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!

The journey home from Cannes was long, but it gave me some time to evaluate the whole trip. The most shocking realization was how little we knew about the European film industry simply because we live in the USA. Even attending the American Film Market didn’t prepare us for what Cannes was all about. The focus at AFM was on making a marketable independent film, while Cannes was about how to co-produce with other countries and get in tight with film fund managers, all to take advantage of government subsidies.

As Americans, most of us don’t understand why the government would pay us to make art. We didn’t have a Renaissance on this side of the ocean, when artists lived with the nobles and exchanged art for room and board. Art wasn’t “marketable” then either in the strictest sense of the term, since your average artist couldn’t afford the tools and materials to make marble sculptures. Art was treated as a cultural asset, a long-term investment that the upper class subsidized. Those beautiful things like the Duomo are still standing today because of this. It’s the best of the best of art. Perhaps the masses thought it was too “artsy fartsy” to be marketable then too, yet it still stands tall and we’re all jealous that we have nothing like it in the States.

So there are still those at the top subsidizing the lifestyles of artists making pieces that will be in museums and archives 300 years from now. These modern nobles run the film funds and the commissions that decide whether the film gets to take advantage of government cash. We train in school to get their blessings so they will pay us to make art. What’s strange is they don’t seem to admit their status as gatekeepers, preferring titles like “fund manager” or “co-producer”. People in control of money are people in control of money. If you can’t agree with them, it’s off to the dogs with your film! Though if you can please the dogs…

Marketability be damned, this is art, and it’s how our civilization will be remembered. So what will be remembered? Will there be a Schwarzenegger Criterion Collection? I doubt it, but for the record, I’d give anything for a future where Criterion published the Schwarzenegger collection to commemorate the beautiful years of 1980-1994… and throw a John Carpenter Collection in there, the best of Sammo, and an Eric Jacobus collection for the hell of it, I’ll up-rez whatever’s necessary. Will Dolph Lundgren speak at the UN? Stallone could do some health PSAs on public radio. And Chuck Norris knows a thing or two about family values. Status confers power, no?

Of course I’m joking, nobody wants celebrities dictating our norms in anything except their specific media. Now if we could only get George Clooney to shut up.

I apologize for being crass. It’s just that my idols, the ones who broke records in home video and at the box office and entertained me as a latchkey kid, don’t get the royal treatment. And when we went to Cannes as independent action filmmakers, neither did we. We’re doing genre films, and action is the most genre of genre. The medium requires a good-vs-evil approach that can justify violence, and to the film fund manager it’s very simple and very dumb, reflecting a cultural viewpoint that’s outdated… something they don’t want their country remembered for. So unless there’s a clear cultural villain of some kind (often action films about independence movements against evil overlords can get funding this way), then the drama film, with its ethical shades of gray, will be the one that gets funded. If you’re going genre, your best chance is to stay out of Europe.

It’s a strange feeling, realizing you’re part of a movement that’s so un-chic. As if my t-shirt and jeans didn’t make me American enough, using Cannes to market our action films is like strapping on a fanny pack and an “I Love Paris” baseball cap. But as un-cool as our action films are to the indie crowd, the burn pile will never be their destination. It’s not 1914, not 1939, not 1954. You can’t just remove copies of bytes. They’re here for good.

Asia, on the other hand, seems to like its genre films. Martial arts is still a cultural side dish everywhere there, and with the right recipe it can mix beautifully with the American carnivorous consumption of mixed martial arts. If you want government funding for your action film, team up with Asia.

In the end you may not need to co-produce with a foreign country anyway. The action genre sells on its own pretty well. I’ll echo the sentiments from AFM more than Cannes: save your money on name talent. Once you cover that, if you’ve got enough cash to go to an exotic location, it can only help.

But if you’re anything like me, the same burning question remains in your head: what do I do? AFM is so geared toward the mainstream studio film, while Cannes only seems to care about the art house film. Where do we fit in? In the next post I detail an example process for how to best take advantage of your position as an indie genre filmmaker.

Tuesday, May 22 – Our time in Italy was short but sweet, punctuated with our sound designer Matteo and a stunt team called D-Unit. We went into the fashion capital of Milano, where we went to the only coffee place that resembled Starbucks called Arnold Coffee. Italy is the only European country that doesn’t have Starbucks, so instead they have Arnold Coffee, where they sell huge drinks and pancakes and all that crap. Like France, Italy doesn’t seem to offer “large” coffee sizes, or any sizes for that matter, but rather those tiny cups you drink at the bar, so it was a relief for two Americans to get a big drink for once.

The galleria was massive, with chairs lining the sides that cost 20 € to sit in. The whole place was a tourist trap, a gorgeous tourist trap, and we got out before the twentieth Senegalian tried to sell us another bracelet. There was the Duomo, a massive Catholic church which was like a step up from a “Cathedral”. The outside was tiled entirely with marble, which is incredible if you think about how much a marble countertop costs these days. Police and a Father were teamed up at the front door, making sure nobody desecrated the Duomo by wearing revealing clothes inside. One woman was wearing a low tanktop, and the father shook his head and cast her away. The inside was lined with gigantic paintings and confession booths, some multilingual, carved from wood. Something like the Duomo simply couldn’t be built today. America never even had these kinds of things because it just wasn’t around before 300 years ago. And it never will. So I did what any intelligent person would do and took a bunch of pictures.

Matteo talked about Apple stores in Milan. I brought it up because it’s a hip town, but I didn’t see one. Apparently the nearest Apple store is dozens of miles away, they just don’t have many of them, but when the iPad 3 came out, eager artists and students all flocked to that Apple store to buy it. A critical thinking citizen said, “But the other electronics shops all have it too, and there’s no line! Let’s go there!” and the people responded, “We want to get it in the true Apple way!” Like Americans, Italians crave an experience, however banal it may be. They also seek the prestige not just of owning an Apple product, of but associating with other Apple customers, lined up for hours with equally fanatical consumers to get the latest and coolest. Buckingham said that modern audiences don’t just want what they pay for now. It’s all about the “added experience”. Anything a company can do, be they a production company or an electronics manufacturer, to give the audience more than just a product, makes them that much more marketable. Plus, Apple doesn’t just sell a product, they sell “creativity”. If you buy Apple, you’re buying into a cool marketplace that sets you apart. If as filmmakers we can tap into that extra selling point, in the form of a “movement” on top of the film’s basic premise, it’ll really set us apart. Seems to work for Apple, even when there are almost no Apple stores.

After a lunch of mozzerella and prociutto, we passed through a castle, which was another tourist trap. We made our way to Monza to meet with Loris Rippamonti of D-Unit. There were signs for Monza everywhere, so we assumed it was close. Big mistake. We ended up on the freeway, walking for what felt like miles trying to navigate the Italian bus system. My broken Italian got us to a train, which turned out not to go to Monza anyway. Loris told us where to find a McDonald’s, where we waited for him. McDonald’s in Italy, obviously, looks nothing like a McDonald’s in Oakland. There aren’t even trash cans in the bathroom. I bought another tiny but super-strong coffee (at this point I had really started to hate these) and Loris arrived.

It felt as if I had met a long-lost brother. Loris, Mirco, and Ivan of D-Unit have been taking gigs in Italy for years, trying to break into the action scene like any of us, except of course with the added disadvantage that the independent film market in Italy is skewed toward certain films that get government funding, and D-Unit, God bless them, don’t turn to dramas and documentaries to take advantage of that. They’re action people, and Rebecca and I joined them for their stunt practice session at a big gym in Monza. Loris gave us some D-Unit shirts, we practiced tricks and taught each other new stuff that I’m excited to take back with me to SP practice, and shot a little fight scene, which I’ll post here soon along with photos.

At a pub we got a better handle on D-Unit’s situation in Italy. Apparently the Italian action film market is embarrassingly bad, and I started feeling guilty for my frequent thrashing of America’s market. Differing standards aside, they are face with an action film market that, like all the others, requires a name actor. They have the writing, directing, editing, and action, all key elements of the Action Kickback model, but they don’t have the name, which means they don’t have the complete marketing parkage, therefore they don’t have the funding. It’s the catch-22 we all know: to get a star, you need money, and to get money, you need a star. Meanwhile they all keep their day jobs and do stunt gigs, the latest of which had fallen through without their even being told. Hopefully on one of these gigs they can meet an actor who can bring them some financing, and Loris can become the Luc Besson of Italy.

We parted ways that night after they drove us back to Matteo’s. The next day was spent entirely on the train, traveling back to Cannes, where we’ll spend one more day checking out what we missed at the market and maybe catch another screening.

Check out D-Unit’s Facebook page here and their YouTube channel here. Thanks Matteo and D-Unit’s Loris, Mirco, and Ivan for introducing us to the best of Italy.

Day 4 – Saturday May 19
Today was much more relaxed. I slept in until 7:10am for a change and spent the first two hours writing. Rebecca and I ate some of the fine, bagged 2€ madelines from the supermarket and set off to catch all the booths we may have missed.

What we found was that Asian countries are all represented at booths and they’re looking for more action content than any other region other than America. Europe just doesn’t seem to care, and Latin America and Africa are basically the same as Europe in terms of their film funds and what genres they direct funding to (dramas, documentaries, and more dramas). Canada is also Europe, so that leaves Asia.

Big-time South Korean studio Showbox showed off some of their new trailers, and A Company Man looks to be one of the best Korean action films to date. Trailers are deceptive, and it could easily turn out for the worse, but it was a talking point for us to go talk to a Showbox representative about doing a coproduction in South Korea. We showed off our knife fight from Death Grip, got some emails, and went over to CJ Entertainment, the other big-time Korean studio, and asked the same thing. Got some emails, and moved on.

Thailand, same deal. Got emails, moved on. Indonesia, same thing. They’re all releasing mainstream action films that are festival-friendly. Good action, good (err… sometimes good anyway) scripts, so we made the case that these are ideal relationships with a movement like ours, which unites solid action choreography with good screenplays. We didn’t bother talking to China. They have too much money and there’s no reason to deal with us. Plus their stringent guidelines on how Chinese characters are to be portrayed isn’t something we feel like dealing with right now.

All in all, if action filmmakers want to coproduce with a foreign country, Asia’s where it’s at, not Europe. We couldn’t have known this without coming here.

Shot some footage, played with our host’s cat, found 50€ in the gutter, and treated ourselves to a killer dinner of veal and duck with some wine that I couldn’t pronounce (Rebecca could pronounce it and she took every chance she could to rub it in my face. The pronunciation, not the wine). Saturday night on the Croissete was busier than I had seen thus far. It was basically Long Beach. Same decor, same style as back home. And same music. Globalism has taken this place, whether you like that kind of thing or not, yet American action films are strangely faux pas here, even of the independent sort. But then again, action films, indie or not, have a way of kneading themselves into themes of good and evil that don’t fit a global world of greying morality. Action requires that people fight to the death, and shades of grey appear less often than among the suits of celebrities walking the riviera. That’s not the world here, even though the music and costumes would make you think otherwise. Whether the Euro Zone crisis changes this phenomenon is yet to be seen.

Here’s a little video of the halls of Cannes.

That’s our last day at Cannes. Tomorrow it’s Italy, and I will become fat.