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Film Disruption, Top to Bottom

Woolly MammothIf you have even a passing interest in how the film business works, then you will probably have come across some rather game changing predictions by two of the industry’s heavy hitters recently, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. You can read the article in the Guardian yourself, but essentially what they are saying is this. The movie business is fast evolving into a very high ticket price occasion and the films you will get to see will be mega-budget, franchise, star driven vehicles and the more cerebral films like Speilberg’s own Lincoln will not get a look in and you’ll have to see that and films like it on TV from people like HBO. They also predict that this scenario will possibly come about with the box office failure of 3, 4 or half a dozen $250 million projects. The world has been changing since the dawn of time, so this is nothing more than a modern day equivalent of the fall of the Woolly Mammoth. Steven Soderbergh recently spoke about his concerns for cinema and while he may not have reached the same conclusion, he’s in no doubt that immense ground shifting is underway and it’ not to the advantage of filmmaking.

The first question is, are they right? Closely followed by this question. If they are right, then what is a small country on the western fringe of Europe and it’s film tax policies going to do in response to this.

Personally I believe their predictions are really not that far away. Already, we are in a time when it is inconceivable to expect to find the likes of Chinatown or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Apocalypse Now or Dog Day Afternoon at your local cineplex (funny, all 1970’s films when the blockbuster was spawned by Spielberg and Lucas). You then look at big budget flops and let’s confine that to recent years, you have John Carter budget $250m, A Thousand Words budget $40m, Judge Dredd budget $50m and Lucas’ own Red Tails budget $58m.

So apart from tax policies like section 481, one of the few remaining tax shelters, will this seismic shift bring about any policy changes in the Irish Film Board. When the giants of the industry have to fight to get a cinema release, should Irish film cinema releases be financially supported when, as far as I know, they never achieve a decent return at the box office. I say, as far as I know because, although tax payer money is used to develop, produce and release these films, the earnings are never made transparent.

Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were speaking at the University of Southern California.So what could be done. Well never wishing to be accused of carping from the sideline, here’s a couple of suggestions. Forget cinema, that’s right, I said forget cinema, at least in terms of releasing in the multi-plexs. No problem with the handful of art house screens dotted around the country and elsewhere. Secondly, go low budget, no I mean real low budget. Ed Burns is making his films in New York for $130,000 and that’s including post. Yes most participants are taking a slice of the back end in place of a pay check, but you do what you gotta do and that didn’t turn out too badly for Ethan Hawke’s 20 day’s shoot on “The Purge”. And lastly, embrace the low budget revolution that is underway and find ways of supporting it and becoming a part of it.

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about and there really shouldn’t be that many of you, I’m talking about crowd funding and digital releasing. Disinter-mediation is happening right now on a grand scale, low budget filmmaking is bypassing not just the gate keepers but also producers. This new paradigm positively demands that filmmakers become their own producers. Today, if you hear a filmmaker say something like, “I really just want to make my films, I have no interest in the money raising part”, believe me, you won’t hear much from them. This year’s Oscars was the first time that crowd funded films found a nomination, 3 of them in fact, so we’re not exactly talking on the fringes stuff. The view could be taken that if the low budget indies are now doing it for themselves, well that’s great, we can now concentrate on “the other stuff”. One small problem with that, you lose the argument that you are in the business of supporting and nurturing new Irish talent which isn’t going to help when you sit down with the man with the check book. And once lost, they won’t be coming back.

So here’s what could happen. The Irish Film Board part finances low budget films, but to make an application, you have to reveal a credible crowd funding campaign strategy and digital release plan. The submission is less about your script and much more about your Klout, Kred or Peerindex rating. It becomes about your Facebook page “Likes”, your Twitter following, your crowd funding team and their Klout score and their experience in the field of digital marketing. Far from going wide with mass appeal, you will be compelled to niche down, so what does the Google Keyword Tool and Trends tell you about your audience. Those kinds of audiences are looking to hear singular voices with something to say in the moving image medium, the polar opposite of what the multi-plex offers today. I said it before elsewhere, when you’re a minnow in a big pond you’ve got to get smart and fast. Remember, before extinction caught up with the Woolly Mammoth, he was no match for the little guys with spears. Of course there’s always the other option, stick your fingers in your ears, go “la …la” until the threat of change goes away. Good luck with that. If you have an opinion, tell us about it.