Wednesday, December 21, 2011


This week, published its list of the Best Undistributed Films in their year end critics poll. More than 160 critics voted. Altogether, around 275 films made the list. Granted, some of these films have gotten distribution deals that have not yet been announced but, according to the site, the top five films, those that were mentioned the most, do not, at this time, have deals for theatrical distribution.

During the spring, summer and fall of 1988, I worked on two feature films, a low-budget indie (around 1.5 million dollars) and a moderately budgeted (around 20 million dollars) studio film. Both films were released in theaters, have played on TV and gotten home video releases.

Maybe it really was a simpler time or maybe I am just naive but today, even with all the avenues for film distribution -- VOD, online, theatrical, cable and on and on -- it seems like it’s harder to get a film out there. Maybe the movies are just not that good.

Everywhere I turn, I hear about an actress or actor friend shooting this film or that film and everyone seems to be a director or a producer promoting their new film as they are shooting it --- sometimes even long before they start shooting. I understand that marketing buzz, building brand awareness and consumer interest is the name of the game but it sometimes seem like that is the only thing happening. I hear about all these films in the pre-production, then production stage and then what, they’re gone.

So many of these film just seem to disappear without getting much, if any kind of “proper” release -- much less a theatrical run.

Maybe I am old school in thinking that having a movie shown in a movie theater is the ultimate goal. However, film is a public art, it succeeds when people see it and I am not just talking about having a screening at a bar for friends and family. Now, much as I love to see a movie on the big screen, I have to admit that I don’t go to movie theaters as much --- honestly, the picture and sound quality on my TV or computer is better.

Still, for me, a theatrical screening -- even if it is just at a film festival or two -- is the gold standard. Maybe I am small minded in thinking like this but, if I bust my butt and break the bank to make a film, it means more to me to have people make an effort to go see it in a theater than it does to know that they are clicking a button on their computer and watching it while they are checking their e-mail.

For some people, having a screening of their film -maybe renting out a screen at the local art house theater - for friends and family is as good as it will ever get. For some people, the gold standard is breaking even, maybe even having something to hand over to their investors.

If you really want to know what my feelings on the matter, I want to make a film that does “well enough” critically and/or commercially to inspire someone to back me on another film and the film after that one and the film after that one and so on.

I have never been a big fan of writer-director Edward Burns’ work but I have always been interested in his career --- from the legendary “pay the rent or enter ‘Brothers McMullen’ in Sundance?” story to his more recent forays into micro-filmmaking (his new film "Newlyweds" was shot for $9000.00) and promoting VOD as the saving grace for indie filmmakers.

I have been watching the business of indie films and how they get to their audience almost as long as I have been watching indie films. In the “anyone can make a film” era, saying that you are making a film does not carry much weight with me. Telling me that your film screened at a reputable festival, got picked up by distributor with muscle or even, yes, that it’s been downloaded/whatevered 500 times is going to impress me.

So, whether or not my thinking is stuck in the past is less of an issue for me. The Hollywood Economist Blogspot estimates that, worldwide, there are 4000 - 5000 independent features made each year and, of that number, only 2% will be purchased for distribution. Making a film is half of the battle, maybe not even half. Getting people to see your film is the real trick.

Of course, I will still look through the behind-the-scenes photos that you post on facebook and wish you the best.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Tale Of Three Indies

It might sound as if I have this indie bias, this Hollywood = Bad, Independent Film = Good. I get that and I realize that there are just as many, if not far more, really, really bad independent films out there.

Orson Welles once said that the difference between filmmakers and all other artists is that, for the most part, other artists can afford to make their art.

With today's technology, however, anyone can make a movie and, from my perspective, far too many people are making movies and, not that I am a math whiz by any stretch or into odds and probabilities, it just seems that, the more movies that are out there, the more chances for more of these movies to be bad increases. Some people see the glass half full, I see a little crack in the glass where stuff is slowly leaking out.

I recently saw the 2011 Sundance hit “Bellflower,” which I had been eagerly looking forward to seeing. I can’t even remember what, exactly, I had heard about it beforehand but it had been long on my radar and I thought it looked cool.

Remember, movies are about creating images, making people think that they are seeing something that they are not really seeing. When we see rockets whooshing across space, we are not seeing rockets, we are seeing something that is supposed to make us think that we are seeing a rocket. And so it goes for movie marketing, very often for indie movie marketing. It is all about getting people to see a movie that appears to be about one thing when, at least some of the time, it is about something else.

“Bellflower” is about two scruffy 20-something guys who drink straight from the bottle, smoke a lot and, apparently, do not value clean laundry. They are obsessed with “Mad Max”, building flamethrowers and fixing up an muscle car so that it, too, shoots flames --- in the event of an apocalypse. For some reason, I was under the impression that “Bellflower” was some kind of post-apocalyptic zombie movie. Maybe I really am an idiot, maybe I was duped by the marketing campaign.

If you do not want to know what “Bellflower” is really about, skip the next paragraph and continue reading after it, skip ahead.

“Bellflower” is about two scruffy 20-something guys who drink straight from the bottle, smoke a lot and, apparently, do not value clean laundry. They are obsessed with “Mad Max”, building flamethrowers and fixing up an muscle car so that it, too, shoots flames. One of the guys meets a really cute but also sort of scruffy girl who can smoke and drink like the best of them. Of course, they fall madly in love, have a sort of “let’s hit the road in my vintage automobile and have a distinctly American 20-something experience” road trip. Once back home, things settle down, he catches her cheating on him, loses it and has all kinds bloody, fire-y, depression, drug and alcohol fueled visions that blur reality (for the audience) --- what is really happening and what is not happening. Boy meets girl, girl cheats on boy, boy loses it for awhile but, in the end, he still has his best friend --- that’s what “Bellflower” is about.

You can start reading here.

“Bellflower” was made by two scruffy 20-something guys who look like they drink straight from the bottle, smoke a lot and, apparently, do not value clean laundry. They are obsessed with “Mad Max”, building flamethrowers and fixing up an muscle car so that it, too, shoots flames. They have a handful of similar friends and they all got together to make this film for about $17,000. I liked the look of the film. It looks like it was shot on one of those Hipstamatic cameras that were all the rage for about five minutes. These guys build their own cameras. I found the whole thing tedious, pretentious and empty. Maybe if I had not seen the marketing campaign or if I was still a hip urbane, scruffy 20-something (okay, I never was but I sort of wanted to be) experiencing first love, it would have resonated with me. “Bellflower” got mostly good reviews but, I am happy to say, there are others out there like me who, well, you get the idea.

That said, I do think that the female lead, Jessie Wiseman, really has star potential.

After watching “Bellflower” over the weekend, I showed the 2002 Sundance hit “Pieces Of April” to my students. I quite like this film and I always show it to classes right before Thanksgiving because that is what, among other things, the film is about. It is my favorite Thanksgiving film. “Pieces Of April” is a low-budget indie-style film. I say “indie-style” because, even though it is, technically, an independent film, it is deliberately, maybe even self-consciously lo-fi, shot on really bad digital video with marginal production values. It does, however, boast a great (well-known) cast -- Patricia Clarkson (in an Oscar-nominated performance), Oliver Platt and Katie Holmes (in her bid for artistic credibility by playing against type) and Derek Luke -- at the top of their game and, most importantly, it well-written and directed by Peter Hedges. I show it to illustrate the point that, if there is a good screenplay in place, it almost doesn’t matter how the film is shot. So many people throw so much time and money up on the screen without truly understanding and respecting the importance of having a good screenplay.

Later that week, I got another indie that I had been eager to see, “Putty Hill.”

I first heard about the film when IndieWire reported that there was an issue surrounding the distribution of the film because they had used a song by the Rolling Stones without clearing the rights. I thought to myself, “What kind of idiots take a copyrighted song by a well-known band, put it in their film without paying for the rights and expect to get it distributed?”

On day one or two of my screenwriting classes, I always tell my students to never specify copyrighted music in their screenplays but, the vast bulk of the time, doing so will add thousands dollars to the budget of the film --- and make the screenwriter look like an idiot.

So, I had to find out what this “Putty Hill” film was and what kind of losers would be so careless about the music. The film, it turns out, is a micro-budget indie about young people dealing with the aftermath of a tragic event. The film was shot on lower-end video in just a few days and largely improvised with a cast of non-professional actors.

Hmmm, sounds familiar. Anyone who knows me and what I have been up to for the past few years, knows about my long, sort-of-in-the-works project “Aftermath” --- which is about young people dealing with the aftermath of a tragic event and which was designed to be shot in a few days, without name talent for no money.

This, I had to see, a film that raised so many red flags for me. How could it be any good?

I really liked it.

“Putty Hill” is shot on slightly lower-end cameras. It does not have a slick, pristine look technically but there are some really well-composed shots and the final image has stayed with me. The story and execution are simple; the style, mood and atmosphere are rich, I could go on and on but, the bottom-line, the takeaway, is that, financial or technical short-comings do not have to be a handicap. Filmmakers need to know what they have to work with and focus on crafting strong, cinematic narratives first and practical, technical execution that will serve the story shortly thereafter.

Know what you want to do. Know what you are able to do.