Thursday, July 18, 2013

MA Learning Contract or How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Prime Question: How can I become a more effective teacher/facilitator/tutor of media subject matter?

Research Methods: I plan to look into three areas of Teaching for Film/Television/Media.

  1. What are the techniques being used to teach Film/Television/Media in Canada?
  2. What results have the courses been getting?
  3. What do students and teachers think that success means in terms of the industry?

While these may seem like three different research questions I think they are all so intertwined that I must address all three to provide a clear result to help my learning out comes. My methods will include two surveys and direct interviews with a number of teachers, filmmakers and students.  These interviews will be filmed and used as the basis for my major thesis project.

Negotiated Project 1:  I am going to compare and contrast the financing models for three series that I produced in the past.  All these series had different financing and management structure and I will include a great deal of documentation from the productions.  The final part is to introduce a new financing model which responds to the changes that are currently taking place in the television marketplace.  By understanding these changes it will help me to do a better job of presenting options to my students.

Negotiated Film Production: Over the years I have stopped doing a lot of the hands on part of the filmmaking process.  However, since most of my students are making their films by themselves I plan to do the same.  I am developing a short comedy film with an actor friend.  She has been on the Fringe circuit for many years, writing and performing comedy plays.  Together we will write the film.  Then I will produce, direct, photograph and edit the film.  I was going to sing the theme song but my daughters vetoed that.  During the project I will video blog on the components as they come together.

Negotiated Project 2: Based on NGP 1 I am going to complete a full business plan for a DIY web series.  I will show extensive documentation of the creative and business approaches to this project.  I will do a video blog explaining the process of gathering the data and preparing the plan.  The learning outcomes will provide me with a greater knowledge of business and creative approaches in the contemporary market place.  This will lead to stronger teaching moments for my students.

 Masters Thesis Project:  My plan is to make a full-length documentary examining the way film/television/media are taught today in Canada.  I will use the interviews that I have shot during the research methods project.  As well, I will interview additional people and shoot in classrooms at the High School, College, Private Training Institutions and Universities in Canada.  I will also expand the number of interviews with students, teachers, film and television makers, discussing the way they learn, teach and the results of these disciplines to their long term success.  Again I will use a video and written blog throughout the process.

In all areas I have built up a bibliography of materials to investigate including books, articles, web posts and films.  I want to make sure that I provide the history and context for every area of investigation.  Reflective papers will also be produced for each section.

So that is the quick overview. And like Tim, shoes will be involved.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

You Must Know Your Target Audience

Pitching an idea can be a tricky thing.  While we all want to make films about subjects that we are passionate about, sometimes we must for commercial purposes pitch things that we can finance. Over the years we have been successful in getting a number of shows financed by broadcasters. The keys to making a sale happen are: connecting with the green light people at the broadcasters that you feel fit the shows you create, preparing exciting pitch materials, including a teaser video, knowing that the people you are pitching to want what you have to sell. These may seem obvious but I cannot stress enough how important your research into the wants and needs of your potential buyers must be.

Here are two examples of how things can go wrong.

We went to Los Angeles to pitch a group of series and movie ideas.  We had managed to wrangle a number of meetings with people that bought and made the type of projects we were pitching.  There were 3 of us and 18 projects so we decided that each of us would be the key pitcher on 6 projects.  One of my projects was a suspense film about a newsman who did the soft news, pie eating contests, the man with the giant ball of tin foil or perhaps the auto version of Stonehenge.  But the hidden part of our central character’s life was the fact that he was a serial killer. Fork In The Road was a very well written and tight script written by Nelu Ghiran. Now they say the short pitch with a complete description is the best. So clever me, I thought Americans would liken our killer to Charles Kuralt.  Not that Charles was a killer, just that he traveled America doing stories of interesting people and events.  Walking into the offices of Wilshire Court Productions I knew I had the best pitch for this movie.  They specialized in thrillers about killers for Showtime.  It was a lock.  Mathew Gross, their Executive in Charge of Productions ushered us into the boardroom and we got down to business.  I was up first and ready to let it go - the best pitch line ever. Mr. Gross said “tell me about your project”.  I handed him the script and uttered the words I knew would make a sale. “Charles Kuralt serial killer”.  Mathew immediately put up his hand and said, “Don’t do Serial Killers”.  My pitch was over in four words.

Later in the same week we visited the offices of the Belgian man who brought the Smurfs to America.  We were connected to Mr. Freddy Monnickendam through a friend who wrote children’s animation shows for NBC at the time.  We drove out to the western end of the San Fernando Valley to a silver building with blue windows, dark blue not Smurf blue. It was a tiered building and in the tallest tier were the offices of Mr. Monnickendam.  We rode up in the elevator of this glass and steel building and when the doors opened we entered an old world gentlemen’s club; wood paneling, leather chairs, heavy drapes, not what we were expecting.  An older woman in a conservative dress escorted us into the “small” boardroom.  She then asked if we wanted coffee or tea and we accepted her offer. She came back with a formal silver coffee service, very posh. As we waited for Freddy I was nervous. A fantastic Canadian children’s writer, Mary MacKay-Smith, wrote the film we were pitching and I wanted to make sure I did a great job. The story was about children who were just a little too greedy at Christmas and the film had a mix of live action and animation. We had sent a copy to Freddy ahead of time.  Finally he entered the office, a handsome but somewhat diminutive man in an immaculate suit and tie. We were less formal. He sat down and said “Boys you have a beautiful little film here, but you know we probably would only make two or three million dollars if we produced it and well, that is just not enough for us to get involved.”  “It did bring a tear to my eye, tell Mary a job well done.”  Then he got up and left the room.  We finished our coffee and the older lady let us out.

To date neither film has been made. The moral of the stories: make sure that you have the right product for the right person. Do your research!  Wilshire Court Productions  Mary MacKay - Smith

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Horn of Plenty

Here in Toronto we have the horn of plenty when it comes to film and media resources. Toronto is the centre of English television and movie production for Canada.  While both Montreal and Vancouver both have big production centres and of course Montreal is the home of French broadcasting, Toronto is the home of the most network and distribution companies.

We have four universities with film/media programs.

University of Toronto

As well we have five colleges that offer film/television/media programs.

A number of private/public organizations providing training and support.

Toronto Reference Library

Most of these organizations have information that is available for researchers.  The schools all have libraries with deep research materials in the media and film studies. The Toronto Reference Library is one of the best research libraries in the world. A number of these organizations also make many films available to the public.  T.I.F.F. and Hot Docs offer a great variety through their permanent theatres in downtown Toronto. The NFB (National Film Board) has over 2000 titles available on-line.

Now having said all this, what do libraries mean to me personally?  Books have been a gigantic part of my life since I learned to read. Libraries have been part of my life almost as far back as I can remember.  The first time they impacted on my love of films was in Grade 10. I was at the Chinguacousy main branch doing research for a high school paper. The librarian’s desk was in the middle of the library’s second floor where most of the non-fiction books were kept.  I noticed a stack of films on a table in the librarian’s office and asked why they had so many films.  She told me that the NFB made their films available through libraries across Canada.  I then found out that with my library card I could check out up to ten films and a 16mm projector.  That moment was the beginning of film weekends.  Every few months, my friends and I would pick up a projector and a pile of films and hangout in the basement for the weekend watching these films over and over again.

This exposed me to some of the great filmmakers of the NFB.

Norman McLaren the Scottish born animator/filmmaker was one of the greatest innovators doing shorts for the NFB. Films like Pas de deux and Ballet Adagio were two films we watched over and over.

Ryan Larkin was another animator pushing the envelope with his films that seemed to be one line that kept changing or blobs of colour that morph into motion studies of people walking.

Or the ubiquitous City of Gold, a film based on still photos that today we call the, “Ken Burns” effect, of course Ken was only three or four when this film was made.

And finally conservationist Bill Mason made the geography film that changed the way many children learned about the area around the Great Lakes in 1968.  Comedy and crazy visual effects made this film a favourite at our film weekends.

In conclusion, the library is not only a place to find stored books. They are places of learning and research. For me they were another trigger on the way to a film career.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

MA Research Questions

Here are the research questions:

Research Questions – Raindance

  1. Filmmakers tend to learn in different ways than traditional academic students. Many are experiential, aural or visual learners rather than traditional classroom teaching.  I would like to explore the techniques used by a group of successful film/media teachers at the high school, college and university level to answer the question, what are some of the best methods to teach film/media studies?

  1. Looking at a number of cases studies, I would like to research what role social media now plays in film/media marketing?

  1. Financing is always the most difficult part of filmmaking. By exploring new trends in film financing, I will be better equipped to work with students to ensure they have they the most financing options for getting their projects made. I will do this by asking, what are the latest and most successful trends in film financing?

 I look forward to your feedback.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Memories of Green Tights

Now I could talk about 2001 A Space Odyssey, the Godfathers I & II, Bound For Glory or Annie Hall, all great films that made me love the world of cinematic story telling, but I thought I would go back to the first film that registered on my radar.

As a young boy, if it was a cold or rainy afternoon my mother would sometimes drop us off at “The Bay” cinema on Main Street in downtown North Bay, Ontario, my hometown.  I would be with Steve and Matt or perhaps it was Blair and Mark, it was always one or two of the neighbourhood boys.  Gaining entrance for a quarter we would then buy a box of popcorn and a coke for another quarter and the huddle down in the dark for our double bill with serial.

Now we did this dozens of times over a three or four year period.  The movies we saw were for the most part black and white or early Technicolor and a few years old. The first one that I remember striking deep into my psycy was “The Adventures of Robin Hood” with Errol Flynn as the title character, Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisbourne, Olivia DeHavilland as Maid Marian and Claude Rains as the evil Prince John released in 1938.

This is the classic story of good versus evil and the continuing struggle to do the right thing.  Robin must prove to everyone that he is a man of integrity by doing battle with his men to bring them into his group of “Merry men”.  The scenes where he fights Little John to show his strength to the big man or the fantastic fight with Friar Tuck that ends in laughter in the creek are the beginning of the battle against Prince John.  They also create in our minds the notion that these are men of principle.

The main love story between the handsome star and the beautiful starlet is fantastic. But there is also the love story of the less beautiful lady servant and the second banana, who then rise to save the day by passing messages along.

This is classic story telling with constant reversals and surprises. The evil John “let’s have an archery tournament Robin won’t be able to resist” because he knows he is the best. Then just when you think how can he win because the first shooter has hit the centre of the bull’s-eye, bang he splits the arrow and ends up winning but captured.

Then the climatic scene, the battle in the castle where the forces of evil fight the forces of good begins. The best of swashbuckling sword fight on film to that point.  Tables flipping, up the stairs, down the stairs, slashing the candles, every trick in the sword-fighting book is used to build excitement. The shot that even an eight-year-old boy was gob smacked by, was the one where Robin and Sir Guy are going at it tooth and nail.  Then they cross into the corner of the frame and go off screen but their shadows keep fighting across the turret of the castle and then they reappear on the other side of the frame. I always had bladder control but this almost made me pee my pants.  What a great idea having their shadows fight.

How was I to know then that years later we would use the same technique in a music video for “The Paiges”? But I digress.  The final climactic scene, where King Richard makes himself know and rights all wrongs, giving Robin back his title, lands and the hand of the Maid Marian is one of the most perfect storytelling moments in cinema.  It made a young boys heart go pitter-patter although long before puberty I am not sure why.

So strong story telling, clear characters, strong good men, beautiful women, love stories good versus evil, reversals, surprises, scenes of choreography that approach dance like style, men swinging from the trees to capture the money in the forest, this movie directed by Michael Curtiz and William Keighley had everything a boys heart could desire.

If you are interested there are many reviews for this film on internet sites such as or or so don’t just rely on my boyhood dreams.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Open For Business

I am ready to finally jump on this shark and start writing about things that amuse me.  First post will be here soon.  If you have anything that we should discuss please comment and I will give it a shot.