Saturday, December 22, 2012

sharks + mavericks

Hollywood is a scene. Actors, writers, producers, and directors all climbing the totem pole. Everyone is all about movies and entertainment and making a hard, cruel, living at it. There are really steep canyons. In between long sessions of editing, Internet surfing, labradoodle walking, ZERO DARK THIRTY watching, car riding, and future postulating, it was a +EV place to be.

Throughout the course of this project, many movie people have asked us the question "what audience are you targeting?" I have thought about this question a lot, really since the days of From Busto to Robusto, and have almost always come back around to the same conclusion: if we can recapture the energy and spirit of the online poker boom, and make it easy for poker players to support, we will find the bullseye. I think this past week was time well spent towards doubling down on that ideal. Leaving LA, we're in good shape: the final movie will be about the online poker boom of the 2000s (ldo), but it will be centrally focused on the evolution of poker and the professional poker player, embodied by three modern day pros: Tony Dunst, Martin Bradstreet, and Danielle Moon-Andersen. $$$

Yeah, yeah, that sounds great Jay but tell me something REAL!!! In early 2013 we will be launching a website where you'll be able to get more frequent updates (we have a lot of cool media to share) and information about the movie. Meanwhile, Taylor and I will continue to work on our distribution strategy. As soon as the movie is finished, we will be aggressively trying to get it in front of you. 

Heading North for Christmas (I get 2x presents, suckers!). Happy Chanukah, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!

bonus fortune cookie: strive to make 2013 > 2012. You will acquire new skills and find money on sidewalk.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

BOOM lockdown

Right now I'm in LA, living in the documentary editing room (literally) for one week. Ryan recently made a great 2p2 post explaining what we're up to with the movie. Basically, we had always intended on sending out our latest edit to a group of people whose opinions we really value -- experienced filmmakers, storytellers, poker industry professionals and the like -- who we could trust to supply us with the kind of brutal, critical feedback you need to truly see all your weak spots and how to fix them. Our SXSW edit is not bad at all (in fact I think if we released it many people would still enjoy it), but Ryan is right when he says it's just not good enough and doesn't quite do justice to the expectations we established with our first trailer, and to the story we set out to tell. I think it's fortuitous that we didn't get into Sundance, because it gives us a little bit more time to get this done right.

So where do you start once you make the decision to make some large structural changes to a story? After you go to the Tilt Room you get back to basics. What we had was a combination of a character driven narrative and a detailed expose of the shifty, shadowy nature of the online poker industry. That sounds intriguing on paper but because we're a documentary and reliant on footage we've shot already to tell the story, it was hard to make it completely resonate for an audience member who sits down with no preconceptions. We knew that Black Friday was the crux of the plot, and we knew that the way to deliver the most powerful story is in connecting with our characters and the choices they were making on various levels both before and after the pokerpocalypse. So once we made the decision to fully commit to telling their story through the shifting context of the online poker boom (rather than placing the emphasis on the details of the rise and fall of the industry), and after a lot of deep thinking, discussion, and index carding of scenes, we found the heart of our story again. 

And with this new, clear angle in mind, we're repurposing what we have in full support of that heart.

Why should this matter to you? You've been waiting forever and like Ryan said, this probably sounds a lot like perfectionist nitpicking. But it's important to understand that we (and I mean we as a poker community, as enthusiasts of the game, of people who experienced the crazy thrills and spills of the past 10 years in this wild world) only have one shot to have a movie we can love and share that truly captures the spirit of what it was like to be a part of the online poker boom in the 2000s. The road to that movie may have been long and circuitous, but your continued support and enthusiasm for this project has really been a major driving force in getting us to the finish line with something we are confident that we will all be proud of. Thank you for that. As a creator there's nothing that makes you feel better, more optimistic and confident than support and faith from your audience.

Now back to work I go -- right now we're fine tuning and repurposing a fun scene that we've fondly referred to as "the Party Poker boom." Ahh, nostalgia.

Monday, December 3, 2012

November recap

I was aiming to get one of these posts up per week, but November kicked my ass. A huge leak of mine is setting unrealistic goals and falling short. But better lofty goals than none at all...

My inklewriter story still isn't out of development. I have the concept in mind and ended up doing a bunch of research into CYOA interactive paths and player choice in narrative (I played 999, which was insanely awesome, and The Walking Dead Episode 1, which I thought was both better than the TV show but not fun enough to get me to play more episodes), so I feel like I'm in pretty good shape as far as understanding what makes interactive stories successful. But the writing itself has been basically nonexistent. I'm mainly stating the obvious, but choice should matter a lot, and there should be incentive for going back and getting all the endings...

This game is the cat's pajamas.

I did develop a few other ideas simultaneously. One by myself, which I'd describe at this early stage as a "realist Hayao Miyazaki epic", and another during an extended lockdown session with Alex, my zany writer/director pal. We spent 3 days bunkered up pitching ideas and spinning stories until we burned out upon realizing just how insanely hard it is to generate something original. Twice we thought we had zeroed in on something great only to find that both concepts had been done already... 

On the non-movie front, my younger brother and I have been working on a new web series, which may or may not see the light of day but has been a lot of fun to collaborate on, and led to an 8-hour Halo 4 campaign co-op extravaganza (research!!!) the likes of which we hadn't seen since our days spent jamming on toy lightsabers.

As far as BOOM goes... we submitted to SXSW (we didn't get into Sundance :-/) and sent our edit out for one final round of critical feedback, which was incredibly helpful but also tremendously daunting. Ryan and I have one final month to slay our demons and claim Gladiator-style victory. We're feeling juiced up and inspired. The key now is to fearlessly manage all 10,000 variables in play while focusing the story even further in order to make our argument more emotional and coherent. Happy to say there was no better training for making a movie than my years spent playing high stakes poker! 

So no new goals for December--for now I'll continue plugging away at all these projects (and The Micros! Viva Chase Berger!), and aim to get more ravishing blog posts up more often. A few ideas I've got percolating: "the 7 Skills of Poker"; "Lessons Learned in Making Our First Feature Film: "; "Favorite Fictional Character Relationships"; "Action-Adventure Movie Analyses."

Rungood, readers...

Monday, November 5, 2012


Star Wars rumor-mongering is back en vogue. Can't really express this unlikely scenario any better than this text message string with fraternity brother 'Masshole':
MH: Episode 7!
J: I got it DVRed guess I should watch tonight (thinking he is talking about The Men Who Built America)
MH: well that too.
but im talking Star Wars
J: also want to see Oliver Stone's Untold History of the US coming out on showtime
J: Wait what?
MH: bring back the Sith!
J: What????
MH: @NECN: #Disney says it is buying 'Star Wars' maker Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion from George Lucas
J: Holy fuck
or this Twitter back and forth between me and BJ Nemeth: 

or this image John Wray shared on Facebook:

But I will try anyway. Because Star Wars is back?! Like BJ I never thought I'd live to see this day, and I always imagined if I did it would simply be another hollow echo of the true power of the Force. But it's not! Disney just literally fairy godmothered a generation of people's dreams--removing George Lucas from the equation and replacing him with the combined talents of some of the greatest artists and storytellers working together on the planet today. I seriously can't believe I'm writing this and it's true true

Yeah--a lot could go wrong and they could fall way, way short of greatness. But who cares? The possibility is actually there again! The Jedi, the Force, all that they stand for and mean could actually resonate with a new generation of people. Here's why I'm optimistic: these people who work at Pixar, and Disney, and Marvel, and Lucasfilm, they understand the unique power and potential of the Star Wars myth. George Lucas basically took cave paintings and thrust them onto the movie screen as an epic action-adventure space fantasy drama about the Skywalker family and a son's coming of age in the shadow of his lost father. Now Disney has the chance to do that again, except this time across the modern day mythic canvas of movies, television and video games. They will attempt to make the most of this opportunity. 

Ten years ago, I had just arrived at Boston University, fresh out of high school and enrolled in film school with delusions of grandeur. One of our first assignments for COM101 was to give a speech to our discussion section about why we were there. While writing this post, I wondered if I could dig up that speech. Here are my intro and conclusion:
Have any of you ever been inspired?  I mean actually, truly, deeply inspired to do something?  And has anyone ever actually been inspired in this way by a story?  I have.  A long time ago, in a place far, far, away, I was inspired to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi.  I gazed longingly at the stars, wanting so badly to fly starships through jagged canyons, banter with droids, and save Princess Leia from the clutches of evil.  And of course, I dreamed of carrying Jedi Master Yoda on my back, as I grew to become my own sort of Jedi Knight.  When I was 5 years old, my father sat me down on our cozy brown couch in my square living room back home, and popped in an old videotape version of George Lucas’ Star Wars.  I actually sat there for the entire time, enraptured by this man’s epic vision.  And when I was done, I needed more.  I couldn’t stand to wait 3 years like my father did in 1977 until Empire Strikes Back, and there was no way I could sit for 6 years until Return of the Jedi.  I craved more strange-looking aliens, more of Han Solo’s crooked smiles, and I NEEDED to see those amazing lightsabers in action just a few more times.  So I watched.  And watched some more.  The more I took in of Lucas’ world, the more I admired him.  As I grew older and more mature, Star Wars stayed with me, even when I wasn’t watching the movies.  I wore the Halloween costumes, read the novels, and even collected the toys.  George Lucas created more than a mythology in crafting the Star Wars saga, he gave birth to a way of life.  The stories he designed taught me more about life than simple notions of good versus evil.  They taught me about the spirit of adventure and the power of imagination.  Today, I want to be a screenwriter so I can bring that type of excitement and enjoyment to people’s lives all over the world. 
Emile Durkheim, a religious ideologist, wrote about a theory of effervescence to describe religious phenomena.  Effervescence is that excitement that comes over a crowd before a big football game or concert; the feeling in the air is so pervasive but you just can’t quite put your finger on what it is.  That’s effervescence.  This past May 15, I stood online for 5 hours eagerly anticipating a midnight showing of Episode II.  The anticipation was so palpable you could smell it.  When we stepped inside that dark theater with the stadium seating, you just knew something big was about to happen.  And when the lights dimmed and those epic words came on: A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, the theater erupted in applause.  It was finally there, the next chapter of the story that let us live out our childhood fantasies and taught us lessons about morality, virtues and values.  And I was in awe of the sheer emotion.  That’s why I want to write screenplays.  All I want to do is tell a tale that will dare a new generation of children to dream.  George Lucas’ story has inspired me to introduce my own type of effervescence.  Although the business is risky and only a rare few make an impact, I’m going to do it.  Like Anakin Skywalker, I see things before they happen.  And if anyone tries to tell me I’ll fail, all I need to do is look to the words of Han Solo as he flew through an asteroid belt.  “Never tell me the odds.”
It's sort of crazy to me that I still feel this way, and though I may have un-deified Lucas in my mind (deifying Joss Whedon in his place!), I can't deny that this man achieved something incredibly special and influenced cultural development in a huge way. And I'm not the only one who knows this--I guarantee a majority of the people working on the new Star Wars are there because of similar feelings. And he's donating the $4 billion he made to education! George fucking Lucas!!! 

So here I am, astonishingly, once again optimistic about the future of Star Wars. This must be sorta how the citizens of the Empire felt when the Empire crumbled. Vader is dead? The Force still exists? 

Is this possibly... the return of the Jedi?

Sunday, October 28, 2012

the power of Cloud Atlas

“Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime, and every kindness, we birth our future.”

If you believe this, Cloud Atlas is a powerful experience. Epic and audacious. Exciting, mystifying, moving. I'm not surprised that it's polarized audiences: this is not a movie that you're used to seeing, and to really connect with it you'll need to discard your cynicism. If you can do that, this movie can give you ideas that might even eradicate cynicism from your palette altogether. Maybe we need more of that. We absolutely need more movies like this. 

The Wachowskis are back--not in the same way they exploded into the zeitgeist with The Matrix, a perfect sci-fi action thriller--but in the way they blew our minds by molding entertainment around ideas, reaching deeper and farther than most filmmakers making big budget movies would be able to go. Cloud Atlas interweaves the stories of six different characters, set in different times and places throughout the past, present and future, connecting them with symbols and sounds and souls. Each story is from a different genre: there's a mystery thriller, a sci-fi adventure, a comedic farce, a tragic love story. There are incredible acting performances from a troupe of accomplished actors all playing multiple roles. It's a puzzle box of connections that taps into the mythic power of images, music, and editing. 

I haven't read David Mitchell's novel. It's been on my Kindle for months and now I can't wait to read it. It must be even more profound. We acquired language to solve our basic problems, without realizing that language itself is a problem--truth is something we can't describe but can only understand when we're in its presence. The creators of this humanist symphony show us truth. The argument here is that we will be presented with choices throughout our lives. Each choice represents potentiality. Not simply for the direction of our own lives, but the direction of our collective future. They hammer this into us again and again until we know it in our bones. 

My initial reaction leaving the theater was conflicted. That was a great movie, I knew that. But I didn't feel like it was "the best movie ever", like some of its critical adherents have been claiming. I had to think about it further. I was supposed to go to a friend's Halloween party, but I went home. I found myself reading reviews, Internet chatter, listening to the Cloud Atlas sextet again and again. I felt sad, for some reason, and I couldn't shake it. I went to sleep early and dreamed about the movie. I can't get the music out of my mind.

This movie reminded me that we are significant and matter in ways we can't understand. It's easy to think the world is meaningless. We have access to all this knowledge that dispels a lot of the magic and myth our ancestors believed in. But we are not omnipotent, we are limited by our minds. We are part of a complex system outside our understanding. Atoms drifting in the solar winds, somewhere in space and time.

See this movie in the theaters and talk about it. It may be challenging but it won't be boring--three hours long but always entertaining. Even if you end up not liking it, I think you'll be glad you gave it a chance.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

choosing the adventure

Aside from poker, writing and storytelling have always been my major obsessions. In between finishing BOOM and writing Season Two of The Micros (writing episodes, but no production plans yet), I've managed to make a significant shift in my professional habits--from online poker pro to writer. This basically amounts to writing a lot, creating training exercises for myself, developing my ideas, and consuming/thinking about/discussing a hell of a lot of movies, television, plays, literature, and video games. It's fun.

Recently I wanted to power up my knowledge and enhance the quality of my ideas, so I've been taking some Coursera courses, which have all been really sweet experiences. I just finished one on Fantasy and Sci-fi, and I'm currently engrossed in The Odyssey for a Greek/Roman mythology course. Coupled with the massive volume of incredibly good anime I've been watching (Cowboy Bebop, now Code Geass), I'm itching to write something new.

So as luck would have it, last night I stumbled on inklewriter. Its a free piece of software that allows writers to develop really nice looking, Choose Your Own Adventure style stories for iOS/Kindle. I have a pretty cool idea for a military SF/action-adventure/mystery story that seems like it would be fun to try in this format, so I am diving in. This kind of stuff is the frontier of modern storytelling--emergent narrative--and I am psyched to see what I can do with this tool. I might post stuff about this little experiment along the way, but my goal is to finish by Thanksgiving and share it here. Maybe that 's an ambitious goal, but if it's not challenging and exciting it's not worth doing, and this seems like it's both. 

I have no expectations other than a complete interactive short story--its not going to be a masterpiece, but we'll see where it leads.

Monday, September 24, 2012

on distributing a movie

By far the most common question we get asked about the documentary is: when and where can I see it? Our answer has typically been, and still is, something along the lines of: "we don't know, but stay tuned." That's a pretty vague answer, but movie distribution is a long and complicated adventure that we're only just beginning to embark on. For now, I'll keep it simple and touch upon some of the basic steps.

Film festivals are basically carefully curated smorgasbords of independent cinema. You submit your film, and if the festival deems you worthy you screen to their audiences of festival-goers, film fans, critics and other industry movers and shakers. Festivals can often be the best way to start expanding awareness beyond just your friends, family, community and core audience on the Internet. Building greater and greater awareness is a crucial part of the overall gameplan--think of a movie like any new type of product a company wants to launch. You have to get people interested, excited, engaging in conversation, until it all builds to a critical mass that can hopefully crossover into the mainstream.

If your movie plays well at certain festivals, you may start to see interest from buyers in distribution rights. There are all sorts of distribution rights: theatrical, non-theatrical, VOD, television, DVD, educational, and digital rental/download are some of the big ones. These buyers have access to the biggest audiences and specialize in delivering your movie directly to the most interested eyeballs. So for our project, film festivals are the first step. If we sell the movie, the where/when question gets answered in conjunction with the dealmaking. One of our top priorities is making sure that the film is released in a timely manner, and hits a global audience.

Depending on how they perform at festivals, some filmmakers may choose to go on tour! Think of this as an extension to the awareness-building. Here you're taking the movie around the country and playing to audiences most excited about seeing it. Kind of like a band goes on tour for a new album, but instead of filling concert venues with music we'd be filling theaters and conference rooms with an online poker movie. 

This usually comes last if you crush at festivals and sell all your rights for MEGA BUCKS!!!, but depending on how things play out this could happen sooner. Some filmmakers have been conducting interesting experiments in delivering their movies direct-to-fans and cutting out all the middlemen and red tape. The Internet has had a majorly awesome impact on creating and distributing content, and seeing as how Taylor and I are very much cut from the cloth of online poker players, Internet creators and entrepreneurs, we are totally psyched to see what kinds of strategies we can come up with to push the envelope. How could you create a feature length online poker movie and not have a badass online component, amirite?

Anyhow, I hope this sheds some light on the subject for those curious. We may be finishing up work on the movie itself, but there's still a long road ahead. When/where can you see our movie? We don't know yet, but stay tuned!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

BOOM documentary blog

Ryan, Taylor and I are crawling out of the filmmaking abyss with a nearly finished movie. This is a wild combination of emotions for all of us.

We went into production almost two years ago, but since putting up our trailer in May 2011 we've been mainly radio silent. Our reasoning was simple: we consider ourselves really lucky to have the chance to tell the "story of online poker" on a cinematic scale, and we didn't want to screw it up. This is everyone's first feature and despite possessing a variety of useful experience, there are tons of lessons you only learn in the heat of battle. It turns out turning 300 hours of footage (even when you've carefully planned out what to shoot and why) into a 80-90 minute documentary is an incredibly difficult task. 

We originally planned to look at online poker with a certain focus: the evolution of poker as a game thanks to television and the Internet, and the evolution of the poker playing professional as he moved out of the card room and into the living room. We decided to follow three different pros to achieve this (Danielle "dmoongirl" Anderson, Tony "Bond18" Dunst and Martin "AlexeiMartov" Bradstreet), but Black Friday complicated the story hugely, and it took us some time to figure out the right way to address the impact within the movie. I'd like to say that we "cracked the code," but Ryan and I are so deep in the forest at this point, endlessly analyzing the minutiae of beats, scenes and sequences that it's tough to judge how good it is. I like this Woody Allen quote:
"I have an idea for a story, and I think to myself, my God, this is a combination of Eugene O'Neill, and Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller … but that's because [when you're writing] you don't have to face the test of reality. You're at home, in your house, it's all in your mind. Now, when it's almost over, and I see what I've got, I start to think: what have I done? This is going to be such an embarrassment! Can I salvage it? All your grandiose ideas go out the window. You realise you made a catastrophe, and you think: what if I put the last scene first, drop this character, put in narration? What if I shoot one more scene, to make him not leave his wife, but kill his wife?" 
Neuroses aside, we have shown early edits to a small group of people and reactions have been very positive. So this weekend we mail our tempered optimism and an advanced cut of the finished documentary to the Sundance film festival for consideration. No matter what happens, our ultimate goal remains to get this movie to as wide an audience as possible (likely in 2013)... but it would be SWEET!!! to world premiere at Sundance in January. Time to cash in all that Micros Rungood!

The idea that there is a world coming in which people will be watching a complete version of the movie is incomprehensible. Simultaneously it feels like this will be immensely satisfying, like we're samurai, surfing a hundred foot wave onto a poker table to topple Howard Lederer's stack.

Hahaha! Making a movie is nuts. I hope it doesn't suck.