them up for TV shows.”  For some examples, read this recent article from IndieWire or this one from The National.

In addition to his efforts on the web, John is still inspired to work on his own features.  “I’m developing screenplays with several writers, looking to develop features for under $5M as well as mega-budgets.  We have several scripts in development, from family to thriller genres.”

JR Filming

Filmmaker Highlight: Eric Won

I’m not that into social media, but once in a while Twitter really comes through.  It has been recommending filmmakers with web series for me to follow, and so I often go and watch a pilot episode.  I watched the pilot of The Division and was completely floored — this thing looks like prime time tv.  So I sought out the filmmaker in LA — Eric Won.

Eric Won on set

I expected Eric to be a veteran who had worked in Hollywood on some well-known shows.  Instead, he told me this humble origin story.

Eric attended the LA film school and majored in directing.  He directed his first short while in school and sent it to the film festival circuit for a year.  He hoped to get an agent or a feature deal, but nothing happened.  “It was terrible,” he says.  “I was at a loss for a couple of years.  What can I do?  I gotta do something….  I really wanted to do a feature film, that’s what people say gives you notoriety, but I didn’t have the money.”

He looked through his old notes on script ideas, hoping for something along the lines of 24 or lost — a sci-fi or action with cliffhangers and character development.  He found a seed there for what would become The Division.

Now is the time when I have to ask if you, dear reader, have watched The Division.  Have you?  No?  If you haven’t, you should go watch it right now.  www.WhatIsTheDivision.com.  No really, I’ll wait.

At this point in our interview, Eric hadn’t yet mentioned all the big projects he’d worked on, so I asked him point blank.  How did you get the experience and connections to make a web series this good?

“The division is my third or fourth short film, though I also produced a couple of shorts [for others].  And I’m just working with people I know.  For example, I met a DP at a party and checked out his website.  Then I hired him for a short film, and thought, I gotta work with this guy again.  He ended up becoming my best friend, and he’s my DP for The Division.”  For the rest of the crew, he says he gets a lot of referrals.

My next question was about budgets.  A series like this has to cost money — the production values are too high to do it on favors alone.  And Eric was very up-front with the numbers.  The episodes cost on average about $7,000 each — less for the earlier episodes and more for the later ones.  About 70% of the funding is from Eric, and 30% from Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and some ad revenue.  They have a Monster Vault product placement in one episode — you can see the details on their website http://whatisthedivision.com/participate.

I asked Eric for a set story — because every film shoot has crazy things happen.

“We got kicked out of one of our locations — it was the parking lot of my apartment. After ½ way through the shoot, someone from the management company came out and asked if this was a student short film.  At that point we had only shot about half of the scene, we had an entire action sequence left.  They wanted us to leave, so I had to change the script on the spot.  I had to get rid of everything…I was walking to the management office and I started thinking o f how I could change the script so we could finish our shoot in less than 60 seconds.  And I thought of a way to finish it.

“’Start wrapping up,’ I called out to the crew, ‘we have to shoot right now.’  My DP wanted to change lenses, but I said ‘No no no! We have to shoot NOW!’  And we got the take.

“You can see it at the end of episode one — notice the jumpy cuts?  I had to go that route because I didn’t have enough footage.  There was a whole fight sequence we never got to shoot.  The Secretary of Defense was supposed to be in the van, the actor was there but we couldn’t shoot him.”  Visit this link to see the scene Eric is describing: https://vimeo.com/84082139.

Ah, filming.  Everyone has a story like that — to be a director you have to be able to think on the fly, change your story, and make it work.

I asked Eric about releasing the series.

“I wrote the first three three scripts for The Division and shot one episode without knowing if I’d shoot more or not.  But I released the first episode as if I had all ten.  It’s all about presentation, how you present it visually, tell it differently.  You wrap it like a really nice gift for the viewer.”

For more of Eric’s work, see his website: Ericwonfilms.com

EricWon2_MG_8269

Filmmaker Highlight: Alexandra Liss

This is the amazing story of how one filmmaker financed, shot, and got distribution for her feature-length documentary.

Alexandra Liss loved hosting guests in her house via the site Couchsurfing.com. She believes in the “sharing economy,” where instead of hotels and car rentals, people travel the world and live their lives by sharing what they have with others, often complete strangers. In 2007, she decided that a movie about this “needed to exist.”

Alexandra Liss Couchsurfing

A friend told her about crowd funding, and she raised $8,000 on Kickstarter to create her film, One Couch at a Time. “The most beautiful thing about crowd funding,” Alexandra says, “was that couchsurfers really wanted this film to exist.”

At the time, Couchsurfing.com had less than one million members, and some had tried to create a film or web series, but it’s hard to bring a crew with you when you couch surf. “Then DSLRs happened, and we had cheap cameras that made beautiful footage and weren’t very intrusive.”

Alexandra decided to go to wherever the crowd had responded to her request — wherever couchsurfers had volunteered to be part of her film. She traveled to Bankok, Vietnam, Cambodia, Brazil, Africa….

About three months into the trip she was in Zimbabwe. She had spent the $8,000 from Kickstarter, and she had spent the $6,000 in her own bank account. She was prepared to finish the film by going into credit card debt. But just then she got an email from a stranger…Dan “Danger” Derbinsky, a member of Couchsurfing.com from Sacramento who said that couch surfing had changed his life, and that he wanted to help fund her film. He gave her another $8,000 so that she could continue on her travels and finish the film.

“At the end of the day,” Alexandra says, I probably had $90,000 in donations to the making of this film — $22,000 in capital and the rest in other donations — sound mixing, animations, creating the website, etc.”

Alexandra knows how to move a crowd — and this paid off after the film was finished. They submitted the film to SXSW, but were not accepted. She and her crew went there anyway and organized a guerilla screening. They passed out fliers and organized the local couchsurfers in Austin, TX. The couchsurfers brought their couches to a park where they showed the film, and it turned out that someone from Devolver Digital Films attended the screening. After seeing the film and the turnout, Devolver signed on to distribute One Couch at a Time.

“Creating One Couch at a Time was the smartest thing I could have done — it’s my business card. The investment was totally worth it, hard work, but it’s paying off.”

Filmmaker Highlight: First Punch Film Production

While staying with my dad for Thanksgiving, I met with some filmmakers local to St. Louis. These are both people who came from southern California but found St Louis to be a better place (for them) to pursue their career as independent filmmakers.

Carson Minow is owner and Managing Director of First Punch Films. She is from southern California, and had a strong interest in ethnomusicology. “I had a big vision but I didn’t know if I had the ability to do it, so I got a camera and went to Ethiopia.” She and a friend who did audio recorded video of the music and life there. With that footage, she made an experimental documentary on four different cultures, titled Ethiopia: Tesfay Alem.

“That experience let me see that I am capable of doing it, creating my vision.” She came to St Louis to edit the film and ended up staying and attending film school at Webster. “A running joke is that I’m the only person from southern California who moved to St Louis to pursue film. Strange as it seems, it’s a nice place to make a career in film.”

In addition to client work and helping on other film productions, First Punch Film Production has a number of TV shows they are pitching. Carson told me she is sworn to secrecy about them, but that selling one of their concepts is part of their plan. “The company does all sorts of things for work now, next is TV, and then features.”

Carson talked about their “faith-based approach” to life and work. “We’re confident in our abilities and talent, and we work hard to help others see it too.”

While I was visiting First Punch I also talked to Matt Amato from The Masses. He is currently editing his first feature, a love story called The Makings of You.

“I grew up in St Louis and returned to make this movie and fell into the vibrant filmmaking scene here.” Matt has an office in LA with his partner, Jack Richardson, the producing half of The Masses. “But when I came back in June for locations and crew, it was a constant rediscovery of where I grew up. As a storyteller, my emotional associations are deeper here — my family, my history. I’m very romantic about America, and here in St Louis I can feel the source of the stories I need to tell. With this movie in particular, all these characters have feelings about ‘the river’, its a great symbol for so many things — like love, it’s a continuum.”

Matt wrote the script for his film many years ago, based on the characters. “I did what they told me, and I’m still in service of who they are.” The film is about the nature of love, real love vs romantic love. “It’s not the kind of film that usually gets financing, there’s no sex, no violence. It’s so easy to do that, you get tempted by certain jobs and certain budgets.” But he held fast to his vision and to his principles. They shot in an astounding 50 locations in only 28 days.

There was an investor who had shown some interest in The Masses for about five years. After many discussions, this investor offered to finance the movie, and is now a large shareholder in the company. “For our next movies, we want to keep mining stories about people, about America. We might do an adaptation of an American classic.”

“Now that I’m here in this office with these beautiful filmmaker friends, I couldn’t be happier. I didn’t skip a beat moving from LA to St Louis.”

Filmmaker Highlight: Jay Kelley, DreamWelder Productions

I visited Jay Kelley in his DreamWelder Productions studio in Brentwood, MO, and immediately got an earful of great advice for filmmakers. This guy clearly has been around the block and knows his stuff.

Matt and Jay in their amazing studio

Matt and Jay in their amazing studio

“The film that got me was Star Wars. I walked out of that movie and I was a filmmaker.” Jay got his start in public access television, which cable companies funded in cities all over the country in return for their cables being placed in different municipalities. Jay and his best buddy, fellow filmmaker Wyatt Weed, were trained in how to use a camera and audio equipment, how to be a floor director, how to direct actors on set…. “Our supervisor at the old American Cable, Rich Bizan, was a task master, but you learned. That’s where Wyatt and I lived, and later on I ended up running a satellite station before I was 21 years old.”

Then Jay went to Webster University in St. Louis, MO. While it was an excellent school, His freshman skills were already so advanced he was asked to be a TA after only two weeks. He realized that schools in the Midwest were not going to build him into the filmmaker he wanted to be. Jay made a short comedy film called “The Control Room” in order to apply to California Institute for the Arts — and he was accepted. “I’d give anything to go back at my age now and redo that experience. I should have taken better advantage of that opportunity. The resources and talent there were frightening — our acting teachers were people like Patrick Stewart and Ed Harris.”

He was out in LA for eight years, working and making a living in the film industry. “But there came a point where I began to realize that while I could find my way in, I wouldn’t be able to tell the stories I wanted to tell.” So he moved back to St. Louis and worked in his parents’ advertising company, making movies in his free time. He made more local contacts, made more films, and eventually moved back into doing film production full time — that was in 2000.

Since then his company, DreamWelder Productions, has done client work for hair salons, dental offices, hospitals, even the St Louis Symphony, and pursued their own storytelling work on the side. Jay also teaches filmmaking, and has a lot to share on that subject.

“I always say that beginning filmmakers have facial surgery when starting out: their ears are sewn shut and their mouths are locked permanently open. They get lock jaw in regards to their vision and find it almost impossible to change at the advice of their crew and/or mentors. Sadly I was no different. Experience teaches you to make better use of your team and to not hold on so desperately to your story. Good directors make sure they’re the dumbest guy on the set. You have to let your people make it better than you would ever have imagined.”

“Directors have two jobs: their actors and bringing their vision to the script.” But, he goes on, a lot of directors don’t understand that they are in a collaborative art. “Here’s the funny part: in the middle of all this art is the war — the war of making a movie. A movie is a war: you’ve got supply issues, weather issues, personnel issues…. There’s a beautiful time alone in your room with nothing but a computer, unencumbered, coming up with your dream. After that it’s all compromise: how much will you give up to get what you want?”

“Spielberg said, ‘there’s the movie you write, there’s the movie you shoot, and there’s the movie you get. And they are never the same thing.’ Good filmmakers make peace with what they have, not what they want. Take Jaws — Spielberg spent every day thinking he was going to be fired. The [mechanical] shark broke, it never worked. But he had to get the footage. So he handed a camera to a diver and said, just swim around it. That POV footage combined with John Williams’ music made him The director. ‘If I had gotten Jaws the way I wanted, I would not be here today.’”

Jay also has strong opinions about how to choose your story. “Hollywood only wants to make films that they already know audiences will pay to go see. That’s why you see things being remade — they already know it’s liked. A producer might want to do focus groups, understand what’s popular — that’s a business perspective.”

“But a director? They should not be concerned with what the audience wants. They should tell the story that they are most passionate about, that they want to see the most. Good, well executed movies will always find an audience sooner or later.”

Green Screen Studio

We Are Heading to FutureM!

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Calling all Branded Entertainment FANatics!

We are SO excited to announce that we are hosting a session at this year’s FutureM in Boston, October 16-18. FutureM brings a one-of-a-kind experience to Marketing and Media trendsetters by debating the cutting-edge development and future landscape of Marketing. The programs are unique, forward-thinking, and will challenge, integrate and bring to life what tomorrow holds for businesses in the digital age.

 Our session “Better than RedBull: Converting Your Brand into an Entertainment Hub will be held on October 17th at 9:30 A.M. This interactive panel will involve YOU with our guest panelists Evan Rimer (Walden Media), Matthew Valentinas (Entertainment Legal Counsel) and Sharon Vosseler (FoA Entertainment). Come tell us a bit about your brand’s creative brief and we will pitch you social video ideas live on the stage! 

As a valued member of the ZoomTilt community, we hope you’ll join us – register for FutureM today at FutureM.org .

 

Look forward to seeing you there!

Learn From Netflix: Why “Orange is the New Black” Totally Works

A colleague of mine has been buzzing about her latest gig for the past few months now.

Her email announcement that she landed a role on a new series created by the one-and-only-one, Jenji Kohan was super exciting both for her career and for me (yay! I’m officially one slice of Kevin Bacon away from Jenji Kohan herself).

The second part of that announcement was that the series was being produced and self-distributed by Netflix to exclusively be available on – Netflix; this part of the news was interesting, somewhat perplexing and I wondered if my friend would have a job after she wrapped shooting.

Now, however, we see that Orange is television and narrative storytelling history in the making.

A Fast Lesson in Distributing Original Programming

We’ve seen some Netflix original programming done before and quite well I might add.  House of Cards, was the content provider’s first original series and the revival of Arrested Development, which originally aired on FOX for three seasons, was a move to capitalize on an established fandom.  Orange is the New Black, although greatly different from these two programs, is the combined result of what made both House and Development work.

The reported budget on House of Cards was around 100 Million, according to this Forbes.com article. The network used analytics of subscriber activity to know that their customers would indeed check out a Kevin Spacey starring political drama produced by David Fincher. This number crunching and market research is nothing new for Hollywood; Q-Star ratings have been a mysterious method of evaluating blockbusters for sometime now. Netflix, however, had one thing working in their favor – they could deliver the content right to the viewer verses blockbuster which still functions under the “if you build it they will come” theater distribution model.

So, Netflix spent the dollars, set out to produce something that was for sure going to be streamed and delivered something stellar. I mean how could something touched by David Fincher that birthed performances between Spacey and Robin Wright not be wonderful? Seriously.

With House, Netflix established themselves as a distribution platform that could work for original programming and not just a platform where audiences are watching outdated content that may or may not be new to them. There was just one thing that Netflix had to ask themselves: how long would it take for Netflix to gain more subscribers from their original programming?

Which led to them asking the smarter question: how could they obtain an untapped audience without breaking the bank on marketing dollars?

Easy answer here folks. Find a series that has a large fandom that is currently not being fulfilled. Enter: Arrested Development, Season 4.

Arrested is a show that drives transmedia fandom. The cult following that ensued from the three seasons on FOX made Arrested a true “social” series with fans discussing its’ past and future on blogs, making up stories for characters and in some instances posing as the characters themselves.

There was no question that the fans of Arrested would chatter and cheer over the announcement of a 4th season on Netflix. (That’s kind of the whole point beyond “fandom” they live in the same world that the Bluth family does). The distribution channel reportedly grew its subscriber base by 600,000 when they announced the revival.  A good number but arguably not enough; but that was OK because Netflix executed the alley-oop just right, what was coming next in the world of original programming for them was the slam dunk. .

And then, Jenji Kohan parted the red sea and released all episodes of a first and original season at once…. 

This is a move that Netflix has made before – all episodes, all at once. There is been a lot of debate over whether or not this model works or hurts. I think that the correct answer leaves us in too much of a gray area but there are certain instances in which releasing all the episodes at once “works.”

Orange is the New Black is one of those instances and here’s why:

1. Jenji Kohan is most known for her ground-breaking, critically acclaimed series WEEDS. I definitely signed up for Showtime just to watch it and I definitely cancelled my subscription after the series finale. But if I need my fix I can still watch the series on Netflix..

Yes, Netflix has been able to analyze the analytics over who was watching WEEDS; a show with a female anti-hereo protagonist, that was watched by not only women but men as well.

2. It is funny yet has its truthful moments, this is provided because Orange’s cast of characters live within a very, very specific world. That world is the prison system. It is one that you and I don’t live in but one that when we enter into “fandom-land” translate into transmedia-like properties, for example: “Red’s Cookbook”, an online Orange themed store called the “commissary,” beauty tips from Laverne, stretch of the day with Yoga Jones, Catch the Chicken Facebook game, etc. you get my point. (BTW if you are a representative of the Netflix marketing team you can reach me at amydepaola [at] mac [doc] com, should you want to develop my ideas.)

3. A show in a female prison and therefore a 90% female cast is something to talk about.

How many of us have peered inside a women’s prison before? Not many. The majority of content out there that focuses on the prison system is focused on men. Mean men. Dramatic men. There is SO much to talk about here. We are seeing content we’ve never seen before. Releasing all the episodes at the same time has had the complete opposite effect. Ever since the series aired its’ hashtags and reactions from viewers have been crowding my newsfeed, on Facebook and on Twitter. I argued just the other day with a friend of mine that that was absolutely genius. Having the content there all at once allows fans to reach the point of obsessive, they, we are ultra-consumed by the show’s content.

It is a different kind of social chatter that is occurring when the series is available all at once to viewers. Unlike the social chatter that I see crowd my newsfeed on a Tuesday night before the new Sons of Anarchy. This chatter is not only an announcement that “I can’t wait for it to come on” or “yay, it airs tonight” or “can’t wait to have a glass of vino and watch it tonight,” the conversation is about the content within the program:

“Did she really see the chicken” appeared in my newsfeed.

“Did Bennett sleep with her mother?!?!” Also appeared in my newsfeed.

Why? Because we are ultra-consumed with something when we are given the opportunity to experience it all at once. That is how you tap into audiences imaginations, by inviting them 100% into the world. (See: Walt Disney and the Magic Kingdom).

What Happens Next?

Rumor had it, way back when, that Orange was going to be produced by Netflix but was possibly going to be sold off to a more established original programming network for distribution.

Lucky for Netflix that did not happen. In fact the series has been greenlit for a second season and another excited email popped up in my e-mail earlier this week announcing the start of production on season 2.

Orange is the New Black not only set the standard for Netflix but is going to change the landscape of original programming – and possibly episodic narrative programming as we know it.

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Stay tuned from more insights on Netflix from ZoomTilt’s Community Manager, Amy DePaola and follow her on Twitter.