Wow, with a title like that, it seems I could write forever, as I’ve done before in this space. But I don’t intend to give an overview of what’s been developing over the past months and years on this subject, but rather chime in on some recent conversations that have been going on among filmmakers. Indiewire Editor Eugene Hernandez does an excellent job of summarizing this conversation in his recent piece, “Breaking Upwards.” Breaking Even?
where he witnessed much of the anxiety currently going on in Indiedom regarding filmmakers having to become their own marketers and even their own distributors. I witnessed this same conversation happening in the comments section of a post on the Auteurs website, have seen it presented all over FB and Twitter, and I imagine if I had more time to read, would catch it elsewhere.
The friction, as Eugene has described it, is between filmmakers (artists) having to become businessmen. The friction between art and commerce is ages old, but now, just at the moment that filmmakers can finally take the business into their own hands, they are balking. The line of thought goes: We’re not business people or hucksters—we’re artists. We either don’t have the expertise, the time or the will to sell our own products. Folks like Jon Reiss have been advocating for this and fortunately, in Jon’s case, have been providing a road map for how to do it, (his excellent bookThink Outside The Box Office
), and have provided continuous encouragement and guidance along the way in a series of online and in-person speeches on the subject. I chime in with these few points:
- I agree with people like Jon, Eugene, distribution strategist Peter Broderick and others that you need to be thinking this way. As Peter has said for the last several years, the time to think about audiences is that moment in the shower when you dream up the idea for your film. And as Jon has said, the marketing and distribution of your film should be given at least as much time and resources as the making of your film was given. So if you’re resistant, you need to get over it, or at the very least, recruit someone who is not. This is not optional anymore—it’s mandatory. And in an exceedingly crowded marketplace of indie films (I’m talking about the ones that your friends are making, not the studios), if you’re not doing this, your voice will be overshadowed by all the folks who are doing it, whether those films are worthy or not. How many Facebook Fan invites did you get last week from filmmakers and their films?
- This doesn’t have to be the end of the world for filmmaker/artists. If you’re a storyteller, this is your opportunity to tell more than one story. There’s the story in your film, (the script that merged into a film), and then there are the countless stories you get to tell in support of that story. This is the way to look at all these new opportunities. As filmmaker Hunter Weeks put it at the confab aptly titled The Conversation that Eugene was reporting on, “you should be creating stories around your story.” As a filmmaker who is putting together his own ambitious marketing and distribution plan with my current film Pig, I can tell you that the creative opportunities are endless and the process has been exceedingly rewarding from a creative standpoint, (and hopefully at some point from an economic perspective). Yes, it’s hard work and the road is long, and there are many parts of it where I do not have the expertise or desire, (I am not a Webmaster, damn it!), but if you’re a creative person, you are no longer limited by your film’s confining 90 minute length and 3-act structure to express yourself creatively. If you don’t understand this, you need to read Jon’s book, visit Lance Weiler’s wonderful Workbook Project site (and go to his events), and start following some of the many trailblazing films that are utilizing all these new techniques.
- Eugene makes an excellent point in his story that I have been saying for years. In fact, it is the basis for my No Budget Film School: if you don’t spend much on your film, you can get your money back using these new roads, techniques and tools, allowing you to sustain yourself as a filmmaker, practice and develop your craft, perhaps break out into a larger, studio career, or if you’re someone like Joe Swanberg, build a strong personal brand. Think what you will of Joe’s films, but the fact that he made them has made him who he is and is the reason why Eugene and I are talking about him. If you’re sitting at home devising a way to get that multi-million dollar film off the ground and criticizing the whole Mumblecore or micro-budget movement as not “professional,” then you are really missing the point and will perhaps remain in anonymity forever, as the money to make your “real” film may never come. Filmmakers make films. I’m reminded of a quote in one of Joe Carnahan’s hilarious promos for his no-budget film Blood Guts Bullets & Octane, “If you don’t want to take chances, try alternative fundraising techniques, hey I’ll see you at Starbucks. We can sit around and drink mochas and talk about the film you’re never gonna make.”
The bottom line is this is not a time for filmmakers to fret. We’ve never been given the keys to the kingdom so much so as now. We live in a time when the tools of production, post production and now distribution and syndication are completely accessible. If all you want to do is tell stories, this is truly the Golden Age.
PS: I was recently interviewed about the subject of filmmaker sustainability on an internet radio show called Film Courage, hosted by tireless indie filmmakers and supporters David Branin and Karen Worden. If you want to listen to a whole bunch of empowering interviews on these subjects, subscribe to their weekly show on iTunes or visit them on the web:
I had the pleasure of seeing “Paranormal Activity” (PA) again last week, this time accompanied by LIVE filmmaker commentary, something I discovered recently that the DVD didn’t include! Here are a few more quick lessons and reflections on the film I gathered from the event:
* I say several times in every class I teach and it is repeated and confirmed by most of my guest speakers—test screen your film in post as many times as necessary. It is impossible to remain objective about what is working and what isn’t, what the audience is feeling or understanding or isn’t, during the many months you are editing your film. The best indie films I know have used little test screenings throughout the post process to measure the work being done and gage reactions to both the film overall and to specific scenes or moments. These screenings are not a sign that you don’t know what you’re doing as a filmmaker. They are a way to make sure you are doing what you think you are doing. PA test-screened the film something like 50 times according to the filmmakers, mostly to confirm their theories on what was working or what wasn’t. These screenings don’t have to be a big deal. Invite a few friends, but most importantly, have friends invite friends who don’t know you or the film. Hand out some sort of written questionnaire immediately after the screening, before openly discussing the film, and take all comments, especially those with specific ways to change the film with a grain of salt.
* A corollary to test screenings is to design a way to easily and inexpensively do re-shoots on your film. Again, not a sign of failure. Woody Allen re-shoots nearly 30% of his films after the initial shoot. PA was able to shoot little additional scenes or re-shoot scenes that they determined through test screenings weren’t working. Of course the ending is famously a result of re-shooting. If you own the camera and editing system, and have access to actors and locations, re-shooting shouldn’t be too difficult.
* Indie films take a long time to reach the end of their road, even the most successful ones. PA was shot in 2006, premiered in its first film festival in 2007, and didn’t reach a wide audience until the end of 2009. You need to be patient and not accept as failure that your film wasn’t written, shot, edited and released in a year.
* Nobody really knows anything, to paraphrase William Goldman. Distributors passed on PA TWICE! They passed twice on a film that ultimately made over $100 million in the domestic box office.
* You have to trust your gut. With a film like PA, that has the potential to be a hit but whose potential is obviously well-hidden, you have to believe in what you’re doing, have a strong vision, and trust that vision as people and events contradict you. I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve gotten from folks on my mailing list (and here in comments posted) about how BAD this film was. Yes, this film is not “Star Wars,” equally loved by everyone. There are people who hate it and can’t understand why it was ever released in the first place. But obviously, there are many more who love it. This dissonance is where the opportunities for the film (and for the many other indie films that ultimately break it big) lie. If the opportunities were so obvious in the first place, these wouldn’t have been indie films. A studio would have forked over millions and made the film in the first place.
* Sometimes films just play better for an audience. Any time something good happened for PA, it happened as a result of a screening with a live audience. When distribs watched the film on their own on DVD (with the exception of Steven Spielberg), they passed. Agents signed director Oren Peli after the film screened at Shriekfest. Dreamworks got involved after some of their execs attended an industry screening. Fans started tweeting after the film opened in a series of midnight screenings.
* To be this successful, you have to take risks and be unique. This is the independent film way—being unique. Derivative indie films don’t go anywhere. Throughout the screening I attended, director Peli mentioned creative decisions that were made to buck the conventional wisdom. Whenever there were times that we’d expect something to happen because of some prior film we’d seen, Peli made sure to counter those expectations. This is why the film is so scary. And there were many times the studio suggested changes that conformed to the way things are usually done, changes that would have destroyed the unique balance of elements that Peli worked so carefully to achieve. Studio notes are often designed only to increase the appeal of a film and broaden the audience, rather than to make the film “better.” Often when you do this you go against what makes the film work in the first place. A perfect example was PA’s slow build. Conventional wisdom is that audiences—especially younger audiences—do not have the patience anymore to sit through a slow opening. Work was done to increase the pace of the opening and when those changes were tested, the test audiences indeed confirmed that the film moved along much better than before, but it was also determined that it wasn’t as scary anymore. To get the scary, you had to have the slow pace in the beginning.
* Studios are really good at marketing. While filmmakers are being asked to do more and more of this on their own, there’s nothing better than a committed, smart and well-financed machine behind your little film. You certainly don’t always get this, but when you do, it can pay off handsomely. One of the brilliant marketing strokes—the inclusion in the trailer of the test screening audiences reacting to the film—was Paramount’s idea.
* You have to be a multi-tasker or have a small team of multi-taskers working for nothing or next to it to get no-budget films made. This film was made for $15k because Oren was the writer, director, producer, editor, special f/x designer, production designer, grip and electric, DP, production coordinator, music supervisor, sound effects editor, sound mixer, etc. etc. Yes, he did have to hire a makeup person to do some effects makeup, and yes he had a little help once his two producers got onboard and then again once the studio got onboard, but the film was mostly done at that point. If all you can do is direct, and you have to pay people to do all these other things, your no-budget film will become a not-so-no-budget film really fast. Oh, and it helps to be able to do all of these things sufficiently, if not spectacularly.
* Good indie films, no matter how simple they look, are not accidents. While there was certainly luck involved, and trial and error, PA was made by a very talented guy who had to made a long series of correct creative choices. I’ve been there so many times, considering those choices and taking notes from your team and getting feedback from an audience. It’s incredibly difficult to always make the right choice, to find the better way to do it, or to stick to your guns and believe that your way of doing it is correct. Everyone who’s been there knows this.
While these phenomenon films are once-in-a-decade, it is important for aspiring no-budget filmmakers to note that there are many more lesser, but still significant success stories out there to provide you with inspiration. For some of you, PA’s success will be enough. For other more pragmatic types, weighing the odds before jumping into the filmmaking ring, you only need to look at this year’s Sundance—another Golden Ticket opportunity with long odds—for more acknowledgment that it is all possible. By my count, there are no less than ten narrative feature projects made on micro- or near micro-budgets in the festival, and several more documentaries. I hope to report on some of these in this space once I return from the festival.
My email box was ablaze this past Friday with news that Paramount was forming their own micro-budget film division. The goal is to make twenty $100k no-budget features a year. After their success with “Paranormal Activity,” (a film they DID NOT PRODUCE, by the way), this sounds like a case of ‘give the guy a rope and now he thinks he’s a cowboy.’ All I can say is, “good luck!”
As someone who has devoted most of the last 15 years to no-budget filmmaking and spent the last six years specifically working on this kind of a multi-film model, not to mention the last five years teaching no-budget filmmaking and making my own no-budget features, I have this cautionary note for Paramount: it’s harder than it looks.
|The set of a typical Paramount film|
I’m used to not getting paid for my work. And I don’t mind doing most of the work myself. I often break laws and take undo risks when I produce. And I’m not afraid to reinvent the way to make a movie for each new project. This doesn’t sound like a studio’s modus operandi to me. I could think of any number of elements that alone would cost a studio more than the $100k:
- Acting talent fees (or did they not know that their own system has required movies to be made with stars these days)
- All other ATL talent fees (the directors and producers on my movies NEVER make an upfront fee—that’s one important, basic way you keep the budget down)
- Rewriting those scripts (they mention obtaining scripts and then re-writing them. Last time I checked, optioning scripts and hiring writers, especially for a studio, costs money. Or are they just going to hire unknown writers and give them a shot. The film festival world is filled with those results already).
- A union crew (this is a studio after all—how are they getting around unions??)
- A good editor (this is the camel that often breaks a no-budget film’s back. Most successful no-budget films were edited by the writer/director or had some team member who was absolutely dedicated to the project who edited it. Once you go outside of that and hire a real editor, who is talented, you’re going to have to pay them for their three or more months of work. Even if you can get their agent down to say, $2k or $1k per week, you’re talking about 10% to 20% of your budget right there).
- Insurance (studios, with something to lose, like insurance, which is expensive)
- Lawyer fees (studios REALLY like lawyers. If I had to pay a lawyer to help me make my movies, all the money would go to them, most likely. I suppose they could charge their in-house legal fees to other divisions?)
- Permitting locations and paying to rent them (if you’ve taken my class or read any of my production entries on my site, you know I’m not a fan of either paying to rent locations or permitting them. Locations in LA are expensive and permitting is too.)
- And so many other things…
|The set of my last film|
This smells to me of people who have no idea of what they’re doing. Who have never studied a $100k budget. Who have never asked people to work for free. Who have never begged, borrowed, or stolen. Who really don’t know how hard it is, how nearly impossible it is, to make a good movie on no money. As someone who has worked with some of the most talented people in the business at doing this, (Chris Nolan on his $12k feature “Following,” for instance) and seen literally 1,000s of attempts that didn’t work out, I can tell them that a studio is probably the least-equipped place I can think of to make this work. Even InDigEnt, which was formed by talented filmmakers, an independently minded film company, and one of the smartest people in the independent film world, ultimately couldn’t make this model work, certainly not for $100k and over the long haul. They had many wonderful successes, but 20! Per year!!
I make these films out of necessity. I pay very little a month for my rent-controlled apartment and I still struggle to make ends meet, just to have the opportunity to make films the way I want to make them—with creative control and no studio interference. People with mortgages and kids and nice things that they enjoy can not make movies this way. And Paramount doesn’t have the legal stomach to pull off the things that we do every day as independent filmmakers.
So to you, Paramount, I’ll say it again, “Good Luck!” (and if you’re hiring for this, I’m easy to reach!)
In the midst of tough times and dire predictions for the independent film business, it’s ironic that 10 years after “The Blair Witch Project” hit theaters—and effectively changed the expectations for small-budget indie films—a new film emerges with a similar success and a very familiar plotline. Paramount’s “Paranormal Activity” may not hit BW’s $140 million domestic gross, but its $100 million-plus number is tremendous nonetheless, especially for a $15k no-budget feature that didn’t get into Sundance. It’s a bona fide Phenomenon Film, one that will surely replace BW in the comparables section of every indie film business plan hereafter written.
Nearly as eerie as the film—and it IS scary, I’m not going to deny that—is how similar it all feels to BW. If you’ve read my previous two-part entry here, you know I attributed “Blair’s” success to three elements: Mythology, Methodology, and Marketing. It seems PA is working its own version of each of those on its way to becoming a Hollywood legend. There are similar lessons to learn from PA, and like BW, most observers seem to be getting the lessons wrong, (very much like BW). First wrong lesson: attributing ALL of its success to Marketing. Certainly, like BW, marketing played an important role. But to not give the filmmaker credit for making a good film is to assume that any film well-marketed will be successful. If that were the case, we’d be talking about more than one phenomenon a decade. So what are some of the lessons no-budget filmmakers can learn from PA?
SPOILER ALERT!! If you haven’t seen the film, (really? You still haven’t seen the movie?? What are you waiting for?), get out and see it and then come back and read the rest of this entry.
Lesson One: Be Smarter Than Your Audience. I always imagine studio execs picturing the audience as a bunch of idiots (or at least as too-young-to-care), when it comes to certain creative decisions made in their movies. Even though this film is now going out to the Young and Dumb, the filmmakers were making this film to get into Sundance, (and almost made it, playing down the street at Slamdance in 2008), and that audience, which includes the fest programmers, critics, and industry folk, are looking for smart, unique films. So, while most people watching won’t think about why the camera is on, or what kind of camera is capturing the action, these filmmakers knew that their audience would be keenly observing these details.
Lesson Two: Justify Why The Camera is On and Why it is a Prosumer Camera. Like any good first-person-camera film—and believe me, I’ve seen dozens of these that never saw the light of a projector—you have to set up the proper context for why there is a camera on at different points of the day. People don’t usually go around videotaping themselves, so you have to have pretty good reasons for why the camera is recording the particular moments it’s recording. Ultimately, you have to establish a certain obsession on the part of the shooter for this to really work. In the case of BW, it was the obsessive filmmakers who had to “get the shot” no matter what. Here, you have a day-trader (brilliant! Have you ever met any of these guys?) who works at home, is a tech geek, and has just the right personality for grabbing the camera when something goes bump in the night. They even explain the “big camera” this way—he’s got money and why buy a cheap little camera. So, instead of having to watch the proceedings from the vantage point of a one-chip consumer camera, we’re treated to pretty good images from a more professional three-chip Sony FX1, and a professional shotgun mic for quality sound. And the filmmakers make a point of explaining how the camera is able to shoot all night, (it’s recording directly to a laptop computer). You don’t want the smarter, techy folks in the audience going, “Ok, wait, how are they recording all night on tape?”
Lesson Three: It doesn’t matter what camera you shoot on. The filmmakers—like the BW filmmakers—knew that ultimately, it didn’t matter what camera they shot on, as long as that aesthetic matched the material. So many no-budget filmmakers get caught up in the whole camera decision, believing if they’re not shooting on film, or not shooting on the RED, that no one will take them seriously. No one cares! The history of successful no-budget filmmaking has proven that time and time again.
Lesson Four: Methodology matters. Just as in BW, how they shot the film was critical for getting the proper result. For this kind of film, verisimilitude is the key. Any false notes and you’re done. If at any time we feel like these are just actors playing parts, we push the Game Over button on the film. So using unknown actors—good at improvisation—and having no written dialogue was a vital decision. Prepping the house—the filmmaker’s own house—for the story was a stroke of genius.
Lesson Five: Mythology matters. The filmmakers researched the hell out of paranormal phenomena and demonology, making sure the film would be as truthful as it could be. One genius story idea was having the demon follow the victim, rather than attaching it to the house. This addresses the typical audience complaint with haunted house movies—“why didn’t they just leave the house?!?” But perhaps the most intriguing part of the PA mythology was the one that the filmmakers didn’t really have any control over: the part about Spielberg taking the film home to watch, only to get locked in his bathroom and thinking the film was possessed. It doesn’t get better (or weirder) than that.
Lesson Six: Yes, Marketing does matter. Two essential marketing moves proved critical to PA’s success: staging an audience screening and videotaping the results, (which ultimately became a part of the film’s trailer); and using Eventful’s Demand feature to encourage online audiences to vote on screening the film in their city. Sure, this had been done before, (by “Four-Eyed Monsters”), but never for a studio film.
Lesson Seven: Make a good film. This is always the lesson that gets lost in these success stories. Sure there was a perfect storm of elements that contributed to PA’s success, but if the film had been “bad,” we would not be talking about it. So, why does this seemingly obvious lesson always get buried. My opinion is that there are too many people who see the film and because it’s so different, and it doesn’t appeal to them, (in other words, no blood, no explosions, no screws poised to drill into skulls), they just claim it “it sucks” and then attribute the film’s success to something other than quality. This was the claim laid on BW once it hit the mainstream. Yes, these two films are not the same old thing (really, Lesson Eight: Don’t make the same old thing); they wouldn’t have turned in to phenomenon if they were just like every other horror film out there. And yes, when you make something different, there are always those, (I won’t say morons, but you get the idea) who will reject it. But those last-to-the-party people are irrelevant in these success stories. It’s the early adaptors who become the key to these films’ successes. It’s those demanding “gatekeepers” who appreciate a well-made, unique film who get on the internet and scream to their friends that they’ve GOT to see this new movie. That they’ve got to demand it! You don’t get that kind of passion from a “Saw VI”, which was handily beaten on its opening weekend by the $15k little film that could.
(This is Part Two of a two-part story. Please find Part One below.)
One of the biggest reasons for “Blair’s” success—and the one that never gets its due—is its uniqueness. That internet marketing stuff is great, but if that first group of fans had seen a derivative, unsatisfying film, they were going to get right back on the web and tell everyone to forget it. What those first few waves of audience members saw was something that they’d never really seen before. Something the studios would have never done. It didn’t feel like “Halloween,” “Nightmare On Elm Street,” “Friday The 13th,” or “Scream.” If it had, the game would have been over before it started. And if the conceit had been poorly executed—if everything (really anything) had seemed false or phony, they would have been done, too. This part of the film’s success is owed to Methodology. I teach a concept in my class that states essentially that unique methodologies yield unique results. If you make a movie in a totally different way, a way that no one has ever attempted, then the outcome would have to be unique too. This is why I stress to my students to throw out any of the filmmaking templates that they’ve heard of. These “proper” ways to make a movie usually don’t apply to their particular situations anyway—most templates assume you have money and/or other things you probably don’t have. Each no-budget filmmaker has a unique set of circumstances, a unique collection of resources and limitations, that should shape the way they make their films. And in the game of independent filmmaking, especially when film festivals are a big part of the strategy, Uniqueness is King.
The story about how the Haxen 5 shot BW is pretty amazing, and was certainly one of the highlights of the evening’s discussion. Rather than spend 15 or 20 days shooting in the woods with a crew and a camper and a craft service table and a video village and all the other things that a typical set utilizes, the filmmakers gave cameras, tape and film to their actors and put them out in the woods by themselves. Hale, a former member of the Army special forces, came up with much of the plan. The actors were to shoot in real time, with a rough outline of what was to happen, but with no real interaction with the crew. To communicate, the filmmakers left notes in baskets, along with food and water, and the actors were given GPS units so they would know where to go. As the days wore on, (they shot the forest stuff in 8 days), the filmmakers left them less food and gave them less sleep. In a film where verisimilitude is everything, this is how you do it! Now, no one makes a film this way. I can already hear all the producers out there worrying about safety issues and insurance. I can hear the DP’s out there wondering how an actor is supposed to shoot the film. Myrick mentioned that the plan from the beginning, in order for the audience to believe that the footage was the actual found footage of three student filmmakers, was to capture the kinds of “imperfections” that would be inherent in this kind of material. Taking planned, professional looking footage and trying to dumb it down would have been a disaster, (rent Brian De Palma’s “Redacted” for reference). Anytime you try something new and different, or radical as the case may be, you’re taking a risk. But these risks are an essential part of the no-budget filmmaking process. This is where you gain your competitive advantage over studio films.
It should be obvious that the third M, Marketing, which was so important to BW’s success and to the success of any film, would not have been possible without the successful integration of the first two M’s. The filmmakers and distributor took the dynamic content built around the perfectly executed film and put together a unique and specifically designed marketing plan. Some of these marketing ideas had been cooked up by the filmmakers and some of them were designed by the distributor, inspired by the filmmakers. Artisan had played this game successfully the year before with their 1998 Sundance acquisition “Pi.” The “Pi” filmmakers also had a unique film and had designed an original grassroots plan for marketing it even before Sundance. Rather than cast that plan aside, Artisan put money behind it and built on it. For BW, Artisan’s stroke of genius was to take a unique film and market it uniquely. Do you remember the first two trailers for BW? (see below). The first 30 second teaser spot is 28 seconds of black and 2 seconds of footage. The 30 second trailer that followed had about 28 seconds of footage that never made it into the film and 2 seconds of actual footage from the movie. Who does this now? What studio today would ever take a risk like this on their big summer release? And this was a big release for Artisan. Artisan knew before the summer that they were going to 1500 screens—filmgoers were calling their local multiplexes asking when the film was coming out. Studios were calling Artisan to find out when they were opening wide so they could move their summer tentpoles out of the way! Can you imagine that?? $100 million films with $70 million marketing budgets moving out of the way of a $30,000 film made by a bunch of gutsy first-timers running around in the woods?
Jeremy Walker, the publicist who joined the film early on, was the genius behind managing the story of the film. For two or three months in the summer of 1999, there wasn’t one place where you didn’t see the filmmakers or hear about the film. Like with any film today, the battle is won or lost with marketing. If you don’t have a recognizable element (like a big star or material based on a bestselling novel, a comic book or a popular kid’s toy) and marketing money, you have to have a story you can tell to the press, or perhaps directly to your audience. The world of marketing has changed dramatically since BW, but the need to successfully market your film, even if you have to do it yourself, hasn’t. The avenues for getting the word out have fragmented—you can’t just run a few national trailers on the broadcast networks and run full-page ads in the major newspapers—nobody watches TV anymore and when’s the last time you read a newspaper? Fortunately for no-budget filmmakers, these avenues were never really available anyway, and the new pathways, fragmented as they are, are cheap and available to those willing to work at finding them. This is where social network marketing, affiliate marketing, and good old-fashioned email marketing come into play. The BW marketing story may be an old one, but study it, and you’ll gain insights that will help you along your own unique path.
So, for all the filmmakers in attendance that night last month, it was a wonderful event filled with funny stories and useful lessons. Fortunately, the evening was videotaped and should be available online at some point. I will pass that information along as soon as I know about it.
The occasion of the 10th anniversary of “The Blair Witch Project”—the most successful no-budget film of all time—provides an opportunity to revisit and rethink just why this film was so successful in the first place, and allows one to ask if there are any relevant lessons we can still learn from a story that was plastered on the cover of every major magazine at the time and in every indie film business plan ever since. I had just this opportunity a couple of weeks ago when I was asked to moderate the post-screening discussion of the 10th Anniversary Screening of the film here in LA, at the Egyptian Theatre. Most of the film’s team of collaborators would be present, probably for the first time since the film opened at Sundance in January 1999, and the Egyptian would be screening the original Sundance cut, which few people had ever seen, (Artisan, the film’s distributor, asked the filmmakers to make some changes post-Sundance to enhance certain aspects).
Now, I happen to have my own personal BW story. I was working at Next Wave Films at the time the film was being completed and we had been tracking its progress for more than a year. We were tipped off to the project by one of our advisers, famed producer’s rep (who’d become a television show host), John Pierson. John’s show on IFC (Next Wave’s parent company), “Split Screen” had featured the film twice and early buzz was already starting to build. My anticipation had been whetted from talking to producer Gregg Hale, one of the famed “Haxen 5” who made the film, over the prior several months. He gave me updates on the film’s progress: they had just screened a 3 hour cut and gotten feedback; they had just screened a 2 hour cut and gotten feedback; they were getting really close to having a cut to send us. You see, we were a finishing funds company, and the Haxen folks were broke, and were looking for money wherever they could find it. When the VHS tape finally came in early October 1998, I grabbed it immediately, took it home and screened it. I remember it was a cold night because I kept getting goosebumps and wasn’t sure if it was from the cold or the film. It frankly scared the shit out of me. I gave it our highest rating, “Consider ASAP,” and handed it off to Next Wave president Peter Broderick to watch. Talking to Gregg that next day, I was delighted to learn just how they had pulled off the film’s impressive verisimilitude, one of the secrets to its success. I also realized that they had cut out a whole bunch of material (that I remembered seeing on “Split Screen”), making the film just the edited “found” footage of the fictional filmmakers. This decision ended up being a stroke of genius, and it also meant there was a bunch of other related content that could be used to support the film. I remember thinking how well that stuff would have played on IFC. Turns out I was right, though it ended up playing on the Sci Fi Channel when Next Wave ultimately couldn’t close the deal.
That coming Summer 1999 was a depressing one for me, knowing how close we were to investing in what would quickly become the highest grossing no-budget film ever, an off-the-charts phenomenon that would alter the indie marketplace significantly and change all the rules of how you made and marketed films. When it was all said and done, the film made over $140 million domestically and over $240 million worldwide. Having seen the film before just about anyone else aside from the filmmakers, and having drawn my own conclusions about it’s worth before its astronomical success would cloud every objective opinion, I’ve always maintained the industry got it wrong when they concluded what made it so successful. Usually that explanation boiled down to two words—The Internet. It’s hard to remember now, but the internet was still in its infancy back in 1998. I think I got online for the first time in late 1996. There was no such thing as broadband, social networking, MySpace, YouTube, Facebook or even Google. There was AOL and Netscape and that was just about it. So when the film cleverly used the internet to create an “online community” around the film—something that didn’t even have a name at that time—people figured that was the magic formula. You just put your film on the internet. This mentality of course was mirrored by every other industry at the time and led to the eventual Dot Com Bust less than a year later. The film encountered its own bust shortly after it opened. Once the word got out to the general public, no doubt spurred on by simultaneous cover stories in both Time and Newsweek, the inevitable backlash struck, and with that, whatever teachable lessons from the making of “The Blair Witch Project” were buried by the Dot Com Boom and the “this film sucks” cry that overtook the discussion.
I thought about all of this as I prepared the night before for the event. I always knew there were important lessons for filmmakers to gain from the success of the film, but it was my new penchant for trying to quantify these lessons (as the Founder of No Budget Film School) and the research I was conducting that night that gave me the structure for my discussion. I realized that there were three secrets to BW’s success: Mythology, Methodology, and Marketing. And that now more than ever, these three M’s were the key to any new indie film’s success.
While I was fairly familiar with the BW story, I took it upon myself to read up on the film before I led the evening’s discussion. Fortunately for aspiring indie filmmakers, the BW folks have made a treasure trove of material available on various websites. On www.woodsmovie.com I found extensive journals kept by both co-directors, Dan Myrick (on the right, pictured with me above at the 10th Anni Event) and Ed Sanchez, which really give a detailed depiction of the decisions made throughout the making of the film—the highs and the many lows, the good luck and bad luck, and the uncertainty and good judgment, that went along with making the film. The term Mythology was used extensively in these journals and it referred to the extensive and complex backstory that was developed around the completely fabricated story of the Blair Witch, a story that began in late 1700’s. It was team-member Ben Rock’s responsibility to fill in the details of this mythology and at first, it was just for the purpose of giving the film depth and texture, and to give the actors a foundation to work their improvisations from. It was never intended to be used to help market the film, to help build a community around the film—the term “building a community around a film” hadn’t ever been used before, though it is an essential part of indie film marketing now, at all levels, made easier by online community aggregators like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter.
When the second episode of “Split Screen” aired, and viewers wanted to know more about what was going on in Burkittsville, Maryland, there wasn’t even a BW website yet. IFC was getting so inundated that it was fouling up normal operations, so Pierson encouraged the gang to get a website up and fast, so that IFC could redirect that traffic to them. When the site went up, it was filled with all the backstory elements used to make the film, and then a funny thing happened. Before there was even a rough cut of the film, fans started interacting with the site, commenting on the material, even building their own fan sites. The mythology was so compelling it drove fan interest even before the movie was a movie. Two other terms now commonly used were at play here: “viral” and “user generated content.” Because of this new power of the internet, fans could quickly let their friends know about what they were enjoying, and they could create their own content and make that available to their friends. If you’re familiar with BW’s Sundance story, you know that it premiered in the Midnight Section, heretofore considered an afterthought compared to Dramatic Competition. Hours after that jam-packed first screening, Artisan hammered out a deal with the filmmakers that was announced to the world the next morning. But how was that screening—that 12:00am screening—jam-packed? Kids from Salt Lake City who had been following the film for months trekked to Park City to queue up for this first screening, many of them turned away as the film sold out nearly instantly.
Today smart filmmakers have websites with vibrant, dynamic content that attracts niche audiences who might be interested in the films. They provide opportunities for fans to comment on and discuss this content, even allowing for them to blog or create video around the subject of the film. They capture email addresses from web visitors, interact with them, and build a relationship with them. The content on these sites is more than just a trailer and a few stills from the making of the film. Like BW, these websites enhance and enrich the experience of viewing the film. They create experiences related to, but separate from the actual film itself. When I spoke to web guru and BW producer Mike Monello—who now runs a successful alternative marketing company called Campfire—about the internet marketing “plan” used for the film, he laughed, wishing he could say he had planned it all out from the beginning, but it didn’t happen that way. It was organic. They made it up as they went along. Filmmakers today have a roadmap to follow, but a really good plan also allows for improvisation, and is flexible enough to move in the direction the community progresses in.
...to be continued…
Is this the beginning of the end of “good” movies? Paramount Pictures arrogantly announced this week that it will not make its huge tentpole movie “G.I. Joe” available for critics before it opens this weekend. Usually that’s a move studios reserve for clunkers that they intend to wam-bam opening night audiences with and then leave them high and dry, not a strategy for $175 million dollar mega-action films. But after the success of the sequel to “Transformers,” which opened six weeks ago and has already earned more than $388 million in the U.S., studios are realizing they don’t need critics for their biggest movies. You see, the “Transformers” sequel got pitiful reviews—a 20% rating on Rotten Tomatoes—and that didn’t seem to do a bit of damage to its box office gross. “Joe,” which Paramount must imagine will experience a similar critical fate, doesn’t need the critics, according to the studio. They’re doing special screenings at Army bases and targeting the Heartland with their special-effects laden, sword-and-machine gun toting spectacle, (WTF?).
Aside from the fact that the G.I. Joe I played with as a kid, (admittedly, a million years ago), didn’t have a sword—he was a G.I. for gods sakes! he fought in the good war with a plain old rifle, and went to space in a Mercury capsule—what we’re starting to see more and more of is the studios getting exactly what they’ve always wanted: risk-free movies. Making movies is an incredibly dicey proposition. There’s so many elements that are put into play, so many variables that can go wrong, and it’s just so difficult to make a good one. It’s nearly a miracle every time a really good film comes together. That’s not the kind of foundation enormous multi-national corporations want to bank billions of dollars on. This is a business, you know. They’re not in “business” to create art—that’s for poets and painters.
Only, the studios of the past somehow figured out how to do both. If you look at the films that were nominated for Best Picture over the last 80 years, you’ll see studio movies nominated all throughout that time, at least until the last few years. The films that studios used to risk the most money on were also the films—in many cases—that they thought were their best, and that they imagined would win over critics and garner awards at the end of the year. But that was the old business model. The modern studio film is a merchandise tie-in, pick the best summer opening weekend date, sequel/remake/comic book extravaganza that is calculated to play to international audiences as much or more so than to domestic, (dialogue? the less the better!). They’re commonly made for over $150 million dollars, even over $250 million. They’re not designed to be “good” in the way you and I might define that word. The way critics or the Academy might define it.
Wait! Except that the Academy, that bastion of motion picture quality, has cratered to the studios, and for the first time in like 60 years, has doubled the number of best picture nominees to 10. In 1939, when there were 10 best picture nominees, there were actually 10 really “good” movies—movies that aspired to something more than appealing to a 15 year old’s need to watch something blow up. It will be interesting—and I suppose a little depressing—to see what the bottom half of the 10 best picture nominees will be this year. Sure, there are still a couple of very talented directors out there who make big movies that are meant to be something more than loss leaders for action figures at Toys-R-Us—Chris Nolan’s “Batman” movies come to mind—but those are the exceptions that define the rule.
As the quality-minded independents get squeezed out of the marketplace, and the current wave of big-dumb movies condition new audiences to want the next wave to be even dumber—like fast food and reality TV—what’s a cinephile to do? Well, aside from perusing this website for great old movies from Hollywood’s golden years, (at places like the American Cinematheque), we can all vote with our pocketbook. Make sure we go out—yes, leave our homes—to see indie films when they play in the theaters, while they’re still able to play in theaters. Go see films like “The Cove,” “In The Loop,” “Humpday,” “500 Days Of Summer” and “The Hurt Locker.” It’s not too late to keep the “good” movie alive for the next generation!
[AUTHOR’S NOTE: I have no idea how to be a big-time Hollywood producer. I have never produced a studio movie and have really never had any desire to.]
So you want to be a Hollywood producer. Make big films for the studios. Here’s how you do it. First, you find something that everyone knows about. Could be anything, just as long as EVERYONE knows about it or has heard of it. It’s called Recognition. This is important in the modern age of releasing studio movies. Because films live or die by how many people show up the first night of a film’s opening weekend, you can’t rely on the film being good to drive people into the theater. No one’s got the time to worry about that. Word of mouth? That’s now done through Twitter during the first show that first night. But no one’s going to tweet in an empty theater, so the way you get them in there is through recognition, extremely high recognition. Oh, and it helps if this element is recognized by teenagers, since they are the only people who really make a point about seeing a movie on Friday night of its opening weekend. Oh, and if they can’t drive, or can’t be in a movie without a parental guardian, then you’ll want it to be recognizable to their parents, too. We’re starting to build quadrants here—this is fun!
So let’s think about some recognizable elements for our film. Movie stars are a good place to start, but let’s make sure to put them in the “right” movie. Don’t want to make the mistake that “Margot At The Wedding” made. What else? Well, sequels of hit movies are also an excellent place to start. Guy wearing a mask or a big creature—don’t need the expensive (and difficult) movie star! Anything else? Yes, remakes. And if we remake horror films, we don’t have to spend $150 million to make them. So let’s jot down all the 70’s horror films we can think of to remake. Oops! Someone’s already done those. Ok, jot down ones from the 80’s and 90’s. Option those rights and now we’re geniuses. Big-time Hollywood Producers!
Geniuses in the film business option the rights to recognizable elements of all sorts. Best-selling books, video games, old TV shows, musical plays, musical plays based on the popular music of old bands, and my favorite: musical plays based on old movies. If you can make a movie that was based on a play that was based on a movie, you’re not remaking the first movie, you’re just a genius.
But why stop with optioning other forms of entertainment. You’re a genius, you think OUTSIDE of the box. Why not option toys? Or even better, kinda-toys? Let’s option the rights to the GAF View-Master and make a movie out of that! It’s been around for 80 years—kids know it, parents know it, grandparents know it. Shit, we’re doing that thing with the quadrants again. We’re geniuses!
Oops! Dreamworks beat us to it. Damn that Spielberg! We’ve got to be quick in this game. I can’t believe they got to the View-Master before we did. And it’s a 3D kinda-toy, so now they can make a 3D movie out of it—and you know how big 3D is. Didn’t you go to Comic Con? So now the geniuses at Dreamworks are going to make that great View-Master movie. I can see Orson Welles wiggling in his grave right now, just trying to get out so he could have a shot at directing that one.
So just remember these important things, budding big-time Hollywood producers: Recognition, Kids, Friday Night, Twitter, Comic Con, Mortal Kombat, TJ Hooker, ABBA, 3D, and Halloween H2. This is what the new glory days of Hollywood filmmaking are made of. Hooray for us!
Recently back from a relaxing trip to Europe, and I feel like I’ve been dropped into the boiling water of all the things that need to get done. Is this what vacations are for?? So, there’s my feature that needs editing, and it also needs some money, so there’s some fundraising that needs to happen. Then there’s the website and our whole “outside of the box” marketing plan that needs to be implemented. Oh, and we haven’t finished shooting it all, so there’s that to do, too. Jees! Do I sound like I’m complaining? Sorry, I’m not. Just a lot of stuff on the plate, but not so much that I’m not out catching some movies. Not a whole lot I’d like to recommend here, but there are a couple worth mentioning.
You probably already know this, but Hurt Locker is the shit. Really. Why this film is playing in a platform release is beyond me. Do the mass audiences not enjoy a suspense thriller? Or, have we conditioned audiences with so much fluff now that they reject a thriller that hits too close to reality? I know this is an Iraq War Film, but it’s a great film, too. So well done on so many levels. Let’s take the sound, for instance. As you’re getting caught up in the wonderful, realistic visuals, pay attention to the sound. That’s what puts you in the center of the action. The things you hear, and what they sound like—it sounds like War. The last time I heard sound this good was another war film, Saving Private Ryan. Then there’s the writing, especially the characterizations. So sharp, so well-observed, so unique. Take Thompson, one of the first characters you meet. You need to care about this guy within the first 3 minutes of the film. How do you do that? By making him real, relatable. This is a guy who knows his stuff, but isn’t too cool to admit his fear. And the great line, how he gets hungry for a hamburger when he puts on the suit (the bomb suit). That guy just became a human being. Anyway, just go see it, then we can all wonder why Kathryn Bigelow hasn’t directed anything for years. Come on studio execs, it’s a little pathetic.
Ok, my next recommendation couldn’t be farther from the Hurt Locker, but it does have one thing in common with it—a talented female director, making a movie about guys. Lynn Shelton’s “bromance” Humpday is awesome, and it opens today in LA. Now, this is one of those little indie films put out by a small distributor with no P&A money, so you HAVE to see it the first weekend for it to have any prayer of sticking around. But then you are Film Radar folks; you’re supposed to see these kinds of films in theaters, and so you know all that and will go out and see it—you will all go out and see it this weekend, OK?!? The Ugly Truth and Orphan can wait!
So this Humpday is my kind of movie. First of all, it was made for nothing. I’m not supposed to give out the number, but let’s get real—it was made for nothing. Nothing relative to a studio budget, and nothing relative to anybody else’s idea of a budget. Second, it was shot in 10 days, with an unpaid cast and crew, (accept for the one SAG actor, Josh Leonard, (of Blair Witch Project fame). Third, after premiering at Sundance, this tiny, scrappy no-budgeter got into Cannes. Fourth, this success could not have happened to a nicer person. Lynn is both talented and down-to-earth. Fifth, it’s funny as hell. Not The Proposal funny. Funny funny. By now you all know the premise—two straight dudes decide to make a gay porno starring themselves. But this is really a film about getting older, and as Lynn likes to say, it’s not really a comedy. Well, yes, it hits close to home and it’s pretty dark, and it takes its conceit very seriously, but it’s very funny and in my book, that’s still a comedy. Let’s just say this—you will laugh, trust me you will. Especially if you see it in a crowded theater. I saw it in a press screening at Sundance with an audience of jaded reviewers and industry folk and we were all cracking up. But really, there is truth here, and it wouldn’t be so funny if we (and I’m talking about folks over 30-something) didn’t relate to that feeling that we’re settling down and losing that “cool” side of ourselves in the process. Marriage, jobs, responsibilities—they change you, but sometimes you refuse to go down without a fight, no matter how futile or ridiculous that fight is. This film is about the fight. So, maybe it’s a fight film.
If you liked Raging Bull, you’ll love Humpday!
Ahoy Film Radarites!
No Budget Film School and this Indie Film Blog are back in action! After taking the better part of a year developing, prepping and then shooting my new no-budget feature, “Pig,” I am finally putting my Instructor (and blogger) hat back on while we are in post production. In addition to freshening up the content on my website, (not the design of the website—that still looks like 1995!), and putting out this newsletter after a long hiatus, I have scheduled a new class in Los Angeles. “The Art & Science of No-Budget Filmmaking”, my two-day no-budget filmmaking immersion is scheduled for May 30 & 31, 2009. More on that below. If you’ve been wanting to make a film and wondering how to do it with the little money you have access to, this is the class to take. I have some great speakers and after shooting this latest feature, a few new tricks up my sleeve, as well as some hard-learned new lessons.
NO-BUDGET NEWS YOU CAN USE:
1. Next Class Scheduled!
2. No Budget Film School At Filmmakers Alliance
3. Spring Reading - Filmmaking Books You Should Know About
4. Who The Hell Is Jody Hill?
5. Shooting “Crank 2: High Voltage” on Family Cam
1. NEXT CLASS SCHEDULED!
After a long hiatus, No Budget Film School is back and better than ever. I will be teaching my two-day no-budget filmmaking immersion, “The Art & Science of No Budget Filmmaking” on May 30 & 31, 2009 in Los Angeles at Raleigh Studios. I will be joined by some excellent guest speakers:
PETER BRODERICK (President, Paradigm Consulting). Considered one of the world’s leading authorities on alternative distribution strategy. Peter was the founder and president of Next Wave Films, the finishing funds company that discovered filmmakers like Chris Nolan and Joe Carnahan. He now consults with hundreds of filmmakers all over the world on unique and powerful distribution strategies that take advantage of the new tools and new thinking in this New World of Distribution.
JAY DUPLASS (Director, “The Puffy Chair,” “Baghead”). One half of the filmmaking duo the Duplass Brothers, with brother Mark. The $15,000 “Puffy Chair” was a cult hit following their 2005 Sundance premiere, garnering theatrical distribution and picking up several film festival awards. Their follow-up, the similarly tiny-budgeted “Baghead,” premiered at the 2008 Sundance and was picked up for theatrical distribution by Sony Pictures Classics. Jay is currently finishing principal photography on a new $10 million feature for Fox Searchlight, starring Marisa Tomei, John C. Reilly, Johah Hill, and Catherine Keener.
ALEX HOLDRIDGE (Director, “In Search Of A Midnight Kiss”). Alex’s hilarious comedy “Midnight Kiss” was shot for $15k all over Los Angeles the way I like to do it—without a permit! After playing several top festivals, it was picked up for domestic distribution by IFC Films and was also sold to several territories overseas. It recently was awarded the coveted Cassavetes Award at the 2009 Spirit Awards, given to the best feature made for under $500k.
MATT RADECKI (Producer; Director; Founder, Different By Design). Matt has produced numerous low-budget features (including Sundance winner “TV Junkie”) and runs the post house Different By Design which caters to independent filmmakers working on all budget levels. Matt has particular expertise with the new tapeless workflows like RED and XDCAM.
More guest speakers and other goodies to be announced soon. For more information and to register, please visit the website:
And join our new Facebook Group to catch updates as they happen:
2. NO BUDGET FILM SCHOOL AT FILMMAKERS ALLIANCE
For those of you who live in LA and want a free preview of the class, I will be giving a presentation entitled “No Budget, No Problem - An Introduction To Successful No-Budget Filmmaking” at the Filmmakers Alliance office on Sunday, April 5th. Please visit the Filmmakers Alliance website for details:
3. SPRING READING - FILMMAKING BOOKS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT
I have three filmmaking books to recommend that cover a wide spectrum of topics related to independent filmmaking:
* THE REEL TRUTH: Everything You Didn’t Know You Need to Know About Making an Independent Film by Reed Martin
Martin, a former exec at Cary Woods’ production company and a professor at Columbia University and NYU, has written a one-of-a-kind, exhaustingly researched indie film bible for the first-time filmmaker. Stories from some of the most respected names in independent film, as well as a few of the author’s own filmmaking experiences, combine with nuts-and-bolts, practical information on everything from new cameras to how to deal with security and parking on a New York set. His tips are remarkably specific and he addresses many issues most independent filmmakers learn about the hard way. I should know—I contributed a few of my own lessons-learned to the book. THE REAL TRUTH goes on sale in April. Check out the amazing reviews and pre-order it here:
* BE THE MEDIA by David Mathison
Renowned media consultant and author Mathison has assembled a who’s who of new media experts and compiled this essential guide to the “personal media renaissance.” Until recently, publishing books, music and film required years of education and the expensive assistance of publishers, labels, studios, distributors and lawyers. Today, artists can leverage low-cost tools and new methods of distribution to connect with their audience directly, and keep more of their royalties and rights. This book covers everything from how to blog and podcast to the ins and outs of social networking and internet syndication. Specific chapters help authors, musicians, and filmmakers, (yours truly contributed to this chapter).
* FILM FESTIVAL SECRETS by Chris Holland
This book answers most every question a short or feature filmmaker asks when they’re ready to start down that difficult festival trail. B-Side Entertainment exec and film festival insider Holland gives you the candid, honest dope on a whole host of topics: selecting the right festival for your film, preparing your festival screener, saving money on festival fees, creating marketing collateral, crafting a screening sell-out plan, and much more. What’s the second best thing about this book? IT’S FREE! Follow the links and download your free copy. I did it myself.
4. WHO THE HELL IS JODY HILL?
One of the first things I cover in my class are the differences between no-budget independent filmmaking and studio filmmaking. I argue that the two are in alternate universes, where the opposite rules apply to each discipline, (credit where credit is due—Peter Broderick came up with this comparison when we were at Next Wave Films). One such difference is that no-budget filmmaking is about launching careers, while studio filmmaking is about sustaining careers. This is an important and key difference, and understanding what this means will influence the kind of film you choose to make in each universe. While generally speaking, studios tend to produce safe, run-of-the-mill, broader-audience, commercial films (for obvious reasons), filmmakers attempting to launch their careers with no-budget films need to do everything but that. Your films need to be bold, unique, and niche. You need to take risks and make something that will differentiate you from every other guy or girl with a camera, (which will soon be everyone—with a cell phone). If you’re trying to figure out how to make a crowd-pleasing, safe, commercial film for $10,000, you are doomed to failure. Believe me, I’ve seen literally hundreds of these films, and it’s never pretty.
So even if your little no-budget film doesn’t make you a buck, if it gets you to the next level—hopefully the ability to make another film on someone else’s dollar—then you have succeeded. So while you may not have heard of Jody Hill or seen his $70,000 shot-on-credit cards subversive comedy “The Foot Fist Way”—which premiered in the Midnight section of the 2006 Sundance Film Festival and nearly disappeared after that, until a half-assed distribution effort last year by Paramount Vantage before they called it quits—that’s not important. Will Ferrell saw it and loved it and now Jody has a show currently running on HBO, (“Eastbound & Down”) and a $30 million studio comedy starring Seth Rogen coming soon to a theater near you, (“Observe And Report”).
(Incidentally, Jody was a guest speaker in my October 2006 class).
5. SHOOTING “CRANK 2: HIGH VOLTAGE” ON FAMILY CAM
Ok, I’m really pissed at no-budget filmmakers! Why did it take so long and a studio film, no less, to figure out that it would be really cool to shoot an action film with tiny consumer cameras. This idea was proposed to me about eight or nine years ago by an established indie producer who was starting a production company that was going to take advantage of all the cheap digital cameras that were coming onto the market, and make action films where you would put these cameras in all kinds of crazy places—grill of a car, on objects falling from buildings or flying through the air. Who cared if you destroyed a few along the way—they were cheap, and think of the shots you’d get! But then that company never happened and now years later I read all about how “Crank 2” (the sequel to “Crank” - get it?), used dozens of tiny HD consumer cameras, including the Canon XH A1 (a $3,000 camera), the Canon VIXIA HF10 (a $950 camera), and the slightly higher-end Sony EX1 (a $6,000 camera, used for slow motion work). The A1 is an HDV camera shooting on miniDV tape, while the HF10 shoots AVCHD on tiny SD memory cards. One scene was shot with 15 HF10’s, five A1’s, and one EX1—at the same time—hidden all over the room. The coolest aspect of the shoot was how they moved these cameras, attaching them to cheap store-bought rigs, (like Manfrotto’s $300 Fig Rig), or their own home-made rigs, (see picture). No dolly or Steadicam was used on this film—they often rollerbladed with the camera in hand. This is a $20 million studio film, people! If they can do it, you can do it too. Say “no” to expensive cameras and tape formats! Read 27 year-old DP Brandon Trost’s interview in the current issue of HD Video Pro magazine. Look for it on newsstands.
How Technology Has Changed Casting
by Jan Glaser, CSA
Forty movies a year: that was the yearly average amount of films I cast between 1994 and 1999 while working for Roger Corman. We managed to be very productive without all the technology.
And before that, I did television: “In the Heat of the Night”, “Hart to Hart”, “Starsky and Hutch.” And before that, I did soap operas like “Capitol.” All this without e-mail, pdf scripts, internet photos. It’s more efficient now, but I miss the good old days.
When I started out, I became good friends with the agents, the managers and their assistants. We met after work for dinner, the theater or comedy clubs. And I’ve kept those friendships to this day.
My past few assistants do not have those relationships. They never meet the people on the other end of the phone. I blame e-mail. It is way too impersonal. However, I do get answers from the agents on an actor’s availability or interest much faster that I would by phone. Things move faster. More gets done.
In those days, I would view an actor’s scenes in a screening room with a projectionist and mark the best scenes by “paper”. I loved getting out of the office and sitting in the dark screening room. That changed when demo reels were delivered on video cassettes. More efficient but not as much fun. And now we have DVDs which take up less space.
Today, I get my scripts in pdf form, attached to e-mail. No more waiting for the messenger to arrive. As my grandparents told me about the quaint Western Union man who delivered telegrams, and probably their grandparents told them about the delivery of messages by the skillful clicking of Morse Code, now I think back to those sweet days when the messenger delivered a hot script, still warm, and bound beautifully. It was like a gift from Tiffany.
Auditions were a group experience, with laughter, winks, nods and shrugs. The producer and director were there in the room and we all had opinions. Nowadays, the director and producers are there less often. They might be on location so I record the auditions and send them a DVD.
Now actors have a webpage with their photos posted. But I still like the feel of an 8 x 10 glossy. Holding that shiny headshot in my hand gets my focus much better than surfing the net. It’s a tangible feeling. So if any of you actors want to score extra points with me, bring a picture and resume.
I’ve been forced kicking and screaming into this brave new word. But alas, I had to cave in to efficiency. The business will not stand still to please my nostalgia. I wonder where the future of casting will be. What? No actors.
Jan Glaser, CSA
One of the key concepts to understand about making no-budget films is that for the most part, for these films to get noticed and seen, and to put you in a position to make the next film, (hopefully on someone else’s dollar), they have to be “festival films.” Film festivals offer the best overall platform for low-budget indies of all stripes to get press attention, attract audiences, and obtain distribution. For many of the most successful no-budget indies, festivals are the vehicle which catapult an otherwise invisible film into the Zeitgeist, (think “Blair Witch Project,” “Pi” or “Napoleon Dynamite”). With that in mind, an important idea that I stress in my classes is to understand what a “festival film” is. I’m reminded of what comedian David Steinberg said of actress Shelley Winter’s autobiography, “I think you should read a book, before you write a book.” Before you make a film that you expect to get into festivals, you really need to go to a few festivals to understand what kinds of films get programmed and what qualities those films share. You need to get a context for your film. And this doesn’t mean you can make the same films that you saw and liked—quite the opposite is true. My Mantra—Uniqueness is one of the most important qualities that these films share. But you will get a better idea of the “marketplace” for your film when you visit the market.
Fortunately for you, you don’t have to pony up three grand and trudge through snow to experience a world class film festival. The Los Angeles Film Festival, currently running through June 29th, offers an incredible variety of world premieres, Sundance favorites, foreign films, classic cinema, and previews of upcoming films. And, as we all know, it’s hot as hell here—no snow! Here are some of my picks from this year’s festival offerings:
1.) “BAGHEAD” - The Duplass Brothers (“The Puffy Chair”) are back with a vengeance in this hilarious and innovative comedy/horror(?) film, which expands on their trademark naturalistic performance and dialogue-driven technique, opening up it up to a more commercial sensibility, without losing what makes that technique so enjoyable. I interviewed co-director Mark Duplass after seeing the film at Sundance—please read my full write up: “Baghead” No-Budget Profile
2.) “MOMMAS MAN” - Another film I caught at Sundance, “Mommas Man” is a subtle, moving work that’s a little terrifying to watch if you’re over 40 and still single, (not me?). Director Azazel Jacobs’ 16mm film features a memorable performance from lead actor Matt Bowen, and credible perfs from his parents! Jacobs’ father is well-known experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs and the film is mostly set in the wonderland that is their New York apartment, where Azazel grew up. I also interviewed Azazel for my site—please read my full write up: “Momma’s Man” No-Budget Profile
3.) “BALLAST” - Your classic high quality art film—rigorous, uncompromising, and ultimately extremely moving, impeccably made and acted. A hit with audiences at Sundance and the reason you go to film festivals instead of movie theaters. This is the kind of film that critics and art film lovers get excited about, and your sister back in Texas would hate. There’s no excuse for you to miss this one!
4.) “AMERICAN SON” - Suffering from the public and critical backlash associated with films dealing with the war in Iraq, this well-made and entertaining narrative feature was mostly ignored at Sundance this year. Don’t let it slip by you! With vivid performances from Mr. Mariah Carrey (Nick Cannon) and new indie-film darling Melonie Diaz.
5.) “FROZEN RIVER” - I missed this one at Sundance this year, unfortunately, and it wound up winning the Grand Jury Prize. Don’t make the same mistake!
6.) “MAN ON WIRE” - I heard great things about this British documentary on French acrobat Philippe Petit, who in 1974 illegally walked a tightrope between the newly erected World Trade Towers. I guess he was a big Leon Russell fan!
7.) “THE WACKNESS” - It’s hard to see everything at Sundance and so I missed this one too, (thank God for the LAFF!). Big buzz film with audiences and I’m sure, with fans of “Drake & Josh”.
8.) “AMERICAN TEEN” - Another buzz Sundance doc from acclaimed filmmaker Nanette Burstein, (“On The Ropes,” “The Kid Stays In The Picture”). I’ve heard great things about this one on the festival circuit.
9.) “CINEMATIC TITANIC” - If you’re a fan like me of the old Mystery Science Theater 3000, (the early episodes when creator Joel Hodgson was still on the show), then you’ll want to catch this once-in-a-lifetime event—Hodgson and his other original cast mates rip on the 1959 Roger Corman classic “Wasp Woman” live at the Ford Amphitheatre.
10.) “THE PLEASURE OF BEING ROBBED” - While I always make it a point to catch all the Narrative Competition films, where the majority of no-budget films and also the few world premieres might be found, the one I’m most eager to see is this SXSW and Cannes entry, which has already received much critical praise. Josh Safdie takes the multi-hyphen thing to the extreme—writer/director/producer/actor/DP/editor. Mmmm, I smell no-budget here! My one question: how do you shoot a movie you’re in??
There are certainly many, many more interesting films to see and events to experience so pick up a blue festival guide, (found all around town in stacks near the free weeklies) or visit the website: