Monday, July 9, 2007

The Business of films!

It is easily the most frustrating business one can be a part of. I have, in the recent past, been interacting with some of the leading lights of the Hindi (Bollywood) film industry as well as working on scripts for some Hollywood based production companies.

Here are some of the observations. Most are true for Bollywood but I was surprised to find a lot of them were true for Hollywood as well.

1. Most producers are illiterate. This was served first up and was the most shocking truth. Many of the producers I have interacted with have no concept of reading a script. Nearly everyone I have met has asked me for a script. But these scripts have never been read. They are carried from shoot to shoot, from office to home and back to office in the morning. But none of the producers who have personally requested my scripts have got around to reading it.

2. Some of the producers have readers who read scripts and write comments/coverage. This is supposed to be the ‘pipeline’ that ensures a steady of quality scripts are processed upwards. However this is only in theory. Being illiterate the producers seldom read these comments. Scripts with glowing recommendations lie around waiting for the producer to say yes. This part is especially true for big studios where lame scripts are developed by hacks for delusional acting talent that’s on their payroll.

3. Most readers are wannabe writers. While they wait for their big chance they read and write coverage in order to survive. Nobody understands the frustrations of a script writer more than they do. Not only do their script go unread their coverage too is totally ignored.

4. The only way to get a producer to make a film out of a script is for him/her to ‘own’ it. The producer must believe that this is the one story that needs to be told and s/he must tell it. The story must connect at a very basic level. Either it works off the one page synopsis or it doesn’t get made at all.

5. Nobody has the time for great cinema. Most producers/production executives are happy with very basic level of scripts. Great writing means different things to different people. Producers don’t see writing in the same way as we do.

6. Above anything else the story you are pitching must have been done before. There should be a definite ‘model’ that the producer can identify with. So it is okay for a story to be a bit like ‘Godfather’. If the story is not like a successful film you are in deep trouble. A clear path to recovering the investment is necessary. Producers hate to get involved with scripts that need them to take a chance.

7. Most independent producers, even those with impressive credits, do not have access to movie stars. In the last 6 months I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “it is a good story and we would like to get into it, do you have a star?” Producers love nothing better than a ‘sealed deal’. If I were a drinking buddy of George Clooney I wouldn’t need to knock on producers doors. A small fact that they seem to miss.

8. Being a drinking buddy to a star gives you a much better chance of getting a film made than having the best crafted script in the world. Twice I have been told to ‘sell’ my script and let a moron director do the film. The moron director was doing joints with a major star while I was just typing a bunch of words on an old computer. That he didn’t have a script was the only stumbling block for him.

9. Bollywood special - Producers never say no. That they don’t say yes either means that you as a writer keep hanging on forever. Recently I have asked for my script back from 7 different producers, some had the scripts for as long as 18 months. I had to be rude to some of them but I guess it is okay. All 7 scripts have come back to me in pristine quality. Almost as good as new. Proving once again that they had never been read.

10. Formatting doesn’t matter in the least bit. Recently I’ve had two Hollywood based producers send me stuff to rewrite that was all over the place in terms of formatting. Their concerns were mostly about the story and how it moved. The only format Nazis I’ve come across are mostly wannabe writers stuck in minor details.

11. All the “Vice Presidents” and "Head” film development in the business collectively cannot mount a film. I suspect they may not be able to even buy toilet paper for the office without a committee having to ratify their decision. This is a pretty awful indictment of the way this business is run. But anyone who is in the business will tell you that it is true. The minute you see a card that proclaims “VP” or “Head” it should be your cue to excuse yourself. It took me between 6 months to a year of dealing with half a dozen of such professional to figure this one out. Films are made by guys whose card reads “Producer” or “President” or “CEO” or “Chairman”. Everyone else in the development process is just pushing paper.

So what is the way forward? I don’t know, keep at it I guess. Keep going till you find that elusive breakthrough. But be aware that you could die trying.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Colour by numbers

Babel it was last night. Overall not a bad film to watch even though it was a study in how a bad to mediocre script was saved by a good director.

I was very surprised at the clich├ęd characters and the resolutions to their issues that were served up by the writers. Check these out:

1. Mexican nanny – Fat, matronly and slightly stupid but with a heart of gold. I’ve seen the same nanny character in god knows how many other films.
2. Mexican nanny’s Mexican nephew – shady and in some kind of trouble. Where have I seen this before? I wonder if every young man of Mexican decent fits into this category as Hollywood would have us believe ….
3. Brad and Kate – can’t find the love they once had, but will find each other and overcome their loss after a life threatening incident.
4. American tourists - self centered. They couldn't care less about someone dying on the bus. They would rather worry about the air conditioning.
5. Moroccan tourist guide - poor but heart of gold.
6. Moroccan old woman- all wrinkled and poor but has the right cure for the pain, and of course a heart of gold.
7. Japanese teenager – disconnected, lonely and unloved.
8. Japanese father – having trouble connecting with his child and still mourning his wife’s death. Eventually father and daughter will find a connection. 9. American kids- in mortal peril but will pull through miraculously.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Borat and The Sea Inside

I must admit that watching these two films one after the other during the course of one night must rank as one of the worst film viewing decisions in the world. But the opportunity presented itself and as both films came highly recommended and I did not want to miss either.

Assuming ‘Borat’ to be the lighter and the more amusing option we saw it first. I don’t know what to say of the experience. The jokes got tiresome after about the first 3 minutes and my innings with the film lasted a total of 22 minutes. There are only so many times one can hear an unfunny joke. That the filmmaker thought references to Borat’s sister and her ‘Vagin’ as being funny enough to be repeated about 5 times in the first 15 minutes is a reflection of how bad the film was. But obviously I am missing something. This film was a huge hit internationally. Why and how is a question I will ponder over for a very long time.

In contrast ‘The Sea Inside’ was a beautiful film. This was another case of a Spanish filmmaker’s deft handling of a very difficult subject with consummate ease. There were no major tears or hysteria as the filmmaker went about telling his story in a simple and concise manner. There was a lot to say about a very touchy subject but the filmmaker did not resort to any melodrama or theatrics which one would normally associate with a film dealing with euthanasia. To take a really shocking and tragic incident and to deal with it in the most matter of fact way seems to the way with Spanish directors. Having grown up on tearjerkers from both Hollywood and Bollywood the Spanish way of making films comes as a breath of fresh air. Hats off to them for showing us another kind of cinema.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

SEZ’s and Slum Rehabilitation

A major storm is brewing in a teacup with regard to both these ventures. While the SEZ’s are promising to become a national headache the Slum Rehabilitation projects in Mumbai are already mired in controversy. Though I don’t know why it should be so. Sitting on the sidelines I can see a solution clearly.

The way I see it the logic is simple: If someone lives on/off a piece of land he should be a partner in the economic progress that is planned on the land and s/he must have a stake in the process the same way that a builder or industrialist or new owner has. It seems terribly unfair that after accusation of land the profits enjoyed by the developers/industrialist should not be shared by the people to whom the land belonged in the first place.
We have seen in the past that whenever a big industrial complex or building project comes up land prices shoot upwards. The developers who buy the rights to develop the land make a killing. The new owners also make a killing as the prices keep moving up. But the man to whom the land belonged in the first place gets nothing of the new escalated prices or the economic development that follows.

If we want a peaceful and healthy development atmosphere we should look at establishing a partnership that allows the evictees to share the future rewards of development. The moment this kind of partnership is established everyone gains and chances of any opposition, politically motivated or otherwise, are minimal.

A simple two point compensation package should be worked out on these lines:

1. Give the compensation that you would normally do while accruing the land. This process is already in place.
2. In addition to the compensation package allocate a percentage of the projects shareholdings to the people whose land you are accruing as their investment in the project. This percentage is to be distributed in accordance of the individual land holdings and would be in the form of tradable shares.

Once the landholder becomes the promoter of the company that is starting the project s/he stands to benefit from any development that is undertaken on the land and stands to benefit in perpetuity. Also, these shares could be traded on the stock exchange like any other shares and the individual owners could decide in stay invested or exit as per their own convenience.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Ideas alone don’t cut it

Last week a friend told me a really great idea for a film. In his mind it was the perfect idea and when I didn’t share his enthusiasm he was very disappointed. He kept telling me about the great visuals he was seeing in his head. Unfortunately they were all in his head and I was unable to see them the way he was seeing them. This happens very often especially with advertising guys who thrive on the short format which relies on communication of a single thought.

Writing for feature films is very unlike writing for advertisements where a random idea with a bunch of well executed visuals is enough to do the trick. In the longer format a great idea is only the beginning and in itself is not enough. It is the complete execution that makes or breaks the narrative. Taking an idea and shaping it into a 100 page script takes a lot of doing. In any case there are plenty of people who think the same way and have similar ideas, that is probably why ideas alone can not be copyrighted. For the same reason the fear that an idea will be stolen and made into a film is really unfounded. It doesn’t happen as often as is thought. It takes a lot of hard work to write an original script even if you have a cracker of an idea. Bollywood is famous in my opinion for adaptations from foreign DVDs and not for stealing ideas. And those of you who follow the Bollywood film scene will agree that most of the DVD adaptations are not very cleverly done.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Election Results

The election results today confirmed a long held belief for me. I believe that barring exceptions the next 15 years or so will see the party in power losing every major election. And this is going to happen regardless of performance or other populist measures that politicians adopt. The reasons are simple enough, India is changing very fast- for a small number it is progressing faster and they are getting ever richer. For the rest the lack of speed in progress (this is not be confused with no progress) when compared with the richer section is glaring and the government of the day will have to take the blame for it. And as every political combination is promising the same thing it is easy for voters to shift allegiance.

Knowledge that a party is only going to survive in power for one term can be both a blessing and a curse. A curse because there is no incentive for a politician do his job well if he knows that he is not going to survive the next election? But then I would not worry too much about the curse. When was the last time you saw an MLA or MP do a decent job in their domain? I would rather think of it as a blessing for honest politicians (I do hope politicians like Manmohan Singh take note of this) because it frees them from taking on populist measures in the name of vote bank politics. Why pander to vote banks if you know that you will only last one term.

YouTube for the Blind

I got a link forwarded to me by a friend the other day that shows the real power of the internet. The friend and some filmmakers have shot an interesting film for a blind school and have put it on YouTube for the world to watch. YouTube is an interesting alternative to expensive Television ad spots which NGO’s can seldom afford. The trick of course is to have a compelling video that will gather enough clicks through word of mouth. Follow the link to check out the video and see if it is good enough for you to forward to your friends which I think is the true test of the creative.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Oscars and Filmfare- Yawn!

This weekend saw the most awaited award shows of the year. Television beamed Filmfare and the Oscars. I happened to catch a bit of both. The Oscars were a yawn, possibly because it was very early in the morning and I had not yet really woken up, and never really got me involved. Also, the montages seemed to go on forever and I wondered why an Italian speaking guy was allowed to ramble on forever while Clint Eastwood waited to translate what he said. I just couldn’t focus enough on them to make much sense and finally gave up and went on to have breakfast.

The Filmfare awards on the other hand were more on the money. From whatever little I saw they tried very hard to be like the Oscars which is usual. That they failed to look either classy or convincing with their “I scratch your back, you do mine” awards and speeches was also true to form. As is usually the case there were a few corny dances, with fat ungainly actors/ess’s being shown up by the much fitter and talented background dancers, and comedy routines. Also usual were some very cornyly created awards which are designed to make every powerful person in Bollywood happy. Basically it was the same old same old.
One comment that struck a discordant chord was when Shahrukh Khan towards the later part of the show said “Here come the biggies”. He went on to clarify that he meant the “biggies” were the best actor/ess, best director and best film awards. Once again it showed how little tact is on display at the Filmfare awards or in Bollywood generally. That there is very little regard for the technicians work and contribution to the process of film making is something one has grown to accept. However, the pompousness of the two anchors was very amusing to see.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

From 30 seconds to 2 hours

With more advertising guys finding success in the longer format there is a tacit acceptance within the film industry about the ad filmmaker’s ability to communicate effectively over the duration of 2 hours. This was not always so. I remember when as a cub I happened to be shooting with a big name Hindi film cinematographer on a tire commercial. Being the production papplu I was the most responsible person on the set and I caught it from all ends especially from the esteemed cinematographer. I was subjected to a constant barrage of disparaging comment and criticism because I was an advertising guy and advertising guys were considered idiots. It was another matter that the big name DOP didn’t know his ass from his elbow and took three days to shoot a simple commercial that was probably the worst lit I’ve ever seen.

At that time I couldn’t understand why advertising people were so looked down upon. From what I’d seen they worked much harder (in fact shooting around the clock followed by editing was not unusual), were more tech savvy, were very organized (storyboarding was unheard off in the Hindi film industry then) armed with shot breakdowns and managed to tell a complete story in 30 seconds. I’d noticed that the Hindi film biggies of the time didn’t have a script on set in most cases and generally did not manage to tell a story even after 3 hours. Still the caste system in the industry was such that ad filmmakers just didn’t stand a chance. Yet it was always a dream for ad filmmakers to make a feature film. It always has been I guess.

15 years later much has changed. Today if you announce that you are an ad filmmaker with a script for a feature film the doors are not automatically slammed in your face. They are not opened either lest you think being an adfilmmaker is a shortcut into Bollywood, but lets just say that it is less impossible now. There are some who still believe that the film industry “belongs” to the film wallas but they are a dying breed. The film industry is relatively more open for outsiders now.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Did you watch Koffee with the Queen?

I saw the new season opener and it left me feeling that all four on screen had a lot of personal baggage.
Rani was closest to being a beauty contestant. All her answers were measured and had the same fakeness that we have gotten used to seeing at the Miss India contests. Kajol and her constant giggling really got on my nerves. Her crack about Rakhi Sawant was in extremely poor taste. I wonder what will happen if their paths cross. Comparatively Shah Rukh Khan looked almost intelligent.
Karan Johar seemed to have the most on his mind. His constant reference to his lame film “KANK” and the crack about him not being one of the queens on the show seemed to reflect his state of mind. Bugger it, nobody cares about your sexual orientation if you can let it go. Then again maybe I am asking him to give up an important PR tool.
I wonder if the 2nd season will be as successful with the same set of guests as last year. To make a go of this season Karan Johan must expand his guest list to include people beyond his kitty party list.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Writing for feature films

It is easily the most frustrating thing I do. It takes forever and at the end of it all nobody wants to read it. Not even friends or relatives. I have to sometimes rely on blackmail to get a read out of people.

Once I am ready with the first draft the really hard part of being a writer begins; trying to sell your script to a prospective producer/actor/director. The film business is a very strange business. Everyone complains that there are no good scripts or writers. Yet, nobody wants to read a script or meet a writer. I guess the business works on a “friendly” basis. They’d rather hear a friend tell them, in 5 minutes or less, a great concept over a few drinks (and maybe a couple of hits) in a really noisy bar. I suspect that a lot of the producers and actors in our industry are illiterate so reading is not really an option. The Joey character from the series Friends is not that way off the mark. There is one good part to it though; there is very little chance that anyone will steal a script that they haven’t read.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Acting like a monkey

Why is it that whenever Indian commercials show an Italian setting the male cast always has to act like a stupid monkey?
I saw the new Milano commercial. If I didn’t know Hrithik from all his pictures I would have thought the big idea of the commercial was a chimp makes the cookies.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Time it

Ever tried to get 41 words into a 10 seconder? You need more than a bullet train to get it done. How often do writers time the words they write? One would think it is a simple enough thing to do, but it obviously isn’t. The next time you are writing a commercial take a watch and time yourself doing the action. If it fits in real life it will fit in the film. Filmmakers don’t use any magic with time.

Formats currently in use for films in order of my preference:

35mm film
Digital Betacam
Mini DV

Less is more!

Think of film the way you think of a press ad. Nobody likes a crowded press ad and there is no reason why a film should be different.

Very often I get TVC scripts where the writer, probably after the client has clobbered him/her on the head, has written about 5 or 7 great attributes of a product. It is possible that they may all be true; however, to effectively communicate it all through a 30 second TVC might need a superman of a film. And we all know how few films fit into that category. The upshot is that all 5 messages will be communicated in a kichdi form. Of course your client will be happy but the film will get lost amongst a million similar films. If you are writing a film it is very important to have a clear goal and a singular message. Most commercials lose sight of this basic fact. Clients will try to maximize the opportunity by adding as much information as they can, but a smart writer knows just how much is enough. Wear a helmet to work but stick to your guns, reject all briefs that ask you to do more than one thing in a single piece of creative.

The logic that the film is going to run a million times and all 5 messages will come through because of repeated hammering is flawed. The consumer is simply going to switch off.

Monday, January 29, 2007

The Water Controversy

This week Deepa Mehta’s film “Water” was nominated for an Oscar, signaling its obvious acceptance by international audiences. I have not seen Water so can’t really say much about its merits. But I would like to say that the controversy around its filming in India was needless and does not at all reflect the popular mood or sentiment. It has been my belief that India and Indians aren’t as insecure about their identity or culture or religion as are made out to be sometimes by loose cannons passing for the right wing.

An unrelated incident in Cuttuck this week, where Coach Greg Chappel was at the receiving end of a Kilinga Sena (did you know there was such a sena before this?) activist’s ire, puts the opposition to Deepa Mehta’s films in perspective. After the incident the Indian team captain Rahul Dravid said “We find cases of people filing cases against actors and people doing funny things. It gives them a platform to become famous overnight. You don't need to achieve anything to become famous,” I think Mr. Dravid hit the nail on the head. Far too often people with little or no stakes in an issue are allowed to run amok in an attempt to seek cheap publicity. The controversy around filming “Water” was exactly that. The people involved in the protests had no way of knowing the contents of film’s script or whether it did actually offend them. The script of a film is typically known only to the core crew of technicians, actors and the producers. And those protesting its filming were therefore protesting about something they knew nothing about.

That this unhealthy trend is a route an increasing number of publicity seekers are taking should be obvious to the media. Why then does the media allow the use of its services to these elements? I remember watching a show of an earlier film made by Deepa Metha that was curtailed by similar protesters. In that case the media was invited to the event and only when the camera teams arrived and started filming the so called spontaneous protest took place. The cinema hall was vandalized and the paying public (I was in the hall and halfway through the film) were left to wonder about the rest of film. Not for a minute was anyone in the media contingent fooled about the spontaneity of the attack. Yet it was the news of the day and the government reacted predictable spinelessly and the film was pulled off the cinema halls.

Looking objectively at the landscape you can identify any number of groups that have arisen purely out of such stunts. Unfortunately it doesn’t end with one isolated event. As time goes by this opposition and the attending publicity become a franchise owned by the group and becomes their platform for fame and fortune.

In all of this the most comical are the guys who have put a claim of guardianship to our culture. I have a few questions for this lot though I suspect I will get no answers. What is culture? Is there an Indian Culture? Who decides what passes for Indian Culture? Is culture static, maybe frozen at some convenient (Utopian) time in history? Lastly, do you think Indian culture is so unstable and easily corruptible that it can be influenced by a mere film maker? What is laughable is the notion that Indian Culture needs help from people who burn, pillage, rape and destroy life for the benefit of cameras? Are thuggish boors who have no respect for freedom of speech or peaceful exchange of ideas (which by the way were hallmarks of Indian culture) now going to decide what passes for Indian Culture. I sincerely hope not.

I wonder if those opposing Deepa Mehta thought of going across to Sri Lanka to disrupt the filming process. I mean if it is worth fighting about it should be worth fighting about anywhere in the world. The analogy about dogs barking only in their own street comes to mind. Anyway, I wish Deepa Mehta all the luck at the Oscars and with all future endeavors. I would rather live in a society that allows for debate and discussion than be living in a society where ruffians hijack good sense. Where would you rather be?