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The Microbudget Conversation

We're Only Talking a Few Thousand Dollars by John Yost

The Micro-Budget Conversation: Is Enough… Enough ?

When and how did Edward Burns become the mouthpiece of micro budget cinema?

That’s a question I asked on Facebook after a late night holiday bender and noticing the ridiculous amount of press Ed got for making a film that certainly didn’t cost him 9K. Then I thought, who really does make a film for 9K? If you add up all the favors and salaries that are not getting paid you’re in the hundreds of thousands. Then I thought, oh man is there any such thing as micro-budget at all? Or is it like the myth of cover girl beauty. (Isn’t he married to a model, by the way?) Then before I could kill myself, Lucas McNelly commented in defense of Ed. Lucas and I have been communicating on and off, and recently, FCF has started development on a documentary of his A Year Without REnt and this experiment we call indie filmmaking.

Now don’t get me wrong, Ed Burns is a good filmmaker, and I think it’s great that he is jumping into micro-budget filmmaking with both feet. Lucas made a good point that he is also making low-budget filmmaking acceptable to a wider audience. All good things.

I think my biggest problem with Ed being the mouthpiece is the expectation it sets. By having a large arsenal of personal favors and resources far beyond the scope of any micro-budget filmmaker he sets a false expectation to the filmgoing audience. The industry often does the same thing by taking a film that cost hundreds of thousands to make and finish, fudging the numbers to put it in the four-digit range, and then using that as it’s selling point. This is the same as taking someone who is a size 12, photographing them, and then using Photoshop to make them look a size 4. We cultivate an audience that has disjointed expectations between budget and product. They demand a certain quality of product, yet no one can truly make that product with the tools (or body) they are given. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not surprised this has happened in our society, I’m just curious when it’s going to change.

In the end, the problem is that we all want to be some sort of mouthpiece, (don’t worry…it’s not lost on me), but maybe one single voice is not what we need. This doesn’t seem like a thing that one person can brand for themselves, and I think that’s what bugged me the most. People like Ed and Kevin using it as a selling point to flog movies they could already flog by simply being who they are. It feels like they are taking the ONLY thing we often have going for us, and are using it to sell a lifestyle that is unattainable.

I say thanks, but no thanks for the “help”. Lucas?

Lucas: Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with having a supermodel wife. You could just as easily replace that with “plays himself on Entourage”, as that requires a certain amount of fame and fortune that’s been built within the Hollywood system. Hell, even Scott Caan doesn’t play himself on Entourage, and he’s James Caan’s son and has some sort of side hobby of photographing nude models in hotel rooms that I remember reading something about on a plane somewhere, (don’t we all?)

It’s the same thing as telling bands they should use the Radiohead model because, gee, look how well it worked for them. Thing is, they’re Radiohead. Everything works well for them. They’ve build a career and a reputation over years in the industry. You can’t apply that model to a band in Brooklyn that just got together last week over their love of skinny jeans and TV on the Radio. You just can’t.

What rubs a lot of people the wrong way about the drumbeat that Newlyweds cost $9,000, besides the fact that it simply isn’t true, is the false expectations it creates. It’s unfair to compare Ed Burn’s “$9,000” film against a film that actually cost $9,000 to make, even if they both got the same amount of free labor. And it’s not because Ed Burns is famous, it’s because the budget number is a lie. And it’s not even an insider-y secret. He’s said as much in interviews (and kudos to him for that). But when some filmmaker in Kansas City makes a $9,000 film, you know that’s what it actually cost. All of it. Will it look as good as Newlyweds? Probably not. And that’s not the guy in Kansas City’s fault. He’s worked his ass off to get a feature made for under $10k, but instead of praising him, on some level we’re going to be comparing it to a $100k film, simply because of some marketing bullshit.

And that’s not even the worst part.

I’ve worked on those real $9,000 films that are trying to compete. It’s hard enough to make a feature for that little without the weight of false expectations on you. I’m used to the stupidity of filmmakers telling everyone they’re going to finish in time for Sundance (which is a different discussion), and now I’ve got to hear about how much money Ed Burns made off Newlyweds. But something tells me they aren’t going to get invited to plug the film on the Jimmy Fallon show. I hate to ruin your day, John, but neither are you. And neither am I.

It’s going to be a slog — a motherfucking, pain in the ass, bang your head on the keyboard like Don Music, piece of shit slog — just to get your $9,000 film done, much less in front of an audience that will take the time to watch more than 10 minutes of it for free on YouTube or a torrent site. And your film will probably suck. Best case scenario, it’ll have major flaws that you just can’t fix. The same for the AYWR doc. The same for Up Country. We can pretend otherwise, but that’s the truth of the matter.

And here I’m supposed to be defending Ed Burns.

Ed, if you reading this, keep it up. Seriously. I know it sounds like I’m giving you a hard time, but someone has to go on Jimmy Fallon and get people used to the idea that micro-budget cinema not only exists, but is a legitimate and respected subset of cinema. I love the idea of having someone of your caliber as our spokesman for the simple fact that it brings more people into the casino. Whenever someone complains about a celebrity using Kickstarter (and, if no one else has, can I suggest you Kickstart your next film? I’ll help), I invoke the casino metaphor. If you’re a professional poker player, it does no good for you to sit at a table with a bunch of other professional poker players, trading bankrolls and running up the rake. They live for the day Doyle Brunson or Phil Hellmuth or Johnny Chan show up. Sure, everyone flocks to them, but people also get out of their houses and drive down to see them. And those people stick around. Maybe they sit at the $5/$10 table for an hour and drop $50. The hardest part is getting people in the building. People like you get people in the building, so keeping doing what you do.

Back to John…

John: I do agree with a lot of what Lucas is saying, but I’m homing in on one thing at the moment…the major flaws part. You are totally right, often these films are so flawed they are unwatchable, but other times they are so well put together they amaze me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat dumbfounded in a theater wondering how a Hollywood/big indie film could be this flawed. I marvel at how we’ve accepted mistakes as long as they come with stereotypes, good intentions, a name actor, or with great sound. The end of creativity as we know it will be in 7.1 surround and it will look gorgeous. (like a mix of Grammy awards and Superbowl halftime show) Why is it that audiences are more than willing to let Ed’s mistakes slide? Why the fuck are people shelling out dollar after dollar in hopes that one day Kevin Smith will make a good film? Why are these folks the chosen ones, while the filmmaker in Kansas City that is making some flawed, but also some brilliant, decisions not worthy of your suspension of disbelief? That’s the disservice this false brand does to our sub-culture of filmmaking, It turns it into a fucking joke. A place for folks to slum it and keep that false hope burning in the the stomachs of no-budget filmmakers. It’s the ideal that lines the coffers of film festivals, and it’s what keeps truly independent work from being seen as more than just a hobby. You are quite right Lucas, nothing I make may ever reach more than an audience of a few hundred, but it certainly won’t ever get past that point if we don’t take back the reigns and become a community again. Ed Burns doesn’t give a fuck about micro/low budget filmmaking or it’s community of dedicated, talented filmmakers. Ed Burns cares about making money. Which is what preoccupies most people in this world. So again…I can’t blame him, I’m just hoping for some sort of change; a shift in the way people see the art of cinema.

Lucas: Man…don’t get me started on film festivals.

I didn’t see the Grammys or the Super Bowl halftime show, but I can imagine what you’re talking about. Wasn’t Nicki Minaj in both of them? So the end of creativity will be Nicky Minaj? I think it’s more likely she represents the end of the world, but ok. I can buy that.

I’m not going to pretend to know people’s motivations. I suspect Ed Burns makes micro budget films because Hollywood has turned away from the Miramax films of the late 90’s, those $30M adult dramas that the studios used to do so well. At the end of the day, he’s a filmmaker. I say let him use whatever tools he wants to make his film and we’ll make whatever tools we want to make our films and no one gets hurt, other than Rick Santorum’s sense of decency (which is something we can all agree is worth destroying).

But you’re totally right about the community. Sean Hackett likes to call us the “Filmcourage generation”, which is a lot more attractive than being part of #teammumblecore, if for no other reason then getting to use a tripod and an Arri light kit. But even that only goes so far. One of the things that I think AYWR accomplished was providing some connective tissue between a lot of far-flung filmmakers. It’s hard to be a community when everyone is in different parts of the world, but those gaps seem to be closing somehow. Hell, the other night I was on a set in the Hollywood Hills at 2am and who should show up but Rex Sikes, who I previously saw in Wisconsin. (By the way, stuff like this happens to me a lot.) It’s one thing to talk to each other on Twitter. It’s something else entirely to talk face to face.

We can always do more. We can always collaborate better. Really, that’s our competitive advantage. Our resources are people. There’s really no reason why the AYWR ethos can’t apply on a smaller scale. We should be working on each others’ films more in whatever capacity we can. And I don’t mean just contributing to each others’ Kickstarter campaigns. I mean carrying around sandbags and doing title sequences and mixing sound and whatever else it is that needs to be done.

But we don’t. We say we will, but we don’t. And I know we’re all busy, but still. We aren’t that busy, you know?

John: It’s interesting you mention the 90’s heyday of difficult Miramax dramas, because I think the present landscape is in direct response to that collapse. And you are right…Ed doesn’t have to justify using any filmmaking tool. I’m sure he’s embracing micro because it allows him to be a storyteller, but in a race to be a brand and create an audience on twitter we often forget about why we do this. For some of us it’s to stand in front of a Sundance audience with a scarf on, talking about our genius. For most, it’s a love of storytelling and the adventure that can only come with filmmaking. Unfortunately we chose a very collaborative and expensive art…which can be tough for broke introverts at times. This leads to the art being dominate by commerce, and the larger conversation geared towards sales numbers and distribution plans. There are many talented folks who make a living in this industry, and there are a ton of passionate folks as well, and when the Venn diagram converges we get some of the best work. However, we can not loose sight of the best part, the chance to be a part of a community. It’s one of the key motivators for every human and is not something we should use to brand one individual’s efforts.

Lucas: One of the things we have to learn, if we haven’t already, is that being an introvert is a really bad idea in this business. There’s just too much competition. Look at the Sundance submissions–something like 1.5% of the films got in, and the SXSW numbers are even worse. You have to learn to beat your own drum, and the best way to learn that is to work on beating someone else’s drum for them. Or, buy beer. People will love you if you buy them beer. And by that I mean buy me a beer.

By the end of the conversation I was willing to step back from the ledge and continue slogging as Lucas puts it. That’s the best part of being a community…support. It gets me excited to think that the way we make films, watch films, exhibit films, and work on films is all changing. Some people see it as the end of cinema, others see it as a Renaissance. My hope is that eventually there will be no more room for people to exploit it for singular financial gain. We will all be busy, but never to busy to support one another and elevate the art and craft of cinema.

We’d never turn down the chance to hear from you, especially microbudget fans and filmmakers. We are expanding our content to include genre, filmmaker journals, and the business of all things indie. To become part of the conversation please send us your thoughts, responses, and questions.We will also be at SXSW this year…so as Lucas said…lots of beer and film conversations.
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