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.