The rise and fall of Relativity

Benjamin Wallace looks at Ryan Kavanaugh and the implosion of Relativity:

Not yet 30 when he founded Relativity Media in 2004, he very quickly became not only a power player in Hollywood but the man who might just save it. With a dwindling number of studios putting out ever fewer movies, other than ones featuring name-brand super­heroes, Kavanaugh became first a studio financier and then a fresh-faced buyer of textured, mid-budget films. To bankers, Kavanaugh appeared to have cracked the code, having come up with a way to forecast a famously unpredictable business by replacing the vagaries of intuition with the certainties of math.

As we’ve discussed on the podcast, anyone who claims to have developed a mathematical system for picking hits is either delusional or willfully deceptive. Data analysis relies on numbers, and it’s easy to cherry-pick:

Relativity actually did look at whether to finance that Untouchables prequel, Capone Rising, with Nicolas Cage and Gerard Butler attached to star and Brian De Palma to direct. The company ended up passing, but someone close to the financial modeling recalls doing a double take at the rosiness of the Relativity algorithm’s prediction. “I read the input log for it. I thought: What’s missing? I said, ‘Where’s Snake Eyes?’” — a Cage flop. “They said, ‘Uh, we’re leaving that out.’”

What Kavanaugh was selling wasn’t an algorithm as much as a narrative: you can trust me, because look at these other people who trust me.

Say you’re a Chinese billionaire looking to invest in Hollywood. Meeting Kavanaugh, it was easy to see how successful he was. He had his name on lots of movies, some of them award-winners. He had celebrity friends and a private jet. He made huge donations to charities. And there were glowing articles portraying him as a boy-wonder maverick shaking up the system.

The thing is, almost everyone in town knew it couldn’t last. When you were selling a spec script, you wanted Relativity to bid, but you didn’t want them to win. You wanted the movie to get made, and everyone knew the clock was ticking.

Relativity filed for bankruptcy in July.

To Hollywood’s more sophisticated power players, Relativity’s declaration of bankruptcy was less intriguing than how long Kavanaugh had been able to stave it off, reeling in money over and over again despite mountains of evidence that the product he was selling was not what he claimed it to be. “You have to give him credit for keeping it going as long as he did,” says an old hand at a major talent agency. “The people inside the system were in on the joke.”

I’ve never met Kavanaugh, and as far as I know, he hasn’t been involved in any of my movies. I see him at parties and premieres, and he’s always struck me as an interesting character: bouncing and bold, eager to be at the center of the action.

It’s tempting to dismiss Kavanaugh as an opportunist, but I think that’s unfair. From the very start, Hollywood has depended on dreamers and schemers. Many of our best films exist only because someone was brave or foolish enough to risk money on them — and charismatic enough to keep finding new money when the first batch ran out.

The fall of Relativity makes for good reading, but I wouldn’t mistake it for a cautionary tale. Right now, young upstarts are devising the next way to raise hundreds of millions to make movies. Whoever they are, we need them. We always will.


Torrenting the Oscars 2016

Every year, Andy Baio tracks online leaks of Oscar-nominated films:

The median number of days from a film’s release to its first leak online was only nine days, the shortest window since 2008.

More than a month before the ceremony, 97% of Oscar nominees have leaked online in DVD or higher quality, more than last year at this time.

Baio notes that since Blu-ray screeners have proven unpopular with studios and voters,1 most of the leaked films are “only” DVD quality. And the number of cams (surreptitiously recorded in the theater) has dropped.

As Baio pointed out last year, there’s no point torrenting a DVD rip if there’s already a higher-quality telecine or HD version available. You only need one, which creates a race to be the first to put up a given movie.

One group, Hive-CM8, was responsible for 15 of the leaked films, including The Hateful Eight. Afterwards, they offered an apology-slash-justification to Quentin Tarantino:

“If let’s say 5% of the people planned to watch this movie at cinema date, due to this media push we unintentionally created, we believe that now 40% of the people will watch this movie in the cinema [because] everyone is talking about it and everyone wants to see the movie that created so much noise. This will push the cinema ticket sales for sure.

“We really hope this helped out the producers in the long-run, so that the production costs are covered and more.”

So by leaking the movie before it was released, then backtracking, they’re pretty sure Miramax will make its money back because imaginary math is magic.

  1. Each year, the studios send voters a postcard asking which format they would like for screeners. I have a Blu-ray player, but always choose DVD so I can watch screeners on vacation.

Changing heroes mid-stream

Germain Lussier looks at how and why the upcoming Zootopia switched out its lead character late in production:

In Zootopia, which hits theaters March 4, a young bunny named Judy Hopps leaves home for a job as a police officer in the big city of the title. There, she must team up with a con-man fox named Nick Wilde to solve a crime. Nick, voiced by Jason Bateman, is jaded, sarcastic, and believes everyone is exactly who they are. Judy, voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin, is exactly the opposite. She’s cheery, optimistic and believes anyone can be whatever they want.

For years, Nick was the focus on the film, with Hopps playing a crucial, but secondary role. But on that fateful November day, a little over a year before the film’s release, director Byron Howard realized they had to make the switch.

In live-action films, the stages of writing, production and editing are distinct and sequential, so you rarely see this kind of major 11th-hour refocussing. By the time you realize you’ve made a fundamental mistake about your central character, you’re largely stuck with what you’ve shot.

Animation, on the other hand, is iterative. As you move from screenplay to storyboards to scratch reels, you see the story coming to life — and the problems front-and-center. At each step, you’re screening and debating and rewriting. Talk to animation folks and you’ll hear countless stories of sidekicks promoted to heroes, and whole plotlines ditched.

In our Scriptnotes episode with Jennifer Lee about Frozen, she described some of the major changes to Anna and Elsa while in production.

I’ve mostly worked in stop-motion animation, which falls in the middle between live-action and CG animation. For Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie, we had a lot of flexibility up until the shutter clicked. From that point forward, it was very difficult to make significant story changes, much like a non-animated movie.


Tuesday Reviewsday

As someone who makes apps and other things, I know how helpful reviews are. They let makers know how much you love their products, and encourage potential customers to give new things a shot.

One of my goals for 2016 is to be better about writing reviews for the products I love. Every Tuesday I’ll be leaving reviews on the applicable store.

Today’s picks are:

Leaving reviews is not a big time commitment. I wrote all four of these while waiting for an appointment.

If you’re looking for something to review, many readers are probably familiar with some of the things we make, including Highland, Weekend Read and Writer Emergency Pack.

Podcasts are especially review-dependent, because they signal to the powers at iTunes to feature certain shows. A review for Scriptnotes would be much-appreciated.


Ocean’s 77

Scriptnotes: Ep. 233
Play

Craig and John play “How Would This Be a Movie?” looking at three articles in the news.

A band of pensioners pull off an audacious jewel heist — but is it a Working Title comedy, or something darker? Where does the story begin and end? What’s the MacGuffin?

A researcher investigates sleep paralysis and visions of an Italian witch. Is the movie a straightforward horror thriller, and if so, how do you make the audience care about your hero?

A revenge porn king is confronted by his victims. But would the movie version be an investigation (like Spotlight), or a tale of personal justice (like Taken)?

We also need your suggestions for finding a non-coffeeshop place to write when sharing a studio apartment.

Links:

You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

UPDATE 1-22-16: The transcript of this episode can be found here.


What screenwriters mean by IP and YA

Sven in Germany writes:

In your January 5th episode with Aline and Rawson, you spoke about IP and YA and I kind of got the idea from the context, but couldn’t figure out the exact meaning of the abbreviations.

IP means “intellectual property,” and in a general sense could refer to anything covered by copyright, trademark or patent.

But for screenwriters, IP means some pre-existing property that a studio is hiring you to adapt into a movie. IP includes comic book characters (Iron Man), games (Clue), and all manner of remakes and reboots of other movies and TV shows.

A friend was hired to develop a TV series based on a candy logo. That’s crazy, but that’s IP.

When Rawson notes that it’s hard to get a movie made that’s not based on IP, he’s saying that studios want to spend money on projects that they feel already have brand recognition. Given two identical navy-vs-aliens scripts, they’ll greenlight the one called Battleship.

YA stands for Young Adult. It’s fiction that’s technically written for teenagers — but is often read by adults. The Hunger Games and Twilight series are YA books that became best-sellers and huge movie franchises. (We don’t talk about movies being “YA.” Only books.)

Notable movies based on YA books tend to be dystopian dramas and supernatural romances, but YA itself isn’t a genre. YA is more about who the intended reader is, which very often reflects the age of the hero.

Middle-grade fiction is written for kids roughly 8 to 12 years old. Harry Potter and Percy Jackson would generally be considered middle-grade. (Of course, Harry and his friends age up over the course of the series.)

In Hollywood, I’ve never heard anyone say “MG” aloud the way YA is thrown about.

Screenwriters don’t really need to know much about the publishing world and its target audiences. When adapting a book, you’re just thinking about the movie. But if you’re curious, Malinda Lo has a useful collection of thoughts about the differences between middle-grade and YA fiction.