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!

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.

Last night I finished editing Death Grip, much thanks to help from producer/co-star Rebecca Ahn, co-stars Chelsea Steffensen, Nathan Hoskins, the cast and crew, friends, family, and industry pros. I loved the process of editing, but in the future I’d rather not do it again.

I’ll still edit action scenes. I can churn out a 5-minute fight scene in one day with sound effects. But for anything else, especially if there’s a lot of footage, a minute of edited film might take me a couple days. Editing a feature film is supposed to take an editor 8-12 weeks. It takes me between 18 (Bound By Blood) and 26 (Death Grip). From an industry perspective I’m not efficient. A better idea would have been to spend just half those 6 months raising funds to hire an editor. In the meantime I could have been spending more time prepping the next projects.

Still worse, there’s the unavoidable problem of the director treating his edited product like a finely crafted work of art before anyone has even seen it. As directors we’ve all heard it: you shouldn’t edit your film because you become attached to it. But being married to footage is only half of the problem, and it’s not impossible to overcome that. My process involved screening the film to friends, family, crew, and execs. Opinions varied widely. Cut this, add that, re-shoot these parts, sound critiques, story issues, etc. In the end I had to average it all out into one edit. Painful, but not impossible.

The real issue, however, is that as directors we’re married to “directing”. Directors tell people what to do, while editors help viewers understand what the hell the director was thinking. A director in the editor’s seat will glue shots together to tell the audience what to think, forcing his vision across even if there’s not enough information to really make the idea work. Editors glue shots to make use of the target viewers’ average mental faculties, producing the intended effect. If the footage just isn’t there, then as directors we haven’t done our job. We might go as far as blaming the audience for not “getting” it. Editors, on the other hand, might suggest a new direction for the footage that we have, or maybe a reshoot. In any case, editors are “helpers” for the audience. While audiences are willing to be directed in certain circumstances, such as major blockbusters where they’ll happily sit at the mercy of the studios and take anything thrown at them (god bless em), in our low-budget and indie situation we have to make a special appeal to the audience. A director isn’t always the best person for this job.

I say this on my high horse after editing my films for 11 years, and I wouldn’t expect anyone in the independent world to do it any differently. I probably won’t either unless I can afford a competent editor. But as directors, telling the audience what to think isn’t our job. A film is nothing without them. Fans trust us to tell them what to think, but a mindset of “take it or leave it” won’t suffice for everyone else. Once shooting is over and it comes time to start cutting footage, we take the director’s hat off and accept our new role as servant until the editing is done. It’s only temporary. Or we can avoid servitude altogether by hiring someone else.