Archive for the ‘State of the Industry’ category

Why Letters of Intent Don’t Work

April 6, 2010

One of my favorite film bloggers, Jeff Steele, has a lovely piece in The Wrap about why, if you are a producer, you shouldn’t bother trying to lock down a letter of intent from a star.

Assuming you, reading this right now at your desk while possibly wearing sweatpants, are not a producer trying to get Rob Pattinson to commit to your independent romantic drama, it’s still interesting reading. Producers and screenwriters often fall into the same trap of believing that if they have a recognizable talent attached to a project, the project will be easier to set up with a buyer. The opposite is true: buyers typically few an attached actor or director as a liability, not an asset.

As for letters of intent, they are inherently meaningless when you’re dealing with an indie. If a buyer wants to go after a big star for a project, they will get on the horn with that star’s representatives and hammer out a deal that way. Getting a celebrity to vocally endorse your project can raise interest in the project itself, but the celebrity’s agents and managers don’t like it — why tie up a bankable star with a million-dollar project when they could be going after tens of millions of dollars scoring a part in a tentpole studio film?

Anyway, Jeff Steele says it better than I could:

Actors are paid to act; any agent can tell you that the script is the least important part to them. When it comes to the principal cast (upon which the sales and financing are predicated), unless I can call the agent or manager directly myself and verify, there is no real attachment. The exception being a Spielberg or a Scorsese, whose stature in the industry could reasonably facilitate any star interest.

I had a project recently where the director was lifelong friends with a breakout star, who had committed to doing the film. The agency was noncommittal. Why? Because the agency didn’t want to tie up a month of the actor’s time for a measly million bucks, when they could be getting 5-10x that from a studio for the same timeslot. A lot of money and time was spent pre-selling territories and shoring up the financing, only to have the star drop out, under CAA’s (er, I mean a random agency’s) pressure.

So don’t kill yourself wondering if your project would become more viable if you could only score five minutes of an A-lister’s time in the gym locker room or in line at Starbucks. Focus on getting the buyer interested instead.

Facts on Pacts — Which Producers Still Have Deals at Studios?

March 22, 2010

It used to be very common for a production company to strike a first-look, overhead or distribution deal with a studio. This symbiotic relationship helped both entities — the studio got first crack at any material the production company was developing, while the producers became privy to various benefits such as having their overhead costs covered, space on a studio lot tout of which to run their offices, a better shot at selling their product, etc. In the best of times, some studios had dozens upon dozens of producer deals.

But when the tides of the economy shifted, all that changed. Producer deals are costly, and they stopped making sense — why pay for contracts with fifteen different producer teams when you’re only releasing ten or twenty pictures each year? Thus the Facts on Pacts chart, released annually by Daily Variety to break down what producers have deals with what studios, is much more modest now than it used to be.

Even so, it’s a good resource and worth checking out to see which producers, in the minds of studio execs, are still worth taking a gamble on. Some have a solid history of producing profitable films (like Jon Turtletaub for Disney); others they have a good relationship with the studio (like BenderSpink for New Line); still others are former studio execs who have been shunted into producer deals to maintain good faith (Unique Features for Warner Bros.).

A New Model: The Micro-Budget Studio Picture

March 15, 2010

Paramount is doing something revolutionary, and it couldn’t be better news for aspiring filmmakers.

Last week, the studio announced the creation of its new arm, Insurge. Working with a mere million-dollar budget, the studio will produce ten films over the coming year, each with a budget of no more than $100,000. As this leaves virtually no money for print and advertising costs, the studio plans to promote the films via social networks like Facebook and Twitter, and most importantly through word-of-mouth.

In the last few years, specialty film distributors — New Line, Miramax, Picturehouse — have been rendered all but nonexistent as studios turned towards the potential blockbuster as a more effective way of making a quick and hefty profit. If it isn’t capable of grossing $200 million over the length of its run, if it doesn’t star a cadre of A-listers or boast incredible special effects, it’s generally not of interest to a studio. Just last year, Paramount shuttered its own specialty arm, Paramount Vantage, even though in the past it has released critically acclaimed films like “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou” and “There Will Be Blood.” So why the sudden change of plans for Paramount?

Two words: “Paranormal Activity.” The little thriller that could, shot on a mere $10k budget, took in $22 million its opening weekend and to date has grossed over $100 million dollars. It has spawned a series of copycats and Brian de Palma’s even rumored to be directing the sequel. Suddenly the question on everyone’s lips became, “How do we replicate this success?”

Paramount’s answer to that question is Insurge, and while they may have their eye on the bottom line, implications for unproven filmmakers — working on borrowed time and favors — can’t be overstated. Paramount has publicly stated that it will be scouting new teams of filmmakers to produce new, original films, mostly in the relatively low-budget genres of horror, comedy and animation. Some may be released theatrically, others remade with bigger budgets, still others useful primarily as a calling card for the filmmakers as they attempt to attach themselves to projects elsewhere. The LA Times goes more into depth about Paramount’s plans here.

Insurge isn’t in the business of acquiring already produced films, by the way, as is the norm with specialty film distributors looking for product on the cheap. They aren’t looking to pick up low-budget movies at film festivals or through word-of-mouth for distribution, as “Paranormal Activity” was. This is original content, developed and produced for Insurge at absolute minimal cost, and distributed by Paramount. It truly is a unique business model.

The real test will come when it comes time to see how said model works. Will social networking and conversations in classrooms and over coffee cups be enough to fuel interest in a movie that has no way of marketing itself through traditional means like television spots and giant billboards? Was “Paranormal Activity” lightning in a bottle, or the first sign of a sea change? Studio executives — and the rest of us — wait with interest to find out.

(This article has been cross-posted at PhotoCine News.)

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The Black List

December 12, 2009

Ah, it’s the annual release of the Black List, Hollywood’s unofficial list of the best unproduced scripts of the past calendar year. Executives are polled anonymously about their favorites, and it’s all compiled into a document that includes the title, author’s name, a logline, and representation. (Plus the status of the project.)

Short story is, this list began circulating a few years back and has now become widely known within the industry as a shorthand guide to recognizing up-and-coming writers and great new scripts from established writers. Rather than simply being a way to pay these guys on the back, the Black List has actually taken on new significance. Young, hungry execs are expected to know the names of every writer boasting a script in the top 10. Even if you’ve never had a produced movie in your life, having your name appear on the Black List can give you a newfound cache because it means you didn’t just come up with a good idea — you wrote a good script, too. That means you might be a good choice to write other projects.

For the fledgling writer, the Black List is a valuable resource for many reasons. For one, it’s always useful to see examples of loglines. It’s difficult to explain to someone how to write a good log, but easy to show them what one looks like. For another, it helps you become familiar with the names of young agents and managers who represent the authors. These are the guys you’d like to rep your script one day. Finally, the Black List is a good cheat sheet to show you what’s getting attention in the marketplace these days (hint: thrillers, comedy and more thrillers).

The Black List’s top 11

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