Saturday, October 31, 2009

The art of show: Michael Jackson's This Is It

It would have been a shame not to release the footage. Captured by multiple cameras during live show rehearsals and background production sequences, the many hours of HD video edited down to This Is It's 2 hours and 1 minute runtime is a fitting tribute and a rare keepsake of an extraordinary talent. It is also an exceptional film that will influence live show production standards for decades.

Yes, every superlative you've heard about Michael Jackson's performance and all that fans have come to expect, is brilliantly evident. While his singing is restrained (an often referred to effort to preserve his voice for the pending 50 concert stint at Great Britian's O2 arena) it is beautifully on pitch and confident. His dancing is precise - so clean and exact as to appear second nature to his every movement. Michael Jackson's stage presence looks to be easily twenty years younger than his 50 years. This Is It's public glimpse into the planning for Michael Jackson's "comeback" is in every way worthy of his tremendous talent. It both adds to his formidable legacy and to our appreciation of his dedication and tremendous professionalism.

What This Is It is too, is a somewhat unanticipated surprise. For the many talents that are required to stage a modern concert spectacle, This Is It will become a production documentary, a kind of primer on executing an art form at its very highest levels. For all disciplines, there are a wealth of fascinating glimpses into the creativity of the artist. But it isn't the big set piece or the high tech tools brought to the production that impart insight, it is Michael Jackson's soul as an artist and his sensitivity to his fellow performers, his audience and to his art itself.

Given an unusually personal point of view through the cameras that roamed the Staples Center during the rehearsal process, every moment becomes an all access pass to witness first hand, and often close up, artist and director working out what would be, as Michael describes for his cast, an experience that his audiences had never seen before. Using his tremendous catalog of hit material as a jumping off point, it is his personal vision that is clearly the focus of every effort contributed by supporting cast and crew.

When the camera captures one on one conversations between Michael and his director Kenny Ortega (a man with too many exceptional choreography and movie directing credits to list), the exchanges fascinate. Even in a sequence where Ortega prods Michael to stay safe by not letting go of the rail of a rising stage lift, the scope of production concerns highlight the complex atmosphere that blends creativity, artistry and practicality into one seamless show. Testing of pyro stage effects (effects that carry extra weight when put into the context of Michael's 1984 stage accident), lighting discussions, audio monitoring discussions - all of the technical work that is fundamental and crucial to live performance, offer rare insight to the depth and scope of Michael Jackson's and Kenny Ortega's talents and their mutual trust and respect.

Particularly for young people considering careers in live show production, aspiring dancers, musicians and singers, This Is It is an absolute must-see. For those, it is a true glimpse into the dedication and commitment required of talent to succeed at the very highest levels of their art form. Two hours of rehearsal footage under the direction of Kenny Ortega, while sharing the stage with Michael's performance legend, bring clearly to light what it takes to be a performer relied upon to offer his or her best at every stage of production - from tryouts to opening night.

For the dancers, the singers, musicians and technical crew, there is simply never a moment of letting up, of holding back or of not remaining fully aware. As Michael Jackson himself starts and stops numbers, asks for changes or expresses his personal vision, he is so completely in command of his art as to inspire nothing less than awe AND absolute attention. For aspiring talent schooled on television competitions like "American Idol" and "So You Think You Can Dance", This Is It unveils what it takes to stand with the best. It should become an enduring example of pushing toward personal excellence.

Those very personal moments of seeing Michael Jackson's artistic sensibilities so unashamedly captured are alone worth watching and re-watching This Is It. His decades of performances, deep personal relationship with his material and his passionate love for his art are touchingly complimented by his loving and caring for the artists who surround him. Those who shared his rehearsal stage were indeed witness to greatness. Happily, through the release of the film, we can join them and share at least a tiny piece of that experience.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Iger's kids signal movie biz doom!

How's the senior exec of one of the 6 major Hollywood movie studios decide the future direction of his industry? Apparently by watching his 11 and 7 year old children play video games.
Don't take it from me, take it from the man himself (who, according to Forbes magazine, earned a cool 30 million in compensation last year). Speaking at an entertainment conference last weekend, Disney CEO Robert Iger forecast "profound" changes in the movie industry.

Emphasizing his point, Iger stated that those running the movie business will have to make changes, "or you will no longer have a business". As reported by, Iger, in referring to the decline of DVD sales, consumer resistance to Blu-ray and the advent of hi-def & home theater proliferation, noted that his 11 and 7 year old sons preferred playing video games (as opposed, we assume, to watching movies), he added, "They are the best laboratory I know".

Really? Just for starters, wouldn't you love to see how much money Disney Studios has spent on focus groups over the last couple of years? Who knew all of that cash could have been saved just by locking the Iger kids in a glass room? And as for Bob, this guy has every conceivable resource to access the state of his industry at the tip of each fingertip, yet he finds watching 11 and 7 year old boys his best gauge of what's working in entertainment.

A few points need to be made here. First, these aren't exactly your typical kids. Well, maybe in Beverly Hills, but the movie industry, thankfully, doesn't live and die on what sells in Beverly Hills. They're kids who have exposure to practically any kind of entertainment they bat their eyes at and it's a good bet, with Dad running a movie studio and the world's biggest theme parks, they may just be a little jaded.

As for that video game playing thing, how many movies in the last ten years have been BASED on video games? Pay attention Bob, this is important. How many movies get made INTO video games? (That movie Tron, that you just green lit for a sequel jumps immediately to mind.) Seems like playing video games is a pretty strong qualifier for a potential movie audience. Do you ever catch the kids reading comic books? Ditto.

Next issue. People just aren't adapting to Blu-ray. Let's follow the logic - DVD's replaced VHS and are now being replaced by digital download - Blu-ray is an HD format exclusively for DVD - so, DVD's are declining in sales because of a new medium emergence while that new medium also offers an HD format - except that while Blu-ray can cost upwards of 50% more than standard DVDs, HD downloads cost about the same. Why in the hell should it be surprising to anyone that Blu-ray isn't going to save DVD?

I'd suspect Bob, that you have your very own home theater. Go cozy up in one of your theater lounges and get comfortable. Nice huh? Just for a lark, go out to the mall one night and take in a flick with the common folk. No, the El Capitan doesn't qualify. Go pay for a coke and a pop corn, or at least watch the expression on a guy who's doing that for his whole family. Makes watching movies at home seem like a pretty good idea. Especially if it's in HD. And if the ordinary guy skipped a vacation or two and dropped in a huge flat screen, even better. Ever increasing internet speeds and leaps in cheap data storage, are all ADVANCES in state-of-the-art. Not to be a dick Bob, but that's how we got DVDs after tape. As I recall, that revolutionized home video. And where's all that home video coming from?

From you Bob. And from your movie vaults. Take a look at the balance sheets and you'll remember that home video is where you make a butt load of money re-issuing all of those Disney classics! It's also the only place where you can recover the money your studio blows on theatrically released duds like Surrogates, Race to Witch Mountain and Confessions of a Shopaholic. Don't bite the hand that feeds you Bob - or buys your kids video games.

"Or you will no longer have a business", your words Bob. Just what business is that? Any delivery format needs content. Doesn't matter if it's a VHS tape or a ruby crystal that projects holograms - content is king. You my friend are in the content business.

If the format doesn't sell - any format, try looking at the message, not the messenger. That is, if you made good movies that people want to watch and watch again, maybe they'd be willing to buy them. And if you would embrace and fairly price the best possible formats that technology allows, maybe it wouldn't matter what technology that was. Your a movie studio Bob, so what do you care whether your profit comes from movie theater tickets or from home theater downloads, so long as it comes? But I guess you can't really discern all that by watching your kids jump to another level in Bioshock.

While we're letting the casually opinionated Mr. Iger think that over, we'll mention that he didn't actually offer much in the way of suggestions. Bob's idea was to shorten the span between theatrical and home video release. We don't have an argument with that, in fact we've been supporting Mark Cuban who's fought that battle for years, but we do question the point. Does Disney want to make a business out of direct-to-DVD? Last we checked, their head creative guru, John "Pixar" Lasseter, agreed that cranking out cheap made-for-video sequels is a really bad idea. Telling, that that would be an opinion educated by watching content rather than trying to scope out trends and second guess formats.

We think it's simple. If you want to save movies, simply make movies worth saving. If you want to insure the future of home movie sales, embrace every possible way to make movies look better and sell with value, then let the customer choose if they'd like it stored on a closet shelf or a hard drive, or on some ethereal virtual "cloud".

So Bob, we'd like to suggest you educate yourself with a little experiment. Go grab up all of those exciting, action packed video games you've been watching your kids play and replace them with the worst selling games on the list. Then watch the activity in your living room next weekend.

We're betting on the 11 year old blowing off the game console and heading straight to the computer to download the new release of Star Trek or maybe the 7 year old fires up Iron Man on the flat screen. With the new data in, just one weekend could change the fortunes of the movie business and completely destroy the future of video gaming. Ah, to be an Iger heir and hold the balance of world wide entertainment in your young, easily bored and trend-setting hands.

In the interest of disclosure and fair play, we'll own up to the fact that we think Mr. Iger is actually doing a decent job for Disney. Sorry, Bob, it was just fun to pick on you as you seemed miss the forest for the trees.

Any industry suffers when its products become poorly conceived, cheaply made or overpriced. Look no further than Detroit for confirmation. Rule 2 - don't tell you're customer how it's going to be, that's what the customer's telling you. You should be listening. Problem is, their voices seem to get through best when they put away their wallets.

To the CEOs out there - you should be making your products undeniably great instead of denying you're too often making less than great products. Movie studios need to produce engrossing and entertaining content. Let consumers decide how they want to see it and in what format they'd like to own it. The consumer. No one else.

They are your audience - play to them. They'll thank you for it.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Paranormal Marketing Activity

When does a marketing campaign cost more than its movie? Well let's just put it this way - you can barely buy the poster for Paranormal Activity for what it cost to make the film. That is, a studio marketing department can't. Paramount almost certainly paid BLT & Associates more than the $15,000 or so it reportedly cost to make the film, to come up with the current poster - and the poster is just the room going cold before the paranormal events race in to chill your blood.

A little back story is in order. On July 30th, 1999, everything about making and marketing movies bumped and stumbled into a scary patch of woods and suddenly shaky camera mock-documentaries were popular and profitable, insanely so, because of The Blair Witch Project. Made for $60,000, Blair Witch went on to make a touch under a quarter of a billion worldwide. For those keeping score, the take was 4,008 times its original production budget.

Enter Paranormal Activity and its writer/director Oren Peli, a video game designer with no previous experience in film. In one week in 2006 he shot a movie. In 2008, that movie grabbed screen time at the Slamdance Film Festival in Utah. From there the history starts blurring into urban legend status. Steven Spielberg is reported to have screened the film in his home where he becomes convinced his bathroom is haunted. Dreamworks buys the movie and shelves it with the intent of remaking it studio style with big stars and big budgets. Paramount then gets hold of a true brainstorm and steps in with the decision to release the film as is. They decide to back the release with clever marketing and a lean budget, emphasizing an inexpensive viral internet campaign, then stoke the hype with ultra-limited (read - aren't you lucky to be here) midnight screenings. The master stroke - a "Demand It!" campaign that may become more legendary than the movie itself.

The marketing idea was simplicity itself. The online campaign promised agitated scare freaks that with 1 million registered "demands", the studio would cave in and go wide release! Wow, they would do all that just because we demanded it? Cool!

And Demand It! audiences did. That's at least the hype - and the success of that hype is only starting to crank up the money counters over at Paramount. The advertising is going heavy on audience reaction; apparently there are people who actually believe those crowds screaming in theater lines would still behave that way even if there wasn't a cameraman filming them for a promo. Advertising using the movie's actual footage doesn't conjure up nearly as much excitement without cutting to people jumping and cringing in their theater seats. For all of the ordinariness of what's actually on the screen, it becomes clear that this is a film made in the marketing.

So far, so good, for all involved. Weekend box-office results watched Paranormal Activity jump into the top ten at number 4! Without much competition, it only needed a weekend take of $2.4 million to achieve that result, but on a budget of under twenty grand and a 15 day take of nearly $4 million in very limited release, expect the real paranormal activity to be this film moving up the charts rather than down.

And as for the truly chilled to the bone, frightened beyond belief, scared souls sneaking out of the back of the theater? Those would be movie and marketing executives from every other studio in Hollywood. But be careful you enthusiastic ticket buyers who love to scream on camera for a chance to be in a Paranormal Activity promo clip... you reap what you sow - so while you're helping to stack Paramount's profits, you're also asking for every studio on the planet to make dirt cheap video quality movies and charge you full price to see them.

How long before you see this on a poster? - "From the same team that marketed Paranormal Activity comes...". Now that's damned scary. We warned you here first.