PRODUCTION JOURNAL: Kurosawa and the making of Stray Dog

Stray Dog | Akira Kurosawa | 1949 | Japan | Format: 35mm | 122 min  

Stray Dog (野良犬 Nora inu) is a 1949 Japanese police procedural film noir directed by Akira Kurosawa and starring Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura. The film is considered a precursor to the contemporary police procedural and buddy cop film genres.   Inspired by Jules Dassin’s The Naked City and the works of Georges Simenon, Kurosawa wrote the script with Ryuzo Kikushima, a writer who had never written a script before. ~~Wikipedia

Excerpts from Akira Kurosawa's Something Like An Autobiography give you a glimpse into what it was like for Kurosawa and his crew to shoot Stray Dog during the summer of 1949.  

"I don't really like talking about my films. Everything I want to say is in the film iself; for me to say anything more is, as the proverb goes, like "drawing legs on a picture of a snake."   But from time to time an idea I thought I had conveyed in the film does not seem to have been generally understood.  On those occasions I do feel an urge to talk about my work.  Nevertheless, I try not to.  If what I have said in my film is true, someone will understand."

"Maupassant instructed aspiring writers to extend their vision into realms where no one else could see, and to keep it up until the hitherto invisible became visible to everyone.  Acting on this principle, I decided to take up the problem of The Quiet Duel one more time in Stray Dog, pressing my vision to the point where everyone could see what I saw."

"I first wrote the screenplay in the form of a novel. I am fond of the work of Georges Simenon, so I adopted his style of writing novels about social crime.  This process took me a little less than six weeks, so I figured that I'd be able to rewrite it as a screenplay in ten days or so.  Far from it.  It proved to be a far more difficult task than writing a scenario from scratch, and it took me close to two months.

But, as I reflect on it, it's perfectly understandable that this should have happened.  A novel and a screenplay are, after all, entirely different things.  The freedom for psychological description one has in writing a novel is particularly difficult to adapt to a screenplay without using narration.  But, thanks to the unexpected travail of adapting the descriptions of the novel form to a screenplay, I attained a new awareness of what screenplays and films consist of.  At the same time, I was able to incorporate many peculiarly novelistic modes of expression into the script.

For example, I understood that in novel-writing certain structural techniques can be employed to strengthen the impression of an event and narrow the focus upon it.  What I learned was that in the editing process a film can gain similar strength through the use of comparable structural techniques.  The story of Stray Dog begins with a young police detective on his way home from marksmanship practice at the headquarters range.  He gets on a crowded bus, and in the unusually intense summer heat and crush of bodies his pistol is stolen.  When I filmed this sequence and edited it according to the passage of chronological time, the effect was terrible.  As an introduction to a drama it was slow, the focus was vague and it failed to grip the viewer.

Troubled, I went back to look at the way I had begun the novel, I had written as follows: It was the hottest day of that entire summer.  Immediately, I thought, "That's it."  I used a shot of a dog with its tongue hanging out, panting.  Then the narration begins, It was unbearably hot that day.  After a sign on a door indicating "Police Headquarters, First Division," I proceeded to the interior.  The chief of the First Detective Division glares up from his desk.  "What? Your pistol was stolen?"  Before him stands the contrite young detective who is the hero of the story.  This new way of editing the opening sequence gave me a  very short piece of film, but it was extremely effective in drawing the viewer suddenly into the heart of the drama."

"However, that first shot of the panting dog with its tongue hanging out caused me immense woes.  The dog's face appears under the title of the film to create the impression of heat.  But I received an unprovoked complaint - or, rather, accusation - from an American woman who had watched the filming.  She represented the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and claimed that I had had a healthy dog injected with rabies.  This was a patently false charge.  The dog was a stray dog that we had obtained from the pound, where it was about to be put away.  The people in charge of props had given it affectionate care.  It was a mutt, but it had a very gentle face, so we used makeup to give it a more ferocious appearance, and a man on a bicycle exercised to make it pant.  When it's tongue started to hang out, we filmed it.  But no matter how carefully we explained all this, the American S.P.C.A. lady refused to believe it.  Because the Japanese were barbarians, injecting a dog with rabies was just the sort of thing we would do, and she had no time for the truth.  Even Yama-san came by to confirm that I was a dog lover and would never do such a thing but the American lady insisted that she was going to take me to court.  

At this point I lost all patience. I was ready to tell her that the cruelty to animals came from her side.  People are animals, too, and if we are subjected to things like this, we need a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Humans.  My colleagues did their best to calm me down.  In the end, I was forced to write a deposition, and I never at any other moment experienced a stronger sense of regret over Japan's losing the war."

"With the exception of this one unfortunate incident, the making of Stray Dog was most enjoyable.  It was underwritten by the Film Art Association and Shin Tōhō, so I was able to work once again with crew members who had been separated from me by the Tōhō strike... On top of this, we used the Oizumi studio. The furor of the strike had not yet totally died down, and it might have been difficult for me to use the Shin Tōhō studios, so we ended up at the old place.  At that time it was virtually deserted.  On the grounds there was a small apartment-house kind of building, so we all moved in there and used it as a dormitory.   We worked without respite or distractions.

It was midsummer when we filmed Stray Dog.  When the day's work ended around 5 o'clock, the sun was still beating down.  Even after we finished supper it was still light outside.  Right after the war, if you went into the center of town (from Oizumi that meant going to the Ikebukuro district), there was not much to do.  We ended up killing time waiting for dark and the hour to return to the dormitory.  More often than not someone would say, "Why don't we do a little more work?" We ended up spending a great many evenings on the set."

"Stray Dog is made up of many short scenes in many different settings, so the little sound stage we used was cleared and redecorated with lightning speed.  On fast days we shot five or six different scenes on it. As soon as the set was ready, we'd shoot and be done again, so the art department had no choice but to build and decorate sets while we slept.  The art director, Matsuyama Shu, had three other films to supervise besides mine, so he just drew plans of what he wanted and hardly ever came to the set. The ones who really slaved to put it all together were his assistant Muraki and a female assistant.

One evening I went to see how construction was going on the open set at one of our locations. Against the sunset sky I saw two silhouettes on top of the wooded hill.  Muraki and the girl assistant were sitting exhausted, totally silent. I was about to yell my thanks to them for their effort, but suddenly I noticed something profoundly serious about their demeanor, and I withdrew.  The camera and lighting technicians who had come with me to the open set gave me a strange look and started to speak.  I stopped them with a wave of my hand, looked up at the two silhouettes on the wooded hill and said softly, "Looks like they're going to get married, doesn't it?

My prediction came true, and when the picture was finished Muraki and the girl got married.  Mrs. Muraki, whose first name is Shinobu, also became a first-rate art director.  I had never been an official go-between for a wedding before, but apparently these two were brought together by the terribly hard work I gave them on Stray Dog, so I suppose that without knowing it I had been their matchmaker...

I had Honda [Inoshiro, the chief assistant director] do mainly second-unit shooting.  Every day I told him what I wanted and he would go out into the ruins of post-war Tokyo to film it.  There are few men as honest and reliable as Honda. He faithfully brought back exactly the footage I requested, so almost everything he shot was used in the final cut of the film. I'm often told that I captured the atmosphere of post-war Japan very well in Stray Dog, and, if so, I owe a great deal of that success to Honda..."

"No shooting ever went as smoothly for me as Stray Dog. Even the weather seemed to cooperate.  There was a scene when we needed an evening shower. We got out hte fire truck and prepared for the rolling of the camera. I had them start the hoses and called for action and camera, and just at that instant a terrific real rainstorm began. We got a great scene.

Another time we were working on an interior set, but we needed a rainstorm outside the windows.  Again the heavens obliged, and we were even able to record just the thunder we needed simultaneously.

However, when we had a great deal left to shoot on an open set, a typhoon approached. I was forced to revise many of my plans.  We rushed the shooting through with one ear glued to the radio for the storm reports.  Second  by second the typhoon bore down on us, and the set took on a battleground atmosphere. We wound up the shooting the very evening the storm was scheduled to hit full force.  Sure enough, when we went out to look at our open set that night we found the whole street smashed to bits by the high winds.  Gazing out over the rubble of what we had  been filming a few hours before gave me a peculiarly clean, rewarding feeling."

"At any rate, the filming of Stray Dog went remarkably well, and we finished ahead of schedule.  The excellent pace of the shooting and the good feeling of the crew working together can be sensed in the complete film.

I remember how it was on Saturday nights when we boarded a bus to go home for a day off after a full week's hard work.  Everyone was happy. At the time I was living in Komae, far out of the city near the Tamagawa River, so toward the end of the ride I was always left alone. The solitary last rider on the cavernous empty bus, I always felt more loneliness at being separated from my crew than I did joy at being reunited with my family.

Now the pleasure in the work we experienced on Stray Dog seems like a distant dream. The films an audience really enjoys are the ones that were enjoyable in the making.  Yet pleasure in the work can't be achieved unless you know you have put all of your strength into it and have done your best to make it come alive. A film made in this spirit reveals the hearts of the crew."

Now that you got a glimpse of Kurosawa's work process and how it was made, check out the beginning of Stray Dog.

野良犬 Stray Dog Opening 1949 黒澤明 Kurosawa... by MorinoMashio

PRODUCTION JOURNAL: Midweek Morning Mixer - 8.28.13

Captain's Log.
Star date: 8.28.13

Ready to jump right in and answer some good questions but first a moment of silence because 26 year ago today in 1987, "one of the great directors of all time, John Huston, died from emphysema in Middletown, Rhode Island. Like another Hollywood titan, Alfred Hitchcock (whose last movie was called Family Plot), Huston’s final production was a harbinger of his mortality: an adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead. The film was a nod to Huston’s Irish roots, and he very much conformed to the stereotype of a hard-living Irishman: Huston was a man’s man – the Hemingway of the cinema, if you like – a heavy drinker and shameless womanizer (he was married five times) who supposedly only took on The African Queen so he could go shoot an elephant (if White Hunter, Black Heart is to be believed, anyway). Bedridden for several years as a child, when Huston recovered his health he took on life with an insatiable hunger: he followed his father, actor Walter Huston, into the movies, first as a screenwriter and then as a director. Later in his career he became an actor who appeared in numerous supporting roles, with his chilling performance as Noah Cross in Polanski’s Chinatown being his finest onscreen achievement. Behind the camera, he was prolific and almost unparalleled in his success: he directed 47 films in 47 years, and among them numerous classics including The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen, The Misfits, The Night of the Iguana, The Man Who Would Be King and Prizzi’s Honor. His children, actors Danny and Anjelica, continue the Huston movie dynasty." ~~Focus Features

And now... grab you pad and take notes as we answer the following:

SCRIPT TO SCREEN: VFX Breakdowns for World War Z

World War Z | Marc Forster | 2013 | USA, Malta | Format: 35mm | 116 min  
Within the overall filmmaking strategy that takes a project from development to distribution, producers need mini-strategies (like Matryoshka dolls) to complete certain complex parts of the film.  One of those mini-strategies involves how best to create effective and convincing special visual effects (VFX).  Digital Arts Staff and Wired had behind-the-scenes access to the making of World War Z which gives us an idea of how the producers and director planned and prioritized their effects (granted their budget was ridiculous but still, resourceful and inventive filmmakers can still take notes and learn how to make amazing VFX even if they don't have the money... like this guy). For the honors, MPC was tapped to provide the VFX using their in-house crowd simulation software, ALICE.   
Led by MPC's VFX supervisor Jessica Norman, the house completed more than 450 shots for World War Z. The firm worked under both the film's original VFX supervisor John Nelson and his replacement, ILM's Scott Farrar. Key scenes that MPC worked on included creating hordes of zombies overwhelming Jerusalem, a plane-crash sequence, and the epilogue. ~~Digital Arts Staff
Here's a glimpse of the careful coordination it takes between the camera crews, lighting personnel, the hand animation team and the digital VFX specialists to get the right look and effects in order.

For more breakdown shot comparisons, click here for pictures and watch the videos below:

PRODUCTION JOURNAL: Monday Morning Mixer - 8.26.13

Captain's Log.
Star date: 08.26.13

August 26, 1948 - Hitchcock's Rope released

By 1948, Hitchcock was considered one of Hollywood’s most distinctive, if not finest, filmmakers. And Rope, being his first film from his own production company Transatlantic Pictures, was going to show audiences just what he could do free from studios and producers, like David O. Selznick. Hitchcock settled on dark (even for him) material. The film’s story is a loose retelling of the infamous 1924 Loeb and Leopold murder case in which two very bright, gay students murder a child to prove they can. Patrick Hamilton wrote the play which was adapted by actor Hume Cronyn and playwright  Arthur Laurents. The film ditched all the details of the original crime except the homosexuality and the homicide. In the film, the central couple (played by John Dall and Farley Granger) are two brilliant men who live together and, for all to surmise, are lovers. While their relationship is never named, it was clear enough to many theater owners who banned the film. But even more daring was its execution. Hitchcock wanted to make a film that appeared to have been shot as a single take. Cutting only when the camera settled on dark spaces, Hitchcock created the illusion that the film was taking place in real space and real time. But the reviewers were not amused.  The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther stated, “The film was derided as a trick, an experiment, an exercise in style... novelty of the picture is not in the drama itself, it being a plainly deliberate and rather thin exercise in suspense, but merely in the method which Mr. Hitchcock has used to stretch the intended tension for the length of the little stunt.” ~~ Focus Features
To make a film is to constantly ask questions; What is your story about? Who do you cast in it? How do you shoot it? etc.  But after a while, once you figure out what works, you may find yourself in a monotonous pattern of filmmaking.  Maybe that's what happened to Hitchcock even though he was a master. And maybe that's why he chose to do something different with Rope once he had the leverage to be independent from the studio system.  As independent filmmakers, you are already freed from the shackles of the studio system (although, many of you would probably appreciate the financial stability the shackles provide, [but I digress]) but monotony is still a threat to your creativity. So, to prevent the monotony from settling in, here are two questions to ask yourself on your next project: 
  1. What kind of stylistic or aesthetic experimentation can you partake with your film? 
  2. What controversial subject matter can you tackle?    
And then here are some more questions to grow on...

PRODUCTION JOURNAL - Midweek Morning Mixer - 8.21.13

Captain's Log.
Stardate: 8.21.13

August 21 was a good day for rebels and innovators.  Today in 1932, Melvin Van Peebles, director of the politically and artistically radical film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), was born.  Also, today in 1939, Orson Welles signed a 63-page contract with RKO Pictures that allowed him to write, direct, produce and act in two movies for the studio with an unprecedented offer: complete creative control.  This led to the production of RKO 281 better known as the innovative and artistically daring film, Citizen Kane (1941).

Now that your artistic appetite has been whetted, consider this:

PRODUCTION JOURNAL: Monday Morning Mixer - 8.19.13

He just had your lunch... dinner is next.
Captain's Log.
Star date: 8.19.13

Forty years ago today, on..
19 August 1973 - The Dragon Released
The opening night of the kung-fu action film Enter The Dragon was a bittersweet celebration. It was the first martial arts film to be made by a Hollywood studio. Unfortunately Bruce Lee, the brains and brawn behind the project, had died less than a month before the film’s release. Lee, who’d carved out a career as both kung fu master and movie star, turned to Hong Kong after Hollywood shut the door on him in the late 60s. Although he’d had moderate fame playing Kato in the TV series The Green Hornet, Lee felt he was brushed aside for the lead in the Warner Brothers show Kung Fu. In China, Lee’s career exploded with a series of wildly popular kung-fu films that culminated in Enter The Dragon, a co-production between Warner Brothers and the Hong Kong-based production company Golden Harvest. For Lee, this film would not only restart his American career, but definitively prove that a Chinese-American could star in a Hollywood film. Lee would never see that he was right on both parts. The film made him an international legend, with many books, one biopic—Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story—(and others in the wings), and many documentaries about him. The film succeeded beyond everyone’s wildest imagination. Its $850,000 budget returned $25 million in America and about $90m worldwide, making it at that time one of the most profitable films ever made. And it helped launch a kung-fu fad that continues to this day. ~~ Focus Features
Bruce Lee is an idol of mine; not only in film but in martial arts. His confidence, supported equally by his talent and work ethic, shattered doors that were intentionally closed on his face.  And yet, he would not be denied.  His legacy is a testament of not only what you can do if you believe in your vision but how you need to use setbacks to improve yourself and your ideas and persist.  What project are you working on that you can improve? What vision are you trying to impress upon the world? They will be part of your legacy one day.

And now without further ado, some questions to start your morning:  

PRODUCTION TIPS: 5 U.S. State Production Incentives for a $25K (or less) Budget

(from 2012, subject to change)

Making a film is a constant battle against the odds; odds that you will finish the script, that you will get the money to shoot it; that you will actually shoot it; that you will have the money to cut it; that you will finish cutting it; that you will have the money to put it in festivals; that you will actually get it in festivals; that you will have the money to market it and get a producer's rep to sell it or four-wall it yourself; and, that you will make any money on it or just break-even. Maybe it's not all about the money but it's a damned good chunk of it. That's why getting to recoupment stage is rarefied air for filmmakers and must feel like raising the flag at Iwo Jima.

Big budget films are expected to eventually make money but even a low-budget film can be made to recoup or break-even with creative financing.  Creative financing involves harnessing all the ways to raise funds for a film no matter what the budget using self-financing, investor vehicles, securities, gifts, grants and subsidies (studio financing could also be part of it but it isn't a reality for the majority of filmmakers, so I left it out for now).  When people hear subsidies or tax incentives or credits or rebates, they immediately assume that they are only relevant for films with six figure budgets or higher. And they are mostly true.  But there are more than a few states that offer subsidies and incentives for budgets or spends of $65,000, $50,000 and even less than $25,000. 

So the hypothetical question is, what production tax incentives* would I seek for a budget of $25,000 or less?  There are at least 5 U.S. states I would consider moving my production to to take advantage of the incentives.  This is assuming the states meet the condition necessary to bring your film to life; it's the right location as envisioned in the script, there is an available cast and crew to go and work there, it's close to your home state (if it's not already your home state) and equipment is easily available or transportable.  

There are also some caveats when you seek incentives and subsidies.  First of all, tax incentives or government subsidies are just another source of financing.  They reduce the net expenditure of a film by 10% to 15%.  Thus, they can only be one slice of the financing pie not the pie itself.  Second of all, because every state offers different incentives with different criteria the state that offers the incentives you seek might be too far away to be worth your time to move your production there.  Or they do not offer the proper location you seek, for ex. New Mexico may offer the best incentives for your production but your story takes place in the Arctic.  In that situation, changing the script's location is a possibility but that judgment call shouldn't be made simply for the incentive.  Thirdly, tax incentives are subject to constant legislative changes.  The state that today had the incentive you like could have repealed it by the time you actually need it tomorrow.  Fortunately, the 5 states are sprinkled across the map and cover the northwestern, southwestern and eastern areas thus affording proximity to many filmmakers.

So with a budget of $25,000 or less, I would seriously consider shooting and editing in the following states:

  • There is no minimum spend so I can have a budget under $25,000.  
  • At that budget, I can shoot a feature film, television series, or television show pilot/episode of 15 minutes or more for a national audience. 
  • New Jersey's production incentives include a 20% transferable tax credit instituted in 2006. This tax credit is available to producers who spend 60% of their budgets in New Jersey, exclusive of post-production costs. 
  • The credit is both saleable and transferable and may be carried over to subsequent tax years.  
  • The production company must produce a finished print of the project before submitting their final figures for approval.  
Film Office: NJ Motion Picture & Television Commission

  • There is no minimum spend so I can have a budget under $25,000.  
  • At that budget, I would only be eligible for a 9% refundable tax credit on the total qualified expenditures in Montana for any films, television episodes, pilots, series, documentaries and commercials (except advertising for tobacco products) that I shoot.  
  • Note that per diem paid to employees while in-state does qualify for the 9% expenditure credit, as does travel purchased through a Montana travel agent. FICA, FUI and SUI, however, do not qualify. 
  • Also, workers compensation, health insurance and payroll processing fees qualify if paid to an in-state vendor. 
  • Now if I happen to raise enough to pay up to $50,000 in wages to Montana residents then under the Big Sky on the Big Screen Act, my film and TV productions would be eligible for a 14% refundable tax credit on those wages. 
  • Overall, Montana also offers free services to filmmakers: script break-down, location scouting, office furniture and fax machines, as well as traffic control signage. And Montana does not have a sales tax.
  • Finally, the 7% accommodations and lodging taxes are refunded for stays of more than 30 consecutive days.
Film Office: Montana Film Office

  • There is no minimum budget or spend requirement so I can have a budget under $25,000.  
  • At that budget, the 30% refundable film tax credit applies to resident cast and crew, and in-state rentals, purchases and services that are subject to state taxation in New Mexico.
  • Payments for non-resident performing artists (actors and on-camera stunt performers), providing services in NM, will qualify if paid via a “super loan-out” company which pays gross receipts tax (“GRT”) in New Mexico on the payments (wages) and the performing artist receiving payments pays New Mexico income tax. 
  • The state withholding tax (PIT) payment of 4.9% must be withheld by or caused to be withheld by the production company (e.g. via the payroll company) for all qualifying non-resident talent. 
  • New Mexico offers a 25% tax rebate on all direct production expenditures, including New Mexico crews, that are subject to taxation by the state. The rebate applies to feature films, independent films, television, regional and national commercials, documentaries, video games and post-production. Non-resident actors and stunt performers will also qualify under a separate tax structure.   
  • Post-production services rendered in New Mexico also qualify for the 25% Refundable Tax Credit even if the project is shot elsewhere ("Stand-Alone Post").  
  • New Mexico does not require the submission of a distribution plan from the production company to take advantage of the refundable credit. 
  • There is no application fee and no pre-qualification. To begin the process, you only need to submit a registration form and tax agreement prior to principal photography.  
  • New Mexico’s direct qualifying expenditures include, but are not limited to, resident payroll (fringes included), non-resident per diem, rentals/expendables from vendors with local physical presence as well as property rental and location fees.
Film Office: New Mexico Film Office

  • With a budget or spend of $25,000 or less, I could only qualify for a 20% rebate.  Minnesota offers a 20% rebate for qualifying expenditures under $1,000,000 and a 25% rebate for expenditures over $1,000,000. 
  • Note that I get a 60% rebate if the production is outside the metropolitan area. So filmmakers with scripts set in farms and/or the countryside... you're in luck.
  • Only residents count towards the rebate, in addition to local services. Lodging tax is exempted after 30 days. Commercials are exempt from sales tax.  
  • Note that Snowbate, Minnesota's Film Jobs Production Program, provides a reimbursement of 15%-20% of Minnesota production expenditures to films, television and internet programs and other content. Snowbate funds are limited (subject to an appropriation of approximately $1 million annually) and are approved biennially.
Film Office: Minnesota Film and TV Board
  • The minimum expenditure requirement is $25,000 so I need to have a budget of $25,000 or more that I'm actually spending in West Virginia to qualify. West Virginia's incentives to production include The West Virginia Film Industry Investment Act that currently provides for transferable tax credits of up to 31% of qualified in-state spend for production on eligible feature length theatrical or direct-to-video motion pictures, made-for-TV motion pictures, TV pilots, series, and miniseries and more.
  • The current incentive is a transferable income tax credit with limitations. The incentive is actually a 27% tax credit on all direct production expenditures (for pre-production, production and post-production), including all labor and talent that is subject to taxation by the state of West Virginia. 
  • By hiring 10 or more residents (talent and/or crew), it is possible to increase the total allowable credit by an additional 4%, bringing the maximum credit to 31%, but there is a $5 million annual credit cap. 
  • Payments to a personal service corporation (“PSC”) for out-of-state talent can qualify so long as the individual/talent is subject to West Virginia income tax on the payment and fees earned.  
  • West Virginia also offers an exemption from state sales tax for all productions including but not limited to films, television programs, commercials and, music videos. Purchases and rentals of tangible personal property, in addition to the purchase of services, directly used in a qualified production are exempt from the 6% consumer sales and service tax. 
  • Lodging stays in excess of thirty consecutive days are exempt from both the state sales/service tax (6%) and the local hotel/motel tax (varies by region). The exemption begins on the 31st day and is not applicable towards the first 30 days.
Film Office: West Virginia Film Office

Although incentives and subsidies only reduce your net expenditures by about 10% to 15%, they are still helpful to your overall financing and production goals.  Plus, production incentives can provide short-term jobs to state residents, help the local economy, bring revenue to the state and prevent productions from leaving the US.  However, they are still a controversial subject and many critique incentives and subsidies as being unconstitutional and wasteful especially when states are cutting social service programs out of their budget.  This is why each state's incentives and subsidies programs are constantly in flux.  Nevertheless, independent and low-budget filmmakers should still aim to use them while they are still available.

Sources: MPAA, Ease Entertainment Services, Entertainment Partners

*Let me point out that I wouldn't make a movie simply for the production incentive, tax subsidy or tax credit no matter how generous it is.  I want to make films to express a vision and to tell stories, that is first and foremost.

PRODUCTION JOURNAL: Midweek Morning Mixer - 8.14.13

Captain's Log.
Star Date: 8.14.13

"On August 14, 1945, film director Wim Wenders was born in Düsseldorf. Well, almost. Wenders’ parents wanted to call him Wim, however – despite this being over three months after VE Day – the authorities did not consider this (Dutch) name acceptable for a German baby, so instead he was christened Ernst Wilhelm Wenders. (“Ernst” was the name of his godfather, and “Wilhelm” was the closest Teutonic name to “Wim.”) While his parents were forced to conform, it’s something that Wim himself resisted: in the mid 60s, he dropped out of university to become a painter. He moved to Paris to achieve his dream, and while his quest to get into art school floundered in the City of Lights, he found a home at the Cinemathèque Francaise, where he allegedly watched five movies a day and fell head over heels with film. Returning to Germany, he was accepted into Munich’s newly founded Hochschule für Fernsehen and Film (HFF), and graduated in 1970 with his debut feature, Summer in the City, just completed. Along with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, he was at the forefront of the New German Cinema movement of the 1970s, distinguishing himself with such films as The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, Alice in the Cities, Kings of the Road and The American Friend, movies which looked at a changing Germany using many of the tropes of American cinema." ~~ Focus Features
Why not be like Wim and resist conformity, too? 
And why not start your day learning and thinking about a few questions, such as...

PRODUCTION JOURNAL: Monday Morning Mixer - 8.12.13

Captain's Log.
Star date: 8.12.13

I just had breakfast. 
I'm full.  
So I'm keeping it light this morning.

PRODUCTION TIPS: 10 Ways Directors MUST Think like a Line Producer

The no-to-low budget director is a man of many hats and throughout the production, the director will, at different times and simultaneously, wear the writer's cap, the executive producer's top hat, the director's beret, the line producer's helmet, the editor's hood... hell maybe even the caterer's toque. This is simply a reflection of how a no-to-low budget forces one to do more with less and so the director becomes a hybrid doing many of the most important jobs on the set by himself.  In an otherwise standard or big budget production, the director would pass the head gear to someone else who can devote all their attention to that specific job at hand.  One of the most important jobs that a director MUST perform with a no-to-low budget production is the job of the line producer.  In fact, even when he can delegate to someone else, the director would still benefit from wearing the line producer's helmet.

It's easy to imagine the line producer wearing a helmet since they are in the trenches every day the film is being made and are there for the planning during pre-production. The line producer is the day-to-day producer of the film and serves as the eyes and ears on the set conducting and coordinating the production's strategy and battling against disaster and setback along the way.  They report directly to the producer and are given the role of "fixer" when major issues arise.  They're also the "line" between the exec producer, director and principal cast and everyone else in the cast and crew.  To get to their position, they have worked in as many positions in a production as possible including being an Assistant Director or Production Manager.  

A director can focus on working with the the actors, sounds and visuals knowing that the production will run smoothly with a good line producer at the helm.  But when the producer/director can't afford to hire a line producer then, for better or for worse, he needs to act like one on the set.  Multitasking this way on the set means the director needs to be able to look at things from a line producer's perspective and thinking like a line producer means that you: 
  1. understand producing means knowing the end result of the project and what path it will take after it is completed.  This doesn't just mean knowing the end of your story the way a screenwriter would but knowing where you want your project to end up screened at and how it will get there.  Knowing that will affect your creative and logistic decisions before and while shooting.  Line producers must keep the bigger picture in their mind to anticipate how things may affect the investment, distribution and marketing.  So should you.
  2. know how to break down a script, create a practical budget and a realistic filming schedule.  A good line producer can look at a script and know how much it will cost and how long it may take to shoot.  Harnessing that skill takes practice and is something you should aim to do even if you can afford a line producer.
  3. know what to expect from your crew and the depths of your crew's abilities with the purpose of minimizing friction as they do their job.   It's a line producer's job to know what everyone does and assess job performance to ensure the production is using the hours in the schedule and the money in the budget wisely.  Knowing the jobs also lets a line producer iron out any conflicts that can arise within and between departments. Taking that as a cue, a director who understands the jobs and challenges of the crew will receive their respect and motivation.
  4. prioritize the elements of "mise en scene" based on what problem has been resolved and what task needs to be taken care of next. After consulting with the director and the producers during pre-production, the line producer knows what elements are the most important to focus on first from the following 8: casting/performance; production design (including location); costumes; make-up and hair; cinematography; sound; music; and, editing.  A problem-solving approach the line producer takes on the set once he knows what element is most important to the director is to first ensure that those issues are handled first and concurrently.  He then considers the rest based on budget, schedule and it's dire status.  Keeping all 8 elements in mind throughout the shoot, the line producer can head off issues before they become problems and solve problems before they become disasters.
  5. bring your motivation AND your hustle to the set.  To get the job done, the line producer must be a coach motivating the team to victory, one minute, and the diplomat negotiating with opposing forces the next.  Directors should always leave the diva attitude at home but even moreso when they are running a no-to-low budget production.  Instead of throwing tantrums and making unreasonable demands, you need to encourage your team to make it through the no-budget day. And improving your negotiation skills by smooth talking with crew members, location property owners, cops asking for a permit, etc. will come in handy when you move up the ladder and are negotiating with the big shots.
  6. carry EVERYONE's number on your person or phone. This doesn't just mean having the cast and crew's contact info but also having the name and phone numbers to vendors, rental houses, insurance providers, lawyers, agencies, businesses and organizations in or near your shooting location.  One of the ways a line producer solves problems is through communication; contacting people for information, following up on orders, asking questions, etc.  Directors forced to do everything on their own must be prepared to communicate at the drop of a dime, as well.
  7. understand the contracts, ordinances and regulations affecting your production as well as you understand your script. Line producers aren't lawyers but a good one knows enough of what affects the production from a legal perspective to do their job well and know what questions to ask.  Alot of this comes from the repetition of experience but it also comes from paying attention to key contract clauses like the description of services, terms of employment, compensation, illness and capacity, and expenses.  Line producers are also aware of permits, labor issues, intellectual property matters and production incentives that could support the project.
  8. track your progress by keeping and studying your production's paperwork regularly.  When a line producer is not on the phone, reporting to the producer or working with the cast and crew, he is reviewing paperwork.  From call sheets to production reports, the line producer needs to know whether or not the production is accomplishing the scheduling and budgeting goals created during pre-production and modified during production.  Even if you're inundated with having to do a million things on your no-to-low budget set, at least keep notes and review what you've done at the end of each day.
  9. think "safety" when you budget and schedule. I recently read a great article about working long hours that points out how what we in the film industry take for granted, in terms of long work hours, should be reevaluated.  Safety might not be the first thing a line producer thinks of when he starts to work on the budget and schedule but it should at least be in the top 3.  "But I've gotten away with doing risky things before, why stress about it now especially when time and money is hard to get?" you might ask.  Well no one will notice a production that almost becomes a disaster and almost harms the cast and crew but gets away with it. However, they will notice when disaster strikes and kills or maims people in your production.  Aside from the lawsuits that will sink your no-to-low budget film, the disfigurements and deaths of people will weigh on your conscience.  Like a good line producer who knows that the limits of a person's ability to produce at peak points diminishes over time, you shouldn't overwork your people with extremely long hours (even 12 hours is already long enough but it's considered standard; more than 12 and you're pushing your people).  You also need to devote sufficient time and money to pull off certain stunts. If you don't have it, then don't do it or do it differently.
  10. act decisive even when you're not sure, adapt and overcome and always remember that the right decisions are made during pre-production with thorough yet flexible planning. 
Directors working on no-to-low productions need to learn as much as they can from line producers.  Line producers use their creativity and quick thinking skills to be effective on the set and directors adopting the line producer's habits will find their directing abilities enhanced.  Like a good line producer, you will then be able to mediate disputes, handle strong egos, fix any problems that arise and know practically everything one needs to know to physically produce a movie.

PRODUCTION JOURNAL: MIdweek Morning Mixer - 8.7.13

Captain's log.
Star date - 8.7.13.

There's a saying in Spanish that says, "Hace el trabajo mal, lo haces dos veces," which means "Do the job poorly, you'll do it twice."  Avoid having to correct a badly done job by doing as much to learn how to do it right the first time. And so, without further ado:

CASE STUDY: On Celebrities and Crowdfunding

The recent crowdfunding campaigns for Veronica Mars, Zach Braff and James Franco brought one thing dramatically to light: it's good to be a celebrity when you're crowdfunding.   Celebrities tend to easily reach and even surpass their crowdfunding goals when they go online and ask for cash (James Franco is a rare exception - he only raised $328,329 out of the $500,000, still a sizeable number that a non-celebrity filmmaker would have a hard time getting).  Even though they are subject to criticism for not offering profit participation in their films, celebrities do offer a panoply of prizes and rewards for the contributions they receive.  I found that interesting since their prize lists are exhaustive.  Filmmakers should learn from these celebrity campaigns even if they can't always do all of the things celebrities can do with theirs while also being attentive to potential changes or improvements occurring with crowdfunding legislation.

Hollywood is watching and learning. Already, Spike Lee has made his debut on Kickstarter and he won't be the last.  Once the stigma that comes with rich and connected Hollywood filmmakers asking the public at large to donate money passes, there will be more of them at the spigot.  Although we may question the fairness of it all, it's not illegal for rich filmmakers to crowdfund.  Still, the transaction seems sullied because crowdfunding was initially meant to serve the person who had NO access to funds or guarantee of success.  When celebrities jump into the crowd seeking funds, they presumably already have access to funds and stand to profit from their project in a way that the typical filmmaker is unable to.

Is that why James Franco didn't reach his goals?  Because of a backlash against celebrity filmmakers using sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo? If so, then it seems to not have affected Spike Lee's campaign so far.   Maybe it's just that Franco's project didn't appeal to the crowdfunding audience.  Or maybe Franco didn't advertise it enough.  Regardless, it's interesting to note that Braff and Franco had almost identical campaigns in terms of the prizes they offered and contribution amounts they sought.  And they offered just about every type of award possible, which leads me to lesson #1...

OFFER AS MANY PLEDGE AWARD TYPES IN YOUR CROWDFUNDING CAMPAIGN AS POSSIBLE.  In studying Braff's and Franco's pledge list I noticed that they used EVERY possible type of pledge award one can offer in a typical crowdfunding campaign.  Of course, they are able to offer these because they are rich and famous and have a readymade fanbase but the breadth of their pledge awards reveals proper planning and strategizing, too.  And that is something to strive for with your campaign to generate as much interest from your contributors as possible (they are your first fans and the foundation of your future fanbase).  I placed all the awards Braff and Franco offered within one of the following categories which covers practically every type of pledge award possible in a typical crowdfunding film/tv campaign:
  • Exclusive Info Access - privileged access to news and information before the general public gets it  (ex. news updates).
  • Tangible Online Award - a product that you can only receive by online delivery (ex. pdf script, streaming link of music playlist, etc.).
  • Tangible Offline Award - a product that you can only receive by some form of physical delivery (ex. t-shirt, postcard, etc.).
  • Exclusive Attention - an award personally addressed to an individual and meant to be read, heard, seen or experienced.  Can be delivered online or physically (ex. personalized voice/video greeting).
  • Live Experience - an award you can only experience with a large group of similar award winners (ex. live group movie screening).
  • Collectible - a tangible product of limited manufacture or hard-to-find nature that has potential value as a collectible (ex. anything signed, products with limited editions, etc.).
  • Live Experience On-Set or Credit - an award that you can only experience on the set of the production (ex. walk-on role, group set visit, producer credit, etc.).
  • VIP Exclusive Live Experience - an award you can only experience alone or with a small group of similar award winners (ex. private dinner and after party with cast and crew, set visit for 2, etc.).
  • Production Contribution - an award that allows you to make a creative contribution to the production that is not credited as acting or producing (ex. name a character, your name on a prop or backdrop, post-production rough cut screening and corrections, etc.).
Granted, although many of these awards yield more contributions when it comes from a celebrity, you can still diversify your pledge award types with as many as you can include to make your campaign more attractive.  But celebrity power still counts which leads me to lesson #2...

A CROWDFUNDING CAMPAIGN IS HELPED IMMENSELY BY THE INCLUSION OF A CELEBRITY AND CELEBRITY-AFFILIATED AWARDS.  It shouldn't surprise anyone that a celebrity significantly raises the spotlight of a crowdfunding campaign and increases the chances of it reaching it's financial goals.  The general public simply attributes more value to a pledge award from a celebrity than from a non-celebrity even if the award is technically the same thing (ex. the film slate used during. This is because the award from the celebrity can raise the amount of "utility" (pleasure) a person can get out of the awards they offer.  "Utility is not a measure of usefulness or need but a measure of the desirability of a commodity from the psychological viewpoint of the consumer." (Vogel, 12)  "Individuals differ in terms of the sense of psychic gratification experienced from consumption of different goods and services." (12)  Celebrities can, by the very nature of their celebrity, add value to their awards that the average joe can not possibly manufacture.  So, what's an "average-joe" filmmaker to do? Incorporate a celebrity to your campaign or add celebrity-affiliated awards to the pledge list.  I understand it's not easy but then again the film industry isn't easy either and you're not letting that stop you.  There are a variety of ways to add celebrity magic to your campaign whether it's partnering with one to offering contributors signed collectibles.  The strategy is only limited by the relevancy of your celebrity to the project.

Lesson #3... USE A CROWDFUNDING CAMPAIGN TO TEST AND CREATE DEMAND FOR YOUR MOVIE.  Hollywood is paying attention to crowdfunding because it not only offers a way to raise funds without having to share profit but also because it is a marketing coup.  Crowdfunding campaigns are a combination of public awareness, buzz creation and market research.  This can give Hollywood the rare opportunity to create demand for a supply BEFORE it gets made.  With this knowledge they can determine whether it should be changed or even made.  This is different from the traditionally unknowable risk a production company must shoulder to make a movie.  When a company makes a movie, "the initial capital investment in production and marketing is risked without knowing how many units (including theater tickets, home video sales and rentals, television viewings, and the like will ultimately be demanded.  The possibilities range from practically zero to practically infinite." (18) With a crowdfunding campaign, the possibilities at least begin with the people who pledge (a ready-made market ) and the quickness with which the money is raised giving filmmakers feedback they can base their marketing research on.  BECAUSE OF THESE TYPES OF COLLATERAL BENEFITS, ONE CAN FORESEE THAT HOLLYWOOD WILL FIND WAYS TO CREATE CAMPAIGNS (STEALTHILY OR NOT) AS WAYS TO NOT ONLY LESSEN PROFIT PARTICIPATION BUT ALSO CREATE AND TEST DEMAND.  This is not necessarily a bad thing if it allows Hollywood to take risks and create projects that would normally be hampered by the current system of "better to play it safe and formulaic."  Projects like this, for example.
SOME THOUGHTS ON HOW CROWDFUNDING LAWS CAN CHANGE IN RESPONSE TO CRIES FOR PROFIT PARTICIPATION IN FILM PROJECTS.  Are donors happy with simply contributing for awards or do they want to be profit participants?  Is it reasonable or ludicrous to expect to be a profit participatnt when you've only contributed $500?  Should people go to equity crowdfunding sites and find film/tv production company start-ups if they want a cut of a project?  There is no clear answer but traditional crowdfunding sites based on donations and pledges are undergoing scrutiny and it wouldn't surprise me if crowdfunding undergoes a metamorphosis.  At the moment, people still donate even if they are not profit participants. This could be due to the fact that there is no other alternative or they don't know better. "Rational individuals try to maximize utility -- in other words, make decisions that provide them with the most satisfaction. But they are hampered... because decisions are made under conditions of uncertainty, with incomplete information... and they end up maximizing expected utility rather than utility itself." (12) Maybe people prefer the awards because it is a sure thing compared to waiting for profits; for an x amount of contribution you get an award priced for that amount.  Profit-participation is a gamble since a potential profit is not a sure thing even if a celebrity is involved.  Plus the formula for profits are complex, there are tax and other financial issues involved, and there are no guarantees you will even get your cut in Hollywood; there are many movies that break box-office and still can't "afford" to pay profit participants their share.  But the dream to reap a reward lives on and it's possible to make an educated guess by studying and assessing the quality of a project and it's profit potential.  Plus, movies with a built-in audience tend to do well (for example, Braff's new movie seems likely to replicate Garden State's success).

I am torn between the camps trying to change the crowdfunding laws to allow some form of broader investing and those who want to keep things as is.  Although I think it's unfair that celebrities can, by virtue of their fame, raise more funds than the average without having to share any of their profits, I am also wary of weakening the disclosure requirements that are supposed to protect investors from the hucksters who are waiting to take advantage of any loosening of the rules.  Current Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) laws generally prevent crowdfunding sites and campaigns from offering equity, financial returns and/or solicit loans.  And so project creators keep 100% ownership of their work. As Kickstarter says, "backers are supporting projects to help them come to life, not financially profit.  We hope you love your reward for helping bring this project to life."

But I still can't help wonder, do the people value the awards as they stand because it's all they can get or would they prefer profit participation? I would love to see that tested out and I think that would, ultimately be the fair thing to do.  It would also be one way to bridge the 2 camps regarding crowdfunding laws. 

And so, here's my suggestion: AFTER A THRESHOLD AMOUNT OF PLEDGE FUNDING (for example, a contribution of $500), LET PEOPLE CHOOSE BETWEEN ACCEPTING THE EQUIVALENT PLEDGE AWARD OR CHOOSING GROSS PROFIT PARTICIPATION FOR A FILM PRODUCTION WITH A BUDGET OF $500,000+. My idea is mainly for the purposes of film crowdfunding campaigns and would work out in the following ways:
  1. Projects intended for commercial distribution AND with a $500,000+ budget can allow a person to use their $500+ pledge as a stakeholder participating in profits or as a donor pledging to receive an award. (Btw, I chose $500 because I notice that there is usually a big dropoff in numbers from the amount of people who pledge that amount or more and that seems like a number that would matter to an average person.  However, I am not beholden to that dollar amount.)  If they choose the profit participant stakeholder route, then they get a position from any gross profits (not net profits) the picture makes. (Whether the profit is from theatrical only or there is additional contingent compensation can be evaluated for fairness to all parties and is outside the scope of this article.) If they choose the pledge award, that is all they get; no profit participation.  A person can't have both unless they make 2 different pledges for $500+ (one for the award and one for equity).
  2. Those that pledge to become equity stakeholders have to then submit additional documentation as required by the SEC, the IRS, etc.  The crowdfunding campaign would also be subject to disclosure requirements and more, as needed.
  3. Only pledge awards for pledge amounts of $499 or less are unaffected by the above.
Maybe people will prefer to go with the profit participation route whenever a celebrity is involved? Or maybe some people will forgo the profit participation route because they will prefer the sure thing in the award or because they value the experience with the celebrity more than a couple potential extra dollars.  What do you think?  What would you suggest? Feel free to share in the comments section below.   

Also, note that the SEC is open to public comments (regarding crowdfunding laws through the JOBS Act and other things) between now and October 31.  If you want to submit your comments to the SEC you can do so by clicking here.  If you want to read other comments, they are published online.  (hat tip to

Entertainment Industry Economics: A Guide for Financial Analysis, 6th Ed., Vogel, Harold, Cambridge University Press, 2004 

Bonus - here's a handy chart from on crowdfunding types and tips:

The COVID-19 “Get Back to Filmmaking” Checklist

The COVID-19 “Get Back to Filmmaking” Checklist A 40-point checklist from development to post-production   by Danny Jiminian