Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Mother of a Day

I'm out of the loop when people describe Charles Kaufman's Mother's Day ('80) as "great cheese". It's a patronizing, back-handed compliment that demonstrates a lack of appreciation for the film's brilliance.

I think it's one of the greatest horror films ever made, and a truly worthy successor to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that isn't satisfied duplicating its inspiration's assets. Instead, it adds a consumerist subtext while adhering to and bending genre conventions at unexpected moments.

Written by Charles Kaufman (Lloyd's much more talented brother) and Warren Leight, who went on to write and produce Law and Order - Criminal Intent, it is an extremely well made, tightly scripted film that moves like a rocket, presents a trio of female characters who feel very real, nails its black humor every time, and lathes on the violence and gore.

Its contemporaries can't hold a candle to it.

Yet it was sold and reviewed like it was throw-away batshit.

Its writing is its strength. The first fifteen minutes, in which the three heroines are introduced, is a textbook example of economic scripting.

With deft, broad, intelligent strokes, Kaufman and Leight introduce us to three friends whose lives could not be more dissimilar.

Each year, however, their differences equalize when they come together for a weekend getaway that is like a female version of the Deliverance set-up.

The horror begins when the women are attacked in their sleeping bags...

... by two playful, semi-retarded, permanent adolescents (played with frightening realism by Frederick Coffin and Michael McCleery).

The boys, who are dominated by a neurotic, psychotic, paranoid Mother (Rose Ross), drag the girls to their house in the woods. Encouraged by Mother...

... they torture and sexually assault the girls until they get bored. They work that off by punching each other out in the yard and stabbing human effigies. One of the girls takes this opportunity to escape and seek help.


Are you fucking kidding! Mother's Day is kind of like the party prankster who goes too far.

Instead of blowing up a condom and stretching it over his head, he throws gasoline over the shy girl and sets her on fire.

The difference is, this prankster manages to put the fire out just in time. This balance of the real with the outrageous is what makes Mother's Day such a fine piece of exploitation.

The clutter of of the set design is inspired by Texas Chainsaw, but the substance is pure pop culture.

The two sons have been raised as unthinking, lustful thugs in a house that resembles a garish museum of late 20thy century consumerism. They are woken each morning by a Big Bird clock, brush their teeth with Cheez Whiz, and argue over the merits of disco and punk.

The writers, in a rare feat, get to have it their cake and eat it, too. They deliver very dark, disturbing "comedy", while lathering on the Grand Guignol.

Technically, especially for a low budget film, Mother's Day is a revelation. Joseph Mangine, who shot Squirm ('76), the X-rated Captain Lust ('77), Alone in the Dark ('82), and Charles Band's brilliant X-rated Cinderella ('77), does a knock-up job with the film's lighting and swift camera work.

The scenes of the house in the woods bloom with a searing brightness that one-ups James Lemmo's impressive nighttime photography of Joe Giannone's Madman ('82). The interiors are extra-bright like toy commercials, and the hand-held camera work is perfectly measured and never vomit-inducing. The original music, mostly synth, by Phil Gallo and Clem Vicari Jr., perfectly compliments the film's many tonal shifts.

The only questionable step is the final shot of the earless "Queenie" springing out from behind a bush to claim the lives of the survivors.

It's not terrible, but it feels like an afterthought in a film that felt so intelligently structured.

The infamous "Shirley Temple" sequence, in which the two brain-damaged sons play a disturbing rape game with one of the girls, is very strong stuff.

Kaufman plays it smartly because he knows exactly when to push a scene and when to pull it back. His direction is consistently inventive and clear-headed throughout.

Mother's Day is great horror in my book. The only "cheese" I saw was the Cheez Whiz that was being used as toothpaste by the film's village idiots.

This is also one of the very few horror films in which the female characters are sensitively portrayed and feel authentic in context.

The death of one of the women has a seriously tragic edge.

If any film needs a serious re-consideration, this is it.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Remembered and Never Forgotten

Do you recognize this writer?

It's HP Lovecraft.

In the fantastic Lovecraft Remembered (Arkham House, '98) ...

... those who knew the man (Neighbors, Friends, Confidantes, Colleagues, Critics & Fans) reflect on every aspect of his work and persona. It's like a warm wake of one fondly remembered and treasured, a mind-boggling collection of rich words and wonders.

I unearthed this tome in a dusty, under-the-stairs book nook in San Francisco. It took my breath and hooked my imagination. The bookshop no longer exists.

Why, then, do I insist on visiting the building it once occupied whenever I have business or pleasure in the City on the Bay?

I don't know. Not for sure, anyway. But I think it has something to do with HP himself. Like no other dead writer, his spirit lingers like a welcome, purple bruise on the flesh of dark literature . At least for me, anyway. This book is a solid extension of the man, and a literary autopsy of a rich, troubled inner life that paralleled some of my own, and that of many other devotees, too, I'm sure.

There's a good reason why we all find ourselves bobbing in the same boat.

Upon hearing of HP's passing, the great Robert Bloch penned the following:

HP bruised Mr. Bloch, too.

Whenever I travel, even if I know there will be little time for reading, I take this book with me. Keeping it close maintains some kind of connection. A part of me clearly needs to be connected to HP. To his world. To his spirit of dedication to the word. To his creations.

This piece from August Derleth, who championed the writer like no other, raises the subject of HP's mother, and her obsession with her son's "awful" appearance.

Derleth expands on Mrs. Lovecraft's belief that her son was "hideous", giving us extraordinary insight into Lovecraft's upbringing and reclusive demeanor.

In "Lovecraft As I Know Him", HP's wife, Sonia H. Davis, also writes about HP's image of himself, and how the writer's mother molded that image:

Winfield Townley Scott, in the chapter, "His Own Most Fantastic Creation", wrote of the author's work and dietary habits prior to his journey north to the last Mountains of Madness.

Howard Lovecraft, the man who defined "Weird Tales", left a legacy with a tangible presence that is as strong today as it ever was.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Filmmaking 103 - Distribution

dictionary.com has 14 definitions of "distribution". I like these two most:

8. the delivery or giving out of an item or items to the intended recipients...

10. the marketing, transporting, merchandising, and selling of any item.

These definitions define the process, but they don't define what lies at the core of a distribution arrangement.

Relationships. When you license your film to a film distributor, you, in turn, are licensing that distributor's relationships with parties that are essential to the distribution process.

When these parties work together, they make money together. That is their reason for being.

Their priority is to profit from the exploitation of your film.

Their priority is not making you a star or making you a millionaire. Why would it be?

During negotiations to get you to license your film to them, you WILL BE their top priority. If they believe that they can profit from distribution of your film, they will romance you, give you a reach-around, and permit you to touch them in intimate places until your signature is wet on the contract.

You never sell your film to a distributor. You "license" it to them. That means you give them permission to market it, book it into theaters, create materials to make people aware of it, recut it, and package it with other titles. Unless you are Spielberg, Lucas, or James Cameron, there is no clause that says you will control how your film (your baby) is sold.

With the classic film distribution model, which is steeped in elite, power-sharing relationships, the control is in the distributor's hands.

If you license your film to a distributor who has excellent relationships with exhibitors and publicity mechanisms, your film has a good chance of being seen. If, for example, your distributor is Universal and they have a great relationship with Pacific Theatres in California, your film may get priority stadiums in each complex and may be "held over" (even if it doesn't do blockbuster business) for two or three weeks beyond its debut week.

The film business is no different from any other business in this respect. It's all about relationships. One hand always washes the other. If it doesn't, that hand gets chopped off, and the relationship sours.

If you're an independent, your film is a product that counterbalances the relationship between distributor and exhibitor. It is the pretext for their continuing success as a partnership.

Distribution is not cheap. It's a bottomless pit of expenditure.

Say, for example, the distributor is generous with you. They license your $5 million indie film for 7 years in the US. They give you a $250K advance that is payable to you in three parts. You get $50K on signing of the contract. You get $100K when you deliver the materials required to distribute and market the film ("Delivery Items"), and the remaining $100K is payable to you on the day the film is released in theaters.

If they are going out with 200 prints, they will shell out approximately $2500 for each print; that equals $500K. Add another $50K to ship those prints to theaters. To promote your film and build awareness, they will need to cut trailers and create prints of those trailers. They will also produce physical posters and publicity kits that are given out to critics, journalists and theaters. Electronic press kits are created and distributed, too. There are additional costs for private critic screenings, as well as public critic screenings, and previews. Also, the distributor must buy space in newspapers and magazines for ads, and TV slots for trailers. This cost is at least $500K, although it could easily be north of $3 million. Any way you look at it, the cost is high and never-ending. Of course, your distributor is getting bulk discounts on items such as print production, but you'll be charged the card rate. That's just business.

If you are lucky, you will have a 60/40 split with the distributor. You get 60, they get 40. Sounds great, right? Well, keep in mind that you only get your 60% of the distributor's revenue after all distribution expenses have been deducted against your advance and they have taken their 40% from gross.

If returns to the distributor for one week are $2 million (that's $10K per screen; the exhibitor gets between 10-25% of gross ticket sales), 40% comes off that amount immediately. That's their distribution fee. As noted earlier, it's the fee you pay for their relationships. That leaves $1.2 million in the kitty. Now, subtract $550K for prints and shipping, $500K for advertising, and an additional $200K for miscellaneous expenses such as plane flights, hotel accommodation, merchandise creation, etc. That leaves you with -$50K. Now deduct your advance of $250K. That leaves you with a healthy -$300K.

Hopefully, you'll have a great second week, and see a spot of profit. Chances are you won't.

The risk is at both ends. If the film had averaged $2000 per screen return after exhibition took its slice, the distributor would be totally in the hole. In this case, the distributor has made a profit. You haven't. Not yet, anyway.

For the indie producer, the distributor is at the helm. They hold the revenue, they hold the rights to exploit your film, and they are instrumental in deciding how your film is perceived by the public.

For most indies, theatrical distribution is a loss leader. It rarely returns anything resembling profit to the producer (and his/her investor). What it does do, however (and this can't be underestimated) is create enormous awareness of your film, and this awareness can translate to sales and dollars in the ancillary markets such as DVD, VOD (Video on Demand), Cable, Free to Air, Aircraft and Ships, Military Bases, and Foreign.

Foreign is a whole blog in itself because it is worth more than the US, so I'm not going to go there now.

The point I'm trying to drive home is that traditional theatrical distribution is not geared towards the interests of the indie distributor. It is geared towards and was created by the big Hollywood studios (the distributors) so they had a pipeline for their own films.

Unfortunately, dedicated indie distributors are few and far between these days; one of the greatest, New Yorker Films, just went belly up.

How, then, does one make money on independently financed and distributed movies?

Thanks to technology, exciting new possibilities are emerging.

Ancillary markets such as DVD/Blu-Ray are the next stream of revenue after Theatrical. For most films produced, they are the first stream after festival exposure (which is not fiscally profitable) . Some DVD distributors will pay you an advance to license your film for home video. That advance will have to be made up with your share of revenue from sales before you start seeing a cent beyond it.

Costs deducted against your share of revenue include include licensing fees, distribution fees, telecine costs (transferring your film to a digital medium), DVD authoring, creation of artwork, production costs for interviews and commentaries, warehousing of the physical DVDs, and printing/DVD duplication costs. On average, for a $30 DVD, you get between $3-5 (if you're blessed).

Let's do the math. If the total cost of putting the DVD on a shelf is $100K, and you were paid a $10K advance, you are going to need to sell 36,666 units to break even on the $110K.

If you are making low budget genre films, this figure is pretty much unreachable (though there are exceptions). You may never see a cent beyond your advance.

Many independent DVD distributors are not even paying advances.

So why do producers/directors sign up with them?

Simple. They want their film out there. They're romanced by the perceived stardust of having their film on a shelf or on the site of an on-line seller.

In many ways, it's like giving your house away, which you would never do. You sweat to build it, furnish it, make it pretty. Instead of selling it, you agree to let somebody else sell it for you. For a fee. A big fee. You also agree to let them move into it for a very small fee, or no fee at all.

Does that sound insane? Yes.

Filmmakers enter into these dubious distribution relationships because they're desperate for recognition. The market is totally flooded with product. Cheaper technology has allowed every Tom, Dick, and Mary to make a movie. Most of these movies are terrible. They are traded like used cars at markets like AFM (American Film Market) and have become devlaued. Most will never see a dime back. The bad ones are mixed into the same chowder soup as the good ones. Distributors don't know the difference half the time. They license titles (or packages) based on an actor or director's track record. The film itself may be terrible, but some recognition factor is always better than an unknown quantity. That's how the thinking goes. It's all about limiting risk.

Many filmmakers make their movie with no clear vision of how it will be sold, or whether what they are spending is realistically recoupable. They base revenue projections on Cloud 9 case scenarios they're heard about such as Robert Rodriguez selling El Mariarchi to Columbia, a film he made (so the legend goes) for around $8K. Of course, anybody who's made a film knows that a feature cannot be made and finished (to studio quality levels) for anything close to $8K. That wouldn't pay for ten minutes of mixing. The studio spent several million more to get the film up to scratch. That's the reality. It's best to deal with that, despite the fact that many people in this business don't.

The internet is a potential blessing and a curse for filmmaking. Because it offers so many choices (many for free), it has fragmented the market. It has provided so many choices for consumers that no one choice carries the same pulling power as our limited entertainment choices used to. Fragmentation has also grossly reduced the licensing fees and advances media companies pay for content.

The greatest aspect of the net is its ability to democratize "content" (an umbrella name for the end product of creativity: film, music, video, comics, etc.) You can create something and get it seen by posting it. Traditional distribution has gatekeepers (the distributors), and they decide what gets seen and when. The internet doesn't. You can produce anything and put it on the net the next day. The challenge for you is to make people (your audience) aware of your movie's existence. The traditional distributors do this very well by utilizing their relationships (which you pay for). They place ads in newspapers and trailers on TV. They hire publicists to publicize your film and its commercial aspects . They charge like wounded bullshit, but they do deliver awareness.

Because the internet is not controlled by gatekeepers (yet!), it is a torrent of content (literally). Your film is part of that torrent. It's out there, sure, and people can access it, but it's just not special enough if it's one of a billion fish in a murky sea.

Your challenge is to make it stand out, highlight its unique qualities.

Because the internet began as a repository for free stuff, it created a strange expectation amongst early embracers that everything on it should be free. It is hard to get people to pay for anything on it, especially downloadable music and video. We expect to pay for hard copies of books and DVD's, but the "value" many of us attach to downloadable content is very little. This is why almost nobody is making money distributing their movies on the internet (yet!).

There are many reasons for this. Some are:

#1 You can get free movies easily and illegally, so why pay?

#2 It takes too long to download a movie at HD or DVD quality

#3 The process of downloading movies is too complex (there are too many formats and too many viewing obstacles).

All these are legitimate concerns.

Pornography jump-started the video revolution. It was the first genre to profit from the new technology that was VHS and Beta. Hollywood followed in its wake.

Pornography, once again, is leading the internet revolution. It was the first genre to find a way to profit from the internet by offering content people wanted in a form that was simple to access.

Music is starting to get there, too.

Some of the first pornographers to do it were Denmark's Color Climax and Spain's Private. These companies had been producing magazines and films for decades, since before hardcore pornography was legalized. They closed their magazine divisions down (or pulled back considerably) and cleverly re-branded and digitized content they'd already distributed and recouped costs on years ago. They suddenly made it available on-line to a whole new market.

They made and continue to make profits.

Hollywood has been much slower to get its head around the new medium. Concerns about privacy, copyright protection, and formats have bogged the big boys down. There is no agreement on a proprietary streaming method, and bandwidth/speed limitations have further handicapped the technology.

Blu-Ray and HD-DVD were introduced at a time when the on-line monster was rearing its Godzilla-like head. Driven by greed, the war between the two formats resulted in one victor and a very pissed off, confused consumer. Blu-Ray has not taken off with the force that DVD did because owners of hundreds, if not thousands, of DVD's are not keen to upgrade when they aren't sure if Blu-Ray will stick around. There is a definite perception that on-line distribution is the future, so this is holding Blu-Ray back.

As noted, on-line distribution is making few producers any real money. There is no way (in the near future) that you can make a $5 million film and see it profit via the internet alone. The technology is not at the point where downloading and viewing is simple enough for mass consumption.

When my parents (who are in their 70's) can turn on their TV, access an internet menu, and download an entire movie in 5 minutes -- with the push of one button -- we will be there.

Cable companies already offer something resembling this with their "On Demand" service. The speed of data racing down the cable is much faster than the speed of internet services. I think the two will merge. Then we'll have a legitimate new platform of distribution.

But who will control it?

This is where I see problems.

Huge technological growth requires huge investment. Investors want a return. The return that investors in technology want is control. If they hold the reigns, they control the revenue. If they control the revenue, they will take control of content.

Which will take us right back to the elite power-sharing relationships that exist in traditional distribution. It's in the interests of indie filmmakers to get away from that.

If the technology is being controlled, you will once again be dealing with a distributor and their relationships. They will extract a distribution fee and costs. If these gatekeepers don't like what you create, you won't be able to show it.

There goes your potential revenue.

Fortunately, because of fragmentation, the internet is a difficult beast to control, and there are other options.

If a filmmaker has to pay for the speed and bandwidth required to create a web portal for their content, a place where their audience can read about, watch, or download their movie for a fee, then that is probably still less than the distribution fees (and expenses) they are paying for now.

If a fan can dowloaded your movie for $7, and $2 of that goes to the technical expenses of the process, you're doing better than the current DVD template already, and the money is coming back directly to you.

Personally, as much as I like what companies like Google are doing in many areas, I detest recent moves such as Google agreeing to limit search engine links to pornography and "offensive content" because China is offended. What about the offense to freedom such a decision represents? Doesn't that trump communism?

When the big boys finally get the on-line thing right, they will offer their wares to the little guys (which is anybody but them). As tempting as this will be...

...keep in mind that they will only do that IF they think THEY can make money from YOUR content. It won't be because they love your work. It never is. There's no use getting mad about that. It's just reality. I'm a big believer in facing reality when looking for solutions.

For producers of low budget movies, the internet is becoming the only way to go, although variations of DVD will stick around for a while longer because of disparities in technology worldwide. The internet model gives you control of every aspect of your work. If you fail, it's because of you. If you succeed, it's because of you.

It's a liberating thing, isn't it, when you only have yourself to blame!

The future of indie film distribution is potentially bright because it is totally in your hands.