Monday, December 28, 2009

Box Office Records: Can They Help Indie Film?

I love hearing that Hollywood is breaking box office records this year. Supposedly, the domestic box office is going to reach $10 billion for the first time and Hollywood just had the biggest three-day weekend ever at $263 million -- thanks to an impressive showing by Avatar, Sherlock Holmes, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and It's Complicated. A seven-day record is expected to be broken this week as well. 

Can this help indie film? I think so. If anything, it should help potential investors feel positive about how the film industry is faring at the moment. Making investors feel comfortable about the state of the industry goes a long way in getting them to take an interest in investing in film. 

If investors hear that box office records are being broken then they may want to get in on the action. They may get excited about a possible trickle down effect that may happen from this success. It is possible that this success at the box office will increase the demand for films and lead to increased buying. It may also make theatrical releases less scary for the distributors. 

However, I wouldn't get excited just yet. Hollywood loves to blame success on anomalies so it's most likely going to take a lot more than one year's success during a recession to get them excited about buying more and doing more costly theatrical releases. 

Will this success also make film investments safer? In my opinion, no. Film investments are high-risk investments no matter how you slice them. They strongly depend on the quality of the creative team and the script. 

In addition, theatricals tend to be loss leaders, meaning the film loses money playing in the theater but the exposure leads the film nicely into strong DVD, TV and foreign performances. So though theatricals are breaking records, they aren't known for being major money-makers. The big revenue has been made more in the DVD and TV and foreign markets. 

And right now, there is a real downturn in DVD sales (though rentals are up) and we still haven't figured out how to monetize digital downloads well yet and TV advertising dollars have dried up. Blu-ray has yet to prove it has the muscle to help the DVD industry. 

What these box-office records do show is that people are making the trek to the movie theaters and that is exciting. Even with movie ticket prices being high, people are still enjoying gathering together in a dark room and being caught up in a story with no interruptions for an hour and a half or more. And that has to bolster the entertainment industry. 

The moral of the story is that good news helps everyone -- even if you aren't quite sure how it will help you or your project specifically. Just an overall feeling of success can do a great deal in building confidence and positive buzz for an industry. So yes, I do believe these box-office records can be used to help indie film. They show that people do still love movies and they will spend the money at the box office to see them -- if we offer them a reason to do so. What is that reason? Good, enjoyable, satisfying entertainment. That should be our goal.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Biz of Running an Independent Film Production Company

I have been running my production company now for about five years. It has been quite a learning experience. Luckily I had owned a book packaging company in NYC for a while so I had some knowledge of setting up a business. Thank goodness for that because otherwise I would have really been lost. Learning how to start a business at the same time as figuring out how to produce films would have blown my mind, I think.

I don't know of any go-to resources out there that tell you how to start your own film production company. You basically have to talk to colleagues and figure out how they did it. Or you can consult with your accountant or entertainment lawyer, if you even have them on your team yet. 

When we started our company, we began as a DBA (or Doing Business As). It allowed us to secure a name for the company and open a business account under that name. We thought, why spend the yearly fee on owning an LLC in California until we felt we really needed to?  In California it comes out to about $820 per year at a minimum to have an LLC. California is one of the most expensive states in which to have an LLC. Lucky us!

One of the main reasons LLCs are formed are to provide you with liability protection. Since we were primarily doing development the first year or so and I was working on projects under other companies, we thought let's wait a bit on the costly LLC.

Once we started putting together projects for production, it was now time to start our production company's LLC. We wanted our company, not us as individuals, managing our projects. So Wonder Entertainment is typically a managing member of the companies we create for each individual film that we make. 

What's that you ask? We have companies for each film too? Yes! You need to offer your investors an investment vehicle in which to invest, i.e. an LLC, for each film. Otherwise, they would be taking stakes in your production company. 

So that $820 really adds up when you are talking about having the LLC for your own production company that mainly does development and then $820 per year for all the LLC's that are created once you are ready to make a film. 

So let's say you have made 10 films under California LLCs and you have your LLC for your production company then that's over $9k per year just to have the privilege of operating a company in California. I feel privileged every time I write the checks. 

So when you go to make a film in California, make sure you are really going to be making it before you open the LLC. 

And once you form the LLCs, you will need an attorney or a legal service like LegalZoom to draft the operating agreement and an accountant to do the taxes for each company. You may even need to hire a bookkeeper to keep your books up to date on each company. 

Then you need to worry about keeping track of all your expenses so you can write them off at tax time. This is very important as you can receive a sizable tax break if your expenses are high. You will probably have to purchase Quickbooks so you have software that can track your expenses and allow your accountant to have an easier time doing your taxes.

If you are hiring employees then that's a whole other scenario. Employees? Wouldn't that be nice? .... Sorry, I was dreaming there for a second about actually having an employee to help me do what I do. It was a lovely dream. 

There's also the question of opening an office or not. We started out with an office in Hollywood and after a year and a horrible experience with a money-grubbing landlord (that is a whole other story I should discuss sometime), we decided we didn't need the overhead and we all started working out of our home offices. Perhaps someday an office will make sense again but right now, working in my PJs with my cat in my lap suits me just fine.

Now that you have the business of your production company settled, you can focus on the fun stuff: making movies!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Not Since You Plans for Theatrical!

We are in talks with the Georgia Theatre Co. about having a limited theatrical for our feature Not Since You. This is super exciting for us and our film because we had worried a theatrical would be out of the question. 

Many independent films never have a theatrical release. Instead they go straight to DVD or TV or the Internet. This is due to economics. Theatrical releases are often loss leaders, meaning they lose money but they lead the film toward strong DVD and TV releases (which helps to make up for the loss at the theaters). 

Thankfully the Georgia Theatre Co. agrees with us that the film deserves to be in the theaters! They have been super helpful thus far and we are shipping posters off to their Athens, Georgia theater today for some promotion of the film during the holiday film rush. 

We chose to work with the Georgia Theatre Co. because we shot the film in Athens, Georgia and we believe we can build strong support for this release in that region. If any of you reading are from that area, please go see the film! I'll post the dates as soon as we have them.

I'm off to have 4 posters printed this morning and shipped to the Athens theater for some holiday promotion of the film. Still pinching myself!

Here's the trailer: 

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Brittany Murphy RIP

My condolences go out to Brittany Murphy's family. I didn't know Ms. Murphy but she was considered an indie-friendly actor and could be found on everyone's wish list for actors. She was approachable and even produced her own film Ramen Girl. She will be missed.

Indie Filmmakers Should Lean on Each Other More

The key to fixing indie film is working together. We all have a common goal of making movies, right? So why not come together and support one another? Your success is my success and vice versa.

Too often we indie filmmakers work in vacuums. We find our projects and build our teams by ourselves. I've done that many times. And I look back and think, I should have leaned on my colleagues more. In those times, I was alone trying to figure out a solution to my problems, I should have reached out more to my producer/director friends. Perhaps they would have had a quick, simple solution.

I know I am reinventing the wheel too often. I'm sure you often feel the same.

This is why networking is so important and helping others counts. In those times you hit an issue that you have never dealt with before, why not reach out and see how your colleagues have handled the problem? Hopefully they have experienced the same thing and can offer a quick solution based on their own experience and research.

If any of you run into issues, feel free to reach out to me. I may have ideas to offer because I've been there before. Consider me a colleague you can lean on! Hopefully I can do the same with you.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Runaways -- Joan Jett Rocks

Let's hope the film rocks too! Here's a trailer:

Women Filmmakers, Our Discussion

We're having a great discussion over at Women and Hollywood today. The blog I wrote about women needing to make more movies and network more got everyone talking. Check out the comments on my blog post and then see the cross posting of my blog entry and comments at Women and Hollywood. 

As you can tell, I'm a big proponent of not portraying women as victims of Hollywood. I don't think having women be portrayed as victims helps in any situation. We need to be thought of as equals. So instead I'd rather focus on how we can have a greater presence in Hollywood both as creators and as an audience. What can we do to effect change?

Bottomline, Hollywood is going to do what it wants, when it wants, how it wants. All Hollywood cares about is the bottomline. And they don't think women really help their bottomline. Any box office successes are considered anomalies. 

So we really need to put our energies toward figuring out how to get Hollywood to realize that the female audience is powerful and that female creatives can bring the box office just as their male counterparts do.

How do we do that? Work together on initiatives to help prove to Hollywood that we are a viable audience and creators. The key is being proactive and actually doing something about this issue and not just throw out a few blog comments here or there. 

It's going to take real action. Melissa Silverstein at Women and Hollywood is absolutely taking action. She highlights the issues that women have in Hollywood every day. We need more Melissas and we need more organizations that really help female filmmakers. I'll be honest that I receive no help or support from any female film organization. I'm certain there are others out there like me in that regard. And that really needs to change. If I started a woman's organization for female filmmakers, would others join?

We also need to figure out how to reach the female audience through our work. How about a film series highlighting female directors? I'm sure there have been some. But let's do some more. 

Why don't we throw out ideas of what we think would help? And perhaps we can all come together and work on some of them?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Women Need to Make More Movies and Network More

I keep hearing about all of this outrage that exists over women not being hired to make movies, either as screenwriters or directors or producers. As a female producer, I am certain that I am discriminated against whether or not it's on purpose. There is a boys club that exists in Hollywood, no doubt about it. 

And I don't play golf. I keep meaning to take it up but I haven't...and I'm sure that has affected my career as well.

Being a woman in Hollywood can suck but I think it's crap for anyone to think that they can't have a career because someone won't hire them. To those people, I say, "get off your butt and make your career happen!" I have never once let the boys club of Hollywood stop me from making movies. I will make movies til the day I die no matter what. And I am certain the successful female filmmakers in Hollywood have the same belief system. 

I'm not saying we should stop rallying for change. Keep up the fight! But let's do something more than whine about it. 

The next time you get a rejection, think about how you can make your film outside of the Hollywood system. Partner with an indie producer (male or female) and find the money yourself to get your film made. The money is out there. You just have to work hard to find it.

We could all easily sit back and wait for Hollywood to give us our career. I'm sorry to say though that we would be sitting for a very long time. We all need to make our own careers for Hollywood to take notice. We are not alone in that reality. I know a ton of male filmmakers struggling every day as well.

I really think that women need to get out there and make more movies and network more. As a producer, I am pitched projects all the time. But I have to say that probably 90% of the projects are by and about men. Where are all the projects by and about women? Why am I not approached more by female filmmakers? What is up ladies? 

After five years of being an indie producer,  I am just now partnering with a female director. And it's not because I haven't been looking. I make an effort to seek out female filmmakers but for some reason, I get a lot of white noise. It seems we women suck at networking and forging lasting relationships. But I have found that when we do find those relationships that stick, we are extremely loyal and we will go to the ends of the earth to protect one another.

I want to make movies about and for women and with women. I have to ask: where are you female filmmakers? I want to hear from you!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

What Should be Considered Indie Film? Part 2

We have a great discussion going on Brothers: A Review and What Should Be Considered Indie Film? Noah Harlan brought up another point I'd like to address.

"Ryan [Kavanagh of Relativity Media] has a couple billion in assets that he uses to finance and he has that money in massive tranches from hedge funds. He's not doing the hustle like we are...

In fact, he 
is the guy who controls the money in Hollywood."

You make a good point Noah. But I'm pretty sure Ryan K is still hustling every day. He's just hustling on a much bigger stage. Sure he has assets to play with and he provides funds for studio films, but he has to be pretty smart in how he uses those assets in order to keep the money flowing and quality films being made. I don't think Ryan K has it easy. He just has a different set of stressers. 

Personally, as a producer, I would love to be a fly on Ryan K's wall to see how he makes it all work. I'm sure I could learn a great deal from him that would make me a better indie producer. To be honest, it feels a bit odd to be defending Ryan K as indie when I'm sure he could care a less about what he is considered, but I do think it's a valid discussion to be having as I think it's an identity issue that indie film struggles with. And it's an issue that breeds more often a negative response than a positive one.

Ryan K is a dealmaker producer instead of a filmmaker producer, but that shouldn't stop him from being considered indie. I think it's appropriate to consider the films he funds outside of the studio system as indie as he is taking the risk of being independent just like we are -- even though the risks can be perceived as much less since he can afford to pay for the big name screenwriters, filmmakers and actors. On the other hand, he has much farther to fall monetarily should one of his indie films flop.

This is a great debate and I think much of it stems from indie angst (which of course I experience myself) of often being squeezed out of the Hollywood system (i.e. limited access to talent repped by the big agencies, etc.) and not being recognized for the extremely hard work we do in making our low-budget indie films as we try to personally survive financially, etc. It's also frustrating for indie filmmakers who approach their films from the creative perspective to compete with the Ryan Ks who approach moviemaking as a business. Two different motivations for filmmaking but the same end results: a film.

It's true that our existence is very different from the worlds of the Ryan Ks and Michael Ds, who seem to have it much easier. Who doesn't want Ron Howard waiting in his/her waiting room? But if you strip away the monetary and asset differences, the efforts of making films outside of the studio system are the same.

The main reason I want to keep the Ryan Ks and Michael Ds part of our world is that filmmaker producers need a dialogue with dealmaker producers. We need to learn from them just as they need to learn from us. And we do need to play in their playground if we are ever going to compete properly with them. Look at
Paranormal Activity's performance this year. It's another indication that we do have the power to compete with the big boys and girls and we should be striving to do just that.

I do have to give props to Ryan K's philosophy of wanting to only fund projects he will actually make. This is an indie philosophy for sure. And he seems to be true to his word on that and he does back a lot of wonderful films -- amongst some crap too I'm sure. But then, there's a lot of truly crappy indie films being made as well so I'm not sure we can fault Ryan K for having a few flops too. We all need to learn how to stop making flops. How do we do that?

Friday, December 4, 2009

What Should Be Considered Indie Film?

I had a comment from Noah Harlan on my Brothers post about whether or not that film should be considered indie as it was financed by Relativity and had a producer like Michael De Luca, who has produced many studio flicks on board. This is a great talking point when it comes to indie film. Thanks for bringing it up Noah. It's definitely the elephant in the room. 

I have to admit that I find it extremely hard to include films like Brothers on the indie list. Do films like that really struggle like we indie filmmakers do, day in/day out? They have it easy, right? They have major Hollywood players on board with deep pockets. So why should we consider them indie? 

Well, I suppose we don't technically have to. But I'd like to think we can play in the same playground and by including them I hope it might actually equalize us all a little more. And the more we accept these larger films that are spending way too much as being part of our world then perhaps we can actually influence them? 

The more they are compared to the little guys then maybe they can look at us and realize that they should be spending less and that they CAN spend less. If held at arms length or in contempt, they may continue to run rampant. 

And maybe we can look at them as providing a means to getting great drama out to the mainstream and reminding them of what they are missing? Perhaps seeing Brothers will inspire some to seek out other great drama that may have been made truly indie?

Whether Jim Sheridan has $5 million or $25 million to make a film, he is still a wonderful dramatic filmmaker. Perhaps the discussion should be more about how can we make more films like the ones Jim Sheridan makes -- on any budget level -- and make them profitable?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Brothers: A Review

From the first promo of the film, I was hooked. First, I love director Jim Sheridan's work. In America is a very intimate, raw portrayal of a family trying to survive in New York City. Not many filmmakers have the skill or take the time to really develop child characters. Sheridan has the ability to have young children (in Brothers -- Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare) bring an extremely powerful performance amongst actors like Sam Shepard, Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire -- wow!

I was convinced I had to see the film after seeing an interview with Natalie Portman on David Letterman. When discussing the film, Letterman had true passion in his voice when he said it was one of the best films of the past decade. Portman was very humbled by Letterman's response and you could tell she agreed with him that the film was special. And she appeared truly honored to have been part of the film. I now understand why. 

So when The Wrap offered a screening last night, I jumped on it. I'm glad I did. Brothers is a quiet, intimate journey with a family as they deal with the homecoming of one son (Jake Gyllenhaal) from prison and the departure of another (Tobey Maguire) to war. We are then swept up in the lives of these characters as they deal with the absence of the man at war who is a son, brother, husband, and father. The effects of his absence resonate through the entire family and Sheridan takes the time to really explore these effects on each and every character -- his brother, wife (Portman), his two kids, and his father (Shepard) and stepmother (Mare Winningham). 

Brothers is the exact kind of film that is being threatened by the independent film collapse. Sure, it helps that the cast is big and wonderful and Jim Sheridan has a fan base of his own. It may also help that it is a remake of a Danish film of the same name. But, in general, dramatic films of this nature are being wiped out by reluctant investors and distributors. So please go support this beautiful film -- for the sake of your own careers as indie filmmakers. You won't regret it. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

It's in the Air! The Film Industry Zeitgeist

Isn't it odd how films with similar subject matters tend to pop up around the same time? We had two films about the famous runner Prefontaine and two films on Capote and two on the Zodiac killer around the same time and even my own film Not Since You will soon be competing with The Romantics -- a film with an oddly similar premise of a group of college friends reuniting at a weekend wedding. Very weird!

If you are thinking of an idea for a film then surely others are out there thinking and perhaps working on the same kind of idea. I suppose it makes sense because many of us are influenced by the same current events and societal issues. In other words, the same ideas are floating in the zeitgeist so it stands to reason that some of us would be thinking about, reacting to, and creating stories that feel familiar to each other.

It's still creepy when it happens -- especially when you haven't been aware of the other group's project until after each is pretty much done! And it's inevitable that the projects will be compared against one another and one will usually do better than the other. Though if both projects are strong perhaps the curiosity for comparing could help the two do even better than if they were released on their own. Who knows?

In any event, it's always intriguing when similar projects bubble up and I know it's stressful for the filmmakers as you don't want your project to be overshadowed and perhaps even stalled due to the competition. Many specs have gone unsold because someone else beat them to the punch by selling his or her script on the same topic or premise first. 

It's an interesting phenomenon. One I'm sure that has intrigued anthropologists. Now all we need is the phenomenon that has us creating a box office smash with our low budget indie! I'm ready for that day!