Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Interview With Mark Steensland, Director of "The Ugly File"

I'm going to make a bold statement... and here it is: There's a big, bright, lucrative future for short form film. There, I said it. Now, I say this because five years ago, even less than five years ago, the only people watching short films were really just film academics, festival goers and movie dorks. Today is a different story - everyone watches short films, but they don't really know it... in fact, chances are, while you're trying to waste time today, you'll see some sort of short film. Our devices, such as our BlackBerry's, iPhone's, PSP's, mp3 players, netbooks... are all designed for you to watch small snippets of entertainment. So, the audience is rapidly growing accustomed to watching short films AND the devices we use to watch entertainment are rapidly growing more accustomed to showing it. All we have to wait for is that gap to fill in, which would be how we distribute it and how we make money off it. However, the fact remains that we're building towards it. Bright future, I'm telling you. Watch for it.

So, while the media companies and gadget makers figure out the logistics on distribution and how to make you pay for it, we need to figure out how to up the ante on quality. The problem is, any group of drunks with a camcorder and a laptop can make a short film and ( to take from "The Simpsons") you're going to get a lot of short films called "Football in the Groin" that are basically just 30 seconds of footballs in the groin. On the flip side of the coint, at its best, a short can have all the elements of a feature and more, as shorts can exist on a punchline or a reveal alone... and a feature can't. Take Mark Steensland's "The Ugly File", for example. It's an extremely well crafted 10 minute short, based on a short story. The premise behind it is simple (and I won't ruin it), but it's pieced together perfectly in a way that jabs you, somewhat grotesquely, at the end. It's shot well, it's acted well and the minimal effects that they do use fit in seamlessly. It's a great, shining example of what a short horror film should be and it's something that other short form filmmakers can aspire to. So, if you get the chance to check it out, I highly suggest you do. Until then, you can check out Mark's other award winning shorts on his site or read this interview with him, where he discusses them, "The Ugly File", his thoughts on the scene and what he's up to next...

First off, tell us a bit about yourself. What are your influences and what got you into indie horror?

My first movie memory, believe it or not, is going to see “Rosemary’s Baby” at the drive-in when I was four years old. Now I know you’re thinking: “What kind of parents take a four year old to that movie?” But in fairness to them, I was supposed to be sleeping in the back of the family station wagon. Only I wasn’t. I was awake and listening to everything. And when they got to the part where the doctor announced that the baby had been born on June 28, I sat bolt upright and said proudly, “That’s MY birthday!” And my whole family – my mom and dad and three older brothers – all looked at me with expressions that said “That explains everything.” Then, when I was six, my father died. And after a year or so, my mother started letting other men court her. One of them was the manager of a movie theater. And so we got to go to the movies all the time for free. And I saw tons of stuff that I’m quite sure I shouldn’t have. I remember seeing “The Legend of Hell House” and Elizabeth Taylor in “Nightwatch,” and they scared me and I loved it. When they took me to see “Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion,” I simply had no interest. Then when I was nine, I saw Brian De Palma’s “Phantom of the Paradise.” And that movie absolutely knocked me out. I went to see it over and over again. Remember, this is back in the days when “The Wizard of Oz” only played once a year on TV. Then I saw John Carpenter’s “Halloween” and I started reading "Fangoria." And I think the final straw, so to speak, was seeing Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” at age 15. I read the “American Cinematographer” article on the making of the film and I simply knew that’s what I had to do. I’ve been doing it ever since.

Film school: Yes or no?

I’ve always thought this question is wide open enough to go two ways. Either you’re asking if I attended film school. Or you could be asking if I think film schools are worthwhile. Let me answer both. First of all, yes, I went to film school. Three times, in fact. And I actually transferred a couple of times during my undergraduate work, so I’ve attended five different colleges as a film student. I have three degrees total. A B.A. in Film Studies (theory, history and criticism) from the University of California at Santa Barbara. I also have an M.F.A. in screenwriting from Chapman University in Orange, California and an M.A. in English with a creative writing concentration from California State University at Sacramento. On top of all that, my current day job is teaching film production and screenwriting at Penn State University. Hopefully you’ve gathered from all this that I do think education is very important. When I first started teaching, I jokingly told friends of mine that I was doing my part to stem the tide of bad movies. And I still really hope that I can convince film students that there’s more to cinema than Transformers 2. I’ve had some success with that.

Tell us a bit about your short film “The Ugly File”

“The Ugly File” is based on a short story by a great writer named Ed Gorman. I think he’s maybe most well-known for his mysteries, but he’s written westerns and horror stories and all kinds of other stuff, including non-fiction about his friend Dean Koontz. I didn’t know until recently that Ed had based the idea on a real woman whose story is similar to the one in the film.

One of the things that I really liked about the film was that it preyed on a common fear, which is really the root of all horror – exploiting our fears. Talk about how you came up with and developed the idea.

Because it is based on a short story, the development process was first to adapt the story into a screenplay. My writing partner, Rick Hautala, always takes the first stab. And he tries to stay as close to the original story as possible. I always strive for that when adapting. I don’t like to change things unless we have to for a specific reason. So once Rick has that draft, we ask ourselves what works and what doesn’t as a script. In the case of “The Ugly File,” there was a whole section that was delivered as a memory, and so we had to figure out how to make that present and linear. Again, we go through one draft at a time, manipulating these pieces until we feel it works as a script. Now, once the script is done, then I go through a process where I begin to think of it as a film and I make further revisions based on how I plan to shoot things. The last part of the process is the bringing together of all the elements for production. And very often, extra layers get added at the last moment. For instance, there’s a moment early in the film where the photographer sees a baby doll on the front porch of the house he’s visiting. This was something I thought of on the morning of that shoot and I quickly put those elements together and worked it into the film. Hopefully, it seems seamless – like something that was always there. But really, I think, it’s a great example of what David Mamet talks about in “On Directing Film,” where you reap the benefits of proper planning.

I feel you did a great job of setting the story up, then withholding key information until the very end… which, of course, keeps the audience’s attention until the credits roll. Did this come out when you wrote the film, in pre-production, in production or in the post-production process?

I’m really glad you asked that question, because I do think it’s one of the things in the film about which I’m most pleased. I don’t want to give anything away, but basically the film operates on a three-stage reveal. And in the original short story, the first stage of the reveal was explicit. And when we were first scripting our adaptation, I planned to remain faithful to that. But then I realized that the audience would be so profoundly affected by the first reveal that they wouldn’t be able to recover in time to follow what was going on next. And since this is a short film – and only ten minutes at that – I knew I couldn’t afford the time. So then I started thinking about holding back on the first reveal and letting it happen later. In that position, it becomes this double-whammy up against the third reveal that really impacts the audience. So it really developed along with the film. Something else you might find interesting is that I had a completely different idea for how to obscure the baby in the early scene, but it wasn’t working. The method we used – the shot with the photographer’s elbow – emerged on set and was actually an accident. I love those moments. They are so incredibly exciting. And so satisfying when they work well.

Tell us about some of the hurdles you overcame to get the film done and what advice would you pass on to other up-and-coming filmmakers that are just starting out?

Frankly the biggest hurdle on this short were the special effects. I’ve got a super-talented make-up artist who works with me. His name is “Monster” Mark Kosobucki. He just graduated from the Tom Savini make-up school. And Mark was working on the baby design with me for a long time. It finally got so complicated that I decided to shoot everything in such a way that the effects could be done later as an insert shot. So then we actually built a complete baby design and shot it and I cut it into the movie and I knew immediately that it didn’t work. It was wrong for a number of reasons. So I called Mark and I told him that we had to start over. So we scrapped everything and started from scratch. The film was almost completely done for nearly a year – except for that single shot. So that was very distressing. The biggest lesson I learned from all this is that I now consider what is going to be absolutely the most difficult thing about the film. And then I start with that. And if that can’t be achieved, then I won’t proceed. When I first started “The Ugly File,” I knew the baby was going to be tough, but I told myself, “We’ll figure it out,” and then went on and shot the whole movie. The thing is, the whole movie hinges on that one shot and there was quite a long time there when I believed that I might not be able to get a shot that would work the way I wanted it to and the movie would have to be scrapped. So now I work backwards.

“The Ugly File” is screening at various festivals. Talk a bit about the festival circuit. Do you think it’s something that every filmmaker should consider doing?

This is a double-edged sword. For one thing, I’ve read over and over again that the festival circuit is like a democracy. If you get in enough festivals, your work will be seen and you will get your break. And I think that may be less true these days as the competition gets crazier and crazier. Don’t get me wrong: getting into festivals is important. But I think the really important part about the experience is seeing your films with an audience. Part of the problem with the digital revolution is that when YouTube is your movie theater, then you miss out on the audience dynamic. And as a filmmaker, you absolutely must understand the audience. To me, that’s the biggest dividing line between amateurs and professionals. I was amazed as I screened some of my earlier shorts for audiences and watched them react the same way every time to the same thing. In some cases, it was exactly what I wanted, but in other cases, it was not. So now I find myself, right from the start, during the writing phase, hyper-aware of how this is going to play with the audience. I consider as carefully as I can what effect I’m trying to achieve and how I can best go about achieving that. So believe me when I say that watching your films with a few hundred strangers in the dark is worth much more than asking your friends what they think.

You’ve made various short films… are you building towards making a feature? Have your short films opened any doors and/or advanced your career?

I’ve already made two feature films. The first is a fairly obscure crime drama called “The Last Way Out.” Troma has the rights to it right now and they’ve only ever put it out on VHS. It was made a couple of years before DVD was introduced. It’s gotten mostly good reviews. I think it could stand to have ten or fifteen minutes cut out of it, but I’m mostly satisfied with it. I made it for $10,000 total. So there are a number of things that suffered because of that. But I did it and I made my money back before I sold it to Troma, so that’s good. It was a great experience overall. My second feature was made for even less money. It’s a documentary called “The Gospel According to Philip K. Dick.” And this movie is absolutely loathed by large numbers of people. I’ve read some incredibly vicious reviews. But I think what most people don’t understand is how little cooperation I got in making the movie. The estate wouldn’t give us any permission to use anything of Phil’s. Several important people refused to talk to me. Movie studios wouldn’t allow clips to be used. And on and on and on. I decided to make the movie anyway and I’m very glad I did. We’ve had a lot of success with it and there’s not much that tests an artist’s self-confidence like reading the kinds of eviscerations I continue to get over the film. And not everyone hates it, by the way. There are people who got what I was trying to do and I think understood the film for what it was. Now I’m really hoping to get another feature off the ground. I’ve got a lot of ideas. We’ll see what sticks.

Talk about the indie horror scene and indie horror filmmaking. Where do you feel it’s at now and where do you see it going?

The whole indie filmmaking scene is, I think, crazier than it’s ever been. Thanks to what’s happened with technology, anyone with a camcorder can make a movie. Unfortunately, that means anyone with a camcorder can make a movie. But I think a lot of people simply don’t take the time to really attend to the craft side of things. And I’m not just talking about lighting and composition and sound and music. I’m especially referring to the ability to tell a story. Far too often, I think this is the least understood and least developed part of a lot of indie films. More so in the horror genre, I think. A lot of filmmakers seem quite content to make films that are simply cobbled together from bits of other films. I don’t have any time for that kind of thing. One of the reasons I don’t make more films is because I’m really looking for something as totally unique as I can get. And the reason I look to short stories for source material is because I can see if they are good stories first and foremost. Out of the last five short films I’ve made, four were based on existing ideas by well-known authors. It’s much more challenging to go through the trouble of getting the rights to do that, but I believe it really pays off. The bad news is that on the festival circuit, for instance, every movie looks the same before it’s seen. Right? Every DVD might contain the greatest movie ever made. But you can’t know until you watch it. So now, instead of competing with maybe 100 films like you did in the old days before camcorders, you’re competing with 500 films or more. Most of which are not very well made, but they clog up the system, if you understand what I mean. All that said, I think good films will still earn their place. It just might take longer.

Where can people check out “The Ugly File” and your other films? What’s next for you? Do you have any more projects in the works?

I make it a policy to allow my current films only to screen on the festival circuit until they’re done. After that, they may end up on-line. That’s where “Peekers” is right now. We played in 26 film festivals over the last year. I’m very proud of the fact that I opened for Dario Argento’s “Mother of Tears” when it screened at Fantasporto in Portugal. We earned a total of six awards. And now you can watch it on its own Web site which is called playwithme.tv Many of my other shorts are on my personal Web site, which is called marksteensland.com. And there’s a bunch of stuff floating around YouTube. There were plans for a DVD compilation at one point, but the distributor sort of let the ball drop and so I don’t know what’s going on with that now. I’ve sold a Web series to Electric Farm Entertainment, which is the company behind “Gemini Division” starring Rosario Dawson. We’re still writing the series, but I’ve got high hopes for it. I’ve got a number of screenplays out to various producers and studios. One is called “Animosity,” and it’s based on a soon-to-be-published novel by a brilliant young writer named James Newman. The story is about a horror author who discovers the body of a little girl who has been murdered. His neighbors begin to think he had something to do with the crime and they take justice into their own hands. It’s a lot like that old episode of the Twilight Zone, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.” And that’s what I really love about it. My latest screenplay is called “The Devil’s Church,” and it’s based on a real church here in Pennsylvania where they say you can race the devil. If you win, you get whatever you want. If you lose, you die at sunrise. The script is about four college guys who decide to give it a try. We’ll see what happens with those.

Monday, June 29, 2009

New Horror Out On DVD This Week: Header, Dead by Dawn 2 and more...

The positive out of the weekend was that I got my PC back up and running again. It turns out that the thing that receives the signals from my wireless keyboard and mouse had crapped out. So, I went out and bought the cheapest wired keyboard/mouse set I could find ($30) and it works like a charm. I've now made the decision to replace frivolous wireless devices with wired counterparts... Too much wireless is rotting my brain. I mean, if you could actually see the wireless signals travelling through my condo, I don't think Catherine Zeta-Jones would be able to slink her way through them.

Regardless, let's look at some of the notable DVD releases of the week. As usual, you can go over to our Youtube page to check out the trailers and you can click on the titles to go over to their pages on Amazon, where you can learn more and even buy them, if you so choose...

One of the more notable releases of the week is "Header", which was made in 2006 and was directed by Archibald Flancranstin. Adapted from Edward Lee's novella of the same name, it's set in the backwoods of West Virginia and follows two stories that end up colliding in death and self-destruction - one of a jaded ATF Special Agent and one of a bumpkin ex-con who returns home to be with his handicapped grandfather. Lee was actually surprised that it was made into a film, as he thought it was too sexually violent and over-the-top. Anyhow, it's done indie-style, as Flancranstin not only directed it, but he also shot it and edited it... Edward Lee makes his film debut in the movie and, if you care, noted author Jack Ketchum has a cameo.

"Dead By Dawn 2: The Return" is the sequel to "Dead by Dawn", an indie, micro-cinema film that we covered not too long ago. Here's a link to the interview that we did with Nigel Hartwell, who's the director of both. Nigel's also the brains behind the indie horror distribution company New Blood Entertainment and, obviously, he distributes his films himself... not only that, though, he's more than happy to talk to you about distributing your film. Check out that article and, remember, support indie horror!

"Sea Beast" is a Sci-Fi Original in the vein of "Hydra", "Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus" and the like... it's directed by Paul Ziller, who's behind a lot of the sci-fi originals.

Although it sounds like a Sci-Fi Original, "Monster X Strikes Back" is not... I haven't seen it, but it looks to be a throw back to 80's Japanese Sci-Fi/Horror and it looks fricking awesome. Check out the trailer on our Youtube page. It comes from Tokyo Shock and it's about a Chinese rocket that causes the monstrous Girara to be born. Of course, the G8 summit is being held at the nearby Lake Toya and all the members of the G8 implement individual plans, which all end up failing... How do you stop Girara? Seriously... how DO you stop Girara?

Back by popular demand, it's "Fear Girls: Volume 2". Don't expect much narrative here, you'll get three vignettes and sexy stripteases featuring, and I quote, "the hottest ladies of horror". Check out the trailer on our Youtube page, you'll see what you're in store for. It stars the Russian Twins, "Lana and Taya", among other hotties.

"Hide" stars Rachel Miner and Christian Kane and it's not really a horror... it's more of a modern day "Bonnie & Clyde". I haven't seen it, but I bring it up because I heard it was rather violent.

"Second Coming" is about identical twin sisters, Lora and Ashley Gerritson, who had a special psychic bond. Lora left their small town to become a photographer, Ashley stuck around to work at the local diner. Then, Lora begins receiving chilling visions from her sister and returns to the small town to find her sister...

"Kaidan" is an award winning Japanese film produced by master of J-Horror, Takashige Ichise. It's part of a ghost story anthology. The other films in the anthology are Shimizu's "Reincarnation" and Kurosawa's "Retribution".

Friday, June 26, 2009

Dead Computer: A Few Links To Articles

Well, I still don't have access to my PC at home, the keyboard refuses to work... I gotta say, though. It's surprising how far you can get with just a mouse. Regardless, the lack of a typing instrument does make the act of typing tough. So, I'm now at work and I'm going to quickly hammer out a post about a couple of articles that I came across.

I know that most people are far more into the creative process of developing and creating a film, but I do think it's important to understand the business end of things. I mean, if you're making a product and you're trying to get that product out there, you better know how the selling and distribution process of that product works. And this article, "Netflix Boss Plots Life After The DVD", has some great insight into how Netflix works, as well as where the industry COULD be going and how these guys are dealing with it. Good article, definitely give it a read. I thought it was really interesting that Netflix basically started out as a software system for recommending movies... a software system like that, mixed with VOD, could be the Holy Grail for indie horror.

There's a specialty horror cable channel in Canada called Scream... or, I guess I should say there WAS a cable channel in Canada called Scream. I just read the article, "Scream TV to lose gore after Dusk falls this September", where they discussed how they're going to change the lineup on the channel and rebrand it. I guess ratings were a little shy of stellar, so they added the murder mystery drama "Supernatural" last year and it bolstered their female audience by 100%. So, they're going to add a few more similar shows and rebrand the channel as "Dusk". Now, a lot of people may see this as the demise of hard-core horror and the rise of a softer, more friendly style of horror, but I see it another way. Cable channels won't run the more intense stuff, they peak out on things like horror festival films, the "Saw" franchise, old horror TV shows, things like that. So, I think the hardcore horror fans look elsewhere already. What's really happening here is that the cable company figured out that there's another demographic out there that's into watching horror on TV, more specifically... 18 - 49 year old women. That's a big demographic... and when you're planning your next project, maybe you should keep them in mind, too.

That's it for this week. I'm going to do my best to get my PC up and working over the weekend, which should mean plenty of good content for next week. Have a great weekend!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

What Dave Mustaine Reminded Me About Indie Horror

I'm not going to lie, I'm in rough shape this morning... actually, I've been in rough shape over the last couple of days, but nothing as bad as this morning. This all started when my PC blew up a few days ago. I got it working again, but now the keyboard won't work for some stupid reason, so I have to buy a new one today... which may or may not even fix the problem. So, essentially, right now my computer is completely useless and all my Dead Harvey content is on there. In response to that, I got all drunk and went to see Slayer and Megadeth last night. Now, I'm up early for a conference call that I have at 8AM and I feel like death. I should be able to fix everything and get back on track over the next few days, but... until then, I was thinking about something that Dave Mustaine said last night...

Megadeth's Dave Mustaine, who closed the show and kinda sucked, stopped to talk a bit before their final few songs (Symphony of Destruction & Holy Wars, if you're interested). At the time, I thought it was a little embarrassing when he went to thank the opening acts and forgot the name of the first band, Suicide Silence. It got a bit of a laugh and I felt a little bad for them, but it got me thinking about a conversation I had with an L.A. agent not too long ago. We were discussing how indie horror filmmakers need to think like indie bands. When you start out, you need to get your film seen anywhere you can - you just need exposure. Go to a bar and ask if you can screen it on an off night, rent out a room, whatever. Put up flyers, start a facebook page, just reach people any way you can. Make a press kit from all that and then submit to festivals. Keep on building and building. Maybe you start out with short films, as they're easier to screen and easier to get into festivals. Then take that and leverage it... keep building. The point is, at the end of the day, being able to create the product is just the start, then you have to think like that indie band and get as much exposure as you can, any way you can... which brings me back to Dave Mustaine forgetting the name of Suicide Silence.

You see, Suicide Silence shouldn't be upset. Megadeth and Slayer are like the "Friday the 13th" and "Drag Me To Hell"'s of the metal world. They're the big stage and Suicide Silence got to open for them, which would be like your short film playing before one of those films in a theater. They've already played the dive bars, they've cut low-budget demo's, they've put up flyers and played the shitty festivals and been booed off stages. On the timeline of success, they're nearing the latter stages. So, I didn't feel so bad for them... but where are you on that timeline? Sure, you can make a film, but when it's done, the work is just starting. I'm not even talking about artwork and posters, I'm talking getting into festivals, going to conventions and talking to indie horror websites and magazines. Get in touch with them all. We're always happy to help out, send me your screener and info, we'll talk about it... then, if we're lucky, I'll keep all your info in my PC, where I can't get access to it.

Point is, there's lots of people who will help you by giving you some promo. For example, check out this new site that was brought to my attention - IndependentHorrorFilms.com. I should really develop my links page, as these sites are great tools for you to use... and once it's all done, you can thank Dave Mustaine.

Damn, I need to load up on water and get through this day...

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Putting Together Your Movie Poster

One of the new things that I want to do around here is make my posts quicker and more concise. The reason is twofold. One, it's easier for everyone involved - it saves me a bit of time and allows me to work on the guts of the site more, as well as giving me more time to work on our other projects. So, win/win there. The better the site guts, the better the resource for you. The other reason is, through analytics, I realized that the average time on the site is around 3 minutes. There's no way that you're reading my entire posts in three minutes. So, from now on, I'm going to write 3 minute posts.

Anyhow, as you know, getting your film made is only half the battle. It's probably the toughest and most expensive battle, but once it's over, there's a shit-ton of work to be done. One of the main things that people overlook is that you're going to want to make everything as pretty as possible. It REALLY helps with the distributors, festivals, etc. There's lots of different things you need - a press kit, some stills, kitchy crap, but, and most importantly, you're going to need good artwork. No offense, but a lot of people do a piss-poor job on this and I've seen it firsthand... and what you're really doing is selling yourself short. I'm not saying you should emulate Hollywood and make your micro-cinema film look like something it's not... but you should put together something that does your film justice. Go on to Amazon.com or any site that sells indie horror and check out the artwork. However, duly note that a lot of distributors pay to have artwork done for the films that they pick up (and they take it out of the filmmakers share of the revenue). So, if you're distributing independently, check out what other people are doing and try to do something similar.

If you're an indie filmmaker, chances are you know your way around photoshop or similar programs, so you should be able to put something together with a bit of work. Check out this article, "The Anatomy of a Movie Poster", which can be found here. It's some pretty cool insight on how a movie poster is made...

Monday, June 22, 2009

We're Back... With The New Horror Out On DVD Over The Last Two Weeks

Dead Harvey is back after our Annual General Meeting last week in L.A. and things should get back to normal here soon... Well, Aaron and Brad never really went anywhere, I just flew down. And, by AGM, I really mean we met up with a few people, drank a lot of beer and discussed the state of the union. And, actually... by normal, we talked about a lot of exciting things and are hoping to take Dead Harvey in some new directions. So, basically, disregard that entire first sentence.

One of the things that I'm going to change is that I'm no longer going to write posts that rival the Magna Carta in length. I'll be more concise, link to things and let you delve deeper, if you so desire. For example, I'll briefly be covering the new horror that comes out. I may highlight a film or two, but you'll be able to click on the title to get more information and/or buy the film off Amazon and you can check out the trailers, as usual, by going to our YouTube page... which can be found here. This post will still be a kinda long, as I'm explaining what I'm doing and I have two weeks of films to cover, but this is all a work in progress and you can let me know what you think... I'm a man of the people, for the people.

Anyhow, some highlights on what came out last week...

The big film of last week was obviously "Friday the 13th", which stars Derek Mears as Jason and was directed by Marcus Nispel. It's a reboot of the series and they're already in pre-production on a sequel. This one kind of mashes up parts 1 through 3, as we all know that his mother's the killer in part 1, he wears a bag on his head in part 2 and finally gets the mask in part 3. They address all of this, some of it well... some not so well. However, at the end of the day, the film is worth checking out and, I have to say, it's good to see some life back into the series.

I'd like to bring special attention to a couple of films that came out last week, as they're by friends of Dead Harvey. One is "His Name Was Jason: 30 Years of Friday the 13th" and the other is "Murder Loves Killers Too".

"His Name Was Jason" was co-produced by Blake Reigle, who was the guy who made "Beneath The Surface", a film we covered a while ago. You can check out our interview with him here. "His Name Was Jason" is essentially a documentary that looks back on 30 years of Jason. If you're a fan of the series, you'll really like what they've done with it.

I watched the first 30 mins of "Murder Loves Killers Too" before I got on my flight to LA last week, but didn't finish it all until last night - battery died on my laptop, had to switch to the PSP for the flight. In any case, we'll have an interview with director Drew Barnhardt soon, as I can now actually send him some questions. It's a great indie horror with great production value, good acting and some good boobs. I'm excited to discuss it with Drew.

Other highlights include: "Born", with my favorite Jason, Kane Hodder, which is about a virgin girl who gets pregnant with the devil's seed. The indie zombie flick, "Platoon of the Dead", from John Bowker. Best title of the week goes to "Terror at Blood Fart Lake", an indie horror/comedy from Chris Seaver. There's also Akihiro Kitamura's "I'll Be There with You", which has a bit of budget behind it, includes a Baldwin brother, but promises lots of boobs, blood and booze. Lastly, don't forget about "Cannibal Killer Clowns On Dope", which I don't know much about, but really dug the music video trailer.

I'm running low on time, but this weeks highlights include: "Simon Says", a gore-fest released by Lionsgate, from William Dear and starring Crispin Glover. The modern mummy movie, starring Vinnie Jones, "Legend of the Bog", which actually looks pretty damned good. Marty Weiss' hillbilly horror, which looks great and stars Haylie Duff, "Backwoods" and, lastly, the indie zombie horror out of New Zealand, "Zombie High".

That's it for now...

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Dead Harvey Interviews David Michael Maurer: Editor of "Splinter"

Ted's Note: Thankfully, Brad is still functioning and was able to get something together. I, on the other hand, have slipped a bit below a functional level... but I do hope to purge the system and be a useful member of society soon. In any case, Brad managed to get something together to post and it's actually a helluva post. If you're into the editing and post-productions side of things, you'll want to give this a read...

BRAD - A short while back, I nerded out hard about an indie horror film called "Splinter" and we ran an interview with the director, Toby Wilkins. I'm stoked to now give you an interview with the film's editor, David Michael Maurer. He's got a reality TV background and has been working as an editor since the age of sixteen.

His time in the trenches paid off because he cut the hell out of "Splinter", earning him an award for best editing at Screamfest 2008. What makes this interview really special is that it's the first Dead Harvey has had with an editor. If you're even somewhat curious about the craft, there is a ton of helpful information in his answers. Dead Harvey salutes Maurer and reminds everyone to rent or buy a copy of "Splinter" today and support independent cinema! - 'Nuff said.

Tell us about your background and how you became interested in editing?

I actually started off doing musical theater when I was really young. I was lucky to have lived near the Children’s Musical Theater of San Jose (CMTSJ.org) which is the largest theater of its kind in the nation and had opportunities to do shows that I may not have been able to do outside of an institution of its scale. Friends from the theater would make films and I got into editing them on tape to tape systems. That lead me to other professional gigs where I met a friend Daniel Korb (DanielKorb.com) who is a director/writer/editor who taught me about the Avid. Film school at De Anza College (DeAnza.edu)and Loyola Marymount University (LMU.edu) gave me a playground to experiment learn so that when I graduated, I had built up enough experience to start working as an assistant editor. The interest in editing stemmed from a love of storytelling, performance, and film training. I also studied some Meisner based acting technique with Andrew Benne in L.A. (andrewbenne.com) and story with Robert McKee to help grow as an editor. Everything ends up helping you think about the work in a different way and see things in the story or performance that can improve the film.

What are the most influential films to you from an editor's standpoint?

For Splinter, there was a lot of influence from the Bourne movies. They used a lot of handheld coverage, with multi-cam, and quick cuts to show fragmented action. I’m also a big fan of Jill Bilcock who edited Moulin Rouge, Romeo + Juliet, and Road to Perdition. Love watching Mary Jo Markey’s work on Star Trek. I also think enjoy re-watching the classics like Battleship Potempkin and Metropolis from time to time.

Film School: Yes or No?

Absolutely for undergrad though I’d skip it if you already have a Bachelor’s Degree as it can be expensive in Grad School. The contacts that a good film school can open up for you are everything in this business. Plus, film school is one of the few times in your creative career where you can experiment big, fail, and grow without major repercussion. It helps you find your voice as an artist, and without that definition, it can take longer to get a career off the ground. Also with the status of being a student, a lot of professional organizations will let you join such as the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences where you can attend events and meet major players in the industry. You can also get massive discounts on film/tape stock, equipment rentals, insurance, and more. It’s helps so much.

How long did it take you to become a professional editor and what steps would you recommend for those starting out?

It took quite a few years. I started editing when I was 16 in industrials and commercial work for smaller projects that would trust me with my skill set at the time. After film school, I was able to work as an assistant editor for several years in television which I recommend to anyone starting out. You’ll learn so much from working under great editors and if you do good work for them, they tend to help you grow in your career. I made the jump to a full time editor on the first season of “American Idol”. It was a right place, right time sort of thing that kept growing. The director Bruce Gowers really took me under his wing and taught me a ton about multi-cam performance editing. For those just starting out in the business, I recommend learning the equipment so that it’s second nature to you. The creative will follow in time with great mentors. Avid and other editing systems out there have student rates a lot of times so you can get into a box without much financial impact.

For those out there looking at learning the skill of editing, but are strapped financially, what system would you recommend?

I would say, find a way to buy a student system of Avid Media Composer. They’re not expensive at all and you’ll need to know how to operate one to work on most of the big projects. FCP is good to know as well, but I haven’t worked on a large project that has used it due to the media management issues and workflow. I find a lot of smaller production houses use it because they think it’s cheaper but it’s not really overall, and if you want to work on big stuff, Avid is the box to learn. If you’re an expert at one, you can learn them all. The buttons are just in different spots. If the price tag for getting into any system is too much, I recommend trying to get into an internship as a post house. I learned so much from playing on equipment when I was younger and watching editors work. You have to answer a lot of phones and get coffee, but after the doors close at night, most facilities will let you learn their gear.

Tell us how you landed the gig on "Splinter"?

I had worked with producer Ted Kroeber on a drama called “Four Sheets to the Wind” that Sterlin Harjo wrote and directed. The film went to Sundance in 2007 and was a critical success around the world. Ted and I have a great deal of trust when it comes to post and when this project came around he called me up. It’s nice when you find folks you like to work with and there’s that mutual respect, it makes the editing process fun and collaborative.

Describe the transition from editing reality tv to horror and how did you develop the style you used in "Splinter"?

Reality television is a unique genre to itself. You have a tremendous amount of footage and the vérité storytelling presents a lot of challenges for an editor that you don’t face in many of the other genres. Reality editors don’t just shape story, they create it through looks, body language, and time compression in an environment that was never intended to visually connect. Shots are sometimes moved to create relationships that may have existed in the room, but were not shot due to camera position, and so you build moments way out of context to strengthen the story. From an editing standpoint you’re constantly forced to find solutions to big problems and come up with creative fixes to make it seem as though it all really happened that way.

In scripted, you’ve been handed this footage that is hopefully intended to work together, it was shot to specifically create those moments, and so your charge is to find the best way to make them play with the best performances possible.

In horror, the challenge was to create scares through the editing. Toby Wilkins had done a lot of shorts in the genre and knew from experience how important and tough the “kills” would be to achieve in Splinter, so there were multiple options on key scenes that gave us flexibility in post. We could create tension and release patterns through those options and due to the small scale of the project, my reality skills came in handy to figure out solutions on the rare occasion when something needed a patch. For instance, I know the end sequences of the movie had a fast independent shooting schedule, plus the creature destroys the store which would be far too expensive to reset and get inserts. I suggested transposing a flopped shot of Lacey’s head hitting the exterior glass from earlier in the film to achieve a close-up of the creature hitting the fridge at the ending. It’s technically a repeat, but it’s effective in showing the force of impact and helps makes the threat greater.

What particular challenges did "Splinter" represent to you that you hadn't faced before as an editor and how did you overcome them?

I’m used to large scale productions from my television work. We normally have very big post teams and many assistant editors working day and night. The hardest part about Splinter was posting a massive production on an independent scale. We had limited resources and staff, we also shot in HD which has upsides and drawbacks. The great part about HD is the speed in which you can work with the material and the workflow. The downside is that the amount of footage shot for a low-budget production was more like a big budget movie because it’s cheaper and easier to shoot more on a daily basis and that takes a lot longer to get through in post. In the old days of film, the independent budgets would have restricted the number of takes and film stock which significantly limits the options in post. Now HD requires productions to open up their post schedules a bit to realistically get the job done which is exactly what we did. My team worked round the clock on little to no sleep. We also had hundreds of shot enhancements, optical effects, and pre-visualization to build and manage from various vendors. There was a massive database formed that I managed to track our reels and edls. On a bigger project you’d have more staff to handle early marketing needs, vfx editing, and possibly an entire division just dedicated to building the effects for the movie. For us the challenges were to meet the needs of the financiers to help sell the movie, complete it in a timely manner, and yet work within our independent budget means which was very difficult to balance. It was a wonderful challenge and hopefully the hard work of everyone shows on the final cut.

Describe the process of working with Toby Wilkins and how you were able to achieve his vision through the editing process.

Toby has directed so many projects and shorts that came to the table with a specific vision. He knew the creature inside and out. He knew the rules of the world. He pre-visualized and studied every detail from how a glass impact would look or sound, to the burning temperature of lighter fluid, to the movement of the creature, and the effect of the black goo in the hand scenes. Everything was tested, vetted, and work shopped before production. It’s wonderful to work with someone who has such a detailed vision and knows what they want. When it came to post, Toby and I would talk through scenes and work the material. I have a lot of experience editing drama and action so for scenes like the night driving sequences and the carjack, Toby gave me a great deal of freedom to play and explore, and with his experience in horror, effects and big scares, he would be very hands on for shaping the kills and tension. In post, the director has this vision and set of rules to work within, but through editing you’re able to have a sort of push/pull on new ideas and create something magical. It was a wonderful collaboration and I count myself lucky to have worked with someone as talented as Toby.

"Splinter" featured some really fantastic acting. Are there any tricks you can share with us in editing for performance?

First, work with great actors. Shea, Paulo, Jill, and Rachel all brought something unique to the table and they really pushed each other on set to raise the bar with each new take. A lot of people have this misunderstanding that the actor is supposed to just redo the same thing consistently every take which is totally not their job. As an editor, I could care less if they’re even standing in the same place as long as the camera grabbed it and they’re in the moment. If anything their task is to find something fresh and authentic in each moment, even with the repetition of film production. The four of them were a joy in dailies.

As far as editing specifics, I look for eye connection points. The eyes are so subtle and they vary greatly between the various choices actors make. If someone throws a solid accusatory glance, I search for the best reaction of the other camera to shape the moment. If we swap the take, I swap the reaction to make sure the emotional rhythm of the scene flows naturally. I also look for body position and language. In real life, we store up our emotions in our body and great actors do the same. I’m always looking for shoulder position, muscle tension, voice quality, forehead tension, twitches, breathing patterns. It’s all there on a great actor. I suppose a lot of that is gut reaction and details but for me if I don’t buy the authenticity of the characters, I check out of the movie. Sometimes when a character just exhales out their energy, it could be a moment for the story to move forward. Everything is important.

One of the things I really noticed about that film is that it was remarkably well paced, especially for a film that centers around one location. What were the toughest decisions you faced on material to remove?

The screenplay was really lean and mean so condensing wasn’t a huge deal on this one. The biggest pacing considerations were cross cutting sequences to speed up the flow such as in the beginning between the two couples. We also shifted beats within scene, like when Dennis is telling his story during the part where they’re taking the door off it’s hinges. We move the time when he was telling it through editing since it made more sense to have him say it while Seth was present instead of searching for the screwdriver.

We also stretched moments out when we felt we needed to slow down a little for a breath between action sequences, like after the cop kill there’s a set of slower sequences.

I think the only other major cuts were for logic. There were missing limbs and things wondering around in the gas station that would have been confusing or drawn attention to the fact that we dropped a story beat. By cutting them from the film, it had the effect of helping the audience forget they’re even around so we focus on our cast.

"Splinter" maintained an edge of your seat intensity from start to finish. What elements did you utilize and/or combine to achieve this effect?

The film has tighter cuts then I’ve done on other project which came from Toby’s vision, he wanted to give the film a distinct style. During slower scenes, we keep the takes longer but when the tension is in play the vision was to use the edit style to pace up the tension. Even in the sequence before Lacey’s kill where our characters are doing various activities, we used quicker cuts contrasted by slow music and ambient sound. Just getting a bag of chips off the counter becomes an action moment for Dennis and Lacey’s battle with the bathroom door uses jump cuts that pop into her. It’s unsettling because we’re waiting for something bad to happen.

I also tried to sneak in shots with lots of negative space. Right before the bathroom creature attacks, Lacey argues with Dennis and we cut to this wide shot of Dennis from behind Lacey. The expectation is that she’s going to get hit from behind but the first time we see it, nothing happens in the shot. I’ve seen it hundreds of times and I still get a little scared when I see it.

From an editor's perspective, talk about the indie horror scene and indie horror filmmaking. Where do you feel it is now and where do you see it going?

You know, I’m hoping with the success of Splinter that there will be a resurgence of old school style horror films. I’m not a big fan of the modern sort of “torture porn” horror stuff and wish there were more John Carpenter and Sam Raimi type films out there.

I’m glad Toby stuck with his vision on our film, and fans of the movie all said they were thrilled to see a horror film that wasn’t loaded up with bad visual effects and played with traditional conventions of the genre. He knew from years as a visual effects artist that when an object is practical, even if it looks a little cheesy, it’s more believable. We could have gone nuts with low budget CG on this film and instead we only used it to enhance existing practical effects. I think when the two are used together, it’s way more effective, especially in lower budget projects. I hope to see more of that.

What’s next for David Michael Maurer?

Well Splinter is out on Blue Ray and DVD so that’s exciting, we did two commentary tracks so if you want to hear from the cast there’s one for you, and Toby, Nelson Cragg (Cinematographer), and I did one for those filmmakers interested in more technical stuff.

I just started finishing episodes for the new season of “Jockey’s” for Animal Planet which is one of my favorite shows so I’m thrilled to be a part. It’s got great action, lots of drama, and is fun to edit.

Also did a film for Sterlin Harjo called “Barking Water” that premiered at Sundance this past January, was in New Directors/New Films in New York, and is going to be making some major festival appearances this coming year. I’ll post info on my websites when I’m allowed to share more....




Monday, June 15, 2009

Dead Harvey On Vacation...

Well, I thought I'd have time to post something here and there, but it looks like it's not going to happen. I'm down in Southern California meeting up with the whole Dead Harvey team and, although I'd like to call it our annual general meeting, we're really just having a lot of beers.

Hopefully I can post some news and updates, but if you don't see anything new until next week... you know why.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Interview With Gris Grimly, producer and director of Ghoultown's "Mistress of the Dark" Video

I remember this particular day in film school… it was early in the program, probably first year. Maybe the first semester of the second year, I can’t recall. Whatever, not the point. The point is, we were all jammed in one of the smaller theaters and we had some guest speaker come in. I can’t even recall who he was. He started off by asking, “So, how many of you want to be feature film directors in Hollywood?” As you can imagine, almost everyone in the class raised their hands.

Now, what he was trying to demonstrate, and what was probably lost on everyone, is… chances are it’s not going to happen. By ‘not going to happen’, I don’t mean becoming a filmmaker. I mean joining that upper echelon of Hollywood. Think of the odds. How many other classrooms in how many other schools would the same percentage of hands go up? It doesn't take a boy genius to realize that the odds are stacked against us.

Now, film is an art, no question. However, it’s also a business... and if you want to get by, holding out for a studio to come around and ask you to make your opus ain't going to put food on the table. However, there’s lots of things that you can do that does pay the bills. And the more footage your shooting, the more stuff you’re making, the more doors you’re going to open. You can be shooting corporate videos, wedding videos, stuff for local TV, short films or even music videos. In fact, music videos are a great opportunity.

Just as there’s lots of up and coming filmmakers, there’s lots of up and coming bands. In today’s day and age, those bands need videos made and making music videos is a great way to get some practice, hone your skills and do something creative. I know that Brad recently went out and shot a music video, which you can find
here. Anyhow, when I found out that Gris Grimly, the extremely talented writer/director of “Cannibal Flesh Riot!” (a film we covered some time ago - see here), had just done a music video for Texas Hellbilly rock band, Ghoultown, I wanted to know more.

Gris is one of those guys that oozes talent. He studied art, went on to do concept work for studios, while creating dark and twisted children’s books on the side. He then got into illustrating, as well as filmmaking. His first short film was the afore mentioned “Cannibal Flesh Riot!” and he went on to do some other shorts, plus make this video. The song is called “Mistress of the Dark”, after the legendary Elvira, who is actually in it. It was produced on next to no budget, but they managed to shoot at the Magic Castle in Hollywood and put together a great video. We had the pleasure of discussing the whole thing with Gris and if you’re interested in the music video scene, you should definitely give it a read. By the way, if you want to check out "Mistress of the Dark" by Ghoultown -
here's a link to the video on Youtube.

So, last time we talked, we discussed your film “Cannibal Flesh Riot”, what have you been up to since then?

I have a problem with doing too much. I love working on fun inspirational art projects and I want to do it all. So I never turn anything down. I did some artwork for a few bands and finalized the Mistress of the Dark Music Video. But for the most part, I've been working on my new film Wounded Embark of the Lovesick Mind.

Tell us a bit about the “Mistress of the Dark” music video and how you got involved with the project.

Ghoultown did a song for my Cannibal Flesh Riot! compilation. Somewhere along the line, I thought it would be a good idea to do a music compilation to accompany the DVD of my film. They were one of the many bands that I sent the film to and one of the 16 bands that wrote and composed a song inspired by the film. A year or so down the line, they met up with Cassandra (Elvira) at a horror convention. She loved their music and they worked out a plan to write a theme song for Elvira. I'm not sure where the idea to do a music video came from, but they thought of me and CFR and asked if I would direct the video for them. I've already met with Cassandra and we've discussed briefly working together. So of course, how could I turn this opportunity down.

Talk about the process of creating a music video, how is different from film and how is it similar?

I learned alot from my first film. Even after that, my friends and I would get together, drink ourselves stupid and make little films. So between Cannibal Flesh Riot! and Mistress of the Dark, I learned quite a bit. I was much more prepared for the shoot. We shot quicker because we had to and made less mistakes. The difference between shooting a music video and a film is you have the rhythm of the song to contend to. This being my first music video, I didn't know the difficulty of directing narrative acting during the song. The scene where the band is performing on the variety show was easy. You just film the band performing the song. But to have them acting out a scene like crawling out of a television, knocking over Elvira, helping here up into your arms...AND THEN start singing on cue? It was challenging. That would be the part that really sets this music video apart from a film.

What did you shoot on and how long was the shoot?

We shot on the HVX in 2 days. The band flew in on a Thursday night. They got in around 1 or 2 AM. We drank some beers and had a quick meeting. Slept for a couple hours. Got to the Magic Castle around 6am. I think Elvira showed up around 10:30. We shot at that location until around 5 or 6 pm. Then reconvened at my place, drank some beers and shot more footage. We woke up Saturday morning, cleaned out my garage and set dressed it like a country variety show stage. We shot the footage for the Har Har show until around 4 or 5. Then we had our wrap party.

The legendary Elvira, the subject of the song, is actually in the video. At what point did she get involved, what was it like working with her and… she looks pretty damn good for how old she must be. So, how old is she and does she look as good in person?

Like I mentioned, Elvira was involved from the start. She and i have had conversations about working on a project together. Then when she saw Ghoultown perform at a horror convention, she approached them about doing a song for her. She was amazing to work with. I can't say enough good things about her. You grow up mesmerized by someone on television, and then you meet them as an adult and find them to be a truly good person...that is a rare thing. She truly is amazing. How old is she? I don't know. There must be something wrong with the records because she can't be a day over 36.

A lot of up and coming bands approach up and coming filmmakers about getting involved in their music videos. Do you feel that doing them is something that is beneficial and could further a career?

I'm not sure if it would be beneficial or further my career. But if I like the band, if the project seems right, and if time allows, I would do it.

Talk a bit about what you feel makes a good music video.

I think there should be a good story told throughout the video. Making pretty pictures is one thing, but I like there to be something more than that to carry you through the song. Unless you're brilliant like Michel Gondry.

The process in distributing a film differs greatly from distributing a music video. How’s it going in that regard and what’s the goal, as far as getting the video out there?

We, as in Cassandra, Ghoultown and I, have decide to create a maxi-single CD/DVD. This will include a Ghoultown EP containing the Mistress of the Dark song, some remix versions and a couple other B-side tracks. The DVD will include the music video, a making of documentary, and many other great special features and easter eggs. There is a full episode of our very own Har Har show. This consists of three live performances from Ghoultown and a handful of cornfield jokes hosted by a hillbilly played by David Backhaus who played Stash in Cannibal Flesh Riot!. One of the easter egg clips comes from the Elvira archive. I think fans are really going to dig it.

Where can people check out the “Mistress of the Dark” music video?

Until the DVD comes out, you can see it on youtube. I'm not sure what else the band has planned to do with it.

What’s next? Do you have any new projects in the works?

Right now, I'm just working on finishing up Wounded Embark of the Lovesick Mind. It's another 30 minute short film I've wanted to do for a few years now. Although the idea started back when I was in college in 1996. Unlike CFR, this film is much more grounded in reality and has some extremely gory scenes sure not to disappoint. I'm also going to be illustrating Mary Shelley's Frankenstein which will be released in 2010.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A look at: Blockbuster, Netflix, Amazon and Regal Cinemas. Why? Why not...

Well, I don't really know what I uncovered here. Certainly nothing earth shattering. However, as promised, I looked into the DVD rental and sales figures and compared them to theatrical release numbers. If you remember, this came up because I was commenting on how the summer is a great time for theatrical released films, but I think it's a bad time for you to release your indie horror on DVD... and, because the distributors know that, that's why we see some shitty weeks for DVD horror releases in the summer. Well, there's nothing scientific about this and I'm not sure what I revealed, but... let's look at some figures.

I'm sure there's reports and reports on reports looking into similar things, but I don't want to pay for that, nor do I have the time or effort to look into it all. So, I went the easier route. I looked into public companies. You see, public companies have to file with the SEC and all their financials are out there for everyone to see. So, I sorted through the financials on Blockbuster, Netflix, Amazon and, to compare, Regal Cinemas.

Here's what I found...

First off, Blockbuster. I figured Blockbuster would be a good, obvious starting place for rentals and their financials allowed me to look at the straight revenues that they generated from them. Know that video games would also be included here, but... like I said. Nothing scientific. So, below, are Blockbuster's revenue from base rentals, which means it doesn't include sales of previously owned DVD's, merchandise and other stuff.

Base rental revenues, First Quarter (13 weeks, ending April 6th) $901.7Million
Base rental revenues, Second Quarter (13 weeks, ending July 6th) $812Million
Base rental revenues, Third Quarter (13 weeks, ending October 5th) $751.4Million
Base rental revenues, Fourth Quarter (13 weeks, ending January 4th) $773.4Million

If you're interested, they had revenues of $627.3Million from sales of their previously rented products, $1.4BILLION from merchandise sales and $32.7Million from other shit. There's a couple of other interesting things you should know about Blockbuster. First up, James Keyes is the CEO of Blockbuster and they hired him away from 7-11... which makes sense, since they're trying to turn the actual Blockbuster stores into more of a retail focused experience. They're also trying to take an 'anywhere and anytime' approach to rentals now. Not only will they be enhancing the in-store experience, you'll be able to get DVD's and get movies digitally, plus you'll get them from stores, in the mail, from kiosks and through your computer. Anyhow, if you look at the rental revenues there, the biggest quarter is the first, which is Jan/Feb/Mar. That makes sense. The lowest quarter is the third, which is Jul/Aug/Sep. That makes sense. I think that supports my theory that rentals are down in the summer months versus the winter months. The fact that the other two quarters are sort of in between also supports it, I think. So, there you go... but, as I bothered to look into other companies, let's look at them, too.

Okay, now on to Netflix. At first, I thought... I'll look into Blockbuster and Netflix, they both rent movies. However, Netflix works on a completely different system. They work on the subscription based method, which means that you pay a flat monthly fee and get as many movies as you want. (I think that's how it works, I'm not a subscriber) So, let's look at their straight revenues, quarter by quarter.

Revenues, First Quarter (Three Months Ending March 31) $326.2Million
Revenues, Second Quarter (Three Months Ending June 30) $337.6Million
Revenues, Third Quarter (Three Months Ending September 30) $341.3Million
Revenues, Fourth Quarter (Three Months Ending December 31) $359.6Million

What's interesting here is, their revenue goes up quarter to quarter. In fact, looking back, it just keeps going up every quarter, with a few exceptions. Why? Well, it's the subscription model, just like a gym membership. If I get 100 people at X dollars per month in the first quarter, then add 20 more people at X dollars the next quarter, I've now got 120 people paying X per month, therefore more revenues. Problem with this is, what happens when you stop getting new subscribers? You stop growing. How do you keep growing? There's various ways, but... usually, lower your prices. Now, revenue drops. Anyhow, what's interesting is how steady their revenue is. That subscription model sure has something going for it.

After looking into DVD rentals, I thought... I better look into DVD sales, as well. So, who better to look into than Amazon? So, here's their quarterly sales from media in North America only. Media would be DVD's, but would also include CD's and things like that. Here's their quarterly sales from media in North America

Media Sales NA, First Quarter (Three Months Ending March 31) $1.2BILLION
Media Sales NA, Second Quarter (Three Months Ending June 30) $1.15BILLION
Media Sales NA, Third Quarter (Three Months Ending September 30) $1.25BILLION
Media Sales NA, Fourth Quarter (Three Months Ending December 31) $1.75BILLION

First off, holy shit. Amazon dwarfs Blockbuster and Netflix. This is JUST North America and JUST media. Insane. Also, note their biggest quarter - the fourth. That's Oct/Nov/Dec. Guess why that's so big? Christmas. No question. It could also be due to the fact that more people are staying in and watching movies due to the bad weather, but I think it's more about Christmas. Proof may be in the fact that all the other quarters are relatively similar. Also, CD sales have something to do with it... I'm not sure how DVD's do next to CD's.

Just to compare, I decided to look into Regal Theaters, which is the biggest chain of movie theaters in North America. Here's their quarterly revenue from admissions alone. Remember, their cash cow is concessions and I'm leaving that out.

Admissions revenue, First Quarter (Quarter ending March 27) $432Million
Admissions revenue, Second Quarter (Quarter ending June 26) $455.7Million
Admissions revenue, Third Quarter (Quarter ending September 25) $516.8Million
Admissions revenue, Fourth Quarter (Quarter ending January 1) $478.6Million

Third quarter IS their biggest, which is Jul/Aug/Sep, and that makes sense. However, quarter over quarter, they're a lot steadier than I thought. I'm not sure what that says, to be honest. This actually poses more questions than it solves answers, really. Maybe it's an 80/20 deal? Meaning that fewer movies are taking more money in the summer and more movies are splitting money over the other quarters. Therefore, individual movies make more money in the summer and everyone gets smaller pieces of cake in the other months? Who knows... I'll have to dig deeper on that, I guess.

Anyhow, let's try to wrap this up a bit. What did we learn from this? Fuck if I know. What I do know is that I'm surprised at how much money Amazon brings in. That goes to show you that the real money is in DVD releases. Adding up Netflix, Amazon and Blockbuster, you can see that it's a huge market. Way more potential money there than in theatrical releases. However, I would like to say that, although it's a little less pronounced than I thought, it IS safe to say that theatrical releases get a bump in the summer and DVD's get a bump in the winter. Point made, proven and put to bed.

Further, as an indie filmmaker, I think you can take this away... going straight to DVD is just fine. It's definitely a big enough market to get your piece of the pie.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Interview With Mike Masters & David Francis, Co-Directors Of "Reel Zombies"

There's plenty of differences between how a studio film is put together and how an indie film is put together. From the way it's inevitably supposed to be seen, to the way it was shot, to the people involved, to preproduction... all the way back to that one moment in time where someone thought, "hey, I've got an idea". Well, actually, that might be the only moment in time where a studio film and an indie film are, at the core, exactly the same. "Aha!" You know? That moment where an idea is born...

For ease of explanation, let's remove the scenario where a screenwriter writes a feature on spec and a studio picks it up... most studio scenario's involve hoards of marketing people, producers, executives, development teams and writers. That "Aha" moment is taken away and put through the grinder. "How about we add a monkey? Could we tone down the violence here? Maybe the lead should be a girl? She needs a non-simian sidekick. How about a love interest? No, it can't be the monkey... and make it PG-13. Can we work Ted Danson into the film? Axe the monkey." Indie film is, usually, drastically different. Once that "Aha" moment happens, something sort of magical can take place... That "Aha" is nursed, massaged and grows. It starts as that brief strike of genius, but then it's nurtured by like minded people with a common goal and, hopefully, can turn into something great. I think that must have been what happened when they came up "Reel Zombies".

How do I explain "Reel Zombies"? It's, sort of, the third installment into the "Zombie Night" series from David Francis. I mean, the second installment was renamed "Awakening", but you really can't consider this a sequel... I don't know. On a side note, for interests sake, we actually discussed "Awakening" with David a while ago, you can find that interview
here. Long and short, I was aware of the "Zombie Night" films, but you don't have to be to get this. However, you'd probably get a few more of the jokes. Anyhow, maybe it was because I was aware of those two films and maybe it was because I talked with David about "Awakening", but when I watched "Reel Zombies", I knew that they must have had a big "Aha" moment. Really, it's pure genius. Within minutes of firing it up, I was shaking my head, thinking to myself... this is gold, which quickly turned to... wow, you guys nailed this one. I don't want to say too much here, as we go through a lot of it in this interview. However, know this... as far as I'm concerned, this film should be required viewing for any indie horror filmmaker or fan of the indie horror genre. You need to see this film, plain and simple. We had the chance to discuss it with co-directors, Mike Masters and David Francis. Great interview, great film... and definitely worth your time.

So, we talked to you a while back about "Awakening" or, as it was originally called, "Zombie Night 2". What have you been doing since then?

Mike : The Reel Zombies festival tour has been pretty involving with trips so far to Portugal, Australia, New York, Michigan, North Carolina and LA.

Dave: We’ve been traveling everywhere and having a blast with festival folks around the world.

Tell us a bit about "Reel Zombies".

Mike: Reel Zombies is a mockumentary about all of us, the filmmakers, from Zombie Night 1 and 2, attempting to make another zombie film in a time of a real zombie apocalypse. It's basically our way of exploring a lot of the successes and failures (mostly failures) that we've experienced on the first 2 movies in a light hearted way. It's about the spirit of indie film making in oft times less than perfect circumstances.

Dave: I wouldn’t say “failures” as much as “unsuccessful endeavors”… What makes Reel Zombies so compelling is that we actually made the first two movies, there’s a history behind this mocumentary that really, no one else has. There was so much history to draw from that this film is rich in both characterization and story.

What was the approx budget and how did you secure financing?

Mike: We don't really talk like to talk specific budget numbers. But it was less than the first two films. Financing was secured through private investment with Dave and I paying for a large percentage of it off the sales of Zombie Night 1 and 2.

What did you shoot on and how long was the shoot?

Mike: It was about a 25-day shoot and shot on a Sony Z1. The camera gave us a great, but modern EPK style look for the film. We wanted attractive images, but at the same time, for nothing to look staged or overlit. If there are moments where things blow out, or where audio is less than perfect, those could kill you in a different film, but in this case, it all adds to the realism of the world we've created in which a documentary filmmaker is basically following us around in a run and gun fashion.

Dave: that was the shoot length, the hours of footage was tremendous. Many features will shoot 20, 30 or maybe 40 hours of footage, we shot over 80! Although we worked from a script there was a fair amount of improv in there so the editing process was quite daunting. Mike and I spent almost a year cutting this movie together. The assemble edit was over ten hours long. By the time we got that cut down to three hours it got really difficult to bring this to a 90 min feature. We work well together though so there weren’t any scenes we’d really argue over. Mike and I are both such opposites that we mesh tremendously well when it comes to film making. What I don’t want to do, he’s the strongest at and vice versa. It works great for both the production days and post days.

In our pre-production meetings there were questions from other production staff members as to why we weren’t shooting on film but as Mike said, it wouldn’t have worked for what we wanted. We needed this to feel grittier than we shot our first two movies while maintaining quality that the audience is willing to accept.

Personally, I thought the film was ingenious. I'd love to know how and when you came up with the idea and what everyone's reaction was when you told them what you wanted to do?

Mike : I came up with the idea upon returning from the EFM in Berlin. I was overwhelmed by the amount of product out there and available, and I realized if we were to ever do another zombie film, it needed an original hook. In this case, Dave and I had just finished cutting together Andrew Fruman's feature length making of Documentary/EPK for Zombie Night 2 and I realized it was actually better and more entertaining than the film itself. Indie filmmakers, and specifically, horror movie filmmakers, tend to be a strange and eclectic bunch. The Zombie Night franchise has been no exception. I wanted to see these characters (us) in a different scenario. I've always been a big fan of mock docs (FUBAR being one of my favorites) and it was a real "eureka" moment when it hit. I was just getting ready for a late Valentines dinner with my then girlfriend and now wife and executive producer, LeAnne Armano. It was all I could talk about during dinner and I called the key principles involved: David Francis, Steve Papadimitriou, Sam Hall and Paul Fler. They were all on board right away and within a week I was pounding away on the script.

Dave: Mike called me a few days after watching the finished product of the making of… doc for Zombie Night 2 with the idea. I remember standing on my back deck when he told me the concept and I was speechless. Simply put, brilliant. Mike would send over pages of script and every one brought a clearer image of what Reel Zombies would look like with it. Most often, there are numerous rewrites of a film script but this one required very little. Mike is an amazing screenplay writer and he outdid himself on this one.

One of the keys of making a mocumentary is making it believable, and bad acting in a mocumentary can come off even worse than bad acting in a narrative piece. Talk about creating and maintaining the look and feel of a documentary.

Dave: That was a concern from the beginning. We knew that the main characters were going to be us, hell, who better to play Mike and I than ourselves but when it came to there rest of the cast of the movie within the movie we had to be very careful that they were able to free flow with us, not an easy task. The returning characters (and crew now to act as the characters they are) had all known each other for years before shooting and we knew how each other will react to a given situation. However, when bringing in outsiders, the outcome would be uncertain. In the audition process we tested the actors’ improvisation skills and personalities to make sure we would all be able to read off each other and it worked better than we could have hoped.

Mike : For me, it all started with the script. You have to establish the rules of your universe and then follow them. In this case, we went for a more realistic character driven style like a FUBAR, as opposed to the hyper realistic, highly entertaining, but ultimately you know you're watching something very contrived films of Christopher Guest.

There's actually a scene in the film where you discuss screenwriting and how you never really follow the script, anyhow. How closely did you actually follow the script, how much was improvised, but followed an outline and how much was completely made up on the spot?

Mike : I'd say 90% of the film is scripted (in terms of events and plot points) There was a lot of freedom with dialogue as it was really important to me that everyone speak in their own voice. The shooting script was 123 pages. I never in a million years thought we'd shoot it all (since we never do) This time though, we not only shot all of it, but we added about 10 pages worth of material. It certainly made for lots of choices in the editing process. Hence, a very long editing

Dave: It was crucial that the cast have the opportunity to believe in their characters, really get into their heads. Without being able to have that freedom to have their own voice the audience would never believe what we were putting in front of them and ultimately, if a mock documentary isn’t believable the film-maker has failed.

What advice would you pass on to other filmmakers, looking to make a mocumentary?

Dave: Do something fresh and new, don’t be afraid to challenge yourself but make sure you can see the project through to the end. Neil Simon said, “If no-one ever took risks, Michelangelo would have painted the Sistine floor”.

Mike: Write what you know. Shoot what you can. Do something that's within your means, but still something an audience will enjoy. If you try to emulate another's style, it's not necessarily going to fit with the story or resources at your disposal. One thing Mock Docs share with real docs is the potential to augment your story as you go along. Watch your footage and be flexible in adjusting the script to what is and isn't working.

"Reel Zombies" has already won a few awards at festivals. Tell us a bit about how it's being received versus, say, how your other films were received?

Dave: we never bothered with festivals with the first two movies; at the time the main concern was to get them to market! Now that we are more established and have a much more festival worthy project we are taking our time and letting the festival circuit carry us along for the ride and what a ride it’s been!

Mike: Much better! Zombie Night 1 or 2 were never festival pieces, but I always knew this one would be. It's done really well at genre festivals. It's nice counter programming for a horror festival that has all these dark and gritty films to be able to show something like Reel Zombies, which is a comedy, though still within the recognizable zombie subgenre.

How's the distribution process going for "Reel Zombies"? What have you learned from your past experience that you're applying now?

Mike : It's moving along. There are offers, but none that we can't afford to wait on. On the first two films, we were desperate to sell, in this case, there's less of a burning desire because the film is already achieving one of its goals which is being seen and enjoyed by audiences at festivals. The plan would be to finish the festival run this year and then take the distribution offer that makes the most sense for us at that time.

Where can people find out more about "Reel Zombies" and/or check it out?

ReelZombies.com and there's also a group on facebook.

What's next? Do you have any new projects in the works?

Mike: I've got a horror film called Corridor which will hopefully shooting in January/Feb 2010. We're just in the equity phase with it now after having developed the project for close to 2 years. It's the first time I've been able to secure government funding, which in Canada, is almost a must for anything with any sort of a budget. I'm looking forward to getting away from ultra low-budget and having the ability to tell a story in a little slicker and more stylish way. It's a great
script by Halifax based writer Josh MacDonald. My co-producer, Craig Cameron, and I have also attached extremely talented commercial/short film director Evan Kelly, who will be making his feature film directorial debut. I'm excited about it.

Dave: I’m taking time off while we enjoy the festival run. Next year I’m planning to start pre-production on a Mad Max style feature called Wasteland. With any luck, Mike and I will co-direct again!