Category Archives: Opinion

Microbudget Films, Contained Thrillers, Found-Footage Horrors

I recently met with Steven Schneider; the producer of “Paranormal Activity”. After 10 minutes of engaged conversation, about a dozen light bulbs went on in my head. I’m hoping after reading this post, a few light bulbs of your own will turn on.

First, a little bit of background. Steven is a huge fan of horror movies. He’s watched them all, studied them, and has even written books on them. With Paranormal, Steven did not act as a producer in a traditional manner. He had a development deal with Paramount and Oren Peli, the writer and director, had given him the film to act as a director’s reel. In other words, the film had already been made, and Steven was not involved in the development or the production of it. Steven said that it was so scary that he had difficulties sleeping at night. That was enough for him to want to attach himself to the project.  Not once did he felt critical of the production quality. To make a long story short, Steven and his colleagues sold it to Paramount and it became the most profitable movie in world grossing over $300 million worldwide. I will save the details of this story for another posting.

The point of the article is this: The ability to make high quality content has never been easier. You have access to amazing affordable cameras. You can edit digitally in your own home off your lap top. You can distribute your film online with a click of a couple buttons. This all presents the industry, especially young filmmakers, with an opportunity to make  microbudget films (films under $1 million) and present a finished product to buyers, which is much more appealing than undeveloped projects.

Currently, it has never been harder to get a movie made and distributed. The biggest, and sometimes the only hurdle in the past has always been the cost. Nowadays, this is no longer an excuse. If you have the right story, you can essentially film a movie for less than 5 figures. So the challenge now becomes finding the right story. Oren told a story that had two main characters, and two supporting characters with two scenes each – four actors total. He shot the film in his own house – one location. He shot it using essentially no camera movement. Oren also edited Paranormal Activity on his laptop in his home office. With this in mind, I challenge you to set aside your traditional feature passion project for now, and develop a contained story that has no more than 5 actors, and takes place in no more than 2 locations. You can choose whatever genre you like, however, I strongly recommend horror because the audience is easy to reach, loyal, and don’t care about A-list actors. Also, with most successful horror films, the emphasis is place first on concept (it’s ability to scare), then on story. In all the rest of the genres, story is typically paramount. But, if you can crack this formula and be successful with other genres…PLEASE be my guest. If not, stick to the contained thrillers. Try and think of a high concept. Typically, the lower the budget, the higher the concept needs to be in order to gain attention from buyers. Having restrictions on locations and talent actually forces you to be more creative. I strongly encourage it, if anything, for the sake of the exercise.

To get you in the right mind-set, let’s look at some notable contained, high concept movies. First you have your “found-footage” horrors like The Blair Witch Project, and Paranormal Activity. Both movies shot for under 6 figures, both extremely successful in the box office. Another notable film that I personally love is “The Disappearance of Alice Creed”. This critically acclaimed film told a kidnapping story with three actors in essentially one location. In, “Phone Booth”, the lead actor spends the entire time in a phone booth. I think you get the idea.

If you have a great story, or an amazing concept, people will look at it. I am a firm believer of that. Having that story already produced only decreases the barriers to these people which is exactly what happened to Oren Peli. He created a unique, outstanding film, and found the right passionate person to champion his project. So go and develop your contained story, and then MAKE IT!!!

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So you wanna be an independent film maker? Let Sundance put things into perspective for you.

If you want to avoid the studio system, explore the world of independent film making, here are some statistics/facts from this year’s Sundance Film Festival – one of the largest and most prestigious film festivals in the world. I’m by no means discouraging independent films. I absolutely love independent films and feel like the studios are putting out more and more garbage every year. However, independent film making is a difficult and risky industry, and I hope these numbers allow you to have a bit of perspective when it comes to this grueling industry.

– Over 5000 films were submitted into Sundance.  Under 300 we chosen

– 38 out of 300 films were sold to distributors.  28 Features, 10 documentaries.

– 4 films were sold for more than 3 million dollars. 2 of these were sold as remake rights

– 2 out of those 4 films sold for more than their budget.

– All the films that sold for $750K or more had cast that previously played leading roles in studio films.

To summarize, of all the films submitted into Sundance, 0.0076% earned revenue, and 0.0004% made a profit. That isn’t to say that the 0.0076% won’t go on to make money, but the point is that if you want to pursue independent film making, the odds are definitely against you if you rely on festivals to recoup costs and make profit.

Click here to see which films got sold to distributors.

What is a Featurette?

A featurette is a behind-the-scenes video depiction of a motion picture and how it was made. It usually includes footage from the film (much like a trailer) complimented with interviews with lead actors, the director, writer and producer. Featurettes are created to air on television and stream online for the purpose of marketing and promotion. In my opinion, I think they do a better job in promoting a movie than a traditional trailer and I believe studios should use them more often. Trailers do a great job in illustrating tone, and story . But having the actors – whom the audience is already drawn to – speak and talk about the process and emotion behind making the film only helps to peak people’s interest to buy a ticket.

What is the value in a film?

I once took a class in film marketing, and the instructor was teaching us about basic marketing principles. He told us that people pay for stuff because they see VALUE in it. Then he asked “What’s the value in film?”. What is the consumer looking for that will make them pay $13+ dollars and take up 3 hours of their day to sit down and watch a movie? Our assignment was to answer this question in 2 sentences or less. Here was my answer (I received full marks):

The value of a film is the emotion it generates within the audience. Whether it’s hope, fear, joy, sadness, suspense, or laughter, the greater the emotion, the greater the value.

I can’t take full credit for coming up with that answer on my own. My writing teaching constantly stressed that emotion is the number one objective for any piece of media. If it doesn’t generate a strong emotion, it is not strong writing. Every time we would read a piece of writing in the class room, our teacher would always ask, “What’s the feeling in the room?” The answer to this question would play a big part in determining whether or not a piece of writing was any good. You as a producer or writer should always keep this in mind when developing your ideas.