ALL Entertainment Should Increase The Current Value Proposition

Chris Dorr's recent post on MoviePass helped me recognize the world as it truly is today.  It wasn't MoviePass that I needed to recognize.  It was that the same thing that allowed Independent Film to flourish is the same thing that is now spurring on innovation everywhere.  Once filmmakers stopped asking for permission to tell their stories, the floodgates opened to a far more diverse approach to culture generation.  To the powers that be the end of permission looks like anarchy, but to the leaders to come, this is the stepping stone to necessary change.  And we are seeing that now. MoviePass, for those yet to explore it, is essentially the Netflix of Theater-going: One price for access to an all you can eat buffet.  MoviePass also has made a history of getting the stakeholders seriously bent out of shape.  From the onset, MoviePass did not see a requirement to ask for permission to innovate.  And they got shut out by the theaters subsequently as a result.  But they found a work around and sustained. Now they have found a better way, and people are getting riled up again.

The first thing that bothered people about MoviePass was that the theater owners were not consulted.  Unfortunately civil behavior falls by the wayside in the charge to innovate.  Remember when you had to call everyone for a group meeting?  And now you just send a group email.  No one wants to move slow any more.  They prefer to just get it done.  Since MoviePass is paying the theaters for the tickets anyway, why is it such a big deal -- particularly if more people are now going to the movies, buying more popcorn, and shelling out for parking.  Doesn't everyone win?

Oftentimes we know not what we do when we step ahead in line.  Where does this path of efficiency lead.  Virtually all social media and online activity serves one god: the mighty one of data mining.  The aggregation of all our likes, wants, connections, and routes is generating new wealth and multiple hands into our wallets.  Is it really theirs to take?

James Shamus, my former partner and head honcho at Focus Features, pointed out in his recent conversation with Christine Vachon at IFP's Independent Film Week (if you didn't tune in, you can watch it here, or read FilmmakerMag's 12 Tips here):

"Every time you click — on a “like” button, or a download link — you are producing. You’re producing “exhaust data,” information about yourself that is then used to market to you and others like you. Filmmakers need to be aware of this new model. Other people are monetizing it now, but they don’t have the same relationship to film culture” as the previous generation of distributors."

Does the information about our wants, interests, and desires belong to us?  Are others free to take it?  Do they need to ask permission?  What if they just use it, and don't display it?  What if by using that information, they make our life better, or at least appear to be better?  Do people care?  Should they?

As evidenced by people's use of Facebook, Twitter, and many many other social media sites, I honestly don't think most people care about this sort of data mining privacy issue (which is not to say they shouldn't).

I also think many people LOVE the efficiency that comes from data mining . Honestly, if no one is now pairing film goers with discount dinner deals in the neighborhood, do we want to stop them from ever doing so?  If data mining improves the value proposition of movie going, thus increasing attendance and generating wealth for the creators, their supporters, and many folks in between should we be shutting it down.  Shouldn't increasing the value proposition of entertainment be something that all movie people want ?

You can count that many new services are being developed that aim to this, and I think theaters should encourage it as it will make moviegoing more enticing.

As a filmgoer, I tried MoviePass while I was still living in NYC.  I shared my thoughts on the future of film business with them, and the company gave me a free trial membership. I am obviously already an avid moviegoer, but the MoviePass model increased even my attendance and reduced the value of things like Netflix. Why have a hamburger at home when you can have a filet minon in a palace.  Because I felt that I had saved money, despite being tight with my cash, I coughed up for popcorn and other delights.  I had about 7 theaters accessible to me that took MoviePass (prior to this new credit card thing they announced) and it got me to the theaters at least twice a week. The theaters all got paid the full price possible from my ticket — I saw that they regularly input $15 because they could.

I totally get the frustration about not being consulted, but I think Chris Dorr's article is right on: permission is not the business policy of today.

We in the film industry need to come up with ways that are not capital intensive that improve the value proposition of cinema. I think the easiest way to do that is to build more social events into movie going — audience needs to transform into community. Audiences need to be curated as much as films do. Ultimately increasing the social value and utility of movies is one of the services that film festivals play — as do community theaters.

There is huge value in community, well beyond ticket sales. As data mining demonstrates, it can generate wealth.  MoviePass seems to realize that. I bet MoviePass can be moved to become a real ally of community theaters, as well as movie goers. Ultimately everyone wants to increase theater attendance — and that is the only way that I can think of that the MoviePass business model can work (and if it does, doesn't everyone win?).  Filmgoers will get a better experience, theaters will sell more tickets & concessions, and MoviePass has direct access to the customers.  Winwinwin.  Yes?

Twenty Tips For Packaging Your Project Successfully

On Monday September 17th, Jay Van Hoy and I had a public discussion for IFP's Independent Film Week on how to package your film.  I drafted this post up to help prepare me for the discussion.

Producing requires that you look beyond your own projects and looks at how you build it better for everybody. I frankly don't have respect for producers who only work on their projects. I want to know they give back to the community in general.  That does not have much to do with packaging frankly, but it is why I write this blog.

To that end, I want to share with you my thoughts on how to package your film in such a way that your film will gather momentum, get made, and succeed in the marketplace.  I have come up with twenty  points.  I wanted to know what I forgot, so I hope you add to the list.

  1. Recognize what you are doing when you package a project.  You package a project because you want to finance or sell your film.  You put actors in it not just for the creative enhancement, but also for the financial benefit.  If you fail to make the movie or to use the actors well, you devalue them in the market place.  That's a HUGE risk for them.  It's not true that if an actor attaches herself to the project and it doesn't get made, no harm is done.  Attaching an actor exposes them to the marketplace -- and kind of checks their value.  If a project an actor attaches himself to does not get made, it appears that buyers are not interested in them (because they presume that audiences does not value them).  By attaching actors to your project, you are risking their career.  Do not even approach them, until you are can demonstrate to everyone around them that is not the case.
  2. Develop a positive reputation for consistently delivering films of quality and acclaim.  It may sound like a Catch 22, but if you want to make movies, you have to make movies (or work with people who do).  If you want to work with the best, you have to demonstrate you are one of them.  The best way to get a script read is to have been associated with other great scripts.  The work you do today is really work you are doing for tomorrow; it's all part of the chain.  If you develop a positive reputation things will go better for you than if you develop something to the contrary.  That common sense somehow has not stopped the business from being filled with jerks and hot air, but if employed (common sense that is), it will pave the way towards easier packaging.
  3. Respect agents and their time.  Don't harass them.  It is an art learning how to get things done and move things ahead, without annoying people.  Actors and agents have 1000s of submissions.  And that's just every day.  You want to learn how to make everyone want to take your calls.  Balance calls with emails.  Recognize that they have staff meetings on Mondays.  Recognize that weekend reads are generally fully decided by Thursday.  Don't expect top agents to read your script until covering agents and junior agents have already raved about them.  Do you homework.  Prepare.  Be ready before you act.
  4. Build relationships.  What you do today, helps you tomorrow -- even if you do not know what tomorrow will bring.  Strong relationships with agents and managers  -- and actors -- are the best thing you can do for packaging your project -- even when you don't yet have the project you are going to be packaging.  You want to make the agents want to work with you.
  5. Finish your script.  Get it under 115 pages.  Hell, get it under 110.  Or even shorter.  70 is the new 80.  Don't fudge the standard conventions.  Fix the punctuation.  Make sure the emotional beats resonate.  Make sure the moments of the characters' transformation are clear.  Make it a fun and easy read.  You get one chance.  Don't fuck it up.  Once you know you are done, you still should cut another 10%.
  6. Enhance your project beyond your script.  A good script is not enough.  When you submit a script for consideration, you need to have more than a script ready. Your director should write a personal letter to the actor in advance.  Ditto on her director's statement. You should create an image book, mood reel, or anything that will further enhance the clarity of the creative vision.  Make sure your team makes sense for this project.  Know whom your other cast ideas are. Scout.  Budget. Storyboard.  Build the transmedia extensions.  Whatever it takes and then do some more.
  7. Build respect & knowledge about your team.  This is most crucial about your director but it can equally hold true about your other collaborators.  If your director is not known, it is your job to get her known.  There is no excuse for not having prior work to show.  These days a short can be made for next to nothing. Why will talent's gatekeeper let them work with your director?  Demonstrate their talent.  Get endorsements from festivals and other tastemakers. Help your directors build a presence in social media. If you want an actor to commit to your project, you need to give them as many reasons as possible.
  8. Have money, or at least make it plausible that you will.  No one is going to attach themselves if they don't think the movie will get made.  Financing is key to this, but it is not the only thing.  Your track record, or your team's track record goes a long way.  If you don't have one, attach someone that does before you approach talent.  Don't claim you are going to make something for more than seems reasonable for the subject matter and your level of experience -- they won't believe you will ever get it done.  Having sales agency or talent agency representation can help in this regard, as it shows that proven entities believe their is business to be had, but this too is sort of a Catch-22 -- for them to get behind it, they want to have cast attached, generally speaking.  One of the reason the industry is filled with charlatans, is that they serve the purpose of standing in the for the money.  By claiming they will back your project, the fakers give you time to find the real money (if you are so lucky).
  9. Build consensus around the project in advance.  Don't start at the top.  Build support.  Package a team.  If you are a new filmmaker, bring someone with experience on early.  Submit your project to script labs and other support mechanisms that lend your project credibility.  Find passionate advocates for your work and use them.
  10. Offer roles actors want.  Actors like characters who transform over the course of the film. They like their characters to influence the action.  Actors like to work with other actors that they admire -- it can't just be their role that is good.
  11. Make it personal.  If you can get to an actor on a personal (i.e. non-business) all the better.  That is, all the better, but know that the agent is going to hate you and want to destroy you.  Why would an agent ever want their client to do something that they can earn a percentage on AND has the likelihood of diminishing their value if not ruining their career.  That said, because following the rules takes a considerable amount of time, I would probably always move to cast another actor's friends than hold out for the unlikely dream.
  12. Do your research.  Is the actor even available?  Do they like, or want to work with,  the other people attached to the project?  Will they be willing to travel where you are shooting?  Why would they like to do the role?
  13. Be prepared to answer all questions, particularly what the deal is.  Take the time to construct a couple of deals in advance, depending on how the negotiations go.  Know when you want to shoot, for how long, and where.  Know what you can provide the talent in the way of amenities.
  14. Patience.  Stars are busy people.  Their agents, managers, lawyers might be even busier.  If you are an indie producer, you are probably the busiest.  You know how you hate to be pushed? Well, think of that when you want to push.  Anyone you have heard of and want will probably take six weeks to get back to you.  On one movie of mine it took the actor a year; we actually had cast the role once, but the day her agent got back to me was the day the other actress fell out.  Be honest about the time you have with the agent, and then be prepared to increase it.  It is a good sign if they ask for more time -- it means someone's read it and likes it, so bite your lip and wait some more.
  15. Urgency.  The best thing you can do is have a start date.  Well make that: the best thing you can do is have a start date eight weeks out from now -- if you want to attract high caliber talent at a reasonable rate.  Of course that means you have already financed your project, so really now you are casting for quality or enhanced sales.  Still, without a start date, how do you create urgency?  Why do you need to create urgency?  What is the call to action?  If it is not urgent, how do you get them to focus.  
  16. Inevitability.  Inevitability is urgency's cousin.  Or sister. Brother?  Whatever it is, create that feeling around your project.  Inevitability, or a feeling something like it, makes things happen, and happen better.  How do you package that feeling around your film?  Most of the points on this list are about making your project feel inevitable.  The fuller something is, the realer it is.  You need to reveal the weapons in your arsenal.  Use everything you have to make it look likely to happen.  Have confidence, and instill it in others.
  17. Have something for everyone.  You have a series of audiences to engage with: collaborators, buyers, festivals, journalists, audiences, participants.  The people you bring into create the work with, will bring their own relationships and sizzle.  Many producers stop packaging when they get their actor who can bring the money.  You also need the one that brings security -- often an ancillary deal in a foreign territory; an actor on a prominent television show can help here.  You need actors who will get stories on different news platforms; rediscoveries (actors who were once stars) and hot up&comers (younger actors) help a lot in this regard.  It helps to fortify foreign value by casting a foreign star from a difficult or large territory.  Actors from different media can also expand your reach, i.e. bloggers, comedians, porn stars, youtube stars.  Get the picture?
  18. Package in a way that helps others connect the dots.  Actors get typecast because audiences grow accustomed to seeing them in a particular type of film and feel betrayed when they broaden their range.  Marketing gets difficult when you cast a comedian in a thriller.  The same is true for directors that have developed reputations.  If you are thinking outside the box, you need to figure out a pathway to lead others outside the box.  You can get to far ahead of the parade that the audience forgets you are leading them.
  19. Make it an event.  Movies a dime a dozen with no call to action to get the f up and off the couch.  Movies are not rare.  We have a grand abundance of them that we will never catch up to.  You need your  film to leap to the top of everyone's queue.  You must make your film an event.  Mickey Rourke playing Mickey Rourke The Wrestler in The Wrestler was an event.  Someone's return to the screen or their last role motivates an audience.  In direct contradiction to my prior point, sometimes an actor doing what they haven't is an event: Adam Sandler in Punchdrunk Love is an event, but not in Reign Over Me.  Transmedia and other extensions of a story world has the potential to do this.  I rushed to see The Master on 70mm (and was not disappointed).  Secret Cinema in the UK does this well.  We think of a lot of this as marketing, but I see early collaborations with key creatives as packaging too.
  20. Process & strategy.  This list is an attempt to help identify all that can be done to package a movie.  Once you have identified everything, you have to both figure out how and when to do each stage.  When I have built my materials that demonstrate the creative vision of the project, and I feel I have a firm understanding of the business potential for the project, and I feel my script is as good as I am going to be able to get it, I alert the agencies that we will be in town soon.  I send it all to them and set meetings.  They need to have a face to face with your director if they are going to endorse the project.  I know the whole packaging process is going to be a long haul.  I try to figure out things I can do along the way to keep it fresh, reinvent it.  Once something gets stale, you must transform it.

 

 

James Schamus & Christine Vachon Live On YouTube!

My former business partner and a regular collaborator of mine -- both good friends -- will be speaking live at Independent Film Week in 30 minutes at 4P EST. They know as much as anyone on the past & present of indie film;  maybe they can see the future too.  You can watch it live for free on YouTube here.

A SMALL ACT – The Little Things Count

Guest post by filmmaker Jennifer Arnold. How much do the little things count when it comes to staying visible?

My first documentary feature, A SMALL ACT (www.asmallact.com ), opens at the Quad Cinema in New York today. I started the film three and a half years ago with very few resources. DIY filmmaking is hard. We all know that. You have small budgets. You have small crews.

So how can you stand out when you have very little? The biggest lesson I learned while making this film is to leverage any small triumph into something bigger. Use every resource and relationship you have, no matter how small they are. Eventually, all those small things can add up.

Trust me, I started out with nothing, but this film has already been seen by almost a million people and it’s actually changed some of their lives. As this blog points out, there are well over 38 (are you up to 76?) things wrong with indie film today, but that shouldn’t stop any of us. Indie film is daunting, but you can still start small – who knows where you’ll end up.

I promise I’m not going to make this post into a big ad for the film, but the plotline sort of parallels our distribution journey, so bear with me for a moment. A SMALL ACT follows Chris Mburu who was the top student in his Kenyan village, but without money for school fees he had little hope of a future – until a total stranger, Hilde Back, sponsored his early education through a “sponsor a needy child” campaign. She paid roughly $15 dollars a term to keep Chris in school and unbeknownst to her, this tiny contribution paved the way for Chris to go all the way to Harvard Law School. Today he’s a human rights officer for the United Nations. Chris decides to find his sponsor and thank her by starting his own sponsorship program to educate a new generation of kids in his village. There’s a lot more to the story than that, but the core idea is that it only takes one small act to completely change the course of your life (or your film) and there are programs out there that can give us DIY filmmakers a real chance.

We started production as a crew of two. I wrote, directed, did sound and produced. Patti Lee shot the film, produced, did on-set assistant editor work and also cooked lunch for the postproduction crew everyday. We had two great investors, Jeffrey Soros (producer) and Jane Huang (executive producer) but we were still editing the film in the garage with no idea how to get the film done, let alone distributed, and then we got our first (of many) lucky breaks.

We got into IFP’s Spotlight on Docs, which is part of Independent Film Week. I think people probably know what that is, but just in case, it’s a market where filmmakers pitch unfinished projects to distributors, sales agents and other helpful people. It was here that we met Lisa Heller from HBO (another lucky break) and Louise Rosen our foreign sales agent. We wanted the film to be theatrically released, but we also wanted maximum eyes on the project – we got both. I should also mention that the first time we applied for Spotlight on Docs we were rejected, so for anyone out there who hasn’t gotten into this (or any of the other programs out there) – keep trying!

We got a lot of momentum from Spotlight on Docs; we also started making pre-sales (to HBO and ABC Australia), which allowed us to finish our budget. Originally we hadn’t planned on applying to Sundance that year, but with the little momentum we had, we decided to give it a shot. Not only did we get in, we premiered in documentary competition and once again we were the little guys. There were 16 films in competition, I think half of the other filmmakers had won or been nominated for Academy Awards. They all seemed like massive big shots to me. But we had HBO behind us, something that was leveraged from a short meeting at Spotlight on Docs. We had good word of mouth; yes, I asked all my friends to please spread the word about the film. We ended up with standing ovations. Bill Gates and George Soros both showed up to screenings. Roger Ebert wrote a wonderful piece about our film and WAITING FOR SUPERMAN and – the most exciting thing of all – audience members, though totally unsolicited, started handing over donations to the education fund featured in the film.

Over the course of Sundance (10 days) $90,000 dollars was donated to the fund. This was our next lucky break. A lot of people started talking about the impact the film made. Sundance Documentary Fund (which had given us a grant) invited me to attend the Skoll World Forum and talk about film and social impact. A trailer for the film was shown at a TED event. HBO helped launch a major outreach campaign. Each good thing led to the next.

We did a limited theatrical release in April and a HBO broadcast in July. Viewers donated $400,000 dollars to the Hilde Back Education Fund and pledged another million for new students as the fund expands. This got even more people talking, and little by little, we decided to broaden our release into something bigger.

We’re launching the “What’s Your Small Act Campaign?” which is a mix of community screenings and a slow rollout in traditional theatres. We’re starting with the Quad and if our numbers are good we’ll expand. Once again we’re the little guys. There are a lot of great films out there right now and we’ve got no P&A money and no team of people. But being little has worked so far. We’ll see how it goes this week!

A SMALL ACT has been selected by the NYTimes as "Critic's Pick".  You can view the trailer here.

Cage Match: Are the Kids Alright? Youth Audiences in the Art House - Independent Film Conference 2010

Are independent and art-house film doing enough to draw young audiences away from the multiplex and the computer screen, or is the theatrical experience for a older demographic? On September 19th I was invited to participate in a "cage match" with Jeff Lipsky as part of Independent Filmmaker Conference's panelist speaker event last month. We were able to agree on one thing: independent filmmakers need to draw a younger audience. Moderator: Liz Ogilvie, Crowdstarter

Panelists: Ted Hope, This is that Jeff Lipsky, Filmmaker, TWELVE THIRTY

Watch it here:

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IndieWire also covered the debate in an article here.

How Can Indie Film Appeal To Alternative Youth Culture?

Sunday September 19th, as part of Independent Film Week, the IFP invited me to a "Cage Match" with Jeff Lipsky on Indie Film's relationship with youth culture.  The discussion was spurred on by a post of mine "Can Truly Free Film Appeal To Youth Culture ", and the robust discussion everyone had in our comments section to that post, and then still further by discussions on Filmmaker Mag Blog and Anthony Kaufman's column.  It was a good discussion before IFP even proposed the CageMatch, but I appreciated the opportunity to give it more thought. You might have missed it but it's been summed up pretty well by Robert McLellan on GlobalShift.org (thanks to Shari Candler for tipping me to that), Ingrid Koop on the FilmmakerMag Blog, and Eugene Hernandez at Indiewire (although I don't agree, or believe I said, that Indie Film is aimed at white women over the age of 45 -- although they are the dominant audience -- but that we have to prevent Indie Film from being the province of the privileged, old, and white (i.e. me!)). Jeff and I could have blabbed for hours. I have plenty more to say on the issue.

As both a community and an industry, it is critical we look at both the creative, infrastructure, and societal factors for answers of why we have so failed to develop the alternative and youth sectors.  Every other cultural form has a robust young adult sector that is defined both by it's innovation and opposition -- yet in film that is the exception and not the rule.

To me the issue comes down to the fact that unless Indie Film appeals to the under 30's, Indie Film will continue to marginalize itself into the realm of elitist culture like Chamber Orchestras and Ballet. Indie Film as a form is already problematic in the way it self-censors and regurgitates last year's success stories; it needs to be reinvented from within.  We need to encourage and reward rebellion -- plus it's fun, and makes great cinema.

There is often the tendency to essentially blame the audience, but I am believer that American audiences are like the March Hare and "like what they get" (in a future post, I will attempt to demonstrate why blaming the audience is lazy finger pointing).  The issue is not the consumption and appreciation patterns, but the lack of leadership to push for something unique from our creative communities.

What is it that Alternative Youth Culture wants from Indie Film Culture but can't find on the menu?  Granted, as someone pushing 50 I may not be qualified to answer (and I hope some people more of the age of which I speak raise their voices), but I think the answers are numerous (I have sixteen off the top of my head -- and I am sure you can add more).  They feel to me to be relatively timeless, as true to me back at age 20 as they are now to the folks that intern with me.  They deal with both content, context,

  1. immediacy; relevancy to the world we are living in right here right now
  2. controvercy; extremism; intensity; -- content that is not watered down or safe;
  3. honesty; truthful emotions -- not engineered ones;
  4. Respect for the audience that doesn't talk down to them;
  5. Transparency in the process, an attitude and an aesthetic that allows all to see how they too can get it done;
  6. Diversity of voices in accessible content, a commitment to be different from the rest, but a willingness to be part of a specific community -- and not a general audience;
  7. A social component; a live event before or after the screening -- something that offers that random interaction with that person you don't know quite yet but you know loves the same thing that you do (i.e. community building events);
  8. constant reminders of what they appreciate, what they want to belong to -- akin to hearing your favorite song on the radio, again and again, or being in the space that you know your parents would never want you to be or being surrounded by people that hate and love much what you feel similar about;
  9. access for discovery; it's not just a new algorithm we need; software alone can not solve the problem -- how do we find and then immediately experience or possess MORE of what we want when we finally find it; we want to know what our friends know; you hang out in a bar with good music, not just because you like the music and the people, but so you can discover more of what you like.
  10. access to the creators.  Musicians feel like they came from the community to which they perform to; their audience gets to know them in a way that can't be said for filmmakers.  Filmmakers need to embrace "film gigging" as a necessary component of some aesthetic choices.
  11. reactionary attitude and focus towards the world at large, not just the industry/culture they partake in.  If Mumblecore is the dominant strand of current alternative youth culture in film what is it reacting against beyond the Hollywood style of filmmaking? There is a whole world out there that is ready to take a whole lot of abuse.  Give the people something different; show us what we could become (for better and for worse).
  12. accessibility to the creative process; it is often said that anyone can make music AND record a song these days, yet there remain perceived economic barriers to creating film work.
  13. relatable voices and relevant voices; to want to participate, you need to feel you belong.  Who are the filmmakers who are part of the under 30 generation?  How can Indie Film be more than something for old, white, and privileged?  This comes from both the top and bottom, lifting and pushing.
  14. How can the community demonstrate they belong?  Our industry does not produce objects that demonstrate one's love for cinema and its culture?  Where are the fetish objects that can be more than a t-shirt?
  15. Communities need help to coalesce. Help those who want to help you. Young people give themselves to scenes and causes that matter to them; it is a badge of honor to help expand the things you care about it, but how does someone help Alternative Youth Culture Indie Film if they want to bring it to their neighborhood?  We currently aren't making it easy. #JustSaying.
  16. Certain aesthetic approaches encourage participation; others curtail it.  There is a preciousness that dominates in Indie Film, that presumably is predominately derived  from how difficult it is to be prolific.  Right now, most films unfold like they are a proof and not an exploration -- and to compound matters, they are a proof of something we already have realized long ago.  Each film feels like it may be the artists' last.  Each one relishes that it is " A Film By...".  If artists want participation from the community they believe they are part of, they need to get over the arrogant posturing, and admit -- through their work -- that we are all learning as we go along.

I look forward to your suggestions as to how to expand this list.  In the days ahead I hope to find the time to: a) consider the problems with the current infrastructure in supporting an Indie Film Youth Culture; b) why it is a fault of leadership and NOT the audience that we don't have an Indie Film Youth Culture; and c) what has worked, why things that didn't work before could work today, and what has never been in terms of Indie Film Youth Culture.  But then again, I have a movie or two to make and get out there.