Sundance, The Nines, and the death of independent film

A quote from Mark Gill in the LA Times last week would seem discouraging for independent filmmakers:

Of the 5,000 films submitted to Sundance each year — generally with budgets under $10 million — maybe 100 of them got a U.S. theatrical release three years ago. And it used to be that 20 of those would make money. Now maybe five do. That’s one-tenth of 1%. Put another way, if you decide to make a movie budgeted under $10 million on your own tomorrow, you have a 99.9% chance of failure.

There are lots of ways to criticize his logic. For starters, most Sundance movies are way under $10 million. Many are under a million. And he seems to omit a figure for how many indie films are getting a theatrical release now as opposed to three years ago.

We need to ask, “Failure for whom?” Even a movie that doesn’t earn its budget back will likely make money for its distributors, once you factor in video and TV sales. More crucially, a good indie film generates future work for its stars and filmmakers. So there’s a lot of success to be found in that 99.9% failure.

All that said, he’s kind of right.

I’ve held off writing a post-mortem on The Nines, but now that everything is said and done, I should probably say and do it. The short version is this: the movie turned out just the way I wanted. The release of the movie was deeply disappointing.

Here are the key lessons I learned from the release:

1. Sundance buzz is annoying and meaningless

The Nines premiered at Sundance in 2007. We were happy the film got in — we were by no means a lock, despite our cast, our credits, and my involvement with the Sundance screenwriters lab. We got a slot out of competition on a big screen on a good night. We got a sales agent. Things were looking good.

My first inkling that something was amiss was when our first choice of publicity teams watched the movie and passed on representing us. They didn’t love the movie. The publicity team we ultimately hired did love the movie, and worked their asses off for it. Yet that first “pass” should have clued us into the reality that the movie was polarizing, and that every subsequent step along the way would be determined by our champions and detractors.

We did Sundance the way you’re supposed to do Sundance, with all the press interviews and trudging up and down snowy streets. We kept running into the same movies doing the same song-and-dance, several of them represented by the team that first passed on us. It was all smiles, but every time I heard festival-goers discussing another movie, I got jealous — unless it was negative, in which case I got a little happier. That’s a natural instinct, I guess. Indiefreude.

Looking back through the coverage of the festival, The Nines was one of approximately 20 movies1 that got significant buzz — either spontaneous or self-generated — while up on the mountain. The others included:

  1. The Signal
  2. Chapter 27
  3. The Good Night
  4. Joshua
  5. Teeth
  6. The Ten
  7. Waitress
  8. Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna)
  9. How She Move
  10. Son of Rambow
  11. Once
  12. Nanking
  13. The King of Kong
  14. Grace is Gone
  15. Dedication
  16. Clubland (aka Introducing the Dwights)
  17. My Kid Could Paint That
  18. King of California
  19. In the Shadow of the Moon
  20. Hounddog

All of these except Hounddog (the “Dakota Fanning Rape Movie”) sold, either while at Sundance or shortly thereafter.2 Let’s call these the Graduating Class of 2007.

I’d put The Nines in the middle of the buzz pack. It was hard to get a ticket, and they kept adding additional screenings. But after the debut, it was clear we weren’t going to be in a giant bidding situation. Other movies were selling quickly, and new titles kept debuting.

Eighteen months later, it’s fascinating to see how little the festival buzz mattered. Prices for these movies — a key component of buzz, as in, “Did you hear how much it sold for?” — were all over the board, from the low six-figures to $7 million for Son of Rambow.

But it made no difference. They all pretty much tanked.

Waitress sold quickly, was released quickly, and made the most by far at the box office ($19M).3 Second place was Under the Same Moon ($12.5M), followed by Once ($9M) and How She Move ($7M). Son of Rambow will likely end up in fifth. It’s currently in release, and made $8M overseas.

In terms of box office, none of these are hits in the way Little Miss Sunshine was. But you’d be happy being any of them, because beyond those five, the other movies on the list fell off a cliff. None of them made a million. In fact, most didn’t make it over $100,000. The Nines didn’t, despite opening well.

But at least we opened. At least we sold. For our year, 3,287 feature films were submitted to Sundance, of which 122 played. Roughly 20 played in theaters. 4

The other hundred films played other festivals, and ultimately hoped for a DVD deal. And maybe that’s not all bad. Because you know what?

2. Theatrical release is kinda bullshit.

Even while I was making The Nines, I knew that the vast majority of viewers would ultimately see it on the small screen. In that spirit, we worked to make the shiny disc version extra-rewarding, with commentaries and special features planned from day one.

But at the same time, we were anticipating theatrical. A lot of effort went in to making the 35mm prints — eight prints in all. We would have conference calls to discuss dates and markets and theaters, with special screenings for opening night and whatnot.

It was a fool’s errand.

It didn’t feel like it at the time, but the theatrical release was really a token, contractually-obligated gesture. We were getting our hand stamped before the DVD.

It was billed as a platform release, opening in just a few key markets before going wider. But from the distributor’s perspective, there was no reason to even consider expanding beyond New York, Los Angeles and Austin. Each new market meant more money they would have to spend on newspaper ads, and there was no incentive to do it. From a cost perspective, New York and Los Angeles gave enough national exposure to drive the DVD release, which was where they hoped to make their money.

The only problem was…

3. The DVD should have come out much sooner, maybe simultaneously

Because of Ryan’s relative star power, we were able to generate a ton of national publicity. He went on TRL and Conan and every other New York outlet you can think of. But making a college student in Iowa aware of a movie that will never play Des Moines is useless. He’ll forget about it in a week.

So the smart thing would have been keeping our New York and Los Angeles dates but having the DVD come out immediately.5 I know that invokes the stigma of straight-to-DVD, but if it means that potential viewers nationwide can actually see the movie, hooray.

The shortening DVD windows are a legitimate concern for mainstream Hollywood movies, but for indies, I don’t think it’s even worth serious objection. Arthouse theaters’ biggest competition isn’t DVD, but TV in general. The people who used to keep them in business are staying home to watch HBO and Bravo.

If I had an arthouse theater, I’d swap out a different movie every week, on the assumption that you can skim off the enthusiastic filmgoers — bolstered by fimmaker Q&A’s — and move on to the next batch. And that’s exactly what they do. As a result, The Nines and most of the other movies our graduating class played at theaters I wouldn’t normally frequent, often for only a week.

Putting out the DVD right away wouldn’t have cannibalized theatrical. There was no meat on the bones anyway.

4. I should have paid a lot more attention to foreign

By focusing on the U.S. release, I largely ignored the international markets until the Venice Film Festival, where we played in Critics’ Week. The smarter plan would have been going to Sundance with the intention of going to Berlin right after, followed by Cannes, followed by every other meaningful festival which invited us. 6 Given family and work commitments, there was a natural limit to how much I could have done. But a real first-time filmmaker could easily spend a year traveling with his movie.

We ended up getting a theatrical release in the UK, along with a pretty solid DVD. But the rest of Europe — Germany and France in particular — was left hanging. Even a good sale in Australia hasn’t led to release yet. Which is ridiculous, because…

5. Without an alternative, everyone will just pirate it

IMDb searches for The Nines peaked at #11 on January 20th, 2008 — two weeks before the DVD was released. That’s because it finally got leaked on BitTorrent. Suddenly, that college student in Iowa and that programmer in Arles could finally see the movie.

Let’s try a thought experiment: what if The Nines had leaked shortly before the theatrical release, say, August 19th? At that point, we were number 836 on IMDb, and that was during a concerted publicity campaign which would ultimately get us as high as 47 on the chart.

Would the leak have helped us or hurt us?

Given we were only playing in two cities in the world, I can’t think it would have hurt us much. And if there had been a legal and easy way to let people watch the movie — say, through iTunes — I think we could have capitalized on the attention. The pirated version was going to be available on or before the release of the DVD regardless, so one might as well benefit from it as much as possible.

To my thinking, leaking a decent-quality, watermarked version7 would have greatly increased the awareness and discussion of the movie, which could have paid off if the DVD and/or iTunes version were available shortly thereafter.

Should anyone bother making an indie film?

I know that a lot of this article comes off as a downer. The odds of getting your scrappy indie in front of paying audiences are pretty low, and the odds of really making money at it are subterranean.

But I stand by my earlier observation that there’s a lot of success to be found in that high failure rate. The Nines didn’t make a big splash, but it has a fair number of super-fans, including some filmmakers and critics. It has led to new opportunities for me and its stars, and a solid credit for the folks who worked on it.

Financially, the movie is a wash. I’ve never publicly stated its budget, but it was low enough that no one got hurt. And from the distributors’ perspective, the upside of undermarketing is that there’s not so much to earn back. For all parties, you can calculate the “opportunity costs” many different ways. I certainly could have made a lot more in my day job writing movies for other people, but in the long run, The Nines was probably more rewarding.

My advice? You should make an indie film to make a film. Period. Artistic and commercial success don’t correlate well, and at the moment, only the former is remotely within your control.

If I had to do it all over again, I would have made the same movie but completely rethought how it went out into the world. I would have challenged a lot of the standard operating procedures, which seem to be part of an indie world that no longer exists. The Nines would have likely made just as little at the box office, but could have made a bigger impact on a bigger audience. Ultimately, I think that’s how you need to measure the success of an indie film’s release: how many people saw it.

  1. This list is reconstructed by memory and Googling. If I’ve omitted something that was there and buzz-generating, I’m happy to append it.
  2. A few more sales came later, including cable premieres. I haven’t heard the ultimate fate of Hounddog.
  3. Because we’re accustomed to looking at domestic box office, that’s what I’m showing. But keep in mind that international is a crucial component, as noted later.
  4. The grand prize winners — Manda Bala and Padre Nuestro — both got released, but I didn’t know until I just checked.
  5. Alternately, make it pay-per-view on cable and satellite, or downloadable on iTunes.
  6. Altogether, The Nines got more than 100 festival invitations.
  7. I’d have it read “lookforthenines.com” in the corner.

I got married

On Saturday evening, one hundred friends and family members got together for our wedding at a house in the hills. There were rings and toasts and food and cake. It’s all a bit of a blur. The photos I’ve seen so far have me grinning idiotically, which I’m sure I was.

We had guests come from as far away as Brazil and as far back as Webelos. Weddings and funerals seem to be the only ways to assemble large swaths of people from across one’s life. And only in the former do you get to catch up. That was a great part of the weekend.

At a cocktail party on Friday night, I described the feeling that the universe had forked, and that luckily we’d ended up in the version in which marriage is legal and good people win elections. Here’s hoping my theory is proved correct.

You’ll likely see photos from the wedding in (ironically enough) bridal magazines. And you’ll see my name and face in the press as we get closer to the November election, in an effort to defeat a constitutional amendment which would make Saturday’s festivities impossible.

But for now, I’m just trying to get used to the ring on my finger. And saying husband.


A good time, despite the dead children

I’m back from Utah, where I was working as an advisor at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. I had five projects in three days, which made for a lot of reading and meeting, picking-apart and putting-back-together.

The scripts this year were as emotionally challenging as ever — of the projects I covered, three involved the rape or death of children. 1 Only one was set in the U.S., with the others coming from the U.K., South Africa, Brazil and China. My meeting with Chinese filmmakers involved a translator, as the six things I can say in Mandarin couldn’t suffice.2 My longest meeting — the one American project — went 4 1/2 hours, flipping pages and cutting scenes.

It was an exhausting but exhilarating couple of days. It’s great to work with writers focused on making projects more honest rather than more commercial.

  1. To be fair, the one with the highest body count was a comedy.
  2. “Hello,” “Thanks,” “I speak a little Chinese,” “Slippers,” “Snow,” and “Jump!” The first three are courtesy Pimsleur. The last three come from watching Ni Hao, Kai-Lan with my daughter.

How to cut pages

One page of screenplay translates to one minute of movie. Since most movies are a little under two hours long, most screenplays should be a little less than 120 pages.

That’s an absurd oversimplification, of course.

One page of a battle sequence might run four minutes of screen time, while a page of dialogue banter might zip by in 30 seconds. No matter. The rule of thumb might as well be the rule of law: any script over 120 pages is automatically suspect. If you hand someone a 121-page script, the first note they will give you is, “It’s a little long.” In fact, some studios will refuse to take delivery of a script over 120 pages (and thus refuse to pay).

So you need to be under 120.1, both Big Fish and Go are more than 120 pages. I’m not claiming that longer scripts aren’t shot. I’m saying that if you go over the 120 page line, you have to be doubly sure there’s no moment that feels padded, because the reader is going in with the subconscious goal of cutting something.2

Which usually means you need to cut.

Before we look at how to do that, let’s address a few things you should never do when trying to cut pages, no matter how tempting.

  • Don’t adjust line spacing. Final Draft lets you tighten the line spacing, squeezing an extra line or two per page. Don’t. Not only is it obvious, but it makes your script that much harder to read.

  • Don’t tweak margins. With the exception of Widow Control (see below), you should never touch the default margins: an inch top, bottom and right, an inch-and-a-half on the left. 3

  • Don’t mess with the font. Screenplays are 12-pt Courier. If you try a different size, or a different face, your reader will notice and become suspicious.

All of these don’ts could be summarized thusly: Don’t cheat. Because we really will notice, and we’ll begin reading your script with a bias against it.

There are two kinds of trims we’ll be making: actual cuts and perceived cuts. Actual cuts mean you’re taking stuff out, be it a few lines, scenes or sequences. Perceived cuts are craftier. You’re editing with specific intention of making the pages break differently, thus pulling the end of the script up. Perceived cuts don’t really make the script shorter. They just make it seem shorter, like a fat man wearing stripes.

Fair warning: Many of these suggestions will seem borderline-OCD. But if you’ve spent months writing a script, why not spend one hour making it look and read better?

Cutting a page or two

At this length, perceived cuts will probably get you where you need to be. (That said, always look for bigger, actual cuts. Remember, 117 pages is even better than 120.)

Practice Widow Control. Widows are those little fragments, generally a word or two, which hog a line to themselves. You find them both in action and dialogue.

HOFFMAN

Oh, I agree. He’s quite the catch, for a fisherman. Caught myself trolling more than once.

If you pull the right-hand margin of that dialogue block very, very slightly to the right, you can often make that last word jump up to the previous line. Done right, it’s invisible, and reads better.

I generally don’t try to kill widows in action lines unless I have to. The ragged whitespace helps break up the page. But it’s always worth checking whether two very short paragraphs could be joined together.4

Watch out for invisible orphans. Orphans are short lines that dangle by themselves at the top of page. You rarely see them these days, because by default, most screenwriting programs will force an extra line or two across the page break to avoid them.5

Here’s the downside: every time the program does this, your script just got a line or two longer. So anytime you see a short bit of action at the top of the page, see if there’s an alternate way to write it that can make it jump back to the previous page.

Nix the CUT TO:’s. Screenwriters have different philosophies when it comes to CUT TO. Some use it at the end of every scene. Some never use it at all. I split the difference, using it when I need to signal to the reader that we’re either moving to something completely new story-wise, or jumping ahead in time.

But when I’m looking to trim a page or two, I often find I can sacrifice a few CUT TO’s and TRANSITION TO’s. So weigh each one.

Cutting five to ten pages

At this level, you’re beyond the reach of perceived cuts. You’re going to have to take things out. Here are the places to look.

Remove unnecessary set-ups. When writing a first act, your instinct is to make sure that everything is really well set up. You have a scene to introduce your hero, another to introduce his mom, a third to establish that he’s nice to kittens. Start cutting. We need to know much less about your characters than you think. The faster we can get to story, the better.

Get out of scenes earlier. Look at every scene, and ask what the earliest point is you could cut to the next scene. You’ll likely find a lot of tails to trim.

Don’t let characters recap. Characters should never need to explain something that we as the audience already know. It’s a complete waste of time and space. So if it’s really important that Bob know what Sarah saw in the old mill — a scene we just watched — try to make that explanation happen off-screen.

For example, if a scene starts…

BOB

Are you sure it was blood?

…we can safely surmise he’s gotten the necessary details.

Trim third-act bloat. As we cross page 100 in our scripts, that finish line become so appealing that we often race to be done. The writing suffers. Because it’s easier to explain something in three exchanges of dialogue than one, we don’t try to be efficient. So you need to look at that last section with the same critical eyes that read those first 20 pages 100 times, and bring it up to the same level. The end result will almost always be tighter, and shorter.

Cutting ten or more pages

Entire sequences are going to need to go away. This happens more than you’d think. For the first Charlie’s Angels, we had a meeting at 5 p.m. on a Friday afternoon in which the president of the studio yanked ten pages out of the middle of the script. There was nothing wrong with those scenes, but we couldn’t afford to shoot them. So I was given until Monday morning to make the movie work without them.

Be your own studio boss. Be savage. Always err on taking out too much, because you’ll likely have to write new material to address some of what’s been removed.

The most brutal example I can think of from my own experience was my never-sold (but often retitled) zombie western. I cut 75 pages out of the first draft — basically, everything that didn’t support the two key ideas of Zombie Western. By clear-cutting, I could make room for new set pieces that fit much better with the movie I was trying to make.

Once you start thinking big-picture, you realize it’s often easier to cut fifteen pages than five. You ask questions like, “What if there was no Incan pyramid, and we went straight to Morocco?” or “What if instead of seeing the argument, reconciliation and breakup, it was just a time cut?”

Smart restructuring of events can often do the work for you. A project I’m just finishing has several occasions in which the action needs to slide forward several weeks, with characters’ relationships significantly changed. That’s hard to do with straight cutting — you expect to see all the pieces in the middle. But by focussing on something else for a scene or two — a different character in a different situation — I’m able to come back with time jumped and characters altered.

Look: It’s hard to cut a big chunk of your script, something that may have taken weeks to write. So don’t just hit “delete.” Cut and paste it into a new document, save it, and allow yourself the fiction of believing that in some future script, you’ll be able to use some of it. You won’t, but it will make it less painful.

  1. But! But! you say. In the Library
  2. Go is 126 pages, but it’s packed solid. Big Fish meanders, but those detours end up paying off in the conclusion.
  3. Page numbers, scene numbers, “more” and “continued” are exceptions.
  4. I try to keep paragraphs of action and scene description between two and six lines.
  5. While I rag on the program, Final Draft is smart enough to break lines at the period, so sentences always stay intact. It’s a small thing, but it really helps the read. Other programs may do it now, too.