Let me just say, that having seen it last night, that Cats is not a ‘good’ movie. The humor doesn’t work. The costumes are bizarre and often unsettling, sometimes horribly drawn on, especially for poor Jennifer Hudson.
It wasn’t even a good musical — the music is jarringly bad and remarkable in its un-catchy-ness and inability to get caught in your head. I woke up thinking that I had ‘Memory’ in my head but it was actually something from Phantom of the Opera.
Also! The entire movie is fucking insane! It’s fucking nuts! It’s comically fucking insane!
What the fuck is a jellical cat? What is the plot of this (spoiler alert: something about cat heaven)?
Why, for the love of God, are the cockroaches so humanoid? Why is the sense of scale so creepy?
How is it possible for something so asexual to be so sexually weird?
I’ve been fascinated by the idea of Cats since I my parents took me to see it as a teenager on Broadway. It just seemed like this entirely inexplicable phenomenon.
Love, hate, or indifferent, it doesn’t take much to come up with plausible reasons why people would love Hamilton, or Phantom of the Opera, or Rent, or Evita, or [insert any musical that isn’t Cats here].
But Cats just felt so bizarre to me. In a way, many musicals feel like parodies of the musical genre to me — no matter how engrossing, I always fall out at some point in the middle and wonder “wait. this is ridiculous right? we all know this is ridiculous?”1).
That feeling was 10x with Cats because it’s grown adults dressed and made up as cats in tights singing about being cats AND YET SOMEHOW CATS WAS AT ONE TIME THE LONGEST-RUNNING MUSICAL OF ALL TIME AND GROSSED OVER 1.3 BILLION DOLLARS I DON’T KNOW IF THAT’S INFLATION-ADJUSTED OR NOT BUT STILL.
I’m reading All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire, an oral history of one of the great shows of all time, back when the golden age was really golden and men were… metrosexual… or something.
One thing that surprised me was that the original script for episode 3.11, has Omar and Brother Mouzone shooting Stringer Bell and then pissing on his dead body, which apparently was the rigor in Baltimore gang wars at the time.
The actor, Idris Elba, was so incensed by the desecration of his character’s dead body that he threatened to walk off the show and eventually the writers changed the script. I admire Elba, who wasn’t yet the star that he is today, for having the chutzpah to make a stand and risking his reputation as an actor that’s easy to work with.
All of this leads me to the question: what the fuck was Idris Elba thinking joining the cast of Cats?
What were any of these people thinking?
I know that probably comes off as snark. I swear, I’m not being snarky.
I’m honestly and earnestly curious about how and why this movie was made. And I have a theory about how the cast came aboard:
“I auditioned [Taylor Swift] for ‘Les Mis’ and she was brilliant,” Hooper recalled. “And actually, I reached out to Taylor first among all the actors…I wrote to her and said, ‘Would you consider being part of the cast?’ And she said yes straight away. So, she was actually the building block that created the cast of the whole film.”— ‘Cats’ Director Tom Hooper Didn’t Finish Movie Until Hours Before World Premiere
My theory is that Hooper got Swift on board because of his reputation for his previous work (Les Mis, The King’s Speech) and then used that to get other actors to come on board and next thing you know, you have Judi Dench and Taylor Swift and Idris Elba and of course they all want to work together, they’re all great and famous and this sounds like a lot of fun.
I don’t think any of them had any idea how the thing would look in the end, and maybe nobody did, not even Hooper, until there it was and you’ve already spent a ton of money and you might as well release it and see what happens.
I don’t know if that’s what happened, but it seems plausible, and maybe that’s just a risk of relying so heavily on CGI — you don’t really know how it’s going to look until you do it. Maybe they didn’t really test it, first. I don’t know.
So, how to feel about all of this?
On one hand, I think that this movie is the result following a blind faith in IP to its logical conclusion. It’s not original to point out how severely depressing it is, the extent to which anything with a big budget these days goes to something that is a remake, a sequel, an adaptation, or anything with existing “IP.”2.
I mean for as bad as this movie has been panned and how much of a ‘failure’ it is, it’s still made $40 million at the box office.3 That’s not a lot by Hollywood success standards, but it’s still a lot of money, more money than Uncut Gems, Midsommar, and many other good and well-known movies.
If it had been made for less, somehow, maybe by using costumes instead of CGI, we might even be talking about it as a surprise success.
I had a great time seeing Cats in a theater last night. It wasn’t a good movie but it was an entertaining theater experience. I mean that sincerely.
I went with friends and the nearly-full theater in Chicago came for the fun. We shouted at the screen, we meow’d in derision, and we laughed. A lot. It was really funny. I know, not in the way it was intended (none of the intended jokes landed).
But it was a genuinely good time in a movie theater, and that’s more than I can say for more than a few movies I’ve seen in the past year, notably the Rise of Skywalker, which was a dull slog and all the more painful because I loved Star Wars as a kid and well, Cats the musical was well, you know.
And there was something genuinely exciting to me about the existence of this thing on a meta level, about the inexplicableness of it — you might say it’s… ineffable.
If some people get together and make something inexplicable, bizarre, strange, liable to rewire your sexuality if you see it in the wrong headspace, or just plain fucking nuts, I mean I think we should at least celebrate the effort.
We should have movies that are weird and bold and insane and inexplicable, even if it means having some spectacular failures.
And if we’re going to lament the Marvel- and Disney-ification of movies today, then we ought to be more charitable to what breaks the mold, even if it is a disaster.
I think we people who care about movies, who want to see great movies, that we should encourage the creation of more insane and weird movies, if for no other reason than that occasionally one of them will be amazing or blow us away.
All of this is to say – I don’t know. Maybe it’s the alcohol or maybe it’s the haunting image of Rebel-Wilson-as-CGI-cat eating a living humanoid cockroach that’s making it hard to process what I think about this movie, but I’m really happy that it exists.
A feeling that I couldn’t express in words until I saw the brilliant Porcupine Racetrack sketch (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zW3N_NK6-ps ↩
The use of IP has always bugged me a bit, since all writing is IP, at least all writing done now, while remaking Sense and Sensibility doesn’t involve intellectual property in a legal sense, it’s in the public domain. ↩
As of January 5, 2020. ↩
Since I left Chicago in August, I’ve been living a somewhat nomadic life. I don’t have any long-term commitments and I have a remote job that I can do from anywhere with an internet connection.
And I love it. I love freedom. It feels amazing.
But there are pangs of something that I feel, a feeling I can’t quite describe, a feeling of wanting to be constrained. And I’ve been trying to wrestle with why I feel this way, of why despite enjoying traveling so much, I have an urge to restrict my freedom.
Here’s what I think: freedom induces anxiety because it raises choices and choices have existential implications. So when confronted with freedom, we (subconsciously) look for ways to eliminate it.
What’s so great about a mortgage?
There are the obvious financial reasons and the ability to control your property. But I think there’s another psychological reason: a mortgage gives you an arbitrary goal, a way or ordering your life and making decisions.
The benefit of the mortgage is its long duration and high cost, which serve as both an organizing principle for life and a defense against the anxiety of freedom.
Want to take a new job? Well, sure, if I can still pay the mortgage.
Want to move? You can’t because you have this mortgage.
Of course people can sell their houses and move. The point isn’t that a mortgage ties you permanently to a place or situation, but that it alleviates the daily questioning of where you live.
It raises the threshold for considering a move — when you’re a nomad, you can move on any whim but when you have a mortgage, the threshold is much higher — you can move because you get a new job offer or to be closer to family or whatever, but you’re not just going to book a cheap fare to Buenos Aires and live there for a few months because you feel like it.
The defense against anxiety is key I think — life is much easier if you don’t question your purpose, if you have a shorthand rubric for every decision. Having children probably works in this way too, and I don’t mean to say that any of this is negative — people with children should probably organize their lives around the health and wellbeing of their children and if I have children I will almost certainly not be flying around the world on a whim.
When I lived in Chicago and I was studying/practicing comedy, I had an organizing goal for my life: to get better at comedy, to get cast in shows, to be successful.
When I switched from theater to film, there was a similar organizing goal: to make films.
Insomuch as Chicago was the best place for me to do those things or provided the best opportunity to do those things, it was easy to stay in Chicago, even when I felt like leaving or the winters were long and freezing, or when I was just feeling wanderlust. Sure, I was unhappy at times (who isn’t?), but I had a reason to stay — to move on a whim would take me farther from my goals.
And whatever suffering I felt was easier to bear, knowing that it was in service of a longer-term goal. The structure was secure as long as I didn’t question the organizing goal for being in Chicago (studying comedy).
Once I quit performing, I went through a crisis where I had to question everything (and mourn the loss of a part of me) before settling on a new goal: making movies, which brought an organizing structure back to my life.
During the transition, I toyed with the idea of moving but it was clear that the network I had built in Chicago, combined with cheap rents, made it much easier to make movies in Chicago.
Once I made a feature film, the calculus changed. I no longer had an organizing reason for staying in Chicago. Yes, I still want to make feature films and yes, it’s still easier to do that in Chicago than it is in New York or wherever (because I have the local knowledge and contacts in Chicago and because rent is so damn cheap), but because I want to move up a budget level, the calculus is different.
The model of “work two years and save, then make an ultra-low-budget film” is not what I want anymore. Once I decided that the majority of the budget for my next project will come from investors, there’s no need to keep rent ultra-low to save as much as possible and high-rent cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles are now viable places to live.
It makes sense that we would have defenses against constantly questioning our life situation. I mean, it’s probably not great to wake up every day of your life asking yourself the question “is this where I should live? is this the right career for me? is this my best life?”.
If you constantly question everything and never commit to anything, you’ll end up living in a kind of high-anxiety state of paralysis.
Completing meaningful, long-term projects like raising children or starting a company or creating a political movement or changing the culture — these all require a lot of commitment and a lot of saying no.
On the other hand, if you never question anything and just copy whatever your friends are doing, you’re liable to get stuck in a life that you don’t want.
So I think it’s safe to say that there’s an optimal mix of questioning vs. living, of commitment (and its attendant constraints) and reorganizing.
The trick I think, is to choose constraints and commitments consciously1, with regular checkpoints or a regular framework for question things and considering a reorganization of life.
For me, it seems to come about every ten years, but I wonder if I should be more deliberate in how I approach this whole question, by setting up an arbitrary time for questioning, like the last week of the year.
Yes, I recognize that this is a massive luxury for privileged people ↩
Epistemic status: These are UNTESTED and speculative assertions on my beliefs about how people choose what to watch, as I think through marketing my first feature film. Thoughtful feedback is welcome.Average films won’t break through.
You can’t out-average Netflix. They have a giant factory for making average films and TV that average people want.
The average person that is sitting at home with average wine mainlining average entertainment products into their eyeballs DOES NOT GIVE A FUCK about your indie movie, especially if it’s average.
So the product can’t be average. It has to be new or smart or different in some way so as to distinguish itself from the existing mass of movies. People who are looking for something new don’t want an average movie.
If you’re Hollywood, you can make a mediocre movie and spend $10-50 million marketing it and convince people to go to it (within limits of course).
Since you have almost no money for marketing, you cannot do this. The film itself must be compelling to generate word of mouth, to get people to share it with their friends.
Therefore, the your film must be remarkable in some way. It must be original or bold or daring or new, or it must have something to say about the culture (that isn’t being said elsewhere). It must be something that is hard to find elsewhere. It must be something that people will want to tell their friends about (see above).
Ideally, it will have some or all of the following:
- Great writing.
- Great story.
- Great characters.
- Something to say (about the culture or the world).
- Saying it with style (voice).
- Cinematography doesn’t matter, but images do.
- Something new.
More on how to identify and reach an audience later. I invite you to contact me with thoughtful feedback or questions.
Epistemic status: These are UNTESTED and speculative assertions on my beliefs about how people choose what to watch, as I think through marketing my first feature film. Thoughtful feedback is welcome.
Most people want the average thing, they don’t want the new or good thing. If they want the new thing, it’s the average new thing, the kind of new thing they already like. They want a new flavor of Oreo, not a new paradigm for consuming flavor.
Most people have high opportunity costs when making entertainment decisions. Many alternatives exist: the known quantity sitcom that can be re-watched for the xth time, the new same safe content, video games, VR, sex1.
The algorithms will not save you.
Most people are not willing to make risky choices for high upside / high chance of failure entertainment decisions. These people, the masses, they’re not your market, ignore them completely.
Spontaneous discovery is almost impossible in a crowded field. Because of the higher time investment, it takes more work to overcome a potential movie viewer’s objections or resistance.
You need to target a smaller group of people. You can call them cinephiles or neophiles2.
People look for signals of quality in their buying/watching decisions:
- Names involved (known actors or director). Occasionally a known distributor (A24).
- Critical approval.
- Festival/gatekeeper approval (must be a name-brand festival: Sundance, Toronto, SXSW, Cannes, Tribeca, Berlin).
- Word of mouth.
- Distribution platform***
These are all signals that can convince the right person to watch a film, if you can get in front of them. Signals may increase reach but they are not guaranteed to increase reach.
Names are the most powerful and often enough to sell a movie internationally.
Critical approval provides social proof and aids in the purchase decision, but probably isn’t powerful enough to overcome a bad trailer. Critics are only influential with a small group of movie-watchers.
Critics only mean something if they have an audience OR they write for a publication with brand equity.
Critics with large podcast or online audiences can be influential. Local critics for small publications might look good on the poster but are unlikely to send a lot of people to your movie.
Word of mouth means hearing good things about a movie from friends or people on Twitter or other sources that you trust (with movie recommendations). Word of mouth is essential because it’s free.
What you want: people to watch your film and think “holy fuck, my friends need to see this.”
Even better: “holy fuck, MY ONE FRIEND WHO LIKES THIS SPECIFIC KIND OF THING NEEDS TO SEE THIS.”
If your film isn’t inspiring this kind of reaction, then either a) it’s not good enough to generate word of mouth or b) you’re not reaching the right people.
Word of mouth has to do with status and belonging.
When someone recommends something it can raise or lower their status. Recommendations have to do with taste and people who have taste in films recognize that their status is in play when they recommend something.
Word of mouth is also about belonging: people want to share cultural experiences with others. If your film makes people want to talk about the film, then your film will be better with others, i.e. more likely to be shared (“watch this so we can talk about it”).
If enough people within a subgroup are talking about something, a film can exponentially spread as everyone wants to be part of the conversation. When this happens on a nationwide level, you get Game of Thrones.
Focus on a small subgroup or subculture or a narrow audience band.
***Distribution. Distribution has lots of ***asterisks*** around it because it CAN be a signal of quality or it can be just a means of transmitting data. Filmmakers sometimes get confused and think that distribution is marketing and that’s why distribution is dangerous.
Most distributors do not do any marketing.
The distributors that do do marketing are not sitting around thinking about innovative ways to market your indie film. They are going through well-worn paths that sometimes work and sometimes don’t. They have a portfolio of films and they are playing the odds and hoping for a breakout.
That being said… A film landing on HBO is a signal of quality. A film landing on iTunes is not. Netflix is somewhere in the middle — it’s certainly prestigious but it’s not a guarantee that people will watch. The thing is, your microbudget indie isn’t getting onto a prestige platform unless it has a lot of the other quality signals already.
There’s another factor that’s a little different: genre.
Genre brings a set of expectations about the story/style/tone that certain audiences will immediately recognize and be interested in. Some neophiles are only looking for the new film within x genre (the new horror).
Horror is the genre with the most devoted and passionate fans and thus the easiest to work within. Pure drama (i.e. drama without any genre conventions) is the absolute hardest to market (even Hollywood has trouble doing it with huge names and huge budgets).3
Ideally, you would have all of these factors working in your favor.
I invite you to contact me with thoughtful feedback or questions.
Just kidding, the only people who still have sex do it quickly to get it out of the way so they can go back to watching TV ↩
Even these narrow bands should not be targeted en masse — the person looking for the new horror film is different from the one looking for the new comedy or doc, and even those genre-level bands are probably far too broad to target meaningfully. ↩
Also, a lot of ‘dramas’ are quite boring and completely lacking in any actual theatrical drama. They’re just dramas in the sense that they’re not comedies or thrillers or whatever, and I’m sorry if you happen to spend 90 minutes with a dramaless ‘drama’ I feel your pain ↩
Most low-budget film producers, we typically reserve about $100 for marketing. In other words, whatever, if anything, is left over at the end.
It struck me the other day that a Hollywood film will probably spend 40-50% of the production budget on marketing.
So a $100 million movie will have $40-50 million spent on marketing. I don’t have actual figures so I might be well off but I think I’m in the ballpark there.
The equivalent would be a $100k indie film spending $40-50k on marketing. I don’t think anyone does that — maybe some distributors?
The marketing plan for most low-budget films seems to be:
- Get into a good festival
- Get a distributor
The problem with this is that the distributor might not do any real marketing. They might not even know how to or they might just not care. We could argue about whether this is a good business strategy, but it’s almost certainly not a good strategy for the individual filmmaker.
The alternative, I think, is to do the marketing yourself. To figure out who will want to see your film and how to reach them and then how to create tension so that they want to pay money to watch your film.
I say “I think” because I haven’t done it yet, I haven’t tested it yet. I don’t know if it works. But I do know that spending a ton of money to reach a narrow audience is neither smart nor feasible.
So, how to spend $5k to get back $7.5k? And how to scale that to $50k or $100k?
If we can figure this out, we can make movies sustainably. We’ll see.
I’ve been researching the life of Catalina de Erauso, the lieutenant nun. She lived most of her life dressed as (and passing for) a man. One thing in the story that has always bewildered me is why the Pope (Urban VIII for you Popeheads) would (after 30 or so years living as a man) grant her permission to continue living as a man.
First, we have already mentioned the importance of her virginity, verified by church authorities. This quality, which implies asexuality, was considered by society to be admirable and virtuous.
In addition, despite the fact that Erauso departed from the social norms, she demonstrated respect for and submission to both ecclesiastical and military institutional authorities; therefore her transgression neither challenged nor threatened the status quo.In Search of Catalina de Erauso (171)
Which reminded me of TLP on Solzhenitsyn:
You keep your job at McDonalds and the system gets another data point confirming it is right. I hope the parallel between this and anything written by Solzhenitsyn is immediately obvious, if not, read anything by Solzhenitsyn. The Matrix doesn’t need you, but it will offer you a free pass if you help get the other batteries in line.
Transgressive behavior may not only be tolerated but rewarded or celebrated, if it fits into the narrative of the powerful or supports their power.
I think that if Erauso had used her position of celebrity to advance the power of women or done anything else to upset the existing military-state-church power structures, then the response to her lifestyle choices would have been much different.
See Mendieta’s book for a much more robust discussion of the various factors at play. ↩
What if the result of deepfakes is the opposite of what everyone expects? Like because it will be so easy to fake a video of someone, anyone can deny that any video is real.
But now, because of this technology’s prevalence, does it make it harder to blackmail someone?
Let’s say the diplomat did have an affair with not his wife. And then a video of it surfaces. Can’t he just say that it’s a deepfake?
What is the threshold for believing something now?
I went to the El Caserio Museo Igartubeiti yesterday in Gipuzcoa, Spain, as I traverse the Basque Country in Spain and France doing some exploratory research for a screenplay.
In much of my reading and research, people have noted that the Basques have always been adventurers and explorers — they’ve fanned out around the world and were eager to move to the Americas and the US.
I’ve been wondering about why this is, I mean why would some cultures be more eager to move thousands of miles away from home — it’s hard enough now, but imagine doing that in 1620 when you had never been on a boat (if you lived inland, many Basques were incredible sailors and shipbuilders) and maybe had never even seen the sea and certainly hadn’t been on a long boat voyage or seen any other country or culture apart from your own.
You’d have to be pretty… crazy. Or brave. Or, maybe it was because of their inheritance laws!
I found out that they had a system where the oldest son (or daughter! imagine that!) received the majority of the inheritance. For a non-wealthy family, that would mean the land (e.g. el caserio).
So basically, one child gets the cider press and the surrounding land. The rest of the children get token items and some words of encouragement and they set off on their own, which would seem to encourage high-risk, adventurous travels and endeavors and Wiki agrees:
In contrast to surrounding regions, ancient Basque inheritance patterns, recognised in the fueros, favoured survival of the unity of inherited land holdings. In a kind of primogeniture, these usually were inherited by the eldest male or female child. As in other cultures, the fate of other family members depended on the assets of a family: wealthy Basque families tended to provide for all children in some way, while less-affluent families may have had only one asset to provide to one child.
However, this heir often provided for the rest of the family (unlike in England, with strict primogeniture, where the eldest son inherited everything and often did not provide for others).
Even though they were provided for in some way, younger siblings had to make much of their living by other means. Before the advent of industrialisation, this system resulted in the emigration of many rural Basques to Spain, France or the Americas.
Harsh by modern standards, this custom resulted in a great many enterprising figures of Basque origin who went into the world to earn their way, from Spanish conquistadors such as Lope de Aguirre and Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, to explorers, missionaries and saints of the Catholic Church, such as Francis Xavier.
Interesting that the English had a similar system of inheritance and also a penchant for sailing around the world and mucking things up.
The quote in my post on witch hunts yesterday mentioned another persecuted group in medieval Europe, the Cagots, a group of people that everyone decided to just hate for basically no reason:
Cagots were shunned and hated; while restrictions varied by time and place, they were typically required to live in separate quarters in towns, called cagoteries, which were often on the far outskirts of the villages.
Cagots were excluded from all political and social rights. They were not allowed to marry non-Cagots, enter taverns, hold cabarets, use public fountains, sell food or wine, touch food in the market, work with livestock, or enter mills.
They were allowed to enter a church only by a special door and, during the service, a rail separated them from the other worshippers. Either they were altogether forbidden to partake of the sacrament, or the Eucharist was given to them on the end of a wooden spoon, while a holy water stoup was reserved for their exclusive use.
They were compelled to wear a distinctive dress to which, in some places, was attached the foot of a goose or duck (whence they were sometimes called “Canards”).
So pestilential was their touch considered that it was a crime for them to walk the common road barefooted or to drink from the same cup as non-Cagots. The Cagots were often restricted to the trades of carpenter, butcher, and rope-maker.
The Cagots were not an ethnic nor a religious group. They spoke the same language as the people in an area and generally kept the same religion as well. Their only distinguishing feature was their descent from families long identified as Cagots.
Their only distinguishing feature was their descent from families long identified as Cagots! They weren’t even hated for the normal reasons of like religion or skin color or sexual orientation!
“Even though they look like us and have the same religion, we hate them and they probably have the plague! But we’ll let them make rope!”
The 1600s were quite a time to be alive.
From 1609 to 1612, there was a big witch hunt in the Basque Country. Hundreds if not thousands of women were burned to death for the crime of being a witch.
You could denounce your neighbor (or whomever) for witchcraft and the Inquisition would give you a chance to confess to whatever you felt like confessing to. Then after your confession, they would charge you. If they charged you with something, e.g. witchcraft, that you hadn’t confessed to, you would be burned.
A common accusation was that women were flying in the night to wild orgies with animals, usually goats, which symbolize the devil.
If you confessed to the thing you were about to be charged with, you would perhaps receive a more lenient sentence, like being expelled from your native village for two years, which is not a great thing to happen to you today but was even worse back in the 17th century especially with the awkwardness of trying to explain to your new friends that you were evicted from your last village for being a witch.
Much of this comes from Mark Kurlansky’s book on Basque history:
“Nobody who could be identified as distinct and different was safe in this age. It is inevitable that in such an era, the Church would also grow concerned about Basque heresy. In past times of intolerance, Basques had been lumped with other undesirable groups.
“…But by the late 16th century, the Canon Episcopi, which had been universal Church law, was being circumvented by the claim that society was faced with a new and more virulent form of witchcraft and therefore the old laws did not apply. Witches, poor rural women, were consorting with the devil just like the Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Gypsies, Lutherans, and Cagots.”
That last sentence there is interesting to me because of just HOW FUCKING INTOLERANT PEOPLE WERE BACK THEN. Basically, anyone who wasn’t Catholic was considered an infidel and had to be converted or executed.
And even a Catholic woman had to fear that any perceived slight to another person, not matter how unfounded, could land her in front of the Inquisition.