Thursday, January 21, 2010

Indie Filmmaker Bullshit Detector: On Sale, Super Low Price, Quarter of a Mill point Ninety-Nine!

When contemporary filmmakers start talking about beating the system, I tend to put them on mute. It's like the creeping realization that the once-familiar lady you're talking to at the supermarket is the latest to have been grabbed, lobotomized, and made over in a silly shade of lipstick by the Stepford contingent.

Beating the system used to be a pretty noble idea. The thing is, there is no system anymore. You are where that system once was. What I'm telling you now is something I would have needed help from various publishers to do even several years ago. Years ago, in high school, the prospect of making a movie on anything but a VHS camcorder seemed pretty unlikely. Even once technical innovations put filming in the hands of the filmmaker, getting the material edited was still a major hurdle. Today I edit in my own house. I filmed WOMAN'S PICTURE, my second film, with a group of friends, a crew of somewhere around ten, and a cast I truly loved. Ten is a generous estimate. Often there were four or five of us, tops. I served as my own producer, raising the money, casting, assembling the crew, drafting contracts, booking plane tickets, finding locations, coordinating the building of sets, et al. Three years ago, when I made my first film, I secretly prayed, as I imagine many filmmakers do, that it would be picked up for distribution. Distributing it myself was such a radical and remote idea that it seemed foolish. Three years later, I'm in a position to hold onto and profit from my own work, if only I acknowledge my advantage in the changing marketplace. WOMAN'S PICTURE seems as good a juncture as any to initiate that process.

Every filmmaker stands at that fork in the road. So the overwhelming insistence on doing things the way they've typically been done continues to baffle me. Paramount didn't develop a division to produce movies budgeted under 50k recently because they want to help smaller filmmakers realize their dreams. Curve ball success stories like Paranormal Activity have convinced them that there is money to be made in no budget filmmaking, and watching filmmakers market their own material, I would imagine, makes one-time gatekeepers more than a little nervous. It's the dinosaur trying to make friends with the cause of his own impending extinction. See a flood, make friends with a paddle. See a fire, make friends with water. I'm not opposed to utilizing wider distribution channels, and I'm certainly not naive about the importance of mass media in marketing a film, but the writing is on the wall. It's a very different dynamic these days. It has the potential to be much more of a partnership, but you have to make yourself an executive partner.

When I was putting WOMAN'S PICTURE together, my biggest obstacles were people who had a little experience producing indie movies. I've often found that people with no experience are much more creative in their approach to achieving goals. There's no same old fixed idea gripping them. Why should I spend six months trying to deal with an actress' management, when the actress I really want, who happens to have a real connection to her fan base, can be reached directly through Facebook? This is one of the things I went through. The argument was made that the actress I couldn't reach on Facebook, whose management I would have to deal with for months, complicating if not permanently stalling the process, was a draw to investors and distributors, therefore, worth the wait. With so many films starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Jennifer Anniston, Bill Murray and other much bigger names than the actress in question going straight to DVD, where they get buried in racks without the necessary marketing to direct you to them, why would I want to play that waiting game? I would rather acknowledge from inception that casting is a different kind of strategy these days.

As is financing. People kept telling me I should say my movie cost hundreds of thousands when it was budgeted nowhere near that. The argument went that when I start shopping the finished movie to distributors, they will only want to pay me what they know I spent. This flimsy excuse for a strategy is a ridiculous waste of time. It misleads its mastermind more than its recipient. A distribution "deal" for most vaguely commercial indie films is somewhere under 100k. More often, a film my size, whatever the budget, is considered fortunate to get less than half of that. This puts you in a screwy situation. You lose ownership of your film during a crucial time, its so called launch, and the people charged with marketing it have next to no idea where to aim the rocket. The truth is, they won't really try, unless there's a very good reason in it for them. I leave it to you to decide what that reason might be, or whether it's worth it to you to spend time figuring it out. Whole films have been written, budgeted, and shot in such efforts.

The gamble isn't just that in conceiving your film you will have guessed the wrong "reason" they might care, the wrong incentive for a distributor to become involved advantageously. The bigger risk is that you alienate the people who might invest in the project, allowing you to make your film, to be a working filmmaker. Why should they invest big bucks in a film which is out of touch with what it needs and how it might go about spending it? Why should anyone give big bucks to any film at this point? Filmmakers are no help. Many honestly believe they need hundreds of thousands of dollars and a posse of producers to make a film full of talking heads. Their films are not getting made, so they have a lot of time on their hands, all the time in the world to plan that acceptance speech. I'm guessing that in their minds, you aren't really a filmmaker unless you operate recognizably as one. In my mind, you're a filmmaker if you're making a movie. I had two producers tell me, after we sat around waiting for someone to drop a bunch of money in our laps and I announced my intention to make the film for less, now, not later, that I obviously didn't want to advance a step up from the circumstances of my first film. I told them getting a film made is an advance from not getting it made. Then I told them good-bye.

The popular concept of a movie budget is something which is still living in the dark ages, the romantic past of the "indie moment", whatever that was. You need a whole host of things for no other reason than the fact you've been conditioned to believe you do. Maybe you went to film school. Your professors have to teach you something, I suppose. At the end of the day, they can discuss what makes a movie great, they can introduce you to resources, and they can impart to you some sense of what it takes to get a movie like those you intend to make written, financed, budgeted, organized, and screened. Having paid a lot for this information doesn't exempt you from exploring alternative options, unless what you need more than anything is the confidence that as long as you do certain things and think certain ways you will be that much closer to being regarded as a legitimate moviemaker. From my point of view, the contemporary filmmaker's own worst enemy is often his- or herself. The biggest asset you have as a filmmaker is the ability, the flexibility, to regroup and rethink. My parents told me Santa Claus delivered presents. I'm not still blaming them for it, nor am I still putting out a plate of cookies on Christmas Eve, and at the approach of the giving season I make sure I get myself what I would want from someone who might end up giving me a candle they pulled out of a closet instead.

People are much more likely to invest small amounts in a film than large, especially if they know the filmmaker is committed to steering the project not toward his own lofty ideals, for which he answers to no one, but toward an audience. You don't have to have a plan, but you better have some ideas. Holding onto your film in the long run is a big responsibility if your intention is to figure out how to get it seen. A small investor stands to gain from this the same way Paramount does by producing a no budget movie. Paramount knows this. So should you. Every investor is aware, or should be, that the likelihood of payback is iffy at best. A smaller investment, if everything is being done to rethink and keep costs down, and every effort is being made to market the film wisely and for the long run, is that much likelier to be recouped.

From this point of view, actors become investors too. If getting the right actors is jacking up your budget, you have the wrong actors. Work with actors who want to do something interesting. Lying to actors about your budget in an effort to impress them only makes them wonder why you're not offering them more. Make them participants. By staying small with large ideas, you're offering them something which is in itself fairly valuable. You are in a position, as are they, to negotiate these things. In the industry at large, royalties, as many actors will tell you, are a thing of the past. Studios used to build films creatively around percentages all the time. Owning your material gives you that wherewithal. If you think points are worthless and you don't believe in them then it seems to me you're not very committed to making things happen, not just now but in the long run. It certainly makes it seem as if you don't believe in what you're doing. Why should anyone else? Another producer told me these percentages don't mean anything anymore to anybody. No one expects to see anything from them, he said. They're worthless. Good to know, I said. Guess that means the 15% you requested on the back end is freed up now.

Talk is cheap. Movies can be a lot cheaper too. You'd be amazed how steadily you can build up a body of work when you decide work is what you really want to do.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a thoughtful post. Very interesting comments all around.