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

Many hands….

There’s something about making a film that seems to generate heaps of goodwill, without which the vast majority of low to no budget films would never have seen the light of day or the darkness of a movie theatre for that matter. The reasons why this is so are many and debatable, certainly film-making has always had a certain glamorous cachet about it, although if you’ve ever worked on a real low budget, late into the night, cold and hungry, you might not hold that association. It’s difficult to think of other creative endeavors that enjoy anything near the same level of support from family, friends and even strangers, perhaps because film making stands alone as a creative challenge that ultimately requires the hands of many just to reach the finish line.

Many_handsThis collective effort by many happens for whatever reason and to a very large extent is much prized and appreciated by film makers. Sad to say though, I have also witnessed occasions when those willingly giving of their time, talents and resources have been disregarded, treated poorly and even downright insulted for their efforts. This should never happen, but there are those whose ego inflates like a bull frog in the presence of cameras, boom poles and clapper boards. These egotists are always safe in the knowledge that their opus will catapult them to the Hollywood hills and therefor hold no fears for the bridges they burn behind them.

A decade ago I worked with many people who unquestioningly gave their time, talents and resources to help me bring a very low budget feature film to life called Winter’s End. On a balmy night in June 2005 the filmed screened in the local cineplex in Kilkenny to a packed audience, most of whom had assisted our film in one way or another. Actors and crew gave of their time for no more than food (excellent food provided by a friend at cost), local Kilkenny people gave us access to locations and props and before crowd funding came to be what it is today, they also gave money. I remember taking a taxi home one night and the driver, whose name was Paddy, stuffed €50 into my hand after refusing to be paid for the journey. “That’s for your film”, he said.

I will always be grateful for the overwhelming generosity shown by so many, far too numerous to itemise here, but all are mentioned in the end credits. Winter’s End happened because the crowd made it happen and today it goes back to the crowd. The film is free to view in it’s entirety on Youtube here.

Thank You.

Show me the Money

Clock WorkI wouldn’t say teaching myself to make a film was a walk in the park, but it was a whole lot less challenging than attempting to come to grips with the business of film, particularly when state funders are involved. Coming away from my first attendance at the Galway Film Fleadh left me with a sense that this aspect was not just crucial to get a handle on, but it would be far less easier to grasp than film-making itself.

So recently one bright Saturday morning I made sure to have my coffee to hand as I awaited to listen to the incisive investigative skills of George Lee. The program was “The Business” and the subject at hand was the Irish film industry. At last all would be revealed and I would be “in the know”. You can listen to the interview below or on RTE’s website here.

We often hear the term “Irish Film Industry” bandied about without really trying to figure out if “Industry” should be associated with “Irish Film”. Ireland has a vibrant beef and food industry and many other, what I would call, authentic industries. But is film/TV production one of them. If you take a look at Economy Watch, you’ll find most of Ireland’s industries listed (even glass and crystal), but you won’t find Film/TV production among them. Now bear in mind that I’m no economist, but my understanding of a national industry is that a product or service is created which is then sold either at home or abroad or both which brings back to the owners/investors more than the cost of creating that product or service, otherwise known as profit. And now we have a cyclical operation that is self perpetuating and continues under its own steam as long as the market demands that product or service and costs can be contained. Not a very academic definition I grant you, but it’s something I can get my head around.

Now lets get back to George Lee and “The Business” and the piece on the Irish film business. James Hickey of the Irish Film Board states from the off that the Film/TV industry contributed €168m to the Irish economy in 2013, up 18% on the previous year. Most of this spend came from foreign productions coming here with TV drama. On the face of it, it would appear very impressive that a state investment via the IFB of €11m can generate €168m of a spend in the economy, but surely foreign producers are first and foremost attracted to the tax breaks and other such incentives and it’s on this level that most European and other countries fiercely compete. Following that, facilities and experienced crew (although many of these productions bring their own) is also a strong consideration. This is transitory business at the mercy of the next big tax incentive from God knows where.

George finally cut to the chase when he asked Domhnall Slattery of Newgrange Pictures “Do you make money?” In other words, do your films get an audience? Domhnall started by telling us that no one should go into film producing with the core objective of making money. That was quickly followed by fluffy statements about Ireland’s role in the world, our story telling and culture. That smoothly segued into the benefits for tourism, the ball was then deftly picked up by Barbara Galavan of Screen Producers Ireland when she gave George some stats. Apparently an exit poll was taken by Tourism Ireland in 2010 which found that 20% of visitors stated that they had come to Ireland because they had seen Ireland on screen. It would be hugely informative to know if they asked which films? My guess is that “The Quiet Man”, “Ryan’s Daughter” and “Far and Away” would have formed the bulk of the responses followed by “Leap Year”, “PS I love You” and “Waking Ned” (filmed in the Isle of Man). All foreign produced films, but apparently the kind of films we should be emulating to support Irish tourism. The producers of big TV drama like “The Vikings” and “Ripper Street” make no big play about their filming locations and for sure the vast majority of their international audiences are equally oblivious. If Irish films command 1.5% of box office in Ireland, what penetration have they got internationally? Yet we are asked to believe that today’s Irish films are accounting for a significant proportion of the 20% of visitors who credit these films as a reason for their visit, otherwise why mention it. So films which find a meager audience at home, suddenly take on a life of their own internationally. Now that’s nothing short of a mathematical miracle aka blarney. I’ve known that to happen once, with John Carney’s “Once”, but that was down to very smart marketing by international distributors.

That was followed by, “So the intangible benefit in terms of tourism and the ancillary spend that brings is key”. So at this point I’m asking a couple of questions that interestingly the intrepid George is not. The first one is, are we making films to pull in tourists, if so then let’s finance Irish film from the tourism marketing budget and pack in lots of scenery and “top o’ the mornings” and “begorrahs” and number two, what pays the grocery bill when an Irish producer gets to the checkout in Lidl on a Friday evening if Irish films don’t make money? It was also mentioned that the Irish Government is aware of this benefit, i.e. tourism, which explains their commitment to the tax incentives for Irish film. Is it just me or is this beginning to explain why our films are such poor performers when it comes to audience. James Hickey reinforced this tourism benefit when he spoke of the visual beauty of the locations of recent films like “Calvary”, “Frank” and “The Stag”.

George moved the discussion on to marketing and the internet and Netflix, while I’m saying, hold on guys, let’s go back a bit. I’m sure Irish producers are mortal beings with lives, children, homes and living expenses. If Irish films don’t make money and they clearly don’t, what pays the bills? What puts shoes on their children’s feet, pays for doctors when they’re sick, pays the rent or mortgage. Show me the money. In the absence of any explanation from any of the contributors, here’s what I think happens. This of course leaves me open to correction and please do if you know better.

If Irish producers don’t get paid from the sale of their product and they are flesh and blood mortal beings, then they must get paid as part of the expenditure of the production. It’s probably also safe to assume that their piece of the pie is going to be a percentage rather than a fixed fee because they’re hardly going to do all the work that’s required for a €500K budget film for the same fee as a film costing €5M. If this is the system, then it predetermines a number of things as a consequence. Producers are incentivised now to enlarge budgets, pay inflated rates, push films into production before proper development and pay little regard to marketing, distribution or the quality of output. After all why should they, it has no effect on their bottom line? Any system that rewords a producer of any product or service from the process of production, rather than the result is predestined to produce expensive mediocrity at best, that’s just common sense.  Just as unhelpful though is the soft peddling, dewy eyed, “ah sure aren’t you great to be going up against those big Hollywood lads” approach that consistently marks radio and news print coverage of Irish film making thus allowing the ducking of hard questions. Riddle me this, what have the following films got in common except that they all fit under the loose umbrella “Irish Film”. My Left Foot, The Field, The Commitments, December Bride, Into The West, In the Name of the Father , The Snapper and The Crying Game. They were all made between the years 1987 and 1993, the years when no Irish Film Board existed.

So do we have an industry? Activity yes, people employed in film production definitely, but an industry? Most activity is in the form of foreign direct investment, which means that we service the global industry and compete for that business. But the IP and profits go elsewhere. And the other stalwart of Irish film activity is the co-production. This usually takes the form of a European production company initiating a production, gathering the finance and talent, approaching an Irish producer who then steers the film through IFB funding and section 481. In these scenarios, the Irish producer is little more than a form filling facilitator who knows the system and have little or no contribution to make on a creative level.

As a kid I was very fond of dismantling discarded radios, watches and clocks because I just needed to know how things worked. That Saturday morning I sat down in my kitchen with something approaching the same expectation. Needless to say, George Lee and “The Business” left me and everybody else I suspect, firmly in the dark, except of course, those in the know.

So next time out George, follow the money, ask some hard questions and forget about the glitz and glamour and resist invitations to take a walk through beautiful scenery. You do no one any favours with this approach, least of all Irish film making.

Give them what they want!

Getting_Ready_sm

Imagine this. You’re in the market for a new car, so you take yourself off to the nearest sparkling glass and steel showroom to kick some tyres. You resist the temptation to don your shades, such is the blinding brilliant gleam from the array of choice motors. But wait, what’s this. There’s a guy in corner, behind a counter selling bicycles. Curious, you amble over. The conversation might go something like this.

You

Hi….what’s the deal. Buy a car and get a free bike?

 Bicycle Seller

No, they’re for sale.

You

Really….but that’s ….why are you selling bikes in a car show room?

Bicycle Seller

Well, I figure people are here to purchase a form of transport and that’s what I have to sell. Bikes.

You

Yes but,….there’s no one coming in here to buy a bike. Wouldn’t you be much better off setting up a shop in town or selling directly online or both.

Bicycle Seller

I don’t think so. As a form of transport the bike predates the motor car. It’s good for your heart and good for the environment. I think people should be happy to support that.

You take a closer look at a price tag.

You

Yikes, this can’t be right, twelve grand for a bike.

Bicycle Seller

No it’s right alright.

You

How in hell can a bike cost that much.

Bicycle Seller

That was a condition of selling in here. We had to charge no less than the cheapest car.

You

But you’ll never sell a bike for twelve grand.

Bicycle Seller

Well I haven’t so far that’s for sure.

You

Although, you’re probably looking at 95% profit, so if you do make a sale I suppose it’s happy days.

Bicycle Seller

Well, not quite. Fifty percent goes to the showroom and another 25% to the distributor after he’s deducted his costs. So I could be maybe looking at 5% of sale price for myself, if I’m lucky.

You

You do realise this is an insane business model, right?

Bicycle Seller

Well, it’s no more insane than say…independent Irish films in cinemas ……..I suppose.

You

Check out last Sunday’s Times. They’re not making money either.

Some moments of silence.

You

I’m gonna go …….buy a car.

Last Sunday, the Times ran a piece called “Cinemas shout cut on Irish films”. It told us that cinemas make commercially minded decisions based on the performance of films and if that’s deemed to be poor, the film is pulled in favour of something else. The IFI, our most prominent art house cinema has now decided to follow suit having up to now block booked films which stayed screening for the duration, no matter how they performed. I guess they’ve got to make money too.

I applaud Joe Lawlor for having his up and coming film release mentioned a number of times in the piece, I would suggest though that if he had managed to spend more time telling us about his new film rather than bemoaning the harsh realities films have to deal with on release, it might have been time well spent. I know when you give an interview, you have no control over how much of what you say goes into print. But the part that really jumped out at me was this. “he did not blame cinema staff for making commercial decisions, (good move Joe as you will pretty soon be at the mercy of the Monday morning meeting) and that audiences had to take some responsibility for the relatively poor performance of domestic movies of late.”

Now I know we’re getting used to the blame game arriving at all our doors. Since 2008 we’ve had a parade of government ministers, European autocrats and banksters telling us all we are to blame for our economy crashing. Before them the Catholic Church had made an art form of trading in guilt until we discovered they were a cabal of hypocrits. But in addition to all that, it would now appear that it’s my fault and your fault that Irish films are getting the boot before taking its coat off.

Imagine this conversation.

Fiona

Let’s go see a movie tonight.

William

Sure, …anything in mind?

Fiona

I’ve heard good things about “The Way Way Back” or maybe “About Time” with Domhnall Gleeson?

William furrows his brow.

Fiona

Or maybe something a little less girly?

William

We haven’t seen an Irish film for some weeks now.

Fiona

Must we …….OK what’s on?

William

There’s something playing in Dundrum, can’t remember what it’s called.

Fiona

Then maybe it’s not worth seeing?

William

That’s not the point Fiona. We have to accept some responsibility for the poor performance of Irish films. If we don’t go to see them, well, we’ve only ourselves to blame when they disappear off our screens.

Fiona

And your point is?

 

Kevin Spacey, an actor and producer from the heart of the Hollywood system gets it. Netflix gets it. Give them what they want, where they want it and how they want it. Like it or not, when you make a film, you’re in business. I’ve seen countless shops open and close again in quick succession in these unforgiving times. I have yet to hear one entrepreneur complain that the people on the street are to blame for a closure. If they had come in and spent money, I’d still be open. That would be just too ridiculous. Fact is, if they don’t want your film, no end of pseudo-guilt trips is going to change that.

I hope Mr. Lawlor’s film does really well, as I do all Irish films. But if it doesn’t, then maybe we’re selling bicycles in car showrooms. There’s a whole new world of marketing and release opportunities out there and they are yielding credible results for those who get it. Have a listen to Mr. Spacey, he gets it.

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 …la” until the threat of change goes away. Good luck with that. If you have an opinion, tell us about it.

Film funding in a Crazy World

Tax Payer Film FundA little while ago, the Sunday Times ran an article called “Life’s a Breeze as movies exceed EU state-aid limit”. It informed us that two films galloped past the EU imposed state-aid limit, despite EU laws limiting state-aid for films costing more than €750,000 to a maximum of 50% of budget. Those films were “Garage”, a drama centred around a rural road side garage starring Pat Shortt and had a budget of €2M and “Life’s a Breeze” also starring Pat Shortt which is in post production. “Garage” received state-aid to the tune of 86% of total budget while “Life’s a Breeze” was financed by the tax payer to the tune of 70% of budget.  This is taken from the article:

A spokeswoman for the BAI said neither film was in breach of European state-aid rules, because the 50% limit could be breached where the productions are deemed “difficult” to make. In both cases, it said the films met the criteria by having a “lack of commercial potential” and a “lack of significant audience appeal.”  The BAI said it would have been aware of who the other funders for both projects were at the application and contract award stages.

I don’t know about you, but this feels like the world flipped on it’s head. Now I know how Alice felt when she fell down the rabbit hole. So I began to wonder just how that conversation might go between applicant (producer/production company whatever) and the “state agency”. Well, I’m a script writer I thought, so let’s have a bash at it.

State Agency

So what’s your film about?

Producer

Well, it’s about a blind man who buys a dog.

State Agency

O.K. so ……what happens.

Producer

Well, the blind man falls in love with the dog.

State Agency

You mean, he grows very fond of it.

Producer

No, I mean he falls in love with it.

State Agency

I see….. and how does this… love manifest itself.

Producer

The way all love manifests itself. We’re about breaking new ground…. we embrace taboos.

State Agency

So what else happens?

Producer

The dog dies. So our man decides he wants to have the dog stuffed. But he finds he can’t afford to have it stuffed.

State Agency

OK a dilemma, that’s good. Now what does he do?

Producer

He goes to night class to learn taxidermy?

State Agency

But he’s blind, wouldn’t that present a problem?

Producer

Only to those who believe that the sight challenged are limited by their disability.

State Agency

Well, being a state agency, we certainly don’t support that view. So anyway, he goes to night class to learn taxidermy, where he meets…?

Producer

No, he doesn’t meet anyone.

State Agency

OK so what happens next.

Producer

He stuffs the dog.

Silence and awkward glances abound.

State Agency

I must point out to you that the funding you want from us would exceed the  EU limits of 50% of production finance by €300,000.

Producer

Isn’t there any way around that?

Knowing glances cross the table.

State Agency

Well, we would have to be convinced that the film is lacking in commercial potential and significant audience appeal.

Producer

You hardly think this is going to have them queuing around the block.

State Agency

Stranger things have happened.

Another awkward silence.

Producer

We’re going to shoot this film in a very challenging and unique way, never been done before, too challenging for a conventional audience.

State Agency

OK, that’s good, tell me more.

Producer

We’re leaving the lens cap on.

State Agency

You can’t do that, that’s a radio play. We don’t fund radio plays.

Producer

If you believe that, then you must also believe that blind people have no place in a cinema. Yet it’s known that blind people enjoy cinema as much as anyone.

State Agency

Of course not, as a state agency, we support inclusivity and all aspects of our diverse society. But wouldn’t it be cheaper to record it as a radio play.

Producer

I don’t have a radio play. I have a film script. We plan to carry out production just like any film, cameras, lighting, costumes, set design, the works. The big difference is, we leave the lens cap on. This is an artistic statement to the blind that we respect their disability to the extent that we will render the entire audience blind.

State Agency

So there’s absolutely nothing to be seen on the screen?

Producer

Nada. Not even credits ….well apart from producer and our company logo of course.

State Agency

Of course. We would have to insist on our people’s names and logo also appearing.

Producer

Of course.

State Agency

So quite literally, no one will see this film.

Producer

No one.

State Agency

Ok, well that definitely allows for the 50% breach. Your application will be processed, expect to hear from us in 4 weeks. Oh, what are you calling this film?

Producer

Stuff the Taxpayer ……I mean Dog, Stuff the Dog.

State Agency

Great …..lunch?

No response.

State Agency

On us?

Producer

Sure. (a quite aside to camera) Always wait for that last part. Who said there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

I think I’ll shoot that and stick it on Youtube, should be worth a few clicks. But seriously, if anyone approaches a state funding body for production finance saying “not many people will want to see this film”, shouldn’t they be told to go back to the drawing board instead of lavishing more non-recourse funding on them. God forbid they would have to condescend to “entertain” the audience. I’ve mentioned it before, elsewhere in this blog, but when Mike Leigh was in Dublin a few years ago, he did an interview and took questions from filmmakers. This question came up and it must be said, asked with a knowing smirk. “What responsibility, if any, does a filmmaker have to entertain the audience”. A little aghast at the question and God knows Mr. Leigh does not suffer fools, he responded. “That is your first responsibility, if you can’t do that, then you shouldn’t be making films.” You ask an audience to sit through 90 or 120 minutes of your film and you don’t bother to entertain. You won’t have an audience, therefore you’re not a filmmaker. I’m paraphrasing, but that is certainly the gist of his reply to what he clearly viewed as a ridiculous question. I wonder what Mike would think of giving more money to those same films that can’t be bothered to engage their audience, because that sort of thing is beneath their intellect. The icing on the cake here of course is that your film can never fail. Actually, it can, if it becomes a film people want to see, you might just damage your chances of making the same argument in the future. If this makes sense to you then maybe I have fallen down the rabbit hole. Post a comment below.

 

Malcolm Gladwell and Irish Film

Social Media IconsStudies suggest (according to Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers”) that the key to success in any field has nothing to do with talent. It’s simply practice, 10,000 hours of it — 20 hours a week for 10 years and he cites many instances where his thesis has proven to be the case. If, (as I do) you accept Gladwell’s idea, then the flip side of the coin says: Do something sporadically, intermittently and on the whole not very often, then you won’t ever be very good at it and possibly even worse than that.

Let’s now look at filmmaking and Gladwell’s idea. Whichever way you raise the funds to make your film, it’s going to take time and effort. You then shoot your low budget opus (with actors no one’s ever heard of, nothing wrong with that, but it hinders distribution possibilities) and spend months, if not years putting the edit together. Now you turn your attention to festivals and attempt to navigate that murky world in search of distribution. After spending a not inconsiderable sum on applications you perhaps attend a handful of festivals where you feel there is maybe a remote chance that a sales agent or distributor will pick up your film. Once you have finished celebrating and read the fine print of the contract you just signed, you’ll begin to realise there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell of seeing much money – ever. (Not even enough to pay for your night’s celebration)

Most people who make a first film, never make a second. Reason: Too much effort, too little return, in every sense. And those who do will find gaps between projects of 4, 5 or 6 years or more. Sooner or later you come face to face with this question. “Why do I want to make films”. And the answer should tell whether you’re on a fools errand or not. If you make films because you love this particular process of creation, then you can ignore everything else that came before. But if you make films to a. break into the industry or b. sell your film to finance the making of your next film, then you have chosen a rocky path for yourself and heart ache will follow in it’s wake. That is unless you’re smart.

So is there another way. What is becoming clear now is that indie filmmakers are waking up to the concept of selling their own films themselves to the consumer over the internet. Industry traditionalists have largely scoffed at this idea saying, (not too loudly) what do filmmakers know about selling films. And they’re right, most filmmakers don’t know a lot about selling and in a lot of cases, don’t want to know. It somehow doesn’t sit well with creatives to roll up their sleeves and learn how to hawk their wares.

But it goes back to what you want to get out of filmmaking. I think the numbers from Sundance are something like this. About 3,600 films applied last year, 12 were picked up and I’m pretty sure that some of those deals wouldn’t have had significant money up front and will most likely result in paltry sums at the backend once the distributor adds up all expenses.

Significant names like Ed Burns and Kevin Smith have successfully shunned traditional distribution in favour of  self distribution on the web. While we can learn from these guys, they’re not really a good template because they already had a name in indie film.

Whether there are films out there (and I’m sure there are) from unknown filmmakers returning revenue to the creatives and who knows, perhaps even returning a profit, I have no doubt that this trend will grow and become more and more significant.

But here’s the thing, it’s not going to happen unless indie filmmakers accept that they need to learn a whole new bunch of skills loosely termed as digital marketing. That’s everything from email, social media, seo, Google Adwords and Facebook Ads and so much more. And here’s the upside if you commit to this. One day you could have a business as a filmmaker where all the films you make return their costs with profit and enter the long tail scenario. And if this happens, you are now making one film after the other and quite likely will get very good at it. Now you are truly independent, speaking directly to your audience with no one in between. Sound like a plan? I think so. Let me know what you think.

Indie Film Distribution – A Way Forward

Butterfly EmergingBy many accounts, it would appear that the old system is dead or at least in intensive care with an undertaker on call. “What system is that”, I hear you ask. We all know it so well, the filmmaker’s dream or fantasy. Make your ultra low budget movie with friends and anyone else you can rope in. Finish it out, submit to festivals, win prizes, get a distributor, land a movie deal and another lucrative career as filmmaker is launched. It would appear that’s not happening much these days and perhaps the reason is plain to see. The multiplex has now become almost exclusively a big budget arena, which means films put into distribution through them require massive spend on prints and marketing in order to ensure a return. So a distribution spend of tens of millions on a low budget indie film of 100K is what you’re looking at and the people with the money have become risk averse. That will always happen in a recession. So we know the old system is dead, the problem is the new system for low budget indies has not yet been born.

The strange thing is that the tools are in place. For very little money, you can assemble camera, lights, sound equipment and the channels of distribution have also materialised like iTunes, Amazon download and Netflix and even Youtube. But how do you fund that initial budget to kick things off. Of course we have crowd sourcing sites like Fundit and Kickstarter where you can begin to build a buzz and audience for your film and more importantly a budget, but can you really build a business model where your funding relies on donations. Indeed the real question is can you build a business around low budget movies. Roger Corman once boasted that he never lost money on any film he ever made, but what’s often missed about the iconic indie is that he was first and foremost an excellent businessman.

Many filmmakers are pondering these very same questions and will openly admit that as yet they haven’t come up with a bullet proof business plan, but they’re working on it. A recent article in the LA Times titled “Indie director Ed Burns is betting on video-on-demand”, explores the same question.

“The audience that loves independent films have stopped going to the theaters,” said Burns. “There are a couple of reasons for that. It is tougher for smaller movies to get a spot at the multiplex next to all the big-budget Hollywood blockbusters and the specialty theaters that feature independent movies are becoming fewer and fewer during these tough economic times.”

Burns, who made his mark with the independent features ”The Brothers McMullen” and “She’s the One.” has been something of a pioneer when it comes to experimenting with new means of distribution. In 2007, he released his romantic comedy “Purple Violets” exclusively through iTunes.

Now he’s focused on video-on-demand. Last year, he self-financed and released “Nice Guy Johnny” on VOD as well as his new low-budget movie “Newlyweds,” about a recently married couple whose lives are disrupted by the appearance of a volatile relative, which will debut Dec. 26.

“Newlyweds” will then have a small theatrical run in January in Chicago and San Francisco. But the director doesn’t anticipate that his film will have much of a life in cinemas.

For Burns, VOD is the safer bet.

“The economics of a theatrical release for these films just doesn’t make any sense. All of the indie distribution companies will tell you theatrical is a loss leader,” Burns explained, adding, “The amount of money you have to spend marketing these films is insane.”

Burns said “Nice Guy Johnny” was profitable for him. “This is not a business model where you are making millions of dollars, but you are making really healthy robust six-figure numbers.”

The budget for “Newlyweds” was only about $100,000, according to Burns. “Everybody works for free on the film, but everybody owns a piece of the pie, it’s like an indie rock band approach.” Better technology helps too.

“Digital cameras have gotten to the place where you can shoot with a three-man crew and available light and get a great-looking film,” he said.”You don’t have to have films that look like little art house indies.”

“Newlyweds” is being sold for $6.99 via On Demand, the video-on-demand service available through most major cable and satellite operators. Burns said if “Newlyweds” can bring in between $500,000 and $900,000 it will be a “very healthy profit.”

Another guy attempting to answer the same questions is Jason Brubaker, an LA based producer. On his website you’ll find a podcast where he explores some possible answers. Jason believes the way forward might be as follows. Create a studio with a slate of at least 5 films. Put in place a development department, production, marketing, sales etc. Then go after investment with a strong business plan, the emphasis on web distribution and long tail economics. Crucially you also involve the people working in the company in a profit share system as Ed Burns outlined in his plan. I like this structure which he will openly admit is still in development because it moves the activity of filmmaking squarely into the business arena. But of course it raises the obvious question and that is, how attracted would the investment community be in such a proposition. To be honest I don’t know, but time will tell.

This prince isn’t quite ready to be born yet, but the King is dead, long live the King.

A Way Back!

The Guard PosterIt doesn’t seem that long ago the last time I came across a Sunday supplement asking “where has it all gone wrong for Irish film?” or in this case stating “we made fine films once” in the Sunday Times recently. While the statement has the hard core of truth about it, the article is a little short on any meaningful analysis. It is true that since the various triumphs’ of Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan in the 80’s and 90’s and beyond, no Irish filmmakers since have found it possible to pave a similarly successful path.

There can be a lot of reasons for that and the truth is probably a combination of many. Is it limited talent, lack of scale in our stories as Ted Sheehy suggests or the market place has become very competitive as Birch Hamilton of the Screen Directors Guild claims? Like I said, all of the above are factors, but to truly address the problem, for problem it is, open and honest discourse within the industry and indeed between the industry and the audience is a must. Not for the first time have I come across this statement or similar from other articles.

“The reasons are deep and manifold (for the decline of Irish film)  and getting people to talk about them is like interviewing establishment economists in the property boom: (and then the author’s projection of why that might be) they are afraid to admit there is a problem in case the whole edifice collapses.”

When has any problem ever been solved by sticking heads in sand. By and large that’s not a strategy that’s going to give results, particularly because the hard questions will be asked again and again if for no other reason than film-making is a subsidised activity and the hard pressed tax payer is footing the bill. Obfuscation and three card tricks are not going to do it for much longer.

I attended the Irish Playwrights and Screenwriters Guild AGM recently which James Hickey, the new IFB CEO attended by way of introducing himself to writers. He cited the problem of our daily language being English as a serious impediment to box office numbers. This is a problem in English speaking Canada and Australia where a distributor told him he would find it easier to sell the new Irish film “The Guard” than any locally produced films.

There are many problems for sure, but perhaps we should address those things we can do something about. Not a lot can be done about the language we speak or that our films must compete with huge productions with even bigger marketing spend. Like any small fry in any eco system, we’ve got to get smart.

And that comes down to our unique selling point, what is it an Irish film can offer an Irish and indeed worldwide audience that films from no other country can. For me that comes down to relevance. It is in this area that countless filmmakers from around the world found success and it can be done here too. That does not mean to say we can only make art films or kitchen sink dramas, on the contrary stories vested in a time and place, reflecting a snapshot of ourselves, can be told in any genre from black comedy to drama to horror and yes even thriller. (Hidden Agenda – Ken Loach).

The recent box office success of “The Guard” has proven yet again that there is an audience for Irish films. On my way into the local cinema recently I overheard one young woman say to another as she pointed to a poster of “The Guard”….”that one…..the guard, I heard it’s funny! To which the reply from her friend was, “no thanks…..I don’t like Irish films”. Irish film, like everything else in this world is a brand. It takes a long time to build up and can be damaged over time with mediocre offerings to the silver screen Gods.

Consuming Moving Images

Full CinemaAccording to an article in the Los Angeles Times recently, cinema attendance is significantly down. I believe the same is true for our domestic market. I live in Kilkenny, Ireland which is a town (a city by Royal Charter going way back let it be said) of about 25,000 people. Those who know me are aware of my constant gripe about how badly served we are, cinema wise which is a four screen cineplex. Cinema owners are business people first and will therefore show the latest 3D FX driven star vehicle ahead of lesser ticket selling, though perhaps more thought provoking low budget fare. But there’s a problem, that which used to pull the punters, no longer is. At least not in the numbers from only a year previous.

Up until recently, we had two DVD rental stores in town then one of them closed, even after having diversified into gaming, mobile phones and internet access. That store was an indie, what’s left is a store from a nationwide chain – Xtravision, which apparently has its own debt problems. I decided to rent The Black Swan on its DVD release, but when I got to the store, they had all been rented. A whole night had been planned around watching this film and there I was left empty handed. I took myself off to HMV and bought the Blu-ray version because I got a copy for my iPod as a bonus. But the point is, I was quite prepared to buy rather than be inconvenienced by yet another night of unavailability. The Social Network was unavailable to rent for an entire week. Now I can also download from iTunes and that’s great but here’s the thing, I don’t want to wait in future and more than likely will buy or download before I even check if it’s available for rent. The rental store is a model that’s dying, like the VHS tape, it’s had it’s day.

While my demographic is finding the cineplex a wasteland for good films, networks like HBO are stepping into the breach with some excellent dramas. But even there I will much sooner wait to see reviews and catch the buzz on these things before spending God knows how many hours following before concluding that it’s not for me. If I subsequently hear that something is worth watching, I’ll buy the box set. I guess that means that time is more precious to me than money, but isn’t it for all of us?

How we watch, what we watch and when we watch it is in flux right now and will probably remain so for a number of years to come. That’s not such a bad thing when you think about it. When producers fight for your viewership, be it on cinema screens, TV, PC, iPod or whatever, quality will most probably win the battle. Or is that just a little naive?

But this is where it gets interesting, as predicted by Chris Anderson in a Fora.tv video in 2006. Long Tail economics are now kicking in at an accelerated pace. This has to mean enormous potential and opportunity now for low budget independent films, because it is now possible to chart a business model that will sustain that activity, without endless reliance on either state funding or for that matter crowd funding. Like everything else in the market place, if what you produce is good, it can now sell.

Miles To Go

Snowy WoodsI’m at that stage of development where you swing from – this is crap to this is brilliant. But I’ve learnt to live with that. I think that perpetual oscillation is not only healthy but unavoidable because at the stage of writing the first draft, it’s probably true. This new project is called “Miles to Go” although I am already leaning towards the second half of that line from the Robert Frost poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” which is “Before I Sleep”. That wonderful poem is open to interpretation and mine (like many) believe it’s about a contemplation on suicide. Which is why I chose it because this story is about a man who has decided to end his life.

This and other aspects of the story are the rats running around in my head right now from dusk till dawn, although my best ideas come while I sleep, if only I could remember them all. Now that I think about it, that’s exactly how “Winter’s End” came to me – in a dream and it was the scene where Jack searches for his car in Henry’s field.

“Miles to Go” is the story of a man who believes there is only one route to restoring his family’s well being and happiness and that is by restoring their financial fortunes. His muddied thinking is exacerbated when he separates from his family and drifts toward disconnection and isolation and is finally taken to the limit when he begins to see that his own death may actually give him (and his family) all that he hopes to achieve. An unexpected intervention in the form of Lena acts as a catalyst for change as she aids him in fire-fighting family problems throughout a single day. But will he finally see that this and nothing more is all his family want from him before it’s too late.

This project has received a first draft loan from the Irish Film Board and I plan to complete said first draft in June 2011.

“Faithless” aka “In God’s Garden” is now a finished script having lately gone through several reviews and notes with Script Pipeline. To quote their last review “we believe (Faithless) has reached it’s highest level of competency, both in general writing ability and concept.” The project’s producer is actively exploring co-production opportunities at home and abroad.

Monster lessons!

Monsters PosterI am always captivated by the success of micro budget films, particularly when they’re feature débuts and the latest in that pantheon is Gareth Edward‘s Monsters. It comes in at an unbelievable $15,000, however when you watch the Blu-Ray extras, you realise that Edwards wrote, directed, DOP’d and created all 250 FX shots (with no green screen or tracking points). In a bid to launch a career, I’m pretty sure these jobs represented a zero value on the films budget.

Monsters has done what it was designed to do, make money for the producers and launch a VFX specialist as a sought after director, while at the same time entertaining it’s audience. The film is not really an original concept, nor is it a memorable story, but perhaps its greatest achievement is throwing into stark relief the bloated hollywood FX/Star driven vacuous extravaganzas that have come to dominate our cineplexs. Yet another assault on a dying dogma that believes, if you throw enough money at a films production and marketing, at least one will make enough dosh to cover the loses of the many. However, recent box office figures suggest the audience has had enough and are turning up in depleted numbers. But isn’t Monsters just one such film made for a pittance? Well not really, but even if it were, its price tag somehow makes that OK.

What’s truly remarkable about Monsters is that it came together at all. Shooting began with nothing more than an outline. The crew was made up of Edwards, a sound recordist, line producer and editor. The cast consisted of two actors and small parts were recruited locally, many of which couldn’t speak English. But what makes this film really work are the two lead actors Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able. Two talented actors who were familiar with each other before Monsters and considering so much improv and ad lib was called for, this was a major plus.

Ireland is a country where we can afford to make nothing but low budget movies and in reality, those budgets are wildly extravagant compared to Edward’s debut feature. So at the end of the day, it really does come down to talent. Being able to recognise it, resource it and applaud it.

I was recently awarded a First draft loan by the Irish Film Board for a feature project called Miles To Go. I will be blogging soon about the progress of that project.

 

Irish Film Board – Transition in a changed World

Irish Film BoardA time of transition invites us to look back and assess the accomplishments of an outgoing incumbent’s time in office and also to look forward and ponder what a new office holder will do differently or better. Simon Perry spent 5 years as CEO of the Irish Film Board and it is perhaps premature to measure his achievements or otherwise. For the first year or two of Simon’s tenure, many projects which came to fruition would have been initiated by his predecessor Mark Woods and equally, many projects initiated by Simon will not reach screens for perhaps the next year or two. Nonetheless, part of the process of moving forward is glancing in the rear view mirror and that will happen in due course.

So I began to think about a wish list, if I were to be asked about what changes I would suggest to better serve Irish filmmakers, tax payers and audience (the stakeholders), what would I come up with. There’s one overriding fact we have to bear in mind right now and that is that our country is bankrupt, so doing things the way we always did them is not an option. We have to do things better, more cost effectively, more transparently and with a lot more accountability and of course make films that attract an audience. The Irish Film Board will receive something in excess of €15 million this year while at the same time people are going hungry, doing without heating in their homes many of which will be repossessed and essential services are vanishing.

1. Transparency and Accountability

The application process lacks transparency, that’s not just my view, but the view of many who engage with the process. I suggest firstly that it should be a process that more closely resembles how the industry at large works. In other words it begins with a pitch, followed by a treatment/synopsis, followed by more treatments, followed by a script followed by production support. I doubt there are many bad ideas, just ideas in need of development and that costs time and money. The process in place right now lacks engagement and a process of advancement and development, you either gain support from an application, or you don’t. It should also be possible to pitch projects to both a development and production panel (particularly for those projects which are significantly advanced).

Which brings me to the second point. The decisions on applications lack transparency, in fact those decisions when they arrive are not even accompanied by readers reports, they have to be subsequently requested. To counter these problems, I suggest as a model the competency based assessment system. It’s a selection process used by many organisations to select new employees as well as candidates for internal promotion and it works like this. A set of competencies are set down as the baseline for candidates. All applicants must put forward in writing where and how they believe they have demonstrated each competency. An interview follows whereby these examples are explored and a clear and open scoring system is employed from which the strongest candidates emerge. The interview panel is also comprised of internal and external personnel. Naturally this process begins with short listing adhering to clear criteria. Those who have been unsuccessful in gaining support will at least begin to see their own shortcomings and can choose to address them.

And finally on the point of accountability, it’s not acceptable that box office and ancillary distribution results are not made public. Any film project which receives tax payer’s money should be open to interrogation in terms of its finances and return on investment.

2. Drop Budgets – Make more Films

I have a theory and it is this. The more films you make the more likely it is that talent will emerge. For that to happen, budgets have to drop. There’s no reason why 12 films at a budget of €100K and 12 films at €250K could not be made in a year. That’s 24 films at a cost of €4.2M. Don’t get hung up on the numbers, the essential point is this. There has been an abundance of examples, both here and abroad and indeed some initiated by IFB, that have been very successful micro budget films. From Ken Wardrope’s “His & Hers” and JohnCarney’s “Once” to Gareth Edwards “Monsters” ($15,000) and many more.

3. Subsidise Cinema Tickets

In virtually every other market, products are priced according to their perceived value to the consumer. For some reason that commercial imperative does not apply to film and more specifically the cineplex. No matter what film you choose to see, the cost of your ticket is exactly the same. IFB do have a scheme whereby a film can apply to have it’s distribution costs diminished by way of a grant, in some cases I believe up to €70K. The flaw in this plan is that if an audience fails to show up, the money is gone, never to return. So here’s an idea, use that money to sub vent the cost of every ticket sold so that now the punter has the option of a low cost ticket to see a low budget film. If the audience don’t show up, the cinema will pull the film and no one’s worse off. Perhaps these films run only during the day and God knows unfortunately we have many thousands of people with no paid activity in that time. The French do this by way of a tax on foreign (Hollywood) films and it works.

4. RTE – IFB Alliance

Although Mike Leigh is now recognised as an internationally successful filmmaker, the fact is that after his first feature film Bleak Moments, he didn’t make another film for the cinema for another 17 years. In common with contemporaries like Stephen Frears and Alan Parker , he was able to polish his craft in television with a multitude of standout dramas. In Ireland we have two state bodies, RTE and IFB, yet there seems to be little if any cross pollination and that is perplexing and frustrating. Conor McPherson’s most recent film Eclipse got its first outing, even prior to a cinema screening, on RTE (a condition I believe of their financial participation). Whatever the fortunes of this film at the international box office (understandably there was no Irish cinema release), in terms of getting an audience, I guess this film may have achieved anything between two and three hundred thousand of an audience, far in excess of what could be dreamt of at the home box office. An audience is an audience.

5. Funding for Board Members

Perception is the driving force for a lot of change today. Last weekend we had the future Taoiseach Enda Kenny renouncing his teacher’s pension for exactly this reason. What was acceptable 5 years ago, no longer can be. If industry practitioners who are not in a position to forgo IFB funding for the duration of their tenure cannot be found (i.e. taking a sabbatical, or returning to study etc), then it may be time to find individuals from outside the industry to sit on the board. This is no revolutionary idea, many boards, state and otherwise are occupied by people who have no participation in the sector of the organisation they serve. On the other hand, perhaps the remedy is to significantly shorten the term of service. There is a system in Belgium I think where film makers are taken on a rolling basis to advise the fund. The term is quite short (6 to 12 months) and with a small stipend has the benefit of a constant stream of fresh thinking and gives the film making community a sense of being part of the system rather than being on the outside looking in. This is perhaps a preferable solution to the question.

6. IFB Open Days

This point ties into two things, communication and accountability. Filmmakers and screenwriters need to be very clear as to the kind of projects IFB will and will not support and why. At the same time, filmmakers should have regular opportunity to inform IFB about the kind of films they want to make. This should be a continually evolving position and therefore a website policy statement is insufficient. If, once every two or three months, an open day was held when filmmakers, screenwriters and IFB personnel could interact informally together with policy announcements, Q&A session etc. I believe this could be very beneficial for all.

7. Online Interactivity

This is an idea which was suggested at an IFB gig in Galway well over 5 years ago. Since then we’ve had Web 2.0 where web interaction is the name of the game. I know IFB have a Facebook page and Twitter account, but these are only used as announcement platforms, rather than what they were designed for, i.e. building and interacting with a community. The web technologies now exist to enable regular and vibrant interaction between IFB and Irish filmmakers on the IFB website. Yes we can all go to Filmmakers Network and that is very welcome, but from what I can see, there is no IFB participation on this forum, so the conversation is taking place on one side of the street.

8. Reduce Admin Costs

No doubt, this will be a demand of whichever Government minister takes control of the parent department and rightly so. I think the running costs of IFB is something in the region of €2.4M. I feel sure there are numerous ways of significantly reducing this and I wonder in a small country, if there is a justification for two offices which have now drawn a lot closer due to a state of the art motor-way.

9. Statement of Vision and Intent from new CEO

The new CEO James Hickey will take up his full time position on 1st June. From the perspective of a filmmaker who will be seeking support for various projects, I need to know in very clear terms what is the vision and intent of IFB for the next five years which will to a large extent be determined by the CEO in conjunction with the board. The sooner this happens the better and I’m not sure it can wait until the summer. Whether you agree or not with the vision expressed, at the very least you will have a clear idea – is my project meeting with or counter to it.

10. Cut off point for Filmmakers

In a time of limited resources, it is essential that as many aspirants as possible get support to make their mark. It therefore follows that there must be a cut off point where a conclusion is reached, that despite several funding initiatives, a filmmaker has failed to connect with an audience. In this set of circumstances, a decision will have to made in terms of no further funding in favour of supporting someone new. Of course it’s not possible to be black and white on this issue, nonetheless it would also serve to engender a culture of “upping your game”.

And finally I would like to wish James Hickey the best of luck in his new post. The Irish film industry has enormous potential to benefit the Irish economy both directly and indirectly. This I believe can be best achieved by doing things better, more cost effectively and with greater participation of the principle stakeholders – the filmmakers.