BLOG: Biola Media Conference 2011

Biola held its 16th annual Biola Media Conference over the weekend at CBS Studios, where speakers such as Kevin Kelly and Sean Astin shared their secrets to media success.


Mike Villa

Biola’s Media Conference 2001, in its 16th year, was held at CBS Studio lots on Saturday April 30. The year’s filmmakers event focused on going beyond digital and looking past the technological age for faith minded media. Filmmakers, students, and celebrities attended the event and were able to learn and network. | Kelsey Heng/THE CHIMES

Sarah Seman, Writer

The 16th annual Biola Media Conference was held Saturday, April 30, at the CBS Studios. The theme for this year is “Beyond Digital: What Matters Now.” The BMC explored the world’s current digital age, the future and what matters now in media. Speakers included Kevin Kelly, Sean Astin and Tom Halleen.

Sean Astin, actor, director, and producer, known to many as Samwise Gamgee, spoke during the final session of Biola Media Conference on his experiences in the industry and his faith in the media field. | Kelsey Heng/THE CHIMES

Closing Session

Saturday, April 30, 4:30 p.m.

Sarah Seman

As the day drew to a close, anticipation mounted for the special guest speaker, Sean Astin, known to millions as Samwise Gamgee from “Lord of the Rings.” Prior to his appearance, Phil Cooke, author, producer, and media consultant, led a discussion about what matters now in television and film with two very experienced guests.

Tom Halleen says he’s just a Christian disguised as an executive producer and has been dubbed “bizarrely ethical” by his fellow employees. As senior vice president of programming for AMC, Halleen has helped launch “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “Broken Trail” and “Walking Dead.”

He helped to secure the largest audience delivery that the AMC network has ever secured in their 25 year history. Halleen said that AMC came to the realization that they needed to transition their model to include classic and modern films; they decided they needed to create their own niche.

“You can’t run a network with somebody else’s product,” Halleen said.

Because of this, AMC moved away from typical cookie-cutter films and attempted to create films that have strong characters and quality stories. This was a dangerous step to take.

“You can build a career by saying no,” Halleen said, “but as soon as you say yes, you put everything on the line.”

Christians needed to make quality, big-picture films

DeVon Franklin, vice president of production at Columbia Pictures, recently oversaw the remake of “The Karate Kid.” He also had a hand in the making of “The Pursuit of Happiness,” starring Will Smith, with whom Franklin interned at the start of his career. Franklin described how he put together a marketing strategy to target the Christian audience for the launch of “The Pursuit of Happiness.” Be vocal and take risks, Franklin told the audience.

“Ultimately,” Franklin said, “it is about building a competency and experience in what you do.”

Franklin said that as Christians in the industry it is important to stay focused and not mistake individual ambitions for the will of God. Christians also need to rise and really become masters in their craft.

“I would love to see more great products that are higher quality from Christians,” Franklin said.

Christians should be able to produce some of the greatest stories ever told because the individual’s lifestyle is reflected.

“What we live by is what makes great films,” Franklin said.

Assuring that it was not merely a plug for Sean Astin, Halleen said that every Christian should read “Lord of the Rings” and watch the films for a better understanding of the need for Christians in the industry. The hobbits live content and protected in the Shire while potential destruction is threatening Middle Earth. One little hobbit, Frodo Baggins, decides to step outside his safe zone and fight.

“He realizes,” Halleen said, “that there is a bigger story going on.”

This is what Christians need to realize as well; by stepping out into the industry they may play a lesser role, but they are doing it for a greater good. He told the audience to ask themselves: “Do I want to be the star of the Me Show? Or do I want to step out and be a side role for a much bigger picture?”

A glimpse at Sean Astin’s movie career

With the “Lord of the Rings” parallel still lingering, the music of the film began to play as footage of Sean Astin rolled across the screen and then, there he was in person.

“Last time I was on this lot I was taking my mom to an audition,” Astin said. He laughed saying that she didn’t get the part and we could all take solace in the fact that everyone fails.

“Did you ever think about quitting?” Cooke asked.

“Uh, yeah all the time,” Astin said after a quick pause, “but it’s like the great tales Mr. Frodo…” A roll of excited laughter drowned him out and he joined in the laughter before proceeding.

Astin became interested in the film industry because both of his parents were actors, but he said that there are many things he loves and that in a weird way acting has just been the thing that pays the bills. Acting opportunities have seemed to present themselves whenever he really began focusing on other things like his college degree or his family.

For the film “Rudy,” Astin said a lot of little things went just right for it to happen. One thing was his recent marriage to wife, who he’s now been with for 17 years and has two daughters with.

“I tell people,” Astin said, “our marriage next year will be old enough to drink!”

His wife’s grandma told Astin he should shoot a film in Indiana, to which he chuckled and told her he’d keep his eyes out. Not long afterward they came back to film “Rudy.”

“Like Caesar returning at the head of 5,000 troops, I come back with Rudy and the mayor and we’re on the cover of the newspaper all the time,” Astin said, “and she’s like ‘I told you you should come here.’”

The director, writer, and producer, along with the Daniel Ruettiger (Rudy), wanted Sean Astin for the film, but the studio wasn’t sure.

“I had to do a proper studio test,” Astin said. “I don’t think I was that good in the test actually.”

He said that if his agent did not have such a strong friendship with one of the executives at the studio he might not have gotten the part.

“Lord of the Rings” experience impacted Astin’s career

Through his many experiences, Astin looks back on his time working on “Lord of the Rings” as being the greatest two years of his life.

“It was extraordinary.” Astin said. “I’ve never worked so hard, I’ve never felt so fulfilled, I’ve never seen the types of things I was able to see.”

Astin said the craftsmanship was incredible and went down to every single detail in the sets, props and costumes even in areas where it would have been easy to not go to such lengths.

Being a part of something where such such passion and care and integrity where adhered to in some ways made the two years seem like a hundred, Astin said. Wearing the hobbit feet added to each day’s longevity as well.

Astin described an accident he had in an alpine lake while filming in his hobbit feet. He was running into the water calling out, “No Frodo, don’t leave Mr. Frodo!” when he stepped on something. When the paramedic cut off the fake foot a blob of coagulated blood hit the ground.

“Elijah goes, ‘cool!’ And he gets a stick out and he’s poking at it.” Astin said.

Meanwhile the paramedic told Astin in his kiwi accent that the blood was now flowing freely and they flew him out to a hospital in a helicopter.

Working with the director Peter Jackson was also a very memorable part of “Lord of the Rings.”

“When he shows up on a set,” Astin said, “there is already a level of expectation for greatness.”

Astin said he was also very blunt and told Astin after one scene that his acting wasn’t believable. So Astin tried again and Jackson simply said after the shot, “I believe that.”

Advice for people who work in media

When Crooke shifted the conversation asking for tips for the content creators, producers, writers, developers and directors in the audience, Astin quickly jumped in.

“Can I just say I hate the phrase content creator?” he said. “You know Mozart is a note arranger?”

After the laughter subsided Astin said a better term for them was “artists.”

Austin doubts that actors from his generation could have achieved their same level of success in today’s industry. The Internet connects people and works levers in society that never existed before. Astin said pure love of your work is great, but it isn’t bad to be a little mercenary too.

“In the natural world,” Astin said, “God give us animals and the farmer lays out a trough, and the animals have to fight over who gets in the trough…it’s godly!”

Integrity can still be shown, but each person should realize that when entering a room they have a right to their own space. It’s important to create good partnerships and to have fun and create good energy flow.

“My father told me that nobody is a chess piece on a board and every single human being’s life has dignity and value,” Astin said. ”If somebody is trying to make decisions because they are trying to fill a slot and they have 150 like you, well for the second they are looking at you, you have every right for them to be looking at you.”

Astin stressed that confidence is needed and desperation can be smelled from miles away.
“There are lanes of conduct,” Astin said of the film industry, “but no rules.”

Third Session: Pitching and Selling Your Projects

Saturday, April 30, 2:45 p.m.

Sarah Seman

Lisa Blum, a manager and executive producer of “Scary Movie,” joined together with Susana Zepeda, a producer with Principal Entertainment, to share how someone trying to sell an idea to an entertainment company should approach their work.

Multi-platform media creates potential for success

Both Blum and Zepeda are approached by many screen writers each year, and they talked about what they look for in a script.

“If you want to be a provider of content in this industry,” Zepeda said, “you’ve got to use several mediums.”

She said that unless she sees potential for the story to be successful in different mediums like film, reality TV and animation she will not take it on.

Intellectual knowledge is one of the best things to gain rights to, Zepeda said. She recently overheard a story on the radio of a man who was once a skin-head and is now a Christian. Thinking this story had potential, Zepeda contacted the man and met with him in person.

“He was so good. He had such a presence [that I knew] he would be great on TV,” Zepeda said.

Productions take years to oversee, and Zepeda said that before moving forward with something it is important to consider if the story is worth telling. She said she asks herself if it is something she truly believes in.

“Because if I feel passionate about it,” Zepeda said, “I can sell it.”

Advice for interacting with clients

Blum chimed in with tips on how to interact with clients and those potentially buying the story ideas that producers wish to pitch. When dealing with clients it is important to invest time in the relationship. Old fashioned techniques like calling them in person, grabbing lunch or sending a hand-written note creates authentic relationships.

When approaching a buyer, Blum stated it is essential to know their history. Blum related one instance where she was able to convince a producer to take on a script he was going to turn down because she related it to his favorite TV show.

Tips for pitching story ideas

Blum and Zepeda created a top ten list for those trying to pitch their story ideas and projects:

  1. Know the executive.
  2. Don’t be late.
  3. When the meeting is going well, wrap it up.
  4. Know your pitch backwards and forwards.
  5. Be gracious to executives when they pass your idea and really try to understand why they didn’t like it.
  6. Don’t argue with executives. They have the power and you will always lose.
  7. Don’t go to a higher authority, like the president of the company, if the executive producer doesn’t like the pitch.
  8. Empower young executives; see the potential in those lower down on the totem pole.
  9. Get to know your buyer on a personal level and remember that real relationships are the most important thing.
  10. Stay calm.

Advice on networking

Honest interest and engagement with others was repeatedly addressed at every turn in the session. Yes, it is about networking, but sincere involvement in each relationship is what is really important.

“This time that you are spending together,” Blum said about working with clients or buyers, “is the win.”

In the end, it is largely about the character of the individual.

“They are buying your passion,” Zepeda said in closing, “they’re buying you.”

Workshop session two: Hollywood Economics 101

Saturday, April 30, 1:30 p.m.

Sarah Seman

Bobbette Buster, screen and television writer and co-writer on Touchstones “Déjà Vu,” began by talking about what makes a successful film.

“If it’s too complicated to describe in less than a sentence,” Buster said, “it is not going to hit the box office.”

Personable stories attract audiences

What an audience really craves is a story that resonates with them. She described these types of films as having a character who faces fears, overcomes their doubts and goes through a recovering experience.

America’s top studios

Buster displayed a chart of the top 25 films of the year and pointed out one common characteristic: all of them were either PG or PG-13. Studios earn significantly less money when they produce R-rated movies.

The top six studios in the U.S.A. are Fox, Paramount, Universal, Warner Brothers, Sony and Buena Vista which includes Disney and Pixar. Yearly, they distribute around 560 films, which Buster pointed out is a very small portion.

The Writers Guild of America registers around 60,000 projects a year that people are trying to have made into a film and only 1 percent of these actually hit the screen. Buster said this type of competition is what it takes for excellence to be achieved.

“Think of the Renaissance,” Buster said referring to the thousands of painters who struggled for recognition, a “whole caldron of talent was rising like cream to the top.”

Content is king, Buster said. The audience wants experience and this is why the major studios like Disney produce characters that viewers love and cherish and welcome into their family.

“If content is king then distribution is queen,” Buster said.

Tips for film distribution

For those who are trying to get their own films recognized Buster said there are several approaches. One way to help with distribution is to raise awareness by putting ads in magazines and online. Buster described a lively scenario in a hair salon where a lady sees in a magazine a photo of big name actors with a cute little dog. Buster said this image creates a want-to-see factor by grabbing attention and creating anticipation. Most importantly, Buster said is the power of the people through word-of-mouth.

How successful studios target their audiences

“The most important thing you can do is target your audience,” Buster said.

47 percent of film goers are occasional and will wait for a particular film that interests them. The largest age bracket of film goers is 18-35 year-olds, many of whom are dating. Buster joked that women are usually the ones to set up dates, and one of the biggest struggles in the industry is to create a chick flick in disguise – one that will draw in females but also interest male viewers.

“Disney became known as chick flicks for little boys,” Buster said, noting their success of drawing two crowds at once.

Pixar has also succeeded in enticing two different groups by deciding to “plus” every scene so that it is funny to children and adults. Think of when Mr. Potato Head puts his eyes, nose, ears and accessories back on his face in a quirky way, Buster said referring to “Toy Story.” Kids laugh because Mr. Potato Head looks funny, but when when Potato says, “Look Ma, it’s a Picasso,” the older audience joins in the laughter.

Buster said that films with great story lines which connect with people again and again over time are the true successes. While many people may look at how well a film does in the box office to chart its success it is actually after the box office that matters.

Most films cost so much to make that after everyone is paid they come almost to a rolling break-even. 41 percent of revenue comes not from the theatrical release but from DVDs and home video purchases after its release; some films, like “Office Space,” flop in the box office but go on to make millions in DVD sales. Additionally films with great story-lines can continue to make money years after their release. She referred to “The Sound of Music” as being one such film saying that it is more commonly referred to by studios as “The Sound of Money.” In the end, content is everything.

Benefits of independent films

Buster says that by producing independent films those involved can cut out many of the people that must be paid on a large production and keep many more of the profits. It usually costs anywhere from one to five million dollars to produce independently. The big issue is marketing, because smaller productions might be marvelous but aren’t heard about. Buster said that word-of-mouth can play a powerful role and that this type of viral communication is scaring studios.

“It’s a market correction that is going on,” Buster said. “No matter how small your budget, you can still reach a huge audience.”

Films like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” “Passion of the Christ” and “An Inconvenient Truth” are testaments that independent films can flourish.

Buster said to target baby boomers; they are time and money and they are under not being reached by major studios. Buster pointed out that the video game industry is making media for this age group and film producers should too.

In closing, Buster showed a video called “The Johnny Cash Project.” Music in the background played Johnny Cash’s last recorded song, “Ain’t No Grove,” and flickered 29 frames a second of Cash. The screenshots had been outsourced, and each one had drawings on the frame or some artistic expression. Many people had worked on the project and the collaborated result was a unique and personalized video.

“This,” Buster said “is the future of story-telling.”

Biola Media Conference staff works during a main session. | Kelsey Heng/THE CHIMES

Opening Session

Saturday, April 30, 9 a.m.

Sarah Seman

The opening session began with clips from successful films like “Amazing Grace” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” where faith-based elements shimmered.

Phil Cooke, author, producer and media consultant, said that faith truly matters in the entertainment industry. The conference aimed at equipping those interested in the film-making industry with the information they need for a riveting career.

“Can you adapt to the radical change before you become extinct?” Cooke asked. He said 84 percent of employees were not promoted in their job field because their bosses did not think they could handle the new technological advancements they needed for success.

Christians needed in entertainment industry

President Barry Corey encouraged Christians to become more involved in the entertainment industry and said the distinguished speakers were there to stimulate thinking in order to do good.

“We need to be more about what we’re for then what we’re against,” said Corey.

Biola Media Award

Michael Klausman, senior vice president of CBS Corporation West Coast Operations and Engineering and President of CBS Studio Center, was awarded the first Biola Media Award. The award was presented to Klausman by Dan Rupple, producer and writer for Seriously Funny Entertainment. Klausman began as an usher for CBS in 1971 and worked his way to becoming vice president with a sincere and humble personality which, Rupple said, epitomized Christian, servant leadership.

“I get a lot of awards,” Klausman said causing laughter to sweep the audience, “but this is one that gives me a confirmation that I am doing the right thing.”

He told hopefuls in the entertainment industry to learn both what to do and what not to do, to keep their priorities in line with God’s and to remember that they can tell their story with a twist that will impact lives.

Main speaker: Kevin Kelly

The main speaker of the opening session was Kevin Kelly, author and co-founder of Wired Magazine. Kelly discussed what it means to be human in a technology driven world. He gave six to show large scale trends in advancing times.

  1. Screening – No longer is society book-based. Cities, grocery stores and even gas stations are filled with screens. The image of a blank screen was projected and Kelly pointed out that this one screen is the portal to photos, films, the web, magazines, radio stations and much more. Screens are the new portals to information.
  2. Interacting – “If you’ve seen toddlers with iPads, you’ve seen the future,” said Kelly.

He described how he watched one child grappling with an iPad screen to enlarge an image. Gesturing and voice commandments make the screen no longer a one-way system; they are starting to interact with users.

Kelly said new developments are being piloted where the screen will sense the eye movements of readers to see where they are reading. Soon the screen will be able to adapt based on the facial expressions and moods that it detects. Screens are becoming two-way windows.

  1. Sharing – This is the main verb of social networking, Kelly said. Everything is being shared from medical results to finances. This is not surveillance, Kelly pointed out, and it is done with the permission of the user.
  2. Flowing – There has been a shift from held information to constant moving and linking. What was once a file is now a stream, what was once a folder is now a tag and what was once a desktop is now a cloud. Kelly described the movement as shifting from today to now and from me to us. Publishers use this constant streaming to gather their information in a new way. Everything everywhere is becoming part of this flow of information, Kelly said.
  3. Accessing- “I basically have stopped buying movies,” Kelly said. Netflix facilities his needs, and if they don’t have it he confessed he probably won’t watch it.

“There’s a shift going on from ownership to access,” Kelly said.

There is no need to buy something if you can use it without purchasing it. Readers used to buy books they wanted and stack them beside their bed in anticipation of reading them. The slim iPad or Kindle now removes the need not only to have tangible books, but to buy them in advance. The moment it is going to be read can be the moment it is accessed.

  1. Generating – With sharing and flowing the original copy of something becomes almost useless. Because of this there is a new value system, the things that cannot be copied are the things that are important. What is valued now is: immediacy, personalization, authentication, findability, embodiment, interpretation, accessibility and attention. Kelly called these things “generatives” and pointed out that they cannot be used outside of the actual exchange.

“Wherever attention flows,” Kelly said wrapping up his six points, “money will follow; attention is moving to the screens.”

These advancements should be marveled at more often, he encouraged. As the Romantics and others have seen nature as a reflection of God, so should people see technology as a reflection of God.

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