The story of getting a film made ........again!

New short film: Bitches Coven

Shot in a day on a budget of a grand, “Bitches Coven” is a film inspired by the night our country was enslaved and shackled to the service of the banks and I began to wonder exactly what goes on behind closed doors when the powerful and elite gather. Call me a conspiracy theorist and you could be right – it was a lot of fun to do, let me know what you think. They may take our money, but they will never take our FREEEDOMM!!!! A very big thanks to all involved.

It was also important to do something which could form the basis of a long form project such as a feature or TV drama: “The Further Adventures of Emily Stark”

Readers reports

If you’ve been involved in screen writing in Ireland, then no doubt you will have interacted with the film board and if that’s true then you may well have found yourself at the sharp end of a reader’s report. I came across this little piece of wisdom and, it speaks for itself.

READING A SCRIPT

“Before attempting to evaluate a work of drama, before even starting to read it, the reader must bear in mind three basic points.

1. Firstly a screenplay is not an administrative document but a venerable artifact that needs to be handled sensitively. It is the fruit of an artist’s labour, one in which he has invested a part of his soul. This is true even in cases where the resulting work appears terrible. A text and its writer should be approached with the greatest respect.

2. Secondly, a text should be regarded as a work in progress whose potential needs only to be unlocked for it to flourish. A work of drama is too often read as if it were the finished product, incapable of improvement before going into production. This is indeed the case with the classical theatre, but it is not so with a newly written drama. The reader must look for the possibility of  hidden treasures in the text. Remember that to write is to to rewrite and that a writer can often hone his skills on his own handiwork. Let’s not forget the first draft of “Some Like it Hot” was a mess.

3. Thirdly, and this is an extremely important point, we cannot compare a script (and even less so a pitch or a synopsis) with a finished work. At one of my workshops one day a participant pitched an idea, an outline that came to a few lines. Another participant, a producer-director said the idea reminded him of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” and added that he preferred the latter! This is hardly surprising – the movie came with added sound, images and actors playing out the roles, not to mention the fact that in all likelihood the screenplay was worked and reworked before finally going into production, with further final touches being made during the shooting and the editing or mixing process.

The reader’s report must think seriously about the things in the text that make it work and are likely to please. As in business and marketing, it is best to start with the benefits before going onto the concerns.As I have noted earlier, it is too easy to criticise others. Writers urgently need to know what people like about their work. This has less to do with sensitive egos than with motivation. Where critical comment can point out ways a text can be improved by rewriting, positive comment can provide the drive to rewrite.If a reader really cannot find something positive to say, it may be that he needs to try a little harder. It is sometimes the case that the reader is a writer manque and that he is unconciously prone to twinges of frustration, jealousy and even bitterness. When he was a producer, Frantisek Daniel had an unusual way of reducing the chances that personal motivation might affect his reader’s judgement of other people’s work: he paid more for reader’s reports that were positive.

There is another tendency that reader’s must resist at all costs, and that is the assumption that, if they like a text, it must be “good”, whereas if they do not like it, it is necessarily “bad”. Pascal famously wrote that “egoism is hateful” – a warning against narcissism and self regard. He did not say that “speaking of oneself is hateful“. On the contrary, to speak of oneself and not to take one’s personal view for universal truths is to display humility. Who are we as readers, to decree that such and such a project is worthless and that the writer should look for other ways of earning a living? Hailing someone immoderately as a genius is not terribly helpful to a writer either, though it does at least send out a positive signal (while raising standards to intimidatory levels). By contrast, demolishing a writer’s work can be extremely damaging to the writer”.

Excerpts from Yves Lavandier’s WRITING DRAMA

Is brand “Irish Film” damaged and why? Part 2.

This post continues the discussion begun in the previous post and again draws on the same article by Ted Sheehy.

“The IFB’s other scheme is focused on films getting a much smaller release. Just finished in its pilot phase, this scheme involves the IFB and the Irish Film Institute combining resources to release a film in the marketplace. It allows for a film to be screened in a context that includes a Q&A with the director and screenings of their earlier work.”

“The first film through this scheme – which has the title ‘direct distribution’ – was Eamon , and it is envisaged for smaller art-house titles that struggle to find a traditional distributor but have proven themselves as either festival or critical successes,” says the IFB spokesman. “We will be publishing details of this scheme on our website shortly.”

“The producer of Eamon , Seamus Byrne, says the scheme and the IFB’s support was invaluable for the release of the film. This support is ongoing as the film makes its way around the country, with occasional screenings at conventional cinemas and through the Access Cinema film club network.”

Distribution support at this level is a very good idea. Eamon is one of the films that came from the Catalyst initiative a few years ago. What a pity this scheme has not grown and multiplied as it leveraged funding not just from IFB, but also RTE (and one other I think) and financed films at a level of €250K. And it makes sense to support these films in distribution in the art house specialist circuit.

“Paul Ward, of the IMC cinema chain, makes a similar point, saying that while there are always potential audiences for Irish films, they generally fall into the niche end of the market, which is undergoing a particularly difficult time at present. “It’s always tough. There are five or six pictures going out every week, so the competition is fierce and there are economies of scale with the size of the release.”

The cinema has evolved over the past two decades or more into something more akin to a seaside funhouse, that’s not a complaint it’s just stating fact. Today the vast majority of cinema releases are big budget, special effects driven spectacles and the target market for both Hollywood producers and the cinema chains alike is 12yrs to 25yrs. That being the case, the question has to be asked is the cinema the natural home for Irish films. Even award winning films like Lenny Abrahamson’s Garage and John Carney’s Once would find it difficult to draw an Irish audience of any significance, given the demographic of cinema goers.

“It might be argued that commercial distributors are the gatekeepers, ensuring that only those Irish films with a market, however small, will get a release. But, given that the IFB is subsidising the release of films the agency has funded, it might be argued that films may be released that distributors would not otherwise take on.”

“THERE IS ANOTHER DEBATE OVER the IFB’s policy of supporting only the films it has funded itself. If the logic behind it is the cultural necessity of assisting Irish films to reach their home audience, then should that apply to all Irish films, not just those which received production finance from the agency?”

A very good point and would I believe be hard to justify.

“Irish film-makers and producers will often successfully push to get their films into cinemas when distributors have turned them down. The box office results of this activity are hard to track, because the amounts involved are very small. There is a view in the business that likens this practice to vanity publishing, saying that it damages the market for Irish films. Others applaud the drive of the film-makers, usually people who have made their films without any official funding and whose energy and conviction get their films on to a few cinema screens without any subsidy. There is a view in the business that likens this practice to vanity publishing, saying that it damages the market for Irish films.”

If the film industry has any chance of becoming a force to be reckoned with in world cinema then it lies with people such as these. Proven beyond doubt, they possess the drive and commitment to their craft to struggle for years to see their creations on the screen. Sure, the quality of these films in terms of script and execution lack experience and knowledge of the craft, but then so do state subvented films. If “the business” wish to find reasons as to why the market for Irish films is damaged, in many cases they need look no further than their own tax payer funded productions. To lay the blame exclusively at the door of the driven and committed – now that’s glib.

I attended the “Give Me Direction” seminar last year at which the most insightful contribution was the “Don’t get Weird on Me” section in terms of what the IFB are looking for. Plainly “mainstream or commercial” is shunned in favour of “arthouse” or at minimum genre stories which seek to subvert or surprise. Subversion for the sake of subversion is no different than slavishly following commercial or mainstream imperatives. Subverting audience expectations does not equate to originality. And the only surprise an Irish audience is looking for is a good story well told, no tricks just solid craft, it really isn’t any more complex than that.

Whatever the plan is, (and that’s not easy to discern) it’s plainly not working and needs to be taken back to the drawing board, this time with the audience clearly in focus.

Is brand “Irish Film” damaged and why? Part 1.

A good jumping off point for this post is an article which appeared in the Irish Times by Ted Sheehy on Thursday 3rd June 2010 and can be viewed here. Ted followed up with more facts and figures on his blog. However, I found myself a little frustrated by the article because it seems to allude to and hint at conclusions with pretty much no one in the industry going on the record. So I thought it might be a worthwhile exercise to parse and tease out exactly what is being said and what is left to be found between the lines. As I go I will quote from the article and comment.

“THE PERFORMANCE of Irish films in their home market is a sensitive area for Irish producers and distributors. Against the backdrop of falling returns, the Irish Film Board, the co-financier of most films released in Ireland, has been discussing the issue with representatives from the distribution trade and others last month.”

Why is this a sensitive area? The fact that Irish people are fast losing interest in Irish films should be of huge concern to Irish producers. This needs to be addressed in a robust fashion for many reasons, not least of which is, it makes the case for state subvention to support the activity harder to justify and rightly so. As I write, our government are planning cuts of 3 billion for the December 2010 budget. With such things as pensions, dole and and hospital beds in the firing line, very few would shed a tear at the demise of the film board.

But are they to blame, perhaps, perhaps not. But that will make little difference if the axe needs to fall and the imminent demise of the UK Film Council is not an encouraging sign. Irish producers are not incentivized to fight for quality in their films and this is down to how they make their living. Irish films rarely make money for their producer at the cinema.  A producer is paid approx 10% of the production budget and that’s most likely the last money he sees from the film. Time to move onto the next project. So it’s not about quality but rather quantity. The more films you make, no matter what their box office performance, the more money you make.

“There are many ways to run a slide rule over the box office results of Irish films, and interpretations will differ greatly depending on the analyst’s perspective. There is also the valid argument that the box office is not the only measure of a film’s success.”

This is all true, but there’s no running away from box office numbers, no one in the business has the luxury of ignoring them. Box office is not a measure of filthy lucre, it simply tells you how many people went to see your film. Art films and “films not good enough” have one thing in common, they both draw small audiences. The term “art film” is not a protective mantle to be drawn over a mediocre film seeking to hide from the harsh realities of the box office. To do so is disingenuous and contaminates true art films.

“The criticism that many of the films aren’t good enough to perform in the marketplace is the elephant in the auditorium which many people in the trade will not address on the record. “It’s too glib to say the films aren’t good enough; it’s a lot more complex than that,” is how one experienced producer puts it.”

What is that about, people in the trade not willing to go on record to comment on the assertion that Irish films are simply not good. What kind of business is that? Ah but that’s it of course, it’s not a business, but a state subvented activity.

“The complexity he is referring to includes the muscle of multinational distributors, the heavy throughput of “product” in Irish cinemas and, as he terms it, the “stranglehold” that the UK distribution trade maintains over box office earnings from Ireland.”

What is the point of making a product for market and then complain about market forces. A truism about kitchens and heat comes to mind. Distributors and exhibitors are a business, they’ll book a film if they feel there’s an audience for that film, otherwise they won’t. And if it’s not bringing in the punters, it’ll be given the boot and something else shown in it’s place. Nothing complex about that.

“That said, one of the major multinational distributors, Disney, has distributed 25 Irish titles over the last 15 years, and had considerable success with some of them. But Disney’s general manager in Ireland, Trish Long, suggests that the thinking behind the release of many Irish films does need to be examined. Whether the number of films and the kind of films that are getting a release are the right number and the right kind is something I believe should be interrogated,” she says.”

That still sounds like diplomatic speak for “films not good enough”. Here’s the thing, 42in flat screen LCD TV’s with surround sound are now very common possessions. When people go to the cinema, they are looking for something more than what they can get for free (well kinda) at home. Worthiness and laurel leaves are not going to do it. Solid good stories with engaging characters has a shot.

“Each year a total of about 300 individual film titles from around the world are released in Ireland, earning box office income that has grown from €140 million in 2007 to nearly €150m in 2009. However, an annual box office review of Irish cinema returns shows a clear decline in the fortunes of Irish-made films over that three-year period.”

“Ten Irish films were released in 2007, earning a total of €1,967,506. Twelve Irish films were released in 2008, earning a total of €1,362,397. And 10 Irish films were released in 2009, earning a total of €588,661. If you get into the tricky area of defining the “Irishness” of these films, the picture is complicated further.”

There’s no arguing with numbers.

“So far this year, while the number of films has increased (by the end of June, 13 new titles will have been launched), box office returns have been mixed, and undoubtedly disappointing for those films which were given a substantial push by their distributors and backed with marketing funds from the Irish Film Board (IFB).”

“The IFB now offers two types of distribution support for Irish releases, but only for those films it has backed with production finance. The main mechanism is its marketing support scheme, designed, according to an IFB spokesman, “in response to current market conditions and to incentivise distributors to release films in a much more targeted way”. This scheme, adopted as of March 1st, has been utilised by the distributors of Perrier’s Bounty, Ondine and Zonad , who received funding, respectively, of €75,000, €50,000 and €75,000, which in this, the first year of the scheme’s operation, came in the form of non-repayable grants.”

It’s important to understand how distribution works in the real world. When a distributor decides to push a film into the cinema chain, he takes on the expense of marketing and prints. When that film takes money at the box office, the funds are split between the cinema and distributor. It is then the responsibility of the distributor to pay the producer the portion agreed. But the first money out from the distributors share from the exhibitor is the money he spent on marketing and prints. So this new initiative from the film board means that the distributor has no faith that he will recoup his marketing and print spend. It’s a little depressing to realise that left to their own devices, many home grown films would never see the light of day (so to speak) in Irish cinemas. And worse still, this new funding initiative is a tacit acceptance of this. How is it possible that a film starring Cillian Murphy and Brendan Gleeson and a Neill Jordan film would need this support?

This discussion is continued in the following post.

Hello world!

Although it may appear this blog will be exclusively about film, that’s not the case. It is true that film would be my primary interest, both viewing and the making of,  however I will take the opportunity to muse on many things that impact on all of us right now.

One essential question which I intend to explore is “What’s wrong with Irish film”? There is one fundemental measure of the demise of Irish film in the eyes of the Irish audience and that’s bums on seats. A collapse of 70%+ in home box office for home product since 2007 demands to be explored at a time when overall cinema attendance is on the rise. I can find very little of where that is happening online at any rate.

In many fields of the arts and creativity, Irish practitioners stand shoulder to shoulder with their peers across the globe, and although there have been random breakout success’ in recent years in Irish cinema, they unfortunately prove to be the exception to the rule.

The other purpose of this blog is to track the journey of a feature project “In God’s Garden” (aka “Faithless”) to the screen. Getting this film made is a very serious intention, but it will also serve as a prism through which to scatter the light and uncover the pitfalls and tribulations as well as the unexpected delights to be found on that path. Either way, if nothing else it will serve as a map to those setting out, hopefully with not too many areas displaying the warning “Here be Monsters”.

I look forward to your comments and participation.