The Dead Drop

While "Green Star Liner" seems to be motoring up under it's own power (awful, awful pun), we're actually going to do another short film, this year. It's called The Dead Drop and it appeared out of nowhere.

I added a scene to the Claddagh Films Actor/Director workshops, last year. The scene involved a dialogue between an agent "handler" and one of his reluctant charges. While we tend to think of spies as James Bond types, with rugged features and over-the-top heroic courage, apparently most are either disgruntled employees in positions of influence, or idealists who want to change things, one step at a time. The simple scene to be workshopped, was a cafe meeting between Pope, the handler, and Michael, his agent. Pope's network has been compromised, and he is in the process of 'lifting' his various agents and getting them out of the country. His problem is that he doesn't know which one of his agents actually "turned."

I tried the scene a few times, and it never took off. I guess many actors don't have an affinity for the world of John le Carre. I removed it from the repertoire of scenes, never to be repeated. However, some other vignettes which I had also discarded, seemed to work with different actors when retried, so one evening with actors Michael Bates and Gerry Wade, I dug the scene out again, and asked them to have a go. The results were mesmerising. The antipathy between the characters was palpable, as was the oppression of the make-believe world.

During another workshop, I decided to try out some variations on the scene, some "back story" if you will. I had discussed shooting the particular cafe scene with Gerry and Michael, on the basis that it might be a nice stocking-filler for their showreels, and it would be worth capturing on film/tape, regardless. As we tackled some of the back story, it became clear to me that there was an interesting short film in what was originally just a single scene.

I strung together some of the memorable performances from the workshops, added a stronger plot and some other visual scenes, and submitted it to the Film Board as part of the "Signatures" scheme. The IFB didn't care for the story, and I found myself (yet again) at odds with their paid readers. If one of their readers takes a dislike to your tale, then from a Film Board perspective, your project is dead in the water. This is a particularly cruel turn of fate. I find that only a narrow subset of film genres are of interest to me, so I can't understand how a reader can maintain a wide and diverse appreciation, and not let their own interests guide their reports. However, it is always worth listening to the opinions of others, even those who disagree with the script (ask Terry McMahon!) and somehow find a sort of "truth" from the criticisms.

So, in spite of the "Pass" from the Film Board, the revised script is now making its way towards preproduction with an April/May shoot date lined up. We're also looking to see if FundIt can help with the fundraising.

More on this, later on.

Content Wants To Be Free

I have been writing software for just shy of thirty years. I've also been making films for over twenty years. Yes, I do feel old, thanks for asking.

Over the years I've written software for companies in the US, the UK and Ireland. I've also released a lot of it as open source through projects such as SourceForge. Interestingly, if I look back at the voluminous amount of C programs that I have written, most are now extinct. The companies which paid me, have been bought out or shut down, or the product has been mothballed or sold on. All that effort is now buried in some large data storage facility or other, never to be seen again. Yes, that does bother me a little. By comparison, the open source stuff I wrote, is still out there. People are using the code, modifying it, hacking it, changing it for their own purposes, but it lives on.

It lives on because it's free. Not in the commercial sense (although that's true too) but in the sense that it isn't owned by some large, ex-corporation. It is free to roam the Internet and find a home wherever it may. Sites such as SourceForge have undertaken to help it stay free and unencumbered.

In the media end of things, particularly at the sharp end of the world in short films, we beg, borrow, cajole, harass and blackmail people to help us get the film finished and over the line. Most of us make sure that there is a deferment agreement in place, so that in the unlikely event that the film makes any money, those who contributed their time and energy, might see a share of the revenue. The truth is, very few (if any) short films make back their miniscule budget, never mind pay a deferment. Over the years, I've become much more sanguine about this, and now I rarely even mention the possibility that there might be gold at the end of the short film rainbow, because it just doesn't happen.

But still, we dance the dance, we follow the choreography of feature films, and we protect the rights of the finished film. Whatever you do, don't upload it to a website like Youtube or Vimeo, because it will never sell to TV after that. Or at least that's the story we're told.

About ten months ago, I uploaded a short film I made called A Place in my Heart to Vimeo. The film was shot in 1993 and languished on an edit suite for many years, until I converted it to digital and was able to finish it on Final Cut Pro. Unfortunately, and for a variety of reasons, it never really found a life in film festivals. Probably because it's a whimsical piece. It was also shot on 16mm and it shows it's age. I struggled with what to do with the film, and decided that it probably wasn't going to ever be seen either theatrically or on television, and so decided to set it free.

Amazingly, it has proven to be one of my more popular Vimeo films. It has gone from being the unloved child to most popular kid as school, just because I let it find it's own way, and needless to say, I'm delighted by this turn of events. I'm delighted not just for the film, but for all the people who gave of their time and creative energies to help make the film.

I often think of the countless thousands of feature films which are buried in vaults, either because they couldn't find distribution or because they're too old and unloved to be given the honour of a DVD release. Feature films from the fifties and sixties, for example. The copyright owners zealously hold onto the rights in the vain hope that perhaps, someday, someone will offer them some money for the film.

Let's be clear though, I'm not proposing that everyone should just give away their creations, films they spent countless hours and countless money producing, but if the film has been around the block a few times and has either finished it's theatrical and TV run, or has never found distribution, then it's time to set it free.

I think it is reasonable that any film or television programme older than ten years, should be made freely available on the Internet.

Gasp! There, I've said it. Am I proposing some alternative universe where artists are paid by sponsors and patrons? No. I'm just saying that your average feature film will have made as much money as it is going to make, within ten years after it has been completed and beyond that, you should let the work be seen rather than holding out for the last dollar.

Perhaps this isn't for all films, there are those that will continue to be broadcast or even be re-released in cinemas, but these are the exceptions.

I find it interesting and mildly amusing, that we regularly hear stories of such and such a film from the golden age of cinema being restored to it's former glory. Invariably, these stories revolve around the discovery of a film print in someone's attic. If the studios had done a better job of protecting their "Intellectual Property" then no such print would have managed to find it's way into private hands, and we wouldn't be able to restore those classics. You could go so far as to say that the dreaded piracy (of a bygone era) has ensured that the films live on.

Since A Place in my Heart found a little audience on Vimeo, I have decided that each and every film I make (that isn't owned by some-one else) will be released into the wild, after it's had a reasonable festival and TV life. I will go even further, and say that it is perfectly acceptable for people to download the films and save their own copies, or send them to friends.

It's nice to think that these films will be viewable at any point in the future, rather than being tucked away in some storage facility until it burns down or the film is dumped and lost forever.

The Writer's Block.

Here's one for ya: "How many development executives does it take to change a light bulb?"

"Does it have to be a light bulb?"

I've had the privilege to work with a range of writers, both produced and un-produced. I've started to notice a trend, between the two categories. A secret, if you will. I could probably write a screen-writing self-help book, but let's be honest; no-one would buy it, and anyway, there are far too many already. Screen-writing books, that is. I cast no aspersions on the number of screenwriters, produced or un-produced.

So, what's the secret?

What makes them different?

Un-produced writers are very precious about their work. It's a well-known tip for first-time screenwriters, that you should immediately start your second script as soon as you complete your first. There are a number of reasons for this, not least of which is because you'll become less emotionally attached to the first one, when you're deep into the second one.

One of the things about writing a script, is that someone has to buy it. To buy it, they have to love it. Not just like it, but love it. Deeply. For a producer, director, actor, or insurance-salesman-with-extra-cash to plump up money and/or energy to turn pages into light, they have to really believe that it is the greatest script ever written.

Now let's be honest, here. It's probably fair (and somewhat obtuse) to say that the greatest script ever written hasn't actually been written yet.

So, there's going to be a few, how do I say this nicely, "notes." Some of which probably aren't too helpful.

"Does it have to be a light bulb?"

But to be honest, that's a fair question. For the purposes of the joke, yes it does. Does it have to be a development executive changing the bulb? Not at all. But we need to be able to defend the decisions. If we can't, then it was reasonable to ask in the first place.

Many years ago, I worked with a film-maker who made a really entertaining 16mm short film, with a "twist." It turns out that the twist was really obvious - once you watched the film for the second time. But it caught us all out, the first time. If I ever showed up with a friend, while he was editing, he insisted that the friend watch his latest cut of the film. He then asked the friend a hundred questions about the film, and specifically, the twist. Most people wouldn't pick up on it. He'd make it more obvious. More testing ensued. Maybe it was too obvious, now? Once you'd seen the film, you were of no use to him any more. You couldn't offer a second opinion or a more "informed" opinion, after you'd lost your virginity, so to speak. The film was really popular, because that first reaction was so important to him. Let's face it, most people seeing a film will only ever have a first reaction. It is rare for us to see a film for the second time (unless it's "A Wonderful Life" but that's another story altogether).

A script has the same effect, and as writers, we often forget this.

When a development executive reads the script, and doesn't like it, then something didn't work. They didn't "get" it.

There's no point arguing with the person, and there's no point "dissing" their opinion. They didn't get it. Of course, I'm sure if you sat them down and explained exactly why Grandma had to get hit by a bus in the closing scene, maybe they might think differently, but they're no longer virgins - they've read your script. Now they're using their analytical capabilities to finesse the thing, rather than that most honest of opinions, when they first read it.

I have all the time in the world for someone who says "I didn't like it." Even more time (if that's possible) for someone who says "I didn't like it because this character is weakly drawn, and in that early scene, they lost my interest." I have no time for someone who tells me how I should fix the scene. But I have to respect an opinion.

A lot of un-produced writers are in desperate need of endorsement. A need to be validated, as a writer. I suspect this is why so many scriptwriting contests make money.

The truth is, for a film script, the only validation that counts is when someone pays real money to make it into a film. Likewise, the only validation that counts for a finished film, is when an audience will pay real money to see it (or a broadcaster purchases it). Obviously that's a very commercial, or mercenary way of looking at it, but it helps.

However, time and time again, with un-produced writers, notes are taken as an affront. Either the critic doesn't "understand" the film, or is "too stupid" or what have you. Ultimately, if the film is going to get made, it is going to require the creative energies and creative input of a large number of people. Most of whom, such as the editor, may be unknown to the writer.

As writers, we need to take criticism on the chin, and understand it for what it is - someone's virginal thoughts on our manuscript. It's our decision as owners of the piece, ultimately, whether or not we'll change it, but how can we expect to have someone else read it and have a different reaction unless we try to appreciate the reaction of the first reader.

Script Frenzy

So, another Script Frenzy is under way. I tried it last year, and I'd love to say that it ended in a feature-length script, but it didn't. It ended with a feature-length treatment, which felt just as good. There's something about a deadline which focuses the mind and helps you to get something over the finish line.

When there's all the time in the world, then we'll take all the time in the world to do "research", twitter, facebook and all the other distractions. When the script's gotta, hasta, must must must be finished by such and such a date, it's easier to sit down and write.

It's easier to put aside the distractions, the editorial "opinion" and the constant need to refine and edit on the fly.

A deadline makes us forget everything except "getting it done."

I'm still not sure if Script Frenzy is a nuisance or a truly great idea. Any thoughts?

The Evils of Digital Rights Management

Digital Rights Management, or DRM is not exactly a new idea, and we've lived with it for some time. Since the release of the DVD and the fact it won't (legally) play on anything except Windows and Mac. However, with the emergence of iTunes as the fastest growing music source, DRM is becoming part and parcel of everyone's life, not just those of us who use Linux or FreeBSD.

Let me first state unequivocally, that I am not in favour of downloading newly-released films or music. I do think the content owners have every right to monetise their efforts and to try and recoup their budgets. It is said, and I have no reason to doubt it, that the reason Hollywood is releasing comic-book movies these days is because they need high spectacle. They need a big cinema release (well, really, they need a big opening weekend) to make their money. The DVD market has largely crashed, and apparently pirating is so rampant, that the box-office fall-off after the first couple of weeks is because people will have downloaded the film online and illegally. The studios are struggling with this global problem, and failing badly. As a film-maker they have my sympathy.

That said, yes I have downloaded music and films. Yes, I have broken the law, particularly the dreaded DMCA. Do I feel guilty? Yes and no.

I will spare you the trite defence so often used, that "Hollywood is producing such rubbish, why should I pay for it?" That is, in itself, rubbish. If you won't pay for the content, then you don't deserve to watch it or listen to it. Simple as that.

As it happens, I used to subscribe to an NNTP server which made a large selection of films and TV programmes available for download. This service cost money - around $10 per month, and I gladly paid. Of course, none of that money went to the copyright holders, and this annoys me in particular (I no longer subscribe to that service). Likewise, I purchased MP3 albums from a Russian site for around $0.99 each track. Again, none of the revenue went to the right place. That site no longer exists, anyway.

So, why the double-standard?

Let me give you an example. I recently wanted to watch "Dog Day Afternoon." I added it to my ScreenClick list (the Irish equivalent of Netflix) and realised it might take weeks to rotate to the top, given the nature of their strange algorithm. I had a look on and they were selling the DVD for £3.97 (around €4.80 or $6). However, it would probably take a week or two to get to me. I decided to use iTunes to download the film. iTunes had it available immediately, and for a price of €9.99 (or $12.50). The file was 1.3GB which took a while to download, but in it came. So, I payed over twice the price of Amazon, but I had it within an hour. That was certainly worth it, because Amazon would have charged shipping, and I probably would have added a book or two (that I don't have time to read), and pushed the price up even further.

However, when I went to play the file, it told me I could authorize it for playback on this computer (and four more). Hmm. Now, it's not that I wasn't expecting this type of DRM, I clearly expected it would be encrypted, but I thought I might be able to burn it to a DVD and play it on a regular television (you know, those things with a remote instead of a keyboard).

By way of reference, I have LPs which are over thirty years old and they still work. They don't need to authenticate themselves to the record player or the speakers. They don't request weekly "Software Updates" and they are not encrypted. If I so wished, I could have made a tape of any album and gave it to a friend. I certainly made compilation tapes for the car (et cetera), but I've never copied an album for someone else. When CDs came along, I ended up replacing a lot of LPs with CDs so that I could play them on modern equipment and in the car (I'm glad no-one ever tried to build a car stereo which played LPs!). In effect, I payed twice for the same piece of music. That, however, was my choice. In theory I could have recorded my LPs onto a CD and not paid twice, and in some cases I did just that, but it was easier to just buy the new CD if it was available. In some cases, such as the Horslips collection, they re-mastered the originals and used modern equipment to clean up the old recordings, so the CDs could be considered to augment the old LPs rather than replace them.

Now, with iTunes, when I buy something it is uniquely locked to this computer or iPod and woe betide anything might happen to either. Some years back, when iTunes first started selling music and music videos, I purchased a U2 music video (mostly because it was directed by a friend of mine, but it's also a good track). Again, I could have recorded this off the air from MTV or their clones, but I didn't. It cost me something like €2.50. As I was working for a different company at the time, that particular download is probably still on that computer, but I have no access to it and no way of re-downloading it. The investment in the content is gone. You may make the reasonable point that it was "only" two euro, give or take, but I refer you to my LP collection.

With iTunes music I can burn what I purchase to a CD, and you can be sure that is step #1 after I purchase music from them. Not so with video. It can only be played on authorized devices.

Earlier, I mentioned that I wouldn't feel guilty downloading something illegally. How do I justify that? Quite simply, because I do not want it encumbered with any DRM protections. Am I willing to pay for content which doesn't have DRM? Absolutely. Not because I want to copy it, but because I want to know that I can still play it in thirty years even if Apple goes bankrupt or my computer dies, or whatever else might happen.

Where I think the studios (and the TV producers) are hurting themselves is not embracing online downloads, properly. For example, CBS now allows US residents to purchase programming which plays on certain computers, but only for a limited time. The opposite should be the case. I would happily accept DRM encryption and all its evil twins, provided it was transient. Why can I not log in to the Apple iTunes store some years later, and for the store to have a record of my purchases back to the year dot, so I can re-download content I purchased in the past? How about giving me the ability to re-download a movie as an unencrypted file, once the film is some number of years old? If the DVD is in the bargain bin, why are we still using DRM online? Dog Day Afternoon, from the example earlier, was released in 1975. Do they really think there is some massive underground market in Dog Day Afternoon pirated DVDs? If I purchased UK newspapers, I'd probably have received it as a "free" supplement by now.

Again, I don't mind paying a reasonable price for content, but I need to know that the content is playable in the future. The DVD took a retrograde step from the VHS tape because of CSS encryption. It won't play on a computer unless that computer runs Windows or Mac OS. Let's not even discuss the abomination of Region Coding, or the fact that I lived in the US and have a collection of DVDs which are now incorrectly coded for the UK and Ireland. I have had to purchase a DVD player which was "region free", which is, according to the DMCA, illegal. So, I've been pushed into the murky "outlaw" side of the street simply to play DVDs which I purchased legitimately while a legal resident of the US. But these pale in comparison to the insane limitations of digital content and DRM.

In order to protect the studios from piracy of content which has just been released to the cinema, my copy of Dog Day Afternoon is viewable only on this and a handful of other computers. I don't have an Apple TV system, and my Media MVP box can't decrypt the file.

I could also make a plausible argument that if a film has been broadcast over "free to air" television in this country, then charging for the downloaded content is almost unethical. Has it become illegal to own and operate a TiVo box? You'll note I didn't mention the Sky+ system as it is a closed system with its own DRM policies. What if I build a system to record programmes off-air and save them on a hard disk? If I have cable channels, then surely Dog Day Afternoon will appear on some channel at some point over the next twelve months, and I could have saved it (encryption-free) for nothing.

When Pirates of the Caribbean 4 is released, I will go and see it in a cinema, even if it is in 3D. I'll pay over the odds for the tickets, and for the popcorn and for the pleasure of getting a headache from the 3D glasses. I could wait until it's on DVD and add it to my ScreenClick list. I could even wait a couple of years for it to show up on TV, but I won't. I'll go to see it in a cinema. I have no problem with the studio release system which will put it into cinemas first at a very high price, then onto DVD for sale only, then onto rental DVD, then cable TV, and finally broadcast television. However, is it fair that after the film has finally been shown "free to air" that I should have to pay almost ten Euro to download it, and that the download will only work on certain computers or at certain times?

I suppose all I've really done is preach to the choir, and asked more questions than anything else. The core issue for me though, is if you attempt to lock down everything and force people through small, monopolistic channels to purchase content, they will automatically seek out other ways of accessing it. Even if those other ways cost money and even if that revenue never makes its way back to the copyright owner. I think the MPAA and the studios would find a lot more sympathy from the general public, and could do a lot more to eliminate piracy, if they applied the same logic of price reduction and general availability for their content, as the content gets older and older.