How to Post Comments on SonomaNews.com (and live to tell about it)

The phrase “May you live in interesting times,” otherwise known as the “Chinese Curse” for its alleged provenance as a proverb in the Middle Kingdom, has been taking on increased meaning of late – especially for Sonomans. One can see for oneself in the comments section of SonomaNews.com where a war-of-words between pseudonymous soothsayers adorn many a post.

Perhaps more entertaining than truly interesting, the fact remains that “mere anarchy is loosed” as Yeats might say (who might also add under his breath, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”). How does one navigate such troubled waters as the blood-dimmed tide continues to rise?

First, stop reading Yeats – at least while browsing the I-T’s website. For some reason, no matter how hard we try, newspaper copy just doesn’t have the ring of modern Irish verse and the comparison is a bit embarrassing. Feel free, however to read Shel Silverstein or Dr. Seuss.

For reasons lost to the annals of literature – most dirty limericks pair well with J.M. Berry’s column. I can’t print the complete text of “There Once Was a Band from Sonoma” but be assured it’s bluer than lingerie night at the El Verano Inn.

Here’s another piece of online protocol: Do not piss off “Ian Billings,” the lion of Sonoma’s online commenting culture, who defends the just and smites the fatuous with a certain insouciant charm. If you’re not overcome by the nuance of his argument you will be by the length. The man can be down right palaverous (look it up) and given the fact that the Internet offers infinite space for such rants, he may also be dangerous. I mean that in the “action hero” sense of the word, which, for me at least, is a positive association. Billings’ rhetoric is a high-wire act above an alligator pit of lesser wits, but a recent server switch-over with the I-T’s online presence seems to have banished his posts to the far corners of cyberspace. Come back, Ian Billings – Sonoma is lost without you!

The third consideration when one is clicking through the online commentary is to never get between “Anipseojattnet” and “RonLemley.” Although I’ve not read a word either has written online, I can eyeball whilst scrolling through the comments section that they are both quite vociferous, penning several paragraphs in some instances, and are engaged in some sort of rhetorical cage match. Other contributors who likely fear being ground into pixilated pulp by getting betwixt their volleys rarely interrupt.

Of course, the media maven in me applauds the comments section not merely for its extension of free speech and creating a forum for engagement with the news and issues germane to the Sonoma experience. Technically, comments are what we call “user-generated content” and those who post them aren’t just airing their grievances, they’re helping build the site and add to its value. Well, in most cases. Sometimes, it’s just an online pissing match between blowhards, which has negligible editorial value but is at least humorous. And sometimes scary.

As with any online community where anonymity is an option, there will be lurkers. I believe “trolls” is the correct parlance – those who lie in ambush, waiting for an unsuspecting commentator to share their opinion so that they may pounce and publicly denigrate the poor sap. These are the virtual world’s equivalent to flashers. Given the option, I’m sure most of us find exposing their intolerance online is vastly more tolerable than them exposing themselves offline. Insert emoticon here.

SEO as a Networking Tool

Media_httpdhowellcomw_ogggf

In no way do I purport to understand the alchemy of search engine optimization ? that arcane conflux of meta tags, algorithmic jockeying and ritual sacrifice to Google that produces page rankings and spankings in equal measure. Well, who knows if it’s equal ? that sort of proprietary information lives in some server barn in Mountain View, CA. This much I do know: I invested a modicum of effort in upping SEO on DHowell.com (the original incarnation of FMRL.com) with eye to ranking favorably with such terms as ?branded entertainment,? ?transmedia? and my own keyword cocktail ?branded transmedia? and have enjoyed positive results both online and off. By flicking a few switches on the SEO-friendly Thesis Theme for WordPress and going over the site with the fine grit web tools Google offers, I was pleased to receive an email from San Francisco expat entrepreneur Dave Watson, who works in similar spheres as I in the Czech Republic. Apparently, Watson Googled something akin to ?transmedia blogs? and found DHowell Media Group (now FMRL), which led to an invitation to coffee at Napa?s Oxbow Market while he visited the states. There, we swapped notes on our shared niche, talked shop and hatched fiendish schemes. SEO as a networking tool ? what’s next? CRM for dating?

Sonoma vs. LA

Sonoma vs. LAWhen I was a kid, I’d body surf Bodega Bay for hours, then flop into bed at home and still feel my body adrift the sea. Yesterday, upon returning from a six-hour drive through the interior of California on Interstate 5, I had a similar sensation – though the myriad potholes and other hazards of the road (mostly texting) left my body feeling not only that I was adrift some phantom sea but that I was also repeatedly dashed upon the rocks of encroaching middle-age.

This sometime happens when I make my periodic commute to Los Angeles, a vain pilgrimage intended, in part, to remind my agent that I still exist since he’s no longer fooled by my decoy 310 mobile phone number. This I’ve kept to promote the illusion that I still live in LA, though the only aspect of my experience that actually still exists in LA is the ability to dial me direct without an area code. I don’t miss it.

Nor do I miss the 400-mile trek, whether it is by road or sky. AAA’s travel rag VIA Magazine did an analysis of the two modes of transportation as experienced between the Bay Area and LA. The numbers: To drive it’s six hours one-way, about $40 in gas, (I blow the savings from my fuel-efficient Mini with frequent visits to Starbucks en route) and 169 pounds of CO2e greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, the chance of a fatal accident is 1 in 300,000.

Conversely, to fly, it takes about 3.5 hours when one considers the commute to the airport, check-in, baggage issues (emotional and otherwise), security checkpoints and time at the bar. However, AAA estimates the round-trip flight to be a mere $82. Likewise, one’s share greenhouse has emissions is about 181 pounds of CO2e and the chance of dying is one in 8,000,000.

My eighth grade math tells me the odds of dying on the road are about 26 percent higher. It’s also a lot hotter. At certain points in the Central Valley the temperature scraped 110 degrees Fahrenheit, versus -60.7 degrees Fahrenheit when cruising at 25,000 feet in the air. Thank goodness for A/C. Opening a window on either occasion could be fatal, though the odds favor drivers and their travel companions – especially canines who frequently stick their heads car windows. The furry sidekicks who ride shotgun in cockpits don’t do this. It would be Dogpocalypse.

Here are some more numbers to consider:

While my LA hosts were at a dinner party imbibing 18-year-old wines cultivated in our collective area code, I was nursing a lukewarm can of Pabst Blue Ribbon 20 miles away at a “covers” party where our neighborhood band, Static People, was invited to play a couple of unoriginal tunes (we rock Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream,” a song that has never charted but has earned millions).

The area code for PBR, incidentally is 815 – a far cry from the vineyard-lined 707. The closest thing I had to wine that night was sighting a cast member from SoCal wine flick “Sideways,” who received an ovation for illuminating a patio by plugging in some Christmas lights. Turns out all the cycloptic, glowing red-eyes I spotted blinking in the dark were actually smokers cavorting in a corner of the party. I thought they were agents.

Mercifully, no such creatures exist in Sonoma, which meant that when I arrived home I could safely get sideways Sonoma-style – a splash of something local, someone special by one’s side and a sense of being in the right place that reaches deeper than the ocean.

Mellow Yellow, Sonoma Style

Limoncello di SonomaSeeing as Sonoma is the wine and epicurea capital of the known universe, it’s no wonder that media types find themselves here with such frequency. Not only is ours a ready-made story (what we in the biz call a “cut and paste”), media people tend to be over-indulgers and Sonoma affords the opportunity to guise their gluttony with the élan of a foodie (which is just a glutton rolled in a pinch of culinary esoterica).

This is why a small gang of early imbibers was gathered at the secret 8th Street East location of Limoncello di Sonoma for the taping of Drinking Made Easy, Napa airing Wednesday, Feb. 23 at 8:30 p.m. ET on HDNet. The booze-fueled travelogue, features comedian Zane Lamprey and it’s title is as much of a logline as one needs to understand its essential premise. Fortunately, Limoncello di Sonoma proprietors Amy and Fred Groth have a ready list of Sonoma’s finest drinkers at their disposal.

Perhaps I’m overstating the drinking aspect of the shoot – it was billed as a peeling party, but the first blood was drawn at 11:47 a.m., mere minutes after the crew rolled in from a segment on the Plaza, where they had extolled the virtues of drinking in a public square. (Side note: Chief Sackett once told me that when the legal drinking time was rolled back to 11 a.m., the amount of drunk in public arrests dropped precipitously because hardcore drinkers were already too schnockered to make it to the Plaza). Fortunately, many of the attendees were local moms who travel with the presence of mind to pack band-aids. Of course, that presence of mind went fast, as did the band-aids (the host, himself, arrived with a bandaged elbow from some prior exploit).

During the taping, the Groths proved naturals, particularly during a peeling contest to see who could either produce the longest, unbroken lemon peel or who could skin the citrus sooner. The throwaway query “Should we do it the longest or the fastest?” got the requisite onset snickers, which about sums up the pinnacle of wit after couple of lemon meringue-flavored cocktails.

And with risk of riling my friend and colleague Kathleen Hill, permit me to namedrop the culinary comrades whom were on hand – chef Janine Falvo and cheese impresario Sheana Davis cameoed; overseeing the liquid attractions were Tony Tealdi and Eddie Townsend and Capt. Lou Rios (freshly shorn of his ubiquitous ponytail). Besides the signature limoncello concocted by the gang, Sonoma Springs Brewery’s Noma Weiss was on tap. At 6.5 percent alcohol, the Sonoma-themed beer proved itself a fine brunch-brew.

Of note, is the Limoncello di Sonoma warehouse itself, which simultaneously suggests something of Andy Warhol’s Factory (sans the aluminum foil wallpaper but with enough corrugated metal to compensate) a web startup (on account of the frickin’ awesome air-hockey table) and Studio 54 (thanks to the disco ball and the irrepressible feeling that one is there to be seen, due in part to presence of the camera crew). It’s a wonder the Groths don’t open a nightclub – or at least extraordinarily hip mother’s club (band-aids not included). I’d hang out there – moms are hot – I know, ’cause I’m married to one. Moreover, there’s wifi. Booze, broads and broadband – what more does one need?

Well, by the second hour of this yellow-hued media maelstrom, I realized I might eventually need some aspirin and nap. Though, I figured some mother or other could help facilitate in that regard, I decided instead to huddle up in the corner, crack open ye olde laptop and make my deadline. It’s how we media people pretend not to be drunks.

How to Make a Feature Film for $250

Of the “rags to riches” narratives comprised in the American Dream, one variation seems to be recurring with the regularity of sprocket holes on celluloid. It’s the tale of the independent filmmaker, rebuffed by Hollywood, who manages to make a movie on little to no budget, often maxing out credit cards and the goodwill of friends and family along the way. CUT TO: An alignment in the stars that results in a heap of money made by the filmmaker and, ironically, the Hollywood machine that originally passed.

A decade ago, The Blair Witch Project set the gold standard with a $60,000 budget that bloomed into a $240 million profit worldwide. Technically, at $25,000, Deep Throat is still considered the most profitable independent film ever, having grossed around $600 million. In dating terms, that same cost-benefit ratio would be the equivalent of throwing a penny at someone’s window and getting blowjobs for the rest of one’s life.

“You might say that Deep Throat was the film that started the independent film movement,” director Fenton Bailey once remarked. He was right; independent filmmakers have remained on their knees to creditors and distributors to make and release their product since the days of the Lumi?re Brothers?that is, until the digital age ushered in production and distribution means that emancipated filmmakers from industry gatekeepers. A recent example is filmmaker Shane Carruth’s 2004 sci-fi thriller, Primer. Famously made for a mere $7,000, the film became a darling of the festival circuit and landed international distribution.

In terms of lowering the budget-bar, however, Santa Rosa’s Lee Cummings has Carruth beat by $6,750. His upcoming feature film, Date for Hire, will be released on DVD by Maverick Entertainment Group this fall, streamed by Netflix and available at such retailers as Blockbuster, Best Buy and Wal-Mart. The film cost $250 to make.

The unrated flick centers on “Marcus,” a romantic schlemiel who bets he can score a date with the next woman who walks into the bar frequented by him and his male cohorts. Of course, the femme fatale who sashays in (the gorgeous Jennelle Harris) brings with her a host of complications and plot twists. “Now a simple bet has turned into an all-night adventure, where money, stalkers and craziness collide,” reads the official synopsis.

“We shot it in 17 days straight,” says the 39-year-old Cummings, who began production a year ago. “It’s like when the lightning strikes you; it’s like a one-in-a-million shot. I mean, everything can happen badly on a movie.”

Especially when that movie’s total budget is the price of an iPhone. Though Cummings already owned a camera and could rent the lens packages he desired, he couldn’t afford the monitor necessary to view the resulting image right-side-up while shooting. Consequently, he shot the entire film upside-down. And the rest of the budget? Cummings reckons much of it went to the “lighting guy” and Calumet Photographic, an equipment rental house in San Francisco.

Fortunately, Cummings had after-hours access to his primary location, Santa Rosa’s Round Robin (aka “the dirty bird”), on the house, as it were. This meant that he and his cast and crew worked from 2am to 10am for more than two weeks. He credits the long-standing friendships between him and his principal cast?Romas Reece, M. Jennings and Scott Fitzgerald?for enduring their turns as swing-shift Stanislavskis.

Remarkably, Cummings scored his distribution deal without any festival screenings to stoke the market. All the festivals to which the film was submitted rejected it, likely because the rollicking dude-driven comedy didn’t match the higher-minded profile of typical festival fare. Moreover, after Cummings had sent Date for Hire to Maverick Entertainment Group, he wasn’t confident that it had registered on the distributor’s radar. Fortunately, he found their company page on Facebook and was able to fortify a connection through the social network.

Will the film be profitable? The relatively low capital investment suggests that Cummings could redeem the beer cans from a screening party and be out of the red. Will it pay back on the estimable sweat equity invested by all involved? Perhaps, but then friendship is its own reward.