Monday, July 23, 2007

Indie Film: Ignoring Quality

I saw the premier of an indie film a few weeks ago, How to Rob a Bank. This wasn't too bad of a film. But, nothing to write home about. Then maybe it'll grow on me. But, I got the feeling I was watching someone's cousin who had the right connections to get something produced, and not a diamond in the rough, as we'd like to think are found at indie fests. It's a shame, because the story is good, the premise is good, the acting is good, the camera and sound are good. The execution is lacking.

If I had read the screenplay that I'm assuming this film was made from, I can imagine it wouldn't get too far in terms of what you'd expect typical prodco readers want to see in a good screenplay, if there are typical prodco readers.

It has holes in it. It lags in places. A few people actually walked out of the theater. I think the guy next to me fell asleep, and he was on the crew.

We hear so much about how a screenplay has to be a good compelling story. If it's a comedy it should keep you laughing every few minutes. The action should keep up a pace. Then you go to a fest and see some sophomoric B film like this.

I think the cast and crew put forth an admirable effort. But, the script clearly wasn't ready, unless you don't mind competing with stuff like 40 Year Old Virgin. Even that was more polished.

But, this isn't the only film at the fest I thought violated high standards. Some of the others were slow and lagging too. There seems to be a lower bar at fests where filmmakers can put out lower quality stuff that you know could be improved if they'd just put more effort into it, and I mean effort into the story, screenplay and editing. They shine in the production phase. But, films are so much more than working 20 hour days on the set, no matter how good of a job it is.


Something I do notice at festivals is that although almost every film is amateurish and has obvious flaws, there is always something redeeming there. Sometimes, it's just the passion of the director, cast and crew that shines through, and you can forgive the flagrant violations of things like poor angles, lulls in the story, static shots, and more. A lot of that is due to low budgets, maybe an inexperienced DP or inability to do re-shoots.

I saw an Iranian film that repeatedly had long shots holding on one character in a two way dialog, not showing the other until at the end as a quick reaction. I could tell that rated very low with a lot of viewers. But, if you could look past that, you might see some great merit.

The things I can't forgive are things fixable with just a little more effort, like weak or slow stories, pacing, or editing.

There are always those with high standards in terms of a finished look. They don't think of themselves as snobs, but that's what they are, because they criticize based on what they expect to see in a Hollywood film. Just breaking a few conventions will throw these people off. They're missing the point. The same people would consider 40 Year Old Virgin a good film. I'd take a decent story with unmotivated angles over that film anytime. In the context of indie filmmaking criticisms concerning the polish of the work really aren't valid. When there is polish there it's icing. It's what might win the fest instead of placing.

There aren't many great films in all existence, let alone at a festival. How many at the LA Film Fest would you say stack up to any of the IMDB or AFI top 100? I'd say, exactly none. So, there's plenty of room for criticism on any of these indie greats. No matter how much you liked How to Rob a Bank or think it was pretty much flawless, and I can see how some could say that, it ain't no Saving Private Ryan.

It's a matter of relativity. Relativity to trailer versus the actual short, relativity to something done on little to no resources. Relativity to your particular prejudices and notions about quality.....

I'm referring to things in pre and post, the story, script, editing. I know the masses of cast and crew work diligent 20 hours days. But, that's not all there is to making a film. The most important part is the script. You might say in terms of man-hours, 90% of the work is done in production. But, in terms of importance to the project 90% is done in pre and post. I always get the feeling at the fests that the directors and producers lag in the area of polishing the script and making sure they have a good cut, even if it means spending another year at it. They seem to be playing to the cast and crew, who are their anxious audience waiting with baited breath for the premier. That's not the place to focus your energy.


To clarify my meaning, I feel that great artists need talent and must know a craft. That doesn't mean all artists who are great in a given discipline, like writing, have to know the same craft and all apply the same tools to their work. It means they need to know their own craft, which could be unique. So, to make blanket statement like 'never break the 180', 'use motivated angles', 'use a three act structure' and on and on, is like saying artists must apply certain rules or conventions to be successful.

This is a fallacy. It may be useful for artists to use similar tools if the tools work for them. But, there are no tools, rules, or conventions that are mandatory for success, except maybe something more abstract and blanket like the rule that art must be compelling or interesting. But even that is optional. Art can be disturbing, repulsive, disgusting. It may have a limited audience but it could still be successful. It worked for Lynch to get him an AFI grant and launch his career.

It's just plain wrong to say you need any conventions. You may need them. But don't project your needs upon others.

Now, if you look at a work and say, "it just isn't compelling, I couldn't get past the first page, no one will ever watch that, people walked out after the first 10 minutes", and if others agree with you, then I think you might have a good argument that something isn't working. But, you still don't know that it's these conventions that are missing, unless you can take the work and point out specifically how a certain tool works to make better. But, in doing that you've applied your craft, not the artist's craft and it becomes your work and not theirs. They must agree and apply the tool you suggest, if they find it valid. But, they could just as well make an alteration with their own tools, like a fluid camera for example, that will make it work.

When you and others apply certain conventions or tools across all work, it then takes on the attribute of being a rule. It's seems you think certain things are always necessary and must be done, just as with laws, people must always do certain things that are mandatory, like drive on the right side of the road. When you do this you are creating rules. But in art no rule is mandatory. Every one of them is optional. So, effectively there are no rules, only guidelines.

David Lynch

I think Lynch's shorts fall into the category of art that some would define as bad art. The thing about them is originality. If something is original enough it is interesting and it's quality doesn't matter. If you look at Clerks, you could say quality is lacking, yet it's highly original. Lenny Bruce might be another example.

I'm curious what the critics here would have to say about Lynch's shorts. Look at the reviews of them here. Most here would probably say he sucks as well. What people are missing is that consideration has to be given to the circumstances and restrictions under which the films were made. Another consideration should be originality. one implied my trailer is no more original than a thousand others they've seen. But, I feel there is originality there that is interpreted as bad craft disguised as artsy technique. It's no more that than Tarantino's Death Proof is as unoriginal as the grindhouse films he is paying homage to. Oh, pardon me if you think I'm comparing myself to Tarantino. It's an analogy, not a comparison. But, of course, those who think I suck largely think he does too.

But, I don't think Lynch had a movie audience for his short films, as we'd consider one when we write. He may have had an art community audience (God forbid). His first one Six Men Getting Sick was a continuous loop played at galleries. So, while the audience matters, which audience matters? In this case it's the one that got AFI to consider his work. The point is audiences differ quite a bit. You must know this well. That audience would call the work of probably anyone here passe, unoriginal, and they'd likely sneer at us.

But, when we make a film and put in into festivals, that's a specific audience too, one that I think likes originality above all else and forgives technical problems, taking resources into consideration, and looking for passion and promise in the filmmakers, not polish.

This topic has been discussed in detail here.

Sunday, July 22, 2007


It's an interesting point that filmmakers who watch too many films based their films on other films and not on life.

When I was in film school, I came into film as a photographer and artist, and wasn't very educated or aware of film history or how films were written or made by others. But, I really liked photography and adding the elements of motion and time to my photography was very exciting for me.

When people asked me what films I thought were great, my reply was that no great film had yet been made, and I was on a quest to prove that with my own work. But, that wasn't really true because I had always loved films and as a child stayed up late nights watching movies on TV. So, I was probably very influenced by them and didn't realize it.

To compare my work to other filmmakers back then seemed ludicrous to me. I was my own person and I did my own art and the whole thing about art is that it has to be from the individual and it has to be original above all else. To take the concept of originality to an extreme, you could say that any influence from any other existing work is a potential corruption of your originality. You should come from a place within and from real life, not from what you know about what others have done.

So, when a new writer asks if it's ok for a screenwriter to not watch other films, it makes a lot of sense and is a legitimate question, to which I would answer, absolutely not, you'd don't have to watch other films and doing so will undoubtedly impeded your originality.

On the other hand, you can learn a lot about craft, technique, and even ideas that other filmmakers use. But, note that there are so few original filmmakers, likely due to the fact that they all watch and love other films. This may sound strange. But, give it a minute to sink in. It's really very logical. If you haven't been exposed to all the stuff that's been done, it's less likely all that stuff will influence you and shape how you think films should be written.

But, I'm not an extremist. I'm not saying never watch another film. I'm just saying doing so can influence you and hinder originality. In fact, I watch films every day, probably at least three a day. But, that's not how I started out. I think to both write and watch films you have to separate your own works from others'. It's not so easy or obvious. Subconsciously, other films will influence you. Stories should be written from your imagination, your research, from real life; but not from other stories. I think you can develop a tough skin by consciously keeping aware of what you watch to keep it from influencing you subconsciously. But, you first have to come from a place of originality.

When I started in film, I had been into photography and art. I wasn't an avid film watcher at all. So, my first film was a visual experiment without actors. Later when I tried using actors my film resembled a forties film. I had been subconsciously influenced by all the Late Shows I watched as a kid.

David Lynch is one of the few truly original filmmakers, probably because he came into film as an artist looking to add motion to his paintings and knew nothing about filmmaking, as far as I know. Look at his work and this is so very apparent. I suspect as he got more into filmmaking his originality became more corrupted by other filmmakers' influences, and indoctrinated into Hollywood. I'm curious about what he'd have to say about this. If he did watch films before making his early short film, it wasn't at all apparent.

Great films always seem to have some strong original aspect to them. Tarantino used time line manipulation and emulation of past film genres, which is ironically original since he's redoing what's been done. But, to do that is part of what's original.

Then as technology progresses it adds more originality by making things possible that were not possible before. Those who exploit this alone are simply using gimmicks to sell their snake oil.

Now we have the industry paradigm of doing movies that have strong elements of stuff that has sold in the past, which is the exact opposite of being original, and what you end up with is a lot of crap films. The crap films sell to growing retarded audiences who love them. Meanwhile, good writers can't get their stuff sold, and so we have a market full of crappy screenwriters and gimmick filmmakers while the potentially great ones work their shitty day jobs, thinking they're no good because they can't get sold. I wonder if it's retarded audiences that are attracted to these films or the films that condition people into being retarded, since there's so little choice unless you get IFC or the Sundance Channel or live near a limited release art house type theater.

The film business is the business of selling art. Before you can sell art, you have to have art to sell. So, I put it to you that the first order of business is to make the best art that you can.

The Numbers

Here are some numbers

Out of 718 films screened in 2006 here are some gross figures:
Five made nothing or less
15 grossed less than $1000
118 grossed less than $10,000
280 grossed less than $100,000
about 440 grossed less than one million

That leaves 171 out of 716 that grossed 7 figures or more, and it's likely these were the only ones profitable by any worthy margin, since most films cost over a million to make. But, since getting or compiling a listing of the costs of these films is almost impossible, i can't be specific.

Anyway I think it's safe to assume about 23% were decently profitable. That leads me to believe that the business practices leave something to be desired. The industry gets by on the top few money makers and can then afford all the other failures.

What would be better would be to have more films making money than these 23%. I think to do that you have to hit the untapped markets, which I think are people who are largely turned off by the inane subject matter of the top selling movies. Not all of them but most. Notice many on top are kids films, leaving the adult market untapped.

It doesn't take an MBA to realize this model isn't working as well as it could be.

Here is a breakdown of the market in genres.

As you can see, they clearly are not getting much out of some genres, specifically, dark comedy, which I think has a huge untapped adult market, which execs are afraid to take risks with. But, it would make more sense, knowing that most good screenwriters write in that genre along with some others that are overlooked, to take that risk instead of pushing for more of the the genres that get the most play, comedy and drama.

The numbers I'd really like to see would be a list of movies made in a year, their budgets and their profits. Remember, distribution takes a big chunk of the gross. Now look again at that list, pick out the films made in 2006. Count how many would be considered profitable and compare that with the number 350, which is approximately how many movies are made in a year. Even if you only count the movies that are profitable, the ones making over 6 figures, you come up with only 171 out of the 350. That's just slightly less than half, even giving it the leeway and benefit of the doubt.

I'm not necessarily saying Hollywood is passing over diamonds in the rough, or that there are many un-produced great writers that aren't getting a shot. Though, that's probably true.

I'm just saying Hollywood's convention of looking for what makes money instead of looking for quality work and then using it to make money is the wrong way to go about doing business. It is a reactive stance to take. Finding quality work first is a proactive stance. As you know, an once of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The drive should be to find the best creative talents that can be found, let them and help them use their talent. Let them tell us what people want, regardless of what people have wanted in the past. Nurture their talent. then when they're ready for prime time, exploit them for money.

Whether these talents exist or not, or are passed over or not is an unknown until the industry actively seeks them out, instead of dictating what sells and what doesn't sell, how to structure stories, how to write in genres, what genres to write in, or how to be marketable. If no one in Hollywood knows anything as Goldman says, then obviously the business isn't working as well as it could. Why don't we wake up and decide to learn something about what people want, instead of trudging along like the blind leading the blind.

Artists have that vision to see into the future and write stories about things they know people will want in the future. Successful Hollywood writers even now do that. But, often in doing so they are going against the grain and fighting uphill battles with conventional wisdom.

The Music Analogy

Keeping with my state of mind in film school, I'd say even what we now consider classics will one day be looked upon as the crude beginnings of the medium. Look at music, which has been around for hundreds of years. Look at the the classics. When did music start and how long was it before the classic composers came on the scene, hundreds, maybe thousands of years?

Film has only been around for a hundred years or so. If filmmakers could just let go of convention, tradition and always thinking inside the box, we might see some break through into a higher state of art in movies. But, these things take time, lots of time, eras of time.

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