Friday, September 28, 2012

How to Make a Feature Film

Scene from Cowgirls n' Angels
Last night I was honored to be in attendance at the Northern California premiere of Cowgirls n' Angels, the feature-film directorial debut of Tim Armstrong, a business associate of mine.

A fine evening and a fine film-- But the coolest part about this whole thing is how it was made, a case study in how to get a feature film made, starting with a vision.

Tim Armstrong's day job is as a director of institutional videos in Glendale. He was (and still is) the go-to for Kantola Productions, Steve Kantola's business training video company in Mill Valley.  Tim directed short films about employee ethics, office conflicts, sexual harassment-- If you had to watch a mandatory video in an office, there's a good chance you have seen his work. I have known Tim professionally for five years: I am just down the production chain from him, taking his finished masters and creating the menus and DVD masters for Kantola.

In 2009 the economy nearly went belly-up, and as the specialty video market dried up Tim found himself with more and more time on his hands. (I know exactly the tough sort of time he went through: in 2009 my company had to move from an office to my garage.)  In this downtime Tim decided to try his hand at a feature. Inspired by some rodeo trick-riding he's seen, he sketched out an outline for Cowgirls n' Angels.

 He took the proposal to Steve Kantola, who invested $50,000 in development money. This allowed Tim to get the screenplay (co-written by Stephan Blinn) finished and to get the project shopped around. It was picked up by Samuel Goldwyn Films, and given a budget that big enough to land James Cromwell and Jackson (Twilight) Rathbone. It was shot on RED cameras on location in Oklahoma.

Cowgirls n' Angels is a winning little story about Ida (Bailee Madison), a “semi-orphaned” girl in Clinton, Oklahoma who longs to meet her estranged, unknown father. The only clue she has of his existence is an old postcard of a rodeo rider. Her search for him leads her to the world of Midwest small-town rodeos, where she falls under the care of Terence (Cromwell) who runs an all-girl trick-riding outfit called Sweethearts of the Rodeo.

It might be easy for those reading this article, those more in tune with edgier independent cinema, to dismiss Cowgirls n' Angels as programmatic fare, but consider this: It's a PG film that was released in 50 theatres in the midwest. Come October 2nd the DVD and Blu-Ray (distributed by FOX) will be on sale in Walmarts nationwide, and soon after on Netflix and On-Demand. Family films have a tendency to clean up in the post-theatrical markets, and I have no doubt this film will make back it's modest budget.

If the goal of making a feature film is self-expression AND reaching a large audience, Tim Armstrong has done a fair sight better than most filmmakers I know at his level in the business. No film festivals, no Kickstarter: Just somebody with a vision-- and somebody who was willing to invest in that vision. And just as a note to any potential initial investors out there: From what he told the audience in Mill Valley, Steve Kantola has already made all his money back.

And yeah, I would have loved to have gone with this production model on the screenplay John Harden and I wrote (the AFF 2009 winner), but there's a big difference between a PG film about a winsome little cowgirl and a hard R sci-fi women-in-prison movie. Content matters...

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Weekend Box Office

Thanks to for the figures!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Kickstarting Indies To The Curb

This a few days old, but my old writing partner turned a post from Deadline Hollywood, Nikki Finke's website, which was quite an eye-opener. It concerns Kickstarter, a very cool website where people can crowdsource funding for various creative projects.
Charlie Kaufman and his producing partners ― former Community showrunner Dan Harmon and Dino Stamatopoulos ― do not want to deal with Hollywood, and now at least for one project they don’t have to. A stop-motion animation adaptation of the Kaufman-written play Anomalisa raised $406,237 for the film’s production in 60 days via the crowdfunding website Kickstarter. “We want to make Anomalisa without the interference of the typical big-studio process,” according to a pitch video that Harmon and Stamatopoulos’ Starburns Industries put up on the project page. The film raised more than double the money the producers were asking from 5,770 Kickstarter backers.
These guys broke the Kickstarter record for film funding. Surprised? Not me. Is this good news? Not really. I was wondering how long something as wonderful as Kickstarter could last.

Kickstarter was specifically designed to give filmmakers outside the industry access to funding. Don't get me wrong: Kaufman and Harmon and Starburns have every right to use Kickstarter. But they shouldn't. Anyone with CAA-level representation and the ability to take meetings at a studio shouldn't. Basically, anyone with recognizable star power shouldn't.

Why not? Because they have an unfair advantage over the vast majority of other projects seeking funding. If I was some starry-eyed fellow with $1000 to give away on a film project, and I had to choose between giving it to an indie project written by John August with Johnny Depp penciled in for a cameo versus a digital feature written by Elmo Nobodyski from Rustbeltville featuring Jane Nobody, guess who gets my money? Which contribution gives me bragging rights, Hollywood cache and a T-Shirt with a star on it? Pretty obvious choice.

Celebrity--  admiration for sports heroes, movie stars, political heavyweights, what have you-- exists because it's a basic component of human social behavior, a deep part of our collective brain wiring. Throughout history and undeniably before it, people have always created hierarchies-- even when they aren't needed. We seek out great men or great women to personify our values and channel our aspirations.

This is why it is risky to invest millions of dollars in a movie with no recognizable stars. (And yeah, Pixar does this all the time, but they're a solid brand, which is a form of non-individual celebrity.) And this is why, even if an indie film on Kickstarter may be a superior idea to one offered by a Hollywood insider, it'll never outdraw it in terms of funding.

Kickstarter is a zero-sum game. There are only so many investors with so much money they're willing to donate. If the trend continues, and any Industry pro with the itch goes to Kickstarter to raise money for pet projects rather than ask a studio or (God forbid) use their own money, the long shadow their celebrity casts will make all the truly independent film projects offered seem that much dimmer.

The thing that makes Kickstarter wonderful is it's basic attitude of altruism. Donations are made to creative efforts of all kinds where the donor expects nothing in return but the satisfaction of giving a leg up to a project they feel is worthy. The presence of celebrity-driven projects debases this altruism: Even if donors get no return on financial investment, they get something back: the intangible return of celebrity association, a very real claim that some of the fame they contributed to rubbed off on them. This weakens Kickstarter's mission of creative altruism-- a plain example of Gresham's Law, bad money driving out good.

This couldn't happen, right? A bunch of Hollywood operators couldn't monopolize something as inherently democratic as Kickstarter, right? If I recall, The Sundance Film Festival was supposed to be a showcase for independent filmmakers. But the Industry discovered it-- and now Park City is not much more than an outlier of the TMZ, so insular that an alternative festival (Slamdance) had to be created to give indie filmmakers any sort of chance. So yeah, it can definitely happen again.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Weekend Box Office

The usual thanks to for the figures.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Weekend Box Office

Thanks to for the data!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Weekend Box Office

Thanks to for that cool chart