Friday, May 24, 2013

The Cameo's Story: In Three Acts

Visual Journalism Interviews

The Fayetteville Observer
Published: 09:01 PM, Fri May 24, 2013 
http://fayobserver.com/articles/2013/05/25/1258752?sac=fo.opinion

The Cameo's story, in three acts

The credits for "In the Company of Men" were scrolling past the unit publicist and best boy. A couple sitting up front and I, leaning against the wall with a drained glass of Merlot in hand, were the only ones left in the loge.

Like everyone who has ever worked on a film, I watch credits to the end out of respect for the collaborative role that even the lowest-paid production assistant contributes.

This made me privy to something I had never seen in all of my previous movie-going experiences. The owners came out and started cleaning the aisles themselves. For them, it was just another day: picking up popcorn, forgotten napkins on the floors, soda containers and wine bottles. For them, standard operating procedure.

But, it wasn't so standard.

Because if it were not for Chris Kuenzel; his wife, Nasim, and the Fayetteville community, the Cameo Art House Theatre would have joined the tragic fate of thousands of other community theaters nationwide that weren't able to go digital instead of going dark.

If the story of the Cameo were a feature film, its arc would go like this:

Act 1
Chris and Nasim move to Fayetteville in the late '90s to start an architectural firm. Longtime film lovers, they quickly realize how much they miss independent films.

But film distributors make money from filled seats. The more seats, the more revenue. Independent films, despite their high quality, barely make back the costs of production. Without much marketing and publicity, chances of bringing in mass audiences that eat large amounts of popcorn and snacks (where the real money is) are small. So distributors generally don't take chances on small films and small theaters like the Cameo.

That doesn't mean audiences don't want the films or won't pay to see them. I first saw the American premiere of the amazing "Once Were Warriors" in a Utah gymnasium.

So, Chris and Nasim buy what was once the Dixie Theater building on Hay Street. They squish design and construction costs by using their own architectural knowledge and hands. They buy a 1950s film reel Simplex projector, which still runs smoother and faster than most people I know born in the '50s.

Their first film? "Cinema Paradiso," a film about a boy so passionate about films and a small-town theater that they determine the course of his life, his loves and his near destruction.

Act 2
Though it's never easy running their own firm and operating the Cameo, the Kuenzels make it work. Along the way, they become valued members of the community. Still, as is the case in most second acts, problems arise. Ever-increasing and ever-insurmountable challenges confront the Kuenzels.

Most recently, that challenge presented itself in the conversion from film to digital projectors. The Simplex, like the projectors you see in "Cinema Paradiso" and "Sunset Boulevard," or even those caressed so lovingly by the film lover Tony DiNozzo on "N.C.I.S." are flickering klieg lights.

The switch to digital should have hit five years ago. But both multiplexes and indie theaters got a reprieve while major theater owners and the studios, neither of whom fell in the slumdog millionaire category, bickered over who was going to cover the costs.

The savings were tremendous to producers. With digital equipment, one can simply stream or email a digital file to the theater.

Don't get me wrong. I love the big-budget blockbusters just as much as I love indies. I ferociously await "Fast and Furious 6." I saw "Star Trek Into Darkness" on opening day. Digital makes many things possible for the common man.

In fact, the use of digital technology was the key reason director J.J. Abrams allowed me to hold a free premiere of "Morning Glory" for 200 students two years ago. Without digital technology, such an event would have involved a negative pickup (actually picking up the film reels and bringing them to Fayetteville). Never would have happened.

The cost to convert can be $70,000 to $100,000 per screen. The Cameo needs about $200,000 because it has two theaters, the 40-seat loge and the 124-seat theater downstairs.

Act 3
The Fayetteville community is not about to let the Cameo die for lack of digital projectors. Residents form the Save the Cameo Committee in October and, with the help of the Internet, start raising the cash.
They garner media support. They plaster the city with fliers soliciting donations. They sell unknown quantities of "Go Digital or Go Dark" T-shirts.

When asked, all say that the films the Kuenzels have brought to the Cameo have been films they couldn't see anywhere else. Terrific stories that brought worlds to their eyes that they would never see at a multiplex.

But don't take my word for it. Go to this website - vimeo.com/66676952 - and listen to some of these residents yourself. Tom Thompson. Edwin Hopkins. Angus Bowers. Lynn Legatski. You and people like them have done all the heavy lifting.

They celebrate with a May 5 screening, free for all donors, of - what else? "Cinema Paradiso" in an extended-film version.

The importance of this achievement is noted by the fact that the news makes it all the way to Emerging Pictures producer Ira Deutchman, a longtime major name in the world of indies whose films regularly garner Sundance Film Festival awards.

"It's wonderful that places like the Cameo exist, and it's wonderful that the community rose up to protect it from technology obsolescence," Deutchman says. "It's so important that these venues survive and thrive all over the country."

Most third acts are quick and dirty. The credits roll less than 10 minutes after the gal is got, the race is run, the war is won.

After the celebration, the owners haul out the old film equipment and instal the new digital equipment in time for the next day's movies.

The Simplex from the 1950s now sits in the lobby. Chris will show you how it worked.

"As a film lover, you love the fact that you've been working with the same technology and format that you started with," Nasim Kuenzel says. "But we've got to change with the times, and fortunately we're one of the few lucky ones."

The lucky ones? We residents of Fayetteville.

Skye Dent is a film and TV writer who lives in Fayetteville. She is a former member of the Observer's Community Advisory Board.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Why I Don't Write Film/TV Critiques or Reviews


So why don’t you write film and TV critiques, Skye?  You’ve sold screenplays. You’ve sold TV scripts.  You’ve written documentaries and even a safe sex video game.

You teach writing for narrative film and TV series. You used to be a full time journalist and still write opinion pieces for various newspapers.   

You clearly have a journalistic voice, an audience, and newspaper friends in high and low places.

How can you stay silent on films such as Skyfall when the world is talking about the effects of media violence on viewers?  Why won’t you speak up on the subject of Django Unchained and the status of African Americans in this country?

And when it comes to the military, one would think you’d have reasoned opinions.  You lived in a military city for several years.  You learned how to parachute from retired Vietnam Vets .  And you know what it takes to produce a series like Homeland or a film like Zero Dark Thirty.

Does your tongue need to be unchained?

For me, the reason is simple.  It may not fit in with our new world view in which everyone feels free to be a pundit on every subject under the sun and some not.

But, for me, there are ethical lines that I do not cross.

Years ago, I interviewed Ben Affleck for a Boston Globe feature article I wrote on Greenlight.  Now, I was pitching and writing scripts at the time.  But, interviewing Ben as a journalist meant that I could not approach him as a screenwriter.

What if I had and he had purchased a script of mine?  A Boston Globe reader might complain that I only wrote the article to get in good with him and his partner. 

I honestly think Promised Land is the most overlooked film when it comes to the Oscars, Golden Globes, SAG awards.  But, if I wrote the whys and wherefores in a column, the administrators of those guilds or the producers of winning films might claim that I was biased.   

Not only had I interviewed Ben.  I once had a friendly exchange with Matt about Good Will Hunting on a balcony of a Hollywood hotel.  I grew up in Boston. And OMG, I once had a lengthy exchange about novel writing with Dennis Lehane and am part of the search for his lost dog Tessa.

There are all sorts of biases one can throw against me.

Just last week, I attended a conference on media images. Several people  immediately asked if I was writing an article on what the speakers said about particular films and their negative images.

No, No, and No. 

I’m a producer-writer-professor.   So, I teach and practice what I preach.

Yes, I believe that I can be objective if I were to write film critiques.  And if I did that for a living, I would take the proper safeguards to protect the media I wrote for from ever being accused of biases.

But, for now, I don’t cross the lines.  Producers and companies that I’m pitching my pilots and screenplays to should not have to worry that if they reject me, that I’m going to write a blistering article about their next production. 

I should not have to wonder whether a producer is meeting me because he or she truly liked my work or liked what I said about theirs.

There was a published article by me about the film The Help.  But, it was not a critique.  It was simply an opinion piece about the pride I felt in seeing a film about a person who reflected my mom, my aunts, and a generation of women who raised me.

Sometimes it does seem as if this is a user and abuser world.  “Friends” Facebook you to get to other Facebook friends that they really want to contact.

I’ve even been interviewed for jobs because one of my references is the famed filmmaker Charles Burnett and the potential employers really wanted an excuse to talk to Charles one-on-one.

But, I don’t have to buy into it.  And I’m not unique in that aspect. 

Hollywood has its problems.  Entertainment has its pitfalls.  But, there are some really great humanistic people in the world of entertainment.  I would not have achieved all that I had without them.

After I became a member of the WGA, I met Helen and Al Levitt.  They were in their elder years, but still on their feet and still fighting for the rights of writers.  In case their names don't ring a bell, they were two of many who stood up against McCarthyism...had to write under fake names to survive, and lost out on many rewards they deserved careers in the bloodbath.  

Helen ran a free writers workshop out of her home for minorities.  I, the late Daryl Nickens and Moesha creators Sara Finney and Vida Spears came out of that workshop.

There are so many other writers with hearts that cannot be dampened.  Craig Wright. Charles Burnett.  Kevin Droney.  Robert Townsend.  Bob Eisele.  Dennis Leoni. Neema Barnett. Coleman Luck. Carleton Eastlake.  The late T.S. Cook, whose film The China Syndrome deserves a second look in light of the fracking controversy.  People who I don't have time to name, people who stay true to similar beliefs and passed them onto me through mentorship, friendships and casual conversation.

Their characters count.  At least it did for me.

So, I choose to follow in their footsteps and maintain my humanistic and professional values, knowing that what I do choose to present of myself in the worlds of journalism and entertainment is more than enough.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Not Just Another Acronym




Took another step in my goal of being the best damn writer-producer-professor prepared for a disaster.

Already had CERT training on both coasts, CPR training in three states, a Connecticut gun safety training certificate, and a California Dept. of Justice Handgun Safety Certificate.

Today, I received my card for the OSHA General Industry Safety and Health training I took a few weeks ago.

Now, I can rescue you, disarm your weapon, bring you back to life, and make sure the building we seek refuge in won't kill us.

So, there!!!

How many black sci fi chicks do you know who can do all that?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Unwrapping The Candidates



http://fayobserver.com/articles/2012/12/21/1225357?sac=fo.opinion
The Fayetteville Observer  Published: 09:24 PM, Thu Dec 20, 2012

Unwrapping The Candidates

It's rare for anyone to leave a Christmas present unopened. Yet that's exactly what happened Tuesday. 

Twice.

Fayetteville City Manager Ted Voorhees presented two widely publicized opportunities to meet, question and converse with the two police chief finalists. But fewer than 100 people came to the meetings. That meant most Fayettevilleans missed two wonderful pre-Christmas gifts.

Malik Aziz, 44, a deputy police chief from Dallas, Texas, and Harold Medlock, 55, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg deputy chief.

I was a little skeptical about the timing. How much can one learn in an hour? It would take 15 minutes just for Voorhees and City Council folk to make speeches.

I was wrong. Voorhees spoke for two minutes. No politicians spoke. Audience members asked direct, short questions. Without hesitation, Aziz and Medlock answered every question tossed at them - even irrelevant inquiries about their personal lives (more about that later).

Their experience

Both deputy chiefs hold impressive histories of law enforcement covering several decades. Both are strong believers in community policing, with proof of participation on the tip of their tongues. Both have a can-do background and a we-can spirit.

Who am I to make such claims? I've been here just a few years. I'm still learning local politics. But I do know cops. I have relatives in law enforcement in Boston. I was a crime reporter for many years. And I worked crime scenes, mostly murders, with police officers when I was a member of the Los Angeles Police Department Crisis Response Team.

The team is a unique community policing organization, born of a need for someone who was not part of the crime-solving police unit to be on the scenes of murders, drive-bys or fatal accidents for the living victims. The CRT was made easier by the fact that we were volunteers, we had day jobs, and most violent crime happened at night - when we were all on call.

I've stood for hours in the street with a mom while police inside investigated how her son lost a game of Russian roulette. I've sat with officers as they worked unpaid double shifts because three children saw their mother slain in front of their eyes and, if we didn't find a relative by dawn, the kids would be split up and put in child-protective services. I once worked a dreadful scene in which two vans of high school graduates on their way to a party accidentally parked on a street owned by a notorious gang. Before the celebrants could exit the vehicles, seven were slaughtered.

Team members comfort, call relatives, cuddle infants, provide information, escort living victims through morgues to identify bodies. Once, we even helped hose down a walkway so the mother of a deceased youth would not have to step over blood going back into her home. We never knew what we would be asked to do. We never denied a request.

Fayetteville is so much smaller than Los Angeles that it may not need its own Crisis Response Team. But, community policing can be attuned to the particularities of any city. And these two men seemed knowledgeable and more than capable about how to achieve that, with, they stressed, the input and support of - you, guessed it, the community.

Did their homework

A sign of how quickly the two would respond quickly became evident. At the noon meeting, two of us voiced concerns about violence at one of the local universities. Somehow, in between a packed afternoon and before the 5 p.m. meeting, Aziz and Medlock had driven to and around the university, doing a quick exploration of how difficult or easy it was to gain entry.

In Wednesday's paper, reporter Andrew Barksdale gave a pretty detailed account of the two candidates' backgrounds and their answers to questions. I understand he will be writing more about these two personable, intelligent, oftentimes humorous men.

One local columnist did criticize Aziz for being more "reserved" than Medlock when answering a question from Councilman Keith Bates about their personal lives and his family life. Medlock said he had a wife of 30 years, Gloria. Aziz mentioned a 15-year-old daughter and a 20-year-old son without providing their names or much detail.

In this new Internet age, in which privacy is violated with a keystroke, what the columnist criticized as reserved, I took as a protective reticence against providing any information about his teenage daughter. One can assume Aziz has arrested one or two bad guys in his 20 years with the Dallas police. Should he be criticized for not wanting to spell out her name, school, future goals, etc., in the news media?

The Bates question itself seemed inappropriate. Does not having children mean that Medlock would not appreciate family values? Does not discussing your children in an Internet world, where sexual predators lie in wait behind computer screens, imply that Aziz doesn't have family values?

To me, one of the signs that either man will be great at the job is the relationship that developed during the brief time they spent together on Tuesday. The noon meeting was the first time they had spoken together and were hearing each other's opinions. By the 5 p.m. meeting, they were using each other's first names, complimenting each other, and remarking about the similarity in their approaches. They generously laughed at each other's punchlines, even though they had heard them at noon.

The problem now? Which gift to return. "Aziz & Medlock" may sound like the newest TNT cop drama duo. But, unfortunately, we don't get to keep both of them.

Skye Dent is is a member of the Observer's Community Advisory Board, which meets regularly with the editorial board to discuss local issues and contributes op-ed columns. She has worked as a newspaper reporter, a screenwriter and a journalism professor.