In my last post I used Cannes and AFM to take a snapshot of the action industry and predict what the climate will be like in a couple years. Impossible? Maybe, but using some basic principles I think we can be pretty accurate, within fifty percent. So how does it relate to us as indie genre filmmakers? And what’s to be done?

We have two big walls to scale, but don’t worry. We’re spry enough to have notable advantages on both:

1. The indie (drama) film market has been unsuited to genre films since by nature genre films cost more to make. But with decreasing costs of technology, and provided you can round up affordable talent that specializes in the genre (vfx people for sci-fi, stunt people for action, makeup people for horror, etc.), it’s entirely possible to short-circuit this.

2. The studio (genre) film market is locked off to low budget films because funding usually comes from risk averse investors, who see your low budget film as a waste of change. But innovation is easier for a small player, who can target systemic inefficiencies in the studio system and make the case to an investor that a new idea could be marketable. This can lead the way to funding, which leads to casting, etc.

And not to mention:

3. Government funding in Europe is never guaranteed, especially considering the possibility of a Euro crisis. Film funds would be cut long before pensions. Low-budget genre films might then be an opportunity in Euro Zone countries, since the genre itself is more marketable by nature (ask Luc Besson), and the risk at a low budget is, of course, low.

So that’s the good news. As an indie genre filmmaker, you’re positioned between two slow-moving goliaths. Get lured into the subsidized art film industry via the University, and you lose your genre edge. Get lured into the high-grossing studio system via trade unions, lose your autonomy. The road between the two is wide but barely travelled. Do you have enough trail mix?

Of course, if this was all good news I’d be a millionaire by now. We have to come down to earth and realize what we’re up against. Indie genre filmmakers have to realize that the market is rapidly stratifying. To the left, Hunger Games, stardom, theatrical distribution of multi-billion dollar franchises. To the right, self-distribution, autonomy, micro-budget films and lifelong starvation, maybe living in mom’s basement. The rapidly diminishing middle road, the one we’ve been aiming for, is home video, with low to middle budget films that one could once make a living off. When video-on-demand and piracy came around, this middle road, well traveled and smooth as it is, became so narrow it’s now got construction signs every fifteen feet and is home to sinkholes and wild, hairy mammals that will eat you alive and leave you with less than you started with. Is it worth it? Do you still have that other job that paid bills?

This stratification isn’t the work of an evil overlord or the dumb masses, but a natural result of an industry that has more technology than it knows what to do with. To say the market is in flux is like saying the dodo bird just needed some tender care until it could grow fangs. We’ve created the beast of technology, and we’re stuck with its wild swings until we start outlawing it or it crashes into a rock. How will we make a living? Will we make a living? Or will filmmaking, like shoe repair or Pascal programming, become better suited as a hobby?

I’m actually not worried. There is only one big competitor for film, and that’s video games. And video games are genre to the bone. People hunger for hard conflict, anything to feed the beast inside that’s being tranquilized by civilization. We turn to video games for firsthand access and pay a lot of money for it. The market for action is still alive and well, and it’s arguably the reason boys stay home from the movies. They killed the arcade. Will they kill cinema? To prevent this awful fate, we need to show them how well we can do it, since nobody else seems to give a crap about doing this.

As micro budget filmmakers, how do we prove ourselves to the world if we can’t even get our masterpiece off the ground? If my own experience can serve as a pithy example, I would do this in three stages, one film per stage.

First stage: shoot an ultra-low budget feature film for as little cash as possible. Maybe portion out $5k from your college tuition and tell your parents (or yourself, or the government, or whoever is providing it) that it’s part of a work-study program that’ll teach you more than any class could. Write, direct, produce, and star in it if you have to, edit it, and stick it on a DVD or release it online. You should be able to get some willing and able college kids to help you out, since they probably won’t have anything better to do. Making a feature-length action film is cool. Prove that you can just get something done without demanding millions of dollars, or anything for that matter, except for some time from your friends. You prove yourself as a director to your cast and crew, and you prove yourself to the market as someone competent enough to make decent entertainment. The bar is low already. If you can make your $5k back, even better, but getting $0 back in exchange for a huge audience and more dedicated crew isn’t a bad deal. Most important thing: finish it.

Second stage: save some money, fix whatever needs fixing (for me, it was everything except the action, hopefully you’ll be further along than this), and shoot on a micro budget of $20,000 to $100,000. This sounds like a lot, but $20,000 is roughly the credit line equivalent of seven credit cards, the max one should have before their credit rating begins plummeting, so it’s feasible. I don’t recommend this option since it’s the worst option outside of gambling or theft, but the barrier to entry isn’t prohibitive. Feed everyone in the production, and pay anyone who’s not an extra, even if it’s just a little. Make it feel official. Get one celebrity of some kind, which may require visiting a trade show in LA and handing out free copies of your first film to willing participants (it’s how we got Johnny Yong Bosch). Finish this second movie on a schedule and make it kick ass. Release it officially however you can, either at a festival or via a distributor. Prove you’re not only able to make stuff, but you can sell it too. Again, you’ve asked for no favors. So nobody hates you yet, except for your competition in the industry. And your competition makes bad action.

Third stage, which is the rocky territory: people need to bet on you. You’ve proven you can make stuff, and you can sell stuff. Now, someone’s gotta take a risk. If you have to ask for this, you may want to milk your previous two projects, and then put the word out that you’re looking to collaborate on your next project. Farm out your weaknesses to more talented people, since you’ll know what you’re good at by now.

From here, it’s into the blue. Maybe the next step will have to be theatrical, or straight to VOD, or maybe a police state will eliminate piracy and home video will make a resurgence! (*crickets*) Regardless, the most important lesson to take away from this or any other plan you might devise is don’t try to make a million bucks on your first film. That’s instant suicide. Filmmaking is a career, not the lottery. Even on a steady shoot, hour-by-hour you’ll be paid less than a UAW member from GM. A good work ethic is absolutely essential, as is some tough bark for all the times when locations, people, or funds will fall through. Sometimes all in the same day.

So as indie genre filmmakers, we have an entirely new road to cut, pave, and travel to see if it leads anywhere. If I didn’t believe it went somewhere great, I wouldn’t be here. I’d be in France.

Good luck, and always feel free to leave comments!

The journey home from Cannes was long, but it gave me some time to evaluate the whole trip. The most shocking realization was how little we knew about the European film industry simply because we live in the USA. Even attending the American Film Market didn’t prepare us for what Cannes was all about. The focus at AFM was on making a marketable independent film, while Cannes was about how to co-produce with other countries and get in tight with film fund managers, all to take advantage of government subsidies.

As Americans, most of us don’t understand why the government would pay us to make art. We didn’t have a Renaissance on this side of the ocean, when artists lived with the nobles and exchanged art for room and board. Art wasn’t “marketable” then either in the strictest sense of the term, since your average artist couldn’t afford the tools and materials to make marble sculptures. Art was treated as a cultural asset, a long-term investment that the upper class subsidized. Those beautiful things like the Duomo are still standing today because of this. It’s the best of the best of art. Perhaps the masses thought it was too “artsy fartsy” to be marketable then too, yet it still stands tall and we’re all jealous that we have nothing like it in the States.

So there are still those at the top subsidizing the lifestyles of artists making pieces that will be in museums and archives 300 years from now. These modern nobles run the film funds and the commissions that decide whether the film gets to take advantage of government cash. We train in school to get their blessings so they will pay us to make art. What’s strange is they don’t seem to admit their status as gatekeepers, preferring titles like “fund manager” or “co-producer”. People in control of money are people in control of money. If you can’t agree with them, it’s off to the dogs with your film! Though if you can please the dogs…

Marketability be damned, this is art, and it’s how our civilization will be remembered. So what will be remembered? Will there be a Schwarzenegger Criterion Collection? I doubt it, but for the record, I’d give anything for a future where Criterion published the Schwarzenegger collection to commemorate the beautiful years of 1980-1994… and throw a John Carpenter Collection in there, the best of Sammo, and an Eric Jacobus collection for the hell of it, I’ll up-rez whatever’s necessary. Will Dolph Lundgren speak at the UN? Stallone could do some health PSAs on public radio. And Chuck Norris knows a thing or two about family values. Status confers power, no?

Of course I’m joking, nobody wants celebrities dictating our norms in anything except their specific media. Now if we could only get George Clooney to shut up.

I apologize for being crass. It’s just that my idols, the ones who broke records in home video and at the box office and entertained me as a latchkey kid, don’t get the royal treatment. And when we went to Cannes as independent action filmmakers, neither did we. We’re doing genre films, and action is the most genre of genre. The medium requires a good-vs-evil approach that can justify violence, and to the film fund manager it’s very simple and very dumb, reflecting a cultural viewpoint that’s outdated… something they don’t want their country remembered for. So unless there’s a clear cultural villain of some kind (often action films about independence movements against evil overlords can get funding this way), then the drama film, with its ethical shades of gray, will be the one that gets funded. If you’re going genre, your best chance is to stay out of Europe.

It’s a strange feeling, realizing you’re part of a movement that’s so un-chic. As if my t-shirt and jeans didn’t make me American enough, using Cannes to market our action films is like strapping on a fanny pack and an “I Love Paris” baseball cap. But as un-cool as our action films are to the indie crowd, the burn pile will never be their destination. It’s not 1914, not 1939, not 1954. You can’t just remove copies of bytes. They’re here for good.

Asia, on the other hand, seems to like its genre films. Martial arts is still a cultural side dish everywhere there, and with the right recipe it can mix beautifully with the American carnivorous consumption of mixed martial arts. If you want government funding for your action film, team up with Asia.

In the end you may not need to co-produce with a foreign country anyway. The action genre sells on its own pretty well. I’ll echo the sentiments from AFM more than Cannes: save your money on name talent. Once you cover that, if you’ve got enough cash to go to an exotic location, it can only help.

But if you’re anything like me, the same burning question remains in your head: what do I do? AFM is so geared toward the mainstream studio film, while Cannes only seems to care about the art house film. Where do we fit in? In the next post I detail an example process for how to best take advantage of your position as an indie genre filmmaker.

Tuesday, May 22 – Our time in Italy was short but sweet, punctuated with our sound designer Matteo and a stunt team called D-Unit. We went into the fashion capital of Milano, where we went to the only coffee place that resembled Starbucks called Arnold Coffee. Italy is the only European country that doesn’t have Starbucks, so instead they have Arnold Coffee, where they sell huge drinks and pancakes and all that crap. Like France, Italy doesn’t seem to offer “large” coffee sizes, or any sizes for that matter, but rather those tiny cups you drink at the bar, so it was a relief for two Americans to get a big drink for once.

The galleria was massive, with chairs lining the sides that cost 20 € to sit in. The whole place was a tourist trap, a gorgeous tourist trap, and we got out before the twentieth Senegalian tried to sell us another bracelet. There was the Duomo, a massive Catholic church which was like a step up from a “Cathedral”. The outside was tiled entirely with marble, which is incredible if you think about how much a marble countertop costs these days. Police and a Father were teamed up at the front door, making sure nobody desecrated the Duomo by wearing revealing clothes inside. One woman was wearing a low tanktop, and the father shook his head and cast her away. The inside was lined with gigantic paintings and confession booths, some multilingual, carved from wood. Something like the Duomo simply couldn’t be built today. America never even had these kinds of things because it just wasn’t around before 300 years ago. And it never will. So I did what any intelligent person would do and took a bunch of pictures.

Matteo talked about Apple stores in Milan. I brought it up because it’s a hip town, but I didn’t see one. Apparently the nearest Apple store is dozens of miles away, they just don’t have many of them, but when the iPad 3 came out, eager artists and students all flocked to that Apple store to buy it. A critical thinking citizen said, “But the other electronics shops all have it too, and there’s no line! Let’s go there!” and the people responded, “We want to get it in the true Apple way!” Like Americans, Italians crave an experience, however banal it may be. They also seek the prestige not just of owning an Apple product, of but associating with other Apple customers, lined up for hours with equally fanatical consumers to get the latest and coolest. Buckingham said that modern audiences don’t just want what they pay for now. It’s all about the “added experience”. Anything a company can do, be they a production company or an electronics manufacturer, to give the audience more than just a product, makes them that much more marketable. Plus, Apple doesn’t just sell a product, they sell “creativity”. If you buy Apple, you’re buying into a cool marketplace that sets you apart. If as filmmakers we can tap into that extra selling point, in the form of a “movement” on top of the film’s basic premise, it’ll really set us apart. Seems to work for Apple, even when there are almost no Apple stores.

After a lunch of mozzerella and prociutto, we passed through a castle, which was another tourist trap. We made our way to Monza to meet with Loris Rippamonti of D-Unit. There were signs for Monza everywhere, so we assumed it was close. Big mistake. We ended up on the freeway, walking for what felt like miles trying to navigate the Italian bus system. My broken Italian got us to a train, which turned out not to go to Monza anyway. Loris told us where to find a McDonald’s, where we waited for him. McDonald’s in Italy, obviously, looks nothing like a McDonald’s in Oakland. There aren’t even trash cans in the bathroom. I bought another tiny but super-strong coffee (at this point I had really started to hate these) and Loris arrived.

It felt as if I had met a long-lost brother. Loris, Mirco, and Ivan of D-Unit have been taking gigs in Italy for years, trying to break into the action scene like any of us, except of course with the added disadvantage that the independent film market in Italy is skewed toward certain films that get government funding, and D-Unit, God bless them, don’t turn to dramas and documentaries to take advantage of that. They’re action people, and Rebecca and I joined them for their stunt practice session at a big gym in Monza. Loris gave us some D-Unit shirts, we practiced tricks and taught each other new stuff that I’m excited to take back with me to SP practice, and shot a little fight scene, which I’ll post here soon along with photos.

At a pub we got a better handle on D-Unit’s situation in Italy. Apparently the Italian action film market is embarrassingly bad, and I started feeling guilty for my frequent thrashing of America’s market. Differing standards aside, they are face with an action film market that, like all the others, requires a name actor. They have the writing, directing, editing, and action, all key elements of the Action Kickback model, but they don’t have the name, which means they don’t have the complete marketing parkage, therefore they don’t have the funding. It’s the catch-22 we all know: to get a star, you need money, and to get money, you need a star. Meanwhile they all keep their day jobs and do stunt gigs, the latest of which had fallen through without their even being told. Hopefully on one of these gigs they can meet an actor who can bring them some financing, and Loris can become the Luc Besson of Italy.

We parted ways that night after they drove us back to Matteo’s. The next day was spent entirely on the train, traveling back to Cannes, where we’ll spend one more day checking out what we missed at the market and maybe catch another screening.

Check out D-Unit’s Facebook page here and their YouTube channel here. Thanks Matteo and D-Unit’s Loris, Mirco, and Ivan for introducing us to the best of Italy.

Day 4 – Saturday May 19
Today was much more relaxed. I slept in until 7:10am for a change and spent the first two hours writing. Rebecca and I ate some of the fine, bagged 2€ madelines from the supermarket and set off to catch all the booths we may have missed.

What we found was that Asian countries are all represented at booths and they’re looking for more action content than any other region other than America. Europe just doesn’t seem to care, and Latin America and Africa are basically the same as Europe in terms of their film funds and what genres they direct funding to (dramas, documentaries, and more dramas). Canada is also Europe, so that leaves Asia.

Big-time South Korean studio Showbox showed off some of their new trailers, and A Company Man looks to be one of the best Korean action films to date. Trailers are deceptive, and it could easily turn out for the worse, but it was a talking point for us to go talk to a Showbox representative about doing a coproduction in South Korea. We showed off our knife fight from Death Grip, got some emails, and went over to CJ Entertainment, the other big-time Korean studio, and asked the same thing. Got some emails, and moved on.

Thailand, same deal. Got emails, moved on. Indonesia, same thing. They’re all releasing mainstream action films that are festival-friendly. Good action, good (err… sometimes good anyway) scripts, so we made the case that these are ideal relationships with a movement like ours, which unites solid action choreography with good screenplays. We didn’t bother talking to China. They have too much money and there’s no reason to deal with us. Plus their stringent guidelines on how Chinese characters are to be portrayed isn’t something we feel like dealing with right now.

All in all, if action filmmakers want to coproduce with a foreign country, Asia’s where it’s at, not Europe. We couldn’t have known this without coming here.

Shot some footage, played with our host’s cat, found 50€ in the gutter, and treated ourselves to a killer dinner of veal and duck with some wine that I couldn’t pronounce (Rebecca could pronounce it and she took every chance she could to rub it in my face. The pronunciation, not the wine). Saturday night on the Croissete was busier than I had seen thus far. It was basically Long Beach. Same decor, same style as back home. And same music. Globalism has taken this place, whether you like that kind of thing or not, yet American action films are strangely faux pas here, even of the independent sort. But then again, action films, indie or not, have a way of kneading themselves into themes of good and evil that don’t fit a global world of greying morality. Action requires that people fight to the death, and shades of grey appear less often than among the suits of celebrities walking the riviera. That’s not the world here, even though the music and costumes would make you think otherwise. Whether the Euro Zone crisis changes this phenomenon is yet to be seen.

Here’s a little video of the halls of Cannes.

That’s our last day at Cannes. Tomorrow it’s Italy, and I will become fat.

Day 3 – Friday, May 18. Got to the producer’s workshop late. The speakers were two producers, one of whom, Katriel Schory, manages an Israeli film fund that finances 3-5 films per year at about $500,000 each. The discussion was on what kind of producers we are, creative, financial, or personal (often, you’re only one of them), and how to team up with producers of the other kinds.

The knockout blow of the talk though was when the other speaker Diana Elbaum discussed shelving films when they’re doomed, but rather than the old-school “quit while you’re ahead” approach, she went with, “Just finish the film, you’ve already got the money anyway.” So apparently these film funds, made up of tax dollars, just need to be used up by someone, and it better be you.

After she empathized with the poor, downtrodden Americans for not having a government that will pay us to make films, which felt no less than patronizing, they ended the discussion, and Rebecca and I went and spoke with our sales agent Wonderphil, who had some good (if bite-sized) news about interest in Death Grip by some territories. Long story short, we’re optimistic. We gave him a newly color-corrected version with the most recent soundtrack so he could keep making copies to send out to interested buyers. So we come out of a producer’s workshop that tries to convince us that we American indie filmmakers are in trouble, only to meet the good news of a sales agent actually making sales on our film that we financed privately. We felt very arrogant after that and drank our coffee appropriately.

I should interject here and clarify the difference between a “distributor” and a “sales agent”. Wonderphil is our sales agent, which means we’ve granted him the rights to sell Death Grip to distributors in various territories, be they Canada, America, Turkey, or any of a couple hundred countries where distributors bundle rights for films. We grant him this right because he knows how to deal with distributors, and filmmakers often do not, nor do we have the right connections to reach foreign distributors. Do you know any Estonian distributors? Neither do we, but WonderPhil does. Distributors in these territories are the ones who take the film, market it, and sell it to the public, either on DVD, Video on Demand (VOD, like Netflix, Hulu, etc.), TV, or (rarely) theatrical. The distributor’s deal with the sales agent (WonderPhil) pays out either as a single payment up front, royalties, or both. WonderPhil takes that money, subtracts his expenses, takes his cut, and the rest comes to us. With up-front payments, we as filmmakers actually see money. But when it comes to royalties, the checks that arrive on our doorsteps are in the range of twelve to forty-eight cents every three months, because the sales agents are getting 24-92 cents every three months. Aka zero, you make no money with royalties at this level. Sales agents know this, so they negotiate for up-front payments. Once your film is a $3M picture, royalties become a reality.

Moving on, we went on a tour of the market around 2pm, which wasn’t entirely useful but gave us the opportunity to meet a bunch of other producers and filmmakers who were just as desperate as the next, and many of whom were from America. All of them are trying to make their film, have no idea how to get funding, and haven’t made a marketable feature film before. Most producers in the workshops are in a similar boat. It’s nice knowing we’ve got two feature films in the market now (Contour and Death Grip), but the pain is still felt and we all felt a common disconnect from the market, which kept telling us to find European public money. If (you = American) {forget it}.

The second talk at the workshop was more informative than the first, and even more anti-American, which I found hilarious since a third of the audience in the room suddenly became the antagonists. The speaker Angus Finney  disapproved of the quality of American genre films (versus “drama” films) and gave some wonky statistics about how American films don’t make as much money as they should despite the huge budgets, etc. Not sure what he was getting at, but he definitely thought action films were for the crass and stupid, which would have made my mind shut off to what he was saying had he not had some decent talking points.

His best advice came his experience in working with financiers, who can hold up a production almost arbitrarily just because they have the “Financier” playing card.. Even if your cast and crew has a limited window, a financier has no incentive to move quickly on the project until he or she has invested at least a little bit of money, which he called getting them “pregnant”. Getting money to trickle in from investors is a good way to get them interested in continuing their investmnet. He also said to use his favorite playing card with investors, which was, “The more you wait to invest, the less chance we have to take advantage of this market opportunity.” So when approaching investors, don’t just have a market trend. Have a timeline for that market trend. It’ll get them moving faster.

Then the usual, “Get public funding”, “Co-produce with other countries”, etc.

From what I’ve gathered in three days, it seems the European independent film market is subsidized with these government film funds, which are grants, tax breaks, tax credits, and tax shelters. The funds are run by people who don’t seem to have any interest in genre films like action and sci-fi. Is it that genre films apply for these grants but fail to create a script worthy enough for the funding? Or does their marketability negate the need for these public funds? Maybe it’s just a big game theory, where film funds know that no action films will apply, and no action film thinks they’d have a prospect of acquiring funding. The reasons are irrelevant. What matters is that, as the Euro declines in value in the face of five debt-ridden Eurozone countries, there’s a worry here that these public funds might dry up. There’s a continual outpouring of sweat over whether “independent films will die”, but I think it’s overblown. The market for action and genre film is alive and well, and indie action filmmakers are around every corner now. Come on guys! Get some scripts going and show them we’ve got some clout!

We went over to the South Korean tent, where we learned that America has never done a coproduction there, though it seems it’d be really expensive to do something like that. We ate some leftovers to save money, brainstormed a scifi GENRE concept, ate some cheese and butter, and went to bed.

When news broke that The Hobbit would utilize a frame rate double that of standard film in order to ease the 3D effect, I knew audiences were gonna hate it… they just won’t know why.

Cinemas project film at 24 frames per second, an industry standard (call it 24fps). Soap operas, news programs, and most reality TV are 30 frames per second, interlaced together (which is called 60i but let’s just say 30fps for our purposes, it’s close enough). Here’s a video demonstration of the difference:

If your eyes can’t tell the difference between 60i/30fps and 24fps, don’t beat yourself up, because even if your eyes can’t, your brain actually can and does, like magic. We actually have an organ that does shit we can’t comprehend even though we live right undeneath it. It’s easy to accept something so amazing. So when you watch 30fps, subconsciously your brain associates it with reality tv, news, and soap operas (or TV dramas), which are shot in that frame rate. When you watch 24fps, your brain associates it with narrative storytelling. There’s nothing magic about this part, it’s just how these frame rates been done for half a century, and it’s a cultural norm that’s been wired into our brains, which is fine. It works. The rule of thumb for filmmakers has been if you want your audience to buy into the story, shoot it in 24fps. If you want them to feel the reality of what you’re showing them, shoot it 30fps (sports, news, documentaries, etc). Shooting 24fps doesn’t guarantee “cinematic look” unless you also fulfill basic cinematic requirements like lighting, good storytelling, and believable acting, and likewise some documentaries are better suited for 24fps, but as a guiding principle in the mechanics of film, the gateway to telling the audience they’re watching a narrative is to shoot it at 24 frames per second.

Now Peter Jackson has decided to buck that tradition with The Hobbit, and journalists are already smelling something funny:

While 48fps may create a more realistic, “you are there” picture quality, it actually works against The Hobbit from the 10 minutes of footage we saw. This undeniable “reality” kept pulling me out of the movie rather than immersing me fully into its world as the Lord of the Rings films did; the very fantasy element, the artifice of it all (whether it’s the wigs, fake beards or CG monsters) was plainly, at times painfully, evident. There was none of the painterly gentleness that film offers a fantasy film, as was so beautifully the case with the original (shot on film) LOTR trilogy. I fully expect the 48fps issue to become the much-talked about “mumbling Bane” flap to come out of CinemaCon.

Right as he is about his own perceptions, the actual cause for alarm that the journalist misses is that audiences aren’t going to notice why their cinematic experience now feels like a cheap reality TV show, or a news item. They only subconsciously notice the difference between 24fps and 30fps, and anything beyond that, including 48fps, just looks like 30fps. To make matters worse, at home they can’t even tell that their new television sets render 24fps into silky smooth 30fps for “clarity”. Stu Maschwitz explains a trend that, despite all its intentions, ruins the look of a film at home (it gets technical, but read past the numbers and you get the gist):

Fortunately, you probably won’t be seeing the hyper-colorful showroom “torch mode” version either. Most reputable manufacturers are seeking Energy Star approval on their flatscreens these days, and part of that certification means that the sets cannot come off the truck in “demo mode,” also known as torch mode. You may be presented with a choice when you first power up the set: demo mode or something like “home” mode. Pick “home” mode and your default settings will be somewhat tamer than the “hey, look at me” showroom floor configuration.

And that, right there, is as far as 95% of TV owners will ever go toward “calibrating” their TVs. More than ever, this is a tragedy.

[The new] 120Hz and 240Hz TVs have the potential to show you each 24p frame for exactly 1/24th of a second, perfectly replicating The Way Movies Look, and that’s great. The problem is, it’s hard to make them do that, because of awful motion-smoothing settings that are On by default.Manufacturers somehow decided that The Way Movies Look is bad, and that they should “fix” this using technology. The same technology that is used in software like Twixtor and Kronos to change frame rates of video. Why show a mere 24 frames per second when we can magically build, or interpolate, new in-between frames and show 120 or even 240 frames per second?

The results, while varied, are certainly “smoother” than 24p. And the engineers rejoiced. “We’ve fixed that horrible ‘film look!’”

You’ve seen this. It’s in every store. A big, bright, blue LCD set blasting Avatar. The image is so smooth and “live” looking, you catch yourself trying to figure out if it’s the game or the movie. Or it’s some classic film, playing big and bright and smooth and causing you to wonder if you’re somehow seeing the EPK “behind the scenes” video instead of the actual movie.

It’s not that consumers are incapable of seeing the difference between frame rates, but being fed a new frame-rate for films will subconsciously deteriorate the audience’s ability to treat film as “film”, both at home on the television and, possibly now, in the theater.

Whether Jackson’s 48fps helps the 3D or not isn’t what matters, even though other 3D films seem to do it fine. The issue is when a producer packages a new idea like this into a massive hundred+ million dollar package like The Hobbit, with the utterly idiotic assumption that it will go unnoticed in the grand scheme of the film, something will still smell bad to the audience, but since they’re unable to pinpoint it they won’t know what exactly hit em. They’re left with a general feeling of, “Yes it was a good movie, but something was off, and I can’t explain what it was.” Meaning, they were distracted by something, and so the film failed to engage them fully.

Like the influx of hundreds of shoddy economic policies hidden in the folds of a 400-page bill of legislation, producers manage to sneak stuff like 48fps, nauseating shaky camerawork, and rapid-fire editing into these film packages. Producers of any kind do their clients the best service when production goes toward the ultimate end of the product as formally defined. If the product is “good government”, producers protect rights and enforce the law. If the product is “action film”, producers let the audience see what the hell the action is. If the product is plainly “cinema”, then just give us 24fps.

EDIT – Coming from the perspective of an action filmmaker, my being so adamant about using 24fps for film stems from making action films in 30fps for years (alright alright! For you tech buffs I mean 60i!) It’s more difficult to pull off a fight scene in 30fps without frame-dropping or some sort of “cheating”. Moves take up more frames and appear to take longer, and lining up hits takes more accuracy. Shifting the shutter speed to 1/120 or higher just to make action appear faster only aggravates the process of lining up hits, since the subjects have such exact dimensions in the frame and they intersect less often than they do if slightly blurred. A little blur at 1/48 or 1/60 shutter speed makes hits line up better with no cheating while still avoiding the ugly ‘video’ look. If you’re okay with cheating, you can drop frames, undercrank, or speed up in post, but the subjects lose frames in their movement and separate from reality, viewer engagement declines, and your hits lose impact.

The recent hit Haywire with Gina Carano is putting the spotlight on actors who do their own fighting and stunts, but there seems to be a viewpoint that audiences are somehow responsible for the diminished quality in our action genre. An article on the subject has this to say:

7. Audiences: Free your mind – Audiences themselves bear some of the responsibility for what they get to see. Don’t just demand the same actors in every action movie. Open your minds to performers from other realms too. That’s what real MMA fighter Gina Carano says. “I don’t want to take anything away from actors,” Carano said. “I don’t think just anybody can do it. I believe if you like watching an actor, a singer, a fighter, usually for me it’s because [of] a creative thing, an artful thing is coming out of them. I think if people start relaxing and letting people creatively express themselves more in different areas, I think we’re going to see more mixed martial artists, we’ll see more crossover. People have to be willing to let go of that in their head because an athlete is somebody that people get emotionally attached to for who they are and then you see them playing a character and that’s not them. As fans of the people we like to watch, we have to learn to let them go and let them creatively express themselves in whatever avenue they want to. I think that’s going to be a huge movement.”

There’s a word for this: elitism. Elitism in this form demands the audience suppress its human desire for entertainment, the desire that creates the action genre, so that it can respond to some higher calling. We could also define it by its historical term, “Puritanism”, only in its 21st Century form divorced from all theology yet still attached to an anti-masses mentality. Like a preacher who asks his congregation to absolve themselves of all earthly wants, film elites continually demand audiences take advice from cultural professionals like journalists and academics. In this case, it’s so the audience can make the right decisions about martial arts actors, even if these folks, talented as they are in the ring, are stiff as boards and will take on any script tossed their way. Open my mind, you say? Not if that stuff is going inside it.

Like I’ve said in my Action Kickback model, story comes first. Once we have that, then we worry about the genre, the “martial arts” part. Don’t put pressure on the audience just so you can be lazy and neglect that first step. If you just wanna do martial arts for a living, the ring is where to be.

Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias recently wrote:

In my culture, most stories are not about work life, and the few stories that are focus on a narrow set of unusual jobs like soldier, detective, politician, artist, doctor, lawyer, or teacher. Why?

One explanation is that work is usually boring. But this seem weak to me. I’m often fascinated to read business-book stories about work teams and firms competing (I’m enjoying The Innovator’s Solution) and Horatio Alger type stories were once more popular in my culture. Furthermore, a recent New Yorker article (quotes below) says similar stories are now very popular in China.

The author of that article seemed displeased by this trend, and what it says about Chinese culture. She talks of “get-rich” “Darwinian” “combat”, “manipulation and deceit”, and a loss of “morals”. And this seems to me a clue about why we don’t tell such stories – they push realism on topics where we’d rather stay idealistic.

Consider that we avoid telling young kids stories about corrupt police and teachers taking advantage of their power, since we are trying to get kids to respect and trust such authorities. Similarly, we avoid telling kids stories about selfishness and betrayal in romantic and sexual relations, as we push idealized accounts of marriage, love, etc. Similarly, we may as adults avoid stories that threaten other ideals.

Stories need conflict. For stories about soldiers, detectives, politicians, artists, doctors, lawyers, and teachers, we know of socially acceptable types of conflict, which do not challenge key ideals. But stories about conflicts in ordinary jobs more easily violate key ideals, and trigger moral outrage.

I enjoy competition stories too. They provide clearer views into people’s lives that we may otherwise never know about.

But our beloved action films, by their definition, require violence by the protagonist to achieve ends, and using violence against anything besides a competing violence that violates our cultural ideals is viewed as morally outrageous. Action films are the last line of defense against the worst characters, who really have to be bad. A greedy antagonist is not enough, but his using greed to kill, torture, or rape allows the filmmaker to turn “greed” into the bad guy and use violence against him.

Action concept developers and filmmakers face a challenge. Action films require us to use violence against an antagonist who breaks our dearest ideals, and their actions need to be big and far-reaching to do this. That requires bigger concepts, and thus more budget. Hence the relative lack of low-budget action films.

I admit the title is brash, and it sounds like a loaded question, but if audiences will sit through 95 minutes of garbage just to get to the killer 20-minute finale, should you give a crap about the rest of your movie? Crystal Skull didn’t. Why should we?

We should get one thing out of the way: Act 1 is crucial. I learned this the hard way. Death Grip originally had a fight scene in the beginning, but we scrapped it for lack of time. After shooting we realized we needed it because, in the words of a sales agent, “An action movie without action in the first 10 minutes is suicide.” So I bit the bullet and did some pickups, and I admit, the film’s even cooler now.

In the world of early 1990s Jim Jarmusch independent cinema, an indie thriller with all buildup until the 23-minute mark would work. But that was then. Now we have digital, and everyone makes movies. So we have to fight for our audience. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s our audience, they want action entertainment, and 99% of them won’t give an action film the time of day if they’re aren’t engaged early on. But once they reach Act 2 at the 25-minute mark, they’ve crossed into commitment territory: suddenly they’re less likely to turn the film off or leave the theater, and they’re ready and willing to absorb the rest of the film like a comatose punching bag. Bad action films with strong beginnings will sell, and even though they’ll get bad reviews for torturing the audience through the second act, they weren’t bad enough to be returned. So, +1 sales. Cheap humor, bad plot twists, character inconsistencies, it all goes in there to fill the space until the 2/3 mark when the finale starts and attempts to make everyone forget about how lame and disjointed the last hour was.

So what are we to think of the fact that audiences keep buying into it? No wonder so many filmmakers hate “average people”: they keep buying this crap! So if it’s financially sound to make a strong Act 1, and then proceed to torture the audience through Act 2, should we as indie action filmmakers do that? If you’re doing the hard work of making comprehensible action scenes that people can follow, then you’ve already decided to respect the audience more than anyone did when working on Crystal Skull. This probably means you like your audience, which makes the answer obvious.