Friday, November 6, 2009

Emailed Comments

I've been getting more responses by email than posts on the blog. For those who will allow me to do so I'll post their comments here.

Steve

Thursday, November 5, 2009

New and Improved!

Oops. I've fixed it so anyone can comment. I hope I've fixed it anyway. Like I've said, I'm flying by the seat of my pants here. Email me with any suggestions.

Steve
sfox@ec.rr.com

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

What is this about? The short answer

I have written a proposal that I hope will chart a path to sustainable film (production) financing in the State of North Carolina. It has already received some encouraging responses from folks inside The UNC System who would be instrumental in its implementation. If you want to know a bit of the back story and reasoning that lead me to write this proposal I’ve posted that below in the section called What is this about? The long form. But the short explanation is, if we do not become the origination point for at least some of the projects that are shot here, we will be forever be dependent on things beyond our control for our livelihoods. It’s been that way for 20 years and we have to do something about it. If putting this proposal out for public discussion starts a debate that eventually leads to a solution then this effort will have been worth while. But I think this proposal could work, so I’m inviting you to read it, make comments and ask questions. And please share it with anyone you known who's been part NC production community, regardless of where they are now.

Thanks for taking the time,
Steve Fox

When commenting please include your name and your usual position in production if you don't mind. But if you're not comfortable with that please feel free to comment anyway.

By the way, I’m no body’s idea of a blogger. I’m flying by the seat of my pants. And I have a day job. So bear with me while I figure this out. I may be slow to respond but I’ll get there eventually.

Please, Please attend the State of the State meeting during The Cucalorus Film Festival and make your support known

Thursday, November 12, 6:00 PM - 8:00 PM @ Thalian Hall, Ballroom

The panel includes Julia Boseman (North Carolina State Senator), Johnny Griffin (Wilmington Regional Film Commission), Bill Vassar (Screen Gems Studios), Aaron Syrett (N.C. Film Office), Lou Buttino (UNCW Film Studies) Kelly Tenney (One Tree Hill, Southern Gothic Productions). Actor Peter Jurasik will moderate.

We need every available member of the production community there to show that we are a force, that we are engaged, and that we have issues that need to be addressed.

What is this about? The long form

I have written a proposal that I hope will lead to a sustainable system of film finance in North Carolina. It’s a path; it’s not the only path. I am inviting you to comment, to question and to criticize in any way that you might believe to be helpful. If the only thing that comes of this is planting the idea that there can be a solution, and that, in turn, leads to someone coming up with a solution somewhere down the road, then this effort will not have been in vain.

Here is the explanation for why I took this on and how I looked at the problem. If you’re not interested in that, then get to straight to the meat of it. THE PROPOSAL

I'll be the first to tell you that I'm a very unlikely character to be taking on this issue. I'm a real estate agent in Wilmington, North Carolina. I don't have a background in finance, and the one day I worked on a film set was spent inside a catering truck.

My exposure to the film industry came through my social circle. Ten or so years ago I fell in with some people who calling themselves Twinkle Doon. Twinkle Doon was a group of independent filmmakers. Their members covered the various skills needed for production, and they volunteered their time to one another to make their individual and group film projects. The Cucalorus Film Festival, which I've been involved with for 12 years, was spawned out of Twinkle Doon.

What followed from meeting these folks were unquestionably the best years of my life. I had discovered a group of people who were creative, smart, funny and highly social. They worked hard, and they played hard. They were well-educated, literate and well paid by local standards. My little group contributed greatly to my own personal quality of life in Wilmington, and it was no stretch to see how the broader film production community was contributing to the quality of life in Wilmington at large. Over the years, they became my clients as well as my friends, and they have been responsible for a considerable portion of my livelihood. I liked what they were doing for me and Wilmington and I wanted to keep them around.

Over years of countless conversations I learned about the film industry and the nature of how it worked in Wilmington. The biggest issue since Dino DeLaurentiis schlepped out of town was that productions were no longer originated here and that the Wilmington film community had grown to rely exclusively on things they could not control to provide them with a livelihood.

Twenty years we have had this problem now.

A few years ago, a fellow of infinite jest (as controversial as he was fun to have around), Eddie Blakely passed away. Eddie had had more fun in his life than most of us would have been able to survive for as long as he did. We held a memorial for Eddie on a sound stage at Screen Gems Studio, and then, as Eddie would have wanted it, we threw him a raucous wake. Somewhere in that evening, I was having a conversation with Tracy Kilpatrick, a local casting agent. Looking back, as you do on such occasions, Tracy was livid over the fact that we had never solved the problem of originating and funding our own projects locally. So there it was again, the age old issue.

I resolved that, upon sobering up, I would give it some thought. Why me? Why not me? Whomever it was that was supposed to solve this problem had missed the bus, or had been run over by it. Who knows, but they had failed to materialize. And things were not getting any better for a group of people I cared about.

So I began to dissect the issues as I saw them.

In the studio system, thousands of scripts are optioned and are under constant development by competent professionals and lunatics alike. Maybe a hundred scripts a year might rise to the level of actually being produced. Successfully contending scripts are often ushered to production by the commitments of stars whose very presence on the bill will bank a predictable number of warm bodies in seats regardless of the quality of the end product. That's how things work in LA.

In Wilmington, traditionally, a dude, who's been out of college for about two years, has written a script that he's sure is going to catapult him into a life of riches and fame if he can only get it produced. His script is based mostly on clich├ęs he's learned from TV and movies over the course of his all too short life. He's going to find himself a pliable grocery chain heiress who, charmed by the idea of being in the movie business, plops down $300,000 and hero is off and running. I won't go into all of the countless reasons why his movie fails from this point forward but, suffice it to say, our investor, the grocery heiress, is done with the film business forever. And so is any potential future investor close enough to pick up the stench of this mess.

A gross over simplification, obviously, but you get the gist.

Please don't think that I have no regard for our local independent filmmakers. I do. They are a very important part of this community; some of them do excellent work. The most important people in the future of North Carolina filmmaking will most certainly arise from their ranks. But I'm trying to solve a different problem: Jobs and economic stability for the production community. First, we provide you with a job where you can hone your skill and feed yourself and your family, and then you make the next Citizen Kane. So bear with me.

What we need is a system that allows investors some hope of an actual return on their investment. Which means we have to develop viable projects. So, we have to have budgets big enough to attract competent producers with quality scripts. And that means some pretty serious money. Beyond that, we have to have the resources to develop multiple projects simultaneously so that they may be produced in succession. Hopefully, those which are successful will cover the losses of those which are not, thus improving our chances of getting an acceptable return on investment. And thus, if we are successful, the amount of available investment capital will grow.

So now we're looking at a very large enterprise that will require competent and connected management with the clout to attract a huge amount of investment capital.

So, the question is, if this is what is needed to get the job done, where could such a thing arise from?

My answer: The State. And by extension, the best available tool suited to the task, the public university system.

Here specifically, from my proposal, is what I want The University of North Carolina System to do for us:


1) Conduct a study of the varying types of film funding institutions existing today with a special emphasis on identifying those that have proven successful both financially and artistically.
2) Report to a committee selected for guiding the process so that this committee may make a determination as to the type of institution we wish to develop.
3) Oversee the process of creating the legal structure of the proposed institution based on preexisting institutions as models.
4) Assist in the selection of a board of directors who will in turn begin the selection of key management positions.
5) Develop a marketing strategy by which this institution will begin the process of seeking investors.


The North Carolina University System brings with it, not only the awesome resources of its faculties in the departments of business and law but, its reputation of excellence. Whatever institution arises from this process will be taken seriously by the investment community.

This will be no quick fix. Academia moves at glacial speeds. I would be surprised (oh, please, please surprise me) to see anything tangible coming out of this in less the five years. However, if we begin arriving at a solution to this twenty year old problem in five years it will be far better than arriving at the thirty year mark with still no solution in sight. So let’s get started.

What I would like for you to do is, read this proposal, give me your thoughts, ask any questions you might have, and share this with anyone you know in the North Carolina production community, regardless of where they are now. Let’s see if we can muster some political pressure that will get the attention of our elected representatives. So please send this link around to your friends in the production, as well as supporters of the community, on facebook, myspace and whatever other contacts you may so we can act together for our mutual benefit.

We are the future of this state. It’s our state, it’s our government, and it’s our university system. Now let’s put them to work for us.

Thanks for your time,
Steve Fox

When commenting please include your name and your usual position in production if you don't mind. But if you're not comfortable with that please feel free to comment anyway.

The Proposal

A proposal for developing a sustainable system of film financing in North Carolina (‘film’ meaning moving picture and sound content of any format, for distribution by any means.)

Author: Steven C. Fox

Date: December 10th 2008

Background

The growth of film production as an industry in North Carolina has long been at an impasse. We have not yet arrived at the point where we are consistently producing, developing and funding our own projects. In order to sustain itself into the future, in order to reap the greatest economic benefits, and in order to have its own voice in the world, North Carolina film production must undertake the work of building the institutions which will allow us to negotiate this impasse.

We did once have a measure of the autonomy we are now seeking to regain. When Dino DeLaurentiis originally founded his studio in Wilmington, now Screen Gems Studios, it operated much the same as the traditional Hollywood studio system. In the studio model of filmmaking the studio handles the production, development and financing. Mr. DeLaurentiis had been a very successful producer in Europe and was able to secure financing for his projects and produce them at a near constant pace. With the sale of the studio, first to Carolco, then to Screen Gems, it was no longer the point of origin for the films that were shot there and therefore no longer an essential link in the chain of production. The studio became a rental facility attempting to attract production from elsewhere and thus became subject to the ebb and flow of the market.

In filmmaking, each production is an independent company. These production companies are usually formed and based in Los Angeles or New York. They select a location to shoot their film based on the demands of the script and of course financial considerations. As the company moves toward the shooting phase of production a crew is hired. The crew members are essentially independent contractors. The most skilled and highly paid of the crew will most often be hired in the city of origin of that particular company. Because the production companies are based in their cities of origin, not the shooting location, when filming ceases little or no institutional infrastructure remains in the shooting local. The most skilled workers naturally gravitate to the cities which form the institutional base and the greatest economic benefits are to those communities.

If we in North Carolina ever hope to enjoy the full economic benefits of this valuable industry, then we must again become a consistent point of origin for production.


Although film production is an expensive and risky undertaking, it is an alluring business and investors want to get involved. Unfortunately, with the substantial odds against the success of any single production, in most instances the investors are left unrewarded and disinterested in any future involvement. Successful film production is a complicated and enigmatic procedure. The keys to any success in this field are skilled producers. To attract competent producers with viable projects, we must make production financing available on a scale befitting production needs. To attract investment on the scale necessary to meet production needs we must provide investors with a transparent, sustainable and well managed investment vehicle. In order to minimize the risk and offer the greatest hope for a return on investment we need to create an investment pool large enough to develop multiple projects simultaneously so that the risk to the investor is spread over numerous projects.

Problem

The problem we confront is from what existing entity does such an institution arise? We have long hoped that something would be spawned out of the private sector that would convey us to a place of greater prominence within the industry. Part of the problem is that few institutions operating within the industry locally have the scope to create an investment vehicle of this scale. Other likely candidates are simply not interested in pursuing this aspect of the business. So, as the greatest benefits will come to us as community, it falls to us as a community to seize upon the opportunity.


Solution

The State, and by extension the University system, has the resources to take on a project of this magnitude. It is the accepted role of the State to take the lead in regional economic development. As Erskine Bowles stated in his inaugural address as President of The University of North Carolina system, Greensboro, North Carolina, April 12, 2006:

In partnership with business, government, and other sectors of education, this University must seek out ways to help every region of North Carolina foster and stimulate economic development. In this regard we must better align our curriculum with the changing needs of business and emerging industries. We must find better ways to share and apply the technologies developed on our campuses, and we must supply the expertise communities need to adapt to this global economy.

In addition to its many resources and the expertise of its faculty, the University system brings with it a vast network of connections within business and investment communities. These connections, along with the credibility the University system brings to our effort will, in the end, greatly enhance our ability to attract investment on an appropriate scale and vastly improves our likelihood of success.

Methods

Here specifically is the role that we propose for the North Carolina University System:

1) Conduct a study of the varying types of film funding institutions existing today with a special emphasis on identifying those that have proven successful both financially and artistically.
2) Report to a committee selected for guiding the process so that this committee may make a determination as to the type of institution we wish to develop.
3) Oversee the process of creating the legal structure of the proposed institution based on preexisting institutions as models.
4) Assist in the selection of a board of directors who will in turn begin the selection of key management positions.
5) Develop a marketing strategy by which this institution will begin the process of seeking investors.


In Conclusion

North Carolina fell serendipitously into the film business with the unlikely arrival of Dino DeLaurentiis to our state. In the ensuing years a legion of North Carolinians learned their craft and became skilled film workers. In recent years the value of this clean well paying industry has drawn the attention of many states who have tried to attract the business with tax incentives. They have been successful to some degree but good fortune and Dino DeLaurentiis left us with some natural advantages. We have equipment, a highly functional studio in Screen Gems, a skilled crew base and diverse geography.
We are uniquely poised historically and geographically to assume a substantial position in the production world. With its unique history and character The South has made great contributions to American literature. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations of North Carolinians to begin the work of forming the institutions which will assure that our voice will continue to be heard into the future.


When commenting please include your name and your usual position in production if you don't mind. But if you're not comfortable with that please feel free to comment anyway.