Sunday, April 23, 2006

The VOD Trailblazer: An Interview with Jonathan Marlow

GreenCine has cemented itself as a staple of the indie film scene. Its blog, the GreenCine Daily, is required reading. Its VOD service defines itself by offering independent and international cinema that is previously unreleased in the United States. Offering non-exclusive deals to filmmakers, GreenCine provides a cost-efficient ways for indie filmmakers to reach an audience. There are surely more lucrative ways to survive and thrive in world of online distribution, but the folks at GreenCine believe they are fulfilling a purpose by allowing these unique voices to be heard.

Jonathan Marlow, GreenCine’s direct of content acquisitions and business development is, in my humble opinion, one of the more forward thinking dudes, in the biz. He sees online technology as a constant and growing source of opportunity—be it VOD, set top boxes, a VOD/DVD hybrid release—for indie filmmakers to reach audiences. I had the opportunity to pick his brain, appropriately via email, about the future of VOD for indie filmmakers and what lies ahead for GreenCine. Below is the transcript. His comments are untouched. Only my long-winded questions have been mercifully cut down.

There are probably more lucrative ways for GreenCine, but you remain committed to indie films. Where does this sense of mission come from?
We have always championed the work of lesser-known filmmakers. In part, this is a reflection of our own interests. We are simply more attracted to these films than the majority of movies that find their way to the multiplex. There is also a larger strategy at work. With our virtually unlimited shelf-space, we can feature titles that bricks-and-mortar locations are unable to offer. I suspect that it is natural for GreenCine to gravitate to these films versus the movies that are available everywhere. Did we choose the independent route or did it choose us? In a sense, the answer can be found somewhere in-between.

GreenCine, to my knowledge, is one of the only, perhaps the only, VOD sites that advertises itself as an exhibitor of independent films that have not previously been released. Do you feel that VOD will soon become a profitable distribution path for indie filmmakers? Aside from the obvious gratification of having one’s work seen, what is the advantage of VOD for the indie filmmaker?
I certainly hope that Video-on-Demand will grow into a lucrative distribution model for individual filmmakers. Currently, it only functions as a modest supplemental component to traditional distribution pathways. The revenues for VOD continues to grow but these figures are presently eclipsed by theatrical and DVD revenues. I suspect that will remain the case for at least the next twelve to eighteen months.

What has the audience been like for these films? Has it been mostly the art house crowd, or has it moved beyond this niche?
It depends on the title, of course. For documentaries and international films in particular, the audience mirrors the typical theatrical audience for these genres (although skewing a bit younger than their offline counterparts).

When I interviewed you for MovieMaker you mentioned the possibility of using VOD, in collaboration with a theatrical release, to create a national release for an art house film. This idea of yours always struck me as visionary, the future of exhibition for art house films. Will you be putting this plan into action anytime soon?
We're still working on it. Every time we get close to launching a true day-and-date title, the producers back-out as the theatrical date approaches. Now that the very visible release of Bubble occurred (along with the public perception that the experiment was a failure), we're not as aggressive about day-and-date. We're doing it with a number of titles with simultaneous DVD and VOD, however. Within a few years, it will likely become a quite normal method for independent film distribution to do a simultaneous theatrical, DVD, VOD and Pay-Per-View TV release. The model won't apply to blockbusters, at least not in the short term, because there is too much money at stake.

Blogs have emerged as a cheap—even free—way to self-publish your own work. For non-commercial artists like poets, this form is a godsend. Is there a cinematic equivalent to the blog?
From the self-publishing standpoint, you could say that sites like IndieFlix and CustomFlix allow filmmakers to distribute DVDs without committing to large replication runs. GreenCine, of course, allows for much the same opportunity from a purely on-demand standpoint. These are all low- to no-cost avenues for distribution.

For decades Roger Corman cornered a lucrative corner of the industry—the exploitation market. He thrived through hundreds of projects by sticking to a simple equation—if he made a movie for a certain amount of money about a certain topic (usually something related to a current issue, mixed with some violence and sex) a certain number of people would see it and he would turn a profit. Who will be the Roger Corman of the Internet? Will a filmmaker emerge who figures out a consistently profitable way to create content specifically for VOD or the ‘Net? Daniel Myrick, the co-creator of The Blair Witch Project has an Internet only serial program, The Strand: Venice CA, which features professional production values. Do you think this model will prove successful?
The model that Roger Corman and William Castle used is as viable today as it was then. Generate more money in admissions than you spent making the film. For typical self-distributed revenues from DVD, VOD and TV, this would conservatively mean spending in the neighborhood of $50K or less to make a feature. Very little money, admittedly. As for serial web-based entertainment, it hasn't happened yet. Perhaps Myrick will make it work. I suspect that we're still a year or two away from a true hit.

If VOD emerges as a viable model, do you think that it will lead filmmakers to create more challenging, less formulaic material, knowing that they could create and distribute their work outside of mainstream channels?
Naturally, we have every expectation that new avenues of distribution will allow for more challenging work. Meanwhile, there are plenty of non-formulaic films being made today, particularly outside of the United States, that simply are not getting distributed in this country. We hope to help these films find their audience by making many of them available on-demand.

A number of companies—Akimbo, Netflix, Disney—are trying to enter the TiVo world. What do you make of all of this? Does GreenCine have any plans to enter the DVR world?
We already work with Akimbo and a number of other companies in the set-top space. For Video-on-Demand to really succeed, we have to reach the so-called "lean back" environment of the living room. Most folks are not interested in watching a feature film on their computer nor are they interested in connecting their computer to their television. There needs to be a bridge. A number of these devices on the market now (and many more yet to arrive) will allow the average consumer to transparently connect a multi-functional box to their home entertainment system.

What is next on the horizon for GreenCine? How do you stay one step ahead of your competition?
Admittedly, we don't spend much time concerning ourselves with our competition. If we did, we would always be attempting to react to their efforts. Instead, we simply remain preoccupied with the needs of our audience.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Talk Ain't Cheap


A few years ago, in a magazine profile Frances McDormand said that the current slick cinematic style of Hollywood movies—narrative through action, quick scenes all in service of the story—made it difficult to tell women’s stories properly. Women talked to each other, their stories, she argued were driven by talk. (Sadly, I can’t find the article anywhere, so you’ll have to trust me that it exists. Or maybe I dreamed it up. Either way the point that Frances—or the Frances in my head—made stuck with me) From then on I often viewed movies through the lens of that remark and realized that most films—even purported chick flicks—gave women no space to talk.
Nicole Holofcener is a notable exception to this rule. Her films, Walking and Talking, Lovely and Amazing and now Friends with Money, let women talk. She takes issues that would have been tangential in other films—Catherine Keener’s Amelia freaking out because her best friend is getting married in Walking and Talking or Jennifer Aniston’s Olivia in Friends with Money letting her quasi-boyfriend (Scott Caan) take part of her meager housekeeping salary because she has little sense of herself and lets men walk all over her or, in the same film, the resentments between friends that can come from economic disparity—and brings them to the forefront, makes them the subject matter. In her films, the most intimate, revelatory moments often come from conversation. In Lovely and Amazing we learn that Keener’s character, Michelle, a lost soul, constantly talks about her grueling experience in childbirth because it is the only concrete accomplishment she feels she has made. In Friends with Money McDormand’s Jane tells her husband that she has stopped washing her hair and become a borderline rageaholic because, at her age, she no longer believes that life can surprise her. Intimate, freshly observed moments like these can only come from a filmmaker who knows the power of talk.
Holfocener the writer-director is to slick, Hollywood filmmakers what the singer-songwriter is to the rock star. Instead of flashy technique and overwhelming production values, she operates on a smaller, more intimate scale. Like Bob Dylan, whose songs are musically simple, but lyrically rich, Holofcener employs a basic visual style, which brings the focus to her richest creations—her characters and their talk.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Oscar's Nemesis: An Interview with John Wilson, founder of the Razzies

John Wilson lives a dual life in Hollywood. By day he is a humble trailer maker, helping to convince you to go see the movies Hollywood churns out. By night, he gets his revenge. As founder of the Razzies, he and his merry members— consisting of critics, fans and industry members, many working ironically in PR, they are about 700 strong— have spent the last 26 years (and counting) skewering Hollywood’s worst offenders. Taking place the night before the Oscars each year, the Razzies mock the establishment by handing out its “dishonors” for Worst Film, Worst Actor, etc. The list of nominees and winners are released through the wire services and the Razzies Web site, but the show has never been broadcast, mostly because the stars and the studios would never cooperate in their mockery (Halle Berry, Tom Green and Paul Verhoeven are among the few exceptions). Over the years he has made some enemies in the industry—Sylvester Stallone, to cite, but one example—but that only seems to fuel this Blackwell of bad movies.

I profiled Wilson and the Razzies in the April issue of Penthouse (which, unfortunately, is not online accessible), but found him to have such a sharp and amusing with that I decided to follow up in this space with an email interview. Below is the transcript, edited slightly for length.

The Razzies move beyond a simple skewering of Hollywood's worst into the realm of social satire. Was this always your intention, or did that evolve over time?
I have long thought the RAZZIES® could move beyond mere film criticism and into the realm of social satire. And with Fahrenheit 9/11 giving us the opportunity in 2004, I decided to list President Bush and his minions on our Nominating Ballot just to see what our Voting Members' reaction would be. I was convinced until the final ballots were counted, that Ben Affleck had the inside track for Worst Actor of that year [for Gigli], but he was handily beaten out by Dubya. I got a large number of angry e-mails from supporters of the President after the results were announced (many of them using language I don't remember being used in the Bible).

This year's special category for Most Tiresome Tabloid Targets was concocted in response to the blurring of the lines between celebrities' on-screen and off-screen lives, and between what they do in "private" and what they do to garner publicity for their product. Again, we got a number of angry e-mails defending Tom Cruise, but far more agreeing with our choice.

Do you believe that the Razzies serve a purpose in Hollywood?
In general…our "purpose" is to remind the incredibly over-indulged and self-impressed members of "the Industry" that when they blow it big time, someone is watching and waiting in the wings with a pea shooter to pop their pompous, over-inflated egos.

In our prior conversations, you told me that the Hollywood establishment is, by and large, not amused by the Razzies and that some celebs downright hate it. Why do they care?
Hollywood thrives on relationships. You never know if the guy you slam today will be in a position to do you dirt tomorrow. That being true, "The Biz" is the ultimate "PC Community.” And The RAZZIES® are anything but PC. One some level, I can understand that if you invested $150 million in something like Catwoman and lost your shirt, you'd find it hard to laugh about. But on a basic level, when you bomb as big as that, you can't really ignore it. Even without us out there pointing at you and laughing, everyone knows about it, so why not accept your failure and move on (as Halle Berry so brilliantly did by accepting Worst Actress of 2004 for Catwoman).

Unlike the Oscars, most people don't know what the Razzies ceremony is really like. To me—and I mean this as a compliment—it seems like a cross between camp and community theater. Take me behind the scenes of this year's show. Were any winners consider showing up? Did you try to get Tom Cruise to show up?
While it's true that a good number of those familiar with The RAZZIES® don't know that we put on a ceremony every year, doing so is one of the joys of running the Foundation. Our shows almost always feature deliberately tacky musical numbers, deliciously vicious actual critics' quotes about the nominated films, film-makers and performances, and a tone that clearly resembles all those 537 other movie awards shows, but with the insane twist that we're putting on a show to "dis-honor" WORST Achievements in Film.

This year, I actually made a concerted effort to get three of our "winners" to attend, and in one case, we were turned down after weeks of back-and-forth negotiating. Then, when I returned home after the ceremony, there was a voice mail saying that they had decided at the last minute they did want to attend. As for Jenny McCarthy, everyone I know who has ever worked with her suggested that she would have attended if she were told ahead of time—and I did make every effort I could to do so. I am unclear why she was a "no show," but suspect that her representatives with whom I dealt may not have actually told her about it (which seems to happen a lot with The RAZZIES®).

What is your all-time favorite Razzie moment? Least favorite?
My favorite would have to be when I took to the stage at our Gala 25th ceremonies and announced: "Ladies and gentlemen, Halle Berry!" You could tell from their reaction that many in the audience assumed we were planning some kind of tacky costume joke -- But when they saw the Oscar hoisted over Halle's head in one hand, and her newly "won" RAZZIE® hoisted in the other, their reaction was electric. She brought down the house, got a well-deserved standing ovation, and then proceeded to deliver a seven-minute speech that was perfectly in tone with the rest of our show. Berry managed to be both hilariously self-deprecating and incredibly classy at the same time. Not an easy feat.

My least favorite moment would have to be the first time two nominees ever showed up at our ceremony: The twin body-builders Peter and David Paul (who called themselves The Barbarian Brothers) in 1988. Apparently they were unaware of the nature of our Awards until they arrived at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, and one of them yelled loudly enough that it echoed: "You mean this Award says we suck? Then what the fuck are doin' here?!?!?" Things went downhill from there when The Misters Paul failed to "win"their category, Worst New Star, but proceeded to take over our stage to accept a trophy anyway. When their speech proved less-than-amusing, they became belligerent with our audience, who began throwing popcorn at them to express their disapproval. By the time they left our stage, to a resounding round of loud "boos," the entire show had ground to a halt, and it never recovered. I felt like someone had taken away an entire year's worth of work solely to salve their own egos. To this day I have never bothered to edit—let alone look at—the video coverage of that year's show, our 8th.

Would you mind sharing the anecdote about calling up Madonna's rep to invite her to accept for Body of Evidence?
Madonna deservedly "won" her third Worst Actress RAZZIE® for Body of Evidence, which I recently named as one of the 10 Funniest Bad Movies Ever Made in my book, The Official Razzie Movie Guide. By this time, we'd been around for 14 years, and were well-enough known that I decided to go ahead and call reps for our two top "winners" to invite them to attend. The spokesman for Burt Reynolds (who was that year's Worst Actor for Cop and a Half) sounded as though, had he not been pre-committed to attend a charity event in New York that same night, he might have considered showing up. The spokeswoman for Madonna, though, had a decidedly different attitude. When she realized who I was, and why I was calling, she icily asked: "And what makes you think Madonna would accept an award like that?" At this point, it was clear to me that the conversation wasn't exactly going well, so I blurted out: "Not to put too fine a point on it, but your client did earn this award!"

What was the most memorable reaction you have gotten from a celebrity you have dishonored?
I think my favorite took place months after the "winners" had been announced for 2000. On a press junket for his follow-up film to call-time RAZZIE® champion Battlefield Earth, John Travolta was asked by a reporter from The Calgary Sun for his reaction to the film having "won" a record-tying 7 trophies. "I didn't even know there were such awards," said Travolta. "I have people around me whose job it is to not tell me about such things. They're obviously doing their job." The idea that a star can hire someone to keep them from ever hearing that anyone doesn't like them or their work totally personifies why The RAZZIES® exist, and what they exist to make fun of...

What is your all time favorite bad movie?
I have several, but it depends on how you're defining "favorite." If you're talking about "enjoyably bad," it would probably be between Showgirls (which was clearly going to be a RAZZIE® Contender from the time it was announced that the writer and the director of Basic Instinct were re-teaming to create a "serious drama" about lap dancers in Las Vegas) and Mommie Dearest (a film with every possible credential -- An Oscar® winning star, a top-notch director, and a major studio creating a movie based on an all-time best-selling memoir -- that still managed to be laugh-out-loud funny when it was trying to be dead serious).

Is there an under-appreciated gem of awfulness?
That would be our 1983 Worst Picture "winner" (and the first film ever to receive more nominations than we had categories) Pia Zadora in the title role of Harold Robbins' The Lonely Lady. It beat the record then held by Mommie Dearest when it copped six RAZZIES® from its 11 nominations (it got dual nods for both Worst Supporting Actor and Worst Original Song) and it held the RAZZIE® record until Showgirls came along in 1995. A truly tasteless, trashy exercise in adapting Robbins' truly trashy and tasteless novel, Lonely Lady is now the focus of a serious effort on my part to create the first ever Official RAZZIE® DVD. Out of print on VHS and unavailable for years, this film simply hasn't gotten the disrespect it so richly deserves. I actually had the job of creating Lonely Lady’s entire theatrical release campaign, and as part of the proposed Special Features package for the DVD, I'd love to include scenes that were deleted after I saw it in rough cut, as well as the "Joke Trailer" my client and I created for it to maintain our sanity while working on such an insane project.

What defines a great Razzie movie?
Generally, the bigger the budget (and the bigger the bomb) the better. In choosing our nominees each year, we look at box office, critical response, word-of-mouth and what I call "RAZZIE® Pedigree,” the previous RAZZIE® track record of the people involved in making the film...Personally, I adore the ones that are so awful you can't help laughing at them in all the wrong places...

What was the worst Razzie decision, in your opinion?
Although it garnered us some wonderful publicity when Bill Cosby became the first "winner" ever to ask for his RAZZIE® Awards, I have always felt that Leonard Part 6 was nowhere near as "good a bad movie" as one of that year's other Worst Picture choices, Ryan O'Neal in Norman Mailer's adaptation of his own novel, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, a film that turned out so poorly that, before the critics got the chance to trounce on it, Mailer beat them to the punch by announcing he'd meant it as a comedy all along. This was another film for which I did the theatrical campaign, and everyone at the releasing company was taken totally off-guard by Mailer's decision to essentially deride his own film. The funniest thing was that, taking Mailer's word for it, many film critics actually praised Tough Guys as a brilliant satire of the who-dunnit genre!

How much time do you spend working on the Razzies each year?
With the Web site ( www.razzies.com ) I spend a few hours each day adding additional material, but between the first of the year and the date of the show, it's literally a full-time job...

You don't make money from the Razzies. You even said that it took you away from your wife a bit when your son was born in 1996 (the year of Showgirls). So, what do you get out of it?
It may be hard for many people to understand my putting this many years into something that hasn't yet made me rich, but my compensation comes from knowing that something I created and nurtured has given people all over the world something to laugh about. And in this day and age, we all need more to laugh about. May I come down from my soapbox now??