"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

Dornsife Dialogues: Civility in Public Discourse

The inaugural Dornsife Dialogues event offers students, faculty and staff a conversation on the tenor and evolution of political discourse.

As the nation witnesses a serious erosion of respect in political discussion, students, faculty and staff gathered to hear USC Dornsife Dean Amber D. Miller and Robert Shrum, Carmen H. and Louis Warschaw Chair in Practical Politics and director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, address the question: “How has public discourse on critical topics come to be so combative and is a return to civility possible?”

How Traditional Publishing Has Changed and What That Means to a Writer Starting Out

 “Traditional” (aka “legacy”) publishing is a relatively recent term to describe the powerful, primarily New York-based publishers that are still the object of most new writers’ aspirations. The term is used today in opposition to “self-“ or “direct” publishing, which is what happens when a book is published without the intervention of the companies that have served as literary and commercial gatekeepers for decades.

Then and Now

Twenty years ago, there were three dozen independent “major publishers,” which meant an author’s representative like myself could submit a writer’s work to any or all of them. Should more than one or two be interested, you would start a bidding war that could be very lucrative for the author. Today, though a few companies like Grove-Atlantic and W. W. Norton manage to survive independently, most of those three dozen majors are owned by the Big Five trade book publishers. They were known as the “Big Six” until Random House merged with Penguin in 2013.

Today’s Big Five are:

News Corporation, owned by Australian-born Rupert Murdoch, includes Avon Books, Broadside Books, Ecco Books, HarperCollins, Harper Business, Harper Perennial, Newmarket Press, and William Morrow, among others.

Hachette Book Group (HBG), which is in turn part of the French conglomerate Lagardère. HBG is home to Center Street, Faith Words, Forever, Grand Central, Little, Brown, and Orbit, among others.

Holtzbrinck, the German multinational, owns Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Henry Holt; Macmillan; Picador; St. Martin’s Press; and Tor/Forge—along with many others.

Penguin Random House, itself owned by another German company, Bertelsmann, owns hundreds of imprints and formerly independent publishing houses like Ballantine, Berkley, Broadway, Crown, Dutton, Knopf, Penguin, Putnam, and Random House, to name only a few.

CBS Corporation (formerly Viacom) owns Simon & Schuster, as well as sister companies Atria, Free Press, Gallery Books, Pocket Books, Scribner, Threshold, and Touchstone, as well as the Folger Shakespeare Library.

This massive consolidation means that publishers no longer make decisions the way they used to.

Author Opportunities

In the old days, less than 10 years ago, most major publishers were driven by highly literary, visionary editors who made gut decisions to give starts to new voices who are “name writers” today—Stephen King, Anne Rice, Michael Crichton, Joyce Carol Oates, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., etc.

Back then, the author’s representative submitted a manuscript to editors, usually simultaneously to more than one (and as many as 20). If an editor fell in love with the book, they fought to acquire it by pitching it to a board made up of other editors. If the board approved (meaning that one or two other editors read the manuscript, too, and also liked it), they authorized an offer to the author’s rep.

If several editors from the different houses responded with an offer, you had yourself an auction—and potentially quite a payday for the author.

After they acquired the book, a publishing house worked with its marketing department to make it visible, helping to build an author’s career and providing them with a literary “home,” hopefully for years to come.

Marketing Takes Over

Of course, the editors are still there today—but whether they admit it or not, they’re now more or less under the thumb of the marketing department. They must present P&Ls (“profit and loss statements”) to the acquisitions committee, which is dominated by marketing people, before a book can be taken on, no matter how wonderful they think it is.

Our new author must already have a national track record and “platform” (network of likely buyers within proven reach). Otherwise, his or her book has little chance with the marketing folks whose focus is not on the future of reading but on this year’s bottom line.

What makes it worse is the ever-expanding use of Nielsen BookScan, which tracks actual point-of-sale transactions using bar codes. It’s hard to fudge how many copies of the author’s previous book sold when faced with hard mechanical evidence of actual sales. And a lack of sales means no new book deals.

Sure, once in a while an outstanding manuscript can slip by the marketing department if the editor is courageous enough to bet his or her job on the book. One or two misses a year may be allowed, but if an editor has too many books that don’t “earn out,” or make back what was paid to produce them, including the advance, he or she is in serious jeopardy.

Because of the massive consolidation of imprints under the Big Five, auctions are increasingly rare for new authors—unless you happen to be a nationally or internationally known politician, celebrity, or Nobel Prize laureate. Those folk have platforms—existing admirers who might very well buy their books.

Authors’ reps spend more and more time and effort on helping their clients develop a platform, and focus on making a strong marketing presentation to increase the likelihood of their books selling more than enough copies to break even.

What’s an Author to Do?

Given this situation, what’s an upcoming platform-weak writer to do? More and more, writers are turning to direct publishing. As an author’s representative for 25 years, I was so disturbed by the increasing difficulty of getting new authors accepted in New York that, four years ago, I started my own imprint for voices that I believed demanded an audience.

That way, as a producer, I had good books in hand to take to Hollywood agents, fellow producers, studios, broadcasters, and financers. I make sure that our books look every bit as good as “traditional” books. Take that as a warning to proceed to direct publishing with care, lest you put a book into the market that doesn’t look like a good book, that isn’t edited like a good book, and that isn’t marketed like a good book.

Yet when all is said and done, it’s an exciting new frontier for authors. You don’t have to let your fate be determined by traditional publishers. If you direct publish your book and promote it well, guess what?

The traditional publishers will come a’ knockin’.

Go for it!

About the Author

Story Merchant Ken Atchity is a Yale PhD writer, literary manager, and producer who’s written more than 20 books, sold hundreds of clients’ books to major publishers, and produced more than 30 films for television and cinema. His most recent book, Sell Your Story to Hollywood: Writer’s Pocket Guide to the Business of Show Business, just appeared from his imprint Story Merchant Books. He’s also partnered with Daniel Hall to produce an in-depth webinar on the subject, Real Fast Hollywood Deal. He can be reached at atchity@storymerchant.com.

Introducing Sandra Beckwith's “365 Daily Book Marketing Tips”

Sanda-Beckwith-200x300-roundEvery day, a short and to-the-point tip from one of the many book marketing categories covered in this amazing resource will arrive in your inbox. Always actionable, each pithy tip will give you something specific you can do every day to support your book.

What’s more, almost half of the tips include links to more information online so you get even more valuable instruction!

Here’s what you get in “365 Daily Book Marketing Tips” for your investment of less than a dollar:
  • One book marketing tip delivered via email every day for 365 consecutive days (many with links to more detailed information online!) starting immediately.
  • Tested, proven, book marketing advice in 15 topic categories, from Amazon sales to reviews to social media to speaking.
  • Access to years and years of book marketing experience – in your inbox every day.
Each tip is no more than two sentences – just the quick nudge you need to act on something specific that day (or to remind you that you need to do something every day to promote your book).

Here are just a few examples of what you’ll get in your email every day for a year. These are actual tips from the daily series:
  1. Re-evaluate the categories your book is listed in on Amazon periodically because they change. You might need or want to change one of yours. https://kdp.amazon.com/help?topicId=A200PDGPEIQX41
  2. When sharing a link to your blog posts, use the specific post link, not a generic blog page link. You want domainname.com/blog-post-title, not domainname.com/blog.
  3. Want a book club to read your book? Get it into libraries. Many club members are borrowers, so library borrowing is often a prerequisite for a club selection.
  4. When you find a website that reaches the same audience as yours, check the links on blog rolls, resources pages, etc., for more websites like it. Connect with the owners and comment on their blogs so you start building your network.
  5. When you are offering your book for free or for a sale price, check out the list of 100 websites that will let you list and promote your book. http://bit.ly/1LVh5VI
  6. Discover what other books were purchased by people who bought your book with the cool Yasiv tool. http://www.yasiv.com/ 
Here are a few suggestions to help you make the most of what you’ll receive every day:

•    Remember that these are tips, not articles. It’s more like smartphone app content than blog content.
•    If you like a tip that doesn’t include a link to more information online, use Google to find the specifics you want.
•    Not every tip will apply to your situation and your book. You might look at three in a row and think, “Nah . . . .” That’s to be expected – and will actually make it easier for you! Be open-minded about what might work for you, but be realistic, too.
•    Consider setting up a “daily book marketing tips” folder in your email software, then creating a “rule” (Outlook) or “label” (Gmail) so that each tip automatically gets moved to the folder when it arrives in your inbox.
•    Create your own tips resource by setting up a master “daily book marketing tips” document in Word or Excel, then copying and pasting each tip into the file every day. Just doing something that simple with a tip will help you remember it and encourage you to take action on it.
•    Block out time on your calendar every day or once a week to act on the tips that you like. If you protect the time on your calendar, you’ll make sure you have the time to take action.

Sandra offers three simple, affordable, no-brainer options that will impact your book marketing success:
  • 99 cents for the daily book marketing tips delivered by email every day for 365 days starting immediately
  • $9 for the PDF download with all 365 daily tips, all of the tips listed again by category, and 10 bonus tips — downloadable immediately
  • $9.99 for both the daily reminders (you know you need them!) and the instant PDF download (most popular option)

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Story Merchant Books Amazon eBook Deals!

There Was a Boy, There Was a Girl by Ben and Nancy Freedman 
FREE April 24 – 28!

This is the story of David Freedman, dubbed the "Czar of Radio,"who wrote and directed the top comedy shows aired in the thirties and one in one astonishing year, he also had three successful shows running on Broadway.

It is also a love story. Beatrice, child of Russian immigrants determined to get an education and become a musician, she managed to be admitted to Columbia University, paying her way by washing dishes in the student cafeteria. One day, racing to work down the university steps, she knocked down a young man with his nose in a book. This was the start of a roller-coaster life of major lows and greater heights of achievement.


Rainbows for Hana by Kenneth Atchity  
FREE April 25 - 29!

When our beloved tabby flew out the window to her death, our devastation was transformed by a mysterious series of events that seemed to us like miracles.


Doing Less and Having More (Million Dreams Book 3)  by Marcia Wieder 
FREE April 26 – 30!

Five Easy Steps for Achieving Your Dreams!

Reconnect to your true goals, focus on the important things in your life, dispose of unfinished business, and feel more composed, confident and competent.



Jerry Amernic's QUMRAN FREE April 27 – May 1!

David Marr, archeologist and world authority on the Romans, has spent his life studying the Holy Land with all its violence and unrest going back to the time of the scriptures. While teaching in Jerusalem, he makes the most dramatic discovery of his life just off the shore of the Dead Sea near the site of the ancient monastic settlement at Qumran. It is something that could have huge repercussions with the potential to turn the world on its side bringing him to the forefront of the maelstrom that develops whenever science confronts religion.

Kill Her—You’ll Like it! An Ed Noon Mystery By Michael Avallone  
FREE April 28 – May 2!

The killer called himself the Gingerbread Man and his specialty was slicing strippers. He was working his way through the who's who of flesh peddlers like a hungry moth eating its way through a new suit... until it came to Ada Ven's turn.

She was the country's top peeler and she wanted to be protected... by someone with a sympathetic heart and a big reputation--Ed Noon.


Author Debbi Mack Reviews The Messiah Matrix!

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Debbi Mack’s first novel, Identity Crisis, hit the New York Times ebook bestseller list in 2011 and is the first in the Sam McRae Mystery series. Her second novel, Least Wanted, became a Kindle bestseller during the summer of 2011 in the U.S. and the U.K. The third and fourth novels in the series are Riptide and Deep Six. The main character is a Maryland lawyer-sleuth named Stephanie Ann “Sam” McRae.

Debbi has a podcast called The Crime Cafe, where she interviews crime fiction, true crime, suspense, and thriller authors.

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The Writing Life, Carolyn M. Bowen Author Book Review: The Messiah Matrix by Kenneth John Atchity

As an author, I challenge myself to read to enhance my writing skills and to experience new worlds through reading. ~ Kenneth Atchity

That being said, today’s book review is based on “The Messiah Matrix” by author Kenneth John Atchity.

Note Worthy: Religious mystery, action, and romance make this an incredible read!

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You first have to believe the possibilities of this religious mystery. Otherwise, the story won’t make sense and the actions of the main and supporting characters will be absurd. That being said…

The Messiah Matrix leads us on an incredible journey with believable research to reinforce the mystery. The characters are well-developed and support the story plot.

There’s a Jesuit priest, F. Ryan McKeon, whose world view is collectively shattered after meeting Emily, the stunning archeologist.

Emily’s finding of an ancient Roman coin recovered from a wreck off the coast of ancient Judea puts her on the path of discovery that threatens the very foundation of the Catholic faith.

She and Ryan fight their way through a passion for one another and the desire to unravel the truth about the historical existence of the real “Christ Savior.”

They follow the maze to intercept the Roman coin while questioning the Vatican’s interest in the valuable asset. Their safety was questionable with the Jesuits leaders involved in murdering one of their own, a once mentor of Ryan McKeon.

You’ll want to follow the investigative leads as the suspense unfolds with romance and suspense to the end. This was an incredible journey that you’ll want to read.

Carolyn M. Bowen, Author

The Ringer Comments On The End of Independent Film As We Know It

Image result for independent film images

Twenty-five years ago, films emerging from festivals like Sundance disrupted the movie business, producing subversive filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and insurgent forces like Miramax. Now, thanks to Amazon and Netflix, the disruption is coming for the indies. Filmmakers talk about the shift, and what it means for the future of movies.
(Netflix/Amazon/Ringer illustration)

Macon Blair was terrified. The year was 2013 and he was the unknown star of a movie no one had heard of, made on the cheap, and directed by a guy who hadn’t made anything in six years. Blair was sitting in a vast auditorium in France with hundreds of strangers, seated beside his friend and collaborator, the writer-director Jeremy Saulnier, who had risked everything to get their grisly drama, Blue Ruin, into the world. Finally, people were about to see what Saulnier and Blair had accomplished together. They had reason to be scared.

Several months prior, Saulnier stood in front of a camera and made a pitch. He needed to raise $35,000 via Kickstarter to finance his movie independently. Saulnier described the movie as “a revenge film equally suited for art house cinephiles and die-hard genre fans.” Somehow, he compelled 438 donors to kick in $37,828. But even that wasn’t enough — after reaching the Kickstarter goal, Saulnier dumped thousands of his own savings, mortgaged his house, liquidated his wife’s retirement fund, and dove headlong into credit card debt before Blue Ruin was funded and ultimately completed. Eight months after the Kickstarter campaign, the movie made its premiere at the jeer-happy Cannes Film Festival as part of the Directors’ Fortnight, and that’s where Blair became really nervous. With no distribution, debt looming, and anonymity haunting them, the fate of the movie — and something resembling the future — hung in the balance.

“I can’t imagine what it must have felt like for Jeremy,” Blair says. “Even for me, just being secondarily involved, there’s this huge pressure.” Blair knew that it wasn’t just that audiences needed to like Blue Ruin. Someone needed to pay for it.

“You gotta sell the thing, and if it doesn’t sell,” Blair says, “they might have to move or they’re gonna be broke. Everything was on the line.”

Later that day, the movie sold to the Weinstein Company’s boutique outfit, Radius, for a reported $500,000 — enough to recoup the Saulniers and provide a budget to distribute the movie. The world would see Blue Ruin, and Jeremy Saulnier would not be homeless. In a statement issued shortly after the deal was made, Radius copresidents Tom Quinn and Jason Janego said: “Blue Ruin is a masterpiece and a future cult classic. It is one of the most exceptional discoveries of the last few years thanks to Jeremy’s deft hand.”

Less than one year later, the movie premiered in America. And while it earned less than $1 million during a brief theatrical run, Quinn and Janego were right: Blue Ruin has become a kind of cult classic, a vicious and precise thriller that singes the eyebrows. It lives on, but not through midnight screenings or hipster video store clerks. Blue Ruin entered the wider consciousness when the movie was made available to stream on Netflix — then quaintly known as Netflix Instant — in August 2014. Netflix famously does not reveal streaming viewership data, but the mostly anonymous Saulnier’s little-seen little movie predicted a vast wave of possibility, foretelling a major shift in the industry.

Blue Ruin is a modern indie movie success story; its arc recalls the ’90s heyday of the Weinsteins, Quentin Tarantino, and the acquisition hype cycle. But it leveraged the new vagaries of movie production, including an evolving festival culture, streaming platforms, and crowdfunding. In many ways, Blue Ruin is much like Reservoir Dogs, a movie that arrived like a comet 25 years ago at the Sundance Film Festival. But it’s different, too — Reservoir Dogs was a video store phenomenon made by a director whose cinephilia was forged in a video store. Blue Ruin is a streaming baby, christened by Netflix.

“When I was working on Blue Ruin, that was the first time we were exposed to this whole world of streaming,” Blair says. “And at first, it’s not that we were suspicious; we were just like, ‘I don’t know how this works. Are people even gonna see it if it’s just on demand?’ And as it turned out, it seems as though people saw that movie much, much more on streaming platforms than they did in the theater. It makes a lot of sense, especially for smaller movies that maybe don’t have a big star in them or maybe they don’t have a ton of money for promotion and they can be discovered by word of mouth.”

With its success has come the spoils of a bona fide indie movie hit: Saulnier has become a name-brand filmmaker after last year’s (even grislier) Green Room, and the sad-eyed Blair has become a working actor in Hollywood — he appeared in the Matthew McConaughey drama Gold earlier this year and will be in the forthcoming Steven Soderbergh comedy Logan Lucky. Blair’s a filmmaker in his own right now, too. His directorial debut, the similarly violent crime drama I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, premiered at Sundance in January, where it won the Grand Jury Prize. But Blair wasn’t much scared at the premiere of this movie. Its future was clear.

“When we took this one to Sundance this year, its distribution was already all stitched up. It had been from the beginning,” Blair says. “It was kind of relaxing because there was nothing to worry about. Obviously you hope people are going to enjoy it and the audience is going to like it and it’s gonna get reviewed nicely, but at the very least, we didn’t have to worry about who was gonna buy it, because it was already a done deal.”

Blair didn’t have to contend with the typical festival experience: He didn’t have to idly wait to hear about bids on his movie. He didn’t have to field calls from his agent or pitch the marketing vision to executives. He didn’t have to haggle over recutting or reshooting the movie’s violent conclusion. And he didn’t have to wait very long for the rest of the world to discover his movie, and that’s because I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore was paid for and is distributed exclusively by Netflix. In a highly unusual strategy, four weeks after he took home the Grand Jury Prize in Park City, his movie was made available to the streaming service’s approximately 94 million subscribers worldwide.

“With Blue Ruin … we took pretty much a full year of traveling to different festivals to promote it before it came out,” Blair says of the movie, which appeared in theaters more than 11 months after that fateful night at Cannes. “And in this case, it was like almost less than a month. A much faster turnaround.”
Quentin Tarantino and John Cooper at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival (Getty Images)

Independent cinema is moving out of the art house and into every house. The collapse of this viewing window and the bidding-war armistice has been by mitigated by prefab dealmaking. Technocratic distribution companies like Netflix and Amazon have upended the state of independently produced movies. Film festivals that screen these movies were once the bastion for work created beyond the perception of Hollywood’s studio structures — films that were either unable or unwilling to penetrate the cast iron gates that lead to the moviemaking seats of power. The festivals were a home for insurgents, temples that hoisted Tarantino, Michael Moore, Sofia Coppola, Kevin Smith, Allison Anders, Robert Rodriguez, Todd Solondz, Todd Haynes, Ava DuVernay, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, and dozens more into the frame. Today, a movie that has been bought, paid for, and strategized against a global calendar by a massive public company is dissonant with the spirit of independent movies.

What is happening is not an erosion of indie cinema, per se, nor a dissolution of risk-taking work — Saulnier’s and Blair’s films are unforgiving and uncompromising genre movies, as likely to bleed and wail as anything from 1992. But their parentage raises some fascinating questions about origins, funding, and accessibility in an evolving movie culture. Netflix and Amazon are eating yet another part of the entertainment community. But what happens when everything has been swallowed up?

“We’re not the same,” Ted Sarandos told Deadline last year. “[Amazon] put themselves in the place of Sony Pictures Classics. That’s not really a disruption as much as it is a replacement. What I’m trying to do is take the benefits and the beautiful byproduct of the internet, which is all about consumer choice, and apply it to movies where no one else has. The theatrical movie window is the only window that really still exists. Every other form of entertainment is pretty much available to consumers where and when they want it. Perpetuating the movie window — adding new money to perpetuate the old system — I don’t think is really that interesting.”

Sarandos is the chief content officer at Netflix, and his gentle trolling of Amazon is notable. (Amazon and Netflix declined to comment on the record for this story.) Both companies have grand ambitions in the movie business, which consumers will see in releases in coming months. But before that, we can see how they plan to overwhelm the industry in the same way that they have in TV. Netflix goes direct to its service, with virtually no theatrical window. Amazon operates in a more traditional fashion, holding the window open before sending its original films to its streaming platform offered via Amazon Prime. Amazon applies lessons learned from working within the Hollywood studio experience; Netflix defies them at will. Their strategies are different, but the endgame feels largely the same — attack the most vulnerable market in movies: the little guys.

In recent years, many of the indie-boutique shingles that the major studios once supported — Paramount Vantage, Warner Independent Pictures — have closed up shop. They’ve become victims of an increasingly corporatized, IP-centric major studio strategy. Those that remain, including Fox Searchlight, Miramax, and Focus Features, have been weakened. These satellite operations working inside corporations supported independent filmmakers and smaller projects, in an effort to serve arthouse audiences, court award season prestige, and provide the corporations a bit of soul. The continued dissolution of these outlets has created an open lane. In their place, a new breed of independent-minded curators — based largely in Silicon Valley and Seattle — has risen. The tension between them starts in theaters and ends at home.

“If Screening Room happened,” Sarandos said last year, “that would be real disruption.”

The Screening Room is the much-ballyhooed initiative by Sean Parker, onetime Facebook president and entrepreneur. It is meant to redefine the moviegoing experience by changing how consumers see first-run movies: for the price of a $150 set-top box and a $50 screening fee per 48-hour window, new movies would appear in your home on opening day. Want to see Kong: Skull Island from the comfort of your futon? Parker wants you to as well. But most studios have been slow to accept the notion. Ever since news of the potential service — and its fraught negotiations with the major studios — broke last year, Hollywood has whinged and fretted about the future of its business. I wrote about this panic last year. At last month’s CinemaCon, an annual convention of theater owners and major studios, it appeared that the chilliness around the Screening Room has finally begun to thaw. (All this amid a boom in arthouse love in New York.) But in the year since it was announced, and right underneath its nose, Sarandos and his friendly competitors at Amazon have been subverting the very process by which movies are seen, giving people who are uninterested in the theatergoing experience a way to get their content quickly and easily. They have built a Screening Room experience inside their own business model.

“There’s no physical supply chain,” Sarandos told Deadline. “So the idea that you could do something on a global platform was impossible then and more than possible right now — and the norm. Netflix now, we’re in every country in the world except for Syria, North Korea and China. When we launch our movies and TV shows, we launch them everywhere at the same second. When we buy a movie at Sundance, it’s available to the whole world.”

The whole world. Sarandos fashions himself as an old-school Hollywood Showman–meets–Silicon Valley Great Man — Steve Jobs with a creased copy of The Kid Stays in the Picture. These are incisive and persuasive words from someone who has spent a lot of time imagining how best to completely upend a system he perceives as broken. Or, at least, ready for the taking. It’s Ayn Randian thinking, and perhaps justified. Netflix grew by more than 5 million subscribers last quarter, and its stock price is up 44 percent in the past year, according to The Wall Street Journal. It’s done so by adding more than $5 billion worth of original content, from children’s programming to stand-up comedy. Its strategy is market-based, not revenue-driven — it needs to grow and grow and grow against the perception of success.
How Netflix Took Over Stand-up Comedy

With new specials coming from Dave Chappelle, Amy Schumer, and Chris Rock, Netflix has officially taken over the stand…

But Sarandos’s global conqueror routine is also a boon for filmmakers. Netflix’s insatiable appetite for library-building and content delivery has meant an unceasing, well, stream of new television shows, documentaries, and, increasingly, original feature films delivered to the world. With Blair’s I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, Netflix unofficially began a new initiative: releasing one new original movie on its streaming service every Friday. Last Friday, it debuted Win It All, the charming new Joe Swanberg movie starring, coproduced, and cowritten by Jake Johnson. The 35-year-old Swanberg has become a kind of paterfamilias of indie cinema in the 10-plus years he’s been making movies. But recently, the visibility of everything he’s made has been elevated on a streaming service.

“Drinking Buddies honestly found its biggest audience on Netflix,” Swanberg tells me after the premiere of Win It All at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March. “It’s become pretty clear to me over the last few years that the work that I’m making is finding its audience there. And so I have [to face] the question as a filmmaker and Jake [Johnson] and I as business partners: Do we go where the audience is or do we make the audience come to us? I just think it’s not our nature, we’re not the kind of guys that are going to put our foot down and be like, ‘No, you have to experience it this way.’ If there’s a big audience over there that wants to watch it, and we already made the movie we want, that makes the most sense to both of us.”

Win It All, like Swanberg’s previous Netflix-distributed films Digging for Fire and Drinking Buddies, was made for less than $5 million and grossed far less than that; these are movies you can, and maybe should, stream. They are stylistically sturdy but unglamorous and crafted with a workaday mien that suits their makers. They glide, but they don’t necessarily soar. Netflix is the perfect home for them. And it’s the only place Swanberg and Johnson took a rough cut of Win It All, the only partner they were interested in.

Swanberg has even expanded to TV with the anthology series Easy (also exclusively available and paid for by Netflix), which resembles the style of his movies. A second season is already in production. Its success insinuates an emerging aesthetic: Netflix-core. Soon, there may be no movies and TV, only Netflix and Amazon and other streaming bankrolled product. In the meantime, for an artist like Swanberg with a modest background and limited reach to this point, the collaboration is a win, no matter the length or form.

“After making Easy, where the show goes up on the same day to 170 countries all around the world, Netflix called me and they were like, ‘It did really well in America. It also did really well in France and Germany,’” Swanberg says. “I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve been trying for a decade to break into [those countries]. I knew they would like my stuff. It’s just that they never had a chance to see it because a French distributor and a German distributor is like, ‘I’m not about to lose $300,000 trying to turn French people on to mumblecore movies. I got better things to do with my time.’

“It’s interesting to me that it wasn’t about the work necessarily,” he continues. “It was about the accessibility of the work. And the truth is, I don’t have any grudge against that French distributor or German distributor. I wouldn’t even put my movies out in those countries. It’s a losing proposition. But with the Netflix access, those people finally had a chance to see my work and they were like, ‘We like it!’ Now we get to go back to them and say, ‘Check this one out.’”

Swanberg is an artistic pragmatist who has found a distribution partner that suits his pragmatism. Swanberg and Johnson, who made his name as one of the stars of Fox’s New Girl, throw their own money in together for these projects — and they both speak forthrightly about upending the financial models of moviemaking, finding ways to get the most money to the people most responsible for their creative execution. It’s an intriguing anti-Hollywood populism, crafted by a mumblecore pioneer and a sitcom star — the duo have formed a sort of modern-day Robert Altman–Elliott Gould–style pairing. Johnson — who was featured in Jurassic World and has a part in the upcoming Mummy reboot starring Tom Cruise — is particularly intimate with the corporate machinery that can envelope a creative project.

“We get to cut out all middlemen and just make work and say, ‘Do you guys like it? Guess what it’s going to cost you: Nothing, you already have a subscription. So try it! And guess what, click on it, you already pay for Netflix,’” he says. “You either know Joe through Easy and his stuff or you go, ‘Oh, it’s Schmidt from New Girl, should I watch that? That’s not Schmidt! Oh, it’s the other one.’ Just hit it. And you start it and if in those first few minutes, you’re out, I get it. But if you’re in, and you like it, then that’s actually the fan we want who then goes, ‘What else have they done?’ And I’m like, let’s just make movies for that person and say, ‘Yeah, you want to watch this one again?’ You just put your baby to sleep, you got two hours before it starts crying, here’s an hour and a half. And that’s a model I’m very personally excited about.”

At the SXSW screening that premiered Win It All, the crowd was uproarious — Johnson and Swanberg told me that they always planned to first show the movie at Austin’s Paramount Theatre, which treats movies more like rock concerts than Sunday Mass. So there is something odd about wanting audiences to experience the movie, which follows a hapless Chicago gambler who just so happens to come into the possession of a big bag of cash, at home on Netflix. For Netflix’s part, the equation is still evolving.

“There’s a romantic notion about the film being on a big screen,” said Sarandos last year. “There’s definitely something about a premiere at [main Sundance venue] Eccles that you can’t replicate — that I can’t replicate — but the fact is, that happens for a couple hundred people once a year. We’re doing it every day for the world. People who are discovering a movie that might change their life; that’s who they’re talking to. We have to get rid of the romantic part. I don’t really think that they’re mutually exclusive. I think over time that these films will get booked into theaters at the same time they’re on Netflix.”

In the meantime, the freedom and scope of the opportunity provided by the company right now is often too much for young filmmakers to turn away from.
Netflix’s ‘The Discovery’ Has the Best Opening Scene of the Year

The director of the new high-concept sci-fi drama talks about the afterlife and how to draw in an audience

“There’s no excuse. It’s there in your home, it’s on your phone, you can watch it anywhere,” says Charlie McDowell, the director of The Discovery, another Netflix Original that premiered last month. “But I think that hopefully what this does, is people start talking about it on social media in a way that’s intriguing and then it’s like, ‘Well, OK, I’m just gonna go watch it on Netflix.’”

McDowell’s first movie, the twist-filled 2014 romantic drama The One I Love, also found an audience on Netflix, after a Sundance premiere. He didn’t plan for The Discovery to live exclusively on Netflix. But there is some serendipity in the company’s growth plans and his chance to show the biggest possible audience a meditative science fiction drama that may not scream “box office windfall.”

“I set out for this movie to be seen in the theater, and then that changed in a way that I’m totally OK with — and the partnership with Netflix has been so successful and so strong and I really respect them and love what they’re doing, especially this year with original films,” McDowell says. “This is the year of original films breaking out for Netflix.”
Terry Crews, Ted Sarandos, and Adam Sandler at the premiere of ‘Sandy Wexler’ (Getty Images)

The service has effectively communicated its plan to filmmakers of all stripes. Later this year, it will release what would have otherwise been major studio pictures starring Brad Pitt (May’s War Machine), Will Smith (December’s Bright, from the director of Suicide Squad), and of course its never-ending string of Adam Sandler features, including this month’s Sandy Wexler. But it’s indie directors who stand to gain the most from the service’s reach.

“The only thing I care about is that people see this film. And a lot of people are gonna see this film just based on where it’s available,” McDowell says. “My friends made [the Netflix original series] The OA, which is something [where] if you go to a coffee shop, people are talking about it. And so you know that it hit. And so the next thing is: Can that translate to original films? Which I think for Netflix, that’s the next territory.”

The protection that these films and filmmakers have from the terror of box office receipts perpetuates a mystery about their own success. Much like the television showrunners, network executives, and agents who have expressed concern over Netflix’s refusal to share internal viewing metrics, filmmakers now have to trust that the corporate steward that has funded their vision and delivered it via a locked service is helping expand their careers, and not limiting them. This is unprecedented. How do we define a hit director in this environment? Will we know a Spielberg when we see one? McDowell acknowledges his metric for success is more ill-defined than ever.

“I’m not gonna know the numbers of how many people have seen [The Discovery], obviously, but I feel like it’ll just be, Are people talking about it on social media?” McDowell says. “Are people coming up to me saying, ‘I saw your film and discovered it on Netflix’? That’s how I’ll measure it, I guess.”

And what of the festival culture that heretofore announced major independent film talents? That lane is still open. But there are caveats.

“Sundance actually does a very good job preparing you,” says JD Dillard, whose debut feature, Sleight, played the festival in 2016 and will hit theaters on April 28. “And so much of [what they told me] turned out to be true, which is crazy. We premiered on a Saturday and then starting Sunday, there are phone calls — ‘Oh, we’re gonna do this,’ and, ‘We want to sit down with you, but we want to change these pieces,’ and, ‘We want to take it into direct to VOD, but here’s how we’re gonna do it.’ Other people were like, ‘We’ll just put it on the screen now.’ There were some people who didn’t want to touch it; there were some people who were like, ‘What if we reshoot this piece?’ All that is part of the conversation.”

“We were open to whatever anyone was saying,” Dillard says. “But — and maybe it’s naive — we wanted to see this movie in theaters. I understand that the distribution model is rapidly changing every single day and Netflix and Amazon are just as good as opening on 2,000 screens. But for this movie [theatrical distribution was the right choice], and honestly that was motivated by what the energy of Sleight was at the festival.”

Sleight follows a young street magician who gets caught up in a drug dealer’s web and is forced to use some of his skills to escape — it’s a genre movie, craftily made on the cheap. Dillard previously worked at J.J. Abrams’s Bad Robot as a receptionist and later as an assistant on the set of Star Wars: The Force Awakens with Abrams. His ambitions are big, wide-release stories, and he’s reportedly been tapped to direct a remake of The Fly. But unlike Blair, Dillard has had to wait for more than 15 months for the public to see his movie. After brokering a deal with Blumhouse and WWE Films, and their distribution partner, Universal, Dillard entered a period when he was forced to resume his life and earn a living while tuning up his movie for its 2,000-screen wide release. Few had seen Sleight and so momentum was difficult to come by. Artistic purgatory doesn’t pay.

“Here’s the not-so-glamorous side of independent film: All of my student loans defaulted, all my credit cards went into collections, I went back to Bad Robot to help my friends who are chefs there, to help them in the kitchen,” says Dillard. “So I was doing whatever I could, but I still had to keep so much time open for Sleight, and that process sucks — like, it really sucks. And that’s nobody’s fault. It’s the nature of a low-budget [movie], where you can’t just pay somebody 85 grand [to fix all your problems].”

There was no such interregnum for Macon Blair.

“It seems to me like a cool way of doing things,” Blair says of his movie’s quick arrival on Netflix. “If the temperature is already up on a particular title to not let it cool off and then have to re-remind people about it nine months or 12 months later, just sort of strike while the iron is hot.”

“I think it’s a good thing for us because now when I talk about these films, even at a dinner party, I don’t have to go, ‘Oh yeah, that’s right, you weren’t at the festival,’” says John Cooper, longtime director of the Sundance Film Festival. “They become part of the dialogue of our independent community faster.”

Festival work is difficult, and requires thousands of hours of labor — watching unfinished films, identifying themes, securing contracts, creating a schedule, building atmosphere, arranging countless screenings and panels. Sundance is a machine and the most respected festival of its kind, but that reputation has taken years to acquire and hold. It’s human work. It feels like a strain that would be removed by an AI observing the movie business. Do the closed windows perpetrated by massive, studio-esque corporations obviate the need for film festivals in the first place? Cooper says no.

“I think there’s still a need for us to be curatorial and for us to have — I don’t want to say the word ‘pure’ — but almost have that more noncommercial approach to selecting films and celebrating,” he says. “A noncommercial celebration is important. Even for Netflix.”

Twenty-five years ago, no one wanted to touch Reservoir Dogs. Not even Harvey Weinstein, the man who would become Quentin Tarantino’s creative guardian angel. In his book Down and Dirty Pictures, the film industry historian Peter Biskind tracks the parallel arcs of Miramax, Sundance, and a crop of brash young filmmakers that included Tarantino.

The Reservoir Dogs director, then a pugnacious 28-year-old video-store clerk and aspirant auteur, had recently felt the sting of rejection at Sundance, where his violent and narratively audacious debut won zero awards.

“It wouldn’t have been such a bad thing if I hadn’t been told by everybody I was gonna win — something. But it hurt my feelings,” Tarantino told Biskind. “I was sad, I was mad. When it was over I did a slightly less drastic version of storming out. ‘Fuck all you!’”

Reservoir Dogs, a pulpy and unlikely festival entrant, made an impression, but there wasn’t much interest in distributing the movie. Biskind recounts the post-Sundance round of screenings to potential distributors:

    Twenty minutes into it, Harvey was getting a little itchy. [Mark] Tusk told him, “Sit still. Trust me.” The movie ended. Harvey was dubious, afraid it would be a hard sell at the box office even if it got good reviews, which seemed questionable, given the carnage. Back in New York, the brothers screened it again, then went around the room, canvassing the staff. Ben Zinkin, an outside counsel, said, “That was probably the single worst movie I’ve ever seen.”


    Russell Schwartz, head of marketing, replied, “Not my cup of tea. For me, it’s a pass.”

Reservoir Dogs would not have gotten past theatrical distributors this year. But it also might not have been able to transcend its origins if it had been scooped up by a major streaming service. There’s no way to know. Sundance showed 119 feature films this year. Forty-one have been sold thus far — Netflix bought 10, Amazon Studios five. Those are by far the highest acquisition totals. They have completely replaced Miramax and Sony Picture Classics as the power brokers of the festival.

“The people who are acquiring movies and putting together these deals are a lot of the people I knew back in the day from other companies,” Cooper says. “It’s not necessarily a whole new set of people that are at Amazon, that are at Netflix. It’s the same faces of a lot of people that helped create Miramax and other companies back in the day. So I find that interesting, too — they’re still basically doing the same kind of job. It’s just for a different platform.”

Some say there is reason to be cautious about the long-term viability of this wave.

“There’s a window right now where they’re all trying to fill up, but at some point, Amazon will have enough titles and all they’ll care about are the big ones that are coming up,” the producer Chris Moore, whose Manchester by the Sea was funded and distributed by Amazon Studios, told me last fall. “And if you’re a subscriber of Prime, which is what they care about, do you care if they have 50,000 titles or 6 million? As long as you get what you want out of the 50,000, what are you going to do with that other 5 million titles, right? They’re just going to sit there.”

Netflix and Amazon’s surge presents complications for independent producers and filmmakers, too. Is this an endless waterfall of acquisition and distribution? Or will the water run dry?

“The biggest problem is what you’re selling when you make movies — whether it’s a studio or a guy like me raising independent money — is you’re selling the potential of a hit,” says Moore. “You’re selling that the business and my experience in the business gives you a higher-percentage chance that you’re going to get your money back. And I don’t think you can sell any of that anymore.”
Ted Hope and Casey Affleck at Amazon Studios’ Oscars celebration (Getty Images)

It’s a fascinating concept, a puzzle box dropped right in the middle of an industry that thrives on metric success, whether box office draw or award hauls. Manchester was an Oscar success story in winning awards for Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay and reeled in $62 million at the box office worldwide, an impressive figure given its dark story line and provenance. Likewise, Amazon helped shepherd the small and heady James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro to profitability and an Oscar nomination. In just two-plus years, the biggest technology and consumer marketplace company has scaled Hollywood credibility. It’s done so, in part, by playing by traditional rules.

Just last week at a keynote discussion at MIPTV in Cannes, Amazon Studios head of media development Roy Price praised the value of theatrical distribution in its movie strategy: “Whatever you may predict to happen six or seven years from now, theaters play an important role in the movie ecosystem now, so why not participate in that? … Once the movie comes on the service having been in theaters, I think there is a perception that it’s a legit movie: It was reviewed, and it was in a theater — it’s like, a movie. It helps with customer perception, it helps with filmmakers, so we’re very supportive of the theatrical window.”

That sentiment is still powerful for a filmmaker like James Gray, who has released five films with independent distributors. His new movie, the gorgeous period adventure The Lost City of Z, will be distributed by Amazon Studios. He wants his movies in theaters.

“Ten years ago, I’d give interviews and we’d talk about the future of cinema and I felt very much like a Cassandra,” Gray says. “Movies reflected a temporary moment. People assume that art forms last forever. But let’s face it: If you were a composer of opera, you would be in deep trouble. Opera was a popular medium in 1860 or 1870 and when Verdi died, 400,000 lined the streets of Rome for his funeral. And today you can go to the opera, but you dress up and it’s $300 for a great seat, which is crazy. And who can pay that? It’s become a rarefied thing. And I started to see that movies, the tradition where you go and sit in the theater and pay your money and eat your popcorn, enjoy that as a communal experience, that that was under grave threat. This was 10 years ago. I don’t think that anything I’ve said then was disproven by anything happening now. I think where we’re headed, which is a world that is [dictated by] Amazon and Netflix, is essentially you watch these things at home on your 60- or 70-inch television. I’m against that.”

Netflix has announced at least 20 more original films that will be released on its service this year, ranging in size from Sundance to Sandler. Amazon Studios is newer to the field, releasing one film in 2015 and 15 last year, including major achievements, like Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden and Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, that would otherwise have been forced to find distribution with one of the boutique distribution houses. Amazon has 14 films planned for this year, including production and distribution for Todd Haynes’s followup to Carol, Wonderstruck, as well as Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying, a sequel to The Last Detail starring Bryan Cranston; it produced, but is not distributing, Doug Liman’s John Cena–starring The Wall; it also picked up distribution for the Sundance darling The Big Sick. Amazon’s strategy, overseen by Price and head of motion pictures Ted Hope, is an amalgam that is driven by taste and inbound experience. Hope, whose Good Machine Films production company was a driving force in ’90s indie cinema, has brought 30 years of knowledge to Amazon. He’s an idealist in a confusing environment.

“I really do believe that we, the creative community, are on the precipice of what I think will be the greatest period in filmmaking ever,” Hope said last summer at the Seattle Film Festival. “I know you all want to know about the secret Amazon algorithms for how we pick our films and spend money. … I constantly say, ‘Why do movies suck? Why are these scripts just not better?’ This is my first pass at talking about how we can engineer better movies.”

Hope buys what he likes, and what he thinks can work, but he’s begun blending social media observation and digital data tracking with gut-level decision-making. He’s an Amazon man now. “I have a personal aesthetic of appreciating noble failures,” he said last summer. “As a student, I learn when it doesn’t work; it helps me as an artist. But I know the audience doesn’t like those, so as an executive, I can’t really go out and try to spend my money on noble failures.”

Sometimes that results in a Todd Haynes movie. Sometimes it’s a John Cena war flick. And sometimes it’s a remake of a giallo horror classic, like Luca Guadagnino’s upcoming reimagining of Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Movies are still a mystery, a shot in the dark. But some fear that the unknown is evaporating from the equation.

“I have a bunch of young filmmakers who come to me and they say, ‘Hey, I made a movie for $800,000 and people like it and it’s getting a small, theatrical release, which is actually costing me money, and then I made this deal with Netflix for $300,000,’” says Chris Moore. “So the next time they go do it, they figure, that movie was pretty good, everybody seemed to like it, all we got was $300,000 from Netflix, so I got to make the next one for $300,000.”

Just as the viewership data is locked for these movies, so are the budgets. The raft of small films that have been bought and paid for by Netflix enforce a new kind of relationship that more closely resembles the old studio-contractor model that employed actors in the 1930s and ’40s: Netflix owns everything. There are no DVD sales, no international receipts, no TV syndication deals. The only difference is the absence of the creative shackles that Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner employed. Swanberg returns to Netflix because he likes what he hears from the company and the financial security it provides. McDowell likes the reach. Blair likes the ease of use. The appeal of Netflix, and its war chest, is incalculable right now.

Ted Sarandos is evasive about the financial impact of spending at will and flooding the market with content. His is a scale-building pursuit, the vision of a seemingly never-ending library, each title opening with its very own cherry red, animated Netflix logo at the start.

“We don’t spend any time talking about Wall Street when we do content acquisition deals,” Sarandos said last year. “It serves our model probably in the same way it does to make a season of House of Cards. It’s about making content that people love, value and associate their Netflix membership with. So when they say, ‘I’m a subscriber to Netflix because I love Orange Is the New Black,’ or, ‘I can’t wait to see The Crown,’ they know they can’t do it anywhere else.

“Movies, it’s tough to have the same economics because it’s two hours of watching instead of 13 hours. But [the forthcoming Will Smith film] Bright is a movie that they would have seen in the theater, yet because they’re Netflix members they get to watch it whenever they want, wherever they want, at the same moment. There’s no window, no waiting. The producers will make money, and they chose this over the other models. They didn’t do it because they had a point to prove or they had any interest in Netflix’s value market gap. They did it because this was a more profitable way to make and release movies. Our first ambition is that it becomes like a major studio slate.”

For Netflix, that means more, bigger, and wider. But it also means being everything. To be a major movie studio is to serve every so-called quadrant, to market-test and research human interest. And to take chances inside of that research.

“So when I say I think about it as a slate, I think about it both in volume and scope from a couple of tentpoles, some nice films in the middle, and some great independent,” Sarandos said. “What I’m really excited about is our original films that we’re producing.”

What Sarandos does provide — what differentiates him from, say, Harvey Weinstein — is full-blown creative control to his filmmakers. Every single filmmaker I’ve spoken with this year has testified to the astonishing freedom the companies provide. “If you disagree with a note from Netflix or Amazon, you can have a creative discussion about it,” Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino recently told The Wall Street Journal. “It’s not viewed as, ‘You didn’t take my notes? You’re an enemy and I’m going to cancel your show.’”

“I’ve done this one time and I don’t know if my experience is different from other people’s experience, but from what I saw, the sort of creative freedom that was given to me is a really, really attractive feature to this model,” says Macon Blair. “And also the fact that they can get down with stuff that, for whatever reason — whether it’s the cast or the content or the subject matter — might not be viable for other places.”

Netflix closing the door for dozens of theatergoing opportunities is a strange conundrum. Would I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore work better in a theater with 200 people? Maybe. But what’s lost in it not appearing on that venue? Blair says the opportunity outweighs the loss.

“I’m not slamming the more theatrical-based distributors either,” Blair says.
“There’s just a different set of conditions that have to be met, which is totally valid, but I think it opens up more space that filmmakers who might not otherwise be able to get something done, like in this case me, to be able to do something.

“Jeremy [Saulnier] has a movie [Hold the Dark] that he’s working on right now which is much, much bigger than mine and much bigger than anything that he’s done before. [It’s] also going to be on Netflix, and I can’t say this with any kind of certainty, but I would guess, because the script is very dark and kind of weird and challenging, that Netflix might have been able to confidently take a chance with it in a way that other places wouldn’t. The movie is right in Jeremy’s wheelhouse, so I think fans of his will really enjoy it, but it may not have happened if not for Netflix rolling the dice on it.”

Not everyone is so bullish on the future foretold by this brave new independent cinema. Despite the overwhelming opportunity Amazon and Netflix provide, a duopoly is not a democracy. The biases of the people who curate the experiences on these services could dictate the shape of small-scale moviemaking for decades to come. The Teds Hope and Sarandos have proved artist-first executives so far, but that is not a guaranteed future. And furthermore, how long will the Big Two pursue smaller films at this rate? If Bright is an internal mega-hit for Netflix, in the same way the service claims that Sandler’s films are, does that mean a Disney-level pursuit is in the offing? Though it has failed in its efforts thus far, it’s only a matter of time before Netflix muscles its way into the last great movie market: China. Which means more spectacle, more action-based storytelling, and certainly fewer indie-centric acquisitions.
China Will Not Save Hollywood

Projections about the box office future of China — and Hollywood reactions like ‘The Great Wall’ — may be shortsighted

For James Gray, there is a sadness in his experience. His career has been marked by notoriously frustrating encounters with distributors, difficulties marketing his films, and public quarreling with Harvey Weinstein over their content. But even as he finally reaps the benefits of working with a company like Amazon, and as he awaits the release of The Lost City of Z, his most ambitious and uncompromising film, he’s melancholy.

“I mourn … I got into movies in 1987 when I started in college in USC film school. And when I graduated in 1991, the scene was still very much the same as it had been in 1935,” Gray says. “It was actually better than it was in 1935, because you would make your film and then it would come out on videotape. And a few years later on DVD. So it had a life that wasn’t only in theaters. So in that sense, it’s better. We can discover these films for years to come. And it can find new audiences.

“But the major negative,” he says, “is that intimacy — that womblike intimacy — that we have with the screen, no longer speaks to us.”

Read more

Kamran Jawaid | The Chinese Connection Insights from Kenneth Atchity, Michael J. Phillps and Patrick Frater

Studio logos that appear in movie titles may feel rudimentary, but they tell a story of their own. Take, for example, The Great Wall – a monster-movie starring Matt Damon set in the past when the world had yet to discover gun-powder.

Before the first frame fades-in we see four logos: Le Vision, Legendary East, Atlas Entertainment and the China Film Group. Three out of these four film companies are Chinese – and their partnership makes The Great Wall one of the most evident, big budget Hollywood-China co-productions in the last few years.

To the average viewer it may not mean much, other than Damon (and about five or six other actors) surrounded by a lot of Chinese talent in dusty locations. However, to the China Film Group – the dominant state-owned film distribution company – this over-emphasis on China is a blunt pre-requisite.

Although The Great Wall, produced at $150 million, was a critical and commercial failure (it tallied $330 million worldwide with a mere $45 million in North America), the movie speaks volumes for the exponentially growing Chinese film market, where it made $170 million.

The film is one of the select international films passed by the Chinese censor board. Privileged others include some “blockbusters” as well as Warcraft and Independence Day: Resurgence – both of which failed in the U.S., but did excellent business in China.

The Chinese film market’s recent success story is similar to Pakistan’s – at least superficially. Both markets opened themselves to international distributors who saw them as a source of revenue (to us it is India; to China, Hollywood). This led to the multiplex boom and sold-out signs at the ticket window.

In 2005 China had 4400 cinema screens. Today, they have over 41,000 (10,000 screens alone were added last year); China’s box-office collections rose from less than 1 billion Yuan in 2003 to 41 billion in 2016.

Talking to Icon in a detailed hour-and-a-half long phone call, Variety’s Asia Bureau Chief Patrick Frater says that the Hollywood-China connection has been in a state of gradual build-up since the last decade.

“The industry has gone from miniscule to the second largest in the world, to overtaking India and Japan”, Frater stresses. “Anyone who is making expensive Hollywood movies would take notice”, he said.

“Hollywood being a studio and an economic system has become much more involved with China (today), and at the same time China has become much richer as a producer”

But why Hollywood, I ask.

“Aside from the glamourous aspect, the Hollywood industry is the only one – with the possible exception of India – where you have global distribution and industrialization of (such huge) scale. And that makes it an attractive investment to corporate investors”, Frater replies.

“(Chinese investors) are not going to make a five million investments here and there, because it will be too small for them”.

Frater also thinks that producers need to understand China first. “China is becoming middle-class, urbanized. (It’s) people bought the house, they’ve bought the car, what would they be spending on next? Leisure (and in effect movies) and healthcare?” he asks.

Most of the current media outlets in China are recent boomers. Almost all of them are subsidiaries of billion-dollar conglomerates that produce a variety of consumers services from pharma to automotive manufacturing.

“Alibaba Pictures (one of key players today) is a multibillion-dollar company” Frater asserts. “They have financial power which allows them to go out, and that’s what they’ve been doing for the last two years”.

The basic idea is quite simple to grasp: Strategically acquire entertainment businesses worldwide; Open doors to promote China in a nationalistic and unpolitical way; And only allow co-financed movies that utilize Chinese talent, and a handful of well-known Hollywood productions, into the country.

“I think that’s the quickest route to getting global insurance (on its productions)”, Frater tells me later.

To date, Chinese mega-corporation Dalian Wanda Group has bought AMC Theatres and Carmike Cinemas (for $2.6 billion and $1.2 billion respectively), making them the biggest cinema chain in the U.S.

The group has also bought Legendary Entertainment – producers of The Great Wall, Jurassic World, Batman V Superman, Pacific Rim, Godzilla amongst other tent-poles – for $3.5 billion, as well as TV giant Dick Clark Productions for $1 billion (the latter produces the Golden Globes).

Other buy-ups include Voltage Pictures (by Anhui Xinke, a metal trading company for $350 million), STX Entertainment (Hony Capital), international distributors IM Global (Tang Media Partners; previously owned by India’s Reliance).

“Any Chinese investor looking for a quick return, will find Hollywood a disappointment”, Frater said.

“A lot of Chinese investors, outside of the film industry, have not committed to the time necessary to learn about screenwriting, animation production, or return on investment. Hollywood films are often in development from two (to) ten years – and that’s a standard turn-around (time). This is when the stories are revised, re-written, re-written and re-written”, he said.

Speaking on the phone about the creative aspects of co-productions, Chicago
Tribune’s Chief Film Critic Michael J. Phillips says “I think there are just so many crummy action movies coming out of America that end up making a lot of money that people don’t even know which movies to take as their guidance”

For example, Phillips continues: “(The Great Wall) didn’t feel like the work of a distinctive, talented director – which (Zhang Yimou) is. I think it speaks to this question of whether or not the film actually lost sight of what it needed to do, because it was so concerned about appealing to a broader set of pre-requirements”.

“There’s a tremendous amount of capital at the ready to finance these types of co-productions, (in The Great Wall’s case) with all those talented writers, the producers needed to ask themselves that have the audience seen this before, and how can they temporarily forget this fact”, Phillips said.

“I think part of the problem has nothing to do with the Chinese-American financial alliances – it’s just that we are inhibited by this sort of digital effects fantasies in all sorts of stories every month now. (The movies) have a very hard time looking distinctive – they just look like the last five you’ve already seen”, he says.

“There is no pre-defined set of requirements that I know of. It’s basically common sense, based on a sense of what’s entertaining for both Chinese and global markets”, Ken Atchity, a veteran literary manager and Hollywood producer of films Life or Something Like It (Angelina Jolie) and Hysteria (Maggie Gyllenhaal), replies in an email conversation.

“(Film) development for China financing needs to be selective”, he writes. “Not everything works. Yes, having at least one Asian (preferably Chinese) talent element is good as we did for MEG which is now in post-production.”

MEG, an adaptation of Steve Alten’s 1997 novel about a monster-shark, is directed by Jon Turteltaub (National Treasure), co-financed by three Chinese companies and distributed by Warner Bros. The movie stars Jason Statham, Ruby Rose and Li Bingbing.

A report by China Film Insider confirms that the adaptation “swapped out (the) California location for a Chinese coastline setting, (and the change helped) bring China’s Gravity Pictures on as a co-producer and co-financier”.

Despite critical and aesthetic compromises already raising bumps in the road, Hollywood-China co-productions still have one more huddle in their way. The American government’s anti-China policy.

“I don’t think there’s enough organization on the government vs Hollywood front to make a dent in Hollywood’s sheer power to attract worldwide audiences. That power is based on audience demand and the worldwide audience is not demanding what the U.S. government is thinking right now, or feeling, or tweeting” replies Atchity in the email.

Compared to Hollywood’s perpetually enthusiastic stance with international financiers – and its eternal outcry against the government – this issue seems like a minor inconvenience. Any organization or industry in the world loves money, especially if its free-flowing your way with slight caveats.

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Happy Easter ...

Mothers, daughters, China, Lisa See

Lisa See will be at the Newport Beach Public Library’s Gift of Literacy Luncheon April 21st!

Lisa See takes on the complex issue of Chinese adoption in her new novel

New York Times bestselling novelist Lisa See is back with a new book, “The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane.” Like her other recent works – “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” “Peony in Love,” “Shanghai Girls,” “Dreams of Joy” and “China Dolls” – this story explores Chinese characters, culture and the bonds between women. But in this book, See (who is bi-racial) focuses intensely on the complex interplay between mothers and daughters, set against the worlds of international adoption, the ethnic Chinese Akha people and the rare Pu’er tea trade.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that it resonates with particular depth, given that See is the daughter of Carolyn See, an iconic California writer of more than a dozen books. She died just days before her daughter handed the final version of “The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane” over to
the publisher.

Coast: I have to tell you, Lisa, your mother was very kind to me when I was just starting my career.
LS: Thank you for telling me. I’m hearing from so many writers who say the same thing, “Your mom helped me find an agent” or “Your mom helped me with my first novel.” That’s who she was.

Coast: This novel begins with the line, “No coincidence, no story.” Is that also the description of how the book came about?
LS: I was walking to the movies with my husband, and there was an older white couple with their teenage Chinese daughter between them. She has this long pony tail. As she walked it was swishing-swish-swish as long ponytails do, and I had this thought of, she is like a fox spirit in that family. In Chinese culture, fox spirits can be kind of naughty and mischievous, but they can also bring great love and help create families. I had been thinking of writing about transnational adoptions from China for a long, long time, but in that moment, all of a sudden, I understood it in a different way.

Coast: An emotional element clicked for you?
LS: Right. Of course any child is a gift to a family. But if you think about couples who sufferd multiple miscarriages or failed in vitro fertilization treatments – before you go to China to adopt a baby you have been through a lot. You can know something intellectually, but it got to me emotionally on a different level.

Coast: One of the things I have always admired about your work is your ability to get inside women’s very complicated relationships. Do you intentionally mine that emotional field, or does it choose you?
LS: I do think women have very complex relationships, and these relationships are universal. Everyone the world over has a mother – maybe you knew her, maybe you didn’t, may you loved her, maybe you didn’t. It isn’t always positive. I’m interested in the murky side that people don’t talk about.

Coast: It seems you hold as a value telling the stories of women that haven’t been told before.
LS: I am interested in stories that have been lost, forgotten or deliberately covered up. We tend to learn history in terms of wars and dates and who was on the front lines. But if you take one step back, who is there? Women and children and families. They have been along for the ride every step of the way. I’m not the first person to say this, but we learn history, as in “his story.” I’m interested in herstory.

Coast: As a novelist you use reportage techniques to ground your narrative in something very substantial and authentic.
LS: Well, because they are details I couldn’t make up. I think that is what makes it feel like you are there, that it is real – because it is real!

I felt like I knew a lot about the one-child policy and the effect that has had on China, and certainly how a woman who had given up her child would feel. But the other side of that was, what it is like for those young women who have been adopted? I went out and found young women, 18 to 22 years old, who have had time to think about it all. I asked them if I could send them a list of 12 questions. They wrote back 20-, 30-, 50-page letters. They really truly opened their hearts. Oh, people are going to think I’m just not original at all! – but I used a lot of what they wrote.

One of the things was that they have a lot of conflicts about their identity. They wonder, am I American? Chinese? Chinese-American? Or am I something else? Of the group I talked to, they think of themselves as something else. They are their own “other.” They even have a label: the “grateful but angry adoptee.” They are grateful they were adopted, typically by well-off families. They have had great opportunities for education and are very much loved. I came to look at it as grateful but sad. There was one girl who told me, “I know I am the most precious person in my family, but I wasn’t precious enough for my birth parents to keep me as their one child.” This is part of what makes their journey different from other adoptees, because they had parents who said, “If I can only have one, I don’t want this one.”

Coast: The Pu’er tea trade plays a big role in the story. Were you always a tea connoisseur?
LS: I drank tea but was not a connoisseur, and now I’m just a total tea snob!

Coast: How’s your Mandarin?
LS: Not good!

Coast: Did your mother influence this book in any way?
LS: I always read her manuscripts; she always read mine. Twelve days before the final edits were due, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. But I was reading it to her in the hospital, and she would say, “Hang on a second, five pages back you used that word …” It was unbelievable that she was able to do that. But, we didn’t get to the end.