16 January 2017


Letters from the Land of the Protons #2

A consequence of the time I spend in the world of electrons - motionless, more or less, except for my fingers and my eyes - is that protons tend to congregate around my waist.  I try to fight this with exercise, but it's clear that I've got to cut down on the supply of these protons, too.

I work from a home office, and it's 100 steps (including 34 stairs, if you count down as well as up) from my desk to my refrigerator.  Apparently, walking consumes 0.045 calories per step, so my 100 steps uses up four and a half calories.  If I want to stay ahead of the game, I've got to have something in the fridge that puts fewer than four and a half calories back on, but is still big enough to feel like a satisfactory snack: tasty enough not to feel like penance, and interesting enough not to induce ennui if eaten frequently.

That's a pretty tall order.

One potato chip is about 10 calories, and, as everyone knows, no one can eat just one.  One chicken nugget is 45 calories; I'd have to walk back and forth between the desk and the fridge 10 times to work it off.  The sad truth is, proteins and carbs just aren't up to the proton-prevention job.

But most vegetables taste like water with a pinch of chlorophyll.  Be honest: who's going to take 100 steps to eat a leaf?

There are some near misses amongst the veggies.  A cherry tomato (actually a fruit in disguise rather than a vegetable) tastes great and has "only" three calories, but a satisfactory dose of cherry tomatoes - let's say five - is 15 calories, because of all the sugary fruity goodness.  Close, but no cigar.

There are also some real clinkers in the vegetable kindgom; one leaf of cabbage costs you 4 calories!  Cabbage is disgusting AND fattening!  And we shall not even speak of the abomination which is kale.

A long search drives one into the depressing water-and-chlorophyll end of the vegetable section.  Even here it's slim pickings.  Leaf lettuce is fine calorically but boring.  Celery is good (apparently it has "negative" calories, because digesting the fiber uses up more energy than it yields in carbohydrate nutrition), but celery doesn't hold up to repeated use - I get bored with it too quickly.  Cucumbers, weirdly, are pretty high in carbs.

So what's a man to do?

The answer, it turns out, is "ferment".  The combination of herbs and spices (including garlic!), salt, and, and some magical yeastie beasties works a divine transformation upon a 9-calorie cucumber spear, and that dull, watery, plumpening cucumber spear duckling becomes a dazzling, slimming 3-calorie kosher dill pickle spear swan (because, you know, yeastie beasties eat sugar and excrete pure, healthy, awesome flavor).

A kosher dill pickle spear is a prize worthy of a journey of 100 steps.  It's literally as cool as a cucumber in its barrel-shaped jar in the fridge.  It's crunchy on the skin side and buttery-soft on the seed side.  It's full of a deep melange of spicy flavors; it's tart and it's sweet, and it's umami too.  And a kosher dill spear never wears out its welcome.  I can eat them every day, and each one is as good as the last.

Best of all, at 3 calories, a kosher dill spear gives me a little room for error.  If I fall into a reverie and eat two, it's OK.  A few extra steps and I'm good.

08 January 2017

The Spirit Thermometer

Letters from the Land of the Protons #1

It has, as usual, been hot and cold here in Texas between the third Sunday of Advent and Epiphany. You could literally have given yourself a heatstroke while jogging at noon on December 17 and frozen your tongue to a metal pole at noon the next day, if you didn't have much sense in any kind of weather.

I have a record of the whole thing, because of the weather station I installed in my back yard (it's a long story, but the nub of my motivation is that we live in a kind of hyper-local rain shadow, so the Austin news stations' summaries of how much rain the area receives tell me nothing about whether I should turn the sprinkler system on or off). Here's the temperature graph for 15 December 2016 through 6 January 2017:

I love the weather station; it tells me lots of fascinating stuff about wind speed and direction, barometric pressure, rainfall rates and totals, relative humidity and dew point, and solar and UV intensity. But the weather station isn't perfect. For one thing, it doesn't store information locally - it can display data for just the current instant on a console inside the house, but all the storage and graphing happens on the Internet via Weather Underground. So unless I want to do a lot of work to design a data capture and storage system I can run in my house, I can't record weather data unless my internet connection is up and running. In lots of places that might not be much of an issue, but here in Texas, we get a lot of extreme weather, which translates to a lot of power outages. And so I tend to lose data about the weather at exactly the moments when the weather is most interesting.

There's another thing about the weather station that doesn't bother me, but does bother some people: it's hard to know for sure if it's telling the truth about the weather. The station itself is a bunch of sensors I've never seen, hiding inside a vaguely duck-shaped white plastic housing. I don't know exactly how those sensors work, and I'm pretty sure there's a bunch of software hiding in there with the sensors, which inevitably means the duck's guts are full of bugs. If somebody wanted to fool me about the weather, or if somebody at the weather station factory was just having a bad day and screwed up some of the software, it would be hard for me to tell that anything was amiss.

I don't worry much about this for two reasons: first, I can't figure out why somebody would want to fool me about the weather, and second, Weather Underground doesn't just report my weather station's results - it reports all my neighbors' weather stations' results, and I can check and see if they're all saying similar things. There are a lot of personal weather stations near me, and they're made by a bunch of different companies, and they all report pretty similar data all the time. Here's what the map of the weather stations near me looked like yesterday:

So if there's some kind of weather data manipulation conspiracy going on, it's a very big and very effective conspiracy.

Still, the weather station is not a majority-proton device; it's got a bunch of electrons. So a conspiracy is at least possible. And some people are very worried about weather data conspiracies. This guy, for example. Lots of folks have already made up their minds about whether anthropogenic climate change is happening or not, and I'm not going to argue about that here; I want instead to talk about the electrons vs. protons aspect of Tony Heller's article. The most obvious thing I took away from the article is that there's no way I can verify anything about his claims - and there's no way he can verify anything about them either. He's making claims about thousands (or maybe tens or hundreds of thousands) of sensors he's never personally inspected. These sensors are made by lots of different companies, operated by lots of different organizations, deployed in all kinds of different places under all sorts of different conditions - and most of them are stuffed with shifty little electrons doing whatever it is shifty little electrons do when we're not looking. And after the sensors' local electrons are done doing whatever they do, they're reporting little electronic numbers to big electronic computers far away, stuffed with more shifty little electrons doing more mysterious electron-stuff.

If "Heller" (who is "himself" a creature of the land of electrons; there is apparently a male primate mammal named Steven Goddard from the land of protons who invented this electron-character he calls "Tony Heller") wanted to argue, based on this reality, that there's a high degree of uncertainty about any result reported by all the sensors, that argument would at least make sense. But that's not what he's arguing; he's arguing that the IPCC and NOAA are interpreting the sensor data incorrectly, and that he (who does not own or operate any of the sensors) has a high degree of certainty that he's interpreting it correctly. Upon what, we might ask, is that high degree of certainty based? And how, we might ask, might we achieve a similar degree of certainty?

The answer, of course, is that we really can't be as certain as Heller thinks he is. Achieving that degree of certainty involves hauling huge hulking bags of protons (us) all over the world to look at all kinds of complicated devices and figure out whether they're working - and doing that all the time, everywhere.

So if we can't be very certain about all those sensors, what can we do, if we want to have an informed opinion about climate trends? It turns out that if we're modest, we can do quite a lot, and we can do it with big, slow, reliable protons instead of shifty electrons.

George Washington Carver reportedly liked to tell a story about humility. He said that when he was a young man he prayed to God to tell him the secrets of the universe - and that God told him he wasn't big enough to learn the secrets of the universe. So after a little reflection he prayed to God to tell him the secrets of the peanut. And God answered "George, that's more your size".

If, like Carver, you want to be humble about how much of the universe you're likely to be able to understand, you might just want to give up on being really certain about whether the temperature readings from a sensor floating a yard under the surface of the Pacific Ocean off Tierra del Fuego are accurate, and focus instead on being pretty confident about knowing the temperature in your backyard.

And to be really confident about the temperature in your backyard, you'll want a sensor that works all the time, even when the power is out, and that can't lie to you, either accidentally or on purpose. In other words, you want a sensor that lives in the land of protons instead of the land of electrons.

Luckily, it's easy to find a proton-land temperature sensor. It's called a Spirit Thermometer, and you can get one for about two bucks. Mine is the slightly more expensive (but prettier!) version in the photo at the top of this letter. It's just a sealed glass tube with a little bulb of red-colored alcohol at the bottom. It works because of very simple proton-land physics: alcohol expands when you heat it and contracts when you cool it, so the hotter it gets, the higher up the glass tube the alcohol creeps. There's a handy scale alongside the glass tube so you can read the temperature in the degrees of your choice (PSA: just take a marker and scratch out the Celsius scale, because Fahrenheit is better, at least if you're a human.)

Unless the laws of physics which govern thermal expansion of liquids change, there's no way the Spirit Thermometer can make an error. Like George Washington, the Spirit Thermometer cannot tell a lie.

If you believe in conspiracy theories, you might be worried about someone tampering with your sensor; the good news here is that since the Spirit Thermometer is a proton device rather than an electron device, it's pretty hard to tamper with: to get it to change its behavior you have to change the size of the space inside the glass, or you have to add or take away alcohol. Doing any of these things would mean you'd have to open the sealed glass tube and then close it up again without leaving any evidence that you'd messed with it. It's a little easier to replace the scale that sits alongside the glass tube with one that's marked differently; my take on this is that if you live in a neighborhood where there's a real chance that people are breaking into your backyard to replace parts of your thermometer, the climate might not be the first thing you should worry about.

Living in the land of protons with my Spirit Thermometer provides me with a kind of existential calm. The land of electrons is full of arguments about whether the globe is warming, whether the scientific community is cooking the numbers from millions of shifty-electron sensors, and whether the government is lying to us. I don't have to worry about that. My stolid, boring little red liquid protons and clear glass protons tell me - with the majestic authority of the physical laws of the universe - whether it's hot or cold in my backyard. I can write down what they tell me every day at 3pm, and after a year, I know with a very high level of confidence whether this year is warmer than last year in my own back yard. And if someone tells me "the world isn't getting hotter", I can smile and answer "well, my backyard is hotter. The protons told me so".

By the way, my protons approve of the weather station. Right now the protons say it's 51 degrees. The weather station says 50.2, which is pretty close for a bunch of shifty electrons. And, give or take 0.8 degrees, it's a mighty nice day down here in Austin.

31 December 2016

2017 Project: Letters from the Land of the Protons

Having managed one post all year in 2016 (albeit a post periodically updated behind its link), I’m going to try to pick up the pace in 2017, with a Dickensian serialization of a set of meditations on a theme.

To introduce the theme, I’ll point you to this recent bit of reporting by Amelia Tate of the New Statesman. Go ahead: click the link and read it. I’ll wait.

OK, you’re back? That was pretty interesting, right? What really caught my attention in Amelia’s story was this sentence:

“Some truly believe in the Mandela Effect, that there has been some glitch in the world, there are parallel universes, or a timeline has been altered and as such little things have got lost.”

But why would people believe a thing like this - that the world doesn’t live by predictable and explicable rules, and that things can just change at random with no explanation? This is the superstitious worldview we left behind with the Enlightenment; how is it possible to hold such a view today, after centuries of proof that the world obeys rational and observable rules? I think Donald Trump, of all people, got it exactly right, when he said a few days ago that “The whole age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what’s going on”.

Believing that things in our universe just pop into and out of existence at random intervals is the sort of thing that can only be sustained by people who are not in regular contact with the actual world. And more and more people aren’t in contact with the actual world. They live most of their days in a world of electrons. Electrons are tiny and lightweight, so they can move fast. And they’re tricky. They can be a wave and a particle at the same time. And while you’re not looking they can be in two places at once, as Schrodinger demonstrated. Because electrons can move fast, the world of electrons can change in the blink of an eye. And because they’re tricky, you can never be sure what you’re seeing in the world of electrons isn’t an illusion.

The other world, the pre-computer world, the world of protons, isn’t like that. Protons are big and heavy, and they’re slow and steady. You can just wave your hand and move a bunch of electrons; to move protons you need to use a shovel.

In the world of electrons, a photograph isn’t a record of a real thing; it’s just a painting that looks hyper-real, but can change every time you look away. In the world of protons, a photograph is a chunk of paper or plastic or metal, and it doesn’t change unless you take a knife or a paintbrush to it. In the world of electrons, a news story can say one thing today and another thing tomorrow, and once tomorrow comes it’s difficult or impossible to prove that there has been a change. In the world of protons, a news story is a big sheet of paper with ink on it; it stays on your living room table overnight and when you come back to it tomorrow it’s still there. If you want to get rid of it, you have to set it on fire or get somebody to come to your house and take it away. And if you think somebody has changed it, you can go to your neighbor’s house and see if her copy is the same as yours.

In the world of protons, change is gradual, local, and noticeable. In the world of electrons, change can be rapid, global, and undetectable. Living in the world of electrons, where you’re surrounded all the time by things that change instantly without notice, can make you doubt that things exist and facts are true. It’s not like that in the world of protons; that nail that sticks out of the floorboard keeps pricking your toe until you take care of it. In the world of protons facts are stubborn and things are too.

There’s another difference between the world of protons and the world of electrons: protons are positive, electrically speaking, and the world of protons tends to be a positive place emotionally. That’s not because emotions are electrical (though they are); it’s because things are hard to change in the world of protons, and so humans tend to spend the majority of their time and energy on changes that make their immediate surroundings better.

Electrons are electrically negative, and the world of electrons has turned out to be emotionally negative too. Part of that is selective focus; electrons move so fast that you get them from everywhere all the time - the world of electrons is global. If you’ve got a whole world of news, you can only pay attention to a little bit of it - so you tend to pay attention to the BIGGEST stories, which tend to be spectacular disasters. Protons are slow. Newspapers are much more local than TV networks because moving wads of proton-laden paper around is so slow that a newspaper can’t get very far. Protons make news local, and a local newspaper can’t fill all its pages with stories of spectacular disasters because not that many spectacular disasters happen in any one place at any one time. There’s more room for good news in the slow, local world of protons, because the local bad news is smaller and less dramatic.

Are you with me so far? Maybe you believe me that living in the world of protons will make you happier and show you more truth and fewer lies; maybe you don’t. I’m going to test this theory during 2017. I’m going to spend more time away from my screens in the world of protons, and I’m going to report back.

I’m calling the series Letters from the Land of the Protons, and I’m going to try to write 4 letters a month and post them here. 4 letters a month is kinda like one a week, but with 4 get-out-of-jail-free cards for laziness, flakiness, busyness, and an inability to tell time or remember what day it is.

20 January 2016

The Live Music Capital of the World

A slideshow - all of my live music photos from Austin, newest first.

18 January 2012

You Can Make SOPA and PIPA Irrelevant (But You're Probably Too Lazy)

SOPA and PIPA are bad laws. And Clay Shirky's TED talk about why they're bad laws is great. But he gets the most important point wrong. Right at the end, he says there are two things you can do.

He says you can call your Congresspeeps, and you can "get ready", because more is coming.

But there aren't two things you can do. There are three. And the third thing is much more powerful than the two things Clay suggests.

You can make SOPA, PIPA, Copyright, and the Media moguls of the Hollywood studios, the music labels, the MPAA, and the RIAA irrelevant. You can cut off their air supply.

You can make your own media, and you can make it free.

And why wouldn't you? It's not like the media that's being made for you - for which the RIAA and the MPAA are willing to break the Internet and put you in jail - is any good.

Today's media is SHIT.

Are you dying to see "April of the Penguins" and "The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3D"?

Can you NOT FUCKING WAIT for the latest Justin Bieber disc?

(If you said "yes", you are not the target audience, and you are not the future. Please leave.)

I've said it before, but it bears repeating. This stuff is NOT WORTH STEALING. The RIAA and the MPAA want to break the Internet to protect Britney Spears and "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked". SRSLY.

You can make your own media, and you can OBVIOUSLY make better media.

My sisters and I made this in 48 hours with one iPhone, one iMac, and software that cost us zero dollars. You can do MUCH MUCH BETTER. (We can too, and we will).

A modern $300 point-and-shoot camera will take hi-def video whose quality would have made Orson Welles cry. A new Mac comes with iMovie and Garage Band FREE. These apps will let you do things a Hollywood studio would have spent millions of dollars on only a decade ago. Robert Rodriguez' 10-minute film schools are on YouTube and will teach you everything you need to know - IF you have a story to tell and a bit of talent.

So why do you pay $12 for a movie ticket to see some hack's cynical sequel to a sequel when you could make movies yourself and share them for free on YouTube or Vimeo?

Because you're lazy and afraid.

If enough of you shake off the fear and lethargy, you can make the Internet a BETTER place to watch movies than the theater: not just a cheaper place, but a BETTER place. Better because the stories are better and better because the viewing experience is better (no DRM, no lawyers, no restrictions on where a movie can be viewed, no need to wait for a movie to be "released" in our towns).

And you know what's even better than that? If you DO make the Internet a better place to watch movies than the theater, you'll also make it a place where the people who MAKE movies get paid. Which would be great, because the current system doesn't pay people who make movies: it pays people who finance movies, distribute movies, and lobby Congress to make sure watching movies stays expensive.

Here's all it would take. You'd get your ass off the couch and write down that story you think really needs to be told. You'd take in a few online tutorials - maybe Dan Allen's short-film and FCPX tutorials (look for iMovie tutorials if you're cheap), and a few GarageBand lessons. You'd read David Mamet's wonderful short book On Directing Film. And then you'd dust off your DSLR or your digital point-and-shoot camera and go out and make a movie.

You'd upload that movie to YouTube or Vimeo, and you'd give it a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license so anybody could embed it, show it, or download it and remix it to create their own works for free.

You might make a really great film. If you do, you might get paid for it - or not, but you'd still have made a really great film. But - and this is the important point - NO MOVIE STUDIO WOULD GET PAID FOR IT. AND NO MOVIE STUDIO LAWYER WOULD BE ABLE TO THREATEN TO TAKE A WEBSITE OFF THE INTERNET FOR HOSTING IT. AND NO MOVIE STUDIO LOBBYIST WOULD BE ABLE TO BREAK THE INTERNET TO PREVENT OTHERS FROM RIFFING ON IT.

If enough of you do this, the movie studios will have less money. Less money to make shit movies, but also less money to pay lobbyists to pay Congressmen to break the Internet.

And if that happens, Clay's fears won't be realized. There won't be another SOPA waiting for us down the road.

But of course, you'd have to get your ass off the couch.


24 August 2011

What Steve Jobs Built

You've all heard the news by now. Steve Jobs has stepped down as Apple's CEO. I could recite his accomplishments, but you know them. I could link to the videos, but you've seen them. I could tell you to buy a Mac and an iPhone, but you've already got them.

But there is one thing I haven't seen anyone say about Steve, so I'll say it now.

You often hear that we don't build anything in America anymore. And it's true enough that we don't build TVs, and we don't make much steel, and we don't make many textiles, and even Apple doesn't make computers here anymore.

But we still do make ONE thing in America.

We make the future.

And Steve Jobs did that better than anybody, for a long, long time.

Thank you, Steve. I hope you have many happy and healthy years to enjoy the future you've done so much to build. I'm gonna head over to the Mac App Store now and buy Motion as a way-too-tiny token of my profound gratitude.

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/home_of_chaos/4645091860 (Creative Commons BY License)

28 April 2011

Werner Herzog Reads Curious George

When a work finds its truest performer, the magic happens.


23 April 2011


Radiolab posted this wonderful video to YouTube:

03 April 2011

Improv Everywhere: Triumph of the Human Spirit


25 March 2011

A Beautiful Short Film

How Football came to Panyee. This film is wonderfully made and tells an inspiring story in a little over 5 minutes. It doesn't hurt that the setting, Panyee Thailand, is one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

23 March 2011

How Much Do Movies Really Cost?

A while back I wrote about how much it costs Hollywood to make a movie, using Avatar as a (particularly depressing) example. Avatar seems to have cost about $237 million, of which $150 million went to promotion.

Avatar, of course, wasn't just "any old movie" - even by Hollywood standards. It was made by James Cameron, who has a history of making movies that rake in mountains of cash once they're released; Avatar seems to have made North of $2.5 BILLION dollars. It was also made in 3D (ick) using bleeding-edge graphics techniques on a set which was designed from the ground up to make the movie. Avatar won three Oscars, which is evidence that the Oscar should no longer be considered an honor worth having.

You can make a much better movie than Avatar for a lot less money; The Hurt Locker, directed by Cameron's ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow, was a better movie than Avatar even by Hollywood's standards - it won 6 Oscars the same year Avatar won its 3. The Hurt Locker cost less than $20 million to make, and it seems to have earned about $20 million.

You can get production costs down far below $20 million, but total costs are still high if you want a movie released in theaters. The Blair Witch Project cost between $20,000 and $750,000 to make, depending on who you believe and how you define expenses - but it cost $25 million to print, distribute, and advertise.

And of course, Robert Rodriguez famously shot El Mariachi for $7,000 - but again, the total costs of the movie the audience actually saw were much greater. Columbia paid at least another million, and probably more, to print the film, advertise it, and distribute it.

Rodriguez made El Mariachi on 16mm film. Film is expensive, and so is the equipment you need to use to shoot a movie on film. Today you can shoot a movie digitally for even less than Rodriguez spent on El Mariachi. I've done it.

The trick is to do everything yourself (or with a few friends), using consumer equipment, and avoid all the things that make Hollywood films expensive.

I made the movie at the head of this post for last year's Austin 48-Hour Film Project. I wrote the script myself, did all the filming, lighting, editing, and music myself on equipment I already owned, and used friends & family (me, my father, and my former boss) for actors.

Even if I'd had to buy all the equipment new, it would only have cost about $2,000. Here's the complete equipment list:

$1199 13" MacBook Pro

$399 Panasonic DMC-LX3

$43 8GB Class 10 SDHC card

$0: iMovie

$0 Garage Band

$199 8GB iPod Touch

$9.99 BeatMaker app

$14.99 MusicStudio app

$6.99 ThumbJam app

$1.99 Bebot app

$3.99 Bloom app

$0.99 Euphonics app

$1.99 Bowls app

$0.99 Church Organ app

$0 Audacity for Mac

$0 iMovie Tutorials

$0 Garage Band Tutorials

$20 "Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood's Golden Age"

$279 Tripod

$10 "On Directing Film"

$30 Three Home Depot worklights with 100W bulbs

The total comes to $2,220.92.

But $1,598 of that is the laptop and a consumer digicam capable of HD video - and there's a good chance you already have one or both of those.

The most important items - David Mamet's book "On Directing Film", the tripod, and the lights - cost only $319.

By the way, you will be tempted to cheap out on the tripod.


You want a good solid one with a smooth pan action, a quick-release plate, and a leveling bubble.

The moral of this story is that if you have a decent computer and digital camera, you can make a pretty good movie yourself for free. Next time we'll talk about whether you can get anybody to watch it, and whether you can make money from it.

05 August 2010

Storytelling in 30 seconds


(Hat tip to Nancy Duarte for the link.)

13 May 2010

Math Education Sucks the Same Way TV Sitcoms suck

Fascinating observation from Dan Meyer at TED. Bonus: shout-out to the iPhone as a cheap & easy way to produce compelling video to fix the math education problem.

24 April 2010

Great Movie, Cheap Gear

While you're waiting for the New Studio's financials, take a second to watch "Uncle Jack":

It's 5 minutes long, its story is far better than Avatar's and it was shot in three days with equipment you can probably afford.

Here's Jamin Winans (the director) explaining how he did it:

23 April 2010

Not Worth Stealing

This week in movie news, Hitler has reacted badly to the news that Constantin Films, who own the copyright to "Downfall", have issued a DMCA notice resulting in the removal of many "Downfall"-based parodies from YouTube.

The Downfall parodies are a prime example of what Larry Lessig calls Remix. Constantin Film AG calls it "theft".

EFF, the Open Video Alliance, and others will argue til the cows come home about whether remix is theft or fair use.

I say the hell with it.

Forget about remix. Why start with crap?

I haven't seen Downfall; it was made in Germany, not Hollywood, so it might not be total crap. But what arguments over the DMCA are distracting us from is that

Take Avatar. It was released on video this week. It won THREE Oscars, and was nominated for six more including best director and best picture. It's a two hour cartoon with a juvenile story you could tell in one minute. Don't believe me? Here you go:
Evil militaristic corporation lands on pristine planet occupied by noble giant smurfs and priceless ore. Military begins wiping out smurfs but one honorable disabled underling falls in love with a smurf, goes rogue, and leads the resistance. Just as all seems lost, the planet itself rises up and crushes the invaders, and the hero is magically transformed into an able-bodied smurf himself. In 3D. With lots of heart-swelling music.
Avatar is crap; the only good thing about its DVD release is that if you watch it at home, you'll be able to pause it every two hours so you can pee; I saw it in the theater and I was praying for a catheter by the halfway point.

Edward Jay Epstein's recent book "The Hollywood Economist" is depressingly clear about why almost every movie made today is crap. In a nutshell, it's because moviemakers can't get distribution deals for pictures which aren't guaranteed to herd teenage boys into the theaters in droves (read the book for more details). Epstein notes on his blog that crap teenager-magnets like Avatar are squeezing indie movies (which are still occasionally worth seeing) out of the theaters. Epstein's conclusion is this:

With the prospect of American distribution rapidly fading, indie producers are now finding pre-sale financing almost impossible. "It's a dead business model," a former Miramax executive said.

If so how can Indie producers continue to make movies? They might be able to find wealthy individuals entranced enough with a movie fantasy to put up the money, but they still need to devise a new way in this digital age to distribute them to an audience willing to see something more than the movie versions of amusement park rides.

Bingo. So let's get started.

I promised you two years ago (I know, I know, but I've been busy…) that I'd post a business plan for a New Studio: "…a new business model that lets creative people make a decent living making good, cheap movies. [The New Studio is] going to trust its audience to pay for quality films. It's going to grow its fan base by distributing entire movies on the Internet with no DRM."

In the unlikely event you've been eagerly waiting for me to keep this promise, you're in luck. Here's the first installment:

What is The New Studio?

The New Studio is a business model which uses the new technologies of low-cost digital capture and editing, high-quality low-cost print-on-demand services, and near-zero-cost electronic distribution to take creative control of cinematic storytelling away from producers and studio executives and give it back to writers and directors.

The New Studio is owned and managed by directors and writers, who produce their own material and retain artistic control of their work. Every director in a New Studio has final cut.

The New Studio accomplishes its financial goals by enabling motion pictures to be produced, marketed, and distributed cheaply enough that there is a high probability of a modest profit (and a smaller possibility of a large profit) for every film the New Studio produces.

The New Studio may accept investments by outside producers. Producers’ relationship with The New Studio is, however, financial rather than creative. In return for lower financial risk (that is, a more predictable return on investment than a traditional studio can promise), investors in The New Studio willingly leave all creative decisions to the New Studio’s writers and directors.

What are the The New Studio’s principles?

Hollywood fears the web. Studios fear that releasing their movies on the web will destroy their revenue stream.

Fear of releasing movies on the web comes from a belief that the product is worthless – so no sane person would voluntarily pay for it. This belief is justified by most of today’s movies. They are made not to satisfy an artistic urge, or to tell a story, but to make money. A lot of money.

If you need to make 100 million dollars, you have no time to think about anything else. Including telling a story.

But you don't need to make 100 million dollars, because you don't need to spend 80 million dollars to make the movie and distribute it. In 2010 you can produce movies cheaply using new technologies, as Robert Rodriguez and others have demonstrated. You can distribute movies essentially free using the Internet. This means that, as long as you’re not greedy, there are stories you can afford to tell with the new tech which studios cannot afford to tell for theatrical release. This is good for the artists but bad for middlemen who add cost but not artistic value to projects.

People will want to pay for a story which is worth the money. No story is worth $100 million (well, maybe just a few. The Bible’s done pretty well at the box office…). But lots of stories are worth $2 million.

When you put content into electronic form you enable people to make an unlimited number of copies for free. There is therefore no such thing as theft. Want proof? If someone makes a free copy of my movie, what have I lost? Only something I never had: the copier’s money. (NOTE: If you thought Digital Rights Management could stop people from making copies, you’re confused. Study until you understand why you’re wrong. Until then, don’t bother us).

While there is no such thing as theft, there is such a thing as publicity. A good product, distributed widely, creates buzz and demand. This in turn generates sales.

People who see honest publicity for a good product want to buy it. Digital Rights Management is based on a worldview of shortage. Our worldview is abundance. We think our stories are good – so good that people who see them will want to own them. We want as many people as possible to see them because we know some (not all) of those people will pay us for them.

What does The New Studio sell?

We sell access, experience, and artifacts.

Access to our products and, to a few lucky fans, access to the process of producing our products.

Experience of the magic of motion pictures – the willing suspension of disbelief, the entry into the story, the magic of the motion-picture production process, the glamour of our stars.

Artifacts including high-quality art produced specially for our customers and actual items used in the production of our motion pictures.

We make motion pictures and sell films.

  1. We release our motion pictures free on the Internet. In high-quality audio and video formats. Before theatrical release.
  2. We sell films. Not DVDs (which are just little round pieces of plastic and metal) – films. Films are released to the retail market simultaneously with free Internet release. The buyer of a film gets a high-resolution DVD with an excellent motion picture that tells a compelling story. This DVD is not region-coded or protected by DRM; the buyer can play it on any device, create any number of copies, and exhibit it to the public if he chooses. The film comes in a high-quality package which creates a film experience.

    The motion picture at the heart of the film is reproduced on the highest-quality media available, so that it will last a lifetime. If media is scratched, or if it degrades, it will be replaced at no cost, with no questions asked – guaranteed.

    The film is sold in one of three editions, and not everyone can own one. The first edition is the limited edition.

    The limited edition film includes original, limited-edition collectible art art (a numbered 8x10 archival black-and-white photograph of one of the stars by an outstanding photographer) which will grow in value over time and which represents a connection between the filmmakers and the buyer.

    The limited edition film includes a high-quality illustrated book containing production stills and a commentary on the production by the screenwriter and the director; this book is available only as part of the film editions.

    The limited edition film includes a unique password for a website which allows the buyer to view dailies and other production details of the next motion picture produced by the studio.

    The limited edition film includes a coupon which can be redeemed for two free tickets to see the motion picture in a local theater after its theatrical release (if it gets released to theaters!).

    And the limited edition film includes a lottery ticket. The two winners of the lottery will be auditioned for roles in a future motion picture produced by the studio. If the winners are not cast in speaking parts, they will be cast as extras or given roles in the crew of the production.

    The limited edition film will be available for only $50 per copy. Only 100,000 limited edition copies of the film will be produced – ever.

    The second edition of the film is the special edition. The special edition film includes all the contents of the limited edition. It also includes a copy of the movie’s poster (signed by the director and shipped rolled, not folded) and a numbered 11x14 archival black-and-white photo of one of the stars by an outstanding photographer, signed on the front by the star and on the back by the photographer. This photo will be shipped ready for framing in a 16x20 archival mat. Both the poster and the photograph will grow in value over time and represent the personal connection between the filmmakers and the buyer.

    The special editions of the film are available for only $250 per copy. Only 1,000 special editions of the film will be produced – ever.

    The third edition of the film is the collector’s edition. These collector’s edition will include, in addition to the special edition film contents, two premiums. The first premium is an actual prop or costume used in the production of the film, with a certificate of authenticity signed by the director and the star most closely associated with the item. The second premium is two tickets to the theatrical premiere of the motion picture, if such a premier is held.

    The collector’s editions of the film are available for only $5,000 per copy. Only 100 collector’s editions of the film will be produced – ever.

  3. We sell motion pictures via iTunes. No motion picture will be released to iTunes until three months after its free Internet release – guaranteed. The motion pictures will be optimized for high-quality playback on iPads and laptop computers, and will be free of any DRM restrictions.

    Our motion pictures will be available via iTunes for only $4.99 per copy (for purposes of comparison, “Chicago” is sold on iTunes for $9.99 per copy).

  4. We sell prints of motion pictures to theatrical distributors. No motion picture will be released to theatrical distribution until one year after its free Internet release – guaranteed. This benefits buyers of films because they will have exclusive access to high-quality prints of the motion picture for a year before the motion picture is released to theaters. It benefits theater owners because they will have access to motion pictures with a proven fan base on the day of release.

How does The New Studio sell?

We sell direct, over the Internet.

We create demand by letting people experience our motion pictures in their entirety, in high-quality reproduction, for no cost. Our customers are not thieves. They are fans. They appreciate motion-picture art when they see it. If they can afford to own motion-picture art, they will choose to buy our films because those films have lasting artistic value, are worth owning, and enhance their lives.

Some of our customers cannot afford our films, but they still love and treasure motion-picture art. We celebrate the opportunity to enrich their lives by providing them with excellent art, even though they cannot afford to buy a film. Many of these people will become more prosperous, and will buy our films in the future; others will pay for downloads of our motion pictures so that they can play them through iTunes. Fans who cannot afford to pay us in cash will pay us with their voices by recommending our motion pictures to friends. A few of our fans will be inspired to make their own motion pictures, and they will tell stories we cannot imagine – and that’s the best part of all.

How does The New Studio advertise?

We don’t. Our product speaks for itself. People will recommend our motion pictures to their friends and companies will recommend them to their customers. Our motion pictures are so good that we think other people will want to use them to advertise their products and services. We approve. We will give a limited number of people and companies with influence, good taste, and good products permission to host our motion pictures, uncut, on their sites – individuals’ blogs and corporate portals – to help them advertise themselves and their products and services to their customers. If you think your audience or your customers would be attracted to your site by an excellent motion picture, get in touch. But hurry – we’ll grant this permission to a limited number of people and companies who believe strongly and early in the value of each of our motion pictures.

In the next entry, I'll run the numbers to convince you that the New Studio can make money.

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