Movies: Mind over Money

Movies: Mind Over Money
by J. Neil Schulman

A recent article referring to my forthcoming in 2014 movie, Alongside Night, as a “low budget film” frustrates me, knowing that the major studio blockbuster creates in both movie-going audiences and film writers expectations regarding film quality. Labeling an indie film such as mine “low budget” before an audience has even seen it in a movie theater perpetuates prejudices against independent films, and gives the establishment movie studios a powerful weapon against an entire industry of indie filmmakers like me in competition with them for theater venues, retail display space, and—ultimately—the gray matter behind the eyes of its audiences.

It’s been an ongoing trend that the major movie studios now produce only a few ultra-high-budget movies each year. This works to reduce entertainment choices available to movie patrons—a gap we indie filmmakers try to fill in.

The studio blockbusters that dominate movie multiplexes have production costs in nine figures including “A-List” actors being paid in eight figures, plus armies of visual and special effects artists, stunt teams, art departments, and locations. With virtually unlimited resources available to one of these productions the only practical limit of what can be shown to an audience is in the imagination of the filmmakers—and unlimited resources forecloses the market on a whole lot of talent.

The running joke is today’s independent filmmaker’s total production budget is about the same as the catering budget for one of these studio films. It may not be a joke.

There’s no question that some tremendously entertaining movies can be made with these megabudgets. Just to mention two of recent memory that I enjoyed are the science-fiction movie Gravity and the latest installment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit trilogy.

Studio produced blockbusters like these have the upside for a movie audience that when all elements come together a unique work of art and entertainment gives an audience an unforgettable experience, like drinking a 50-year-old single-malt scotch, or a night in bed with a $100,000 call girl, or a visit to the International Space Station.

The downside for an audience is that it threatens to ruin any movie experience less breathtaking and eliminates diversity of artistic vision and individual dissent. Movies are a form of theater—an incarnation of storytelling—and what the blockbuster often does is replace character-driven storytelling and performance-driven plots with minimal intellectual content that can only be brought out through the use of words.

Gravity kept me on the edge of my seat. It engaged me with the plight of its characters. But I left the movie theater with no ideas I hadn’t had when I first sat down, and had no meaningful questions left to resolve—or to talk about with anyone else—when I walked out.

Instead of appealing to our minds the infinite-budget movies feed us only every form of adrenaline-releasing action that stunt coordinators and computer artists can engineer—relentlessly. The trade-off of action moments replacing tboughtful moments deletes what the dramatic arts most needfully do: nourish our intellectual imagination and our moral sense of how to contemplate the human condition. It turns a nutritionally rich culture into the equivalent of empty calories—a high fed on snacks.

Not that independent film hasn’t tried to emulate the action blockbuster by crossing a technological threshold where a film made for a small fraction of a blockbuster’s budget can’t on occasion produce a movie with spectacular production values competitive with the studio blockbuster. The crowd-funded 2012 independent feature, Iron Sky, is as visually stunning as a studio-produced blockbuster like Steven Spielberg’s 2005 remake of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds—and with a comparable level of story-telling intensity.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding, with a 2002 opening weekend of less than $600,000 on 108 movie theater screens, was made for about $5 million. It had no A-list stars in its cast. Yet, on the basis of great writing, great directing, and great acting it earned blockbuster revenues in its theatrical distribution—well over $350 million in its worldwide box office take. The audience for this movie wasn’t looking for a rollercoaster ride. It was looking to meet characters who we wouldn’t mind spending some time with in real life, and whose struggles informed our own life challenges. It was a movie that inspired us.

Napoleon Dynamite (2004) was made for about $400,000—the blockbuster movie’s catering budget—but with quirky writing, directing, and acting also engaged movie theater audiences with a respectable domestic box office of over $44 million. With a production cost of about ten percent of the low-budget My Big Fat Greek Wedding Napoleon Dynamite worked its magic with no known movie stars and even more severe production challenges.

And, perhaps, the all-time champion of production cost to box-office success—beating out even The Blair Witch Project—is 2007’s Paranormal Activity, produced at a cost of $15,000 and which not only earned $195 million in worldwide box-office receipts but which has spawned a series of high-earning sequels.

The legend of how this microbudget video got major theatrical distribution from Dreamworks SKG / Paramount is that it was purchased only so Steven Spielberg could remake it at a studio budget but when Spielberg screened it he decided he couldn’t remake it any better and arranged for its theatrical release.

Every time a microbudget-produced indie like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, or Napoleon Dynamite is mentioned around an establishment movie executive or critic, they will duckspeak the same talking point: these movies are as rare as a casino jackpot. They’re the lotto exception, and can’t be figured into any rational business plan.

That may be true. But what is equally true is that there is no money to pay expensive production salaries and expenses—overheaded as thousands of individual budget line items—on a low-budget independent film. These ultralow-budget nonetheless box-office-blockbuster movies are more frightening to BMW-driving, expense-account holding, Belair-home-owning movie executives than all the Zombies, alien-invading monsters, and global-warming meltdowns put together.

If movies like my own Alongside Night can win movie audiences in meganumbers without spending megabucks, the days of studio execs’ caviar lifestyle are numbered.

We indie filmmakers can give you a richer choice and a diversity of boutique movies—not the Albertson’s selection but maybe the Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods choice.

But—people—you gotta stop using the phase “low-budget” when talking about movies that give you something different, or all that you’ll ever get to see are the movies Monsanto would feed you.

11 responses to “Movies: Mind over Money

  1. What has Hollywood (and its historic domination by the collectivist left) got to do with “Monsanto”?

    Why this compulsion to the “Russia Today” thing and bash American companies (in weird propagandist ways) for things they have nothing to do with?

    As for films about the biotech business they have actually been anything but favourable – for example the socialist propaganda film “The Constant Gardiner”.

    However the post does point to a real problem……

    The difficulty of getting a non “mainstream” (read “liberal” left) film made and shown in cinemas. Leftist films are made, apolitical films are also made, but films that give the point of view of “the right” – not so much.

    There was major difficulty in getting the pro “Fracking” film made and shown – the anti “Fracking” film (with its backing by Arab oil interests – and boosting by Russia Today) had a much less difficult time.

    There was recently a terrible crime story in Philadelphia…..

    A depraved abortionist murdered thousands of late term babies (sometimes after birth) using their body parts (for example their feet) as serial killer style trophies.

    One would think that Hollywood movie studies (and television companies) would lining up to get this story.

    Instead they are ignoring it – for abortion must never been shown in a bad light.

    The makers of a film about this abortionist (the same people who made the pro “Fracking” film) are having to try “Crowd Funding”.

  2. I’m not bashing American companies in general. Monsanto misuses patent laws as an aggressive legal strategy against farmers who choose not to grow their patented GM grains — the Monsanto-patented GM grains blow onto nearby farms — in fact polluting them — then when the farmers’ crops planted with their own non-patented grains end up producing a crop containing the patented genome Monsanto sues them — and has the high-priced legal team to enforce their aggressive marketing tactics.

  3. The trade-off of action moments replacing tboughtful moments deletes what the dramatic arts most needfully do: nourish our intellectual imagination and our moral sense of how to contemplate the human condition.

    That isn’t what movies are for. They are entertainment, not moral tracts.

    The reality is that the cinema form only has one thing it can do that other forms (TV, theater, etc) cannot; which is spectacle. Before TV, many movies were simple dramas that would be performed in theatres on a box set, and people paid to see those. But then TV came along and could do that, and paying and travelling to see them was no longer worthwhile to potential audiences.

    Cinema is mostly spectacular sci-fi and fantasy these days because that’s all it’s worth the expense and travel and sitting in a room full of potentailly annoying other people to see. Add to that that most movie audiences are young people with a “gang” of friends they hang out with- something we lose as we move into adulthood- and you can see why the product is of the nature it is. Back when I was 16, I had a group of friends and we all used to go to the cinema together to see things like Star Trek movies and Blade Runner (yes, this dates me haha). Now, at age 48, trying to find someone to go see Iron Man 3 with is not easy, and the combination of a solitary experience, two hours travelling time and the ticket price just doesn’t appeal. I’d prefer to sit at home and watch it, with a nice cup of tea and a pause button.

    So, big spectacular movies for teens and young adults rule the market, and if that frustrates the pretensions of those who wish to tell other types of stories- for moral improvement and all that- there are other media to work in; TV, internet video, or books and comics and so on.

    • Movies like Lifeboat, 12 Angry Men, Anatomy of a Murder, My Dinner With Andre, To Kill A Mockingbird, Rear Window, Gentleman’s Agreement, In the Heat of the Night, All the President’s Men, and Network disprove your contention about movies only being bread and circuses for the dumb masses.

      • All of them from a long time ago. While some overlap the television era, there was a cohort of people who “went to the pictures” in their youth and carried on doing so, who are now all elderly or dead.

        There’s nothing “dumb” about entertainment. I am quite an intellectual person, but I’m spending much of my time at the moment in a MMORPG in which I play a near naked asian chick who shoots monsters to save the world, and it’s remarkable fun. One of my most pressing concerns as I write this is how to reset her skills to maximise her slaughter potential. That’s what what entertainment is for; fun- or, rather, emotional stimulation. It’s there to make us laugh, or feel excited, or sympathetic, or sad, or whatever. It is for emotion and sensation, not the intellect. That’s what books and blogs are for.

        Entertainment can be well made, or poorly made, and that is all really. I used to work in theatre, and I saw some great productions and some awful ones, and all the parts of what makes a production good require talented people who know how to give an audience a good experience. Such talented people, in a market economy, cost money. Which is why most fan productions, and most low budget productions, are god-awful.

  4. Actually, I think the movies I’d already mentioned in my article — My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Napoleon Dynamite, and Paranormal Activity — refuted your contention before you even made it. I only quoted theatrical box office sales figures, not home-entertainment figures. None of these movies were spectacles; all did business. So did God’s Not Dead, made for $2 million, which manages to convince Christian evangelicals into buying movie theater tickets to the tune of $59 million so far since its release on March 31st.

  5. Excuse me but your entire argument is that what gets your behind past the popcorn counter into a movie theater seat is the only possible motivation and that teens are the only demographic that can be convinced to buy tickets. That’s provably false. Yes, I used a lot of older examples because the movie executives think like you do and have for several decades. Older people have been ignored as a potential audience but they’re reachable again. While the studios had a monopoly on multiplex screens they could get away with only producing blockbusters — but indie films distributed into the same multiplexes the studios use, through services like TUGG using Digital Cinema Package, have opened up the market to new distribution models.

  6. Finally, you’re using a circular argument: movies are only good if they pure entertainment spectacle therefore any movie the primary value of which is character driven or intellectual is by definition not good enough. Feh.

  7. Movie executives want to make money. They produce movies that sell. More intimate work that can be done on a moderate budget, that doesn’t require the AWESOME of a giant screen, can easily be served on TV these days, where the budgets are adequate. There’s simply no need for these productions to be produced for cinema. Older people watch them at home too these days, because older people these days aren’t the same as older people three or four decades ago. They’ve grown up with abundant television, VHS, etc.

    All these types of media are entertainment, and that’s all. The mythology that they should be “improving” is part of the whole remnant Victorian worldview in which the little people need to be constantly preached to to improve their degraded and immoral state. I don’t want a lecture from a movie, and most other people don’t, however much others may want to give us one, then bemoan that we don’t pay to view the lecture.

  8. Paul Marks

    “Movie executives want to make money” – perhaps, but they (like book publishers) have cold bloodedly lost money in the past to push the collectivist cause.

    Both by turning down conservative scripts (the left invented the “Black List” back in the 1930s, of which they complained so bitterly when it was half heartedly turned against them in the 1950s, by their practice of “spiking” – as for book publishing the words of Mr Miller [recorded by W.T. Crouch and published in the Freeman] that Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom” should not be published although it would “sell very well” say it all).

    Both in television entertainment and the cinema their is a clear agenda (for example to push “Gay Rights” and to present blacks and Hispanics as victis of “capitalism”) – and an indifference to the risk of losing money.

    “But these people are very greedy” – yes they are but they also (paradoxically) HATE greedy people. and they hate “the rich” (although they are rich) and they especially hate “corporations” (nearly always shown as evil in television entertainment as well as cinema) even though the shows and films are made by corporations.

    It is a toxic self-hating culture.

  9. Paul Marks

    To give an obvious example.

    About half of Americans are pro life – how many films and television entertainment shows present them in a positive light (very few) The pro abortion side has most shows and films.

    Ditto feminism, Christian bashing (and on and on).

    If money was the only motivation they (the film and television show makers) would not behave like this – therefore money is not the only motivation.