I dropped in on a Clubhouse discussion tonight about whether or not AI-generated music can be as good and wonderful as people-generated music.
I drifted off into thought about an idea I read somewhere.1 The idea is that apart from the beauty or artistry of a work of art moving us, we are also moved by the very act of its creation — its creation is an inspiration, a kind of gift. In fact it’s a kind of double gift because it’s the gift of the artwork and it’s also the gift of saying “this is possible, to create something beautiful is possible”, which is the gift of inspiration.
I got it immediately but it didn’t really hit me until I went to see The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which I loved, yes for the colors and the story and I don’t have the words frankly to describe why I loved it, but after I saw it, or maybe sometime during, I thought “how could someone love life this much?” and I mean Jacques Demy, the director, that you would have to have a deep love of life for all its sorrows and joys to create something like this, and that, that sense of love was more moving that the picture itself, or perhaps equally moving, or perhaps it’s completely impossible to distinguish between them.2
Which is why I, my tech brain, the one that’s seen what AI can do, how it can be quite creative with words — I actually do think that AI-generated music has a decent chance at making music just as “good” as what great musicians make. I think it’s possible, at least for music.
I don’t think that you can, knowing that it was AI-generated, ever wonder how much the AI loved life because the AI doesn’t love life, it can’t, not in the way we love life.
Context matters in how we experience these things, and sometimes it matters so much that it’s a bit absurd. Modern art seems to me a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the idea that the story behind a work of art or that its context is what matters, to such an extent that most people, lacking the requisite context, have no fucking idea what they’re looking at in a modern art museum and if you’re like me, maybe you’ve found yourself alone in a cavernous white room, surrounded by odd objects when the absurd strikes you like an existential taser.
“Perhaps you’d be more comfortable with something more representational?” asks the security guard, she’s seen that look of terror before. “Yes” I say, “can you take me back to the impressionists?”
Context matters a lot in movies too — I saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg at the Metrograph in New York on a dark and cold night when I was feeling low and exhausted and then here was this intense bright wave of love, at just the right time and place for my soul.3
My favorite place in Chicago is The Music Box Theatre, not just for their curation, but because there’s really nothing like seeing a movie in a packed grand theater with an organist warming up the audience. It matters that there are still physical places where you can go and see great art and entertainment, because it’s not just that we get to see things on a bigger screen, but it’s that we know that others care, and we can share some of that joy and sorrow and joy with them, a collective inspiration.
It’s not just the thing, it’s the act of making the thing, and then, the act of sharing the thing.
The reverse of this phenomenon is when a film is made cynically. Sometimes I watch a film and have a kind of visceral negative reaction. It’s not just the content or the craft, but something worse, something ugly, like the opposite of a gift — some films seem to despise the audience, to hate people. Watching those films feels ugly, it feels like something has been taken from me. It’s rare, but not rare enough. ↩
I think it also helped that I knew almost nothing about it beforehand, except that it was a musical and French and from the 60s. ↩
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. ↩
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 ↩
Epistemic status: This is an attempt to write down what I think I know and understand about suspense — it’s a bit of a work in progress and I’ll update it as I think about it more. I’m writing it down and putting it out into the internet because it forces me to clarify and organize my thinking around this thing which I think is essential and yet often overlooked when it comes to how we talk about how to write.
For whatever reason, suspense seems to be thought of as a genre in of itself or a genre element reserved mainly for thrillers and mysteries.
For me, it’s an essential element of storytelling, something baked into the foundation of a good story — a prerequisite, a necessary condition.
Suspense is about keeping the reader wanting to keep on reading (or watching).
If boredom is the death of a story and interest is the opposite, then suspense is the emotional state of the interested reader or viewer.
Creating suspense means to put the audience in a suspended state, an incomplete state.
Human beings feel anxiety or tension when something is uncertain, undecided, or mysterious.
You can think of suspense as a kind of open loop. When you open the loop, the audience feels suspense that is not resolved until the loop is closed.
Suspense is an emotional state that can only be resolved by finding out what happens, by answering the question, by closing the loop.
Stories make a kind of promise.
When a loop is opened in a story, there’s an implicit promise that it will be closed by the end of the story. If you don’t close the loop, the audience will leave with unresolved tension, and possibly anger at being misled, or contempt at having the loop/promise closed in a way that is unsatisfying (deus ex machina or just shitty writing).
An unresolved loop can compel the audience to return next week (as in a cliffhanger) or just drive them nuts (as in an ending that doesn’t resolve enough).
Suspense is created by drawing the audience’s attention to something.
A woman looking at a tree feels nothing, but if you tell her that the tree could fall at any moment, she will be in a state of suspense: her mind will be focused on the possibility of the tree falling and the state will not be resolved until the tree falls or something happens to resolve her suspended state (e.g. convincing her that you were just kidding or that actually the tree won’t fall, of putting up a support to prevent the tree from falling).
To create suspense, you have to draw the audience’s attention to some uncertainty, mystery, or undecided outcome.
Two detectives looking at a dead body: one says that it’s on overdose. The other one says “no, I think it’s murder.”
Creating suspense similar to positioning in advertising or marketing, where you can change how someone feels about something just by pointing something out or posing them a question. Suspense has this in common with marketing: it’s about tension, tension that propels people towards action (buy this thing, keep reading, keep watching, etc.)
Sports have suspense built in naturally: who will win the game? Will the shot go into the goal?
But unlike stories, sports are only suspenseful in real time. If you know the outcome, watching a game is boring. How many people re-watch their favorite games vs. how many people re-watch their favorite movies?
[I’m still trying to figure out why stories are so different from sporting events when it comes to spoilers. People have been watching Hamlet for centuries and we all know what happens and how it happens, but there’s still something rewarding about going through it again.]
Sports are illustrative in another way: the uncertainty of an outcome isn’t enough to create suspense. You have to care who wins. The biggest, most improbably comeback in cricket is utterly boring to me. I can’t care about it, no matter how much I try. You couldn’t pay me to care about it.
So, stories need to open up a suspense loop, but they also need to make you care about what’s going to happen.
I think that people over-emphasize the role of character in how much we care. It’s not that character doesn’t matter, it’s just that it isn’t essential to creating a compelling story.
Certain story genres have suspense built in — mystery, thrillers, noirs. That’s why we associate suspense with those genres, but dramas and comedies and everything else need to keep the audience interested.
A body is found and the detective says it’s a murder but you don’t know who committed it.
But suspense isn’t confined to media — we use it all the time when we tell each other stories or gossip:
Someone says “did you hear about Jane?” or “did you hear about Jane’s relationship?” This can hook someone into a conversation or story much better than saying “Jane got divorced.”
A story about Jane’s divorce can have many suspense loops open.
The loops can be chained together or nested.
A chained loop goes like this:
- Did you hear about Jane? [No, what happened?]
- She got a divorce, but you won’t believe why. [Now I want to know why + the details].
- Well it started when her husband found a box of fireworks in her garage. [Opens multiple new loops: why were there fireworks? Who put them there? How did her husband find them? How could this possibly lead to a divorce?]
- And so on.
(a skilled storyteller brings a lot more than suspense — they omit superfluous details, they pace it well, they tell it with style, pick a good subject. etc.)
Some techniques for opening up a loop::
- A question the audience wants answered (where’s he going, why is she in a hurry)
- A puzzle.
- A mystery.
- Something unexplained (the ghost at the beginning of Hamlet).
- An unexplained fact or phenomenon.
- Any uncertain outcome.
A basic chain for a bank robbery story might look like this:
- Who is she?
- Why is she talking to this other woman?
- Why does she need to talk to her in private?
- Are they going to rob the bank?
- How are they going to get into the bank?
- How will they disable the security?
- How will they break into the vault?
- How will they get the money out?
- Will the police come?
- Will they escape the police?
- Will they get to keep the money?
- Will they still be friends after this?
Related: Editing and Forwards.
To go on an adventure (without personal risk).
To learn about a new culture or country; to see how other people live.
To have something to talk about with your friends.
To challenge your ideas or worldview, or to confirm it.
To laugh and have a good time.
To be scared.
To feel understood.
To argue about something.
To escape the pain of your present life.
To participate in the culture, to be “in the know” or “in the conversation.”
To raise your status.
To develop taste.
To learn about fashion.
To be inspired.
To sit in an air-conditioned dark room for a while.
To distract yourself.
To share an experience with friends.
To have something to recommend to others (raise your status).
To be part of a group (“people like us watch movies like this”).
To connect with other humans.
To have something to talk about.
To have and accomplish a goal (“I’m going to watch all of the films of Ingmar Bergman.”)
To learn how to make your own movies.
To learn how not to make your own movies.
To find a new identity or a new way to live.
To watch an actor that you like watching.
To be completely engaged and lost in a story.
To remind ourselves to be more x or y.
To have something to hate or dislike or define ourselves against.
To critique or learn to be critical.
To give notes or help someone who is making the movie.
To understand someone else (through the movies they like).
To get turned on / in the mood for sex (alone or with partner(s)).
Epistemic status: these thoughts are based on a book that I’m still in the middle of. I’m more trying to work out my thinking than I am trying to tell you what to think or how to make movies. Also, I have taken three physics classes in my life and none of them had a lot of math.1
I’m only on page 34. It’s one of those read-a-page-and-then-think-for-10 minutes kind of books.
Bohm starts by talking about how the physical universe is ordered. It’s a structure of many ordered objects or systems within a hierarchy of orders.(more…)
In college I took an intro to physics class. The one memory I have is of the professor looking up to see a kid leaving in the middle of his lecture. In his thick Russian accent, he asked the student “where are you going?” and the student said “I have something important to go to” and with a bewildered look, the professor said “more important than Newton?” and I thought that was just the funniest thing. ↩
At its best, GOT was a beast as rare as a friendly dragon in King’s Landing: it was sociological and institutional storytelling in a medium dominated by the psychological and the individual. This structural storytelling era of the show lasted through the seasons when it was based on the novels by George R. R. Martin, who seemed to specialize in having characters evolve in response to the broader institutional settings, incentives and norms that surround them.
What they did is something different, but in many ways more fundamental: Benioff and Weiss steer the narrative lane away from the sociological and shifted to the psychological. That’s the main, and often only, way Hollywood and most television writers tell stories.
This is an important shift to dissect because whether we tell our stories primarily from a sociological or psychological point of view has great consequences for how we deal with our world and the problems we encounter.
Reading this article made me realize why I love about my favorite TV shows, The Wire and Deadwood, and why I find it so hard to find any shows in the modern landscape that I connect with on the same level.
It also made me realize that the stories I tend to write have a tendency towards the sociological instead of the psychological (I don’t think any story is 100% on either side of the spectrum).
It’s hard for me to limit something to just one or two main characters — I usually get bored and want to bring in more characters or throw a couple characters into many different situations where they interact with people from different parts of society or with different POVs. Or I start with a collection of ideas that I want to work through comedically or dramatically, and then map the characters or the situations to those ideas.
And I honestly get kind of bored just thinking about a single character overcoming their demons or whatever, and the typical screenwriting advice of “put your character in a bad place and then make their life hell” kind of bores me as well.
So it’s really refreshing to have someone put a name on a different kind of writing that I knew existed but had never seen put into words.
And come to think of it, my love for sociological storytelling probably also explains my love for The Office, which inspired the amazing series of sociological essays, The Gervais Principle. And it’s probably why I love Buñuel so much.
My friend and producer, Josh Itzkowitz, produced a film called Same Boat, a sci-fi comedy that was guerilla-filmed on a major cruise liner.
It’s very funny.
I think you should go to the Same Boat website and watch the trailer and sign up for their mailing list so you can see it when it’s available.