Filmmakers always want to know what goes down at the American Film Market. As I probably mentioned a few times, Death Grip attended AFM in 2011, and while the price of admission was steep, the learning experience more than paid for it. Stacey Parks of Film Specific recently interviewed us for her latest case study on AFM, and Death Grip‘s producer and co-star Rebecca Ahn gave a lot of insight into the current film market and how it impacts independent action films.

Today I’m going to introduce you to Rebecca Ahn and Eric Jacobus whom I worked with as private clients on their film Death Grip.  As you’ll see, even though Death Grip wasn’t finished by the time AFM rolled around, Rebecca and Eric decided to make the trip anyway (from San Francisco where they’re based) and see if they could start drumming up interest for their film.

Every year, hundreds of filmmakers show up on the AFM doorsteps with films in the post production stage in hopes of finding distribution interest for their films. But where I see most filmmakers fail is when they show up grossly unprepared – without the proper presentation materials and without any meetings set up… and as a result, most of them go home frustrated.

In this case study, you’ll see how Rebecca and Eric did things a bit differently by going in prepared…yet learned some very valuable lessons of what they could have even done better.

Enter Rebecca and Eric…

What is the name and log line of your film?

Death Grip

An Action Kickback film by Eric Jacobus, which takes Kenny Zemacus and his autistic brother Mark deep into the deadly world of the mysterious Coin of Judas and the murderous cult that will stop at nothing to get their hands on it.

What is the website for your film (if you have one)?  

www.DeathGripMovie.com

What is the budget (or budget range) of your film? 

In the end, we will have spent just over $100,000 to produce Death Grip.

What stage were you at with your film for AFM and what was your strategy and overall goal going in? 

We were in post-production on Death Grip when we attended AFM last year, so our goal going in was to find either interested distributors or at least a reputable sales agent to take on our film.

What did you do most to prepare for AFM? 

We did our research and identified several distributors and sales agents we thought would be a good fit for us and our film, then reached out and set up several meetings throughout the market. We then worked hard to put together a solid sales one-sheet with great cover art on one side, and cast & other important production info on the other. Since Death Grip was still in post-production, we didn’t have a final screener to take with us. So instead we took DVDs with the trailer and a few rough scenes from the film to show prospective distributors.

What were some of the obstacles you encountered (if any) and how did you overcome them? 

Our biggest obstacles came from the marketability and timing of our film. While the sales agents we met with at AFM seemed satisfied with our content, they continually expressed concern over whether we had adequate name talent. We hadn’t fully understood how singularly essential this one element can be to distributors, pretty much above all others, and this limited our ability to connect with some of the more established sales agents. In addition to that, we went to AFM while still in the early stages of post-production on Death Grip, which meant we didn’t have a polished looking product and our trailer wasn’t as strong as it could have been. This also hurt us in our AFM meetings, and though some sales agents were able to see past that to the film’s potential, we definitely would have made a stronger impression if we’d brought a completed screener, or at least an extremely solid trailer.

What were some of your biggest mistakes or wastes of time with regards to AFM? 

Going into AFM, we were still a bit fuzzy on the difference between a distributor and a sales agent. We realize now, looking back, that it was not as realistic to pursue deals directly from distributors there (especially not foreign) given the package of our particular film. So I do feel we wasted some of our time in contacting and pursuing distributors who would rarely give a film of our level their precious time. In the end, our conversations with sales agents were far more rewarding than those with direct distributors, so that is an area where we could have used our time more wisely.

What resources or tools did you find most helpful in preparing for and attending AFM? 

FilmSpecific.com was by far the most valuable resource for our AFM preparation, as well as for producing Death Grip in general. We were also fortunate to work with Stacey Parks on our marketing and distribution strategy. Beyond that, we just researched every site and resource on film markets and distribution we could find, and talked to everyone we knew who had been through it before. So we felt very well prepared going into AFM.

What was the outcome of your trip to AFM and did you accomplish your goals? 

At the end of the market, we left with a good number of positive leads from sales agents, which later developed into several full offers. Our hard work at AFM was rewarded, and we were able to compare and negotiate these offers and select the very best one for us. So in the end, we did indeed accomplish our goal, and now have our ideal sales agent WonderPhil representing Death Grip.

 If you had to do it all over again what would you do differently?

How you brand yourself is just as important as how you brand your film. Although we had prepared solid materials for our film, we didn’t focus enough on materials about ourselves – namely our business cards. We did have some on us, but they were hard to read and a bit outdated, since we made them for an older company. I sometimes wonder if we would have had more success had we brought more professional business cards with our current production company and roles.

Armed with these, we also might have had more courage to make more frequent introductions. We didn’t quite realize the importance of impromptu introductions until the end of the market, and therefore missed out on a good many additional opportunities. We had our schedule of meetings, but didn’t take as much initiative between them to pop in and introduce ourselves at other companies we hadn’t reached out to yet, but were still a potentially good fit. The few times we did do this, it lead to something more. So we left feeling like we could have done more there.

What are your next steps from here? 

We are proud to say we finally released Death Grip a few weeks ago with our own theatrical premiere, which was extremely well received and has already been earning numerous glowing reviews (http://deathgripmovie.com/press). It is also now available on DVD and Blu-Ray at our online store (http://stuntpeoplestore.bigcartel.com), where sales have really been taking off! So next, we will be working on building up more press, trying to get into a film festival or two, and helping our sales agent sell rights to more territories around the world. At the same time, we are also developing our next two projects, which we’ve gotten to the script stage and are now packaging with financing and cast. So it’s onward and upward for us!

When we walked into the exhibit hall today to begin our Comic-Con 2012 adventure, the initial impression was: holy sh*t. Not only is Comic-Con bigger, but it’s louder, thicker, longer, and faster. Legendary is two hundred yards from us with a Dolby Surround system and a 130-inch LED TV near the ceiling playing every trailer since 2009, and Konami is around the corner with a booth that looks less like a booth and more like a castle.

The Stunt People exhibited the first day with an all-new booth design by Chelsea and Rebecca that drew a solid crowd. Sales were better than the last three years combined for preview night, when the exhibit hall opens for only three hours to a more select group of attendees who want to get in and buy the collectibles before the big crowd arrives on Thursday. The Stunt People banner is missing, so we’re showcasing the Action Pact Entertainment logo above the booth. People are less likely to assume we’re a stuntmen trade association this way. Once we get the SP banner we’ll put it in back above the TV for those who engage our booth.

Ric Meyers prepped me for his Superhero Kung Fu Extravaganza panel with him tomorrow night, where I’ll be featuring some action from Death Grip. it. I probably shouldn’t tell you exactly what he said about the fights in Death Grip, but I can say that of the six or so other film snippets playing, Death Grip will be the last one for a reason.

We’re going to do our best to get into other people’s panels, including one with an appearance by Jackie Chan and the cast of Expendables 2. To be honest, there’s no way in high hell we’re going to get into these, let alone meet the stars, and least of all hand them a DVD. The fanfare at Comic-Con is utterly super-human. There’s still a line around the building waiting to see a cast appearance at the Twilight panel on Thursday, and get this: the line started on Monday. These kinds of waits are common, and we simply aren’t hardcore enough to do it. Plus, we’ve got a movie to sell, and so far people are really, really digging Death Grip.

Enjoy these pics from the show. We’re stoked about tomorrow, and we’ll post plenty more pics from then too!

The latest series of events in Stunt People history have made it painfully obvious to me that you have to be a huge player to get any momentum in the entertainment world.

  • Materials – Getting a printing company to make 1,000 DVDs on time when their regular clients print 50,000 is like pulling teeth. Printing 1,000 units through a smaller printing company will cost you far more since it’s not as streamlined and requires more man-hours.For example, I’m trying to make DVDs and the people at the press are utterly unresponsive after running into multiple errors with the discs and hard drives I sent. I’m not convinced these are my errors and I’ve seen no attempt on their parts to figure out what to do next, but since they’re not making much money from this deal compared to the 50,000 disc runs they’re used to, they have no incentive to respond to my emails very quickly. I’ll end up on the phone with them today, probably a lot.

    I recommend kunaki if you’re doing single-layer DVDs or CDs. Quick, cheap, and easy.

  • Distribution – If you’re indie, you rely on a core, fan audience, but once your film is done, sales agents tell you not to make too much noise, for fear of hurting international sales. If international distributors get word that your film is “old” or has been released already, they may drop their deal. The alternative is to stay silent and avoid getting too much press for your film, and avoid showing it to people until some distributor picks it up, which these days might take years. Getting people to review your film and showing it to the world before its eventual release requires stealth and will result in a lot of aches and pains.

    For example, I went ahead and edited the IMDB listing for my last feature film (starts with “cont” ends with “or” … see that shit? stealth, though don’t be surprised if I have to edit this damn blog too now) to give it its new alternate title. An hour later, our distributor contacted me saying, “Hey just a quick note, just in case you’ve been telling people about the old title of the movie, don’t give out that information, because it will kill the film.” When I told him about the IMDB update I made, I think he had a heart attack. Currently I’m trying to cancel that, which is incredibly difficult if, again, you’re a small fish.

  • Being Talented – If you’re talented, and you make a big splash, the way The Raid has, you’ll get noticed. Then you become a big star, right? No. You get hired to work behind the scenes on the remake of your own film.

This isn’t meant to be a bitter blog post. It’s a snapshot of how the industry works, and why only the hugest conglomerates survive. Conglomerates are no more evil than Manzanita in California or killer whales in the Pacific, or mold on your bread, they’re just the things that survive. And I’ve got no interest in fighting the system because, like it or not, we’re all knee-deep in it. In fact I like the system. It made many of the world’s best action films.

The big guys are, however, sweating. The market is volatile as ever, and the people in high positions are clinging to their spots, which explains why nobody would ever just GIVE Evans and Uwais starring parts in a new film. Since the studios can’t make action films like The Raid, they just co-opt the people who can. And being co-opted is a valid decision, because the alternative is a lot of cancelling IMDb changes, sneaking around while trying to release your film to your fans, fighting with disc printers to get your stuff done on time, and making roughly 25% of the salary of a stuntman. It’s not glamorous by any means.

But that hasn’t been the decision for me and I don’t plan for it to be in the future, despite opportunities that have presented themselves. I like the stuff I do, I like my audience, and through all this I’m still convinced that this is the best way to do it.

In my last post I used Cannes and AFM to take a snapshot of the action industry and predict what the climate will be like in a couple years. Impossible? Maybe, but using some basic principles I think we can be pretty accurate, within fifty percent. So how does it relate to us as indie genre filmmakers? And what’s to be done?

We have two big walls to scale, but don’t worry. We’re spry enough to have notable advantages on both:

1. The indie (drama) film market has been unsuited to genre films since by nature genre films cost more to make. But with decreasing costs of technology, and provided you can round up affordable talent that specializes in the genre (vfx people for sci-fi, stunt people for action, makeup people for horror, etc.), it’s entirely possible to short-circuit this.

2. The studio (genre) film market is locked off to low budget films because funding usually comes from risk averse investors, who see your low budget film as a waste of change. But innovation is easier for a small player, who can target systemic inefficiencies in the studio system and make the case to an investor that a new idea could be marketable. This can lead the way to funding, which leads to casting, etc.

And not to mention:

3. Government funding in Europe is never guaranteed, especially considering the possibility of a Euro crisis. Film funds would be cut long before pensions. Low-budget genre films might then be an opportunity in Euro Zone countries, since the genre itself is more marketable by nature (ask Luc Besson), and the risk at a low budget is, of course, low.

So that’s the good news. As an indie genre filmmaker, you’re positioned between two slow-moving goliaths. Get lured into the subsidized art film industry via the University, and you lose your genre edge. Get lured into the high-grossing studio system via trade unions, lose your autonomy. The road between the two is wide but barely travelled. Do you have enough trail mix?

Of course, if this was all good news I’d be a millionaire by now. We have to come down to earth and realize what we’re up against. Indie genre filmmakers have to realize that the market is rapidly stratifying. To the left, Hunger Games, stardom, theatrical distribution of multi-billion dollar franchises. To the right, self-distribution, autonomy, micro-budget films and lifelong starvation, maybe living in mom’s basement. The rapidly diminishing middle road, the one we’ve been aiming for, is home video, with low to middle budget films that one could once make a living off. When video-on-demand and piracy came around, this middle road, well traveled and smooth as it is, became so narrow it’s now got construction signs every fifteen feet and is home to sinkholes and wild, hairy mammals that will eat you alive and leave you with less than you started with. Is it worth it? Do you still have that other job that paid bills?

This stratification isn’t the work of an evil overlord or the dumb masses, but a natural result of an industry that has more technology than it knows what to do with. To say the market is in flux is like saying the dodo bird just needed some tender care until it could grow fangs. We’ve created the beast of technology, and we’re stuck with its wild swings until we start outlawing it or it crashes into a rock. How will we make a living? Will we make a living? Or will filmmaking, like shoe repair or Pascal programming, become better suited as a hobby?

I’m actually not worried. There is only one big competitor for film, and that’s video games. And video games are genre to the bone. People hunger for hard conflict, anything to feed the beast inside that’s being tranquilized by civilization. We turn to video games for firsthand access and pay a lot of money for it. The market for action is still alive and well, and it’s arguably the reason boys stay home from the movies. They killed the arcade. Will they kill cinema? To prevent this awful fate, we need to show them how well we can do it, since nobody else seems to give a crap about doing this.

As micro budget filmmakers, how do we prove ourselves to the world if we can’t even get our masterpiece off the ground? If my own experience can serve as a pithy example, I would do this in three stages, one film per stage.

First stage: shoot an ultra-low budget feature film for as little cash as possible. Maybe portion out $5k from your college tuition and tell your parents (or yourself, or the government, or whoever is providing it) that it’s part of a work-study program that’ll teach you more than any class could. Write, direct, produce, and star in it if you have to, edit it, and stick it on a DVD or release it online. You should be able to get some willing and able college kids to help you out, since they probably won’t have anything better to do. Making a feature-length action film is cool. Prove that you can just get something done without demanding millions of dollars, or anything for that matter, except for some time from your friends. You prove yourself as a director to your cast and crew, and you prove yourself to the market as someone competent enough to make decent entertainment. The bar is low already. If you can make your $5k back, even better, but getting $0 back in exchange for a huge audience and more dedicated crew isn’t a bad deal. Most important thing: finish it.

Second stage: save some money, fix whatever needs fixing (for me, it was everything except the action, hopefully you’ll be further along than this), and shoot on a micro budget of $20,000 to $100,000. This sounds like a lot, but $20,000 is roughly the credit line equivalent of seven credit cards, the max one should have before their credit rating begins plummeting, so it’s feasible. I don’t recommend this option since it’s the worst option outside of gambling or theft, but the barrier to entry isn’t prohibitive. Feed everyone in the production, and pay anyone who’s not an extra, even if it’s just a little. Make it feel official. Get one celebrity of some kind, which may require visiting a trade show in LA and handing out free copies of your first film to willing participants (it’s how we got Johnny Yong Bosch). Finish this second movie on a schedule and make it kick ass. Release it officially however you can, either at a festival or via a distributor. Prove you’re not only able to make stuff, but you can sell it too. Again, you’ve asked for no favors. So nobody hates you yet, except for your competition in the industry. And your competition makes bad action.

Third stage, which is the rocky territory: people need to bet on you. You’ve proven you can make stuff, and you can sell stuff. Now, someone’s gotta take a risk. If you have to ask for this, you may want to milk your previous two projects, and then put the word out that you’re looking to collaborate on your next project. Farm out your weaknesses to more talented people, since you’ll know what you’re good at by now.

From here, it’s into the blue. Maybe the next step will have to be theatrical, or straight to VOD, or maybe a police state will eliminate piracy and home video will make a resurgence! (*crickets*) Regardless, the most important lesson to take away from this or any other plan you might devise is don’t try to make a million bucks on your first film. That’s instant suicide. Filmmaking is a career, not the lottery. Even on a steady shoot, hour-by-hour you’ll be paid less than a UAW member from GM. A good work ethic is absolutely essential, as is some tough bark for all the times when locations, people, or funds will fall through. Sometimes all in the same day.

So as indie genre filmmakers, we have an entirely new road to cut, pave, and travel to see if it leads anywhere. If I didn’t believe it went somewhere great, I wouldn’t be here. I’d be in France.

Good luck, and always feel free to leave comments!

We spoke with a sales agent the other day about Death Grip, and he had this to say:

Yeah the pacing is fine, so save that project file and call it the extended version. Then cut the hell out of it so goes at break-neck speed and call it the theatrical version. The distributor will be more likely to sit through the theatrical version and say, “Yes, I’ll buy this.”

That’s when we say, “Okay, but we have this extended version if you’re interested.” Now we’ve already hooked them. 9 times out of 10 they pick the extended one.

I admit the title is brash, and it sounds like a loaded question, but if audiences will sit through 95 minutes of garbage just to get to the killer 20-minute finale, should you give a crap about the rest of your movie? Crystal Skull didn’t. Why should we?

We should get one thing out of the way: Act 1 is crucial. I learned this the hard way. Death Grip originally had a fight scene in the beginning, but we scrapped it for lack of time. After shooting we realized we needed it because, in the words of a sales agent, “An action movie without action in the first 10 minutes is suicide.” So I bit the bullet and did some pickups, and I admit, the film’s even cooler now.

In the world of early 1990s Jim Jarmusch independent cinema, an indie thriller with all buildup until the 23-minute mark would work. But that was then. Now we have digital, and everyone makes movies. So we have to fight for our audience. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s our audience, they want action entertainment, and 99% of them won’t give an action film the time of day if they’re aren’t engaged early on. But once they reach Act 2 at the 25-minute mark, they’ve crossed into commitment territory: suddenly they’re less likely to turn the film off or leave the theater, and they’re ready and willing to absorb the rest of the film like a comatose punching bag. Bad action films with strong beginnings will sell, and even though they’ll get bad reviews for torturing the audience through the second act, they weren’t bad enough to be returned. So, +1 sales. Cheap humor, bad plot twists, character inconsistencies, it all goes in there to fill the space until the 2/3 mark when the finale starts and attempts to make everyone forget about how lame and disjointed the last hour was.

So what are we to think of the fact that audiences keep buying into it? No wonder so many filmmakers hate “average people”: they keep buying this crap! So if it’s financially sound to make a strong Act 1, and then proceed to torture the audience through Act 2, should we as indie action filmmakers do that? If you’re doing the hard work of making comprehensible action scenes that people can follow, then you’ve already decided to respect the audience more than anyone did when working on Crystal Skull. This probably means you like your audience, which makes the answer obvious.