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Posts Tagged ‘Clerks’

On the heals of writing yesterday’s post about a filmmaker from Austin, Texas, I thought it was fitting to write about a filmmaker from New Jersey talking about being inspired decades ago by a filmmaker from Austin.

“I was awed by (Richard Linklater’s film) Slacker, that it existed. And Richard’s story was kind of compelling too. This guy from Austin, Texas—not from Hollywood, not from New York—had made a film that’s playing in New York and look at all these people here to see it! And he’d made it for such a low amount of money. But by the end of the film I was thinking, I could definitely do this! And oddly enough it was the reaction that Clerks would have a few years later…Anyway we’re driving back to New Jersey and I say, ‘You Know, Vincent, I think that’s what I want to do. I think I want to make a film.”
Kevin Smith
My First Movie
20 Directors Talk About Their First Film
Page 74
Edited by Stephen Lowenstein

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“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.”
President Obama
State of the Union Address 1/25/11
(Referencing the Soviet’s rocket launch in 1957 which fueled the USA in the space race.)

“The piece of advice that Walter Gretzky gave (his son) Wayne Gretzky was this…’don’t go where the puck’s been, go where it’s gonna to be.’ The philosophy was simple, if you puck chase you’re always going to be behind the game…You want to be the person that’s where the puck’s going to be.”
Filmmaker Kevin Smith
Sundance 2011

Back in the good old days of 1994 filmmaker Kevin Smith sold his $27,000 film Clerks at Sundance. A year later Edward Burns’ $25,000 film The Brothers McMullen was sold. Both Smith and Burns have continued carving out careers since that time and if you want to see which way the wind is blowing take a look at the direction they are heading as independent filmmakers.

A few months ago Burns’ self-produced Nice Guy Johnny (for again $25,000) and released it on iTunes. And earlier this week Kevin Smith announced that for his latest film, The Red State, he will not be selling the film at Sundance, but instead self-distributing the film first taking it on the road to large venues across the county where he will be speaking after showing the film.

His rational is he has a large fan base that follow his podcasts, Twitter feeds, etc. and he (or a studio) doesn’t need to spend $20 million advertising the film. We’ll see how it plays out. But it’s a good indicator of where the puck is heading for one group of filmmakers.

If you wanted to pinpoint indie film’s modern Sputnik moment I think it’s fitting to point to 1999 when The Blair Witch Project showed Hollywood the power of the internet. More than 10 years later we live in a digital world that has altered the music industry and now well into altering the film and Tv industry.

Five years ago we were watching poor quality short videos on You Tube and today you can stream feature films in high quality directly to your computer or TV via Netflix or the like. It’s no surprise that the last Blockbuster video store in my area announced this month that it was going out of business (following Hollywood Video stores that are long gone).

If independent filmmakers can raise their own money, make their own films AND can control the distribution—that is truly independent filmmaking. It’s a new game for filmmakers everywhere—from LA, to Iowa, and even the former Soviet Union. Heck, I can even see hockey great Walter Gretzky making his own films with his actress wife Janet Jones. (Still remember her role in The Flamingo Kid.)

The old Hollywood expression was it takes an army to make a film, these days you just need a camera—and an army of Twitter/Facebook/You Tube followers interested in the stories you tell. (Some of them won’t just be watching your films, but helping you raise funds as well.)

P.S. Speaking of Sundance & the Internet, I received a form email today from Oscar-winning director Kevin MacDonald saying, “Today we are unveiling Life in a Day at Sundance for the film’s World Premiere. I wanted to take this opportunity to thank all of you for participating in this extraordinary experience….” I was part of the You Tube community who on July 21, 2010 submitted one of the 80,000 clips that they were gathering for a 90 minute film. (Edited down from 4,500 hours of footage. So close. I can always say, “I was this close to having a film in Sundance this year”.)  It will be interesting to see the final film.  Here’s a teaser:

Scott W. Smith

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Have you ever seen a one-legged dog making its way down the street?
If you’ve ever seen a one-legged dog then you’ve seen me
Then you’ve seen me, I come and stand at every door
Then you’ve seen me, I always leave with less than I had before
Bruce Springsteen
The Wrestler

“Credit card debt is a major problem in America.”
Dave Ramsey
The Truth About Credit Card Debt


Americans love a good success story. We love good myths as well.  And the model of financing your film via credit cards has given us some wonderful success stories and a myth as well.  The truth is most credit card  filmmakers (99% would be a good guess) are like the one-legged dog that Springsteen sings about in The Wrestler—they leave with less than they had before. And the one thing worse than being broke, is being in debt.

The problem is we usually only hear the success stories. Robert Townsend was the first person I ever heard about who financed a feature film using credit cards. Back in 1987 Hollywood Shuffle was released and it launched his career.

“There was nothing I couldn’t get with a credit card. And what I couldn’t pay for with credit card I would get a cash advance on the credit card. I couldn’t pay people but I said, ‘I could put gas in your car.’ So I said, ‘All of you follow me to the gas station. I would tell the dealer, ‘See those 20 cars out there? Put it on my American Express.”
Robert Townsend
Jet magazine Jun 1, 1987

Kevin Smith’s Clerks is another film said to be funded on credit cards. Again, it launched a career. The documentary Spellbound was not only nominated for an Academy Award  but grossed over six million dollars and was funded by credit cards.

“We hit the road, using our credit cards to fund the project. Then we’d come home between shooting the film, pay down some of the debt and resume shooting,”
Spellbound producer Sean Welch in a Money magazine article.

So there you have three examples of success stories that solidify the myth of credit card filmmaking. But the truth is best summed up in a Charles Lyons 2005 article in The New York Times called Join a Revolution. Make Movies. Go Broke. Seriously, every filmmaker needs to read that article. Arin Crumley and Susan Buice were filmmaking darlings five years ago as their film Four Eyes Monsters was well received at film festivals and garnered lots of press. But the film did not find a distributor and left Crumley and Buice with $55,000.+ in credit card debt.

“It’s not O.K. for our film to have been mildly successful on the festival circuit. But otherwise, it was just a jaunt into the abyss and now we have financial hell to pay.”
Susan Buice (2005)

Filmmakers using credit cards to self-finance their films is another reason why Kelley Baker is The Angry Filmmaker;

“Too many people finance their films on credit cards, and they go broke! Their films end up not getting a distributor and they’re left paying 30% interest on a film that no one wants. Heed the words of noted financial consultant and former NBA player Charles Barkley, ‘Credit cards exist to keep poor people poor.’

DON’T USE YOUR DAMN CREDIT CARDS FOR ANYTHING!!!”
Kelley Baker
The Angry Filmmaker Survival Guide

With that said, Four Eyed Monsters filmmakers Crumley and Buice got creative and kept finding ways to get people to see their film. One of them was in 2007 when their film became the first feature length film to be shown on You Tube. As I write this on October 29, 2010 there have been 1,256,401 views. They also made a plea on You Tube for people to join spout.com and that company would give Crumley and Brice $1 for each person who joins up to $100,000. Fast forward a few years and I read on the blog Distribution 2.0 that Crumley and Buice got $50,000. from the You Tube/Spout deal, and that exposure not only added DVD sales, but the online attention got them a $100,000 broadcast and rental deal. Does that add to the credit card myth or fall under the category of a crazy success story?

The entire film is linked below. (As a quirky side note, A few years ago I did a documentary shoot in Russia with DP Jon Fordham who was a cameraman on Four Eyed Monsters.)

Scott W. Smith


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So after Kevin Smith was inspired by seeing Slacker, he wrote the script Clerks. After he wrote a the script he basically shot the film with a few friends who he could not afford to pay and covered the hard costs of production using basically personal credit cards.

In Smith’s mind if he was going to spend around $25,000. he wanted a feature film for his efforts rather than a film degree. (And many film schools are much more expensive than $25,000—and no feature film to show.) Smith was swinging for the fences.

After the film was shot and edited he took the film to the Independent Feature Film Market (IFFM) because he read that’s how Richard Linklater got a distribution deal for Slacker.  He knew he had made a profanity-laced film that perhaps his mother wouldn’t appreciate but was hoping to find a distributor who would help it find an audience. (His mother actually told him after seeing the film, “You spent twenty-seven thousand dollars on that piece of garbage?”)

Only about ten people showed up at IFFM Clerks screening and most of them were from the crew that worked on the film. Smith went home depressed. But one of the people at the screening was Bob Hawk of Independent Consultation for Independents who enjoyed the film and whose word of mouth created great buzz for the film early on.  But still nobody wanted the film.

Clerks made it to Sundance and only one company made an offer so Smith made a deal with Miramax. And that is what launched his career. (And paid off the credit cards.) But Smith will point out that he did not do this all on his own. One key person that he needed on his journey was producer Scott Mosier who Smith met in his brief time in film school. So even if you don’t care for his films listen to these words of wisdom:

“Maybe other cats know different, but without Mosier, I don’t think I could have done it or would have ever taken the first step. I would have dropped out of film school and gone back to the convenience store, maybe written a script that would sit on the shelf. It is finding that other person who gets you completely and knows where you are going, and knows how to make this happen with you and for you, and is on your side as you are on his.”
                                   Kevin Smith
                                  My First Movie
                                  20 Directors Talk About Their Film

                                  Edited by Stephen Lowenstein
                                  page 103

 

Scott W. Smith

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Boy, I should have mentioned Kevin Smith before yesterday as that post brought the second highest number of views since I started this blog. I’m glad I didn’t say anything negative about 21-year olds living in the basement of their parent’s homes surrounded by comic books and possessing a burning desire to make a film.

Which somewhat describes Smith when he took the first steps toward making a feature film. Armed with one acting class at a community college, four months of films school before he dropped out, and inspired by seeing Richard Linkletter’s Slacker, Smith set out to write a script that took place in one location.

“My example was Robert Rodriguez. In an interview he’d said, ‘Take stock of what you have and work with that. I had a bus and I had a turtle, so I worked them both into the script!’ I thought, I can get my hands on a convenience store…So I went home, and got my job back at the convenience store, fully intending to shoot the flick there. And I started writing like mad. I guess the first draft of it was about 164 pages, pretty long, so I handed it over to my friend Vincent. I was like, ‘What do you think?’ And he was like, ‘It’s really good. I think you should do it.’”
                                              Kevin Smith
                                              My First Movie
                                              Edited by Stephen Lowenstein
                                              page 76-77

And that was the beginning of Clerks. Smith didn’t have rich parents. He didn’t live in L.A. and he didn’t have New York City film connections. He didn’t have a master’s degree in film (or a BA or, I don’t think, even an AA degree), but what he did have was a 164 page script that he had written where most of the action happened behind a counter at a convenience store.

A couple years later he was showing that film at Sundance. But it started with “writing like mad.”

 

Scott W. Smith

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Yes, I am going from seven days in a row expounding about the virtues of Sunset Boulevard to quoting writer/director Kevin Smith. While he’s no stranger to controversy, raunchiness, and profanity, and you may not care for his films—but you have to at least give the guy credit for launching a career by making Clerks for $27,000. All filmed in a New Jersey convenience store where he actually worked (and edited in a video store where Smith also worked).

“I was awed by (Richard Linklater’s film) Slacker, that it existed. And Richard’s story was kind of compelling too. This guy from Austin, Texas—not from Hollywood, not from New York—had made a film that’s playing in New York and look at all these people here to see it! And he’d made it for such a low amount of money. But by the end of the film I was thinking, I could definitely do this! And oddly enough it was the reaction that Clerks would have a few years later…Anyway we’re driving back to New Jersey and I say, ‘You Know, Vincent, I think that’s what I want to do. I think I want to make a film.”
Kevin Smith
My First Movie
20 Directors Talk About Their First Film
Page 74
Edited by Stephen Lowenstein

Scott W. Smith

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