Thursday, September 30, 2010

What's In, What's Out

Now I'm not 100% convinced that genre really dictates sales -- not sub-genres certainly. Not to the final customers. But buyers aren't so convinced. And we sell to them.

They have no crystal ball which tells them what will sell well and so they go with what rules they can figure out from the market. And if the buyers aren't even selling to consumers -- but rather to other distributors or to retailers then "conventional wisdom" is even more important because the retailers/sub-distributors can only go by "well, this sold well last year". So just keep in mind who our buyers are: not regular people but rather people who have to market to people who in turn have to market to regular people.

So I'm talking here about the bottom of the well of the indy-feature market:

What's in?
  • Vampires. Of the non-sparkly variety. Right now they want horrible vampires, not sexy ones.
  • Creatures. Everyone loves creatures. The more creature-y the better. Mythical creatures. Creatures from the deep.
  • World Destruction. If you can put the numbers "2012" in your title, you're ahead of the game. Don't ask me why. World monuments must be destroyed. Empire State Building, Eiffel Tower. St. Louis Arch. That sort of thing. Blow 'em up. 
  • SyFy likes movies which are out-of-doors. Big. Out in the open. Not in confined spaces.

What's out?
  • Zombie pictures. Right, they do very well in North American theatrical but for whatever reason they don't do well overseas. And SyFy can't make a zombie picture work. Maybe AMC can -- we'll have to see. Maybe there's just been a glut of zombie pictures. Who knows? I have this whole theory about how a "zombie picture" isn't even a genre but that's a whole 'nuther story.
  • Pretty vampires. Apparently that market is already being well served thank you very much.
  • Non-descript aliens from the sky. Apparently we want creatures we have some sort of familiarity with. I dunno, like "octoshark" is better than some sort of new Alien. Apparently.  
So I have a script with zombies and alien creatures, a dude in a Mobile Infantry suit, a digital holographic cat, and a witch. They're just gonna hate that aren't they? I'm on page 42. All I have to do is that amount of work again and we'll have a feature. Well, maybe it should be 90 pages. I gotta get our main crew back out into the Wasteland again to fight dinobots...

    SyFy [Business Plan Part 8]

    The big trick is that to become a SyFy producer they will have had to have bought at least a couple pictures from you first. Only then will they let you make movie or them. That's why The Asylum, for instance, is in.

    Now we've gone over the numbers before (they, there's even a New York Times article about it from a few years ago) which SyFy presumably uses to produce their "original movies" -- they guarantee $750K against a budget of 2 million dollars (which means you have to get guaranteed sales outside of N. America for the remaining $1.25 million in order to get a bank loan against those guarantees so that you can shoot the picture.) I don't believe those numbers are legit anymore. I suspect that it's nigh on impossible to get $1.25 million in foreign guarantees for a sci-fi/horror flick with a "B"-level name actor in it anymore.
    So, SyFy -- I don't believe they do that $750K against $2M anymore. They just can't be doing it. The Asylum wouldn't be putting up with it. So how much is SyFy spending as a guarantee on a "SyFy Channel Original Movie" nowadays? I actually have zero information, so I'll make it up. I suspect it's $600,000 to deliver an approved program with an approved star. But remember, I'm just making this up.
    In any case, we'd still be doing great with those kinds of budgets. Depending on the size of the star they need even if you're probably looking at somewhere between $5000 a week and (again, I'm guessing) $250,000 for the whole movie to pay him/her/them. The remainder is up to you to not overspend.

    What's not in our corner there is that SyFy tends to hate actors if they've never heard of them. So we really will have to fly someone out 1st Class from LA who used to have a lucrative TV gig work for us for a week or two or three. And that gets expensive 'cause they need to be transported by car each day, etc., but even talking about this now puts the cart before the horse -- we're very far away from becoming an approved producer for SyFy. We have to get SyFy to buy a couple pictures from us first.

    On the plus side our visual effects have been steadily improving. Clonehunter was a big step up. Day 2 is even a bigger step up. And I think that Earthkiller will begin to look like a movie with a real budget.

    Unfortunately SyFy hates zombies (they can't make money on zombie pictures -- go figure) and robots (same thing, with the exception of "T2"). What does the Pandora Machine do? Make zombie robot pictures. OK, we won't be a SyFy approved producer anytime in the next couple o'years.

    What other things does SyFy like/not like?

    SyFy likes "open spaces". They don't like cramped, interior, movies. I suspect this is because filmmakers know that cramped interiors are cheaper to do and so cheaper pictures come to SyFy that are cramped. Or, just statistically, they just don't work for SyFy. Just like zombies. Man, I'm glad I'm not in their business. Well, not yet at least.

    They don't like "space operas" (which is ironic because Battlestar Galactica works for them). 


    So none of this SyFy talk serves our immediate needs -- increasing revenue per picture over the next 12 to 24 months.

    And for that we're going to (I can't believe I'm saying this) look at cable TV video-on-demand. [See part 7 of this lengthy business plan tome.]


    Via screenwriter Joshua James, Script Structure in a Nutshell

    Tuesday, September 28, 2010


    Unmanned shuttle will do some damage.
    Today is "pile o' deadlines" day in the Pandora Machine. We just got our mid-October deadlines for delivering as much of Earthkiller as we can for the American Film Market.
    The big effects shot I want to get is the one where the dinobots are eating David Ian Lee while an unmanned shuttle comes and destroys the docking bay. That will, of course, involve all the darn elements of CG all in one shot. Dinobots, the shuttle, and the Earthkiller station.
    We also have to finish Day 2. So hooray!
    What does all this mean for us beginning photography on a third feature this year? Well... there's always November, right?

    Making a Business Plan Part 7 - VOD Technology

    So we just have to increase the amount of money we make for each picture. Because we have to increase the amount of money we spend on each picture in paying people. And other things. The only way we can increase how much we SPEND however, is to increase how much we get PAID. We have to make more revenue per picture. Have to. Must. Do.

    If we were able to bring in $35,000 on each movie we might be able to (egads!) actually pay people. Ha! No, of course we wouldn't do that. But we would have a little soundstage in Jersey City where we could keep our sets built. At least for the duration of a particular movie's shoot.

    The real number is somewhere around $100,000. If we could bring in $100K per picture we'd be able to have an actual editor assigned to each picture. We'd be able to pay minimum-wage salaries. Cigars and hottubs. If we were doing 3 pictures a year like that we'd have what we might laughingly call "good times and financial security". If we did 10 pictures a year we'd gross a million a year.

    None of those things are likely to happen any time soon. So let's figure out what we can do realistically.

    The big trick is to increase our North American distribution money.

    Now the big ol' Interwebs was supposed to do that for us, but that doesn't seem to have panned out for indy filmmakers (or really anybody other than Joss Whedon, and there really only the one time for him.) The other thing which was supposed to change the game (er, like 12 years ago) was Video On Demand. VOD exists, but the numbers I'm hearing are that you're lucky to get like $2400 a year with VOD.

    The other option is cable TV. [But NOT in this post.]

    So we'll look at cable TV and VOD (which is also "cable TV" but let's not get confused between the two of them.) But we'll look at cable TV (SyFy) in a future post. Just remember that.

    Now, I heard of what I actually thing is a good idea for VOD. That is that there are ads you can buy on cable TV which have a bit of text above and/or below which say "for more information, press 'select' (or whatever) now."

    So you have a trailer or a commercial for your movie, and all someone who's bored watching "Manoctapus" or whatever's on TV has to do is: press one button to see your movie.

    This requires three things:

    1. Having a decent trailer for your movie.
    2. Getting your movie onto the VOD of the cable companies.
    3. Having a cable company which has that service where the remote can select stuff depending on the commercial which is running.
    1. Now the first of these things we manage to get by not cutting our own trailer. By and large the filmmaker makes a terrible trailer editor. The purpose of the trailer is to sell the damn picture*, not "show some pretty images and not tell anybody what the plot is" (which is what filmmakers typically do when they cut their own trailers). Now, sometimes we have to cut a special version of a trailer -- but we wait 'till a professional trailer - house (which cuts trailers for movies that get sold for big bucks) cuts the first version.
    2. Getting onto cable VOD. Hoo - boy. Well there you're just arguing with them all day long as far as I can figure. Maybe, just maybe, if you tell them you're spending a few thousand dollars on ads with them it'll help. Nobody knows. 
    3. But the third one is the kicker. I believe that out of the six big cable companies only TWO of them have this technology. Aargh.


    OK, so can you actually make any money putting ads on cable TV to direct viewers to your movie which is running on that cable system's VOD? Well, I heard an anecdote about an unsubstantiated rumor that once a non-pornographic film made $38,000 gross doing that. Yeah, I know. But that's the best intelligence we've got right now.

    Note that cable TV ads are not terribly expensive. A few thousand dollars gets you a couple hundred of 'em. So as an experiment, this is certainly worth trying. Because even if we end up splitting some $30,000 extra bucks with a distributor well... at least there's something to split.

    By the way "Why don't the major studios do this?" That's the question you're asking, right? The answer is, they do.


    *Interestingly, there are typically two kinds of trailers for movies: the ones aimed at buyers, and the ones aimed at the general public. By putting commercials on Cable TV you're actually aiming at the consumers.

    Sunday, September 26, 2010

    A Bluescreen Day

    Today we shot Robin against a blue screen in my apartment in Jersey City. A very relaxed day after which the four of us (Henry Steady and the Queen of Mars) went to a civilized dinner at what I think is the best soul food restaurant I've ever eaten at, Soul Flavors, in Jersey City -- very close to the Grove Street PATH.

    Of course, I only got one still the whole hour we were shooting and this is it. If you want to see wind in an android's hair as she falls gently to Earth, you'll just have to watch the movie.
    Spent the day shooting and all I got was this lousy plate.

    Saturday, September 25, 2010

    A Pretty Fair Clonehunter Review

    Ha! Over at DVD Talk, Tyler Foster reviews Clonehunter.

    My favorite quotes:
    • Clone Hunter is the perfect curiosity piece.
    • It looks patently and completely fake 90% of the time, and you can tell there isn't any real flexibility in how the the movie is designed, but at least it's consistent.

    Earth War Character list.

    1. Crypto -- lean tech dude who's in charge of keeping the generator working.
    2. Bakunin -- the head of the operation. Quiet, level-headed.
    3. Rune -- F. Herc pilot.
    4. Killday -- an out-and-out crazy chick. Insufferable. Unfortunately her night vision is better than any else's so she's their sniper.
    5. Grappo -- big dude. 

    Hadalay is the android.

    Right now the witch's name is Morgan. Thinking about changing it to Sowana.

    The bad guy's name is Raut. 

    I'm on page 30. In the middle of the fun 'n games. 

    Friday, September 24, 2010

    Memento the Cat

    Apparently there's a book out there called Save the Cat. It's a book on screenwriting. You may have seen me in a Mardi Gras mask, wearing no pants, talking about it at length. If not, I won't point you to the link.

    One of the things Blake Snyder says in the book is essentially "This doesn't apply to the movie Memento and so shut up about Memento."

    I'm banned from Picasa but I can access my albums with the new Blogger interface.
    Well, I never really thought that was true. I always felt that Memento really could fit in the beat sheet if you worked on it. It's just that Memento is harder to "beat out" than other screenplays because it runs backwards from scene-to-scene. But this dude, Tillery Johnson, did in fact create a Blake Snyder Beat Sheet for Memento. And it works.

    So now it's proved scientifically (with science!) that the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet works for everything, including the most art-house-y of art-house films.

    Right now I'm using the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet in my structural re-telling of The Road Warrior. The picture is called "Earthwar" and it's about a Mobile Infantry soldier who's mind has been wiped, a combat witch, and a Corvette-class android. In other words, a typical Pandora Machine film.
    I haven't worked out the 5-point ending yet though...

    Wednesday, September 22, 2010

    Ian Controls a Shuttle

    Ian Hubert does it again.

    Here are the controls we'll use in Blender to animate the shuttlecraft in Earthkiller.

    Monday, September 20, 2010

    Roger Corman Depresses You

    Here's the man himself on the state of indy film:

    I’ve been making films for over 50 years. We are at the lowest point ever for low-budget and medium-budget independent films. We are making a little bit of money on DVD. We are making a fair amount of money on cable sales, and still making some money out of foreign. But the profit margins are the lowest they’ve ever been. The only ray of hope I can see is the Internet. I think we’re beginning to see it. It’s not there yet. But we’re seeing a little bit of money coming in from the Internet, and I think that will grow. So we’re staying in there, taking our tiny profits now and hoping that we’re building out libraries that will hopefully pay off in the near future.

    Thanks (or not) to Chance.

    Oops. Little mistake

    The Japanese version of "Alien Uprising" is called "Alien Revenge".
    My last sales report was based on old sales. This is what we're up to so far in very recent sales:

    Clonehunter -- Thailand (I can't wait to get a copy!)
    Alien Uprising -- Malaysia/Brunei
    Day 2 (!) -- Thailand and also Indonesia.

    Whew, that means we gotta finish Day 2 right away don't it? ;-)

    Friday, September 17, 2010

    Road Warrior

    Now that I'm doing a scene-to-scene structural ripoff of The Road Warrior (which is, incidentally, impossible to do and I have no idea how I'm going to deal with the compound or how the "feral kid" is now an android and the dude in the helicopter is now a witch, but you get the idea) I've been watching the movie again. And that picture is spectacularly well filmed. I mean the cinematography and the camera work are simply excellent. Unbelievable.

    But instead of the post-apocalyptic desert it's about this dude who's a super-enhanced human soldier. And he's been dumped off on the Earth after the alien apocalypse where there's just old war-machines running around the place. And he runs into a combat witch and eventually an android who, among some other people, are holding out in an industrial park in Jersey against the alien "bogies" which roam around trying to wipe out the last of humanity.

    But this dude, in a cool suit of servo-powered armor, is looking for himself. When they built his new body they wiped his mind clean. At least that's the way things are so far. Or maybe he does already know who he was and he wants to get back...

    How am I going to make these mechs work? And will the lead's servo-powered armor also be a rocket powered suit? Will he fly? How does that equate to Max's supercharged V8 interceptor? Will it be destroyed? Or should he have a bigger suit, one he steps into? What a pain in the tuchus that sounds like. And will you be able to see his face in the armor or will he be taking his helmet off all the damn time?

    Will the feral kid and the blonde woman be the same character in "Earthwar"? And will it all take place in Brooklyn?

    The feral kid is the cat Mel saves. Hmm... it's too bad Mel turned out to be such a douche.

    The problem with modeling a screenplay on The Road Warrior is that the picture is almost too perfect. Sure, you can see some tropes of Star Wars in it, and there's the general craziness of Australian mondo cinema, and of course the chase scene in Bullit.

    But our hero "John Keynes" (let's see how long that name will stick in the script) must certainly end up facing down a combat witch's crossbow, doesn't he?

    And the way Max loses the Interceptor always seemed to easy to me.  I understand why he has to lose it but it's a bit like Han Solo losing the Millennium Falcon if it had just self-destructed. And I have zero idea of what the Starship Troopers equivalent of that would be.

    A few more sales

    Solar Vengeance, Clonehunter, and Alien Uprising have sold to Thailand and to the Middle East. Not all of them to both markets but a mix of movies and markets. I'm guessing that we'll get a few $K net to our coffers once all is said and done with such and things and expenses on our end and paying our rep and such but I don't have the specifics.

    What would be cool is if we finally pass the $50,000 mark on Alien Uprising and start paying people percentages out of that picture. I doubt that'll happen without a TV deal in North America but maybe after a half-dozen more small deals with the picture that's where we'll be? We'll see. Like I said, I don't have specific number yet.

    Earthkiller Post-Mortem

    1. As already established, I have to be nicer to the boom operator. I've started work on that. Early reports are that I'm doing much better.

    2. We have to do something better with transportation. New Jersey Transit has raised their fares significantly. It now costs $22 to go round-trip from New York City to Metuchen. We were hoping to put people on the PATH and drive most days to Metuchen from Jersey City but that didn't work out. So our transportation budget went up by about a thousand dollars by putting everyone on the Train directly from Midtown to Metuchen.

    3. As always, it doesn't matter how good the screenplay it, how great the actors are, or how well the movie is shot. All that anyone cares about is how good the CGI is. So that's what we're working on. CG. That being said, we worked with a great screenplay and actors and:

    4. This was the best-looking picture we've ever shot. We had exceptional sets. Every single set was amazing and looked different which is certainly a first for us. One issue we had though was that although normally we're able to leave sets standing. But not this time. Because of the fact that the now-closed Broadway show Tale of Two Cities is, weirdly, storing their old sets right where we used to be able to work -- we had to take our sets down completely each weekend because we were working in the part of my dad's shop where people were actually... er... well working. That added about an hour of take-down at the end of each weekend but also added an hour (at least) to the beginning of each weekend to re-build stuff. Actually, maybe two hours.

    It would be awesome if we had our own sound stage. In Jersey City. With all sprung Marley floors. Ooh. Nice floors.

    I can dream, can't I? Yes, that's what the post-mortem is for.

    5. It's nice to have a combat android whom you simply know could beat you up, and Robin Kurtz did a great job of that. We had a very strong cast and we were lucky to get Maduka Steady to actually play the part written for him this time. But really everyone was fantastic and we had a nice gamut from the whiny-comical to the deadly serious to the weirdly insane -- each character carefully delineated in such a way that they're all memorable and their interactions with one another was very clear and motivated.

    Also: I can't believe I spelled "delineated" correctly without asking the spell-check.

    A corridor set in mid-construction.
    6. Joe Chapman and Libby Csulik went way above and beyond in the building of those sets. It was funny -- as the DP realizing I could turn around in any direction and shoot. I can almost NEVER do that. Even when shooting outside. Maybe especially when shooting outside. But lighting was very easy and kind of delightful to not have to keep saying "I can't shoot in that direction because there's no set there."

    7. I should either drink more or take better drugs so I'm calmer on set. We need a blender for the fruitier cocktails. Maybe the first set should be a Tiki bar...

    8. For the call sheets we did everything we could to keep every single day with the same call time. I think that helped lower confusion levels.

    9. I'm sure our producer will have a list of things I should be doing better. As long as nobody is actively hitting me I'll be OK. Or using any sort of stick or club. I hate that.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010

    Battle Mech

    Don't think I won't do a scene-to-scene rewrite of The Road Warrior but have it about a dude in servo armor who meets up with a combat witch and an android trying to protect the last refuge of humanity from mechanized dinosaurs in the post-apocalyptic future.
    See? You're thinking I won't do that. You are so ever so ever so wrong.

    Over at Volpin Props they have a suit of mechanized armor. But this dude made some male and female armor which is excessively cool. Whoa. That's a LOT of work.

    But the real trick is making a mech. That would be the equivalent of the 18-wheeler tanker truck of the movie. Can we build a two-legged one which is practical? Can we build a damaged one and then build a modeled one which is animated?

    Wednesday, September 15, 2010

    The Earthkiller Shuttle

    An important element in Earthkiller is the shuttle which docks with the space station. And the always amazing Ian Hubert made one. Here are some stills. (Modeled in Blender.)
    The wings swivel.

    What is a Story?

    Often people tell me "I've got a great idea for a story!" and I think "uh oh."

    "It's about how everyone has personal jetpacks but sometimes they fail."

    Voight Kamf causes heavy family dynamics.

    "Cybernetic dolphins!"


    "What if your house came alive?"

    Those might be nice ideas, but they aren't stories. Alex Epstein, whom I've been following since he wrote his screenwriting book on the web back in the day, has a good post today on story.

    A story is (a) a compelling character (b) who has an opportunity, problem or goal (c) who faces obstacles and/or an antagonist (d) who faces jeopardy (e) and can win stakes.

    Tuesday, September 14, 2010

    Making a Business Plan Part Sexo

    So, we've already determined that it's theoretically possible to have a business which brings in $250,000 a year in revenue by making (egads!) 10 pictures a year.

    But that's only $25,000 a picture. Is that really sustainable?

    If you do a 12-day shoot with an average of 10 "men" on set each day (including cast and crew) it's going to cost no less than
    $150/day in food
    $220/day(!) in transportation (if they're taking NJ Transit from New York City Penn Station to Metuchen -- I will gripe about this in another post)

    That's $370/day or $4400 for the duration of the shoot.

    Now you might be able to save some money from that and, say, rent a van and drive rather than taking public transportation (don't get me started). But let's start with that $4400 number.

    If you're going to pay salaries, which your accountant would appreciate if you did, you'd have to pay minimum wage which is $7.25/hour. And lets pretend each day is 10-hours (but you aren't doing more than 40 hours a week so no overtime is involved.)*

    Now let's assume that the employer's side of taxes and SUI and the cost of a payroll service costs a total of 1.22 the wage you're paying. So the gross daily pay for someone is $72.50. Multiply that by 1.22 and you get the total cost to the employer for employing them: $88.45/day.

    There are 120 man-days on the shoot so 120 times $88.45/day is $10, 614.

    Production cost are $15,014 (and you haven't even made props, costumes, or built sets or found a location)
    $10,614 in salary costs
    $4,400 in "fixed" costs

    That leaves only $10,000 to do all your pre-production, write the script, create all your art, props, and sets, and do all your post-production editing, mixing, visual effects, amortize the costs of your camera, lights, and sound gear and pay for repairs, AND pay yourself 1/10th of your yearly salary (whatever it is that you need to live where you are -- $20,000 to $40,000). And that's just to break even.

    Hmm... it doesn't look like we'll be paying salaries any time soon, does it?

    Also, I'm going to have to talk to my dad about why he wasn't born rich so I could have a drug problem. I mean a trust fund. Man, why did I say "drug problem"? I meant "trust fund"...

    OK, so what if we chopped the size of the cast/crew in half and had only an average of 5 men on set per day? We could just divide the above number in half:
    $5,307 in salary costs
    $2.200 in "fixed" costs

    So now we're at $7,507 in production costs before sets, art, costumes, equipment, and post-production. That's certainly more reasonable.

    But you have to be making 10 of these dang movies a year. You're going to be run ragged.

    So right, as Joe pointed out in a comment on the last business plan post, you're going to need to work with other directors. And... here's the thing with other directors. How many directors do you know who absolutely can't finish a short film? With this business model we simply can't take years and years to finish a feature. We can't do that. Nope. No way. The picture, with all its visual effects, a complete edit, and a mix, have to be done within three or four months from the beginning of principal photography. Finished. Out the door. Moved onto other things. Done. Finito.

    This is how the producer feels.
    Our producer once had a brief conversation with David Rimawi at the AFM a few years back. He was watching a fight scene in our movie Millennium Crisis and he said "How long does it take you to finish these movies?" Because he knew that at the time it was taking us a year. We're much faster now. But he knew that even with some decent action scenes you have to be done in three months or you're just losing money.

    And doing a movie in three months is hard. Especially when everyone is working for free. Heck, we're not even getting much in the way of economy of scale by making a whole bunch of movies a year. Who is going to write 10 shootable pictures a year? Who (more importantly) will freakin' edit 10 pictures a year? To do the sound mix I estimate it'd take a total (dialog, music, and effects, mix, and changes) of... 4 days (maybe 3) for every ten minutes of picture. So let's say (being all libertine about our numbers) that the picture is 80 minutes long and takes 24 days of full-time work on the audio. Good grief, that's 240 days per year of working on the audio alone!

    So we're going to need to increase the denominator side of the equation of costs/revenue.

    But how? How how how?

    Just look for part 7 in the ongoing exciting series of "How the heck am I going to make money making movies?"


    *I believe in California that isn't the case and going overtime after 8 hours starts the time-and-a-half clock, but New Jersey and New York base overtime after 40 hours weekly.

    Sunday, September 12, 2010

    Earthkiller Day 12 part 5

    I've been feeling bad about not getting enough stills of the beautiful Robin Kurtz. So here on the elevator set is a still worthy (I think) of Facebook.
    Robin Kurtz

    I think it's sort of interesting how there's no "kick" in the eyes although they're lit. Other than the light which is flare-ing in the shot there's a light above and in front of her, and two of our "chicklets" below her (under the deck, actually, Joe designed the deck to have it be under-lit.)

    Earthkiller Day 12 part 4

    Libby Csulik, Joe Chapman, David Ian Lee, and Maduka Steady.
    Robin Kurtz surprised by David Ian Lee, while Lucy Rayner is about to get shot.
    David Ian Lee as Tybalt hides while "Sata" is about to be shot while "Riggs" opens fire.
    We killed a lot of people today. Including Maduka, Libby, Joe, and Sketkh.

    Earthkiller Day 12 part 3

    Libby Csulik and Joe Chapman.
    This is how awesome our freakin' crew is. You so wish every movie looked this cool. Straight outta the Borg silos is our Art Director and Production Designer.

    Earthkiller Day 12 part 2

    Sketkh Williams is a dead zombie. For now.

    Sketkh takes one for the team.
    Today's new character was the zombie in the elevator. That's played by Sketkh Williams. The elevator set was very nice with a set of doors which reads "Restricted" on the front of it. Man, this movie wouldn't be nuthin' like what it is if it weren't for Joe and Libby.

    Wrapping Principal Photography on Earthkiller part 1

    Robin Kurtz, the dreamy Maduka Steady, and Lucy Rayner.
    Today we wrapped principal photography on Earthkiller. This was day 12 of shooting. Which doesn't mean we don't yet have three more days of shooting little things here and there, but it does mean we've shot the bulk of it. The remainder of the movie will be (literally) a walk on the beach.
    Lucy Rayner as Raze, Maduka Steady as Mach, and Robin Kurtz as Helen.

    Saturday, September 11, 2010

    Earthkiller Day 11

    Looks like somebody just got married!

    Robin Kurtz and Lucy Rayner.
    Today we shot three scenes and 15.7 GB of data. Maybe we used a bunch of that data on stills? I don't know.

    This was the second-to-last day of photography (or, at least of "principle" photography.) After this we have no more principles.We have a little bit more photography to go.

    Oh no! Somebody shot Lucy!
    This is not the first time we've shot these scenes. The observant might recognize some of these setups from the first day of principal photography (on the ). But with a different actress. One who isn't, er, on vacation right now! ;-)

    We started with Robin carrying Lucy into the scene (which Maduka called the "King Lear carry"). But I felt like it looked like they were going on a honeymoon so we went for the "soldier limp" instead.

    The always brilliant Joe and Libby built (or, I should say "re-built") the set.
    Robin Kurtz as Helen.

    Andrew Bellware demonstrates his directing technique.
    Lucy Rayner looks down upon the dying Earth.
    Kind of exciting. We're getting toward the end of making this movie. I can't wait to see it!

    Friday, September 10, 2010

    Making a Business Plan part 5

    OK, so what if we handled our own distribution?

    The abstract of this is going to be
    • It'll cost us a whole bunch of cash up-front
    • Our overhead will skyrocket and we'll become too big too fast and inplode

    At least, at the beginning of this post that's what I think the abstract will be. We'll find out once we get to the end.

    I'm not even going to use real number in this post because I'm too lazy to look them up the fake numbers I make up out of my head will be just as accurate. You don't believe me? Oh, you should believe me. Because the real costs of things are always higher and involve a whole bunch of things you wouldn't have ever thought of.

    How much does distribution cost to do? Well, if we were able to magically distribute thorough the Internet like we're supposed to be able to do then it would be zero dollars! But it ain't. So we're not.

    We can divide distribution up into two parts:
    • North American and 
    • Worldwide (not North American).
    For North American we'd be the ones selling DVD's directly to Blockbuster (that's a lie -- we'd have to go through someone like Koch/E1 or the like to get into Blockbuster and BestBuy, Koch/E1 would take a bite of the money IF we were able to get them to "sub"-distribute us.)

    For Worldwide we'd sell to distributors around the world. 'Cause let's face reality, we're not going to be selling directly to stores in the Thai or Japanese markets ever. And that means that realistically we're going to be going to the Marche du Cannes and the American Film Markets each year. I figure that each one of those markets cannot cost less than $20,000 to attend when you include the cost of the booth/hotel suite you'll be set up in, flying at least two people out there, and putting them up and feeding them. Have you ever worked at a market? It's really one of the most miserable jobs there is.

    And the reality is that you have to have signs made up, and your trailers running on TV screens, and there's no way you're getting away with only spending $20K on each market once you've bought a round of drinks and cleaned the stains off your suit.

    So let's say that at best you're only spending $60K including trailers for the pictures you're selling, the artwork, and the raw cost of showing up in the South of France during Cannes.

    You have to be making that amount of money back even before you get started thinking about paying yourself and maybe making enough money to actually have a slate of movies made for next year. And realistically, you're probably not going to sell any movies the first year. So you're $120K in the hole by the time you start selling some movies plus the cost of making movies plus the costs your landlord has the audacity of charging you every month.

    How many movies do you need to sell to make that trip to Cannes worthwhile? 3 "major" sales? And then what are you doing at AFM? So that's three more "major" (I'm talking $20K gross sales). So you have to be putting out 6 pictures a year just to make your costs on showing up at the major markets. In order to be even remotely in the black you better be putting out somewhere close to 10 pictures a year.

    Now there's always the North American market to make up the difference, right? The advantage to the N. American market is that you don't have to go to a "market" in order to join it. You just need to make some phone calls and put some screeners in the mail. But here's the thing: how many units are realistically going to be ordered and sold by all the Blockbusters, Best Buys, and by Netflix. Lets say that you're totally awesome and you unload 2000 DVD's. These days that's a huge win.

    As the distributor you get to pocket upwards of 100% of the seven dollars or so for those DVD's (I say "upwards of" because there's no way a tiny independent will not have to go through someone like E1, who will take their own cut). But let's pretend you actually bring in $14,000. Now all you have to do is create the artwork (although you may be able to amortize some of your costs out of the Worldwide costs of creating art) and author and produce DVDs. If you're some kind of genius you manage to do that for what, $4K or $5K?

    That means that for each picture you make you're lucky and making $10,000 "profit" for North America. Because you manage to sell your pictures consistently like crazy. So lets say you make 10 pictures a year -- you're grossing almost $250K a year with North American and Worldwide sales.

    That's almost enough money to stay in business.

    But it's also not very likely. You're going to take a bath on at least (and I think I'm being generous) half of your North American pictures. Your Worldwide gross sales could, if you're lucky again, be something like $24,000 for each picture. So heck, maybe you're going to be rocking an average of (being liberal and generous) $30,000 for each movie over a four-year timespan.

    Make 10 pictures and that's $300K/year that your company can gross.

    Business plans for movie companies are like an android wrapped in plastic.
    Your costs for distributing those pictures (showing up at Cannes and AFM at $30,000/market = $60,000, making 10 different DVD's for North America is $50,000) is $110K. That's a little more than 1/3 of your total revenue. And in addition you have to be ready to take a bath for at least your first two markets while you're continuing to produce a movie (almost) every month. More than that, I think you're going to end up having to hire someone full-time for sales. They get paid whatever you can pay them plus they get a desk and a telephone.

    Right now we pay the equivalent of... er... let me figure this out. Well, it varies really widely because we typically make 100% of whatever North American sale we can weasel out of the market, but we use Halcyon for Worldwide sales. So the apples-to-apples comparison (let's pretend we pay 40% of our gross for Worldwide -- when you calculate the dumb costs of making DigiBeta masters that's about right, and not at all unfair) we pay about the equivalent of 20% to 30% of our total revenue (Worldwide and North American to distribute our pictures.

    Hmm... that's at best about the same as if we were doing it ourselves. Oops.

    So here's the actual conclusion:
    • We'd have to come up with a lot of cash up-front and we'd be spending the same amount of money.  
    • Plus we'd have to hire someone full-time to be our sales agent anyway.
    OK, well that's that then. Next up I'm going to try to figure out how we're going to make more money in North America and how on earth we're going to make 10 pictures a year.

    Plus, of course, I'll figure out if I did any of my thumbnail calculations wrong and correct as necessary.

    ADDENDUM ONE: Man, at a budget of $200K a year (including your salary and overhead) and doing 10 pictures a year that's only $20K a picture. If you're paying minimum wage and you have 200 man-days on the picture THAT's gonna cost you $20K. 

    The Golden Age of Cameras

    My feeling is that virtually any feature can be shot with an 85mm and a 35mm (or their equivalents in the format one is shooting in) and a macro lens. Sure, there will be features where you totally need that 200mm or 400mm lens but you know what I mean.

    I shot Clonehunter with a 35mm, an 85mm, and a macro attachment for super closeups just to prove it. And it worked. That was on an HVX200 and a Letus adapter with Canon S.S.C. lenses (mostly, we used some Nikon lenses too).

    The satellite defense system is taking out your camera.
    Nowadays the GH1 is doing right by us. When I first hemmed and hawed about what camera to get I looked at the various Canon cameras (I don't even remember their names or what order of expensive they're in 7D, 5D, 300i... whatever) and settled on the GH1 because even though the imager was smaller (and therefore the depth of field was greater) and the lens that came with it is slow (f5.6 or so when zoomed all the way in), it had working auto-focus in "movie" mode (nobody at the time, and even now I think, likes the autofocus on the Canons while shooting in "movie" mode.)

    The GH1 has plenty of range in its stock lens. 28mm to 280mm is roughly like a... er... mmm... well it's a 14mm to 140mm if the baseline were 35mm still imagery but it's actually more like 25mm to about 120mm compared to 35mm Academy frame. I think. Look. I don't know. I'm a sound guy for cryin' out loud.

    We have only used Canon lenses with the Panasonic GH1 once. And that was late at night outside and I needed to shoot 1600 ISO with an f-stop of something in the f1.4 to f2.0 range. It looks great but manual focusing those walk-and-talks is a biotch!. All the rest of the time I've only used the stock Panasonic lens. The Canon FD to four-thirds adapter I have is just some cheap adapter off of eBay.

    The other downside of the GH1 was the compression. It smashes the image down into teeny-tiny files. But not anymore. The boys over at DVX User hacked that bad boy and turned it into a 30MB/s filmmaking machine (I bet that secretly Panasonic released the hack to the pro video people).

    But you know what? It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if you shoot 35mm film, on the Red, with the fanciest of the Canon cameras, or an HVX with a Letus adapter, or the GH1. You know why? 'Cause your script sucks.

    Ha! See what I did there? Ha! I amuse me.

    Seriously, I shot a feature on the GH1 (Day 2) completely stock (and converted to ProRes using Neoscene), and now I've almost shot a feature (all but the last two days of principal photography on Earthkiller) using a hacked GH1 and... I haven't seen a frame of image where I know there's a difference between the hacked and the stock version of the camera. There may be one. I may have more room in the shadows for details or something. I just haven't shot anything and looked at it and been able to say "A-ha! That part of the image would be all yukkity if it weren't for the hack!" I suspect that the people making tests where they show the difference are more concerned with making tests than they are with shooting stories.

    Because really, you have a lot of room in the quality of your image to play around. There's a pretty wide range of what's acceptable visually. Have you seen those Zacuto tests where they test all these DSLR's against 35mm film? Exactly. They all work. Would I rather shoot on 35mm? Sure. I would also like a unicorn with Pegasus wings and the magical ability to eat all the chocolate I want without ever gaining weight. But I don't have those things. And it doesn't matter.

    I'll use our good friend Chance Shirley to illustrate why this is true. He is releasing a picture called Interplanetary that he shot on 16mm. Yup, Chance is one of the last of the True Believers. ;-) He's also an excellent cinematographer and makes his images look freakin' fantastic.

    And none of that really matters because if Interplanetary weren't so brilliantly written no amount of painting with light would have saved it. Instead, the script is so good that I could have shot the movie inside a shoebox with GI Joes on a camera phone and I'd be walking around without pants on calling myself a genius all day long.*

    We live in the golden age of video cameras. We live in a crappity age of trying to make money making low-no-budget movies ;-). But at least they aren't automatically costing a hundred thousand dollars just for film and processing.

    *It remains to be seen, I may very well do that already.

    Where We Are

    Tom Rowen can't be photographed badly.
    I'm mixing Day 2. Right now I have the first pass of mixes for acts 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. There are 8 acts in total and the movie is coming in at about 83 minutes right now without end-title credits (or, in fact, finished acts 1, 7, and 8).

    Normally a first pass at a mix means that I haven't taken quite enough time in a quiet environment to clean up the dialog tracks and there's either too much/too little music. But it really helps to make a rough mix and to watch picture in another environment to make a punch list of those things.

    I mix all our movies in 5.0, although nobody asks for the surround mix -- we typically foist it on our unwilling North American distributor. As far as I know, no overseas version of any of our movies has ever been released in surround. The surround mix simply isn't a selling point.

    Note that I mix in 5.0 and not 5.1. This is because the sub-bass information from the five surrounds are all sent to the subwoofer, there's just no additional subwoofer channel. And the reason I don't like to create a sub-channel is that 1. not all decoders bother decoding that extra channel and 2. what else am I going to put in there which doesn't go in the regular program? The low end is loud enough. If I want more, I'll just mix in more.

    I need to shoot some plates for the opening title credit sequence. And we have to lock acts 1, 7, and 8 (which are actually shockingly close to being at picture lock). Then we get to go through the painful process of making a punchlist and fixing every last little thing (which usually involves throwing things and yelling and possibly some stabbings, but I wear armor underneath my shirts now so that's less of a problem.)

    I absolutely have to have another screenplay to shoot before the year is out though. We have almost one and I'm three pages into another and... yeah, we gotta get on that.

    Thursday, September 9, 2010

    Today in Lenses

    Mitchell Gross, over at Abel Cine, gives a short Master Class on macro lenses.

    I have a Canon 50mm macro but it is, of course, a still lens.

    Via Tim Shrum, how to make angel wings.  It's nice that there is no visible attachment point for the wings. It helps to have the abs for such a costume.

    I told Maduka we would have to luma-key this background plate. Yes, we're using the sun to light the bluescreen.

    Wednesday, September 8, 2010

    Dinobot wants to eat your face

    The brilliant Ian Hubert is finishing up his evil touches on the Dinobot. It's going to be skinnier than this but essentially this is what he'll look like in Earthkiller.
    Humans are fattening.

    Tuesday, September 7, 2010

    Derelict Ship

    I've been talking to Bruce Frigeri about making his "Alien Revenge" and changing the caves and the mine to a derelict spaceship. Then I saw this image from the Space Battleship Yamato home page.

    Monday, September 6, 2010

    Earthkiller Day 10

    A wrap on Katie Hannigan! Oof. I totally forgot to wrap Katie today and have us all clap for her. Eef! I feel bad. Well that's a wrap on Katie Hannigan everybody! Yay!
    She had her big post-death scene. Am I giving away too much of the plot? Sorry.
    Katie Hannigan, undead.
    We spent much of the day avoiding shooting the bluescreen handheld. So there was more locked camera than we usually do. And more mixed drinks.

    I resolve to be nicer to boom operators. When I asked Libby if she'd boom op today she said "I don't want to do sound, you're mean to your boom operators."

    Zombies don't take Labor Day off. And they wear white shoes 'till Christmas.
    Egads. I am mean to them. Well, I'm mean to Maduka and the Queen of Mars. I'm nice to Gabi, actually.
    Now I'm going to be nice to boom operators. It's my resolve to be a better person.

    Be nice to boom operators, Drew. Don't assume they know as much about sound as you do just because they know more about everything else than you do doesn't mean they know as much about sound. See how I turned that around? 
    Classically trained actor David Ian Lee as Tybalt with Robin Kurtz as Helen.
    Robin Kurtz as Helen.
    Stacey Raymond, Mike Bordwell, and Ben Guralnik want to eat your brains.
    I had a revelation when I discovered that nothing looked in focus to me today -- because the diopter was bonked and had moved off of my prescription. Oops. Fixed that.
    We had the big fight scene at the end. And David Ian Lee had his big speech before he gets kittywhumped by a zombie army.

    Ben Guralnik, Irene Antoniazzi, and Lisa Marie Fabrega are turning slowly into Dinobots. And they need brains to feed their growing bodies.

    This is the size of set we're dealing with nowadays. That's a homing beacon in the center there.
    Ben Guralnik just had BBQ, but don't be fooled -- he's still hungry. If you know what I mean.
    Today, being Labor Day here in the good ol' US of A, we had Dave's Famous BBQ delivered. There was a LOT of meat. And only $300 for what... 15 people? It was my dad's birthday too so my parents were on set and we sang "Happy Birthday" to my dad with a candle in a brownie.
    All in all a great weekend where we shot a lot, a lot, a lot of dialog. Holy cow. We shot a lot. I need to sleep for about two weeks now.