The current state of indie film

September 10, 2013

It’s been a while since I posted here, and the industry has changed in those last two years. Here’s what I’m seeing…

Hollywood has been making less movies and, more to the point, less interesting movies. Lynda Obst’s book does a great job discussing the reasons behind this and anyone interested should read that. Because of this, stars are looking elsewhere for “interesting roles”. (The cynical side of me says that “interesting roles” is a euphemism for money and work.)

Lynda’s book explains that Hollywood films now are made based on their potential overseas revenue. Sadly, this is now the case for Indie film too.

Now, I would argue that indie film should include some bigger budget films that do not get made without a US distributor in place. These are the 10-20 million dollars films that are bankrolled by some hedge fund or rich guy or money guy on the backs of stars and the guarantee that they will have distribution in the US. This guarantee allows the makers to presale all over the place and, with some tax incentives, raise the money to make a big budget movie for a Hollywood studio. They are, generally, making the kind of mid-level budget films that Hollywood used to make, but they do it without the studios having to take the risk. This is partly what has allowed Hollywood to get out of the business of making films that aren’t superhero films. (Lynda Obst would call these the tadpoles. She has no idea how small tadpoles really are.)

So below these budgets, sits the under 5 millions. What’s ironic to me is that these films are being financed by foreign presales too. So we can whine and complain that Hollywood is making movies for the foreign markets and ignoring the US, but so is Indiewood. These films need stars and they need lots of them. Obviously a huge star will get a film financed, but a smaller star will need some support, so these films tend to get overloaded with stars. Basically, they get some stars who aren’t busy or who aren’t getting called so much to take supporting roles; roles that used to go to character actors looking to break out, or up and coming actors looking to break out.

Like I said, these films take their stars to the bank with some foreign presale agreements, or estimates. If the film gets a big sale at Sundance or Toronto, they make big bucks. Otherwise, they’ll still make their money back. Basically, these films are now expected to be star-driven, marketable films for the price of about 5-10% of what a Hollywood film would cost. The stars work for less money, or a cut.

Now, Sundance and Toronto and SXSW have become the place where these films generally go to be sold to the US. These festivals have been around for awhile and they are incredibly competitive. Yet for the most part, they keep filling their schedules with films that aren’t very good. While some of the reasons they pick their films are a complete mystery to me and everyone else, a few big reasons are very clear. They value stars, because stars get attention. And they value their relationships, but they have a lot of relationships. Think of all the big directors that have come out of Sundance and how many of them submit a film in any given year.

In any case, the festivals where the buyers are going are filled with films that are filled with stars. There are maybe a few slots left for the little films, but a lot of times these have some relationship to the festival too – maybe a sales agent, or a producer, or even a director. So breakout films at these festivals are the exceptions rather than the rules.

Then there are films with no stars and no budgets. These are being made by people out of their own pockets, or with kick starter, or with angel investors. They can be great, but there is hardly any US distribution for the under 5 millions I was just talking about, so these ones are incredibly hard to get out there.

If I was to sum it up, there seems to be a huge surplus of films, with stars, being made with no US distribution in place. There are two or three distributors that will put out a big release – Fox Searchlight, Focus, TWC. There are a lot of new distributors that will put a film out in some way – usually a VOD/theater combo of some sort.

It’s not the best of times in the film business. The studios still dominate and the indies are left fighting for a smaller piece of the pie.

I like to say that these problems are not just with the film business. Try getting into the chocolate business these days. Hershey and Cadbury have all the shelf space. But look! There’s a little space for the Valrona. Look again and you will see that little space is now crowded with 100 different brands of high end chocolate all trying to get your attention – and it all looks good, certainly better than what the Big Two are selling. Yet, most of the world is happy with a Twix and for most of the world that’s all there is. We live in highly monopolized economy, and working independently in that world is not easy.

Product placement or nothing

December 24, 2012

It’s nearly impossible today to make a film critical of the corporate culture that we live in today. Actually, it’s nearly impossible to make a film with any sign of the corporation infested world we live in every day of our lives.

When I leave the house, I see the signs of every corporation out there. I see billboards. I see ads. I see the stores themselves. Hundreds of them, but mostly of the same multi-billion dollar companies. You know them all, McD, Target, Abercrombie, etc.

But if you look in a film, you will find almost none of it.

When you make a film, every logo, every sign, every ad has to be cleared by the company. So, if I want to make a film set at a fast food restaurant, forget about setting it at Burger King. If you want to make a film when someone gets a burger, forget about having him stop at Burger King.

But wait, there is product placement. Even Shrek walks around a world where Starbucks is on every corner. They’ll even pay for this. One of the first jobs we have on a low budget film is getting product placement so that we don’t have to pay for all the craft service and props. We’ll put a coffee logo in our film in exchange for some free coffee. I hate product placement, but we live in a world with products all over it, so why shouldn’t we have some products.

The trouble is that it becomes very difficult to have any sort of conversation about anything when this stuff is involved. How about a film that touches on Americans being overweight? This is one of Americans biggest problems, but good luck getting any corporate logos in your film, despite the fact that corporations are at least part of the problem.

So mostly what we get is a world where the logos are created. Instead of Burger King, we’ll get Burger World, or something like that. It’s not the same thing at all. Criticizing a corporation that is “like” Nike, instead of being able to criticize Nike isn’t the real world. You couldn’t have a character try on some shoes and say he doesn’t like them, if you saw the logo on the shoe.

This is American, and we have the First Amendment, but the cost of fighting a huge corporation to enforce it is too much for most film companies to want to deal with it. It’s a sad state of affairs. I would go so far as to say that the sanitization of corporations in films has contributed to the state of corporate controlled world we live in now.


March 12, 2012

A lot of people ask me about the music in the film, so besides referring you to Dean and Britta, who did the soundtrack and have a few albums of excellent music, and Luna, their old band, here’s the complete song list.  I’ll update it with links when I have time, but, for now here’s what’s in the film.  Everyone should download these awesome bands.


“Someone Else” The Working Title

“Black Postcards” Luna

“When There is No Crowd” White Fence

“Eyes In My Smoke” Dean and Britta

“Malibu Love Nest” Luna

“We Dress Ourselves” Princess Katie and Racer Steve

“Harvest Moon” Pepper Rabbit

“Mermaid Eyes” Luna

“After the Moment” Craft Spells

“Radio” My Hero

“Well Well Well Well” The Satin Peaches

“I Found It Not So” Dean and Britta

“Show You Mine” Alyx

“Ramona” Craft Spells

“Night Nurse” Dean and Britta

“Knives From Bavaria” Dean and Britta

“Ticking is The Bomb” Luna

“Big Toe” Xray Eyeballs

“We Are the Dinosaurs” Laurie Berkner

“All I Ask” Theodore

“All Things Merry” Britta Phillips

“The Day Summer Fell” The Sand Pebbles

Over to The Maid’s Room

January 30, 2012

I just got back from Sundance, and I realized I haven’t updated this blog for months.  I’m not sure why I stopped keeping this blog up, after I used to be pretty disciplined about it.  Anyway, there’s more than a year’s worth of old posts on here, if anyone wants to read them.

I’ve been writing another script, with a friend of mine, and that’s almost finished.

We started casting on The Maid’s Room, and that will start getting busy around the beginning of March, probably.  So from now on, the new posts will be over at the Maid’s Room blog.  The link is on the sidebar.

Getting stuff made

April 28, 2011

I saw BLACK SWAN not too long ago. It was pretty good. I liked it. But part of me hated it. It wasn’t because of any of the film’s weaknesses. It was because I have a script that was similar that hadn’t been made.

My script isn’t about a ballet dancer, it takes place at a women’s magazine, but it’s about a young, ambitious, over-talented woman who is thrust into a big job and goes crazy with all the crazy things that are happening around her. So, in that sense, it’s similar. It’s more than similar – there’s even a scene that seems lifted out of my script, not that they stole it from me – mine scene is better.

In fact, my script is better. But that doesn’t matter.

Darren Aronovsky got his film made. Whatever I think of his talents or the flaws or strengths of his script, his film was made and mine languishes on the proverbial shelf.

My point is that part of the skills and talents of a director is getting your film made, because if you don’t have that particular skill set, you’re never going to be able to show any of your other talents. I have friends who are far more talented than me, but they have yet to get a film made.

How to get your film made varies, and the stories of films getting made are as different as the styles and stories that are in the films themselves.  But the fact remains that there are directors who get their films made, and those that don’t.  There are directors who are awful, but we have seen their films because they somehow know how to get their films made.  Nobody has seen the films of the directors who are geniuses, but haven’t gotten their films made – because they don’t have any films.

The Wall of No Money

January 15, 2011

I was reading a very good summary of why indie movies are dying at Ted Hope’s blog which goes through the reasons films today cost what they do.  Interesting films right now are going to cost around 500K or less.  You can read about the business here.

Artistically, making a film like that, which I’m about to do, is definitely full of compromises.  There’s never enough money or enough time to make a film, which is part of what makes it exciting.  But more money comes with a different kind of compromise.  For example, it’s one thing to not be able to shoot film, as opposed to digital, because you can’t afford it, and another thing to not be able to shoot film because some idiot executive has decided that film is dead.  The lack of money becomes a sort of cold, unfeeling wall, but at least it’s not irrational or opinionated.  That wall never has a dumb idea: it’s just a wall.  You can complain about it all you want, it won’t take it personally.

We’ll see how making this film goes, and what we are doing is fairly ambitious considering how much money we have; ie. there’s a lot of locations, we have some stars, our overtime is non-existant.  On the other side, we have an incredibly talented cast and crew – and no one is in this for the paycheck.  I wish we could pay everyone more, or what they deserve, which would be even more than that, but we can’t.  The wall says no.

The wall isn’t a cheap bastard.  It’s not going to rob you, or lie to you.  It’s not going to take away your final cut.  It’s not going to try to fuck your star.  It’s not going to scream at your agent, or sue you.  It sets the parameters, and you have to work within them.  It tells you what you have and gives you virtually nothing more.  I have to say, while it’s heartbreaking to lose an idea to the wall, it’s not as soul destroying as losing an idea to a bad decision, or someone with more power who has a different idea that clashes with yours.  It’s just a wall.  It’s a fact of life.  We’re lucky to have the space we’ve been given.  It’s not such a bad space inside the wall, and, when you used every inch of it, there’s actually more room for ideas than you thought.

Haircuts and directing films

January 1, 2011

I think I’m like a lot of guys: I don’t like getting my haircut. I got one the other day and it occurred to me that the reason I don’t like getting haircuts is because, even though I have a general idea of what I want, I’m not sure how it’s going to look when it’s done. And the other thing is that it is difficult for me to communicate what I want.

As I director, those are probably the two most important things you need to do: have a vision of what you want and then be able to communicate it to the people helping you make that vision.

But the part about the haircut that always gets me is when it starts to look promising as it’s going along, and then I say something to the barber, who gives me a sort of noncommittal response, and does what I say.  And it screws the whole thing up.

At first, I give him some general idea of where we are going: short, maybe a little longer on the top.  We reach an agreement on how short: above the ears, a number 3 razor.

A haircut, like a film, may change as it happens because it might not be looking quite like you thought it did.  So, my barber starts with the edges, shearing it off with the number 3, and very suddenly I look very different than I thought I was going to.  But it’s not finished yet.  Should I change course, make an adjustment, or should I continue along my original path and hope for the best?

I have to remember that the barber is an artist too.  Like a DP or a Production Designer, we had a discussion and we agreed on a vision.  If I start to alter that, I not only have to worry about what our next plan of attack is going to be, I also will be suggesting that this artist, this barber, is not doing a very good job.  He may take this personally.  Remember, he only wants me to be happy.  He’s going to do what I say.  It’s not his fault that he’s confused now.  Where is this ship headed now?  The hair is cut.  He can’t put it back.

Experience has taught me that when getting my haircut, I have to keep my mouth shut.  Once the plan is agreed on, I have to stick to it.  Every time I’ve tried to fix something that may or may not have been going wrong with my haircut, I get the worst haircut.  Anytime I say something like, “shouldn’t it be a little shorter there”? the barber does what I say and then spends the rest of the haircut working around the disaster that just happened because I couldn’t keep my stupid mouth shut.

I have to trust in the artistry of the barber.  He knows what he’s doing.  He’s cut more hair, he’s been to barber schoool.  If I wasn’t going to trust him, I shouldn’t have sat in his chair.

Your job as a customer in a barber shop is to give the barber some direction.  You give him a good idea of what you want, and he may suggest his own ideas, and together you come up with a plan.  And then you have to step aside and let the professional do his job.  What makes this tricky is that you are looking at the results as they happen, so you are always open to second guessing yourself.

Isn’t this what a director should do?  It’s not his job to light the actors.  It’s not his job to dress the set.  I’ve seen it happen with actors when they didn’t give a director exactly what he was expecting and he tried to fix something and it just got worse and worse.  I’ve seen far too many films ruined in the editing room by directors  losing faith in their visions and trying to make a different film out the same material.  That never works.

A director’s job is to give direction to a group of talented people who know how to do their jobs really well.  You have to trust in the people who you hire, get out of their way, and let them do their jobs.  And when you think it might not be turning out like you thought it would, remember all the bad haircuts you got and keep your mouth shut.  The tough decisions have already been made.

Unstoppable and end of suspense

November 22, 2010

I went to see UNSTOPPABLE the other day and it was OK, but it was one of those films that made me think of what it could have been.  Tony Scott directed it, so you know what you’re going to get.  I like his movies, more recent ones especially.  He directs action.  Things move, and they move fast.  Things blow up, and they blow up big.  He’s all about energy and speed and action.

Action movies are great, but directors lately are so intent on moving forward, on getting to the next explosion or climax, that they forget to mix some suspense into the mix.

This was glaringly apparent in UNSTOPPABLE because the trains were not the demons of speed that Tony Scott obviously hoped they would be.  So rather than embrace the momentum inherent in the premise of his film, he uses every cheap trick in the book to get those trains moving.  (Some of them are embarrassingly cheap – like the shot of the train full of kids headed straight for the runaway train, then cut to safely off to the side, which is odd because there wasn’t an exit ramp in the shot before, but whatever, right?)

Suspense needs a little room to breathe and the train’s massive slowness would seem to me to provide a great opportunity.  It’s still going at 55, but on film, it’s never going to look like a roller coaster.  What’s the premise of this film?  It’s a missile the size of the Chrystler Building, right?  What difference does it make if it’s not moving at the speed of sound?  They can’t stop it!  That’s the point.

So a scene when the horse trailer is stuck on the tracks, it shouldn’t just happen and then be over.  A scene like that can last 15 minutes, if it’s done right.   Give us some time to know where everything is in the scene.  Give us some time to see how the characters react to their increasingly tense situation.  Get stuff in the way, and then get it stuck there, and then show what’s needed to get it out of there, and then show the train coming, and then they get more stuck, and the train gets closer, etc.  You get the idea.  Why were they in such a hurry to get done with this scene, anyway?  It’s not like they had another cool scene waiting around the corner.

But then I started thinking of all the other films I’ve seen in the last, I don’t know, five years.  I couldn’t think of one that was particularly suspenseful, or had any memorable suspense scene.  I’m sure I’m forgetting one, but my point is that action movies need to rediscover that central lifeblood of their make up.

Think of the scene of Bruce Willis in DIE HARD, when he’s in the air duct and the blond guy is shooting along the length.  It’s suspense.  Or in JURASSIC PARK, when they’re waiting for the T-Rex to show up.  The rest of the movie was crap, but that was the scene you remember – and it was a suspense scene.

Suspense is the soul of these films because without it, we know the end: the hero lives, saves the day, whatever.  There’s never any risk.  You never wonder if they’ll make it or not.  You need that because with out it, it’s just all the same speed.  It’s just one thing after another.  Suspense means that we’re invested in the film.  I just worry that, in an effort to keep the audience broad, and not upset anyone, they’ve actually decided that suspense in a film is a bad thing.

Animation is changing our expectations

November 10, 2010

I’ve been waiting for some truly stylish innovation from indie film for a long time now, but maybe I’ve been looking in the wrong place.  Lately, having watched Ratatouille a hundred times with my kid, I’ve been wondering how the style of all the animation in films – and by this I’m including special effects films, which are essentially animated – is going to affect how we shoot and watch films.

The impossible fast moves of the “camera” in an animated film cannot be matched by a dolly pusher on a live action film (or can it?).  The precision of the shots, at the speed they are moving, can’t be recreated.

The perspective of the camera is often somewhere impossible, through a wall, sailing over the sky, down some winding stairway again zooming at incredible speeds.  It can’t be done traditionally, without computers.

The world that animated characters live in is completely created from scratch.  This kind of attention to detail would be pretty tough to achieve in a live action film, especially one that has to exist in the real world – ie. you can’t build every chair, you have to buy them.  An animated film literally designs every chair, everything, even if it takes its cues from the real world.

So how does this affect us in the world of live action films?

Well, by looking at the newest styles, the trend is to go against all that.  Mumblecore is the mode of the day.  Abandon style.  Let the shots linger.  Imperfection and sloppiness are the goals.  If you need speed, shoot handheld and move the camera around really fast.  All this in the quest of something called a “happy accident”, which is supposed to be some captured moment of truth.

I can’t imagine that this style is what is going to save cinema.  The next generation is growing up on animated films that have huge budgets and are generally models of perfection, even if the films aren’t that good.  Perfection, meaning that all the characters hit their mark and deliver their lines as someone wrote them.

It would be a much more exciting challenge to try to capture some of the innovations of animation and use them in a live action film that wasn’t a special effects driven megabudget film.  How can we get those camera speeds up?  Do we want to grab a shot from an angle where the camera couldn’t be?  Do we want to spend the time and money designing the details of a set, instead of cobbling together what we could find at Ikea?  I’m sure there’s a host of other innovations used by these animators.

Animators, or at least good ones, know that film is visual.  They storyboard a hundred times, adding shots, building sequences, creating visuals and action over the course of a few years.  Imagine a live action film taking that much time preparing those visuals.

Most importantly, this is how people are learning to watch films.  Filmmakers ignore it and they will mumble themselves into oblivion.

Rant about Hollywood

October 31, 2010

What is there to say about the current crop of films in the theaters that hasn’t been said? It’s strange watching a film like WALL STREET 2. On one hand, it’s a pleasure seeing a big film, with big stars and expensive looking sets, on a big screen. Money buys a certain amount of size and my 50″ screen at home is never going to be as big as that 50 foot screen at the theater.

The fact that the movie isn’t good is a little besides the point. Oliver Stone might have gotten away with such a mediocre film a few years ago. Studios always put out disappointments. Now it just seems old fashioned, which, in a way, is worse.

In my mind, audiences have finally started wising up to the fact that Hollywood movies stink. Because Hollywood enjoys a defacto monopoly on the theater screens, the only result of this is audience decline.

Hollywood loves to blame all movies, but they don’t consider anything besides what they do to be a real movie anyway. Until the theater owners step up to the Hollywood machine, there’s not going to be a lot of change.  Still, it’s incredible to watch some movies make it through to the theaters – a mindnumbingly tough road to travel – and see how out of touch they are.  It is not unlike GM putting out their boring, ugly gas-guzzlers that keep breaking down and then wondering where all their customers went.  But that is what happens in corporations: the people at the top came up in the decade or two before they came to the top, so that’s what they know; it’s hard to steer these huge corporations in new directions.  It’s the same in film.

Now more films are being made outside of Hollywood and then brought in for distribution.  Some better films will surely come of this, but also some bigger misfires.  The real trouble remains getting the films from the minds of filmmakers who want to make them, to the audience that wants to see them.  Hollywood can claim over and over again that the audience isn’t showing up, but it’s just a form of denial.  Hollywood has spent three decades disenfranchising audiences only to turn around and blame any current film that isn’t pre-branded for the decline of American theater goers.  Reminds me of the Republicans blaming everyone but themselves for the deficit that happened over the last ten years.

Hollywood needs some new ideas, and they’re just not up to the task of trying them out.


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