Michael Chance helmed this dystopian scifi action thriller Whipping Boy which features Eric Jacobus and fellow Stunt People members Lucas Okuma and Ashley Short in a 2 on 1 fight scene against actor Tongayi Chirisa. Here’s hoping Mr. Chance can score a much bigger budget in his next film, because he has some serious potential. Check it out below.

I’ll be posting short reviews for the sake of search-ability, focusing on genre and how they live up the Action Kickback Model. I’ll review genre films in general; action, horror, sci-fi, etc. The main points I want to address with the reviews are:

Story – Do we care what’s happening?
Genre Promise – Does the film deliver on the genre promise? Does the sci-fi film use science as a device? Does the action film have action that serves the narrative? Etc.
Marketability – How well did it sell?

My hypothesis is that films that excel in story and genre promise tend to do the best on the market. There are exceptions, like the great films that failed due to poor advertising campaigns or being released on the same weekend as other major films, or good films that were saved by one-off advertising gimmicks that (probably) couldn’t be repeated, but my hypothesis is a general, high-level one that I hope will serve as a guide for anyone looking to make genre films, action or not.

While working on a science fiction concept I’m developing, it’s been interesting to study how the genre itself functions. Science Fiction has two key responsibilities:

  • Predicts the logical ends of a technological trajectory and sets it up as the conflict.
  • Utilizes current filmmaking and computer technology in a profound way.Or “Tech-porn”. Often sci-fi films will have throwaway scenes that really have no place in the story except to showcase a new technology. These are necessary for the trailer, so they’re  forgiven because they’re profound enough to elicit a strong response.

    (My favorite example is in Total Recall, where police see an x-ray of Quaid’s gun, so he just breaks through the x-ray glass, toward them! The police then cower and let him run away. The scene obviously had no logic to it, yet it’s iconic, so it’s forgiven.)

This is backed up by Wiki’s explanation:

Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with imaginary but more or less plausible (or at least non-supernatural) content such as future settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, aliens, and paranormal abilities. Exploring the consequences of scientific innovations is one purpose of science fiction, making it a “literature of ideas”.

We expect sci-fi films to extrapolate on our current trajectories and set those up as the conflict. AI goes berserk (2001, Terminator), space travel finds more than it bargained for (Alien), and playing God goes bad (Jurassic Park, Gattaca). It’s what the genre promises. Take what we know about technology and show the consequences. The results of scientific innovation could be positive, but when a human is the main character, the genre tends to fall into the realm of man vs. technology. This is not an error of mere convention, but rather how stories have evolved over thousands of years.

Yet many recent sci-fi films depict scenarios already unacceptable, such as increased pollution, corporations exploiting the population, oppressive police states rising to power, etc. To make them “sci-fi”, technological elements are mixed in, often as solutions to the problem rather than problems in and of themselves. These stories are “What-if” scenarios, not logical ends to scientific innovation. Contrary to these, I can predict with certainty that in 10 years, no matter who takes office, there will be more green energy, smarter artificial intelligence, less religion, no time travel, and no zombie Hitlers. Last two notwithstanding, it’s disappointing that sci-fi filmmakers rarely tackle such issues.

In case you’ve been in a cave for the last 30 years, you won’t be surprised to hear that government-funded Science (with a capital S) has settled into a cozy era that has placed it on the pedestal. Artists are less inclined to predict its drawbacks and more interested in “what-if” scenarios should the trend reverse. That is the new sci-fi. Exceptions aside, for a genre which produced dozens of classics before the 2000s, its continual reneging on its promises has cause it to go soft and limp.

Basically, sci-fi sucks because Science takes itself so goddamn seriously.

My prediction is that this trend will not reverse any time soon, unless somehow Science loses its government funding and falls from grace, or an alternate information source springs up that competes with it. Until then, there are thousands of sci-fi concepts just dying to be made, and the audience is still there. It’s a good time to be a genre filmmaker.

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.

Here are some interesting bits taken from The Funds Book from the Cannes Film Market. It outlines all the major government-provided film funds, budgets, and basic criteria. I compared Hong Kong and South Korea, not based on market share (since that would be an unfair comparison), but based on their criteria.

Check out Hong Kong first:

Hong Kong Film Development Fund
Objectives of the Funding Programme: The FDF aims to fund projects and activities which contribute towards the development of the Hong Kong film industry.
Maximum amount: 515,000 euro
Main selection criteria: Must be beneficial to the overall development of the Hong Kong film industry. Must serve the interests of the entire film industry, and not only an individual private company or a consortium of private companies and should mainly be non-profit making in nature [emphasis mine].

Anyone expecting to see the old school Hong Kong action mentality, think again.

Here’s South Korea:

South Korea – Seoul Film Commission
Objectives of the Funding Programme: To support the local film industry as well as to promote the city for international coproductions and location for the shooting of foreign films
Eligible genres: Live action, Feature Films, TV Drama, Documentary, and anything with minimum total running time 60 min.

If you’re doing a genre co-production in Asia, consider South Korea.

Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias recently wrote:

In my culture, most stories are not about work life, and the few stories that are focus on a narrow set of unusual jobs like soldier, detective, politician, artist, doctor, lawyer, or teacher. Why?

One explanation is that work is usually boring. But this seem weak to me. I’m often fascinated to read business-book stories about work teams and firms competing (I’m enjoying The Innovator’s Solution) and Horatio Alger type stories were once more popular in my culture. Furthermore, a recent New Yorker article (quotes below) says similar stories are now very popular in China.

The author of that article seemed displeased by this trend, and what it says about Chinese culture. She talks of “get-rich” “Darwinian” “combat”, “manipulation and deceit”, and a loss of “morals”. And this seems to me a clue about why we don’t tell such stories – they push realism on topics where we’d rather stay idealistic.

Consider that we avoid telling young kids stories about corrupt police and teachers taking advantage of their power, since we are trying to get kids to respect and trust such authorities. Similarly, we avoid telling kids stories about selfishness and betrayal in romantic and sexual relations, as we push idealized accounts of marriage, love, etc. Similarly, we may as adults avoid stories that threaten other ideals.

Stories need conflict. For stories about soldiers, detectives, politicians, artists, doctors, lawyers, and teachers, we know of socially acceptable types of conflict, which do not challenge key ideals. But stories about conflicts in ordinary jobs more easily violate key ideals, and trigger moral outrage.

I enjoy competition stories too. They provide clearer views into people’s lives that we may otherwise never know about.

But our beloved action films, by their definition, require violence by the protagonist to achieve ends, and using violence against anything besides a competing violence that violates our cultural ideals is viewed as morally outrageous. Action films are the last line of defense against the worst characters, who really have to be bad. A greedy antagonist is not enough, but his using greed to kill, torture, or rape allows the filmmaker to turn “greed” into the bad guy and use violence against him.

Action concept developers and filmmakers face a challenge. Action films require us to use violence against an antagonist who breaks our dearest ideals, and their actions need to be big and far-reaching to do this. That requires bigger concepts, and thus more budget. Hence the relative lack of low-budget action films.

Thanks to our good friend Raoul, Contour will be showing at the Phantasmagoria Film Festival in the UK.
Friday July 11, 2008 @ 1:30 PM

“PhantasmaGoria is the South West’s premier genre film festival showing an eclectic array of horror, fantasy, exploitation and martial arts movies.” The festival takes place at the Swindon Arts Centre July 11-13. More info at http://www.phantasma-goria.co.uk.