Friday, September 18, 2009

Dog Days - a lesson in movie history

Okay, here's where I sink low and resort to a dog picture.  Looking for money is not always exciting. Most of my time now is spent sitting at my desk in my little home office, surfing the web, looking for potential investors, emailing people I've emailed several times,  telling them I have someone who's ready to match my funds,  if  I can find them. 

Then I stare at nothing and wonder why I'm even trying.  It's sometimes boring as hell as I wait for people to get back to me and mostly say no. So I decided to give you a history lesson on independent movies. Or "indies" as they're called in the industry. 

The definition of indies is somewhat vague, but mainly it means movies made outside of the bigtime movie industry. This means that Paramount, Warners, and all the others are not involved in indie movies.  In fact, the money they pay for catering lunch is probably more than most indie movies cost.  Indies are the labors of love for most people, the stories that a general audience wouldn't really care to see as they don't have car crashes, super heroes or incredible effects. 

But once in a while, an indie sneaks through and experiences huge success.  The rules for indies are quite clear, but they have been getting muddy in the last few years.  Take movies like Blair Witch Project, made for well under $25,000, but made well over $100,000, 000.  Yes, one hundred million dollars.  Or take Juno, a hybrid indie, which caught on and made money and an Academy award for the screenwriter.

But these are anomolies, or "non-recurring phenomenons" as the studios like to call them. In other words, they don't really know why those movies succeeded and don't know how to copy them.

Independent movies started back in the late 195o's when John Cassavettes, a solid actor, wasn't able to get into a prestigious acting school and decided to start his own acting school.  And the first thing he did is get all his actors together and with money he begged, borrowed from others, went out and made a movie that cost almost nothing.   

What happened after that changed the way movies were made forever.  Cassavettes did something different, he took his camera out on the streets.  The movie, called SHADOWS,  is about a young interracial couple in 1950's Manhattan, shot on 16mm film and mostly improvised. The film surprisingly got good reviews, Leonard Maltin said it was "a watershed in the birth of American Cinema".  Remember this was the time of big studio movies like Ben Hur and My Fair Lady. 

Shadows didn't play to big audiences but it played to enough audiences that it begat a lot of imitators.  All of a sudden, small personal movies about subjects a writer or director was passionate about, were being made.  One of my favorite movies is Cassavette's HUSBANDS, with him, Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara, as three buddies who, after a friend dies in his 40's, decide to go out on a bender.  Cassavettes would star in big Hollywood movies like ROSEMARY'S BABY and DIRTY DOZEN and then use much of his money to make more personal films.

Independent movies.  Indies.

And this continues to today, whenever you see a little movie, low budget, personal story, it's the product of Cassavette's work.  Recent indies include WENDY AND LUCY,  ONCE,  AWAY FROM HER, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, PIECES OF APRIL, FROZEN RIVER (the last two had Academy nominees in them).  Chances are most of you haven't seen these movies as they mostly play in bigger cities like New York, LA,  Chicago and Toronto.  But they are all released on DVD.  And cable networks like Sundance and Independent Film Channel show many of them and even more obscure ones.

What remains unchanged since Shadows, is the financing of these movies. They are often funded by family money, credit cards, friends and sometimes studios.  The common denominator is that they usually don't cost a lot, and that they are the kind of stories that play arthouses, not usually commercial and not usually profitable unless they are made for little money.  Like TRAVEL DAY. 

One interesting aspect of indie movies is that Hollywood has finally discovered them. Smelling money, the big boys opened their own "boutique Indie department" and started buying up every one they could. This lasted a few years until they realized that most indie movies don't make millions and millions of dollars and they closed down their "boutique" operations and stayed with IRONMAN, TRANSFORMERS and Adam Sandler comedies.

Also, a lot of Hollywood stars began to notice the amount of Academy nominees that came out of indie movies, and pretty soon each star wanted her or his own indie film.  After all TRANSFORMERS didn't get Academy nominations, but FROZEN RIVER did. 

So they created a "hybrid indie" in that a small personal movie was made with a "humble Hollywood star" who normally got millions of dollars for a movie but whose heart was really in movies that cost less than their Ferrari.  Since these weren't really true indie movies, and with bigger budgets, they were generally scorned by the starving filmmakers who did real independent films.  LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE was a hybrid as it cost around $8 million (ten times Travel Day's budget) and had Greg Kinear and Alan Arkin, both Hollywood stars. 

And what changed the indie business again was something nobody saw coming.

Digital cameras.

Now it became possible to make complete films for barely anything.  Your neighbor is probably making one now.  Digital cameras and editing systems, all of which could cost under a thousand dollars brought movie making to everybody on this planet. Take my friend Randy, who did 2 movies for $10,000.  That alone would be the cost of lunch on a Hollywood film. 

However,  having the equipment to make a movie isn't necessarily good.  Not everyone has a great story to tell. The saying in Hollywood is this:

The good news is that everyone can make a movie, the bad news is that everyone can make a movie.


  1. Reading your blog entry on Indie films makes me want to make one! That was extremely interesting. It is also information I would never know unless you posted it. Thanks again...

  2. And you got the perfect title on your soon-to-be published book, Love on the Net. Best luck to you, Nic.