Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Make, Release, And Catch 'The Nines'

Thanks much to John August for his very informative yet terribly sobering wrap up to his journey that was The Nines. And because his feature directing debut and its subsequent theatrical/DVD release was so firmly rooted in the world of the small independent film, thus making it like pretty much all Canadian feature films, I thought it worth excerpting some of Mr. August's wisdom.
A quote from Mark Gill in the LA Times last week would seem discouraging for independent filmmakers:

Of the 5,000 films submitted to Sundance each year — generally with budgets under $10million — maybe 100 of them got a U.S. theatrical release three years ago. And it used to be that 20 of those would make money. Now maybe five do. That’s one-tenth of 1%. Put another way, if you decide to make a movie budgeted under $10 million on your own tomorrow, you have a 99.9% chance of failure.

There are lots of ways to criticize his logic. For starters, most Sundance movies are way under $10 million. Many are under a million. And he seems to omit a figure for how many indie films are getting a theatrical release now as opposed to three years ago.

We need to ask, “Failure for whom?” Even a movie that doesn’t earn its budget back will likely make money for its distributors, once you factor in video and TV sales. More crucially, a good indie film generates future work for its stars and filmmakers. So there’s a lot of success to be found in that 99.9% failure.

All that said, he’s kind of right.

He's kind of right...shiiiit. That's some bad odds. August goes on to say that his movie turned out just the way he wanted, but the release of the movie was deeply disappointing. Thankfully though, he doesn't do a lot of finger pointing but instead lists several crucial stages in the The Nines release, from Sundance screenings to the DVD hitting the shelves, and then explains what he might have done differently at each stage vs. what actually went down.

Take Sundance for example --- August lists all the other films in addition to his that had buzz when he was there, and then lays out how they ultimately performed.

Eighteen months later, it’s fascinating to see how little the festival buzz mattered. Prices for these movies — a key component of buzz, as in, “Did you hear how much it sold for?” — were all over the board, from the low six-figures to $7 million for Son of Rambow.

But it made no difference. They all pretty much tanked.

Waitress sold quickly, was released quickly, and made the most by far at the box office ($19M).3 Second place was Under the Same Moon ($12.5M), followed by Once ($9M) and How She Move ($7M). Son of Rambow will likely end up in fifth. It’s currently in release, and made $8M overseas.

In terms of box office, none of these are hits in the way Little Miss Sunshine was. But you’d be happy being any of them, because beyond those five, the other movies on the list fell off a cliff. None of them made a million. In fact, most didn’t make it over $100,000. The Nines didn’t, despite opening well.

But at least we opened. At least we sold. For our year, 3,287 feature films were submitted to Sundance, of which 122 played. Roughly 20 played in theaters.

Wow. That's some kind of seriously depressing numbers game going on. And here I was last week criticizing Canadian release Young People F**king for only mustering up around a 300,000 gross over the past month (this considering all the free publicity surrounding the film and Bill C-10) ...but damn, perhaps I was a little harsh.

Or maybe, as August says later in his post, "(for the small independent feature)...theatrical release is kinda bullshit."

I get a lot of questions every year from students or up and comers about why does the Canadian feature film biz suck... or why aren't more Canuck features in theatres... or how easy or hard is it to make a low budget feature film... and the takeaway is it's really f**king hard for everyone. And then you have to try to get people to see it, which in many ways can be even harder than making the damn thing.

Thanks for sharing John...the post in all its honest and straightforward entirety is entitled 'Sundance, The Nines, and the Death of the Independent Film', and you can read it HERE.


Kid Sis said...

And yet we soldier on...because what else are we to do?

jimhenshaw said...

The .1% rule has been the reality in television for years and what I take from John's article is that we simply have to rethink distribution.

Many people now have home systems that rival the visual and sound you get in a theatre, never mind the average Art house. And the long held belief you need the awareness of your title that comes from a theatrical release just doesn't apply in a market where the media giants dominate and show preference to their own output.

He nails the future when he considers having the film on iTunes and available for that kid in Des Moines who just happens to be watching "Conan".

It almost seems like we're entering a world where everything will be independent and TV will be little more than a place to promote what's on DVD and rerun the oldies.

Anon said...

I interviewed a Canadian film maker who had a reasonable amount of success a couple years ago. After talking with him, I was amazed at how much pure luck was involved in making his movie successful. I know the guy worked really, really hard and that obviously was a big part of his success, but in all honesty -- along with hard work and connections -- luck played a huge role.

Should we all just play the 6/49 instead?

The interview was kind of eye opening career wise for me.

Anonymous said...

As a wannabe up and comer this has been the vain of my existence. I'd like to be the next great but what is the path there? If its pure luck mixed with dedication that doesn't leave great odds. The internet won't support the wealth but does give you views which when put to bread and butter doesn't provide you the life necessity. In the long run there will be more independent stuff ie.youtube but you have to realize no one wants to pay for it. The solution to me seems like advertising. When you go to tsn.ca or something they sell ads at the start of video clips. You get the clips free but have to watch the ads. Maybe Indies need to do this start web pages for a label then sell ads. Unfortunately the goal becomes selling your worth to corporate Canada and its only one solution which you have to build up to.

I also thought that Canadian TV was the place to be as regulations force networks to have CanCon. Even more sadly in my own goals I see more mainstream Docs but on a shelf where no one views them nor are they as plentiful as even the new Van Dam movie, brutal. More are getting done but they are getting worse and all cover a very moderate range of topic ie. war. It would seem to me that the odds here are even worse. So where does this leave you...guessing. Maybe its a failing industry, maybe it will not be a profession as years go on but you hang on as the slightest sign of light seems like gold. Maybe you never get it, but if you do its yours and you know the odds of making it a success on any level and if it is a success that moment is going to be the greatest moment of your life. You've officially kicked Goliath in the ass. Does any one want to buy an NHL Documentary Series?

Cunningham said...

And on the other end of the spectrum we have people like Roger Corman, who after a 50 plus year career in the business has had only a few films which didn't make money for him.


1. He mixed his message in with his entertainment and didn't make a "preachy, message" film in the lot (with the possible exception of THE INTRUDER).

2. He controlled his distribution - whether setting up his own company or negotiating terms with another distributor, Corman made sure he was paid and his film was in the black.

3. He is a wiz at marketing (or hires young, hungry people who are) and makes sure his campaigns looked big and fun and accessible to the audience.

(For example: What is THE NINES anyway? What does it mean; what is it about?)

4. He spots (and creates) trends and is independent enough to capitalize on them WHEN they are hot, and not a year later when not only is the trend cooled, but he has competition from others who are riding the trend.

5. He makes a decision and moves forward, not getting bogged down in bureaucracy just for procedure's sake.

6. He studies his audience and their taste's and goes to them, rather than having them come to him. He was one of the first companies to move all their output to direct-to-video when it became apparent he wasn't going to be able to afford to rent theaters, but also did a cable deal with Showtime to "advertise" and finance his movies that he would hold the Video rights. That's where his audience was - at the television set or the video store.

There are more examples available, but I think this is enough.

I also want to touch on Mark Gill's speech which has been making the rounds. Let's be clear here - Gill is talking about the death of the studio indie label system here and not indie film in general. Gill doesn't work in indie film - his movies are financed by a studio entity.

"Indie film" in all its forms is moving on - using the old school distribution where appropriate, but also embracing the new technologies and philosophies that make the difference between success and failure.

There is a great wave of change occurring - not only in indie filmmaking, but in distribution and ownership. What we think of as moviemaking is undergoing a metamorphosis and those that will succeed in this new era are those that will embrace change.

Cunningham said...

apologies for the typos and grammatical errors....it was a stream-of-consciousness response.

wcdixon said...

Yeah...what Bill said (sounds like a chapter in your upcoming 'book')

It's the marketing and distribution models for the new product that has to or needs to change, and it'll be up to you kids to do it. And in Canada, you'll be fighting a model that subsidizes 'distribution companies' to give small advances for a 'theatrical release' which in turn becomes a week at the Carlton Theatre in Toronto...yet the funding agencies will require you have one of those distribution companies on side in order to access production funding --- and said companies will tie up your film forever while you don't see a dime from any sales.

Vicious ugly circle...must stop.

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