Friday, August 29, 2008

Panavision Cameras and Gillette Razors - Authentic and Pricey

Several days ago I went to a screening at Panavision, a name synonymous with "cinema".

Located in Woodland Hills, this is where well-financed productions go to rent camera equipment (one cannot purchase Panavision equipment). Away from the rooms of lens, camera bodies, insurance forms, harried producers, Directors of Photography checking the accuracy of lens focus marks – is a screening room. Located in a section of the building that looks to be the same décor as when it was first built (a classic art-deco style, all burled-maple formed wood panels, light from inverted pyramid sconces) chairs and couches in that 'ancient Egypt' look that art-deco riffed off, this area is a tribute to self and cinema. Academy awards, won for technical achievements through the years, are displayed in glass cases, and hanging from the rich, wood-paneled walls of a hallway leading to the screening room is a fantastic collection of photographs by George Hurrell. These enormous prints, measuring 3x4 feet (or more) are of the most beautiful faces of Hollywood's golden era – Jean Harlow, Clark Gable Betty Davis, Tyrone Power, etc. At the far end was my favorite enormous print, shot in 1937 in the style that Hurrell made famous. Soft filtered, in spectacular mid-note, it was one of the biggest stars of Hollywood's music scene of that era, Jascha Heifetz.

Jascha Heifetz (1937) Photographed by George Hurrell

In the foyer immediately outside the screening room was a collection of cameras, important for their various technological achievements. Under glass was the camera that shot the deep water footage of the Titanic for Titanic; interesting and actually quite small. The first 'video-cinema' camera that was built in the 1980's was a large, ugly thing; a 'silent' camera (meaning supposedly quiet) from who knows when, even larger. Most impressive for me though, was the largest of them all, a behemoth, half the size of a refrigerator. This camera, a 65mm camera (a frame the size of the palm of my hand) was the actual camera that shot – West Side Story, It's a mad, mad, mad, mad, world – and most awing for me – Lawrence of Arabia. This monster of a machine, something that would take four men to move, was the camera that was taken into that desert to shoot some of the most amazing footage ever. There it was—the real deal.

And of real deals, fakes, authentic, etc, here is quick story that is not esoteric, or symbolic in the least.

Ever since I made the decision to shave, not just my face but my entire head, shaving is a routine that has occupied slightly more thought and time. With the increased surface area, usage of razor blades has gone up. I use Gillette Razor, "Mach 3 blades". I hate that Gillette used the same trickery as a drug dealer to get me to use their product; giving away free kits in the mail and then – having hooked me, (the user) – charging exorbitant prices for the blades. As I use the blades until they become a dull, ineffective experience, I have been thinking there must be an alternative. There is no reason I should have to pay these high prices. So, as any wise person would do, I went online to do some price-busting. Lo and behold, I found them! There they were, mass quantities of blades being sold on ebay for good prices. I quickly ordered a box of 16 and with excitement waited for their arrival. A few short days later, the small package was tossed over my gate, direct from China. As my head was ready for a shave, I quickly grabbed the package, loaded up the blade handle, lathered up my head and passed the blade over.

AHHHHH!!! Roughness, disaster – and suddenly, I looked like something out of an extreme-boxing movie as blood spewed from the open gash in my head. Perhaps spewed is a strong word, but it was not a minor knick. As I tamped toilet paper to my head, I looked at the blades closely, comparing them to my old blade. It took a close examination to determine it, but determine it I did – counterfeit.

With a heavy heart and a half shaved, bloody scalp, I went to the local drugstore, gave "the dealer" my money and returned with real Gillette Mach 3 blades. At about two dollars a pop, they are the most costly personal hygienic product I use – but as I passed the razor over my head, I do have to admit, they're a damn fine product. And I guess my shampoo and hair-stylist costs have gone down.

And finally: in my last entry I quoted a couple lines from one of the best songs about 'fun California life' there ever was, California Sun. Though the Rivieras are actually not the originators of the song, their version is the best: better that the Ramones, Dick Dale, etc. They nailed the feel of the music, the time, the mood, etc. Man, they got it.

And they were from Southbend Indiana.


Monday, August 25, 2008

California Sun

And we're out there having fun,
In the warm California sun…
The Rivieras

Yesterday was spent in a way that is actually not very difficult to do when one lives in Southern California; it's just that it's a bit easier to stay home and 'work', be 'responsible', clean the dishes, the house, or just to 'bag out' for whatever reason. Volleyball at the beach.

I met with friends in Malibu where, for the cost of parking, some aches, pains and spots of red skin where suntan lotion was missed, I had one of the most enjoyable days of the year thus far. A friend, someone I hadn't seen in twenty years(!) was in town and I took her to this California ritual that, alas, has been too infrequent in recent years. Being from New York, it was a glorious 'fish out of water' experience for her. Perhaps, the first in a series of seductory steps in moving her and her husband west. Being in "the business" it wouldn't be an insane move.

Lest it seem a perfect day, I am typing this with my left hand gingerly hitting the keys. One desperate leap for the ball ended with my face firmly planted in the sand, and outstretched fingers jammed back further than should be. There were a few injuries, mostly ego – but overall – about as close as it gets to any ode-to-life-in-California pop song of the early sixties (with twangy-reverb'ed guitars and thumping Tom-Toms, naturally).

It was a good conclusion to two weeks of birthday celebration; beginnings, endings and renewals. It seems clichéd to think it, too ostentatious to write it (but I shall): I now return to life and work with the hope and feeling that a new era may have begun.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

But Content DOES count

My last blog-diatribe got a lot of grumbling under the hood. There was some speculating that I was targeting specific people with my rant, which I should make clear, I wasn't. I was targeting a type of person that has been driving me crazy. If there were any targets, there were several magazines I had in mind. Magazines tend to, by necessity, overblow things and package them to make them seem more important than they are. Heck, it is the duty of a magazine to be a marketing tool. However, I will admit there was one 'zine in particular of which I was thinking. I am not guilt free. Once upon a time this magazine was great. I still have a subscription to it. However, in recent years, with the purchasing of it by larger, less caring entities, it (and even worse, its online version) have gone to a ridiculous "why everything you know is wrong, and why we can tell you what is right" and the top ten reasons these things are hot" tabloid silliness. Even more annoying, the online version of it has largely become a series of RSS feeds masquerading as original material. Blech. I'm tired of websites that do nothing more than aggregate and gather other people's content.

Again I will not mention a name – and likely cause even more conjecture as people try to guess which magazine I've soured on.

The other side of the grumbling and commenting came from people arguing that marketing is something that many artists and creators don't get, and that it is important beyond what they realize.

Yes, of course marketing is important. I could easily play devils advocate and argue it as being the most important aspect of entertainment. And it depends with whom I am discussing this. Neophytes just getting their first baby out there generally don't know how to promote something. For those people, lessons in marketing, showing the trickery of the sales magicians, is important. So, I need to make clear that I was really talking about pretty large Hollywood product and savvy low-budget filmmakers and distributors who are imitating the marketing style of these larger entities – and in both cases – with nothing behind the marketing. I was talking about marketing that exceeds the budget (in terms of money AND time spent) of the actual product.

Let me complain a bit more about something else:

Style over substance. Last night I saw a series of short films. Most were mediocre, a couple stood out as above-average. What really drove me up a wall (and this is a common "Hollywood" issue) were the movies that had the gloss of a high end movie – all the production and post production value – but without a decent story. It's really a pity when a movie looks and sounds fantastic, but is lacking in story. Huh, I just described half of what comes to the big screen, didn't I?
Oh well. No one ever said that making movies was easy. It's a long series of hurdles and there are so many ways to fail.

I guess something to be remembered by all "civilians" that read this blog too; no one, no independent filmmaker, no studio, makes a movie with the intention of it being a piece of junk. Everybody hopes the movie they are making will be decent.

Tonight – Birthday bash in the Hollywood Hills.

Next blog entry – pictures of the bash.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Content Counts

A few days ago, I started a blog entry that remained nothing more than a draft. I have bunches of them; orphans with tidbits of ideas, incomplete ranting, too personal thoughts, etc.

This to-never-be-published entry was about marketing and networking of self vs. production of actual quality material.

The crux of the thought was how I see a lot of filmmakers, writers, musicians, etc. lamenting how they can't make it in the business. How, somehow, they are being held down by the powers that be. Because of this, they have taken distribution and exhibition, recording, productions, etc. into their own hands and now – if only they yell loudly and plainly and long enough, people will hear and see them for the great undiscovered artists they are.

To which I call Bullshit.

I have a right to call bullshit too. I've made some good stuff, but I've also made less-than stellar work. I know what it's like to try to wrap something up in enough fresh, shiny paper to try to fool people. Hey, it's the nature of all show business. This is not something that is unique to "indie-(fill in the blank)". I know, more than most, the importance of marketing. I know that with all the noise out there, it is important to delineate oneself. I know that without a horn tooting your greatness, you may go nowhere.

BUT… a lot of people produce a mediocre (or less) product and then spend the next couple years trying to convince people (themselves included) that they've made something good. It's the basis for a lot of time wasting seminars, festivals, websites, alternative distribution approaches, etc. The simple fact is, It's the product that counts. If it's good, not a lot of promotion or marketing is needed. It WILL be found.

And here… to make a point of what I have just written is Emily Elbert. I saw a simple youtube clip, nothing more. No fancy flashing lights and bells. Nothing claiming to be the next coming of an Internet god or some high-tech (WHATEVER). No "DIY Innovative, I am writing a book about how I'm doing this cool thing online, our band will be the first to perform while free-falling from low earth orbit, I'm using Myspace and facebook to.... blah blah blah."

Just a girl and her guitar in front of a locked down camera. It was enough to put a huge smile on my face and make me seek out more. I predict big things from her.

Another example of content counting….

I will say that I haven't seen the movie. It could suck. Based on this trailer though, I think it will, at worst, be a very pleasant romantic flick. Or it could be a great movie.

The point is that there is but one difference between this movie and 7000 other zero budget indie flicks.

The difference is… it's GOOD.

This may all sound like a curmudgeonly attitude, but I really want to make clear, in this amazing day and age of youtube, etc. - this is great news. It's a better time than ever to be that little artist with the huge talent. After all, it is because of the Internet that I am now aware of Emily Elbert from Boston; same goes for Alex Holdridge and his movie.

Bottom line, don't worry so much about how you're going to get found amongst all the other stuff. Just worry if what you're doing is good enough to get found.

That's what I'm doing.

Fellowship of the Mouse

Sunday morning... Cup of Coffee, warm breeze blowing the curtains, "innocuous music - playlist" playing quietly on the iPod.

This past Friday, on a lark, I sent my package 'o materials to the Disney Fellowship competition. This is another Big-Kahuna type contest. My opinion is, for screenwriting, the only competitions that currently matter are The Sundance Screenwriters lab, The Disney Fellowship, and the Nicholl Fellowship (for which professionals are not eligible).

Others may be a nice pat on the back, maybe a few bucks or some free software, but not really much more. I'm not saying a pat on the back, money or software is a bad thing – it's just not of long term importance.

I'm open to listening to other opinions on this, but proof – as in produced credits, real agents, acquisitions, a career of some sort –is the real pudding here.

Back to the digressed-from story: the sending of the package of materials.

In keeping with the austere "Maushaus" moniker for which they are known (in Hollywood, at least), Disney demands that things be notarized; legal agreements signed that make them untouchable in the event that your script is worthless, stolen, ideas borrowed from, etc. So… to the notary I went to comply with said corporation's fearful lawyers.

Here's where the story is amusing or daunting, depending on your constitution. The notary asked me what I needed officiated. With a slight grin of self consciousness, I mumbled, "A Disney fellow--."

"Oh", she interrupted, putting a real world flavor on the statistics of the numbers of screenplays submitted, "The ABC Disney thing. The deadline is today, isn't it?"

She then when on to tell me that she had thought about taking the day off, but decided against the idea because she knew it would be a busy Friday… because of this specific deadline!

"Young, old, every type of person comes in to get these notarized." She looked at my application, expertly jumped to page (whatever, I don't remember), and marked things off.

She mentioned there was a church around the corner where I could do some quick praying, if so desired. She also mentioned how neat-o she thought it was that all sorts of people applied – that there were dreamers of all ages, shapes, creeds, etc.

Yes, Los Angeles is ground zero for all things movie-related. Screenwriting, being the most accessible, inexpensive (and deceptive in its appearance of ease) is easily the most 'done' thing these days. I dare say there are more, hopeful "screenwriters" than hopeful "actors" these days. Though hopeless self-deception is a large part of the majority of people trying to do either, physical attributes need not stop the hopeful screenwriter before he or she treks from Kansas or New Jersey or Pennsylvania - or wherever, to the City of Angels and dreamers.

So, in this little notary in Atwater Village -- one of three within a two block area – I was reminded by how many people there are, writing, writing, writing -- their 120 page lottery tickets.

It reminded me of when I first moved to L.A. Returning the truck we'd driven across country, the desk clerk asked if we had made sure to remove everything from the truck. "Did you check under the seats, didn't leave anything – wallets? A soon-to-be-a-hit screenplay?"

I laughed; found it an apropos, "welcome to Hollywood" question. My partner in "west coast hopes and dreams" didn't find it funny at all. It chilled her. I tried to calm her nerves by reminding her that most screenplays were beyond bad. Small comfort: "what if what I write is bad? What if I'm no good?"

Ah, the artist's hopes and fears… for which there are a myriad of people ready to exploit both, generally for a fee.

The Nicholl Fellowship is $30.00
The Sundance Lab is $30.00

At least, besides the cost of notarizing, the Disney Fellowship entry is free.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Third Draft Finished… and outta here.

I have just finished the third draft of my screenplay. I feel a mixture of emotions that have classically indicated that this… is a pretty good draft. I've sent it to a few trusted people who will read it and hopefully comment on it – in a kind, yet useful manner. Then, I shall re-write it yet again, hopefully minor adjustments, some tonal adjustment, nothing major.

Some detailing of the emotions in completing the V3 rewrite; other writers and creators will sympathize:

Exhaustion – I guess that explains itself. However, beyond physical exhaustion, there is also the mental. This script, more than anything I've written, has dredged through things from my present and past like no other. I have exploited myself to such a degree that I feel as spent as a twenty year old Appalachian strip mine.

Fear – Fear that the script is not a diamond but rather, a turd. Either may still be in the rough, but one or the either it is. When you write an action flick that doesn't work, it's not as brutal as when you lay your heart out on paper The fear is being melodramatic, sophomoric, etc.

Excitement – It feels good. Excitement that it actually might not be a turd, but rather a diamond.

Sadness – yes, strangely there is sadness. It's a common depression most commonly called the "Post-Partem blues" Generally reserved for pregnant women, creators of other sorts are common sufferers of this malaise also.

Relief – The relief that I am, once again, through the storm. The relief that yes – I had one more story in me. Relief that I'm going to make deadlines.


Allowing myself to walk away from the computer, today I will go sailing. I haven't been on the boat in many, many months and a spirited race will do me good. I must quickly review my knot-tying abilities and put together the kit o' clothes, sun tan lotion and proper shoes. A three hour tour will be a nice respite…

Perhaps it is the script, perhaps it is this point in my life - I have been reviewing my past, sending some "hello" messages out in virtual bottles and reconnecting with some people.

Over the last several months, I have been having a wonderful e-mail correspondence with two friends from High School who found me and one from college. Reminisces quickly dispensed with, it is fun to read and write to these dear women; to hear about their family and work related woes and triumphs. They have also been so helpful in this time of transition.

In part, thanks to them, the chime announcing incoming email has taken on new and pleasant excitement. Though it's generally a sure fire stock tip or Viagra, emails from real people, from friends, are so nice, aren't they?

And today, most surreal, thought provoking and yes, I admit - heart rate quickening, I received a reply email from a person I sent an exploratory email to several days ago. I shall refer to her only as "D". She was one of the most important people in my past, leaving an indelible mark in my mind and heart. Now, fifteen years later, a lifetime later, we are communicating again for the first time. It'll be cathartic to catch up with her.

No excuses in these days of digital connectivity. If there's someone out there you've been thinking about communicating with, do it. Time is fleeting.

And now I'm sailing.

In the next issue of Stefan Avalos Tells All…

Scott Kirsner's new book,

Inventing the Movies:
Hollywood's Epic Battle Between Innovation and the Status Quo, from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs

The Last Broadcast figures prominently into this book, which is pretty cool. I'll give a full report, but upon cursory view, it seems this could potentially become the defacto reading about what the title espouses.

Friday, August 01, 2008


Writing, rewriting.
Deadline approaches so soon.
It is almost good.