Independence from Independents

9 05 2008

2929 FilmsI’m going to quote two headlines in the Daily Variety today, since they bear out what I’ve been saying about independent films for a few years, even as recently as last week:

Warner slams door on specialty pix” is the first one and, slightly lower down on the page, “‘Speed’ strikes while ‘Iron’ is hot.”

The first article talks about Warner’s decision to close its two main “independent film” releasing arms and leads off with these paragraphs:

Warner Bros. has discovered a way to deal with the specialty film business — it’s staying away from it.

The flagship studio ended months of speculation Thursday by shuttering both Picturehouse and Warner Independent Pictures. The closings — which caught Hollywood and many inside each division off-guard — will eliminate more than 70 positions over the next few months.

The second talks about today’s release of SPEED RACER, and leads with this paragraph:

Warner Bros. tentpole “Speed Racer” gets the green light this weekend but may very well finish behind the second week of “Iron Man.”

[I should add that the film review site Rotten Tomatoes notes that only 36% of critics have liked SPEED RACER. And, in a hilarious side note, the article also notes that Fox is “counterprogramming” with WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS, which is sure to make people like me do wheelies and handsprings.]

In a world in which that Ashton Kutcher film is considered counterprogramming, there is really no room at the major studios for real independent voices. The Wall Street Journal today notes that Warner Independent Pictures had high hopes for their 2007 film IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH, but that it came nowhere near to recovering its $35 million negative cost.

$35 million dollars!! That’s what Hollywood considers an independent film!! It’s no wonder that these films aren’t successful — in order to recoup $35 million you need to have so much marketing and distribution that those cost could push the recoupable amounts to $70 million. At that price, of course, you either have to see financing independent films as an act of charity, or you have to water the film down to a more easily digestible mass of… well… pablum. I actually liked VALLEY OF ELAH, though you’d have to admit that it was certainly a very mainstream movie in almost every respect.

Does that mean that companies like 2929 (the theatrical/DVD/download play from, among others, Mark Cuban) have an opportunity, or are they doomed to play in the same arena as everyone else? (And I should, cattily, mention that 2929 is releasing Barry Levinson’s WHAT JUST HAPPENED?, which tanked at this year’s Sundance).

Years ago, I left New York City for Los Angeles because there were only two types of projects there for me to work on — the super high budget ones, and the really low budget ones. I couldn’t get interviewed for the first group, and I could no longer afford to work on the second. That stratification has now spread all over the industry. It’s not “haves” and “have nots” I’m talking about here, it’s “big” and “tiny.” The mid-range is unproduceable.

Once we get behind that, we can start developing enough of a truly low-budget/alternative base that it becomes really profitable. And, once that happens, you’ll see that mid-range start to come back again.

Photos For The Imperfect World

8 05 2008

Last month, I talked about how a few years ago, a student of mine graduated and went to work for THE REAL WORLD and how he discovered that the editing there, turned reality into a cruel joke.

It’s a bit in poor taste, but this video advertisement for FotoPrix, shows just how photos and film can lie. Not that we need any real demonstrations of this, but it’s always good to be reminded.

Explaining The Horrifyingly Unexplainable

6 05 2008

One of my classes is editing a feature film that is simultaneously being finished by its actual director, producers and editor out in the Real World right now. It’s a really adorable indie film about dating and turning thirty, and before you run for the hills, let me also say that it has (at its core) a really neat, somewhat science fictional, concept that I’d tell you all about if I weren’t sworn to secrecy by the filmmakers.

The problem, though, is that you’ve got to explain the rules of this concept so the audience can go along for the ride.

The class struggled with how to do that — without slowing the movie down and without drowning the audience in details all at once, so the film’s comedy could come through. It was a tough balancing act and one which the actual filmmakers ultimately solved much better than the class did.

Still, the interesting point about all of this is “how do you explain the horrifyingly unexplainable?” Or, to be more precise, the “horrifyingly difficult to explain.” The rule of thumb in feature-length films is that you have about ten minutes to do whatever you want with the audience before they start demanding to know just what kind of movie they’re watching. If you spend too much of that time explaining, that’s what they feel the movie is going to be like the whole way through. And that, in general, is poison.

I’ve spent many weeks in editing rooms trying to get to the script’s inciting incident more quickly, collapsing the first 30 minutes down to 15 or 10 minutes. For some reason, scripts always are written without thinking about that (or, if the writers do think about it — and I’m actually sure they do, I’m just being catty here) and then we get to speed everything up in editing. Sometimes well, and sometimes not so wel..

These thoughts come to mind on reading John August’s blog post yesterday called “A somewhat derivative challenge.” August is a screenwriter and director (of THE NINES) who has been publishing this dynamite blog for a few years, in which he gives a great tour of what it means to be a working filmmaker in Hollywood. Along the way he has published tutorials on screenwriting which are, often, much better than anything McKee or Truby have put in their books (his post on How To Introduce A Character is, in my mind, brilliant).

Yesterday he gave his readers a writing challenge, and it’s a doozy:

Have a character explain derivatives, as used in the financial industry. (The thing that’s like a stock, not the thing that you learned in calculus.)

The speaker should be knowledgeable, and the listener should be a layman, i.e. a proxy for the audience. What are their names? What’s the story? What’s the genre? You decide, to the degree it matters. My suggestion would be to create a scenario in which the term needs to be explained — but only to the degree necessary. Metaphors and similes are powerful tools.

You’re welcome to write as much of the scene as you want, but the focus is on the explanation. The winning entry might be one sentence long.

How many times have you had to sit through a scene in a film where there is a long, boring explanation from a scientist to a reporter about some scientific concept which will become important later in the film. Or watched as the coal miner explained to someone (anyone!) how coal was removed from the earth and how there were plenty of safety measures to make sure that no one got hurt doing it (because you knew that someone was going to get caught in a mine collapse later in the film)?

In short, how do you explain the difficult to explain? And, parenthetically, still make it interesting to watch?

The dealine for his competition is this Thursday, May 8th. So I’ll be interested to see how people solve the problem.

And then I’ll shut up about having to do all of this heavy lifting in the editing room.

Indie Films — The New Way

3 05 2008

Mark GillYesterday’s issue of THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER (one of the two old-guard industry trade papers) had a round table interview with a number of men (and they were all men) involved in the independent film world: Newsweek film critic David Ansen; Kirk D’Amico, president and CEO of Myriad Pictures, a production and sales company; Cassian Elwes, co-head of William Morris Independent; Mark Gill (pictured at the left), CEO of finance and production company the Film Department; and Avi Lerner, co-chairman and CEO of Nu Image/Millennium Films.

There were a lot of interesting things discussed, but the three things that caught my eye, have to do with distribution realities and how they impact production choices. The first was from Lerner, who was commenting on how the international film market is getting more selective in what they will buy from indie filmmakers.

What we have done, like most of the big independents, is we moved our target from the straight-to-DVD movie to more theatrical films. Today, with the exception of “event” movies, we are doing the same movies as the studios, just with less money.

Mark Gill then had two comments about the types of movies that get that distribution.

So one of the things we looked at as we were raising the money is, where is the market demand? And it occurred to us that, internationally, it is between about $10 million and $45 million. Once it gets over $45 million, the studio should do that. Also, the studios will tell you their return on movies that cost between $50 million and $100 million is 1%, and on the ones over $100 million, it’s about 35%. That’s a kill zone, there in the middle.

and, in response to a question about what different kinds of films Gill is now making:

We realized increasingly the bulk of what we do has to be wide-release and has to fit cleanly within a genre — whether that’s drama or romantic comedy, action or thriller. You have to fit in that box nicely — no “tweeners,” thank you very much. And they all have to be high-concept, because it is getting harder and harder to get attention.

I’ve talked before about how theatrical distribution has backed itself into a corner from which there is no clear escape (see “The Dismal Future of the Film Business” and “The Future of Theatrical Indies“). I’ve mentioned that seeing theatrical distribution as the Holy Grail of filmmaking is a trap that will sink most independent producers. Filmmakers like Jesse Cowell, creator of the awesome “Drawn By Pain” have gotten theater play after establishing themselves as vibrant storytellers on the web.

What Gill and Lerner seem to be saying in the Hollywood Reporter roundtable is the following:

  • foreign distribution is key to raising money for an indie film
  • foreign distributors are now requiring domestic distribution as part of their deals
  • domestic distributors can only release a very particular film, at a very particular budget
  • therefore, indie films need to be of a very particular kind and budget in order to be made

Of course, there will always be the films that sneak under the door — Harmony Korine’s MISTER LONELY looks like one of those and I can’t wait to see it, but the “smart money” (at least as far as theatrical is concerned) looks to be sandboxed into genre pictures, with American stars, at a low budget range (see Lerner’s comment above).

I don’t know how much more evidence filmmakers need before they realize that they need to stop chasing the Holy Grail of Sundance-style theatrical pickups, and start to pioneer real distribution, to real people, using really modern techniques. It would be great if Apple wanted to go that way with the iTunes store but, as someone told me last night, they’re really just into shoveling as much content through the store as they can, so that they sell more hardware. Someone is going to have to combine digital distribution and social networking, and add a dollop of indie sensibitlity (Netflix is way too broad-based for that), in order for this to break through.

Perhaps, when enough Drawn By Pain and It’s All In Your Hands (which seems to have moved off iTunes and onto Ning and Hulu) type filmmakers have created enough content and have gotten enough business expertise, they’ll band together and do something together. What’s needed is a super cool destination site for indie film, and a site that has figured out how to make money off of it. When that happens, you’ll see filmmakers going the route that indie musicians are increasingly going (thanks to the collapse of the majors) — ignoring major distribution and making it happen outside of the traditional companies.

Multi Clips

1 05 2008

Geek Alert!  Geek Alert!!

Tim Leavitt, over on his blog, View From The Cutting Room Floor (that reminds me of my old series of editor interviews in the Editors Guild Magazine, which we used to call The View From The Cutting Room Ceiling) has a posting about how to create bullet-proof multi-group clips in the Avid.

While it’s really inside baseball, it’s one of an increasing number of really good tutorials on the Avid that people are starting to post.  Soon my students will have answers to all of the questions that I can’t answer — at two in the morning!!