Saturday, February 1, 2014

There is no Roger Corman

Money: The Root of the Problem

We tend to think of making art as picking up a tool and just doing it, which is an ideal. That can work in painting or writing. But film is a whole different thing. or is it? You can pick up a camera and start shooting. The problem there is that the complexity of film will bring you to a point where you find out you aren't prepared. Perhaps you get into editing and find the lighting isn't working or an actor doesn't fit. So the next time you take more care with casting and getting a good DP and a good grip. That's basically the process of leaning to make films.

David Lynch
However, even highly experienced and seasoned directors and producers complain about the distribution end of things. They can't earn enough money with their films to move on to the next one. Directors like Lynch, Spielberg, Soderberg or Coppola have made statements to this effect. If they can't do it, what are your chances? We're missing an element from the start that we can never get right, and that is knowing what is required to make the film sell.

Roger Corman
It's too bad we just can't all collaborate with professional courtesy on each others films instead of paying each others rates. That's what we did in film school. Some of us carry that over into the business world. In the heyday of Coppola coming out of UCLA joined by Lucas and film school colleagues at USC, those guys had it down. Although Roger Corman was around to give them salaries. Since then a lot of film school grads try to emulate that model. But like a bad marriage, you find out your former classmates aren't right for you. And then there's the fact that we can't really get by in this world without money. To fund a film before you pick up that paint brush, you need a lot of money.

Even huge studios with business and marketing expertise cannot be assured of seeing a film production break even. But we all know all this. We know that no one knows anything. And so we make wine on the side or cut an ear off or die penniless.

The Solution

What we need to do is get the money worked out before we pick up the paint brush. That means we have to make art that will sell. The key to this is the word "art" not the word "sell." The art has to have a mass appeal. We will sell it for only a $2 to $8 rental or maybe a $5 to $25 purchase. We have to sell a huge volume to make out. We can't just make a movie that appeals to ourselves or even a circle of 10,000 like minded people. We need to appeal to half a million or more.

Alternatively we could sell at higher prices. Assuming an audience of 10,000 people will buy our film, we need to sell copies at $100 each to cover a $1 million budget. $50 for a $500K budget and so on. At $5 each we can cover a $50K budget. But only if 10,000 spend $5 each to see our film. And at that budget we get paid nothing. What does it cost a cast and crew to live? Maybe $20K each at the poverty level. You get it.

Obviously we need that half a million people to want to buy our movie. Though government subsidies or grants could work too, except there are 500,000 filmmakers in the world. We'd have to end war to do that.

The number one reason why you can't make a living at this in this world is because you don't make movies that attract a half million people. But that's just the tip of the iceberg, because attracting them is a whole science in itself, which is why we need distributors to market films.

Distribution and Marketing

Sex sells: Marketing image of Sharon Stone in
Joe Eszterhas' Basic Instinct
You may not need to know how to attract a half million people if you can figure out how to attract the right distributors and investors. But they will think they know how to attract the half million and they will look for elements in your film that do that. There are a lot of distributors and investors with varying ideas on what will sell. There are a lot who will sign a deal and you'll never see a penny. You need a film that will make them agree to your terms that give you enough money to cover your costs, and in advance of going into production.

You can go with conventional wisdom with the right marketable script, probably about a contract killer, or a serial rapist, and with a name cast. Or maybe you could prove that people want to see your film by signing them up with your own marketing campaign, like crowdfunding or social networks. If you have an email list of half a million people who are engaged in your project, and if you can prove that to a distributor, you can probably sign the right deal to get your film funded. 

The sellout

Does that mean you have to compromise your art? Maybe. But isn't it more of an artistic challenge to attract an audience? Wouldn't that prove to people and yourself that you are talented on many levels? Isn't that the key to sustaining a career as a film artist?

All those other technical details about how to go about producing, funding, distribution deals, budgeting, collaboration and so on, are important. But the audience is the top priority. Even without distributors you can sell directly if you have an audience. You need to be in a place where distributors need your film more than you need them. If you're not there you have to keep making films to learn how to get there. Try and try again. It's not the seventies. You aren't Coppola. There is no Roger Corman.

Indie movies that sell have these elements. Scorsese,  Coppola. Lynch and the Coens make indie films that sell along with some that don't. They are in a place where I'd want to be as an indie filmmaker.  

But there's always yet another Sundance movie made for a fortune that no one will buy and no one wants to see except the guys that made it and their small following. Those indie films make money for festivals, equipment manufacturers, and even the cast and crew. $3 billion is spent annually on by filmmakers who rarely ever make a sustainable career of it.  The trick is to make movies that make the filmmaker a living, not everyone else.

A Tastes Funny Original Trailer
Written by: Molly Fite, Susan Mandel, John Ott, Autumn Proemm & Chris Punsalan
Directed by: Chris Punsalan
Photographed by: Chris Punsalan & Stephen Mader
Starring: Molly Fite, Dan Banas, Todd McClintock, Samantha McLoughlin & Lucy McLoughlin.

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