Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Shifting Targets

A decade ago in music videos, if a label wanted a director for a specific job, and the director knew he was the first choice, that director could come up with a concept that cost more than the label’s desired budget. If they wanted to spend $400k on a budding pop-diva’s first single, the director could add in some helicopter shots or post effects and get the budget up to $550k – and a lot of the times the label would agree, because they wanted THIS director just that much.

Obviously, those days are long gone. The seller’s market has become a buyer’s market and the labels barely care which director they hire – as long as the final budget hits their target number. As a business strategy, this makes a lot of sense for the labels – they aren’t moving units like they used to and cost-certainty is key.

That ‘back in the day’ director was over-amping his treatment because he wanted to shoot some helicopter shots for his feature reel or try a new post-effect AND to drive the budget higher so his ten-percent (and the exec producer’s as well) would be worth more.

But today’s video directors write outlandishly un-doable ideas for a whole other reason. It seems that everyone in 2009 is ‘stuffing his bra’ to cut through the treatment clutter and deliver an idea that might actually get them noticed by the over-worked commissioner.

The over-the-top concept may jump off the page and get the label folks interested – especially if they are new-ish to the game and don’t know what production actually costs. No matter how wonderful this new and super-expensive idea might be, there is still no more money coming – so the 'too big' ideas simply end up being a waste everyone’s time. Sure, modern technology and ‘one man band’ directors who do their own editing and/or digital effects (and art department AND cinematography) can get a lot done for small bucks – but ‘getting creative’ with the budget only goes so far.

I saw one concept recently that had the whole video shot with the artists and a gorgeous actress (possibly famous! – yeah right) suspended in harnesses above the floor. Not a single scene, or a cutaway was done with this wire harness ‘floating effect’ – but the whole freaking video. Do you know how hard that is? The talent has to get into position with their legs dangling and then try to look cool/sexy/whatever while not letting the strain of mega-wedgies effect their performance. Wire shots are accomplished a few minutes at a time so the talent can be lowered to prevent gangrene of the leg from setting in. Doesn’t matter how much you can record on the latest high tech digital video camera without reloading – most of the footage will be of the artist reaching for their aching crotch or struggling to sway themselves in the desired part of the frame. Plus, this idea took place inside a typical suburban house – which would have low ceilings and no place to rig the wires out of frame above the action. It would take three days (at least) to shoot this idea and I am not even talking about the cost to remove the wires in post – because that was part of the idea as well. Oh, and the budget for this job was UNDER $20k.

That is just an example. I have seen concepts that involved the whole video taking place at night on the slanted roof of an old church (not via green screen). How does the talent stand up there? How many hours does it take to hand-carry all of the heavy lights and equipment up to that unstable and dangerous roof? I have seen concepts with the artist photographed in dozens of different cities, but minus any explanation how or why the artist and the director would take months out of their lives to shoot this multi-state concept for under forty-thousand. No amount of cutting edge technique or film-school endeavor will bend the laws of physics. The Red Camera doesn’t magically create 47 hours of sunlight in a day.

The capper on lots of these impossible to pull off concepts is that the ‘look’ is explained as being like some amazing photograph (Crewdson perhaps?) or a feature film that won awards for the DP. Really?!? So you are going to shoot in some crazed state (hanging from the ceiling, on a roof trying to beat the dawn, rushing to a million locations) and at the same time, generate world class photography?

Certainly the labels must bear some of the weight of this craziness. Commissioners say things like ‘Yeah, this (something actually do-able) idea is fine but it doesn’t seem special.’ That is the kind of ‘creative brief’ that sends directors off into a fantasy-land of un-affordable gags and effects – trying to find something, anything that will catch the eye of those with money to spend. The director wants the job, so they add in more stuff until the treatment feels ‘special’, and everyone’s time is wasted. But it is on the director’s shoulders to come up with a variety of ‘special’ that isn’t just throwing more (imaginary) money at the problem.

I bet the director that submits the second act of Apocalypse Now as his treatment for the $12k job is also the one complaining about the crappy job done by the director that eventually DID get hired when the video finally gets posted on antville. Comparing what someone else did in the world of reality with their own fantasy inside their head, probably has them always coming out on top.

Commissioners and labels like the idea that their measly budget will go as far as possible. And they LOVE the idea that talented and creative people are willing to scrap over the tiny opportunity they have on offer. But, even if the swinging on invisible wires extravaganza grabs the attention of the label, and even if the VP of Brand Marketing loves the idea – it is going to eventually land on the desk of a line producer who is going to enter real numbers into a real spreadsheet and call ‘bullshit’ on the whole process. Or even scarier, maybe the line producer drinks the kool-aid (under duress from the exec producer?) and then the director has to go out and actually turn the overblown concept into a finished video.

Punishment equals answered prayers and all that.

Side note, Mark Cuban wrote something quite fun about the opposite problem – hyping up and overselling a nothing idea with catch phrases and buzzwords. I think every director writing a concept should take this message to heart as well.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Required Reading

It's hard to believe I have neglected to link to this guy, perhaps I am just jealous that he is a commissioner AND out of the blogging closet. Tim Nash works at Atlantic UK, but I love him because he posts the good shit.

Anyone involved in music video production must read In Your Face. Yes, he jumbles up the capitalization, but my rum-and-silver-polish cocktail is really kicking in now, and there was no way I was gonna get that right.

My favorites are his posts on cliche-ridden treatment writing, spotty lip-synch, and riding the bus on Wilshire.

Delve deep and enjoy.

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