Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Back to the Future

Today I leave the world of episodic TV and get back to what I really enjoy a lot more.

Movies. Independent movies. 

What's the difference? There are essentially 3 kinds of movies, studio, MOW's (Movie of the Week) and independent, also known as "Indies". Studio movies are the big ones, Avatar, Ironman, Hangover, Robin Hood and Shrek. While those are all big budget projects at $200 million or more, studios also release smaller movies, mostly romantic comedies and family films that cost $35-70 million.

Then there's the almost forgotten "MOW, the much smaller TV relative to studio pictures. These began in the 60's and carried through until about 2004 when reality TV in the form of Survivor appeared and basically wiped out MOW's overnight. Reality was cheaper (TV movies averaged around $3.5 million) and faster to make.

In the months that followed hundreds of people who depended on TV movies were suddenly out of work as the big 4 networks went to reality shows. There were at least 3 parties at the Roosevelt Hotel lamenting "the death of the TV movie". The mood was like an Irish wake, drinks, gossip and "what the hell are we gonna do now?

I was one of those who were affected. After my experiences with series in Canada I was lucky enough to get a fair amount of TV movies, both originals of mine and rewrites on others. I spent 4 months in Luxembourg working for Paramount as well as Mexico and Canada, in my home province of Manitoba.

But reality TV killed almost all of us.

What survived was three cable networks, Hallmark, Lifetime and Sci-Fi Channel who continued creating movies mainly for their audiences. Hallmark was family, Lifetime was women and Sci-Fi, well that was for all those sci-fi types. I managed to write movies for two and rewrite one for Sci-Fi.

These movies were mostly done in Canada due to tax credits and their budgets went from $3 million plus down  to around $1.2 million. Licence fees for Sci-Fi at one point was $700,000 and the producers had to raise $500,000 or so on their own to barely pay for the making of the movie. These companies continue to do movies and at this moment, I'm very close to a deal for one.

And recently CBS has been making TV movies with Tom Selleck to fill in Sunday nights along with Hallmark movies. As reality series get overexposed, there is a hint that the network TV movie might return.

And finally, there's the stepchild of all those other movies, the "indie" film. Independent films are usually the territory of writers and directors who prefer to tell their own stories, films that don't have creatures, CGI or big stars. Budgets for indies can be in the millions but mostly they're done on budgets where the actors drive their own cars to work and writers, producers and directors defer some of their salaries to get their dream project done.

It can be argued that the first real independent filmmaker was John Cassavetes, who was also an actor (Rosemary's Baby among others). In 1959 Cassavetes made a ground-breaking movie, financed entirely by the money he made acting for studio movies. It was called Shadows, and dealt with interracial relationships.

It was filmed in 16mm black and white and mostly handheld. He followed this in 1968 with Faces, an ensemble piece. Most indie filmmakers credit Cassavetes with this new art form which mirrored the French filmmakers of the time. I've always felt his best film, a favorite of mine, is Husbands with him, Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara.

Which movies are indies? Mostly ones some of you have never heard of. Movies like Frozen River, Pieces of April Little Miss Sunshine, Wendy and Lucy, Sweet Land. They were all movies made outside of the Hollywood System, thus the term "Independent films". They didn't rely on Paramount or Universal for their budgets.

Budgets for indie movies can be as low as $15,000 (Paranormal Activity) to $8 million (Little Miss Sunshine). Money for these movies comes from the makers themselves, family, accountants, lawyers, shopping mall owners, even credit cards and a hundred other sources.

Little Miss Sunshine actually had Hollywood stars, Greg Kinear and AlanArkin who worked for less money than they usually get. Frozen River had an Oscar nomination for Mellisa Leo, it's lead actress. Wendy and Lucy had Michelle Williams, a studio actress.

This is where the lines begin to blur. When is an indie not quite defined as an indie?

When it has stars.

Since many indies get Academy nominations now, big stars see the opportunity to "stretch their talents", in other words, get more attention to their acting chops and thus more shots at the golden boy. Actors who get paid millions will settle for a few thousand if it means a great script and the chance at a nomination.

So there you go, a basic primer on movies as they are today.

Where does mine come in? Well, you're looking at one, Travel Day, which I started almost one year ago with Shirley Petchprapa. Shirley directs and I produce. We had a good start but got sidelined by a producer in Canada who didn't deliver. Since Travel Day is a winter movie I closed it down until fall and filming late 2010.

But I've got a few more projects on the go as well.  So hang in there, we'll take the ride again and what made this blog one of the top 50 in January.

(Fri: Lay it all out)