Hot on the heels of last week’s 4/20 release of Cheech & Chong’s Hey Watch This, 4/27 brings two new releases from Hal Hartley. Both films are available on DVD from Microcinema and as MP4 downloads on the Possible Films website. First up is PF2: Possible Films vol. 2, the first new material from Hal since Fay Grim way back in 2006. It’s a series of short films made while he was on his European Vacation. Second is the re-release of Surviving Desire. The original release was pretty bad. The sync was soft, there was a bogus 5.1 soundtrack (the film was recorded mono) and the picture was pretty weak. We re-mastered the films a few years ago for some foreign releases, and I authored the DVD myself, so I can vouch for the quality of the films. I also designed the covers, which I’m really happy about.
So this might end up being a moot point if Congress bans them, but I’m seeing a lot of FUD going on about Film Futures Exchanges and not a lot of discussion about what we can reasonably expect to happen with them. As I understand it, traders would be able to purchase contracts with prices that are related to the opening weekend theatrical box office numbers. They would also be able to do short sales, betting that a film will fail to live up to the expectations of the market.
So, let’s put a few things aside first. Yes, this turns an artistic pursuit into a commodity like cattle. I don’t care about that. If you don’t consider filmmaking a business then you should move to Europe. Another big complaint I’m hearing is the possibility of rampant insider trading. Um, sure. If you think you can judge a film’s success on opening weekend just by, you know, watching it, then by all means give that a shot.
I am concerned that the entire market seems to be based on opening weekend box office numbers. I really dislike the rampant fascination with these numbers. And for a futures market, I wonder how they could take into account a slow-rollout theatrical release where you start in one theater in NY on the first weekend but eventually open in a few hundred theaters over several weeks. The obvious answer is that nobody cares about these movies. All the trading will be concentrated on the super-giant films that will dominate the box office by opening on 7000 screens in 4D with ticket prices running $25. And these box office numbers have only a tangential relationship to the money coming back to the producers of the film. The numbers are only reporting the amount of money that theaters charged for admission to the films, with no accounting of the deals they’ve made with the distributor, and what deals the distributor has with the producers. They are big fun numbers for everyone to look at in handy chart form in The USA Today.
My main interest in this debate is the claim I have seen that a film futures market would increase the money available to film producers. That perked me up. But I’ve never seen a good example of how this will work. Let’s take an imaginary investor who wants to give an indie producer money to make a movie. This investor is dumb. He will never get his money back. He would be better off buying some CDOs from Lehman Brothers. But let’s say he goes ahead anyway for his own reasons. Maybe he likes movies or something. So he invests $1 million in this great little film. And the movie is really great. So he goes to a futures exchange and buys a bunch of contracts. (Would that be legal?) If the movie does really well on its opening weekend, he’ll make a bunch of money. But the odds are this $1 million movie won’t make much money on its opening weekend. He’d be better off shorting the film if he could get some sucker to go to bat for the film (if you’re selling short, somebody else has to go long). Is this what Lionsgate’s chairman means when he says it will “substantially widen the number and breadth of financing sources available to the motion picture industry by lowering the risk inherent in such financing.” This is what’s known as hedging, right? Otherwise it seems like just an additional investment in the success of your film, which is increasing your risk if it doesn’t succeed (or at least make a bunch of money at the box office on its opening weekend).
But let’s say our imaginary investor doesn’t feel comfortable shorting his own film. Wouldn’t he be better off investing additional money in the marketing and distribution of our little indie that could? He’s in this for the long haul. He may be dumb, but I hope he knows nobody makes their money back in the theatrical market. He can make a lot more over the years on DVD, television, the Internet, etc. So given the choice between a one-weekend contract on a product that will last for many years or an increased investment in the film itself, the answer seems obvious.
This is probably not the kind of investor anyone is talking about. They’re probably talking about hedge funds and banks who would invest in slates of films. I suppose the opportunity to mitigate their risk via futures contracts could entice them to invest in more films, but basing their hedging on opening weekend box offices seems even more risky. I would hope that anyone putting up big bucks would know better than that.
UPDATE: The A.K.A. Indie Film Blog gives a much better explanation of the reality of Film Futures Exchanges. It explains how in certain situations an investor might mitigate their risk. What it also explains is that only films opening on a lot of screens are going to be listed on this exchange and as I suspected, small indie films are not going to get anything out of this.
A few Blu-Ray reviews of Hey Watch This are trickling out ahead of the release on 4/20. Most of them mention the lack of an uncompressed audio track. I don’t really know why there wasn’t one included, since I’m a little out of the loop on Blu-Ray production, but I know that the materials were available. Justin Sluss at High Def Disc News suggested that perhaps the audio was compressed in-camera to AC3. However, since the movie was shot by professionals, and not a high school A/V club, I would like to assure everyone that the concert audio was recorded in 14 separate tracks, separate from the picture at 24-bit/48kHz LPCM. I suspect I won’t be able to hear the difference between the AC3 track and the uncompressed I was accustomed to hearing during the mix.
Ian Jane of DVD Talk noticed that “Detail wavers when we go back stage or when the camera turns to the boxed seats, these shots tend to look a fair bit softer than the footage shot on stage, but the overall quality here is not bad at all,” which you might expect when cutting from a $60,000 Panasonic 3700 to a $2500 Canon 5D MK II. And considering that way back then you had to shoot 30.0 fps on the 5D, it’s incredible to me that there’s only a slight difference.
In general people seem to enjoy the film if they’re already fans. Greg Senko at Why So Blu? didn’t think most of it was very funny, and he admitted to rarely enjoying pot humor in general, but again he loved the picture and audio quality. I haven’t seen any reviews from non-techie websites yet, but I’m very curious to see what they think.
I edited the movie, but I would like to emphasize that I did not edit this trailer. This is the so-called “red band” trailer, so put on your headphones if you’re at work.
In a silly–but wholly appropriate–stunt The Weinstein Company is releasing a movie I edited, Cheech & Chong’s Hey Watch This on 4/20. I’ve heard a rumor that it might come out in a few theaters as well. There’s no trailer yet, but you can pre-order the Blu-Ray for hardly any money on Amazon. I can assure you that it is a lot of fun.
If you want to see some very similar material (almost exactly the same material in fact) in animated form, check out the trailer for the new animated Cheech & Chong movie which apparently does for Cheech & Chong’s old comedy albums what HBO is doing for Ricky Gervais’ old podcasts.
Another fun little project. I edited this for Tom Papa’s new website.
The cost of making movies that look good has been plummeting steadily over the past few years. Way back in the beginning of the century, there was basically just DV, which everyone pretended looked good because there were no viable alternatives. Now we have a plethora of amazing HD options. I am a complete believer in shooting movies with DSLRs. Shane Hurlbut (who you may remember as the “fucking distracting” DP of Terminator: Salvation) brought the Canon 5D to my attention when he suggested using it to shoot portions of the Cheech & Chong concert movie (coming out 4/20 of this year!). At the time they had to do all kinds of crazy things to trick the automatic sensors into making the right exposure, and of course there was the totally boneheaded 30.0 fps. A year later we have full manual control on the 5D, which still has the best sensor around, but what’s exciting me today is the newly-announced $800 Rebel T2i. It seems to have all the video functions of the 7D with a significantly reduced price. Just like the 7D, you can shoot 23.98 fps. Sure, the sensor is smaller on both the 7D and T2i, but the beauty of a real lens is going to go a long way towards making up for the “small” sensor. Of course, you’ll have to get a lens for the thing too. $800 is just for the body.
I’m also a big believer in double-system sound. The sound recording on these DSLRs is suspect, but it’s just always a good idea to have a person on set whose job it is to monitor the machine that records your sound. When it’s going into your camera things start to get crowded. It also limits your camera’s mobility. Something like the Tascam DR-100 is very appealing to me. B&H is selling it for a mere $300! It’s small, portable, and records to the same SD cards the T2i records to. It’s basically the modern version of the DA-P1 DAT recorders I used in film school. And again this is only for the recording device. You’ll need a nice microphone or two.
As exciting as all this cheap gear is (and it is very exciting) you still need something to happen in front of the camera. First off you need a good story. It’s hard to write a good story. If you’ve seen any movies, plays, or read books you know this. Lately I’ve been disillusioned with the quality of films being made on shoestring budgets, but I saw the excellent Humpday recently and it really lifted my spirits. Anyone could make that movie from a technical point of view. It was shot on quite inexpensive HVX-200s. The barrier to making a good movie at this point is talent, and not access to money.
Even with the cost of recording devices heading towards $0, and your own talent being essentially free, you have some costs that aren’t going away. If you know enough people you can probably get a crew to work for free or deferred salaries. If you’re smart about the writing, you can keep the location costs low (access fees, transportation, and art department) but you still have to feed all those people. Lunch is necessary, and breakfast is a good idea to keep people happy. Food can easily be the most expensive part of a micro-budget movie.
And then there’s the big question of what to do with your movie when it’s finished. Yes, feel free to submit it to the big film festivals and hope that somebody picks you. There were 3,724 feature-length films submitted to this year’s Sundance Film Festival, so good luck with that. And even if your film is shown at Sundance, the days of Miramax picking up your film for $10 million are long gone (as is Miramax). You’re very likely to leave Sundance in the same penniless state you were when you started. Do not fall for the myth of “If you build it they will come.” If everyone in the world is building a baseball field in their corn field, heaven runs out of dead baseball players pretty fast.
Your film might be great, but the marketplace for films is terrible. Indie films struggle in theaters, and most people are still locked in a mindset that direct-to-home-video=failure. You certainly can’t make any money by selling downloads on the Internet. I don’t think I have any answers for someone making a movie on their own. It seems like a terrible idea financially. But if you can keep your costs down, you don’t need TWC or IFC Films. The less money you spend, the less money you have to earn back.
For years I’ve been complaining about the mess that external hard drives create. They’re amazing and convenient for someone in my line of work who needs to move a lot of storage around, but every manufacturer uses a different power cord. Some of them use wall-warts. Some of them use in-line bricks. Some of the higher-end companies like Glyph put the converters inside and use standard 3-pin power cords. They also keep the case a nice rectangular shape, but you pay a premium for those drives. I have at least five external drives connected to my computer at all times, and they tend to vary in both cord and enclosure style. What this has generally meant was a barely contained mess of wires surrounding my computer. When I installed an HD monitor and Blackmagic Intensity card, the problem got even worse. So this week I moved my computer into my closet. This solves the messy cable problem, and makes the computer easier to access. It’s on a shelf so I don’t have to crawl around on the floor to plug and unplug things. It also makes the office much quieter because all those noisy fans are tucked away in the closet. Of course it generates a bit of heat, so I’m currently investigating some cooling options. I’m thinking of venting the heat out the back of the closet into another closet that doesn’t have any delicate computer equipment. For now, the closet door just stays open a crack.
Since I was running 35-foot cables, I wanted to minimize the number of cables I had to buy. Once you get over 15 feet it can get expensive especially for DVI. I managed to get it down to an incredibly thick (1/2″ diameter) DVI cable, a 33-foot active USB repeater cable, a component video cable for the HD monitor, and a red-white RCA for audio. I was already running ethernet from the DSL modem right past the closet, so I diverted it inside. I put a little 7-port USB hub on my desk, and the computer monitor has 4 USB ports as well. I put my DVD burner in an external USB enclosure on my desk so I don’t have to go into the closet to burn a disc. All firewire and eSATA devices stay in the closet. The component and DVI cables are really thick, but the whole thing just barely fit in a nice little cable zipper so it looks like a single thick cable.
I have a multi-standard DVD player hooked up to the HD monitor, so I got a component video switcher to switch between the computer’s video feed and the DVD. It’s a neat little device that has IR Learning, so I can use any remote to control it. That lives under my computer monitor stand, which does a great job of hiding cables.