Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Hollywood Babble On & On #362: A Cautionary Tale

Welcome to the show folks.

Today, I'd like to draw your attention to an article from NPR about a film called Maiden Heist, which starred Morgan Freeman, William H. Macy, and Christopher Walken, which is currently trapped in straight to DVD limbo. (hat tip The Big Picture Blog)

For those too lazy to click the links, I'll summarize the story and the lessons learned from it.

Bob Yari, the independent producer behind films like
Crash, wanted to distribute his caper-comedy Maiden Heist himself. Now the film cost $20 million to make, had no budget overruns, as well as a deal for DVD release from Sony.

Sounds like an easy recipe for modest success right?

Not really, it's missing a key ingredient.

That ingredient is P&A.

No, I'm not talking about T&A, I'm talking about P&A, which means
Prints & Advertising.

For the uninitiated Prints are basically copies of the film that go through the projectors at movie theatres. They are very expensive to produce, and at least a thousand are needed to even be considered a major release. This might change as theatres gradually go digital, with virtual "prints" either couriered on special theatrical DVDs, or transferred by some sort of secure download, but right now, you need to make film prints and lots of them.

Then there's the advertising. For that you need an ad agency to compose the ads, which is not cheap, and then they have buy the ad space (TV, Radio, Print & Internet) from the media companies, which costs even more money.

There's a pretty simple formula that I often cite when it comes to determining a film's profitability, it's take the production budget, double it, and when you hit that you've broken even.

That's because everything's relative in Hollywood. The bigger the picture, the bigger the ad push. A film like
Maiden Heist, with its older cast, mature target demographic, and lack of superheroes or shape shifting robots, would probably have aimed for a smaller release and a carefully targeted ad campaign, that still would have cost a minimum of $20 million. (See, there's that "doubling" thing again)

The problem is that Yari, the film's distributor, didn't have the $20 million for the project, and since he had already sold the DVD rights, none of the majors would touch it, because it would have meant spending at least $20 million of their money to share profits with an outside producer, without the gravy of home video.

So what are the lessons we can glean from this little cautionary tale?

1. Just making the movie is only half the battle, literally. Releasing the movie costs just as much, if not more, as making the film. So you need a distributor or distribution set up of some kind in place and ready to go before frame one is shot if you hope for anyone to actually see it.

2. If you are planning to release it yourself, you need REALLY REALLY DEEP POCKETS to pull it off.

3. The producer of this film is not some newbie wannabe with a few bucks and a dream, his track record shows that he has to be a pretty shrewd customer, and such problems can befall anyone, especially with the ongoing uncertainty over the economy, and investor natural skittishness of getting involved in the monetary black hole of the movie business.

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