Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Showbiz Expo & Pot Expo

I have no idea when the first Showbiz Expo was - and I’m too lazy to do the research - but it seems like soon after I arrived in Los Angeles 20 years ago, I went to my first Showbiz Expo. The old Expos were at the LA Convention Center and filled the place with the latest film equipment - with giant camera cranes in the parking lot and the latest 35mm cameras from Panavision indoors. Every company that did something related to the film biz was there - and when Script Magazine put out their first actual magazine version, we had a booth to announce it. In fact, in 1998 my book debuted at Showbiz Expo - I did autographs at the Hollywood Scriptwriter newsletter booth and at Script’s booth.

I used to love going to the show, often with my friend Jim, and we’d look at the cameras and cranes and steady-cam rigs and all of the other cool stuff and talk about how we would use it in *our* film. We got on all of the mailing lists, and knew which equipment company had the best deals this month, and what new gizmos came out between Expos. And there were some cool gizmos! A remote control helicopter with a camera attached that could get an aerial shot swooping down from the heavens to a house window... and then fly through the window and down that hallways to find the actor in some back room of the house. All one shot! There were guys who built miniatures, there were guys who did creature make up, there were stunt people and studios with standing sets and prop houses where you could rent a full sized version of the Lunar Excursion Module from the Apollo missions as well as all of the space suits that go with it. Expo was like a candy store for movie kids.

The problem for me ended up being Script Magazine became successful - as one of those first writers, and a guy who lived in Los Angeles, I became elected to run the booth. At first it was fun, but after a couple of years I was chained to that damned booth and didn’t get to see the show anymore. I do a slow burn kind of thing - I start out being nice and cooperative, then grumble a little under my breath, and finally just get pissed off. Script began assigning some of the other writers to time in the booth, and that was great because I could finally wander around the candy store again. And around that time, Showbiz Expo just stopped happening.

Attendance had been declining over the years - that damned internet became the place where people looked at all of the new equipment - and finally they just closed their doors.

Then, after almost a decade... they came back from the dead.

NEW EXPO

At the end of last year during that week between London and what was supposed to be Hong Kong, was Screenwriting Expo. I thought about doing classes for about a minute - then realized I’d be jet lagged and asleep on my feet. Which I was. But I decided to stop by and hang out for a couple of hours because some of you people would be there and it’s a chance to say hello in person. Except in my jet lagged state I took the subway and then rode my bike to the Convention Center... then followed the Expo signs inside to... Showbiz Expo! Hey, it came back! That’s not where I was going, but I was there so I figured I’d check it out. It was much smaller than before, but that gives it room to grow, right? After doing a walk through I goty back on my bike and rode to the hotel where they were holding the *Screenwriting* Expo and may have talked to some of you.

Only a few months later, they held the Showbiz Expo again, and I went *on purpose*.

Early registration is *free* - which is how it was in the good old days. The difference is that the good old days was a postcard you filled out, now you go online where you fill out *endless* forms. There is the main registration form... then you must go through every single class and seminar and panel and possible upcharge and check whether you want it or not. Plus - would you like a booth? Plus - would you like to display your headshot? Plus - would you like to put promotional materials in the swagbag? Plus - would you like to sign up for their online services listing for $5 a month? Plus....

After filling all of that out, I expected a free burrito or egg rolls or something. But I was into the event for free, so that’s cool.

A few days before the event I start getting robo-dialed pre-recorded reminders that it was coming up. Um, okay.

My friend Kris talked about car pooling, but parking is around $10 (it was actually $12) and I suggested the subway because it takes you a couple blocks away for $2.50 round trip. He wanted to drive, so I did a bike/subway thing so that I could ride the couple of blocks... and called Kris once I got there to tell him that the event was kind of small.

I walk into the Convention Center, following a crowd, and ended up at... some sort of Pot Expo! The main West Hall was Pot Fest 2010 or whatever... there were people in *bong costumes*! Welcome to California! Wait, I thought Showbiz Expo was in West Hall? Well, it was in the little room. I go to the small hall where I’m sent to a line for pre-registered. I am always prepared - and have my computer print out with the bar code in my hand. There is this guy behind me - and old guy - who starts a conversation with some people in the section of the line to our right - ahead of us by a turn. Then he hops the rope, and is now ahead of me. I swear he did not know those people. Anyway - he gets to the front of the line a turn before me, and has to search his pockets for his print out. That kind of stuff pisses me off. Sorry, I feel better now that I’ve vented.

Anyway, I get to the front of the line and the guy scans my print out and tells me to go to computer terminal number 7. I tell him I have preregistered, he says he knows, go to computer #7. I go to computer #7 and there is my name and info... but I have to go through every single class and seminar and everything else again and say I don’t want to take them. Hey, maybe I’ve changed my mind, right?

Most of the classes are aimed at actors, but there are two screenwriting things - one on pitching and one on The Modern Spec Script... which claims that NORTH BY NORTHWEST was a spec. Um, no. Assignment. An *original* screenplay, but not a spec. When I see stuff like that I worry that if they get that wrong, what else are they getting wrong? I again decide not to take the class and find out what they get wrong.
After going through all of those pages a second time, I hit the button and am sent to a printer station where they give me my badge. This is worse than the DMV!

I show my badge and go in... and it’s small. In fact, this was the little annex room they had all of the screenwriting vendors in back in the old days. Where I was stuck for 8 hours every day for 3 days a decade ago. Now, this room is everything. In fact, it’s kind of less than everything - because the back of the room is a bunch of empty tables and a couple of bored dudes behind one of those rolling hotel bars. Oh, and behind them there is a curtain with some tables set up for networking. Networking you have to pay for (one of the checkboxes on the computer).

Most of the stuff seems designed for actors - which is okay. There was a “headshot row” - the right aisle was a table where you could pay to put your headshots and every acting school in Los Angeles (there are a million of them - if you know any actors, you know they take class after class after class and talk about them constantly. “Have you done Meisner?” “Yes, from six different instructors. It really came in handy when I did my scenes study class.” “I’m going to do one of those when I finish this on camera audition class.” “I think next up for me is Stage Movement.” “I did Camera Movement, do you think it’s much different?” “Of course, why else would they have two classes?” The class pushing the hardest seemed to be The Science Of Acting, which had a book and everything.

On the left side of the room they had an Indie Film Aisle where you could rent a TV/DVD combo showing your movie or movie trailer with postcards in front. Who these post cards were for, I do not know. Hard to imagine a film distrib wandering past, seeing the trailer for one of these films, and wanting to buy it. This seemed like a crazy longshot kind of thing. Why not find some better way to bring filmmakers and distribs together?

Movie Magic and Final Draft & Script and Writers Book Store were there, but that was about it for screenwriters. There were a few equipment places with some cool steady cam type rigs and some lights and a grip truck. Plus the most luxurious porta-poties I have ever seen - there are people in New York with apartments smaller than these toilets. Plus a Winnebago screening room conversion and a place that makes fake snow that had ice skating chicks demonstrating and next to it a bunch of confetti cannons that were getting stuff all over the floor that janitors were sweeping up. Oh, no carpet on the floor - I guess that would have cost too much. I did a couple of rounds, talked to Zach at the Script/Final Draft booth, then went to the keynote speech...

Which was not a keynote speech at all, but a panel on the joys of voice over acting. I split after about 20 minutes.

The keynote speech was held in the same room where they had a free film fest, which I did not go to. Maybe I should have. Maybe that was the great thing at Expo.

The guy running a booth in a T shirt with his guy hanging out - and I mean really hanging out - was not the great thing at Expo.

I bumped into a fellow writer and talked shop, then left.

The Pot Expo was still packed as I walked out of the Convention Center, unlocked my bike and rode back to the subway to Universal City...

NEXT EXPO?

There’s nothing wrong with Showbiz Expo targeting actors - that seems like a good way to build it up. But they need to lose trying to sell classes to the people who already decided not to take them when they preregistered. They also need to spend some more time thinking about things that are not actors. I’m sure a director of photography who went thought it was mostly a waste of time. Just like with a screenplay, you have to know your audience. If you are writing a script for a niche audience, it needs to focus on that niche and what they want to see in a film... and also has to be something that can be made on a budget low enough that it can return a profit from that niche. If you are going after a broad audience your script can cost more to produce because more people will be interetsed in paying to see it... but you have to know what attracts that broad audience and provide that in your screenplay. The problem with Expo is that is was supposed to appeal to a broad audience (it was at the Convention Center and wasn't called "Actor's Expo") but seemed to mostly be targeting actors. That's like writing a big budget screenplay that only appeals to a limited audience... good luck selling that one.

As a screenwriter, I think they need to look closer at their classes and make sure they get someone who knows what a spec script is teaching them. (Hey, I’m available.) They can also find something to bring in screenwriters - something similar to their Headshot Aisle and their Indie Film Aisle. I know there are filmmakers out there looking for scripts - that kind of stuff pops up on Craigslist - why not find some way to do that at Expo? A variation on the pitch events at most screenwriting events, but one designed to bring indie filmmakers and writers together? And how about some hands-on classes for filmmakers - you have the companies with new equipment in the dealer's room - why not have them give a 1 hour class on using the equipment they sell? Same thing, by the way, for the screenwriting programs - how about a Final Draft class? Have The Writers Store round up a panel of folks with books who can do autographs before and after? Make the screenwriting elements into an *event* that can not be missed! Again - like a screenplay: you don't want to write a script that would become a movie that people will wait until it comes out on DVD to see, you want to write that script that they must see on opening weekend... and will stand in a stupid line and maybe even fill out the same damned computer form a second time.

And, just like with a screenplay, you have to establish stuff before you can pay it off. Maybe New Expo needs to build itself up for a few years before they attack you with a million upcharges and going through the forms twice? Have these vendor classes be FREE. If they asked me, I might do a free class as a way to distribute postcards for my website (which I brought - but they had no junk table to put them on). If you are selling the new version of a screenwriting software, wouldn't doing a class that shows all of the new do-dads be a great way to sell a few programs? This would bring people into the event, where you would have some classes you'd have to pay for - which would be more heavily attended because you have more people.

Why not run Expo like a movie - with department heads in charge of each job and have them come up with the coolest classes and contests and everything else that might attract people to the Expo? It seemed like this whole thing was run by actors who had no idea what a screenwriter or crew member or key creative person would want to see at an Expo... so they had some odd stuff that seemed a bit bogus.

And the keynote address? Um, that is all about star power. Also, all about a topical subject. Voice Over Acting is neither. Again, it's like writing a screenplay where the lead is boring. You want the most exciting and interesting character you can come up with, because people will come to see the movie if the character is cool, even if they are not played by a star. Hit Girl from KICK ASS is a good example. So, what is going on in the industry right now and who is the most famous person you can find to talk about that subject?

As with everything else, good idea but lacking a bit in execution.

Hey, it was free (except for the $2.50 subway ticket).

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Character In Conflict - why you need your protagonist to suffer... and the last ROCKY movie.
Dinner: Subway Black Forest Ham - one of those low fat ones.
Bicycle: Shorter than yesterday, but okay.
Pages: I did all kinds of writing yesterday (including this blog entry) and today it's like pulling teeth. Day isn't over, and maybe things will start to click.

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