Sonoma and the Profitable Non-Profit

Given the choice, most days I’d rather write an obituary than a “mission statement.”

Never will one find a more studiously vague, broadly inclusive, stab at presupposing purpose than that slim paragraph that follows the words “Our Mission.” I’ve written a few as a hired gun and shot through others as a reporter. Nasty business either way. In our town, where everyone seems to run, chair or benefit by a nonprofit, mission statements are de rigueur. After wine and tourism, profitably non-profiting has proven smart business. In fact, there has been speculation that “Sonoma” is the Miwok term for “501(c)(3).”

Those guys are gone now but they’d be proud to know that most of these organizations do tremendous good for our community. It could be argued that many provide the fabric from which our community is woven. Others, perhaps, make wonderful tax shelters and provide a means to launder filthy lucre into outsized salaries for a crafty few. There’s a six-figure salary awaiting the brilliant mind with enough nerve to create a local nonprofit watchdog group and milk it all the way to a non-extradition country before the audit kicks in. Check out the filings online sometime, it’s a hoot.

Remember the good old days when “501” was preceded by “Levi’s.” For some Sonomans, to paraphrase Brooke Shields, nothing comes between them and their 501s. Glad they still fit. Now, that tax time is looming, like many, I too have been looking for a fit, namely any write-off within the IRS’s narrow (in my opinion) definition of a tax-deductible donation.

I have it on good authority from my CPA that bar tabs don’t apply (the amount of “meals and entertainment” deductions make my business seem much more fun than I recall). Of the few hundred nonprofits in town, doesn’t one run a pub? I know many a donor ready to give generously to the “Raise a Pint Foundation.” Some may give so much that they develop “donating problems,” which will lead another nonprofit to print bumper-stickers that read “Friends don’t let friends donate drunk.”

Donating drunk, of course, is a Sonoma tradition. If you’ve ever given at a fundraising event, a glass or more of wine likely preceded your act of munificence. Not that you’ve been taken advantage of. Chances are that the market value of the gallons of wine we’ve imbibed at these functions far exceeds the cash most of us have given.

But don’t fret – the virtuous circle is completed by the fact that the wine was donated too. Moreover, you’re doing the organizers a favor by drinking all the booze, otherwise some hapless volunteer has to lug it all back to HQ where it will be systematically drained over the next few months by interns.

And trust me, there’s nothing more dangerous to an organization than a drunk intern, especially when they start yapping to the media about how their boss is a con-man and how they’re going to start their own nonprofit “scam” when they graduate.

If I was on the clock maybe I’d care, but I need the write-off, kiddo, so have another glass and jot down that Tax ID number.

While you’re at, perhaps you should amend your organization’s mission statement. Grab the nearest newspaper, pick an obituary at random and steal the last paragraph. That’s where the money is. Frequently these days, they encourage mourners to forgo flowers and instead make a charitable donation in the deceased’s name (yeah, florists hate that part).

Now, post your improvements on the NPO’s Web site. Granted, the talk of flowers and death won’t jibe with the cliches about “community” or “outreach” or whatnot, but at least the intentions will read honestly.

Then perhaps, intern, you might actually buy the wine from which the truth spills.

Transmedia: From One Many

In the wrong hands, an emerging buzzword like ?transmedia? could end up as Craigslist slang under either ?auto parts? or ?casual encounters,? especially for those who ?like to watch.? A recent University of California, Los Angels and University of Southern California ?industry symposium? attempted to clarify the term at a conference dubbed ?Transmedia Hollywood: S/Telling the Story.?

Despite its unfortunate title, which looks like something Roland Barthes might sneeze into, the conference put ?top creators, producers, and executives from the entertainment industry? and ?scholars pursuing the most current academic research on transmedia studies? in a collegial cage-match helmed by Henry Jenkins, Provost?s Professor of Communication, Journalism and Cinematic Arts, Annenberg School of Communication, USC.

Jenkins is the author of Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, in which he describes transmedia storytelling simply as ?the art of world making.? You know, like God. Or George Lucas.

?To fully experience a fictional world,? writes Jenkins, ?consumers must assume the role of hunters and gatherers, chasing down bits of the story across media channels, comparing notes with each other via online discussion group, and collaborating to ensure that everyone who invests time and effort will come away with a richer entertainment experience.?

This sounds like a lot of work for the couch potato of yore but at least it doesn?t sound like ?gesamtkunstwerk,? the term Richard Wagner used to describe a comprehensive, all-encompassing artwork expressed across several media. Of course, in Wagner?s day, what was known as media could be sewn up in his 15-hour Ring cycle, arguably the first attempt at a transmedia experience despite the relative lack of interactivity (yawning doesn?t count). These days, entertainment (and its marketing) is often prefigured as a multiplatform franchise with toe-holds in cinema, graphic novels, video games and (gasp!) the written word. ?Mythologies? are created that adhere to ?bibles? that describe the law of fictional lands with an eye to creating an ?aesthetic that is specific and archetypal simultaneously,? as Louisa Stein, head of the TV and film critical studies program at San Diego State University, put it during the conference.

This, of course, is precisely what Lucas has done with myriad iterations of Star Wars (particularly those not tied to the screen) and what Tolkien et al accomplished with The Lord of the Rings, ditto the creators of Lost, Heroes and True Blood among others. Of course, not all content is appropriate for all media. Consider the sage words of director David Lynch, who, in a popular YouTube video packaged as an iPhone commercial parody, opined ?Now, if you?re playing the movie on the telephone, you will never, in a million years, experience the film. You?ll think you have experienced it, but you will be cheated. It?s such a sadness that you think you?ve seen a film on your fucking telephone. Get real.?

Sure, a lot of films, particularly David Lynch films, are not optimally viewed on a mobile device, or online, or sometimes anywhere. However, a two-minute short that expands and elaborates a subplot first launched in a longer format piece has synergistic value the thinking goes. As author David Kushner wrote in a Fast Company article last year, ?In the analog era, such efforts might have fallen under the soulless rubric of ?cross-promotion?? The difference is that cross-promotion has nothing to do with developing or expanding an established narrative. A ?Happy Days? lunch box, in other words, does nothing to advance the story of Fonzie’s personal journey.?

Not that the Fonz had a personal journey worth charting but plenty of characters do upon whom real world dollars are spent creating fictional worlds for us to inhabit with them. Of course, the trend is not without its critics. As ?badvegan? tweeted during the conference, ?More shame, for sure. Seriously: I guess I have too much respect for 4th wall. It?s worked for millennia.?

Sure, but could you imagine what Wagner could have done without it?

Son of a Pitch

Because I’m so bloody important a fixture in our local entertainment industry (yes, dear, that’s an all-points sarcasm alert), it’s my pleasure to speak at the 2010 Northern California Screenwriters and Filmmakers Expo and Pitch Fest next Friday in Napa.

At 8 a.m. You know, before even Starbucks staffers have rubbed the sleep from their eyes.

To many creative types, rising before noon is such a Herculean task it’s easier just to party all night. To wit, if you arrive at 8 a.m., I’ll serve mimosas and keep the party going. You see, it’s different up here in wine country. In Hollywood, a market place of ideas where inflation is the rule, one bright idea can yield the price of a Hummer in a matter of hours. In wine country, you get a hangover and 20 minutes with a self-proclaimed micro-mogul. Well, that’s what you get at 8 a.m. Less early-risers will interface with major studios, agents and more name-droppings that can fit on this birdcage-liner.

Of course, enduring such hardship is part of my job, seeing as it’s my name on the company shingle and I’m too fiscally responsible (read: cheap) to pay my team to do it.

Moreover, I’m a veteran of these sorts of affairs. Years ago, I took pitches at a sceenwriting expo at the Los Angeles Convention Center and received 200 pitches from screenwriters the world over for reasons I can only attribute to my Bob Evans-style sunglasses. Flash Lely and I did the same in Portland, Ore., a couple of years ago and were astonished by the sheer amount of dolphin stories presented to us. Yes, dolphins. I’ve witnessed this time and again – multiple iterations of the same bright idea. Or dumb idea. It’s often difficult to discern if similar projects are the result of a moonlighting muse whispering the next big thing into the ears of more than one filmmaker or simply outright theft (or in industry parlance, a “market trend”). A couple of Capote movies, a pair of asteroid spectacles, Alexander the Great and Alexander the Also-Great are all big budget examples of films hailing from the litter box of Hollywood’s most prevalent pet – Latin name: “feline xeroxes” – the “copy cat.”

At one expo, each hour brought another breathless screenwriter rhapsodizing about deceased spouses returning to their lovers but reincarnated in the wrong sex. Original? Sure, to them. All five of them.

The day only brightened when some dude pitched me the imaginative, but fatally asinine, “Hitler’s Bath Tub,” about a claw-foot tub that drains the life from bathers. The sensation of having heard something new was dimmed only by my sudden fear of some schnook pitching me “Mussolini’s Ottoman” about an angry footstool.

In the end, when one is taking pitches, one will hear many that have legs, as they say, and many more that have shrunken flippers where legs ought to be. But then, who am I to judge? To paraphrase Chevy Chase, “I’m Daedalus Howell and you’re not” that’s who, which is a rather rude way of saying the only difference between me and those who visited my table was on which side of the table we happened to be seated.

Not to wax too Zen, but if you were one of the multitude who shared your project with me, please know that we are one in this contorted continuum of champagne wishes and caviar dreams – and I empathize completely. Were it not for some hilarious machinations of fate and perception (which my vanity precludes me from disabusing) I could very well have been pitching you. That is to say, we may differ in name but are peers in spirit. So, who am I to judge? One of a jury of your peers. My verdict? Guilty of aspiration to the nth degree. Your sentence? Life in letters – scheduled to commence immediately.

And get some Bob Evans-style sunglasses.

The Northern California Screenwriters and Filmmakers Expo and Pitch Fest runs March 26, 27 and 28 at the Silverado Resort, 1600 Atlas Peak Rd., Napa. For more information, visit

Oscar’s All a’Twitter

Come February of every year, scads of entertainment journalists engage in a ritual peculiar to their beat. They apply for press credentials to cover the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ annual Academy Awards.

An awards ceremony for motion pictures presented on television epitomizes traditional media. If the gold statuette was wrapped in newspaper like a fish, perhaps the event could be even more quaintly 20th century. Despite its antiquarian trappings, this year Oscar is poised at the nexus of traditional and social media.

In addition to the usual questions used to vet journos’ credibility in the online credential application, a new query appears: “Tell us about how we can find you online?blogs, Twitter, Facebook, other social media platforms.”

Social media like Twitter have been a boon for journalists, and not merely for those upgrading their bylines to brand names. (The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism cited the “personal branding” of journalists online as a major trend in its State of the News Media Report for 2009.) Social media tools have also enabled journalists laboring under repressive regimes to bypass censors and transmit reportage to the world, if only at 140 characters at a time.

For some media critics, freedom of the press coupled with free blogging services have resulted in either a free-for-all or a free fall. Consider the so-called citizen journalists, whose training consists of little more than glossing the “Terms of Service” agreement on a video-sharing site and who routinely break stories via social media. In an era when an anonymously posted YouTube video depicting the death of 26-year-old Iranian activist can put those who produced it in the company of New York Times and New Yorker reporters when winning journalism’s prestigious George Polk Award, the redefining of what a journalist is must be under way.

In its own way, the Academy Communications Department, which dispenses Oscar credentials, has contributed to this process. In short, professional journalists are now expected to have a social media presence?just like the amateurs.

ABC, which? broadcast the Oscars this Sunday, has yet to reveal an official policy regarding tweeting at the Oscars, whether that be by journalists, attendees or even nominees (Up in the Air director Jason Reitman seems to be the only nominee with an active Twitter account). Rival network NBC, however, has had to contend with the social media factor head-on as some of its current XXI Olympic Winter Games broadcasts are released on taped delay; it is hopeless to prevent medal results from being tweeted to the world. There is, as yet, no such thing as a tweet-delay, though the Iranians are surely working on one.

The International Olympic Committee speaks to this, in part, with its “IOC Blogging Guidelines for Persons Accredited at the XXI Olympic Winter Games, Vancouver 2010,” a four-page document intended to police the social media habits of accredited attendees.

“It is required that, when Accredited Persons at the Games post any Olympic Content, it be confined solely to their own personal Olympic-related experience,” it states, suggesting that no news is good news, but writing of one’s aspiration to appear on a box of Wheaties is acceptable.

Moreover, “the IOC considers blogging, in accordance with these guidelines, as a legitimate form of personal expression and not as a form of journalism.” Micro-blogging, fittingly, was addressed via tweet on the Olympics’ official Twitter account where athletes were encouraged to share the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat: “Athletes go ahead and tweet, as long as it’s about your personal experience at the games.”

As a live event, the Oscars have little fear of its winners being revealed prior to some celebrity saying, “The envelope, please.” At worst, entertainment journalists will offer a deluge of online snark, which they will later recapitulate online, in print and wherever else news goes to die. If Oscar winners tweeted their acceptance speech ? la “You like me, you really like me. #Oscar,” that might warrant a re-tweet or two. But, alas, no.

Sonoma’s Oscar Awards

Roll out the red carpet, get on your designer duds and pause, pivot and pose for the paparazzi – Oscar is back.

As in years past, preceding the big to-do on Sunday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences separately celebrated scientific and technical achievements in the film industry with its so-called Sci-Tech awards. This, of course, was conducted in another (cheaper) ceremony a few weeks ago and honored the part of the biz most likely to have sprung from the AV Club. Yeah, missed that one too but glad to know the high school social caste system persists.

For those not attending the actual Oscars, our local Sonoma International Film Festival annually hosts an Oscar party sure to be every bit as glamorous as its inspiration (this year it will be hosted at Estate, visit for details), which, given the surprisingly high number of Oscars gracing local mantels is tantamount to the real deal and you don’t have to play cruise director on someone’s ego-trip for an invite. However, there’s no local shindig for achievements that fall outside the purview of the Hollywood popularity contest. Nor are there Oscar categories reflective of the Sonoma experience itself – not the “wine, cheese and retirees” scene often identified with the area, but the daily grind of Sonoma living that gets the terroir under one’s nails.

Consider these local achievements not coming to a theater near you:

The award for “Best Set Direction Evoking a General Sense of Dilapidation and Corporate Absenteeism” goes to (drum roll) McDonald’s on Sonoma Highway. Local lore suggests that an arch meant to span the highway as a “gateway” to the Springs was kyboshed by the state highway system, though pedestrians can pass through a smaller, “consolation arch” on the highway’s eastbound side. It’s ironic that a sign with a pair of Golden Arches and a gaping hole kicked through them currently greet travelers to the west side. Congrats, Mickey D’s! Be sure to reference how you ruin both “waistlines and sightlines” in your acceptance speech (there, I just spared you a c-note to Bruce Vilanch).

The nominees in the category of “Best Obligatory Right Turn” included, – facing south – “First Street West to Napa Street” and – facing north – “First Street West to Napa Street.”

This was the first time that a single street has enjoyed two nominations for right turns traveling in opposite directions. Another nominee, “Verano to Fifth Street West” was disqualified when it was discovered that it was actually a left turn from Fifth West to Verano and technically a bend rather than a turn. The statue went to “First Street West to West Spain,” which accepted the honor with the pithy “Two wrongs don’t make a left, but three rights do.”

The award for “Best Special Effect on a Manhole Cover” went to Sonoma Court Shops, which is studded with several such bronze-hued medallions, each of which are generically branded save for one that mysteriously reads “Santa Rosa Transit.” Surely, no one would venture to a transit mall 20 miles away and man-handle a manhole cover from its native habitat and transplant it to sparsely traveled Sonoma walkway where it would go unnoticed for years. This is clearly the work of a special effects wizard who effectively retouched the once-bland manhole cover to appear as if it were displaced from some far off land. Bravo! The magic of movies lives not only in our hearts, but under our feet.