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...

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