Dagerous locations

Filmmaking is highly pressured at the best of times, but it’s made more challenging when you are working in locations hostile to your presence. Tom Seymour, who worked as a runner on Clio Barnard’s Bradford-set drama The Arbor, compares his experiences on that film with Mohamed Al Daradji’s Iraq road movie, Son of Babylon.

The Arbor, a prefabbed suburb to the north of Bradford, is part of the British hinterland. One of the most deprived estates in England, it’s a honeypot for drugs, crime, council initiatives and the English Defence League. The Arbor is condemned as a forgotten community. In fact, since the days of playwright Andrea Dunbar—’the genius from the slums’—it has been overexposed; a poster child for sermons on ‘Broken Britain’ and dutiful state-of-the-nation features on Calendar News.

So when a noisy, stressed film crew descended on The Arbor in the early hours of an August morning, carting three trucks’ worth of kit, a tension hung in the air. How would this insular and fiercely proud community, misrepresented by so many on so many occasions, respond to what we were doing and asking them to do? Because those characterisations also held truth. The Arbor has more than its fair share of ambling youths, joints in mouths, a pit bull in one hand and a golf club in the other. Our accommodation came with the proviso of visitor status. This was their turf and we hadn’t asked permission.

A truce was formed, at first uneasy, then close and fruitful. By the end of the shoot, it felt like a carnival. This was largely due to Clio Barnard, whose skill, kindness and composure fully justified the term ‘director’. “Every time the camera cut, we had kids climbing all over the set, wanting to look at the camera, riding horses and quad bikes through the middle,” Barnard says. “There’s a shot in the film of a kid doing a backflip off a road sign. That wasn’t scripted. He worked out where we were shooting, got in the way and just did it. I had to be constantly aware of catching those moments.

“The people were incredibly open and very friendly,” she continues. “Some people were wary initially because they are understandably protective. They’ve felt that Buttershaw Arbor has been misrepresented in the past. There is a very coherent sense of community, but parts of that have been very neglected, and I think that should be exposed. The film is about neglect, not just on a personal level, but neglect of entire communities.”

Framing the Action

Responsible for providing the very first visualisation of how a film script will actually work, storyboard artists are at the cutting edge of any production. Here, Jaeson Finn (The Jacket, Centurion, Unknown) explains why his is a role that goes way beyond drawing pretty pictures…

I would like nothing better than to complain bitterly about how difficult it was breaking into filmmaking as a storyboard artist but, now that I have achieved a level of success, that would be churlish. Besides, no one would listen to me.

“I love all the little arrows!” enthused Love is the Devil director John Maybury, perusing my meagre portfolio through a haze of cigarette smoke. This was the winter of 2003 and, up until this point, my body of work had consisted of a few adverts, little-seen short films and a run of comics. Suddenly, I had made it onto my first feature, The Jacket, and I had completed my first graphic novel, the ill-fated Rose Black. I felt I had finally broken through a wall.

There are filmmakers who dismiss storyboarding, and others who see it as an essential part of the development process. Thankfully for me, the latter are in the majority—and I don’t take that for granted. It’s a very privileged position to be in as, more often than not, I’m brought in at the very inception of a production. This period of time is a rush of creativity, where a small department of people shape the impending production shoot, throwing ideas into the mix and seeing what sticks.

Amidst the fun, we get to define parameters and save wasting precious budget later on. For example, in a recent car chase sequence I suggested a motorcycle cop being thrown through a shop window into surprised customers. “This… this is fantasy,” intoned the director, sternly. True, that would have taken a whole day of filming with expensive stunts and props as well as interrupting the pace of the action. Subsequent revisions of the sequence streamlined it into a punchy, exciting few minutes in the style of the Bourne franchise. On another project I drew rain into a dramatic fight scene. “We can’t afford that!” said our beleaguered line producer. Yeah, but it would have looked cool.

The Economics of Attention – Social Media and the Box-Office

 ** This article first appeared in movieScope, issue 19. ** 

As Facebook, Twitter and the like spawn millions of amateur critics, Dr Bernardo Huberman explains how social media is becoming an effective tool for predicting box-office performance.


Dr Bernardo Huberman may hardly be a household name, but as consulting professor of applied physics at Stanford University and director of the Social Computing Lab at Hewlett-Packard Laboratories, Hollywood has certainly been taking notice of his recent research into attention and influence in the new online social media.

“Our whole recent focus is at the intersection of information technology and social behaviour—the notion of social attention, and how attention is allocated to content—if only because information is now so plentiful and free, but attention is so scarce,” he tells movieScope. “As part of that, I always had this notion that where attention goes, you can predict the future in a sense, if only because so many people are focused on that. And the reason I chose movies is because you can predict something very concrete, which is box-office revenue.”

I always had this notion that where attention goes, you can predict the future in a sense.

Huberman’s co-authored article ‘Predicting the Future With Social Media’, published in March 2010, demonstrates a direct, measurable correlation between the number of ‘tweets’ referencing a given film title in any week, and the film’s box-office takings the following weekend. Indeed, the predictions of his analytic model, which were further fine-tuned when the sentiments (positive, negative or neutral) of the tweets were taken into account, proved considerably more accurate than pre-existing predictive models, including the industry’s gold standard, the Hollywood Stock Exchange (www.hsx.com). And while the study has taken Twitter as its focus, Huberman is quick to point out that “this can be done in any social medium.

Now, Huberman has the industry’s attention. “Even though I’m not allowed to discuss particular specific names, we are in discussions with two big entertainment companies in Hollywood about the licensing of the technology.” Nor is it just Tinseltown that has come knocking. “Anyone interested in present-day marketing is interested in this, to know the future of a product, how people will feel about something, the rate at which people will pay attention to something.”

The most surprising fact to emerge from the study was just how little impact, relatively speaking, the pre-release dissemination via Twitter of promotional materials and URLs has on a film’s subsequent box-office performance. Evidently Twitter has not yet proved a good platform for manipulating opinion. “So far,” Huberman comments, “they haven’t been able to sway people one way or the other, at least through this kind of channel.” Perhaps part of the solution from a film marketer’s perspective would be to determine which tweeters have the most influence, and then to co-opt their support. As it happens, Huberman’s next co-authored research paper, ‘Influence and Passivity in Social Media’ (Aug 2010), is concerned precisely with a model for “how to identify influential people in a social network.” Now, it seems, Huberman’s own work is having an influence on an industry always desperate for attention.

Laurence Bennett – Portrait of THE ARTIST

Cannes favourite THE ARTIST has won festival acclaim for its pitch-perfect homage to Hollywood’s silent era. Here, production designer Laurence Bennett reveals the challenges of bringing the film to life, using modern techniques.


As assignments go, production designer Laurence Bennett is not exaggerating when he calls The Artist a “once-in-a-career opportunity”. French-financed, but made in the heart of Hollywood, this homage to the silent era of moviemaking dares to deliver its story of a fading matinee idol without the aid of dialogue or sound. The brainchild of director Michel Hazanavicius, unlike the world of ’60s spy films he recreated in his 2006 spoof OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies, this is no mere pastiche. “It’s a love letter to cinema, in its purest form,” says Bennett.

Based in Oregon, Bennett—whose career started in Dublin, when he worked as a stage designer for Neil Jordan—was one of several key US creatives brought on board by Hazanavicius in this unique Franco-American collaboration, and he immediately began to dive into the world of silent movies. “For me, it was really an opportunity to really get to know better the work of people who pioneered the art form,” he says. “And we borrowed freely—I’d like to think in the spirit of respectful admiration. But these people were inventing the language and style of cinema. It’s mind-boggling.”

While Bennett’s most noted film collaborations have come with Paul Haggis on his contemporary-set films Crash, In The Valley of Elah and The Next Three Days, this was his first period movie. Although his knowledge of film from the ’20s was good, it was mainly based around comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. He’d even been to college with the grandson of Roland ‘Rollie’ Totheroh, Chaplin’s cinematographer. “I’d had the chance to look at some of his grandfather’s prints. Chaplin has always been a magical icon. He was so strong.”

When it came to The Artist, however, Bennett relied on his director. “Michel has studied films of that era in great depth. He was a great guide in looking at pictures.” In particular, he steered him towards the films of F.W. Murnau, King Vidor, Fritz Lang—whose 1928 film Spies is a particular influence—and Josef von Sternberg. While the majority of the film was shot on the backlots at Warner Bros. and Paramount, Bennett was able to use the same real-life locations these legendary directors had all filmed on. “Recreating the streets of Los Angeles from the ’20s and ’30s, on the same streets as von Sternberg shot Underworld in 1927, was sort of a chilling and wonderful experience.”

While locations like Hancock Park were used for driving scenes, Bennett was limited, often finding that the streets still featuring architecture of the period were spoilt by great swathes of stucco and neon. It meant Bennett had to work in conjunction with the film’s “phenomenal” visual effects artist, Seif Boutella, who would digitally erase offending elements. “Without him, it would’ve been rather difficult to be recreate this environment,” he says. Like any good production designer, Bennett has no problem with using computer techniques. “It’s another tool, in a toolbox of things we use.”

Fortunately, with the story focusing on silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), it meant much of the film is set in the interior world of movie studios. “Ironically, they had a couple of stages we could use of almost the period we were in, where we did all of the film sets within the film,” says Bennett. With the majority of these “actually rendered in black-and-white”, it meant that the world of the movie sets Valentin was acting on could be differentiated from the 1920s they were recreating.

Then comes the more philosophical question of how a film with virtually no dialogue affects the work of a designer whose skills lie in the visual aspects of filmmaking. Did it change things? “On some levels, no. On other levels, yes,” he answers, rather cryptically, before telling me his job is really about helping find the truth in the story. Still, with the help of graphic artist Martin Charles, Bennett was very closely involved with designing the posters and programmes of the era seen in the film, which included designing the old-school title cards used to convey snatches of dialogue.

In the end, Bennett’s maxim was a simple one: avoid cliché. “The environments needed to be living, believable settings that supported the character and the stories but didn’t distract from them.” Easier said than done, perhaps. So what would he view as clichéd? “You sort of know it when you see it,” he says. “Sometimes we would dress a set and say, ‘That may be accurate but it doesn’t feel right.’ Or, ‘This is not strictly accurate but it feels right.’” Judging by the look of The Artist, they got it spot on. •

Critical Mass – The Depreciating Value of Film Criticism

With the Internet turning a whole legion of casual moviegoers into film critics via blogs and social networking sites, does genuine film criticism still carry any value? Veteran critic and former BAFTA magazine editor Quentin Falk finds out…


A typically stern cautionary covering note accompanies the latest multimedia invitation to one of the autumn’s potential Hollywood blockbusters. Under the sub-heading ‘Review Embargo’, the metaphorical finger wags: ‘With your attendance you recognise that you must not publish any reports or reviews in print, TV, radio or online (including Blogging, Forum, Online Chats, Tweeting, Facebook etc) as per the above.’

As the media-savvy crowd, including a number of supposedly influential print and radio critics, are relieved of their cellphones under threat of expulsion ahead of being given a body search by dark-suited heavies for other possibly secreted recording devices, it’s clear that if piracy is the number one crime against today’s cinema, then a close-run second seems to be reviewing a film at a time not of the distributor’s own choosing.

The delicious irony hovering over the early evening brouhaha—which will be repeated almost once a week in West End cinema lobbies until all the season’s most eagerly anticipated films are in the public arena—is that this particular night’s offering is The Social Network, about the invention of, yes, Facebook, now, arguably, the most potent new democracy of cultural opinion with half a billion subscribers globally.

Blogging? Tweeting? Facebook? So, just who are the film critics now? You, me, everyone might be at least an answer.

If you look at the online people, they are generally totally honest: they’ve nothing to do with the industry. – Jason Solomons, (Film Critic, The Guardian@JasonCritic)

Long before social networking sites were even the merest twinkle in the eye of cybernauts and wannabe opinion makers, it was all so much simpler. For perhaps the first eight or so decades of film—since the first recorded review noted, on June 15 1896 of May Irwin Kiss, ‘absolutely disgusting’—criticism principally resided with newspaper and magazine contributors as well as the occasional television commentator notably, in this country, Barry Norman, followed, latterly, by Jonathan Ross.

For years, print had it very much its own way with a succession of, in this country at least, fine and eminently quotable critics ranging from legends like Graham Greene, Richard Winnington, Dilys Powell and Alexander Walker to the top of the contemporary crop such as Philip French, Derek Malcolm, Christopher Tookey and Peter Bradshaw.

The first hints, however, that there might be a shift in the potency of opinion from the conventional arenas to the burgeoning world of online probably came in 1999 with the release of a film that cost around $25,000 to shoot. The Blair Witch Project, a spooky thriller craftily packaged as ‘reality footage’, eventually grossed nearly a quarter of a billion dollars around the world following a groundbreaking marketing campaign on the Internet. By the time the film actually hit cinemas, it had become virtually critic-proof.

10 years later, an article appeared in a reputable if rather obscure European magazine for cineastes. It was headlined starkly The End-of-Film-Criticism Industry and in it the veteran critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote: ‘One reason why film reviewing … appears to be undergoing a loss of prestige is the rapid growth and expansion of Internet film reviewing and blogging, which has intensified the already popular idea that anyone can be a film critic (unlike, say, a dance critic or a sports commentator—two other professions in which some background knowledge is regarded as essential).’

Few of the Internet critics bother to offer a reasoned argument to back up their opinions. – Christopher Tookey (Film Critic, The Daily Mail)

A few months earlier, the cover story of Sight & Sound, the BFI’s repository of comment, had blasted ‘Who needs critics?’ In his introduction, S&S Editor Nick James noted that as UK newspaper revenues continued to fall and film critics felt the threat of redundancy—a chain of events that has since come to pass with increasing rapidity in regional journalism—‘the dilemma is clear. There is a welcome increase in free access to writing about film, but the consequence has been a drop in the status of the professional film reviewer … No-one therefore finds the critic-dodging of distributors unusual …’

This last point refers most directly to what some might regard as a kind of Faustian pact often struck between the companies that release films and handle stars, and their PR representatives, with the people who write on or about them.

According to Jason Solomons of the Observer, who is also chair of the film section of the Critics’ Circle (founded 1902), “When I started it was the PRs who needed to know who was moving where and on what newspaper or journal; now, journalists are often more concerned which PR is moving to what firm.

“As for ‘towing the party line’ to get access? I think that probably happens more and more. Most of us will at some point have needed a good relationship with the PR that we couldn’t afford to be totally honest about a film.

“Yet if you look at the online people, they are generally totally honest; they’ve nothing to do with the industry and can say pretty much whatever they want. Perhaps that’s where critics have to go as well. Mind you, we’re all published online now, whether we like it or not. Why write for a publication; why not just write your own blog. But if you write, will they come. Perhaps it’s not so much about the writing anymore, and more about the honesty of the opinion.”

Chris Tookey, who has been film critic of the Daily Mail since 1993, has no such reservations, and is also scathing about reviewers compromising their craft and critics who are, in his words, no better than just “quote whores”.

“Nowadays, thanks mainly to the Internet, everyone’s a critic, and—unfortunately—few of the Internet critics bother to offer a reasoned argument to back their opinions. A vehement statement of opinion is held to be enough. It isn’t—or rather, it shouldn’t be.

“Those critics who double as interviewers for radio or TV—in whose ranks I have sometimes been myself—should always be careful that they are not gilding the truth in order to make themselves more palatable to film stars, filmmakers and publicists they’re interviewing.

“There is no shortage of people posing as honest reviewers who are, in reality, liars, cheats and tricksters, and they certainly let down the craft of film criticism,” spits Tookey.

But what’s the view from the other side of the fence, or fences if you count not just the distributor but the filmmakers themselves, whose movies are also being assessed in this new climate of almost-anything-goes-and-where criticism?

Stephen Woolley has been producing (and occasionally directing) films, over 50 in all, for more than 25 years, most recently Perrier’s Bounty and Made in Dagenham, while Rebecca O’Brien is perhaps most associated with the work of Ken Loach having, to date, produced 13 of his films including his latest, Route Irish.

While they have differing views on the work of critics—O’Brien, for example, hates the way the name ‘Loach’ tends to predicate the type of review—both are absolutely agreed on the absurdity of the star system. No, not that star system but rather the prevailing method by which some critics tend to flag up a film’s worth.

For Woolley, this suggests reviews are written with less consideration about the meaning and depth of the film and much more about its superficial entertainment value. For O’Brien, it’s a lazy method of apportioning merit and also leads to—“and I am guilty of this, too” —“laziness among readers. It is very frustrating for filmmakers. It demeans and diminishes criticism and that’s a sad thing as it’s part of the whole machinery we need to keep our industry going.”

While the distributors will gleefully appropriate those stars for their newspaper, poster or TV campaigns, there is at least some acknowledgment of their shortcoming. Duncan Clark, executive vice-president for international distribution at Universal Pictures, who spent years at the coalface of ad/pub promo for various European and Hollywood companies, describes them as an “inevitability. That instant soundbite-style gratification is just a sign of the times.

“It’s like when you sometimes get a mini-review, rather like a précis at the top of the review itself. If it’s poor then you probably won’t read any further. It’s a shame you’re effectively reducing things to just a thumbs-up or thumbs-down especially when there’s so much material that kind of slips into a greyer area than that.”

However, just in case today’s critics feels they are under fire from all sides, then they can take some comfort in these reassuring words from a spokesman for the leading independent, Optimum Releasing.

“Despite the undeniably important online comment and social networking platforms in today’s marketplace, we never underestimate the value of traditional print support for quality product … critical mass in print remains an invaluable marketing tool for distributors commanding a level of space and awareness we cannot possibly achieve through advertising or online alone.”

Which doesn’t mean that some films aren’t, dammit, critic-proof. Duncan Clark acknowledges it—“just look at a film like Mamma Mia!”—as does Jason Solomons. “Actually,” he sighs, “I think most movies are critic-proof which is, I suppose, a very depressing thing for me to admit.”

The final thought belongs to Guardian man Peter Bradshaw, who in the midst of all this debate about the continuing value or not of the film critic today, joyously sums up the continuing “thrill” of his job thus: It’s “going to see a film at 10.30 in the morning, or even earlier. It feels illegal, immoral and absolutely brilliant. Short of actually drinking a pint of absinthe and smoking one of Lord Henry Wotton’s opium-flavoured cigarettes in the cinema foyer, it couldn’t be more decadent. I feel this less-than-innocent pleasure will never pall.”

Quentin Falk reviewed films for more than 30 years in the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Mirror, Punch, Screen International and the Wokingham, Bracknell & Ascot Times.


Mark Batey, chief executive of the Film Distributors’ Association, gives his opinion of modern film criticism

“Film critics can help interested readers/viewers find films they may enjoy and give context to back up their opinions. They can champion a particular film or filmmaker in a well informed, credible and passionate way. This has long been the case but it still applies today and, in a world of 500 theatrical releases a year, it’s really important to have voices speaking for the quality films they admire and want to bring to wider attention.

“What’s changed, of course, as the Internet has tightened its hold on the ways most of us communicate, is the huge expansion in sources of information and opinion on films (and everything else). For many young people, the buzz on social network sites is far more compelling and salient than what, for instance, a national newspaper says.

“And there is nowhere to hide: opinion formers coming out of an opening day showing can text their friends with a reaction the moment they leave (or even, unfortunately, during the film itself)—potentially affecting traffic to that film later in the same opening day! This was simply not the case a few years ago but, for better or worse, is a fact of life in today’s digital age