Monday, October 4, 2010

Movies and the future of us

There was an interesting story in the LA Times last week. One of the big agencies, CAA has sold a 35% stake to an investment firm to help find funding for movies. Some of the old guys like Cohen and Fox and Zanuck are probably turning in their graves as the movie industry becomes even more corporate.

And we all know what corporations do; keep the bottom line and make sure the stockholders are happy.

In the "old days" a producer went to see the head of the studio, who was probably the one who created the company, to ask for money to make a movie.  Many times it was as simple as three questions; what's the story, who's in it and how much will it cost.

That was it.

The producer would say they have Bogart and Hepburn, it's a story about a boat in Africa and it's gonna cost $1 million. One man decided on it, not a committee, no surveys, just one man.

Now not only is the decision made by committees and boards, but also by people who don't have any experience or passion about the movies. The old guys were cost conscious and were tough, but they also knew movies.

Of course it was a different time, once TV came onto the scene, it began to change and with it the way movies are made. There was a brief spark in the early 1970's when scores of movies were made by new, young filmmakers on real issues.

That all changed with Jaws which made so much money, it spawned what is now called the blockbuster era. Movies now had to make tons of money in the first week-end. Yet, to some extent, movies were okayed by people who knew the film business.

Today, they're made by trends and what worked in the past. The movies now are either sequels, comic books, horror or romantic comedies. There still are lots of low budget indie movies but the costs of advertising can be more than the movie cost to make.

So why are the agencies going outside their own for money?

Because they're not making as much from their clients. That precious 10% (dictated by state law nontheless) is getting less and less. The percentage stays the same, but the rates don't. Remember Paramount dropping Tom Cruise a few years ago? He was asking for too much money.

Big stars like Cruise had a deal where they get money from first revenues, they could get millions of dollars even before the studio.

But now big stars don't guarantee big box office. Remember Tom's WWII movie? Or that one with Cameron Diaz?

What's happening is beginning to shape the film business in a whole new way, and a lot of it isn't good news. Fewer movies are being made by the big guys, and let's face it, most of the population on this planet sees movies from the big studios.

And this means less work for writers, actors and directors. And further behind but already hurting, are the crews. Yet film schools churn out more fodder. I've already told you that around 85% of WGA writers are out of work now.

My Christmas script was originally set at $2.5 million, which would have been a nice payday for me. But I discovered it was being made for less than $1 million. That meant less for me. However I am curious how they could make a Christmas movie, with snow, in late August in Hamilton, Ontario, for that little money.

First of all, the crew had to be working for less money and the shooting schedule, usually around an already impossible 18 days, was probably cut down to 15 days, maybe even less. They had one star, Lauren Holly, who was married to Jim Carrey, and in Picket Fences and a few other shows, probably made a modest amount. And I mean modest.

Since I have worked as a producer and know budgets well, I have been seeing less and less money being shelled out for movies and series. I believe that the end of the big money on shows like Seinfeld or Friends is over. I doubt studios and networks will give away those levels of money to talent anymore.

But the question is; how low can we go?

Well, Hallmark, who has US rights to the Christmas story has paid probably anywhere from $350,000 to $400,000 for the movie. That is less than a  half  hour sitcom on Comedy Channel.

Take it or leave it.

The producer has to find the additional funding for their movie from other sources, in this case, a Canadian broadcaster and hopefully foreign sales. The only good thing here is that a Christmas movie is guaranteed to show every year at Christmas, so the potential for royalties is possible.

SAG already has several options for low budgets; including one where everyone works for free. They have realized that it's better to  have an actor working on a no-budget movie for free than not at all. Their deals aren't always easy to do; but at least they try.

WGA and DGA have similar deals, not quite as generous but helpful. A writer can defer his salary but once the movie is sold, they have to be paid the full amount.  It's a big more complicated but that's the basic formula.

Then you throw in one more item; the fact that a hell of a lot of people are downloading movies for free. My horror film is being downloaded in England and Germany and I don't see a Euro. And on top of that, it's a bad print.

We have a generation who feels entitled to seeing movies for free and they do. One filmmaker played his movie on the internet and charged a modest fee to watch it. He made some money but it wasn't long before people were seeing it for free.

How do you handle that? It's not theft, it's a cultural.

And the future, well, I don't know where those film students will go; usually the attrition rate is around 75%, those leaving the film business after a year or two of no work. I don't see the business going back to the old days, Blockbuster Video is in bankruptcy, dvds are on the way out to be replaced by streaming video.

It is estimated that there are around 12 million unemployed people in America, the government likes to say 9 million but they usually don't count the ones who gave up looking for work. 

It seems that there will be very expensive blockbuster movies and smaller budgets on TV shows and series. And since Charlie Sheen gets around $2 million per episode, maybe he can take a cut in  his salary.

Either way, I am glad I was in the last good era of TV movies, having done them since 1989 when budgets were decent and work was everywhere and when agents actually took on new writers with no credits and worked with them.

(Thurs: Preparing a reading with real actors)

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