Filmmaking is a process rife with uncertainty.
It devours a year or two of a filmmaker’s life, and is even capable of consuming an entire decade as Shockwave
The road to distribution is no set length. It can be either a short or long, with a propensity for ease of frustration.
To the case in point – Ryan Smith’s After, and Christian James and Dan Palmer’s Stalled. Two films separated by twelve months, graduates of FrightFest classes of 2012 and 2013, yet two films that both received a home entertainment release earlier this year.
From part one of a two part feature that saw James and Palmer reminiscing on their low budget zombie flick, we arrive at the nitty gritty discussion of the models of film distribution, genre cinema and the future landscape of film with After’s writer-director Ryan Smith and producer Brandon Gregory.
How do you look back on After as a chapter in your lives, both as a personal and professional experience?
Ryan Smith: It was three years of our lives, and we ran the full gamut of emotions during that period. We learned a lot.
Brandon Gregory: A lot of things that we won’t do the next go around, and a lot of things that we’ll do better because of our experience. It was really great that we could quarterback the entire process from A-Z: conception, production, post-production, marketing, distribution, etc. That being said, it was draining!
In previous conversations you were reluctant to cite the budget – how much was After made for?
Ryan Smith: $650,000, but we had to lie, cheat, and steal to get to that number. Not literally, of course, but we did ask a lot of favors. You’re allowed to do that on your first film.
Brandon Gregory: We had so much soft-dollar favor that went onto the screen – I’d say we probably had a three million dollar movie if you added up all of that.
On the subject of budget, how did you tailor the approach to making After (from script to distribution) to those challenges or obstacles that confront filmmakers?
Ryan Smith: For starters, we changed some things around in the script – lost some scenes, combined others, etc. But I suppose the most notable change was delaying the appearance of the monster until much later. We couldn’t afford to show him throughout the film (he was 100% CGI), and so we had to rely on more of a Jaws-esque approach, which kept him off-screen for much of the film.
Brandon Gregory: The irony is that we thought this will be a great story to tell at a low budget – it’s two people in an empty town. Then Ryan added a monster, a wall of darkness, etc, and it quickly became a very ambitious two character film!
Do you perceive there to be a distortion now regarding the understanding of ‘independent’ or ‘micro-budget’ filmmaking as a result of the restructuring of the range of budgets or more specifically studios that have taken ‘micro-budget’ or ‘low budget’ as a marketing tool and eroded their true meaning?
Brandon Gregory: I believe that low-budget is considered anything under $12million in Hollywood terms. Micro- Budget films such as Paranormal Activity can be produced for next to nothing, but when they’re dropped into the marketing machine of a studio like Paramount, they all of a sudden have tremendous reach and exposure.
Ryan Smith: So a low-budget studio film is a contradiction in terms. They may have only spent one or two million on the production of the film, but they can afford to spend far more in P&A and distribution.
Brandon Gregory: I really like the approach companies like Blum House are taking – there are some great stories coming from them, and none of them are ballooning budgets.
The film has now received distribution in the U.S and the U.K. What are your feelings towards the modern distribution model?
Ryan Smith: We attend CinemaCon every year, and the “State of the Industry” speech is always focused on preserving the moviegoing experience. It’s easy to say that piracy and streaming etc are threats to exhibition, but I’m not convinced that movie theaters are going away anytime soon. People still value that communal experience.
The challenge we’re facing now (from a creative standpoint), is that most of the original content has moved to television, and more and more people are saving their trips to the theater for big summer and holiday pictures. There’s a real lack of original, character-based content being produced by the studios. Occasionally, there’s a Super 8 or an Inception, but generally you have to turn to TV or indie film for original stories, and so many indie films are being released day and date these days, because a full-fledged theatrical release is too risky.
Brandon Gregory: Ryan and I differ a lot in that I love big summer tentpoles, and Ryan really couldn’t care less. I do agree that there is a whole budget level that isn’t getting greenlit and distributed theatrically these days, and I hate that. I come from the exhibition world, and I think there are definitely some flaws in the system that need to be worked out to make it easier for indie films to get into theaters. VPFs are a great example of a model that needs to be updated. I echo Ryan’s sentiment in that I believe the movie experience won’t ever go away, because you can’t replicate what happens in a crowded movie auditorium, even on the best home system. I believe it is the responsibility of the filmmakers and studios to deliver product that is worthy of the big screen experience, and it’s the responsibility of the exhibition community to continue to update their movie houses to provide state-of-the-art exhibition that is truly an “event”, rather than just business as usual.
What are the significant challenges or obstacles facing filmmakers today? Is it more necessary than ever for filmmakers to work on the fringes or find innovative ways to finance, shoot and distribute their movies if they wish to reach an audience?
Brandon Gregory: Distribution is definitely the hard part. But if you make something truly unique, then you will find someone who is willing to partner to take it out and find an audience.
Ryan Smith: On a technical level, it’s easier than ever to get your film out there. You can now export a DCP from Adobe Premiere for heaven’s sakes. If you can find the screens then you can release your film. But that’s where the challenge comes in.
I’ve heard it said that the best route for young filmmakers is to make a genre picture, because along with it comes a guaranteed target audience. Would you agree that it is easier to distribute a genre picture, or is it not quite as simple a formula for success as it sounds?
Ryan Smith: We marketed After as a horror thriller, but in reality it’s a character drama with some fantasy/horror elements. Because it wasn’t “hard” enough for the horror crowd, it didn’t connect with them the way we hoped it would. But in general, I do believe that genre films are easier to market and distribute. They have a better chance at finding an audience, but nothing is guaranteed.
Brandon Gregory: I think the biggest question you have to ask yourself before you make a movie is: Who is our audience? You have to unpack, shoot holes through, and re-ask this question a dozen times until you know it’s been fully exhausted. We didn’t do that enough on After, and like Ryan said, we ended up with a movie that didn’t have a defined demographic.
How important is the festival circuit for filmmakers and distributors alike? If the festival circuit ceased to exist, what would be the impact on the landscape of modern cinema?
Ryan Smith: It seems less important now than it was ten years ago. These days, a good short film with a few hundred thousand views on YouTube can land you a movie deal. But film festivals are important primarily because they celebrate filmmaking, and for some filmmakers, it’s the only place their work will be seen by an audience.
As the fifteenth FrightFest rolls round, what are your thoughts on the place it occupies within showcasing genre cinema?
Brandon Gregory: I’d love to make it one day! I was actually just having lunch with a good friend who is an executive at Sony Pictures (Rich Peluso) and he mentioned in passing his excitement that a film from his department had been selected for this year’s FrightFest – The Remaining. I think in the horror community, FrightFest serves as a pulse of what is worth the price of a movie ticket and what isn’t – people certainly pay attention to the reviews coming out of FrightFest.
Ryan Smith: I hate that I couldn’t make it when After screened. There seems to be a real energy surging through that festival.
There is the usual support of genre shorts at this year’s FrightFest. Having worked in the short film medium what do you think the place is of the short in modern film?
Ryan Smith: Shorts are a great way to stretch your legs as a filmmaker. I’m working on one now, and it’s a good way to keep yourself fresh. In the past, there hasn’t been a viable financial model around short films, but I think we might see that change in the future, as bite-sized web content becomes more popular.
Brandon Gregory: Yeah, there isn’t really a market to exhibit shorts outside of web and festivals, so they aren’t the best business model. But they are a great stepping stone or pitch tool.
Genre cinema inherently blurs the genre boundaries. What are your thoughts on the way genre has evolved to date, and will continue to evolve over the coming decades?
Brandon Gregory: Ryan is the genre expert, so I’m going to defer to him!
Ryan Smith: I’m not a big fan of the term “genre cinema.” It groups several genres into one category, and some of them aren’t very good bedfellows. I don’t see a connection between a slasher flick and a thought-provoking science fiction film. But that’s beside the point. Genre is a meeting place for oddballs like me. The problem is that these films – specifically science fiction and fantasy pictures – are expensive to make. My hope is that the studios will start to take chances on these kinds of films again.
Are you optimistic with the direction the industry is moving in or do you lean more towards concern? Do you think independent cinema has slowly been marginalised to the point we should be concerned?
Brandon Gregory: I love escaping into another world for a few hours, and if that world is the world of a sequel, remake, or reboot, and if that story is well told, then I am totally there. But no, I am not really concerned with the state of independent cinema – we live in Nashville, TN and there is such a vibrant independent cinema scene – people love it! I am optimistic for sure.
Ryan Smith: I’m optimistic because I love movies. But I am tired of the sequel/remake/reboot craze that we’ve been subjected to for the past several years, and I’m hoping there’s a light at the end of that tunnel. Independent cinema has been marginalized, but it isn’t going away. We just have to dream up new ways of distributing our content.
So many films play at festivals never to secure distribution, and therefore never have an opportunity to find an audience. A film can take up to two years of your life, and in the face of such uncertainty why would you put yourselves through the arduous task of making a film?
Ryan Smith: I’ve been asked this question before. I don’t have a very good answer for it, other than what else would I do? Filmmakers have severe tunnel vision. A film is a spirit that must be exorcised, and you scrape and claw at the splinter until it comes out.
Brandon Gregory: I think this is the good thing about an ever-expanding distribution platform – it used to be that your film would have to get picked-up for theatrical release or maybe go into the DVD bargain bin. Now there are so many options – streaming online, VOD, cable channels, airplanes, physical discs, theatrical, mobile, etc. You may not have a film that warrants a theatrical release, but I find it encouraging that you can now connect directly with your audience (and find an audience) through new media.