Monday, July 23, 2012

What's My Genre - The Selling of Paper Blood and The Rook

A while back, I watched a documentary that followed a few filmmakers at a film festival trying to sell their film.*  Some did, some did not.  Among those who did not get his film sold at that festival was John Sayles.

It was difficult to watch someone who wrote and directed films as good as Lone Star and Return of the Secaucus Seven standing on the proverbial street corner, skirt hiked up, hoping for customer.  If that can be John Sayles, how many of us are really ready to move up to call girl.

I was reminded of this after posting my production experiences on Paper Blood and The Rook.  While they were very different films with very different producer/directors, they had some common issues.

Most of my career has been spent on the spending side of the film production equation; my “elevator speech” explanation for what I do as line producer is have other people raise the money and I spend it.  The shopping analogy makes it sound like fun, but leaves out the part where you get to the register and your card is declined, and all those people are looking at you.  In my business, the people looking at you are the people who raised all that money who were sure that it was enough.

I had nothing to do with the raising of the money on either film, and in both cases, came on after pre-production had started.  I had nothing to do with the budgeting of either film, so the amount of money – or lack thereof –that I had to work with was not a result of poor budgeting on my part, but rather two sets of filmmakers determined to get started with their project and hope that their estimates on cost were correct.

While I can’t recommend that way of going, I’d be remiss to knock it.  In the independent film world, if every filmmaker waited until they had the amount of money they felt would comfortably complete their film, many wonderful indie films and careers would never have been launched.  Even on the Studio level, Coppola’s quote “There’s nothing creative about living within your means”  speaks to the gambler mentality that many filmmakers have, and often need.

Everyone knows the people who make the big bucks in the film business are those who can raise the money, and I don’t have a problem with that.  It’s true that I don’t particularly enjoy that side of the business, but it’s also true that I’m not very good at it.  It’s easy to envy those producers who put up the money, see their names up there in big, bold letters and then get to stand at the podium when awards are handed out.  It’s not as envious to be them when they are being turned down, or when they get the fourth investor only to have the first one drop out, or when the guy they took to lunch three times still can’t seem to get around to signing the check.

It takes a salesman’s mentality to be a producer at that level, always having your hand out, both to shake and to accept the check.  That is far from my strong suit.

All of that said, it also takes a lot of that same mentality to sell an indie film once it is completed, assuming financing did not come with distribution, and it often does not.  I have been a part of that on a number of occasions, not because I am any better at it, but because at that point, I was involved with projects and people I really believed in and was determined to see them get their films to a wider audience, and also have the opportunity to get to the next project. 

Inevitably, these were relationships with people like Donna and Phil and Eran and a few others that went beyond a business relationship to a friendship.

The frustration on the selling end can be even worse than on the investment end.  When you are raising money to shoot a film, you are offering a dream, a vision, a possibility of what could be.  Once you get to the actual selling and distributing of the film, the product is there for everyone to see.  Now, when they turn you down, they are not rejecting your dream, they are rejecting your consummation of that dream, your child.  This can be a lot harder to take, emotionally, for everyone involved, not to mention more frightful because, in the cases of Paper Blood, The Rook and other projects I’ve been involved with, producers have dipped way deeper into their pockets than they planned, and now recouping some of that money has a real impact on their life, on such questions as whether the mortgage or the car payments get paid.

Being involved with both films in a rather short period of time, I was additionally frustrated by the logic, or lack thereof, in those who chose to pass on the films.

Although I posted the stories in reverse order, I worked on Paper Blood first.  While the film had a mob element to it, and a heist element, it took a lot of clever twists and turns, and had a very “indie” feel.  After all, first efforts like Blood Simple and Reservoir Dogs could both be described as “genre” films, as heist-gone-wrong films, which is what Paper Blood is at its core.  Still, both were lauded in indie circles.

While good, Paper Blood is certainly not on a level with those films.  The point is that simply being a certain genre should not eliminate a movie from indie circles.  Still, when we approached many of the major indies, the response we got was they were looking for edgy, challenging films, and “genre” films like Paper Blood would do better in the direct-to-video market.  Similar responses came from many indie film festivals.

If this were true, The Rook should have been the darling of the indie circuit.  You don’t get more challenging in terms of story and look than The Rook.

While The Rook did have success at some festivals, many others turned their heads and, like those customers on that same proverbial corner, drove on by, looking for their pleasure elsewhere.
A good deal of the feedback suggested that the unique plot and look made it hard to categorize, and that was a problem.

But, wait?  Didn’t people tell the producers of Paper Blood that it’s clear definition and category made it not quite an indie film?  Shouldn’t the lack of specific genre have been a plus on the indie circuit for The Rook?n

The word we got back, often, when being turned down for festivals was "edgy" - they were looking for something more "edgy".  We got similar feedback from indie distributors.

The beauty of the word "edgy" is that it has no meaningful definition when it comes to trying to write, direct or produce a film.  If it means "different", well, every filmmaker thinks their film is unique.  Simply because the film is being made by a different filmmaker, the most derivative movie will be different.  If it meant that the film dealt with worlds or individuals ignored by the Hollywood system, both films would have qualified.

Frankly, I defy anyone to tell me why one film is "edgy" and another is not.  Hell, if exploring different worlds qualified, Hobbits would count.

Another similarity with the two projects was that in funding the films and preparing for production, both producers had gone with leads that should have helped them with distribution.

Eran cast Martin Donovan in the lead of The Rook.  Not only is Martin a talented and incredibly subtle actor (and now director), but he was what we liked to call "indie hot."  He had been featured in two of indie hero Hal Hartley's films, Trust and Simple Men.  While Hartley is hardly a household name, he was highly regarded at the time as a leading indie filmmaker and someone to watch.

The Sopranos, and the phenomenon it became, had not yet happened, so casting Frank and Vinny Pastore did not capitalize on any of that popularity, but Frank's name and face were certainly known from the Scorsese films.  If Paper Blood were a genre, film, then Frank's mug on the cover of the poster should have meant something.

Frank isn't a star, you say?  Let me introduce you to the funding world we were dealing with in the early to mid-90s.  When you were trying to get pre-sales - something that rarely happens today - you were told to go out and get a "name", which, on the low budget circuit, normally meant finding a supporting actor from bigger films or television.  Lance Henriksen and has-beens like Eric Estrada were high on the list of people you were meant to attach.  The Bruce Campbell's of the world paid their bills from this sort of advice. These second (or third) stringers still had clout in foreign markets, which drove sales for many a project funded from those sales.

In this decidedly low-rent version of "names", Frank's should have come shining through.  It did not.

None of this is new to the film business, and I point it out here not because I am shocked that it existed, but more to point out to some of the (undoubtedly) innocent eyes out there that think there is a beautiful and loving indie-film world that welcomes the new and the different with open arms, that is above the coarse machinations of Hollywood that the "indie" world can be every bit as crass as the Big Guys.  As JR and I used to say, we knew we were hookers, we just wanted to be call girls one day.

All of this talk of "what genre is this" got me thinking of the old TV show "What's My Line," and one of the fun guests on that show, Alfred Hitchcock.  (Do check out the clip above) As you surely know, Hitchcock never received an Oscar as director** for any of his films, and his only personal acknowledgement from the Academy was the "we're sorry we screwed up before" Lifetime Achievement" award he received.

Much of this was due to the fact that his movies were considered genre films, suspense films and thus somehow beneath the voters of such awards.  Of course, this is ridiculous, but the movie industry, big and small, has never been as good at anything as it is at shifting the ground beneath your feet.

You played by the rules and we still don't like you?  Okay, we'll change the rules.  That still remains true today.

Hitchcock, by many standards, was an indie-filmmaker.  His budgets were far below those traditional studio films for much of his career, and even at the height of his success, the Studios saw him as more of a hired gun than one of their own.

People who saw either The Rook or Paper Blood can add their own opinions of the final product.  If selling is not my strong suit, being objective about films I've worked on is.  Paper Blood is not on the level of the very top crime dramas, and The Rook does not stand with the very best experimental films.  If they were not great films, they were, at the very least competent films (I would argue that both were better than competent - I'm trying to be objective here), something that I can't say for both many genre films that found quick sales and many indie films that received much praise.

One final common ground between the two films is the issue of the title, and it says something about the respective filmmakers.

The Rook was filmed as The Circle in the Square.  Told by many prospective buyers that the title was too confusing, Eran chose a simpler title, though, in terms of telling the story of the film, it's equally confusing.  That was Eran's usual reaction to being told what to do.

Paper Blood was sold to its original distributor as West New York, and can still be found under that title in some places.  Paper Blood had duel meanings; the paper (securities) that Frank's character sold led to blood, and when spoken, the title sounds like "Pay for Blood", not an accident.  This, too, seemed too confusing to prospective buyers; somehow putting "New York" in the title, and then suggesting that it was somewhere geographically outside of it, made it more appealing.  Don't ask me to explain it.

The markets are certainly different and more varied today, though the skeptic in me thinks many of the old systems still exist, even if in different forms.  Just like before, though, the struggle doesn't end when the cameras stop rolling, and I thought a snapshot of what it was like at that time would be enlightening.

Just remember that film-making is a world where breaking the rules will lead to one set of obstacles, but following the rules doesn't guarantee very much more.

*I cannot find the title, having looked on Sayles' IMDB of films where he is featured.  Maybe it was part of a TV series.  Sorry I don't have more info.

**Yes, Hitchcock's films did win Academy Awards in other categories, notably Rebecca, which won Best Picture.

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