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Making Movies Now – bigger, sometimes better, definitely riskier

I opened the LA Times today and the front of the Calendar section was dominated by a picture of Brad Pitt sprawled on a couch with the headline Sparking Curiosity with the subhead “The trailer for ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ is everything it should be” and talks about the buzz around the movie. The company where I’ve been working the last 3 months provided the cameras, recording system and workflow, same as was done for Zodiac (I mentioned this in Couple bits of awesomeness the other day).

A fun read about how great the trailer looks to be.

Reading the continuation on page E4, that dovetailed into a minor article entitiled “Indie biz needs more discipline” – which discusses the 99.9% chance of failure of a movie budgeted under $10M.

Hmm…what does this imply? Read on.

The LA Times article about the new Ben Button trailer gushes about the intrigue promised by the 2 minute tease:

The trailer promises us a moody, mysterious and bewitchingly bittersweet look at life, lived in an entirely unexpected way. It also offers the tantalizing possibility that Fincher, one of our era’s greatest filmmakers, may have found a way (thanks to an Eric Roth script, adapted from a 1922 F. Scott Fitzgerald short story) to marry his often chilly obsession with serial killers and people in peril to a story with more emotional resonance.

I’m all for it – go watch the trailer and see if you aren’t entranced.

BUT….that is Big Budget filmmaking. That is David Fincher and Brad Pitt working together. That is Tall Dollars.

What about what we might aspire to work on for our own movies? I’m talking to 99.999% of you reading this who probably aren’t Fincher, Pitt, etc.

That next article is where we should really be paying attention – I never would have seen it if not for the Ben Button trailer article. Film Department chief Mark Gill spoke at the LA Film Financing Conference, and had this arresting quote:

“Of the 5,000 films submitted to Sundance each year — generally with budgets under $10 million — maybe 100 of them got a U.S. theatrical release three years ago. And it used to be that 20 of those would make money. Now maybe five do. That’s one-tenth of 1%. Put another way, if you decide to make a movie budgeted under $10 million on your own tomorrow, you have a 99.9% chance of failure.”

Ouch. I’ve been saying that, but not so succinctly (or at least not recently).

Think about that. And maybe think about why you’re making a movie, and think carefully about how much money you’re trying to raise.

On the flip side, man, I am AMAZED at how badly organized some productions are. Being competent, organized, and having planned well with contingencies will put you a long, Long, LONG way ahead of most of the crowd.

He talks about the industry trend: (try to) “Make fewer better.” – that is the current tentpole thinking that the studios are pursuing, but it doesn’t always work – check out Speed Racer or Love Guru box office. They were fewer, they were pricier, but they certainly weren’t better.

For indies, what to do? Gill suggests:

The indie biz is full of people trying to make quality films. What this ignores isn’t just that most films aspiring to quality don’t end up achieving quality but that many quality films don’t make money because their subject matter is too narrow or dark or solipsistic to find a sizable audience.

BINGO. I really enjoyed Hard Candy, but that certainly isn’t a mainstream film. Would I want to watch it again? Probably not, but I admire the effort, and immediately singled out Ellen Page as a Star To Be.

Gill further nails it:

The real problem with the indie business isn’t quality but discipline. We have a generation of filmmakers who feel entitled to make personal films at studio prices.
….
If people in the indie world want to start making money again, they have to start treating their investment like a truly precious natural resource, not like Monopoly money. Discipline is not antithetical to art. The oldest and most consistently successful specialty division, Sony Pictures Classics, keeps making money because it resolutely, sometimes to a fault, never overspends on a film.

Filmmaking is both a business and an art. Which do you want to do? Ideally both, if you want to make more than one. Business models must be sustainable, i.e. profitable, to persist.

When I see movies like Hard Candy – is that a calling card or an honest attempt to make money? Or just pursuing art? And if you are pursuing JUST art, do you know that is your goal? Or are you deceiving yourself as well as your investors?

For everyone who says “I want to express my vision.” – honestly, why should we care? Only if it engages us. And if you want to make more than one, it needs to engage ENOUGH of us to make a profit on the endeavor – be it theatrically, on DVD, on cable, iTunes movie rentals, combo, whatever. Rather than expressing My Own Private Vision, think about your audience, AN audience, and how many there are. Do you want to express your vision? Fine, go for it, just realize who you are doing it for. Want to make movies in general? Find an audience to tell your story to. Think about genres that you can connect with, specialty markets – and then scale your efforts to fit. (And THAT is where consultants can come in handy, thankyouverymuch).

OK, rambling, close this up:

In closing, Gill said:

The indie film business isn’t going to get any better until filmmakers and studio executives stop their spending sprees and start making indie movies for a true indie price.

Amen, brother.

Suddenly, I feel better about working in this business again.

-mike


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