Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Film School 101 - Meanderings on the digital era & DYI production

I recently got an email from a young filmmaker asking about the logistics and revenue of doing an independent film.  In particular, this person was interesting in the "to shoot film or not to shot film" question.  Since I get asked this questions often, I thought it might be worth posting my response.

A response, I will say, that looks more at the big-picture issues behind that decision.

Feel free to keep this dialogue going with me on twitter or my Facebook page, I'd love to hear from you.


Hi Jason,

I really enjoy your films and the mellow tone they are set in. I appreciate the flavor of surfing you choose to cover as I feel the mainstream style is kind of predictable.

I have a surf related film idea I'm considering and wanted to ask about your choice of film. I graduated from art school in photography in 2003 just as digital was becoming a serious contender in production. I know you chose to stay in the medium and I wanted to ask if you recoup the cost of production with DVD sales. I love the grain and liquid feel of film - I'd like to use it but fear of taking a huge loss. Was there a difference between Singlefin Yellow and One Ca Day? I realize this question is much more complicated due to partnerships and advertising with sponsors/companies but if you have the time, I'd be grateful for any feedback.

my response:

hey -
that’s really cool that you are fired up to make a movie.

your question is a very difficult one to answer.  in the event i may be the bearer of bad news… here is some quick info / thoughts.

1.  do it because you love making films or want to improve your reel, experience, etc - not to make money!

2.  surf films no longer sell well on DVD - this is a huge hit to your income - you need to make a film knowing that   80% of sales will be iTunes or other Digital

3.  as you can imagine - if you are willing to drive people to your own website - for Digital download or DVD sales - you don’t need to pay expensive royalty fees.

*for example / on iTunes - you pay an aggregator (middle-man) and iTunes.  so on a $15 movie download - you may see $6 income.

4.  sadly, a good surf title these days might do 10-15,000 units worldwide.  it is rare for a surf title to sell over 25,000 units (but it does happen).

5.  rental downloads are killers - you might see $2 income on a $6 rental.  

6.  marketing is huge - if people don’t know about your movie - you won’t hit any of these numbers.

*a successful title like One Cal Day has done over 50,000 units - yet i still meet people who have never heard of it and they are die-hard surfers.  So market awareness is tricky and can always be improved.  soc. media helps.

7.  the quality of the product defines the success (here is where the film debate really happens.)  if you make it really good.  you can be successful.  no matter what you shoot it with.

what does all this mean?

1.  Sponsors!  find sponsors to cover the costs - it is really the ONLY way the surf-movie biz model makes sense right now.  

2.  keep your costs as low as possible - but Quality as High as possible - this is REALLY hard.  but it is the game.
a.  if you want to shoot film - find a deal on film-scanning / color correction etc / many companies will support “to do something cool”
b.  save money on music by having a friend’s garage band do the soundtrack.  music license can be costly but so necessary - the bands need to earn a living too.
c.  creative marketing - leverage sponsors and your own social media connections to “get the word out” //  make a kick-ass trailer
e.  Kickstarter - crowdfunding is great / use kickstarter or other website to generate support.
f.  do a film you can shoot in one or two trips - look at September Sessions - one of my favorites by Chris Malloy - 1 boat trip - 1 movie
g.  ask for help - many people want to help - i still ask for help / i could never make my films if people didn’t help out - it is crucial

3.  The power is in the idea and the quality of the work
a.  have you made a film before or is this your first, experimental project?  if it’s the first - don’t risk too much on costs and time.
b.  do you work in commercials or tv / film production?  do you have resources, contacts, experience?  great!  use that to fuel quality in your project.   if you are experienced and love surfing, then take some risks- push the genre.  the audience is really supportive for new work and unique voices.

4.  Draft a Business Plan
a.  my sister has an MBA from UCLA and helped me with a business plan on Singlefin: yellow.  This was tremendous
b.  i was able to bring in investors on the film and share the equity or revenue the film created to pay them back
c.  it gives you a focused document on what your vision is - from creative through how the business end of releasing the movie will work.

5.  Do a creative brief / pdf
a.  for your own vision and to have something to show to investors, sponsors, musicians, friends (who might help), create a PDF of images and words that represent your vision.

a.  this is a personal, creative, business decision.  you need to evaluate everything about the project and decide.
b.  does the audience care?  hard to say - iTunes even states that they don’t like “grainy formats” like 16mm due to compression issues.
c.  will it make your film better?  different?  unique?  memorable?  and promote success?  **this is why i shot film.  i think yes.
d.  is Digital easier to use, more accepted, sometimes hard to discern from film - yes, at this point i think it is getting close.
e.  does using film mean success - NO WAY - plenty of projects shot on film fail - and plenty shot in HD succeed.  the key is good production (on any format).

I suppose, which may be evident in the info above - by making an independent film, you are starting a business.  There are many hats to wear beyond the creative.  This part is really frustrating for me at times.  So, unless you enjoy being a business person or entrepreneur, find a biz partner.  Share the duties of creative and administrative.  It is a huge help.  Taking these projects on solo is doable but pretty masochistic.

i hope this helps.  there is no right or wrong answer.  you just have to be smart and excited about making something special.  making these films was really, really, hard but also, some of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

best - jb


PS -
so there's a ten minute free thinking overview of taking on one of these projects.  Man I can blab.  As I re-read it for this blog, I don't know if I really answered the question properly.  So, I will add these details.

I shot the film alone with some help from Scott Kassenoff (water cinematography) and some support in Hawaii from Mike Prickett (one day water & the huge help of loaning me his camera for Bonga's pipe session).

Shot entirely on 16mm film.  Telecined in L.A. on a student rate to Digibetacam Tape.  I did multiple trips over 3 years to the different locations and cut the film with editor, Carl Cramer on Final Cut Pro (one of the first versions).  

I maxed out $65K on my VISA (not recommended) and with my business plan - raised another $30K in investor money.  So I share the profit with about 6 investors but own the majority.  The film has been selling for 10yrs now consistently and has been financially successful.  That said, if you opportunity-cost my 4 years making the film - I would have made a lot more money working in film or on commercials.  But we made a movie we are proud of.

made with Mark Jeremias and Build Worldwide.
Scott Kassenoff shot Water cine.  Carl Cramer edited on Final Cut Pro - home studio.

3 years of shooting on Super 16mm Film.  Transferred to HDcam at Co3 L.A. - mostly late at night or around 3am in the morning.  We still spent a huge amount of money on film transfers.

We brought on a group of investors to support us and Build, as the production co. was the key investor.  After three years of shooting, I had to sell some of my equity in the film to pay for my personal bills (we don't pay ourselves a salary - we work for "ownership" equity in the projects).  So, taking time off work to make these films is a huge part of the cost-equation.  I actually took on a fair amount of personal debt making One Cal Day.  

It had a pretty big budget for a surf movie but has been successful.  All the investors have made their money back and the film continues to sell - although the death of DVD and TV licensing money has made it challenging. We are happy it is now available here on iTunes.  OCD is a good example of a project's overall quality helping it sustain over a long period of time - and improving it's chance for profit.

Moreover, the market success and experience gained doing the project has helped me as a filmmaker do other projects- like the commercials i'm directing now.  So in the end, totally worth it.  

I hope that info helps!

photos by:  Jeremias / Kassenoff / Maffei