January 6, 2015:
It was this time last year when serious thought was first put into what would eventually become Clapboard Jungle: Surviving the Independent Film Business. I was working on revisions to a feature-length horror screenplay called Tripped, due to some possible new opportunities that had arisen, which could have ultimately resulted in that film actually getting made. It crossed my mind I’d been in similar situations in the past with The Eternal, a feature I’ve been trying to get off the ground since late-2008. That I’d been close to finance in the past, several times, and every time, I’d get filled with a strange mixture of hope and disbelief.
A project is never real until the money is actually in the bank, and you are eyeing a start date in the near future. But even then, it can still fall apart. At a certain point on my path to get The Eternal made, I let it fall to the backburner, as it was like running headfirst into a brick wall repeatedly, and not budging it much. We’d get close to finance, it would disappear, and we’d try again, and again. I began focusing on projects that better fit the current sales and finance climate for an indie director without a huge track record. I realized I had to fit my career trajectory to work within the confines and realities facing someone in my current position. Namely, the lower the budget, the better. The Eternal wasn’t even that expensive, at just under a million, but any sales agent will tell you that at that budget, you better have a serious name or be prepared to roll the dice. Most investors know this. I have great, genre-famous talent attached to that film, but it didn’t seem to be enough. So I dug up an older script, Tripped, which could be done for under $500K, and got to work.
I realized that in 2013 alone I was also quietly working as a producer on a remake of a certain well-known giallo property, was offered the job of directing a feature I’d been a producer on for a couple years called Cold Deck, had recently been hired as a programmer at Toronto After Dark Film Festival, an acquisition rep for a Canadian distributor here called Indiecan Entertainment, and spearheaded the release of my previous documentary Skull World. Long story short, the giallo remake lost its momentum, I ultimately decided to executive produce and not direct Cold Deck, and Skull World, which had a respectable enough release, certainly didn’t pay off in any way financially. Even Tripped eventually ended up going to the backburner recently, after months of revisions, discussions with possible investors, and waiting.
I began thinking about how so much of what an indie filmmaker does is rarely seen by the public, and how for every success, there are sometimes dozens of failures. Here I was with almost a dozen films on a development slate, knowing full well that some of them may never see the light of day. But you fight ‘the good fight’. I came to the conclusion that in working for a distributor, a fairly major genre film festival, with the marketing departments of several known distribution companies (I make most of my money cutting trailers and authoring discs for companies such as Anchor Bay), and given my own past experiences as a filmmaker, I am in a unique position when it comes to getting a balanced view of the business.
I will freely admit I’ve made more than my fair share of mistakes building my career over the years. The first film I ever had serious distribution for, Working Class Rock Star, didn’t just lose money when it came to recouping the budget, but during distribution as well. Out of the gate my budget on The Eternal was far too high for the needs of the market, and in going to AFM in 2009 with a package and those numbers and that first attached cast, I’m amazed I wasn’t laughed out of dozens of offices. But I learned from those experiences, and had a number of people help me see the cold truth of the business. I still owe Travis Stevens (who is interviewed in this doc) to this day for the absolutely no-BS advice he gave me during that market. But I learned, and came back the next year with a film tailored to sell in the market: The Collapsed. I made mistakes there as well, as it was written and went to camera far too quickly, resulting in a movie where the script wasn’t in the best shape it could have been. Regardless, it was a film that, despite not everyone liking it (and some downright hating it), went on to make a decent amount of profit, still sells to this day, and opened a lot of doors for me.
The point is, everything is a learning experience, and I wish there were as many tools available then as there are now in helping a filmmaker navigate a changing, and admittedly intimidating industry. I might have made less mistakes. This documentary is being created in that spirit. It’s meant to help, to clear up a lot of questions, to deliver insight. Maybe even give a career roadmap, to some. In many ways I’m learning as I produce it, as each interview brings opportunities for expanded knowledge.
After I found myself with a little extra cash in my pockets earlier this year, I figured there was no use waiting for the next project to come together, and I should drop some money and get a new gear package. Something good enough to self-produce a documentary on a professional level (and avoid the video-format-Frankenstein that is Skull World). I bought the gear, and started shooting in February, not really knowing what the film would ultimately become. In a lot of ways, I still don’t really know. That’s one of the things I love about documentary, it changes and morphs as production continues. I didn’t even settle on a final title until recently, instead producing it under the working title ‘Slate & Game’.
Now, 10 months later, I have over 50 interviews, hundreds of hours of footage, and a clearer plan. As part of the doc I’ve also been turning the camera on myself, to get as honest a picture as possible into how I operate, in order to compliment the insight given in the interviews. I do not plan to make this footage a huge share of the film, but merely let it be a skeleton arc to shape the messages. I have recruited my good friend Darryl Shaw, who probably gives me the most honest feedback in my circle, as a co-producer, to make sure the edit is impartial and isn’t at all self-serving.
Beyond the film, there is so much good information in the long candid interviews that I’ve been able to obtain so far, that there will be tons of extra material when it comes to the eventual release. The goal is to be overall comprehensive, for those that want it. For everyone else, the hope is to have a single stand-alone feature film that will be both entertaining and informative.
I expect production to continue until early-Fall 2015, and at that point I’m going to have a daunting task ahead of me, going through all this footage and making something from all the puzzle pieces. Hopefully I’ll have help in the edit, but that relies on finance, and on that front, it’s anybody’s guess at this point. All I can do is move forward, shoot this to the best of my ability, and make the best film I can. Between then and now, any number of projects may get the greenlight, or I may be stuck spinning my wheels. Only time can tell.
For an independent, the business is in an exciting and terrifying time of transition. Exciting due to new technology allowing anyone with the drive and know-how to create quality films at miniscule budgets. Terrifying, because the money is still out there, but the budgets are dwindling while the amount of product created is increasing exponentially. Add to that more competition for an audience’s time than ever before (given the popularity of videogames, online video, social media, etc.), and film is starting to become a less dominant form of media. The boom days are over, and it’s time to get real. You can either face that reality, and make the best of things with what you can, or keep clinging to the old ways. You can make the mistake many do, fuelling yourself on dreams of the business you had in your mind as a kid, a business that simply doesn’t exist anymore. You can survive on a dream, or you can wake up. Consider Clapboard Jungle: Surviving the Independent Film Business your alarm clock.
-Written by Justin McConnell