Wednesday, June 10, 2009

U.S. Deficit Visualized

The New York Times has a fascinating graphic visualizing the sources of our $1 trillion national debt. More details from the article. This graphic would be great to read over a bowl of cereal.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Creativity in the Time of Recession: A Filmmaker's Dilemma

Editor's Note: Gloom to Boom is pleased to welcome guest blogger and filmmaker Betty Teng, who explains how the downturn forced her to discard the status quo and embrace a new approach to realizing her creative vision.

“Your barriers are also your gates.”
— John Daido Loori
Abbott, Zen Mountain Monastery

It may be a bit of a stretch to quote a Zen master when writing about innovation during tough economic times, but when Gloom to Boom asked me to share my story of how I’m raising money for an independent feature film during the worst economic crisis in recent history, I saw no better way to talk about my experience than to reflect on the notion that hitting a wall can also mean encountering hidden opportunity.

My film, Maestro, Maestro is about the artistic struggle between an orphaned teenaged music prodigy and an aging composer-conductor with writer’s block. I budgeted the film at $2.5 million, and I started looking for private equity funds early last year.

That summer, as I was scouting locations and meeting with contacts in San Francisco (where Maestro is set), I met an investor through a member of my producing team. He was a media consultant who specialized in cross-platform marketing, and he had learned that the San Francisco Symphony was eager to expand its appeal, especially with younger audiences. Our film was an ideal vehicle for the Symphony’s objectives. The plan was to get the SF Symphony’s biggest donors to fund our project, and in exchange we would feature the Symphony and its performance space in the film.

Last fall, talks between our team and the Symphony progressed with a pace and fluidity that had even me, an inveterate pessimist, hopeful. There was even talk of Maestro becoming a special feature of the Symphony’s 100th anniversary program in 2011. Our liaison — a development director with the Symphony — was all set to present our plan at a wider Symphony board meeting in early October.

That week, Lehman Brothers collapsed.

As the banking crisis grew to epic proportions, its effect on symphonies and opera houses across the country was almost immediate. Cultural institutions nation-wide were forced to lay off staff and cut programming due to the massive loss in donors and endowments. Within a few weeks these problems hit the San Francisco Symphony, and all talks of their interest in Maestro froze.

Since October, I have been investigating ways to make my film for a significantly smaller budget without compromising its story. Initially, this seemed impossible. Its setting in San Francisco and our need for a full symphony orchestra prevented our budget from shrinking much below $2.5 million, a price which has become prohibitive for an independent film.

As I had done a couple of times in the past, I confronted the possibility of shelving Maestro for good.

Then in the early winter, a New York literary agent specializing in graphic novels contacted me. An illustrator friend had passed him Maestro’s script and the agent felt the story would translate well into a graphic novel. He saw its potential appeal with teen girls, the fastest growing audience in that market.

I’d never thought of my film as a graphic novel. Ironically, I had been researching comic book artists for the past few years for another project, but never considered writing one myself. After years of struggling to raise millions and garner the support of dozens for Maestro, however, the notion of working with just one illustrator (or at most, a team of 2-3 illustrators) was refreshingly simple — and cost effective. Telling the story in illustrations would also allow us to preserve the story’s San Francisco setting and include a full symphony orchestra without adding a million dollars to its budget. I agreed to the agent’s suggestion that we find an illustrator to create a proposal to shop around to publishers.

While it’s been freeing to consider Maestro in a 2-D illustrated form, I have felt one creative compromise. While I have no doubts the right illustrator will find a compelling way to express Maestro’s music with ink and paper, it is impossible in a book to deliver the actual melody which haunts the lead characters. My wish to hear the story’s music alongside expressive illustrations led me to consider a suddenly-obvious medium: Animation.

It’s a good time for animated films. Notwithstanding the popularity of Pixar’s most recent film Up, rapid advancements in digital technology have made animation an increasingly accessible tool for independent filmmakers. As a result, innovative and highly-acclaimed movies like Waltz With Bashir, Sita Sings the Blues, and Persepolis have proven that audiences are receptive to all types of stories told in this form.

As a live-action filmmaker and editor, I have a sense of how animated films are made, but really require the help of computer graphics professionals in this plan to convert Maestro into an animated feature. Turns out, I’m not having to look too far. As I’ve been talking to investors, colleagues and friends about my idea, a number of contacts into the animation world have surfaced, including a friend’s brother who heads the animation division of an established New York commercial house. After a couple of conversations, he asked me to consider him and his studio as my “go-to” resource as I explore how we might bring Maestro into the animated realm.

Eight months ago, I could not have predicted this scenario. I had conceived of Maestro as an art-house film along the lines of movies like Shine, Good Will Hunting, or Billy Elliot. But with systemic changes in the independent film market coupled with the current downturn in the global economy, viable funding and distribution models for films budgeted in the $2 to $5 million range are essentially extinct. While this has been a hard reality to face, I have been heartened to find, in the rubble of one plan, newer and fleeter possibilities for delivering Maestro to the world.

If recent challenges have taught me anything, they’ve confirmed the Zen master’s insightful statement above. Hard times force tough compromises. But they also cause one to clarify what matters most in a project, in a career — even in a life. Such answers don’t come quickly or easily, but when they emerge, they are, I suspect, keys to the hidden doors that exist within every barrier.

Betty Teng is a writer, filmmaker and film editor. Her script, Maestro, Maestro has been a grand prize winner of Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope Screenplay Contest. Check out her visual blog, ACROBATIC FLOTSAM + JETSAM at:

Friday, June 5, 2009

Next Week: A Filmmaker's Dilemma

On Monday, Gloom to Boom will welcome its first guest blogger Betty Teng, a writer, filmmaker and film editor based in New York. Betty will share a fascinating story about how the credit crisis forced her to become more innovative in her approach to producing her film Maestro Maestro. Even though the recession has challenged the traditional model for making a film, it has forced open new doors for Betty to realize her vision. Here's an excerpt:

With systemic changes in the independent film market coupled with the current downturn in the global economy, viable funding and distribution models for films budgeted in the $2 to $5 million range are essentially extinct. While this has been a hard reality to face, I have been heartened to find, in the rubble of one plan, newer and fleeter possibilities for delivering Maestro to the world.

Please join us on Monday to learn about Betty's story. Hopefully it will inspire you to take a second look at your plans.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Consumer Confidence Soars

This is great news. Despite the doom and gloom among economists and the media, the Conference Board today reported an unexpected surge in consumer confidence. In fact, the index reached its higher level since the collapse of Lehman Bros. in September that caused the credit market freeze.

For this month, the index reached 54.9, up from 40.8 in April. Expectations for the next six months rose to 72.3 from 51.0 in April. That's quite a leap.

While encouraging, the numbers are at odds with recent trends. Housing data in 20 major metropolitan areas declined in March by 18.7 percent, according to the Standard & Poor’s Case-Shiller Home Price Index that was released today. Earlier this month, the Commerce Department said retail sales fell 0.4 percent in April, following a 1.3 percent drop in March. Meanwhile the U.S. unemployment rate reached 8.6 percent in April.

Still, the Conference Board gave a rosy assessment of the state of the economy through the eyes of consumers:

"Consumers are considerably less pessimistic than they were earlier this year, and expectations are that business conditions, the labor market and incomes will improve in the coming months," Lynn Franco, Director of The Conference Board Consumer Research Center, said in a press release. "While confidence is still weak by historical standards, as far as consumers are concerned, the worst is now behind us."

Bold words. Let's hope she's right.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Fuel Efficiency Standards Take Shape (Finally)

After years of stalled legislation, federal neglect and successful industry lobbying, it appears there's finally agreement in setting a national fuel efficiency standard. The Obama Administration is modeling the regulations after California's effort, which was introduced in 2002 but stalled by auto industry lawsuits and Congressional debates. Now with the auto industry in bankruptcy protection and receiving billions of dollars from the government, lawmakers see a way toward a national fuel efficiency standard. If everything works out, cars will be running an average of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. That's more efficient than my Honda Civic Hybrid in the city.

As I've written in the past, most projections show U.S. oil demand within the next 20 years outpacing oil production and current import levels. The most effective way to confront this problem is to reduce demand by either convincing consumers to drive less, or force fuel efficiency standards.

I'm glad the economic implosion has forced the auto industry to do what's right. Hopefully American cars will redefine the market by creating fuel efficient cars that people will love.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Jerry Yang on Recession and Re-Birth

(Photo by Ken Hupp)

Great quote from Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang during his commencement speech at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. An excerpt from

“I can promise you that great things are being started right now in this downturn in our economy. Yahoo started in an economic downturn in the early 90’s,” Yang said. “Other great companies, great ideas, products, even social movements have come about as people are throwing away the status quo and doing everything in new ways.”

According the KPUA, Yang added that "success doesn’t come from a high I.Q. or talent, but a willingness to work hard coupled with relentless preparation."

So true, Jerry. Reminds me of a gigantic billboard I saw last night coming off the Bay Bridge that read something along the lines of "Bill Gates started Microsoft during an economic recession" (from my memory). The next big idea is being conceived in cafes, universities and impromptu get-togethers. Nothing better than a downturn to force people to innovate and challenge the status quo.

Let's hear from you. Have you seen examples of people using their ingenuity in the face of unemployment or setbacks to challenge the status quo?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Retirees: "What recession?"

(Photo courtesy of ted.sali via Flickr)

Interesting report from the Pew Research Center. The study examines the recession's behavioral and psychological effects by age group, especially among older Americans. The conclusion: retirees are handling it much better than younger folk. Those surveyed who are older than 65 were less likely to have cut back on spending, suffered a loss on their retirement investments, or experienced greater stress in their families. Pew calls it a "kinder, gentler recession" for this group.

In contrast, people bucketed in the 50-64 age range feel like they're getting hosed. A large percentage of them reported greater investment losses, familial stress and spending cutbacks since the onset of the recession. This "Threshold Generation," as Pew labels them, is more exposed to Wall Street fluctuations and, not surprisingly, less confident they will build enough of a nest egg for retirement.

The study also points to other factors such as income and race that affect the results.

Maybe this is the reason why my parents are still so stinkin' happy all the time. Perhaps it's their longer-term view of the world and the acceptance that circumstances will bounce back despite the difficulties. My parents grew up during the height of World War II and still have vivid memories of hiding in bomb shelters in China. They decided to leave their families in their mid-20's and settle in a foreign country where they've lived for more than 40 years. They've lived through recessions, booms, busts, oil crises and drafts. And yet every weekend you'll find them singing, dancing and laughing with their friends.