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Thursday
Feb252016

Hey Academy, how about an Oscar for 'Earned It' by The Weeknd?

Dear voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,

Knowing the 88th annual Academy Awards are a few days away, I'm writing to encourage your recognition of one of the most acclaimed musical compositions on the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack -- "Earned It," performed by Abel Tesfaye (aka The Weeknd) -- as Best Original Song.

The tune excels at seducing listeners into believing our needs and desires will be met in ways that can only be fully understood through the experience of surrendering to an outside force. It is spellbinding in the same way that Fifty Shades of Grey portrays it's protagonist Anastasia Steele as innocent and unsuspecting prey that gets wrapped up in Christian Grey's web of mind games, control and eroticism. "Earned It" is a force that pulls at us like the ropes that bind actress Dakota Johnson's body in the music video, also helmed by Fifty Shades of Grey director Sam Taylor-Johnson.

Tom Mackay, Executive Vice President of A&R at Republic Records describes working with The Weeknd as an unbelievable experience; in a collaboration with Universal Pictures that resulted in the singer's first Top 5 single of his career, on the Billboard music charts. Written by Tesfaye, Ahmad Balshe, Jason Quenneville and Stephan Moccio, "Earned It" is also the only song that appears in the Fifty Shades of Grey twice. In addition to the singer winning his first Grammy award for this tune, in the category of Best R&B Performance, The Weekend also scored a Best Song Written for Visual Media nomination for "Earned It."

Universial Pictures, music buyers that crowned Fifty Shades of Grey with the highest selling multi-act compilation soundtrack since Get Rich or Die Tryin (2005) and the largest debut for a soundtrack since Michael Jackson's This Is It (2009), and The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences recognize that this is more than a hot tune.

It just works....on all levels, and for the right reasons. Period.

The track's arrangement, led by Abel Tesfaye's performance, lends itself to the hynotizing nature of the film it was made for and is as magical as any Best Original Song can get.

Wouldn't YOU agree that 'Earned It' by The Weeknd deserves an Oscar?

Wednesday
Feb242016

8 Reasons Why I backed the Man vs. Wild Film 'Tex Montana Will Survive' on Kickstarter

Tired of asking for permission to make a movie, Florida natives Jeremy Gardner and Christian Stella traveled to the woods of Connecticut where they co-directed the comedy Tex Montana Will Survive, armed with little more than a tiny crew, ski gloves, musical instruments and the Canon C100 cinema camera. The film is about a famous adventure TV show host who goes on a self-imposed 30-day challenge of surviving the wilderness alone, after his reputation is tarnished by allegations that his show is staged. When a snowstorm hit during production, Tex Montana Will Survive also became an endurance test for the O. Hannah Films duo and their crew members, who were sick and freezing while shooting this movie for 14 hours a day in nine-degree weather.

Director Christian Stella is also the cinematographer on location for 'Tex Montana Will Survive.' Photo courtesy of O. Hannah Films. Used with permission.Gardner, who also stars as the lead character, got a nasty case of frostbite while Stella was so high on over-the-counter cold medicine that he told me his on-location experience is a blur. "I was shooting Afrin, or whatever the sinus medicine that you spray up your nose is, then at night I'd wake up in a pool of blood," says Stella who consumed a combination of cold medicines to manage his coughing in between takes and was so exhausted upon going to sleep that he didn't notice getting nose bleeds in the middle of the night.

"When I eventually did wake up, the motel sheets were a horror scene. I had NO idea what to do. I just wanted to find a dumpster and throw them away, then replace them with the cheapest Wal-Mart sheets and hope they never noticed," he adds.

Now that production has wrapped and the film is finished, these directors are embarking on a crowdfunded form of DIY distribution that aims to address the complex issue of movie piracy and afford them some stability; after the conventional release of their debut zombie horror film The Battery (2011/12) left them with rave reviews, yet, empty bank accounts, credit card debt and a quest to find out if making a living as an independent filmmaker is possible in the current and fast-changing landscape of media consumption. So, I joined a growing number (662 and counting) of people who backed the Tex Montana Will Survive campaign on Kickstarter.

While I believe filmmakers deserve to be compensated properly for their work and filmmakers deserve opportunities to build a career in this industry without having to worry about keeping a roof over their heads or where their next meal is coming from, there are several main reasons why I donated a few dollars to this Kickstarter project:

1. The movie Tex Montana Will Survive is already finished, which shows us that the team behind this campaign can bring a film from concept into a full-fledged, concrete product. It is a clever way to use pre-sales but what sets the film apart from ebooks, gadgets, video games and other items that artists and writers market online is the fact that the product is already done and "ready to ship," so to speak.

2. Gardner and Stella are still putting in the work to make this fundraising campaign a success. Some of the crowdfunding campaigns that I've considered supporting -- many of which were run by popular YouTubers with relatively large audiences, but that's another story for a different day -- were not tended to with any vigor or indication that the person (or persons) behind it really wanted or needed the funds. It seemed like the set-it-and-forget-it type of campaigns where people posted a link to the donation page on social media and maybe....maybe.....mentioned it in a video, and then didn't do or say anything else about it.

Jeremy Gardner stars in 'Tex Montana Will Survive.'Unlike those folks, Jeremy Gardner and Christian Stella are involved in a lot of activities, such as Tex's Bean Bucket Challenge (Their own version of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge), producing a funny online video series called Tex Montana's Survival Tips and hosting a live pledge-a-thon using (what appears to be) Google Hangouts in addition to making interview appearances and writing guest posts, to reach their funding goal. These activities show me that they care about reaching their goal.

3. Making a living as an independent filmmaker is nearly impossible (for many people who pursue a career in this industry). Not counting the funds given to the American Red Cross, as part of my partnership with them, I've made more money -- in terms of overall profit -- as a crew member working on other people's films than I have on my own. Still, that money was only enough to cover maybe one bill or finance a frugal grocery shopping trip. But not both. So, I understand the need to want to prove to yourself that one can make filmmaking his or her day job or sole source of income and since I have not found the answer to this problem, I want the Tex Montana Will Survive campaign to be a success, just so that someone can say they did it. To be a part of that makes me feel good, like all of the work they put into this was not in vein.

4. The cast and crew endured unpleasant conditions and made many sacrifices to make this movie. Put yourself in Stella's shoes (That is, unless you prefer Gardner's frostbitten cowboy boots). The nose bleeds he experienced were recurring night after night -- an embarrassing situation to be in after you already went to the office of the motel you're staying in and explained why there is blood EVERYWHERE on the bed you're renting.

5. Gardner and his team are asking for a reasonable amount of money. $50k split among a small group of working professionals doesn't make any one of them rich by today's standards. It does, however, put them in a position where they can make another film while not having to worry about keeping the lights on -- if only for one month or two. One thing is for sure, they're not retiring off of this Kickstarter campaign. I contributed the equivalent of the price of a matinee movie theater ticket to this O. Hannah Films project. If this post inspires some movie fans to match that, it would be great.

Help 'Tex Montana Will Survive' Change the Game of Film Distribution6. They found a solution to a common problem with film distribution, in terms of accessibility, piracy and earning revenue. The first film Gardner and Stella worked on, The Battery, won awards at film festivals, received positive reviews and landed distribution deals in various territories, making it available on iTunes, the shelves at Barnes and Noble stores and Netflix. Yet even today, the movie still isn't available in some parts of the world where people want to see it and these filmmakers have no control over when or where The Battery will be made available in certain territories.

If you've ever tried to stream a movie on Netflix, only to find out that the same film is only available in an outlet you don't have access to such as Hulu or Amazon or iTunes, then you can understand how fragmented the movie business is when it comes to getting films in front of all audiences. Meanwhile, Gardner and Stella still had a fan base of people in countries such as Spain who saw the movie because they downloaded it on a torrent site. Imagine how that feels to Gardner who had to return to waiting tables after ot took two years to pay the $6,000 budget back to investors of The Battery as residual funds from the varied deals trickled in every four months or so. Stella ended up selling his camera equipment and family heirlooms on eBay, to make ends meet.

If successfully funded by this Friday (February 26th), the Kickstarter campaign for Tex Montana Will Survive makes it possible for Jeremy Gardner and Christian Stella to release it to the world via a Creative Commons license while retaining revenue for their work. That means it will be available to anyone, anywhere in the world. You can watch it, share it or re-edit the film. They will also supply printable artwork and files for anyone who wants to burn it onto DVD & Blu-Ray.

7. They're more interested in making more films and bringing those projects into the marketplace than they are in running a gift shop on the side. Dipping their toes into the world of t-shirt fulfillment and other "perks" that are known to be offered in crowdfunding campaigns sucks up money, time and resources that can be better used as investments in the very endeavors that are being promoted. On that note, I like how some of Gardner's and Stella's Kickstarter perks include props and wardrobe items from the film.

So, they're offering OOAK items they already have on hand, which is a win-win in the sense that backers at some levels get to have a piece of the film that is available to no one else and the O. Hannah Films team get to part ways with materials from the production that might be cluttering up their offices or living rooms. Oh, the sweet smell of minimalism. Gotta love it!

8. I'm curious to see the results of Tex Montana Will Survive because it was shot without a script and 100% improvised, save for the broad outline of events they had in mind for this movie. Based on what I've watched in the trailer and short clips they've posted to their YouTube channel so far, it looks pretty and sounds good, which gives me the impression that they took the film seriously. Overall, this project doesn't appear to be thrown together, so I can respect that.

There are filmmakers who work day jobs and make their movies on the weekends and during any spare time There are also filmmakers who aim to turn the craft into their day job, making a living making movies. The team behind Tex Montana Will Survive are in the latter camp and I applaud their efforts of trying to turn this goal into a sustainable reality.

Go HERE to see what the Tex Montana Kickstarter campaign is all about 

Do YOU want to watch the adventure comedy Tex Montana Will Survive?

What kind of outdoor activities to YOU enjoy?

Will You SHARE the link to this campaign with movie fans you know who would like this project?

*PLUS: Tex Montana Will Survive Co-Director Christian Stella completed a mini-version of my Disaster Challenge. Stay tuned to read the results!

Monday
Nov022015

What Wes Craven Taught Me about Blogging

“There’s always the fond hope that someday I’ll get to do something else, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m very good at making genre pictures, and I can express basically anything in them anyway.” – Wes Craven

Blogging landed me a contributing writer gig at an award-winning Hip-Hop magazine. It also broadened my horizons through French and Italian cuisine. It also helped me make a movie. It also put me in a position to collaborate with famous magicians. Yet, screenwriter and director Wes Craven’s perspective on being pigeonholed into horror films led me to understand that many of these gains pale in comparison to how writing a blog helped me push forward to create a little more life inside myself where there was none.

I learned how to focus on what I’m good at.

As you can tell from the Blockbuster video envelope, this photo is quite old but the machine is pretty much what I had to work with.

Committing to a long-term activity is a challenge for me sometimes.

The 30-day YouTube video series I worked on two years ago turned into a 30-video series as those initial 30 days turned into weeks and soon, two months flew by without one new upload.

I was editing the videos on an old, slow running computer that, after going through multiple repairs for other problems, started crashing while performing simple tasks.

I lost my enthusiasm and patience for the series after only eight videos into the project. It has yet to be completed. In the spring, I started a new YouTube series that was originally planned to be published in conjunction with my Mixed Bag of Tricks theme for the 2015 Blogging from A-Z Challenge. You'd think I'd know better after the "Making of" film series became more of a burden than a fun activity. Writing blog posts was the only thing that remained consistent throughout those (and other) attempts at growing my YouTube channel.

I completed the Blogging from A-Z Challenge five years in a row -- a prime example of being dedicated to finishing what I start when it involves writing. I have a few YouTube subscribers and know some people have watched videos I made but there isn't much activity on either side of the channel -- mine or the viewers. There is rarely ever a question of whether I should work on blog posts or not. It's a non-issue, as it must get done.

I feel like something is missing when it's been days since The Madlab Post was updated. Blogging has its moments of setbacks and annoyances but at the end of the day, I know I can do it. And I like it. It's fun. It gives me a chance to express viewpoints on subjects that matter to me while introducing people to films no one else would have likely told them about.

Made in Baltimore, the short film "Charlotte" directed by Angel Kristi Williams is playing Nov. 8th at the Driftless Film Festival in Wisconsin! Audiences at a film screening event I hosted in Philly were treated to the trailer during the movie previews.Blogging also helps me help filmmakers who put their blood, sweat and tears into making their dreams a reality. It's nice to be a part of that. Especially when people respond to it. People visit, read and comment on the blog posts I write here. Sometimes you agree. Sometimes the topic at hand doesn't float your boat. Either way, it helps to know that people relate to my blog posts, respond to them and spark conversations around them.

Blogging has allowed me to combine my experiences and fascination with the moviemaking process with the knack for creating things, even if the pieces being created are in written form.

I learned how to code somewhat.

Web development is not my forte but blogging expanded my knowledge in website building. I used to leave matters that had to do with the backend of a site up to other people who were well versed in that area. Then came the time when I wanted to change my header image, add sharing buttons and adjust various aspects of The Madlab Post, back when I had it hosted on Blogger. In those early days, I just used whatever options were available.

Since Blogger had templates, it was the answer to my preference for that set-it-and-forget-it type of backend management. I later became interested in third-party widgets, cool looking graphics and making adjustments to the design and layout of my blog. This led me to Blogger Buster, a website run by a woman named Amanda who writes tutorials on how to make all sorts of tweaks to your blog. I also read other tech websites and online forums where website owners in different industries discussed the ways in which they were able to get a certain result regarding the appearance or functionality of their site.

Amanda's Blogger Buster has gone through changes but this is what it looked like when I used to visit her website.From adding navigation menus and hyperlinks in blog comment signatures to resizing images and formatting posts without using a web-editor, blogging had me doing more coding than I ever thought I would. It's a benefit that has enabled me to utilize the HTML and CSS skills I’ve gained even when I’m not blogging, which helped me customize the website for my short film Abyss: The Greatest Proposal Ever and tweak other websites of mine.

I learned about leverage.

There was a time when I wanted to schedule an interview with a director whose feature film I heard about through the grapevine. His debut drama, about Marines getting ready for their first deployment, was gaining some buzz and I wanted to help spread the word. Except he was in California. I’ve never been to California and didn’t have the resources to just fly out there for the sole purpose of speaking with a man I never met, about a movie I had yet to watch.

Then, he said he’d be in New York soon for the screening of his film. That was a better bet. So, I went to New York, where I got to hang out with film and television executives, watch a handful of movies that I never knew existed, and chat with several promising directors about Tyler Perry, war in the Middle East and stereotypes of minorities portrayed in the media. While there, I also met his producer and ate calamari for the first time in my life. It wasn’t as gross as I imagined it would be. Later, I came home with new headshots, new friends and a better understanding of how the entertainment industry operates.

I learned how to enjoy the climb and not worry about results.

When developing film productions, I tend to focus on the end result. Will anything come of this? What will I gain from doing this? It’s a means to an end. There was a season years ago when I treated blogging that way too (see the lesson on sensationalism below) and I think the content suffered because of my choice to use it as a tool to get something else. Thankfully, I grew out of that phase and realized that the process of blogging is enough on its own. The opportunities, traffic, goods – monetary or otherwise, that result from blogging are icing on the cake. I already have the prize that is running a space where I get to express myself in this medium, inspire and enlighten people and hone my own voice.

The victory comes when I hit the publish button on each blog post I write. I’m not aiming to pimp out this blog for money, cars, clothes (shout out to Drake and Trey Songz!), accolades, being on the cover of magazines or landing a guest spot on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. If any of these things can be had from blogging, perhaps I’d be crazy not to welcome them but I won’t hold my breath waiting for such breakthroughs to arrive. That’s not the motivation behind why I blog. I create the kind content that I want to put out into the universe and for one reason or another, men and women in different parts of the world feel compelled to visit and read these writings. THAT is what I would call a win.

I learned about relationships.

(l-r): Le Anne from Tinsel & Tine and I at the 2014 Couch Fest Film ScreeningAround 2008, I started blogging about a scrappy shorts festival called Couch Fest, founded in Seattle by a cool man named Craig Downing. A few years later, I became one of the festival’s hundreds of hosts around the world who showed award-winning films to strangers on a single day. Another screening followed in 2014 and being involved with Couch Fest got me an interview with Tinsel & Tine, a website dedicated to food and film reviews.

The woman who runs Tinsel & Tine also attended my screening of the short films and later helped get the word out about an event I did this year for shnit CINEMAS Worldwide, an international film festival based in Switzerland with jury presidents including screenwriters Geoffrey Fletcher (Precious) and Paul Haggis (Casino Royale, Million Dollar Baby).

As a member of The Large Association of Movie Blogs (aka The LAMB), I’ve appeared as a guest on the LAMBcast, an iTunes podcast featuring select groups of men and women from all over the world who share a love of film. Before that, The LAMB published a guest post I wrote about the nominees for “Best Original Song” for The Lamb Devours the Oscars, a 32-part series dissecting the 85th Academy Awards. Later that year, I was one of the presenters during The Lammys, an annual online awards event where members nominate and vote on the best movie blogs in various categories.

Once a year, a few dozen members gather for a meetup -- the most recent one took place in London. I wish I could’ve attended that one, or the previous gathering in Chicago or the one that happened in Las Vegas a few years ago during Academy Awards season. I hope to one day be able to attend and hang out with my fellow LAMBs in the flesh.

I learned about sensationalism.

Law & Order: SVU actress Mariska Hargitay had a baby and and Grey's Anatomy actress Ellen Pompeo got married. Good for them. But I don’t know how my blogging about it makes the world a better place. It doesn’t. Nobody cares and those that do need to get a life. There was a time when I thought writing about celebrities in the entertainment industry would help boost my blog traffic numbers (regardless of how relevant the topic was as it relates to my filmmaking goals). Then I would start earning tons of revenue from Adsense.

Aside from being in heavy rotation on my iTunes & Pandora playlists, this unapologetic "Nobody's Business" singer is also the leading actress in the animated movie "Home."Then a big media entity such as AOL would buy me out for six figures. Ok, now I’m kidding with that last part but wait, at what point did I go from wanting to be an Oscar winning movie director to being delusional enough to think that the celebrity “news” (à la Perez Hilton) type of path is the right one for me to follow? What the hell was I thinking?! Those blog posts didn’t gain much traction, and for good reason.

Although many other blog posts that I would consider to be more meaningful and contain more substance brought similar results, I am more proud of those pieces.

Even if there’s a chance that nobody will care anyway, I might as well write something worthwhile to share in the chance that someone stumbles upon it while perusing the interweb during their lunch hour.

I learned about what makes life worth living.

One day, I read something an author named James Altucher wrote about “push” being more important than “focus” in terms of life and success. He explained that the “the push is the ability to get up, open the curtains and push through all of the things that make you want to go back to sleep.” Altucher further simplified this by describing it as just pushing forward to create a little more life inside yourself.” There isn’t a time that I recall when I dreaded working on a blog post. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about my feelings toward filmmaking.

Blogging makes me want to get up and open those curtains, to meet what comes of whatever journey I find myself on from day to day. In that respect, I think I went from being an aspiring movie director who also blogs to becoming a blogger who works on films in various capacities. Conventional wisdom (or was it Mark Cuban?) states that if you want to know what someone cares about, pay attention to how they spend their time. If there is truth to this, then I suppose I must care more about blogging on the subject of movies and how they’re made, and writing screenplays, than I do about making films of my own.

Wes Craven on the set of slasher film "Scream."Wes Craven never set out to be known as the king of a genre that thrives on gore and terror. Using these movies, however, he played the cards Hollywood dealt him in a way that still managed to explore aspects of humanity that were are often ignored; subject matter he believed people were unwilling to confront.

Just as Craven found an upside to the limitations he encountered in his career, I’d like to use blogging as a vehicle to connect people with the kind of stories, artists, movers and shakers in film that fall under the radar, yet, have the power to impact lives in a positive manner if given the chance to do so.

When I studied filmmaking in school, most of the feedback I received from peers was that the stories in my projects were solid but there is room for improvement on the technical side. Outside of working on other people’s films over the years, I’ve written, shot, directed, produced and occasionally edited a few projects including one documentary, a one-minute comedy and a short buddy drama. During this time, I noticed a common, yet familiar, thread out in the real world -- people were drawn to the story structure more than the visuals. Add to that the numerous film festival rejections that came my way, financial burdens of making movies and no prospects on the horizon; I started to wonder if I was climbing up the wrong ladder.

During long breaks between film productions, I’ve also taken on opportunities to publish content for several websites and media companies. The difference between these two paths is going after a film career put me in debt whereas choosing to write articles put food on the table. Although that ship sailed some time ago and I have yet to pick up new freelance gigs, I’ve learned that my filmmaking approach just isn’t working. I’m just not the best at making films. I’ve also started to come to terms with the fact that I may be good enough to be better at writing screenplays, and blogging, than many others trying to build something helpful in the jungle of niche topics. I’m ok with that.

Wes Craven died of brain cancer just weeks after his 76th birthday in August 2015. RIPToday, I think there is no better way to acknowledge Día de los Muertos aka Day of the Dead – a Latin American holiday of mourning and remembrance; people celebrate the circle of life by honoring the deceased -- than by paying tribute to Wes Craven, a man with an English literature and psychology background who upgraded the horror film genre by way of social commentary throughout his body of work.

*This post was inspired by the evolution of James Altucher through games of chess

How do YOU celebrate the life of deceased loved ones?

What is YOUR favorite Wes Craven film?


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