Timing is Important, but Story is King

LIVING IN THE

The motion picture industry understands how to time the release of a feature film. Studios block out release dates years in advance to make sure their blockbusters have little competition. Even independent films attempt to release during down screen times to minimize the competition. But there seems to be a group of filmmakers that are more concerned about the actual dates than the competition.

Faith-based filmmakers compete for release dates around Easter, convinced their audiences want to see a religious picture during the highly celebrated season. While that might be the case, past surveys consistently reflected that those who enjoy the faith-based genre are only willing to see 1.5 movies in a given month.

That means the first faith-based film released, with some level of fanfare during the Easter season, will take the audience out of the equation for other faith-based films. This year I Can Only Imagine released first and drew in $80MM, Paul, Apostle of Christ released second and drew in $17MM, and God’s Not Dead 3 drew in $5MM.

While a substantial consideration, it’s not always the release dates that make the difference. The above films happened to be released in order from best to worst story. Regardless, an overabundance of a genre’s films during a specific timeframe can quickly saturate a niche market.

Plus, the average moviegoer only watches four films a year. That means the person who watched I Can Only Imagine and probably watched Black Panther only has two more films left to watch. The faith-based film attender might hold off on another genre film to consider a summer blockbuster that their peers will discuss at the water cooler, and a Christmastime film for the entire family to enjoy.

When I’ve talked to producers of faith-based films, they’ve made it clear that they never consider secular competition. This is a peculiar situation since avoidance of thought never reduces the number of actual competitors vying for box office dollars. And, everyone in the industry knows that PG-13 films, which are typically aimed at some form of family, are watched by members of all faith groups.

Movieguide’s annual report to the industry points out how family-friendly films, with elements of faith and patriotism, always bring in more box office dollars than the competition. This has been consistently true since I’ve tracked it over the past 20 years. In fact, when the audiences of successful blockbusters are looked at closely, people who live by faith are the ones that make a significant uprise in the box office.

One could surmise, yet no one has taken that bold step to publish a thesis on the topic to date, that those who live by faith are the determining factor in a film’s box office success. If that is the case, then faith-based filmmakers should become masters of the craft in order to drive their films’ successes. And, those who live by faith must be educated in how their ticket purchase determines what films succeed.

Now, I’m not talking about forcing change by purchasing up tickets for bad faith-based films to spur on the genre. I’m talking about faith-based filmmakers learning how to tell great story. The audience will always promote a film with great story. Consider Black Panther as a perfect example of a great story that took off.

Some might say it was the black community that came out in droves to support the film, but I say that’s foolishness. Anyone tracking Tyler Perry’s career knows that he regularly draws the niche black audience, which doesn’t look anything like the audience watching the Black Panther. The story was great and therefore pulled in a great audience.

I’ve heard that there are 12 faith-based films attempting to position their release for next Easter. The one that will win the box office is the first best story released. The others will have dismal results. This begs a new question—Why aren’t the 12 faith-based films releasing one a month throughout the year?

The answer suggested to me last month by a faith-based producer went like this… “Faith-based films preach; they don’t tell story, so none of them can stand on their own without the churches pushing people to attend.”

While the producer sounded cynical, I’m pretty sure his comment has some merit. Film is a story-based, emotional medium that does not handle preaching well. Radio, on the other hand, is an ideal medium for preaching. Finding the right medium for the right message is crucial to reaching an audience.

Independent horror films use similar production processes as faith-based films. Instead of focusing on preaching, horror films focus on generating screams or startlement. Both typically generate about the same expense to box office ratio and few of either genre put story first.

A Quiet Place is a horror film with a message on parenting that is driven by story, not scream gimmicks. Because of its focus on story, the film should soon cross the $150MM box office mark. The key to the film’s success wasn’t being timed for Halloween, since it was released this spring, but the fact is the story was king, focusing on parenting children in a hostile world.

Release dates are important to avoid too much competition, but without story being the key focus, timing won’t matter.

Copyright © 2018 by CJ Powers
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The Shape of Best Picture

Academy AwardsThe Shape of Water took home the Best Picture Oscar® and was the perfect choice in reflecting the media’s interpretation of who we as a country have become. The picture presented the LGBTQ community in a positive light and as the new norm of society, even though it makes up less than 2% of the population. The story also focused those with a liberal we/they political mindset to a new enemy and quickly divided the audience.

The antagonist, or the uber bad guy in The Shape of Water, was a white, Christian man who required his wife to submit and loved shooting guns. The proxy antagonist was a white, male business owner who, after being propositioned by a homosexual, refused to serve the man going forward. Both men were put into the light of being extremely evil.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was snubbed, in the name of politics, even though it was a better choice. That’s not to give my stamp of approval for it, as I’d prefer a couple films that weren’t nominated due to its lack of politics.

In Three Billboards, the protagonist treated everyone the same and demonstrated unity. No dispensation was required of any people group, as everyone in the film was equal. The protagonist and antagonist had a profound respect for each other. While neither backed off of their heated position, they treated each other with a commendable amount of dignity. They shared laughs and tears, and made sure each one’s opinion was clear and respected, regardless of the conflict between them.

Some say the large increase in Academy members included people that haven’t mastered their craft, but are politically far left, making a difference in the award outcome. While minorities were limited in the past and the pendulum swinging wide will help balance the industry, many members are now voting based on politics for the sake of balance, rather than on art.

I watched all nine movies nominated for Best Picture and disagree with the outcome. While The Shape of Water was brilliantly made, the story was working overtime with its heavy-handed political agenda—destroying the very art it was creating. Three Billboards respected the audience and provided a unique look at political issues that are worth considering by both sides.

Last week I was at a conference with numerous filmmakers and television producers. I had a chance to talk with many of them and watched seven film premieres. Most of the pictures took the we/they approach of an overt, in-your-face presentation. But one film, which brought me to tears, demonstrated a respect for the audience and stirred everyone in the room with what I’ll call “the right way” to present inclusion. I’ll share more about that film in a future post.

This year’s Best Picture is a perfect selection if the award is to represent the political climate in our nation. Many filmmakers have jumped on the bandwagon of overt content to further the phenomenon of dividing our culture with the we/they mentality—a sad commentary.

Art, when done without an overt and disrespectful agenda, helps the nation look at important issues, while uniting both sides in the name of healthy progress.

Unfortunately, The Shape of Water did not respect the audience and elevated the LGBTQ community as the new norm, which in of itself might help the pendulum swing to a healthier place, unless the lack of respect neutralizes the effort. Three Billboards shared the same valuable message without alienating or disrespecting its audience.

I’m a firm believer that films should artistically stir change through exploration, not politics. And, the award for Best Picture should be given to the best crafted film, not to the one with an in-your-face political agenda. So, call me old fashioned, because the trend is not likely to change until filmmakers that believe in the intrinsic value of storytelling get funded.

Copyright © 2018 by CJ Powers

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Where Do I Sit?

Theater_Seats

The weekend has arrived and those dating are most likely headed out to dinner and a movie, but they don’t know where to sit in the theater. Most know to avoid the first few rows and some will make sure they don’t end up in the back of the theater unless they like being remote. But few know, for which seats the director designed the movie.

Theaters range in size and shape and follow the rudimentary formats prescribed by the National Association of Theater Owners and the Motion Picture Association of America. These formats are based on screen ratios and the projector’s “throw” of light based on lumens, curvature of the lens and the screens’ reflective material.

Let’s make it simple…

Without trying to figure out the complex formulas to determine seating placement, a well-designed theater will provide good seating about two thirds of the way back from the screen. Unfortunately that’s based on typical screens being about 20’ X 47’ and the theater having a total depth of… Nope, let’s keep it simple.

Have you ever attended the rehearsal of a stage show? Did you notice that the director always sits in a specific place? Or, how about at a concert venue, did you notice where the mixing board is located?

Microphone jacks are typically placed in the ideal location for the director to plug in his headset or microphone in professional, university and high school theaters. This gives him the closest view of the stage, while still being able to see the entire stage. If he moves closer, he can’t get the big picture. If he moves further back, he can’t focus on the detail.

In film, the same rule of thumb holds true. When a director is viewing his final mixed film, he is seated based on the screen location and surround sound speakers. Even in the mixing room the director is positioned in the ideal location and makes all the decisions based on that spot.

When the show releases to the silver screen the ideal location is about 2.5X the screen height back from the movie screen. If you select a seat in that location, you’ll notice surround speakers directly to the left and right of you. The entire movie was created based on those seats. Any other point of view changes the impact of the film.

For instance, if you don’t like horror films you can sit in the back to diminish the surprise factor and reduce the emotional pull on your heart. If you enjoy rollercoaster like action films you can move closer to the screen to keep your head moving and help your stomach churn your latest meal.

Regardless of the screening room size, you’re safe sitting 2.5X the screen height back from the screen in order to see the film as the director designed it.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

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Niche Groups Claim Wonder Woman

Subcultures Support Wonder Woman’s Messages

Social Media was abuzz for the past two weeks as various subcultures claimed that the Wonder Woman movie supported their cause. From feminists to Christians, niche audiences praised director Patty Jenkins for creating the long awaited female superhero.

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I watched the movie on opening night to get the story’s full impact followed by a second viewing where I could deconstruct the film to understand its underlying messages and structure. I was pleasantly surprised at how Jenkins crafted the story with feminine and masculine scenes, including several mash up scenes with reversed roles.

But more fascinating to me was the reaction of various niche groups claiming the film was the first superhero movie that included their subculture ideologies. I hadn’t seen such a response since the first Star Wars film released. Neither Star Wars’ George Lucas nor Wonder Woman’s Patty Jenkins acknowledged the attempts.

In fact, Jenkins denied the question of purposely supporting the feminist groups.

“I can’t take on history of 50 percent of the population just because I’m a woman,” Jenkins said to the Hollywood Reporter.

“I don’t care about that at all. I just want to make great movies,” she said in another interview.

Subcultures are not aware of how much their social media comments can build up pressure that battles a director’s artistic choices. When considering what film to direct, Jenkins walked away from Thor: The Dark World because it wasn’t the right fit, which led her to the Wonder Woman opportunity.

“There have been things that have come across my path that seemed like troubled projects,” she said to Reporter Tatiana Siegel. “And I thought, ‘If I take this, it’ll be a disservice to women. If I take this knowing it’s going to be trouble and then it looks like it was me, that’s going to be a problem. If they do it with a man, it will just be yet another mistake the studio made. But with me, it’s going to look like I dropped the ball, and its going to send a very bad message.’ So I’ve been very careful about what I take for that reason.”

Jenkins is another director who creates movies for the general audience. She is diligent in how each scene comes together and what works on screen. Jenkins crafts each scene as a gift of love for all ticket holders.

“I hope they feel inspired to be a hero in their own life and learn love, thoughtfulness and strength,” Jenkins said on GMA.

She has also been humbled by the experience and hopes that she lived up to what the fan base requires, while expanding the film to a more universal audience.

“I couldn’t believe the entire time we were making the movie what was in our hands. I thought, ‘Yes, I love Wonder Woman,’ but also we’re making a movie about someone who wants to teach love and truth in the world right now—and who is incredible—and we want to live up to everything in a superhero movie, but her message is, ‘but lay down those weapons. I believe in a better you in the future,’ which I love,” Jenkins said on CBS This Morning.

After watching several of Jenkins’ interviews, I realized that her work was focused on creating an effective mythology that might stand the test of time. It wasn’t about a woman in the main role, but a story that audiences could understand from their own perspective.

“It’s not about being a woman or being a man, it’s a person’s story that everyone can relate to,” Jenkins said to Tome correspondent Eliana Dockterman.

Just as Lucas did with Star Wars, Jenkins built a mythology that was easily adaptable by all niche groups wanting to claim the film as their own. The power of the film was based on the viewers’ perception, not the specific content. All Jenkins did was direct the film to the best of her ability. It’s the subcultures that claimed the film was made with them in mind.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

A Surprise Request to Screen Megan Leavey—Review

MEGAN LEAVEYRegal Cinema contacted me with the hopes of attending a prerelease screening of Megan Leavy. The invitation was not the standard film review request, as veterans were also invited to attend. Surrounded by heroes, my expectations quickly grew. I wondered if director Gabriela Cowperthwaite might be the next Oscar winning female director along side of Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty).

Megan Leavey receives a wide release on June 9, 2017. The film is based on a true life story of a young Marine Corporal (Kate Mara: House of Cards, The Martian, Iron Man 2) whose unique discipline and bond with her military combat dog saved many lives during their 100 plus missions in Iraq.

While the film takes you on a journey with Leavey and Rex training to be warriors, and even highlights a few missions, the film is not a war movie.

“I think of Megan Leavey as a relationship movie about someone learning to value themselves by virtue of valuing and caring about something else,” said director Gabriela Cowperthwaite.

Known for her documentaries on the protection of animals, Cowperthwaite made sure the audience experienced what the dogs and their partners work through during their bomb sniffing duties.

MEGAN LEAVEYThe film opens with Leavey living a hot mess of a life. She runs away from it by joining the Marines. Through a series of circumstances, Leavey is assigned to partner with Rex, her military German shepherd. They train hard together and build a relationship that helps Leavey understand what love and devotion is about.

Midway through the film they face an attack and both suffer an IED injury that puts their partnership in jeopardy. Leavey puts in for retirement and seeks to adopt Rex so they can work through their healing process together as civilians, but Rex gets redeployed making Leavey’s PTSD recovery extremely difficult.

For Rex’s sake, Leavey steps up her life, as a Marine would, and goes to battle for Rex’s retirement and his adoption. Her shear will and passion for Rex is enough to spark her creativity and she does what no one had every done before. The outcome will bring pride to your heart and a tear to your eye, especially if you are a dog lover or know a veteran who had a hard time adapting to civilian life.

Unfortunately the film has several unnecessary scenes that make it feel about 20 minutes too long. And, a few scenes that you’d love to see in depth were only alluded to instead of being shown. However, the acting is top notch by most of the cast and the love between Leavey and Rex will keep your interest.

PosterAfter the screening several veterans sitting nearby shared how they knew a person just like Leavey and felt the overall story was accurate concerning their attempts to reintegrate into civilian life. They also loved watching the end credits featuring footage of the real Megan Leavey and Rex.

Also in attendance was a millennial filmmaker who discussed the film with me as we left the theater. We debated about the holes in the story and the lack of exploration in the areas of Leavey’s life that I wanted to better understand. But we quickly agreed that this moderately budgeted film was well worth supporting, as non-blockbuster films (the theater staples of the past century) seem to be few and far between.

We also agreed that Cowperthwaite was not the next Oscar contender, nor was the film a war movie. Megan Leavey is a dog lover’s movie about finding oneself through the caring of another. While the intensity of the battle scenes should be avoided by children, the film is of value to older kids.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

The Student Body – Review

screen-shot-2016-09-19-at-9-14-36-pmThe rebirth of ethical journalism was evident in this controversial documentary. The filmmaker held nothing back in pushing to get truth and perspective from lawmakers that launched the measuring of embarrassed children to obtain countywide obesity numbers for political purposes.

The Student Body follows student journalist Bailey Webber as she seeks to learn why her friend received a terrible letter from the school administration stating that she was obese. Lawmakers had implemented controversial mandates requiring students to have their body mass index (BMI) recorded in the name of reducing the student obesity epidemic.

Webber battled months of red tape and chased after political figures to learn that the government hadn’t consulted a single doctor or child psychologist during the development of the law. Her perseverance finally landed an interview with the man that led the development of the law, after being turned down by him dozens of times.

Not only did the film open the viewer’s eyes to the controversial program that now includes 20 plus states (Webber’s state no longer on the list), but also it unearthed the fact that lawmakers are no longer concerned about the public’s viewpoint. And, they have changed enough laws to control the public’s freedom of speech so it no longer interferes with their tactics.

This politically charged documentary told from a teenager’s perspective premieres October 5th in New York City. While there are several slow segments, the most compelling elements are tied to a passionate teenager who drives the audience’s thirst for truth and justice.

There is no doubt in my mind that Webber has earned the right to produce a sequel. Her earthy style demands the audience’s attention, as she initiates authentic encounters that produce truth regardless of the person’s choice to remain silent or politically correct.

It’s been years since a journalist sought after the truth regardless of viewpoints or political positioning. Webber’s gift to the audience also includes her growing awareness that our government does not work like she was taught in school.

The awakening from her innocence is readily shared with the audience, not as a girl who is crushed under the weightily system, but as a young woman emerging into a person of strength—ready to straighten out our government and realign it to the constitution.

The Student Body is a must see documentary if you want hope that the next generation is capable of correcting our distorted government.

©2016 by CJ Powers

Star Trek 50th Expands Technologically

STB_Enterprise_Cloud_Beyond_Teaser_1SheetStar Trek Beyond released today on the 50th anniversary of the Star Trek television series. To celebrate the golden anniversary, the make-up team based in Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Dubai, set out to create 50 unique alien races to appear in the film. In reality, the final count was 53 plus all the versions of characters within each race.

The movie was the first in the Star Trek series to step away from film. The digital equipment was selected for various reasons, but the most important was its ability to extend the frame with additional information. While there are only 30 theaters that will show the extended imagery, Star Trek is being lauded for its advancements with Barco Escape.

Barco Escape projection equipment allows the theater to show the movie not only on the main front screen, but also on the two sidewalls as well. This gives the audience a sense of being in the story or location that fills their periphery. Since most of the locations are created with CGI, it was easy to extend the scenes to incorporate additional information without having to worry about film grain.

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Selected theaters attached two additional screens on the sidewalls. This process was first tested with The Maze Runner in 15 theaters. Modifications from lessons learned were incorporated into the Star Trek release. It’s hard to say if the audience will appreciate being more absorbed in the visuals, or if it will just be the next gimmick in theatrical marketing.

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Left to right: Chris Pine plays Kirk, Sofia Boutella plays Jaylah and Anton Yelchin plays Chekov in Star Trek Beyond from Paramount Pictures, Skydance, Bad Robot, Sneaky Shark and Perfect Storm Entertainment

The good news is that regardless of which of the five release formats you watch, including IMAX and 3D, the story is strong enough to stand on its own. The character development is in keeping with what made the series successful and the visual effects incorporate nods to Inception and Star Wars.

The story is easy to follow and the adventure fuels enough energy to excite the audience throughout the film. The character development including Scotty’s probable love interest is sufficient to make each character relatable to the audience. This juxtaposition of adrenalin, humor and honor is sure to make fans believe Rodenberry’s vision to be just around the corner: a huge society of all kinds of people and aliens co-existing peacefully.

Copyright © 2016 by CJ Powers