I've said before that there are some nice perks that come with the job of being the theatre critic for the newspaper. One is good seats for all the shows you review (though sometimes that's a mixed blessing) and sometimes you get free stuff.
I interviewed a young film maker the other day. His movie, which has received critical acclaim at local film festivals, is now in release through Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, and some mom-and-pop types of video outlets, as well as in some Blockbuster franchises in the south.
We talked for about an hour and I was quite intrigued with his film, which nicely meshes his background playing college sports with his studies in science (at one point he had intended to go into some allied field of medicine) to produce a film which is primarily about relationships, sexual dysfunction, and the issue of steroids -- did the hero use them, or not?
It all sounded quite good and the comments from the film festivals were glowing (but, as a former publicist, I know how you can manipulate such things, so I took that with a grain of salt). I was thrilled that he gave me a copy of the newly released DVD, which looked very slick. The bits that I had seen on the web site also looked quite good, so I rushed right home from the interview to watch it before writing my article about his film.
You'll notice that I have not mentioned the film maker's name, nor the name of his film. There is a good reason for this. I did not like the movie. I thought the directing was poor in many spots, the acting sometimes mediocre and the script in places made me uncomfortable. And though its production values were overall quite high, there were places where I wanted to whup him upside the head for glaring minor cinematographic problems, such as specks of dust on a car's window, which showed up whenever one of the characters was speaking, one long gray hair in the middle of the heroine's head which stuck out like a sore thumb, and odd lighting which gave another character two different colored eyes, which was extremely distracting. They worked on this film for at least four years, and one would think that in that time those problems could have been addressed!
I would have turned it off but I felt I should watch it through to the end.
Fortunately, my task in writing the article was not to review the film, but to write about the young film maker and his road from being a college theatre student to producing his first film and getting it into the hands of viewers. It was quite enlightening and after hearing his story, it's a wonder that any film makes it to the screen these days!
He says that you hear about movies like Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi being shot for only $7,000 (a pittance!). "But," he says, "Rodriguez won’t tell you about the $450,000 that got put into sound and visual effects before it hit the DVD shelf much less the millions of dollars that went into marketing and advertising. That’s the myth that’s perpetuated. Nobody talks about the exploitation of the independent film maker."
This particular young film maker started this project in 2004 after graduating from film school. He set up a small real estate business to finance the project and was lucky enough to sell it before the bubble burst. But one of his co-producers backed out of the project, and left him holding a $60,000 bill for music at a time when he had only $200 himself, and no job. He had to put everything aside, move home with his parents, and get two jobs waiting tables, one during the day, and one at night, and work on the film until 2 or 3 in the morning, but by that time he was so far into this movie financially that there was no backing out.
When they finally had a film, they began to shop it around to film festivals. He learned the hard way that everybody wants to be shown at one of the big festivals (I'll let you use your imagination as to which one), but nobody tells you that the choices for that festival are made up to 9 months in advance, though they continue to take entry fees of $50-$100 from "young, green independent film makers" and may take in up to half a million dollars for films that are never going to be chosen. "It's all based on personal relationships," he says, having learned his lesson.
He spent close to $5,000 just in festival submissions, but it did earn him some nice quotes to put in his publicity.
He managed to get some critics to review the film and then set about finding a producer's rep who found a distributor and from there things pretty much are out of his hands, with respect to how the film is marketed.
The packaging for this particular movie is designed to catch the eye, but really is misleading as to what the film is all about, and when the distributor sent it around to various video rental outlets it was not a good selling point when they pointed out that the cover misrepresented the contents of the film.
I found his description how a marketing scheme is worked out simply fascinating:
They say pull up 75-100 movies that are similar to your film. You come up with those 100 movies and they say, OK–now we haven’t read the script yet, we haven’t seen the movie because we’re not going to green light you to shoot the movie but basically what we’re going to do is we’re going to put a 30 sec TV spot and you send that to us. So you create a 30 second TV spot and they say ok this 30 sec TV spot has 10 action beats 2 romance beats, 1 risque beat and so they say let’s look at these other 100 movies that you think are comparable and then they take a look at the six that have 30 TV spots that get broken down by marketing beats that are closest to yours and they say OK these 6 films made x amount of money. This is how we’re going to market the film, this is how much money we project you’re going to make and this is how much we project you’ll make domestically, overseas, cable, television, theatre and DVD and oftentimes they are accurate to within 1%. That’s exactly how that works and so basically that’s why you see regurgitation of the same formula product over and over again.
People are laying out hundreds of millions of dollars, and it’s more science than art than people really want to realize.
So if you want to know why there are so few new plots being developed, this might give you a bit of an insight!
He already has the plot for his next movie laid out, though he freely admits that he will never make back the money he put in on this one. I told him that a great plot would be an expose of the exploitation of the independent film maker.
Now there's a project that would be impossible to market!!