Monday, March 23, 2009

Bill's Little Movie Experiment (Part Three)

Either late summer or fall I am shooting a 12 part serial for the web - with *strong* cliff hangers - in San Francisco with a bunch of old friends... without permits and for almost no money. 7 minute episodes, extreme action - more BOURNE style hand-to-hand fighting than (expensive) car chases. Thanks to some cheap stock footage that anyone can afford, at least one building will explode. Here's the story...


NEAR HIT
Building Contractor Dave Jackson checks into a San Francisco hotel for his second honeymoon... without his wife. She's just begun divorce proceedings against him. He's alone in the city. A knock at the door. When Jackson answers, no one there. Just a manila envelope. Inside the envelope: A man's photo, several bundles of twenty dollar bills, and a 357 Magnum. Jackson realizes the envelope has been delivered to the wrong room... And the hit man is after him! Caught between hitman and victim, regular guy Dave Jackson must fight to survive.


Without spoiling the story for you, one of the things that I can do in a screenplay and movie-made-for-pocket-change that a big Hollywood blockbuster *can not do* is do something extreme that pushes the envelope - I don’t have to pull any punches to make the film palatable to the mass audience. When your budget is over $100 million, you need to appeal to as many people as possible. When you are making a film with pretty much no stars and no money, you have to do the *opposite* of that - do things on film that are shocking and controversial. The remake of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT is fading on screens now, but the reason why the original is still memorable is because they did things you just couldn’t do on film.

NEAR HIT is designed to be a thriller, and I hope that it appeals to many people and makes a lot of money, but if I can’t offer a movie star or a bunch of CGI, I need to have something else that makes this a "must see" movie. That’s not going to be gore, like LAST HOUSE, it *is* going to be a take no prisoners attitude. You remember in the first BOURNE movie when that guy gets a ballpoint pen *jammed* into his hand in a fight scene? Okay, I’m going to try to top that. And anyone can die in my movie - anyone. At least one good guy will die - the kind of role that never dies in a Hollywood movie. I need to keep the movie “juicy” at all times.

The strong cliffhangers only bring you back next week if you liked the rest of this week’s episode. My little film isn’t just competing with other little films - it takes as much time to watch a big budget Hollywood movie as it does to watch my film made for pocket change. And they cost the same to rent. I need to make sure my film leaves a mark on the viewer, so they recommend it to their friends. But before it ends up on DVD, I’m doing an experiment in online distribution.

ONLINE DISTRIBUTION


The plan is to roll it out as a web series, then slap the sucker on DVD with 6 extra minutes of bonus footage - probably including nudity and maybe some extra-brutal action - for a 90 minute total running time... along with the regular behind the scenes material. Though I had planned on doing this before DR. HORRIBLE, that experiment kind of cemented the deal. DR. HORRIBLE did well online, thanks to being unique and strange and something you could not get from Hollywood... and having a great cast... then went to DVD with some bonus material and sold well... to many of the people who watched it online. As someone who owns probably a thousand DVDs (maybe two thousand, never counted - but it’s *a lot*), one of the reasons why I buy a DVD is an “extended version” or scenes that were cut, and also the behind the scenes features. Of course, the main reason is that I liked the film and want to see it again... whenever I want. But there have been some DVDs that I bought mostly for the extras. So part of my movie experiment includes those 6 extra minutes - kind of an “unrated version” - plus a bunch of behind the scenes making-of material. Since this is an experiment, I think the behind the scenes stuff will be interesting to many people. But the 6 minutes and the extras are all about selling the DVD to the very people who watched the movie online.

The online element of my project is an experiment, because I have no idea how to really make money online. Online is kind of the wild wild west - there are no rules yet, no patterns, no set way that works... and I’m not sure anyone knows the way to make money. One of the issues with online content is that many people seem to think it should be free - and that leads to this whole culture of piracy. Downloading songs, downloading new movies, and downloading just about everything else for free. My website has a free script tip every day - and it not only costs me time (which is money) to write up all of those articles, it costs me money to keep the website up and running, too. Every once in a while when I get hit with some bill for running the site, I wonder if I should make it subscription... but everyone hates the idea of paying for things online. So my site remains free - except for me.

Some people see a video as “content” that brings customers to the site so that they can click on adverts, and the adverts are what generates the income. That seems like a good model, but I think the issue with adverts right now is that you have to be Hulu (established) to get anyone interested in paying for the adverts, and even then it's tough. In his blog entry about a month ago about THE REMNANTS, John August’s main reason for pulling the plug on the series is that it was costing him $25k per episode to make it (which is cheap compared to half a million to a couple of million for a TV episode) but he couldn’t find any advertisers. This is a guy who has written a bunch of big studio films, and he has a web series with real actors, and yet he can't find a sponsor that matters! You would think that a major brand might step in, but so far he hasn’t found one. The web isn’t metered like TV, so it’s hard to tell if anyone is seeing your adverts - sure, there are hit counters, but that's not the same as the Nielsens. That doesn’t make it attractive to a major brand with stockholders to answer to.

My friend “Better Duck” has a local fishing show in Florida that is broadcast online, and he has found a local bait & tackle shop that covers his costs to make the show in exchange for a commercial. That’s a great idea for an inexpensive show that targets the buyers for a specific product - but John August’s post apocalyptic sci-fi show and my chase thriller aren’t the right kind of show for something like that. Though I may experiment with commercials and product placement, I think those are real long shots... and more likely to result in a free meal for the crew in exchange for a restaurant plug than enough money to make the show profitable online. The problem with the internet is that it is *not* local - I might run my little web series and 99% of the hits come from outside California. So some local biz wouldn't be interested in buying an advert.

Then there are the “passive” adverts, something to click on when you go to my site to see the movie. You may have notice that I have Google Ads on this blog, and I also have Google ads on my Script Secrets site, and on my B Movie site and on my production company site... and you know how much **all** of those Google ads on **all** of the sites combined make me in a year? $100. That’s right - all of the ads on all of my sites combined total $100 a year. Actually a little less than that, because it usually takes 13 months to hit $100 (minimum for them to write a check). So even if I litter the movie site with Google ads and T shirt sales and Amazon and all kinds of other junk, it isn’t likely to make me much more than $100-$150 a year, which isn’t going to pay for making the film.

I think adverts from some national company interested in experimenting online are really the way to make money, but I'm not sure how to get ads when I'm just another dude with a web series. If I’m NBC or I have the 24 webisodes maybe some major advertiser will pay, but as a completely unproven project with no stars and no TV exposure made by some silly screenwriter in Studio City? So I'm hoping the first series gets the second series some real adverts. Maybe I can turn the first series into a hit so that someone will take a chance on the second series (whatever that is). I don’t think any form of adverts is the way to make money if you are just some low budget film with no stars.

Which means I’m going to have to try to get people to pay per view - which most people are adverse to. And how do you get them to pay for a low budget action show sight unseen?

My plan is to give away the first two episodes, then sell the others for a cheap enough price that people will pay without thinking twice. That's why I need the *strong* cliffhangers - I need to make sure people get hooked on the first two episodes and then *must* watch each of the rest to find out what happens. I got this distribution idea from heroin pushers.

I'm also going to experiment with a "tip jar" - you’ve seen them on people’s websites - a place where viewers can make a donation. Whatever they think the episode is worth. If the tip jar works, I may not have to charge for each episode - just let people pay what they think it’s worth. With 12 episodes, I would need 2,000 people each paying 25 cents per episode to cover basic production costs - which really isn’t breaking even because the cast and the crew members (and the 3 of us) are getting shares of the film as payment, and covering costs means they don’t get paid... yet. 2,000 people is also going to take some publicity work - I think I can round up 1,000 people between my blog and my website (pretty much the same people) but that’s only half of what I need. So I’m going to have to find ways to get the word out and hope that friends and bloggers and message boards and anything else out there will help get these first two episodes passed around enough to find at least 2,000 people who will watch every week and donate 25 cents (or pay 25 cents if the tip jar method doesn’t work and I have to set up a pay per view site).

Since this is all part of the internet experiment, I want to focus on ways the average filmmaker can get their film out there - rather than using methods that are unique to me. I can easily get the film plugged in Script Magazine, but the people who buy my book on writing and making your own film can not - so I’m not going to do that. I *will* publicize the hell out of the project - and try to get articles and interviews in all of the indie film mags and on the indie film websites. That’s something anyone can do. And I’ll use Facebook and MySpace and all of the other social networking sites to get the word out on these first two episodes (and the rest of the film). I don’t think I can do DR. HORRIBLE numbers, but just covering production cost means someone else can make their little movie and find an audience online big enough to cover their costs.

And I'm not spending $25k an episode like August, I'm not even spending that for all 12 episodes and the extra 6 minutes and the behind the scenes stuff. Next part I’ll get into the budget and costs, but the plan is to spend no more than $10k total with around $6k to get a finished product that can air online and the remainder going to all of the legal costs and deliverables I will need for the DVD sale. I don’t want to make a film so expensive that the average person can’t credit card it. So even if I charge 25 cents for the 10 paid episodes, that $2.50 per viewer for the whole film... More or less the cost of a film rental. I think that’s a fair price. At one point I was thinking about $1 per episode, but I think most people wouldn’t pay that much. 25 cents seems like *nothing* - I’d pay that if I were hooked on the show and needed to see the next episode to find out if the hero survives. If the tip jar thing works, maybe it won't be pay-per-episode. Who knows? It's an experiment.

The ace in the hole, here, is the DVD release - that's where I'll make the money to pay the cast and crew... and the three of us who will be directing this thing. So this little film needs to look like a slick, high quality movie... not something three guys made for pocket change (which is what it really is). In that scenario, the internet is a commercial for the DVD release - it will help spread word of mouth.

By the way, I already have two distribs interested... and one wanted to presell the film at Cannes! As a "concept test" I pitched the script to some distribs who do in-house (make films) and everybody wanted the script. Passed the test. I think a big mistake many folks make is thinking that the script that nobody wants can become the film everybody wants.

Two companies called after reading the synopsis (the one at the top of this page), and when I explained that I planned on making it myself, they were both interested in the finished film... and one offered a presales deal - they would sell the rights to the unmade film at Cannes. When I finished the film, the buyers would be there waiting for the movie, cash in hand. I would know *in advance* how much money I was going to make.

The problem with this is that a movie with no stars that hasn’t been made may not fetch a good price - but the finished film, with all kinds of great location shooting and explosions and whatever else (maybe a low budget face for the DVD box) may look like a million dollars... and find a distrib that thinks the film was made for $250-$500k... and makes a deal based on that budget rather than the pocket change we really made the movie for. Better *not* to be locked into a deal at this point. We can make more money in the long run.

Sometimes it *is* better to be locked into a distribution deal, because they will have a financial interest in the film and will go out of their way to sell it. But with something like this, the costs is so low that it’s not going to kill me if it all crashes and burns and I end up showing the movie in my garage... the way I showed all of my short films in the old days. But if it all comes together and it looks like a big picture, part of the experiment is to see how much I can sell DVD rights for. How much can you make? How much can you lose? Before people make their own little film, they want to know the answers to those questions... and I’m going to be the guinea pig in this little experiment.

Part Four.

- Bill

17 comments:

Paul Scrabo said...

Dear Bill,
That combo Thriller/Comedy seminar you are a part of in May sounds so great, I wish you guys would do one on the east coast.
best,
Paul Scrabo

wcmartell said...

Paul, as soon as this this studio remake gets scheduled, I'm going to schedule some 2 day classes - including NY.

And I suggested to Script that they do some east coast events.

- Bill

mrswing said...

Bill,

You only make $100 a year from Google Ads? But that's impossible! Everyone using them becomes AT LEAST a multimillionaire in 3 weeks. At least that's what all those expensive e-books tell me, and they wouldn't be lying, surely? :D

I am SO hoping you'll pull this thing off. It's a great experiment and if it works it'll also get you much-deserved mass media attention - and who knows, a big(ger) budget remake?

One question I have is: how are you going to do the action? Do you have a good stunt team ready to pitch in? Maybe make your lead actor an acting-capable stuntman could be a good idea?

As for the marketing/advertising angle, three remarks:

1) free eps: Youtube will be your friend to get things launched.

2) Don't EVER think of yourself as a 'silly screenwriter'. You are a very talented, motivated, experienced writer/teacher with a great knowledge of and feel for the genre you're going to do the experiment in. That's the message the moneymen must get (because it's true and because it'll give them more confidence in the project).

3) act local, think global: you have an audience of billions waiting for you. The biggest problem will be making them aware of your series/webvie (hey, I coined a new woid! Looka me!), but surely it must be possible to find, say, 5000 people all over the globe who like action/suspense movies and who can be roped into paying 25c an episode?

Anyway, looking forward to becoming a subscriber to the fil... whoops, webvie once it's finished.

wcmartell said...

Hey, the stunts thing is a good subject for the next entry!

- Bill

Jon Molly said...

Bill,

Have you considered the hostage strategy? You put out the first two episodes for free and then ask for a total of, say, $500 for each successive episode. You set a deadline and folks can throw a buck or two into the "tip jar". If the $500 isn't raised then everyone who donated gets their money back.

http://www.fundable.com/

This might not work. Since you have a finished product that you're eager to distribute, you'd probably be bluffing about not releasing the next episode. What would you do if that bluff is called is beyond me.

At the very least, if you're looking for potential revenue streams, this should be worth looking into. Best of luck.

Leif said...

Have you thought about contact computer art students to see if they might provide some cgi / special effects for free or cheap?

I also think that starting with a free episode or 2 to hook people in is the way to go. Possibly even a prologue to the story, such as the real hitman's last job, but something that is self contained without a to be continued, yet still leaves the viewer wanting more.

Jim Sullivan said...

Bill;

What if you made it edificational?

Set up a paypal account for the film. Charge a buck an episode and for that, they get a PDF of the script pages for that episode. And maybe production notes to boot.

You get the full movie rate of $12, they get a full script to follow along and see how it was done.

Maybe add in a coupon for $5 off the DVD sale at the end.

Or maybe charge $2 an episode and they get the DVD for free. Now you have a 'theatrical' sale AND a DVD sale.

They get entertained for 12 weeks, get a full script and notes PLUS a DVD.

Then you could get your accountant to show a loss of money in the distribution just like the big guys do.

truegrit said...

Have you thought about posting it on Youtube? Videos on Youtube have a way of growing exponentially in number of hits, simply through those "related video" and "videos you might like" links. To make money you become a partner. Not sure how much you'll pull in, but it could be another revenue stream. And if you even make half of what this guy makes, it would be a nice chunk of change. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/11/business/media/11youtube.html?em

And you can roll it out in conjunction with your current idea with the tip jar. For example, each video clip debuts on your website and then a week or two later you release it on to Youtube. That way, you can reach a much wider audience. If you keep it just to a separate website, your audience is limited to your fans and what you can get from word of mouth.

Jon Molly said...

To follow up on what truegrit said, if this movie does generate a following of any more than a few thousand people - which it will, I have no doubt about that - it's going to wind up on YouTube anyway. Somebody will love it enough to want to share it with all their friends and will do you the 'favor' of posting it there for you.

So unless you want to fight YouTube to get it taken down, repeatedly, you should probably be proactive and get it up on your own account.

Heck, regardless of that, you should probably use YouTube to post a few 2-minute "making of" style previews to help generate interest.

Steve Lewis said...

Bill,
Something you might want to try to promote the serial is a blog tour, like a lot of authors do for books. I think this is something you could use in the book because anyone, with a unique idea, can approach website/blog owners.

A good one I've been following is Joe Konrath's over at jakonrath.blogspot.com

In any case, food for thought.

Oh, any chance any of your two day seminars will make their way to Phoenix? I had to work the last time you were here.

martinb said...

Bill, you should think about establishing a brand. How about... Martellevision? "Your big guy for B movies," or maybe "Your big guy for action movies." (I'm not sure exactly where your interests are.)

Judging from the BBC clip of some time ago, you'd make a good presenter. Become the Orson Welles of action/B movies. Do a YouTube series analysing your favourite action/B movies, with clips from the movies, kind of like you do on your blog.

You'd link the YouTube series to a website, and on the website there'd be a clip of you introducing your own movie like you do other people's movies. Maybe one clip per episode. Say, "In this episode, what we tried to do is XXX, kind of like they did in well-known movie YYY," together with a little trailer for that episode, and the all-important Paypal button.

Hmmmm. Maybe this is too intellectual. Perhaps something a little more schlocky.

But the brand idea is good. People develop loyalty to a brand. They'll buy the DVD and the T shirt and the next project with minimal expensive advertising on your part. A brand is something you could build up and sell later if need be. A brand is about the only thing that survives and thrives on the internet.

Jaded and Cynical said...

Bill

This a great, honest, bullshit-free blog and I wish you luck with the project.

The good ideas posted above notwithstanding, an army of people have tried to monetize web content and so far none have succeeded.

As you point out, John August, with all his well-established industry contacts and resources, couldn't make it work. How much tougher will it be for filmmakers further down the food chain?

The problem with micropayments is that, even if the goodwill is there, are thousands of people really going to start faffing around with credit cards and secure online transactions just to get someone, somewhere the price of a stamp?

In seems to me that the only vaguely commercial justification for an undertaking like this is that it might act like a sort of industry calling-card for the folks involved.

That said, I'll be first in line to buy the DVD, and it'll be fascinating to see if you can come up with some sort of sneaky innovative way to balance the books.

Pete Bauer said...

Great idea. After watching MI:III (which has broken the story into wonderful 5-7 minute segments) I thought about doing the exact thing you are attempting.

So, I'll just sit back and watch now... see what happens! :)

Thanks for being a trend setter.

Skribbler said...

Hey Bill,

I'm avidly following your experiment. And I appreciate this:

"I can easily get the film plugged in Script Magazine, but the people who buy my book on writing and making your own film can not - so I’m not going to do that."

Along these same lines, do you have any advice for how those of us with a script we're considering making on our own but no industry connections can perform the sort of "concept test" that you did with yours?

Thanks,
Thomas

wcmartell said...

Thanks for the good ideas, guys! And, this is an experiment - it may fail.

Concept test - I also got responses from a query letter. That's something you can do from anywhere - I'd just try to sell the script, and if you get people interested, you probably have something. If nobody is interested in the script, chances are they won't be interested in the movie.

- Bill

Patrick Coyle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Patrick Coyle said...

Hi Bill,

How are you? I love your script writing tips. Keep them coming!

Regarding getting monetary support for your website and/or producing your movies, check out this website - http://www.filmmortal.com/
The site is about linking advertisers with independent filmmakers. The idea is that they can promote their product in your film and they will support the film through monetary contributions, catering, etc. The site includes brands such as Star Bucks, Ferrari, etc. Have a look at the site for further details.

Does this help with your website? I am not sure. But it could help with your films.

Best of luck to you.

Patrick Coyle

P.s. I am not sales rep for the subject website

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