That time I bought out a movie theater to show ‘Crazy Rich Asians’

It all began with a cover story from The Hollywood Reporter entitled “The Stakes Are High for ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ — And That’s the Point. The article chronicles how filmmaker Jon Chu and writer Kevin Kwan had to make a tough decision about how/where to create a film version of Crazy Rich Asians:

Behind one door: Warner Bros., which had outbid other traditional studios with a distribution offer for Crazy Rich Asians a week earlier. Behind the other: Netflix, the great disrupter, which had come in hot the following Monday, dangling complete artistic freedom, a greenlighted trilogy and huge, seven-figure-minimum paydays for each stakeholder, upfront. Now Warners had come back with not so much a counteroffer as an ultimatum, giving the filmmakers just 15 minutes to pick an option.[…]

Kwan and Chu had already tried to rationalize the cash grab: “Maybe we donate a percentage of our extra income to great causes,” Chu recalls the two having discussed the night before. “But where does that money go? Right back to trying to get to this position of getting us [Asians] on the big screen.”

No wonder Kwan, 44, was nervous. “I could sense every lawyer on the call shaking their heads: ‘Ugh, these stupid idealists.’ Here, we have a chance for this gigantic payday instantaneously,” he says. “But Jon and I both felt this sense of purpose. We needed this to be an old-fashioned cinematic experience, not for fans to sit in front of a TV and just press a button.” Adds Chu: “We were gifted this position to make a decision no one else can make, which is turning down the big payday for rolling the dice [on the box office] — but being invited to the big party, which is people paying money to go see us.”

Asian Americans have been starved for big screen representation for decades. Not since The Joy Luck Club was released 25 years ago have we seen a film by a Hollywood studio set in modern times, starring an all Asian and Asian-American cast. Crazy Rich Asians would be that film for us, and Kwan and Chu both felt it was worth gambling millions of dollars on giving it a splashy, theatrical release in an industry where those types of things still have cultural cachet.

People often tell you to vote with your dollars, but when you’re an Asian American, you only get a few chances per century to financially express to Hollywood the types of stories you want to see. So when I heard about this story, I asked myself: What can I do to help? How can I show Hollywood that diversity on screen and behind the camera can mean big business?

I’d heard that there was a movement (#GoldOpen) to buy out theaters to show the film. I’d never done anything like this before, but after seeing the movie and being deeply moved by it, my wife and I both agreed that this being part of the #GoldOpen movement was a tangible (but not completely insane) way that we could show that we wanted people to Crazy Rich Asians seriously.

So I bought out a small theater in downtown Seattle to show the film this Saturday.

I talked about my rationale for doing so on this week’s episode of the Slashfilmcast, but I didn’t really expect it to make waves. Next thing I knew I was being featured in Seattle Times story on the subject, then doing interviews with local news stations King5 and KIRO (click the links to watch).

I’ll have a lot more to say about the film itself next week, but for now I just wanted to express my gratitude for the kindness and conscientiousness of all these local journalists who had me on to talk about the movement, not to mention all of my friends and acquaintances who have encouraged me on this little adventure.

It matters which stories society thinks are worth telling. It matters to see yourself and your lived experience represented on the big screen. Representation matters. I hope we can tell this to the world this weekend.

When it is time to leave film criticism

The other day, I saw a tweet from film writer Chris Webster that got me intrigued:

As someone who recently tried to direct a film, I felt like I understood what Webster was talking about. When you try to go through the process of making a film (even a tiny indie film), it changes your perception of movies altogether. It makes the great ones seem even more miraculous, and the terrible ones feel more tragic.

I contacted Webster to see if I could get him to talk more about his decision to leave film criticism. He agreed to answer a few questions via email. You can follow Chris on Twitter or at places like Screen Anarchy and Quiet Earth.

David: How long have you been reviewing movies (in print or on the internet)?

Chris: The first time I was paid to review a film was in 2005 when Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker (aka. A Fistful of Dynamite) was re-released through the arthouse circuit. I was writing a film news column for a local weekly called SEE Magazine and lobbied to be allowed to review it as I was a big spaghetti western buff and was desperate to see the film on the big screen.

I remember the photo that was published along with the review was from a completely different film, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon as I recall, and for some reason I was crushed when I opened the paper the following Tuesday morning on my way to University, thoroughly convinced that readers would assume I was responsible for the gaff and my days as a cineaste would end prematurely.

That weekly paper folded two years later which is when I started investigating the online world, reading sites like Ain’t it Cool News, Twitch Film (now ScreenAnarchy), First Showing, Slashfilm, Bloody Disgusting and others. I was immediately impressed by the relentless pace and scope of the coverage that was possible when you assembled a team internationally and hit most of the major festivals. It was clear that you didn’t need to expend a lot of travel costs for instance, just ensure you made connections with contributors in crucial locations.

I threw myself in and joined the founder of Quiet Earth on a mission to emulate that model. And for a few years we did a decent job growing the team and readership as well as making some great friends in the community along the way. I also have the pleasure to be writing at many of those sites now.

Why did you decide to get into movie writing in the first place?

Look, everyone loves movies, but there’s a limit to how long your friends and family will sit and talk with you about them. I’m sure most of us who have gravitated to blogging about film have faced this and it’s pushed us to find other ways to keep the conversation going. Writing about movies, podcasting, that’s what we’re doing, keeping the conversation going ad infinitum.

Do you make money from writing reviews? What portion of your personal income does it contribute to? Do you have a full-time/day job?

The money I make from writing about movies fluctuates as it’s based on various revenue streams including affiliate partnerships, advertising and commission work. If you’re not staffed full time at a big site, the trick seems to be writing for multiple sites. Since the monthly figure is generally in the hundreds of dollars it doesn’t make up a significant portion of my income. For that I rely on a full-time job in marketing/communications.

Is there a movie review or a moment in your writing career you’re particularly proud of?

As you know, there’s nothing more important than being FIRST! in the online world, so I would say my firsts have been my some of my proudest moments.

For example, I had the opportunity to publish the first English review of Switzerland’s first science fiction film, Cargo. With my permission, Io9 ended up re-publishing the review, which was a nice surprise and I was glad to have been able to help that film get some exposure. It’s very ambitious and beautiful and the director is a really cool guy.

Reviews where I have been extremely positive on a film also seem to stand out as well. My review of Kevin Smith’s Red State for example sticks out because I was able to attend one of the director’s roadshow screenings and the film completely rocked the house. I was floored by that movie and that whole experience definitely helps the review I subsequently wrote stand out in my mind.

I could go on, but I’ll stop at two.

What made you decide to stop writing reviews?

In 2010 I made the choice to try writing a screenplay, just to see if I could. Finishing that 100 page script was incredibly challenging, but also insightful. I sent it around and managed to attract an established director and a producer of movie video game tie-ins. Development hell, as they say, ensued and that project eventually fell apart. But I had caught the bug, so I wrote another one which lead to some time working with an Australian producer, which in tern lead to working on another project with a well known Canadian director. Most recently, I’ve worked on the upcoming series, Dark/Web, from the producers of last year’s Circle.

Once I had gone through development on a number of feature film projects that experience started to warp my process of reviewing films until it became a totally unrecognizable endeavor.

Knowing how the sausage was made on a creative level alerted me to the fact that there was some investigation missing when it came to truly understanding the intention and considerations of a writer and his/her collaborators, which debilitated discussing a film completely. I began losing my ability to write about movies from an emotional perspective, while at the same time, I became frustrated by how I saw others writing about films.

Everywhere I looked, critics seemed willfully unwilling to explore how movies were made in any significant way to enhance their writing. And I started to think, ‘In a world where VICE will go live with terrorists in Iran, or whatever, to bring a level of authenticity to their reporting, I don’t see any movie critics really willing to gain a rich understanding of what it’s like to produce a film from script to screen.’

I believe if more film critics went down this investigative path, tried to write a film or work on a set, it would radically change the profession and the discourse. Because what I see in the space now are critics proclaiming reasons a film isn’t working with very little content to back it up. It’s not enough to say, “Oh, the script was terrible, some of that dialog was on the nose,” which you read all the time, because what are you even talking about exactly? Did you read the screenplay? A screenplay isn’t just the dialog; it’s everything from what we hear on the soundtrack to how the characters are costumed to the tone and pacing. It’s a thousand considerations, each of which will go on to be compromised in some small way by each person who comes along after it’s written to help bring it to the screen. Nobody sets out to make a bad film. For that reason, I think great films are miracles and the idea of reducing this rich and collaborative art form to 500 snarky words seems preposterous to me.

And look, what I am suggesting happens in the film industry as well. I just realized that watching a lot of movies doesn’t necessarily equip you with a robust enough understanding of how films work, or should work, and I realized I was likely doing more disservice to filmmakers than good by bringing more uninformed criticism into the world.

I’ve noticed that many of our critic colleagues who have gotten into producing have quietly moved away from reviewing films altogether. I won’t name names — people can do their research — but I suspect it’s because writing reviews began to feel like a strangely disingenuous exercise for them. Now that I’ve discussed my own decision here, I think I’ll ask them about it. And who knows, maybe they’re just too busy.

Which brings up another reason: it takes a lot of time to write about the work of others when I could be focusing on my own work. Ben Wheatley’s recent comments about not understanding the desire to criticize rather than create hit me right in the gut. It made me consider all the time I had invested in writing bout other people’s creativity and how I wished I had some of that time back to invest in my own endeavors. A very intelligent filmmaker friend of mine takes issue with Wheatley’s sentiments and has suggested that criticism is a critic’s art. After about a year of mulling his opinion, I have decided to respectfully disagree. It’s okay though, we’re still friends.

The final reason I’ve lost interest in reviewing films is that I believe criticism is moving in a very toxic direction where films are being used as political lightning rods to discuss identity politics by some people I would suggest have little interest in movies. I think the market has dictated this. Conflict has always generated clicks, but what this preoccupation with whether or not La La Land is racist [Editor’s note: Um…] has done is drown out those discussing the movie and movies. And I miss that.

On a recent episode of The Canon podcast, critics MTV’s Amy Nicholson and indie Wire’s David Ehrlich discussed the 1998 Academy Award winner Shakespeare in Love. Both of them marveled at how, when going back to read through criticism of it from the time of its release, there was barely any talk of how the film represents gender. They went on to imagine how the film would be put through the think-piece meat grinder if it were released today which struck me as incredibly sad. Gender is a topic worth considering in the film, no question, it’s not that, but it reminded me that we used to sit on films, let history do its thing before assessing their place and relevance in the culture, using context and perspective as an important ally. Now we sort of speed date with movies, savage them with judgment and move on to the next table.

The problem with Louis CK

I tried to articulate some of my issues with Louis CK’s new special, 2017, on the latest episode of the /Filmcast. I used to feel that CK was poking fun at politically correct people — that there was a broader purpose to trying to rile people up with his humor. Of late, I’ve lost that sense and started to perceive his humor as merely inflammatory, rather than commenting on comedy that is inflammatory.

Here’s his recent opening monologue for SNL:

Other people have deeper issues with his humor. Here’s Jeff Ihaza, writing for The Outline, about 2017:

We often look to comedians for philosophical advice or digestible interpretations of our current moment. (President Obama once quoted, and was later criticized for, a Chris Rock joke in a speech about race.) For fans of C.K., who has been accused on multiple occasions of sexual misconduct with women comedians, there are more pressing ethical quandaries and clear limitations of his endlessly cynical worldview. As the writer Vinson Cunningham pointed out in The New Yorker, “In Louis C.K. 2017, he acknowledges the fundamental absurdity of the standup’s recent designation as a purveyor of sociopolitical opinion. ‘Here’s what I think,’ he says, almost rolling his eyes at himself, as he eases into a finely parsed opening routine on abortion.”

Perhaps it is the fault of the modern age. Comedians like Louis C.K. and Dave Chappelle — whose similarly timely Netflix specials premiered last month — were seen as soothsayers once upon a time, able to vocalize their fans’ anxieties and make them laugh. Today, there seems to be a deficiency of such voices. Louis C.K., whom I once considered an insightful, if absurd, philosopher, seems like too much of the wrong thing. In the context of the current mood and with the knowledge that he might be a predatory person, his style betrays something darker than mere self-deprecating wit.

SNL and the logic of interviewing Kellyanne Conway

SNL delivered a mixed bag of an episode with guest Alec Baldwin last night, but there were a couple sketches that really stood out. The first is the cold open with Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer, which continues to be a highlight. The second is this bit about Jake Tapper and Kellyanne Conway:

I was surprised the Conway/CNN kerfuffle had risen to the level of SNL parody, but it is an interesting one to me: CNN passed on having Kellyanne Conway on “State of the Union” last week, a fact that Conway disputed. Why? Because the journalistic value of interviewing Conway has become suspect.

Jay Rosen has been on the anti-Conway warpath for awhile, and he makes some pretty astute observations about how journalists should treat Conway. In an interview with Recode, Rosen lays out his reasoning:

I don’t think the people interviewing Kellyanne Conway know why they’re doing that, meaning that the journalistic logic of it is growing dimmer with every interview […]

The logic is, “This is a representative of the president. This is somebody who can speak for the Trump administration.” If we find that what Kellyanne Conway says is routinely or easily contradicted by Donald Trump, then that rationale disappears. Another reason to interview Kellyanne Conway is our viewers want to understand how the Trump world thinks. If what the end result of an interview with her is is more confusion about what the Trump world thinks, then that rationale evaporates.

 

Melissa McCarthy’s impression of Sean Spicer on SNL

McCarthy’s impression was funny, but I’m more curious about what impact this will have on our actual politics, and on the White House’s relationship with the media. In saner times, Tina Fey’s impression of Sarah Palin showed it could re-shape the popular perception of a vice presidential candidate from a major political party. That was before we had a president who actually seems to watch SNL somewhat regularly and complain about it on Twitter.

I appreciated Emily Nussbaum’s take on it:

It seems possible that Spicer, already a target of Trump’s occasional anger, may face some kind of reckoning for it.

Five Lessons on Virality from Felix Salmon’s Epic Jonah Peretti Interview

It took me awhile but I finally got through Felix Salmon’s epic(ally long) interview with Jonah Peretti. Peretti made millions working on The Huffington Post and now manages Buzzfeed.

Salmon’s interview is long and meandering, but it’s a an insightful discussion on the nature of virality. There’s lots to learn, but here are five points that I found to be particularly salient:

Nowadays, it’s harder and harder to break through, and when you do, you’re popular for a shorter period of time – Back in the day, Peretti created Black People Love Us, which skewered liberal PC sensibilities. But in the early oughts, making something viral had a higher potential to change the course of your life. According to Peretti:

Now you see people do a really cool project or a cool Tumblr and they don’t end up on the Today Show. We were on Good Morning America for Black People Love Us. We had the front page of Sunday Styles for Black People Love Us. The Rejection Line, we were on CNN and in People and in Elle. I think that some project like that today, would not have had the novelty to get the mainstream attention and would have a lot more competition on the web of cool things, and the rate at which they spread has been compressed a lot so things pop for a day or two.

As people/companies try to shoot for the next great viral hit, it’s important to keep in mind the ROI on projects. Building something that will have long-term equity is important, vs. a flash in the pan video that is seen today and forgotten in 48 hours.

The platform is just as important as the content – Peretti realized really early on that building a robust platform at Huffington Post was just as important as getting popular people to write on it:

There were these two models that we just kind of bolted together. One was to make the site itself viral, which was celebrities blogging. I was very focused on making sure that they used the default blogging tools of the Internet. I think that everyone expected us to have some Flash site that wasn’t a real blog…It had all the things that blogs were supposed to have so that people who knew about blogging would see it and say, “Oh, Larry David is blogging.” Not, “Larry David’s doing some weird new thing that Arianna Huffington invented.” We knew that was the piece that was going to make it take off and be contagious. Then Andrew posting links and headlines that were constantly updated would be the thing that made it sticky. You’d come to see the celebrities blogging, you’d say, “Wow, what does this mean? That blogging has evolved in this different way.” And then you would say, “Oh, there’s a good link here. There’s a good link here.” And you would just keep coming back every day. Even if Larry David didn’t blog again for three months, you’d be checking the site because you’d have great links to content around the web. That was sort of the idea.

Master search engines and you master the world – One of the things that Buzzfeed and HuffPo nailed perfectly was optimizing for Google. But it went beyond just standard SEO practices. As Google shifted to enable the surfacing of links in real-time, Buzzfeed shifted its strategy to do the same. Peretti explains:

[A]t BuzzFeed we had figured out that you could rapidly swarm a breaking news topic, particularly about a person, place, or thing that was new, like a beauty queen who loses her crown and no one’s heard of this beauty queen. If you make a great page about that thing, you often could get to the top of Google results just as searches were surging. It was partly because Google got faster indexing at that point. Google was slow indexing and then all of a sudden became quick, and BuzzFeed figured that out in the lab, but then HuffPost editors got really good at it and we’d swarm stories very quickly and often be the first news source to create a comprehensive page for what was happening, linking out to other multiple other sources. Those pages became huge growth generators for the site.

As search engines continue to shift into the real-time/social world, optimizing your site based on new functionality can help you gain traction in ways that were previously impossible.

Optimizing for any single metric can negatively impact other valuable metrics – This one was pretty interesting to me. People normally think that clickthroughs are the sacrosanct metric that drives much of the online publishing business. But Peretti realized that the clickthrough, in and of itself, was not a metric to be valued.

You could show a picture of like an older guy at the beach and be like, “Guess whose body this is?” Then you click and it’s like, “Oh it’s Giorgio Armani” or whatever, and you could get a tremendous clickthrough rate on headlines that didn’t tell you what the story is about. The problem with that is that if you’re just getting clicks that would have gone to another headline on your front page, it’s sending people the content that might not be as good, because they’re clicking because they want to know what’s there. They’re not clicking because they’re interested in what’s there. If they knew that it was Giorgio Armani — if you just did a post saying, “Here’s a picture of Giorgio Armani on the beach” — people who care about that sort of thing would click and people who didn’t wouldn’t. You end up with lots of people who don’t actually want to see Giorgio Armani in a Speedo on the beach clicking that and then feeling like, “Oh god, why did I do that?” Like, “That was a waste of time.”

In other words, you can optimize for JUST clickthrough but you’d potentially be alienating readers and not investing in the long term health of your site.

Furthermore, the rise of the social web, in the form of Twitter and Facebook, have made it more important for headlines to accurately represent the content they are labeling. People often share headlines and then describe what they think of them, thus personalizing articles in ways that aren’t possible with headlines that are devoid of info.

Instead, the focus should be on the quality of the content. Says Peretti, “If you’re making entertainment content, which is a big part of what we do, you look at that hit and you say, ‘Why was that successful? Can I do it again? Can I make something else that people really love and want to share?’ And you try to vary it, even though you know doing something derivative would work. Long term, you want to have a deeper understanding of how to make great things. That’s really the focus.”

“Life is tricky because it happens once and there’s no opportunity for A/B testing” – For someone who works rigorously on optimizing his content, Peretti admits that there’s no way you can really optimize for your life. I just loved the way the piece ends:

[It’s possible] that this life you’re living is the best or among the top 5 percent of lives that you would have lived, and in lots of other ones you’d end up in an alley or in an unhappy relationship or with a job where you’re not intellectually fulfilled, and that you have found this amazing path. It’s also possible that you’re not even in the top 50 percent of lives and that your life is really tragic and that despite all the wonderful and impressive and amazing things you’ve done, that you had the potential to do all these incredible other things that would have been either bigger in scale or more fulfilling or more modest and simple, but more pleasurable or whatever. That there were all these other paths that would be better. It’s, I think, hard to say whether there is something I missed that would have made things much better. In general, I’m pretty happy, and all these imagined alternate lives, I wouldn’t know how to even begin to speculate on how they’d compare.

The Travails of a Wannabe Screenwriter

Man, I adored this piece by Stephen Harrigan about his struggles trying to (or not trying to?) make it big in Hollywood as a screenwriter (via Matt Singer):

I had wanted to be a screenwriter since 1962, when I walked out of the Tower Theater in Corpus Christi, Texas as a very different 14-year-old boy than when I had walked in. The movie was Lawrence of Arabia, and watching it was like being sucked into a wormhole and delivered to an alternate universe. The unworldly disorientation I experienced was due in large part to David Lean’s direction, to his unprecedented sense of scale and pace and purpose, and to the Maurice Jarre score, which half a century later was still so haunting to me that I sometimes use it as the ringtone on my cellphone. But Lawrence of Arabia had another dimension, one that I had never really noticed before. For the first time, I was aware that movies were written, not just somehow fortuitously assembled. It was obvious that the dialogue—“The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts” or “What attracts you personally to the desert?” “It’s clean.”—had to have been set down somewhere in cold print, not just thought up on the fly. And it was more than the dialogue itself that made me take notice of the name Robert Bolt; it was the wordless action as well, the way the scenes steadily built and drew upon each other to produce such a satisfying impression of momentum and coherence.

How To Make a Hit Basic Cable Network

John Landgraf is the president of FX, a TV network that rose from the rubble to become one of the most exciting ones in existence. I found his recent interview with Kim Masters on KCRW’s The Business to be hugely insightful and fascinating. In particular, Landgraf reflects on his decision to pass on Breaking Bad, a decision that he doesn’t necessarily regret, but one that he certainly would have done differently today. Check out the whole thing below (the interview begins 6 minutes in):

 

One of my favorite bits occurs when Landgraf discusses the uselessness of focus groups:

People don’t always know what they want. That’s the problem with research and the problem with focus groups. I mean, what group of people could tell you “What we really want is Avatar,” or “what we really want is South Park” or “What we really want is The Simpsons“? Those things didn’t exist in anything like that form before they existed, and people love them. So, creative people’s jobs is to imagine the existence of things that don’t exist, and people can’t always tell you what they want and they’re often confused by really innovative work. Until they’re not.