Convenience and price

I started thinking on this blog that, basically, if films are going to compete with themselves for free on the internet, that they need to lower their cost. But there’s a few parts of this argument that have come undone in my mind.

In the future, we are told, we will have VOD of everything, at home, at our convenience, whatever, whenever we want. Some would argue that it is already here, just not quite ready for primetime.

I used to take this goal as a given. Isn’t that what we all want? Just to push a button and get whatever we feel like watching at that given instant? But I’m not so sure that’s true anymore.

And not only that, I realized that there was a price to be paid for that: and that price is zero, or near zero. It’s very basic economics that scarcity will up your price. The reverse is also true: if you can get dirt anywhere, why pay for it? You can just go out and get a shovel full of it whenever you want for free. Try it now.

Think about a concert. If a concert sells out, the scalpers appear, selling tickets for more money. They can do this because there are limited seats for the concert, not because you can stay home and listen to it for free.

So, first, as a filmmaker, you need to have a certain amount of scarcity if you want your film to have value.

But, second, as an audience member, you also want this because you crave something special. Having it all on VOD might be great sometimes, but how many times are you just going to sit at home and channel surf? We need people to curate the films for us. We need to make an effort as an audience to make it worth our time. Two hours at home is not the same experience as two hours at a movie theater.

As I said in a previous post, Hollywood markets films as events, and maybe that’s what they are. We want to see something unique, something special, and we are willing to pay for it provided we are getting something for our money.

So, this idea that convenience is our God-given American right is bullshit, because I’m not sure we even want that, even if we think we do. We want something special, and we want to pay for it somehow, because that’s our way of showing ourselves that something is special.


Whining about Indie film

A lot of people have been whining about the “death” of indie film (including me), so I thought some perspective might be in order.

First of all, the only reason we have indie film at all is because we have Hollywood. Hollywood makes American films, in English. Take them or leave them, they are ours and they are a huge business and the dominant art form in the world today.

For most countries, there is no “indie” because they don’t have a film industry at all! Any and all films that come out in, say, Argentina are “indie”, even though they make up that country’s national cinematic experience. I’d be surprised in any film made in Argentina cost more than a few million dollars in recent years – and that’s a country that is putting out some interesting films these days and getting world attention (and financing).

You think it’s hard putting together an indie film in America, you should try raising money in England. Sure, they have the Film Council, which could help you out a little, but look at the actual amounts of the money they dole out. It’s not going to get you there alone.

France has a pretty full cinema industry, heavily subsidized, and it makes films that fill the full spectrum of art to commercial. But their films don’t usually travel, and a ten million dollar French film is a very big deal. Most are made under 3 million. And you would be a fool to make your film outside of the system because the system pays for your films. It’s still not easy to get your film made there, by the way.

When was the last time you saw a film from Africa? Or Guatemala? Or Panama? Or Peru? Some of these countries have absolutely zero film industry.

Another thing is that American Indie film rides on the coattails of Hollywood films. People have an appetite for American films all over the world and they have the appetite because of Hollywood. Stars in indie films help them because Hollywood made them stars, but even without stars, there is a desire to see different films coming out of America because they’ve been shown the way by Hollywood.

There may be a lot wrong with Indie film today, but give me a break. A year ago, Ted Hope added up the budgets of all the films submitted to Sundance and came up with an astounding (and unsustainable) number – something like a billion plus dollars. But what other country could raise that kind of money for film, even if that was in more flush times?


Worse than the idea that the recession has made it harder to make a movie is the idea that all we are going to see at the movies for the foreseeable future is this semi-comedic, heart-warming, too-cute, life-affirming, overcoming impossible obstacles, sentimental schmaltz. You know the drill. Movies they’ll show at your AA meeting.

I didn’t see the Soloist, but from the trailer, yuck. Even if it’s good, yuck. I finally made it to State of Play (pretty good. I was the youngest in the theater by forty years and I’m forty) and the previews included two cancer movies and an expecting parents comedy, all guaranteed to bring the teardrops and the love of life that I find an abuse of the power of the movies. Just watch a GE commercial and you get that same buzz. Here’s some links to the trailers so you can have a taste of what’s in store. Grab a bucket before you watch, and not one with popcorn in it.

Here’s the two cancer flicks. Full of appreciating life bullshit.

Reflecting on what we know now

Here’s where the film business stands now.

Theatrical distribution has become an opening weekend market. If a film doesn’t do huge numbers on its first day out, there is no chance that the film will make money. In this model, only big films with huge m+a costs and a dominant number of screens have any chance. All other films have been or are being squeezed out. Forget about indie films in this environment.

DVD sales are shrinking. The economy is probably the dominant reason, but piracy is taking off and also, I would say, the fact that all the ads go into opening day, is also playing a part. For indie films, this is the worst thing ever, because the model of opening a film in NY and LA and then making a killing on DVD is finished. And that’s the only market there is for this stuff!

Internet streaming may be the way of the future, but, for various and not very interesting reasons, it’s not here yet and it’s not coming anytime soon.

Piracy is accelerating. All the creative industries are suffering because of the internet. Everything on the internet is available for free and immediately, so to compete with that you can’t make any money.

It’s a bleak scene, but there are some things that I have thought of because of this situation and a little historical research.

First of all, there was a time when the only way to see a film – and the only way to finance it – was to see it in a theater. Once a film was finished playing, sometimes after year-long runs and sometimes at places called 2nd run theaters, the film was gone. It was done. Over. You’d never see it again. Rep houses didn’t come along until the late 60’s, and they were never a big part of a revenue stream until VHS came along.

At this time, budgets were lower and there wasn’t such a gap between blockbuster and small film.

Couldn’t this model still work? I think it could, but the opening weekend model has to change, and I think that it will, because, I can’t imagine it sustaining itself.

All films work in theaters because of word of mouth. Hollywood is a machine that has learned (not completely) to manipulate that word of mouth. Small films only have word of mouth. Word of mouth only works if it has time to spread. If a film opens, has people talking, and is then gone for several months until it is available on DVD, that’s a waste. It needs to stick around the theaters.

Theatrical viewing as an experience cannot be pirated. It is a tried and tested source of income.

Would it make sense to put a film into theaters and then say, this film will never be available on DVD? It sounds crazy now, but, it’s a thought.

The Incredible Genius of Hollywood Marketing

It’s a truly incredible thing to see movie marketing in action. A movie like Star Trek comes along and it just hits you from every side, gets you at every niche. You never feel more like part of a demographic than you do when you find yourself going to a movie that you really only had, at best, a passing interest.

In the New York Times today, there are at least four articles referencing Star Trek in the Week in Review alone, including one op-ed entirely dedicated to explaining Star Trek in terms of old movies. How did this happen? Is Star Trek just part of the cultural zeitgeist, something that would be silly to ignore?

Don’t be fooled. It’s a manufactured zeitgeist. Behind it was an army of publicists who have, as their weapons, close connections with all sorts of reporters, editorial writers, editors; in short, thick address books with the numbers of people who can get this stuff around.

The genius comes in their ability to creatively come at one demographic by way of another. If you look in today’s Style Section, you’ll see that the 40th anniversary of Woodstock is coming up. If you read a little closer, you’ll see that this is really just a plug for Ang Lee’s new movie in disguise. The genuises at Focus want to get that Woodstock trend back in vogue in time for the movie’s release. The Style section is made for something like that. They are manufacturing that retro vogue of the 60’s.

I generally have no problem with this manipulation of the press. All the major corporations do it (see that article on how organic pork is bad for you from a couple months ago in the NYT). It is infuriating only when you know a film is going to be awful, but somehow some ‘quality’ of the film gets repeated over and over again and you get tricked into seeing it – only to find that the movie sucked despite that quality.

Take Iron Man. I’ve already told you how I got tricked into that one. But that quality became Robert Downey Jr.’s performance. That became the reason to go see the film and most of the people I know, ie. people around 40 who have no business seeing Iron Man, came away from that film saying, “Robert Downey Jr. was so good in it.” Same thing with Meryl Streep in Devil Wears Prada. Sure, she’s good. She’s always good, but that movie was shit and so was Iron Man.

Sometimes the publicists help make the movie. I’ll always remember standing in line for a movie when I heard an older lady explaining to some kids why Crouching Tiger was good because the martial arts was like ballet. Shouldn’t it have been the kids explaining to her that the movie was good because it came off a wave of awesome Hong Kong movies of the 90’s? Actually, these kids thought the movie was a little slow, but the lady loved a movie that, had she not had some publicist subliminally explain to her why, she would have ignored completely simply because it had martial arts in it. Ang Lee had made a high brow martial arts film and it took that army of publicists to take that disadvantage and make it into a selling point. (Couldn’t get them to make high brow Hulk sell, though, so I guess these publicists are as human as anyone, even if their moral compass is set a little differently than mine.)

Action films

I’m writing an action film now, and it’s a tricky thing. Action films are the ultimate in broad entertainment. It’s not just that the action scenes, being largely visual, translate well. It’s also that they are generally pretty thin on plot and easy to follow. Action films are the films that people see and then say, “I could have written that!” which probably has something to do with their apparent simplicity, but also with that audience feeling of wanting to be a part of something like that, or wanting to hang out with such a cool main character, with wanting to blow stuff up, etc.

So, I’m learning that a big part of an action film is that feeling. You really want to go along with it, be a part of it, enjoy the company of some pretty fun people to hang out with, watch them get in and out of trouble.

Of course, as I knew, but am learning anyway, is that these films are not at all easy to write. Or at least, they are as difficult as any other kind of film and require just as much imagination to be good.

What surprises me with most of the action movies I see in the theaters these days is the lack of imagination that went into them. Undoubtably, these are very difficult films to put together, but they cost a shitload of money and you would have thought that the stakes were high enough for everyone to be working at the top of their game. So why do so many of these films seem like generic hack jobs? Why do all the action scenes come off as unbelievable, or worse, forgettable? I am sure that part of it is due to that feeling that I was talking about, that feeling that anyone can do this stuff. Hollywood is full of bad mantras but one of them is that every new action film has to be bigger than the next. Instead of being better, or more thought through, or more imaginative, they need to be bigger and newer and pushing the boundaries of the technology. This is sort of like the military, pushing technology, making more expensive stuff without a real eye on whether we need it to defend ourselves.

But the idea that anybody can make an action film is a key part of this, because if you believe that, and you work at a studio, then you can hire anybody to write it, or direct it, or whatever. I’m sure they put a little more thought into it than that, and, like I said, these must be difficult films to put together, especially while keeping that huge money train on its tracks. Still, it’s always amazing to me when you sit through one of these films and you feel like anyone could have made that. It’s just as amazing, more amazing, when you sit through one and you think that not anyone could have made that.

No one but Sam Raimi could have made Spiderman. Anyone could have made Iron Man. See what I’m talking about?

indie distribution in action

I went to a film the other day in NYC that was released as close to the models of distributor-less films as I’ve seen.  It’s exactly the kind of release that Ted Hope talks about on his TrulyFreeFilm blog.  It was called I CAN SEE YOU.  I’m not going to talk about the quality of the film, but it got a good review in the New York Times, which is how I first saw it.  But it’s an art horror film and Fangoria mentioned it (and I think was involved in it somehow) and it was on a few blogs.  I was looking for something different to see and this fit the bill.

Now, this kind of film has a built-in audience.  There are horror fans everywhere who are craving something that is real horror.  A horror connoisseur looks at Saw, or remade crap, and thinks the world is coming to an end.  They long for the home-grown days of the 70’s where low-budgets ruled and the films weren’t just scary but they were good.   This was the audience I expected, and I was not disappointed.  They filled up the theater, although it was opening night and there was a lot of cast and crew.

So, I read about it in the Times.  I bought my ticket online, which was done through some service that was professional enough.  It was playing one show a night, for a week, at a bar that has a theater in the basement in the East Village.  I’d say it seats about 100+ people.  Ten bucks each, plus a fee for the tix service, which I think was a buck fifty.  At the same time, they sold DVD’s of the film on their website – available the week after – for about 20 bucks.

I would guess that this film cost somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000 dollars, but it looked like it could have cost less.  I don’t think anyone got paid.  They probably bought food for everyone.   There was a couple of special f/x, so the materials of that cost something even if no one got paid for making them.  I didn’t see any costumes or make up.  The art direction was next to zero.  The cameras were hand-held, or occasionally on a tripod, but it was Video with a capital V – it looked like it was shot on a home video camera from 1988.  

Now a film like this has a limited appeal, but as far as a release goes, these guys did everything right.  I’m still puzzled as to how they got that review in the Times – and a good review at that.  But I still don’t see how they’re going to make their money back.

There’s a crowd like that in every city in America and they could take that film on the road and sell out a couple shows just on that built-in audience, but how much are they going to get back on their expenses of doing that?  And then, with the cost of the film?  100 seats X 10 dollars = a thousand dollars.  They still have the expenses of publicizing and everything else, like the theater costs.  If they can sell out 25 shows and sell 2500 DVD’s, I think, maybe, they would start to make their budget back, but honestly, I don’t see it happening.  And even if it did, it’s a fuck of a lot of work to put into making hardly any money, even if your goal is just to make another movie.  There’s a lot of people working for free here, all the way down the line.  

So, is this the future of film?  It’s definitely one future.