Friday, March 23, 2012

Catapult Fully Functional... but not yet complete.

Weeks ago I posted my first blog post, about building a catapult (technically, it's a mangonel, I've since learned). Well, it's finally hurling objects at short distances (about 45 feet or so, with it cranked up at what I'd call "medium" tension).

Did we make it in budget? Sort of... Materials cost is just over 200 dollars. But labor is about 48 hours now, far beyond my initial estimates (10 hours). You could call that another 800 dollars at least, since most of the work was done as generously low-cost labor by a couple of friends.

But if I had to make another catapult  now, knowing what I now know, it would take maybe one day to complete it.

Lesson 1: Have the right tools. You need a good saw, not a battery powered one.
Lesson 2: Brace the base frame on either side of the twisted ropes whose tightly twisted form gives the mangonel its spring action. When those ropes are tightened, they have tremendous power, enough power to snap your whole wood frame if they're not braced with 4-by-4 wooden beams on either side of the rope.
Lesson 3: The mechanism which is used to twist the rope has to be very strong, made of heavy steel. Once again, the twisted ropes contain a lot of power. Make sure you have a heavy duty mechanism which can withstand the force as you crank the rope tight.
Lesson 4: Be very careful as you crank. Don't do it alone. You can easily lose a hand or an arm, and if the lever you're using hits you in the head, you will likely die.
Lesson 5: Use an old tennis raquette frame wrapped in a piece of leather for the "bucket" or "pocket" on the end of the mangonel's arm. Don't bother trying to make it yourself.

I'd say those 5 tips will save you half your time. The rest, you might have to learn yourself to really understand why it's more difficult than it might seem.

Special thanks to Kurt and Marshall for their labor on this excellent war machine. Now I can't wait to make it look really evil and use it in our upcoming film.

To get it firing stones long distances, at, say, 50 yards plus, it's going to need a thicker, more elastic rope and two strong bodies to crank the thing up.

Our first attempt at a catapult. I'm not disappointed, just more realistic now about what it takes. I highly recommend building one, if you have the means.

Here's a video of the catapult barely cranked up where the "bucket" breaks off:

Here's one of it shooting a bit harder...

I'll post another one when I crank it up to full power next week.

Friday, March 16, 2012

5000 Hours

 I saw a film called Birdemic the other night ( It's famously terrible. Thankfully, I watched the Rifftrax version (, which made it more bearable. It's easy to point out any of the many "things wrong" with the film, but I want to point out that it was created with sincerity and earnest effort on the part of most if not all the crew members.

My first thought is "where do they find these people?", but my next thought is "how truly awful that so many thousands of hours were wasted to create this unsellable, unbearable, tasteless junk."

5000 hours is (minimally) how long it takes to make a movie. 5000 "man" hours (includes many "woman" hours). When you consider all the many roles involved, crew members, cast members, preproduction, production, postproduction... it often takes much closer to 10000 or more hours. That's five working years of someone's life.

I assume something in the order of 5000 hours were spent creating Birdemic.

The quality of the film is, for the most part, entirely dependent on the set of persons on the filmmaking team. A good team will, for the most part, result in a good film, or at least in a film that passes for a low-grade late night TV feature.

But a team of morons and incompetents will inevitably, unambiguously produce an idiotic waste of time and money. Hence Birdemic.

Where am I going with this? Don't hire your cousins and your buddies to work on your film. Seek out the best crew you can find. The best writer, the best director, the best cinematographer, the best production designer, the best composer...

Then you'll have a great shot at having a decent movie.

And I don't believe that the amount paid to team members is the first nor even the second most determinant factor in the quality of their work. It's far better to employ a first-time (or even student!) director who's proven his or her genius on a short film or two than to hire a seasoned director who has only ever produced C-grade material. A top-tier student director will be hungry and enthusiastic about making a great feature, while an experienced hack will often only be working for a paycheck, and make a terrible movie.

The team for Birdemic must have been neither capable-but-inexperienced-students, nor seasoned-but-jaded-professionals. But don't imagine that means any less work was done. The 5000-hour rule still holds. And that's the tragedy. With the same amount of money, the same amount of time, more or less the same script (unbelievable, I know, if you've seen Birdemic, but the script could pass for a few foreign territories once translated capably into other languages), and just a little extra effort in scouting out some decent talent, this film could have passed muster for sales to some late-night slots on some international channels. Because with the same pay (I assume the crew was paid, even terrible terrible films often have paid crews) a better, smarter, more talented crew would have delivered a far more entertaining film.

Every time you hire a lesser crew member, you waste the time and effort of every other crew member to some extent. And if you hire several lesser crew members, every crew member starts to sense the low quality of the team, and the crew starts to lose hope that the film will matter. Then they care less. Then the movie suffers. And the further it goes, the further it goes. They're predicting that the movie won't succeed, and therefore isn't worth losing sleep over. And they're probably right.

Be a better producer. Do the legwork and find great crew. Don't waste a combined three-to-ten years of people's lives.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

How to create a Profitable Movie Concept

Arrowstorm Entertainment, our production company, is interested in bringing funding to movies. But people often pitch us unsellable, unmarketable, undistributable concepts which have only one possible "business plan", which is "we're going to win Sundance." That's a terrible risk.

Dramas, indie comedies, social conscience films, etc., have few channels which are looking to buy content. On the other hand, what we call "fanboy" genre films have many buyers and a great need for more content worldwide.

We are looking to fund "fanboy" films, which have a low risk and high potential for creating a real franchisable intellectual property. How do you create a fanboy film? Try creating concepts that have no less than 3, and preferably 5 or more elements from the "Periodic Table of the Awesoments." , more about it here at

Think I'm joking? I'm not. I'd say any random logline that you generate using this entertaining tool will be more profitable than 90% of the indie film concept pitches I hear. Is that sad? Pathetic? Yep. Is it more fun than making a film about a couple dealing with the loss of a child? I'd say it is.

This is, once again, film as business, not film as art or film as world-improver. To create great art or make the world a better place, just try not to spend much money while doing it.

Try out the Periodic Table of Awesoments. Post your pitches in the comments!

Friday, February 24, 2012

And if you can't get Stars... you still need Star Power

Let's assume for a moment that after reading my last post, you're thinking to yourself "bullcrap". It's not that easy to get a bankable actor into your film. Even if you cast early, and even if you are willing to move through a lot of names and settle for the one that finally says "yes".

Fair enough. It's famously difficult to snare one of those oh-so-elusive Hollywood names to sign on and be in your film when you've got a low budget. The task is made even more difficult when you realize that before persuading the actors, you often have to persuade the talent agent and/or manager, and let's be clear, they're mostly interested in their hard cash commission...

But Star Power isn't just about getting the names of actors to stamp across the top of your key art. Try bringing a multi-$million independent starring-Steve-Zahn drama to the sales floor, and I'll bring my microbudgeted sub-500k dragon movie, and I bet 9 times out of 10, my film outsells yours. That's right, a public-domain, free-to-use, computer generated dragon has just as much (and more) Star Power than a mid-size semi-bankable name (you might notice that our Orcs! film hit #50 on imdb's starmeter, whereas Calvin Marshall topped out at 249th.... that's right, orcs also have more Star Power than many bankable stars).

But Steve Zahn will probably cost you a hefty sum just to have the right to use him, let alone the costs of hiring stars (fringes, first-class tickets, Screen Actors Guild signatory, per diem rates, trailer rental, top-notch makeup person, top-notch stunt double, etc. etc.). The dragon costs you whatever you need to hire a couple of guys and their computers who know how to make a 3D dragon and bring it to life in your film. That might be $100k or more, but it's a sure thing, and you don't have to ask permission.

So, consider setting your film around Star Power you don't have to pay for. How about using a title that has Star Power, something in the public domain, like doing a remake of Pride and Prejudice? Did it. How about using a dragon as your star. Did it. Several times...  How about using something that is actually an old mythical creature that was made hugely popular by Lord of the Rings, Dungeon and Dragons, and even World of Warcraft? Did that too.

Or, you might even try using a public figure or a current event that has been big in the news recently and has a lot of interest for the media and the public in general. We did that as well.

So there's a secret for you. Stop whining about how you don't have enough money to get stars, and start booking stars that you don't need to convince that you're worth it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

How to Get Stars in Your Film

Everyone knows that Star Power drives the film industry. And, if you've ever tried to sell or distribute a film, you'll be familiar with the oft-asked question of "who's in it?" If your answer includes explaining who your lead actors are, and the small parts they played in big films ten+ years ago, then chances are you've been rejected because your film lacks Star Power.

When working on a low budget, it can be difficult to overcome the star hurdle. But let me suggest my own method that has worked well in the past. The secret is to start casting early.

Many actors work for a paycheck. Others are more professional, and are more interested in the role they are taking and the direction it will push their acting career. But all actors want to be cast in roles. Take a look on IMDB. Actors do maybe two, maybe three, and rarely four films a year. And most of those are not lead roles. Consider an average work time of one month on a film (two months for a leading role, 1-2 weeks on a minor role). That means an actor works maybe three months of the year. They would like to be cast in more films. Making offers to name actors, even very low-budget offers, will, eventually, yield results.

Make one offer a week (making an offer means sending the actor's agent an offer letter which includes the dates of the shoot, the role being offered, the amount you'll pay them...). Tell them they only have a week to decide. When they pass on it, immediately make the next offer. Start with the biggest names on your list, and move down. Eventually, someone will probably engage in a discussion and take the role. You do have to offer money, but different actors with the same Star Power will take very different pay levels, depending on how much they want to act in more films (it's hard to get roles, and many actors just want to be in more films) and how much they take personally to the role being offered.

At some point down your list, an actor will fit the combination of traits that you've been waiting for. They don't care about the money, they just want a role that will get them started in the kind of roles they're hoping to land on a bigger film (Mila Kunis took a role in our film Moving McAllister because she wanted to get into romantic comedy leading roles as That 70's Show was winding down). They like the script, for some reason. They have an open schedule and nothing to do for the next few months, and they are ready to act in a leading role, even in a small indie production... when this combination happens, an actor will take a role for surprisingly little money up front.

You can't responsibly offer to more than one actor at a time. Agents hate that (and it's a small world, word gets around about your project), and you need to give them a "first position" offer each on the role, i.e., if the agent takes the effort to have the actor read the script and make a decision, there had better be no one else ahead of them in line. That's why you do one a week, it allows you to give each a first position, one at a time.

Low-budget producers often wait to cast a film until the month or two before the film goes into production. Recognize that this inevitably results in a decreased chance of getting anyone worthwhile.  Start casting early, and one day you'll be pleasantly surprised by an actor saying 'yes'.

Later this week, I'll suggest another option if you're dead set against Stars in your film, or if your budget is so low you can't even offer the $20K or so that you need to even get the agent to read the offer!

There are other forms of Star Power... follow this blog and check my post later this week.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Coverage List for Osombie



#1 Cable News Show
3 Million Viewers


“I wish I could have afforded to advertise this spot during the Superbowl”

“These are a few of my fav-or-ite thiiiiings….”

“the video totally delivers”
“plenty of explosions, copious amounts of violence, gratuitous male shirtlessness”

“Greatest Trailer Ever: OSOMBIE”

“mayhem filled”

“bone-biting, machine gun-firing, washboard-ab-flashing, sex in the desert”
“makes us want to reach for the bong and order a pizza already”

“joyously delirious plot”
“If there is any justice in the world, this classic will soon be in the can and on the screen.”

“I was laughing my ass off”
“production values are surprisingly high”

“includes swordfighting, romance, a head being shot off, and lots and lots of hunky guys taking their shirts off to expose some really nice chests.”

“plenty of roundhouse kicks and one-on-one combat”

“Because your day hasn’t kicked enough ass, here’s an Osama bin Laden zombie movie”

“You’ve got to see this, I can’t believe it’s even real!”

“Is that? Yes. It’s Osama bin Laden. As a zombie.”




THE BLAZE (Glenn Beck)


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Osombie goes viral

Hard to say what happened the last few days...

A film I produced released an unpolished short teaser trailer three days ago. See my post below about the importance of trailers... and then read on for a good example of why it's a valid notion.

As far as I can tell, it was posted originally by, picked up from there by, and then an article was written by Harry Knowles himself on ... and from there, it went a bit nuts. It's been written about on,,, and a bunch of other huge sites...

It may have peaked tonight when it was discussed on the O'Reilly Factor on the Fox News Network. Here's the video...

What I can't figure out is how it all happened. The concept we funded was of Bin Laden returning as a zombie, which, we knew, would have some buzz value. But was it inevitable that it went viral? How did it happen? Was it because Harry Knowles wrote it up, or would someone else have inevitably broken the story? We noticed that our Kickstarter backer numbers double every day now for 4 days... when does that pattern end? Have we peaked? How can we keep it going?

Or, more importantly, how can we repeat it with future projects?

If it was inevitable, as another producer insists is the case, then was it predictable?

A marketable trailer can deliver a powerful message, and will be talked about just as much if not more than an entire movie based on the same message. And can we sell the film based solely on the trailer?


The film is well made, packed with zombie body count and tons of action. But the trailer tells a message that already tells channel buyers and distributors that the film can and will be sold and consumed by mass audiences. The trailer is the main sales tool of every film, and a trailer that drives audience consumption answers most of the questions concerning a film's viability. Sales deals are being made at EFM in Berlin already, solely on the basis of the trailer and the trailer's success.

If it wasn't clear enough or believable enough in my last post about the importance of trailers, I'll restate it here: the trailer is everything most buyers need to know about a film to decide whether they'll purchase rights. It answers every major question: Who's in it? What's it about? What's the genre? Will people want to see it?

Work hard to make a trailer. Don't cut corners on the most important aspect of the film.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Film: Art or Business?

I moderated a Sundance discussion panel today in Park City at the ASCAP Music Cafe. The subject was Ultra-Low-Budget Filmmaking. The panel members were 4 ultra-low-budget directors, each of whom recently created a feature film with very little funding, between $500 and $65000.

As I watched each of their film trailers, I wondered if any of them might be distributable, if any of them might be able to recoup the budget that was spent. I was reminded of how commercially I view the filmmaking process (my films are six-for-six in profitable returns to the investors... our studio doesn't make films that don't make money).

Since I was the moderator, I had the ability to simply put the question to the directors: "Is filmmaking Art, or is it Business?" I got a variety of answers, one of which was "this was just a film to launch my career, get me my next gig, if it does that, it's a success, it doesn't have to make money."

That film, if I remember correctly, had the highest budget, $65,000. That's a very low budget for a film (all of mine have been quite a bit higher), but I wondered who the investor was, and whether they agreed with the definition of success that the director had.

When you write a novel, record a song, make a painting, it's pretty much a lot of work for yourself and a few hundred of your own dollars, at most. It's your own business whether you treat that process as art or as business. But when you spend $65,000 I feel there's a business element suddenly introduced, that necessarily complicates the issue of art vs. business.

Not that the two can't coexist. If it's truly brilliant art, it may well have venues that will result in revenue, such as festival wins and the resulting distribution deals.

But with few exceptions, a 125-minute film about "a couple dealing with their wayward child" is most likely going to reach no one, and accomplish little but boredom and discomfort for the audiences that it does reach. That, and cause a lot of people to do a lot of work over several years to achieve mediocre results-- with a loss of money and trust.

That's pretty pessimistic, of course, but I find inevitably that when I ask artistic filmmakers what THEIR top ten favorite films are, their answers include titles like "Blade Runner", "Godfather 2", or even "Empire Strikes Back". Rarely do they list films like the ones they're making...

Why not try making something that they themselves might watch? Make an action film, a Sci Fi film, a Horror movie if that's your thing. Even if it fails to be brilliant artistically, it often has a market and channel that is ready to consume the mediocre attempt; pay back the investors, give everyone involved a sense of accomplishment and encouragement, and reach an audience and learn from the experience.

I refuse to accept that art films can't be commercially driven, nor that commercially driven films can't be artistic. They can and should be both.

Unless, of course, you fund the film yourself... if so, then by all means create some inaccessible art without an audience and push the limits of artism, break the mold if you can, do something spectacular and enjoy the art of film for all it's worth.

And try to keep your budget low, because the $500 film seemed just as meaningful and artistic as the $65,000 film, and every bit as satisfying to the director.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Trailer + Key Art = 80% of sales

I have heard many low-budget film pitches (and I should stress here that my experience is with low budget films exclusively, usually sub-$million and always sub-$2million), and I find myself focusing these days on two elements which I feel account for the bulk of every film's success. It isn't that star power, script, acting, effects and music aren't important to making a great film, it's that these attributes can also be evaluated in the context of two elements:


In my experience, trailers account for the bulk of a film's success. Buyers, and especially international buyers, will often simply watch a trailer and sign a deal. Granted, the trailer tells you what stars are in the film, how the special effects look, and a general idea of the production value of the project... since these are often the first points of reference by which a buyer judges and prices a film, they make their decision on the basis of the trailer. Hence, the trailer for the most part determines a film's success.

Why is that important? Obviously, if true, it suggests that all one need do to reap profits from a film is to nail the trailer. And why is that good news? Because it's much easier to deliver a spectacular trailer than it is to create a spectacular film. 

Trailers are movie concentrate, and has the ability to select all the best a film has to offer: the best jokes, best action, best acting, best script lines, best visuals...all in a few  here's a useful corollary A MOVIE TRAILER ALWAYS OVERSELLS AND THE FILM THEREFORE UNDERDELIVERS. THE TRAILER IS ALWAYS BETTER THAN THE MOVIE.

And that's a big strategic point to make. It suggests three big tactics...

1. Spend more money and effort on the trailer. Filmmakers typically make the trailer as an afterthought. Bad move, it wastes the opportunity to make a bad movie look great, and a great movie look spectacular. If a film isn't looking so good, work hard on the trailer and sell the film on the basis of the trailer before the film is even complete! Hold off on showing the film (it isn't done quite yet), and shop the trailer around and make early sales (you can't do this too much, or you might get a reputation for great trailers and junk films). Save some budget for the trailer. Don't necessarily trust a sales rep or distributor to cut a great trailer, do it yourself and make sure it's amazing. Nobody cares about your film as much as you do.

2. Put all your best stuff in the trailer. Don't withhold your biggest shots and best jokes to reveal them in the film. Put all your best in the trailer, even if it's the death of the main antagonist! If it makes for a spectacular trailer, put it in. Many buyers never even watch the film (they look at hundreds of films at every show, they have to take shortcuts). They often only see the film much later, before they air it or distribute it on DVD.

3. Sell the film early. Get a quick rough cut done so you know whether you need some pickup shots or reshoots, and then get working on the trailer. Make the trailer spectacular and start signing deals! The impression a trailer makes is the best foot forward, and from there it's going to be downhill. Buyers cool off and get critical. Get a deal done as early as possible in the process.

What about KEY ART (that means the poster art / DVD cover art)? Same thing. It's important, it's the first impression a buyer, distributor, or sales agent gets of the film, and they know a lot about the movie already, ENOUGH TO MAKE THEIR DECISION. Spend time and money on the key art and make sure it sells.

This insight is perhaps the simplest key to profitability for a "so-so" film (and that's at least 90% of films, so don't kid yourself).

That being said, here's a trailer for a film I executive produced which obeys all principles I've expressed in this article. Enjoy the trailer for Dragon Hunter. It's better than the movie (which ain't bad neither).

Friday, January 6, 2012

Filmmaking is crazy

I heard someone on a bad TV show say that "deciding to have a baby isn't rational, it's instinctual, evolutionary..." the idea being that there are no tangible rewards to having children.

Filmmaking isn't "rational" either, then. It's not a good way to make a living, it's not glamorous, despite the perception of the masses, and it's often more painful than pleasant. After finishing a film, one often feels "I'll never do that again, not for that amount of pay, not under those conditions..." and a few weeks later, the next film takes shape and if we're honest with ourselves, we know it's going to be the same, painful process it was the last time. Until you "make it big", it will always be the same.

We used to say in the office "someday someone will move our furniture for us when we move offices" and "someday we'll hire an assistant or a secretary or a monkey to do the menial parts of our jobs" but we don't say that very much any more. I think we're happy where we are now, making low budget genre films for small paychecks and a lot of creative freedom. We're not making films for the glamor, nor for the money, nor for the pleasure of it.

Babies cost a lot, they're anything but glamorous, but I have three kids, and wouldn't change that for the world. Is that rational?

Is it rational to want to create things (babies, movies, whatever) and nurture them and see them take on their own life out in the world? Or is that just instinct and evolution?

When I was a kid I loved fireworks. In my teen years I loved fireworks so much we'd have huge fireworks wars and brag of our burn scars. In my twenties I was bored with fireworks, just noise and light, so what? Now, in my thirties, I have kids whose eyes light up like mine used to when we do fireworks every Canada Day, 4th of July and New Year's Eve. And now, in my thirties, I somehow love fireworks again, maybe more than ever. And that goes for Lego, catapults, quicksand, the beach, and all the other things I was bored with in my twenties. They say you live through your kids. I'd say it's rather that you can see things through them and remember what's great about those parts of life, long after you've become bored of them.

What does that have to do with making movies? I'm kind of bored of Empire Strikes Back. But I still enjoy that my two sons love it as much as I ever did... and when I write screenplays, how do I know what's fun and exciting for the audience? How do I stay excited about it? I see it through their eyes and I enjoy it through their eyes, and having and honing that skill has everything to do with filmmaking success.

Is it rational to make movies and have kids? Is it just instinct and evolution that drive me to it?

I make movies and video games (who has the coolest dad now?). My thirties are a second childhood. How much glamor and money is that worth?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Building a Catapult

Business partner suggested that building multiple real catapults would be unfeasible and expensive for a film concept that we're considering... (but wouldn't you be crazy to make a western-style fantasy film inspired by Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns without a few catapults?) So, I've funded the project of building a working catapult for 200 dollars. Budget so far: 137 dollars. Dimensions are 9 feet long, 5 feet high... It's coming along nicely out back behind the office, and I think it might be ready as early as next week for a test run...

Of course, it won't LOOK like a historical catapult, but once the engineers have built it and built it cheap and proven that it works, we can have production design dress it up and make it look good, hopefully (real functioning catapult: $200 ... art-to-make-it-look-real?... probably $2000). In the meantime, I look forward to firing a watermelon out into the parking lot next week.

Ready, aim, watermelon!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Where I'm From and Where I'm Going

I grew up in many cities across Canada, and at each stop I looked for something exceptional to accomplish to leave behind me.

In my youth, this tendency manifested itself in adventurous projects; I built a 22-foot boat out of plastic bottles and shot the rapids on the Ottawa river many times before my mother recycled it; I made my own bungee cords and took my friends bungee jumping off bridges (over water, of course); at 16 years old, I jumped a freight train to travel across Canada with friends and in the end traveled for 40 days on about 200 dollars in funds.

After university, these tendencies naturally matured into a love of entrepreneurism. I was challenged by the idea that “movies are risky and unprofitable” and set out to overcome the obstacles and succeed, and produced several profitable films.

Producing feature films is like planning weddings. The participants all need to know exactly what to do on a precise schedule; costumes, makeup, food, crowd control, parking, transportation, sound systems, lighting, cameras...  everything is expensive and has to go perfectly or it's a disaster. Now, take that and imagine planning and executing 40 weddings in 40 straight days, and that's movie production. Then add post-production and sales and distribution, and that's film producing.

After producing films, I settled down and raised funds to create a software studio, and released online massively multiplayer games. I still run the game studio, and the games took on hundreds of thousands of players which is a satisfying result. But it didn't seem like my "stopping place"...

Then, to round out my business skills and make sure I could see and know the "big picture", as they say, I enrolled in a full-time MBA program at a fairly prestigious university and am nearly finished my degree...

Having done that, I found myself returning to making feature films. Why is that? I have a personal compelling need to tell stories, and to move from project to project with a new story to tell each time.

And that all adds up to my current endeavor. I'm going to make a lot of movies this year, six or more is my 2012 goal. And I'm going to tell that story here, on my blog, in gory detail.

I love a challenge. I love telling stories. I love making movies.