Thursday, May 28, 2009

Time to stop reaching for the stars?

We've known that big stars are no longer enough to ensure box office success. Now, apparently, they're no longer enough to even greenlight a movie.

Lisa Wilson, president of international distribution at GK Films remarked recently to Variety: "I've heard of stories about films in the middle of production that have bank notes that still haven't cleared yet." Will Smith can still get a film greenlit sight-unseen, according to Brian O'Shea, executive VP of worldwide distribution at Odd Lot Intl.

So, if stars can't get big films made, what can? Positioning.

Producers, including indie filmmakers like those at the Texas Film Scene, need to start with the idea of what will bring people to the film. That could be an actor, but it could be a great writer, or a unique location (particularly if you are marketing the film locally or regionally), or a fantastic logline. Hollywood types love these so-called "high concept" movies, because they can be more easily marketed.

And books. Hollywood loves, loves, loves movies based on best-sellers, like Twilight, Harry Potter, or James Bond. Why? Because it reduces risk. Or, at least, it appears to reduce risk. If the book sells well, that (hopefully) proves that there is a built-in audience, just waiting for the movie to be released. And Hollywood is all about reducing risk, particularly on mid-range, $30-100 million dollar films.

As discussed here in previous posts, comic book movies and big-budget extravaganzas are almost the sole purview of Tinsel Town. Nobody does a $250 million dollar, effects-laden blockbuster like Hollywood. Come to think of it, nobody else does them at all, period.

But what about micro-budget indies? For them, the costs of production are so low that even C-list stars can generate enough interest and critical praise to achieve profitability. But if you are trying to raise capital for your film, it may be better to invest in a unique story, or other marketable hook, than in a "name" actor, unless that actor can demonstrate a documented following and fan base.

Think hard about what marketing position you will take for your film long before you ever call "action."

Thanks to Joseph Kenny for the heads-up on this article.


Si Dunn said...

Thanks for this article, Curtis. It provides some excellent insights. I have managed to get a very-low-budget horror script optioned, and the producer/director has managed to get lead-actor interest from the brother of one of Hollywood's biggest names. But we're stuck in limbo over not being able to find a quarter mil or less in funding. Neither one of us could put nearly that much on credit cards!

Curtis Wayne said...

You're welcome, Si. Congrats on the option!

I've found that a lot of option deals I encountered were zero-dollar options, which made it tough to offer pay-or-play guarantees to "name" actors (even C-list actors). That, in turn, made it tough to get first-dollar-investors because we didn't have any "names" attached to the package. Doh!

Like Kathy Griffin, there are a lot of C- or D-list actors that make their living doing small films on the indie circuit, whether a 1-day cameo appearance, or the entire shoot. Budgets for these actors range from $10k to $100k, depending on the total budget. Reminds me of my days touring as a musician!

But the ironic thing is that, years ago, we found distributors knocking down advances against foreign rights, and even with "stars" attached, and a 50% matching loand and completion bond guarantee from Bank of Hollywood, etc., we couldn't get certain pictures funded.

It seemed crazy, but distributors, who were in the trenches, realized that names don't equal sales, unless it's BIG budget, and usually (a) action, (b) horror, or (c) porn. So, there you are.

To me, the most exciting model of late is what producers of shows like "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia", and our very own Blake Calhoun and Mike Maden (Pink the Series) have done: create awesome content for cheap, generate your own buzz, and let the majors come to you.

It's the same model that many successful bands have used over the years. Dave Mathews, Hootie and the Blowfish, Ani DiFranco, and Widespread Panic all sold tens of thousands of CDs on their own, before being approached by the major labels. Interestingly, DiFranco and WS told the Big Six to go suck eggs. 5 years ago, Prince and Madonna did the same thing.